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Chapter 1 : Welcome to the Madhouse
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I hate Christmas. It’s supposed to be this sentimental, special, most wonderful time of the year: parties for hosting, marshmallows for roasting and all that jazz. People talk about family and festive spirit and good cheer and all sorts of nauseating things that, when it comes down to it, are pretty meaningless.
For me, Christmas means squeezing into whatever size-too-small formal dress my mother’s bought for me this year, buying expensive gifts for relatives I strongly dislike, and spending a whole day in the madhouse with people that mean nothing to me.
It’s always the same. Every single year. Mum ends up crying some time between arriving and having christmas lunch; Dad drinks too much and pretends it’s not his fault she’s crying until he can’t pretend any longer and just vanishes; Aunt Katie tries to act like nothing’s wrong and attempts to make us all sing carols; Uncle Oliver shouts, usually at Mum but sometimes at Dad; the moron sits still and looks generally moronic; and I end up escaping to Scor’s house and spending the evening drinking with him and Cassie. When we were younger, we sat on Scor’s roof with mugs of hot chocolate. Now, we’ve moved on to Firewhiskey.
“Olivia, sweetheart, are you nearly ready? We need to leave!” Mum called up from the bottom of the stairs. My mother’s voice manages to waver even when she’s shouting.
I ignored her and stood up, scowling into the mirror. Mum installed a full wall of mirror in my bedroom when I came home after my first term at Hogwarts. She was excited about me meeting that nice boy Scorpius Malfoy and decided the thing to do was to give me a constant reminder of my flaws so I knew which areas to work on to win his heart.
Scor thinks it’s funny. He’s been one of my best friends since Mum ushered me into his carriage on the Hogwarts Express on our first day of school, but neither of us have ever wanted anything more. And him and Cassie are sickeningly in love. Mum has so far managed to completely ignore this relationship and blithely continues to insist that we’d be perfect for each other.
I pulled this year’s dress off its hanger. I hadn’t looked at it properly when Mum gave it to me and I glared at it now, wrinkling my nose. It was green velvet with a silver collar: Slytherin colours. It probably wouldn’t be very popular in the madhouse.
The beaded collar scratched my neck as I tugged it on over my head. As expected, the dress was much too tight, but I managed to squeeze into it and it looked passable, cinching me in at the waist and then flaring out over my thighs. If I’d made it myself I would have cut the sleeves off at the elbow instead of the wrist, but at least it would keep me warm.
I half-heartedly brushed my hair until it was fluffy around my face, stabbed myself in the eye a few times with my mascara and then ran down the stairs. Mum raised her eyebrows at me as I pulled on a leather jacket and boots and I stuck my tongue out at her, feeling a cruel satisfaction when she winced.
“Are you finally ready? Great. Let’s move,” said Dad.
He looked tired and his christmas tie was wonky. The santa-hat-wearing hippogriffs flying over it were glaring up at him, struggling to fly straight on the lopsided fabric. I have suspicions that Dad hates christmas just as much as I do. It’s the only day he’s actually forced to spend time with us and can’t disappear off. Katie would kill him if he didn’t turn up.
“I was born ready,” I said. Dad sighed. I rolled my eyes.
I pushed past him and stepped into the fireplace, taking a handful of Floo powder out of the silver box on the mantelpiece. Our fireplace is freakishly clean and my scuffed boots looked out of place in the gleaming grate. Mum refuses to use it for real fires because she thinks the soot might ruin her clothes when she uses the Floo, and the maid has to clean it every time we travel. We have the only fireplace I know that you could probably eat out of.
I dropped the powder and it burst into flame around me. The green fire blurred into my dress, making the velvet flicker and shine. It was an interesting effect. I would have liked to look at it for longer, and maybe try painting it later on, but the unimpressed expressions across my parents’ faces suggested it would be wise to hurry up.
“14 Puddlemere Close,” I said, pulling a face to demonstrate my displeasure about the plans for the day.
I don’t like travelling by Floo. It makes me feel sick and I’m rubbish at climbing out the fireplace at the other end without falling over. Unfortunately, I don’t have my apparition license yet and Mum won’t let me fly on days I’m supposed to look presentable, because it apparently messes up my hair.
I clenched my eyes shut as I span in the flames, trying to ignore the nausea rising through my stomach, and then promptly fell out of the fireplace and onto the floor when the spinning stopped and the fireplace deposited me in Aunt Katie’s kitchen.
“Olivia! I was just saying you should all be arriving soon,” Katie said, standing up to greet me.
I scowled up at her from where I lay on the floor. She offered me a hand. I reluctantly let her help me up and found myself forced into an unwelcome hug. She squeezed me tightly while I stood, arms pinned to my side, waiting for her to let go.
“It’s so good to see you,” she beamed, finally releasing me. “Jason’s in the sitting room. He’ll be looking forward to saying hello.”
I didn’t want to go and see Jason, but the flames behind me had lit up again, signalling an imminent arrival. I decided I’d rather talk to the moron than spend any longer with either of my parents, so I took the chance to escape.
I found the moron lounging across the whole sofa in the sitting room, reading Quidditch Weekly and taking notes in the threadbare sketchbook he’s been carrying around ever since he made the Gryffindor team in his third year.
“Hey, Moron,” I said, jumping onto his legs without bothering to ask him to move.
“Hey, Bitch,” he said, not looking up from his magazine but moving his legs from under me so they didn’t get squashed.
Jason’s the year above me at school and I think Aunt Katie still holds out hope that we’ll become great friends. It’s not going to happen. We don’t acknowledge each other unless we have to and I think the vast majority of the school doesn’t even realise we’re related.
“Reading that rubbish won’t make you a better player, you know,” I sang, plucking the magazine from his hands and flicking through it.
“I don’t need to be a better player,” Jason said, flushing red. “I’m reading it to help me be a better Captain.”
I laughed, loudly and deliberately.
“Oh? You made Captain?” I let my voice drip with sarcasm. “You should have said. I had no idea.”
“Of course,” he said coolly.
He leaned forwards and tried to grab the magazine from me. I lounged back, lifting it out of his reach and fanning myself with it.
“Scor’s captain too,” I told him. “He’ll be so pleased you got it...it’ll make Gryffindor much less of a threat.”
We’d had this conversation multiple times since the summer. I took every opportunity to wind Jason up about Quidditch. It wasn’t exactly difficult, especially after he’d lost his first match against Ravenclaw just before the holidays.
“Personally, I would have thought Potter was the obvious choice. I know he’s your best friend so it’s a little awkward, but you should really hand over the badge. James wants to play professionally as well, doesn’t he? And he’s a much stronger player.”
“Good leadership skills too. He’s got that natural authority that can only come from being the son of the Chosen One. It would have made much more sense to choose him, really. Everyone’s been saying it.”
“Seriously, shut up.”
“Ooo, or his younger brother could have been a good choice? I know it’s unusual to appoint a sixth year when you have two seventh-year-aspiring-pros on the team, but he plays very well and he’s much more likeable than you. Yes, I think Albus Potter would have been a rather more popular choice for captain.”
“Shut up, Bell.”
“Aw, Wood, did I touch a nerve?”
He snatched back the magazine from me and turned away, furrowing his brow and making an unconvincing, transparent attempt to look like he was concentrating. I sat in silence for a while, weighing up the pros and cons of stealing his sketchbook. He’d potentially hurt me for it, but it would get a funny reaction from him and Scor would be interested in seeing his notes. Katie called us for lunch before I made a decision.
“Try not to eat too much, Wood,” I said cheerfully. “Your broom won’t be able to get your fat arse off the ground much longer.”
He sighed and looked critically at me. “Look, Bell, I get it. It must be exhausting hating yourself so much. But taking it out on me isn’t going to change anything and it isn’t going to make you feel better.”
He pointedly stepped in front of me to leave the room. I stuck my tongue out at his retreating back but it didn’t really make me feel better. He’s not supposed to get the last word in when we argue.
And I don’t hate myself.
I deliberately stepped on the back of his foot as I followed him through to the Dining Room.
However much I hate going to the madhouse, I can’t deny that it’s beautiful. Uncle Oliver’s the Manager and ex-Keeper of Puddlemere United Quidditch Team and Aunt Katie’s the general editor of Quidditch Weekly, making them some of the wealthiest people we know (which is really saying something, given the stuffy pureblood socialite circles my mother was brought up in and still invites round regularly for champagne tea).
The Dining Room is huge and airy, with large glass doors leading out onto the Quidditch Pitch behind the house. Katie always makes sure they have several massive christmas trees, coated with snow and lit with real fairies, and holly adorns the walls. This year, the tree nearest me was decked in tiny bells that tinkled and sang as I walked past.
In comparison to the artificial tree and black holly wreath my mother gets out each year for christmas, Katie manages to make the madhouse look pretty appealing.
“There you are. I hope you’re hungry,” Katie said, smiling and gesturing to the seat beside Jason.
Jason mimed vomiting as I sat down. Everyone else either didn’t notice or didn’t want to cause any conflict by mentioning it.
“Olivia actually won’t want much to eat. She had a large breakfast. So did I,” Mum said with a smile that didn’t reach her eyes.
I opened my mouth to correct her. Having woken up five minutes before we left the house I hadn’t eaten yet and was starving, but Mum silenced me with a look. I’ve learnt not to argue with her about food. It only ends in tears. Usually hers.
“Oh, okay,” Katie said, looking disappointed and passing me a much emptier plate than the one she’d offered Jason. “Well, do let me know if you’d like seconds.”
Jason didn’t look at me but he picked up one of his yorkshire puddings and dropped it onto my plate when my mother was looking in the other direction.
We ate in tense silence, everyone unwilling to break it because silence is infinitely better than the shouting that was sure to follow anyone’s voice.
Eventually Dad coughed. “So, Oliver...How’s work?”
Oliver looked relieved. As conversation topics go, this was a pretty safe one.
“Same as usual. It’s looking like it’ll be a big year for the club, but we’re facing some changes. Charon’s getting married and thinking of starting a family so he’s not planning on playing full-time when the season finishes. It means a starting spot will open up, maybe for a Hogwarts grad. It’s exciting stuff.”
He spoke for a long time. Contrary to his beliefs, it wasn’t exciting stuff. Nobody was really listening except Jason, who was hanging onto his father’s every word even though I’m sure he’d heard it all before. His Quidditch obsession borders on unhealthy. I took advantage of his intense concentration to steal three of his roast potatoes.
“Jason’s actually Quidditch Captain for Gryffindor this year,” Oliver said, looking proudly at his son.
“I remember hearing that at the beginning of the year. Congratulations,” Dad said, still clinging to the normalcy of the conversation.
“Thanks,” said Jason, puffing out his chest. “It’s a real honour, of course, especially given that it’s the very position Dad held when he was at Hogwarts. And Gryffindor looks like a strong team this year. We’ve got James Potter and Siobhan Moran as Chasers, so they obviously come from big Quidditch families, and a spot for someone else but I’ve got my eye on Aidan Coote. And Quinn and Lavinia have been working brilliantly together as Beaters. Plus we’ve got Albus Potter, who’s pretty much the best Seeker Hogwarts has ever seen.”
I coughed pointedly. Jason ignored me.
“He’s genuinely spectacular. I never saw Harry Potter play, obviously, but Dad says Al’s even better.”
“Yes, yes, Potter’s very good. It’s a shame he can’t keep up with Scorpius, really,” I said delicately, as if the point was obvious and a little embarrassing.
“Don’t be stupid. Al’s much more talented.”
“Last term’s matches beg to differ,” I said with a tiny shrug. “Scor caught the snitch within ten minutes of our Match against Hufflepuff. If Al had managed the same in yours against Ravenclaw you might be beating us in the league table. As it is…” I let my voice trail away.
“Scorpius Malfoy?” Oliver tensed. “I remember his Dad. He played Seeker for Slytherin when I was at Hogwarts. Bought his way onto the team.”
“That’s not true,” Mum said, eyes widening. “He was a wonderful player.”
“Nah. Pansy, I know you two were friends, but you have to admit he wouldn’t have made the team if he hadn’t bought them all the latest Nimbus,” Oliver said, shaking his head. “Little git that he was.”
“Draco Malfoy is, and always has been, a good man,” Mum said, her voice rising in pitch and shrillness.
“Debatable,” Katie murmured, reaching out to put a hand on her husband’s wrist.
“Well, that’s just not true,” Oliver said.
“It is. He’s a wonderful man.” Mum actually had tears in her eyes which I think was a bit of an overkill.
“How dare you say that in front of Katie? Do you not remember what he did to her?” Oliver looked furious.
“He did what he had to do. He was just a child.”
“So was Katie and she spent six months in St Mungo’s and lost her chances at a career in Quidditch because of that necklace. I don’t know what decisions Malfoy’s made since then, but don’t you dare say he’s always been a good man. Not in this house.”
Silence again. It’s pretty much the default at our family dinners.
I took a carrot from Jason’s plate and chewed it slowly, watching our parents deal with the new stress they’d brought to the table.
“Even if he was a better Seeker, your Chasers wouldn’t be able to compete with ours,” Jason said in a transparent attempt to ease the tension.
He looked at me, eyes wide, pleading with me to respond. I took another one of his carrots and considered my options. Katie had turned white and was gripping Oliver’s wrist uncomfortably tightly. Mum looked like she might cry. Next to her, Dad was studiously eating his lunch as if nothing had happened.
“Rude,” I said, prodding Jason with my fork. “Oz and Kai are telepathic geniuses, and I’m flawless.”
“Whatever. Your aim’s all off,” he grinned.
We slipped back into easy insults, letting the horrible atmosphere dissipate. I suppose he’s not always a moron.
When our plates were empty and Katie had tried and failed to get us to join in with a spontaneous rendition of ‘God rest ye Merry Hippogriffs’, we moved back into the Sitting Room to open presents.
The christmas tree in the Sitting Room was even bigger than the one in the Dining Room and towers of beautifully wrapped, jewel-coloured gifts lay underneath it. I sat down in the armchair closest to the tree and Jason squeezed in beside me, squashing me into the arm of the chair and ignoring my discomfort.
Katie waved her wand and the presents divided themselves between the six of us. My pile was rather smaller than Jason’s but that wasn’t unexpected. Mum and Dad aren’t very good at gift-giving, or at general demonstrations of love and affection.
Jason tore wrapping paper off his presents without waiting for anyone else, opening boxes and boxes of brand new Quidditch gear. I rolled my eyes at him even though he wasn’t looking, and started to open my own gifts.
Mum gave me her usual batch of make up, weight loss kits, appetite-suppressing potions, too-small clothes and a compact mirror. I’m not sure whether she realises she’s given me the same presents every birthday and Christmas since I was eleven, but I’ve never bothered pointing it out. I chuck them all in the bin as soon as I get to Hogwarts anyway, unless Cassie wants any of them.
Dad’s gift was a slight improvement on the previous year - he actually gave me a present instead of awkwardly taking twenty galleons out of his wallet when Katie asked where my gift from him was - and I halfheartedly thanked him for the broom polish and Keeper gloves. I know it’s the thought that counts but it’s a bit disappointing that he still has no idea what position I play.
“Here, Moron. Christmas present for you.”
I chucked the gloves onto Jason’s lap, not bothering to detach Dad’s card. Jason frowned at the card for a moment, gave my dad a withering glare, and then nodded.
“Cheers. Take this Quaffle. I’ve got six.”
I took the Quaffle he handed me, smirking at the note from some adoring girl tagged onto it. Jason is oblivious to girls. He’s oblivious to everything except Quidditch and James Potter.
“Thanks,” I said. “Good doing business with you.”
For a strange moment he gave me an open, honest smile, and then the moment flickered and died and he went back to his presents.
I didn’t get much else. Aunt Katie and Uncle Oliver gave me some money to ‘put towards something special’. Kai and Oz, my fellow Chasers on the Slytherin team, sent me chocolate. Scor and Cassie would give me their presents in person. I lounged back in the armchair to wait for everyone else, making sure to dig my elbows sharply into Jason’s side as I tried to get comfortable.
“Pansy? What’s wrong?” Katie sounded tentative.
I looked up, dreading whatever emotional outburst I was about to witness. Mum was crying. What a surprise.
“Oh, it’s nothing,” Mum said with a watery smile that dissolved into a sharp, shuddering sob. “I just…after eighteen years of marriage I would have expected a Christmas present.”
Katie turned to glare at Dad. Dad looked uncomfortable and tried to shift away from his sister’s threatening gaze.
“I just didn’t know what you’d like, Pansy,” Dad said with a large, desperate, false grin. “I’ll get you something tomorrow, yeah? We can go together.”
“So...you just couldn’t find anything? That’s it?”
“Yeah. Just…couldn’t find anything.”
“You didn’t see anything I might like?”
Mum stood up, quivering and furious. “I saw the bracelet, Andrew.”
Dad’s smile faltered, but he made a valiant attempt to look confused. “Bracelet? What bracelet?”
“The diamond and fairy gold bracelet in your bedside table.” Mum’s voice was icy.
Dad didn’t say anything. He didn’t look confused anymore.
“It’s funny, really, hearing that you couldn’t find anything I’d like...that you didn’t know what I’d want. I’ve always liked diamonds. I adore fairy gold. I would have loved a bracelet like the one you bought and hid away in your bedside table.”
Dad still didn’t reply. He’d turned a horrible shade of beetroot.
“So tell me, Andrew...if you haven’t given the bracelet to me, and you haven’t given it to Olivia, who have you given it to?”
“Oh, Andrew,” Katie finally breathed, looking at Dad with disappointment.
“I…erm…I was going to tell you,” Dad stammered, gaze desperately shifting between his sobbing wife and his terrifying older sister.
“Tell me what, exactly?” Mum glared at him, and for the first time I could remember her voice was totally clear and free from any nervousness.
“I just…she’s…gods, Pansy, this is hard for me.”
“Hard…for you?” Mum looked at him. And looked at him. And looked at him.
And then she broke.
She sat back down, gasping for breaths through her sobs and shaking her head again and again. Oliver awkwardly put an arm around her and looked horrified.
“Come on, Pansy. Don’t do this,” Dad said. “It’s not like you and I are in love.”
“Andrew!” Katie looked shocked.
“Well, we’re not. We were so young when we got together. And everyone was confused after the war. She’s been in love with another man since before I even met her. Oh, don’t give me that look. We’ve all heard the way you talk about Malfoy.”
“Shut up,” I said, not turning away from Mum’s shaking body.
“Oh, don’t you start on me as well.”
“I said shut up. Stop talking. Right now.”
Jason put down the gloves he was still holding and squeezed my hand. I didn’t pull away.
“Olivia, I know you’re upset,” Kate said.
“NO. I’m not upset. I’m…I’m angry. Just...stop it. All of you. Stop dragging me into all your bullshit.” I stood up as well.
“I’ve had enough. I can’t be bothered to do this right now.”
I turned around, feeling very melodramatic, and marched out of the room. Somebody was following me but I didn’t turn around. It was probably Jason trying to be friends now that I was some kind of damsel in distress and needed a hero. Classic Gryffindor.
“Olivia, wait!” Katie’s voice made me pause.
I looked back at her without saying anything, waiting for her to try to tell me it was all going to be okay. I didn’t know why she tried. I didn’t need her help. I wasn’t upset. I was actually surprisingly okay. I just wanted to get out of the madhouse.
“Olivia…I know you don’t think of us, of me, as your family, but I promise that’s how we see you,” Katie began.
I laughed quietly. Jason categorically does not see me as family, and I’m pretty sure Oliver forgets who I am the moment I leave the house, despite my drunken father’s spontaneous decision to name me after him.
“Look,” Katie continued. “I know you might not want to hear this right now, but I just want you to know that we do love you. However you’re feeling, and however much you think you don’t need us or don’t want us, there will always be a place for you here if you need it. Don’t hesitate to ask if you need my help, or to come and stay if things get hard at home. I promise you’re always welcome.”
I looked at her. She looked angelic, with her tiny figure and large eyes, and I couldn’t quite bring myself to reject her offer of kindness. Instead, I nodded sharply, opened the front door and left the house.
I knew exactly where I needed to go. Christmas is always the same after all. Granted, this year was a variation on the theme. Mum actually had a good reason to cry and even Aunt Katie couldn’t pretend nothing was going wrong, but to all intents and purposes it was pretty similar.
I flicked my wand at the battered door of the broomshed and watched the lock click open. Technically I’m not of age yet, but the madhouse is a magical household and nobody was going to find out. I took the first broom I set my hands on, not really caring who it belonged to, and mounted it, rising slowly into the sky.
The broom shook a little. It was one of their old spares, which was probably for the best. Oliver and Jason would have killed me if I took one of their racing brooms and I’m too young to die at the hands of angry Quidditch-obsessed family members.
I turned the broom south, towards London, towards Scorpius and Cassie. Cassie would find this whole saga funny and Scorpius would give me a drink and tell me to forget all about it.
The wind blew my hair back and the cold froze my fingers to the broom, and my smile grew bigger and bigger as I sailed through the sky, away from the madhouse and towards the only two people in the world that really felt like my family.
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