Thad had everyone up at the crack of dawn the following Saturday to practice again. Arthur stumbled out of bed when Thad shook him awake, pulled on his robes, and was halfway down the staircase before realizing he'd forgotten his glasses.
“I gave you all a rest this week, but from now on, we're going to take our training programme seriously,” Thad told them as the team gathered, bleary-eyed, and shuffled into their uniforms in the changing room.
“What are you talking about, Thad?” Julian said around a yawn.
“Last year we lost heavily, even though we had decent players. It was the training schedule. Teague didn't work us hard enough,” Thad said aggressively. “This year we're going to train harder, and we're going to train more often.”
“Great,” Julian muttered, strapping on some of his padding. “Sounds bloody marvelous.”
Arthur hadn't been on the team last year and thus had no idea how Icarus Teague's training had been, but he had watched the team lose last year, so he was game to try Thad's methods. If it helped them win, it would be worth it. Still, it was very early in the morning.
Thad was pacing across the locker room while everyone else dragged their feet getting ready. Atalanta was trying to put her hair in a ponytail but seemed to still be half-asleep, and Njemile and Francine both looked puffy-eyed. The new Keeper, Grant Swyndlehurst, was sitting on a bench, staring up at a corner of the ceiling. Arthur heard the boy's stomach rumble, and thought he might suggest to Thad that if he was going to have the whole team up this early every weekend, he ought to get the house-elves to bring some breakfast for everyone. Arthur wouldn't mind some tea right about now. He wished he'd gone to bed earlier last night.
Thad spent the next twenty minutes lecturing everyone on how to keep themselves in shape, mentally and physically, for the year's Quidditch programme. Arthur was amazed when Thad passed around copies of the training schedule and saw he had them down for at least three days a week, every week until their first game, which wasn't until November.
“He's really serious about this, isn't he?” he muttered to Francine, who grimaced.
Julian stared at his schedule in disgust. “I never should have told him how often my dad made the Kestrels practice.”
“Thad, you do know we've all still got homework, don't you?” Francine said loudly, interrupting a monologue from Thad about the previous year's failures. “You and Arthur have N.E.W.T.s this year, and Njemile and Julian have O.W.L.s. You're going to need loads of study time.”
Thad waved that aside. “It's only until the first game. Once we've beaten Slytherin, we can ease up a little. Maybe only twice a week. There'll be plenty of time for studying.”
“This isn't a professional-level team,” Julian protested, but they were all overridden by Thad.
“He's out of his mind,” murmured Francine as Thad sent them out to the pitch to start flying drills.
Arthur chuckled, his broom slung over his shoulders.
Molly didn't turn up at practice that morning, for which he could hardly blame her, as it was ridiculously early, though he thought she might have come out to catch the end of it after breakfast. Now that he'd seen the training schedule, he knew she wasn't going to attend every practice anyway. She took her studies seriously. In fact, she was likely to shout at him, or possibly Thad, for the amount of training that the Gryffindor team was planning to do.
They finished practice in time to catch the end of breakfast. The Great Hall was nearly empty, and neither Molly nor any of her friends were at the table, so Arthur ate quickly and then returned to Gryffindor tower.
Molly was sitting on the sofa in front of the fire, flanked by Hattie and Cecilia, all three of them with their Arithmancy textbooks open, passing sheets of parchment between them. They seemed to be comparing notes. Siobhan was stretched out on the floor at their feet, scribbling at a lengthy essay next to a pile of books about dragons, and Petula sat sideways on a chair next to the fire, her legs dangling over one arm of the chair, her Muggle Studies book open on her lap.
“Good morning, Molly,” he said, and they all looked up at him. It was rather intimidating being the focus of so many female gazes.
“Oh hello,” she said, her voice strangely airy. “How was practice?”
“It was all right. I thought you said you were coming?”
“I'm sorry, Arthur, I was just too busy,” she said, though she didn't sound particularly sorry.
Hattie got a rather shifty look at these words, and Cecilia glanced at Molly askance before returning to her notes. Petula was watching Arthur with a small frown, as if waiting for him to do something of which she would disapprove. Siobhan rolled her eyes at him and went back to her essay.
Arthur wondered what was going on. “Well, I'll go... get cleaned up, then...” he said, hoping she'd tell him to stay.
“That's a good idea,” Molly said, shuffling through her notes again.
Arthur stood there for a moment longer while they all went back to their work, not looking at him, then he retreated to his dormitory, still wondering what he'd missed.
Three weeks in to Thad's gruelling Quidditch training schedule, Arthur found himself completely overwhelmed. He'd gotten his first Poor of the year, on a Transfiguration essay that he had done while eating breakfast. While the mark wasn't entirely surprising because of this, the extra homework Professor McGonagall had given him did not help his already overloaded schedule. It had the added unpleasant effect of making Molly get rather huffy.
“Is that because you spend all your time on Quidditch and aren't studying enough?” she asked accusingly, pointing at the red P on his essay as he tried to hide it in his knapsack.
“No,” he assured her, though it probably was.
Molly wasn't appeased by this, and as the end of October approached, she started acting very snippy whenever she caught sight of one of the Gryffindor Quidditch players. Her behaviour did not go unnoticed by the team. Thad, who had always got on quite well with Molly, did not seem to understand why she wouldn't talk to him now, though most of her ire seemed focused on the team's other two Chasers, Njemile and Francine.
“I think Molly hates me,” Francine told Arthur at the next practice.
“Don't be silly, of course she doesn't.” Arthur actually couldn't think of Molly ever mentioning Francine one way or the other, but he couldn't imagine why anyone would hate the girl. She'd made him feel quite welcome as a new addition to the team.
Five of the players on the team had been together last year, and Arthur felt rather as though he was the last to arrive at a really good party, where everyone already had in-jokes and reminisced about things he hadn't been present for. Grant must be feeling something similar, but Arthur had not spoken much to him. Grant didn't seem to speak much to anyone, and turned rather red when anyone tried to speak to him.
Francine was the one Arthur knew best on the team, aside from Thad. Thad was in full captaining mode and might as well not have been his friend at all for all the good his presence did, so Arthur found himself gravitating toward Francine as he struggled to find his place on the team. He had never had a little sister before, and was starting to think of Francine as one. She rather reminded him of his brother Bilius, but he'd been around Molly and her friends long enough now to know that this was not an observation he ought to share with Francine, even though he meant it in a good way. Francine's commentary during and after practices was hilarious. She had a very dry sense of humour and always made Arthur laugh with her gentle mockery of the team's performance.
“At least we're better than last year,” she would say at the end of every practice, making him laugh again.
Atalanta wasn't friendly to Arthur, but then, she wasn't particularly friendly to anyone. Njemile was rather shy, and Arthur thought he had embarrassed her with his quizzing about her Muggle family members. Njemile was from Sierra Leone originally, and it was a whole other world from the British Muggles he'd learned about in Muggle Studies. Sometimes Njemile wore a cloth headwrap over her short, tight curls while she was flying, and Arthur had to make himself stop staring at it. He could not figure out how she got the brightly-coloured fabric to stay in a knot at the nape of her neck the way she did. She didn't even use magic to do it.
Grant was still very quiet even after a month of playing together, and Arthur had not decided whether the boy was shy or simply too thick to string a sentence together. He was a damn good Keeper, though, nearly as good as Icarus had been. Julian didn't talk to Arthur very often. He was cocky and self-absorbed, and rather reminded Arthur of Reid Akins. Arthur thought it must be because Julian's father was a professional Quidditch player.
They spent the next practice working on various drills of Thad's devising, until Arthur thought his fingers were going numb from the cold and the repeated thudding of the Quaffle against them as he caught the ball. He gratefully hovered in midair as Njemile took the Quaffle and soared toward the goalposts, wiping his brow as he watched Grant block Njemile's shot.
Thad released the Snitch to give Atalanta a workout, and she made a particularly spectacular catch, hanging upside down on her broom with one leg wrapped around the polished handle, her long blonde ponytail hanging straight down as she reached one-handed for the Snitch.
There was a ragged cheer from the stands, whether for the catch or for how pretty Atalanta looked making it, and Arthur turned quickly, scanning their small audience for Molly. There was no red hair among the spectators.
“I see the usual armchair crew is back this year.” Thad was hovering nearby on his Cleansweep, looking down at the stands. “At least this year they're cheering instead of booing.” He took off again toward the goalposts.
“Is that Roddy Feltham?” Francine asked, pulling her broom alongside Arthur's.
Arthur squinted a bit into the bright morning sunlight. “Yes, that's him. He came all last year too, I remember Cecilia Fletcher shouting at him for insulting Icarus's goalkeeping ability.”
“You're friends with him, aren't you?” There was an odd note in Francine's voice.
“Yeah, I am.”
Francine looked a little pink, but before she could comment further, Thad blew his whistle and they went back to practice.
Molly's birthday was the following week, so they had planned a small celebration for the preceding Hogsmeade weekend. Arthur felt rather guilty that he couldn't put on a big party for her, as he had last year, but he simply didn't have time. He really ought to be back in the common room writing an essay for History of Magic as it was, but he wanted to spend the day with Molly.
She didn't seem terribly happy to be turning eighteen, or to be going to Hogsmeade, but her fingers entwined firmly with his as they set off into the village. Arthur thought this was a positive sign.
The day was dreary, with an overcast sky and a cold wind that smelled of snow. The clouds hung low in the sky, and Arthur thought it might rain before the afternoon was over. He led the way straight to the pub, where it was warm and cosy.
They got butterbeers in the Three Broomsticks and sat at a table in the corner, talking about the week's classes. Arthur carefully avoided mentioning Quidditch to her, since it had been making her so prickly lately, but shortly after they sat down, Njemile passed them and waved to Arthur. He waved back, and Molly's expression tightened a bit.
The Prewett twins came into the pub, glanced around, caught sight of their sister and, pointing to her and speaking to each other in whispers, quickly left the pub. Molly frowned at this, and Arthur tried to distract her. Whatever the twins were doing, it was probably best if neither he nor Molly knew anything about it. He cast about for a topic to get her mind off her brothers.
“Is Hattie still upset about her mother?”
He wanted to kick himself after he said it, since his remarks on this subject the last time it had come up had not gotten him in Molly's good books.
She was picking at the label of her butterbeer. “Yes. She really misses her mum, they haven't been writing each other as much as they normally do. So I think she'll get past it. I don't know that they'll be as close as they were, but I think that would have happened no matter whom her mother was with.”
“Yes,” Arthur agreed, feeling that that was probably a safe thing to say.
Molly didn't say anything more, and Arthur sat next to her in silence, wondering what was wrong with the day. It was almost as if he was in a dark room, feeling his way toward the door. Surely there was an exit from whatever had Molly in such a funk lately. He'd never seen her bottle up her feelings this way and was sure something terrible was going to happen if she kept it up. Normally when something had upset her, she shouted about it. The fit of sullens she'd been having was very odd.
Francine came in, and Arthur saw her go to the bar for a butterbeer. Molly looked up and followed his glance, and immediately scooted closer to him. As Francine approached them, Molly put her hand on his knee.
Feeling rather nonplussed, Arthur waved to Francine a little vaguely.
“All right there, Arthur?” Francine said, then gave Molly a tentative smile. “Hello, Molly.”
“Hello,” Molly said in a brittle voice, her hand still on Arthur's knee.
Francine looked a little frightened, and left with another wave. Molly's warm hand resting on his knee was starting to distract Arthur, and he forgot to wave back to Francine. He leaned in toward Molly, hoping she would let him kiss her but not really expecting it.
To his surprise, she kissed him back with vigour. He nearly forgot where they were, but after a moment she pulled away and went back to picking at her butterbeer label.
Completely lost now as to what was going on, Arthur downed the last of his butterbeer and decided to give up on the clearly unsuccessful Hogsmeade trip. “Shall we go back to the common room?”
“I suppose.” Molly left her half-finished bottle on the table and followed him out of the pub.
He held his cloak around her as they walked back to the castle, keeping the wind off her, and she put her arm around his waist. He had to shorten his steps to keep pace with her, but at least she was close to him. She wasn't saying anything, however, and was staring at the ground as they walked.
They turned down a corridor to head toward the main staircases, and Arthur caught a snatch of someone's conversation as they passed a trick wall, a voice drawling, “Yes, well, my father says Muggles are just a sort of animal, really...”
Arthur felt a jolt of rage at that, but Molly did not appear to have heard it, and he had to force himself to keep walking with her and not tear through the trick wall and shake some sense into whomever had said that. That was exactly the sort of nonsense that had caused wizards like the Black family to try to pass laws that legalized hunting Muggles. It was disgusting.
He dwelt unpleasantly on Muggle prejudices as they climbed the stairs behind a small girl who must have been a first-year, she was so small, and spent a few moments wondering how he could convince Hattie that it was all right – no, good – for her mother to be romantically involved with a Muggle. Hattie wasn't a bad person, so he decided she just didn't know enough about Muggles to understand them. Maybe after she'd spent more time around them, Hattie would change her mind.
The first-year in front of them suddenly tripped, one foot gone straight through the marble staircase. Molly's face darkened, and she rushed forward to help the girl pull her foot out of the damaged stair.
Last year, he'd helped the Prewett brothers set off some fireworks that had caused apparently irreparable damage to this particular step, and though prefects had been warning the new students about the 'trick step', there had still been quite a few who forgot and got stuck. Arthur carefully avoided mentioning any of this to Molly, who had been absolutely enraged by the incident at the time, but it was clearly on her mind as they continued to the common room. She did not take his hand again as they walked, and Arthur sighed.
The day was not going well.
Molly still looked annoyed by the time they reached the common room, and went to her room to get her knitting. He wasn't sure what had put her in this foul mood to begin with, but clearly something had done so. Whatever it was, he hoped she would get past it soon, or shout at someone to relieve her feelings so she could stop being angry.
She sat down on the sofa with the ball of yarn in her lap, and the next thing Arthur knew the needles were clacking away of their own accord while Molly watched them, staring intently at the flashing wooden needles.
“What are you making?” he asked, watching as the needles started making a pattern of complicated cables.
“A scarf,” she said shortly.
“Oh.” He wondered if it was for him. The yarn was a very nice dark red, a Gryffindor sort of red. Molly didn't normally wear that colour, so he didn't think she was knitting it for herself. Most of what she made was given away, to her friends, her brothers and to him. “You're very good at that,” he added, hoping to cheer her up.
“Thank you,” she said, though somewhat bad-temperedly. “At least I can do something that pleases you.”
He'd been feeling the same way about her lately, but he'd no idea what she was talking about. Her tone of voice was giving him a very bad feeling though. “What do you mean?” he asked warily. “You do plenty of things very well, what are you on about?”
“I know some of your friends are very sporty,” she said with a fierce scowl, staring at the knitting needles. “I've never claimed to be interested in sports, I've never cared for Quidditch-”
“I know that,” he said, and his interruption seemed to set her off, because she threw her knitting aside, letting it land in a heap, the ball of yarn rolling across the room unheeded. The needles gave a half-hearted twitch and then fell unmoving to the floor.
“Oh you know that! He knows that! Pardon me for telling you something you already know-”
Arthur just gaped at her as her voice went up an octave and a few decibels. People were starting to look over at them, wondering what was going on.
“Just because I don't know anything about Quidditch!” Molly shouted.
“You could learn,” he suggested, feeling completely lost in the new course of the conversation.
This seemed only to incense her further. “Why the bloody hell should I? I came out to watch you play because I love you, you idiot, I don't need to learn what the devil you're doing as well! You ought to love me as I am and not try to make me into someone else-”
She went on in this vein for some time while Arthur stared at her, perplexed, and other students shot furtive glances at them. He did not understand how they had gone from a compliment about her knitting to being shouted at about not loving her properly. And she'd never sworn in front of him before, either; she must be really upset. For the life of him, he had no idea why. Sometimes he knew just what she was thinking, and other times she mystified him with the train of thought she was following.
She was still shouting, and he snapped back to attention, suddenly realizing what she was saying.
“And another thing, Arthur Weasley, if your marks don't improve, I won't be coming to any more bloody practices, either, or your matches!” She bent down and snatched up her knitting needles, then waved them threateningly under his nose without seeming to notice what she was doing. “You're going to fail all your N.E.W.T.s if you keep up like this, and then what will become of us, tell me that! You never think ahead!”
And with this, she stomped up to her dormitory, leaving Arthur utterly flabbergasted in her wake. A few students were tittering softly in the sudden silence. Gideon and Fabian Prewett seemed to appear out of the woodwork, and sat down on either side of him on the sofa.
Gideon clapped a hand to his shoulder. Arthur glanced at each of them, completely speechless and hoping for one of the twins' occasional brilliant insights into their sister's psyche.
“Women, eh?” Fabian said wisely.
A/N: Sorry for the delay, I just couldn't seem to get this chapter finished. Still not sure I'm completely happy with it.
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