SECOND TRY TO UPLOAD CHAPER 35... I don't know why but there seems to be a glitch and the chapter doesn't show up on the site. I'm uploading it as 36 and maybe it works then...
"True colours, baby."
A Culmination of Extraordinary Events
Thanks for your letter. I'm back at Hogwarts and…
"Damn it!" I crumpled up the piece of parchment and let myself fall back into the wingback chair on which I had curled up. The paper ball had rolled off my lap, joining the miserable heap of rejects on the floor.
"What are you doing?" Katie said as I leaned my head as far back as it would go, staring at the vaulted common room ceiling. It was always a safe bet to come back the Saturday before the holidays ended: except for Katie, me, and a few overzealous first years, Ravenclaw tower was practically abandoned.
"Waiting for inspiration." I sighed as I watched a spider crawl across the fading pattern of interlacing weeds.
"You know, if it's so hard to write to that Henry-bloke, maybe he just isn't that great."
I let my head roll to the side, watching Katie as she was tapping her phone's intestines with her wand. "No, he is great, believe me. He's funny and handsome and, ugh-" I nudged the closest paper ball with my foot. "I feel like I have three brain cells."
"OK," she said slowly, as though talking to an easily irritable toddler, and looked up from her experiment, "but what about James?"
"What about him?" I shifted uncomfortably in my wingback chair, ignoring that my right leg had gone numb under my weight.
Katie rolled her eyes. "Are you really going to make me say it?"
I shrugged and reached for the bowl of popcorn we had been passing back and forth between us. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"You went after him!"
"I did not!"
Katie raised her eyebrows so high that I thought they would vanish into her hairline.
"OK, I did," I said grudgingly, "but it was a bad idea and I'm glad he acted like a prick." I plunged my hand into the bowl and threw a handful of popcorn into my mouth. "True colours, baby."
"Have you ever thought about why he said all those things?" She paused, maybe hoping for my input, but I stubbornly bit the inside of my cheek. "It sounds like he was jealous."
I snorted, accidentally spraying bits of chewed-up popcorn over my own jumper. "Yah, right! Look, it doesn't matter why he said what he said. He was horrible to me - and I mean really horrible - and I don't want to be treated that way."
"I get that," she said, although I could already feel the 'but' in the offing, "but if Delia and Roderic can work it out, so can you two!"
It was finally my turn to raise my eyebrows. "Are you really comparing James and me to characters in an Ambrosia Tinckertabber novel?"
"Can you at least admit that there's something there?"
Katie groaned, but she knew me better than to try and argue with me about this. Instead, she reached over and snatched back the popcorn, ignoring that it probably contained a bit of my spit now.
I listened to her angry chewing for a while. Naturally, I had spilled my guts to my best friend, but it was hard to convey how humiliated I had felt in that church with James Potter mocking me - mostly because I had left out the part where, for a feverish second, I had fancied myself the heroine of a cheesy love story when, really, I had just been the klutzy sidekick all along.
"Look at this!" I said, feeling a sudden wave of anger as my gaze fell onto the balled up pieces of parchment around me once again. "They're mocking me."
"Who? The parchment?" Katie looked slightly concerned as she watched me aim another kick at one of the paper balls and missing splendidly so that I stubbed my toe.
"They are the visual proof of my complete lack of boy-skills."
"You know, if you ever want to get better at this I wouldn't call it 'boy-skills'." Katie frowned at me for a moment before suddenly throwing out her arm. "Give me the letter."
"His letter!" She said through a mouthful of popcorn, waving her hand impatiently, and I quickly complied, passing her the neatly folded piece of paper.
"Honestly, I love you."
"Shhh!" She waved her hand dismissively. "Let me focus."
I watched her scan the letter Henry Pennington had sent me yesterday, her brows puckered as though she was reading a particularly nasty passage in Advanced Transfigurations.
"So?" I asked when I couldn't take it anymore, which earned me nothing but a grunt.
Finally, after what felt like an eternity, she held out her hand once again and said, "give me your pen."
I hesitated, thinking of the steamy notes Katie regularly penned to Tarquin. "What are you going to write?"
She looked up at me, her hand still outstretched. "Do you want my help or not?"
"OK." I handed her the pen, feeling a slight jolt of excitement in my stomach. "Do what you must."
There was nothing more exhausting than the Sunday after a holiday at Hogwarts. The blissful peace of the day before was reverted to absolute chaos as hundreds of students streamed back into the castle, their excited prattle filling the common rooms, rising to the domed ceilings. All of this usually culminated in a very loud and very exuberant dinner at the end of the day, which primarily served as a prelude to the 'secret' party everyone knew to take place afterwards. Those who were invited made a point of letting everyone in their vicinity know that they were, while those who were not, tried to score a last-minute invite by hovering around the in-crowd, trying to catch a glimpse of whatever secret gadget would grant them entry to the room of requirement this time.
"Are you sure you don't have it?" Katie said as she finally turned away from the Gryffindor table where Freddie Weasly and Augustus Cotton were barely visible through the swarm of people buzzing around them.
"I don't believe you."
"Kat." I sighed, simultaneously trying to force my shortish hair into a knot at the nape of my neck. The attempt was in vain. "I swear I'm not invited."
She frowned but didn't say anything, which I was thankful for. The less I had to talk or think about James Potter the better. I had been sure of it before, but this time I knew it; that weird thing that had been going on between us, was over. Finally.
"Hey, have you guys seen Sam?" Hector Chang had come up behind us, a concerned look on his face as he scanned the table.
"Um, no," I said slowly, exchanging a quick look with Katie; Sam hadn't been around much for weeks, keeping his distance after the Graviditas incident, and the truth was that neither Katie nor I had exactly tried to talk to him either. I wasn't angry at him, really, but it still felt weird between us and I couldn't imagine it to ever go away again.
"He was supposed to meet me before dinner but he never showed up."
Katie abandoned her desert for a moment and looked up at Hector. "Maybe you just missed each other."
"Yeah. Maybe," he muttered distractedly and took another look around the great hall, his brows furrowed. "Listen, if you see him, can you tell him that I'm looking for him?"
"Sure." I smiled at Hector but he didn't even seem to notice and just turned around, leaving the Great Hall in a jog.
"Weird," Katie said and plunged her spoon into her pudding again.
"Yeah." I looked back at the bowl in front of me, trying to not overthink this. Hector and Sam had probably only gotten their signals crossed and Sam was already back in the common room, waiting for his boyfriend. Surely, there was no need to worry.
"I wonder if Hector is invited to the party."
We had turned the corner, just catching the stairs before they would move again and block off the way to Ravenclaw tower. "He probably is. Did you notice anything on his arms? Maybe a symbol or something?"
"Kat." I groaned at my best friend's annoying persistence and took a couple of steps at once to walk slightly ahead of her. The sooner we would be back in our dormitory, the more likely she was to finally concede defeat. Apparently she had gotten used to being invited to the 'cool' parties and the social decline did not sit well with her. "Can you shut up about this?"
"Why?" I had stopped and turned around, sounding slightly more aggressive than the situation called for. I had been feeling edgy all day, dreading the moment I would inevitably cross James Potter's path and it was hard to not give in to the feeling. "Why is this so important to you?"
"Because," she said and crossed her arms, which kicked off another wave of frustration.
"Fine! " She sighed and untied her arms again. "Don't be mad, okay? And remember that I love you and only say this with your best interest at heart."
I frowned at her, not sure if I wanted to hear what came next. Unfortunately, that wouldn't keep my best friend from speaking her mind.
She took a deep breath, as though she was steeling herself, and then said very quickly: "I think you should talk to James."
"Never." I made to walk away, but Katie grabbed my arm and held me back, a determined look on her face.
"You obviously have fee-"
"No!" I was shaking my head like an idiot by now, but at this point I just wanted to stop talking about this. I was done with this - with James - and I needed to not think about him.
"Seth!" Katie called after me when I began to speed-walk along the dim corridor, feeling like a petulant child. "Wait!" Her trainers were squeaking on the stone floor behind me, but I was already at the end of the hallway, about to turn the corner, when, suddenly, my heart gave a jolt.
I had halted so abruptly that Katie crashed into me.
"Hey, what-" she started, but lapsed into silence the moment she looked up, her mouth forming a voiceless 'O'.
James Potter was sitting at the bottom of the staircase that led to Ravenclaw tower, his arms resting on his legs, staring at his interlaced fingers. When he saw us, he got to his feet and buried his hands in the pockets of his jeans.
I still hadn't moved, partly because Katie was standing right behind me, blocking my only exit route, and partly because I feared that if I gave in to my urge to run I would look even more pathetic than I already felt. The reality of seeing James was even worse than I had imagined it and, for a moment, it felt as though we were back at that church.
"What are you doing here?" I finally managed to say, throwing all the nonchalance I could summon into my words, but before he could give me an answer, the common room door had swung open and Professor McGonagall stepped onto the landing.
"Ah, Miss Woodley. I was looking for you."
"You were?" I could feel a definite jab somewhere in my stomach that didn't bode well. The last couple of times McGonagall had searched me out had more or less ended in a complete disaster and, while I was fairly certain that I had hit my all-time low at Hogwarts, it always felt as though there was still some room at the bottom of the abyss.
The headmistress had descended the stairs but halted for a moment when she spotted James standing next to the banister. "Potter, what are you doing here?"
"I - um…" He ran his hand through his hair. "I was - um - in the area..."
McGonagall raised her eyebrows at him. "In the area?" Her gaze shifted to me for a second and then back to James again; if I hadn't been so tense, I would have dreaded the conclusions she might have drawn, but with the promise of catastrophe looming in the air, my complicated feelings towards James Potter had given way to the more fundamental panic of facing immediate expulsion.
"Miss Woodley," McGonagall's full attention was back on me again and I felt my muscles tense. If she had come to Ravenclaw tower to look for me, it must have been bad. "I believe this is yours," she said, holding out a small, golden Prefect badge - my Prefect badge, which I had surrendered the night the Graviditas had been found in my nightstand.
I blinked, unable to form a cohesive thought as I took the metal pin from her hand. Behind me, I could feel Katie's fingernails digging into my arms as she leaned over my shoulder, breathing down my neck.
"Mr Henderson came to see me tonight." For a moment, the harsh lines around McGonagall's mouth seemed to soften just a little. "He told me everything, exonerating you of the more severe charges."
"He - um - everything?" I looked up at her, wondering what exactly that entailed. After all, Sam could neither remember his blackmailer nor any details of the operation behind it.
"Well, everything considering," she said and, for the fraction of a second, her composed expression slipped and the weariness showed on her face. "Once we have lifted the occulto charm that is clouding his memory, we can finally put an end to this madness."
I felt the pin in my hand, tracing the fine lines of my last name that was carved into the metal. "Can I just ask... I still brewed the potion, I mean, I still did something illegal -"
"Miss Woodley, do you not want to be a Prefect anymore?"
"Of course I do," I said quickly, ignoring Katie's elbow that she was frantically jamming into my spine, "but-"
"Well then -" She cut me off, straightening her glasses. "Needless to say, the detention-" At that she turned to give James a severe look. "-is still to be completed."
"Of course." I closed my fingers around the sharp-edged plaque, unable to hold back a grin. "Thank you, Professor."
McGonagall nodded curtly, already in the process of walking away when - suddenly - she stopped and turned around once more. "It is very noble of you to want to protect your friends, Miss Woodley. However, I expect honesty from now on." Her gaze shifted towards James. "The same goes for you, Mr Potter."
"I can't believe it," Katie squealed behind me as soon as the headmistress had rounded the corner, her arms flying around me from behind, enveloping me in a tight embrace.
"Me neither," I said, still clutching the plaque in my hand. After everything, Sam had cleared my name.
I looked up at Katie, the lightness suddenly dwindling as a myriad of thoughts collided in my head. "Sam!"
"Sam!" I could feel the panic roll over me like a gigantic wave. I had finally put the pieces together: Sam was missing. He had told McGonagall everything and now he was missing.
"Oh my god, Sam..." Katie paled, her eyes wide as she, too, must have come to the worst conclusion.
Sam hadn't been in the common room. I had known it before, but the realisation still felt like a punch to the gut.
"Hey, what's wrong?" James yelled as he followed us down the corridor, not bothering to lower his voice. "Where the fuck are you going?"
"We need to find Sam," I had stopped abruptly, looking straight at him, which seemed to knock the wind out of him for a second. There was no time to explain this; I could barely wrap my mind around it myself and the task of putting the dread I felt into words seemed inconceivable.
James drew his brows together and I was sure that he was going to argue - to tell me that I was a nutjob - and, to be fair, I did feel like one. Hoping to find someone in a castle full of secret passages and hidden alcoves and magical rooms by hysterically chasing down endless hallways was sheer lunacy, but, at the moment, it was the best I got.
"OK. Let's go." James's jaw was set as he started down the hallway, his hand reaching into his back pocket where a piece of parchment was sticking out.
"Should we check all the classrooms?" Katie shouted over her shoulder as she dove into the one next to her, only just to emerge again seconds later. This was pointless - I could see it on her face when she looked back at me after trying yet another locked door.
"Maybe there is a spell, or a charm." I tried to remember something - anything - that could help us locate Sam, but everything I knew about seeking charms only worked on objects, not humans.
"I found him!"
"What?" I looked up at James who was still holding the crumpled parchment in his hands.
"He's in the boy's bathroom on the first floor."
I didn't even question how he could possibly know before I had broken into a run, my heart pounding in my ears as I sprinted down the stairs with Katie and James at my heels.
"Seth, wait!" I could hear James yell after me as I reached the bathroom, but I had already torn open the door, stumbling over my own feet when I saw Sam's lifeless body on the floor.
I had dropped to my knees just as James and Katie came running in behind me.
"I'll get help!" Katie shouted, but I hardly registered her voice over the loud ringing noise that had exploded in my ears.
James had appeared next to me, his fingers reaching for Sam's throat, pressing against the carotid. "We have to get him to the hospital wing."
Stiff with shock, I watched him hook his arms under Sam's shoulders and drag him up in one swift movement. I knew there was a spell to lift bodies - something to move heavy objects - but my brain felt numb and slow and it was all I could do to not succumb to the panic that was uncoiling in my stomach.
When we emerged from the bathroom, it felt as though we were moving in slow-motion. James' teeth were clenched as he carried Sam's limp body up the stairs and I followed them like a useless prop, only barely noticing the commotion we caused when we passed a couple of very dressed-up Gryffindors.
We had scarcely reached the floor of the hospital wing when a group of people already came running towards us, Katie leading the way. Behind her, McGonagall had raised her wand and, with a swift upwards flick, Sam was suddenly lifted off James's shoulder and suspended in midair.
"You can wait here," Madame Pomfrey said briskly and we watched in silence as she, the teachers and the St. Mungo's healers crowded around Sam's body before vanishing behind the doors to the emergency ward.
It was then that Hector Chang suddenly appeared at the other end of the hallway. "Where's Sam?" He looked frantic with his half-opened uniform shirt flapping oddly around his midriff.
"They're taking care of him," I said, mostly trying to stop him from barging into the ward, but he simply shoved me aside into the wall and ploughed on.
"Hey!" James stepped in front of him in an attempt to hold him back. "Calm down, mate."
"I need to see him!" Hector was shouting by now, his arms flailing wildly, trying to push past James as well, but he had grabbed Hector's shoulders and pinned him against the wall.
"Let me go!"
"You can't go in there now!" James panted, struggling against Hector's desperate attempts at wrestling himself free. He looked livid and, for a moment, I thought he was going to throw a punch at James. But then, suddenly, his whole body sagged and he let his head fall against James' chest, his shoulders beginning to shake violently.
We had settled on the hardwood benches underneath the tall windows of the hospital wing hallway, wrapped into the gloomy torchlight that flickered on the opposite wall. Next to me, Katie had fallen asleep on Tarquin's shoulder, who had been fighting to stay awake for the past hour, his head frequently lolling to the side. He had arrived only half an hour after Hector, which meant that - by now - the entire castle surely must have heard one or another version of tonight's events, feeding the rumour mill.
Across from us, Hector was sitting propped up against the wall, his eyes finally closed after he had been staring into space for what felt like hours, refusing to eat or drink.
"Here," James said quietly, stepping over Katie's abandoned shoes, and held out a steaming paper cup. I took it gratefully, enjoying the warmth of the tea seeping into my cold fingers.
"Sure." He sat down next to me again, cradling his own cup in his hands. It was almost eleven o' clock and he had made no attempt to leave, which was exceptionally strange considering that he was supposed to throw a huge secret party tonight.
"How did you know?"
"Where to find Sam."
He looked at me for a moment and then reached into the back-pocket of his jeans, producing the strange parchment again. "It's this old map. I nicked it from my dad." He gave me a crooked smile and passed it to me. "You tap it with your wand, say the magic words and it shows you whoever you want to find in the castle."
"How did you know how to work it?" I turned the strangely folded parchment over in my hands, trying to find some hint at how to make the map appear, but it was entirely blank.
"Uncle Ron." He laughed and took the map again, our hands brushing fleetingly in the transaction. "Freddie and I wormed it out of him after a boozy Christmas dinner last year."
I watched his profile for a moment, his long fingers fumbling with the piece of parchment and his dark eyebrows knitted. His nose was slightly crooked, which I had never registered before, and I felt a sudden tug behind my chest.
I didn't want to look at him or his nose - I didn't even want to be sitting here in such close proximity, but even though my mind knew that I should have stopped, my muscles had abandoned all pretence of following suit. With Katie's soft snoring and the sound of light rain pattering against the windows behind us, a calm stupor had infused the ward and I felt the weariness in my bones, making me sluggish and somewhat careless. I wanted to ask him what he was doing - why he was still here - but my mind changed direction mid-thought:
"Do you get together a lot?"
He looked up at me, his lips parted slightly in mild confusion. Naturally he couldn't have followed my very messy train of thoughts. I was barely able to.
"I mean, you and your family."
His smile caught me off guard, most of all that stupid dent on his right cheek that only appeared when he was genuine. "We celebrate everything. Big time. Birthdays, holidays, start of the school year, end of the school year, you name it."
His face was still turned towards me, still smiling, still looking at me with the sort of intensity that could have been a silent challenge to see who would cave in and look away first.
Naturally, it was me.
"That sounds nice."
"It's pure chaos." He laughed softly and rested his head against the window behind him. "And it usually involves a shitload of Weasley jumpers"
"Weasley jumpers?" I looked up at him again, just as he ran his hand through his mop of messy hair.
"Grandma knits them with a fierce passion. For ALL of us."
I laughed and felt horrible almost instantaneously; my friend was being treated in the emergency ward for Merlin-knew-what and I was sitting here, sipping tea and snickering about Potter's jokes like a complete airhead.
"So, your grandma doesn't knit?" He said after a while, his head still propped up against the window, and I suddenly wondered if he had been looking at me this whole time.
"Hm? Oh, um, no." I drew my right leg in and tucked it underneath my other one, hoping to relieve the spasm that had lodged itself somewhere in my lower back. "She did, however, make me sit with a book on my head for an hour straight when I was three."
James's face split into another dimpled grin and he angled his head toward me a little more. "Oh come on."
"I swear. I used to actually hide from her in my grandparent's library." I thought about my grandfather, serene and solemn, his eyebrows raised as he peered into some ancient-looking volume while I had been stealing glances behind the gaps in the shelves. Now and then he would look up over the rim of his reading glasses and our eyes would meet before he bent down over his book again and I would continue my perusal of the more picture-heavy numbers.
Next to me, Katie's leg twitched and I turned to see if our hushed conversation had woken her up. She was still nestled against Tarquin, whose head was tilted backwards with his mouth hanging open, both of their breathing deep and rhythmic. Talking to James had kept the images that had been pushing against the surface at bay. They were like an unruly ocean, coming in irregular waves, threatening to surface; flashes of Sam's sprawled body on the cold stone floor were interweaving with silly thoughts about Weasley jumpers, and my head was throbbing from the effort of not going to pieces.
I turned to look at James, my eyelids feeling heavier than before.
"He'll be alright." His voice was low and raspy and I swallowed hard to get rid of the lump in my throat.
"You can't know that." I whispered, my voice fading as the ugly thought that had been writhing in my stomach finally clawed its way up my windpipe. "I should have been there."
The words had been uncoiling in the back of my head, trailing behind my thoughts like a looming shadow. Sam was my friend and I had shut him out; because he was human and made a mistake.
"You're here now," James said quietly, his voice still a low hum that mingled with the crackling of the torchlight and the rain.
I took another shaky breath and leaned back against the cool window, my eyelids staying closed for longer with every time I blinked. Silence had settled over us - heavy like the down covers in my room back home - and I let the irregular strumming of the rain fill my ears.
James shifted next to me and I suddenly felt his hand brushing against mine - just casually enough so that it felt completely accidental. I glanced at him covertly, not sure what I was expecting to find, but he was only staring into space, his other hand still holding the paper cup in place on his leg. I exhaled slowly, willing my idiotic heart to finally stop thrashing against my chest - the traitor. There were simply too many rampant thoughts in my head to think clearly and the worry for Sam was weighing me down like a wet blanket that made it difficult to breathe. And then there was James. Stupid James Potter, who just sat there with his hand next to mine as though it didn't matter.
I took another deep breath, hoping to settle my overactive mind, but all it did was make me feel lightheaded and woozy, like I had been drinking my grandfather's Odegen's Reserve Firewhiskey, and there - suddenly - I felt James's hand on mine. His warm fingers weaved through mine gently, interlacing them with each other as if they had done it a million times before.
I didn't dare look at him this time. This couldn't be brushed off as an accident. My heart was in my throat and the nerve fibres in my body were humming. He was too close for comfort and, yet, I didn't draw back. I knew I should have, but with everything that had happened today, holding James's hand - while absolutely nerve wrecking - also calmed me in a twisted sort of way that I couldn't wrap my head around just yet.
There was a sudden commotion and a spate of words tumbled into the hallway, tearing through the languid mood. I had jerked up, pulling my hand free of James's as though I had reached into a pot of stinging nettle, just as the door to the emergency ward swung open.
"How is he?" Hector had jumped to his feet, all traces of sleep gone from his face. He looked at McGonagall rather than the group of healers that surrounded her, probably hoping to find some comfort, but her face gave away nothing.
"He is awake."
"He is?" For a second I felt a wonderful surge of relief, but the feeling was curbed as soon as I saw McGonagall's expression; something wasn't right. The notch between her eyebrows was more pronounced than ever and her lips were nothing but a thin line.
Hector had noticed it as well. "I need to see him."
"You can't just yet," she said, her usually composed tone wavering slightly towards the end.
"What?" Hector's features had frozen. He still hadn't fully buttoned his shirt and his usually neat hair was sticking up in odd ways."What's wrong?"
"Maybe you should have a seat first." She turned her head to look at us as we stood there; Katie holding on to my arm with Tarquin's hand resting on her shoulder, and James right behind me. "There is something you should know."
A/N: Dear lovely reader, I hope you have enjoyed chapter 35 even though I am the worst when it comes to regular updates. The truth is that it takes me a while to write these chapters (especially with work and everything). Sometimes it's a lack of inspiration, honestly, and even when I have conquered writer's block, I am never happy with what I've written until I have rewritten the chapter at least three or four times. The first version is often only a string of dialogue and ideas and then I go back in there and add the little things that help to set the scene. And then I re-write them again :) :) :). I still hope that you are finding enjoyment and some lightness in this story during these very strange times. And because I get asked a lot, YES I am definitely going to finish How Not to be a Woodley. It's all planned out. I only need to write it :)