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Chapter 9: Who Wears the Horns?
It only takes one girl to start a shakedown.
We're a society of followers, self-conscious down to the details, no matter how many be-yourselves and you're-beautiful-just-the way-you-ares you hear. If Miss Polly's Children's Hour has taught me anything, it's that moral lessons over the wireless are set-ups for a life of disappointment once kiddies realize those heartfelt lessons aren't actually society's rules. It'd be fine and dandy if everyone believed it, but we're born selfish. We don't seek improvement; we seek acceptance, which falls in line with our natural instinct to survive. Courtesy doesn't cut it, sugar.
Everyone goes through a bit of teenage peer pressure, some blatant, some not. It's the bits that aren't blatant that stick with you. Like when your bestie jokes about your funny smile, and she doesn't mean anything but now it's out in the open. You spend too long in front of a mirror twisting your mouth around like a contortionist, all because of a single sentence no one else thought twice about.
But then there are the extreme examples—and like anything extreme, they involve the Quirky girls.
As they walk down the hallways of Hogwarts, they may as well be wearing a sign that says 'LOVE ME' in big, bold desperate letters. Like 'Free Hugs', but you’d probably get crushed to death. They pack together senselessly like wildebeest, feeding each other sympathy and validation. They want princes and easy ways out. Reassurance that they're a special snowflake.
But then there is the one who taps into this mentality and corrals it as her own. The trick is to be a little more assertive than the herd. A little louder. A little luckier. Then she's got followers—and followers are strength. It only takes one girl agreeing to make you sound correct, but you'll need twice as many naysayers to discredit you—our funny flawed sense of credibility at work.
Ideas are powerful. When they catch, they spread. It's in our nature to get other people to believe what we believe. To reassure ourselves that we are correct and, more importantly, that we are not alone. We don't survive alone.
Everyone gets swept in. Listening, idolizing, forgetting how to think. With the crowd behind you, you've won.
You don't have to be like everyone else if everyone else wants to be like you.
The first shirt I see gives me a good laugh.
I just got the dish on the 'Puff prefects selling fairy dust under the table, and I'm heading back to the dungeons when this first year barrels down the other side of the hall. Her robes flap open, revealing the tee underneath and the scarlet letters emblazoned across the front: TEAM ROSE. Cute, if a bit weird.
Later, Demmie passes by, having snuck out of the kitchen with an armful of biscuits. She's sporting a similar shirt, but this one is painted with giant purple letters. TEAM DOM.
I remember Rose's warning. New developments in Hogwarts are hardly ever good, and if they are, they turn bad very quickly.
I mention these events to Dom in the morning as we get dressed.
"Honestly, even if the Scorpius thing isn't a big deal to you, people are getting caught up in it." I pull my arm through the sleeve of my blouse. "I think they're making team shirts."
"They're making shirts?!" Dom peers around my mirror with demonic glee, curls bobbing around her face.
She clears her throat when I don't respond with a similar excitement. "I mean, they're making shirts? Do they have lives?" She mumbles a bit before her delight breaks free again. "So what do they look like? Are mine posher than Rose's?”
I'm in the middle of rolling my eyes when Helen Nott bursts through our dorm's door, holding up a tee. "See for yourself!"
Dom practically prances all the way to her, manic thrill bursting out of every pore. "Bloody brilliant! Perfect font choice." Dom runs her hand over the gold embroidery. "I mean, I'd have kerned it a bit better but—no, I definitely love my followers."
"Your follow—" Oh Merlin, it's already beginning. "Dom, this is what a cult sounds like."
"My cult." She grins, doing a dance. "I mean, yeah, these girls are probably nuts, but look! They've made a shirt worshipping me! A shirt!"
She can't seem to emphasize the point enough. I don't know how I'd respond if it were a Team Clemence shirt in her hand instead (my name's too long to fit nicely anyhow), but Dom's reaction might be a sign that her big blonde head's growing too large to hold up.
I walk over and pull Dom away. "Don't encourage her, Helen."
Dom grumbles slightly, a huge smile smeared across her face. I finish buttoning my top, and she looks me up and down.
"You look nice. That thing is this morning, isn't it?" My thing with Albus, of course, but she minds her words, knowing Appy is in the loo.
Not that it helps. I don't even know where she came from, but Appy and her trail of glitter suddenly springs into the conversation like she apparated here. "You mean the Quirky Girls First Annual Bash of the Year?" she squeals, hanging off my shoulder. "You're going?"
I wince before I respond. I can't believe I actually have to lie about my answer. "Oh no, sorry, I have to contribute to society today. I won't be able to make it."
Her smile falters slightly, but not entirely. Probably can't process that much sarcasm at once. "It's all right. I'll have the minutes available afterwards, so you won't miss anything important. Well, except the fun!" One of her legs bends backward into a princess pose and I can practically hear a sparkle ding in the air.
My plastered smile aches until I'm able to escape the room. Outside of the dungeons, I head toward the north staircase, walking up the twenty thousand steps to get anywhere in Hogwarts.
I smooth my skirt with my fingers. So I might have saved my better pair of leggings to wear today—not that I want to impress Potter. I just expect him to try to impress me. If he wants to seduce me or whatever this date-or-not-date's for, he's going to dress for it. If I don't dress to match, Merlin forbid, we'd just look silly, won't we?
I wait at our meeting point, which is thankfully deserted. Dead silent, actually. During the age of The Hogwarts Weekly, I did a series on the extra-haunted areas of Hogwarts (since technically, the whole castle is haunted). This area was the reign of a rare pirate wizard, Captain Barlingby, affectionately named Barnacles the Barmy. No relation to the other Barmy. This one chopped off a lot of heads.
Potter amended the meet-up time and said he'd be here at half past, but he's got to be bloody late by now. The only clock nearby is a balcony sundial which is lots of help with three days of sun a year.
Something brushes my arm and I spin around, frowning.
A strong grip takes me around the shoulder and my stomach sinks, with my immediate thought being I am being kidnapped by a homicidal pirate. A hand presses over my mouth before I can yell. Fuck. There is actually a possibility that I am actually being kidnapped by a homicidal pirate. Can't I go out in a dangerous investigation or by the hand of a bitter ex-source? Even a death by falling printing press?
There's a rustle of fabric and my panic subsides long enough for me to recognize the familiarity of the touch. A split-second later, Potter is before me, inches away and grinning. "Morning." He releases his hand.
"Don't do that," I gasp, ready to shove him, but the tingle of fright slackens my muscles.
"What, thought I was Barmy?"
I'm still trying to catch my breath. "That's ridiculous. Ghosts... ghosts are cold."
"I'm sure you can relate."
With my cursory survey, I can tell Albus is wearing a nicer shirt than usual and it fits him very well. His mouth sports that touch of boredom I've come to associate with him. Above our heads is a transparent, shimmering shroud. So that's how he snuck up. "Invisibility cloak? Is that the—"
"Not the famous one. Not since James filched it last year."
Ah yes, James' spree around London with his mates. Nothing too illegal, but Buckingham Palace has never been quite the same since.
"Lils gave this to me for my birthday," Albus says, adjusting the cloak's length so it covers our feet. He beckons me to start walking. "Got a few silencing spells woven into the fabric, too. Not going in that hellish party without that on our side. It's made for one, but I think we fit fine."
That's when I notice how small it is, and there's really no proximity except too close. He's still grinning at my expense. A pirate ghost, Clemence. Really, you're losing it.
"I liked you better when you were bitter all the time," I mutter.
"I didn't know you liked me at all."
"I—ugh." It's too early in the morning for this. "Can we skip over the next ten back-and-forths where I clarify and you jab back and I give an even snappier reply and you don't have anything clever to say, so you just get in my face and smirk?"
He steps into my path, stopping us both, smirk already in place. "What, you don't enjoy the last part? Because it seems like you do."
"It's predictable and trite."
"Fair enough." The smirk does not waver. We resume walking.
It still bothers me that we are decidedly undefined as we dabble in light conversation. The murky middle ground of not-mates, not-lovers—but not-enemies either. We could almost look back and laugh—'Hey, remember that time we tried to ruin each other's lives?'
The party’s held in Ballroom A, not that it's difficult to miss the rainbow of balloons decorating the entrance. A banner is draped across the front, declaring in bright pink, F.A.B. for First Annual Bash. If I never see another acronym ever again, it’ll be too soon.
Albus and I slip in on time for the end of Appy's welcome speech.
"... then we'll be the honoring some special members. Without them, Q.G.A. would not be what it is today. Remember: quirky today, quirky for life! Now, enough of my talking. Time to mingle!"
There are maybe sixty or so girls in the audience, not including the staff setting up the refreshments. Unfortunately, it seems that the club has gotten more popular since I last paid attention to it, even when taking account of food-moochers. Albus and I walk along the edge of the room, minding our position.
I've got to give Appy credit. Not many can pull off a party this impressive and creepy at the same time. Everything's got a boy's face on it, from the napkins to the All-Star Quidditch plates to the floating-head balloons. Even the food is themed. There's a meatloaf that appears to be in the shape of Potter's head. Sean Blackbury's posing on a cake. Bicep lollies. Leave it to Q.G.A. to provide girls the opportunity to eat a torso off of the star Keeper's face and wipe their mouth with six different fitty blokes. How can that even feel hygienic?
Unsurprisingly, knowing Appy's bias, most of the decorations are of Potter, who currently looks ready to throw up.
"Just... why?" he asks to no one, but I don't like leaving rhetorical questions hanging.
"Don't you ever listen to Appy?" My voice rises an octave and I turn off the bulk of my brain cells. "Albus Potter is so perfect, bluebirds weep when he talks. His hair is the eighth wonder of the world." He scoffs, but I have to listen to her every night; I will give a dedicated performance. "He once saved a family and twelve kittens from a burning barn. Voldemort would— "
I shut up when a giggling group rushes past us toward the fortune-telling booth, nicking the edge of the cloak. My words stall. Death by fangirl—a worse fate than Barmy. When I glance up at Albus, he doesn't seem the least bit perturbed. How can he, with all his paranoia, trust something so flimsy?
"Really though, Potter," I mutter, "aren't you used to this by now?"
"Unfortunately." He glances around to all the images of him floating above the chairs. His arm slips around my waist, nudging me closer. The slight change in proximity is enough for the cloak to shield us from head to toe again. "I didn't ask to be famous."
"Children in Africa don't ask to be starving. Suck it up. Everyone is born into problems."
"Yeah? What's yours?" He glances down at me for the first time in awhile, eyes fixated.
"I'm an exception, of course."
His arm hasn't left its position. I'd point it out, but then I'd have to bring it out into the open. Even if I'm conscious what he's doing—I'll call it flirtatious sabotage—it's difficult to counter. He pays attention to the details—mussed his hair, doesn't pull me too close but just enough, and he knows I know.
I let my eavesdropping distract me. Albus has brought me to a zoo, each girl her own spectacle. A gaggle of younger Ravenclaws stream by, and one stops to show her napkin to her friend. She points at Brent's wrinkled face, now dotted with frosting and crumbs. "He going to marry me one day. He doesn't know it, but he will."
A whiny voice cries from the other direction. "Miles Wood?" Gryffindor's reserve chaser, Sandra, is shaking her head at one of the non-Albus balloons. "That fascist face does not deserve to be on here." Does she even know what fascist means?
Meanwhile, Albus palms a fortune cookie from the table and breaks it open. He mumbles the fortune to himself, snorting as he hands it to me. "Do they actually believe this?"
'Crushing on a taken guy? It's not cheating if you're his true love.’
I groan, crumpling the scrap of paper. It makes me sick to my stomach, worse than the smell emanating from the meatloaf. The whole idea of Q.G.A. would be cute if they actually gave sensible advice. A support group to hold a girl's hand as she goes through the minefield of hormones. Instead, they tell girls they're entitled to everything—these boys, happily ever afters. If can't get their fairy tale, it's not their fault, because they are—as Miss Polly's lessons say—beautiful just the way they are, so even the slightest bit of criticism becomes an attack. People become only good or bad: those who cheer for them and those who don't.
Albus whispers into my ear: "Don't you just want all this to... go away?" Of course, I'd love if everyone grew a brain, but from Albus' tone, I'd swear he means permanently—in the very most permanent sense of the term.
"Um Potter, I don't know if you've caught up on the latest rule book on socially acceptable behavior, but that was fairly creepy."
"I don't want to kill them—usually." He pauses, scanning the growing crowds around the food tables; someone just brought out the bendy straws. He leads us to the emptier back of the room. "I just don't want them assembling. Take them down with me."
The words drop from his mouth so casually that I almost don't catch the severity of it, but when I do, my heart thumps louder.
"You and I, we could figure something out." His hand grasps mine. It's warm, almost sticky. "We've both got influence. Appy here might have them hanging on her every word, but anything I'd say would win out. She taught them to idolize me, after all. I just need some backup."
I can feel Albus turn and look at me. I keep staring forward. Does he even know what he's saying? He talks so calmly about bringing down an empire. Did he—?
"You planned this from the beginning." I whisper. "You were baiting me for your side."
A derisive edge hones his laugh. "You still think the world revolves around you. Wake up. You aren't the plan. You got in my way."
My stomach sinks. I jerk my hand from him. "Why'd you plant the girlfriend story?"
"I planted it to get these girls off my back. At least some of them wouldn't go after a taken bloke." He shakes his head. "But then you blew it. Thankfully I can salvage something, and I'd appreciate your help. Certainly would repay things."
"I'll repay nothing. Don't blame me for your shit acting. And not being able to keep your hands off me."
"What, like this?" He turns me toward him with one hand on my waist. A respectable gap remains between us, but I swear there was more space underneath this cloak two minutes ago.
The crowd closes in. A group of girls nearby adds a few members, growing their circle. If they only knew what was going on five feet away. Albus follows my gaze and his hand slides up my back, pressing me closer. "If you don't want to be paranoid about being seen, you should stop scooting off."
"Do you actually fancy me?" I say, a little more frozen in place than I'd like. "Is that why you're enjoying this so much?"
His eyes seem to wink. "Very forward."
"Oh, stop stalling. Do you fancy me or not?"
"Why do you want to know? Do you care if I fancy you?"
"I don't believe in leaving things ambiguous."
"But you don't really want to know." The entrancing lilt of his smile moves a little closer. "Most people don't want to know because they're afraid of rejection. But you... you prefer the mystery." At the last syllable, I can feel his lips brush mine.
"Don't assume," I utter, barely audible. "It's lethal."
Appy's voice booms over the speakers, jolting me away. Humming from adrenaline, I nearly stumble, but Albus' grip holds me steady and keeps me under the cloak.
I squeeze my eyes shut and open them again. The first thing I see is Appy's laughing friends pushing her toward the podium.
"Now? Really?" Appy giggles, clutching her blushing cheeks. They gesture for her to go on. "Oh, all right. Well, before Cleo comes up to discuss V-Day D-Day, I have a very big personal announcement. I was going to save this for later, but eek I can't hold it in any longer." Her bashful grin hides behind the amplifying horn. "As you all know, I got to meet Fifi LaFolle last summer, and well, we made plans." With a flourish of her arms, she declares, "It's official now: I'll be publishing my debut novel next year!"
Raucous cheers and whistles flood the audience.
"Oh my god, that's brill!" squeals one of the twins standing in front of me.
"Is there anything she can't do?"
My mouth has gone dry. The world is spinning. Her? Apostrophe Hyphen Colon, the girl who belongs on daytime wireless with the other batshit frauds—she's getting published before I do? This is the girl whose laundry comes back sparkly.
"She's everything you hate, isn't she?" Albus' voice rumbles behind me. "And everyone fawns over her."
I swallow, shaking my head. No, Potter, don't think you understand. "They think she's right because she tells them what they want to hear."
"I told you. We could bring them down." There is something so tempting about his tone, how his words slither in my ear. "So, Clemence?"
We may have common goals, but—"I'm not your pawn."
"No, but you are under my cloak."
My heart constricts. He slides in front of me, one hand by his side, the other gripping the cloak at its apex with a terrifying calmness. He's maneuvered to the winning position.
"You know what will happen if the girls see you here with me. They'll get ideas. I don't think you'd like those ideas. If you help me, maybe it doesn't have to end this way."
His fingers curl tighter around the shimmering fabric. "Try me."
"They'll sooner go after you before me." My throat is too dry to utter anything above a hoarse whisper.
"Really? Are you so certain about that?"
He's bluffing. He wouldn't.
"Positive," I breathe.
I hear it before I see it, like the crack of a whip. His green eyes glimmer, so sure, too sure.
And like that, the cloak goes down.
A/N I TOTALLY GOT THIS OUT A WEEK BEFORE I THOUGHT I WOULD :D
Ahem. I did promise Twilight-levels of frenzy for the Rose-Dom feud. Also, the long-awaited "date" is here at last. Once again, Mr. Cliffhanger is stepping in and Albus is curling his dastardly evil mustache.
Thank you to the lovely soliloquy for looking this over before I posted. I totally missed a word and it said "We could bring them", and she asked me, "Bring them what? Cake?" That would've been a lovely climax: "I told you. We could bring them cake," Albus says in his best Tom Riddle voice. Also Gubby for filling in all my missing words and grammar derps.
Thoughts? Pitchforks? Cake? ♥ reviews are lovely.
p.s. etc. hits its first year anniversary soon!