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Chapter 14: Lesser of Two Evils
I'm not afraid of my reckoning, the day the mob comes and beats down the doors and demand justice for what I do, and I won't dull what I do with excuses. There's nothing nice or honorable about Witchy Business, even if I have rules about it.
But there is one thing—just one thing when I picked up that paper with its bloody pink word—
Not as stifling as fear, but I felt it: a solid lump, leeching from the thing in my chest known as my heart. Instead of beating, it puckered, shirked, and shriveled.
Odd thing is, I've felt it a few times before and not in any notable moments, either. I'd be sitting in the library taking notes about pre-eighteenth century centaur laws when suddenly, mid-sentence, I'm suffocating as I breathe, and what little air makes it into my lungs turns sweet and sticky.
Felicity saw me once, at the end of it, when I was keeping my shoulders steady so no one would notice the girl gasping by the reference section. She very quietly asked me if I had a panic attack, and perhaps that was it, but what did I have to panic about? Centaur tribes being pushed out of Dutch forests?
She said I ought to get it checked, but I knew I wasn't sickly. It was... I didn't know what it was. That seized me most: that I'm a single bag of bones, of finite volume and countable parts, and yet there are things that I don't know about myself, even after sixteen years.
When the unknown can hold any conceivable thing under the stars, let alone inconceivable, there's so much to fear.
Grey carpets my finger as I, nose wrinkled, wipe a line of dust off the newsroom table. The castle sheds, I swear it; I just cleaned this yesterday.
Bored but mostly bitter—I like my mornings like I like my tea—I doodle in a flesh-eating flytrap. At some point, Albus walks through the door, puffy-eyed and too tired to form much of an expression or maybe he just likes his mornings bitter, too. Still, he's impeccably dressed for the day. His starched white shirt is buttoned up to the top, crisp except where his damp hair meets his wilting collar, and his black robes hang over the crook of his arm without wrinkle.
"You're late," I mutter, adding four struggling limbs and a plethora of sparkles beneath the plant's mouth.
"Had to drop something off at Professor Longbottom's." His voice floats closer, and I hear the thunk of his satchel on the chair across from me.
"Did his pitcher plants seem peckish today?"
"Didn't see, why?"
I rub out the drawing when he leans over. "No reason."
His tie dangles before me, shiny and new, and I remember that his old one was lost to some girl with extra-long arms in the mob. Merlin knows where it is now; it's probably traded hands ten times, like most stolen boy-toy trinkets. The Q.G.A. have got a black market of them: locks of hair, chewed quills, used tissue, et cetera. It's as if they want to maintain their creepy reputation. That's the freaky bit about Quirkers; they haven't got qualms about anything.
And now at least one of them is after me.
"So Potter, let's get this over with." Linking my arms behind my head, I stretch back, throwing both feet onto the table. "What's your grand plan for taking down the Q.G.A.?"
"Getting right to the point?" His lips ease out of their rigid straightness.
"I don't see why not."
"Have it your way. Just thought you preferred—"
"Snogging on ol' Bessie?" I finish without missing a beat. I tap on her with my foot and the hollow wood responds. "Well, if we'll end up doing that anyway, might as well get it over with now."
He shrugs, circling the table. "Have it your way."
"Oi." But even when I shoot him a pointed glare, he doesn't stop; no, I'd say there's even a bit of an eager swagger to his steps. "Oi, sarcasm. Oi." I snap my fingers, and in my haste to get up, I tangle my legs with the chair's and nearly fall over.
I hear his laugh before I see It. Ugh, I was hoping his—what do I even call it? Eccentrically roguish side?—wouldn't show first thing in the morning.
"Right. What was it that you wanted?" he asks.
"Your master plan." I wipe my hair from my face.
"Ah. Could've just said so." Albus returns to his satchel with the same strut and takes a rolled parchment sticking out from the open flap.
As he starts making his way back to me, my raised wand stops him. "You stay on the other side. Five foot rule."
"Test it out. You can snog my Slug-Vomit Charm."
The lines at the corner of his mouth crinkle and relax, as if trying not to laugh again. "All right." Albus unscrolls the parchment where he stands. "Irresistible for a five-foot radius. Never knew that about myself."
I ought to tell him to piss off again, but I bite my tongue. What's a little pride? I have too much, anyway. All I want are the ends—this surreptitious whispering about the Q.G.A. incident shut up and gone, and me and my paper on our merry way to last week's status quo. With Dom wrapped up in her own scandal-war and Pickett chasing after her, Albus is better than nothing. I'd rather not drag Janey into this; she's a good kid. Someone needs to leave Hogwarts without falling victim to their own creations.
Tucking my wand away, I keep one hand above my pocket as I edge toward the scribbles of writing. My eyes widen. "My god, Potter. You actually planned something out. I figured you were just going to wing something."
"Do I look like someone who wings things?"
"No. I'm still not sure if you fabricated this yourself to get in my pants."
He snorts and hides something like a smile—a complete affirmation in my book—and then slides the parchment over, scraping dust in its wake. "You flatter yourself."
"And you can't keep your hands off of me," I reply coolly. Picking it up, I scan the document. It's one long list. Will Lockhart, Sean Blackbury, Danny Bletchley... "These are just names." Quidditch players, to be precise.
"Potentially useful allies. We'll need as many as we can get. You'll see."
The hairs on my neck bristle the two times Albus says 'we', and again as he suddenly appears behind my shoulder. My hand twitches for my wand; I can't decide whether I was kidding.
"Q.G.A.'s internal affairs are a mess," he says, plucking the parchment from me. "You've got multiple girls going after the same blokes and it's may the best girl win. There's rampant jealousy, leading to sabotage, wars like Rose and Dom's"—I note the distinct casualness when he says their names, completely unsurprised by his family's affairs—"slander, poisonings, and things that could send a person to Azkaban. There's not much loyalty is my point. I've got sources who say—"
I laugh automatically. "Sources? What do your sources know that I don't already?"
"There are plenty of people who want nothing to do with you." Albus rests against the table, one leg half-crossed over the other, and meets my sidelong glance. "You know far less about this school than you think."
It's the bold way he says it that quiets me, as if he can see past the jabs that bounce off like rubber to the few that stick.
Like he's searching for my weak spot.
He rocks to his feet. "You're afraid, aren't you?"
I chuckle, drawing my wand at last and pressing it into his chest. "Still haven't learned that playing therapist never works?"
He grabs the tip but holds it in place. "You are afraid. I know what you're like when you're confident, and this isn't it. You can see your ruin on the horizon."
The flash of my downfall is the same every time I imagine it: me in the headlines in my very own scandal, discredited and shamed, and it's never felt as close as it does now. I blink it away before the details can fill in. "I'm accustomed to a certain level of influence in this school; I'd like to keep it." My lips curve. And so we've begun the dance. "I'm very simple, Potter. I've got loyalties to nothing, no sentiments to speak of. Nothing to lose."
"Then what do you live for?"
"I live for living's sake," I say—or rather, brag. "What'd you expect me to answer? My paper? My friends?" I tilt my head to the side, where I find his hand waiting. His accusation has softened into curiosity, and he cups my cheek, not to draw me near, but to hold me in place and study me like a delicate exhibit. "My paper's rubbish. That's right: rubbish. A stepping stone for the real world, and I'll forget once I accept my first job. I don't need it. It's just useful, like for how I'm going to save your best friend from an idiot relationship war. Thankless task. And friends—they come and go. I adore Dom, but if she takes that study in France after Hogwarts like she wants to, I know there's a high chance that we'll just... drift over those years. I'll find new friends and so will she. Sad but it happens every day. Happens to everyone."
It sounds crueler than I thought it would, but it's the only way to prove it to him. And it's a fact I'll have to face eventually.
I twist my wand, right where his heart is, before lowering it. "So can you see me, at last? You can throw me in the cold, with nothing but my name, and I'll build myself up again, no regrets. It's a blank slate out there."
His hand has dropped as well, his expression clouded. He doesn't know what to think, poor boy. Maybe I've finally knocked him on the head too hard.
But finally, Albus speaks.
And he smiles.
"Hmm. Unsurprised," Albus quips the same as one would say, 'Two scoops, please, hold the syrup.' Then he turns away, as if our up-close confrontation never occurred.
My face falls—splat. That's it?
"Now, about our plans—"
That's not how this goes! "Potter!"
"Yes, buttercup?" He grins over his shoulder.
Eyes narrowed, I don't know what to reprimand him of first. Is he—is he laughing at me? An eloquent breakdown of how I've beaten life's game and he laughs? Has he gone mad?
"Well, at least tell me why you're fucking unsurprised?" I ask, red splotching my cheeks.
"I expected what you said. Thus, lack of surprise. I can hold your hand and explain again. About the plans—"
"But aren't you going to—I don't know—criticize me?" I circle to the other side of him as he picks up his satchel. "Tell me that I should get a heart, find a purpose, hug a puppy?"
"You said it's not wise to play therapist."
"When do you actually listen to me?"
"Right now." His eyes gleam, puffy as they are. "Frustrating, isn't it?"
While he shakes his bag around, rummaging for god knows what, I'm an ounce of dignity away from stammering. We have an understanding. Unspoken, but an understanding nonetheless. He'll always disagree with me and vice-versa, and we want—no, need—to change the other. That's the crux of our interaction. He can't not argue back. It's throws the world off-balance. It throws me off-balance.
Albus pulls... nothing from his bag. That is, until I see his hand shimmer and then his whole body vanish. His head appears, followed by an arm held out like a wing. "Five-foot rule's not going to work here."
Ugh. Making a face, I duck under the cloak, cramped as ever, and his arm lounges over my shoulders. "Where are we going?"
He shrugs as we leave the dusty room. "It was stuffy in there. Wanted to walk."
It's not even that my mouth can't form words right now. My brain can't even think of the words for my mouth to form. He's doing this immature mind-game on purpose to make me flustered, and he could have the decency to gloat so I can prove it.
But at least when we take to the hallways, we get to business.
"So my sources"—he draws out the word—"think there's been discontent going around. Members are getting tired of Appy. With her focusing on her book, they're not sure if she's committed enough to the club."
We slide between the traffic. The number of early risers is barely enough to muffle an extra presence and as much as I try to wriggle free from him, it isn't worth the risk of the cloak falling off, so I give in. I'll be civil—barely. "Appy founded it." I accidentally step on his foot. Twice.
His only tightens his hold and rolls his eyes. "You know they don't care. Quirkers just want their blokes, and she hasn't been delivering."
"But she never has." Before he guides me up the stairs, I catch sight of Harriet by the loos, threatening our Team Rose shirt-wearing Seeker with her beater's bat. I wonder if Dom's up yet.
"They're a bit slow on the uptake. We can take advantage of it."
"I guess," I mutter.
The reality of our collaboration has to be jammed into my brain with a chisel and hammer. Potter is bearable. Smart enough and not a complete bore, and he's got many other... irrelevant talents. But if I have to describe this, it's like I'm working with an ex. Not exactly the most thrilling prospect.
Intimacy makes no sense, really. It's not as if we were together. He stuck his tongue down my throat, and it wasn't even amazing. Though my memories seem to disagree, because they like to remind me of it all the time.
And he is thankfully unaware. "Appy's the problem," Albus says. He glances over his shoulder when we hear squeals. A comically large cake makes its way down a perpendicular hallway; it's just someone's birthday. "Without her, boom goes the club."
"And once she's gone, then what? Appy isn't the problem. Quirkers are followers; they'll rally around the next person who sounds remotely credible and the whole cycle starts again. Idiots following different idiots."
"Already thought of that. We'll have our own replacement. That's what the list is for."
I wrinkle my nose, remembering the Quidditch players. "Them? Sean and Danny—"
"No, god no. The new leader needs their brain cells in tact. The names on the list are just willing volunteers to... help."
We enter quieter halls, where we have to mind our footsteps. No morning classes are held here, and the only occupied room seems to be Professor Flitwick's office, where I hear the crackle of the wireless alongside rapid swishing. 'I whip my beard back and forth, I whip my beard back and forth...'
Albus stops before a classroom, unremarkable until we enter and I see the chalk writing. Half-erased advice litter the board, and one list titled 'The Perfect Personality' remains in its whole with traits like 'stubborn' and 'awkward' checked off. The Q.G.A. meeting was here last night.
"You see, we'll be beating Appy on her own turf." Albus flicks his wand, and a rag begins wiping the board clean. "She can't produce results, but we can. At least, make it look like we can. What better way to get rid of Appy than to siphon her followers to someone new? Someone who promises the same support group Appy does, but more importantly, will deliver on the fairy tale ending a hundred percent of the time?"
For the first time this morning, I'm actually listening. "Potter, are you saying..."
"I've got leverage with the Quidditch lot and a few others. They're willing to bear with a few fake dates with the crazies. As far as the girls will be concerned, they've earned these dates themselves, by using their soon-to-be-leader's good advice."
He's not plotting Q.G.A.'s fall. He's plotting its takeover.
"And once they're in our hands, there's a million ways to go from there," I say slowly, smiling despite myself. "Re-education, stuff some sense back into them. Even if they're crazy until the end of days, at least we'll have them under control." I shake my head; meddling's for twats, but this is extraordinarily despicable. "Quite a Slytherin cunning you've got there, Potter."
"Chivalry can't win every battle." Albus smirks. "You love it."
I decline to comment. Instead, I ask, "So what am I supposed to be doing in all this?"
I really ought to have figured it out earlier, but I know it as soon as the spark lights his eyes.
"You," he chuckles, as the rag erases Appy's name from the board, "are the replacement."
'I whip my beard' is derived from 'Whip My Hair' by Willow Smith
A/N This is actually a half-update, though I sort of ended up padding this chapter enough to let it stand on its own. I took a bit of a break from writing to do fun summer things and I'm only just getting back to it now, and I feel all rusty D:
The next chapter connects a lot with stuff brought up in this one, if it goes as planned. Which it never does, but, well. Clemence's fears will crop up again; that was the overarching theme. It's been pretty fun getting into the bits she's uncomfortable with. Unreliable narrator fun! Everyone will make an appearance, Rose and Scorpius, too. And egads, twirly-mustache Albus' plans! What shall they spiral into~
Thank you for reading! Thoughts/wild mass speculation would be much appreciated ♥