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Chapter 15: The Casualties of War
Think it over. That's what he leaves me with.
Albus said the same thing when he proposed that we shag when we're bored. Same tone, too, like he thinks I'm going to give in eventually because he and his little ideas are too irresistible.
This isn't fun and Quidditch games or off-duty shags; we're taking down an empire.
Quirky Girls Anon may be a ticking time bomb of bona-fide nutters but it's lasted this long; replacing Miss Colon will be no small task. If the only thing a fool knows how to do is keep their power, then they're dangerous enough. Butchers and city-burners have ruled Rome before.
The thing about power is that it's easier to keep the longer you have it. You have time to indoctrinate your subjects, unwind the spools that will secure your kingdom. That little thing people call networking is nothing but a mess of strings, tied to devoted wrists and across hallways to trip and trap. They are your eyes, your ears, and your muscle.
Appy has her web and I have mine. For me to take over, I have to snip her lines and tie them to my own, and when the strings are already so tangled, it'll only take one mistake to drag us both down.
And wouldn't Albus love it if he could kill two birds on one throne?
Albus wants me to wait before deciding. Probably not too keen at the 'No' I screeched after he dished the plans. There's Saturday to deliberate, Sunday to mind my classwork and gossip dealings, and come Monday, after distribution, a verdict.
I deliberate for about half a second, which leaves a peaceful Saturday. Sunday, on the other hand, is one of those days where people suddenly remember everything they want me to do, and then tell me all at once.
Nudged awake, I rub my eyes. "Dom, it's like seven A.M. why are oh fucking hell—!"
Appy's got her grin and a pair of scissors an inch from my face. "Morning, Clemence!" Judging from the weight on top, she's not just by my bedside; she's sitting on me.
"Dom?" I call hoarsely as my terrified reflection on the metal blades near. "Harriet? Helen? Potter?"
Appy carelessly snips at the air. Blonde strands of hair fall on my bedding. "No, silly, it's just you and me. I checked the wardrobes for Albus too, just in case," she whispers, conspirator to conspirator. "Silly boys like to sneak in."
I've woken up enough to wriggle free and grab the scissors from her before she puts out an eye. "Why do you have these—" I throw them on my desk "—and why on top of—just what the hell are you doing?"
She clasps her hands together, giggling as she sprawls backwards over my legs. "Oh silly, it was supposed to be a joke! I was going to ask you for a favor, to cut my novel. See, scissors also cut but they—"
"I get it." I rub my forehead. "Why... do you want me to cut your novel?"
"It's a touch long, and I want to make sure it's as close to ready before I owl it out." She rolls over, kicking her legs in the air like a puppy in a spin cycle. This is the face of evil that I'm supposed to destroy. "And as I was telling my Flappyjacks Snugglekins, who better to edit it than you?"
Of all the people to appreciate my writing for its finesse. "I'm flattered. I really am." My eyes curve into moon shapes above the fakest smile since the invention of the compliment. "To be your first choice, and for a future bestselling hit, no less—there's flattery by the cauldronful. But it's a lot of work."
She nods, perky as a parrot. "Oh no, it's totally a lot of work. That's why there's some Weird Sister reunion tour tickets in it for you. Hovering Booth G seats—"
"Weird Sisters are more of Pickett's thing..."
"—and Mummy says if I want, I can take someone with me when I meet the Head Editor of The Daily Prophet in June, if you know what I mean."
My next inhale is drawn sharp between my teeth. Appy has her clever moments, rare as they are. Great-Aunt Rita always said she would take me to the Prophet headquarters, but let's face it: the woman is much better at being a liar than an aunt.
"I... don't have time, but I'll give it a quick look," I say finally.
As soon as the words come out of my mouth, I regret it. Appy leaps off my bed, liberating my lower legs, at least until an anvil-sized stack of paper takes her place.
"Yuh-ay!" Booty shake-and-stir. "Here's my manuscript! A bit shy of two thousand pages. Don't worry, its front and back; saves trees." Throwing her arms around me, she's trying to kill me again—okay, she's hugging me, but it's getting mighty hard to breathe. "Thank you so much, Clemence."
"You're welcome, I guess." Ten seconds later: "Ahem."
"Right." She releases me at arms length. Her smile tenses. "Oh, and Clemence—another thing. I've heard some stuff about you and Albus and, well, heh." She squeezes my shoulders and nudge-nudge-winks. "Do I have to ask?"
"It's rubbish," I assure, carefully extracting myself from my bed and her.
Like a duck, she follows. "Oh. Oh okay. It's just... you know, weird, 'cause I was in the loo yesterday, one of the corner ones, there was some writing that said—"
"It's rubbish. All rubbish. Appy, we've been roommates for years. You can't spell roommates without mates," I say, backing into the bathroom. "Trust me when I say, I want nothing to do with that boy." I pat her on the cheek and slam the door shut.
It's not a lie.
When I finish showering and come out to a thankfully Appy-less room, I find out that it's actually more like eleven A.M. I rush out, running into Dom, Harriet, and Pickett in the common room, the former two with their brooms.
Dom grabs me by my well-violated shoulders upon first sight. "Good, you're awake!" she says. "You were snoring like a constipated walrus."
"I don't think that means what you think it means."
"Whatever." In half a blink, Dom goes from sour to honey-sweet. "So I totally forgot about an essay due tomorrow. Harriet just told me. We've got practice now, and I'm really, really busy today. If you could please—" She takes a folded parchment from her pocket, and I know that bat of the eye. "It's my article. I know you hate finishing my writing, but it's like three-fourths done already, so just one more time—"
"Yes, I'll do it." I take the parchment with no small huff. "Anyone else need anything? Hmm? Pickett?" The third wheel perks up. Despite hanging around two chatterboxes, it's probably the first interaction he's had all day. "Want me to fold your laundry? Sharpen your quills?"
"Ooh, if you could make me a sandwich, love—"
"Bacon, lettuce, cyanide?"
"...and I'll pass." He slings an arm over my shoulder as we follow Dom and Harriet out the door. "Good morning, I reckon?"
I enlighten him with the details of my wake-up call while the two in front jabber about Quidditch. We pass Rose's entourage on the stairs—rather difficult to miss that much red—and the girls at the edge of her group hiss upon spotting us. Rose remains aloofly silent in the center, sleepless circles hollowing her face. As ridiculous as this feud has been, it's been taking its toll.
Surprisingly, Dom has no reaction, which I point out once we're in the clear.
"Oh, Rose was there?" Dom says, shrugging. "Didn't notice."
I raise a brow, muttering, "Didn't notice the Santa convention casually mucking about?" Pickett snorts.
Dom laughs too, refreshingly void of malice. "I've been blocking out all red and purple in my line of sight. This cult war's been fun but it's full of crazies." She spins a circle by her head. "Can't wait for it to end."
I feel a touch guilty for all the suspicion I've drowned her with these days. Despite her naysayers, Dom is a woman of her word, and one of passing fancies. As much as she likes to show up Rose, she's not power-hungry enough to fight until surrender; she is only—and she'd deny it—insecure.
"Scorpius wants it to end; poor kid got the crazies too," I say, drilling down to work. "We can publish a column, say he never really fancied either of you. It's a stalemate."
Dom flaps a hand, steps quickening to catch up to Harriet, who's gone ahead to meet with the team by the entrance hall. "Just let it run its course. No need to make us look like fools."
"I... suppose. But maybe—"
But Dom's already out of earshot, knocking brooms with her teammates, laughing in a different conversation.
The thing about quirky girls is that... well, they're quirky. One might ask what that even means, which is a very good question that no one has answered, despite throwing the word around at every opportunity.
I'm personally waiting for 'quirky' to worm its way through the thesaurus as the new desperate (I'm so quirky for pancakes right now). Look at Appy: she bursts into rooms, shouting at the top of her lungs as if everyone's listening and whinges about the latest in first-world problems, i.e. being single. She was bearable—creepy but bearable, like a lawn gnome—until she nearly strangled me.
But in her mind, like in every quirky girl's mind, she's the heroine of her own story: a misunderstood, fun-loving lassie, and girls who don't like her are bitches, boy-stealers, shallow, or sluts, because god forbid if they have an opinion about her. Why, they might even be implying that she's the bitch.
Call a Quirker names and it's bullying, but when she sling names back, it's justice.
I say Quirkers don't understand boys, that they just believe what they want. I saw this at the bash clearly enough. Boys aren't people; they're boys. Either a prince or an arse with no middle ground. The truth is: no one understands anyone else. Instead, we fall into our black-and-white hierarchy where we speak different languages but seek the same acceptance, from school to work to the rest of our lives.
How simple is it to blame the other side for your problems, pat yourself on the back for being such a good angel who's given such a good effort, and then go on with your life, thinking yourself the victim?
Because then, at least, it isn't your own fault.
The last of the scarlet message disappears under my sleeve, and a cleaning charm takes care of the remaining film on the mirror.
It took five loos before I found the one Appy mentioned—in the opposite corner and farthest floor of where I was searching, naturally. I saw the curl of a question mark a few steps into the dank room, and for a moment, I didn't want to know the rest. But what kind of reporter would I be if my fear overpowered curiosity?
So I faced it and moved my legs like a clockwork soldier, and there upon the glass, my reflection was broken by the red angry paint: 'MISS BITCHY BUSINESS reports on YOU. Who reports on HER?'
It's a harmless statement by any standards, too vague to do real damage, but it's a call to arms, the drum beats stirring bored teens that have nothing better to do than to hate someone, and I can't get rid of it fast enough.
The red isn't gone. There's another scrawl, on a stall door, reflected backwards on the mirror: 'CLEMENCE + ALBUS TUMBLING UNDER TABLES'.
I grope for my wand and slash a spell at it, smearing half the words away. Frustration in place of determination, I cast another one and it nearly cuts into the wood.
When the creaking hinges quiet and the dripping faucet fades to monotony, the damp closes in from my collar to my ears, and I feel sweat in every pore, slicking every hair.
You're falling apart at last.
My fingers clamber down my wand to find a less slippery grip, and I count seconds until it's maddening.
As the charm does its work on the door, a cackle sounds behind me. "Well, well, well, destroying the evidence."
Caroline appears at the edge of my vision, up to her neck in periwinkle blue cashmere. Her entourage fills up the space behind her.
I lick my lips. Caroline, I can handle. "Probably shouldn't believe everything you see, especially in a loo," I say, flashing a smile. "The lie isn't a recent invention."
The group advances en masse. I recognize faces—Anna, Heather, Ella. Non-confrontational, but they love a good show. With these numbers, I'd rather flee than fight; I'll bear with the jeers.
Caroline blocks the exit with her arm as I try to pass. "Going somewhere?" Her hand taps the wall in front of my nose. Clack clack. Clack clack.
"Can't escape your face fast enough, Escot." I pinch my cheeks. "Did Daddy buy you a new one over winter? Should've kept the warranty." When I duck under her arm, another body moves in front of me. Big Bertha and her big... berth.
Caroline's laugh chimes through the nook, and the crowd snickers along. "Wow, Clemence. You really don't know when you've been beat. Girls, tell her what this school really thinks of her."
Feet shuffle. A few girls begin a whoop, "Yeah, tell her!" only for it to die in the lack of response and nervous coughs. Caroline rolls her eyes. "Cowards."
She takes another step, backing me into a corner. "You're a desperate, lying bitch, and you always have been," she hisses, grabbing a shoulder and grinding it into the wall. "You'd throw your own mum into a dragon's den for attention."
"I haven't got a mum," I say, holding her gaze steady. Fighting back will be worse.
"You've already done it, then." The nails dig in, and I wince, and four new pairs of claws latch onto my clothes. These are not the girls I know. Even sweet Anna, known for cross-stitching coasters for the Great Hall, has adopted a wolfish look. "It's time you got what you deserve."
They want blood. "Let me go."
"Oh, we will—stark naked."
The claws begin their pull, and a strangled gasp leaps from my throat. I haven't got any defense against brute force; I never needed it.
They're strong. Bertha's got me by the throat, and my arms have become tangled with three others. A button snaps. Two fingers burrow into my hip, trying to loosen my jeans, and another hand jerks me in the opposite direction. My head knocks against the stone wall, and their glowing eyes flash bright white.
A shriek, then a weightless pause. All hands release me, and I skid to the ground.
"Albus! Fancy seeing you here! ...in the girl's loo."
"What's going on?" I hear him ask, almost laughingly. The crowd parts, and I see two of him, until my vision clears and blends his double bodies into one. His smile vanishes.
Caroline rushes in front of him, blocking me from view. "I—we—we're just um, playing dress-up. Make overs. Clemence volunteered to be first. We were very eager."
But she's blind to him as he moves past her and pulls me up. "Really."
"They tried to kill me," I mutter. I flatten my hand against my blouse, feeling for loose buttons.
This would be one of the only times I appreciate Potter's white knighting, seeing as I was just attacked—and I really thought he was concerned, with that look on his face as if I was, well, just attacked.
But when he glances between the jumpy girls and me, the genuine concern I saw—or thought I saw—vanishes in lieu of a lilted smile. "Make-up isn't deadly, Fitzgerald."
It takes a second for Caroline to laugh, which comes out more like a choke, and relief floods her face while disbelief shadows mine. "See, Albus understands!" She pats me on the arm, yelping when I gnash my teeth.
"You can't honestly believe them!" I sputter.
"These are nice girls." Potter's eyes twinkle, sweeping over the dozen or so heads, eliciting a round of sighs. "I'm sure whatever happened was a big misunderstanding."
The crowd responds with murmurs of agreement. They nod like bobbleheads, jostling each other to be near him. "Oh yes," "Mmhmm," "Exactly."
I don't believe it. He's trying to gain their favor. And it's working.
Everyone’s looking at me, trying to hide their smirks. I shake my head. "Well, fuck you too, Potter."
He frowns before I stomp off. The girls let me go, crowding in the space that I leave; I'm no longer their concern.
"Is it true, Al? You're dating her?"
"Clemence?" He's back to chuckling. "She's not interested in me."
"But you've asked her out?"
"Yeah, I like her. Something wrong?"
"You're too nice, Al!"
"She's the biggest harpy in school!" another girl crows. "She'll break your heart!"
"I'll watch out, then."
I'd block off my ears, but I can't fight my nature to listen to the worst; I've made a career out of it, after all.
The voices soon fade, though the squeals are loud enough to be heard over at Beaubaxton. I duck into an empty Herbology classroom, finding a seat amongst the flower pots and fertilizer.
I press my hands up my face, over my hair. I think I'd cry if I could. I can't. Aunt Rita said that I was a quiet child and she was never more thankful, but I wish I cried, just to so I know what it's like. But when I stare into my hands, there's only dry dirt and scratches.
The door creaks open. A pair of scuffed brogues walk in, my cue to leave.
Albus catches me as I brush past him, and he dares to look worried. "Are you okay?"
"Don't touch me."
"Clemence." He brings his other arm around, a cradle for an unwilling prisoner, and draws me in front of him. "I had to."
"Had to what? Feed them shit?" I laugh and it's the closest thing to crying that's come from my mouth, and when I meet his eyes, I show him exactly what his gallantry means to me. "You're marking me as the big, bad bitch who stole your heart, so they'll all fight to be the one to win you from me. That's what you did at the end there, isn't it? When you admitted to them that you liked me. And then stayed to flirt."
"We've been outted! I needed something believable. The more they focus on me, the less they'll focus on you." He runs his fingers through his hair, bunching a fistful of dark strands. "If they knew the rest about us, you'd be dead by the next day."
"I'd rather be dead than a fool," I spit. "And there is no us."
"If it were Caroline there instead, you wouldn't think twice about reporting every detail. And don't forget you threw me to the mob once, too."
He drops his arms. I could leave. But his words hold me, concern harmonized with a harsh undercurrent, accusing, pulling like a rip tide, and I haven't got fight left to deny them.
I flinch when he cups my chin. His thumb sweeps over budding bruises and tucks a strand of hair back in place. "Let's get you washed up," he murmurs.
"I don't need your help—"
"I need yours."
The quiet has cracked us open, and I can see the pleading in his tense frame as he looks upon me like a casualty of war—shrapnel, hardened to die. He'd never treat me like this if he hadn't seen what happened. He didn't think the heartless bled, let alone bled like him, but for this moment, under his gaze, I know what it's like to be mourned.
Albus unfolds his cloak and I step under, and we leave the classroom to the hazard of the halls. His hand finds mine, and we say nothing of it. We say nothing at all until we reach the Gryffindor tower, where he makes a show of hiding the password until I say it first, and the Fat Lady greets me with an invitation to her powder party (I decline).
"I know it's hard," I hear a girl's voice through the sliver of a door crack, as we approach his room. "It was hard for me when you told me, but you've got to—oh, I think he's back."
It's Rose, her hair and scarlet jumper regrettably blending into the surroundings, sitting on the edge of Scorpius' bed next to the hunching boy, hands close but bodies distant. There's a split-second deja vu of Dom and Scorpius by the window and of an intimacy that I should not be witnessing, though the scene is purely innocent.
Albus removes the cloak and bundles it around his arm. "Hey. I've got her."
Rose studies the twined fingers between us before moving to the rest of me. Her brows furrow. "What happened?"
"Quirkers. Could you clean her up, Rose?"
"I'm fine," I say.
Rose's stare moves from Albus to me to him again, while his fixes solely on me like he wants to say something, but he can't.
I pull my hand from his. "Seriously, Potter. I'm fine." I don't want to be on the defensive but I have to face reality: I look like roadkill plucked from the bushes, amongst a bunch of Gryffs who aren't the most fond of me. I could be angry or worn, mute or scathing, and I would still be out of place. I've got to keep what little pride I've got left.
A loud, long clear of the throat arrives from Scorpius, who must relate to Pickett well, as our apparent fourth wheel (it take skill to be an even-numbered wheel). "So... Clemence. How are you on quashing that uh, feud?"
"I'm on it." I loosen my hair and flex the elastic band around a new ponytail, not that it helps much with presentability when my face is half dirt. "Give it some time, Scorpy boy. It's not magic. Can't wave a wand."
Rose stands. "You're really helping us then?"
I thought Albus brought me here to discuss his plans, but he's already left to his corner of the room. I'd help mopey Malfoy, but Rose? "Define help. Define us." At the corner of my eye, Albus opens his wardrobe and peers into a mirror hanging on the door, watching me back.
Rose walks over with a folded paper. "This is a signed statement from Scorpius. I—Scorpius and I—want you to publish it in Witchy Business. It'll end this stupid feud."
I skim the contents, made up of small, neat capitals. It's remarkably unbiased considering it's clearly written by her; Scorpius is as eloquent as a cat yowling on a fence.
In brief, it states that Scorpius doesn't love either of them, nor does he intend to in the future. He and Rose are, as previously reported, broken up. He and Dom are pure exaggeration.
But... it pricks at Dom, subtle but there. Dom and I are just friends, one sentence reads. Sorry if she led you to believe otherwise. An apology on her part, like she's a child in need of discipline. And she might be, but it's not the whole truth, which makes all the difference when it comes time to paint villains and victims. Rose is no angel, not with these covert meetings. This is a plan and I could bloody well do without more plans right now.
"I'd rather let this feud die. It's dying on its own. Not enough dirt to keep the interest." I extend the paper to Rose. "Dom's waiting it out. She won't encourage it any more."
Rose scoffs, snort and all, so unlike her prim-and-proper norm that even Albus turns. "You can't believe that Dom will just stop if I back off. She'll think she's winning. I understand Dom's your friend. I didn't want to push this on you, but he"—she glances at Albus—"said that you and Dom weren't that close."
My throat squeezes shut. I didn't mean what I told him, not exactly. "We're close enough."
"I would do this myself but I'd rather have someone more familiar with..." She clenches her teeth, but in the end, doesn't bother with mincing words. "...dirty work. I've got an image, you know."
"You don't want to be seen handing these out."
Rose nods. "And I think this sort of announcement would mean more under the Witchy Business name."
The still-fresh cuts, like velcroed skin, sting as a grimace stretches my cheeks. "I'm considered less than credible these days."
"I can fix that." Her fingers fly to the golden prefect badge pinned upon her breast pocket. "This is going out whether you help me or not, but both of our lives could be easier if you print this."
The offer is tempting, I'll admit. I work with only numbers on my side—it's the rule of tabloid success: verified by none but talked about by all—but to have Rose say that she reads and vouches for Witchy Business would bring in a whole new audience. Still, the only certain answer my gut gives is I don't like this at all.
Dom's whinging, the stuff I used to roll my eyes at, finally has a base. Rose is the golden girl and I'm her scapegoat, she'd say (though Dom never quite grasped how Rose was her scapegoat). I thought she was exaggerating. Now, I'm not so sure.
The silence draws longer, with only the creaking wood and carpeted footsteps to remind us of the boys in the room. Rose sighs, reaching for the paper. I fold my hand closed.
"I'll think about it," I say. Options never hurt.
"Thank you. It would mean a lot." Another silence follows—a respite, now that we are no longer mud-deep in negotiations—but she isn't finished. Rose chooses her words with care, knowing when to pin pleasantries and when to drive her points down like a fist, and she always means exactly what she says. Qualities I admire. "I know we don't like each other much, but I'm glad we can be civil. Lately, that's been too much to ask for from some people. I don't understand what my cousin sees in you, but I suppose I'm less surprised now."
When her eyes sneak toward Albus, he ducks his head as if embarrassed, and I don't know if I ought to blush. Did she think he and I are serious? It's weird enough to see Rose less-than-dour, and then it also strikes me that to some people on this earth—namely his family—Potter's love life is a subject of amusement.
Albus drums his fingers on the side of his wardrobe. "Rose, are you leaving?"
"Yes." She loops an arm through her tote, culling her smile. "Let's go, Scorpius."
The dreamboat Malfoy, who has been flapping his arms and making bedsheet angels, lifts his head. "But this is my room—"
"Let's go." She calls him like a dog. To be fair, he responds like one, soon shuffling to her with his coat between his legs. When he's outside, she glances between me and Albus, and I swear she, stuffy Rose Weasley, winks. "I'll tell the boys to stay out for a while. Thanks again. Oh, and Al, those books you borrowed from me. Remember—"
"To return them. Yeah, got them," he says. I move to the side of the spectacle as Albus shoos her, but Rose jams an elbow into the room.
"Check that there's three of them—"
Even when he leans against the door, Rose's two-inch padded jacket is too effective as a doorstop. "Yeah, I know. Dragon Spotting, Crime—Crime and Punishment."
Her freckled nose pokes in from the gap. "Crime and Punishment is one book. There's also Twelve Fail-safe Ways to—"
"Got it, Rose!" Albus wiggles her elbow out and slams the door, and swivels around panting. "Sorry, I don't know how to stop her from doing that."
I try not to laugh. "What, being fantastically nosy?"
Then I do laugh and his eyes twinkle with an off-putting allure, like it shouldn't be there after a day like today's, and I am more aware than ever that we're alone—no, left alone—in his room.
Of all the things I could think when we're in his room and it's fuck, this is weird and that it's us only compounds it. We're not awkward people. We don't stutter or fumble, but then Rose has to mention that Potter gets seduction tactics from Twelve Fail-Safe Ways to Charm Witches, and Quirkers had to beat me up today.
I still can't believe he found me in that classroom like that. It's not looking like a mess; I acted like a mess. Now Potter's got kid gloves on, testing the waters with small talk. "Rose used to be here all the time, for Scorpius," he says, meeting me in the middle of the room. "Sort of glad they're over."
I snort. "You haven't got a high opinion of many people, do you? I don't get why people even like you."
His hands land on my waist and he tips his head for a moment, deciding whether to kiss me. "As opposed to you?"
"No, I'm a bitch," I drawl, unmoving, "but you're no better. The difference is that you're a fitty bloke with pretty green eyes, and I'm just competition so I get beat up."
The green flickers, and I see his swallow travel down his throat and his unbuttoned collar. "I'm sorry."
"If you say so."
His mouth turns grim. "Do you know how much it hurt to see you—"
"Don't give me that. Do you know how much this fucking hurt?" I point to the side of my head, at the blackest bruise, with such swiftness that I shake, and our saunter to normalcy is thrown back to the start. We're not ourselves—or, Salazar help us, too much like ourselves.
But my rigidness caves, and he catches my arm as it falls; I don't have it in me to fight. "...it's not your fault," I say.
"It is." His fingers slide past my shoulders, fanning across my neck, pressing into skin like he's feeling for a pulse. My lids shutter close. I don't pull and he doesn't push.
"Someone would've done it one day, for one reason or another. Or who even needs reasons?" I laugh; it's one of the world's jokes. "Those girls'll try again when they can."
"You say that like you don't even care."
"Like I said: I knew it'd come one day."
Albus' grip tightens and I feel a pinch at my jaw, and when I open my eyes, his brows are crisscrossed with shock. "Are you... justifying them? Do you think they're your punishment?"
"What you said before is true. I threw you to the mob when I had the chance. I'd do it again."
An anger throbs in his fingertips. I'd forgotten, with all his smirking the past few days, that he might genuinely care. "That doesn't mean that..." He never finishes the sentence.
"See. You think I deserved it, too." Maybe he is worse off, because I hardly feel anything, while his insides are waging war. "Come on, Potter, at least pretend that you're proud of yourself. What if I said that because of today, I'm agreeing to be the Q.G.A.'s replacement leader? Not like I have much of a choice if I want to stay alive."
It becomes a physical struggle. He bites his lip until it's as red as blood, and whichever side wins, some part of him must lose. Here I am, his bitterest victory yet: the great Fitzgerald, tamed for his puppeting. He thought he could play cruel, but I was right.
He hasn't learned to control his heart.
Albus rests his forehead against mine, tracing skin and scars down my torso, like he wants to hold all of what's left when the ice melts. "Clemence," his voice is thick and worn—god, it aches—"This..." The word waits, undefined, and my chest strains to beat as his fingers knot in my hair. Our lips brush in a kiss that should be brief, but we draw in each other's breath, a fearful need like fusing shrapnel, and it hurts to part.
We can barely hold onto ourselves and yet our fists are tight on the other's clothes. I swallow and taste him. "If you had to choose, between your plans and me..."
His eyes look nowhere and he gives no answer. I extract myself, limb by limb, backing away until I meet the doorknob. I check outside while the room lies in stasis.
"Figure out what you want, Potter," I say, and only then does Albus lift his head. The cold draft splits my cuts open. "Figure it out, so I can ruin you properly."
His chair squeaks as he tilts it backwards. "Yes?"
"Tell me honestly." I roll my quill between my fingers, staring between the two folded papers lying on the table. "Did you... did you believe Dom this morning, when she said she's over the feud with Rose?"
Another squeak as his chair descends to the ground. "What do you mean?"
Pickett knows—he probably suspected and I've now confirmed—that there is something strange about my slow question and why I asked as soon as Janey went to fetch tea. Stranger than my new scars that appeared in the short hours since he last saw me.
"I mean, do you think she's only stopping because it's a stalemate and she's bored of it? If she felt like her numbers outranked Rose's—"
"Love... you know how Dom is."
It's all I need to hear. "Thank you, Pickett." I move the paper on the left aside.
He peeks at it, stumbling off his seat. "Eh? That's Dom's article—"
"I know." I swallow. This is going to be a huge mistake. "We're printing this instead."
He spots the parchment under my hand with the small capitals and loopy signature, and I don't dare look up lest I see his jaw drop. "It's from Rose, isn't it? Dom's never going to agree to this."
"After distribution, I'll alter the master copy. Dom won't notice until it's too late." The adrenaline has been pulsing this whole day, but I finally feel it, racing so fast, I hope the regret never arrives.
"Clemence, she'll just be pissed. I agree, we should do something about this feud, but is this the best—?"
"Are you going to talk to her?" I snap. "We've all tried talking to her, and how well has that worked out?" I spit out the words like they're onion flesh and my eyes prick and burn. "I'm not waiting until this thing gets out of hand and girls looking for justice break her bones, or worse."
Pickett wants so many answers; answers are what he lives for. But he sees me like this and he fights his singular goal of prying. He shakes his head and leaves me to my edits, and I scratch the quill so hard that the red bleeds into the table.
A/N "I don't think that means what you think it means." - quote adapted from The Princess Bride. Crime and Punishment is also an actual book, penned by Dostoyesvsky, or as I like to call him, the Russian guy with the fun-to-pronounce name.
SO A LOT JUST HAPPENED. EMOTIONS. EMOTIONS FLYING EVERYWHERE. What is it with me and Very Important Chapter 15s that contain choices BUT BASICALLY EMOTIONS. I wanted to get this out two weeks ago, but I got surprised by full-time work and I've only been able to finish this now. I said I split this chapter from the previous one, but I actually ended up making so many changes to this chapter, that it's nothing like before. Namely, Clemence was never supposed to get physically attacked by the girls but then... she did. And then... everything else.
Many of you are probably already familiar with my tendency to write really fun chapters after really depressing ones, and the next one is going to be pretty frivolously fun. A couple words: manuscript editing drinking party. It goes a bit like this (with loff to Aiedail/Lily, for the punchline):
"Three shots from just the first page."
I'll prod for a review if you mucked through this crazy. And finally, thank you to those who nominated etc. for the Dobbys! :3 I did a bit of an embarrassing dance, just for that!