Chapter 22: Midnight Moments
The day is a perfect one. In terms of the weather in any case. Steady snowfall through the night, leaving the air crisp and clear in the morning. Cressida had been up before dawn, reciting the chant that she must continue to do so every dawn and dusk until the fateful electrical storm surges through the air.
What Remus had said a few days prior has lingered in her mind like a cold that just won't be rid of. Left-out. Cressida had never doubted her spot in their little group before, and she doubts she ever would have if Remus hadn't said those two words. Because if they are thinking it, then there must be some truth. Is she on the edge? Is she the odd one out?
No doubt Cressida is the outlier, but that had never been of concern before. Muggleborn. The female. Not particularly talented at anything other than charms and few duelling techniques. Is that what it is barred against? How much magical knowledge she has to offer? If it were, it would not be her at the bottom of the group. So what makes her stand to the side in their heads?
And that is what she thinks about the entire day, coming to no conclusion.
And Sirius. Sirius is still bugging her.
Stretched out on her temporary bedding, Cressida has her new diary opened. A small bottle of ink balances on a spare book. The sound of a quill scratching the pages is oddly satisfying and draws her entire focus away from everything else. Her small sketches are roughly drawn and of nothing in particular, simply to keep her hand and mind busy. A drooping flower, a toadstool, the sorting hat. They become more and more obscure the longer she is locked up in her room.
Cressida doesn't even consider the notion that James would be seeing them since he's been occupied downstairs all day. But alas, during the middle of a sketch of a troll, her door creaks. Her head perks up impulsively, one hand ready to shut the dairy but those defences relax as the guest is none other than James himself.
"Pretty drawings," he says, smiling from the corner of his mouth. Cressida only smiles meekly in return. Placing the lid back on the ink, she pulls herself up to a seated position as James takes place on the side of the mattress.
"They weren't exactly anything to be shown," she murmurs. "It must be boring downstairs if you're occupying yourself with watching me draw."
James shrugs. "The others are playing exploding snap. Don't really fancy singing my hair off." Out of his own habit, his finger comb through the slightly curled locks. "It's too good to risk."
"And you want me to cure your boredom?"
"Precisely." James tilts his chin up and on an angle. "Come play some chess with me. If you didn't know already, I've got a brand new board and I think you should have the honour of being my opponent."
Cressida considers the offer. Stay holed up in her room until supper, or play a game that will occupy her mind even more so than drawing. "I want to be white."
James purses his lips together, eyes squinting as his cheeks raise and clicks his tongue. "See, that's going to be a problem, because I always play white." Cressida eyes off his lounging pose, debating her next move.
"Pity," she drawls. "Because I'm going to get there first."
For once in her lifetime, she moves quicker than James. Her laugh echoes through the manor's corridors, James heavy footsteps right behind her. It isn't until she reaches the bottom of the wide stairs that he catches up with her. Cressida' feet whip up off the ground, fingers curling around the wide forearms pulling her stomach into her kidneys. Her slightly shorter stance gives him the advantage he needs, depriving her of using her legs to evade him.
The living rooms moves into view, Remus, Peter and Sirius' heads poking over the top of the lounge. Peter quickly looks back down though, leaping forward and a sharp explosion thunders. A puff of smoke emits from the pile of cards, Remus cackling as he waves his hand in front of his face. Sirius sulks, just covering his mouth with the end length of his sleeve.
Finally her feet touch the ground once more and James picks up the chessboard, firmly gripping it in both his hands. He motions with his head towards a spot, a boastful smirk emerging wider every second. And she plays white.
The evening goes over nicely, and rather normally and whilst it is happening, Cressida wonders what in the world she was worrying about. But then the night comes, and everybody retreats to bed. And once more, her thoughts are her only companions.
Sirius was vacant, she and Remus hadn't talked much. She didn't talk to Peter at all. James felt…normal, but Cressida didn't feel normal about him. Something was putting her off and she just can't yet put her finger on it.
Sick of sitting on the end of the bed, Cressida slips down off the mattress, pulling on snow boots. Never having gotten undressed from the day, the only other things she takes is the long black woollen coat, James' scarf, and her ice skates.
The bedroom door creaks open, soft footfalls tapping down the wooden floors and down the stairs. The entire house seems to be asleep, and not a single light is lit. Glancing around the house, Cressida pushes the front door open. She's fretfully underprepared herself for the blast of frigid air, but her determination is stronger. Shivering, she quickly makes do to tighten the coat around her front, moving quickly down the steps of the front veranda.
Her feet sink slightly in the fresh snow, but it is no more than a few inches. By the Potter's magic, the path leading towards the road stays untouched, a stable stone line for her to take. The property is unnerving at night-time without any lanterns lit. At least in the middle of winter where darkness lingers longer than the light.
Cressida strides down the path, the skates knocking against the side of her legs with each step. Just before she reaches midway, something tells her to look back. Listening to the voice, Cressida quickly glances over her shoulder. She watches the manor and the garden, but nothing seems out of the ordinary. Except for one curtain on the second floor that moves as though a brush of wind unsettles it.
Paying no heed since her friends have habits of being night-owls, Cressida turns back to the path, no hesitation found in her step.
The air in front of her mouth fogs, a soft hum keeping her throat warm. The eeriness becomes welcoming as her bravery grows. "Constant as the stars above…"
A distinct movement sounds from behind her. A footstep on the concrete path. In one quick motion, Cressida drops her skates, lifting her wand from the pocket of her jacket. Spinning around, a figure strides towards her. Their empty hands raise and Cressida lowers her wand slightly, wondering if a muggle somehow walked into the area. But the pondering is soon resolved, as glasses and iconic messy hair becomes a distinguishable silhouette.
"Don't go getting expelled on my account," they chuckle. "What are you going to do? Lumos maxima me?"
Cressida stuffs her wand back away, snatching her skates off the ground. "First of all, not funny. Second of all, I'd rather be expelled than die on a street alone by a stranger."
He saunters up to her, hands stuffing back inside the pockets of his heavy coat. "What are you doing out here?"
"Why are you following me?"
His head tips forward. "Because my friend just snuck out of the house alone in the middle of the night without telling anybody. I'm here to make sure she's alright." The rigidness in her shoulders loosen, and the squint in her eyes disappears. James notes the change, lifting his head back to a neutral position. He nods at her skates. "Couldn't wait till morning? We would have come with you."
Cressida shrugs, smiling softly down at her skates. "Couldn't sleep. Figured I'd wear myself out."
James nods nonchalantly, and his wand appears in his hand. "Accio skates." Cressida for half a second, grips her skates tighter, wondering if they'd fly into James' hands, but his attention is turned back to the house.
Accio. On the short list of acceptable and unrestricted spells.
In less than a minute, brown skates fly through the air and into James' awaiting hands. "I didn't say you could come," Cressida demurs with a slight tease. James' legs stride past her.
He looks back over his shoulder, not seeming to care if she is following or not. "I'm not coming with you," he declares. "I just have the urge to go skating. I'll see you there?"
Cressida stands in spot for a little longer. Long enough for James to face back the way he is going. She wonders if she decided to turn around and go back to bed if James would turn around as well. She supposes that the company wouldn't be all that terrible.
Her legs pump into a slow jog, shortening the distance between them and falling back into a walk once she reaches his side. "You annoy me," she decides aloud, "but thank you." James huffs in amusement, giving no verbal response to her observation. The walk to the lake is quiet but peaceful, if not a little colder than one would like. "James?"
Tilting her head upwards, she meets his inquisitive gaze. "Am I overbearing?" She didn't mean to ask him that. But the words came before her brain registered it. Cressida can't deny that the question was lingering somewhere in there though.
James frowns at the question, clearly not expecting it. "Overbearing?" he repeats. "No, that's not a word I'd use."
Rolling her tongue over her teeth, Cressida pauses before speaking. "That's what Sirius called me."
"Sirius currently has something in his socks," James drawls, sounding already too aware of the situation. "Don't take anything he says too personally." They reach the lake, wandering over to the bench so they could sit down and swap their shoes.
"Do you have any idea what it is?" she questions, pulling on a skate.
James shakes his head, bent over and tying up the laces. He sighs slowly, leaning back against the bench. Cressida finishes fitting her own skates, and glances up to see if he is waiting for her attention before answering any further, but she is met with an extended hand.
Grasping it, he leads them over to the frozen lake. It's even quieter than the day, and the sound of the blades on the ice is the only other thing she can hear besides their breathing.
They skate slowly around for a while, weaving around each other with their own paths. At some point, they join back up and talk about nonsense. "What Animagus do think you'll be."
James grins cockily. "A lion," he answers immediately.
Cressida laughs, twirling around the skate backwards in front of him. "A lion? You are very prideful. And you have a mane of hair." She slows her gliding slightly, matching his speed, gliding less than a meter in front of him. "But you're not ferocious enough."
"Stop ruining my hopes and dreams, Hawthorne," he growls teasingly.
Cressida rolls her tongue over her lips, smiling innocently. "Can't help myself." She spins back around, skating at her own speed once more with little care if James overtakes her. But he never does, staying shoulder to shoulder. "Aren't you tired?"
They look at each other. James smiles genuinely, then shakes his head. "No," he whispers. White light from the moon and stars reflects off his face, a small glisten of the same light being refracted off his glasses.
Cressida stares at him. Something feels strange about him. She had noticed the feeling early in the past few days and she was beginning to wonder if there was something subtle about him that was changing. But she realises now, like a blunt force of a stunning spell, that it isn't him that's changing.
So completely and utterly distracted, as her skate catches on an uneven chunk of ice, there's nothing stopping her from falling forwards. Pain flares in her elbows as they collide with the ice, soft cracks forming underneath.
Another pair of skates grind against the ice, coming to a sudden stop near her head. "You all good?" James kneels down, offering a helping hand as Cressida brushes ice shavings off her sleeves.
Nodding loosely, a tired laugh bubbles. "Yeah," she murmurs with a laugh. "Couldn't see well." Finally, tiredness crawls into her body. "We should go back." Taking his hand, they both clamber to their feet. Cressida doesn't let go of his hand, her fingers staying wrapped around his thumb. His arm stays extended and loose, his own fingers tightening as they step off the ice and onto the snow-covered grass.
Just as quietly as they came, the pair pack up their few belongings and meander back towards the manor. "I'll tell the others not to wake you early in the morning," he says.
Cressida coughs a chuckle. "I appreciate that."