For the first few seconds after he wrenched open his eyes, Will had no idea as to where he was. He lay on his back, staring at the ceiling, waiting for his brain to stir from its sluggish state. Before long the feel of crisp, tightly tucked sheets, along with the antiseptic smells of Healing Potions, registered with his senses, and he knew himself to be in the Hospital Wing. The sight of Madam Pomfrey helped a bit, too. He was still clueless as to what had sent him there, though – an explosion in Potions, perhaps? Food poisoning? Had someone substituted his toothpaste for Mr. Bungle's Anti-Fungal Cream again?
Will wriggled an arm out of his linen cocoon to prop himself up, wanting to appraise his surroundings. As soon he moved, his aching body brought the memories back without delay. The match against Slytherin! His eyes opened wide at the recollection of Hufflepuff's win, and he looked down at his hand, which, although now bandaged, no longer hurt. Madam Pomfrey must have healed it while he was unconscious. A grin spread across his face. This had been one bloody fantastic day so far, and he didn't want to spend one more minute of it in bed.
So as not to attract the matron's notice, Will quietly tugged at his sheets and peeked underneath to ensure that his trousers were in place. He happily noted their presence, then inched closer and closer to the edge of the bed. If he could just locate his trainers, he could slip past Madam Pomfrey, who was occupied with treating other students, and be on his way…
"Lie down, Mr. Lowby!" a voice commanded, just as his feet touched the floor. Madam Pomfrey wasn't even looking in his direction, but her voice promised to turn him into a fluffy pink bunny if he didn't comply.
Will flopped back onto the bed in resignation. Bugger it! The common room was probably brimming over with celebration, and for reasons he was not about to confide to Madam Pomfrey, he really needed to get there. He let out an indignant grumble, but the hospital matron was still seeing to a second-year Hufflepuff whose face was dotted with green and silver pimples, and so she paid him no mind.
Despite his sore muscles, Will fidgeted and tossed with nervous energy. He craned his neck to see what that Ravenclaw girl in the bed across the way was reading. Something about pride…Pride of Portree, perhaps? They'd been playing well of late, and might even have a shot at a title, if only their Seeker would wake up from his latest coma.
He squinted his eyes, trying to get a closer look at the book's cover, but then the girl glanced up at him and smiled. Flustered, he quickly abandoned that diversion for counting the bedpans stacked along the far wall. He had only reached thirty-three before he gave another impatient grunt. No one else from his team was still here! Will wanted only to be examined, cleared, and sent on his way to whatever (or whoever, hopefully) awaited him in the Hufflepuff common room.
The steady "tick, tock" of the clock on the wall only taunted him further. Will stared hard at the back of Madam Pomfrey's head, trying to telepathically communicate the urgency of his situation. She continued to ignore him, however, and went about tending to a Slytherin student whose hands were sporadically morphing into badger claws.
"Does it hurt, Mr. Logan?" she inquired, applying a salve to the boy's reddened knuckles.
"Every time," he dolefully replied. Will rolled his eyes, feeling less and less sympathetic as the precious minutes passed by. Each one was another opportunity for Abby Loomis to decide that Robbie Welkin was really the man for her.
At last Madam Pomfrey bustled down the aisle to Will's bed, her mouth set in a thin line.
"Can I go?" he asked as she approached, sitting up eagerly.
"No," she answered, lifting up his bandaged hand and turning it from side to side. "I'm not certain that I want to send you back to your common room just yet. I can only imagine what sort of wild revelry is going on at this very moment."
"Madam Pomfrey," Will said, trying to ply her with an angelic smile, "Hufflepuffs don't really go for that sort of thing, you know. I'm sure the party's over by now."
The matron laid down his hand and raised an eyebrow, looking far from convinced.
"That excuse will not work with me, Mr. Lowby," she said. "Might I remind you that I come from Hufflepuff House myself? I know exactly the manner in which students carry on, and my left foot still has an ache from the time George Garner trampled on it during a Badger victory dance."
Will screwed up his face as Madam Pomfrey began prodding his cheekbone and lifting his eyelids to peer into his eyes.
"I don't know what the Headmaster is thinking, letting young children play at such a sport," she continued in mounting fury. "I've fixed chipped teeth, broken bones, and a handful of concussions today – and that was only among the spectators! Those Bludgers are horrid enough, without three-quarters of the students hexing each other. I'm of half a mind to tell Albus Dumbledore just what I…"
"Can I take this off, at least?" Will interrupted, pulling at the gauze on his hand.
Madam Pomfrey paused from poking at his face, and her countenance seemed to soften.
"I would like you to leave the bandage on," she said, more kindly this time, "if only to remind you not to do anything foolish in the celebration. I well remember how your friend Mr. Gudgeon tumbled off a table last year."
"Please?" Will tried again. He deemed it prudent not to mention that Davey had actually fallen from the chandelier.
"You may remove it tomorrow morning," she said, frightening Will with what appeared to be a twinkle in her eye. "Don't fret so, young man! You might even thank me for it later."
Without another word, Will seized his trainers and was out the door.
An hour later, Will understood the meaning behind Madam Pomfrey's parting comments, and he wasn't grateful in the slightest. No fewer than seven different girls had approached him so far, cooing and fussing over his bandaged hand. Under other circumstances this might not have been such a bad thing, but when he was trying to maintain a conversation (or a pathetic approximation of one, more accurately) with the girl he really did fancy, the attention was decidedly unwelcome.
Of course, Abby herself had touched his hand twice, something Owen had said was always a good sign. But then, Owen also once thought that if you drank a Pumpkin Fizz after consuming two Acid Pops, your head would explode. He probably wasn't the best authority.
Will glanced around the common room, which was in the most raucous state it had been since that time two years ago when castle-wide plumbing problems had caused the cancellation of exams. Madam Sprout had just retired to her own quarters, her eyes gleaming with joyous tears, leaving only a mild admonishment to not stay up too late. Now, if only the hordes of students would heed her counsel and leave him and Abby alone. Priya and Chrissy were making no secret of their observation and amusement, and Will's friends were no different.
"You played well today," Abby said, the apples of her cheeks turning pink. Her eyes darted to a nearby sofa, where her friends sat giggling.
Will was never more grateful that the victory was so fresh in everyone's mind. Given a few more days, Abby might remember that he had also let in three-dozen Slytherin goals. But that was a trifling point now, when she thought him partially responsible for the miraculous win.
"You must have sewn on a lucky button," he replied, his mouth moving more quickly than his mind. He wanted to beat his head against the wall as soon as the words came out. "Lucky button"? Could he be a bigger idiot? Worse yet, his mates seemed to have heard the comment from their position by the butterbeer. Their obnoxious snickering was probably audible down in the dungeons.
If only he and Abby could find somewhere to talk without an audience…the Hufflepuff quarters weren't lacking in additional rooms, but he didn't want anyone to see him leading Abby off. They might think he was after something…which he was, in truth, but not a very big something. Maybe he would tell her she was pretty, or ask her to accompany him on the next visit to Hogsmeade. At this rate, he'd be a doddery old geezer before he managed either.
But first, he had to try to salvage himself from the button remark. "I owe you some chocolate frogs for that," he said, shooting a sideways glare at his hecklers.
"Chocolate frogs?" she questioned. "For what?"
Abby was quiet for a moment, brow furrowed, but then her mouth rounded in understanding.
"Did Owen tell you that?" she asked, ducking her head. "I, er, didn't think he'd be thick enough to fall for it."
"Oh, he would. I once had him convinced that Stubby Boardman was my uncle."
Abby glanced up and laughed. "Really?" she asked, seeming more at ease. "Do you think you could get his autograph for me?"
"Well, he's awfully busy with the band right now," Will mused, "but he's coming by the house for Christmas dinner. I'll see what I can do."
He paused after the remark, hoping Abby wouldn't think him too much of a fool, but then she broke out in a wide grin. Perhaps there was hope for him yet, lucky buttons notwithstanding.
"I'm happy that we won," she said, in a soft voice that Will could barely hear over the din. He was having trouble listening anyway, when she looked so admiring and pretty… Her hair was down around her shoulders in the way he liked best, and he felt as though he would happily give up food, Quidditch, and any of life's other pleasures to have her look at him like that every day.
But just as he was about to open his mouth in reply, he caught sight of another ambush about to take place. Connie Andrews and her two friends were coming towards him at a swift pace, looking scarily intent. He should have known how to evade his admirers by now, but they seemed to be getting more persistent. One of the sixth-year girls cut in front of Abby, nudging her to the side. Will saw her falter backwards, and although he reached out in frantic desperation, he only managed to catch her fingers for a brief moment. He caught her eye, pleading with her not to leave.
Will tried to mumble an excuse and flee before Connie could link her arm in his. The extraordinarily good timing of Aristotle Kane proved to be a godsend. Standing on the butterbeer table, the Quidditch Captain started up a rousing chorus of "Rise and Shout, the Badgers Are Out". The entire common room soon joined in, Will's assailants included. While the girls were temporarily distracted, he took a step away and started to pull at the wrappings on his hand. Stupid, naff bandage! Madam Pomfrey would just have to get over it – he was going to get rid of the thing and all the trouble it brought.
He was busy ripping off the last of the gauze when he felt a tug at his elbow. He turned his head to see Abby tapping her wand on the statue of Helga, a gigantic stone badger. Puzzled, he saw Helga slide aside, and Abby darting inside the narrow gap. Will scanned the room quickly. No one was watching them; it was now or never. Without a second thought, he took another step backwards and ducked into the small space, Helga gliding shut behind him.
Squinting in the newfound darkness, Will found himself facing a narrow, spiraling staircase. The sharp click-click-click of shoes on stone echoed upwards and ahead of him. Dazed, he began climbing the steps, taking two at a time. He was going to be alone with Abby, at her instigation. Brilliant. If his luck held, she wouldn't remember that he'd only got in the match today because of bad haggis. He tried to coerce his facial muscles into looking self-assured and composed, as though this sort of thing happened all the time. But it didn't, and he could feel his knees already starting to shake.
A cauldronful of possibilities whirled in his head as Will rounded the final curve. He never made it to the top step, though. That would have bowled Abby clean over, as she was standing on it. She must have stopped there, turning around to see if he had followed. Startled, Will grasped for the railing to keep his balance. Their faces were perilously close, close enough that he had difficulty focusing. He'd never quite looked at her from this perspective before. Even seated, she was always shorter and a respectable distance away. But now he saw eyelashes, the soft contours of skin, lips that had made him lose coherence before.
Abby gasped in surprise, and her breath, quick and warm from the brisk ascent, danced across his face. Will fought valiantly to keep his knees from buckling. The proximity was mesmerizing, and his solitary lucid thought was that if he leaned in, just a little bit, something wonderful and terrifying and altogether very cool might happen. A gulp swelled up in his throat as he moved a scant fraction forward. But he hesitated, and to his deep dismay, Abby stirred from her spot. Well, now he knew why he wasn't in Gryffindor.
"It's quieter here," she said, taking an unsteady step into the circular, moonlit room behind her. "I'm sorry, though…you probably want to be with your friends."
Shaking his head – as much to clear it, as to give her an answer – Will followed Abby into the room. He looked around in curiosity. "What is this place?"
"Hufflepuff Turret," Abby said, moving over to a window. She ran a hand back and forth across the stony sill. "I come here to study sometimes. It's rather drafty, so I'm usually the only one."
Drafty? Will let out a genuine laugh. Coming from the Lake District, this was nothing. He leaned against the wall and fumbled in his robes until he'd found his wand.
Within seconds, the room began to fill with warmth. Pleased with himself, Will slid down until he was settled on the floor. "Although, this is still none too comfortable," he said, resting his elbows on his knees.
Abby turned from the window, her face brightening. "Oh!" she exclaimed. "I can help you there." She reached for her own wand, and then pointed it in his direction.
The hard stones beneath to soften like malleable clay, until Will felt as though he were sitting in his dad's overstuffed armchair. He eased into the cushioning, relaxing, until the idea occurred that she'd cast a spell on his bum. Well, not on his bum, exactly, but close enough. He felt his face burn, unsure whether to snigger or sigh. The same realization must have come to Abby, because she whipped around quickly to look out the window, her face obscured. An awkward pause ensued, during which Will racked his brain for a way to say that she was welcome to cast any spell that she pleased on him.
"Do you want to sit down?" he finally croaked. His voice had broken almost a year ago, but it was now threatening to return in full disharmonic glory. Abby shuffled over from the window, keeping her eyes on the floor. They stayed on her lap as she sat down beside him.
If only this could be conducted on broomsticks, Will lamented internally. Then, he'd have a Murtlap's chance of knowing whether she was going to fly right or veer left, soar high for a Porskoff Ploy or dip in a Wronski Feint. So many things indicated that she returned his interest, but for some inexplicable reason, it was still so hard to believe. It felt like Keeping blindfolded.
And yet, here she was, with him. Not looking at him, but not cringing in his presence, either. Her right hand was plucking at her robes, as though something wouldn't let it stay still. Acting before his fears could persuade him otherwise, Will dropped his own hand onto it. He heard Abby's breath catch, and she didn't move for a moment, but then she shifted her fingers, letting them intertwine with his.
Will felt ready to explode into a thousand pieces. Abby's shoulders were rising and falling rapidly, and his own heartbeat seemed liable to cause internal damage. When she finally looked up at him, and the moonlight made her face more beautiful than anything he'd ever seen, he was surprised his heart continued beating at all. She lifted her other hand; it hovered for a moment in the air, and then lit on his swollen cheekbone. Will had forgot his battle scars of the day. He probably looked grotesque, but she didn't seem to mind.
"Is that painful?" she murmured, smiling slightly, her fingertips brushing over the bruise.
"No," Will replied, but he barely knew what he was saying. All he was certain of was that his head seemed to be tilting, as was hers, and that his eyelids had no inclination to stay open. How funny, his mind crazily noted. All afternoon, he'd been trying to keep approaching objects at bay. And yet now, as their lips came together in a glorious, bumbling meeting, and Abby made a sound that sent a shiver straight through him, he knew this was one shot he was not about to block.THE END
A/N: I realize that I could take Abby and Will's story further, but I wanted to end things on a happy note. I thought this moment qualified. J
Many thanks to Tapestry, soupytwist, Catherine (creater of Robbie Welkin), Alkari (creator of George Garner), Yolanda, and Julie for their feedback on this final chapter. The notion of the Hufflepuff common room having many adjoining rooms is borrowed from Arabella's "Before the Beginning". Thanks also go to The Morning Starr for including Abby in her latest chapter of the gut-bustingly funny "Draco Malfoy's Diary". Lastly, I'm sponsoring a trip to Florian Fortescue's for all who've read and reviewed!