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Chapter 24 : The Stumbling Stag
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The Stumbling Stag
It had been a stupid idea. It occurred to me as I ran along the deserted corridor, my red gown flying behind me like I was on fire, my eyes firmly on James Potter’s suit-clad back, who seemed to know exactly where he was going. I was acting like the over-emotional teenager I had never wanted to be – running from my family and their expectations – but, oddly, I also felt a twinge of excitement, even satisfaction, at the thought of defying them.
I was supposed to dance with my ‘suitable match’, instead I was running away with a Potter.
“Still with me, Woodley?” James called out as we turned yet another corner, stopping so abruptly that I crashed into him inelegantly.
“Obviously,” I grumbled, tumbling a few steps backwards. “Though I really don’t know why.”
A familiar, crooked smile curved his lips as he watched me rearrange the skirt of my unmanageably long dress, trying to hide the fact that it was basically see-through.
“Do you always need a reason to do something, Woodley?”
I squinted at him for a moment, contemplating his features; they were barely visible in the dim light, just as they had been that night on the Hogwarts grounds.
“Why would you do anything without a reason?”
For the fraction of a second his smile faded to a frown, but then he quickly rearranged his features again, flashing an unbearably cocky grin.
“For fun,” he said as he took my hand once again and pulled me out of the corridor into a brightly lit hall.
It took me a moment to realise where we had landed, until I recognised the gaudy glittering garlands that floated above the heads of the dozen of ball guests that had come here to take a break from the buzzing ballroom.
After running down all these dark corridors, we had ended up in the foyer once more – in a different, slightly more concealed corner, maybe, but still in the foyer – and I couldn’t help the sinking feeling in my stomach as the full force of the anti-climax hit me.
“And I actually thought you had a plan, Potter.”
James, however, grinned. “Always so doubtful,” he said, walking off towards what looked like a deserted reception desk and – and it took me a moment to realise this – a most peculiar, seemingly random telephone booth.
With a quick look around to check if no one was watching, James casually pulled open the door of the iconic red cubicle and gave me a challenging smile. “Come on, Woodley.”
I shook my head before I could even find the words to reply. If he really thought I would consent to cramming into this small old telephone booth with him, he was dimmer than I actually thought.
“You’re thinking too much,” he said softly, the smile lightening as he looked straight into my eyes. My heart was hammering against my chest as I withstood his gaze, unable to look away. He had no idea what he was asking of me.
Somewhere in the distance I could hear the music and noises of the ball. I could just return and pretend I had simply been out here all along. Alone. I could try to arrange myself with my fate, my duty, as Grandmother would put it, and live the legacy that had defined me from the moment I had been born.
But then, I suddenly remembered; I remembered what I had long decided to forget – so fiercely that it had actually disappeared. And even though it had just been a quiet thought, a mere whisper underneath the cover of an ancient, moth eaten hat, it suddenly echoed in my head as loudly as though it had never been gone: Not Slytherin.
“Let’s go,” I said as I gathered up the many layers of my dress and folded myself into the telephone box with James Potter grinning wickedly as, this time, he followed my lead.
I hadn’t had time to marvel over the moving phone box, nor the fact that James apparently knew that it would take us to a deserted backstreet in central London. Before I could even find my bearings, we were sailing down a brightly lit street, past partying folk, donning funny glittering hats and staggering arm in arm towards the River Thames, talking about fireworks that would erupt over the city in less than two hours’ time.
I didn’t even realise that it was actually freezing, with the fire of my rebellion still burning through my entire body as we moved swiftly through the crowd.
“Eh beautiful! How ‘bout a New Year’s kiss fo’ good luck,” someone called out next to me and I could feel the grip of a sweaty hand on my bare arm reaching out of the roaring mass around me, but before I could even react, James had put his arm around my waist and pulled me out of the tangle of bodies into a sparsely lit side street.
“I could have handled it,” I said quickly, not liking the idea of James having to rescue me from a drunk’s clumsy advances. “I don’t need to be saved, you know.”
“So I’ve heard,” James replied, sounding thoroughly amused as he studied my defiant face. “And I didn’t. I just needed you to come with me.”
He turned around, pointing at the red-lacquered door behind him, above which a sooty wooden plate flashed a fading picture of a wonky sort of deer and the words ‘The Stumbling Stag’. Attached to the wooden board was a lopsided sign which said, in capital letters, ‘NO FOOD’. Right beneath the pealing print, someone had scribbled, also in capital letters, ‘NO SERVICE’.
It definitely wasn’t magical; in fact, nothing could ever be less magical than this run-down Muggle dive.
“I bet you take every girl here, Potter, don’t you?”
“Not really,” James replied simply, ignoring the sarcasm in my voice. “You’re special, Woodley.” And with that, he had pushed open the door.
A pungent mix of sour spilled beer and mouldy cloth insulted my nose the moment I stepped into the low-slung room, causing a fleeting wave of nausea. The air was sticky and heavy with cheap aftershave that clung to sweaty skins, which belonged to dubious figures that cowered over shadowed tables, staring down their lukewarm drinks.
Some of them had raised their heads at the disturbance of their drunken stupor, looking at me as though they weren’t sure if I was real or just a figment of their inebriated minds. To be fair, I did look quite out of place, standing in the middle of this dilapidated pup in my floor-dusting ball gown.
“Um, hi,” I said feebly and, not sure what exactly the protocol for such places was, threw a small wave into the room before slipping into the only free booth, my face probably quite as red as my dress.
“Tell me you didn’t just wave at everybody?” James laughed as he reached the table, carrying two extraordinarily full glasses of what I supposed to be Muggle Whiskey.
I simply shook my head, trying hard not to laugh as he took the seat across from me, handing me a glass.
“What do we drink to?”
I looked at the amber liquid in the dirty glass, wondering if my family had already noticed my absence. Their wrath was going to be outrageous; so was my punishment, but the thought of it only kindled the fire, goading on the sulky, defiant teenager-part of me.
“To family,” I said bitterly and, in one swift movement, had lifted the glass to my lips and emptied it in one burning gulp.
“Oh-kay,” James said slowly, raising his eyebrows at the empty glass I had slammed back down on the sticky table. “Maybe you should take it a little slower, Woodley.”
“Or maybe,” I said, rising so quickly that the world around me began to spin, “I should get us more drinks.”
The wooden table was scorched with ominous black marks – maybe cigarette burns – and showcased half a dozen lovers’ oaths, carved into the once glossy surface to last for eternity. I ran my finger along a particularly vigorously engraved V that pierced the centre of a clumsily drawn heart, wondering about the person behind the letter.
“There you go.” James had returned to the booth, placing a pint of golden liquid onto the table, obscuring the carved V. Despite my thorough protests, he had switched us from whiskey to beer after I had downed my second glass, immediately slowing down my alcohol intake. It was still enough to make my head feel light and my family far away.
“Thanks,” I said, nipping at the stale drink and, in spite of myself, puckered my lips at the bitter taste. “I have to say, I’m kind of warming up to this place.”
James grinned and took a long sip from his beer without taking his eyes off of me. “I usually come here with Freddie whenever we’re stuck at some boring event in London.”
“Oh no!” I cried out, feeling suddenly inexplicably sad at the thought of Freddie, sitting around at the Ministry ball all by himself. “Poor Freddie! We’ve just left him there. You’re a terrible friend, Potter.”
“He’ll be alright,” James replied grinning, but when he looked up again, his smile had faded to a more serious expression and his dark eyebrows furrowed. “Are you?”
I regarded his face for a long moment – a liberty I wouldn’t have allowed myself if it hadn’t been for my intoxicated brain – contemplating my answer.
“Sure.” I took another sip of beer, watching James’s eyes narrow with disbelieve over the brim of my glass.
“You’re a rubbish liar, Woodley.”
“I –“ I sighed, turning the half-empty glass of beer in my warm hands. “I really don’t want to talk about it.”
“Because you wouldn’t understand,” I said, a frustrated laugh escaping my lips. James Potter with his picture perfect loving family would never understand.
“Try me,” he insisted, a kind of fierce stubbornness glinting in his eyes, and I found myself once again staring into them, not sure how to read them.
“It’s just,” I sighed, my eyes still focused on the swirling yellow liquid in my glass rather than James’s face. “You know my family, don’t you?”
“Yes,” he said simply, albeit sounding slightly uncomfortable, and I could only guess that he – like me – was remembering the last time we had seen each other in Hagrid’s hut. “I know your family.”
I looked up at him momentarily, scowling at the cold undertone I thought I had detected in his voice. It was almost instantly that I regretted saying anything to him.
“Well, they are not that horrible,” I snapped, not entirely sure why I was defending my family after everything that had happened tonight.
“I didn’t mean - I just. I’m sorry.” James ran a hand through his messy brown hair, rumpling it up even further in the process. “I just thought-“
“You think all pureblood families are scum.”
“Obviously,” he scoffed. “That’s why I’m sitting here with you, Woodley.”
We glared at each other stubbornly for a couple of seconds, but then James’s expression softened again and he leaned forwards a little, playing with his empty beer glass.
“Look, I just – I saw you arguing with your mum tonight before you-”
He refrained from finishing the sentence, but I knew that he was talking about the state of panic he had found me in at the Ministry. The fact that he didn’t elaborate on my moment of weakness seemed to loosen the arms I had knotted tightly in front of my chest a little.
“My family is just frustrating sometimes.” I said quietly, “You wouldn’t understand.”
“Are you kidding me?” He snorted, giving me an incredulous look. “I’m the Chosen One’s son. Try living up to that.”
“I – I forgot,” I admitted, feeling quite stupid all of a sudden; strangely it had never occurred to me that there might be some family pressure on James as well.
“I wish I could, sometimes,” he said bitterly. “I’m a Potter. The entire world has been watching me since I was born, waiting for me to screw up. I got my first spread in Witch Weekly when I was six.”
I considered him for a moment, as he sat there with his rumpled white shirt and the rolled up sleeves; his light brown eyes were searching mine, as though he wasn’t sure he should have told me all this, and I felt an involuntary surge of understanding for Ginny Potter’s harsh reaction towards me.
“Do you remember Asher?” I suddenly heard myself say, not quite sure that my brain had still sufficient influence over my vocal chords. “The guy from the Quidditch Kick-Off?”
James nodded silently, evidently not wanting to interrupt me now that I had decided to stop snapping at him.
“Apparently I’m going to marry him.”
“Wait, what?” James laughed, although it seemed more like a gesture of incomprehension than amusement. “You’re joking, right?”
“I wish,” I said quietly, pushing aside my glass to look at the carved V again, thinking that, even if its whittler was a sorry drunk, spending his days in a dingy dive, at least he was free to live his life as he chose. “Unfortunately my family has already decided for me.”
“But,” James said, still looking like he was waiting for someone to shout ‘April fools!’. “You’re not going to do it.”
I had told myself the exact same thing, ever since I had been old enough to understand how families like mine operated; I had insisted that I would be different, that I would defy these ancient practices. But it was exactly this moment – the disbelieving look in James’s eyes – that made me admit what I had known all along.
“It’s what is expected of me,” I said calmly in an attempt to not sound like I was falling apart. “My family is not like yours. I can’t get out. I can delay it, maybe; for a couple of years so I can go to university, but-“
I looked up at the unexpected sound of my first name; James stared at me as though he was searching for something in my face that would give away the lie. “You can’t be serious.”
I smiled slightly at his unwillingness to believe me. “It’s fine,” I said, although it wasn’t, and when he opened his mouth to protest, I quickly shook my head, knowing that anything he could say now would only make me feel worse.
“I have to deal with this; one way or another,” I said, sitting up a little straighter and lifting my chin defiantly, “probably for the rest of my life – but not right now. Not here. Not tonight.”
For the fraction of a second I was sure he wouldn’t give up; he looked positively livid, like he was keen to start a fight, if only for the chance to punch something; but, to my surprise, he simply picked up his half-full glass and, in less than three gulps, had downed its contents completely.
“I’ll get us some shots, then,” he said casually and, with that, walked away towards the bar.
The world spun – wonderfully so – as I gazed at the black sky beneath the glare of the streetlights, looking for stars that were invisible.
“Here,” James said softly and I felt a sudden surge of warmth spread through my body, reminding me that it was actually really cold outside. As I looked over my shoulder, I saw that he had draped his suit jacket around my shoulders, which felt heavy in the most pleasant way.
“What about you?” I asked as I watched him walk next to me, his hands in the pockets of his trousers and his thin white shirt pressed against his torso by the wind.
“I don’t mind the cold.” He shrugged and I couldn’t help but laugh, which seemed to come more easily with the alcohol cursing through my blood.
“What?” He asked, barely able to mask the grin on his face.
“Nothing,” I said, giving him the most serious look I could muster. “I just thought how super cool you are.”
“Oh, shut up.” James gave me a playful shove, which, considering my slightly wonky tread, would have probably sent me straight to the rough asphalt if he hadn’t – instead of pushing me – slid his arm around my waist.
“I feel that I am drunker than you are,” I said to him as we walked along the still buzzing street arm in arm; judging by the obnoxious sound of the cheap plastic horns around us, it must have been shortly before midnight.
“That’s because you are, Woodley,” he replied laughing while simultaneously steering us through an a capella group that had just struck up a wistful version of Auld Lang Syne. His hand was still firmly placed on my waist and I was shocked to realise that I did not completely detest the feeling.
“Do you think we’ll make it in time? Before midnight, I mean,” I asked as the large party of girls in front of us had initiated a false countdown, which, at three, terminated in drunken giggles.
“Maybe.” James shrugged. “Why?”
I watched him for a moment as he scanned the crowd quite unconcernedly, without any haste, and I couldn’t help but think of the pretty round-faced girl that probably had been sitting around by herself all night, waiting for James Potter to return. The way she had looked at him had spoken volumes, really; I had seen it on countless girls before.
“You broke up with Fern Sterling,” I said boldly, not bothering to formulate it as a question; after all I had bared enough of my soul to James tonight to expect some honesty in return.
He gave me a strange look before replying quite casually. “She wasn’t really my type.”
“Is anyone?” I said laughing as we had turned the corner and landed on a barely lit side street that was completely bare except for an old red telephone box, bearing a crooked ‘out of order’ sign.
James simply shook his head, a small smile on his face, before letting go of my waist as we reached the secret entrance to the Ministry of Magic. “After you.”
I walked past him as he held open the door, squeezing into the cubicle again with my thousand layers of red cloth taking up the space that was left, surrounding me like a sea of chiffon. It would be only seconds until I had to face reality again; a fact that all the shots in the world could have never remedied.
“James,” I said quietly as he closed the door behind him. When he looked up I realised that our faces were as close as they had only been once before. “Do you believe in love?”
He frowned slightly, his brown eyes scanning my face with such intensity that I felt my cold cheeks blush. If anyone could give me reassurance that love was simply an overrated figment of human imagination, nothing but a petty meaningless detail of life, I was sure it was James Potter.
“Do you?” He asked so softly that his voice was barely more than a rasp. Around us, the windows of the telephone box had begun to mist up, blurring the view of the dark street as though it only existed in a faraway reality.
“I don’t think I want to, really,” I said in an attempt at sarcasm, but James did not laugh. He didn’t even smile as he continued to look at me, his eyes traveling over my face as though they were trying to take in every feature; every imperfection, every scar. And before I had even realised it, the small gap between us had vanished and I was pushed against the cold, fogged up glass, feeling James’s hot breath on my skin and the familiar sensation of our lips clashing.
But it was different this time. I couldn’t help thinking so as he pulled me closer and I wound my arms around his neck in return, reluctant to let even a sliver of air come between us.
My head was spinning and the ground was moving as somewhere in the distance an orchestra of bagpipes played the solemn chorus of a familiar tune. A cluster of explosions mingled with the melancholic melody and a rainbow of colours lit up the entire city, but neither of us was willing to break the embrace.
The old year had gone, the new one begun, but time had become irrelevant in this crammed old telephone box and, just for the fraction of a second, I actually allowed myself to forget about tomorrow.
“Oi!” The urgent whisper was accompanied by a sharp rap on the door and I jumped at the sight of Freddie Weasley’s mildly amused face that stared at us through one of the windows. “Sorry to interrupt, but you might consider taking this somewhere else.”
It took me a moment to comprehend what had just happened but, as I turned my head, I realised that we were no longer in the lonely, dark backstreet, but in the middle of the brightly lit Ministry of Magic foyer, surrounded by curious onlookers who were craning their necks to get a better view at the entwined couple in the phone booth.
It hadn’t only felt like the ground had been moving; it actually had.
Withdrawing my arms from James’s neck I scanned the gawking crowd as they raised their eyebrows at the scene, a disapproving humming filling the room. Scandal laced the air and everybody seemed to soak it up willingly as, slowly but steadily, gazes shifted towards a group of people in the front; Harry and Ginny Potter looked befuddled, but their expressions were nothing in comparison to the look of utter disbelieve that had appeared on the Woodleys’ faces.
“This is preposterous,” Charlize Engelstein suddenly hissed into the buzzing silence. Next to her, Asher looked at me as though I had sucker-punched him.
“We will not be treated like this!” She threw what could only be described as a death glare at my family, before grabbing her son’s shoulder and steering him out of the crowd.
The Woodleys simply stood there, my parents next to my grandparents, staring at me like they were seeing me for the very first time, and I knew that I had managed what no one else had before me: I had publicly humiliated the probably proudest family in England.
A/N: The end.
No, just kidding, of course ;).
You guys, I just can’t believe that this story has OVER 240 REVIEWS… Honestly, when I started ‘How not to be a Woodley’ I would have never expected this. At all. And I know I’ve said this before and it makes me sound like a really sappy old cat-lady, but you lot are just AMAZING and you inspire me and make me happy and I am so incredibly thankful to all of you who read and leave me reviews.
Having said this, I hope all of you lovelies have enjoyed this slightly shorter but all the more intense chapter and leave me lots and lots of reviews to squeal over as I am working on the next one ;).
(P.S.: Since I am frequently asked if I have some kind of soundtrack in mind while writing this story, I thought I’d give you a list of the songs that inspired this particular chapter and hope you enjoy them as much as I do ;):
Scene One “Running Away”: Charles William – Starts
Scene Two “The Stumbling Stag”: James Bay - FourFiveSeconds (in the Live Lounge)
Scene Three “The Way Back to the Ministry”: Mairi Campbell and Dave Francis - Auld Lang Syne
Scene Four “The Kiss”: James Bay - Incomplete
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