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Clash by shenanigan

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Format: Novel
Chapters: 50
Word Count: 354,387
Status: COMPLETED

Rating: Mature
Warnings: Contains profanity, Strong violence, Scenes of a sexual nature, Slash (same-sex pairing), Substance abuse, Sensitive topic/issue/theme

Genres: Humor, Romance, Action/Adventure
Characters: Albus, Hugo, James (II), Lily (II), Rose, Scorpius, Teddy, Victoire, OC, OtherCanon
Pairings: Other Pairing

First Published: 11/29/2008
Last Chapter: 09/13/2014
Last Updated: 09/13/2014

Summary:
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Dobby Winner for Best Novel 2012 | Runner-up for Best Next Gen 2011


Sanity is overrated.

Undergoing edits


Chapter 1: Prologue
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Disclaimer: Everything belongs to J.K. Rowling. 



If there is one thing that I hate—truly, truly hate with every red hot, blazing nerve of my body—it is alarm clocks.

They are, in my opinion, the world’s most evil invention. Forget the atomic bomb, forget nuclear weapons... I am entirely convinced that alarm clocks are where all the universe’s problems lie.

I mean, imagine a planet Earth free of alarm clocks. Imagine! People would be happier, crime rates would be lower, relationships would flourish, and most importantly —

BLEEP. BLEEP. BLEEP.


I would get some damn sleep, for once.

BLEEP. BLEEP. BLEEP.


It was like my hand had a life of its own. Without even the slightest signal from my brain, my arm flew up and slammed down on my bedside table, fumbling hopelessly for that stupid, rattling little Contraption Of Hell before, after quite a bit of desperate searching, my fingers finally found the (glorious, oh so magnificent) snooze button and pressed down. Hard.

Ah, silence.

I rolled over in my bed, burying my face deeper into the covers in a (vain) attempt to shield my eyes from the prying rays of the sun. But of course, I was already wide awake and unable to fall asleep again. Typical.

My name is Agatha Bennett, and besides being an avid alarm-clock hater, I’m also a fifteen year old Hogwarts student. Right now during the summer, I lived with my mother and my stepfather, Arnold, who was, incidentally, the winner of The World’s Dullest Man Award and the record holder for ‘fastest time it takes to bore someone to sleep’.

Seriously. I made him a certificate and everything... When I gave it to him though, he just chuckled, said something about ‘the youth of today and their whimsical notions’ and then went back to finishing his Sudoku puzzle.

Arnold’s strange like that.

Anyway.

I also have a twin brother, Aidan. Except I usually just refered to him as ‘the annoying tosser (who I bear no genetic resemblance to) that likes to stay at our house’.

We’re quite close, my brother and I.

It’s not that we hate each other — we used to be inseparable, actually, and even now I spend most of my time looking out for the stupid ninny. It’s just that...well, we’re complete opposites.

I’m quite academic-minded. I like to read ahead in my text-books. Aidan’s more...mischievous. He likes to turn people (a.k.a. the Slytherin Quidditch team) into farm animals and then pretend he’s “lost the antidote." I’m not exaggerating. Aidan has been inside Professor McGonagall’s office so many times, he might as well just move his bed in there.

What’s worse is that about 99.9% of the female population at Hogwarts find my brother’s antics...charming.

Seriously. He’s like some sort of demigod to them. Don’t ask me why, I personally can’t find anything appealing about someone with the brain capacity of an eggplant, but...whatever. Usually I just try to ignore all of it.

It’s more than slightly uncomfortable, though, when you walk in on your brother snogging your best friend. On your bed. During your thirteenth birthday party.

Yeah. Not the best of days.

I think Aidan takes after my mother. She’s a bit of a free spirit, if you know what I mean. There was this one time when she had tried to sign up for Tai-Chi Classes at the local community centre — thanks to several unfortunate factors, including a strange conversation with the instructor and a fundamental misunderstanding of what Tai-Chi is, this led to our entire family being banned from the centre for the rest of our lives.

My mother still maintained the defense that it wasn't her fault she didn't know Tai-Chi wasn't supposed to be done in the nude, but I'm not sure I believed her.

Anyway, I’m more like my dad, I guess. I have his red hair and everything. Unfortunately enough, though, I did inherit one thing from my mother — her perpetual lack of grace.

Take last year, for example. During my fourth year at Hogwarts, I had single-handedly exploded nineteen cauldrons (a personal best, I might add), gotten locked out of the Slytherin Common Room thirty-two times (bloody password... I'm always forgetting it), broken three bones (my arm, my leg, and James Potter's nose), and set my bed on fire...twice.

…Keep in mind that all these things were accidental.

Well, maybe not Potter’s nose, but let’s face it, he had it coming.

That leads me to another thing: Have you ever gotten a really bad pimple that, no matter how hard you push and prod, will just never go away? Like, you’ll squeeze and squeeze but it’ll always be there, lurking on the tip of your nose, and it’s so noticeable that Evelyn Stanford, this really terrible girl in your year, has got everyone calling you Rudolph (after the Red-Nosed Reindeer, of course) for a whole month?

Yeah, well, that’s Potter.

James Sirius Potter is the bane of my existence. He’s arrogant, infuriating, ignominious, vile, and just an all around scumbag. He’s always parading around like some sort of king. And what’s worse is that everyone at Hogwarts practically worships the ground he walks on, which inflates his overly large head even more. It’s so irritating, watching him walk around with that smug, holier-than-thou smirk on his irritatingly perfect face, his stupid cavalcade of morons trailing after him like zombie-clones.

People say hate is a strong word but they don’t know, really. They don’t get it. Coffee is strong. Weightlifters are strong. Hate...is different. It’s not this giant wave that immediately crashes over you or something. No. It’s subtler than that. It creeps up on you, slow and hot, and everything around you becomes so muddled and sticky that you can’t breathe. Your head pounds and your teeth grind...and...and —

The worst part is that Potter and Aidan are buddies. Best friends, in fact! It’s terrible!

I mean, Aidan invites Potter to our house (during summer vacation at least). Our house. WHERE I LIVE! How am I supposed to sleep at night knowing that Potter has violated and contaminated my own home?

What’s more is that my best friend, Dominique Weasley, is Potter’s cousin. Seriously, it’s like Six Degrees of Potter. Everything I do, every person I meet... Without fail, it always leads back to His Pratness. It’s...it's worse than alarm clocks, for Neptune's sake! And that's saying something!

But the cherry on top of the Sundae of Suck that is my life? Yeah, I’ve just been made a Prefect. And this would be dandy and all, really... Except for one, not-so-tiny, not-so-insignificant detail:

Potter’s a Prefect too.

Joy.

I groaned to myself, rolling over in bed as the thought of my Prefect’s badge — which was currently glimmering, untouched, on top of my wardrobe dresser—pushed itself stubbornly to the front of my mind. Ever since I found out — via Aidan — that Potter was going to be a Prefect as well, I had refused to even go near the stupid badge, no matter how much it taunted me from its permanent spot on the dresser. It was soiled now. Tainted. Never again could I look at it and not think about...him.

Mouth twisting itself into a grimace, I reluctantly heaved myself out of bed and furiously rubbed at my bleary eyes, as if the very action would erase the thought of Potter from my mind.  It was proving to be easier said than done.

I shuffled to the other side of my room, sliding my gauzy, light blue curtains open and peering dumbly at the outside world. The sun was shining. The birds were singing. Mr. Emerson from down the street was chasing the children off his property with his rifle. Ah, I could hear their screams of terror from all the way over here. What a wonderful start to a wonderful day.

Sighing to myself, I left my room and went downstairs, ready for breakfast. I could hear that someone was already in the kitchen, banging pots and pans around. It was probably Mum, making (or burning) waffles for breakfast.
 
I pushed our swinging kitchen door open and started when I realized that the noise I had heard was not, in fact, my mother cooking breakfast, but rather none other than James Sirius Potter.

Eating cereal…

...In my kitchen.

He was sitting at the table, his dark hair ruffled and unruly, and his legs, clad in plaid pyjama pants, stretched out languidly before him. Just seeing him — all annoying and there — made me grit my teeth together.

“What the hell are you doing here?” I blurted out without thinking. Hey, there's a complete stranger (okay, well not a stranger...but still an unwelcomed guest, nevertheless) in my kitchen! So sue me if I'm a little alarmed.

Potter looked up from his cereal, startled. When he saw it was me, his eyes narrowed into sharp, hazel slits. “Good morning to you too, sunshine.”

Did I mention that this whole hate thing I have going on for Potter...? Yeah, it’s sort of mutual.

Our kitchen was spacious and open, with old-fashioned looking white furniture, pretty crystal windows, and perpetually sun-stained walls. Normally, it was one of my favourite places in the house. But now, I wanted nothing more to leave.

Unfortunately though, I was hungry.

I stalked past Potter to the cupboards and grabbed a box of Captain Charms cereal ("They're deliciously magical!”).  Breathing heavily, I slammed a bowl onto the counter (perhaps a bit too forcefully, I think I heard a crack), poured in the cereal and some milk before walking back to the wooden table Potter was seated at.

I plunked myself down next to him and dug into my cereal viciously, ready to finish my breakfast as soon as possible. I couldn't resist one snippy little jab at Potter first, however. “Seriously though, what in the name of Merlin’s pink knee socks are you doing here?”

Potter finished the last of his cereal — taking his time to do so, I might add — and then pushed the bowl away from him.

“Aidan invited me to sleep over,” he said and I felt a sudden, inexplicable surge of anger wash over my body. I mean, honestly, I haven’t been awake for more than thirty minutes and he was already ruining my day!

“Sounds like fun,” I grumbled back. “Did you paint each other’s nails and talk until the wee hours of the morning?” Ah, sarcasm, my native language.

“Tell me, Bennett. Are you this hostile to everyone you know, or is it just me?”

I gritted my teeth together at Potter’s retort, almost biting off my tongue in the process. You see, the most annoying thing about Potter was that he was so...unflappable. No matter how much I insulted him, no matter how hard I pushed his buttons... He never got angry. I mean, truly angry. Sure, he got annoyed, but he always managed to shoot back one of his own remarks, never blanching from that cool, apathetic mask he always wore on his face. Just once, I wanted to see a flash of raw... feeling. Something to prove that Potter was, indeed, a human being, and not just some genetically programmed alien robot sent down to earth in order to destroy my life (and my sanity along with it).
 
“Don’t be silly,” I said, voice sickly sweet. “You know I always save the special treatment for you.”

Potter was saved from replying by the kitchen door, which had swung open forcefully as, suddenly, my brother pushed his way into the kitchen. He looked tired. His toffee-colored hair was completely smooth except for one part in the back, which was sticking straight up in a ridiculous fashion. It would have been comical if I wasn't so angry.

“Good morning,” he mumbled, his voice muffling slightly as he yawned. The kitchen door was still swinging back and forth frantically behind him, but he paid it no attention.

“Wrong, Aidan,” I snapped, and my brother jolted, the lines in his body tensing as he turned to look at me for the first time. “It is not a good morning. Not at all. Would you like to know why?”

Aidan’s face, already weary from lack of sleep, melted into an expression of dread. “Why?” he asked, rather unenthusiastically.

“Because Potter’s here,” I said, crossing my arms and leaning backwards. Across from me, the prat in question displayed no emotion except for mild interest and maybe a little amusement. “Eating breakfast.”

“I know that,” Aidan replied, speaking slowly. “I invited him.”

“Why?” I exclaimed, slamming my hands down on the table and making the silverware rattle. “You know I can’t stand him! Seriously, Aidan. We might as well just invite...oh, I dunno, Hitler over instead.  Or Voldemort! Or maybe a ravaging cannibal! Oh, I know! We can have a little tea party, all of us together—Hitler, Voldemort, the cannibals...hell, let's throw in a couple of serial killers while we're at it! Doesn't that just sound like a dandy time?"

Before Aidan could reply to my hysterical ranting, however, Potter interrupted in classic Potter fashion: “You do realize I’m sitting next to you, right? I mean, I can hear everything you’re saying about me.”

“Shut up, Potter! This isn’t about you!”

“Um, actually, I believe it is — ”

I growled in frustration, my eyes flashing dangerously. “You lot are so unbelievable. I just...just...argh!”

Right as I was about to stand up and leave, however, a tall, caramel-skinned bloke by the name of Fred Weasley waltzed in through the kitchen door.

“Morning, all,” he greeted, practically singing the words. Fred was one of the most laidback, easygoing blokes I've ever met. Whenever he walked into a room, you could bet your bottom dollar that he'd be smiling. I've never seen him angry, or even remotely upset. He was practically a walking musical—I half-expected a group of woodland creatures to pop their furry heads through the windows and start singing at the sight of him, a la Snow White.

Of course, Freddy's 'morning person-ness' only served to annoy me even more.

“You invited Fred, too?” My mouth dropped open, and I wheeled around to face Aidan. “Why? Isn’t one idiot enough, without having to make it two? I mean, seriously, Aidan. Was there some sort of 'Buy one get the other free!' special at Moron-mart?"

If you haven't guessed already, Freddy is another one of my brother’s idiotic mates. He’s also Potter’s cousin (I know, it seems like everyone these days is related to Potter, but bear with me). Fred's by far the more tolerable of the two, but he still possesses the ability to irritate someone—specifically, me—to the ends of the earth.

"Gee, Aggy, if I didn’t know better, it would almost sound like you didn’t want me here,” Fred said cheerfully as he strolled over to the table and sat on the other side of Potter, giving my hair a playful ruffle as he passed me.

“Piss off, Fred,” I growled, crossing my arms and glowering at the three of them.

He chuckled, the sound so deep and rich that it sounded foreign in our wispy-light kitchen. I screwed up my face in outrage—how dare he be laughing right now!—but Aidan interrupted me before I could say anything.
 
“Agatha,” he said suddenly, his voice falsely polite. “May I please have a word with you? Alone?”

There was a slight pause where I briefly considered refusing him and just walking away. But after a moment of contemplation, I relented, standing sulkily from my seat.

Aidan pulled me aside to the corner of the kitchen so we were out of hearing range from Potter and Fred. “Agatha,” he whispered harshly. “I can invite over whoever I want and you know that, so stop acting like a stroppy cow.”

“Well can’t you invite people besides Tweedledee and Tweedledum?” I hissed back just as callously. “They’re bloody annoying.”

"Aw, come on, Aggy,” Aidan said, running a hand through his hair. “Fred and James aren’t that bad.”

“Are you kidding me? Look at them! They’re imbeciles!”

I turned around to face where Fred and Potter were sitting next to each other at the table. Fred currently had his finger stuck up his nose and was digging for gold, and Potter was gazing off into space, his mouth wide open and a stupid expression on his face.

"Okay, so maybe they’re a little slow in the morning,” Aidan admitted, shrugging his shoulders in a “so-sue-me” way as we watched Fred and Potter, “but they’re good mates.”

Freddy had now pulled out a titanic-sized bogey from the mysterious, dark caverns of his nostrils, and was staring at it confusedly, as if he couldn’t quite figure out what it was. After examining it for a bit, he then turned around and wiped it on Potter’s shirt. Potter yelped, and then punched Fred in the shoulder, who, in a display of undeniable grace, fell off his chair.

I turned back to my brother, a fake smile on my face, “Gee, Aidan. You’re right. I wish I had friends who were half-troll.”

My statement was punctuated by a tap-tap-tap noise that seemed to come from outside, and we both turned around mid-argument to see a tawny brown owl at the kitchen window, its claws clicking against the glass.

I hurried over to the window and opened the hatch, making sure to step back as the owl flew into the room, landed on the marble counter, and shook off its feathers. A pink envelope was caught in between its beak.

I made a disgusted face. “Gross,” I muttered. Aidan snickered knowingly.

I hated owls. I found them disgusting, unhygienic, savage...And I may or may not have had a bad childhood experience with one when I was younger. I don’t want to talk about it (it’s quite a painful memory to relive), but let’s just say that owls are very attracted to bright colours. Especially red hair.

Aidan shot me a grin, the expression of annoyance that had previously tightened his face completely dissolving away into nothing (see, that’s the thing with my brother...he can never stay mad at anyone for too long). “I'll grab the letter, Aggy.”

He eased the letter out of the owl’s beak. It squawked indignantly but flew out of the kitchen nevertheless. I exhaled a breath I hadn’t realized I had been holding and closed the window shut.

“Who’s it for?” Fred asked, suddenly interested.

Aidan’s blue eyes (only a shade darker than my own), flitted over the front of the envelope. “Agatha.”

I grinned triumphantly as my brother tossed me the letter, catching it and opening the flap smoothly with my finger.

AGATHA,
As you know, it’s my birthday next week. My parents are having a small little get-together at the Burrow as a celebration. It’s going to be friends and family only.  You’re invited, of course, but I was wondering if you could come early to help decorate and set up and such.
I’m excited to see you there!
Lots of love,
DOMINIQUE

PS. Aidan can come too, if he wants.

Shitake mushrooms!” I exclaimed, eyes wide with panic. “I totally forgot it was Dom’s birthday next week!” I sank down on a seat next to Freddy, clutching the letter. “What am I going to get her?”

Fred grabbed the letter from me and read it over, eyebrows furroed in thought. 

“How come James and I aren’t invited to this little shindig?” Fred asked, passing the letter to Potter.

"You probably are,” I said. “She just hasn’t sent out the invitations yet, that’s all.”

Fred shrugged and, without another word, went back to inhaling his cereal. 

Potter’s hazel eyes scanned over the letter quickly, his hand reaching up to unconsciously ruffle his hair as he read. Just that small, insignificant gesture was enough to make me ball my fists in irritation.

“Looks like Dom wants you to come along, Aidan,” Potter said, smirking, in reference to the P.S. portion of the letter.

“What?! Let me see!” Aidan hurried over to where we were sitting and leaned forward, reading over Potter’s shoulder. When he got to the last part, his cheeks flushed red and he straightened stiffly. The other blokes in room grinned knowingly — my brother and Dom had been having an on-again, off-again relationship since Third Year. While they were currently in its 'off-again' stage, that didn't stop the others from teasing Aidan whenever Dom's name was mentioned.

“Shut up,” Aidan muttered, even though none of us had said anything. “That doesn’t mean anything...”

“Right.” I smirked, getting up from my chair and snatching the letter from Potter as I breezed past him. “Now as much as I would love to spend my Sunday morning with you three nitwits, I’ve got better things to do. And by 'better things,' I simply mean 'not be here.'” I started to saunter out of the kitchen, head held high and rather proud at myself for such a cool, dignified exit.

“Wait, Bennett! One thing before you go...” Potter began as he stood up from his chair and made his way towards me, lips pulled into a devilish grin that I did not like at all.

“Yeah?” I inquired, arching an unimpressed eyebrow as I turned around.

Potter didn't say anything. He just planted his hands on my shoulders, leaning towards me until we were inches apart and I could see the countless golden flecks that were sprinkled throughout his gleaming hazel eyes.

There was a long, tense, moment where we just stared at each other. And then…

“Nice pajamas, Bennett.” Potter grinned, winked, and then was pushing past me and beating me out the kitchen door.

“What on earth are you talking about — ?”

My mouth abruptly shut closed when I looked down to see that I was wearing my Hello Kitty pajamas. The ones I had owned since the ripe age of thirteen. The ones that consisted of a tank top proclaiming “Viva La Kitty!” in glittery cursive, and matching pants. Matching pants. Matching. Pants.

As Aidan and Fred roared with laughter, all I could do was stand there, blushing furiously and feverishly praying for Merlin to have mercy on me and just hurl a meteorite at our house... or create a human-swallowing abyss in the middle of the kitchen floor. Something nice like that.

Damn Potter.



 
A/N: Sooo....how'd you like it?? Since this is the first chapter, I would be eternally grateful if you reviewed or favorited (as long as you like it, I mean).  Constructive criticism or corrections are great!

Chapter 2: Dark
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Disclaimer: None of HP-verse is mine. It all belongs to JK.



If there was one thing I had learned over my (somewhat enjoyable, but mostly just stressful) time on earth, it's that a closed door means nothing when you have Aidan Bennett living in your house.

My brother possessed no working definition of the word 'privacy.' He was constantly barging into my room, making himself comfortable around my things, ignoring all of my protests and fruitless diatribes on the concept of knocking. I'd tried everything — hanging signs, locking the door — I'd even considered hiring a bouncer. But somehow, my brother always found a way to finagle himself in.

In fact, one of Aidan's favorite pastimes was to just hang out — alone — in my bedroom when I wasn't there. I'd walk in after a long day running errands to see my brother lounging on my bed, flipping through a book or (more likely) rifling through the secret stash of Chocolate Frogs in my drawer.

Though honestly, I shouldn't be too surprised by such behavior. This was the same kid who once read all of our next-door-neighbor's mail because "it was just lying there" and he had "nothing else to do." When we explained to him that this was a federal offense, my brother simply shrugged and then asked if we wanted to look through the J.Crew catalog he'd nicked from the pile. Yeah, safe to say my brother has some issues with personal space.

Which is why I wasn't surprised to walk into my room one typically grey, English morning, and find him kicking back casually on my bed.

I was, however, surprised to see Fred and Potter with him.

In my room.

Without my permission.

In my room.

"What are you lot doing here?" I snapped irritably as I swung open the door, revealing the maddening sight of the three boys hanging out among my things and just generally presenting a horrible invasion to my privacy.

Aidan looked completely at ease as he stretched out across my bed, tossing a beat-up Quaffle to Potter, who was sitting on my desktop with his legs dangling and his hair more obnoxiously tousled than ever.

Freddy, meanwhile, had taken it upon his nosy self to look through (read: mess up) my closet. He pulled out random shirts and tank-tops, tossing them to the floor and consequently, messing up all my pain-staking organization.

"Hey, Freddy!" I said indignantly, slamming the door behind me as I marched angrily into the room. "What are you bloody doing?! If you're looking to borrow a pair of heels, you should just ask Dom — she's got Troll feet like you."

My brother snorted at this — Dom, despite her otherwise dainty and quite pretty figure — was notorious among our group for having gigantic feet, and it was a bit of a running joke among the group.

Fred turned to me, blinking innocently. He was wearing one of my scarves wrapped around his head like a babushka, and the overall effect made him look like an oversized version of E.T.

"Merlin, Aggy," he said excitedly, not even blinking at my slowly growing fury. "Your closet's a fascinating place. Say, do you color-code your things? It looks like you color-code them."

At this, Potter caught the Quaffle, not bothering to lob it back to Aidan as he turned towards me with one brow arched in mocking incredulity. "You color-code your closet?"

"I — " I snapped my mouth shut, feeling my face bloom dark red with heat. There was nothing wrong with wanting to arrange things efficiently! “I have a system!"

Potter's second eyebrow quirked upwards to join its friend. He tossed the Quaffle back to Aidan, not bothering to take his dark, derisive gaze from me. "A system or a pathological problem?"

"Be nice," Aidan warned, but there was laughter in his tone. He pitched the ball back and Potter caught it, muttering something that sounded suspiciously like, "Neurotic headcase," under his breath.

My chest was already starting to heave up and down with fury. How dare these twats march into my room and proceed to make fun of me! Who did they think they were? I could have some seriously private stuff in here — diaries, letters, illicit substances and whatnot! Granted, my life wasn't very interesting so my room was pretty much the squeaky-clean, real-life version of a Disney Channel set, but still. It was the principle of the thing.

"Oi, Aggy!" I turned to see Fred, holding a lacy purple bra by its strap, regarding it with a look of mild amusement. "You're a 32C? Always had you pegged for a 34B."

My face whitened.Oh hell, no Enough was enough — Aidan and his stupid friends needed to leave if they didn't want a huge can of Avada Kedarva opened on all their sorry arses.

I stalked over to Fred, snatching the bra from his hands and shaking it in his face with a slitted glare. "Get — out ," I hissed, syllable clipped with anger.

Fred simply held his hands up in a 'I-come-in-peace' gesture, the amusement sliding off his face as he took a hasty step backwards. "Joke — just a joke."

Potter, who had now started bouncing the Quaffle on the floor with an irritating 'thunk-thunk-thunk' sound, shot us a dark, wry smirk. "I don't think Bennett likes us being in her room."

"Uh, no shit," I snapped before swiveling around to look at Aidan, who was still leaning back casually on my bed. "Make them leave!"

Aidan hitched his left shoulder up in a lazy shrug, face apologetic. "Sorry, Aggs! I can't do that just yet. I have a problem, and I won't leave until I get the help I need."

"Yeah, you do need help, Aidan," I retorted snippily, bunching the bra in my hands and flinging Fred another dirty look. "But I don't see how that's my responsibility. Go look up the good number of a therapist in the phone book — "

"Not that kind of help!" my brother cried adamantly. He struggled to an upright-seated position on my bed, growing visibly more agitated as he raked a hand through his toffee-colored hair. "I need your help, Aggs."

I crossed my arms. My gaze was shrewd and narrowed into icy slits, but I was grudgingly interested nonetheless. "With what?"

"Dom," Aidan lamented, his entire posture slouching downwards with the desperate proclamation. "I want to get her back, Aggs."

"Come on, Aggy," Freddy, apparently unable to help himself, blurted out eagerly on behalf of his friend. He, too, fixed me with a beseeching gaze, offering me back my scarf as a kind of pseudo-peace offering. "Help the kid out."

"Yeah Bennett." Potter had picked up on my frustration, and his tone was knowing, mocking as he swung his hazel gaze to me, fully aware that all these requests were driving me mental. His mouth lilted upwards in a crooked smirk. "Come on."

I resisted the urge to growl. "Aidan," I huffed, struggling to keep my voice patient, if only so I wouldn't lose face in front of Pratter. "Why do you want help with Dom? You broke up with her, remember? You dumped her for Sally Perkins over the summer."

"I know," Aidan groaned dramatically. His hands flopped limply to my bedspread as his eyes rolled to the ceiling. "But I want her back. I miss her."

My face settled into an unimpressed scowl. Aidan always did this — he'd dump Dom, declare that he never wanted to see her again, and then weeks later come to the usual epiphany that they were soulmates and meant to be. The two were constantly off and on, on and off, the trajectory of their relationship depending completely on Aidan's latest whim (and also, the length of Sally Perkins' skirt that day). Dom was his veritable human yo-yo.

"Aidan," I bit out, somewhat impatiently. "Dom's not going to take you back. She's done playing your games."

At this decisive statement, Aidan looked so dejected that I almost felt sympathy for my brother and guilt for what I'd said. But he had to hear the truth, and Dom didn't deserve to be toyed with any longer.

"But Aggy, you don't understand," Aidan exclaimed adamantly, giving his head a swift shake. "She's my — "

"Soulmate?" I finished drily for him.

"Yes, and we're going to get — "

"Married?"

"Yes! And this will the — "

"Last time you guys ever break up?" I interjected, eyebrows arched pointedly. "Believe me, Aidan, I've heard it all before. You always do this."

My brother piped down, morose blue eyes flicking to the bedspread under him in resignation. Potter, however, was not so easily subdued. He fixed me with a somewhat annoyed glare, mouth twisted irritably. "Do you have to do that?"

My spine stiffened visibly at the challenge sparking in his tone. Next to me, Fred muttered a nervous, "Here we go again."

"Do. What?" I spat, eyes defiant with barely-suppressed anger.

"Crush his hopes like that," Potter spat right back. His own gaze was narrowed coolly, chin cocked upwards in an arrogant display of superiority. "He only wants a second chance."

"Oh, he's had more chance than that!" I retorted immediately. I threw out a hand to gesture at Aidan, who was sitting on the bed quietly, glancing bewilderingly between Potter and I and looking for all the world like the child of fighting parents. "Dom doesn't deserve to be strung along anymore!"

"You guys — " Fred sliced in, tone pleading, but he was resolutely ignored.

"Isn't that her choice?" Potter retorted stubbornly, voice rising slightly. Already, I could feel the familiar sparks of anger jumping between us, white-hot and shivering in the tense air. Aidan and Fred sat by silently, unwilling spectators to the fight brewing between Potter and I.

"You don't know how Dom feels," Potter carried on heatedly, voice growing more insistent and more intolerable with every second. "She might actually want to get back with Aidan. Regardless, it's up to her to decide."

I felt anger surge through my body at Potter's self-righteous tone. Like he actually cared about Dom or Aidan! He was most likely saying all these things to get a rise out of me, to make me look like the bad guy while he got to play the supportive best mate card.

Yet he was conveniently forgetting all those times I'd had to hold Dom while she sobbed hysterically after another break-up. All those times Dom had skipped class or refused to eat dinner or failed a homework assignment, simply because she was too distraught over what was or wasn't happening between her and my brother. If Potter truly cared about his cousin, he would recognize I was doing the right thing and lay off me right now.

"Dom sometimes doesn't know what's best for her," I hissed caustically, voice dangerously low and trembling with restrained fury.

"And if you were a supportive sister, you'd talk to Dom at her birthday party and see she if she'd consider getting back with Aidan!"

"No!"

"Why not, Bennett?"

"Just leave it, Potter!"

"No, I won't, not until you give a reason that isn't complete bullshit!"

"Potter — "

"Why, Bennett, why won't you talk to her — ?"

"BECAUSE IT'S NOT MY BLOODY RESPONSIBILITY!" I suddenly shouted, my anger reaching its emotional boiling point. Immediately, there followed a tense silence as everyone in the room seemed to rear back at my volatile outburst. My voice echoed in the thick quiet, each word seeming to pulse in the air, conspicuous and brash, lingering among us.

Potter, his eyes flashing dangerously, clamped his mouth shut. Fred let out a quiet sigh of surprise next to me.

But I didn't pay either of them any heed. I only had eyes for Aidan, who was currently flicking his gaze from the bedspread to meet mine, face one of mingled shock and distress.

"I'm — " I began, but my voice had caught in my throat. I had no idea how to go about explaining to my brother my point of view, my true feelings, without coming across as selfish or whiny. I just wanted to make him see — for years I had been playing matchmaker, peacemaker, mediator and referee between my brother and my best friend, and it was sodding exhausting. Everytime Aidan asked me to dig for more information about Dom's dating habits, everytime Dom started angrily rattling off Aidan's faults and expected me to join in... I was put in yet another awful position.

"I'm sorry, Aidan," I finally managed, voice coming out a strangled croak. My brother flinched at the pity in my expression, his jaw clenching tightly with, I was sure, a determination not to show weakness. " I Just — " I heaved a gutsy sigh. "I can't do it anymore. Talk to Dom at her party if you want, but I'm not going to be your middleman any longer."

As I spoke, I could feel Potter's harsh, calculating glare on the side of my neck, making the skin there tingle. What a tosser — how could he manage to still make me feel like utter shit without even saying anything.

Aidan seemed to need a second to absorb my words. He watched me, blinking furiously, a small frown creasing my brow. His lips were pursed thoughtfully, and for a moment I thought he was going to argue. But then, with a resigned sigh, he clambered slowly off the bed and dusted off his pants in a 'well-that's-that' manner.

"Okay, Agatha," he said, surprisingly mature, voice devoid of any argumentative edge. "I understand." He turned to Potter and Fred, who were both staring at him with raised eyebrows. "Come on, guys. We should probably go. We've wasted enough of Aggy's times." His words were sincere, devoid of any maliciousness or sarcasm.

With that, the three blokes wordlessly shuffled out of my room, the air tense and silent around us all. As he brushed past me, Potter fixed me with a bitter, 'I-hope-you're-happy-now' glare that I resolutely pretended that I hadn't seen.

The door slammed shut behind them. I winced.

Whatever was going to happen this upcoming school year, I knew one thing for sure: it was bound to be a rough one.


Chapter 3: Shadow
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Disclaimer: This all belongs to J. K. Rowling!



By the time I arrived at one o'clock sharp, the Burrow was already descending into complete mayhem.

Dom’s entire family was scrambling around the house, frantically attempting to make last-minute preparations for the party. Everything was in disorder: the decorations were sloppily hung, the cake was burning in the oven, and worst of all, Dominique and Victoire were fighting. Again.

As I trudged up the grassy path to the Burrow's front door, I could already hear Dom wailing in hysteria, her trilling tone somewhat muffled from inside the walls of the house.

"THERE IS NO WAY, VICTOIRE!" My best friend’s voice boomed out, echoing through the Burrow's grounds and no doubt causing all the birds in the immediate vicinity to take flight from the treetops. "I WON'T ALLOW IT!"

My skin immediately flooded with goosebumps — having known the girl for five years, Dom's screeching had become a familiar sound to me, and by now my body had developed some innate, natural instinct to register fear whenever I heard it. Dom's screaming was kind of like a mating call in that way, except instead of drawing you in closer, it had the exact opposite effect and instead made you want to run away very, very fast.

"ALLOW IT?!" And of course, the only person who could out-scream Dom was the same person currently fighting with her: Victoire Weasley. I winced at the sound of Victoire's telltale tone, screeching thin with hysteria and immediately recognizable. The two sisters were like a pair of banshees on steroids, honestly.

Issuing a quick mental apology to my own eardrums in advance, I took a deep breath and swung open the door. There, standing in the foyer, looking remarkably like a National Geographic special I'd once seen about meerkats in territorial fights, were Dom and Victoire Weasley.

Dom had her entire upper body lunging towards her sister, eyes alight with green fury. Victoire, meanwhile, stood by with her arms crossed in frosty irritation, nose turned snippily to the ceiling.

"Er, hey guys — " I began, but my entrance was decidedly ignored, lost to the heady vitriol cloaking the room.

"You think you can boss me around, don't you?" Victoire was sneering, acidic gaze zeroed in on Dom and Dom only. "I can't believe how selfish you are!"

I reared back, mouth snapping shut, and somewhat caught off guard by the hostility between the two girls. Dom was unfazed, however, huffing out a harsh, bitter laugh as her eyes narrowed into menacing slits.

"You are not doing this to me, Vic," she seethed. "This is my sodding birthday — "

"What's going on?!" I cried, my confusion twanging with frustration. I immediately regretted my interjection, however, when both sisters rounded on me with their furious gazes, apparently just noticing I was there.

Dom didn’t even bother to say hello; her chest was heaving up and down as she regarded my presence, probably wondering how she could carry on with murdering her sister now that there was a witness present.

“Victoire wants to announce her engagement to Teddy," she blurted out, voice so strangled with anger it came out a senseless gargle. "Tonight! At my party! She's going to steal my thunder!"

“You’re getting engaged, Victoire?" I repeated, missing the point completely. “Congrats!"

I quickly realized this had been the wrong thing to say, however, when Dom's face deepened into a brilliant crimson color. Her eyes practically bulged out of her head at my traitorous statement.

Victoire, meanwhile, was grinning nastily, her gaze gleaming with a gloating triumph. "Thank you, Agatha," she said primly, crossing her arms before shooting Dom a very pointed glare. "I'm glad someone here is happy for me."

Dom's nostrils flared. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

"What you think it means," Victoire snapped back, swiveling to face her sister head-on with an icy scowl. "That you're too much of a jealous twit to be a supportive sister!"

Dom inhaled sharply, slapping a dramatic hand across her chest and looking for all the world as if she'd just been physically shot. "I AM NOT JEALOUS!"

“THEN WHY WON’T YOU LET ME ANNOUNCE MY ENGAGEMENT?” Victoire hollered, voice gaining volume with each furious word. Her question boomed throughout the foyer, reverberating off the wall in a terrifying echo effect.

“Because it's my special day, you stupid bint!" Dom spat back vehemently. "And I'm not going to give that up just because you want a little attention, Victoire!"

“I don't give a damn if it's your birthday — " Victoire began to say, but I was already slicing through her (admittedly pretty harsh) answer.

“Okay, okay, guys!” I interrupted, raising my hands in my best attempt at pacification. “Let's calm down and think rationally for a second."

Victoire pursed her lips and huffed a couple silvery strands of hair from her face. Dom, looking unimpressed with my suggestion, crossed her arms and clamped her lips shut. For two girls who hated each other so much, they shared some serious family resemblance (especially when they were both bloody furious).

“Right,” I began in a soothing tone, trying my best to think of a solution that wouldn't ruffle either of the sisters' very ruffable feathers. My brow furrowed in concentration as I tried to piece every aspect of the situation into a complete picture. So, Victoire was getting engaged to her long-time boyfriend, Teddy Lupin, and wanted to break this news tonight during Dom's party. Dom obviously had a huge problem with this, seeing as it would mean all the attention refocusing onto her sister.

Huh. This was a sticky pickle.

“Now," I began slowly, almost a bit fearfully as I swiveled my gaze between the two sulking sisters. "It’s obvious that Dom’s party today means a lot to her —” at this, Dom nodded vigorously — "and it is her birthday, after all. Why can't you just announce your engagement another day, Vic?”

“Because it’s more convenient to do it now that the whole family's together!” Victoire explained, at the same time Dom muttered, “Because she’s an obnoxious little bitch!”

Oh Merlin.

Victoire immediately turned white at Dom's snarky retort, her rosebud mouth falling into a shocked 'o' shape. "WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO SAY HERE, DOM?"

“WHAT I'M SAYING,” Dom roared back, her face turning an interesting shade of purple (mauve, maybe?) “IS THAT YOU WILL NOT ANNOUNCE YOUR ENGAGEMENT AT MY PARTY!"

There was something really, really terrifying about the sight of Dom and Victoire fighting. After all, not only were they both part-Veela, but they also possessed the Great Weasley Temper and were just catty, emotional females in general — it was like the Holy Trinity of anger.

“WHAT — ?” But before Victoire could even finish what she was about to say, sweet salvation arrived in the form of Louis Delacour-Weasley.

“What’s going on?” Dom's little brother asked bewilderedly as he walked in from the living room, raking a hand through his silvery hair. "It sounds like someone’s trying to strangle a banshee in here!”

Both Dominique and Victoire stopped their screaming long enough to turn towards the new intruder in the room. I took a deep breath, eardrums rejoicing at the sudden silence. “Victoire and Dom are having a fight," I observed pretty astutely.

“Oh,” Louis shrugged, as if this was a common occurrence for him (which, come to think of it, it probably was). He leaned resignedly against the wall casually, crossing his arms over his skinny chest. “What’s it about this time?”

Before I could explain, Dom had stomped her foot on the ground, tossing her red-gold hair back in a spectacular display of female teenaged angst. "I wouldn't expect you to understand, Louis!" she snarled. "Nobody in this family understands!"

Dom, it seemed, was hell-bent on turning this birthday party into a pity party.

"Well maybe we'd understand you more if you didn't act so sodding unreasonable all the time," Victoire declared exasperatedly, rolling her almond-shaped eyes to the ceiling.

"The only unreasonable one here is you, Vic!" Dom snapped back ferociously, and with that particularly melodramatic declaration, my best friend wheeled around on her heel and stormed out of the foyer, leaving behind a disgruntled Victoire and a very confused Louis in her wake.

"Bloody hell," Louis mused in awe, slowly blinking his wide eyes. "Sometimes I wish there was more testosterone in this family."

As if to punctuate his statement, there sounded a series of vicious thumps from overhead that indicated Dom thundering angrily upstairs to her room. This was followed by a frustrated shriek and a door slam that caused the foundations of the Burrow to shudder.

"Bollocks," Louis grumbled after a moments pause. "She sounds really upset. Someone should probably go follow her and make sure she doesn't, you know, try to burn the house down or anything."

Victoire held up her hands defensively, a grumpy scowl still twisting her pretty face. "Don't look at me. She's probably sticking pins into a Victoire voodoo doll as we speak."

"Well someone's got to do it," Louis shot back snippily.

Nobody moved.

“I said," Louis repeated loudly, drawing out each word in a slow emphasis. "Someone's got to do it." He accompanied this statement with a very pointed look towards me. Victoire, cottoning on, also turned to arch an expectant eyebrow my way.

I threw my hands upwards in an indignant manner. “What are you looking at me for?”

“You’re her best friend,” Louis pointed out with a casual shrug.

I scoffed disbelievingly. “And you’re her brother!”

"Yeah," Louis began patiently, as if he were explaining a very simple concept to a very stupid child. "But it's not my fault that shit's in my gene pool. You, on the other hand, associate with Dom by choice." He crossed his arms, obviously satisfied with this argument, and I sighed.

The kid had a point.

“Fine,” I sight reluctantly. “I’ll do it.”

This better get me some serious karma brownie points.

—*—

TOP THREE REASONS WHY IT IS NEVER A GOOD IDEA TO HANG OUT WITH DOMINIQUE DELACOUR-WEASLEY WHILE SHE'S ANGRY

1. Dom becomes very unreasonable when she’s mad. Her already vehement emotions are whipped into frenzy, leaving no room for logic or hindsight, as Dom stews over every way that she's been wronged and makes acidic declarations about the culprits. If Dom's in "one of her moods," there is absolutely no chance of reasoning with her.

There is, however, a lot of angry ranting on her part. And passionate gesticulating. And the occasional broken glass or shattered plate.

In fact, when Dom is angry it's generally wise to keep her away from fragile, breakable goods, including any of the bones in your body that you'd prefer to keep intact.

Which leads me to:

2. If Dom feels like her pride or reputation has somehow been insulted, she can become prone to impulsive, violent behavior. More than once, I've had to drag my best friend away from a brewing fight. And I'm not talking about a classy wizarding duel. No, I'm talking a hair-pulling, nail-scratching, hold-my-earrings catfight. Needless to say, those are not pretty.

And the last reason why you should never hang out with a pissed-off Dom Weasley?

3. She cries. A lot.

“Why, Merlin, why?" My best friend of five years sobbed into my shoulder, smearing a lovely concoction of snot and tears all over my new shirt. “Why me?"

Funny you should say that Dom, because I was just asking myself the exact same thing.

I stared dully ahead as my best friend blubbered away, raising my future dry cleaner's bill one snot stain at a time. Dom was inconsolable — the floodgates had opened, and now no soothing word or hey-look-on-the-brightside could stop her sobbing. I had resigned myself to this fact long ago, and was now sitting on her bed, unmoving, as I simply waited for my best friend to cry herself out.

"I hate my life," she was warbling through the tears, self-pity tugging at every syllable. Ever the drama queen, this one. "It's terrible. No one understands, Aggy, no one."

"Of course Dom," I droned thoughtlessly — which pretty much summed up my own role during these past thirty minutes. "You're absolutely right. Everyone's horrible."

"I can't ever show my face again!" she gasped through more fierce, shuddering sobs. "I'll have to be a recluse!"

"Life is so hard, isn't it," I said flatly, emotionlessly. After having been reduced to repeating the same five stock sentences over and over again over the last half hour, I'd kind of lost my enthusiasm for this comforting endeavor. My voice had no 'oomph' anymore, my words unconvincing and bland. "We should start a charity for you, Dom."

My best friend nodded seriously, not picking up on the sarcasm in my tone. "Knowing Victoire, she'd just find some way to steal that from me too," she grumbled pettily, and I tried to stifle an eye-roll.

Reaching across the bed, I plucked a tissue from Dom's bedside table and offered it to her, tone pleading. "Here, just take this. Please, for your sake." And my T-shirt's.

My sniffling best friend accepted the Kleenex, blowing her nose into it with a semi-truck-esque 'honking' sound and a mumbled thanks. I watched my dainty, five-foot-one, 110-pound best friend clear out all the snot in her body. My vague look of disgust only deepened when Dom, hiccupping slightly, made to hand the tissue back to me.

"Er, no thanks — you can keep it," I said in a somewhat strangled voice, staring warily at the now snot-covered tissue dangling dangerously close to my shoulder.

Dom, oblivious to my revulsion, dropped her hand into her lap dejectedly as she sighed, tissue crumpling in her fist. "I'm sorry I'm being such a downer, Aggy. It's just that — urg — Victoire can really piss me off sometimes. She always does this." Dom's face darkened, voice taking on a dangerous quality as she seemed to slip back into her earlier vexation. "Despite the fact that she's already the family favorite, despite the fact that she's older and smarter and more accomplished, she still feels the need to upstage me every chance she gets."

Now that I thought about it, I could see how Dom might feel she was getting the short end of the genetic stick. Victoire, after all, was a veritable Hogwarts Prom Queen. With her trademark silvery hair and delicate features, she'd been every bloke's fantasy while she was at school. That's not to say Dom wasn't beautiful — she definitely was, in that untamable, wild-haired way. Yet Victoire was more... refined. Victoire drank tea and read Russian novels. Dom played Quidditch and yelled obscenities at terrified first-years. Victoire had smooth, porcelain skin. Dom’s complexion was sprinkled with countless Weasley freckles. Victoire's twinkling giggle could charm even the coldest heart. Dom... Well, Dom snorted when she laughed.

"Dom," I murmured sympathetically, rubbing my friend across her bony shoulders, but I didn't know what to say.

Dom merely shook her head, spring green gaze — no doubt still blurry with tears — trained on her bedroom floor. "I know it seems silly to freak out over a birthday party," she confessed in a gutsy exhale. "But this was supposed to be my one day, you know? And if Victoire announces her engagement, everyone will be too busy fawning over her and the news to even remember that I exist."

"Come on, Dom, you know that's not true," I protested, though my tone sounded unconvincing even to my own ears.

“No, Aggy — I know this because it's happened before. Remember my First Year at Hogwarts?” Dom asked suddenly, voice taking on a bitter edge at the memory. “That had been a big deal for me. But nobody else in my family had cared, because it was beautiful, perfect Victoire's Fifth Year, and she was just made Prefect! And then she had to go and get 9 Outstandings during her OWLs! That was all anyone could talk about for days!" Dom shook her head morosely. "What am I compared to her?"

"You're you," I said fiercely, giving Dom's shoulders a gentle shake as I felt a sudden swell of pity overtake me. "You're Dominique Weasley, and you don't take shit from nobody. You're brave, you're a star Chaser, and any bloke would be lucky to take you out."

Despite herself, Dom allowed a small smile to flit across her face at my pep-talk. Taking this as a sign of encouragement, I rambled on:

“And besides, I think that you’re loads more fun to be around than Victoire,” I insisted. "All she talks about are her cuticles and whatever happened on last week's episode of Real Housewives of Hogsmeade."

At this, Dom couldn't help herself; she laughed out loud, voice meek and watery but somewhat cheered nonethe less. "Thanks, Aggy."

I grinned, enveloping my best friend into a squeezing hug. “Of course."

When Dom pulled away, she was still sniffling, but her posture was straighter and her smile just a smidge more convincing. “I still don't know what I'm going to do about Victoire," she mumbled, brow collapsing into a worried frown. "I know she's just going to announce the engagement anyways, no matter what I say."

I scowled at the thought. “Don’t worry about it, Dom. I won't let her."

Dom looked at me affectionately. "You're too good to me, Aggs."

In response, I only flashed her an encouraging smile. Already, though, my mind was whirling a mile a minute at the prospect of the night before us. I couldn't help but feel intuitively that there was only one way this night would end, and that was 'poorly.'

—*—

At about eight in the evening, a somewhat inebriated Bill Weasley presided over the large family table at the Burrow, misty-eyed but cheerful as he regaled the rest of us with tales of Dominique from her childhood. He had started out attempting to give a speech about his daughter's birthday but — thanks to the alcohol in his system, it seemed — this had quickly degenerated into a long, rambling saga of some of Dom's most embarrassing moments as a youngster.

Luckily for the birthday girl, however, no one else in the Burrow's dining room, — which had the capacity to fit and feed a small army — seemed to be paying attention. This was because they were all very, very drunk.

Around the table sat all of Dom's relatives — an endless cast of aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents — laughing and chattering boisterously, passing huge plates of food back and forth, the telltale tinkle of a glass breaking every five minutes or so thanks to someone's drunken grip. If some unsuspecting bystander had walked into the Burrow right now, he would have probably thought he was witnessing some sort of National Red-Hair Convention in which all the attendees had been mysterious drugged.

Aidan and I sat at a corner of the table, in between Louis and Roxanne Weasley and somewhat bewildered by the overwhelming volume and energy of the room. Everyone's current level of intoxication may or may not have had anything to do with Fred and James spiking the punch bowl earlier. And by "spiking," I mean they blatantly walked up to it and unceremoniously dumped about half a liter of Firewhiskey inside.

As a result of this, Fred's dad and one of the Weasley uncles were now bellowing out the last verse to For He's a Jolly Good Fellow; Dom's grandmother was sitting red-faced in the corner, clutching a glass of wine and hiccupping to herself; And Ron Weasley — esteemed war-hero and one of the Ministry's head Aurors — was slurring a very dirty joke to his children, while his wife, the Brightest Witch of Her Age, was loudly demanding for someone to make her a grilled cheese.

It was so weird to me to see Dom's family — many of whom were featured in my school history books — behaving in this kind of state but, hey. That was a Weasley Get-together for you.

Dom herself looked pretty tipsy as she swayed in her seat, showing no reaction whatsoever as one of her cousins repeatedly blew a plastic noisemaker in her face. A combination of different factors — among them, a desire to alleviate her anxiety over Victoire and Fred's trusty pocket flask of vodka — had now reduced Dom to a state of drunken bliss. She had a dopey smile on her face as she watched her uproarious relatives around her. Atop her head sat a paper crown with the words 'Queen Witch' on it, though someone had scribbled out the W and replaced it with a B.

Meanwhile, a slightly tipsy Fleur Delacour-Weasley was trying, and failing, to light the candles on an impressive, three-tiered chocolate cake that had been set down in the middle of the table.

“Happy birthday, mon chéri," she was hiccupping, French accent considerably thicker after a couple glasses of wine. Before Dom could even blow out the flaming inferno of candles on the cake before her, the table had roused together for a very raucous and off-tune chorus of Happy Birthday.

Dom, her paper crown now dangling off one ear, managed to blow out all the candles in one go, and everyone launched into applauses and whoops and wolf-whistles. Certain people — my brother maybe among them — even went so far as to loudly proclaim their love for the birthday girl, although nobody really noticed this except for Bill Weasley, who continued to glare at Aidan for the rest of the night with a very dangerous, very murder-y look in his eye.

Ding ding ding!

I looked up from my own generous plate of cake to see Victoire across the table, stumbling to a somewhat tipsy stand, a knife in one hand and a wine glass in the other. She wobbled and banged the utensil on her goblet once more, dainty features flushed as she cleared her throat and tried to quiet her raucous family members around the table.

Ding ding ding!

“Attention, everyone!" Victoire’s tinkering voice was calling out over the din, and with an unpleasant lurch in my stomach, I gradually realized what she was about to do. “I would like to make an announcement!”

My heart sunk. Further down the table, Dom was squinting blearily up at her sister, expression bewildered but slowly dawning with realization.

Victoire’s face practically glowed, her body poised and elegant as the ruckus of table gradually trailed off into a silence — or at least, the Weasley definition of silence, which wasn't very silent at all. Everyone was regarding Victoire with curiosity as they murmured comments and remarks to each other; no one had a clue to what she could possibly want to say.

No one, that is, except for Dom and me.

"Sorry to interrupt, everyone," Victoire simpered apologetically, and whether her cheeks were flushed from triumph or alcohol, I couldn't tell. "I have some news I'd like to share."

At this, Victoire paused dramatically, icy eyes flitting slyly over to Dom, before snapping back to travel and linger across the table in front of her. Dom, now fully understanding what her sister was trying to do, had clenched her fist tightly around her napkin.

I looked at the cake in front of me, dread flooding my mouth with a sour, metallic taste. Oh Merlin — I should have known Victoire would take advantage of Dom's tipsy mood right now. She had lulled us all into a false sense of security, made us let loose and think she wouldn't do anything, and then she had struck.

I glanced back up at the bride-to-be across the table, already dreading her next few words.

“As you know, Teddy and I have been dating seriously for a while,” Victoire continued gleefully, and I looked down at my plate of cake, brow furrowing in consternation. “About two years now, actually. That is, if I'm calculating correctly. — " I looked back up at Victoire. " — And we've been living together for half that time." I looked back down at the cake.

An idea was slowly forming inside my head.

Dom was sitting, frozen and stiff, her bright eyes glued on her sister. I felt sympathy swell inside me as I remembered her tearful proclamations back in her bedrooms, the way her lip had trembled with barely-suppressed anguish.

My idea was a crazy one. It was stupid, childish, and terrifically rash. But it might also stop Victoire from making her announcement before it was too late, and if that meant a happy birthday for my best friend, I was willing to take the plunge.

I looked at Victoire. I looked at my cake.

"And it's been an emotional rollercoaster, to say the least," Victoire babbled on, and as the rest of the table chuckled in agreement, my eyes snapped back and forth from the pretty Veela to the dessert on my plate. Cake. Victoire. Cake. Victoire. My pupils darted back and forth like I was watching some sort of fast-paced tennis game. Cake. Victoire. Cake. Victoire.

I swallowed and picked up my plate from the table.

"It's been a hectic two years," Victoire was still rambling imperiously, enjoying her time in the spotlight. "And I love Teddy, I really do —"

My heart was pounding in my ears. Victoire was only a couple feet away. My idea was crazy, but it might also be the only way to effectively shut her up.

“Which is why,” Victoire drew out her words, savoring them as she got closer and closer to her speech's conclusion. "I'm really, really happy to announce that — "

Victoire did not get to reveal what she was "really, really happy" to announce however, because in a swift flash of moment, I had stood up, plate in hand...

— and smashed my chocolate cake into Victoire's face.

I felt the cake go squish against the pretty blonde's face, heard her voice die, guttural and surprised, in her throat. My trembling hands released the plate, which made a pathetic splat when it hit the table.

A stunned silence ensued.

Everyone stared at Victoire, at the chocolate now encrusting all her features and the empty plate on the table. No one said a single word. No one breathed.

A glob of icing slid off Victoire’s chin and landed on the tablecloth. Fleur hiccupped quietly in the background.

I couldn't what had just happened. My heart was pounding in my ears at an inhuman speed, my hands unable to stop shaking. It felt like something had just possessed me, my arms and hands had moving on their own accord. Like for one split second, I had transformed into some sort of engagement-ruining, cake-hurling psychopath and then abruptly switched back to my normal self.

I stared at Victoire. Her mouth was hanging open in blank shock. Her blue eyes squinted at me through thick, gooey layers of icing, and I recognized the expression on her face, as I had seen it many times on her sister. I knew what was coming.

Three.

Two.

One —

“EAUUUUUGHHHHHH!” Victoire, her face and hair covered in chocolate, screamed so loudly and so shrilly, it felt like my eardrums might burst. Bill Weasley's wine glass broke in his hand. “YOU LITTLE — “

But before Victoire could finish, Fred Weasley was already hopping up from his seat.

"AWESOME! WAY TO GO, AGGY!" he cried jubilantly, fist swinging passionately in the air. "I LOVE FOOD FIGHTS!” And then, expression one of unrestrained glee, he threw his own slice of cake across the room.

Where it hit Aidan. Square in the face.

Chaos erupted.

Before I knew it, the room was in uproar as teenagers and adults began flinging their cake at one another, gobs of dessert soaring back and forth, the sounds of broken glass tinkling vaguely in the background and mingling with shouts of shock. "I've been hit! I've been sodding hit!" someone was moaning dramatically. George Weasley had already taken the opportunity to shove his wife's face into his plate. Victoire was still standing in the center of the room, wailing her head off. And Aidan now had two slices in each hand, issuing a loud war-cry as he charged at one of the Weasley cousins. The only person who wasn’t frantically panicking was Arthur Weasley, who had fallen asleep at some point in the night and was snoring in his chair, oblivious to the pieces of cake that were whizzing overhead.

I ducked as a glob of icing few past me, grazing my left cheek ever-so-slightly. “Shit!" I moaned while I took in the fighting around me, my entire body prickling with hot shame. The entire room had descended into a bedlam of whizzing icing and smeared crumbs, and it was entirely my fault. What was wrong with me?

Dom had dumped her glass of milk onto her father, who looked somewhat crazed as he hollered over the noise and attempted to reinstate order but to no avail. Fleur, her hair streaked with chocolate and her expression distraught, was ducking under flying chunks of food while screeching about her baking being wasted.

And of course, the cherry on top of the catastrophe sundae: James Potter, nonchalant as ever, was sitting casually in his chair, having casted a protective shield bubble around him. He watched everything unfold with an amused smirk on his face, chair balancing precariously on its hind two legs.

I was so dead.

—*—

After about two hour and four massive tantrums later, the food-fighting had died out, the dining room had been hosed down, and Dom's sister successfully persuaded not to kill me through the efforts of about half of Dom's extended family.

It was not yet time to go home, so I was still stuck at the Burrow for a couple more hours. Thinking it'd be best if I put as much distance between myself and Victoire right now, I had crept out of the backdoor to find some peace and quiet in the backyard. Icing still clinging to my hair, I prowled the grounds before settling for a nice spot under a small oak tree, where I could freak-out alone with only the chilly night air and the crackling cicadas for company.

Back-propped up against the tree, staring moodily into the midnight sky, I tried not to dwell over what a sodding idiot I'd been, and the extent of the damage I'd just inflicted on Dom's party. I'd only wanted to help my best friend — I'd had no idea things would spiral out of control and end up in such a (literal) mess.

"I have to say — I didn't know you had it in you, Bennett."

I whipped my head up to see Potter trudging through the long grass of the backyard, his hair ruffling slightly in the evening breeze, his hands shoved nonchalantly into his back pockets.

My face immediately twisted into a scowl. Of course the git would want to come out here and gloat in the face of what I'd done. I couldn't even properly guilt-trip myself without him somehow ruining it for me.

"What do you want, Potter?" I snapped irritably, in no mood for another bickerfest.

But Potter simply shrugged amicably as he came to a stop at the tree's roots, forcing me to squint up at him because of his unfairly tall height. "I just wanted to congratulate you on your spectacular... display tonight. It was pretty impressive."

He looked at me, taking in my morose scowl and my hunched posture with a gaze that was surprisingly frank and judgment-free. It was more...curious than anything.

"Shut it," I snarled, voice acidic. I was in no mood to put up with Potter, who always acted like I was some mildly entertaining TV show to watch. I bloody loathed it whenever he turned me into a spectacle.

The left side of Potter's mouth quirked upwards in amused satisfaction at my hostility. For a moment, he just wordlessly looked at me a little longer, and then he was taking out a cigarette pack from his jeans pocket and rapping it against the heel of his palm.

"Relax, Bennett," Potter murmured, and I hated the laughing edge just barely hidden, tucked away, in his tone. "I come in peace." He took a cigarette from his pack and slid it into his mouth, and I watched the fluid action with blatant distaste.

"Smoking's bad for you," I informed him snottily, hoping to deflect the attention off of me. I watched silently as Potter lit the thing and smoke began to curl into the air, twisting and turning and forming gnarled shapes that I could trace with my eyes. "And can't you just leave me alone, Potter? For once?"

Potter didn't take the bait, however; his unfazed gaze held mine, still glinting with that maddening amusement. "I'll leave you alone, Bennett, if you can tell me one thing."

I leveled him with a snooty glare, frustrated by how calm and unflappable he could act. "I'm not going to tell you where babies come from, if that's what you want," I said mockingly, each word drenched in a false, sugary sweetness.

Potter's eyes sparked; he enjoyed my snarkiness, it seemed — most likely because he knew that it was only a mask for the defensive edginess lying underneath. Prat.

"I want to know why you did it, Bennett," Potter said evenly, pouring out a stream of smoke into the night air.

I blinked up at him, pretty sure I knew what he was referring to but wanting to play dumb all the same. "Did what?"

"Oh, I don't know," Potter drawled sardonically, expression wry. "Wreck havoc among my extended family by starting a massive cake fight, maybe?"

I glowered at Potter for a long moment. He stared back unflinchingly, face inscrutable.

"Why'd you do it, Bennett?" he finally said, voice low, his hazel gaze surprisingly intent as it locked with my own. "Why'd you throw cake into Vic's face?"

I stared at Potter for a long moment, wondering if he was genuinely curious, if he was sincere or somehow trying to get this information to use against me.

Then — maybe it was because of my exhaustion, maybe because this whole sodding night had felt so surreal — I surrendered.

"Victoire was about to announce her engagement to Teddy tonight," I said flatly, tone void of emotion. Potter cocked a cool eyebrow in surprise, and I continued: "She was going to ruin Dom's birthday party, and I knew Dom would be upset, so... Well, chocolate cake in the face had seemed like a good tactic at the time."

I bent my knees to my chest, wrapping my arms around them protectively as I let my last word sink into the air. Potter didn't say anything to this, continued smoking his cigarette, expression one of dark amusement. For some reason, his silence really bothered me. It was almost worse than if he'd just laughed me off, told me my reason was idiotic or pointless.

This silence — this incalculable, inexplicable silence — it pissed me off.

"You don't understand," I finally blurted out, my frustration getting the better of me. I could just tell Potter thought Dom to be silly for making such a big deal out of a party, and I felt my inner best friend instincts rise to defend her. "You don't understand what it's like to be constantly overshadowed by someone, and that's how Dom feels when it comes to Victoire. She deserved one night, at least, with the attention focused on her."

No response. Just more silence. Potter's face had lost some of its nonchalant amusement, however, his brow crumpling into a more serious frown as he took another drag. His eyes were bright, narrowed.

"Forget it," I mumbled, more to myself than anything. "Wouldn't expect you to understand, of all people."

And how could he? Potter was Potter, for Merlin's sake. Quidditch star, one of the more popular blokes in our year notorious in looks and charm. He had the whole package.

“And you do?” he asked neutrally, raising an eyebrow. "You know what it's like?"

“Um, do you know who my brother is?" I bit out, exasperated. “I've been living in Aidan's shadow since we were born."

“Alright," Potter said slowly, taking the cigarette from his mouth and methodically flicking its ash onto the ground. "And you don't think I know what it's like? To be in someone else's shadow? To have to match someone's reputation?"

“No," I retorted, perhaps more forcefully than necessary. "No, you don't."

Potter didn't say anything, his eyebrows raised incredulously. And then he gave an abrupt, breathless laugh. It was a dark and rich sound, tinged with just the slightest hint of bitterness. "Alright, Bennett," Potter said easily. "When was the last time your father saved the world?"

Oh.

I stared at him, agape, realizing I had no answer for his question. "You — " I began, but faltered. Never would I have considered Potter's situation in that particular light. I snapped my mouth shut, effectively rendered speechless.

“That’s what I thought,” Potter finally said grimly. He dropped the cigarette and stubbed it out with the toe of his converse. "See you around, Bennett."

And with that, he turned around and was walking away into the summer night, leaving me alone, more frustrated and exasperated than I'd already been.

Bollocks.

Chapter 4: Love-struck
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Disclaimer: All HP-verse is J.K. Rowling's.



August 31st.

Sighing, I stared at the shiny, white paper of my calendar, its little black dates blurring together as my eyes unfocused. Picking up a red Sharpie from my desk, I uncapped it and pointed the marker at the last square of the month, my hand shaking slightly as it hovered over the paper. August 31st. Slowly, I drew a neat ‘X’ across the date, the marker squeaking as it skidded against the glossy surface.

I capped the Sharpie and tossed it across the room, where it landed on my dresser with a clatter. One more day. One more day of summer, then I’d be off to Hogwarts for yet another year of schoolwork and tests. Except this time around, I was going to be a Prefect. With Potter.

Strangely enough, I did not find this prospect the least bit exciting.

I rolled off my bed and ambled over to my school trunk, which was lying open on the floor. Inside, all my clothes were folded neatly, my books placed carefully on top in alphabetical order. Everything was packed, color-coded and organized, and the corresponding inventory that I had written was cross-referenced for optimum efficiency.

Yet I still had a tiny, nagging feeling that I was forgetting something — the only problem was that I didn’t know what.

Scowling, I tapped my foot against the hardwood floor of my bedroom, gazing up to the ceiling in mild consternation. What could it be? I had all my clothes, my toiletries, my shoes, my schoolbooks...

And then I remembered: My Quidditch Through the Ages book! I had lent it to Aidan over the summer, and he had never given it back. Well, duh.

With this new mission in mind, I hastily left my room and bustled down the hallway, determined to find Aidan and my book. Knowing him, he was probably in his room watching TV or something, pushing off the chore of packing until the very last minute.

When I reached it, the door to his bedroom was shut. I could hear angry rock music blaring loudly from the inside. I rolled my eyes and knocked.

No answer. I knocked again, and then a third time for good measure.

The loud music came to an abrupt stop, and then I heard Aidan curse. Loudly. There was a long pause, followed by some odd scuffling noises and yet another string of creative curse words.

I arched an eyebrow. What was that kid doing in there?

After some more scuffling noises and creative cursing, the door finally swung open halfway, revealing a very discomforted Aidan glaring at me, his face flushed beet red.

“What do you want?” he snapped.

“What are you doing in there?” I stood up on my tiptoes, decidedly ignoring his question as I attempted to peek into Aidan’s room over his shoulder. He hastily stepped sideways, blocking my view.

“N-nothing.” Aidan shrugged, leaning causally against the doorframe. But his shaky stutter betrayed his unease. “Why do you ask?”

“Well, I just heard some funny noises, and I was wondering — "

“Cleaning,” Aidan blurted out, cutting me off abruptly. He let out a suspicious, trembling laugh. “I was just, uh, cleaning.”

“Cleaning?” I repeated skeptically.

Aidan flushed, running a hand nervously through his hair. “Yeah. Cleaning. You know. To make things... Er, clean."

My eyebrows flattened into a frown of cynical disbelief at this ridiculous explanation. “You’re lying,” I observed dryly. I always knew when Aidan wasn’t being exactly truthful with me. Call it a weird, twin telepathy thing.

Or maybe Aidan was just a shitty liar.

I leveled Aidan with a scrutinizing stare, my eyebrows arched defiantly. "You never clean, Aidan. Why would you start now?"

“What are you talking about?” Aidan blustered, fidgeting with a piece of string from his shirt. “I love to clean.”

“Aidan, your room hasn’t been clean since the Dark Ages. Your room is so filled with crap, Amelia Earhart could be hiding in there for all we know."

Aidan glanced exasperatedly down to the floor, and then up at the ceiling in a pitiful, why-God-why fashion. He huffed a dramatic sigh. “Whatever, Agatha. Can you please just tell me what you want so you can leave?”

I plastered on a simpering smile. “My Quidditch Through the Ages, please.”

“Hold on.” The door slammed shut, and I heard some more shuffling noises, which probably meant that Aidan was searching amidst the mountainous piles of junk in his room for my poor book. I drummed my fingers against the mahogany doorframe impatiently.

A few minutes later, the door swung open again. I looked up, surprise barely flickering across my face when Aidan, looking harried, shoved my book into my hands.

“Okay. Here you go!" he exclaimed, voice too bright and casual to be natural. "See-you-Aggy-later-bye!"

I opened my mouth, but he didn't even give me the time to complain about the now-worn state of the novel in my hands (he had dog-eared the pages! Dog-eared them!), because all of a sudden Aidan was swinging the door shut again.

I jerked back at the sound of the ensuing slam echoing down the deserted hall, and stared at the smooth wood of the door in front of me.

I frowned. Okay, I knew Aidan was weird, but he was never that weird. Something wasn’t right.

I sighed, running my fingers over the cover of my book, and ambled back to my room, all the time wondering what Aidan could possibly be up to, knowing that I'd probably find out soon enough.

—*—

September 1st.

I stared at the calendar before me, my forehead creased into a small, incredulous frown. With my trusty red marker I etched an ‘X’ across the date, shaking my head disbelievingly.

Today, I would be going to Hogwarts. Today — in a few minutes, really — I would be saying goodbye to my parents, and to the house, and to summer.

This thought filled me with a strange mix of sadness and excitement. I flopped back down on my bed, silent, and stared at the calendar as I tried to absorb all my emotions. Fear. Excitement. Anxiety. It was OWLs years, after all, and this meant a larger slew of obligations and stress. There was more to be responsible for, and more on the line.

“AGATHA!”

I jerked out of my reverie at my mother’s screeching voice, which was ringing out operatically through the house, and winced in pain. Well, there goes my hearing. Too bad — I'd kind of liked having five senses.

“AGATHA! AIDAN! LET’S GO! WE’RE GOING TO BE LATE!”

My lips curled into a scowl as I heaved myself off the bed. “COMING! Merlin, don’t get your knickers into a twist.” I walked over to my trunk, latched it shut, and then grabbed its brass handle. Inhaling sharply, I summoned all the strength in my body (read: very little) and dragged the trunk out my bedroom and (clumsily) down the stairs, my body straining against its weight.

Aidan and my mum were already waiting by the front door, Aidan’s trunk lying next to their feet as they looked up at me in mild impatience. Aidan was holding a purple backpack, his arms wrapped around it protectively like it was a small child.

"Where's Arnold?" I asked, referring to my daft and incredibly dull stepfather.

"He's at his Crossword Convention this weekend, I told you that," Mum said absentmindedly. She looked stressed and agitated, her forehead creased into a frown and her hair frizzy around her face. "But he wishes you the best. Ready to go?”

Shrugging nonchalantly at each other, Aidan and I grabbed our trunks as my mum practically ripped the front door of its hinges in her efforts to open it.

I went first, hauling my trunk down the front steps of our house and struggling with its clunky weight. Mum hastened to help, grabbing the other handle of the heavy crate and lifting it with me. Together, we carried my trunk down the pathway of our house and to the car, parked conveniently in the driveway.

“I don’t — see why — we can’t — just use magic!” I grunted as we stumbled towards the car, struggling tremendously.

“Oh, stop whining, Agatha,” Mum berated, obviously having none of my sass today as she unlocked the car with her key-chain. “You know why. What would one of the neighbors think if they saw a trunk hovering in mid-air?!”

I rolled my eyes and tossed the trunk in the car, glad to be finally rid of its weight. Sometimes living with muggles could be a real drag.

“Argh!” I turned around to see Aidan, groaning helplessly as he struggled to carry both his trunk and his backpack out of the house. The stubborn idiot was determined to get his stuff to the car in only one trip, and as such he could barely get out of the front door.

“Oh, Aidan!” My mother chirped, scampering eagerly up the pathway to where my brother still struggled. “Let me help!”

I rolled my eyes, knowing that my mum's fretful coddling and Aidan's Gryffindor man-pride were not about to make for a good match. My brother hated being helped, and was always maniacally determined to perform every little task, every little job on his own. Honestly, I had no idea where he got his stubbornness from. It, er, definitely wasn't a family trait.

“Here, sweetie." Mum was offering as she reached Aidan, extending her arms out for his purple bag. "Let me take your knapsack, and you can carry your trunk."

“No!” Aidan refused forcefully, arms squeezing tighter around the backpack. His eyes were wide and adamant, jaw jutted out as, with his other arm, he attempted to yank his trunk onto the path. It now looked like he had gotten into a one-sided fight with the doorframe, and was pathetically losing. “It’s okay! I’ve got it!”

“Don’t be silly, Aidan," my mum said, exasperation now tingeing her pleas to help. "Honey, just let me help you!”

She reached for the backpack once more but my brother hastily swiveled around, effectively blocking her arm.

“No!” he said, louder this time, and I could hear something else in his tone besides simple insistence. A strange edge of protective... panic. “Seriously Mum, I’m fine!”

“No you’re not! You can’t possibly manage all of that!”

“I told you, I can do it!”

“No, you can't!”

“Yes, I can't!”

“No, you can't! Just give me the backpack!"

“No — "

“Aidan — "

Oh for the love of — I felt my rage peak sharply as my family's bickering reached a high, nerve-grating crescendo.

“WILL YOU TWO JUST SHUT UP AND GET IN THE SODDING CAR ALREADY?!” I hollered, feeling my patience suddenly dissolve into explosive frustration. Time was ticking, we were going to be late, and meanwhile Pinky and the Brain over here couldn't figure out how to cross a bloody twenty-foot distance to the car. Seriously. How hard could it be?

Both Aidan and Mum froze in their spots, Aidan with a fierce, defensive snarl on his face, my mother still reaching desperately for his back. Scandalized, they turned their heads to look at me, and I sheepishly clamped my mouth shut. Realizing that I could probably benefit from reigning in the anger a little, lest the neighbors get curious, I inhaled sharply and flushed bright red.

He he he.” My laughter was high-pitched and shrill and horribly strained. My jaw clenched painfully as I forced my tone into one of refined politeness. “Ahem. Sorry. What I meant to say is that it would be great — fantastic, really — if you guys would stop arguing so that we could get a move on. Please.”

Aidan and my mother were silent for a moment. Then, my brother relented, stiff posture relaxing somewhat as he hugged his bag to his chest. “Fine. Just let me get my stuff in the car on my own, okay?"

“Are you sure?” My mum worried, predictably starting to fuss again. “That bag looks really heavy. You could hurt your back, Aidan — "

“I’m fine,” Aidan proclaimed resolutely once more, and I briefly wondered what was so precious in that backpack of his that was making him behave so strangely. A secret diary? Hard drugs? A million dollars in cash? “Really, I’m fine.”

“Just give me it, Aidan — "

“I’m fine!”

I closed my eyes and gnashed my teeth together, furiously willing myself to calm down before I went utterly ballistic on my entire family. Just breathe, Agatha, instructed a calming voice in my head. Inhale, exhale. Remember: these are the people you love. You do not want to hurt the people you love. They're the ones who will be in charge of taking care of you in your old age —

“Mum. Aidan,” I said through my mounting anger, trying unsuccessfully to phrase my next few words politely. “I would really, really appreciate it if you guys could please just GET IN THE BLOODY CAR ALREADY!”

Mum reared back in surprise, dropping her arms to the side, her tug-of-war with Aidan over the backpack apparently forgotten. “Goodness, Agatha," she gasped, thoroughly appalled. "There's no need to yell like that. Honestly, you need to work on our temper. I’m beginning to think that I should sign you up for some anger management classes!”

“No, no, no, no! That won’t be necessary,” I said firmly, heartbeat thudding wildly in my ears. Merlin, was it a bad sign that my mum was so hell-bent on getting me professional help?

“Are you sure?" Mum tilted her head knowingly at me, mouth pulled into a flat, sympathetic line. Forever on the path to self-improvement, my mum was already really warming up to the idea. "You could really benefit, Aggy. Or better yet, we can all go together. Like group therapy!" Mum seemed to brighten at this prospect, turning to my brother in cheery enthusiasm. "What do you think, Aidan? About therapy?"

Aidan, who had been too busy fiddling with his backpack to pay any attention to our conversation, looked up at my mum, suddenly startled. “Er, what did you just say? There’s a bee?" He began flapping his arms erratically in the air, twisting from side to side like a confused Golden Retriever. "Where? Where’s the bee?”

Go to your happy place, Agatha. Go to your happy place.

I relaxed my posture, shoulders slumping downwards as I recognized that I was fighting a losing battle here. Time to switch tactics. “You know what, mum?” I humored her gently, voice adopting a forced, but nonetheless agreeable, tone. “Therapy sounds great. How about we discuss the details in the car?”

“Good idea, Agatha,” My mum agreed, obviously pleased with my consent to her stupid idea, and nodded decisively. I blew a gutsy sigh of relief as she started to head down the path. Finally.

She stopped. “But first — " oh no "— we need to get Aidan sorted out." She turned to my brother one more, and I inwardly screamed in a slow-burning agony. "Here, honey, let me help you with your backpack...”

I sighed, opened the car door, and slid inside the vehicle as my mother and my brother began to bicker again.

Maybe I had been adopted at an early age, I mused as I glared witheringly through the windshield. Yeah, that must be it. Maybe my so-called "mum" had just found me on her doorstep one day and decided to pass me off as her child. Maybe I had no biological relation to these crazy people whatsoever.

...One could only hope.

—*—

When we finally got there, King’s Cross was in a state of chaos. Trollies piled with luggage veered and knocked into each other like bumper-cars-gone-wrong. People hastily hurried to their platforms, frantically checking their tickets with the Departure boards. And of course, the hopelessly daft magical families — most probably Purebloods who had absolutely no idea how the muggle world worked — were trampling through the hustle-bustle in all their owl-squawking, strange-robes-wearing glory.

Given the thick crowds, Mum decided to say her goodbyes outside the brick barrier that led onto Platform 9 and 3/4. After a few tearful pleas for us to stay healthy and eat our vegetables, as well as a couple unwilling photos ("Oh, sweetie, which button is the flash again?" "Mum, do we really have to do this?") she released us and was swept back into the crowd.

Platform 9 and 3/4 was no less packed. Children, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and every other bloody unnecessary family member were standing in obstructive huddles, their forgotten trunks forming veritable hurdles for anyone trying to walk past. There were so many people — crying, laughing, shouting people. I could barely stand it all.

If there was one thing anyone should know about me, it was that I hated crowds. I had a mildly claustrophobic streak, and couldn't tolerate being shoved up against too many sweaty, shouting people. It was so horrible — your feet got trampled on, someone always elbowed you in the gut, and there was inevitably that one overweight guy pressed up against you with body odor that could stun a yak.

Yeah. I wasn't a fan.

Thanks to all the people, Aidan and I immediately ended up getting separated — he was sucked into one cluster of people, and I dragged in another direction. I grappled with all the groups of strangers, the families saying goodbye, friends saying hello in an overwhelming deluge of human bodies.

“Excuse me! Sorry! Really, excuse me! Um, hi, could you move?” I called out as I pushed my cart through the throngs of people, stumbling over feet and trunks and owl (ew — owls) cages. I stood on my tiptoes, trying to spot Aidan in the sea of bobbing heads, but to no avail.

Pressed between one particularly loud Hufflepuff and his even louder mother, I felt like I was about to suffocate in this crowd. Oh Merlin, what if I didn’t make it? What if I just disappeared amongst all these people, never to be seen again? What would happen then? Who would feed Aidan and make sure he took a shower at least once every week? Who would be there to comfort Dom after she watched The Notebook for the thirty-thousandth time?

“Ow! Bloody — "

At the sudden expletive, I whipped around to see a little boy behind me, bent over and clutching his left foot in what appeared to be severe pain. He looked to be about seven-years-old, with an unfortunate bowl-cut that flapped erratically as he hoped on his one good foot.

“Ow! Owww!" he was groaning, eyes screwed shut.

I abandoned my trolley, leaving it behind as I marched quickly towards the kid. He looked like he could be seriously hurt and as a Prefect, I had some sort of responsibility to make sure he'd be alright.

“Are you okay?” I asked, concerned, and I crouched down to meet his height. “Where are your parents?’

The boy's eyes flashed open as he leveled me with a glare surprising in its acidity. “You bitch!” He squeaked at me, face turning red as he hopped around. I jerked back in shock. “You ran over my sodding toe with your sodding trolley! You sodding bitch!”

My eyebrows shot up disbelievingly. What did this kid just call me? Were boys his age even supposed to use that kind of language? I most definitely had not known words like that when I was seven! Though granted, all I had really done back then was sit around and eat play-doh...

“I’m sorry!” I stuttered, still completely taken aback by the vehemence of this strange character in front of me. “I — I didn’t mean to — "

“Dennis! Dennis! Are you alright?” I turned to see an old, tottering lady with a wooden cane hobbling towards us, pushing her way through the crowds and confusion as her shrewd, wrinkled gaze zeroed in on my form. She threw her arms around the small boy protectively when she reached him. “What happened?”

Dennis raised a shaking hand, his face pulled into a classic Kicked Puppy Look, and pointed his finger at me. “She did it, Gran. That mean lady rolled over my toe with her trolley! On purpose!”

That was when Dennis began to cry, his chubby face turning a bright beet red as he wailed. I gaped, too astonished to even protest.

'Gran' marched up to me, waving her cane madly in the air in a vaguely threatening manner. I took an instinctive step backwards. “How dare you?” She was exclaiming in a shaky, warbling voice, wrinkled face livid. “How dare you do such a thing to a young, helpless little child!”

And then — and then she proceeded to beat me with her cane.

Yup.

Beat me.

With her cane.

Hard.

Gran advanced forward, wielding her cane like a sodding weapon (which, now that it was rushing through the air towards my face, it kind of was) and hitting every part of me she could reach. I reflexively threw up my hands to block the blows, voice squeaky with outrage.

“Ouch! No! It wasn’t on purpose! Ow! Get off of me!" Gran was smacking me with such surprising ferocity — it was definitely going to be Bruise City tomorrow. I cowered frantically, unable to do anything but just let the horrible bludgeoning happen. I mean, it wasn’t like I could do anything to defend myself! I couldn't hit an old lady — no matter how surprisingly athletic said old lady turned out to be.

Gran dropped her cane for a few blessed seconds, but before I could rejoice in this sudden surrender, she was already taking a step backwards and then charging at me like a mad-bull.

"Ack, please no — Just stop — What are you doing? Ahhhhhh!” I screamed as Gran tackled me to the floor in a body-slam so painful, any respectable pro-wrestler would have been impressed. Several passersby shouted in surprise. I think one of them cheered.

This was just my luck, I bemoaned as Gran clambered off of me, white curls bouncing atop her head, and stooped to pick her cane back up. "That'll show you to be more careful in a crowd next time," she said curtly.

And then, apparently satisfied with her particularly effective attack, Gran sniffed, patted her curls in a dignified manner, and grabbed Dennis' hand. The two waddled off without another word, leaving me in a contorted heap on the ground.

Merlin. Leave it to me to piss off the one grandmother that, apparently, trained for bloody decathlons in her spare time. The Fates must just really have it out for me, though I had no idea what kind of karmic misdeed I could have performed to deserve their wrath — I wasn't a serial killer, or a vandal, or even a 'buy-it-wear-it-then-return-it' person.

In fact, I was a pretty moral, decent human being. I was a hard worker, I recycled when the bin was on my side of the room, I tried to reign in any and all homicidal urges when around Potter... I did what I could!

Lying in my crumpled position on the ground, I waited for some kind student around me to bend down, help me up or ask if I were alright. But to no avail — the platform's activity continued to move just as before, people paying me no heed as they stepped over (and in some cases, on) me. I sighed (typical) and heaved myself to a stand, wincing in pain as I returned to my trolley and started to push, agonizingly, through the crowd again. I would check for any internal bleeding later.

It would be pointless to try and find Aidan now. The train was about to leave soon, and he was either on it, or surrounded by some protective posse of giggling girls, or both. I should just focus on the single — and apparently deceptively hard — goal of getting myself out of this crowd alive.

After about ten minutes of navigating through more hoards of people, I finally popped out of an opening in the crowd. I stumbled forward and looked up to see the cherry-red metal of the Hogwarts Express looming above me. I stopped, taking in the train in all its cheerful, surprisingly large glory. It was a breathtaking sight, really.

Abandoning my trolley, I took out my trunk and hauled it up the metal steps of the train, my heartbeat skittering with too much excitement for me to register the ache in my arms. Finally. Finally, after a whole summer of my crazy, scatterbrained mother, after enduring the crowds and psychotic grandmothers of King's Cross. Finally, I was on my way to Hogwarts.

The inside of the train was cool compared to the heat of the platform, and much quieter. All I wanted to do now was find a nice, empty compartment where I could collapse in exhaustion, rest a bit, and maybe check to see if all 206 of my bones had survived The Epic Painful Cane Wrath of Gran. But I knew that, sadly, this wouldn't be possible for a while — I had my stupid Prefects’ meeting first. With stupid Potter. Ick.

I heaved my trunk onto one of the luggage racks, glancing at my watch as I did so. 10:53 AM. The train would depart at 11:00, which was also when the Prefects’ meeting as set to start. Sighing and grumbling to myself about psycho-grandmas and blunt force trauma, I made my way to the Prefects’ compartment near the front of the train.

The Hogwarts Express was crowded, but not to the unbearable extent of the Platform. Students were running up and down the corridors, frantic friends laughing and chatting, reunited couples wrapped in each other’s arms. Everyone was filled with jittery excitement over the fact that soon we would be leaving. Soon, we would see Hogwarts again.

When I finally arrived at the prefects’ compartment, the door was closed, the curtains drawn mysteriously shut. I hesitated nervously outside in the hallway, my fingertips tingling as my hand hovered over the silver handle of the door.

But the door swung open before I could even properly work up the courage to make myself move.

Standing in the entrance of the compartment was a perky blonde by the name of Elsie Van Hollander, a seventh-year who, judging by the gold badge shining proudly on her chest, had been made Head Girl this year.

“Oh good, Agatha!” Elsie chirped in her usual over-enthusiastic voice, and I was a bit surprised she knew my name. “You’re here!”

Elsie Van Cooper was the type of girl who was always perpetually, unfailingly, obnoxiously happy. You could tell her that Russia and England had just gone to nuclear war, and she would probably respond with her trademark catchphrase: "Well, isn't that just dandy?!"

The Head Boy, I discovered as I walked into the compartment, was Jacob Fareweld. No surprise there, seeing as Jacob was one of the smartest students at Hogwarts. He was a snob, though, and looked down on anybody who wasn’t nearly as intellectually-gifted as him (which would be, wait for it, everyone other than Jacob).

The Prefects’ carriage looked pretty pimped out, much fancier than the regular compartments with cushy benches, gilded accents on the walls, and a silver platter of fancy fingers sandwiches on a table in the center. My mouth watered at the sight (I was sucker for food in miniature form) but I refrained from taking one, as it seemed that nobody else had.

I crossed the compartment and flopped down next to some vaguely recognizable Hufflepuff girl, Helen Something-Or-Other. She smiled at and whispered hello, her voice lowered to match the hushed silence of the compartment.

I smiled blandly back at Helen Whatsherface, and then glanced around the rest of the compartment, scanning the tense atmosphere and row of impatient faces. Everyone was fidgeting in their seats, waiting anxiously for the meeting to officially start. The sixth- and seventh-year prefects were lounging by the windows, looking cool and disinterested, the sentiment 'I'd rather be anywhere but here,' scrawled plainly across their faces.

I belatedly realized that Potter was nowhere to be seen, and I grinned smugly to myself. So far, so good.

There were about five other fifth-year prefects: A scrawny Asian boy from Hufflepuff. A caramel-skinned girl and a gangly boy from Ravenclaw. A beautiful brunette Gryffindor who I recognized to be Margaret Corner, one of the more popular girls in our year. And lastly, my Slytherin counterpart. Ryan Fisher.

My stomach dropped. My heart skipped. My cliché clichéd. Ryan Fisher was possibly the most handsome boy in our year, in my totally objective opinion. His ashy blonde hair and grey eyes made girls literally swoon, had them using idiotic, trashy-romance-novel words like 'dreamy' and 'smoldering.' And while I wasn't one for hormonal daydreaming, even I had to admit Ryan was fit.

The two of us had talked several times already, seeing as we did run into each other, being from the same House. But he had never showed any interest beyond that of an affable acquaintance, and I wouldn't have tried to pursue him even if I'd known how. It was a widely-accepted fact around Hogwarts that Ryan Fisher never dated, which just made him all the more desirable.

Ryan caught my eye and smiled, showing off a set of perfect, white teeth that were practically a Colgate commercial in the making. I nearly melted into a puddle of human goo right then and there.

My heartbeat ringing in my ears, I turned away just in time to see the compartment door swing open and Potter amble in.

I grimaced.

“Sorry,” he greeted, flashing Elsie a 'charming' smile that made me want to gag. “Am I late?”

“No, you’re all good.” Elsie grinned warmly, and then glanced over her clipboard again to make an over-exaggerated check mark with her pencil. “So, I guess that's everyone. Isn’t that just dandy?!”

No one answered. On the way towards his seat, Potter casually, nonchalantly plucked a tiny sandwich from the plate and popped it in his mouth.

I clenched my jaw.

“Now that we’re all here,” Elsie began, “I’d like to start off by introducing —"

She was cut off by the sound of the train's high-pitched whistle, signaling that the Hogwarts Express was about to depart. The train lurched, and so did my stomach as I felt us start to roll out the station.

It was finally registering that we were actually leaving. Outside the window, the tearful faces of the families and friends on the platform became nothing but indistinct blurs as the train gathered speed, hurtling us through the countryside.

"Guess we're heading out! Okay, now to business," Elsie chimed, and with that, we launched into the giant snooze-a-thon that was the Prefects meeting. Elsie rambled on about prefect duties, occasionally throwing in an “Isn’t that just dandy?!” here and there while everyone else just nodded blankly. Jacob sat in the back, looking disinterested and smart.

I spent most of the meeting alternatively sneaking glances at Ryan and the sandwiches, confused as to how it was possible to even be that good-looking. (Ryan, I mean, not the sandwiches. Though those were pretty damn attractive too.) The bloke had matured well over the summer — his shoulders were broader, his skin tanner. He was looking at Elsie as she spoke, brow furrowed with an intent concentration that I found adorable.

“After the start of year feast, it is expected of the fifth-year prefects to lead the first-years to their dorms. Think of it as your... initiation, kind of.” Elsie’s blue-green eyes swept across the room, and she flashed a smile that was supposed to be encouraging. “Even though the task might seem intimidating, I’m sure you’ll do fine.”

“This is your patrol schedule,” Elsie said, as Jacob unenthusiastically started to pass out sheets of paper to everyone in the room. “Each of you will have at least three mandatory days when you are required to patrol a certain part of the castle at a certain time. Oh, and also, the passwords to your respective common rooms are written on top.”

I accepted my schedule with a quiet thanks and started to examine it. On Mondays, it looked like I had patrol with Ryan. Yes! I resisted the urge to jump onto my seat and start doing the Macarena.

But when I saw the rest of the schedule, however, my stomach twisted unpleasantly.

Because on Wednesdays and Thursdays, from 8:00 PM to 9:00 PM, I would be patrolling the halls with none other than James Sirius Potter.

Just my bloody luck.

I glanced up from my schedule to see Potter looking at me, a wry grin on his face.

“Well,” he said, voice mocking and amused. “Isn’t that just dandy?”

...Bollocks.

—*—

By the time Elsie and Jacob finally dismissed us, I was in a very bad mood.

I exited the Prefects’ carriage hurriedly, legs carrying me as swiftly as possible. I wanted to get far away from Potter and the unpleasant thought of Prefect's patrol with him, as if distancing myself might make both disappear forever.

I was making considerable headway, peeking into different compartments to look for Dom or Aidan, when a voice stopped me in my tracks.

“Hey, Agatha!”

I turned and saw that it was Ryan who'd called my name, waving his hand genially as he advanced towards me. Ryan Fisher. I blinked back my surprise, trying to quell the surge of nauseous excitement that rose in my stomach at the sight of his handsome face.

“Oh,” I said, voice overly bright. “Hey, Ryan! Long time no see."

He grinned a grin that made my heart leap. “So I guess we’re patrol partners on Mondays, eh?”

“Um. Yeah.” Um. Yeah? Was that all I could come up with? Come on, brain! Be witty and enchanting — or at least not monosyllabic!

Somewhat mortified, I turned once more to walk down the corridor of the train, Ryan falling in easy step with me.

“So, how were your summer hols?” he asked good-naturedly, his grey eyes sparkling.

Come on Agatha, Ryan Fisher is speaking to you. You have to respond. Say something... Say something!

“They were pretty uneventful, which is just how I like them." Yes, go Aggy — you said something! And it was in English and everything! Well done! “How about yours, Ryan?”

“Pretty nice — it’s weird to be back at school, eh?” he said thoughtfully, glancing at me with a wry smile. He suddenly stopped in his tracks, tilting his head apologetically at the compartment next to him. "This is my stop, so I'll have to leave you here. But I'll see you soon, Aggy! I'm excited to get started on our patrols!"

“Okay,” I smiled, trying to peer between the compartment's curtains to see who was inside. In a totally un-stalkerish way, obviously. “See you around."

“Yeah,” he grinned, opening the door to the compartment to let out a burst of excited chatter and laughter coming from inside. “See you around.”

The compartment door slammed close, and then I was left in silence, a stupefied, love-struck smile on my face. Shaking myself from my daydreams, I was just about to start walking again when I realized that... I had nowhere to go. Where was Dom? Where was Aidan? And bollocks, were there even any empty compartments left?

Bang!

I jumped as the door to a compartment a few feet away flew open, and (speak of the devil) out marched Dom, her green eyes wide as saucers and gleaming in excitement.

“Was that Ryan Fisher you were just talking to?” she demanded, green gaze boring insistently into mine as she advanced.

“Nice to see you too, Dominique," I quipped drily, but was silenced when Dom grabbed me by the arm and, shushing my protests, hauled me inside her empty compartment, hastily slamming the door shut behind her.

"I do not appreciate being manhandled, you know — " I started to grumble, rubbing the spot where Dom had gripped by arm.

My best friend resolutely ignored my complaint, rounding on me excitably with triumph gleaming in her eyes and a shameless Cheshire grin curling at her mouth. “It was! You were just talking to Ryan Fisher, weren’t you?!”

“Er, maybe?” I said, kind of frightened by my best friend's ferocious intensity.

“Yes you were!" Dom jabbed the air with a volatile finger, hopping slightly from the vehemence of the motion. "I saw the whole thing through my compartment window!”

My brow flattened. “That’s not creepy at all, Dom.”

But Dom paid no heed to my drawling exasperation. She was already launching into her own personal world of boys and romance and relationships, face taking on an unnerving look of complete bliss. “Oh my God, I can’t believe you were talking to Ryan Fisher! He is so fit!”

“You know, you don’t always have to refer to him by his full name — "

“Ryan Fisher!” Dom shrieked, making me jump. “Is he a Prefect too?”

“Yes," I said somewhat warily, though there were the beginnings of a smile twitching at my mouth. I tried to look casual and unfazed as I took a seat, admitting: "I have patrol with him on Mondays.”

“You do? Oh man," Dom moaned, yanking two hands through her hair. "What I wouldn't give to spend some alone time with that dish! I wish I was a Prefect!”

I snorted at the thought. “Yeah, like you could ever be a Prefect."

“What are you on about?” Dom grinned playfully as she plunked down across from me, wiggling into her seat and stretching her legs out. “I would make a great Prefect!”

“Dom, you use first-years as your own personal lackeys.”

“I do not!”

“You make them carry your books and fetch you food!”

"It builds character! I'm doing them a favour!"

But before Dom could fully articulate her no doubt, very logically sound argument, the door to our compartment flew open with yet another bang, and in marched Aidan and his gitty friends.

“Why hello there," Fred greeted jovially, spreading his arms out grandly before him. "How are you lovely ladies faring this fine morning?”

Aidan (still carrying his backpack — seriously, he wouldn't let that thing out of his sight) swaggered inside, closely followed by an amused-looking Potter. I rolled my eyes at the sight of them, all boyish ease and carefree arrogance.

“If it isn’t the Tweedle Trio,” I spat irritably, crossing my arms.

“The Tweedle Trio?” Fred asked, dumbfounded, eyebrows already making their way to his hairline.

“Yeah,” I affirmed, voice bright with mock cheer. “You know — Tweedledee, Tweedledum and Tweedledumber.” I pointed to Potter, Aidan, and Fred respectively, enjoying the way that their faces all immediately flattened into unimpressed scowls.

“I believe that was a burn,” Dominique pointed out matter-of-factly as she reached over to give me a gloating high-five.

“Sticks and stones,” Aidan sing-songed. He plunked himself down next to me and twisted his torso around, facing me eagerly. “So how’s it going, sis?”

My eyes narrowed in wary suspicion. "Fine.”

“Fine? Fine? Your beloved twin — your own flesh and blood — asks how you are and all you can give him is one measly, pathetic 'fine'?” Aidan gasped, slapping a melodramatic hand over his heart. “Shameful! Just absolutely shameful!”

“It’s disgusting, is what it is,” Fred agreed solemnly. Potter stifled a snort.

I rolled my eyes (funny, I'd been doing that a lot, lately) and sighed in exasperation. “What do you lot want?”

“Why, we only desire your marvelous and delightful company, my dear Agatha," Aidan pronounced all too innocently, as if me entertaining any other theories was absurd. "Can’t a brother visit his favorite sister once in a while without being suspected of wicked intentions?”

“You want money for the sweets trolley, don’t you?”

“Please?”

I sighed and dug through my pockets, sifting through my coins before tossing Aidan a couple. “Enjoy,” I said flatly, hoping they would then leave me and Dom in peace.

But, of course, they didn’t.

Much to my dismay, Fred and Potter sat down next t o Dom, making themselves comfortable as they immediately launched into a laughably serious discussion about their stupid Back to School Prank (or Idiot-palooza, as I liked to call it). It was a tradition of theirs that, on the first week of every school year, the three gits would dream up some deranged, horribly devised prank to roll in the semester, terrorizing the first-years and raising McGonagall's blood pressure in the process.

“I’m telling you!" Freddy was arguing to Aidan, gesturing vehemently in protest. "Giving them pink hair would be hilarious!"

"Yeah, mate, but we did that last year,” Potter pointed out. Next to him, Dom shot me a pointed, this-is-bloody-annoying look that I could fully sympathize with.

"Well then, what else can we do?"

“Maybe we could go with the Jell-O Idea?”

The Jell-O Idea? My brow crumpled. What was the Jell-O Idea?

Actually, never mind. I was better off not knowing.

The Tweedle Trio's obnoxious bickering and slow deterioration of my IQ, however, was luckily cut short by the arrival of the Trolley Lady — one of Hogwarts' unsung heroes and currently my favorite person ever.

"Cauldron Cakes! Chocolate Frogs! Sugar Quills!" She warbled out in our doorway, benign grandmotherly smile in place, and we all (Freddy especially) perked up.

Standing, we shook our legs out and swarmed the trolley, each buying a load of sweets that, in total, was probably enough to make the trolley significantly lighter and Britain's diabetes average significantly higher.

We settled back down, the room gradually trailing into silence, except for the occasional wrapper rustle, as we gorged ourselves on Pumpkin Pasties and Chocolate Frogs. It was a comfortable silence, one of relaxed companionship, and the kind that could only come about from knowing each other for five years.

Cheep, cheep, cheep.

I stopped munching on my Cauldron Cake, frowning at the strange, chirping sound I had just heard from somewhere in the compartment. Did I just imagine that? Swallowing, I looked around, swiveling my perplexed gaze from side to side. “Did anyone else hear that?”

“Hrrrrear fwat?” Aidan said eloquently, mouth stuffed chocolate.

Cheep, cheep, cheep.

My brow collapsed into a frown. “That! That weird chirping noise?”

“Yeah,” Dom agreed, nodding vaguely as she sucked thoughtfully on a Sugar Quill. “I heard it too. It almost sounded like some sort of... Bird or mouse, or something.”

Aidan froze, mid-chew, and paled visibly. “What?”

Cheep, cheep, cheep.

My brother's face had adopted a suspicious expression of panic as he fidgeted uncomfortably in his seat, looking very much like the kid with his hand in the cookie jar. He angled himself almost imperceptibly to exchange a significant look with Potter and Fred — a look that I failed to miss, jaw setting as I started to develop the growing sense that something was not right.

“W-what are you talking about?” Aidan stuttered anxious, swallowing down his chocolate with an audible gulp. One of his hands fell, unconsciously protective, onto the purple bag in his lap. “I didn’t, uh, hear anything.”

“Yeah,” Potter agreed, obviously a much better liar, as he shook his head. “You guys must be imagining things.

Cheep, cheep, cheep.

I glanced at Aidan once more, gaze tapering into blue slits. Huh. That was strange. It almost seemed like the sound was coming... from him.

“Aidan,” I said slowly, shrewdly. “What’s inside your backpack?” My voice was too high and tense to sound legitimately curious.

“Nothing,” Aidan immediately replied, the word snapping out of his mouth in a burst of barely-restrained terror. He clamped his lips shut, swinging his head left and right viciously.

I stood up, my arched eyebrows a warning. “Give me your backpack, Aidan.”

Aidan clutched the bag to his chest, shirking backwards with a look of horror at the mere thought. “Never,” he said scathingly.

But this only hardened my resolve. "Give it, Aidan.”

“No!” Aidan stood up defiantly, expression dark and mutinous as he hugged the backpack closer to him.

"Aidan — "

“Bennett, there’s nothing in that backpack — “ Potter began to stand up too, but was effectively cut off by my voice, low and clipped and threatening.

“Aidan, don’t be difficult. Give me your backpack!” It was eerie how much I sounded like my mother at that moment.

“No! Never —“

“EUAGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!” With a scary war-cry that was, perhaps, a little bit overkill, I launched myself at Aidan. We landed on the wooden floors of the compartment with a spectacular thud, me on top of him, Aidan writhing beneath me in squawking protest. Quickly, before my brother could get his bearings and remember that he was the considerably taller, stronger, and more athletic sibling, I wrenched the backpack free from Aidan’s arms and scrambled to a standing position.

I was just about to unzip the bag to have a look when a heavy force collided into the back of my legs, making them buckle and crumple like paper. I toppled backwards onto the floor, the breath effectively knocked out of my lungs as my back made contact with the hard ground.

Staring at the ceiling, I realized that Aidan had kicked my legs out from behind.

That little, dirty-fighting, horrid piece of — “Ow,” I moaned, wincing a bit as I clutched the back of my head.

But already, my brother was scrambling triumphantly to a stand, breathing rather heavily as he reached down to snatch the bag away.

“No — don’t — Aidan!” But it was too late, he already had the prize. He thrust the purple knapsack in the air victoriously, stumbling backwards from me somewhat woozily as he wrenched open the door to the compartment.

“See you later, suckers!" my brother cried, sounding only slightly unhinged, and for a moment it looked like he really would make his dramatic exit — but then Dom stepped in.

“Oh no you don’t!” My best friend had immediately jumped to my defense. Muttering a rather colorful stream of profanities, she lunged at Aidan to try and snatch the bag away.

But Aidan wouldn’t let go, and instead the two became haplessly embroiled in a demented Tug of War match, the purple bag yanked helplessly between them, Dom shrieking all the while.

...Until Fred Weasley, apparently, deciding enough was enough, clambered to a stand on his seat, yelled out "BATTLE ROYALE!" and then proceeded to hurl himself at the two of them in an attempt to grab the bag.

Chaos descended.

Immediately, the compartment was filled with screams and shouts (and a lot of swearing) as Dom, Aidan and Fred scrabbled and fought at each other, the purple backpack the sole prize, the all-important goal. At one point, it was knocked from Dom’s hands by one of Aidan's poorly-aimed lunges, the bag sent flying across to the other side of the room —

— where Potter and his stupid Quidditch reflexes caught it with ease.

“Got it!" Potter shouted jubilantly. But before he could do anything further, I had clambered onto my own seat Freddy-style and was launching myself at his back.

"Bloody — !" He yelped, teetering backwards and forwards as I latched on to him like a demented koala, yelling profanities in his ear all the while. Potter tried to throw me off by spinning swiftly around. But I wouldn’t — I refused — to fall.

“Give me — the bag — Potter!” I screamed wildly as he whirled in another nauseating circle. The compartment room spun around and around, like a horribly deranged rollercoaster ride, and I felt sick to my stomach.

“NO!” Potter shouted, holding the bag in the air above my head. I tried to grab for it with one hand, but it was out of my reach, dangling in front of me like the bloody carrot in front of the bloody donkey.

“GIVE IT!”

“I WILL NEVER SURRENDER!”

“EUAGHHHH!" Suddenly, Dominique threw herself at the both of us in a shrieking charge of red-gold hair and sheer fury, knocking our already precarious equilibrium off-kilter. I fell off Potter’s back and landed on the floor with a yelp, and Potter, taken by surprise, dropped the bag.

It was as if everything had turned to slow motion, that’s how clearly I saw what happened next. I watched the bag drop to the floor — watched it fall, fall, and fall — and almost as if it were a reflex, threw my hands out in front of me.

And, to my astonishment, caught the bag.

There was a period of hushed silence.

No one seemed to be able to move, frozen in various absurd positions around the compartment as they saw the purple backpack in my hands and recognized that it was over.

I scrambled to sit upright, hastily unzipping the backpack, and, my heart racing, saw what was inside.

"Oh my god."


Chapter 5: Discovery
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“Now, Agatha, I can explain! This is not what it looks like.”

“NOT WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE?”

“No, it’s not! Just... just don’t freak out, okay?”

“DON’T FREAK OUT?”

“It’s not that big of a deal!”

“NOT THAT BIG OF A DEAL?”

“Okay, Aggs, you're going to have to stop repeating everything I say like that — It’s getting annoying.”

“IT’S GETTING ANNOY — ? ARGH!”

I glared at my brother with slitted eyes of fury, face burning red-hot from the angry blood churning to my skin's surface. This was — this was — terrible! Horrific! Inexcusable! No words could describe the atrocity that my brother had just unleashed by bringing this bag on to the Hogwarts Express. How could he do this? How could he be so stupid?

I tried to steady my voice, tried to stop my fists from shaking so much as I spoke in clipped words of barely suppressed anger. “Aidan,” I said through clenched teeth. “You are — This is — I can’t — ARGH!”

At this wonderful display of eloquence, my brother darted his blue gaze unsurely around the compartment, not knowing what to make of my stuttering.

“Agatha," he said to me, though his eyes were lingering wistfully on the compartment's exit. "Just please, for Merlin's sakes, calm down — “

“CALM DOWN?" That was the final straw. I threw my hands into the hair, immediately enraged by this ridiculous request. “AIDAN, YOU ARE TRYING TO SMUGGLE A GERBIL INTO OUR SCHOOL, AND YOU EXPECT ME TO CALM DOWN?!”

Dom gasped in wonder from where she was standing next to me, lips drawn into a round 'o' shape. “Oh my god, is that what’s in there?”

And unfortunately, I couldn't say no. Because she had heard all-too-correctly.

The little mystery item that was hiding in Aidan’s backpack? The one that had been causing all the current drama?

It was a gerbil. A bloody gerbil. My brother was attempting to smuggle a glorified rodent into Hogwarts, risking months-worth of detention, violating several key school rules, giving me an aneurysm in the process — simply because he wanted a pet.

Dom yanked the backpack roughly from my hands (which was, come to think of it, probably not the best for the animal inside) and peered into it, her light green eyes widening as she saw the furry critter.

“Eee! It’s so cute!” she squealed.

“CUTE?” I bellowed. “CUTE?” I snatched the backpack from Dom, leaning towards her with wide, maniacal eyes, and my bestfriend shirked away, looking somewhat chagrined.

“Do you people realize how much trouble we could get in if we're caught?" I cried, swiveling around to face the compartment's other occupants. I was met with blank faces and apathetic stares. "Only owls, frogs and cats are allowed at Hogwarts! Any other animal is illegal! Not to mention unheard of!"

“Agatha," Aidan said in an exclamation of mingled exasperation and fear. He looked at me beseechingly, face pulled into the customary Puppy Dog Look he always adopted whenever I caught him doing something wrong. "Please, please try to keep your voice down. We don't want anyone to know about this."

I gaped at him disbelievingly. If I were a cartoon character, right now would be the moment when my head started swelling in size and then promptly imploded on itself. "Of course you don't wouldn't want anyone to know," I hissed in barely-restrained anger. "Because it's SODDING ILLEGAL, YOU SODDING IDIOT!"

"Aggy!" Fred interjected, obviously trying to join in on the pacification effort. He took a half-step forward but, upon seeing my enraged gaze swivel in his direction, promptly fell back. Potter, meanwhile, had leaned nonchalantly on the compartment wall next to him, arms crossed over his chest, expression set somewhere between dark amusement and a know-it-all smirk.

"Aggy," Fred repeated somewhat fearfully, hands held out in the same soothing gesture one might use to tame a rabid dog. "This is really nothing for you to worry about. We have the situation under control."

"We?" My face darkened dangerously. Next to me, Dom rolled her eyes, muttering something along the lines of, "Here we go."

I advanced forward menacingly, heartbeat still thudding in my ears. "Did you know abou this, Fred? Was this your doing too?"

"Um," said Freddy.

But I didn't need the idiot's spoken confirmation — I already knew the answer. Where there was an ill-fated, harebrained, illegal scheme, there was usually my brother. And where there was my brother, there was usually Fred.

And where there was Fred...

I ripped my gaze to Potter, taking in his casual, carefree demeanor with slitted eyes. "And you," I seethed. "You took part in this?"

In a sorry excuse for a response, Potter — his lips crooked in a barely-there smirk — nudged one of his shoulders upwards for a calm, blithe half-shrug. My left eye twitched.

So Fred and Potter were in on it, too. Ugh, they were shameless, the lot of them! Not only did they have to embark on stupid pranks and ridiculous plans, but they had to do it all together, tripling their chances of messing up and getting caught! I couldn't believe them!

Well, actually I could.

But still!

"Honestly, Aggy, let's just leave it," Dom was murmuring unhelpfully into my ear, but I couldn't even look at her. I was too busy struggling with the pit of dread that was currently pushing against my stomach lining.

The Tweedle Trio had a reputation at Hogwarts — one of pranks and mischief, of no-good trouble that anyone could tell you lived perfectly well up to the Weasley cousins' namesakes. The sheer presence of the boys alone had probably elevated McGonagall's blood pressure by 20 percent since they arrived at Hogwarts.

It was actually that, in her office, McGonagall had a dartboard with a photo of Fred's face on it. But no one had so far been able to verify the claim.

Regardless, Potter and Aidan and Fred collaborating together was never good news. Whenever they were involved, there was bound to be some sort of mayhem — whether it be Nostril Hair Growing Potions in the Slytherins' drinks at breakfasts, or the Prefect's baths mysteriously changing into ball-pits overnight. And while I had to admit that some of their pranks required pretty impressive magic and did make the students and even occasionally the professors laugh, I could never get behind them.

Because here was the thing: the idiots always got caught.

And who did Aidan come to whenever he was in trouble?

Me.

I darkly shook my head, more to myself than anyone else, as I stewed over these terrible new developments. "This is so idiotic," I muttered under my breath, before snapping my gaze back to Potter. "How can you be so blase about this? You're a Prefect this year! You're supposed to be stopping this kind of thing, not contributing to it!"

"I'm not contributing," Potter said innocently, though the corners of his lips were still twitching insufferably. "Think of me as... a passive participant. Minus the passive."

I bit back a growl.

"Okay, can we all just calm down?" Dom interjected quickly, sensing a brewing argument between Potter and I. "What's done is done, Aggy. How about we just let Aidan keep his gerbil and call it a day?"

"Rufus," my brother said quickly.

Dom blanched, her green eyes blinking in sudden bewilderment. "Pardon?"

"His name is Rufus. The gerbil's name is Rufus," Aidan corrected primly as he straightened to a dignified height, oblivious to the laughable absurdity of what he was saying.

"You named it?" I hissed disbelievingly, and I felt anger charge through me all over again.

"Of course," Fred piped up, though his perky demeanor quickly deflated as his lips tugged downwards in a pout. "Well, I personally thought we should call him Sir Cuddles, but that was quickly vetoed."

...They were so stupid, it was astounding. I couldn't even be angry anymore. I was simply too shocked by the spectacular display of human idiocy before me.

I took a deep breath, fingers clenching tighter around the backpack strap, and swiveled between my brother's pleading expression and Potter's defiant insolence, not knowing which was worse. “Where did you even find a gerbil, Aidan?” I finally said, injecting my tone with false calm.

“Well," Aidan began sheepishly, voice small. Good. At least the moron had the grace to act ashamed. "You know the pet shop down the road from our house?”

“Yessss." I dragged out the word warily, not liking where this was going at all.

“Well, I was in there one day, just looking around," Aidan began, voice and expression growing slightly heated as he continued on his rant. "When the owner told me that the shop was closing. For good! They were going out of business, and all the animals would be sent to the pound if they weren’t sold in the next day! And, well, I couldn’t stand the idea of some poor animal cooped up in a dingy pound! I had to do something, Aggy! I had to take action! I had to make a stand for animal rights!”

“So you bought a gerbil,” I said flatly.

“Yes!” Aidan exclaimed jubilantly, not noticing the are-you-an-idiot tone I was employing and the thin, unimpressed line of my mouth.

“Aidan,” I began slowly in an attempt at reason, trying my best to use my 'indoor voice' and not let my frustration get the best of me. “You can’t just smuggle in a gerbil and expect to get away with it! Where are you going to keep it? What if someone sees you? You’d get in so much trouble!”

“Please, Agatha," my brother pleaded. "We've worked out all the details, I swear. You don't have to have any part in it — just don't tell anyone."

I turned away from my brother's pitiful expression to Fred’s identical one and then, finally, to Potter, who was remaining resolutely silent. He stared at me, leaning against the wall with a look of pure, condescending amusement, as if my predicament was a particularly entertaining TV show. The prat.

"Come off it, Aggy," Dom entreated as she yawned in a languid, easy stretch next to me, evidently already bored with the matter and considering it finished. "Just let the morons do what they want. The gerbil's on the train already, there's nothing we can do."

I bit my lip and forced myself to finally peer into the open backpack, meeting the beady eyes of the critter that had been causing me so much stress over the past couple minutes. It peered back at me, a bundle of white and caramel fur, and I felt my resolve waver ever so slightly. Dom was right — the thing was pretty damn cute. I glanced into the backpack again. Black marble eyes stared up at me, curious and apprehensive.

And then, it twitched its tiny nose. Its tiny, little button nose... And that was what got me.

Maybe it would be okay to keep the thing. Just for a little while, that is, until we sorted out a sustainable solution to this mess. Like Dom said, there wasn't much we could do right now short of pawning the gerbil off on an unsuspecting first-year, and I don't think anyone would think that a viable option. We might as well take it with us into the castle. After all, how much harm could one tiny little gerbil inflict?

I sighed. “Okay, we can keep it — “

Fred and Aidan cheered at the news, pumped their fists into the air and then embarked on a celebratory round of idiotic macho chest-bumping. Potter kicked off the wall and straightened to a full stand, regarding me with mild surprise splayed across his expression, a smooth eyebrow cocked.

“— On a few conditions,” I added, and the cheering and chest-bumping and rampant stupidity came to an abrupt halt.

Potter stepped forwards. “What conditions?” he ventured cautiously, hazel eyes alight with intrigue. It was the first time he'd bothered to speak in a long while.

I shot Potter a particularly acidic glare before swivelling around to the other two gits, straightening imperiously as I did so.

“One: you guys have to take care of it," I demanded. "I’m not letting some poor, innocent creature die just because you lot don't know the meaning of responsibility. You need to find a place to keep it, a cage, and food.”

“Done, done, done,” Aidan said easily. “We are going to be the best gerbil caretakers ever, Aggs."

“Which leads me to my second condition,” I said, eyebrows arched warningly. “You guys can not suck Dom and me into this, okay? We are tired of having to bail you three out every time you get into trouble. Deal?”

Aidan looked between Fred, who nodded eagerly, and Potter, who shrugged in neutral assent. Finally, he swiveled to me, chest puffing with pride and barely-concealed satisfaction. “Deal,” my brother said, thrusting out his hand.

We shook on it. "I'm trusting you Aidan," I said seriously. "Don't mess this up."

“Agatha, stop worrying,” Fred soothed confidently. “When have we ever let you down?”

...Oh boy.

—*—

I had always been a cautious child.

From a very young age, I'd embraced my fear of risk, my love for responsibility, as being part of my nature. While Aidan and the other neighborhood kids would go to the local pool to do flips and dives of the board, I would be sitting on the deck, refusing to go into the water and meticulously applying my third layer of sunscreen. When the other kids ditched swimming for skateboards, I would stay inside — far from the hot sun and unforgiving concrete — and read a book instead.

I took the extra, unnecessary precautions many others ignored — seatbelts, antiseptic creams, erasable pencils instead of permanent markers. I refused to take chances, hating the queasy, nauseous feeling that came from such insecurity.

Aidan and my mother were the complete opposite — careless and constantly forgetful, they left it up to me to provide the logic and the sense. By the young age of nine, my role in our family had been cemented — I was The Practical One. It was my job to empty the dishwasher, fish the car-keys out of the potted plants (where they somehow, inexplicably, always ended up), even make dinner on the occasions my mum forgot.

Like my father, I preferred dry reason and rationality. I observed, I hypothesized, I analyzed and, as a child, I craved security. While Aidan had been the daring one, always willing to climb the tree or do the flip off his bicycle, I hated breaking rules. To this day, I still did.

Which is why, that night, I sat at the Slytherin table during the Hogwarts Sorting Ceremony with an especially uneasy feeling in my stomach. The anxiety and the disturbing jitters were a familiar sensation — the same one I always had when I intuitively felt like Aidan was about to make a big mistake.

...Which was, come to think of it, basically all the time.

The Great Hall looked majestic that night, with a deep cobalt ceiling peppered by silver, glinting stars, and candles bobbing merrily in the air. Yet I couldn't fully appreciate its winking splendor, to busy thinking about Aidan and the cursed purple backpack he was carrying.

In the hushed silence, I twisted my hands nervously as the first-years, one by one, stepped up to the Hat for the Ceremony, their frightened faces flickering in the amber glow of the overhead candle light. Excitement and anxiousness tingled in the atmosphere, somehow augmented by the stern, grave expressions of the professor's faces at the Staff Table.

Ever since the end of the War, Hogwarts had relaxed on its (admittedly somewhat apartheid-esque) seating system for the Great Hall. We were no longer required to sit by House, except during big ceremonies such as this one. Usually, Hufflepuffs, Gryffindors, Slytherins, Ravenclaws were free to mingle — though sometimes this created more problems than it solved.

Dom and I sat towards the end of the Slytherin table, duly clapping to welcome any new additions that had been sorted in our House. Dom looked perfectly relaxed — the excitement on the train already a faraway memory for her. I, on the other hand, was doing all I could not to betray the Classic Agatha Bennett Freak-Out raging inside me. I was unable to concentrate on McGonagall, on the Sorting Hat, on the petrified faces of the first-years. All I could do was clap automatically whenever someone was sorted into Slytherin, and even then, my hands moved mechanically on their own accord.

I tried to quell my queasiness, nodding faintly along to Dom occasional burst of whispered, under-the-breath commentary about the latest back-to-school gossip ("And did you see how short Missy O'Mara's skirt was? She might as well have just tied her House scarf around her waist and called it a day."). My gaze restlessly scanned the crowd and landed on Freddy, Potter and Aidan, all sitting at the Gryffindor table and looking various shades of bored. The purple backpack rested innocently in Aidan’s lap, unnoticed by all.

After Karen Zachary had finally been sorted into Gryffindor, Headmistress Vespertine stood to make her customary beginning of the year speech.

Vespertine has been Headmistress since Third Year, when McGonagall stepped down to teach Transfiguration full-time. Despite the downgrade in title, however, Mickey-G still retained her power as Head of Gryffindor, along with her fun little ability to instill terror into the depths of any student's heart. She was a tough one, having weathered two Wars and Freddy Weasley's self-descriebd Yodeling Phase. But I was pretty sure Mickey had a soft spot for me, seeing as I did well in her classes.

Vespertine, on the other hand, seemed to have a soft spot for nobody. She was a stern, very accomplished woman — a prominent member of the Wizengamont, a respected scholar and, at one point, had even been a candidate for Minister — er, Ministress — of Magic in 2018, following Kingsley Shacklebolt resignation. She lost the election however, which went to a man named Eros Humdudgeon, and instead got to settle for the wonderful deal of looking after a huge castle filled with young schoolchildren practicing magic. She was probably thrilled, natch.

As Vespertine took the podium, everyone in the Great Hall seemed to quiet down, straightening slightly with attention. She gazed benevolently at all of us, her bright steel eyes taking in our faces. Vespertine was one of those people whose physical features match unnervingly well with her personality — dark blue-black hair, a sharp nose and stick-straight posture. No one was sure how old she was, and her age was a popular topic of speculation for the students of Hogwarts. It could have been anywhere between 30 to 50.

“Hello and good evening everyone," Vespertine greeted firmly, her voice ringing through the cavernous Hall. "I hope your summers have been eventful, though not to the point where you've forgotten about your academics. I'm excited to embark on this new year with you at Hogwarts, and I hope to be offering guidance for you all throughout your career here." Her smile was terse and thin, but a smile nonetheless. "We have a great year ahead of us."

“Now, I know that you are hungry," Vespertine acknowledged, tilting her head at the empty plates arranged on the tables. "But I need to make clear a few special points before the feast begins.” A few miserable students groaned quietly, clutching their grumbling stomachs. “First off, the Forbidden Forest, as the name suggests, is forbidden. Any student caught there will immediately be faced with detention and possibly even expulsion.”

My eyes flitted over to where Potter, Aidan and Fred were sitting, and I could see that they were all wearing identical, Cheshire-like smirks that showed just how much they respected that rule. I rolled my eyes, and Vespertine continued on:

Secondly, Mr. Filch would like all students to know that any items purchased from Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes are strictly prohibited at Hogwarts. Any student found with one will face punishment, and the item will be confiscated.” — The boys’ smirks grew considerably wider at this — “For a complete list of all The Prohibited Items here at Hogwarts, please see Filch.”

I sighed. Well, at least there'd been nothing mentioned about gerbils.

“Lastly, " Vespertine added, and the entire Hall seemed to fidget eagerly, ready for the end of the inane speech. "I am happy to announce that we have a new addition to our teaching staff this year. Please welcome our new Professor of Defense Against the Dark Arts, Theodore Nott.”

Whispers immediately rippled throughout the entire Hall as students turned to one other, tittering excitably.

My mouth fell open in surprise. Next to me, Dom choked on her own spit. Theodore Nott?

It was a pretty familiar name, Nott being a pretty notorious bloke. I stared up at the man who Vespertine was grandly gesturing towards. He was grim-looking, with dark blonde hair and a gaunt face. He looked old and weary, though I knew he couldn't have been more than fortyish. My ears hummed with the telltale buzz of the students chattering around me, already throwing out conjectures and speculations and new unnecessary fodder for Hogwarts' tireless rumor mill.

"Did she just say — "

" — Theodore Nott?"

"I heard the bloke was a Death Eater, back in the day."

"Yeah, big Voldy-supporter. Apparently he used to kill muggleborns with his bare hands — "

"— and then keep the remains in jars in his basement — "

"Well I heard he's reformed, and is now a professional singer-songwriter. He's got a record deal and everything."

"Really?"

"Yeah. He's pretty big in Japan."

Ignoring the students' chatter, I glanced at the Gryffindor Table to see Aidan’s reaction to all of this, noting his confused frown and the thoughtful glimmer in his navy eyes. Next to him, however, Potter and Fred were already half out of their seats in protest, complete outrage on their faces at the idea of someone like Nott, a well-known Slytherin Pureblood, teaching DADA. I snorted. Typical Gryffindor pride.

In addition to his lineage and whatever alignment he may have had during the War, Nott was a controversial choice as DADA Professor for one other reason. A few years back, Nott's wife had gone missing in a criminal case that had Aurors stupefied and The Daily Prophet in conniptions for weeks. The prime suspect had been Nott himself, though every time the man was (quite publicly) brought in for questioning, the Aurors always said it was inconclusive. The irony of it all was that the Aurors hadn't even been able to use Veritaserum in their interrogations, seeing as how one of Nott's greater achievements in his academic career had been his famous essay, A Theorem on the Seven Preventative Antidotes to Resist Truth-Telling Serums. He'd have known how to resist any dosage of Veritaserum, and therefore nothing he'd said could be trusted.

So the intense investigations came and went, Eileen Nott was never found, and the case had been dropped with no charges pressed. But there were still grim whispers, suspicious glances, accusing fingers to this day... and they were all directed at Nott.

Personally, I didn’t have any objection to his appointment as DADA Professor. After all, there was no concrete proof that he'd actually been a Death Eater, nor any that he'd killed or harmed his wife. In fact, Theodore Nott was actually quite respected among the wizardring scholar community. He'd probably make for an astute teacher.

"Students, students!" Vespertine was calling over the general clamor of the Great Hall, but no one paid her any attention. Somewhat resignedly, she fell back and issued a hasty: "That's all for now, dinner is served!"

Right on cue, our meals appeared on the plates in front of us, bringing about the customary gasps from all the awed first-years. Students began to feast, chewing and gossiping at the same time, all topics of conversation revolving around the jarring news we'd just received.

“Can you believe it?” Dom was saying, eyes wide with excitement as she forcefully impaled a piece of chicken with her fork. “I mean, wow. Theodore Nott.”

I shrugged noncommittally, still more concerned about the rodent in Aidan’s backpack than a new DADA teacher. “I don’t see what the big deal is.”

“The big deal? The big deal? He was almost sent to Azkaban!”

“They couldn’t prove anything, Dom.”

“Still.” Dom’s eyes moved swiftly across the room until they found their target. She sat for a moment, staring in thoughtful silence before observing: “He’s kind of hot, actually, in the brooding, I-might-be-a-serial-killer kind of way. Don’t you think?”

I rolled my eyes in exasperation, too tired from the events of this entire sodding day to muster up the proper disgust. “You’re sick, Dom. He’s old enough to be your father."

My best friend’s eyes glittered in the candlelight, coquettish and sly, as she gestured vehemently in circles with her fork. The still-impaled chicken on it flopped up and down, waving dangerously close to my nose. "Don't pretend you're not into the bad boy shtick. Just because you go cuckoo for squeaky-clean blokes like Ryan Fisher — "

" — I'm not cuckoo for Ryan Fisher," I interjected hastily, but Dom only shot me a skeptical, sure-you-don't look in response.

"Regardless," she wriggled playfully in her seat, setting down her fork and swiping up her goblet of pumpkin juice. "I think I've found my new favorite subject for the year. I wonder if Nott has any opportunities for extra credit, if you know what I mean — "

"Ugh, Dom, gross."

"— I'm sure he's good with his wand."

"Now that's just poor taste."

Dom merely laughed her trademark snorting, ridiculously lady-like laugh, tilting her goblet in mock-cheers. "Mark my words, Aggy, this is about to be an interesting year."

I dug my spoon into my mashed potatoes, grimacing at my plate. "That's what I'm afraid of."

—*—

"Merlin I'm so full I could explode," Dom groaned dramatically, dropping her fork onto her now empty plate as she clutched her stomach. I nodded fiercely in agreement, which was just about all I physically could do at the moment, seeing as my body was already relinquishing itself to an inevitable food coma.

“Me too,” I agreed somewhat morosely. I always stuffed myself at the Welcome Back Feast, and always regretted it afterwards when my small intestines threatened to burst. "I think that last bit treacle tart did it for me. Look, I can't even finish it!" I gestured to my plate, where the half-demolished desert was crumbled rather pathetically.

“Don’t," Dom bit out warningly, thrusting a hand up as her expression clenched into a grimace. "Don't make me look at that. Or else the five slices of treacle tart I just had are going to turn into treacle vomit."

I snorted. "Thanks for the mental image."

"Five slices, Aggy. Five. Slices."

The earlier excitement of the Great Hall had died down considerably as the majority of students were now exhaustedly slumped in their seats, having admitted defeat to the all-you-can-eat carb extravaganza that was the Welcome Back Feast. Dom and I grumbled drowsily too each other, waiting on Vespertine to dismiss us so we could head to our Common Rooms.

I yawned — now that my belly was satisfied, I was looking forward to the long, restful sleep that awaited me in the Dungeons. Hopefully a solid eight-hours would help me forget the ordeals of the day.

Wait a second — my brow furrowed in hazy unease as some annoying memory began to niggle at the back of my brain. Dungeons... The word brought to mind a foggy, distant detail of the past that was stubbornly eluding me.

And then, I remembered:

"Bollocks!" I suddenly exclaimed, realizing unpleasantly that my role as a Prefect entailed herding the first-years to the dorms. "I have to show the first-years to the Dungeons. Damn it, that's the last thing I want to do right now..."

Dom smirked, though she was too exhausted to put the full effort into her smugness. "Sucker."

"Thanks for the support, best friend," I snapped back, though my consternation quickly melted away as I remembered the one saving grace of this blasted Prefect's duty: Ryan Fisher. At least this would give me the opportunity to spend some quality time with him.

Soon enough, Ryan "Insert Dreamy Sigh Here" Fisher, with his blonde and stormy eyes, had me drifting off into hormonal day-dreaming, my face glazing over with a distant expression —

"I know that look," Dom said shrewdly, and I snapped back into focus to see her peering triumphantly at me. "You're thinking about Ryan right now, aren't you?"

“No, of course not!” I denied shiftily.

Dom simply shook her head, lips curling into a lewd smile. “You want to jump his bones.”

I inhaled sharply at the vulgarity. “I do not!”

“Don’t deny it, Aggy," Dom sing-songed maddeningly, waggling an obnoxious finger in my face. "You want to get your freak on.”

I leveled her with a flat glare. “Okay, firstly: Never again. Secondly: I only think of Ryan in a purely platonic way. We’re just acquaintances, is all!”

“Yeah, and McGonagall favorite hobby is roller disco-ing.” Dom snorted, stretching her arms languidly over her head. “Face it, you just really want to — “

“Attention, students!” Before I could find out what I just "really wanted to" do, however, Headmistress Vespertine was standing up at the Staff Table and mercifully cutting Dom shot. The barely-stirring Great Hall roused to attention at our Head's clear voice. "You may now retire to your dorms for the evening. Make sure to get in a good rest for lessons tomorrow! Goodnight."

Professor Vespertine sat back down, and immediately the hall was filled with the clamor of screeching benches and clapping footsteps as students lumbered to a stand. Dom clamped her mouth shut, but the glimmer in her eyes promised that this argument wasn't over.

I sighed, steeling myself for what was to come next and trying to put on my best professional face.

“Dom, I’m going to go find the first —“ I was interrupted by a gentle tap tap on my shoulder, and I twisted my torso around to come face-to-face with Ryan Fisher, who was looking very distressed and not at all like his usual affable self.

"Ryan, what's — oh," I said, already half-way out of my seat as my gaze landed on the small first-year, currently leaning sickly into Ryan's side, his face an unpleasant shade of green.

My eyes widened slightly. "What's wrong?"

“Hey, Agatha." Ryan managed a weak smile, nodding amicably at Dom before swiveling to face me matter-of-factly. "This first-year's feeling a little sick. Something about having too many treacle tarts — " at this, Dom groaned in agony and slumped across the table — “So I’m going to have to take him to the Hospital Wing. Do you think you can handle the other first-years by yourself?”

My heart sank at the prospect, but I forced a smile on my face nevertheless. “Sure, Ryan," I chirped, knowing I would probably have agreed to go spelunking in a lava pit if he asked. "No problem.”

“Thanks a million,” he said appreciatively, flashing a grin that made my legs turn gooey. The first-year groaned loudly and sagged to the floor. “Ah, crap. I better get a move on before he starts vom — er, nevermind. I’ll talk to you later!"

“Bye,“ I said wistfully after Ryan's retreating form, watching him walk in the direction of the exit, the poor child dragging limply alongside him.

“You love him." Dom raised her head briefly from the table to sing-song obnoxiously, and my face twisted into a scowl.

“Shut up.”

She cackled — and yes, it actually did sound like a cackle — and stood to go, swinging her leg over the bench in a surprisingly graceful fashion. “Alright, time to get some sleep. I’ll meet you back at the dorm, Aggs. Good luck with the munchkin people!” With that and a finger-wiggling wave, she flounced off, merging into the sea of students already filtering out the exit.

I heaved a sigh, now left to my own devices to grapple with what came next. Well, I'd better get this over with.

“First-years!” I called down the long table somewhat reluctantly, waving a half-hearted arm in the air. “First-years, over here please!”

But no one seemed to have heard me over the chatter and footsteps of the student mass exodus. Exhaling gutsily, I gritted my teeth together in irritation and tried again.

“First-years!” I said louder this time — bollocks, maybe the Prefect business was harder than I thought. “First-years, gather 'round!"

Nothing.

I growled at the lack of response, my patience wearing thin. I mean, come on. I was tired and it was overwhelmingly crowded and I just wanted to sleep, for Merlin's sake.

“First-years! First-years — OI!” I shrieked, finally losing all self-control. “YOU LOT! OVER HERE! NOW!"

It was amazing how quickly they appeared. As if in a demented human version of Whac-a-Mole, a scrawny cluster of first-years began to pop into view, one moment nowhere to be seen and the next — poof! — sprouting suddenly out the ground, eyes frightened and blinking in the light.

“Oh,” I said stupidly, staring at the meek youngsters huddled before me. I hadn't expected my vehement shouting to actually work and, now that I had nine, snivelly, first-year faces staring up at me, I wasn't quite sure what to do. I cleared my throat. "Er, yes. My name is Agatha Bennett, and I'm a fifth-year Prefect. I'm going to show you where you'll be living for the next year. Doesn't that sound exciting?"

They stared, faces blank.

"Okay," I said hastily. "Let's just get a move on then. Form a line behind me, please." The first-years shuffled into something resembling an arranged line, and I towered over them, feeling somewhat mortified. Surely I hadn't been that small when I was a firstie, right?

Straightening, I began to lead the silent, nervous group out of the Great Hall, making sure they were all following behind. The crowds had really thinned out — everyone already on their way to their respective dorms — and there was no one in the corridors except for one or two stragglers and the occasional chatty portrait. We marched down moving staircases, through winding alleys and across chilly courtyards in our solemn line.

“So,” I announced suddenly as we neared the Dungeons, feeling an inexplicable urge to fill the silence. "Just so you guys know, it's a Hogwarts rule that, since I'm your Prefect, you have to refer to me as Commander Cool at all times.”

No response to my witty bit of humor. The first-years stared some more.

“Joke," I said lamely by way of explanation. "That was a joke. You don't really have to call me that — okay, nevermind."

I cleared my throat. Alright, time to switch tactics. “Yes. Anyways, we'll just make a quick left here and then take these stairs down to the Dungeons. Try to keep in mind at least a vague idea of where in the castle we are, just so you know for the future — oh, watch out for that trick step, those are nasty buggers — "

We shuffled down the deserted corridor, me prattling inanely on as the first-years nodded mutely, until we neared the stone wall that hid the Common Room's entrance. I was just about to step forward and give the password when, all of a sudden I abruptly halted in my tracks. One of the first-years, obviously not looking where he was going, bumped in to my back with a squeaky “oof!” of surprise.

I paid him no heed, however, too busy staring straight ahead, my gaze transfixed, at something that immediately made my blood run cold and my heart stop beating.

Peeves,” I hissed under my breath, the way someone might utter a particularly nasty curse word.

And there he was, bobbing merrily as he floated through the stone wall and into sight, dressed in his usual get-up of a ridiculous purple tuxedo with a polka-dotted flower pinned to the lapel. When his gaze landed on us, he came to an immediate halt right in front of the Common Room entrance. His face took on a rakish quality, malicious smile widening as he eyed the first-years before him like they were a batch of freshly-baked cookies.

My face paled, heart sinking down to my knees. Peeves was intolerable enough as it was, but throw in the opportunity to terrorize a few first-years, and you had a very difficult poltergeist on your hands. So much for a good night’s sleep...

“Well, well, well," Peeves drawled, and I stifled an eye-roll. He always opened with that. "What do we have here?" He suddenly swooped down in a hair-pin dive, grazing the tops of the first-years heads and making them shirk away, some shrieking, others whimpering. “Ickle firsties? How fun!”

“Peeves,” I bit out warningly, trying to sound more authoritative than I actually felt. “This is not a good time. Leave us alone or else I'll have to report you to the professors."

But Peeves only cackled, impervious to the threat as he circled the air above us like a hungry shark. Dismayed, I could only watch as he swerved and weaved around my terrified little first-years, gleefully screeching out a nasty limerick.

Awe, the ickle wee prefect's not up for some fun
In fact she’s getting upset,
Methinks it's time for a proper Peeves welcome,
First-years, prepare to get wet!


And with that, Peeves pulled out a strange, neon-colored gadget from his tuxedo — a gadget that, squinting, I belatedly identified to be a water-gun. He aimed its orange nozzle directly at me, pulled the trigger... And sprayed me in the face.

All hell broke loose.

Immediately, the first-years began running around like chickens with their heads cut loose, screaming and shrieking as Peeves, doing back-flips and somersaults in the air, showered everything in sight with water. I sputtered the wet hair out of my face, blurry vision barely able to identify Peeves taking out a second water-gun and, one weapon in each hand, beginning to walls, paintings and first-years with his icy-cold ammo.

It was chaos, pandemonium. I slipped and skidded across the wet stone floor, spewing out strangled expletives as I tried to wrangle my first-years together. But it was like trying to wrangle wet kittens. Everyone was too terrified by the poltergeist ahead to even stop and behave calmly for a moment.

"No! Stay calm, please — it's alright, just — " I felt panic around my chest like a hot, metal cord, making it impossible to breathe. "PEEVES! STOP IT OR SO HELP ME — !"

Some of the first-years, now dripping head to toe, were starting to cry. Noises — screams, cries for mercy, Peeve's cackling and the telltale hiss of water on stone — echoed through the corridor in a cacophonous manner. Puddles were starting to form on the ground. Merlin, how did Peeves have this much water to spray? This was like Hogwarts meets the Niagara Falls! This was like a fieldtrip to SeaWorld gone horribly, horribly wrong.

I sprinted clumsily to a sobbing, sodden first-year who was currently huddled in the corner, my hands extended in a weak pacifying gesture. ”Oh, don’t cry, it'll all be alright — Ow! Bloody hell!" My efforts at doing my job were cut short as I slipped on a puddle of water, landing on the cold stone floor with a painful thud.

For a moment I just stared at the ceiling in a daze, Peeves' evil laughter and the screams of first-year terror ringing around me. Why? Why me? Of all the corridors in this blasted corridor, Peeves just had to choose this one to super-soak. And on my first day too — just my sodding luck.

I bet Potter wasn't having this much difficulty right now. I bet his first-years were all tucked into bed right now, safe and sound and decidedly not getting terrorized by an unhinged poltergeist with a penchant for water-works.

Speak of the devil: Peeves swooped down to hover over my head, leering at me as he squirted me with small, tiny bullets of water. I flinched at each spurt hitting my face, helpless and unable to react.

Aggy slipped and fell,
and now she’s on her bum,
Look at her, she seems so sad
And also kind of dumb!


“What is going on here?” A foreign voice, so blood-chilling and eerie that it sent shivers down my spine, suddenly sounded from behind.

Immediately, the entire corridor seemed to freeze — Peeves with his water-guns poised in front of my nose, the first-years in various contorted positions of terror. I snapped my mouth shut and scrambled to a slippery stand, turning to come face to face with the translucent form of the Bloody Baron.

I felt goosebumps begin to flutter over my skin. Even the first-years, by some innate instinct, were staring awestruck at the Bloody Baron, knowing not to speak or make any sudden movements, held in place by the terrifying chill that the ghost's presence brought everywhere he went.

"I said," The Bloody Baron hissed, voice barely a slither of sound. "What is going on?"

Peeves immediately dropped both water-guns, allowing them to clatter to the ground, as he swopped into a ridiculously low bow. "Oh, Mr. Bloody Baron sir! Long time no see! Lovely weather we've been having, isn't it? Not too warm, not too chilly either — "

The Bloody Baron’s gruesome face betrayed no emotion or reaction to Peeve's nervous rambling. He looked bored, almost, as he regarded the situation with blank eyes. "What are you doing, Peeves?" he said flatly.

“Oh, nothing at all, your Bloodiness,” Peeves replied, hands fluttering about. “Nothing of any importance. We were just having a bit of fun with the first-years! That's right, fun! Right, kiddies?"

No one replied.

The Bloody Baron’s pale gaze moved slowly from Peeves to the water guns and then to the shivering figures of the first-years, who were now dripping wet and clinging to each other in a miserable fashion.

“Fun,” The Baron repeated duly. “I see.”

He angled himself to me, the ghostly hem of his tattered clothes almost grazing the stone floor, and I felt a cold, indescribable feeling wrap around my heart. Even though the Bloody Baron had been the Slytherin patron for the past four years, I was still afraid of him.

After what seemed like an eternity, the Bloody Baron, his gaze never straying away from me, commanded: “Go make a nuisance of yourself somewhere else, Peeves. Leave these people in peace.” His voice was raspy, terrifying.

“Oh yes, of course, your Bloodiness, sir! Absolutely” Peeves stuttered, obviously flustered. He bowed so low his nose was practically brushing his shoes, and then, in a blink of an eye was gone, zooming down the corridor.

A long silence stretched out as the Bloody Baron hovered in the air before me, and the first-years gaped stupidly. I was surprised none of them had tried to escape yet. In their (very wet) shoes, I would have run off screaming like a madwoman as soon as I had gotten the chance.

“Er, thank you. Mr. Bloody Baron,” I finally managed, trying as hard as possible to look anywhere besides the blood on his robes, or the chains dangling from his silver arms.

The ghost didn’t say anything. Just looked at me, eyes deadened and unreadable, and then turned around to melt into the nearest wall and disappear.

I closed my eyes, my heart thudding in my chest. That hadn't just happened. None of this was real. This entire day had to be some kind of bizarre dream. First the gerbil — then the strange Feast — and Peeves with a water-gun

“Er, excuse me?” I was jerked out of my reverie by the squeak of a small voice and a timid tug on my shirtsleeve. Snapping open my eyes, I glanced down to see a tiny first-year boy, eyes wide, hair dripping with water.

“Commander Cool, can you please show us to our dorms now?"

“Er, yeah,” I said, not bothering to correct him on the nickname. Of course — this was real life. This was my reality, and no wishful thinking could ever reverse that.

Therapy was starting to sound like a really good idea right about now.

Chapter 6: Ice
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I opened the door to the dormitory as quietly as possible, treading carefully so as not to wake up any of the occupants inside (the only thing more terrifying than a pissed off Slytherin, after all, was a pissed off and sleep-deprived Slytherin). To my immense relief however, the room was blissfully empty when I walked in. The quiet was a blessing to my ears.

It was good to be back home. Despite whatever rumors you might hear about our Common Room being a secret Slytherin hotbed of gambling, drug-dealing and murder-plotting, our dormitories were in all actuality quite cozy. The fifth-year girls' room, with its floor-to-ceiling windows and gothic stone arches, was a great place to live.

My favorite part about the Slytherin dorms were the windows, which were humongous and usually decorated with wrought iron that twisted like metal ivy. Lake light filtered through them at all times of the day, bathing the stone floors in shades of wintergreen, gold and jade.

I sighed as I shoved the door shut behind me, body already yearning for sleep. All I wanted was to collapse onto some remotely soft piece of furniture and hibernate for a coupe months. My bones felt like they'd been carved from led as I trudged through the room, which was already in disorganized chaos despite us having just arrived. Hairbrushes, beauty potion bottles and scraps of clothing were strewn about in various corners, lacy undergarments dangling in strange unsuspecting places. Our dorm looked like the aftermath of a grenade blowing up in the sale section at Madam Malkin's.

I wound my way between the five ivory-colored beds arranged strategically around our dorm, finally coming to mine in and — in a joyful reunion worthy of tears and swelling violin music — flopped down on the green duvet.

Sighing contentedly, I rolled onto my stomach and squished my face into the cool, soft pillow, already feeling sleep dragging me into its swirly haze. Merlin, this was why life was worth living — for those beautiful, fleeting moments when you could spend it unconscious. Eyes drooping shut, I burrowed further into the heavenly comfort of my mattress, incredibly content...

“Herrrr.”

I jerked upwards spastically, almost hitting my head on one of the bed's posts in the process, before turning to see Dom looming over me, an orange toothbrush jutting out of her mouth.

“What?” I asked, confused by both her mumbling and my bleary state.

"Herrr," my best friend repeated emphatically. She took the toothbrush out of her mouth and grinned, revealing a mouthful of foaming toothpaste, and I grimaced.

“Hey,” she said a little clearer this time, though still not all that better. “How were the first-years? Also, why are you wet?"

“Peeves,” I droned by way of explanation. Dom did not reply, but instead — with a carefree shrug — turned around and ambled back to the bathroom, presumably to spit out her toothpaste. She came back moments later dressed in an oversized shirt and boxers, all bed-ready and minty-fresh.

“Where is everyone?” I inquired, referring to our other dorm-mates. My voice came out muffled due to the pillow currently smushed into my face, but Dom could understand me regardless.

Huh. Maybe this was what true friendship was really about. Being able to hold a conversation in barely-intelligible grunts and mumbles while still fully comprehending the other person.

“Bathroom," Dom said affably, leaning against my post. "Are you going to bed like that?"

I sighed. Dom had a point — I should probably get ready for bed, or at least change out of my sodden clothes and put on my pajamas. Yet the idea of moving my body from this mattress was just so unpleasant.

So instead I simply lay there, in my wet school uniform, on top of what I had decided five minutes ago was the comfiest surface among our known universe. Dom, realizing that I wasn’t going to be speaking anytime soon and would therefore make for very boring company, sighed at my obviously pitiful condition and, with a flourish of gold-red hair, went flouncing back to the bathroom.

I grinned to myself — finally! — and allowed my eyelids to flutter shut, snuggling into my pillow. I could feel myself start to slowly slip into sleep, sinking deeper and deeper into its depths as if I were falling into some dark, dream-like chasm. But not a bad chasm. A friendly one, filled with good things like rainbows and chocolate and unicorns —

My thoughts began drifting aimlessly like they usually did in this strange half-state, eventually coming to land on the subject of my dorm-mates. As always, getting back to school involved the inevitable unpleasantness of reuniting with my living companions. Yeah, don't let those feel-good, girl-power movies about roommates fool you. Living with five teenage girls was tough, and with the exception of Dom, I really did not get along well with any of them.

First off, there was Evilyn — ahem, sorry, Evelyn — Stanford. Conniving, malicious, bitchy — she was Pureblood snobbery meets Mean Girls-sadism, and over the past four years I'd had to endure her endless barrage of snooty remarks, backhanded compliments and spiteful hate.

Evelyn and I had a pretty straightforward relationship: she didn't like me, and I definitely did not like her. We'd made our feelings clear in First Year and now, despite sleeping in the same confined space, rarely spoke unless circumstances absolutely necessitated it.

Now, I know girls like Evelyn usually have some kind of humanizing, tear-jerker backstory about growing up in neglectful homes and developing pathological aversions to intimacy, becoming hardened emotionally until they could no longer relate to others. Many people would probably give Evelyn the benefit of the doubt, believing her to be a nice, sweet person once you dug under all those layers of ice-bitch. Not me, however. In my opinion, there was no pathology, no explanation. Evelyn was just a bitch. End of story.

It was actually remarkable, how unfeelingly cruel Evelyn could be. In Third Year, she once Transfigured Dom's eyebrows into caterpillars — actual caterpillars — which proceeded to crawl off my best friend’s face while she was busy screaming in fucking terror. We then had to spend the next four hours searching the bloody Common Room for Dom's eyebrows so that we could capture them, put them back onto her face and Transfigure them to normal.

I'm not even joking.

Part of me secretly believed that, every night before Evelyn went to bed, she unzipped her amazingly realistic human mask to expose what truly lay underneath — Reptar. Then she would slither off into the Black Lake, only to return come daytime scale-free and a normal teenage girl.

It was either that, or she was the spawn of Satan.

After Evelyn in our oh-so-wacky cast of dorm friends was Marlene Simmons, Evelyn's best friend and personal lackey. Marlene had no personality; I was pretty sure all the hairspray she used had killed off any independent thought daring to float through her brain. Her life's purpose was to act as the moon to Evelyn's (horrible) sun, and holding a conversation with Marlene was painful. Like talking to a particularly riveting garden tool.

Caroline Kinley was my last roommate, and also one of Evelyn's other unfortunate friends. I would pity Caroline for her current position in life — really, I would — except I wasn't sure Caroline even knew what her current position in life was. See, Caroline was really, shockingly, regrettably stupid. She once asked me what day came after Tuesday.

Aidan always called Caroline, "Scareoline," because of the eerie blank look on her face, the one that hinted quite plainly that not all the lights were on with this girl, if you caught my drift. I kind of understood the nickname, as cruel as it was. Staring into Caroline's eyes was like staring into the void. You didn't come out the same.

Bang!

I startled out of my thoughts as the door to the bathroom burst open and jarred me from my strange, day-dreaming half-sleep. I blearily opened my eyes to see — speak of the devil (and yes, literally, the devil) — Evelyn Stanford marching into the dorm, her golden hair coiled into plastic curlers, her pajamas consisting of a skimpy tank-op and hot-shorts. She marched right by her bed, ski-slope nose permanently turned up towards the ceiling, making a little disapproving 'hmpff' sound as she passed.

I rolled my eyes.

“Nice to see you too, Evelyn," I grumbled after her, too tired to inject the proper amount of sarcasm in my voice. "I had a lovely summer, thanks for asking."

No reply from Reptar. Instead, she just shot me a snippy look as, her face pinched and her glare frostbite-worthy, she took out a pink can of air freshener from her trunk and began spraying the air while looking at me pointedly.

Hint taken. I rolled over, yanking my emerald bed curtains firmly shut behind me, and huffed exasperatedly as I tried to find sleep once more.

“Bitch," I heard Evelyn mutter to herself, just loud enough for me to hear.

Charming one, that girl.

—*—

The next morning, Dom and I rolled out of bed (with some degree of difficulty) and trudged down to the Great Hall for breakfast. It being the first day of the year, the corridors were already vibrant with chatter and laughter as students dawdled on their way to the Hall, comparing tans and vacation hook-ups, casting the occasional rowdy Tripping Jinx at one another, and enjoying the precious few minutes before classes had to start and school became, well, school.

As averse as I was to any hour that had an 'a.m' tacked onto the end of it, even I was in a cheery mood this morning. I was looking forward to class, to learning after three long months of summer brain-drain, and I had new quills and fresh parchment to start the day. Nothing like fresh parchment.

Dom, meanwhile, was excited about another aspect of the new school year — Hogwarts' latest arrival, Professor Nott. She was all-abuzz with the latest gossip as we walked to the Hall, her blathering on and on all the while.

"He's just so mysterious — I bet anything he's actually some undercover secret agent," she said, eyes glimmering with coquettish delight. "Probably spying for the Russians. Man, I love a bloke with a good backstory — "

"Ew, Dom," I grimaced, face puckering into an expression of disgust. "Nott's old."

Despite my uncharacteristically good mood, I was still not feeling nearly chatty as my best-friend. Instead, I was reduced to monosyllabic speech, listening to Dom's hormonal ranting without much comment. I preferred peace and quiet during my mornings, thanks.

Unfortunately, however, it didn't look like I'd be getting any today.

"But you have to hand it to Mother Russia," Dom retorted, wiggling her hips in sassy delight. "Nott is sexy. Those eyes of his — Merlin, you can just look inside him and see all of that past trauma, that soulful pain. So much wisdom. It's really quite sexy."

"If you say so," I grunted, my own sexy and wisdom-filled eyes impatiently sweeping the crowded corridor for a possible shortcut to the Hall. I needed breakfast, and I needed it now. If I was going to be subjected to a graphic breakdown of all of Nott's physical characteristics throughout the morning, it better be happening with bacon nearby.

"I'm really starting to see the appeal of older men, you know?" Dom was saying thoughtfully, mostly to herself seeing as I wasn't listening. "They're just so much more mature. They have life experience and — ow! Oi! What was that for?"

I had slapped Dom over the shoulder, effectively cutting off her perverted fantasizing, because, right in front of us, there happened to be a huge brigade of people blocking the entrance to the Great Hall. A human traffic jam, of sorts. The crowd was pushing, shoving, shouting — half of it in attempts to get into the Hall, the other half trying to bulldoze back into the corridor.

“What is going on?" Dom asked stunned, echoing my own thoughts as she stood on tiptoes to peer over the hoards of squirming bodies. "Damn it, I can't see anything. Too many sodding people — "

My Prefect senses were tingling. Such a huge mass of students in one place — well, it couldn't be without a good reason. Brow flattening into a frown, I quickened my pace and strode forward, past the straggling clumps of students who, like us, had lagged behind to watch the spectacle.

"Hey, where are you going?" Dom called out from behind me, noticing my sudden disappearance mid-speech.

"To investigate!" I hollered back, pushing and jostling through the already thickening crowd. Dom, who was still reluctantly lingering by the crowd's edge, tried calling me back, but it was no use. I was determined. Whatever it was happening in the Great Hall, it had a huge chunk of people leaving and an even bigger chunk struggling to get inside. I had to find out what it was in case it warranted disciplinary action.

"Investigate?" Dom was grumbling, though her voice was only growing softer as I plunged into the airtight crowd, wriggling myself deeper inside.

I didn't reply, dedicating all my energy to getting through the clots of people and battling all their pointy elbows and jabbing limbs. "Excuse me — coming through. I'm a Prefect, sorry, can you please let me pass?"

"Thinks just because she's a sodding Prefect she gets to cut!" A vaguely familiar Ravenclaw grumbled to his disgruntled friend as I pushed past them, wriggling through the tight space between their bodies.

I stopped in my tracks, sighing, and turned around in a goodwill attempt at pacification. "That's not how I meant it — "

"An abuse of Prefect power, is what it is," replied the snotty Ravenclaw's equally snotty friend, and my lips flattened into a scowl. I looked between the two third-years, both male and vaguely familiar looking with pointed features and their faces a Nerdyclaw pallor. I sternly tried to hold my ground but was finding it exceedingly difficult to do when crammed into a mass of shoving, pushing people.

"Hey, I'll have you know — oof," I grunted, as someone's shoulder suddenly bumped into the back of my head. I cleared my throat, attempting to speak once more. "I'll have you know that I would never abuse my Prefect privilege just to — "

"HEY, COMING THROUGH! MY BEST FRIEND IS A PREFECT SO YOU BETTER BLOODY MOVE!" I was suddenly interrupted by the familiar sound of Dominique's dulcet tones, sounding off from further back in the crowd. I squinted, making out vague flurries of red-gold hair as Dom indignantly pushed past the people between us, evidently having decided to follow me in. "I SAID COMING THROUGH! DID YOU NOT HEAR ME? MY BEST FRIEND IS A PREFECT — SHE WILL DOCK POINTS IF YOU DON'T MOVE — "

I felt my stomach drop in dismay. Bloody hell.

"Ouch, you stepped on my foot!" cried some wounded first-year who'd had the misfortune of being in Dom's warpath and had, consequently, been trampled on.

"SHUT UP!" came the very angry reply. "OR MY BEST FRIEND WILL EXPELL YOU! SHE'S A PREFECT, YOU KNOW!"

I cringed as Dom finally burst forward, emerging between the two rather unimpressed Ravenclaws in front of me with all the grace of a Hippogriff on hallucinogens. She grabbed my arm, paying the grumbling Ravenclaws no heed, and pulled me forward. "Come on, Aggy, move. You know I do not like crowds — "

"Hey!" I cried, aggrieved, as I allowed my best friend to tug me along. "I'm the claustrophobic one here!"

But Dom didn't seem to care as she ducked under a random person's arm, dragging me unapologetically with her. She then shoved away a nearby Gryffindor, stormed through a cluster of Hufflepuffs, ignoring their ensuing squawks of surprise, and ducked and weaved past a couple more students until — finally! — we broke free from the crowd.

And promptly stopped short.

Because, right in front of us, the Great Hall was completely different and unrecognizable, having been utterly transformed to the point of almost not being the Great Hall anymore.

“What the hell?" Dom asked, her face completely blank with shock.

The usual tables and the benches were gone, nowhere to be seen, and all that was left was a cavernous, empty space. Well, empty save for the center, where there now stood... A giant Christmas tree? I squinted in disbelief, feeling that what I saw couldn't possibly be correct, couldn't be true. But no, judging by the shocked expression on Dom's face, and the confusion of the other students milling by the entrance, there really was a giant green fir, at least twenty meters tall, standing proudly in the middle of the Great Hall. In true Christmas-y fashion, it was decked with glittering drips of crystals and lights, flickering white candles charmed to orbit its branches.

"What's going on?" Dom mumbled, more to herself than anything, and I couldn't reply. What was a Christmas tree doing in the Great Hall... in the beginning of September no less?

Swiveling around, eyes scanning my surroundings for possible clues, I spotted assorted clusters of holly and mistletoe strung around the halls and hanging from the ceilings. A cheery, old-timey Christmas carol was playing in the background, barely audible beneath the buzz of tittering students, but the music's source was hidden from view. Judging by the goosebumps on my arm, the temperature had been lowered by quite a few degrees. And...were those snowflakes falling from the ceiling?

"Is this the administration’s doing?" Dom wondered out loud, face screwing up in typical lady-like fashion. "Has Vespertine finally gone bonkers?"

"I have no idea," I muttered, frowning, in response. Then I nudged Dom in the arm. "But hey — look over there."

Clustered in a corner of the Great Hall, as well as slightly off its entrance, were dozens of enlarged, wooden coat racks, each stretching up towards the ceiling and laden with a colorful array of wool scarves, coats, earmuffs, mittens — and ice skates?! I squinted warily, making out white laces and fine metal blades. This was all so strange. I didn't understand.

And then I looked down.

My heart stopped beating. My breath caught in my throat. My jaw fell open.

Because, instead of the normal golden marble of Great Hall's floor, there was ice. Glittering, blindingly-bright ice, stretching on to cover the expanse of the space, sparkling in the twinkling sunlight streaming from the ceiling.

The Great Hall had been transformed into an ice rink.

My brain was whirling a mile a minute. I still couldn’t fully grasp the situation, couldn’t possibly fathom the reasons behind such a transformation. I stared on, unable to say anything to Dom, looking remarkably similar to a very perplexed fish. Why was this all happening? What was going on?

Ho ho ho! Merry Christmas, everyone!" As if on cue, my brother — decked in full winters gear and wearing ice-skates — pushed past the people behind us into view, hobbling through the crowd with a bright smile on his handsome face. Those who realized who he was respectfully parted to give him space, muttering louder with freshly renewed confusion.

I stared at Aidan — the living, breathing, human explanation for all this madness — and found myself suddenly incapable of forming words.

My brother tottered past on his skates, shooting Dom and I a charming grin that betrayed pride and satisfaction.

Then, with the entirety of Hogwarts watching, he stepped on the ice.

There was one shivering second of silence as Aidan just stood on the ice, wobbling slightly on the ice, the whole student population in front of him, holding its breath. And then...

“YEAH BUDDY!” Aidan raised his hands — clad in bright red mittens — to the sky in blazoning triumph, and instantly, the crowd erupted into uproarious cheers.

My jaw dropped open even more. I was at risk of having a bug fly in there soon.

“Aidan — ice — Great Hall — skating — " was all I could stutter as I watched my brother whip around and skate across the Hall with long, swooping strides, the silver blades of his skates glinting as they carved a perfect figure ‘8’ into the ice. This couldn't be happening. I was hallucinating. I had finally gone bonkers — that was the only possible explanation.

I glanced at Dom, and her shocked expression was a comical mirror image of my own. Her mouth was shaped into a perfect letter 'o,' her yellow-green eyes as wide as saucers.

“Dom," I began faintly over the sounds of students cheering my brother on. "How — why — ?"

“MERRY FLIPPING CHRISTMAS, YA'LL!” My stupefied confusion was suddenly interrupted by the loud, boisterous voice of Fred Weasley, sounding from somewhere back in the crowd.

I turned to see the bloke charging exuberantly through the excited clusters of students, going remarkably fast for someone wearing ice skates on firm ground. He was, of course followed by Potter, who had settled for a more restrained attitude. Also wearing skates, he strolled past at a leisurely pace with a smirk crooking his mouth, nodding benevolently at some of the students who were reaching out to pat him on the back or shake his hand.

And suddenly, I understood.

This was it. This was The Tweedle Trio's annual, notorious Back to School Prank. Through whatever series of complicated charms and enchantments, and whatever tactics of subterfuge and sneaking around, they had managed to change the Great Hall overnight into an ice rink.

They had truly outdone themselves. McGonagall was going to pee herself.

“I can’t believe this,” Dom muttered incredulously — more to herself than anyone else — as Potter, Aidan, and Fred began to skate in deft, celebratory circles around the Ice Rink. The Christmas carol in the background had abruptly switched to some ACDC rock song at their entrance, and the crowd was eating it up, the noise of their shouts and claps and whistles deafening. Merlin, the whole of Hogwarts acted like my brother and his friends were bloody rockstars or something.

Potter, with long, graceful strides, skated to the center of the Hall, coming to a stop right before the giant Christmas tree. He held up a magnanimous hand, smiling slightly as the gesture had its intended effect and the noise immediately died down to a reverent hush. The music switched off.

Then Potter nodded at Aidan, who cleared his throat dramatically and skated forwards. Finally, we would be granted with an explanation for this madness.

“Greetings, fellow Hogwarts students!" Aidan's voice boomed through the Hall as he swept his arms out in a grand gesture, skating backwards a little with tiny, nimble strokes. "You may not know us, or be familiar with our work — " Except that we were. Of course we were. — "But over the past couple years at our stay at Hogwarts, my friends Fred and James and I have always liked to start out the term with a little bit of harmless fun."

This proclamation was received with jubilant whoops and appreciative whistles from the crowd. I tried not to roll my eyes, gradually accustoming to the ridiculousness of the situation as my shock wore off.

"Now, this year," Fred began jovially, grinning with obvious exhilaration. Behind him stood Potter, silently observing this all with a content smirk of his own, his hands shoved into pockets. "The three of us have our OWLs," — loud boos from the crowd — "So we knew we had to do something good."

"And, well, there's nothing better than Christmas at Hogwarts," Aidan added genially, broad shoulders straightened with pride.

"Exactly," Fred affirmed, skating slightly forward as he nodded in carefree agreement. "But we didn't want to wait for December, you see — "

"So why not speed things up a little?" Potter added wryly, and his comment was accompanied by the cheers of the crowd turning considerably more high-pitched and female. Merlin.

"My friends and I have never been a big fan of the whole 'calendar' thing anyway," Aidan proclaimed. With that, he skated in a half-circle, sweeping his arm out to indicate the clusters of coatracks by the entrance. "Now, the fun's not just for us. We want everyone to join in."

“So throw on a scarf, a hat, and a pair of ice skates, which you can find over there by the entrance!” Fred concluded with a jolly smile. “And Merry early Christmas, everyone!”

I gaped, hands twitching by my sides as the Great Hall erupted into its loudest burst of applause yet. The music switched back on, booming out some peppy, upbeat carol to do with Grandmas and reindeers, as a mad rush of students began to flood into the Great Hall (resulting in a quite a few slips and face-plants onto the ice). I held my ground on the comfortable stone floor, allowing bodies to jostle past me as I stared at what lay ahead.

They’d gone insane! Mad, bonkers, senile, loco in the coco! Merry early Christmas? This whole fiasco was just absurd, unreal, silly — not to mention, most likely completely against Hogwarts' rules! I couldn't be a part of this!

Dom, however, was already jumping onto the proverbial bandwagon, diving into the fray of gleeful students. Issuing a hoarse chuckle of half-delight, half-surprise, she grabbed my hand and yanked me along towards the coatracks, evidently all on board now that the shock was gone.

“I can't believe they did it. They bloody did it," my best friend said, shaking her head in awe as she yanked a scarf off one of the racks and threw it behind her, at me. The green fabric hit me in the astonished face and fell to the floor, where I left it, too shocked to bend down and pick it up.

"This is so unbelievable," I muttered to myself, brow furrowing.

"Isn't it?" Dom exclaimed in a considerably different tone as she shoved a wool hat over her red-gold tresses. "Come on, Aggy. Put some skates on!"

Almost as if in a daze — and knowing I didn't have mucho f a choice in the matter —I mechanically grabbed a pair of ivory-colored ice skates that had been dangling off the coatrack by their laces. Crouching down on the ground, which was thankfully dry as the floor had been left ice-free around the racks, I shoved on the skates, letting out an inadvertent gasp of amazement as the they somehow shrunk to my size, molding to my feet perfectly.

I stood up, still stewing in my bewildered daze. A charm that made an object self-alter its size was unbelievably complicated. How had the Tweedle Trio managed that?

"Isn't this cool!" Dom was saying happily as she yanked on her own skate's laces. She clambered to a straightened stand, waddling like a penguin across the floor, and turned to grab me by the shoulders excitedly. "Let's do it! Let's skate!"

Looking into her wide, enthralled eyes, I couldn't find the heart to tell her I wanted no part of this. Knowing Dom, she probably would have forced me out there anyways. Already she was marching me towards the edge of the ice, ignoring my sullen attitude. Some students had started skating as well, doing happy circles around the Christmas tree, couples gliding hand in hand.

I stared at the ice as it loomed ominously closer. I hadn't skated in a long time, but that shouldn't make a difference — skating was just like riding a bike! You never forgot! Right?

Wrong.

Oh so very wrong.

The moment Dom and I stepped onto the ice, I lost my balance. While Dom was all elegant and cute in her short, graceful glides, I was struggling to still remain vertical. My legs slid out from under me, scuttling in opposite angles across the slippery surface baby deer-style, and my surroundings tilted in a blur of gold and white lights. Panic rose inside me as I lost control.

Blindly, my hand flew out to grab onto something for support. This something, unfortunately, turned out to be my best friend’s face.

"Ack! What the hell, Aggy!"

"I'm sorry, Dom — I'm — shit, I'm falling!"

"Bloody — !"

With a fantastic crash and a flurry of expletives, my best friend and I went tumbling to the ice, landing in a jumbled pile of crooked elbows and awkward limbs. We immediately began untangling ourselves, bickering all the while.

"Ow, get off me!"

"Dom, can you kindly remove your elbow from my nostril?"

"You're on my bloody hair!"

"I can't move!"

"Well I can't breathe!"

With great effort (and considerably more cursing), I rolled off of Dominique and on to the ice, sprawling out on my sore back as my eyes fluttered shut. Bloody hell, my entire body ached. That had been a hard fall, and now my limbs were throbbing in complaint.

"Still as graceful as ever, I see."

My eyes fluttered open to land on none other than James Potter, standing right above us, the corners of his lips twitching in mocking amusement. Great. Just what I needed right now. Pratter and his oh-so-witty presence.

"Shut up, Potter," came my lame, somewhat wheezy reply.

Dom struggled to sit upright, blowing tufts of red-gold hair from her face as she squinted at her cousin. "James!" she exclaimed conversationally, as if she wasn't currently sprawled across the ground in public. "This is all so amazing!" She gestured vaguely to our surroundings, tone one of wistful admiration. "Was it really all your lot's doing?"

Potter's gaze slid over to me, my hapless position on the ice, and the disgruntled scowl on my face. His mouth lilted upwards in a smirk. "Guilty."

I rolled my eyes and propped myself up on my elbows, ignoring the ice's cold seeping in through my shirt. I didn't dare attempt standing, knowing it would probably entail a lot of slipping and fumbling and otherwise brilliant displays of grace.

"Do the professor's know about this?" I asked snidely, arching an accusatory brow at Potter.

He fixed me with a flat look. "What do you think?"

With that, Potter held out a hand to Dom, who gladly accepted and allowed herself to be pulled to a slippery stand.

This generous gesture, of course, was not extended to me.

"James," Dom gushed as she wobbled slightly on her skates, patting down her hair and adjusting the scarf around her neck. "This whole thing is really — "

"Tremendously stupid?" I supplied helpfully.

"Unbelievably amazing," Dom finished brightly. "Good on you guys."

Potter bowed his head humbly at his cousin, though his mouth was still curling into that small, wry smirk. "Thanks, Dom. We're glad someone here is appreciative, at least." He shot me a pointed glance.

"Of course!" Dom chirped while I glowered at her. Traitor. "Hey, I'm going to try and find Aidan and Fred. Want to come, Aggy?"

I looked at Dom, and then down at myself, sprawled haphazardly across the ice and not about to get up anytime soon.

"Er, I'll catch up with you later," I said lamely, much to Potter's evident amusement.

Dom shrugged and smiled cheerfully, oblivious to my physical conundrum. "Suit yourself, Aggy!" she said, and with that, she skated off in a swirl of red-gold hair, abandoning me to the ice and the probable fate of not moving until either someone picked me up or everything melted from under me.

Potter regarded my position with raised brows, just the slightest hint of laughter glinting in his eyes. "Do you need help getting up, Bennett?" he said innocently, looking at me like I was there solely for his sodding entertainment.

"I'm fine," I snapped stubbornly. "I... I like it better down here anyways. It's, er, comfy."

I leaned back slightly as if to demonstrate my point, but this only resulted in my tailbone bumping against the hard, unforgiving ice. I winced — bloody hell, that hurt — and looked back up at Potter, struggling to rearrange my expression into one that wasn't of excruciating agony.

"See?" I said rather unconvincingly. "Sooo comfy and... firm."

Potter just shook his head disbelievingly, looking like he was having a grand ol' time watching the show before him. He extended his arm. "Just let me help you, Bennett."

I glared at the hand in front of my face; Potter might as well have been offering me a yogurt from the previous century. The last thing I wanted was to give the prat another (unnecessary) reason to feel superior, but I saw no other alternative. It was either that or living the rest of my life out on this sodding patch of ice.

I grudgingly accepted Potter's hand and, smirking, he leaned back slightly to pull me up.

Standing, however, turned out to be considerably harder when you tried to do it on frozen water. My body pitched forwards from the sudden momentum of Potter's tug, my skates skidding frantically this way and that.

"Jesus — "

"Argh — Potter!"

Sensing my imbalance, Potter grabbed me by the forearms, managing to right me precariously on my own two feet. Several students skating past glanced at us in mild amusement, and I scowled; I hated being turned into a spectacle.

"You alright, Bennett?" Potter said, meeting my gaze with his somewhat-mocking one.

"I'm fine," I retorted rather snippily, but neglected to shove Potter's hands off me — he was the only thing keeping me upright, at this point. "I'd be better if I didn't have to deal with this... this idiocy right now."

Potter's lips curved into a knowing smirk, one eyebrow quirking sardonically upwards. "Just because you don't know how to skate doesn't mean you have to be bitter."

"I am not bitter!" I cried. Now raising both eyebrows in blatant skepticism, Potter released his grip on me, hands lifted in a small gesture of defense. I wobbled a bit in my newfound independence, but managed to stay standing.

"Whatever you say, Bennett," Potter murmured teasingly, skating backwards with annoying ease.

I rolled my eyes. Arrogant prat. "This is against the rules anyways, Potter," I threw back sassily. "So the professors will be shutting it down any moment now."

"Actually," Potter contradicted lightly, cheekily raising a finger in dissent. "There is no rule in the Hogwarts handbook stating that you can't turn any part of the castle into an ice rink. We checked."

My eyebrows flattened over my glare. "You know what I mean. It's against the rules in spirit."

"So what?" Potter retorted cockily as he turned and begun to skate in slow, taunting circles around my wobbly form. "What are they going to do, Bennett? Give me detention in spirit?"

I had no reply. Instead, I (very shakily) turned to go, unable to take any more of Potter's mocking jeers. Honestly, he was unbelievable. What next? Was he going to charm a beach in the Astronomy Tower? A grotto on the Quidditch Pitch?

"I don't need to stand here and take this, Potter," I snottily informed him as I begun to skate away. My dramatic exit, however, was somewhat ruined by the fact that I didn't know how to truly skate, so instead I had to settle for gingerly hobbling off at a neck-breaking speed of ten inches per hour.

This slow pace wasn't doing anything to mitigate my unsteady form, however. Already, my skates were wobbling dangerously beneath me as I felt my ankles start to give way. The world around me was slanting downwards. I was beginning to lose my balance, the happy students in the distance starting to turn upside-down. Oh bollocks, I was going to fall, in front of Potter no less —

And then warm hands were on my waist, steadying me in the nick of time. Without seeing him, I knew that I'd just been righted once more by none other than Potter, who I was sure had an insufferable smirk on his face at this very moment.

“Careful, Bennett,” Potter murmured from behind me, and I was surprised by how close his voice sounded to my ear. My back stiffened, face flushing with heated embarrassment.

"I'm fine," I said once more, vaguely aware that these two words were becoming my new sodding mantra.

Potter didn't acknowledge my irritation. “The trick is,” he said quietly, voice surprisingly serious and devoid of mockery. “To lean on one foot and push off with the other.”

Then he pulled away, leaving the place where he had held my waist feeling strangely cold.

Before I could give my (obviously witty and scathing) retort, however, we were both interrupted by the sight of Professor McGonagall, her hair in frenzied wisps around her face, bursting into the entrance of the Great Hall with her robes billowing out behind her in a terrifying fashion.

“WHAT IN THE WORLD IS GOING ON HERE?!?”

Grinning, I turned back around to tell Potter that he was in for it —

— but he had already disappeared, nowhere to be seen, fresh empty space shivering in the spot where he'd been standing.

I sighed. Typical.

Chapter 7: Scattered
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Disclaimer: None of HP-verse is mine! It all belongs to J.K. Rowling.



Three days passed after what had come to be known as The Ice Rink Episode, and I gradually grew accustomed to the flow of things at Hogwarts, the endless blur of homework and classes and studying that was life at this school.

It had quickly become apparent that the slave-drivers-oops-I-mean-professors were not showing any mercy this year. Despite it being just the beginning of September, everyone was already starting to prepare for OWLs.

And while academics were hard, Prefect rounds were harder. With Ryan, I often found myself stumbling over my words and my feet, too mired in my own pitiful stew of anxieties to behave like a normal person for even a second. With Potter, on the other hand, every patrol meant hours of endless bickering and arguing. We never got anything done. Working together was impossible.

Meanwhile, Aidan was still unsuccessfully trying to woo Dominique — employing every trick, line and moping apology in the book — but to no avail. My best friend was determined to hate his guts, maintaining that she refused to have herself strung along anymore by my brother's flighty whims.

But still, Aidan would not be deterred. Ever the Gryffindor, he refused to give up, and each day seemed to bring with it some new inventive way of hitting on Dom. On Tuesday, Aidan gave her a bouquet of flowers in each of her classes. On Wednesday, he had the house-elves bake a cake that was personally delivered to her during dinner. On Thursday, it was skywriting by the Black Lake, the words “You are my one and only, Dominique Florence Weasley!” strewn across the sky in puffy cursive. Needless to say, Dom did not appreciate the extravagant display or the public revelation of her middle name, which, it has to be said, was pretty understandable. Florence? Gross.

On Friday morning, Dominique and I trudged down to the Great Hall for breakfast, already dreading whatever disastrous plan Aidan’s sick and twisted mind had devised today. The Hall that morning was quiet, everyone's exuberant back-to-school spirit thoroughly exhausted by this week's slew of academics and latest obligations. Save for the clatter of silverware and rustle of an occasional Daily Prophet, the Hall was eerily devoid of noise.

After the War, when the administration seemed to realize that 'institutionalized segregation' perhaps wasn't the best idea for a school full of impressionable young children, the House system organizing the Great Hall's tables was banished. No longer were we seated by Houses. Instead, Hufflepuffs were free to hang with Slytherins, Ravenclaws with Gryffindors. With the exception of big traditional ceremonies, everyone had free-range over where to sit. It was all one big jolly family, we were so thrilled, let's all join hands and sing kumbaya, etc. etc.

Usually, Dom and I ate our breakfasts with the Tweedle Trio at our “regular table," the second one from the Hall's entrance. Today was no different. The guys were already at their seats, looking suitably sleep-deprived for the early hour as they tiredly shoveled food from their plates to their mouths. Only Aidan, who was sitting primly with his back rod-straight and eyes narrowed ever so slightly, seemed mildly alert. No doubt he was silently brooding over some evil scheme of his.

Dom and I slowly trudged our way to the table, where I plopped down next to Fred and immediately began scooping some scrambled eggs and bacon onto my plate. Dom, shooting a wary glance at Aidan, plunked down on a seat by Potter.

No one said a word. Potter’s eyes were drooping shut. Fred’s elbow was in his cereal.

We ate in silence, Aidan and Dominique occasionally sneaking glances at one another, everyone too tired to bother with pesky conversation. For a moment — one, beautiful, glorious moment — I almost began to think that Aidan didn’t have anything planned today, that he was willing to spend a day without one single proclamation of “undying” love for Dom.

So far, there had been a conspicuous lack of flowers, sweet greetings, and offers to carry Dom's books or walk her to class. All this led me to believe that maybe, possibly, Aidan was content with just sitting pretty and letting the morning pass without incident.

“Attention! I have an announcement to make!”

...Or not.

I looked up from my rubbery and rather unsatisfying pile eggs to see Aidan, standing up on his bench, his shoes making two heavy clunks as they landed on the wood. A goblet and fork were in my brother's hand, and he was rapping the piece of silverware against the glass to create a tinkling noise that echoed throughout the hushed Great Hall. He looked completely at ease, as if he were delivering a speech at a wedding or graduation ceremony or some time not as completely inappropriate s this one.

Everyone in the large atrium went still, students sleepily glancing up at the spectacle before them and beginning to frown in mass confusion. The Great Hall seemed to turn even quieter as all eyes swiveled to my idiotic buffoon of a brother, standing on that table and peering regally over us.

“Sweet Godric,” Freddy whispered in awe from where he sat next to me. “What is that boy doing?”

I didn’t answer, instead just staring up at Aidan with a mixture of horror and fascination on my face. Potter's eyes flicked slowly open as he momentarily deemed reality more interesting than sleep, his gaze taking in my brother and his surroundings with vague confusion.

“Sorry for disturbing your breakfast, everyone. My name is Aidan Bennett, I'm a fifth-year here at Hogwarts," my brother began, speaking as if his name wasn't already notorious among the majority of the students, as if he wasn't one of the biggest mischief-makers at this school and the reason for half the grey hairs on McGonagall's head. "Anyway, I'd just like to have your attention for a short moment, as I want perform this rap I recently wrote for the public.

I frowned. Had I just heard correctly? Aidan wanted to... rap?

Dominique’s face, meanwhile, had turned an unflattering shade of purple, her eyes widening into larger and larger circles of panic as she seemed to realize what was about to unfold.

Aidan, taking no notice of his ex-girlfriend's silent conniptions before him, prattled on with his introductory speech. “The rap took a long time to write, and it was inspired by someone very close to me. I'd like to deliver it here, now, so that this same person knows just how much I miss and love them." He paused gravely, clearing his throat. "This one goes out to you, Dominique — "

“Don’t say it, don’t say it, don’t say it,” Dom was muttering fiercely, eyes closed and fists clenched.

“— Florence Weasley.”

With a groan of defeat, Dom slammed her head onto the table, making all the silverware around us jump and rattle. This went either ignored or unnoticed by Aidan, who turned jovially to the table behind him and pointed to a small Hufflepuff sitting a few feet away.

"Give me a beat, Tim!” Aidan said happily.

Tim-the-Hufflepuff began to cup his hands over his mouth and make a series of undistinguishable noises that I guess was supposed to pass as beats. As the rest of the Great Hall stared on in astonishment, Aidan took out a piece of parchment from his pocket, cleared his throat... And then the rap/Unbearable Ear Torture began.

“Dominique Weasley,
I love you very easily
This rap rings true
Ev’ry word from me to you

You have really pretty hair
And a very scary glare
But it’s still sort of nice-y
Even though it’s quite icy.”


My brother had gone insane. First the gerbil, then the Ice Rink, and now he'd convinced himself he was some sort of bonafide MC. Which, judging by the terrible rhyming and grammar I was listening to right now, he most definitely was not.

“I miss you like teeth miss braces
and a shoe misses laces
I miss you like rock misses roll
and a stripper misses her pole.

Your eyes are green glass
and you have a nice... smile
You’re an amazing lass
For you I’ll walk a mile.

This is the end of this rap,
So now all you peeps should clap.
Cause it took me time
To come up with these rhymes.”

With that, everyone in the Hall burst into whooping cheers and thunderous clapping as students loudly showed their appreciation for the new excitement that had just enlivened their mornings. Potter stood up, two fingers in his mouth as he wolf-whistled jubilantly in loud praise. Fred was wiping away mock tears of pride. Dom, meanwhile, looked like she had just lapsed into cardiac arrest.

Aidan looked on grandly, pointing a finger at my unfortunate best friend and giving a cheeky wink.

“Word to your mother,
I’m a Freaky Funk Brother —

Fresh.”


After that grand finale, the Great Hall was positively ringing with applause. The sound was tumultuous, deafening, almost. The professors at the Staff Table looked mildly on, as if they didn’t quite believe what had just happened. Aidan bowed several times, thanking his cheering admirers politely, and then sank back down to his seat with an innocent expression smoothed across his face.

Dom had not said anything this whole while, still gaping in shock as she stared uncomprehendingly at my brother and his blasé attitude. She opened her mouth, but then shook her head and closed it. She then opened it again. And closed it. Opened it. Closed it. Opened. Closed.

This went on for a while.

Potter was boisterously clapping Aidan on the back in congratulations while Fred was issuing declarations of admiration for his performance ("Amazing! Groundbreaking! Art is alive!"). I glanced nervously at Dom, my hand creeping up to slowly cover the very pointy, very sharp fork by her cereal bowl. Gauging her shell-shocked expression, I slowly withdrew the utensil, knowing it was probably best to keep Dom away from all sharp objects right now.

Better safe than sorry. Just saying.

“So,” Aidan finally said, turning away from all the jubilation and cheering to level Dom with an eager look. “What did you think, Dom?” he asked brightly, if he were seeking her opinion on what tie he should wear to a party.

Face ashen, Dom did not reply... Just simply stayed frozen to her seat, staring at Aidan like he was the craziest person she knew (which said a lot, given who her family consisted of). No one spoke for a split-second, the ongoing applause reverberating in our ears, and then, all of a sudden — a strange look struggling to overcome her features — Dom stood up abruptly, turned on her heel, and ran out of the room.

The cheering and clapping in the Great Hall still rang on despite McGonagall's shrill efforts to quell it from the Staff Table. No one seemed to have realized that the one person who the rap had been actually meant for had just fled the room.

Fred, Potter, Aidan and I all exchanged alarmed glances at Dom's sudden departure, the applause ringing around us a contrast to our concern.

"We should — " I shouted over the noise.

“— follow her," Potter finished, face blank with surprise.

We all quickly stood up and marched off, leaving behind the euphoria of the Great Hall in search for one Very Distressed Dominique.

As we walked past all the hero's congratulations and pats on the back, I briefly wondered if it was wise to have Aidan with us right now, given he had been the cause of this entire ordeal in the first place. But rounding the corner out of the Hall, I didn't have the heart to tell him to leave. Even if I had, he probably wouldn't have listened to me anyways.

We found Dom very quickly, seeing as she hadn't gotten far. She was standing — or rather, leaning — in the corridor just outside the Hall, her entire body slumped against the wall as she hyperventilated.

For a standstill moment, the four of us just stared at her stupidly while Dom struggled in her efforts to suck all the oxygen out of the room, hands flapping frantically in the air. And then Potter, quickly coming to his senses, conjured up a paper bag and gingerly handed it to her.

Nobody spoke as, in various stages of alarm, we watched Dom inhale and exhale furiously, the paper bag convulsing with each breath. After about five minutes of this, her breathing seemed to slow to a normal steady pace, and Dominique could finally pull away from the bag, her face beet red.

There was a long, pregnant pause.

And then Aidan said, tone hopeful: “So, did you like it?”

Dominique’s face deepened in color. Fred, Potter and I, in perfect unison, took a hasty step backwards, knowing it was only a matter of time before Dom's rage bubbled over into the inevitable explosion. Aidan, however, remained blissfully oblivious, earnest confidence still beaming from his expression.

And then Dom started shouting.

“WHAT IN THE NAME OF SWEET MERLIN’S PREPUBESCENT WHISKERS WERE YOU THINKING, YOU BLOODY TWAT?! HUMILIATING ME IN FRONT OF THE ENTIRE SCHOOL?! YOU ARE A COMPLETE AND UTTER WANKER! I CAN'T BELIEVE YOU! SWEET CIRCE, ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MIND?! I AM JUST — SO — ARGH!!”

Dominique, abandoning her speech, took three quick, wrathful steps forward, her expression one of total rage. My brother immediately began backing away until he was completely pressed against the wall behind him, his easy smile long gone and now replaced by a pale look of terror. Fred, Potter and I said nothing, unwilling spectators to this whole fiasco.

“Er," Aidan began meekly. "I take it you weren't a fan?"

“A fan? A FAN? That was the biggest pile of butt-pudding I've ever heard in my life, and that’s saying something because I BOUGHT SELENA GOMWIZ'S NEW ALBUM AND HATED IT!”

“I’m sorry,” Aidan said mildly. “That must have been a terrible waste of money.”

“Yes it was! I was extremely disappoin — HEY, THAT IS NOT RELEVANT TO THIS CONVERSATION! STOP EFFING CHANGING THE EFFING TOPIC, YOU EFFING — ”

Dom could not finish her insult, however, because for some inexplicable reason that no one, probably not even Aidan, could fathom, my brother had quickly stepped forward, grabbed her face, and kissed her. Still looking absolutely terrified, but determination tight in his jaw anyways, my brother had kissed Dominique Weasley.

...And then he promptly ran away.

"Uh-oh," Potter muttered warily next to me. Fred winced in sympathy, though I wasn't sure for whom.

At my brother's sudden absence, Dom stood — stock still and speechless — for a long moment, unmoving, her lips a thin white line. Just when I was beginning to wonder if I should call for medical assistance, Dominique straightened and, face changing from maroon to white to purple, screeched:

“AIDAN — KISS — WANKER — ARGH!”

And then she promptly sprinted after my brother, most likely in search of violent, bloody revenge.

Oh Godric.

Fred, Potter and I regarded the empty spaces in front of us where our two friends had previously been, too taken aback to register any emotion other than surprise.

Despite the fact that Dom was most likely fashioning a murder weapon out of the contents in her backpack right now, Fred did not seem concerned at all. Face thoughtful, he turned to Potter and held out his hand.

"Ten galleons Aidan's in the Hospital Wing by four o'clock," he said cheerily.

“Deal,” Potter agreed, and then they shook on it.

Merlin help us.

—*—

Hours later, I was sitting nervously in the Potions dungeons, fidgeting with anxiety as Slughorn’s dull voice hummed in my ear like an annoying, incessant fly. Potions was my third subject of the day, and Dom hadn't bothered to show up for it. She hadn't attended our second class (Charms), or the first (Ancient Runes) either. Her absences were disconcerting, to say the least.

Knowing my best friend, she was at this very moment either, a) breaking all 206 bones in Aidan’s body or b) furiously snogging him in a broom-cupboard. I wasn’t sure which one was worse. I was naively, optimistically hoping for option c) none of the above, but my inner cynic knew that wasn’t likely.

I drummed my fingers on the wooden desk, the action compulsive and involuntary even though the noise was grating on my already raw nerves. Part of me wanted to comb the castle to look for my best friend and brother, but another part knew that I had to stay in class and pay attention. I was torn.

“Miss Bennett," came a loud, somewhat indignant voice, and I looked up to see Slughorn's bushy grey moustache looming in front of my eyes — along with the rest of his miffed face. "Would you care to explain to me what you've been day-dreaming about for the past ten minutes?" I snapped out of my reverie, feeling my stomach plummet to my shoes. Craparoni.

"I’m finding it hard," Slughorn continued imperiously, moustache twitching with annoyance. "To imagine what could possibly be interesting enough to distract you from my lesson. I just instructed the entire class to pair up, yet you seem to not have heard.”

I glumly looked around the classroom to see that, indeed, Slughorn spoke the truth. All the other students in the class had broken off into groups of two, sitting at their tables with racks of colorful ingredients and their cauldrons already boiling. Obviously, everyone was preparing to make a potion, but I had been so ensnared in my own thoughts that I didn't even know which one.

I swallowed, turning back to face Slughorn's wrath with an uneasy, strained smile on my face. "Sorry, Professor. I was just thinking to myself and got distracted."

Thinking?" Slughorn huffed disbelievingly, ruddy face turning purplish at the nerve of it all. "Miss Bennett, there will be no thinking in this class!”

I coughed, calling on all the resources in my body to stifle the colossal urge to roll my eyes. Sometimes, Slughorn had no idea just how absolutely stupid he could sound.

"Right," I began, trying to keep my voice devoid of any hint of sarcasm. "I apologize for my... thinking, sir."

Slughorn straightened, gave a curt nod and puffed his chest out authoritatively. "That's quite alright, Miss Bennett, just don't do it again or I'll be forced to deduct points." He cleared his throat, gesturing to the opposite side of the classroom with a sweeping hand. "Now, if you could take a seat next to Mr. Bagley of Ravenclaw over there..."

I began gathering my things as Slughorn's instructions droned on in the background, all the while mentally cursing myself for my lapse in concentration. Potions was my worst subject, and I couldn't afford to be dozing off in class, especially my OWL year.

I mean, I was great at the theory part of the subject (I aced all of my essays, worksheets, and written tests), but the potion-making itself? Yeah, not my strong suit. I was known to have exploded a couple cauldrons in my day. Okay, maybe not just the a couple. More like three. Or four. Or nineteen. But who was keeping track anyway?

My Potions ineptitude was made even more painful by the fact that Potter was amazing at Potions. Last year, when the Slytherins had our class with the Gryffindors, Slughorn would always brag about how Potter had inherited his grandmother Lily's knack for brewing. I'd had to put up with our professor's never-ending praise as Potter gloated around, a giant git making everything perfectly like some freakish Potions machine. The fact that Potter could be good at anything besides Quidditch and picking up girls seemed to surprise nobody else but me.

After class (in which my partner, Herny Bagley, and I managed to shamble together a half-decent Calming Draught), the rest of the day passed with no incident, save in Transfiguration, when Evelyn “accidentally” turned Charlotte Milford's hair a sickly green color in a classic display of her Evelyn evilness.

Dom and Aidan had not shown for any of their classes, and neither did they come to dinner. I was beginning to worry about what they could possibly be doing and where they could possibly be. Even though I tried to valiantly distract myself with homework, I felt scattered — like my brain was off flying somewhere in space while I'd been abandoned down here on earth.

That evening, I stood outside the Charms classroom to meet Potter for our nightly Prefect's patrol and let myself simmer with thoughts of Aidan and Dominique and all the worst case scenarios that could be happening between them right now. I drifted into possibilities, letting my imagination run wild as my surroundings drifted away.

Did my brother really miss Dom that much? Or did he just want her because she was unattainable? A part of me — the selfish part — didn’t want them dating. As a couple, Dom and Aidan were always on-and-off at breakneck speed, making them exhausting to keep up with.

Perhaps a definite break would be a good thing — it'd give them a chance to both mature, to discover what life could be like without the other. After all, Dom and Aidan's constant drama was hardly healthy, and they were always dragging the rest of us into their tiffs. I distinctly remembered a phase in Third Year, when the two had gone through a particularly nasty break-up and proceeded to passive-aggressively talk to each other through me. For two whole months. The simplest things, like hanging out in the Grounds or walking to class, suddenly became painful chores. A meal at the Great Hall would typically look like this:

Aidan: Agatha, will you please tell Dominique to pass the butter?

Me: Dom, will you pass the butter?

Dominique: Aggy, tell Aidan that I will NOT pass the butter and that he needs to take a short walk off a long pier, or whatever.

Me: Er, Dominique says she’s not passing the butter.

Aidan: Well, tell her that’s okay, because I don’t need butter anyways. My waffle tastes perfectly fine without it. Butter’s overrated.

Dominique: Well, tell Aidan that the butter’s glad it’s not needed, seeing as the waffle is AN OBNOXIOUS, SELF-OBSESSED PRICK!

Me: Um.

Aidan: Tell Dominique that butter is unhealthy and EMOTIONALLY-MANIPULATIVE!

Dominique: Tell Aidan that nobody likes waffles, and that butter will do perfectly fine without him!

Aidan: Tell Dominique that waffles are for sophisticated people with good taste, which she obviously does not have!

Dominique: TELL AIDAN THAT BUTTER IS MOVING ON TO BETTER THINGS, LIKE PANCAKES!

And so on.

Eventually, I’d just leave and the two wouldn’t even notice, continuing on with their bickering as if I were still there. Kind of sad, if you thought about it.

Maybe I was a bad person for not wanting them to get back together, but Aidan and Dom were an exasperating couple to be around. Dating complicated things, and I liked it better when everything was simple and easy, when everything —

“Bennett.”

I yelped in surprise at the sudden greeting, jumping about five feet into the air as I was so rudely jerked from my reverie. Heart racing, I whipped around to see Potter leaning against the wall, arms crossed and a dark scowl on his face.

“Good Godric!" I cried, resting a hand over my thumping heart. “You scared the crap out of me, Potter!”

“Sorry,” he said flatly, not sounding very sorry at all. His gaze flicked down my body irritably, stony expression betraying his absolute unwillingness to be here.

“Don’t do that again!” I berated, heart still racing furiously. “Next time, just tap the person on the shoulder if you want their bloody attention, okay?" Potter could seriously endanger someone's life with this guerrilla-ambush style of greeting. What if I'd had a heart attack?

“Oh settle down, Bennett," Potter shot back condescendingly, face darkening with annoyance at my increasing melodrama. "It’s not like I jumped out of the shadows and attacked you.”

“Um, you may as well have!” I retorted.

Potter simply threw his hands into the air in a sarcastic gesture of surrender, eyes simmering with subtle hostility. “Whatever. Can we just start patrolling? I want to get this over with so I can go to bed.”

“Wow, don’t get too excited," I snapped, voice lowering into a mocking imitation of concern. "You might have an accident.”

Potter resolutely ignored me, turning brusque and business-like as he critically surveyed the stretch of corridor in front of us. “Let’s patrol this level and then go up to the fourth floor. Then we can be done with it, okay?" he begun to walk away, signaling an end to all conversation for the night. His rigid posture was its own promise of a patrol filled with very stiff, tense silence.

“Wait!” I called out insistently, speed-walking to catch up with Potter's unfairly long strides. My brow collapsed into a thoughtful frown as I tried to recall the Head Boy's words at our last Prefects meeting. “I thought we were supposed to patrol this level and then go down to the second floor.”

“Nope." Potter gave an adamant, swift shake of the head. "I’m pretty sure it’s the fourth floor.”

“We’re supposed to patrol the second floor, Potter!” I asserted, growing surer in the face of his disbelief. “It says so on the schedule!”

“Oh, and do you have said schedule with you?”

“Er, not physically with me per se, but in spirit — "

“I see," Potter deadpanned, expression thoroughly unimpressed.

I huffed a sigh of frustration, shoving fingers into my curly mass of hair as I attempted to reason with the git. “Just trust me on this one, alright? We’re supposed to patrol the second floor, I'm sure,” I said firmly. My lips pursed together in a stubborn, implicit challenge that just dared Potter to disagree.

Which he did. Of course.

“I don't know how this second-floor-bullshit got into your head, but I checked our schedule right before I got here," Potter said, all high and insufferably mighty. "We're supposed to patrol the fourth."

“No," I said slowly. "The second."

“Fourth."

“Second."

“Fourth.”

"Second"

"Fourth."

“Sec — Okay, you know what? We’re not getting anywhere with this.” I relented, trying to quell my slow-bubbling agitation as I struggled to think of a practical solution. “How about I patrol the second floor, and you just go patrol the fourth floor?”

Rather pleased with myself for coming up with such a brilliant idea and managing to get away from Potter at the same time, I swiveled around and — not bothering to wait for a reply — began to strut off.

But before I could get far, a warm hand was grabbing my arm and spinning me insistently around. I looked up to see Potter, corners of his mouth turned down in displeasure, eyes flashing with dangerous dissent. “Hold up, Bennett," he said calmly, assertively. "We are not splitting up.”

“And why not?” I said, jutting my chin out stubbornly. Honestly, it was like the prat was actively trying to be difficult.

Because," Potter began, enunciating his first few words slowly as if speaking to a particularly stupid child. "When you go off on your own and meddle into some problem Merlin-knows-where in the castle, you'll inevitably get yourself hurt. And I'm going to be held responsible," he added pointedly, tone sharp and not to be argued with. His brow had darkened with adamant conviction, jaw stubbornly clenched in a way that meant business.

“Get hurt? What are you talking about?” I scoffed, clearly affronted as I backed slowly away from Potter. “I am perfectly capable of patrolling by myself, thank you very much.”

Potter snorted. His arms folded across his broad chest as he squinted haughtily at me, eyes flicking in a critical once-over of my body. “I don’t think so.”

I fumed. "I will have you know, Potter, that I am a strong independent woman, not to mention a trained prefect fully able to handle any possible complications during a standard patrol — "

“Oh really?" Potter interjected dismissively. "And what about that incident with Peeves and the water-guns? Were you fully able to handle that?”

My voice died in my throat mid-sentence. I gaped disbelievingly at Potter, caught off guard for an embarrassingly long while. The prat might have a good point with that one. “How — how did you know — about that?" I sputtered. Asking was pointless, though. I already knew the answer.

“Dominique," we both said at the same time, although in considerably different tones.

“Well," I drew in a sharp, dignified breath, attempting to stay composed as I mentally cursed Potter and his insolence. “That was once. And a long time ago. It’s irrelevant now.”

“Bennett," Potter shook his head superciliously, taking a nonchalant step forward as he shoved his hands into his pockets. His tone was that of someone about to embark on a long explanation, and I braced myself, really in for it now. "You are clumsy, irrational — "

"Hey!" I protested, but was silenced as Potter stepped forward once more, still rattling off his oh-so-flattering list.

"Accident-prone, easily provoked, not very blessed in the hand-eye co-ordination department — "

"Oi!"

"Somewhat unhinged — "

"That's not fair!" I cried, but my voice cut off abruptly as Potter lightly stepped forward one last time and I stumbled backwards — only to find my back bumping against the wall behind me. The prat had me trapped.

...And he seemed to know it. Leaning forward, Potter took in my clear discomfort with a gaze glinting in triumph, mouth twisting with wry amusement.

"I am not going to let you loose on Hogwarts," he declared clearly, casually, hands still in his bloody pockets like this was all some mildly entertaining game. "And have you be a major liability to myself and this school."

He'd won, and we both knew it. I was caught off guard and still reeling from our sudden proximity, observing all of Potter's features — his hazel gaze, the sly victory in his expression — in a half-daze of confusion.

Um — Potter — close — wow — interesting, my brain supplied helpfully. My breathing had hitched, and my skin suddenly felt like ice. If getting this close was some tactic of Potter's to put me on edge, it was sure-as-bloody-hell working.

I averted my eyes, refusing to have to look at the prat's face, and instead focused on a spot directly in my sightline. Which was a bad idea, really. A very bad idea indeed, since that spot happened to be Potter’s chest. His quite... nice chest. Potter wasn't bulky with muscle, but he was lean and... toned. Ahem.

After all, I wasn't going to lie to myself and say Potter wasn't good-looking. Because he was, objectively-speaking, and the git bloody knew it. He had a horrible and intolerable personality, but he was attractive, I’d grant him that. He had this... messy, dark hair that contrasted (nicely) with his (smooth, creamy) skin. And his eyes were... colorful. Bright. With swirls of brown and dark green and golden flecks that kind of looked like shards of broken amber.

You know. Objectively speaking.

Potter's unnerving gaze traveled my face, his eyes dark with amusement, the shadows of the corridor pooling into the hollows of his cheek.

We'd fallen into a strange silence — something I rarely experienced when Potter was around — and there was a long moment in which neither of us said anything. I wasn't breathing, my eyes widened in an almost bewildered fashion as I struggled to process my immediate surroundings.

And then:

“Stop undressing me with your eyes, Bennett.”

“What — I — Huh? I'm not undressing you with my eyes!” I sputtered, mortified at the very thought, face flushing unbearably warm.

The left corner of Potter’s lips quirked upwards in a skeptical, sure-you-weren't smirk as he pulled away, taking long, easy backwards strides while his gaze amusedly took in my expression.

“Oh come on, Bennett, you were definitely checking me out just then," he said triumphantly, tone musical and shit-eating grin already in place. "You’re not fooling anyone. We all know what you're thinking about."

My mouth fell open. “What are you implying, exactly?”

“That you’re a promiscuous sex fiend, of course,“ Potter quipped back, face remarkably innocent.

It took a moment for me to realize that he was joking. And then I scowled, feeling the hot fingers of embarrassment slide down my neck as my face bloomed crimson.

“You’re unbelievable,” I growled, and Potter just shrugged, continuing to grin in that insufferable manner. Body taut with anger, I whipped around and began to walk away, my fists clenched at the glum realization that Potter had definitely just won that fight.

"Whatever you say, Bennett," Potter called back sing-song-like to my retreating form.

And that was when I sort of just... lost it.

Wheeling around, I turned to face Potter, my expression alight with fury at the completely blithe, dismissive tone in his voice. The embarrassment I'd been feeling only encouraged my anger, and the words were tumbling out of my mouth before I knew it.

"You are so vile, you obnoxious, impertinent prat — ugh! There are no words for you! You are the most contemptible person I have ever had the misfortune to meet, do you know that?!" I seethed in a voice high with hysteria, my breathing ragged and rapid. Potter just looked on unfazed, seeming only mildly amused. "Sometimes I wonder what I must have done in a past life to deserve ever meeting a person like you. I think I must have been some sort of — of serial puppy killer, given how horrible a misfortune it is to know you now, and you know what? That makes me kind of hate puppies! There you have it, you idiot — you make me hate puppies. You make me hate everything — "

I was this close to just going bonkers and just ripping out all the hair from my scalp. He was so — argh! Words could not describe it; I was so furious I wanted to punch something. Preferably Potter himself.

CRASH! BANG!

I started at the sudden noise, my anger subduing considerably as my brow involuntarily flattened in confusion. For a moment, I thought my raging and flailing had caused me to hit something, and whatever it was had gone crashing to the ground. But then I realized that the foreign noise had come from somewhere farther away.

Rearing backwards and shaking my head clear, I locked eyes with an equally perplexed Potter. He blinked, the amusement on his face replaced by a thoughtful frown as we glanced at each other and then around us, in search for the source of the racket.

“Hey, did you—“

“ — hear that?”

BANG! CRASH! BANG BANG!

I frowned, stiffening. “It sounded like it was coming from—“

“ — that direction,” Potter interrupted, pointing towards the stretch of dark corridor before us. His finger led to an eerie, inky blackness, dark save for the occasional fluttering light of the torches on the wall. The sight was spooky enough to make me forget my previous anger.

“Yeah,” I agreed perplexedly. “We should probably — “

“ — go check it out.”

“Potter,” I sighed, exasperated. “Will you stop— “

“ — finishing your sentences?” Potter’s face broke out into a full-fledged smirk. I gritted my teeth.

“Yes. That,” I bit out, voice considerably strained. Whatever or whoever it was out there making that racket better watch out, because Potter had put me in a sufficiently foul mood and I was not about to indulge anyone's rule-breaking right now.

“Come on, Bennett." Potter gestured with his head, expression turning somewhat serious. "Let’s go.”

Although I didn’t appreciate the prat ordering me around like that, I let him take the lead as we speed-walked down the hallway. After all, strange crashing sounds in the middle of the night could never be a good thing — especially at Hogwarts — and hey, if Potter wanted to be the first to walk down the Creepy Corridor of Death, then that was fine by me.

It didn't take us long to find the source of the noise. As we rounded our first corner, we were met with the sight of a suit of armor lying on the ground. I blinked. Now that was obviously not where it was supposed to be.

The suit's metal glinted in the flickering torch light, its form obviously having broken apart in the process of falling. Now its metallic limbs were scattered across the stone, looking almost like a —

Don’t say it, Agatha, don’t say it.

— dismembered body.

My breathing hitched.

Okay, so, this was sufficiently creepy.

I looked up to see Potter walking around the shambly pile of metal, his brow crinkled in calculating concentration as he inspected our surroundings. I walked up to him, hands shaking.

“Um, Potter?” I asked, voice small as I tugged on his sleeve. “Maybe we should go back and get a professor — ?”

Potter looked up at me, expression incredulous. “Merlin, Bennett. Are you seriously afraid right now?"

I scoffed airily, as if he had just proposed something utterly ridiculous. “I’m not afraid! I just think perhaps it would be wise to head back and find someone who could help — "

His hazel eyes rolled to the ceiling. “Oh yeah? What happened to that ‘it’s our duty as Prefects to protect the school and all its students inside’ bullshit you’re always blabbering about?”

My teeth gritted, brow tightening in defensive frustration. Excuse me if I was a little wary about frolicking down some unknown, darkened corridor! This was the castle that once housed a three-headed dog in one of its classrooms, after all!

“Well it depends on the situation," I answered insistently, sounding way more authoritative and sure than I was currently feeling. "As smart upstanding students, we should report this to the professors.“

“Yeah, but as diligent prefects we should investigate to see what’s going on,” Potter pointed out.

“And as a human being, I would like to live to see daylight,” I snapped back.

Potter chuckled, a patronizing, mocking edge riding in his tone. “Relax, Bennett. Nothing’s going to happen.”

“How can you know that for sure though? “

“Don't you trust me, Bennett?"

“Of course not! Are you stupid?”

Potter seemed to consider this for a brief moment before giving an agreeable shrug. "Fair enough," he quipped, and with that, he grabbed me by the arm and began to walk forward, ignoring my ensuing resistance.

"Potter, I’m really not comfortable — I don’t think it’s a good idea— “ But I cut-off my protests mid-sentence, because all of a sudden, I heard it:

Muffled giggling.

My blood ran cold. Potter’s eyes narrowed and he dropped my arm, marching forward to follow the noise.

“Potter, wait — “ Pushing aside the Slytherin self-preservation instincts currently screaming at me to turn around and run away like a madwoman, I followed Potter through the darkened corridor. We hurried onward, rounding another corner, and then —

— stopped in our tracks.

Because right in front of us stood Scorpius Malfoy and Rose Weasley.

Snogging.

They were in some sort of passionate, hormone-induced embrace, sucking each other’s faces off like there was no tomorrow, hands, er, everywhere in an indecent display of PDA. Obviously, they had been the ones who had knocked down the suit of armor in the midst of all their, um, fervor, and obviously they were too busy eating each other's faces to give a damn about the two astounded Prefects in front of them.

I choked on my own saliva in a delightfully attractive manner, taking in the scene before me. A Malfoy and a Weasley? Together? Like, together together? That was unheard of. In fact, it was just plain strange.

Potter, meanwhile, seemed to be struggling with the same shock i was. "ROSE?” he yelled, expression pricelessly livid, and I conveniently remembered that one half of the pair in front of him was his cousin.

The two lovebirds broke apart upon realizing they weren't alone, faces shifting from expressions of surprise to expressions of horror. Upon seeing who had just yelled her name, Rose Weasley’s cheeks took on a nice shade of crimson. Scorpius, on the other hand, paled to a fantastic beige color.

“Er," Rose began sheepishly, pretty face still rather flushed in the torchlight. "This is going to be hard to explain...”

Oh boy.

Chapter 8: Always
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Disclaimer: I do not own Harry Potter or The Notebook, which is property of Avery Pix.



After seeing Rose with Scorpius, Potter went sort of... insane. Not the fun, dancing-around-naked-and-talking-to-fruit kind of insane, mind you. No. A different kind of insane. A much more violent kind. I had been forced to personally hold Potter down as Scorpius fled for his life. And let me tell you, Potter was really strong. I needed to sit on his chest in order to administer any sort of restraint.

Maybe this was a sign from the universe that it was really time for me to start working out some more. I could take up those kick-boxing/yoga/dance/water aerobics classes Mum was always going to. I bet these types of situations would be a lot easier to handle if I were more physically fit.

Or this could be a sign that I needed to seriously re-evaluate my life. I mean, the number of physical confrontations (Dom’s birthday, Peeves, Merriam, etc.) I had encountered over the past 30 days exceeded the number of dates I’d been on... ever. Now that was rock-bottom.

Anyways, after Scorpius ran away, I had to endure a sixty-minute long rant from Potter as he raved on to Rose about “house loyalty” and “family duty” and whatnot. It was mad boring, but I couldn’t leave in case Potter lapsed into another bout of temporary insanity, decided to go on an angry rampage and break all the wood furniture in the castle. Or bones in Scorpius' body. You know, whichever.

So, long story short, by the time I finally got back to the dorm, it was way past midnight and I was exhausted.

I cracked the door open, making sure to tiptoe inside so that I wouldn’t wake anyone, because if there was ever a demographic you did not want to deprive of sleep, it would be teenaged Slytherin girls.

It was almost completely dark in the dorm, save for the moonlight that leaked through the window and spilled onto the floor like melted ivory. All of the beds had their curtains drawn and the rhythmic, soothing sound of deep breathing floated through the air.

Walking through my dorm room was like going through a giant, unfriendly obstacle course. There were trunks, clothing, books, and other random items (hey, my Herbology textbook! I’d been looking for it all week!) strewn across the floor. You practically needed a machete, a compass and a sherpa to get out alive, but somehow I managed.

I was really, really looking forward to flopping down on my bed and just slipping into the heavenly, joyous paradise that was sleep... In fact, I was more than just looking forward to it. I was excited. To put it simply, my feelings about my mattress were almost identical to a soccer mom's feelings about a khaki sale at a department store. Which was kind of pathetic, if you thought about it. I mean, the best part of my day was when I went to sleep. I actually looked forward to sleeping. How sad was that?

Much to my surprise, though, when I got to my bed I saw there was a person lying in it. At first, I thought that one of my roommates, Marlene (also Evelyn's best friend), had forgotten which bed was hers again and fell asleep mine (not the brightest bean in the Bertie Box, that girl). But upon closer inspection, I discovered that the mystery person was not Marlene, as I had presumed, but rather Dominique — best friend and woman missing-in-action for the past 12 hours.

She was lying on top of my duvet, her body completely rigid and still save the slow rising and falling of her chest. She could have been asleep except for the fact that her eyes were open, green and glassy as they stared above at my dark velvet canopy.

I looked at her, unsure of what to do. I could try to attempt conversation, but attempting conversation with Dom meant talking to Dom, and we all knew that talking to Dom, in reality, translated into listening to Dom as she ranted on about her life. And that entailed a whole lot of nodding and ‘mhmm’ing sympathetically until your brain turned into goo and your ears fell off.

In short, I didn’t want to listen to the crazy bint whine.

But on the other foot, Dom had been missing for 12 hours, a long period of time during which god-knows-what could have happened and, let’s face it, I was curious as to what she'd been doing. After all, it would be kind of nice to know whether my brother was still alive or not...

After a long moment of internal conflict, I decided to speak.

“Well. Long time no see.”

My best friend slowly turned her head to face me but did not reply. I had to admit, the way she was acting crept me out a little. I mean, she looked...terrible. There were purple bags under her eyes, her skin was papery thin, flimsy and translucent... And there was this certain dazed quality about her, as if she had no idea where she was or how she got there. It was unsettling.

“Hi,” she croaked.

A million questions were buzzing through my head (where’ve you been? What happened with Aidan? Will we be having to bury a dead body tonight?) but I didn’t voice them. It seemed like a good idea to save the interrogation for later, when Dominique was thinking straight. Or thinking at all, for that matter.

“So...” I said, rocking back and forth on my heels, my hands shoved into my robes’ pockets. “What’s up?”

Dominique blinked at me, face confused as if she didn’t quite understand what was going on. Then she abruptly swung her legs over the bed and stood, wobbling a bit on her bare feet in the soft moonlight.

I took a cautionary step backwards, waiting for whatever imminent explosion that was about to come.

But instead of combusting into a human wreckage of tears and emotion like I thought she would, Dom simply looked at me and said: “I want pumpkin pie. Do you want pumpkin pie?”

Her voice was dazed, high with hysteria. “I want pumpkin pie. Pumpkin pie sounds nice.”

I gaped at her.

“Er. Maybe you should sit down, Dom." I reached out to feel her temperature, but my best friend impatiently swatted my hand away. "Are you feeling well?”

“Pumpkin pie... I’m going to get some pumpkin pie,” she muttered, more to herself then to anyone else. “Yes, yes. Pumpkin pie. I have to find pumpkin pie...”.

And then, giving me a bewildered sort of smile, she shoved past me and walked out of the room.

I stared after her, my eyes wide in astonishment, watching until the dorm room door swugn shut and Dom disappeared from view.

Uh-oh. This was not good. Not good at all.

Because Dom always asked for pie during times of crisis. That was usually how I knew if she was feeling depressed or angry, and if I had to maintain my distance from her while she worked things out on her own. It was a norm for us, her requesting different kinds of pies depending on what mood she was in, me sneaking down to the kitchens with her if she needed me.

In fact, throughout the years we had managed to come up with a scale of the different flavors Dom would ask for, ranked according to the dire nature of the situation. For example, if Dom broke a nail or was having a bad hair day, she'd usually ask for key lime pie. And if something more serious happened, say Dom having another fight with Aidan, key lime was the way to go.

For quick reference, I had comprised a complete list.

THE CORRELATION BETWEEN PIE FLAVOURS AND THE DANGER LEVEL OF DOMINIQUE WEASLEY’S “FREAK-OUTS," AS OBSERVED AND RECORDED BY AGATHA BENNETT:

1. Apple Pie: Almost non-existent danger level. Usually requested after a tough day as a little pick-me-up. Nothing to worry about, just give Dom a slice and everyone's on their merry way.

2. Pecan Pie: Low danger level. Called for whenever Dom is having a Moment of Self-Doubt (e.g. thinks she's not "good" enough, "smart" enough, "pretty" enough, etc.) or has somehow messed up during an important occasion, like a Quidditch game. Best served with a side of vanilla ice cream.

3. Key Lime Pie (also known as Aidan Pie): Medium danger level.Mandatory after any argument or fight concerning Aidan Bennett. Also helps to have tissues and The Notebook nearby.

5. Blueberry Pie: High danger level. Usually required after an argument with her parents or a failed exam. Keep Dom away from any object that could be used as a weapon (including, but not limited to: tooth brushes, snow globes, chess sets, materials that can be filed down to a sharp point, etc.). Also keep her away from any breakable things, such as glass, wood furniture, and YOUR LEFT ARM (let the record show we are speaking from experience here).

6. Pumpkin Pie: Extremely high danger level. Evacuate the premises immediately. Pray for a miracle — or, at the very least, the Royal Navy.

I sighed to myself and fell backwards on to my bed. This was bad — really bad. I wanted to go and follow Dom to make sure she was all right, but I knew that it would be wiser to leave her alone for a little. After all, the girl was a walking nervous breakdown waiting to happen, and I didn’t want to be there when she snapped.

Plus, I already knew Dom’s routine. She would go down to the kitchens and demand pie. After eating as much as her tiny stomach could hold, she would come back here to fall into her usual comatose-like sleep. To be honest, it would be useless to confront her now when her brain wasn’t functioning right, and all efforts and capabilities of said brain were singularly devoted to a slice of bloody dessert.

I let my eyes slip closed, exhaling sharply. Since when had everything become so messed up? Dom wanted pumpkin pie, Potter was going insane, Aidan was, in all likelihood, lying in a shallow grave somewhere, and Fred... Well, Fred was probably asleep right now and therefore had no idea what the hell was going on, but that wasn't the point.

The point was... Since when had my life become so filled with drama? The only goals I had set for my Fifth Year at Hogwarts involved being a good Prefect, doing well on my OWLs, and maybe pushing Potter into the Black Lake if I could find the spare time. But now I was breaking up fights and managing my brother’s love life. Honestly. Couldn’t a girl catch a break around here?

I rolled over so that I was lying on my stomach, smothering my face into the cool smushiness of my pillow. A few minutes passed like that, with me just lying there and thinking in the silence, and as time ticked on, my thoughts grew shorter and more fragmented until they were barely thoughts at all. I felt myself slowly start to drift, felt my body grow heavier as it seemed to melt into my mattress, until finally — finally — on top of my bed covers, still dressed in my school uniform, I fell asleep.

The next morning was going to be a bad one.

—*—

When I woke up, the dormitory was deserted.

There was a blissful moment in which, as I lay in bed staring blankly at my headboard, I was completely and totally oblivious. For one second, I hadn't remembered anything about the previous night. My mind was beautifully blank.

But then it came flooding back to me. Rose and Scorpius. Aidan. Dom. Potter. The pumpkin pie. It all hit me like the freaking Hogwarts Express. Everything, in one mad rush, in a wave that crashed over my body and washed me with realization.

I groaned, rolling over onto my side.

I knew that I should probably get out of bed and attempt some sort of damage control. You know, try to fix things up a little. Buy a straight jacket for Potter, start planning Aidan’s funeral, find a defense lawyer for Dom... My friends needed me, and I was obligated to help them in turn (or at least Dom and Aidan).

But then again, I was tired. And I could never function properly when I was tired. Sprawled across the mattress, I briefly entertained the thought of just rolling over and going back to sleep. After all, wasn't it essential for teenagers to get a healthy night’s rest? Well, I didn't feel very rested. Yeah. I should probably sleep for another hour. Or, you know, five.

Sighing to myself, I stretched, yawned, and then rolled over again, preparing myself for another satisfying round of snoozing. But as I turned, my gaze fell to the clock on my nightstand.

It read 11:00 AM. I stopped breathing.

Oh no.

Oh no, no, no, no.

I was late for class. Not just late-late, but astronomically-late. They were going to give me a detention. And take away my Prefect’s badge. Oh God. Unexplained absences were a serious offense at this school. I was going to be expelled, wasn’t I? I was never going to get my Hogwarts education. No one would want to hire me, my family shunning me for being such failure... I would have to live in a cardboard box for the rest of my life. Or join a gang! Oh God. I couldn't join a gang! I was inept!

“Shit!” I fell — quite literally — out of bed, picked myself up off the floor, and, with a kind of speed and agility that was quite out of the norm for me, grabbed my backpack and ran frantically out of the room.

I was halfway down the stairs when I realized that I needed my Prefect’s badge, so I wheeled around and sprinted back into the dorm. The badge wasn’t in its usual spot on my nightstand, though, so — my panic rising — I ran around the room for a good ten minutes trying to find it. I looked under dressers and beds, rummaged through drawers, shook out my backpack... Until finally I realized that a) I was wearing it, and b) today was a Saturday.

...I hate my life.

Slowly, I sat back down on my bed, half-relieved and half-annoyed that I had acted like such an idiot when I didn't even have class.

Then I thought of Dom and Aidan. The need to help them was an itch inside me, nagging at the back of my brain, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to fully relax until both of them were okay. After all, Dom had asked for pumpkin pie. She hadn’t done that since... Well, since Victoire was made Head Girl over two years ago.

I sighed, swinging my legs over the side of the bed with finality, and stood.

I knew what I had to do.

—*—

“Potter. I need your help.”

“No.”

“It’s important.”

“No.”

“Really, really important.”

“No.”

“But — “

“Bennett, can’t you see that I’m busy here?”

I narrowed my eyes as I felt my anger pulse inside of me like a living thing, temper steadily climbing higher and higher like a thermometer in mid-July. Here I was, my pride and dignity in shambles at my feet, asking Potter for help, and he was rejecting me? I mean, it wasn't like I enjoyed asking people for help. Least of all from a Gryffindor. Least of all from Potter.

We were in the Great Hall, sitting across from each other at our usual table. Potter had The Daily Prophet opened up in front of him, blocking my face from his view. A bowl of half finished cereal sat by his elbow. His fingers were ink-stained, probably from writing (or just starting, more likely) our huge DADA essay due on Monday.

I stared at the newspaper in front of me, at the black and bold letters that jumbled together to form sentences and paragraphs, and sighed. This, I had a feeling, was not going to be easy.

“Potter. I'm serious."

He didn’t reply.

“Potter. Please.

There was a pause, and then Potter lowered the paper so that I could see his annoyingly attractive face. He looked tired, which wasn’t that big of surprise. Violently charging at your cousin’s boyfriend can really take it out of you, I’d heard.

He opened his mouth to speak, and — foolishly — I felt my spirits lift with naive hope. Maybe he actually would help me. Maybe for once, Potter could be mature about this. Maybe—

“BENNETT, FOR THE LAST TIME, I WILL NOT HAVE SEX WITH YOU!” Potter suddenly shouted, making sure his voice was cheery and loud enough for everyone in the Great Hall could hear him. “NOW STOP BEGGING, IT’S MAKING ME UNCOMFORTABLE.”

My mouth dropped open as several people nearby snickered, their eyebrows raised in spiteful amusement at us. Embarrassment flooding through my body, and I vaguely felt something in my forehead twitched. A rupturing artery, most likely.

Obviously satisfied with my public humiliation, Potter went back to reading the paper, opening it in front of him to signify the conversation was over.

“Potter—I can’t—You—Ungh.” I ran a hand through my hair exasperatedly, unable to find the right words to fully articulate how pissed off I was. Merlin, this was annoying. “Look,” I snapped, voice slightly above a harsh whisper. “It’s about Aidan and Dom.”

The paper rustled.

“I think there’s something wrong.”

“With you? I concur," Potter said, voice nonchalant as he turned the page.

“Have you seen Aidan?” I demanded, choosing to ignore his stupid remark as I leaned forward. “Do you know where he is?”

Silence.

“Well, do you?”

“Huh. It says here that they appointed a new Head of The Department of Mysteries,” Potter said, completely ignoring my question as he turned the page. “That’s interesting. Did you know that, Bennett? That they appointed a new Head of The Department of Mysteries?"

I exhaled sharply through my teeth as I felt my anger reach its boiling point. Head pounding, I slapped my hand on the table to make all the plates and silverware jump and rattle. “Potter! This is important”

He sighed from behind the paper. “Bennett.” His voice was monotone, as if he had said this all before and now he was bored with it. “Stop meddling in Aidan’s business. You’re not doing him any good.”

I rolled my eyes. Even though he couldn’t see the action, what with the paper in between us and all, it still felt satisfying.

“I’m not meddling!” I insisted. "It's a known fact that it doesn't count as meddling if you're related to the person. Duh."

“Right," Potter hummed skeptically, still refusing to look at me.

Enough. I reached out and yanked the paper away from Potter, and he shot me a look of only faint exasperation in response, as though my antics were like those of a mildly annoying child.

“I’m going to ask you one more time, Potter. Have. You. Seen. Aidan?”

He sighed once more, obviously irritated. “No. When I got back to the dormitory, everyone was asleep. And when I woke up, Aidan wasn’t there. Can I have my paper back?”

But I wasn’t satisfied. Ignoring Potter’s outstretched hand, I shook my head and pursed my lips. “This is serious.” I paused for dramatic effect. “Dom asked for pumpkin pie.”

There was a beat. Potter’s expression flickered. “Pumpkin pie?”

“Yes. Pumpkin pie.”

He raised his eyebrows. “Dom hasn’t asked for pumpkin pie since — “

“Victoire was made Head Girl. I know.”

There was a long silence.

“Alright,” he finally relented, mouth pulled into an unhappy line. “How do you want to do this?”

I couldn’t stop myself from grinning widely as the feeling of sweet, sweet triumph swelled inside my chest. “The usual. I get Aidan, you cover Dom?”

“Fine,” he snapped, obviously irritated with himself for giving in.

“And afterwards we should meet to exchange notes. Say... Around one o’clock?”

“Oh for Merlin’s sake, Bennett. Notes? It’s not a fucking science experiment.”

I swung my legs over the bench and stood up, leaving The Daily Prophet on the table. “You know what I mean.”

“Nope,” he said, reaching over and picking up the paper again. “I never do.”

I left the Great Hall with a huge, victorious smile on my face.

—*—

After I left Potter, it took only ten minutes to find Aidan. It wasn’t hard, after all, given Aidan's limited circuit. There were pretty much only two places my brother went whenever he was distressed—the kitchens, or the Quidditch pitch.

I decided to go to the Quidditch pitch first, and ended up being right. I had lucked out. There, in the chilly autumn air, my brother sat pensively in the stands, not looking at me or the pitch but rather at the blue-grey swirl of the sky. He looked lonely and small up there, a blotch of color on the wide, wooden expanse of the stands.

It was really windy, and the rich jade grass of the massive pitch flickered and swayed beneath my feet. I clutched my robe closer to my body, hugging myself tight as my hair rippled and fluttered in the breeze, and I struggled to push it out of my face.

I could see Aidan’s tall, slightly scrawny figure from where I was standing in the center of the pitch. He was sitting in the stands, on the very top row. He didn’t appear to have noticed me, and he looked deep in thought — something I never took as a good sign when it involved my brother.

I climbed the stand to meet him, the slapping sound of my shoes against the steps hollow to my ears. Aidan, apparently having heard me, looked up from his seated position, his honey brown hair tousled in the wind. He was leaning his elbows on his legs, and his palms were pressed together like in prayer. A glum expression tugged at his handsome face.

I reached the top row and stood next to Aidan, the hem of my black robe quivering in the breeze. He smiled up at me, and it was at that moment when I noticed how tired he looked.

“Hey.” His voice was raw, sad.

“Hi.”

I sat down next to my brother, unsure of how to begin. A long and silent moment stretched between us, in which the only thing I could hear was the wind rushing and roaring around me. And then, slowly — almost reluctantly — Aidan leant down and gingerly placed his head on my shoulder.

I smiled.

“You know,” Aidan began, voice so quiet I could barely hear him. “You kind of look like your head’s on fire. What with your red hair in the wind and all.”

“Yup. Hot-headed,” I said. “That’s me.”

He cracked an unsteady grin. “You’re punny.”

There was a beat. And then I said, voice matter-of-fact: “What’s wrong, Aidan?”

“Nothing’s wrong. Nothing at all. Why would you think that?” Ah, flat out lying — one of Aidan’s specialties. Too bad he was never good at it.

“My twin senses are tingling.”

He didn’t reply.

“Okay,” I said. “So. There’s nothing wrong. But say, hypothetically — theoretically — if there were—”

“Dom broke up with me.” His voice was faint, tinged with incredulity. The way he said it, it was like Aidan couldn’t believe the fact himself.

I glanced at him, surprised. First of all, I didn't understand how Dom could have broken up Aidan when they weren’t even going out in the first place. And secondly, Aidan never got this depressed about break ups. Not even the violent ones (and trust me, those could get messy). It just wasn’t like him to be depressed and dejected about that kind of stuff, especially when there were always Freddy and Potter (usually with whiskey bottles in hand) to cheer him up. What made this time so special?

“After the rap, after I kissed her and ran away,” Aidan continued, hesitant. “She found me.” Of course she found him. That girl was like a freaking niffler. “And she told me that... We were over. Like, forever over. No getting back together. No on-and-off. No Dom and Aidan. Over. Done. So that's what's wrong with me.” He paused. “Hypothetically, I mean.”

“Aidan," I said, trying to keep my voice soothing and patient. "Dom has said all those things before. She was probably just panicking and overacting, like she always does.” To be honest, I was feeling myself become a little exasperated. It was the same every time with these two. Why was Aidan choosing to freak about it now?

“S’not like those times. She was crying.” He winced. “And... She gave me back the Snitch.” Aidan held out his left hand, which had been previously tightened into a fist, and unfurled it. Inside was the plastic, golden Snitch Aidan had given Dominique for her thirteenth birthday. He had gotten it from one of those sweet machines for two sickles, and Dominique had been furious when she had opened up the tiny black box — expecting jewelry or a watch — to find a cheap toy. But still. She had kept it, throughout all the break-ups, all the fights, and had never let it leave her possession. It was like...their love token or something.

I plucked the Snitch out of Aidan’s hand with two of my fingers and held it closer to my face. It was looking pretty worse for wear — the garish, gold paint was chipping, one of the wings looked close to falling off... But I could tell it held a lot of meaning in its tiny, plastic, two-Sickle body.

“So you think she’s serious?”

“Yep,” Aidan said grimly.

Not knowing what to say, I gave the Snitch back to Aidan and watched as he pocketed it. The thought of Aidan and Dom not dating was like the thought of a fish growing legs. Or Freddy reading. Or Potter not pissing me off every chance he got. It just...wasn’t natural. It had to mean some change in the universe's precariously synchronized routine, as if some meteor had crashed into the earth and knocked the planet off its axis. It wasn’t right.

“It’s strange,” Aidan said tiredly. “Even though we always fought, always argued and broke up and stuff, I knew that she was, like — not my soulmate, because that’s creepy — but... She was — ungh. I don’t know how to explain it. She was just it, you know? Like, I always came back to her. I always wanted to be with her. I always thought about her." He paused, as if suddenly coming to some deep, important revelation. "She was my always.”

“I’m sorry, Aidan,” I said truthfully.

Aidan didn't acknowledge the apology, just continued staring at the sky with his brow collapsed into angry wrinkles. “Do you think she’ll start dating someone else?” he asked very quickly.

“I don’t know.” I couldn’t picture Dom with anyone but my brother. A moment passed as we both pondered the possibility. The wind tugged on my hair, making red snap in the peripheries of my vision.

“Aidan,” I began unsurely. I didn’t know if he would get mad at me for asking this, but I had to know. “Were you in love with her? Like, I know you always said you were, but were you really?”

My brother paused, thinking over the question for a long moment.

“Well... I’m selfish, aren’t I? I mean, I was constantly putting myself before her. Hurting her. And I was always... wanting. I want her back, I want to break up, I want to stop seeing each other, but I want her to still pine after me..." He shook his head in a combination of disgust and remorse, lip curled upwards to reveal bared, white teeth. "I want, I want, I want. Selfish. And love isn’t about being selfish. Right?”

“I don’t know,” I admitted once more.

“But then I think about her laugh. You know. Not the polite one she does around adults and important people. But, like, her real laugh. When she does that weird snorting thing, and it's just so fucking endearing, and that makes me feel like, yeah, maybe I do love her. Or at least I could learn to.” He paused, dragging his hands down his face. “I don’t know. I’m stupid. I’m fifteen.”

There was a small, trembling silence in which neither of us spoke. And then:

“I’m sad,” my borther said, as if he was stating a simple fact about the weather or the color of his shoes.

"Aidan," I said.

He didn’t reply.

So we sat there, the two of us, brother and sister. Together. Nobody else. With the wind and the sadness and the Quidditch pitch sprawled out before us, a massive expanse of rolling, moving green, forever and always.

I knew that Aidan could be an idiot, and that maybe he didn't deserve sympathy, given everything he had put Dom through. And I knew that he was reckless and foolish and that wherever he went, trouble seemed to follow. But he was my brother. Born two minutes before me. We had shared a uterus, for Merlin's sake. You couldn't get much closer than that. And if there had been a way for me to take away all the pain, to even transfer it to myself, I would have done it in a heartbeat.

“I wish none of this had ever happened,” my brother murmured.

I sighed, clasping my hands as if in prayer, and kept quiet.

If only life were that simple.

—*—

At one, I met up with Potter in the Great Hall to discuss the state of our two friends, and whether or not it would be necessary to take emergency measures (re: sneak out to Hogsmeade and buy an extra stock of pumpkin pie). While I had been consoling Aidan, Potter had been having a nice little chat with Dom (whom he had — oddly enough — found wandering aimlessly around the Hufflepuff common room). Apparently, things weren't much better from her side. She and Aidan had been dating for a long time, after all. The idea of them not being together anymore wasn't only a loss, but it was also a fundamental shift in how they were, in who they were.

This whole situation was just one big pile of butt-pudding, in my educated opinion. My brother was depressed, my best friend in need of some mental rehabilitation, Potter was refusing co-operate, and Freddy was still probably asleep with no idea about what had happened.

Oh, and I had a DADA essay due on Monday.

Yeah.

I really hoped the kitchens had more pumpkin pie. The next few days were not going to be easy.


Chapter 9: Wither
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A/N: ALRIGHT! FINALLY! I know the wait was terrible, but school's started, and everything has been so, so hectic. But it's out now! That's all that matters.

Some things you should know:

Professor Nott is a HUGE part of this chapter. If you don't remember, Nott is the newly appointed DADA professor. Everyone is making a big fuss over him because, a) they think that he might have been a Voldy-supporter, and b) a couple years ago, his wife went missing, and he was a prime suspect in the case. Of course, the case was never closed, nobody could prove Nott did anything, and to this day the mystery remains unsolved... (Dun dun dun). So. Yeah, there's your little mini-bio on Nott.

Also, Ryan Fisher is in this chapter. He's one of Aggy's patrol partners, and, if you can recall, she has a HUGE crush on him.

Now, onwards :)

Disclaimer: Everything belongs to J.K.!



News about The Split (note the capital letters — this was a serious matter) traveled alarmingly fast throughout Hogwarts. Thanks to the school's ever-churning rumor mill, it soon became common knowledge that Aidan and Dom’s infamous relationship was now completely and absolutely finito. Even though we had tried to keep it quiet, somehow, people just found out. But, see, that was the thing with Hogwarts: even the walls have eyes (and I mean that as literally as possible — The Fat Lady was one of the most notorious gossips out there).

In what shall now be known as The Aftermath of The Split (again—capital letters, people), chaos reigned. The world had gone topsy-turvy — the previous certitude that was 'Dom and Aidan' had been rendered void. It was dissolved, and, along with it, all other notions of comfort and stability and permanence. In response, everyone reacted brilliantly and appropriately by veering into Panic Mode. Aidan now refused to get out of bed unless we bribed him with something shiny. Dom was on the brink of insanity and teetering over the edge. Freddy still had no clue what was going on — and not to mention the groupies.

You see, The Split had given rise to a new hope for the female population of Hogwarts. Now that he was officially “on the market," my brother was not on the list of desirable, eligible bachelors and his name on doodled-over cover of every Hufflepuff girl's Transfig notebook. Third-year girls would follow him around, claiming to be big Quidditch fans and asking for autographs. We had to check Aidan’s dinner every night to make sure it hadn't been spiked with a love potion. On more than one occasion, giggling Hufflepuffs approached me, asking what Aidan’s favorite movie is (he always says its Rocky, but it’s actually Miss Congeniality), or what his favorite fruit is (pineapple), or whether or not he'd ever want to have children in the future (yes — six, to be exact, enough for a traveling Bennett Family Quidditch Team-slash-Rock Band. Yeah, the bloke was kind of an idiot).

But Aidan wasn’t enjoying the attention — if anything, he had shied away from it, adamantly maintaining that the only girl he wanted was Dom. And, well, that obviously wasn’t an option. So instead, Aidan had to satisfy himself with shutting himself up in his dorm room and never seeing daylight again. The poor kid was miserable.

The most frightening part of it all, however, was Aidan’s newfound passion for reading trashy, paperback romance novels. He claimed he liked them because he could “relate to the underlying themes and motifs" — whatever that meant. I, personally, thought it was exceedingly weird. I mean, besides the fact that it was just plain creepy for a fifteen-year-old boy to be reading books with covers that bared men with hairy chests and titles like “A Captive to Passion” and “My Forbidden Paradise," the novels themselves were terrible. Each and every one of them was an insult to the collective intellect of humanity. The main heroines of the story were all ditzy and foolish, swooning over every Tall, Dark And Handsome that walked by. One novel even featured a character who fell in love with a vampire — ridiculous and implausible.. Like anyone in their right mind would ever want to read that.

After thumbing through a few pages of his books, I was fairly certain that I had lost not only my will to live, but also a couple of IQ points as well.

Aidan, however, wasn’t the only depressed one prone to weird behaviour. Dom hasn’t been taking The Split well either, even though she was the one who initiated it. The amount of pumpkin pie we’d gone through over the past few days had reached astronomical proportions — like, 'Guinness World Book of Records' proportions.

Dom had gone bonkers. Seriously. Last night, I found her (along with—ahem—two empty bottles of Firewhiskey) in the girl’s bathroom on the Third Floor. When she noticed I was there (which actually took about fifteen minutes), she proceeded to serenade me with a nice little medley of Aretha Franklin songs (my favorite was “I Will Survive”), complete with dance moves and everything.

And when she finished, she turned around and drunkenly tried to high-five her reflection.

She missed. All 17 times.

So, in short: the world was about to end, my brother had turned into a middle-aged Book Club housewife, and I was in desperate need of some new friends. Preferably ones who had at least a pretense of mental stability.

I was entertaining the thought of holding auditions or interviews. You know, hand out fliers in the corridors, advertising my friendship and stuff. I could pass them around the Great Hall at lunch...

Are you a normal? Do you like to spend your days doing average, regular-people activities (preferably ones that don’t involve seducing my twin brother)? Is your sanity still intact?

If you answered yes to all the questions above, then have we got the job for you!

Introducing AGATHA BENNETT’S NEW BEST FRIEND, now open for applicants!

Requirements:
— Human
— Mentally stable
— Clean criminal record preferred, but not mandatory

If you are interested, please contact AGATHA BENNETT and hand her your résumé. She can be found at the Slytherin Common Room, in the library, or curled into a fetal position underneath her own bed. Have a nice day!


Oh, how I cracked myself up.

Seriously though. Quests for new friendships aside, something had to be done concerning the situation, and fast. Everyone was imploding on themselves, collapsing underneath the weight of their own crazy, and standing by to watch was like seeing a train veer uncontrollably off its tracks. And if things weren't returned to normal soon... Well, I shuddered to think what other bad habits Aidan might start adopting.

—*—

The next day, I had been on my way to Potions, mulling over the various ways I could bribe Aidan to leave his dorm room and actually attend his classes (A chocolate bar? Five galleons? The invaluable gift of my everlasting respect?), when someone called my name.

“Aggy-Aggy-Aggster!”

I wheeled around, red tresses flying into my face, to see who it was requesting my attention. Squinting, I barely made out a disheveled figure hurtling through the corridor, waving his arm madly in the air like he just didn’t care.

Fred Weasley.

I watched, grimacing, as Fred pushed a group of second-years out of the way in order to get to me. The corridor we were in was already packed with students, chattering and bustling to their next classes, and Freddy charging through everyone like a clumsy Hippogriff wasn't helping matters.

Finally he reached me, out of breath, bronzed skin flushed and glowing. His shirt was rumpled and untucked, his tie hastily thrown over his left shoulder, and in his arms was a disorganized pile of papers that I assumed to be Freddy’s definition of the word 'homework,' a few of which already littered the floor behind him.

“Freddy-Freddy-er, Fred,” I responded, eyeing him warily.

“What’s up? What’s down? What’s all around?” The boy in question grinned his signature hundred-watt grin (Freddy never did things half-heartedly) and reached down to ruffle my hair. My grimace grew.

“Not much,” I answered curtly. “You?”

Fred's grin widened, something I hadn’t thought possible, as he began to walk forward and I fell into step next to him. “Going to Arithmancy. I’m so excited. Today’s going to be the day, Aggy. I can feel it in my bones. He’s finally going to crack.”

Stifling a groan, I tried to ignore the dread welling up inside me at Fred’s words.

Fred, since the beginning of time, had been carrying a sort of...unspoken vendetta against Hogwarts' Arithmancy teacher, Professor Fritz. I didn't know how it happened, or when it began. It was just... there, like how the sky was blue or Quidditch was popular. No one questioned it.

Professor Fritz was a nervous man who seriously lacked in the social skills department. His signature blonde comb-over, perpetually red face, and unfortunate speech impediment only seemed to add to his jumpy, anxious persona. This and the fact that he was obviously terrified of his very own students made him kind of like a teaching punchline here at Hogwarts.

However, it had to be said that Fritz, during all his years of teaching, had never lost his cool. Not even once. He was possibly the most irritatingly patient person that I had ever come across. I could probably murder someone in front of the guy, and he wouldn’t care in the slightest. In fact, he would probably offer to help me bag the body. He was unfailingly calm.

And this, apparently, annoyed Freddy to no end.

During his entire career at Hogwarts, Fred had one single academic-related goal, and that was to make Professor Fritz “crack." Fred wanted to see Fritz freak, launch into some nervous breakdown — even just show a sliver of emotion.

And believe me, Fred had employed a number of tactics — all different in their models but equal in their craziness — in order to do this. For example, he once convinced our entire class to speak in Australian accents. For the entire year. But Professor Fritz hadn't even blinked or made a comment — in fact, I don't think he noticed the anything was off. Refusing to surrender, however, the semester after, Fred organized auditions for the Official Hogwarts Yodeling Enthusiasts Club (which didn't exist) and, on the pamphlets he handed out (yes, there were pamphlets), listed Professor Fritz’s classroom as the venue. And that had been bad. I mean, having to listen to Aidan yodel for two straight hours would be enough to drive anyone insane.

However, all the torment and pranks seemed to have little effect on Fritz. He remained as soul-crushingly boring as always and, this, unfortunately, only seemed to strengthen Fred’s resolve.

Personally, I thought this whole idea was bad news. I mean, who knew what kind of uncontrollable rage Fritz was hiding beneath his fidgety, wimpy exterior? If he was pushed hard enough, he could lose his mind and start going on some sort of mad rampage — like Dominique at the shopping center that one time, when she had found out those boots she liked didn't come in her size. Only, you know, less hair.

“What about you, Aggy? Where are you going?” Freddy asked, jarring me from my thoughts as we came to a stop in front of the Arithmancy classroom. Already through the window of the door, I could see Professor Fritz inside — scribbling on the blackboard — his blonde comb-over doing some sort of excited dance atop his head.

“Potions,” I said, shifting my weight from one foot to another. Several students jostled past as they walked by, too busy gossiping with their neighbors to utter any apologies.

Freddy made a half-disgusted, half-sympathetic face. “Well then, see you in DADA, I guess. Tell Sluggy hello for me.”

“Will do,” I said, nodding. "Hey, Fred?"

Fred turned from where he had been peering, eyes narrowed with scary determination, at Fritz through the window. "Yeah? What's up?"

I heaved a big breath. "Have you seen Aidan today? He wasn't at breakfast this morning."

Fred seemed to sober at my words, his expression turning grim and drawn. "Yeah, I spoke with him." He paused and then fixed me with a sympathetic look, mouth pulled into a wan line. "He's not coming to class today."

My eyes fluttered shut as I let the information sink in. This was what I had expected, wasn't it? So what was this dread doing, heavy and leaden in my stomach?

"Figured as much," I said dully. And with one last glance of pity, Freddy opened the door and went inside, leaving me alone — in the middle of the corridor — with the chatter and laugher of the other students around me ringing in my ears.

—*—

Potions passed without incident. I spent the entire hour peering over a cauldron of Strengthening Solution with Hector sitting next to me, spewing uselessly random facts that passed through one ear and out the other. Nothing exploded that lesson, however, and the fatal injuries were kept to a minimum, so I guess the day was better than most.

Dom, already at work paving the road for future alcoholics everywhere, didn’t show for class. She was in all likelihood nursing a hangover, lying in bed with a pounding headache and a cranky attitude to match. I thought it wise not to disturb her... After all, it was a bad idea to mess with Dom when she was in a strop. She kept her nails that long for a reason, you know.

By the time Potions had ended, I was ready to go back to the dorm room and just sleep off the bad day. Unfortunately I couldn’t. I had one more class, DADA, and than patrol with Ryan.

DADA was one of my least favorite classes. It seemed as though Professor Nott channeled all his energy into two simple actions: hating his students, and making it clear that he hated his students. He spent the entire lesson sitting at his desk, glaring at everyone, not even attempting to pretend to teach us anything. He just made us read a couple of pages in the textbook and then write essays to pass the time until class was over. And if we didn’t finish the essays during class, we’d have to do them for homework. It was boring as hell, not to mention superbly irritating.

When I entered the DADA classroom, it was almost full. The noise was deafening, a cacophony of boisterous laughter and screeching chairs. Nott sat at the front of the room, his legs propped up on his desk, a scowl on his lined, albeit handsome, face. The image alone — of our Professor sitting at the front of his room, looking all dark and rugged and glowering — would have been enough to make Dom take a break from her hangover to go into cardiac arrest for a little bit.

I spotted an empty table and made my way towards it, avoiding any randomly strewn backpacks or chairs. I was almost to my spot when all of a sudden, I tripped over some obstacle in my path — a pair of outstretched legs, it seemed — and was flying through the air.

Face, meet floor. Floor, meet face. You’re going to become fast friends.

I scrambled off the floor, dusting myself off as I tried to ignore the snickers from some of the students who had noticed my little tumble. Furtively I looked around and realized that the owner of the mysterious legs I had tripped over was none other than the infamous Fallon Cooper, who had been too busy to realize what had happened, let alone utter any sort of apology.

Fallon Cooper was a seventh year Slytherin, so what he was doing in a fifth year DADA class, stretching his appendages all over the place for innocent bystanders like myself to stumble over, was beyond me.

But then the reason quickly became apparent when my eyes shifted over to the person on top of Cooper.

Evelyn.

See, Cooper and Evelyn have been dating since I was in my third year. They were the Golden Couple, even more notorious than Dom and Aidan. As Captain of the Slytherin Quidditch team, Fallon was prime swooning material though, personally, I didn’t trust his slicked back hair, or his cold, laughing eyes. Not to mention his wandering hands.

Evelyn was currently sitting on Cooper’s lap, her mouth grotesquely melded to his as if they were in some sort of barren desert and his saliva was her only source of hydration. In front of the class, in front of Professor Nott and everything. The two had no shame. I had to look away as I limped past them because the indecency of it all was making me blush.

I sat down and began unpacking my things. On the blackboard in front of me was today’s assignment — pages 271-286, and then a paragraph-long summary of the chapter. Ugh.

The class was starting to settle down. Professor Nott didn’t say anything, just scowled at us from his perch at his desk, a quill twiddling between two, nimble fingers. I gritted my teeth and opened my book, ready to start numbing my mind with some good ole, compelling textbook-writing, when the door to the classroom bust open with a bang.

I jerked around to see the door to see Fred and Potter stumbling into the room. Fred was keeled over, his chest rising up and down with each gasping, rattling breath, and Potter was leaning against the doorframe, obviously exhausted, his skin—already tan from Quidditch—flushed a slight pink color.

"Sorry — we're late — Professor — won't — happen again," Freddy rasped.

Nott raised his eyebrows, sitting up and taking his legs off his desk, but didn't say anything. He simply gestured to some empty seats with a lazy flick of his hand.

Fred sat down behind me, his breathing already slowing but still audible and wheezy, and left the only remaining empty seat next to me. Realizing this unfortunate fact, Potter scowled and plunked down in the chair, face dark.

I looked at Potter. Potter looked at me. Instinctively and at the same exact time, we scooted our chairs away from each other, making sure there was as much distance as possible between us. After all, who knew if Potter’s stupidity was contagious?

One could never be too careful.

I set to work, beginning to read. Cooper, having detached himself from Evelyn's face, ambled out of the classroom, and we students fell into an uneasy silence, save for the occasional flip of a page or scratch of a quill. Twenty minutes or so passed, and I was almost to the last page when —

Pssssst.

There was no mistaking Freddy’s voice, even when it was lowered into a barely audible whisper. Still, I kept on reading, clenching and unclenching my jaw as I ignored the boy behind me.

“Aggy! Pssssttt.

I could sense Potter’s gaze flicker towards me. Freddy tapped my shoulder, but I stared determinedly at my book, refusing to give in.

PSSSSSTTT.

What.” I turned around, glare murderous, to see Freddy looking at me, eyes sparkling playfully.

“Hi,” He said simply. I waited for him to continue, to tell me what, exactly, had been so urgent and important that he just had to disturb me while I was reading, but he said nothing else. Just smiled and went back to his book.

I resisted the urge to scream.

“Hi,” I spat back, though my tone seemed more appropriate for a death threat than a greeting. At this point, there was nothing I wanted more than to hurl my body over the desk and rip off every single strand of Fred’s perfect glossy dark hair from his thick skull, one by one.

There was a long pause. Potter was looking at us curiously through the corner of his eye. Freddy was smiling.

Stifling a sigh, I asked the question that I knew Fred had been waiting for: “So, did you make Fritz crack?”

“No.” Freddy’s smile seemed to slide off his face as he sighed glumly. “And I even got everyone to do the Macarena on top of their desks.”

“Sucks,” I hummed, trying (re: failing) to sound sympathetic.

“Yeah. Though I swear I saw his eye twitch once.”

“Awesome. Making progress.” I paused, took a deep breath, and then asked the question that had been burning in the back of my brain ever since Freddy entered the classroom: “And Aidan? Any news?"

Fred grimaced. “He’s still in his hermit cave. Won’t come out, unless it’s to get food or another one of his girl books.” He wrinkled his nose in obvious disgust.

I rolled my eyes. “They’re not girl books, Freddy. Honestly. The stereotype is borderline idiotic."

Fred looked genuinely confused. “What are you talking about? I thought girls loved that stuff. You know, romance and frills and shirtless Italian men on the cover and what not.”

“Well I don’t read those books, and I’m a girl,” I pointed out.

Potter snorted beside me, obviously unable to resist butting in. “Well, the second part's debatable.”

I whipped around, about to retort with a witty and self esteem-crushing insult of my own (most likely something along the lines of, “Yeah? Well... whatever, Potter”), but before I could even open my mouth, I was interrupted.

“Hey, you. Red hair,” Nott commanded from his High Imperial Desk at the front of the room, pointing to me. “No talking.”

I don’t know why, but for some reason, the fact that Nott said this made me very, very angry.

Maybe it was because Nott thought he could order me around, even though he was the crummiest excuse for a teacher that I’d ever met during my entire stay at Hogwarts (and that was saying something, because I had Fritz in third year). Or maybe it was because he had yelled at only me, while Freddy and Potter were spared the humiliation. Or maybe it was simply the fact that he even didn’t know my name, for Merlin's sake, although he’d been teaching me for almost a month.

The words were out of my mouth before my brain could even process them. "Well, maybe we wouldn’t have to talk if we were actually learning something here. I mean, this is a school, in case you haven’t noticed.”

The reaction was immediate. Potter’s mouth twisted into a smirk as he leaned back, obviously getting himself ready for a show. Freddy let out a low, impressed whistle. And I think someone in the back of the classroom started slow-clapping.

However, to be honest, I was probably the most surprised person out of everyone. I had never, ever been outwardly rude to a teacher before. Never. The minute the words were out of my mouth, I wanted to grab them out of the air and shove them back inside. My heart seemed to be racing a marathon inside my chest cavity.

I bit down, hard, on my lower lip, bracing myself for the inevitable punishment. Two weeks detention. Thirty points docked. A suspension from prefect duties.

But Nott did nothing, merely raised his eyebrows and stood up from his position at the desk, rubbing his hands together.

“Oh, so little Miss Goody Two Shoes wants to learn something here, does she?” He said, tone light and musical, as if, by suggesting that we learn at school, I had made some ridiculous and far-fetched request.

He strode towards me, hands in his pockets, and I automatically leaned back, slightly afraid. “Alright. What do you want to learn?”

My throat was dry. “I want to learn... Defense,” I said, before adding rather lamely and unnecessarily: “Against the Dark Arts.”

Nott laughed. Actually laughed, and somehow, that made me feel angrier. Which, in turn, made me feel braver.

“But why, Two Shoes?” Nott said, the sarcasm obvious in his caustic tone. “It’s not like you’re going to need it. Harry Potter’s already saved the world and laid the smack-down on every one of those mean, nasty, Mouldymort bullies. Sure, a countless number of people died in the process. And sure, maybe discrimination and prejudice is still as rampant as ever. But the world’s sunshine and daisies, now, isn’t it?”

Everyone in the room seemed to be holding their breath. Even Evelyn perked up from her notebook, apparently somewhat interested.

I looked at Potter, but his face showed no emotion at the mention of his father. He was completely impassive, as if he had no idea what or whom Nott was talking about. He looked bored, almost.

Freddy, obviously having struggled and failed to contain himself, suddenly exclaimed, “What are you talking about, Professor? There’s no discrimination anymore! The war got rid of that!”

Nott grinned a wicked, spiteful grin, as if he knew some nasty joke we didn’t. His eyes — pale, blue-green ice — flickered to Fred. “Maybe not the kind of discrimination you’re thinking about.”

Before Freddy could reply, I butted in. Conversations about discrimination and prejudice and principles were all well and good, but beside the point. "Professor, I'd still like to learn," I said clearly, drawing on my steadily-depleting reservoir of bravery. "Just in case."

“Just in case what? Voldemort pops out of his coffin and starts doing the hokey pokey? Face it, Two Shoes. This class is about as useful as tits on a nun.”

My jaw dropped open a little. “That is not... Appropriate.”

“Appropriate?” Nott raised his eyebrows. “I think I lost my capacity to be 'appropriate' after my second Court Order.” He paused, tilting his head in mock thoughtfulness. “Or maybe it was my third...”

Someone in the room snickered. Nott's history was another familiar piece of gossip around the castle. Our professor, it seemed, had a shady past. Beside the father was had been a supporter of Voldemort, and that Nott himself had strong ties to the Pureblood Slytherin world, there had also been an incident involving his wife, who had gone missing a couple years back. For the longest time, Nott had been a known suspect, though nobody had been able to prove anything definite. Cleared of any charges, the Hogwarts administration had apparently experienced a lapse in sanity and decided to hire him. This would be shocking anywhere else, but we were talking about the school that once had on its faculty a man with Voldemort's face hiding inside a turban.

I glowered. “That doesn’t matter, Professor. I still want to — "

“Learn?”

“Yes,” I said, my courage (or stupidity, depending on how you look at it) finally returning.

“Why? So that, if the opportunity arises, you can be the hero? Save the day?”

“No.” I snapped back, my patience waning. “So that, if I’m ever dueling someone or caught in a dark alley or encountering someone trying to break into my home, I can stay alive.”

Nott paused, his eyes taking in my green and silver tie with an almost appreciative glint. Then he said, so randomly it sort of jarred me a bit, “Who wrote your textbook?”

“Excuse me?”

“Who wrote your textbook?”

I glanced down at the hardcover sitting on my desk. “Penelope Trimble. Why?”

“Do you think this Penelope Trimble was happy?” He asked

I paused. “Um. Well, she dedicated her life to writing school textbooks — "

“So she was miserable, then."

“I didn’t say that!”

“It's what you implied."

"No, it's what you interpreted."

Nott raised his eyebrows derisively. “Alright. Fine. There’s Penelope Trimble’s contribution to society. A five hundred-page textbook that makes students around the world want to hang themselves by their toes. Boy. She must have been ecstatic with herself.”

I didn’t say anything.

“You want to know something, Two Shoes?” Nott said, placing his hands on my desk and leaning towards me. His eyes were two, identical winter nights, crisp and frigid. “Everyone wants to be happy. Everyone wants to matter. But, guess what? Nobody ever does.” He took my book from my desk, turning it around in his hands, and then tapped it against the edge of my desk. Thud. Thud. Thud. “I mean, sure, you’ve got your exceptions, like Harry Potter and whatnot, but other than that, we all just end up withering away, with nothing left to prove we existed except a bunch of old,” Thud. “yellowing,” Thud. “textbooks.” Thud.

I looked at Nott, unsure of what his nihilistic ranting had to do with DADA. And then I thought about his missing wife, and about the criminal charges leveled against him and those DADA textbooks, stacked on top of each other, sad and lonely with no one there to read them.

A long silence overtook the whole class. No one breathed a word.

After forever, Nott pulled away and glanced at his watch. “Well,” he said, tone too casual as he tossed my book to me. I barely caught it. “There you go, Two Shoes. That's what you have to learn. Class is over.”

And than he sat down, folding his hands together as his face assumed his signature scowl, like nothing had happened.

I didn’t know what to say, so I settled for nothing.

—*—

“Can you believe him? I mean, really! He basically told us our lives aren’t worth living! Some teacher he is! Honestly, I don’t even know how he got hired. Vespertine could not have been sober. Who in their right mind would want him in a school...A round small children, no less?”

Apparently, my little encounter with Nott had really loosened my tongue, because that night while on patrol, I found myself ranting and raving about him in front of none other than Ryan Fisher. That’s right — the Ryan Fisher, the one who could make any female he met generate enough drool for the Atlantic Ocean, was listening to me. Me! Griping about our DADA professor!

Usually, on my patrols with Ryan, I was too worried about making a complete and utter fool out of myself (which, believe me, was a legitimate fear) to even think about voicing my opinions. But Nott had made so angry that I just had to vent... Like a dam breaking, everything just came gushing out.

Ryan was a great listener. He nodded at all the right parts, his eyes squinted with a kind of thoughtfulness that — until then — I hadn’t though existed within the male gender. He had an amused sort of smile on his face, but it wasn't a condescending amusement. No, it was gentler. Understanding.

We were walking up and down the Third Floor corridor, occasionally checking into quiet, grey classrooms and musty broom closets. The hallways were dark save for the torches fastened to the walls, their flames casting eerie, grinning shadows on the stone floor. Our footsteps were loud and metallic, ringing off the stone as we walked.

I was trying really hard not to have another one of my full-blown Girls Gone Mental episodes (as Potter liked to dub them) in front of Ryan, but I couldn’t help it. I could feel myself getting angrier and angrier by the second, Nott’s jeering, holier-than-thou words playing through my mind on an endless loop.

I took a deep breath, mentally counting to ten in an attempt to calm myself down. When that didn't work, I tried it again in Spanish. Uno. Dos. Tres. Cuatro...

“I’m sorry, Ryan.” I finally said when my heart rate returned to normal, smiling slightly sheepishly. “I don’t mean to get all worked up about this. It’s just... He makes me really mad.”

Ryan let out a deep and velvety chuckle that made my stomach clench. “No, it’s completely fine. In fact, its entertaining. You make me laugh, Agatha.”

I frowned slightly, unsure of what to make of this new revelation. “Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”

He smiled, grey eyes crinkling at the corners. “Good. Definitely good.”

I raised my eyebrows in a sort of cool-calm-and-collected fashion, although on the inside, I was doing cartwheels and handstands. Uno. Dos...Tres. Cuatro. “Well, thanks then.”

Ryan nodded, still smiling. A comfortable moment of silence passed, and then he said: “So, besides the whole crazy professor ordeal, how was your day?”

I want to carry your future children inside me. “Fine,” I said. “Yours?”

“Pretty good. Except I've been having a lot of trouble with Transfiguration recently. You know that test we got back today? Yeah, didn’t do so well. McGonagall thinks I should get some extra help.” He raked a hand through his (golden, perfect, luminous) hair and shook his head, obviously distraught.

And here is where I saw my opportunity.

“Oh!” I exclaimed, a little too loudly and a little too excitedly. “I’m at Transfiguration good! I mean—Good at Transfiguration I am! I mean—” Instantly, all common sense (and, it seemed, knowledge of the English language) left my body as I started stumbling through my words in eagerness. Merlin, I was pathetic. All it takes is for Ryan to be in my presence, and then instantly I turn into some sort of redhead, socially-inept version of Yoda.

Ryan was grinning ear-to-ear.

“I’m good at Transfiguration.” Yay! A coherent sentence! I was wondering when one of those would show up. “And you know, er, transfigurizing stuff," I added lamely after a second's pause.

“I see,” Ryan said, somewhat slyly. “So do you think you might be able to tutor me, or something? Because I really need some help with my... transfigurizing.”

Uno dos tres cuatro — “Yeah! Of course! Um. When are you free?’

“How about next Wednesday? Is that good for you?”

I could be getting open heart surgery on that day, and I’d still push it back to tutor Ryan.

“Yeah! Wednesdays are great!” I said brightly. This was it. This was my karmic reward for putting up with Aidan's dumb friends and suffering through school and all the other horrible things I had to tolerate. I was finally getting my due.

“Thanks, Agatha,” Ryan said, smiling warmly. “You have no idea how big of a help this is for me.”

“Oh it’s no trouble. Not at all.” I was on top of the world. No, scratch that, I was on top of the universe. I was standing on the moon, and somebody had filled my oxygen tank with laughing gas. That was how delirious I was.

Ryan frowned. “Um, there’s just one little problem, though," he began, his tone almost sheepish.

My heart stopped. My face fell. Oh no. “Er, what?”

“Well,” Ryan said. “I might not get everything at once, so we could have to do more than one session. Is that okay?”

YES. YES. YES.

“Oh, well, I’m not sure. But that should be fine, yeah.” UNO DOS TRES CUATRO CINCO SEIS SIETE OCHO NUEVE DIEZ! DIEZ! DIEZ!

Ryan looked immensely relieved, and, as we began walking down the cold, empty corridor one last time, he said: “Thanks, Agatha. I totally owe you.”

This was very, very good.



Chapter 10: Awake
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Disclaimer: I own none of HP-verse — that all belongs to the wonder J.K. Rowling.


When I was seven years old, I received the most amazing, magnificent lunchbox for Christmas.

It was a Chudley Cannon's lunchbox. Beautiful, rectangular — with a picture of all the players on it waving in a group photo, their gorgeous orange robes flapping in the wind. It soon became the envy of every playground, every schoolyard. For years that lunchbox had been my most cherished, most prized possession. I took it everywhere with me, caring for it with the kind of fierce, irrevocable love that a mother has for a newborn child.

Then, when I was nine years old, my father wrote Aidan, Mum, and I in order to announce his engagement to Debbie the Dictator, my then step-mum to be. Even though my parents had divorced over four years ago, the news still had not been welcome.

My mother was especially unhappy. In a fit of unadulterated anger, she took the nearest thing she saw and threw it out of the open kitchen window, which she had been standing by at the time.

This unfortunate item just so happened to be — you guessed it — my Cannon’s lunchbox. I was left distraught, unable to do anything but watch in horror as my beloved lunchbox went sailing through the open window and landed in the middle of the street outside our house.

Of course, it wouldn’t have been so horrible if the story had just ended there. I could have run outside, grabbed the lunchbox, and polished off the dirt with one of the handy sanitizing wipes I always kept nearby (yes, I was a neat-freak even then). We would have all heaved a sigh of relief and moved on with our lives. Everything would have been just fine.

Except for what happened next:

You see, every Saturday afternoon at exactly three o’clock, a public transportation bus would come down our street and make a stop near the corner. Usually no one would get on — well, except for Mrs. Bakowski, the old Polish lady three houses down who always rifled through people's trash and pretended not to know English when we confronted her about it. But that's not the point.

The point is, as I’m sure you've already guessed, that fateful day happened to a Saturday, and the time three o'clock, sharp. I ran outside, hastily throwing on my jacket as I pushed open the front door, praying that I could save my lunchbox in time.

But I was too late. Already, the bus was hurtling down the street, going at a speed too fast to be considered safe. My lunchbox sat in the middle of its path, the players on it smiling and waving cheerfully, unaware of the fate about to befall them. Mrs. Bakowski stood on the corner of the street, an evil smile on her wrinkled face, obviously taking some kind of sadistic joy in watching my favorite childhood possession meet its doom.

I stood dumbly on the sidewalk, frozen to the spot. Time seemed to slow to a snail’s pace when, in reality, it must have taken only a couple seconds for the bus to zoom by, churning a gust of air that ruffled my hair as it passed, and flatten my Chudley Cannon’s lunchbox into a Chudley Cannon’s pancake.

Gone. Just like that. Time of death: 3:01 PM. I could still hear the sickening, metallic crunch in my nightmares.

I was inconsolable. My mother apologized profusely and promised to buy me a new one, but it just wasn't the same. It wouldn't have been my Chudley Cannon's lunchbox — going out to buy a cheap replacement would have just been plain indecent.

The moral to this very painful story, the reason I still carried the memory with me now, is that that day had been my first, true induction into the giant mass of suck that is life. From then on, I was no longer the naive, optimistic child of my youth. No, I'd finally had my first brush (or slap, more like) with reality. I was tainted. My happy-go-lucky childhood had packed up its bags and hitched a ride to Nizhnekamsk, Russia, and I would never see it again. From that point on, it would be all downhill.

Nothing in my life ever seemeed to go just how I'd imagined it would. There was always some unpleasant surprise, some crushed-lunchbox-equivalent of an accident or mistake to ruin my day. Misfortune trailed after me wherever I went.

Which was why I had been so incredibly surprised to discover that — believe it or not — my new tutoring sessions with Ryan Fisher actually went well. Despite the overall suckosity of my life, despite the fact that the Fates were always taking every presented opportunity to contaminate the good in my world, I was actually having a nice time... With Ryan Fisher, of all people! Five minutes into our first session, everything just seemed to click. Interacting with Ryan was just easy, automatic.

Not to mention I always felt secure in my element since I was teaching Transfiguration, a subject I knew well. Finally, I could be around Ryan without making a complete fool out of myself.

And you know what? We got along great. Not to mention we were accomplishing quite a bit. I could tell Ryan had actually learned some helpful tips that Wednesday. And the Wednesday after that, and the Wednesday after that, and the Wednesday after that...

Nothing romantic has actually happened (yet) except for the occasional bout of flirting (at least, I'm pretty it was flirting), but hey, I was optimistic. It was only a matter of time before something had to give, right?

Granted, this was usually the part of the story in which the heroine messes up and the too-good-to-be-true guy ends up running for the hills (or at least some intensive therapy), but that was totally not the case here. Life was actually being nice to me, for once, and I wasn't going to let my lucky streak end anytime soon.

Even in regards to The Split, which was unfortunately still in effect, we had seen some marked improvements. Aidan was actually venturing out of his dorm room to face the world every once and a while, and Dom was laying off the Firewhiskey. Which for me, meant less mornings spent holding back her hair as she presented her offerings (last night's dinner) to the Porcelain Gods (the toilet). So, yeah. Hooray for sobriety.

My relationship with Dom had taken a weird turn off the Friendship Highway as of late. After all, there was no easy way to deal with this type of situation. You couldn't discuss it without choosing sides, and you couldn't exactly laugh it off either. 'Oh ha ha, you dumped my brother and how he's so heartbroken he hasn't seen daylight in six days, ha ha, isn't that a knee-slapper?'

No. Instead, Dom and I preferred to just avoid the topic altogether. Besides — we had dedicated ourselves to better, more substantial things, such as fanatically objectifying the scrumptious piece of man-candy that was Ryan Fisher.

Ever since I told Dom about our tutoring sessions, she had devoted all her attention and efforts to the idea of Ryan and I getting together. When she found out that a Hogsmeade outing was set for this weekend, she made it her personal mission to ensure Ryan asked me out by then. It was a little unnerving.

Don't get me wrong — I appreciated the help and probably needed it. But to be honest, it felt just the slightest bit like she was trying to live vicariously through me, and that was unhealthy. I mean, the woman was so determined, it was scary.

Exhibit A: Today, she woke me up at six AM. Six AM. Completely unbelievable, seeing as the only person who loved sleep more than I did was Dom. Or pre-Split Dom, at least.

The reason for this act of insanity (if it even deserved the respectable label of a reason) was that Dom wanted to give me a makeover.

Now, I was not an unfortunate-looking person. Sure, I'd had my fair share of bad hair-days and I wasn't the girliest girl out there, but still — my features were more or less in the right place, and I could still tell the difference between a fashion do and a fashion don't. Whenever I bothered to put on some mascara and do my hair so it didn't look too much like a dying weasel, I could actually come across as quite attractive.

But no matter how much I tried to convince Dom of this, she remained undeterred. Which is why I found myself awake on an early, early Tuesday morning, being poked and prodded and plucked by Dom and her torture-devices-oops-I-mean-make-up-tools within an inch of my life.

"If you want Ryan Fisher to take you to Hogsmeade, you've got to do something about that hair, Agatha," my bestfriend sing-songed, unnervingly cheerful, as she clambered onto my bed with a brush in one hand and a weird-looking bottle of beauty product in the other. That — and the crazy, manic glint in her eyes — had me already feeling a bit on edge.

I self-consciously patted my head, sitting up groggily in bed. "What's wrong with my hair? I mean, sure, it's a little bushy — "

But before I could even finish my sentence, Dom had emptied the entire bottle of goopy product onto my head. The whole bottle of cold, wet goopy product. On to my head.

The screaming that ensued was loud enough to wake the entire castle. Luckily for me and my slumbering dormmates, Dom had casted a fortuitous Muffliato around my bed. Otherwise, Hogwarts surely would have been treated to a lovely natural alarm clock, courtesy of my vocal cords.

I couldn't stay outraged for long, however. Soon Dom was quite-literally dragging me into the shower, where she told me to get in and wash all the product out of my hair.

...Which seemed to completely defeat the point of dumping the stuff in there in the first place, but whatever. I said nothing as she handed me about five quadrillion bottles of soap, shampoo and conditioner, instructing me to use all of them. Apparently, I was going to be stepping out of this shower smelling like an entire field of daisies (and roses and peonies and lilies and lavender...), whether I liked it or not.

However, I think the cinch, the pièce de résistance was when Dom handed me some weird sort of gizmo that looked like it was better suited for grooming horses than humans, and told me to exfoliate my feet with it.

"Exfoliate my feet?" I screamed over the sound of scaldingly hot water drumming onto the bathroom tiles. "How am I supposed to exfoliate my feet with this?"

Dom sighed from where she stood on the other side of the forest green shower curtain, obviously exasperated with my pitiful lack of expertise in the realm of foot exfoliation. "For the last time, it's a pumice stone exfoliator, and you're supposed to rub the soles of your feet with it. It remoooves the dead skin cells."

"It looks like someone just glued a rock onto a piece of wood. Are you sure this is safe?"

"Of course it's safe! I paid two galleons for it!"

"Two galleons? For a foot exfoliator?" I exclaimed as, gingerly, I rubbed the strange-looking instrument against the bottom of my foot and tried not to slip across the slick tiles. "Why the bloody hell would you do that?"

"It's handy!" She retorted defensively.

"Dom, somewhere out there is a family that doesn't even have enough money for supper, and here you are with foot exfoliators up the wazoo," I said, sputtering out water and shampoo and whatever else I had in my scalp at the moment. "Don't you see the injustice in this?"

Dom snorted. "Oh that's rich coming from the girl who paid an extra five galleons for the leather-bound edition of Hogwarts: A History. You're just as bad as I am, except nerdier!"

"That was an investment!" I cried indignantly. "You can't put a price on knowledge!"

"Whatever, Aggy. Someday, you'll thank me for this."

"Yeah, right. I highly doubt Ryan's going to care whether or not my feet are exfoliated."

"You never know," came the maddening reply. "He might have some weird sort of fetish you don't know about."

"Ew, I'd rather not think about that." I said flatly as I switched to my other foot, hopping around on the slippery tiles of the shower and trying not to face-plant. "Besides, he hasn't even asked me to Hogsmeade yet. Who knows? Maybe he's not interested in me that way."

"Of course he'll ask you! You two are destined to be together!" Dom exclaimed, an edge of hysteria creeping into her voice. "Believe me, I can tell. You guys will go out on a date, fall in love, and live happily ever after! He's going to be your Prince Charming, okay? Your own and only!"

"Yeah, sure. I'll believe that when we ride off together on his white horse," I grumbled, spitting out a glob of soap that had managed to find its way into my mouth. "Until then, let's stick with reality, okay?"

"Oh, stop being such a Negative Nelly, Agatha," Dom snapped. There was a pause, in which she probably checked the time on her watch, and then she was speaking again, all brusque and business-like. "Alright, turn off the shower. It's time for Phase Three."

Oh Godric. She'd made phases. Of my makeover. The girl had officially gone cuckoo.

I clambered out of the shower, wrapping my shivering body in a nice, fluffy towel, and we quietly tiptoed our way back into the still-dark dorm room. There Dom tossed me my uniform (which, with a few flicks of her wand, she had altered to "hug and flatter" my "silhouette" — whatever that meant), and I hastily threw it on.

Then it was time for the worst, most dreaded part: the make up.

To be fair, I tried to fend her off. I really did. But Dominique played Quidditch, and my muscles were always really weak in the morning. I had a distinct disadvantage. She was just too strong; she overpowered me.

I could do nothing as, helpless, I was plucked and powdered to death. My eyebrows were shaped, my nails filed... By the time she was finished, it was an hour later, and I was just about ready to snap and rip all my pillows to shreds.

"Alright, Aggy, I think we're done here," Dom said gravely and dramatically, as if she were a head surgeon finishing up a ten hour-long heart transplant. She grabbed the hand-mirror off her bedside table and, with a tiny flourish, presented it to me, eyes gleaming eagerly.

I jerked back from my reflection, surprised. Granted, the girl in front of me wasn't a completely different or unrecognizable person. This wasn't a B-rated romantic comedy from the 80s where the heroine gets some makeover and turns into a total bombshell, after all. It had been a subtle transformation, but nevertheless, the changes were still enough to surprise even me. My hair was glossier, my complexion smoother, my clothes just a tidbit tighter. Of course Dom had made me put lipstick on, too, despite my ardent protesting. But it didn't look half-bad, actually.

"Woah," I allowed, somewhat impressed.

"Right?" Dom smirked evilly, before shoo-ing me off my seat on her bed. "Now come on, time to go to breakfast and show you off."

As we made our way down the dormitory and through the Common Room, I couldn't help but notice the people staring as we walked past. My House mates, lounging in various positions on armchairs and couches, squinted at Dom and I curiously, most likely all wondering where the dead weasel on Agatha Bennett's head went.

The Great Hall was full of activity that morning, bubbly chatter and the tinkling sound of silverware echoing throughout the cavernous atrium. Everyone seemed to be in a good mood. Even Monty Schwitzheiner (the weird surly Huflepuff who always tucked the bottom of his pants into his socks and sat in the back of classrooms eating paper) seemed to be enjoying himself, all smiley and jolly as he munched on last week's Charms homework.

Dom and I snagged seats next to a couple of first-years at the nearest table to the door. I spooned some scrambled eggs onto my plate and, casually, glanced over to where Aidan was sitting with Potter and Fred two tables down. The three of them were laughing together, joking around and pretending not to notice the various looks they were receiving from those around them — glances that ranged from curiosity to envy to flat-out adoration. I couldn't help but roll my eyes as one Hufflepuff girl swooned so viciously she smacked her friend's face into a bowl of porridge.

Oh, young love.

I sighed in my seat, fidgeting uncomfortably with the new taut feeling of my uniform, not paying Dom any attention as she prattled on about the day's latest gossip.

Now that we were under the harsh light of the Great Hall, my makeover seemed hopelessly silly. Did I really think I'd be able to catch Ryan Fisher's attention with nothing more than red lips and straighter hair?

No, I had to face it: I was destined for singledom. I didn't know how to behave around blokes, how to flirt properly and, as much as I mentally ridiculed the Hufflepuff bimbos that fawned over the Tweedle Trio, I envied their seductive saviness.

Honestly, I should just get it over with and escape to some French covenant to become a nun. Sister Agatha. Yes, that had a nice ring. I could wear one of those hat thingies and teach at a catholic school, where I'd whack all the misbehaving students with my meter ruler. It would be kind of fun, actually. Hitting children with sticks always provided for a good time.

Then again, Dom always said the colour black washed me out. And of course, there was a slight complication in regards to the whole... religion thing, which I didn't quite know how to do (was that the right word for it? Could you 'do' religion?). The only time Mum ever took me to church was six years ago, and that had been by accident. (Long story — we were driving by, Aidan really needed to use the bathroom, you know how it is).

"Uh-oh. Do you smell that, Aggy?" Dom suddenly perked up, yanking me out of my moody day-dreaming. She had frozen with her spoon in mid-air and her glare fixed on something in the near-distance.

I followed her gaze to see Evilyn Stanford and her posse making their way towards us, Evelyn’s perfect cloud of voluminous blonde hair floating behind her in all its eternal shiny-ness.

"Yeah," I said warily in response to Dom's question. "It smells like — "

" — eau de bitch," Dom said bluntly, and I couldn't help but agree as a big, sugary whiff of Evelyness forced its way inside my nostrils. Ick. What did Evelyn do — take baths in her own perfume? Or was it just her natural scent, an involuntary warning emitted so that all the small children and animals in the vicinity knew when to hide?

I raised my eyes to the pastel-blue ceiling above me, silently issuing a prayer that Evelyn would just keep walking past and ignore us. But of course, the Fates seemed to be hosting some sort of 'Who Can Inconvenience Agatha Bennett the Most' competition this morning, because just as Evelyn reached where we were sitting, she took notice of us and, like a wolf catching a fleeting sight of its prey, abruptly halted, back straightening stiffly.

Great.

Evelyn's two friends/bodyguards, Marlene Simmons and Caroline Kinley, stopped as well, coming to stand behind Evelyn so that they formed some sort of evil triangle of bitchiness. Idly, I wondered it they arranged it that way on purpose. Like, did Evelyn have to instruct them where to stand for maximum intimidation? Or was it just some sort of natural-born instinct for them?

I glanced meekly down at my plate, not wanting any trouble, but I could feel Evelyn's frosty glare on the top of my head. She stood right before me, the dining table forming a barrier between us. I was glad for it, seeing as the table would provide a convenient obstacle in the case of Evelyn suddenly deciding to lunge at me and suck the soul from my body.

The first-years sitting nearby suddenly went quiet; they obviously sensed an impending show-down. Dom lowered her spoon onto the table, setting it down firmly with her yellow-green gaze fixed on Evelyn.

"Agatha," Evelyn cooed, in that fake sort of voice that just made all your internal organs want to shrivel up and stop working. "You finally managed to tame your hair! You actually look human, for once. How nice."

Ugh. I hated when Evelyn did this. It was like her strategy. She would always dole out a compliment, but then twist it into an actual slap-in-the-face in disguise. And I could never call her out on it, either, since she would just blink all innocent and say, "Who, me?"

Yeah, this girl-fighting business was rough. A lot like guerrilla warfare, if you thought about. Sneaky, full of deceit, and you always had to be careful where you stepped, or else — BOOM! — landmine.

Caroline and Marlene snickered like Evelyn had just said the funniest thing they'd ever heard, and I silently glowered. Metaphorical smoke was billowing out of my ears. Where did Evelyn manage to find such willing minions, ready to obey and perform her every command? Did she train them? Buy them? Was there some sort of RENT-A-DRONE business I didn't know about?

I raised my head, tilting it ever so slightly to the side, and smiled an alarmingly cheerful smile. If Evelyn wanted to do it this way, then fine. I would play her game. I'd play her game and win.

"Evelyn!" I exclaimed in false cheer, as if I'd just been reunited with my long lost sister, or something. "What a surprise, seeing you out and about at this hour... We all thought you were allergic to daylight." I paused, savouring the way Evelyn’s eyes narrowed at the jab. "And happiness. And compassion. And, you know, basically all human emotion in general."

Dom let out a bout of throaty, unrestrained laughter, and we exchanged a victorious high-five under the table.

Evelyn’s syrupy smile did not waver, but her left eye twitched ever so slightly. The drones looked at each other, confused by this subtle humor.

"Agatha, you are so funny. Always cracking jokes. It's so... cute." Her words were dripping with disdain and sarcasm, a stark contrast to the manic smile that was still glued to her face. I made a face at the word 'cute', knowing that she had chosen it specifically to sound patronizing and superior.

Dom, however, was unfazed. She shook her head in mock-sadness, a pitying expression pulling at her face. "Yes. It's a shame you don't understand any of them. But don't worry, pet. You'll get there eventually, once you finish learning your ABCs."

Yes! Beautiful execution, amazing delivery! And, oh, what was that I heard? Why, I believe that to be the sound of sweet, sweet victory! Or maybe just the overwhelming chorus of "DANG!"s and "OH, BURN!"s from the kids sitting next to us.

I love first-years.

Dream Team: 2
Evil & Co.: 0

Evelyn's face seemed to pinch together, making her look like she had smelled something particularly foul. For a moment, I foolishly believed that we had won the argument, that she'd been officially rendered speechless. Then Evelyn's face changed. It went from annoyed to smug in two seconds flat, her lips pursing in a glossed, cat-that-caught-the-canary smile..

"Dominique, I'm surprised you're acting so cheerful," she said sweetly, smirk curling her lips upwards. "You know, given the... circumstances."

The temperature in the room seemed to take a sudden drop. I glanced nervously over to Dom, whose fingers were curling over the edge of the table.

"What. Circumstances." It wasn't a question, it was a demand. Dom's eyes were narrowed into little slits, her teeth gritted together as she fixed Evelyn with a shrewd stare. I was suddenly struck with how freaking terrifying my best friend could be.

Evelyn made a sympathetic clucking noise with her tongue, widening her eyes innocently and shaking her head. "You mean you haven't heard yet? Oh, you poor thing. I thought you knew."

I rolled my eyes, trying to ignore the uneasy feeling that was gathering in the pit of my stomach. "Forget about it, Dom. She's probably just — "

"Aidan asked Margaret Corner to Hogsmeade," Evelyn announced loudly, effectively cutting me off.

Silence. The first-years all exchanged surprised looks, eyebrows raised, as this shocking new information sunk in. Evelyn shot a knowing, smug look to her co-conspirators.

Meanwhile, my jaw had found a nice comfy position on the floor, and a scarily large vein was starting to throb in Dom's forehead.

I gave an uneasy laugh. "Well. That's just untrue."

The comment went ignored. Evelyn and Dom seemed not to have heard me, locked in some personal glowerfest as they glared at each other so fiercely, I was surprised they didn't start burning holes in each other's skulls.

Dom was the first one to break away. She looked quickly to the side, a bitter smile tugging at her lips, her expression remarkably smooth. "Why do you think I care about who Aidan's taking to Hogsmeade, Evelyn? It's not like we're dating," she spat out the word as if it were the most ridiculous notion in the world, as if the idea of Dom and Aidan together was some distant, outlandish idea.

"Oh, well. I just thought you might want to know," Evelyn simpered coolly. With a delicate flick of her hand, she tossed her shiny hair behind her shoulder, the action casual and stunning all at once. I grimaced. If I ever tried to do something like that, it would probably just make me look like I had a nervous twitch.

Dom smiled forcibly. "I appreciate your concern, Evelyn, but what — or who — Aidan does in his spare time is of no interest to me."

"Of course not," Evelyn said, sounding completely unconvinced. She returned the smile, but it looked more like a baring of teeth than anything. "Now if you don't mind, I've got to scamper. It's been nice catching up and everything, but ‚ you know how it is. Things to do, people to see."

"Puppies to kick, little children's' souls to devour," I finished for her.

But Evelyn acted as if she hadn't heard. She simply widened her smile and gave a cute little wave, polished fingers wiggling at us in a mocking fashion. "Ta-ta. Lovely talking to you two."

And then, with a twirl of brilliant gold hair, she was gone. Smirking, her two minions stalked mechanically after her.

For a long moment, Dom and I didn't speak. We simply stared at the spot Evelyn had been, unable to do anything but gape and blink. How had Evelyn gotten the last word in that conversation? The Evelyns of the world were not supposed to get the last word in anything. The Evelyns of this world were supposed be 300 pounds overweight and sleeping on their mother's futons.

Apparently, the world was an unfair place. Guess I missed the memo.

"Look Dom," I finally said. "That thing about Aidan probably isn't even true. Evilyn was lying to get under your skin or something. We should just — "

"Push her down the stairs and make it look like an accident?"

"I was going to say 'ignore her,' but that works too."

Dom smiled bitterly, shaking her head. "You know, call me crazy but I hadn't expected him to move on that quickly. Aidan, I mean. I'd actually thought I meant something to him. Is that incredibly selfish of me?"

"Of course you meant something to him," I said, awkwardly patting Dom on the back. "He, he uh—" Loved you? Adored you? "Liked you a lot."

She snorted. "Nice."

"Dom — "

"I know what you mean," she said, eyes deep and serious. "I just can't believe he's doing this."

"Maybe he isn't," I pointed out. "Like I said, Evelyn could be lying just to freak you out."

She paused, looking thoughtful and unsure. "I don't know, Aggy. What if he is actually taking Margaret Corner?"

I grimaced. Margaret Corner was one of the nicest people at Hogwarts. She was popular, but not in the superior, holier-than-thou way that Evil & Co. were. No, Margaret was the type of girl who would lend you her last quill, give you half her lunch, help you with your Charms homework. The complete opposite of Dom, who laughed whenever she saw old people fall and held the belief that children were — I quote — "like broken limbs: annoying, useless, and often caused by accidents."

"Well," I began cautiously. "Even if he is taking her, it's just Hogsmeade. It's not like they're getting married."

Dom groaned sulkily, pressing her fingers to her forehead as she brooded. "Ugh, this is all giving me a headache. I think I need to lie down for a minute." She stood up abruptly. "I'll see you later, Aggy."

And before I could even utter the words, "But we have class in five minutes," she was gone.

Well then, guess I'd be braving Professor McGonagall alone.

I sighed to myself, finishing off the last of my eggs and then standing up to sling my backpack over my shoulder. Someone had a lot of explaining to do.

—*—

Transfiguration passed by slowly, a mind-numbing eternity of me flicking my wand miserably at the same annoyingly obstinate ladybug, desperately waiting for it to transform into a shiny button. My efforts were in vain, however. I was usually best in class, but today all I managed to achieve was a sore wrist and a slightly irritated insect.

As soon as the lesson ended, I fled the classroom in desperate search for Aidan. He had Herbology next period, and I wanted to talk to him about this alleged Hogsmeade date before he left for the Greenhouses.

I made my way down the corridor, searching for my brother amid the thrumming masses of people that flooded the halls between classes. I couldn't find him, though — no tuft of toffee hair or impish blue gaze to be found. Either he had already left, or I'd missed him.

I was about to just give up and head to Ancient Runes, grumbling to myself about idiot brothers and emotionally-unstable bestfriends, when out of the corner of my eye I spotted a familiar shock of stubbornly messy, ink-dark hair.

Potter.

With an uncharacteristic amount of agility, I wheeled around and pushed my way through the mob of students, eyes set determinedly on my target. Potter was heading towards the doors, his shirt rumpled and untucked and his hair sticking out in sixty different directions. He was talking to someone — a Ravenclaw sixth-year, I think — and he was laughing in an amiable way that seemed, not surprisingly, unfamiliar to me. In fact, it came as a strange jolt to see Carefree Happy Potter when I was so used to the Annoying-Sarcastic-Scathing Potter we all knew and loved.

"Hey!" I called out over the roar of chatter and laughter. "Potter! Wait up!"

Upon hearing his name, Potter twisted around, eyebrows raised in expectant curiosity. When he saw it was me, however, his smile fell off his face so quickly it was almost a reflex.

I quickened my pace to meet him, pushing past a group of whispering girls until I was only about twenty feet away. Potter scowled, noticing the determined nature of my warpath, and turned to mutter something to his Ravenclaw friend, who nodded and scurried away to leave us alone.

I was slightly out of breath by the time I reached Potter a few seconds later. I panted, my skin flushed and blotchy in what I assumed must have been an extremely attractive way.

"Potter!" I spat out in between heaving breaths. "I — You — ah bollocks —"

"What is it, Bennett?" Potter quirked a brow and crossed his arms in front of his chest, angling his body so that he was leaning against a nearby wall. His foot rapped against the marble floor restlessly, the tap-tap-tap puncturing the air between us.

The crowds of students continued to rush by, pushing and jostling us as they passed. Their laughter and babble seemed to slowly fade though, until it was nothing but background sound, a dull roar of white noise. All I could focus on was the person (if he could be called that) in front of me, who was still — come to think of it — impatiently waiting for me to form a semi-coherent sentence.

"I need to talk to you," I finally managed.

Potter twisted his face into a mock expression of shock, slapping his hand over his heart in an over-dramatized fashion. "You're breaking up with me, aren't you?"

I shot him A Look. "This is serious, Potter."

"Fine," he drawled, a lazy smile curling his lips upwards. "What is it, then?"

"Well," I began, "It's about Dom. See, there's this rumor going around that Aidan — "

"Bennett," Potter suddenly interrupted. "What's wrong with your face?"

It took me a moment to figure out what he'd just said.

I reared back, gaping at him and his completely insolent, out-of-the-blue question until I finally understood. The makeover. In light of all that had happened, I had completely forgotten about my odd little metamorphosis. It came as a complete surprise to me that... Well, Potter actually noticed.

My face flushed maraschino-cherry red, my eyes dropping hastily to the floor. Now that I was on the receiving end of Potter's curiosity, my makeover suddenly seemed all the more silly and embarrassing. I knew that if I actually confessed the truth, I'd never hear the end of it.

"What's wrong with your face?" I shot back, trying to sound casual and unperturbed.

Potter's smile widened as realization seemed to dawn. "You're wearing makeup, aren't you?"

"No."

"Don't lie," he said, hazel eyes flickering with blatant delight. "Your lips are all shiny. And you're hair looks weirdly... normal. You're wearing makeup!"

"Weirdly normal?" I said lightly in an obvious attempt to sidestep the topic. "Isn't that an oxymoron?"

"Stop deflecting."

"I'm not deflecting!"

There was a long pause in which we stared each other down, hazel and blue colliding head-on. The air crackled overhead. We were sizing each other up, both of us refusing to look away, our gazes locked and our jaws clenched.

The crowd of people in the hall had thinned out over the past few minutes, leaving only a few harried stragglers hastily scurrying to their class. As I looked at Potter, the world around me suddenly seemed to swell into this huge, incredibly silent place. It felt like the two of us were the only people in this ginormous castle, in the entire universe. My nerves were throbbing with energy and adrenaline, the need to trump Potter pounding through every cell of body.

Finally I looked away, blinking furiously. "Fine, so maybe I am wearing makeup. What's the big deal? Why do you care anyways?"

Potter leaned in closer to me, still smiling, and gave an indifferent shrug. "You just don't seem like someone who'd be bothered with that kind of stuff, is all."

"Stuff like my appearance, hygiene, and general well-being?" I snapped back, irritated by his wry, knowing smile. Why did Potter always have to act like I was some bloody source of entertainment? I should smack that stupid smirk right off his face.

Potter whistled lowly. "Are you always this touchy?"

"Are you always this intolerable?"

He didn't deign to answer the question, and there followed a long pause. Potter was still smiling.

"I'm late for Ancient Runes" I finally mumbled, tone somewhat accusatory. I looked down at my feet, hating how Potter could always make me feel so small and stupid. It was sodding belittling.

Potter shrugged. "Then leave."

"But I still have to talk to you," I insisted, stepping forward as I once more remembered Dom and Margaret Corner.

"About what?" Potter asked, looking he couldn't care less what I had to say.

I sighed, deciding to just spit it out before he could interrupt me again and change the subject. "Is Aidan taking to Margaret Corner to Hogsmeade?"

Potter's amused expression flitted off his face, soon to be replaced by something much more guarded, much less readable. His analytical gaze made me feel more than a bit uncomfortable. After all, Potter could be strangely perceptive at times (an example of this would be, oh, five minutes ago), and under his scrutiny I felt like every flaw, every gap in my armor was exposed.

"Maybe you should ask him yourself," Potter said, unhelpfully cryptic as always. "Better yet, maybe Dom should ask him. The two could use a talk."

My heart dropped from its place in my chest and landed with a splash inside my stomach. I flinched, taking Potter's response as implicit agreement. "So that's a yes, then?"

"It's not anything," Potter said, face still as impassive as ever. "I'm just saying Dom and Aidan could use a talk, that's all."

I opened my mouth to reply, but Potter just shook his head firmly and turned around on his heel.

I said nothing, wordlessly watching as Potter walked away from me, strolling down the corridor in that unhurried, 'I've-got-all-the-time-in-the-world' way of his. Sighing in exasperation, I turned and pressed my forehead against the wall Potter had been leaning on.

So, Aidan was taking Margaret Corner to Hogsmeade.

Well, that certainly complicated things.

Eyes squeezing shut at the unpleasant thought, I stayed still for a moment and reveled in the cool stone against my skin, mistakenly believing to have been finally left alone.

"Hey, Bennett!"

My eyes flashed open to see Potter standing at the end of the hallway, his gaze curiously dark and muted. His face was void of any previous derision or amusement — he looked sincere and intent as he met my gaze.

"Yeah?"

"Don't wear lipstick," he said simply. "It clashes with your hair."

And then he was gone.

Chapter 11: Maybes
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Disclaimer:: I do not own HP, which is property of J.K. Rowling, or Punk'd, which is property of MTV, or Ben & Jerry's.




"Do you know that the dot above an 'i' is called a tittle?"

...And so my day begins.

Freddy Weasley leaned across the Great Hall's table on his elbows, eyes alight with morning cheer. Reluctantly, I swiveled my gaze to him, taking in his green eager gaze and radiant smile, and stifled an eye-roll.

Normally, Fred was a pretty tolerable breakfast companion. Sure, he could get loud and boisterous when telling a story, and yes, sometimes his wild gesticulations posed a threat to the glasses and plates and other breakables on the table. But Freddy always greeted the AM with a wide grin, and at least a couple entertaining conversation starters. On good days, he was perfectly fine to have around.

Today, however, was not a good day.

My stare flicked back to my plate as I raked my fork across my scrambled eggs, too exhausted to fully devote my attention to the bloke across from me. "Freddy, please."

"Fascinating, right? Another fun fact: polar bears are mostly left-handed!" Fred added brightly, ripping a chunk of toast off with his canines and spraying anyone in a two foot radius with a lovely crumb shower. A nearby first-year flinched.

Fred had recently purchased a huge anthology of random trivia and, consequently, was now impossible to be around. Anyone who associated with him could expect to be battered with a slew of irrelevant facts and nonsensical information. For example, did you know ingrown toenails are hereditary? And a duck's quack doesn't echo? And — oh yeah, this one's particularly interesting — I don't bloody give a shit?

"Hey Aggy, do you know— ?"

"Fred?"

"Yeah?"

"Be quiet."

"But — "

"No."

"Ah —"

"Stop."

"Come on, Aggy, this stuff is interesting," Fred whined indignantly, mouth pursed into an aggrieved pout as he slouched in his seat. "I'm just trying to enliven your morning."

"And I'm going to enliven your face with my butter knife if you don't shut up soon," I snapped back impatiently, irritation reaching its boiling point. "Okay?"

My threat was obviously very effective, because, wide-eyed, Fred clamped his mouth shut without another word. My eardrums — along with the few ounces of sanity I had left — rejoiced.

It was a Wednesday morning, and the Great Hall had sunk into a dull, insipid atmosphere typical of the middle of the week. We students were exhausted, running on nothing more than twenty-minute powernaps and caffeine jitters, and the grey ceiling above seemed to reflect our collective mood. Except for the clinking of silverware and the occasional murmur, it was quiet.

I gingerly pushed my eggs and bacon around my plate, rubbing at my aching temples with the other hand. I was completely drained of energy, having gotten no sleep last night thanks to Dom keeping me up with her incessant ranting about Aidan. This week's cause for complaint? Apparently, Margaret Corner had grazed Aidan's arm in Potions class yesterday, and in Dom's sick, demented brain, this meant the two were passionately in love with each other and no doubt shagging away in broom cupboards. All because of one tiny innocent graze.

When I had pointed out that this aforementioned graze had no meaning behind it — in fact, it was probably just an accident, given how Margaret had been in the process of reaching over to grab a quill when it had taken place — Dom had just waved me off.

It had been a very romantic graze, she maintained, and that physical contact hid within it a thousand secret meanings. When I asked what differentiated a romantic graze from a regular one, my best friend had just looked at me like I was stupid, snootily replying that it was not the graze itself, but the reaction to it.

See, Aidan had not recoiled and leapt off his chair, screaming in horror, at the mere thought of touching Margaret Corner. Therefore, this could only mean the two were madly in love and would be announcing their engagement any moment now.

"Agatha? Earth to Aggy?"

I blinked, shoving my tangential thoughts into the back of my brain where they'd probably fester unhealthily, and glanced up to see Fred. He was looking at me with concern, whether it be for the spaced-out frown on my face or the butter knife clenched in my fist, I couldn't tell.

"Alright, love?" he quipped amusedly. "Think I lost you there for a second."

"Yeah, yeah," i muttered, flapping a dismissive hand. My voice was faraway though, clouded with pensive musings. "I'm fine. I was just... thinking."

"Well don't do that," Freddy replied cheerfully, plucking some more toast from the center of the table. "No good ever comes from thinking."

Despite myself, I grinned. "You wouldn't know."

Fred arched a brow, eyes twinkling, and happily continued munching on his toast. "So what had you spinning off into la-la-land, anyway? Worrying about the Hogsmeade trip this Saturday?"

"No," I admitted glumly. "But now I am." My brow crumpled once more at the thought — Hogsmeade, while a nice break for some, meant only more potential drama when my friends were concerned. That, plus the fresh opportunity for the Tweedle Trio to smuggle in illicit substances into the castle, made Hosgmeade a stressful time for me.

"Well I can assure you, Aggy," Fred declared grandly, face pulled into a caricature of seriousness. "You have nothing to worry about from me."

"Fred, last year you smuggled ten kilos of Firewhiskey into the castle," I pointed out.

"Allegedly smuggled in," Fred corrected automatically. "And it was fifteen."

I rolled my eyes, shoving my breakfast plate away, and made to stand up. It was time for class and I didn't fancy being late to Transfiguration. McGonagall got feisty in the mornings.

"Breakfast's over, Fred." I reached across the table and plucked a muffin to take on the road from the breadbasket, then swung my leg over the bench. "You coming?"

Fred waved a hand amicably. "Nah, I'm going to stay and finish my toast. But I'll see you later."

"Suit yourself," I shrugged, heaving my toddler-sized backpack onto my shoulders.

The last thing I heard before I walked away was Freddy turning to the unfortunate first-year next to him, uttering one final, "Did you know that — ?"

I shook my head and smiled. What a life.

—*—

"No, no, no. You've got it all wrong. It's a swish, not a wave."

"What's the difference between a swish and a wave?"

" One's more, er, swishy. And the other's more... wave-like."

"...Got it, thanks."

I sighed, grabbing hold of Ryan's hand and gently guiding it to demonstrate the right motion. His fist, clenched firmly around his wand, seemed to relax slightly as I helped his arm move in the correct flicking pattern.

"See, like this. Short and quick," I instructed in soothing tones. "Swish."

"Swish." Ryan repeated anxiously, drawing his perfect eyebrows together in an adorably quizzical sort of way. I tried to ignore the warmth of his hand, smooth and soft under my own palm. Merlin. His skin was so... moisturized. He was perfect. "Swish."

"Yeah. Exactly," I affirmed proudly, letting go — with some difficulty — of his hand. "Swish."

Ryan and I had met this afternoon for yet another tutoring session — another glorious, wonderful, amazing tutoring session. The bloke was just so affable and friendly, so easy to speak to and be around — I couldn't help but enjoy the time I spent with him. I was beginning to believe these tutoring sessions had been a cosmic gift, a way to make up for all the other horrible ills afflicting the world. Poverty, war, death, bad hair-days — it was all forgiven now.

Today, Ryan and I had decided to use an empty classroom for our session. We usually arranged to meet at the library but had decided to change up locations this time around, seeing as how Madam Pince (yes, the librazilla was still at it) always looked like she was on the verge of an aneurysm whenever we walked into her hallowed sanctuary (this may or may not have anything to do with me knocking over the Biography A-L shelf last Tuesday).

Anyway.

We'd chosen the perfect spot — our classroom was wide and spacious, complemented by a high ceiling, an elegant marble floor and arched, gaping windows. It had been my idea to push all of the desks and chairs towards the walls of the room, so that we could have more space to work with.

I was trying to teach Ryan a trickier incantation — how to change a quill into a rose. We'd mastered the reverse last week, but this direction was a little harder, and Ryan just couldn't seem to get the wand movement right.

The windows had been left open, and briefly, I was distracted by the melancholy sound of birds chirping in the distance. The day had passed fast — autumn was here — and now that it was almost dinner time, light from the setting sun streamed into the room in orange, gold and pale pink ribbons.

"Okay, now try matching your voice's inflection with the upward motion of the wand," I suggested lightly. Ryan frowned in assent, tongue poking out between his teeth as he concentrated. But he couldn't seem to do it quite in-sync. I watched on glumly and, in an unconscious tic of exasperation, yanked my fingers through my hair.

Quickly, i withdrew my hand as if I'd been shocked. Ever since Dom's little makeover extravaganza, my tresses were now permanently soft, sleek, and just all around Dominique-ified. I was still surprised when, everytime I touched my scalp, I found actual normal hair, and not the mass of tangles I was used to. It was a strange sensation, but at least I didn't resemble a ginger Frankenstein's bride anymore.

"Okay," I said, trying to keep the edge of frustration from creeping into my voice. We'd been working at this for a while now, and I was an impatient person. I had a hard time understanding when people weren't able to match my pace. "Just try one more time. Swish. Swish — "

Ryan heaved a sigh and dropped his arm, head sweeping from side to side morosely. "Forget it," he mumbled in defeat, shoving his wand into his robe's pocket. He dragged two hands down his (perfect, beautiful, look-directly-at-it-and-you'll-be-blinded-forever) face, and then flashed me a weak smile. "We should take a break. You've been really helpful, Aggy — I'm the problem here. I can't seem to do it right."

He ambled over to a nearby desk and heaved an exhale, hopping lightly up to sit on the desktop.

"No!" I said, protesting eagerly. "You'll get it eventually. It just takes a lot of practice. And time. You have to be patient, Ryan."

"Of course," his eyes flicked towards me in kind acknowledgement, a wry smile twisting at his lips. Scooting over, he patted the wooden surface by his leg. I obeyed, ambling over to sit down by him as the rate of my heartbeat seemed to double in speed.

There was a beat of silence in which Ryan just looked at me, those soulful blue eyes like a pair of, er... soulful blue things. I fidgeted, slightly uncomfortable under the scrutiny.

"What?" I said, swinging my legs back and forth, unable to keep myself from forming a grin of my own.

He chuckled, the sound rich and deep. "It's just, you're hair... Looks amazing in the light."

I felt my face flush. My hand reflexively flew up to touch my head, and I made a mental note to buy Dom a giant box of chocolates and a teddy-bear later. "Thank you."

There was another beat of comfortable silence. Ryan continued to smile his warm, easy smile, pale eyelashes glinting faintly in the dying sunlight. My cheeks would not stop glowing.

Finally, he spoke. "Agatha, there's something I've been meaning to tell you."

I blinked as Ryan's expression suddenly shifted into one of quiet seriousness, his grey gaze suddenly curiously intent. My heart jolted in its spot and then free-fell down my abdominal cavity, landing somewhere near my stomach region.

"What is it?" I whispered, voice a reverent hush. Ryan was looking so sober and almost a little... nervous. I felt hope like a tiny flame, shivering to life in my stomach.

Could this be it? What I'd been waiting, desperately wishing for these past months? Dom had told me it would happen, but I'd always waved it off, telling her it was never going to be. But Ryan looked so solemn, right now, like what he had to tell me was extremely important. Maybe, just maybe, this could be the moment when Ryan finally swept me into his arms, professed his undying, ever-lasting love for me and declared he'd never be able to bear another, torturous second without me as his wife.

Or, you know, asked me to Hogsmeade. That would work to.

The longer the silence stretched on, the more cautiously certain I became. This had to be it. What else could he want to say? He was going to ask me to Hogsmeade, he had to! And then we would fall in love and get married and have beautiful, soft-skinned, well-moisturized babies together.

Oh Merlin, I hope I looked okay. Was there stuff in my teeth right now? What about my hair? Where should I put my hands? In my pockets? No, too casual. In my lap? No, too conspicuous. Holy cow. Holy cow. WHERE SHOULD I PUT MY HANDS?

"Agatha," Ryan began, taking a deep breath, and my chest clenched.

I looked at him, swallowing. This was it. This was going to be the beginning of my new wonderful, romantic, Ryan-filled life.

"Yes, Ryan?" I tried to say it in a coquettish sort of voice, batting my eyelashes like I'd seen Dom do to thousands of blokes.

"I'm gay."

Yes! Yes! Ryan Fisher just asked me to Hogsmeade! Me! Oh, Merlin. This was wonderful. No, this was more than wonderful. This was like Christmas morning plus my birthday plus a Spice Girls' reunion concert all rolled into one. This was the most amazing, perfect day in the history of amazing, perfect days!

Ryan Fisher asked me to Hogsmeade! Ryan. Fisher. Asked. Me. To. Hogsmeade! Na, na, na, na! Me! Not Evelyn, not Dom, not anyone else. Me! He asked me! Ryan Fisher asked —

...Wait a second.

What did he just say?

"Agatha?" Ryan was looking at me curiously, taking in my glazed-over expression and half-ajar mouth. He flapped his hand in front of my face, peering into my eyes with alarm. "You alright?"

But I couldn't respond, my mind wheeling too fast to form words as I frantically tried to recall the past few seconds. No. He couldn't have — he had asked me to Hogsmeade! ...Right?

"Um," I croaked. "What did you just say?"

Ryan leveled his gaze with mine, face sincere. "I'm gay."

...No.

No.

No, no, no.

This had to be some sort of bad dream. This was a mistake. Ryan Fisher could not have just said "I'm gay." He must have said something else and I'd misheard. Something like "I'm sleigh," or "I'm buffet," or "Agatha Bennett I love you so much, please bear my future children-ay." He couldn't have — have —

"What?" I blinked.

Ryan smiled good-naturedly. "I'm gay, Agatha. I'm gay."

This wasn't happening. This couldn't be happening. I was hallucinating. That had to be it! The lack of sleep, the stress from academics, those long nights patrolling — it all must be messing with my brain, or something! There had to be some logical explanation.

Gay also meant 'happy,' right? Yeah. That was it. Ryan was just trying to express how happy he was to be here! That had to be it. Had to be.

"Oh," I said, realization dawning. "I get it. You're happy! I understand now! That's sweet, Ryan. I mean, bit of an outdated choice in vocabulary, but sure! I'm, er, gay too!" — okay, this would be the part where I stopped rambling like an idiot. "Yeah, in fact, I'm super gay!" — STOP. TALKING. STOP. TALKING. — "You make me feel very gay, Ryan. I'm having a real gay time sitting here with you right now — "

Ryan's forehead creased together. "No, Agatha, I — I didn't mean it like that. I meant I'm gay as in homosexual. I fancy blokes."

This was a cruel joke. In a few minutes, the guy from Punk'd would pop out behind the door and reveal that this was all an elaborate prank. And then we'd laugh it off and go out for tea. Me, Ryan and the guy from Punk'd. Drinking tea.

"No," I said, stupidly. "You're not."

Ryan pulled a sympathetic face. "Yes, Agatha. I am. And I know it's a lot of information to absorb, but — I mean, we're good friends, yeah? And you just seem like the kind of girl who'd be really cool with it. I feel like I can trust you."

HOW COULD HE BE SO FLIPPANT ABOUT THIS? DID RYAN NOT REALIZE WHAT A TRAGEDY HIM BEING GAY WAS FOR FEMALE-KIND?

I blinked a couple of times. Inhaled. Exhaled. Tried to remember where my brain was located. Tried to decide what it was I had done in my past life to deserve this. The sixty thousand puppies I'd killed must have been three-legged or blind or something, because this wasn't just any regular, run-of-the-mill karmic payback. No. This was something the Gods of Fate had designed specifically for me.

"I get it," Ryan was saying gently, a soothing hand coming up to land on my back. "You're surprised. Most people are when I tell them. But I wanted to be honest with you, Agatha. I really hope it won't affect our friendship." He grabbed my hand in his and leaned in closer, and I got a whiff of cinnamon and soap. I blinked again. "Because — well, Aggy, I really like you."

Okay. There should be a limit as to how much irony one person could take in a lifetime. I mean, even I thought this was too much.

"Um," I began, and was surprised to hear my voice come out so normal, so smooth. I dazedly slipped off the desk, pulling my hand away as I wobbled to a stand. I was suddenly overcome with the desperate urge to leave. Like, now. "Yes. No. I mean, it won't, you know, affect us." My mind was unnaturally fuzzy. "I just, er, need some time to think this through."

Ryan nodded furiously, eager to accommodate. "Of course."

I started to stumble away, still frowning. How was this possible? How had I not seen this coming?

"Um, okay then. Okay!" I said with as much cheer and normalcy as I could muster, turning around on my heel. "See you gayter." I stumbled into a random desk, the ensuing crash echoing through the room as my cheeks blossomed pink. "Shit. I mean, see you later. Not — not... um. I'm just going to leave now. Have a good gay. I mean — day, day! Crap. I, um — " I bumped into a chair, tripping slightly and regained my footing in the nick of time. Ryan looked after me, bemused. Okay, now this was just getting painful.

"Bye." My idiot brain finally managed. "Okay. Yeah. Bye."

Dear Merlin. I hate my life.

—*—

"No."

"Yes."

"No."

"Yes."

"Does he not realize what a tragedy this is for female-kind?"

"THAT'S WHAT I SAID! Er, thought."

Dominique Weasley flopped backwards onto my bed at my last ferocious declaration, the silky comforter poofing around her small frame. Her hair billowed out around her head in rivulets of strawberry blonde that reached in all possible directions, vibrant against her pale skin.

I leaned against the bedpost, wrapping my arms around the wood as I groaned at the humiliating memory of my cringe-worthy reaction. I could never show my face to the world again.

I should just stay here, at this bedpost, and refuse to come downstairs for the rest of my life. People could call be the Bedpost Girl. I'd be like the next Moaning Myrtle, but alive and, you know, infinitely lamer.

Dom huffed a dramatic sigh, shaking her head incredulously. "Somewhere out there, my gob is being smacked. My flabber is being gasted. My flum is being moxed. My per is being plexed —"

"Okay," I said hastily, slicing through her astonishment. "I get it."

"You're right," Dom allowed, shaking her head unabashedly. "I took that too far."

I rolled my eyes. "Way too far."

There was a stunned silence as the two of us seemed to sink into our own thoughts, stewing inside our heads as we made sense of today's latest developments. And then:

"My dumb is being found."

"Stop."

"My thunder is being struck!"

"Dom. Seriously. It's starting to get painful."

My best friend laughed her trademark laugh, complete with the dainty, lady-like snorts and everything, and wiggled further into the cushy comforter. "Alright, alright. Suit yourself."

Hesitantly, I unwound myself from the bedpost to lay down next to her. Upon first contact with the mattress, my body seemed to melt in relief as it sank into the comfy surface, a sigh opening like a flower inside my chest. I loved mattresses. Even in the worst of situations, you could always rely on them to be there for you. Warm, soft, cuddly — they were just like hugs. But for lonely people.

Dom spoke first.

"Boys suck. We'd be better off never speaking to then again."

I craned my neck to shoot Dom a skeptical glance. "That's a blatant lie, and you know it."

My bestfriend shrugged dully, stretching a leg out so that her big toe grazed the dark green canopy of the bed. "Yeah, you're right. It's a shite deal we get, isn't it?"

I gave a pathetic whimper of agreement, inching closer to my bestfriend as I stared moodily up at the canopy above us. "I wanted to kiss him, Dom," I blurted out dejectedly. "I know it sounds silly, but I wanted to kiss him, and I wanted to hold his hand, and I wanted to wear his sweaters and go to his Quidditch games and forget his birthday and — "

My lower lip trembled as I thought of all that wasted time, all those daydreams and moments I had spent pining over Ryan. I had hinged all my hopes on a tiny possibility that, in retrospect, seemed absolutely unrealistic. All that hope funneled into one unlikely 'maybe.' I was a fool.

"I should have known," I murmured quietly. "I should have expected this. A guy like Ryan would never go for a girl like me anyway."

Dom sighed and, with what sounded like tremendous effort, heaved her body of the bed. "Alright, you. If we're going to start with the 'girl-like-me' talk, we're going to need some ice-cream." She turned around and grabbed my limp arms, pulling me to a stand. "Come on. Somewhere in the Kitchens is a pint of chocolate ice cream with your name on it."

I nodded dumbly, allowing my friend to drag me forwards, and then began shuffling my feet towards whatever fate of anti-male ranting, chocolate ice cream-feasting awaited us.

"Alright, Dom. If you say so," I agreed, yet I knew no matter how much Ben & Jerry's I scarfed down, I wouldn't be able to get Ryan Fisher's face — with his easy smile and twinkling eyes — out of my brain. This was the nail in my romantic coffin, I was starting to realize. I would stay single forever, destined for a lifetime of Hogsmeade solitude and crazy-cat-ladydom, and no wishful thinking or flimsy maybes would change that.

—*—

The next day, I was walking to Transfiguration (sob), when all of a sudden I saw him.

Not Ryan. Potter.

He was leaning against the corridor wall, shirt untucked and posture relaxed as he chatted with the random Gryffindor sixth-year bimbo next to him, who, in all honesty, looked like she possessed a bra size larger than her IQ. They both seemed engaged in the conversation — discussing the intellectual advantages of nihilism versus solipsism, no doubt — their bodies angled towards each other, Potter's eyes bright with interest. The bimbo smiled, all giggly and flirty as she reached out, fluttered her eyelashes, and grazed his arm with dainty fingers.

And for reason, this made me very, very angry.

I had no idea why. Maybe it was because I knew Potter would probably end up taking this girl (and five others) to Hogsmeade this Saturday, while I was going to be stuck alone in the library, pathetic and dateless. Or maybe it was because Potter was acting so friendly, so amiable with this girl, while he looked at me like I was something he'd found on the bottom of his shoe. Or maybe it was simply because Potter was happy, and I wasn't.

Either way, I was pissed.

Before I could fully register my own frustration, I was pushing my way through the tangles of people in the corridor and marching up to the two lovebirds, no plan in my head besides the directive "ruin Potter's day."

Gaze narrowed and hip cocked, I stopped directly in front of Potter, who was murmuring something to the bimbo with a knowing smile curving his mouth. My foot rapped incessantly against the ground, a staccato beat that drummed equally as fast as my heart.

"Potter." I declared in a loud voice that sounded much more confidant than I actually was. "Your shirt is untucked."

Idly, unhurriedly, Potter swept his gaze from the girl to me, giving me an insolent, languid once-over as he assessed the situation. The dancing glimmer in his eyes seemed to fade somewhat as he realized who was before him.

His mouth set into a thin, straight line. I irritated him.

And I liked it.

The girl, obviously miffed at my interruption, shot me an icy glare worthy of Evelyn, and haughtily swept her brunette curls over her shoulder. I refused to even acknowledge her. My eyes were set dead straight on Potter, and Potter alone.

"Yes, Bennett," Potter drawled somewhat impatiently. "And the sky is blue. Any other fantastically observant remarks you have to make, or is Captain Obvious done for the day?"

Wow. He was acting even snarkier than usual. He must have been in a really bad mood.

I should remember to thank whoever made him that cranky.

Then again, it was probably me.

"Actually yeah, I think I have one." I paused, scratching my chin in mock-thoughtfulness as I regarded the ceiling. "Hmm, what was it? Oh right! Untucking your shirt is against the dress-code, Potter," I hissed in a tone so scathing, even I was surprised by its acidic edge. "Five points from Gryffindor."

Potter's eyes flashed, jaw clenching in sudden outrage. "Are you kidding me, Bennett? That's a blatant abuse of Prefect power! What's wrong with you?" He looked to the bimbo for confirmation, and she nodded fiercely, eager to please.

"Hey," I simpered, a victoriously smirk itching at my mouth. "I'm just doing my job."

I turned to go, anger thoroughly sated, but Potter obviously wasn't done just yet. Leaving a sulking bimbo behind him, he marched after me, his long strides quickly catching up to my own pace by the time I was in the middle of the corridor.

"Fine," he snapped irritably, not seeming to notice the sudden disappearance of his groupie. "If that's the way you want to play it, then five points from Slytherin."

I gasped in shock, halted abruptly mid-stride and wheeled around. Several people jostled past, hurrying to get to their classes, but I paid them no heed. "For what? "

Potter's eyes scanned me over slowly, up and down, and I gritted my teeth as his noncommittal gaze traced the lines of my body. His eyes finally rested on my blouse near my collarbone, and in response I defensively folded my arms. He smirked, noticing my discomfort.

"For leaving your shirt's top button unbuttoned."

I gaped. "What? Everyone does that!"

"Hey," Potter said innocently, raising his hands in mock-defense. "I'm just doing my job."

I seethed. Potter could never just let anything go, could he? No, he always had to take it too far, always had to find the most sensitive buttons to push. I was sick of it, and today I refused to take any of his stupid impertinence. I was going to wipe that arrogant smirk off his face if it was the last thing I did.

With that passionate mental declaration, I stepped forward and glowered at Potter, eyes tapering into angry blue slits. "Fine. Then I'm docking five points from Gryffindor for your lollygagging in the hallway!"

Potter's response was lightning-quick. He stepped forward nimbly, refusing to be outdone. "Five points from Slytherin for using the word 'lollygagging!'"

I gaped. That wasn't even a rule. "What — You can't — !"

His eyes glinted, smile turning nasty. "I just did."

Something inside me snapped. I drew in a sharp breath and opened my mouth, allowing the furious words to tumble out like haphazardly marbles. "Five points from Gryffindor for being an egotistical, selfish, rude, despicable prat!" My frustration had taken complete control. I wasn't thinking clearly.

"Five points from Slytherin for — for having blue eyes!"

"Five points from Gryffindor for not wearing your school robes!"

"Five points from Slytherin for being so short!"

"Five points from Gryffindor for being so tall!"

"Five points from Slytherin for...wearing ugly shoes!"

What? My shoes were not ugly! They were sensible. "Five points from Gryffindor for never brushing your hair!"

"Five points from Slytherin for being left-handed!"

"Five points from Gryffindor for not being left-handed!"

We were shouting now, and beginning to attract considerable attention from the students passing by. Potter's hand was clenched around his wand, his jaw set decisively, eyes dark and amber and alight with vexation. I was red in the face. My head was throbbing, my entire body quaking and shuddering like something about to...explode, a ticking bomb inside my chest.

I pulled my wand from my pocket, poking Potter's chest with its tip, my gaze narrowed into a defiant challenge. Enough was enough; thanks to Potter's spectacular stubbornness, we were now officially causing a scene. "Take off one more point, Potter," I hissed warningly. "Go ahead."

Potter gaze flicked to my wand before he raised his own, mouth flattened into a dangerous scowl. "You don't want to go there, Bennett."

I stared back, unfazed. This wasn't the first time Potter and I had ended up with our wands pointed at each other. We'd known each other five years, after all; he was a regular recipient of my Silencio charms, and I was all too familiar with his Tripping Jinxes. And while normally Potter was a formidable partner, this time I had one unfair advantage:

I was bloody pissed off.

My anger was fierce, raw, over-powering. It pulsed inside me like a second heart and made the edges of my vision blur into red. Before, I had felt angry because it was convenient, a distraction from the other unpleasant emotions churning inside me. Now I was angry because there was nothing left.

"Put your wand down, Potter," I said flatly.

Potter scoffed. "Make me."

Well, since he asked so nicely.

Unthinkingly, I stepped backwards and slashed an impulsive orange hex at Potter, who quickly dodged, face betraying no surprise — just dark, sardonic amusement. He flung a responding swirl of blue light my way and I deflected just in time. Before we knew it, we were embroiled in a duel, shooting jinxes at each other, swirls of jewel-colored lights setting the hallway aglow. Bystanders scattered to the walls, some yelping in surprise as they ducked under streams of light, others beginning to place bets on who would win, who would lose ("Five galleons for Potter! Have you seen that guy's Bat Bogey Hex?!" "No way — Bennett's got him beat. She's a scary one, mate").

But none of that mattered right now. My surroundings had faded to obscurity as my whole being narrowed down, zeroed in on Potter's next move, next incantation and next flick of the wand. I was completely devoted to winning this. I refused to accept defeat; it was simply no longer an option.

We worked like machines — automatically, instinctively, precisely. Aiming at all the right places, guessing at the opponent's spellwork before it even happened. Neither of us had been hit yet. We could predict each other too easily — probably a product of having known (and hated) each other for such a long time. We were evenly matched — Potter had his Quidditch reflexes, but I had sheer determination.

And then, something terrible happened.

"Densaugeo!"

I watched as, seemingly in slow motion, my spell bloomed from the tip of my wand to stream down the corridor, aimed squarely for Potter. The prat, however, saw it coming as well, and he leaped nimbly to the side just in time for the jinx to miss him and hit —

Professor Nott, who had been standing, unamused and arms crossed, right behind him.

Oh no.

My wand clattered to the floor as the corridor turned to deathly silence. Even Potter stopped moving, wand-arm falling limply to his side in mild surprise.

Slowly, horrifyingly Nott turned towards me, the veins in his forehead throbbing, his teeth already starting to lengthen in size. Which was what the spell was supposed to do — make your teeth grow in size. A little silly if you thought about it, but (apparently) very effective.

The crowd of bystanders muttered uneasily to themselves as they began to disperse, obviously not wanting to get caught in the authoritative crossfire of an angry professor. I stood, paralyzed to the spot by Nott's murderous gaze, as everyone else nervously hastened away until it was only me, Potter, and the professor. Alone. In the corridor. With no witnesses present.

Again: Oh no.

"I — I can explain," I said somewhat lamely, my words foreign and unnatural-sounding in the silence.

With short, jerky steps, Nott advanced towards me, his teeth already reaching past his chin. My blood seemed to have stopped moving; my body ice-cold.

"Office. Now," Nott commanded . Except, because his teeth were already so long, the words came out more like, "Othfiz. Naw."

And despite the complete and utter pants-wetting-ness of the situation, I couldn't help but suddenly realize that Nott, at the moment, resembled a very angry, over-sized chipmunk with his teeth so large.

And so I did the worst, most horribly inappropriate thing one could do in this kind of situation.

I laughed.

...I was so dead.

Chapter 12: Dizzying
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Disclaimer: HP-verse is property of J.K. Rowling!



I wonder if it will hurt.

Getting brutally murdered by my DADA professor, I mean.

What will the afterlife be like? Will there be a tunnel of light, some pearly white gates, a glee club of angels singing 'Hallelujah' upon my arrival?

Or will it just be me — dead, my body rotting in the ground for the rest of eternity?

Come to think of it, I would rather be cremated. Yes, that sounded preferable. Better that then being shunted away in a box for the rest of eternity, at least.

My friends and family could make a nice ceremony out of it. They would come together one last time, watching as my ashes were scattered majestically across the ocean. And then they'd all go home, and there would be a typical movie-montage — with a sad Journey ballad playing the background — of everyone's lives falling apart in the wake of my death. My mother would slip into a deep depression, Dom would turn to drinking to numb the pain of my memory, my brother would spend the rest of his life furiously plotting to avenge my murder, doing pull-ups in his room and getting scary tattoos of my face on his chest.

Cut to the scene in which, twenty years later, Ryan Fisher is sitting on his bed as an old man. He takes out a photo of me from his bedside drawer and gazes longingly at my immortalized face. He smiles, and a single tear trickles down his face. Cut to black. End of movie. Credits roll.

No, dying wouldn't be so bad. Honestly, it would certainly be better than this — sitting here in Nott's office, waiting for him to come back and decide what sort of cruel, agonizing punishment he wanted to inflict upon my helpless soul.

I knew something was wrong the minute we had walked in. He had been so restrained about the whole thing, his movements jerky with formal stiffness as he gestured for Potter and I to take a seat, and then — calmly, silently — turned around to leave the room, locking the door behind him.

He was probably sharpening the murder weapon at this very moment.

Oh, Merlin.

As discreetly as possible, I lowered my gaze and shot a wayward glance at Potter, who was sitting in an identical chair to the right of me. So far he hadn't betrayed any worry or concern about the current state of affairs. In fact, he looked almost bored.

I wondered if Potter was going to try and help when Nott came back to attack me with a butcher's knife/chainsaw/his bare hands. Maybe he would. Maybe Potter would realize how petty and meaningless our fighting was and step in on my behalf — be the hero, save the day.

Who was I kidding? Potter was going to stand there and let Nott bludgeon me to death. He'd probably applaud at the end.

"So, looks like the Day of Reckoning is finally here."

Oh Merlin.

I wheeled around to see Nott standing in the doorway — teeth returned to normal size — with a psychotically cheerful smile on his face. His hands were clapped together, expression sarcastically eager.

Neither of us spoke. Potter remained slouched in his chair, unimpressed, while I struggled silently to regain control of my own bladder.

Nott strode into his office, his posture relaxed and comfortable, and I struggled to decipher the thoughts behind his calm composure. Potter and I watched — me considerably more nervous — as our professor languidly paced the length of the small room, his hands behind his back and the same, strange grin on his face.

"Miss Bennett," he said, not even glancing at me as he took a seat behind his shiny oak desk. He slammed his feet down on its wood surface, where his polished shoes left ugly, white scuff marks.

I winced at the sight, then refocused my concentration on Nott — despite my disapproval of such a blatant display of furniture abuse, there were more pressing matters at hand.

Matters such as my imminent demise.

"Why don't you start by telling us who, exactly, is responsible for this?" At 'this,' Nott gestured vaguely between Potter and I, his eyebrows raised in irate expectancy. The smile was long gone, replaced by waspish pursed lips.

"Um," I said intelligently. I couldn't speak. I couldn't even breathe. It seemed as though my brain had somehow mysteriously abandoned my body, leaving behind nothing but the sound of chirping crickets and a strong, heady fear.

I was going to be killed. Or worse, expelled.

"Something wrong, Miss Bennett?" Nott drawled upon seeing the terrified expression on my face. He folded his hands behind his head, eyes gleaming with wicked humor. "Honestly, you're acting like I'm going to murder you. I can assure you, the worst you'll get is a little medieval torture. Fifty or so lashes, some run-of-the-mill flogging... Then you'll be free to go."

I stared in response. My left eye began to twitch.

"So." Nott dropped his feet off his desk and leaned forward, gaze narrowed threateningly. "Who started it?'

He was met with resolute silence from Potter and terrified gaping from me.

I did! I wanted to scream. It's all my fault, just kill me now and spare me the misery! But my vocal cords seemed to have twisted themselves into a nice, convenient knot, and my mouth was about as dry as Potter's sense of humor.

Dear Merlin. I could have been blessed with a cool talent, a knack for singing or drawing or the ability to do the splits. But no. Instead, I just had to get the crippling fear of authority figures.

Nott looked pointedly from me to Potter, who was slouched in his chair (his shirt still untucked!) with a look of heavy-lidded apathy on his face. I had to hand it to him, Potter was either incredibly brave or incredibly stupid.

Probably the latter.

"Well?" Nott demanded impatiently. "Would someone like to tell me, or will I have to Crucio it out of one of you?"

He had to be joking. Of course he was joking! Right? Right?!

Merlin, our professor was a sadist.

I opened my mouth to speak, the urge to confess gnawing vehemently at me from the inside. I had to tell the truth. It was like an instinct inside of me, assuming control of all my mental capacities and decision-making properties. Must. Help. Teacher.

"Professor — "

"I did."

Nott's expression of shock was a mirror image of my own as, simultaneously, the two of us swiveled our heads to stare at Potter, who had just spoken for the first time since entering this room. He seemed casual and relaxed as he balanced on the back legs of his chair, wand twirling between two fingers.

"What?" I croaked disbelievingly.

"I did," Potter repeated neutrally, leaning forwards. The front legs of his chair fell to the ground with a thud, and Potter slid his wand behind his ear in a fluid, flawless motion. "I started it, Professor. It was my fault. I provoked Bennett, she acted in self-defense. She had nothing to do with any of it, really."

Okay, someone please hit me.

For the eleventieth-bajillion time that day, I turned around to gape at Potter like a confused idiot. He was certainly a sight to see, his mouth quirked noncommittally, his sleeves rolled up to his elbows (honestly, I think this kid had a personal contest to see how many dress-code rules he could break at once — or, how high he could get my blood pressure, more like it). He had his arms crossed, and one of his eyebrows was cocked upwards ever so slightly in a challenging manner. He looked like the picture-perfect example of calm. It was unnerving, how unruffled he was.

He had just confessed, I realized belatedly. Potter had just flounced all the natural laws of the known universe and had actually... done something nice for me, actually taken the fall.

I could only think of two possible explanations for such madness. Either Potter was stupider than I'd previously thought, or this was all part of some elaborate plan to — to confuse me to death, or something.

Either way: what in sweet Merlin's name was going on?

Nott seemed to be just as baffled as I was. He paused uncertainly, taking a few arduous minutes to compose himself and process this information. Like me, he had assumed I would be the first to crack and 'fess up. And like me, he was now in a state of total and paralyzing shock.

Finally, our professor opened his mouth to speak. "Potter, are you — "

But before he could finish his question, I was speaking. Now, if there was any moral lesson that we could take away from the past 24 hours, it was that nothing good ever came from me opening my fat mouth. And yet I apparently seemed to forget this as, twisting my whole body in my chair, I fixed Potter with an imploring glare and cried:

"Are you stupid?!"

"Well," Potter said lightly, obviously amused by my stunned reaction. "Intelligence is a relative concept, isn't it? Put me next to McGonagall or Headmistress Vespertine, and I'm sure I don't look very smart. But compare to someone like you? Well."

I blinked twice. "I'm taking that as a definite, resounding yes."

Nott, meanwhile, was still sitting at his desk, and growing increasingly frustrated with us hooligans. "That's enough!" he finally barked. "Now, Potter — "

"I know, I know." Potter droned on impassively, one of his shoulders hitching upwards in an apathetic shrug."30 points from Gryffindor, two weeks-worth of detention, a suspension from Prefect duties. Can I go now, or do you have some other punishment in mind?"

Our DADA professor gaped at Potter, taken aback either by his complete lack of fear or his extensive familiarity of Hogwarts disciplinary system, I wasn't sure which. "I — er — Miss Bennett!" he finally snapped, regaining some sense of his surly attitude. His expression hardened in determination. "You can leave. But I want to have a talk with you, Potter."

Mechanically, shakily, I stood from my chair and cast one last hesitant glance behind me as I left the room. Potter taking the blame? Nott dismissing me without any form of verbal abuse or docking of points first? What kind of parallel universe had I landed myself in?

I dawdled outside in the dark hallway, anxiously watching the closed door to Nott's office as if I would suddenly develop X-Ray vision and see everything unfolding inside. I had decided to wait for Potter, mostly for two separate reasons — one, I was curious to see if Potter would leave still in the possession of all his limbs, and two, I wanted to ambush him right as he walked out of the office so I could batter him with questions and interrogations. Maybe this would catch him off guard and he would... oh, I don't know, actually explain some of this to me.

It seemed like I had to wait forever and a day. When the mahogany door to Nott's office finally creaked open, I sprung out of the shadows (surprisingly agile) and pounced on Potter like a graceful lioness leaping for her prey. Only, you know, less Lion King and more Annoyed Hormonal Teenage Girl.

Potter jerked his head back, then blinked at me with cool, narrowed eyes. He did not look impressed.

I stood in front of him, assuming my best authoritative stance, and gave him the mightiest You Die Now glare that I could muster.

He still did not look impressed.

"Bennett," he remarked, not even looking at me as he closed the door behind him. "I knew you'd be here."

"Why did you do that?" I exclaimed furiously before Potter could say anything else. The words were shriller and louder than I had intended, and they echoed brashly off the stone walls of the corridor.

"Do what?" Potter asked nonchalantly. For someone with a single digit IQ, he could feign innocence remarkably well.

"Oh, don't play stupid with me," I hissed, lunging forward in barely-suppressed vehemence. "I know you're an expert on stupid, but still. Spare me the grief."

Without bothering to reply, Potter began to walk down the corridor, an obnoxious, barely-noticeable smirk tugging at his lips. I hastily followed, quickening my pace so that I could catch up with his unfairly long strides.

The sun had set while we'd been undergoing our pseudo-inquisition in Nott's office, and now the dusky cobalt sky shone through nearby windows, staining the stone floors with a cool, almost translucent shade of blue. Shadows slowly crept out of corners, sinister and hulking as they leaked into sight. Through a stained glass window, I could see the moon hanging in the sky, yellow and bloated.

With most students at dinner or in their dorms, the castle seemed quiet in an eerie, muffled sort of way. Each sound was muted, creaks and cracks no longer as crisp. It gave the impression of being in a fishbowl, of being completely alone in this entire, expansive universe.

"Potter," I said firmly, tearing through the strange quietness in order to speak. "What was that back there, in Nott's office? Why — why did you do that?"

Potter didn't reply, just quickened his pace and kept on walking, staring resolutely ahead. Together but apart, we pushed through the dark shadowy corridors, sloshing through puddles of moonlight as we tried to find our way amidst the countless number of twists and turns.

"Potter," I repeated in a more demanding tone.

He didn't reply.

"Potter," I hissed again, this time giving him a nice shove in the shoulder for added emphasis.

The prat stopped abruptly, wheeling on me with an impatient, exasperated sigh. "Look, Bennett," he said, words light and quick and uncaring. "I know you're not good at this whole socializing thing, so let me give you a hint: when a person continues to ignore you for a long period of time, it generally means they don't want to speak to you. Like now, for instance."

"Har har," I snapped, feeling my cheeks redden furiously. "So witty. Have you ever tried stand-up comedy before, Potter? You'd be good at it."

He gave a tiny, baleful shrug. "Well I'm good at everything, so — "

"Answer the question."

"Why should I?"

"Why should you? Why should you?" I spluttered. "Because — because... you have to! You..."

He sighed irritably, looking like someone who had to deal with a very persistent, very annoying puppy. "Just let it go, Bennett."

"No!" For some reason, I couldn't just 'let it go.' I had to know why Potter had done this for me. After all, he couldn't behave so counter-instinctively, so abnormally, and expect me not to question it! What he'd done floated in the face of every rule that governed our caustic re-hate-tionship. How could he expect me to just let it go?

"Why, Potter, why?" I pestered, shoving him in the shoulder once more, irritated by his steadfast refusal to look at me. "Why do that for me? Why take the fall when it was obviously my fault in the first place?!"

"Okay, fine, Bennett," Potter finally snapped tetchily, just the slightest sign of irritation edging into his voice. He swung his gaze to me, evidently sick of my badgering. "You want to know why I helped you out in there?"

"Um, yes!" Wasn't that what I had been telling him all along?

"It's because I'm in love with you."

"What?"

Before I could properly react, Potter was suddenly closing the distance between us, stepping forward in two smooth, quick strides until we were nose-to-nose. His hands came to cup the sides of my face, gripping with surprising passion as his forehead bent gently to almost touch mine. I could feel his palms warm and calloused against my skin, and I was suddenly, freakishly aware of every detail of his face: the tiny scar slicing through his eyebrow, thrown into clarity by the silver moonlight; his hazel eyes, impossibly dark and bright at the same time... I was motionless. My throat had constricted in surprise, leaving me too incredulous to even blink.

"That's right." Potter murmured, and his words were coming out rapid and precise, dispassionately clear, no disruptive strain of emotion riding through his tone. "For years I have been yearning for you, Agatha Bennett. I had hoped that if I gallantly swooped in and saved you from the wrath of our DADA professor, you would realize your undying love for me and throw yourself into my arms... Then we'd elope from Hogwarts to some vacation destination like Tahiti, where we'd have an impromptu wedding on the beach shortly before riding away to our happy ending on the backs of two dolphins. Not porpoises, mind you. Dolphins."

"What — ?" I began to say, but Potter hastily pressed a slender finger against my lips and leaned in closer. It was from combined effects of Potter's touch and the proximity of our faces that I promptly shut up.

"Shh," he murmured, his voice taking on a strange, dramatic — almost romantic — quality to it. "Before you say anything, let me just tell you this: the way your bushy hair seems to come alive in the moonlight, the way you always act like you've smelled something foul whenever I come in close contact with you..." He paused, and then his voice snapped back to its normal, sarcastic tone and reality came crashing down. "It's a big turn on. Really."

And then he was letting go of me and walking away.

It took me a minute to realize that Potter had been kidding this whole time.

He'd been messing with me, had delivered that entire speech (and still, I couldn't believe how quick-witted Potter was, how calmly and unflappably he could speak!) just to mess with me.

That's when I got angry.

"Potter!" I said, hurrying to catch up with him. "I can't believe you, you — you — "

He stopped and wheeled around to look at me. "Prat? Prick? Idiot? Take your pick. You usually go with 'arse,' but might I suggest going with something new for the occasion? Maybe douchebag? Or git. Can't go wrong with git."

I gaped, half disbelieving, half too furious for words. "I — Ugh, I hate you!"

"Good. We're on the same page, then, " he quipped offhandedly, beginning to walk away again. I didn't follow this time. Instead, I just stood there in the middle of the corridor like an idiot, my heartbeat ringing furiously in my ears.

"You know what, Potter?" I shouted spitefully after him, finally coming to my senses as my anger took charge again. “You are the most annoying, thoughtless person I've ever met! I'm not exaggerating! You think you're so mysterious, don't you, being all cryptic and unnecessarily difficult all the time! Well guess what — you're not, and it's annoying as hell! I hope you realize that, you moron! No, I hope you... you fall off a cliff — "

Potter, who had been steadily walking away throughout the duration of my zealous rant, suddenly stopped in the hallway, his shoulders stiffening almost imperceptibly. I barely registered the straightening of his posture before all of a sudden he was turning around and marching back towards me, eyes glinting and suddenly incensed.

There was a determination about him, taut and barely restrained, that cased my voice to suddenly die in my throat. He had finally had enough. Something I'd said finally got a reaction out of him, and I belatedly realized he was fed up.

"You want to know the real reason why I saved your arse in there, Bennett?" he snapped loudly when he reached me, face twisting in intense malice.

I rearranged my face into a snarl, trying to mask my surprise at his sudden vehemence. "Yes!" I threw my hands into the air. "By all means, bloody enlighten me!"

We were standing almost as close as we had been before, but with a considerably different tension now beaming between us. I refused to back away, staring into Potter's fed-up face, the clenched jaw, the narrowed eyes. I clenched my fists by my sides as I tried not to waver, tried to hide my confusion.

"It's because," Potter finally said scathingly, words clipped and biting. "I'm a nice human being."

"What?" I spat incredulously. I could barely imagine Potter as a human being, let alone the 'nice' part.

Potter's jaw was clenched, his eyes burning bright and vivid. The lines of his face seemed harsher, almost, etched in silver from the milky light that shone through a nearby window.

For a moment he looked like he was struggling with something on the inside, agitation splayed across his features as he opened and closed his mouth several times.

Then, looking away in resignation, he managed to compose himself . His shoulders relaxed, face swiping blank and clear of any emotion as the anger melted from it. When he spoke, his voice was softer.

"You care more than I do," he said quietly, lowly. "About points, about detentions, about prefect duties. You actually think it's important. I don't. I figured that if you got in trouble and had your prefects' badge taken away, you'd be, well, crushed. And like I said, I don't care about that stuff, and you do so — do you see where I'm going with this, Bennett?"

There was something crackling in the air between us. Energy, really, pulsing and thrumming and alive. It danced, tingly and effervescent, on top my skin. The world felt like it was in perfect alignment as we stood there, held in our places by the forces that shivered between us.

"What are you saying, Potter? That you did this for me?" I asked weakly, feeling my own anger dwindle quietly away. "So that I wouldn't get in trouble?"

"Merlin, you're daft." Potter rolled his eyes, and just like that, the mysterious enchantment between us seemed to somehow disappear. "Of course that's what I'm saying."

So he took the fall for me for actual... benevolent reasons. Out of kindness alone. Merlin, I had thought Potter was hiding some secret agenda, an evil plot or a malicious scheme, but I had been wrong. Way wrong.

I didn't know what to say.

Potter could have just stood by and watched as I crashed and burned in Nott's office, but he didn't. He — he —

"You helped me." I said, ever-so-intelligently.

"Jesus, Bennett, stop looking at me like I'm a fucking martyr or something." Potter wrinkled his nose in disgust, glancing away dismissively. "I know it's hard to believe, but I am human, you know. I am capable of compassion."

News to me.

Given that Potter had just done a favor for me, however — a surprising and uncharacteristic favor, but a favor all the same — I decided to keep my skepticism to myself. There was a heavy silence before I spoke again.

"So, er, what exactly did Nott do to you?" I ventured cautiously, already dreading the answer. "Are you still a prefect?"

Potter gave a bitter huff of laughter, his expression shifting into sardonic grimness. "No, not anymore," he said stoically. "So congrats — you won't have to put up with me on patrols any longer."

I blinked, gradually absorbing the news. Potter wasn't a prefect. He would have to hand his badge back. A letter would be sent home. No more patrolling, no more docking points. All that would be left would be a tiny, tiny blip on Potter's academic record.

That could have happened to me. It should have happened to me.

I didn't know how to respond. My instinct was telling me to say something nasty, to insult him, yell at him, berate him — anything to make me feel less guilty, to lighten the pit currently pressing against my stomach lining. But when I opened my mouth, nothing came out. My usual reservoir of comebacks had been depleted.

So instead I settled for sincere gratitude.

"Thank you," I said meekly, voice very small. "Thanks, Potter."

He rolled his eyes once more. "You're welcome. Just — just don't let it get to your head. This doesn't mean I tolerate you or anything."

And with that, he turned swiftly around and walked away from me for the last time that evening.

—*—

The next couple of days passed by in a haze of classes and dull assignments, until, finally, Hogsmeade weekend arrived.

In light of recent develops regarding Aidan's new Hogsmeade... er, companion, Dom decided that she, too, needed a date. This was no longer about foo-foo feelings or hurt sentimentalities — it was a matter of pride, of competition. Dom had to save face.

So, in what could only be described as a tactic of guerilla dating, Dom wrangled a bloke by the name of Foster Matthews into taking her out. I didn't know much about the bloke, except for the fact that he was a Ravenclaw sixth-year, but I did know that I wasn't thrilled. Not only would Dom taking a date probably bring about an unnecessary response from Aidan, further escalating the situation, but it also meant I would have to go to Hogsmeade without my best friend.

But I shut up and didn't complain. Dom was over the moon — she finally had her leverage over Aidan — and everyone else was happy. Given such contentment was rare for our group, I let Dom's decision slide without comment.

It was a blustery, windy day when we set out for Hogsmeade. After being poked, prodded, and basically flat-out accosted by Filch looking for any illegal contraband or spare dignity, us students trudged down the path towards Hogsmeade Village, our scarves wrapped hastily around our faces in order to banish out the cold.

I slipped and skidded on slippery red leaves, huddling into myself as the wind dragged my hair free from its hat. Dom had disappeared a few minutes ago, probably in search of her date, so I was left to brave the walk alone.

"Yo! Aggy!'

Well, sort of alone.

I felt a warm hand land on my shoulder as Aidan came up from behind me, loping gate catching up to mine. Tilting my head, I looked up to see my brother's jovial face peering down; his blue eyes — only a shade darker than my own — were bright and dancing playfully.

"Hey, Aidan!" I said, surprised to see my brother so happy and, also, so conspicuously alone. "Where are you heading off to?"

He smiled, as easy-going as ever. "Well, rumor has it that Zonko's is having a half-off sale today. You know what that means."

I nodded grimly — Aidan was a valued customer of the shop; his purchases probably financed at least 80 percent the owner's livelihood. "Filch is going to be having a rough couple of weeks."

My brother smirked in what I took to be implied assent, and I rolled my eyes. We continued trudging down the path in comfortable silence, Aidan slowing his pace so that I could walk alongside him (how thoughtful).

"So," my brother spoke again, somewhat awkwardly. He cleared his throat. "I heard Dom has a date."

My eyebrows flattened in barely-concealed annoyance. Of course. I hadn't seen my brother in days, and when he finally decided to grace me with his presence, it was to wheedle out information.

"Yes, Aidan," I began in somewhat defensive exasperation. "Why does it matter?"

Aidan's lips stretched into a thin, straight line. "It doesn't," he replied, equally as defensive. "It was just a bit of a shock, you know. To see her move on that quickly."

At this, I felt my irritation grow. Er, hypocritical much? When Aidan asked out Margaret Corner, he had basically forfeited every right to feel "surprised" if Dom got a date of her own. Him moping about it was just unfair.

I was becoming more and more indignant — on behalf of Dom, on behalf of myself, on behalf of everything. "So?" I said pointedly. "You're one to talk. You have a date with Margaret Corner."

Aidan blinked, his face slackening in surprise. "Um. No, I don't."

Uh-oh.

"You don't?"

"No. Why would you think that?"

"Well," I began rather helplessly, floundering for words. "Someone told us that you were, and in Potions the other day you, er, grazed her arm and we thought that meant — " Now that I could hear my own words stumbling out of my mouth, it all seemed so ridiculous. I felt a warm blush creep across my cheeks, and I fidgeted uncomfortably with the collar of my jacket. Why had I been so quick to jump to conclusions? Merlin, we were idiots.

Meanwhile, realization seemed to be dawning on Aidan. Slowly, his eyebrows tilted upwards in a display of understanding. "I'm not, Agatha. I'm not taking Margaret to Hogsmeade."

Before I could open my mouth to spew forth the hasty string of apologies sitting heavily on my tongue, Aidan was already speaking again. A small smile was growing on his face.

"But, you know, that gives me an idea," he murmured rakishly, and my stomach dropped.

Oh great. Aidan's ideas always resulted in one of the following: a) physical injury, b) emotional scarring, or c) someone getting covered in food. As a usual unwilling accessory to my brother and his crazy whims, I knew that Aidan's crazy determination to carry things through often ended up doing more harm than good.

I could think of many examples of his ill-fated stupidity that proved just that — there was the one time he'd roped me into stealing our mum's car, resulting in a sixth-month grounding for both of us. Or the "episode" (that's what the police had called it, at least) with the Girl Scout Cookies... Oh, and let's not forget the Great Cantaloupe Incident of 2015.

None of these events had ended well for anyone. Which was why I wasn't too thrilled about the proverbial light bulb going off above Aidan's head at the moment.

But before I could even begin to protest this new "idea," Aidan was jogging away with a hasty, "See ya later, Aggs!," the cogs in his mind whirling with thoughts that were no doubt too troublesome — and too abundant — for his own good.

Bollocks.

—*—

An hour later, I was trudging through the cobblestone streets of Hogsmeade Village, hugging my coat to my frame as I shivered in the cold and tried to think of somewhere to go. Having spent most of my time at Scrivenshaft's with some of the other Prefects, I now had a plastic bag full of new booty to take with me back to Hogwarts — a few quills, my favorite turquoise ink and some fresh parchment. Mmm. Fresh parchment.

After parting with the others, I had set off with no real destination in mind. The Three Broomsticks didn't offer any refuge — it was far too crowded in there, and The Hog's Head was a bit too shady for my liking. Madame Puddifoot's was out of the question, unless I wanted a personal viewing of the salivary glands of half the PDA-happy couples at Hogwarts.

So I strolled (well, more like slipped and slid) down the winding Hogsmeade path, gazing aimlessly at shop windows and the random couples that wandered by hand-in-hand. Briefly, I wondered how Dom's date was going and what Aidan was scheming. But then I pushed such unnerving musings from my brain, trying to focus on more happy subjects.

I was about to just give up, turn around, and brave The Hog's Head, when out of the corner of my eye I spotted two figures standing by edge of the forest lining the paved path.

The woodsy parts of Hogsmeade were rarely frequented by its residents, as there usually wasn't much to see except for trees, trees, grass, and more trees. So it seemed quite out of the ordinary, really, that there would be two people — tall and boyish-looking people — loitering by the forest's edge.

Frowning, I swiveled in their direction and began walking towards that area, Prefect's senses tingling. As I neared them, I recognized the two figures as none other than Freddy and Potter. Which failed to surprise me, really. Of course they were up to no good. The only question was — where was Aidan?

Freddy and Potter were huddled together behind a tree, their backs facing me as they conversed in hushed, rapid tones. Their whispers would float in the air between them, dancing on the verge of clarity before melting back into that same, quiet murmur. I hastened to their spot, pushing my hair out of my face and trying to appear as brusque and business-like as possible.

"Fred? Potter?" I demanded. "What's going on?"

The two of them whipped around, lightning-fast, at the sound of my voice. Fred's face immediately betrayed his guilt, but Potter's expression was kept as cold and impassive as possible.

"Nothing." They chorused at the same time, so ridiculously in sync that it was almost as if they had practised.

I shot them A Glare, trying to assess how worth the trouble it'd be to get in between them and whatever they were plotting. "Yeah right. Where's Aidan?"

Fred's rigid posture relaxed somewhat, making it obvious how very glad he was to have my query focused on someone else. "Oh, Aidan? He ditched us awhile back. Said he had some plan or idea or something."

Potter nodded. "You can probably find him at Zonko's."

Translation: leave now.

Ignoring Potter's subliminal messaging, I inched forward and attempted to peer over one of the boys' shoulders to see if there was anything behind them. But of course, I couldn't see. Bollocks. When had they gotten so tall?

"So... What are you doing?" I asked, trying to sound as cheerful and innocent as possible.

"Nothing." Fred said nervously, twitching slightly, face adopting the same constipated expression it always did when he was trying to hide something. Freddy hated lying and, consequently, was never good at it. "Well, not completely nothing. I mean, we are breathing, aren't we?" The fidgeting increased as he rambled, pupils darting back and forth and landing on everything but me. Sweat was gleaming on his forehead, and I knew it wouldn't be long before he cracked. "Actually, the process of respiration is incredibly complicated. You see, the oxygen flows down the trachea, going towards the bronchi and bronchioles, before WE'RE SPYING ON ROSE AND SCORPIUS, PLEASE DON'T YELL AT US!"

Potter sighed, muttering a very swear bad word as he scuffed his shoe against the ground. I stared at the two of them, somewhat taken aback by Fred's sudden confession, and arched an eyebrow.

"Sorry?"

Potter grimaced, and Fred looked guiltily to the floor. It was clear the jig was up for the both of them. So, placing my hands on my hips, I tapped my foot and turned my glare from the boys to the trees of the forest.

"Elaborate," I insisted.

Fred swallowed visibly, looking quite glum indeed. "Rose and Scorpius. They were on a date, and the slimy git took her to the forest! So we decided to follow them. You know, make sure he doesn't try anything fishy," he paused, a frown creasing his smooth brow. "Except now we can't see them properly because of all the trees. Curse you, foliage — you win this time." This last part was muttered in a vindictive undertone, accompanied by Freddy shaking his fist bitterly at the sky.

My face flattened into an expression somewhere between wariness and disbelief. I didn't know what was more ridiculous — the two gits' harebrained scheme or how Fred had just used the word foliage in complete and utter seriousness.

Before I could say anything, however, Fred was already speaking again, his lips pursed in a thoughtful manner.

"If only there was some way we could see above everything," he said glumly, words lingering and deliberately drawn out. "Maybe if one of us climbed a tree..."

He turned to pointedly look at Potter, eyebrows arched meaningfully. Potter, in turn, gave a swift, definitive shake of the head.

"We discussed this, Fred," he said firmly. "Those trees won't hold our weight."

He was right. The trees — if they could even be called that, they were more like little sticks poking out of the ground than anything else — were frail and brittle, probably from old age and the arriving winter. If Fred or Potter tried to climb one, well, the outcome would not be good.

I flicked my gaze to the ground and smiled to myself, internally chuckling at the two buffoons and their predicament. Honestly. Were they really going through such lengths for Rose and Scorpius? They were two fourth-years, for Merlin's sakes. The worst thing Scorpius could do was probably teach Rose a scandalous swear word or two.

My face, however, abruptly fell into a frown as I came back to my surroundings. It had become eerily quiet, all of a sudden. Too quiet. Whipping my head upwards, my confusion-addled gaze landed on Fred and Potter, who were currently staring at me with very mischievous, very bad gleams in their eyes.

"James, my old friend," Freddy was saying, face taking on a sly, enlightened expression that I did not like at all. "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"

"I don't know, mate," Potter said, voice lilting musically with amusement. "She probably won't go for it."

I looked at the two gits incredulously as the meaning of their words hit.

And then:

"You want me to climb those trees? Are you kidding?"

Fred shrugged casually. "Couldn't hurt to try."

"Uh, yeah it could, you absolutely moron," I said, voice still breathless with disbelief. "If I fell and died."

Merlin, Fred's singular braincell must get really lonely up there in that vast, spacious head of his. Rolling my eyes, I was just about to turn around and march away when I heard Potter mutter, ever so dryly: "See? I knew she'd never go for it."

I stopped in my tracks.

Face flushing, I swiveled around to fix Potter with my shrewdest, most paralysing stare. The git always acted as if he could predict my every move, and sometimes it got to an insufferable point.

I was not predictable, okay? Once, for example, I turned in a library book three days late. Three days.

I cocked a hip, gaze narrowing in an intimidating manner. "What's that supposed to mean, Potter?" I hissed caustically, but the prat merely shrugged.

"Nothing," he said innocently, Fred snickering next to him. "It's just that — well, you're a Slytherin, is all."

The way he said the word Slytherin, as if it were some kind of sodding disease, some ailment — it made my blood boil. Potter always acted like being a Slytherin was something to be ashamed of, our House inferior to the bastion of moral goodness and bravery that was Gryffindork. And honestly, if anyone else had said the same thing, it might not have bothered me so much. But to hear those words in that smug tone of his —

I gritted my teeth together, trying to quell my fury.

He thought I was a coward. He thought I was incapable.

Forget it, Aggy, I berated myself. He's just trying to get under your skin...

But it was working.

"Don't worry about it, Bennett," Potter said with a what-can-you-do shrug. "It's not your fault you were born the way you are — "

But he was cut off when, all of a sudden, I marched past him and Freddy and, breathing rather harshly, delved into the woods behind them. Single-minded in my resolve, I crunched over the dead fallen leaves and errant twigs until I found a suitable looking tree and grabbed its lowest branch. I'd show Potter. I'd show him good.

With my right foot planted firmly on the trunk, I pushed off and used the momentum to swing myself upward.

"Well I'll be damned." I heard Fred mutter from below, and I was gratified by his surprise.

I didn't know precisely why, exactly, it mattered so much to climb this tree — I just knew I had to do it. Maybe I wanted to prove Potter wrong. Or maybe it was because Potter had saved me back there in Nott's office, and I didn't feel like owing him. Either way, I suddenly found myself shimmying up a tree trunk in nothing but ratty old jeans and a wool coat. The shell-shocked expressions that pulled on Potter and Fred's faces as they gazed up at me were so worth it.

I gripped the frail, delicate branches of the tree gingerly, trying to find my way among all the dangling leaves and wiry twigs. I never used to climb trees as a kid, but I knew the basics of what to do, having watched Aidan climb so many times. Stick to the sturdier branches. Find good footholds. Always stay near the trunk.

Finally, when I was as far up as I could possibly go, my breath shimmering in grey puffs before me, I peered down at the — admittedly very pretty — view spread out below. I smiled. Surrounded by the sinewy treetops around me, I felt a sense of triumph at finally being able to defy Potter's expectations.

It didn't take long to spot Scorpius. The sunlight glinted off his ridiculously gelled hair, turning his head into a bright blonde beacon where he stood, below, a couple meters away.

Squinting my eyes, I tried to make out the forms of the two fourth-years. From what I could see, they both seemed relax and happy. Scorpius was sticking to the age-old kindergarten rule of keeping his hands to himself — Potter and Fred had nothing to worry about.

I was just about to start climbing down when, suddenly, the sickening, unmistakable noise of wood cracking splintered through the air.

Time froze.

My brain had only a split-second to register two fleeting, panicked words — oh bollocks — before the branch beneath me gave way and I was suddenly tumbling through the air. Down, down, down, everything around me a haze of blue and green, earth veering out of control.

I landed on the ground with a harsh thud, the air immediately swooping out of my lungs from the impact of hard earth on my back. Bloody hell, that had hurt.

Wincing, I lay there for a moment, motionless as I stared ahead uncomprehendingly. Six different versions of the sky swam in front of me in a dizzying, swirling pattern. In my adrenaline-addled shock, I could hear the distant sound of footfall. Probably Freddy and Potter, coming to find me... Oh Merlin, I was never going to live this down.

"What the — ?"

At the sound of the foreign voice, I slowly glanced up to see four Rose Weasleys and three Scorpius Malfoys peering at me in what I could vaguely discern to be a concerned manner. Even through the pain and the agony, I still faintly recognized that them finding me was not a good thing.

"Agatha Bennett? What are you doing here?"

No, not a good thing indeed.

Chapter 13: Manners
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Disclaimer: HP-verse is J.K Rowling's.


There are some moments in life when you just know: no matter what you do, no matter how you react, no matter who you blame — you are completely, thoroughly, unquestionably... Screwed.

"Agatha Bennett? What are you doing here?"

This is one of them.

Scorpius Malfoy peered at me, grey eyes peeking out through the gel-product travesty of his hair, a quizzical expression clenching at his pointy face. Fair eyebrows tilted upward, crease in the middle of his forehead and — most tellingly — the typical slack jaw that one normally acquires after witnessing a teenage girl suddenly fall from the sky. He was, to put it succinctly, the picture-perfect image of 'confused.'

Rose Weasley, too, looked like she was at a slight loss. Her eyes were wide with surprise, her thin lips sagging into a round 'o.' She glanced around her, sweeping an expectant gaze from left to right as if looking for an explanation on a nearby street sign. If I hadn't been in such pain, it would have been almost comical.

"What's — what's going on? What are you doing here?" This, of course, coming from Scorpius. He bemusedly cocked his head to the side, and for a moment I was temporarily blinded by the glare of the sun refracting off of his hair.

Shielding my face with my hand, I groaned in protest as my corneas burnt and shriveled into crisp nothings. "Ow — bloody hell." No offense to Scorpius, he was a nice kid and everything, but he could seriously do without the eighteen or so pots of hair-gel.

Once I regained the power of sight, I caught a glimpse of the two thoroughly confused love-birds still peering at me expectantly. Oh, bollocks. They were clearly waiting for me to bestow upon them an explanation as to my sudden appearance, and I was coming up short.

Dom always said that, in situations like this one, it was best to settle for the hostile approach. According to my best friend, years of dealing with mischievous Wealseys taught you that, when you're caught doing something wrong, acting defensives only raise suspicions. Just like in Quidditch, it was wiser to attack rather than deflect.

I'd never been caught doing something wrong, seeing as how I'd never before done something wrong in the first place. But now that I was here, faced with two very confused fourth-years and a frightening lack of viable excuses, something was telling me to take Dom's advice. After all, moving the accusations onto Rose and Scorpius would refocus the attention on them. If I could just figure out a way to change the course of this conversation, by some amazing Hanukah miracle I might get out of tihs unscathed.

That settled it. Without a second more of hesitation, I quickly sprang to my feet (a strong cause for complaint, according to my aching limbs) and stumbled backwards — the muscles in my body screaming in protest.

Slowly, straightening my posture into the best imitation of dignity I could muster, I raised an aggressive, albeit shaky finger at Scorpius. My features settled into a confident expression of authority, though my eyes couldn't tear themselves away from his hair. It was just so... shiny.

"What am I doing here? What am I doing here? Why, I could ask you the very same thing, you bastard!" I said, more loudly than perhaps necessary. "You — you impertinent scum-loving ass-bag!"

Ass-bag?! Was that even a word? Oh Merlin. Judging by the ensuing silence and the astonishment on Scorpius' face — astonishment mingled with fear — it was obvious I'd just taken things too far. The aggressive approach turned out not to be very effective when you misjudged how aggressive to act. Reign it in, Aggy. Reign it in.

In the long pause that followed, both Rose and Scorpius seemed to individually arrive at the conclusion that I was, in fact, clinically insane. It was a move I couldn't blame them for. After all, who even used the word "ass-bag"?

Besides me, that is.

"Er, alright?" Scorpius ventured warily, holding up his hands in a pacifying gesture of defense. "Forget I even asked."

Floundering at this evident failure of my tactic, I wavered and opened my mouth, ready to spew forth the same, time-tested excuse I always told when there was nothing else left (the one involving a raccoon and lost German tourists — worked every time), when all of a sudden, there was a strange rustling noise and two figures emerged from a cluster of trees a few meters away.

Fred and Potter.

They appeared remarkably cheerful and nonchalant, as if they had just been taking a happy stroll through the woods prior to finding us. When Fred spotted me, his face morphed into an exaggerated expression of relief, eyes widening to the size of tea saucers.

"Oh, Agatha, thank Merlin we found you!" he declared loudly as he hastened over towards us, briskly grabbing me by the arm and ignoring my crinkled expression of confusion. "Are you alright, pet?"

"I'm so sorry," Potter said, indeed sounding quiet apologetic. At first, I thought he was speaking to me — seeing as this entire situation had been his fault — but then he turned to face Scorpius and Rose. In response to their gaping astonishment, he said: "Was she bothering you? She's a bit... unstable, if you know what I mean." He twirled his finger in a circle next to his ear, making the universal sign that stood for 'cuckoo,' and my mouth dropped open in outrage.

"Unstable?" I cried, affronted. "What are you on about? I'm not unstable!"

My protest was undermined, perhaps, by the fact that I was screaming it at a very high, hysterical pitch.

Not even bothering to glance in my direction, Fred nodded in grave consensus to Potter's statement.

"Truly sorry. She's been this way ever since..." he paused, lowering his voice dramatically. “The accident." He gave my arm a slight squeeze, evidently trying to convey something along the lines of, 'play along, we're saving your arse here'.

But I was having none of it.

"Oi!" I exclaimed indignantly. "I am fine. Seriously. Scorpius, Rose — you've got to believe me. These guys are the unstable ones!"

Fred began to gently drag me away, hushing my grumbling as he did so. "Shh, it's alright, pet. Everything will be okay. We're just going to get you home for a snack, your medication, and maybe a nice little nappy-poo. How does that sound?"

"Medication? Nappy-poo? What on bloody earth are you talking about — "

"It's all quite sad, really." Potter said loudly over my cursing and struggling. He gave a pitying shake of the head before turning to Rose and Scorpius again, who were watching this spectacle in bemused silence. “Er, this is a little embarrassing, but she hasn't urinated on anyone here, has she?"

Okay, now they were just being ridiculous.

"Potter!" I yelped, struggling in Fred's iron-fisted grip. I turned to Rose and Scorpius, shaking my head furiously. "That's not true, don't listen to him! I don't pee on people! I have full control of my bladder, I swear! Full control! I do kegels!"

Scorpius and Rose looked unconvinced.

Continuing along with his impressively well-portrayed caretaker act, Potter sighed dramatically. "Such delusional behavior..."

"Potter, you prick! I swear when we get back to the castle — Ack!" I let out a startled squawk as, prior to any sort of warning, Freddy grabbed me by the waist and threw me over his shoulder without a second of pause.

My vision turned a dangerous shade of red. Oh Merlin, the indignity of it all! This was my reputation they were trashing! I was a prefect, and Potter and Fred were undermining my authority and very clearly enjoying doing so!

Muttering a slew of angry curses, I wriggled relentlessly in Freddy's grasp but to no avail. It was painfully obvious that resistance was futile — Fred was a Quidditch player, after all, and his arms were generously blessed with actual muscle. Meanwhile, the most exercise I ever got was when I reached across the Great Hall's table for the dessert plate.

It was like struggling against a rhino, or a particularly stubborn manticore. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't break free. It was a bit pathetic.

Okay. It was really pathetic.

Grudgingly, I accepted my defeat and stopped squirming, instead settling for the petty — but much easier — route: vision tilted upside-down, my arteries bursting with rage, I shot my mightiest death glare at Potter. He responded with nothing but a tiny, barely-visible smirk.

"I hope she didn't bother you too much," Fred was saying in his deep, rumbling tenor. I gnashed my teeth together, furious. Shut up, shut up, shut up, shut —

"Oh, no." Scorpius, obviously intimidated by the two (older, stronger, bigger) relatives of his girlfriend, shook his head profusely. "She didn't bother us. It's fine, really. All cool, man."

As Scorpius managed to ascend to whole new levels of kiss-arse (all by himself, too! Rose should be proud), I rolled my eyes to myself and gave a loud, disgruntled huff. Those stupid pricks — when I got my hands on them —

"Thank you." Potter said, clasping his palms together in convincing gratitude. "It's nice to finally meet someone who's willing to be so understanding."

Fred nodded. "Now if you don't mind, we have to go. Aggy's in need of some rest — it's been a very strenuous day for her, and this kind of thing can take a toll on her...er, rather delicate sensibilities."

"I'll show you delicate sensibilities, you good for nothing — "

"Oh, but before we leave," Potter piped up casually, obviously not ready to let the humiliation end just yet. "We want you to know that we're raising money for Agatha's cause. We're hoping that one day, magic and modern technology can come together and we'll find a cure for her unfortunate state." From the pocket of his sweatshirt, Potter pulled out a small purple bag, the silk material glinting in the light. “Now, you don't have to, but if you happen to have any funds to spare..."

Merlin's knobby kneecaps! Was destroying my reputation, lying about my mental capabilities and publicly humiliating me not enough? Did they really have to make a profit from it as well?!

How were these boys not in Slytherin?

Gaping incredulously, I could do nothing but watch on as Scorpius and Rose both nodded eagerly and, sparing me sympathetic glances all the while, slipped a few golden coins into the bag. I opened my mouth to protest, but all that came out was a slightly indignant squeak.

"Thank you." Potter grinned wickedly, slipping the, I'm sure, now considerably heavier pouch back in his pocket. The money would probably go to alcohol and prank materials and other illicit activities. "Your generosity is appreciated."

"Now, if you'll excuse us—" Fred began.

" — we have to go."

And with that, all I could do was grumble and scowl as the two idiots trudged away, me thrown carelessly over Freddy's back the whole while.

Damn it, he was strong.

—*—

"I hate you."

Fred turned to Potter, raising his eyebrows at my dramatic, passionately-professed declaration of loathing, and sighed.

"No gratitude, this one," he complained.

Potter, joining in on the woe-is-us, disappointed-parent-shtick, shook his head morosely. "After all we've done, too."

Fred clucked his tongue. "We save her from that mess — "

"Oi! The mess you got me into!" I hollered from where I was trudging, thankfully on my own two feet, in front of the gits. I was dutifully ignored.

" — and she repays us by saying she hates us," Potter finished, and I rolled my eyes. Their back-and-forth routine was getting old, fast.

"Typical."

"So typical."

"Honestly, James, I'm feeling a little antagonized."

"Me too, Fred. I would even go so far as to say hurt."

"Dismayed."

"Appalled."

"Oi, Abbott and Costello!" I threw out irately, unable to resist butting in despite knowing that a reaction only added fuel to the very pratty fire. "Ever consider that maybe I'm not feeling 'grateful' because there's nothing to be grateful for?!"

Potter and Fred paused, seemingly to contemplate what I'd just said. Then:

"Shows no respect for her elders," Fred said in melodramatic disapproval, and I felt my anger peak. Bloody hell, I was going to murder them both. Both! They already gave you life in Azkaban for homicide — why not make it a '2-for-1' deal while I was at it? "It's a disgrace is what it is."

"Seriously." Potter agreed amicably, and I could practically feel the triumphant smugness oozing from the pores of his unfairly attractive physique. "S'not like we're asking for much. Just a simple thank you would suffice."

"Box of chocolates wouldn't hurt either."

I gritted my teeth together and kept walking, trying to ignore the ridiculous conversation going on behind me. Potter and Fred were obviously saying these things just to irk me, and even though it was working I wouldn't grant them the satisfaction of knowing it.

After we had emerged from the forest (and Fred oh-so-graciously decided to set me back down on earth), I had tried as hard as possible to get away from the two gits. I really had. But they seemed determined to stick around and prolong the misery, prodding me closer and closer to the edge of my patience.

It was like they had a contest or something. See who could make Agatha Bennett snap first. The more hysterical she gets, the higher your score. Bonus points for tears.

No matter where I went, no matter what winding path I chose, they followed. I was pretty sure the only way I'd be able to shake them was if I popped into Madam Puddifoots, and even then, I wasn't that desperate (yet). What certainly didn't help was the fact that Fred and Potter's annoyingly tall forms made their strides twice as long as mine. I could power-walk all I wanted, but they would always be trailing behind, relaxed and casual and annoyingly still there.

And so I hastened my way through the cobblestone streets of Hogsmeade. Despite the chilly temperatures, the village was alive and bustling, people in and out of restaurants, chatting aimlessly as they passed by glittery shop windows. The whistling wind provided a perpetual soundtrack, riding quietly underneath the noisy babble of the swarming crowd.

"Oi, Aggy!" Fred called out jovially. "Where are we going?"

"Don't talk to me. I hate you, remember?"

"Manners, Bennett."

I stopped abruptly and turned around, glowering wrathfully at Potter and Fred with all my might. In the corner of my eye, I could see myself reflected off an adjacent shop window, and even I had to admit — I looked pretty scary. My blue eyes, normally nebulous and misty with their swirls of grey, were clear and flashing. I might as well have been shooting tiny little lightning bolts out of them. My fists were clenched by my sides, and my mouth was set into a thin, straight line to rival McGonagall's.

Fred held his hands up in a surrendering gesture, taking a step backwards at the volatile expression on my face. "Hey, Aggy, relax. It was just a joke."

"Just a joke?" I seethed. "Just a joke?! Now thanks to you two eejits, Rose and Scorpius think I'm a card-carrying member of the local asylum! You think that's funny?"

There was a pause.

"Well, yeah."

"Kind of."

I chose not to deign that with a response.

I wheeled around and set off walking again, mind whirring with a furious barrage of less-than-cheerful thoughts. My head pounded, the tips of my ears icy in the cold, and I couldn't help but grit my teeth together. Merlin, I really needed to blow off some steam.

The Three Broomsticks was just around the corner, and even though it was probably teeming with people and rowdy students, a warm, sloshing Butterbeer sounded really nice. And maybe — just maybe — if I was lucky and if it was crowded enough, I'd be able to lose Potter and Fred in there.

I quickened my pace, hurtling past a couple of shoppers and wrapping my sweater tighter around myself. The gnawing wind pressed against me, dragging my hair out of its bun and making me grimace.

The minute I stepped through the door of The Three Broomsticks, however, the atmosphere changed. Inside, heat and noise swirled together, everything glowing richly in flushes of orange and gold and brilliant warmth. The room swelled and throbbed with people.

Bright colours pushed forcefully against the feathery black shadows of the cozy, darker nooks of the quaint bar. Brash chatter rang in my ears, ripped apart by the sound of scraping chairs and clinking silverware. Behind me, the bell on top of the door jingled as Potter and Fred entered.

"Holy claustrophobia, Batman!" Fred exclaimed, his eyebrows practically reaching his hairline. "This place is packed!"

I ignored him, instead walking deeper into the calamity in order to find an open seat. I was just about to snag a spot by the window when Potter nudged me with his elbow.

"Hey, is that Dom?"

Setting aside my annoyance with the git for a split-second, I looked to where Potter was pointing and squinted my eyes in bemusement. In a secluded booth near the back, there sat my best friend Dominique Weasley, frantically waving us over like there was no tomorrow. She was practically falling out of her seat in order to get our attention.

"Maybe we should go over there?" I asked uncertainly.

Potter shrugged, grabbed Fred (who had been chatting up a simpering waitress) by the coat-sleeve, and began ambling towards Dom. Not really knowing what else to do, I followed as well.

"Guys!" Dom cried once we were in hearing range. "Fancy seeing you here!"

"Yeah," Potter said slowly, drawing out the word carefully as he took in his cousin's strange appearance. Dom's face was pulled into an expression of desperate relief, pleading eyebrows hitched upwards, an artificial smile stretching her cheeks. "Fancy seeing you here," he said. "At one of the most popular destinations in Hogsmeade. During a Hogsmeade outing."

Dom's smile grew considerably more forced. "Yes. Fancy that. Why don't you guys join us? We owe it to the coincidence, don't we?" Then catching my eye, her smile faltered slightly as she darted her gaze conspicuously to the side.

That's when I saw the tall boy sitting across from her, and it all came together. Neatly-combed chestnut hair, broad shoulders and a square jaw — this must be Foster Matthews, the bloke supposedly taking Dom to Hogsmeade. And evidently, the date was not going well.

Matthews did not look perturbed in the slightest that we were crashing this two-person party. In fact, he was standing up and greeting us all with... Handshakes?

"Foster Matthews," he said, all brusque and pretentious-like as he pumped Freddy's arm. "Sixth-year. Ravenclaw. Pleasure."

I was quietly wondering to myself if Foster Matthews always talked in one-to-two word increments when suddenly, the boy in question grabbed my hand and pressed his lips against it.

I blinked in the dim amber light, head jerking backwards in slight disbelief as Matthews continued to molest the back of my hand with his lips. Freddy barked out a laugh that he hastily turned into a cough. Dom dropped her head into her hands, squeezing her eyes in scrunched-up dismay.

When Matthews finally surfaced for air, he had a suave sort of gleam in his gaze. "Why, such a dainty, lovely hand I see before me! May I ask who it belongs to?"

I was too busy feeling weirded-out to devise a decent or semi-coherent reply, so instead I settled for just standing there and gaping intelligently. After a beat of silence, Potter smoothly cut in for me.

"Her name's Agatha Bennett," he said with stiff polite-ness. "And it's 'whom,' actually."

"Pardon?" inquired The Hand Molester.

"Whom," Potter said with finality, irritation sparking in his gaze. "Whom it belongs to. Not who — whom."

There was a pause. Something in the air seemed to crackle sharply between Potter and Matthews, and then it was gone.

"Well," Dom interjected brightly, although there was an edge of tension barely discernible in her voice. "Take a seat, you guys!"

Reluctantly, exchanging a dark glance with Freddy, I slid into the booth next to Dom.

My bestfriend grabbed my arm and shot me a meaningful look, gaze finding mine in a wordless attempt at communicating — something along the lines of 'this is the worst date ever make it stop oh god please make it stop,' I was guessing. Her face appeared dark, almost foreboding... and then the expression was gone as quickly as it came.

Switching her demeanor instantly, she transformed from grim to perky in about .02 seconds, smiling brightly as she picked a menu off the table and opened it.

"I'm thinking about a Butterbeer. How about you guys?" quipped Bipolar Dom.

"Er, yeah. Sounds great," Freddy mumbled uncertainly as he slid into the booth next to me. Potter, his face completely impassive, sat down across from us next to Matthews.

We quickly flagged down a waitress (more flirting for Freddy) and ordered our drinks, the lingering awkwardness in the air still palpable. The only person who didn't seem to be feeling the tension, in fact, was the direct cause of it: Matthews. He was chattering on aimlessly, rambling about this and that, impervious to everyone else's unwillingness to be a participant of this situation. And throughout his entire running monologue, it was rapidly becoming apparent that he...er, thought quite highly of himself, to say the least.

"Now, I've only won about seventeen awards," he professed. "But they've all been rather prestigious, if I do say so myself. There was the Junior Ministry of Magic Excellence Award — that had been presented by Eros Humdudgeon himself — "

"Yeah, you've mentioned," Dom sliced in boredly, before lowering her voice to add: "About a bajillion sodding times."

Matthews raved on. "Oh, and let's not forget the National Leadership Certificate I won at Hogwarts last year! That was a good one, have the plaque hanging on my bedroom wall back home. Let's see. What else? I have a large range of talents and interests, so sometimes it can be difficult to recall all my accomplishments — "

"And yet you always manage to, somehow!" Dom exclaimed, left eye twitching maniacally. I gulped.

"Ah, yes!" Matthews perked up, jabbing a pointer finger into the air and thoroughly ignoring his date's interjection. "Last spring I won first place at Diagon Alley's Music Festival for my mastery of the fine art of baton-twirling."

"Baton-twirling? You don't say?" Potter said, the corners of his lips twitching as his gaze landed on a rather mortified Dom. Next to me, Freddy was eyeing a leggy Hufflepuff across the room and paying no attention whatsoever to this one-sided conversation.

"Why yes, of course. Like I said, I have a wide range of talents, Potter," Matthews said somewhat impatiently.

"You seem like a regular Renaissance man," Potter agreed affably, though the glint of sardonic amusement in his eyes gave him away.

Matthews didn't notice, however — he was too busy turning into a human résumé. We listened on, unable to do anything but sip on the Butterbeers that one of the waitresses set down for us.

"And I will say I made quite a splash at this year's Japanese Culture Enthusiasts Convention," Matthews was saying. "One of my haikus received third place at the Poetry Event. Granted, there were only four contestants, but still! It was quite the achievement. Would you like to hear the poem?"

"Actually — "

"It goes like this." Matthews cleared his throat and then, with the grave, dignified air of someone delivering a eulogy, began to recite:

"I enjoy grapefruits,
I devour one ev'ry day,
Oh ouch! My poor knees!
"

There followed a remarkably long silence as Matthews inclined his head benevolently at the rest of us, perhaps waiting for some kind of applause. No one seemed to know what to say.

"That was, um," I began, brain scrambling for an appropriate adjective and settling on the only truthful one I could find. "...English."

"Was it?" Potter muttered into his Butterbeer, eyebrows raised, and despite myself I snorted in amusement.

I turned to glance at Dom, who was zoning out with her elbow on the table and her face smushed against her palm. She didn't look very enthralled by Matthews' nonsensical poetry (a bit of drool was dangling from her mouth). Freddy, on my other side, had completely turned away from the table, devoting himself to the noble pursuit of eye-shagging the aforementioned leggy Hufflepuff.

"Of course," Matthews continued, blissfully unaware that nobody was paying any sort of attention to him. "There was a bit of a foofaraw over whether or not 'ev'ry' had two syllables or three, but eventually, the judges conceded. What can I say? Justice won that day."

"Justice," I repeated flatly.

"Yes!" Matthews exclaimed, and then cocked his head to the side, tapping a thoughtful finger against his chin as he attempted to think of yet another amazing achievement. Dear Merlin, make it stop. "Now what else was there? Oh yes! My artwork has been doing well as of late."

"You're an artist?" I said weakly, hopeful that we'd finally found a viable topic of conversation — something that wasn't baton-twirling or poetry-reciting, please god.

"Of course!" Matthews cried excitably, positively ecstatic. "My magnum opus was a recent papier-mâché sculpture I made in the likeness of our family cat, Sir Baron Von Whiskers. It was featured at a neighborhood art gallery."

"Wish it'd been featured in the neighborhood dumpster," Dom muttered, but went largely unheard.

"Yes, very innovative indeed." Matthews nodded solemnly, acting as if no one had spoken. "I glued actual fur from The Baron himself onto the statue. Everybody loved it." He flashed a streak of white teeth in a two-second smile, and then was talking again. "I try not to let all the fame and the accolades affect me, because it can certainly get over-the-top! People are saying that I'm the next Harry Potter of crafting — "

I almost choked on my Butterbeer.

" — but it can be so hard. Oh, Sir Baron Von Whiskers," Matthews mused fondly, lifting his own mug in a mournful salute. "Back in his heyday, he was the defending champion of our district's Annual Pet Show, five times in a row. What can I say? Always came out on top just like his owner. Did I tell you that he once did a Friskies commercial? It was a cinematic masterpiece — "

I looked at Potter, who was trying to hide a mocking smile behind a sip of Butterbeer, and then at Dom, who could have been catatonic for all the effort she was putting in to this conversation. And lastly I tried to find Freddy, but somewhere between Matthew's haiku and Whiskers' heyday, he had disappeared.

I gritted my teeth together and sighed. This was going to be a long day.

Chapter 14: Shatter
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A/N: Okay, let me first start off by saying that I am so, so sorry for the wait. It was horrendous, I know - but I do have a semi-acceptable excuse. You see, I had this entire chapter written out, and I was about to post it when, due to an unfortunate cut-and-paste mishap, I lost ALL of it. It was... terrible, to say the least. I'm pretty sure I stared at my computer for a good fifteen minutes (in complete disbelief, of course) after it happened. Of course, the most frustrating part was that it was all entirely my fault.

Yeah, after that discouraging little episode, it took me about a month to muster up some motivation to rewrite this entire chapter AGAIN. So, yes, I know you all probably want to stab me with various sharp objects right now, but believe me when I'm say I'm really, really sorry.

Another note about this chapter: it's not as funny as the other ones. In fact, I don't think it's very funny at all. But it is essential - and I mean essential - to the plot of this story (yes, this collection of ramblings does have a plot, surprisingly), so it's really important that you read the whole thing.

Anyways, I think that's all I have to say, so without further ado, I present you (if there are any of you left, that is) with Chapter 14! Hope you enjoy!

Disclaimer: I own nothing.



"Please, Agatha?"

"No."

"Please?"

"Nope."

"Pretty please? With sprinkles and copious amounts of hot fudge on top?"

"Well, when you put it that way — no."

"Agatha! Please?"

I shifted in my seat — grimacing at the rigidness of the hardback chair I was sitting in — and sighed dramatically. All I had wanted was some peace and quiet, a nice atmosphere to study in. Being the naive idealist I was, I had assumed that the library would be a good place for that.

I now realized how foolish of me that was. Studying? In the library? Absurd.

"Agatha, I am asking you for just this one favor. One tiny, minuscule, teeny-weeny favor. I'm on my proverbial knees, here. Please."

"Nuh-uh. Negativo. No way José,"

My brother and I were currently sitting across from each other at a table in the secluded autobiography section, testing our luck (and Madame Pince's hearing) as we argued in hushed tones over my History of Magic textbook. Well, it wasn't so much arguing as Aidan pathetically begging while I engaged in the creative exercise of seeing all the different ways I could say the word 'no,' but there you had it. The poor sod wanted me to do his homework for him, and for once, I was putting my foot down.

"You're a cruel person, Agatha." My brother leaned back in his chair as he shook the toffee-colored hair out of his eyes, face drawn into an exaggerated 'woe-is-me' expression. "A cruel, cruel person."

I sighed, turning a page of my textbook with a flick that was, perhaps, more aggressive than usual. "Think of it this way, Aidan: if it weren't for my rejecting you every once in a while, your head would get so big, it'd probably swell and fill the whole school to the point of suffocating everyone inside. I'm not being cruel — I'm looking out for the general wellbeing of the public."


"What about my general well-being?" Aidan whined, choosing to ignore the persuasive power of my very logically-sound, very rational comeback. "Agatha. Please."

At this, my brother clasped his hands together, widening his eyes and jutting out his lower lip in an expression I'd seen countless times before. Ah, the Aidan Puppy Dog Face. Too bad I became immune to that years ago.

"For the last time, Aidan," I said as I pointedly turned back to my book. "I'm not doing your Transfiguration essay for you. Now leave me alone, and let me do my reading in peace."

Aidan abandoned the Puppy Dog Face, reverting back to an expression of brotherly exasperation as he flopped against his chair, lips twisting together in a scowl. "You're killing me here, sis."

"I highly doubt that me not doing your homework 'is killing you,'" I said drily, not even bothering to look up from the page I was on. I heard Aidan give a prim, disapproving sniff.

"You don't know that," he said. "My life could depend on this."

"Does it?" I looked up to cock a beseeching eyebrow my brother's way. He only shrugged.

"Well, McGonagall has been very stressed lately. We all think it's only a matter of time before she snaps. Not turning in this assignment could send her over the edge, and for a woman of her age and physique, she can be surprisingly strong..."

"Aidan," I scoffed. "McGonagall is not going to murder you."

"You don't know that!" My brother cried, blue eyes clouding with misty melodrama. "She is a scary, scary lady! I'm practically a walking can of Friskies Delight right now!"

I raised my head over the dusty cover of my textbook, choosing this moment to test out the latest version of my patented Be Reasonable Glare.™ I had been tweaking it for the past month and it was pretty refined by now. Wouldn't be long before I released it to the global marker. The Be Reasonable Glare™ — coming to an exasperated sister near you!

"Agatha," my brother said, returning my glare with equal intensity. Frosted sunlight leaked through the dusty library windows and caught the lighter strands of his hair. I noticed the way the rays seemed to gild his skin white-gold, making his eyes glow bluer than usual, and inwardly, I shook my fist at Aidan's good looks — golden brow and all. It seemed horribly unfair to me that he could pass for some Greek sun god while I walked around with weasel fur for hair.

"The answer is a no," I bit out, shaking my head firmly.

"It'll only be just this once — "

"That's what you always say."

"But I mean it this time — "

"You say that, too."

He sighed. Before I could respond, The Puppy Dog Face was making a reappearance, to be quickly shot down by another Be Reasonable Glare.™

This was how our relationship worked. Aidan pouted, I disapproved. It was a beautiful system, really.

"Aidan," I said, trying to keep the edge of exasperation out of my voice. "Why don't you just do the essay right now? You have an hour. That's plenty of time."

My brother glanced down at the table. "Er, about that..." He muttered, picking at a thread in his khakis. "I would — I really would — it's just that I don't know what the assignment is. I've sort of been, um, falling asleep in class. You know. For the past two or six days."

"Aidan!" I exclaimed, throwing my arms in the air as frustration flushed itself across my cheeks. "You know better than that!"

"I'm sorry!" My brother said morosely, dragging his hands down his face to display the true tragedy of his position. "But it's not my fault! Blame Freddy! He's the one who's keeping me up all night. Him and his stupid sneezing..."

"Sneezing?" I repeated blankly.

"Yeah!" Aidan was getting really worked up. His face had turned a ripe beet color, and he was gesturing frantically with his hands as he tried to form a coherent explanation. "Ever since the start of the year, there's been something wrong with Freddy — like allergies or a cold or whatever. He stays up all night, sneezing until the hippogriffs come home. We can never get any sleep."

I frowned. "Whenever I'm around him, I don't notice anything."

Aidan shrugged, blue eyes widening with innocence. "I'm not lying, I swear. You can ask him yourself."

Frustrated, I gave a loud exhale and crossed my arms in front of me, leaning back in my chair as I mulled this over. Aidan groaned, exasperated. "Aggy, what's it going to take for you to believe me?"

I didn't reply and, squinting my eyes, stared at my brother in an effort to gauge the truth in his words. Usually I could tell when my brother was lying — after all, he wasn't very good at it. Yet as outlandish as Aidan's excuse was, I couldn't find any of the telltale signs (flushing, blinking, fidgeting) that normally gave his fibs away.

And now that he'd mention it, Aidan did seem awfully tired. There were purple bruises under his eyes, and his skin was pale to the point of being translucent.

"Aggy, I need your help," Aidan pleaded. "We have a Quidditch Match tomorrow against Slytherin and I should be practicing and just — please, Agatha-a-a..." Mid-sentence, a yawn blossomed out of my brother's mouth, and I felt my resolve crumble.

Groaning, I held out a grudging hand. "Alright. Give me your textbook."

My brother's countenance changed so abruptly, it was like someone had flicked a switch. "Really? Merlin, thank you! Thank you, thank you, thank you! You are the best sister ever, Aggy. There should be songs written about you! Novels composed! Pictures painted! A monument dedicated in your honor! A street in your name — Agatha Road! No, Agatha Avenue! No, Agatha Bouleva — "

"Aidan," I said tiredly, rubbing my temples. "Just give me the book."

My brother jumped out of his seat and roughly unzipped his backpack, all the while muttering words of praise under his breath. "Of course. Just let me find it — It's in here somewhere, I know it is — "

I rolled my eyes as Aidan continued his frantic searching until, finally, he found the toddler-sized textbook and shoved it in my hands. "Thanks, sis. I'll make it up to you, I promise!"

And with that, he swung his backpack over his shoulder and, after pulling me into a lung-smashing, rib-crushing hug, practically skipped out of the library, leaving me alone with a half-opened mouth and an unfinished assignment in my hands.

Crap.

—*—

Time crawled as I worked on Aidan's essay, accompanied by nothing but the minutes ticking into hours, and the scratch of my quill etching at the silence around me. Outside the sun played hide-and-seek behind the clouds, and occasional orange blossoms of light would burst through the window, washing the castle stone in color before the shadows slunk back to reclaim their place again.

"Agatha."

Startled, I glanced up from page four of Aidan's essay to see none other than Dominique Weasley. She stood in front of me, her hands placed firmly on the table I was toiling over, hair fanned out in spirals. Her mouth was a straight line. She did not look like a happy camper.

"Yeah?" I said, gaping up at her rather attractively.

"Are you busy right now?"

"Well, I have this essay — "

"Good." Without further ado, Dom pulled out a wooden chair and plunked herself down, ignoring my quiet meep of protest. "I need to talk to you. About Aidan."

"Er, now's not really a good tim — "

"The thing is, I hate his guts."

I paused, quill hovering in mid-air, and allowed this very obvious, very evident information to sink in. Dom came all the way to declare this?

"Yeah," I said, tone slightly bemused. "I could kind of tell by the way you avoid him all day and just generally reject his entire existence. Also, that rumor you spread about him having syphilis."

Dom brushed away my dry quip, getting settled in her chair and clearing her throat. "Yeah, but now I hate him more."

I sighed, putting down my quill, and folding my hands together. "Okay, I'll bite. Why?"

"He ruined my date with Foster Matthews," she said, and then punctuated her grand statement with a menacing look, as if daring me to contradict her or something.

I arched an eyebrow. "How did he manage to do that? Fred and Potter and I were with you two the whole time."

"Not the whole time," Dom pointed out quickly. "After we all had lunch and said goodbye to you guys, Matthews insisted on bringing me to tea at Madame Puddifoot's — "

Together, the two of us paused in order to do the customary Blech Shudder usually required after the word 'Puddifoot's' was mentioned.

"— And we were having an okay time, " Dom continued. "Chatting and joking around, when all of a sudden, guess who walked in?"

"Er — " I began, cringing with dread.

"Aidan. With Margaret Corner, of all people. And guess what they do?"

"Well — "

"They sit down at our table! As if we were on some sick, twisted double-date! Do you know how awkward that was, Aggy? How humiliating?"

I deflated, sinking back into my chair as my mouth crumpled into a sympathetic grimace. "I'm sorry, Dom. I really am."

Dom nodded, but didn't show any outward sign of either rejecting or accepting my condolences. She just continued looking at me pointedly, gesturing vaguely with her hands as if instructing me to continue.

My pupils darted from side to side in uncertainty. I didn't have anything left to say. I mean, what did Dom expect me to do? Go find Aidan and send him to bed without supper?

"Well?" My best friend asked, eyes widening impatiently.

"Well what? I won't deny that what Aidan did was dumb and immature, Dom, but that's just who he is and there's nothing I can do about it," I explained only slightly defensively.

"Of course there is!" Dom cried, immediately indignant. "He's your brother!"

"Exactly. He's my brother, not my dog! I don't own him." For some reason, I felt myself getting peeved. Dom was acting as if Aidan was some puppy that had just peed all over her new sofa, and I was the one who had to clean everything up. "Look, why don't you talk to him yourself?"

"Are you serious?" Dom's face was turning an frustrated pink, her yellow-green eyes flashing with volatility. My best friend was getting angry, and from years of experience — as well as the basic human instinct for self-preservation — I knew this was a bad thing. "He singlehandedly ruined my Hogsmeade Weekend, and you want me to talk to him?"

"It's better than what you usually do!" Despite Dom's growing anger (and my growing fear), I couldn't help but throw my hands in the air, retorting with the first thing in my head.

Dom inhaled sharply through her nose, voice dipping into a dangerous growl. "Oh, and what is that?"

"You know how you've been acting, Dom." I rolled my eyes. "I mean, you pretty much dive under the nearest table every time he walks into a room! Why don't you just stop running away?"

Dom pulled back, staring at me uncomprehendingly for a long moment. And then she scoffed, smiling in an ironic kind of disbelief as she shook her head from side to side. "I should have known this would happen. I should have known you'd take his side."

"What — ? I'm not trying to take his side! Dom, you're being unreasonable."

"Unreasonable? How about you take a look at yourself, Aggs? You're practically Aidan's doormat!"

"What is that supposed to mean?"

"You know what it means! You always clean up his messes. Always do 'little favours' for him! Don't bother lying —" she added upon seeing my mouth drop open in protest. "You complain about it all the time! Yet the funny thing is, right after you stop whinging, you go back to coddling him like a baby. He gets away with murder, thanks to you!"

"Excuse me for trying to be a supportive sister!" I snapped back. Somewhere in the course of this conversation, we had gone from 'quiet-library voices' to 'barely-acceptable-indoor voices' to 'I'm-going-to-smash-your-thick-skull-in voices,' and now I was shouting. Loudly.

"He's ruining other people's lives, Aggy."

"Oh, stop being so dramatic. IHe ruins dates, not lives — "

"Merlin, you are so blind. Face it. Aidan is selfish. Simple as that — he's selfish."

"No he isn't —"

"Yes he is! He barges into people's lives, has his fun and breaks some hearts, and when he's done he just leaves without a backwards glance. He ruins people, Agatha." Dom's voice trembled, her chin quivered. "He ruins them and you let him."

"I — "

Without warning, Dom stood up so abruptly, her chair tipped over behind her. "Why can't you take my side, for once?" Her voice had lowered into a hoarse whisper, and her eyes were all wide and terribly shiny-looking. "Why do you always choose him?"

I fumbled hopelessly for words, choking on syllables and letters and empty excuses, desperate for something — anything — to say.

My best friend shook her head, giving a ringing, scornful laugh that made my stomach clench. "You know what, Agatha?" she said with a calmness that was a remarkable change from her previous tone. "You are a great sister. Wonderful, really. But why don't you try being a good friend, for a change?

And with that, she turned around and walked away. She didn't even bother to right her chair before she stormed out.

I sat there simmering in silence for awhile, trying to steady my shaky hands. What had just happened? How had Dom and I gone from chatting to fighting in one simple, harmless conversation?

As much as I tried to muster up the appropriate anger, I couldn't. Now that she had left, I realized, with a sinking dread, the complete and utter... rightness of Dom's words. After all, how many times had I stayed up all night, finishing an essay or an assignment for my brother? How many favors had I done for him, only to be given nothing in return? How many times had I turned a blind eye whenever he broke the rules? Too many to count, that was for sure.

Almost unwillingly, I glanced at the essay in front of me. 'Aidan Bennett' read the top. I had even charmed it to look like his handwriting.

Maybe Dom had a point.

—*—

I left the library, essay in hand, with my thoughts swirling in a muddled swamp of confusion. I had set out for the Great Hall, just to have the purpose of going somewhere, at least, when suddenly my name was called.

"Aggy!"

I turned around to see Freddy jogging towards me, his Quidditch robes rippling out behind him in a flutter of crimson and gold. When he met my eye, he smiled a very disconcerting smile and dragged a hasty hand through his dark hair.

"Hey, Aggy!" he greeted, voice still a shout even though he had already reached me. "Guess what?"

"Er — ?" I began rather unenthusiastically.

"We figured it out!" Fred's face was positively beaming with pride.

"Figured what out?"

"You know..." Fred intoned, giving some vague hand gestures that made me glad Fred's life had never depended on a game of charades before. I shook my head, brow drawn in a frown.

"No, Freddy. I'm afraid I really don't."

"My sneezing!"

"Your sneezing?"

"Well, we prefer to call it my 'Tissue Issue,' but you know. Whatever." He paused, puffing his chest out with pride, and flipped the collar of his robes. "A few minutes ago, Aidan and I were talking about it — he said he'd already told you about the situation — and we figured it out! Well, Aidan did, rather. But still! Aren't you excited?"

"Ecstatic," I deadpanned. "So what was the problem, then?"

"Rufus!"

"What's a rufus?"

Fred looked around the corridor, casting surreptitious glances even though it was so completely deserted, I half-expected a tumbleweed to blow by.

"You know," He said quietly (although, let's be honest, Fred's 'quiet' wasn't very quiet at all). "Rufus. Our gerbil."

"You mean the one my brother illegally smuggled into our school?"

"The very one!" Fred responded brightly. "Apparently, I'm allergic to its dander or whatever."

"Oh," I said, somewhat surprised that the boys had actually come to a logical conclusion. "That does make sense."

"Yeah." Freddy said, cocking a shoulder upwards in a carefree shrug. "Anyways, Aidan and I were talking and... Well, we have a favor for you."

No.

Not this. Not again.

My heart skidded to as stop, teeth grinding together as I leveled my gaze with Freddy's and tried to keep Dom's words from floating through my head. "What?" I bit out, almost painfully.

"Do you think you could take Rufus? For the year?"

I blinked, astounded. On the inside, it felt like someone had started playing jump rope with my small intestines. "As in keep it?"

Fred nodded, unperturbed by my strange behavior, as I just stared and stared. He obviously did not find this to be as big of a deal as I did.

I couldn't believe it. Aidan. Asking a favor, again. The idiot. The stupid, bleeding idiot.

No. I was the idiot.

Without bothering to answer, I wheeled around on my heel and ran — literally ran — down the corridor, ignoring Freddy's confused cries of surprise. My body just needed to move, to put as much distance between itself and the situation as possible. I couldn't stay any longer.

It became a rhythm, a simple process of sound and movement — one foot after the other, breathing in, breathing out, moving, always moving. Soon, Freddy was long gone behind me, out of sight though not quite out of mind, and the corridor stretched before me in a streaming blur of marble and light. It felt good to run, to hear the slap of shoes against stone, to feel my lungs itch with a need for more oxygen. There was something coursing inside of me, an endless stream of bubbling, shimmering energy. I could feel it, pushing against the thin surface of my skin. No matter what, I had to keep going. I felt like I would explode into a million, brilliant pieces if I didn't.

How had I expected anything less? Of course Aidan would come to me with this. Even after I had just finished his bloody Transfiguration essay. It just made sense. He would ask me for a favor, and then another, and another, and another... I should have seen it coming.

Except.

For some reason, I had thought he would have waited before this one. Usually, there was a grace period between one request and the next, but now I guess Aidan had walked over me enough times that such a courtesy wasn't necessary anymore. What was worse was the fact that he hadn't even asked me himself. He had gotten Fred to do it, as if I were some menial, insignificant task that he couldn't fit into his own busy schedule. Merlin, I was an idiot.

When I let him keep the gerbil, he'd promised me he wouldn't drag me into it. He'd promised. And now here I was, standing in front of yet another one of his messes with mop and broom in hand, ready for the clean up. Just like always.

To him, I was nothing more than a maid, a doormat. Dom was right. Merlin, Dom! Dom, who I had fought with. Dom, who probably hated me now. And all because of him.

Suddenly exhausted, I stopped running and — head spinning — leaned against a nearby pillar. The cool stone felt nice against my burning skin as I caught my breath. It was almost three o' clock and, silently, I watched as classes began to empty and students flooded into the corridor. Chatting, joking, laughing. The noise faded into an endless babble. I caught slight snippets — everyone was talking about the Quidditch Match tomorrow — but the words drifted into nothing.

I had to find Aidan. I didn't know what I was going to do once I did — tell him off? Scream? Throw a tantrum? — but that didn't matter. I just had to find him.

I let my feet lead the way, pushing through the crowd as I turned corners and stumbled down stairs, finally arriving by some unknown instinct at the Great Hall.

And there he was. Sitting at a table, surrounded by a posse of girls with negative IQs-to-bra-size ratios, in his Quidditch robes. His eyes were clear and blue, and I watched as he leaned forward, gesticulating wildly in the midst of some obviously grand story. His groupies giggled and cooed, hanging on to every golden word, and Aidan gave a toothy grin. For some reason, the exchange made me nauseous.

"Aidan," I said calmly when I had reached him. My voice wasn't angry. It was flat, quiet.

My brother looked up, a smile still lingering on his face. "Aggy! How's my favorite sister doing?"

I shook my head and didn't respond. I just stared at him quietly, my face heating with an intensity I'd never felt before.

Slowly, the grin slipped away. "What?"

"I can't believe you." My voice was shaking. I tried to steady myself, but my head was spinning too fast for me to concentrate any energy into one singular action.

"I — What are you on about, Aggy?" Aidan said slowly, giving the groupies a 'Don't Mind Her, She's Obviously Nutty' look. They tittered back, glancing at me underneath long, mascaraed lashes, and I felt my cheeks glow.

"You don't even know? Merlin, you are so daft. Dom's right! You, Aidan Bennett, are selfish. Self-centered, self-serving, self-indulgent. You do whatever you want and — "

"Aggy — "

"— and I let you get away with it!" I lowered my voice, feeling the anger throb inside me like a living thing. It was weird, but I'd never felt something so strongly before. Sure, I got mad at Potter — furious, even. But this... This was different, somehow. It was more subtle. Tinged with betrayal.

"You promised, Aidan," I said, so quietly I wondered if he would hear. The groupies were gawking, but I couldn't bring myself to care. "You promised me. Does that mean nothing to you? God! Sometimes — sometimes, I think I hate you!"

"Agatha! I have no idea what you're talking about — "

"You know what? Forget it." Hastily, I shoved my hands into my robe pocket and took out his essay, smoothing out its crumples as I slammed the paper down on the table. "Here's your stupid homework. I think it'd be wise if we didn't speak with one another for a while." I nodded in a curt, almost formal manner before turning on my heel. "Goodbye, Aidan."

And then, without another word or backwards glance, I did something I'd never done before: I walked out on my brother.

—*—

I spent the next day moping around in self-pity mode. Everyone else in the castle was fussing about some upcoming Quidditch Match between Slytherin and Gryffindor — who would win, who would lose — but I couldn't muster an iota of excitement or House spirit. Just the thought of Aidan out there, flying around the Quidditch Pitch, not a care in the world as his fans cheered on... It made my stomach hurt.

On top of it all, Dom was avoiding me. Whenever I walked into the dorms, she would give a very loud sniff and turn to leave. Seeing me in the hallways, she would immediately head in the other direction. I couldn't get a hold of her, not even to apologize, and this only served to make me feel worse.

I stayed inside during the match. I couldn't make myself go out and cheer with the others, so instead I perused the Hogwarts halls, roaming around and trying not to look out any windows in case I caught an unwanted glimpse of the Quidditch Pitch. The corridors and classrooms were silent — I was utterly alone, and this suited me just fine.

Seconds ticked by, bleeding into minutes and then hours, as I wandered aimlessly about, glancing at statues and striking up the occasional conversation with a portrait. Every noise, even the slightest rustle, seemed to echo on forever.

"Agatha Bennett?"

I stiffened at the unfamiliar voice, mouth pulling into an immediate pout. A voice meant another human being, and another human being meant socializing. I had not planned for this.

I turned around to see a young boy behind me, probably a second- or third-year, with rosy cheeks and a head of curly brown hair. He looked like he had been running and was currently doubled over in exhaustion.

"Are you — " Gasp. "Agatha —" Wheeze. "Bennett?"

I blinked back my surprise. "Er, yeah. Can I help you?"

The boy looked up at me — he had startlingly blue eyes, I noticed — and all of a sudden, I felt a strange sensation overcome me. Dread. It crept up my arms, slithered in my chest, until it finally clenched cold fingers around my heart and squeezed... hard.

Something was very, very wrong.

"What is it?" I demanded, the urgency of my voice surprising even myself.

"I — Well..." The boy said, fumbling for words.

It was like the world around me had frozen. I couldn't describe it, but somehow I just knew. Everything turned to glittering, blinding ice, so delicate and fragile. The slightest move of a hand could cause it all to shatter. And somehow, I knew that this boy's next few words would change everything.

"Agatha, there's been an accident."

Chapter 15: Collide
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A/N: Okay, Chapter 15 is finally here! I have nothing to say except that none of Potterverse is mine, and I hope you enjoy!


People were talking. Their voices floated away, disappearing into the air, into nothingness. Babble. Incomprehensible, endless babble.

There was white. A lot of it. Bed sheets, curtains, the tiles. Squeaking under my feet. White, white, white. And I was running, letting all that white smudge into an infinite, limitless blank. Someone was yelling — stop, stop — but their voice was nothing more than a soft and muffled sound. Like a feather, drifting away.

I was at St. Mungo's.

And he was there too. Lying on a bed, and I didn't understand — why wasn't he moving? Why were his eyes closed? He was pale, and oh Merlin oh please no. Everything was disintegrating. Shuddering apart. Spindling away.

White.

There was a voice, my voice. It tore through the air, seemingly faraway from my own mouth. Come on, Aidan. Wake up, Aidan. Please, Aidan.

I was shaking him — why was I shaking him?

And then, someone or something began to drag me away, and I found myself resisting, floundering and flailing until my hand came in contact with a solid thing. A muttered oath of pain. Warm hands, wrapping insistently around my shoulders. They pulled and pulled until I was grasping at air. Grasping for air. I couldn't breathe. Oh god, I couldn't breathe.

"Bennett — Bennett. Calm down."

The world was beginning to bleed into focus, sounds snapping back to their proper edges and boundaries, shuddering like rubber, and I was all of a sudden treading into a wave of comprehension. Words hardened and crystallized until I could understand them again. My vision sharpened. I realized where I was — a small room, ugly walls, an ugly hospital bed. My brother, in it. Unmoving. Healers were swarmed around him like insects, and a monitor was beeping. Somewhere, in the hallway, I heard hustle and bustle and the squeak of shoes against linoleum.

And Potter was there, looking at me, inches from my face. His hands were digging into my shoulders enough for me to belatedly realize that, ouch, that hurt — and I glanced around and realized he was pressing me into a wall. Restraining me.

"Calm down." He bit out slowly. "Or the Healers will sedate you."

His face was smeared with grime and dust, his hair matted to his forehead with dried sweat. He was still wearing his Quidditch kit, and his nose was bleeding. Had I caused that or the Quidditch? Things were getting fuzzy again.

I blinked at Potter. Inhaled. "Okay."

Potter let go and stepped away, hand coming up to clutch at his nose. "Christ, Bennett. Next time, try not to go for the face, okay?" His voice was casual, too casual, but there was a steely tone riding underneath. Sharp-edged and grim, it made my stomach clench.

"Potter," I said, and suddenly I had to lean against the wall because my knees had forgotten how to function. "What's going on?"

He looked up and stared at me, and for one, fleeting second, his eyes flickered with the barest sort of uncertainty.

Then the lines of his face hardened, and his expression was nothing but blank calculation and steeled edges. Blood trickled down his chin in a glistening web of crimson. I glanced away, watched the Healers buzz and swarm.

"Just calm down, Bennett." All the creases of his voice — all the inflections or catches that could have possibly given him away — were smoothed over, carefully tucked beneath the surface. "Everything's going to be okay."

The truth was all too clear. It stared me in the face, blinding and irrevocable and ugly:

For once in his lifetime, James Sirius Potter was wrong.

—*—

Healer Bartleby Bogglish was old, wrinkled, and the possessor of a very bad toupée. It sat on his head like a long-extinct animal, swaying and quivering with his every movement. I stared at it as he spoke to me.

Wasn't it funny that, despite all the accomplishments the wizarding world of science and medicine had achieved, we still had not found a cure for baldness?

"Your brother has slipped into a coma caused by severe trauma to the head, sustained during a Quidditch accident. We are keeping him here for a 24-hour observation period so that we may monitor his behavior. If we determine him to be stable enough, we will move him to the Hospital Wing at Hogwarts, where your school nurse will be able to care for him there."

Coma. What a funny word. All it took was one superfluous letter or strange accent and someone would be able to say, your brother has slipped into a comma.

I found that oddly hilarious, for some reason.

—*—

I sat in the room. I didn't know what else to do, so I sat and sat and sat. I stared at everything — the walls, the ceiling, the white — everything but the unrecognizable figure, just a stranger, really, lying motionless in the bed before me. Potter sat too. But then he was told to leave.

And then, my parents arrived.

"Agatha! I got here as soon as I could—what's happened? Is Aidan okay? Oh my god, Agatha." Mum.

"Can someone please explain to me what the hell is going on here? Where is our Healer? Hey! You! Nurse! Where is our Healer?" Dad.

"Sir, please calm down. Healer Bogglish is a very busy man — "

"I don't care if he's the bloody Virgin Mary! Get him now. I need to know what's happened to my son!"

"Sir, please — "

"Someone tell us what's going on!"

"Sir, please calm down."

"Don't you fucking dare tell me to calm down when my son is — "

"There's no need to be hostile —"

"What's going on? Oh god, can someone please just tell us what's going on?"

"Ma’am, your son has slipped into a coma caused by severe trauma to the head, sustained during a Quidditch accident. We are keeping him here for a 24-hour observation period so we..."

I left the room. I just couldn't. I couldn't.

Outside in the waiting area, my step-father Arnold, Dom, and Fred were slumped over in flimsy plastic chairs. It had been eons — centuries and wars and earthquakes ago — since I had seen Dom and Fred. They were both sleeping, still in their Quidditch uniforms, Fred's head resting on Arnold's shoulder with his mouth slightly ajar.

I grabbed a passing nurse by the elbow. "Excuse me, do you know what time it is?"

"Six o'clock, miss." Her voice was heavily accented, curving and dipping in all the wrong places.

"That can't be right." Had we been at this hospital for that long?

"Time never lies, hun." The nurse's face was soft and fleshy, and I relinquished my hold on the her elbow, taking a step back.

"Okay, thank you."

There was something inside of me, something hot and angry and inhuman. It. Sticking to me like a second skin that I couldn't rid myself of, It was everywhere — sloshing in my stomach, lodged in my throat, heavy and thudding in my ribcage. It dribbled down the back of my throat and curled inside my ears, hot and acrid whispers that told me to surrender.

And I was tempted. So, so tempted. The thought of surrendering, of folding and crumpling in the middle of the hallway. It would be so easy...

But I couldn't. If I did, I would lose everything. Every ounce of self-control that I had collected and hoarded and clung to over the past few hours like grains of sand. It would take over, and this numbness that I was feeling now, this nice, bland numbness, would crumble away. And I didn't want to find out what would be left. If I allowed It to take control... Who knew what would happen?

All I wanted to do was clutch at myself, to scrape skin and cloth and make sure I was still in my own body, to give out.

But instead, I kept walking. I ignored It, the slithering inside my stomach, and just kept walking, one foot in front of the other. Right-left. Right-left. Co-ma. Co-ma.

I just kept walking.

—*—

The cafeteria of St. Mungo's was a big, spacey room with giant floor-to-ceiling windows. It was also deserted, which was why I sat myself down at one of the long metal tables and decided that I wouldn't be moving for a very, very long time.

Or at least, until someone else showed up.

"Hey."

I glanced up, and there was Potter standing in front of me. He had changed — he was wearing a simple blue t-shirt and jeans — and showered, but his hair was still a mess. And it was the simplest thing, really. Of course Potter would find me. Of course he would sit down without asking permission and pull me out of my momentary bout of peace, the meager silence that I had. Of course.

"What are you doing here?" I asked, monotone.

"Last time I checked, this wasn't Agatha Bennett's Special Secret Tree House. The cafeteria is open to everyone, you know." His words were as snarky as ever, but they weren't delivered with the customary tone of irritated scorn. As he spoke, he tossed me something small and round. I barely caught it and peered at the plastic container.

"Pudding?"

"I thought you might be hungry." He shrugged, as if it were perfectly normal for him to be thinking about me and the state of my stomach, and then slid a spoon across the table. The scraping noise of metal against metal echoed through the cavernous room.

"Well?" He said, looking pointedly at my untouched gift, his peace offering.

"Well what?"

"Bennett, it's been thirteen hours since we got here. You have to eat something."

I stared at him, refusing to touch the spoon. "Since when have you been so charitable?"

"Since now. Eat."

Rolling my eyes, I ripped open the container and dug in. I hadn't noticed or felt any hunger up until that point, but when I peeled off the tinfoil wrapping, I turned suddenly ravenous. It seemed weird that, at a time like this, my body could carry on. I still got hungry, I still got thirsty. It was the end of the world, and yet all my internal organs — my brain, my lungs, my heart —functioned like any other day.

The sun was setting outside, and ribbons of twinkling light spiraled through the gigantic windows to stain the entire cafeteria with a rosy glaze. The white walls blushed pink. The metal tables gleamed. The world had exploded into a million, glistening bursts of gold and pink and red, and there we were, sitting in the middle of it all, two shards of glass in a tumbling kaleidoscope.

"Bennett."

My gaze snapped back to Potter, taking in the grim line of his mouth, the seriousness of his gaze. "Yeah?"

He stared at me for a long moment, eyes green in the dying sunlight. "I'm sorry."

I didn't know how to respond to such a statement, so I just shook my head uncomprehendingly at the table, voice lurching from the back of my throat to speak.

"How did it happen, Potter? How?"

He was silent, and for a moment, it seemed as if he wasn't going to answer me. But then all of a sudden, he was opening his mouth and the words that were coming out were jumbled and sharp-edged and hard to hear, hard to understand.

"We were tied 80-80, when I think Aidan saw the Snitch. It was really foggy out, and in the middle of the search he just sort of... Disappeared, higher up in the clouds. A while passed by, no one saw him, and then Dom started screaming. We turned around and... and he was falling."

I could feel It, rearing its ugly head in the pit of my stomach, sucking all the oxygen out of my lungs until all that was left was a dry, burning itch. Bile rose up my throat, and I was beginning to regret ever asking him the question.

Slowly, I took a deep, long breath. I squashed It back down to the pit of my stomach and piled on top a mountain of indifference and numbness and blank. I swallowed the bile. Regained control.

"Oh," I said.

There was an unbearable silence.

Suddenly — abruptly — Potter stood, the metal bench screeching backwards behind him.

I blinked, confused. "What are you doing?"

"We're leaving. We're getting Dom and Freddy, and we're leaving." Potter's voice was so sure, so confident — it echoed loud and clear as if he were stating something we'd previously agreed upon.

I put down my pudding cup, gaping with incredulity. "The hospital?"

He nodded.

"I — You're insane."

He didn't respond. Just looked at me with searing sunlit-green eyes, impatient, face edged with hardness.

The sun outside was trickling into dim, glittering rivets of gold, and I knew the purple fog of dusk was coming. For a moment, I just sat and sat, and Potter waited and waited, as the room sank into darkness.

Maybe it was a trick of the eye, but it seemed like even after it had abandoned everything else, the sunlight held on just a little bit longer to Potter's face. As if it was reluctant to let him go. For one strange, trembling moment, Potter glowed, fast and fleeting, like a glint of something bright underwater.

And then the sun dipped below the horizon, and we were thrown into darkness.

When I spoke, my voice was nothing more but a whisper, a rustle.

"Okay."

—*—

After Potter shook Fred and Dom awake, all it took was a little persuading — which he was admittedly rather good at — for them to agree to his crazy whim. So Potter and I waited as the two of them changed out of their Quidditch gear, and then we left. Just like that. We didn't tell my parents. We didn't tell the Healer. We simply... left. One moment, we were in the hospital, choking on the smell of bleach and the walls that were too white and too close, and then all of a sudden, we were outside, among the slick pavement and the night air and the blooming, golden light of the streetlamps.

The city was shaking itself awake. People bustled. Cars honked and grumbled. It had recently rained, and the jeweled lights of buildings reflected off the gleaming obsidian of the streets. Everything was shimmering and dazzling and fresh. It amazed me that for other people, this was just another ordinary day.

Fred and Dom were bleary-eyed. Potter was silent. There was a raw feeling between all of us, an unspoken agreement that too much had happened and now meager words just weren't enough.

So we stayed quiet. And we walked on, not really together and not really apart. After a while of searching, we found a muggle bar that was shady enough to let us in without any suspicious questions or second glances. I knew that what we were doing was wrong — and not all that smart — but I didn't protest as I followed Potter inside.

Everything was drowned in black-light, making my white blouse and everyone's teeth glow wanly in the dark. The walls were splattered with neon paint, and the room seemed to spin around me in a blitz of thumping, techno music, shifting bodies and streaks of vivid colour. It was crowded and thick with smoke and the perfect place to get lost in, and for some reason, it was a thousand times better than the hospital. It just felt good to be one of the masses. To not count. To blend in.

Potter walked confidently ahead of me, winding smoothly through the hordes of thrumming bodies, just another tall silhouette in the black-light. Eventually, we caught a secluded booth in the corner and piled in.

The music echoed in my ears, matching my pounding heartbeat. Dom sat next to me, nothing more than a ghost, her skin white and paper-thin. She hadn't spoken a word, I hadn't even heard her voice since our argument in the library. She was holding on to the sleeve of Freddy's jacket like it was the only material thing in the world.

Potter left, then came back with four small glasses and a bottle of some unidentifiable amber drink. Fred immediately filled his glass, the liquid sloshing over the lip a little, and downed it. He grabbed another one. Clinked his glass against Potter's, and then they both drank.

Potter was always so fluid in his motions. The lift of a drink to his lips, the tilt of his head backwards, the way his jaw shifted ever so slightly, his arm coming down to slam the empty glass back on his table... It was a practiced sequence. Elegant, almost.

I, on the other hand, was awkward and ungraceful. I curled up in the corner of the booth, my arms around my knees, the fingers of my right hand twisted in my hair, and watched the three of them drink. Dom was going too fast, too many in too little time, but I didn't have the heart or words to stop her.

Suddenly, Fred started laughing. Not his normal, boisterous laugh. No — this laugh was hollow and strange, and his shoulders were shaking too hard for it to be considered casual.

"This is all a dream, right?" he asked, taking a swig of his drink. Another grim terrible laugh dribbled from his lips. "I mean, tomorrow I'm going to wake up and find out that this — this — it didn't happen. It didn't happen, right?"

"Yeah," Potter said, and I couldn't tell if there was malice in his sarcasm or not. "It's all a dream, Freddy."

Fred nodded, his eyes unfocused and distracted. "It's all a dream," he croaked to himself, before throwing back another shot.

I said nothing, watching the three cousins as they simmered, separately, in their own black thoughts. Dom's face was slack, her eyelids heavy and drooping as she stared straight ahead.

Her red lips parted, drooping open as if by accident, and we all waited for her to speak. The lights of the club passed across her face, a dancing menagerie of translucent colour, but her expression remained stony, unchanging. For a moment, it seemed like she wasn't going to say anything at all. And then:

"Shut up."

Fred blinked. "What?"

"For fuck's sake, Freddy, just shut up and stop fooling yourself," Dom spat. "This isn't a dream. Aidan is in a coma, everything's gone to shit, and this isn't a dream." She clenched her right hand into a fist and shook her head, oblivious to our speechless incredulity. "That stupid idiot... Getting himself knocked into a coma. Of course. What a typical Aidan thing to do — he is so, so selfish. Fuck!" This was punctuated by a sharp crack as Dom slammed her glass on the table. "Just shut up already, Fred!"

"Merlin, Dom, how can you even say that? It's not like Aidan chose for this to happen — "

"Shut up, will you? Just shut up, shut up, shut up! You don't really know him!" She said, even though he did. We all did. "He's selfish —"

"Don't say that about him!"

"— he was being careless, he wasn't thinking, thinking about all the other people around him, who cared about him, who would be affected if he — if he got hurt, and he left us. Merlin, he should have been more careful. Why wasn't he more careful? The idiot —"

"Dom."

Potter's voice was quiet but effective. Dom clamped her lips shut, and there was a sudden silence. Averting her eyes, she poured herself another drink, the neck of the bottle rattling against the glass as her hands shook and liquid spilled over the rim, onto the table. No one bothered to mop it up.

We sat there, the four of us. The music pulsed on.

"We should dance," I suddenly blurted at random. The three of them looked up, faces displaying varying degrees of incredulity.

"What?"

"Come on." I grabbed Dom's glass out of her hand before it reached her lips, and swallowed the rest of whatever was inside. This was a very bad idea, since drinking alcohol, it turns out , is a similar sensation to setting your own esophagus on fire.

I winced and coughed, avoiding the others and their curious stares, then stood up, swaying slightly on my feet. I had the sudden impulse to do something, to move my body through this thick, watery air and have my feelings limited to moving and moving alone. "We're dancing."

I grabbed Freddy's arm and dragged him onto the dance floor, where we quickly melted into the sweaty mass of jumping bodies. I guess Potter and Dom followed suit, since I caught a fleeting glance of rumpled black hair before I was swallowed into the crowd.

Standing still in the middle of a dance floor felt like standing on the floor of a rocking boat. My surroundings dipped and swayed, heat and darkness pressing closer, the techno music pounding into my skull. Everyone else was oblivious to my presence, and the sensation was strangely freeing.

"Hey." I turned around to see Potter, silhouetted by the flashing lights behind him, his hands shoved in his pocket in that familiar way of his.

"Potter," I bleated mechanically, and then, as if my body were acting on its own accord, I saw my hands reach out to grab him by the jacket and pull closer. "Let's dance." The bassline thrummed under my feet, and for a moment, I didn't care that Potter and I were on less-than-friendly terms with each other, or that normally I wouldn't be caught dead in a place like this. Right now, the loud music and thick darkness was enough to make me forget everything but the physical sensations around me, and I — frantically, manically — wanted to keep that going. I wanted to stay numb, and dancing up to the boy I hated seemed, for some reason, like a good way to do that. The music pounded, people around us jumping up and down and bumping into my back. The shot I'd downed was now warm in my belly. For all we knew, Freddy might have been right. This could all be just a dream.

"Bennett." There was a line of concern etched between Potter's eyebrows; his gaze was wary and unnaturally bright as his hands came up to meet mine and peel them off his collar. "Bennett, you're obviously not in your right mind right now — "

"Shut up," I said flippantly, insistently pulling us closer. "Just shut up."

Potter obliged, his mouth snapping shut while his eyes still continued with their careful journey over my face. He seemed to realize that, as the person who had brought us here in the first place, he was in no position to talk about my 'right mind.' In fact, he shouldn't talk at all.

I glanced over to see Dom, her eyes closed, jumping up and down to the music. Her face looked ethereal, the tinge of each light splaying across her translucent skin, beads of sweat trickling from her temples. Fred was back at the table, doing some damage to the bottle we'd left behind.

My eyes snapped back to Potter. He'd been watching me this whole time, his lips parted slightly, and I suddenly realized how close we were standing, my hands still clutching his collar.

And then, I felt It surge inside me, crawling up my throat. Everything around me seemed to lurch in one big chaotic tumble of noise and heat —it was suddenly too much. I felt like I was going to keel over. Black spots speckled my vision, and I knew I was in danger — of slipping, of surrendering, of losing control. I could feel It, thrashing against my chest, all the emotion packed inside about to burst free. It hummed in my veins with discontent, churning in my blood, an acrid flood of nausea that made my cheeks flush. I was slipping, letting go, losing control...

I pulled Potter closer, my feverish forehead coming to meet his, as I tried to quell the sickness inside me. I could feel it burning at my throat. I winced, eyes squeezing shut, a ragged gasp rattling at my chest, and the dance floor tilted to the left, violet and black and neon smudging together. Sweaty bodies bumped into me, the music made the bones in my body chatter and vibrate...

Potter grabbed me by the waist, stumbling backwards a little as he caught his balance. His hands burned through the thin material of my shirt. "Bennett, you okay?"

I flashed open my eyes and jumped a little, startled by both our proximity and his concern. We were too close. It was too hot. Everything was too, too much.

My shallow breath was coming in quick, rapid bursts, and I looked up to see hazel eyes staring down, hard and alert. I pulled away, trying to regain my grip on the world. "No. Yes. I — Sorry."

"Bennett —" Before Potter could finish (or even start), I was wheeling around and stumbling away, trying my best to ignore his hot gaze on the back of my head as I pushed through the jumping mass of people.

Except I couldn't help myself. Slowly, I spared a glance at him over my shoulder. Our eyes met, and for one, infinitely long second, it was hazel frozen with ice, blue tarnished by gold. And then I turned back around and walked away, letting the greedy crowd swallow me whole.

—*—

I staggered my way to the bathroom, heaving the heavy black door open without a thought. I needed a place to think, to gather myself, and the loo seemed like the only option.

It was a cramped space, with red and yellow mosaic tile floors and three dingy, untrustworthy stalls. Everything was muffled. I could dimly hear the pounding bass of the music outside.

A dirty, rectangular mirror was stretched out on the wall across from me, and I stared at my reflection, blinking. I was unearthly pale — more so then usual — and my eyes were bloodshot and owlish. My hair — well, I didn't even want to go there.

I was on edge. Every molecule inside my body was bouncing and jittery with an unceasing, anxious energy. Atoms colliding, fingers quivering, knees knocking. I couldn't stand still.

I turned towards the stalls. It looked like one was already occupied, so I took the other one next to it. Closing the door behind me, I fumbled with the lock for a moment before slamming the lid of the toilet down and —heaving out a long, tired sigh — plunking down on top of it. I dug my elbows into my knees and buried my hands in my hair, grimacing at my own clichéd patheticness.

I stared at the stall door in front of me — my eyes raking over the scrawled profanity, the ugly rusted lock — and waited for the waterworks to come. If there was a time to break down in tears, now would be it. After all, in the movies, this was usually the part where the heroine started sobbing uncontrollably — shouldn't I be doing the same right about now?

And yet — I couldn't. I just couldn't cry. It was the funniest thing, really, but despite all that had happened, I couldn't squeeze out one, tiny, miserable tear. It was like there was a block, something stopping my tear ducts from functioning like normal. I wanted so badly — needed, in fact — to cry... And yet I couldn't. It was like standing on the edge of a cliff and knowing it was crumbling, but never being able to actually jump off.

"Shit," I said out loud, and that was that.

"Aggy?"

I started, whipping my head around at the sound of my name. It had sounded like it was coming from the stall next to me. In fact, it sounded a lot like...

"Dom?"

There was a pause. And then:

"Hey."

"Hi."

Another long silence. It seemed to stretch on forever, growing and expanding and filling the air with emptiness. We sat, two girls, sitting on opposite sides of a grimy bathroom stall wall, together but separate and so, so afraid.

"Agatha?"

"Yeah?"

"I'm sorry."

"It’s okay."

"I didn't mean any of it. What I said, earlier, when we fought. About Aidan."

"I know."

"I was scared."

"I know."

"I'm still scared."

"I know."

"Can we... Can we go home? Please?" Her voice was warbly and weak, so different from the fiery, strong Dominique that I knew.

Slowly, I nodded my head. It was a pointless move since she couldn't see me, but it felt like it was the only thing I could do. Words were failing me.

Home sounded nice. Home, a steaming shower, and a warm bed that I could burrow myself into. The only trouble was... I had no idea where home was. Hogwarts? My mother's house? My dad's? There was a part of me that wanted so badly to leave this bar, but there was another part that knew if I did... I wouldn't have anywhere to go.

I took a deep breath, steadying my voice, and gathered my courage.

"Okay, Dom. Let's go home."




A/N: Sooo. What did you think? I know it was really long and dramatic and a big change from what the normal chapters are like, but hopefully you guys liked it :) I'm sorry for such the long wait, but school's been hectic lately, and a lot of my time has been taken up by working on my new Dominique one-shot The Silence of the Night, which is actually up on my Author's Page now! So if you want to check it out, that would mean a lot to me! I think it's actually one of my better writings :D
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Alright, guys, I hope you enjoyed everything, and if you have the time/energy, please tell me what you think!

Zoey

Chapter 16: Somersault
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"What?"

I leaned forward in my seat — jaw dropping, eyes widening, brows knitting into the universal expression for 'you have got to be shitting me' — and gaped at the (completely loony) woman in front of me. It wasn't a very attractive look, I'll admit, yet I couldn't help myself — the shock that was rippling over my features was uncontrollable. And while some people (hint: his name rhymes with 'otter') may be good at hiding their feelings behind cool masks of disinterest, I wasn't one of them.

Headmistress Vespertine quirked a dark eyebrow and clasped her elegant hands together, resting them on top of her shiny mahogany desk. Judging by the unimpressed expression tugging at her stern features, she wasn't in the mood for my disbelief.

Well excuse me, Vespertine, if you find my attitude irritating — it's just that I've been having kind of a tough week and all, what with my twin brother slipping into a life-threatening, indefinitely long coma. I know that's no valid excuse, but — oh no, wait — that's totally a valid excuse. Fuck you.

"You heard me, Miss Bennett. A counselor," Vespertine said firmly, pulling me back into reality. She tilted her head forward, boring her steely grey eyes into mine, face lined with hardened resolve.

"You want me to see a shrink." I stated flatly, brow wrinkling in distaste. Vespertine had been pushing the point for the past hour and I'd been rejecting it for just as long, but that didn't make the idea seem any less surreal. A school counselor, really? Me? I'd always thought that out of everyone in our friend group, Freddy would be the first one forced to seek psychiatric help.

"A counselor, Agatha." Vespertine corrected. She heaved a reproving sigh, looking like a mother who had to deal with a very petulant, very tiresome child. "You've been through a great deal of trauma lately and given the circumstances, I think it wise for you to have someone to talk to. Someone you can rely on."

I do have someone to rely on. In fact, I have several someones. They're called friends, you see — they're nice, funny, cool, smart, and the best thing about them? I don't have to pay them to listen to me whine. They do it for free.

"Headmistress," I began cautiously, not wishing to antagonize Vespertine any more than I already had. "Thank you for your concern, but I really don't think this is necessary. I'm managing just fine." As if to prove my point, I fidgeted in my stiff chair and gave a small, entirely unconvincing laugh.

Vespertine frowned. I could sense the annoyance simmering in her gaze, and with a sinking dread, realized she wasn't about to let the matter go anytime soon. "Even so, Agatha," she implored. "I insist you talk to our school counselor for at least one session. I think you'd truly benefit from it."

"I didn't even know Hogwarts had a school counselor," I said quietly, disbelief still clouding my voice.

Vespertine's frown stiffened at my continued impertinence, her voice turning firm and clipped. "Well we do, and I would like for you to see her. I know you're reluctant, but trust me. I only have your best interests in mind."

That's what they all said. Resisting the urge to roll my eyes, I smiled sweetly at the woman in front of me, knowing full well that the day I saw the school counselor was the day Filch began his professional career as a Calvin Klein underwear model.

I knew Vespertine was only trying to look out for her students, but honestly, I was fine. Fine! Yes, Aidan was in the Hospital Wing. Yes, his medical situation remained in a static, frustrating limbo. Yes, everywhere I went I was somehow reminded of his horrible accident. But that was my reality now. I could handle it. I didn't need pity or adult supervision, and I especially didn't need some "counselor" analyzing my every thought and putting words into my mouth. I got enough of that from Potter already.

Vespertine was a considerate Head of Hogwarts, she really was, but she must have been a couple braincells short if she thought that I would actually agree to her request. I was not going to see a shrink.

—*—

"So you're seeing a shrink?"

I gave a disgruntled huff, mouth twisting into a bitter scowl as I stormed — not strolled, not walked, not sauntered: stormed — down the corridor to my next class, fists clenched tightly by my sides.

"Not a shrink, Freddy — a counselor. There's a difference," I corrected, and Fred Weasley, my walking partner/general life's nuisance this morning, responded with a look that could only be described as a leer.

"Of course," he said innocently. "Counselors are much more respectable. Their straightjackets are Armani."

I glowered. Back in Vespertine's office, I had foolishly thought that noble protests and sheer free will alone were enough to get out of seeing the counselor. But then reality (as it always did) so stubbornly insisted on asserting itself, and my dreams were dashed.

Turned out that, as our Headmistress/High and Mighty Dictator of Hogwarts, Vespertine retained the final say in any and every matter.

Her decisions were incontestable. Democracy was a fallacy. I was seeing the counselor.

The fact that this was all happening against my will didn't seem to be an issue. Don't want to waste an hour per week in a therapist's office? Too bloody bad. Off to Dr. Loony Tunes you go.

I glanced warily at Fred, who still had on that smarmy, all-too-knowing expression of his.

"Stop it," I said in response to his... er, face. "It's not what you think."

Freddy's light eyes were glimmering, mouth quirked in mirth and thick eyebrows cocked. The expression was so typical for him, so familiar, that it almost felt like old times.

Over the past couple days, Fred had been determined to stay upbeat, to behave positively in the face of what was happening. He was ever the class clown, that bloke, and once we got back to Hogwarts he'd adopted for himself the role of Group Morale Booster. Constantly cracking jokes, pulling theatrical faces — it was his way of dealing with the accident, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't the teensiest bit grateful for it.

After all — despite the hard time Fred was currently giving me, it was nice to hang out with someone who could act normal for once.

"Well, Aggy, can't say it hasn't been a long time coming," Freddy was saying gleefully, practically skipping as we made our way down the bustling corridor. "We've all known you needed a shrink."

"For the last time, it's not a shrink!" I stated, throwing my hands in the air with more vehemence than perhaps necessary (Fred had to duck to avoid getting smacked in the face). "It's a counselor."

"Riiiiiight," Fred drawled, stretching the word out like elastic. "And it's not a lemon, it's a yellow citrus-y fruit."

I rolled my eyes, giving him a playful shove in the shoulder. "Some friend you are."

"What are you talking about?" Fred pouted as he stumbled backwards, rubbing the spot where I'd pushed him like it was some fatal battle wound. "I'm a perfectly good friend."

"Honestly?" I grumbled. "Sometimes I think I'd be better off with a talking monkey on my shoulder."

"Hey! I'm potty-trained and I have a basic understanding of the English language." Fred retorted defensively. "What more can you want?"

Despite myself, I couldn't quell the laugh bubbling up my throat. "Guess that's all I can expect out of you, isn't it?"

Fred slung an arm around my shoulder, grinning a grin that would put the Cheshire Cat to shame. "That and an endless supply of charm and wit."

"Lucky me."

"Ain't that the truth."

Together, the two of us ambled down the hallway, bantering and laughing and pretending that we didn't notice the burning glances of other students around us. It was easier that way. Pretending, I mean. We both felt the stares, heard the whispers, saw the pity etched on every passing face — but we never acknowledged it.

After all, life went on. After we came back to Hogwarts, it had been surprisingly easy to settle into routine, to throw oneself into a flurry of homework and obligations and normalcy. Hogwarts has been many things for people — a safe haven, a second home, a terrifying hotbed of monsters and giant snakes — but for me, it was a distraction. After a couple days, I had managed to clamber back onto my feet, and now I was doing fine.

And okay, maybe some days it was difficult to get out of bed. And alright, every now and then I'd be overcome with the sudden urge to scream, to throw up, to curl into a tiny ball and squeeze my eyes shut. And occasionally I did still feel It, creeping up my spine and slithering into my lungs, that same sensation from the hospital when I had first seen him...

But other than that I was fine.

Really.

"Honestly, I don't know why Vespertine thinks I need a shrink," I muttered. "It's completely superfluous."

"Hey," Fred pointed out wryly. "I thought it was called 'a counselor.'"

"Just shut it, you."

"I resent that."

Bickering good-naturedly, Freddy and I turned the corner and passed the familiar crumbling statue of Humphrey the Humorous — and that was when I suddenly realized where we were heading.

Instantly — right as the thought registered inside my addled head — I stopped dead in my tracks, my halt so abrupt that I practically left skid marks on the marble floor.

Fred turned around to look at me, face puzzled and eyebrows disappearing into the mysterious regions of his hairline. "What is it?"

I blinked, hands clenching and unclenching spasmodically by my sides. The previously light and happy atmosphere that had surrounded us was completely gone, all that was left a thick, draping cloud of tension.

"Where are you leading us?" I asked, each word rattling and shaking with anxiety.

"Uh, well I was thinking that we could stop by the Hospital Wing on the way to class. We have a few minutes, maybe we could visit Aidan for a bit." Fred shrugged, "We haven't seen him since he was transferred from St. Mun — "

I could actually feel all the colour drain from my face. Slowly, as if I were facing a very big, very hungry animal, I began to back away. "Actually, I have to go."

"I — What? Why?"

"I have, er, a Potions Essay to work on," I said, forcing myself to meet Fred's confusion-clouded gaze. "I have a Potions Essay," although not incredibly inventive, was the Go To Excuse. Simple and easy, it was a great lie to tell when nothing else came to mind. Don't want to hang out with that annoying friend? Sorry, I can't — 800 words on the properties of Murtlap. Don't want to run errands with your Mum? Honestly, I wish I could, it's just that Slughorn's been stepping it up with the assignments lately. Don't want to visit your comatose brother?

Well, you get the picture.

"Aggy, are you okay?"

I looked at Fred, saw the confusion and concern — an emotion I'd never seen him wear before — swirling in his eyes. And it wasn't that I didn't want to visit Aidan. I just... wasn't ready and besides, I truly did have a lot of work to do.

Fred gazed at me perplexedly, wearing the exact same face he usually reserved for Ancient Runes class. His mouth was open with no words coming out, his head cocked Golden Retriever-style. In any other situation, his expression would have been comical.

"I'm sorry. I really wish I could." I said weakly, and before Freddy could even figure out how to reply, I was spinning on my heel and running off.

—*—

That night, I didn't sleep.

Eyes tracing the dark velvety swoops of my bed's emerald canopy, I lay in bed and thought of Freddy's earlier confusion today, the disappointment etched in his features. I had hated leaving him abandoned in the middle of the hallway, but seeing Aidan like... that was out of the question.

I lay quietly, pushing the thought from my head, and listened to the soft noises drifting around me. I could hear the hear the faint snores of my roommates, the groans and creaks and other strange sounds of nighttime that I didn't care to identify. And then I could hear Dom.

Every night, once she thought we were all asleep, Dom would cry. It always lasted a good hour or so, and when she finally fell asleep afterwards (and really, 'fall' is the only word for it — falling, plunging, somersaulting into the darkness of slumber) she had nightmares. More than once over the past few days, I'd woken up to the sounds of her terror. She would thrash and kick and sometimes, when it got really bad, she would whimper. I didn't know if Evelyn or the others had noticed. If so, they hadn't mentioned it.

I never did either — mention it, that is. Usually, I would just lie in bed and let the noises happen, let them haunt me. Come morning I never brought it up. Maybe under the normal definition of friendship, that made me a bad person. But Dom and I didn't work under the normal definition of friendship. We were Slytherins, and we had our pride. Our definition was to never show weakness, never make the other feel vulnerable. If I brought up her nightmares, the conversation would be humiliating for the both of us.

Tonight it was the usual. Kicking, tossing, turning. I lay — paralyzed and frigid —doing nothing as it washed over me. I felt each sound that slipped out of her mouth like kicks to the stomach.

After ten more agonizing minutes, I decided I'd had enough. Without any sort of plan or forethought whatsoever, I threw my covers off me and jumped out of bed, my skin erupting in a flutter of goosebumps. Pulling a sweatshirt over my head, I stumbled through the dark obstacle course that was our room, bumping into trunks and bedposts along the way, and then down the stairs to the Common Room.

It was a terrifically stupid thing to do, meandering around the castle after hours. I could get caught by a patrolling prefect or, even worse, a detention-happy Filch. But for once I couldn't care. The dorm room was cramped, packed too full with Dom's lurking nightmares, bursting at the walls, threatening to explode and — and I couldn't take it anymore.

Outside of the Common Room, the air felt fresh and cool. The endless dark stone and halls of the castle sprawled out before me, seeming so big and I, so small. Like I could be swallowed up by this huge expansive structure, swallowed into its nooks and crannies at any moment.

Somehow, the nighttime made everything that much more real. During the day, it was easy to be normal, to go through the simple motions of life and act like nothing was wrong. But now, with moonlight leaking through windows and shadows staining the walls, it all felt so much more... raw.

I let my feet carry me on instinct, wandering down the corridors and the staircases that were surprisingly still at this hour. Pretty soon, I found myself standing before an oil-painting of a bowl of fruit — arguably one of the most representative images of Hogwarts, a symbol immortalized for any late-night wanderer (or snacker) at this school.

My hand seemed to have a mind of it's own — without any direction from my brain whatsoever, it reached up and gave the pear a little tickle — an old trick that I had learned from the Tweedle Trio a few years back.

I walked into the Kitchens of Hogwarts.

Inside, everything gleamed seductively in the moonlight, porcelain sinks glistening, slick tiles sparkling. It was a system of silvered shadows and winking light, and I couldn't help myself. Slowly, I skimmed my fingers over a rack of glittering pots that were hanging from the ceiling, enjoying the cool feel of metal against my hot skin.

"Good evening, Agatha Bennett."

My bloodstream froze to ice. Back stiffening and eyes squeezing shut — oh bollocks — I instantly went rigid with fear.

I should have expected this, really. I was no Potter or Fred, of course I'd get caught. This was amateur hour.

Convinced that Filch was behind me with a detention notice in one hand and a blood-stained torture device in the other, I did what could only be described as a half-whirl, half-seizure, and arms flailing, whipped around to meet my certain doom.

Of course, what I hadn't realized was that my left hand had still been stuck in the middle of a row of hanging pots.

What followed was a series of metallic crashes that must have woken up the entire castle. Pots clanged together like windchimes, a couple even dropping to the floor. For future reference, of the many different noises you don't want to make when sneaking through the castle, 'metal cacophony of cooking tools' is one of them.
My stomach twisted in dismay. I turned around and — preparing for the worst — saw that... No one was there.

Huh.

"Hello?" I looked to my left and then to my right, but no Filch. No anyone. In fact, all I saw was empty air.

"Oh my apologies, Mistress! Pipsqueak did not mean to frighten you!"

And then I looked down.

Staring up at me, wearing an expression that indicated complete and utter bliss, was a small house-elf who looked anything but frightening. He was wrinkly, with too much skin for his frail frame and big, bulbous eyes that were silvery like the moon, filled with an unwavering adoration I found to be — frankly — kind of creepy. On top of his bald head sat a lumpy piece of cloth that, in some parallel universe, might have passed for a hat.

"Please forgive Pipsqueak, Agatha Bennett!" Before I could so much as open my mouth, Pipsqueak the House-elf was wrapping his skinny little arms around me and burrowing his face into my legs. "Pipsqueak is so, so sorry!"

My eyebrows shot upwards as I looked down, rather unsure what to do with this odd new growth sprouting from my kneecaps. "Er — um. That's quite alright."

Pipsqueak humbly detangled himself from my limbs, dabbing tears out of the corner of his huge, Bludger-sized eyes. "Sorry, Agatha Bennett. Pipsqueak is often told that he has... er, what do you call them? 'Personal space issues?'"

Raised eyebrows still rendezvousing with my hairline, I nodded faintly. "You don't say."

"Now," Pipsqueak rasped, cheerfully ignoring my cynical tone, face assuming its previous expression of bliss. Bloody hell, the little bugger looked like he'd just reached self-actualization. "How may Pipsqueak help Agatha Bennett?"

"Well, I was just looking for some food, really." I said cautiously, now beginning to doubt the dire necessity of that 2 AM Ben and Jerry's. Pipsqueak looked a bit too eager to help, and I found it a little unnerving. "Also, how do you know my name?"

"Pipsqueak makes sure to learn the names of everyone at Hogwarts," The house-elf said solemnly, puffing his chest out in pride.

'That's... er, impressive," I conceded and then, after seeing the immediate reaction my words brought on, immediately regretted it.

"Agatha Bennett thinks that Pipsqueak is — " Gasp. "— impressive?" Pipsqueak stared up at me, big eyes getting even bigger, looking in danger of stroking out. Before you could so much as say 'restraining order,' he flung himself at my legs once more, giving them a joyous squeeze.

"Yes. Agatha Bennett thinks Pipsqueak is very impressive," I said, gently trying to the elf off. This was getting weird. "But Agatha Bennett has to go now. So, er, if you excuse me, I think I'll just be on my way..." Slowly, I pushed past the tiny house-elf, making my way to the door and abandoning all hunger cravings. Just as well. I was better off without those frozen calories anyway...

"Wait!"

Mentally cursing myself, this school, and whoever it was that invented New York Super Fudge Chunk, I turned around and prepared myself for the worst. I half-expected Pipsqueak to ask me for my autograph or something. "Yes?"

With a happy flourish, Pipsqueak produced a chocolate bar from underneath his hat. Oh. He presented the small rectangle to me, holding it in his palms with a kind of reverence usually shown to important artifacts and religious gurus. "For Agatha Bennett."

"I, um, don't know what to say," I said truthfully, taking the bar from Pipsqueak's gnarled fingers. "Thank you."

Pipsqueak grinned, eyes sparkling, and nodded furiously. "Agatha Bennett looked like she needed it."

—*—

After that rather creepy-and-yet-sort-of-flattering incident, I left the Kitchens and set out for the Slytherin Common Room. Taking my own sweet time, I ambled down hallways and up staircases, munching on my chocolate bar as I walked. I'd had my fill of undercover adventuring now, and had decided to restrict any future late-nighters to the library from now own.

I turned a corner on another empty corridor, shivering at the sudden gust of assaultingly cold air. The wall to my right side was only half-way tall, opening up onto the adjacent courtyard and consequently letting the crisp November air pour in.

Honestly, Hogwarts, it's called a central heating system — get one. "Why is it so bloody cold?" I muttered to myself, wrapping my sweatshirt tighter around my shivering frame.

"Might have something to do with the season," came a dry voice. "Cold, winter — the two can be related, I hear."

For the second time that night, I jumped at the sound of a foreign voice behind me. Seriously? I was getting rather tired of this whole 'let's-give-Aggy-a-heart-attack' shtick.

I turned to see a shadowed, obviously male figure sitting on top of the half-wall, his feet dangling over the edge. It had been so dark, and he — whoever he was — had been so quiet... I'd walked right past and hadn't even noticed.

"God!" I exclaimed, slapping a hand over my thudding heart.

"Close, but no." The figure raised his hand slightly, ashing what I soon realized to be the orange tip of a cigarette over the stone ledge. "Don't worry. We get mixed up all the time."

I squinted, and was able to make out broad shoulders narrowing into a lean waist and a disheveled head of hair. While the physical qualities were hard to go by, I could've recognized that snarky tone anywhere. "Potter?"

"Gold star, Bennett," Potter drawled, and even in the near darkness, I could make out his typical self-satisfied smirk. Rolling my eyes, I walked over to where he sat until I was standing next to him, arms crossed and scowl in place.

"What are you doing? It's after hours and you shouldn't be out," I said somewhat crossly, conveniently glossing over the part where I, too, was supposed to be in bed.

Potter glanced up to meet my gaze, face inscrutable, hazel eyes squinting in the moonlight.

"Can't sleep," he answered duly, sweeping his gaze to the darkened courtyard before him. His legs, clad in flannel pajama pants, swung in a barely discernible one-two, one-two rhythm, heels kicking at the stone.

I blinked back my shock at the frankness in Potter's voice. I had expected him to duck and avoid the question, to shoot back some cryptic, nonsensical answer. His honesty was...Well, weird.

"Same." I found myself saying, and without any prior approval from my brain, my body was suddenly sitting down next to Potter, legs swinging over the edge with care. It was only a mere meter drop to the courtyard below, but I didn't fancy a tumble this time of night.

Potter gave a mirthless laugh, taking a bitter drag from his cigarette. I stared, marveling at how someone as textbook-smart as he was could have such a stupid, stupid habit.

"Every time in the past, when I and Freddy or Aidan snuck out after-hours, we would always be so careful," Potter said, tone still employing that same brand of odd sincerity. "And now the one time I'm blatant about breaking the rules, Filch is nowhere to be found. Strange, isn't it?"

"Almost as strange as house-elves with chocolate and boundary issues," I said stiffly, glumly. Potter's brow collapsed into a frown of half-confusion, half-amusement, and his gaze darted slyly to me.

"I'm not going to ask," he drawled.

"You don't want to," I responded, ending our surprisingly affable exchange. We sat in silence for a while, Potter smoking, me shivering, the castle hushed around us. I knew that I was going to regret this little escapade in the morning — it was 3 AM right now, and I had yet to get a wink of sleep — but I wasn't ready to go back to the dorm. Not yet.

"Vespertine is making me see a shrink," I blurted out randomly, words wavering uncertainly in the air. I had no idea where that confession came from — perhaps the same mysterious place as Potter's honesty — but it was out there now. I couldn't take it back.

Potter turned, face betraying his surprise at the news. He looked at me for a moment head-on, golden eyes inscrutable and intent. "

Aren't they called counselors now?" he finally said. His voice was neutral, no value-judgment or derision to be found.

I stifled an ironic smile. "Does it make a difference?"

Potter cocked a shoulder in a lazy half-shrug. "You're the patient," he said quietly, sweeping his gaze back to the courtyard. "So you're the one who gets to decide. If there's a difference. If you need the sessions." He paused, gaze flicking to me once more. "If they'll help."

A surprisingly wise answer from a surprisingly sincere Potter. I reared back, the corners of my mouth quirked downwards in a thoughtful frown. I hadn't expected Potter to give me sound, valuable advice, yet what he said... Actually made sense.

"Well," I ventured after a long pause. "I've decided it's a waste of time."

Potter stubbed out the cigarette, grinding its end into the blunt stone. "Okay. Then that's what it is."

I narrowed my eyes and peered shrewdly at Potter, who had his concentration zeroed in on the sparks skittering from his dying cigarette. Something about the current dynamic between us... it wasn't normal. It wasn't right.

"Stop it," I said finally.

Potter glanced up, eyebrows cocked. "Sorry?"

"Stop it," I repeated once more, voice flat, blue eyes tapering into even smaller slits. "I said stop."

"Stop what, Bennett?" Potter asked, mild exasperation mingling with confusion on his features. His tone remained calm and even, however revealing an anchored and unflappable composure.

"Stop — " I began, voice faltering. "Stop not being mean to me."

Potter slowly shook his head, chucking the cigarette butt into the courtyard and causing my inner-prefect to seize at the blatant display of littering. When he turned back to me again, his mouth was pulled into a biting, sardonic smile.

"Didn't peg you for the masochistic type," he said with that same infuriating calm. "Maybe you do need that shrink, Bennett."

"Stuff it, Potter," I snapped, my voice edged with an unexpected, startling element of hostility. There was a dull pounding in the back of my head, and the ache caused my words to tumble out with hasty ease. "This whole sodding school has been tip-toeing around me ever since we got back, and I'm so bloody — argh." My irritation spiked as the pounding in my head seemed to get louder, more insistent. I could feel It rising in my stomach again, a panging jolt of nausea that had my throat constricting.

"I'm so bloody sick of people staring and speaking to me like a zoo exhibit," I growled, body tightening at the thought. "The last thing I need is for you, Potter, to join the sodding peanut gallery as well. Can someone please just treat me like normal for once?! Like I'm not going to fucking shatter to pieces at any given moment?! I am fed up, Potter, I am fed up!"

Ever the over-achiever, I finished on a high note. My voice, which had been climbing steadily over the course of my speech, cracked spectacularly in a grand finale that had the ensuing taut silence throbbing around us.

My chest was heaving rapidly. The rant had come on so strongly and so suddenly — I hadn't even been aware of my frustration until it was barreling out of my own mouth.
Potter stared wordlessly at me, neither his gaze or expression betraying what he felt.

There was just the slightest thoughtful squint in his gaze, the tiniest lilt of his mouth. I stared back, somewhat defiant, somewhat abashed at my own intensity.

After a few lingering moments, he swept his gaze back to the courtyard, heels kicking against the stone wall beneath him. "You should get some sleep, Bennett," he finally said to the darkness. "You look like you need it."

There followed a long silence as I gawked at his profile, etched silver in the moonlight. Both his response and tone were astonishing. I couldn't discern any kind of motive behind them, be it mocking scorn or restrained concern, but he hadn't risen to the bait of my anger. He'd stayed miraculously calm.

Resigned, I turned away. A snappy retort would only lead to arguing, and I suddenly felt sapped of energy. "You do too, Potter," I muttered in a voice so quiet, I barely heard myself.

Joints creaking and popping obnoxiously, I clambered off the wall and angled myself to face the dark corridor before me. I was suddenly exhausted.

Not even bothering to spare a glance over my shoulder, I directed my next words to the long stretch of shadow and hallway before me. "Goodnight, Potter."

There was a pause. And then:

"Sleep tight, Bennett."

I began to walk away, fully aware that we both would do anything but that.

Chapter 17: Shrink
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Disclaimer: Nothing HP-verse is mine. It all belongs to the wonderful J.K. Rowling.



Dr. Marina Marvona was not what I had expected.

She was, to say the least, far from your stereotypical therapist — the complete opposite from any representation of profession in the movies, in books, or on TV. She didn't wear pantsuits or horn-rimmed glasses. There were no heavy psychology tomes lining the walls of her office, and not a tweed-jacket or elbow patch in sight. And she had lavender-colored hair. Sprouting from her scalp, upwards and outwards in about fifty different angles, it looked like a sea anemone attached to her skull.

Most surprisingly of all, however, was that Marina Marvona was young.

Marvona must have been in her late-twenties, with an easy, disarming smile and slouching posture. When I walked inside her disorderly office — which looked more like a teenage boy's bedroom than anything — the first thing I saw were her feet clad in a pair of patent leather, cherry-colored combat boots. They were propped on her desk, which was laden with pens and papers and half-open soda cans.

Following a pair of acid-washed jean and the hem of a raggedy wool sweater, my eyes finally landed on Marvona herself. She was chewing bubblegum. She greeted me with one, simple word:

"Yo."

"Er... Hello?" I said, swinging my backpack off of my shoulder and dropping it to the floor with a thud. I didn't quite know what to say. Standing in a therapist's office and faced with a woman who looked like she could pass for the lead singer of an '80s punk rock band, I was feeling a little... caught off guard, to say the least.

The young woman leaned forward, checking a sheet of paper on her desk. "Are you Agatha Bennett?"

"Yeah," I replied, eyes darting from the Hello Kitty clock on her desk to the assortment of posters on the wall behind her. One proclaimed the slogan, Friends Don't Let Friends Drink and Apparate! in cheery, yellow cursive, another boasted the brilliant line, Amortentia? Try Amor-consent-tia! and the last was a band poster for The Misfits, its script written in jagged, red font underneath.

What was this place?

Marvona popped her gum, eyes blatantly flitting up and down my figure. "Ghastly name, no offense."

If I had been in any other situation, I would have been offended by the insult. But 'offended' wasn't really on my Feelings Chart at the moment. 'Shocked' and 'weirded out' maybe, but not offended.

When I had walked into this office, I had expected a Vespertine-approved, middle-aged woman with crowfeet. I had not expected some barely-older-than me Dr. Hipster who looked like she'd bought her degree at the local mall.

"Take a seat," Marvona gestured to a chair in front of her messy desk, and I complied. "Welcome to my office, girl! Can I take your order?"

"Uh, what?" I said, dumbfounded.

Marvona rolled her eyes, though she was grinning good-naturedly, and twisted around to open a... mini fridge (and I repeat: what was this place?) sitting underneath her desk. "I have Butterbeer and... more Butterbeer. Oh!" She paused and inched off her chair, screwing up her face as she dug through the back pockets of her ripped jeans, "I also have a couple mints. They're a little old and warm because I've been sitting on them all day, but if you're really hungry I reckon they're okay to eat — "

"I'm fine." I interrupted hastily. "Really."

"Suit yourself." Dr. Marvona shrugged, withdrew her hands from her pockets, and resumed her previous pose of feet on desk and hands clasped behind head. "I like to offer my guests — I don't call them patients, mind you, you guys are my guests — refreshments when they drop by. Helps break the ice."

"I see," was all I could say.

There was a long silence in which the Hello Kitty clock ticked on, I scanned the office uneasily, and Marvona looked at me expectantly.

"Well?" The therapist demanded, widening her eyes. She made a funny little gesture with her hand as if to signal me to speak, but I had nothing to say.

"Well what?" Now that my shock had subsided, I was beginning to feel a little irritated. After all, I had taken time out of my day to see this shrink — against my will, by the way — and she wanted me to do all the work? To speak? She was the one with the expertise! She was the shrink! Shouldn't she be...er, shrinking me by now, or something?

Dr. Marvona simply smiled, head tilted amiably to the right as her playful gaze took in my obvious discomfort. "I read your file, Agatha, and I have to say — you've been dealt a shite hand. I'm really sorry."

My eyes narrowed. While I appreciated the sympathy, I didn't quite understand what Marvona was getting at. If we were just going to sit around talking about how much it sucked to currently be me right now, then this session was pointless. I did that enough, already, on my own.

Marvona waited for me to reply patiently, then smiled again when I said nothing. "Do you want to talk about it?"

My eyes flicked to my lap, where my fingers were currently wringing together restlessly. "There's nothing to talk about. I — I don't even know why I'm here. It's not like there's anything wrong with me."

Marvona gave an abrupt, barking loud. The abrasive sound grated on my nerves, making my shoulders stiffen suddenly. "Sweetheart, there's something wrong with everyone."

I said nothing. The clock ticked on.

Marvona heaved a long sigh, the amusement fading from her face. "Look, Agatha," she said flatly. "Judging by your posture and the scowl on your face, you obviously don't want to be here. So that must mean that Vespertine forced you to come. And if Vespertine forced you, there really is something wrong. See what I'm getting at, here?"

I remained silent, my insides burning with a slow-growing irritation.

Marvona heaved another sigh, and for a moment, I thought she was going to give up. But then her heavily-lined eyes — sharp with determination — focused on me. "Agatha, do you know what the best part of my job is?"

I shrugged, face impassive, still refusing to say anything and give either Marvona or Vespertine the satisfaction. Neither could possibly understand what I was going through — I barely understood it myself — so how did they expect to help?

"The best part of my job is," Marvona began, leaning back as she folded her hands together in front of her chest. Her eyes twinkled knowingly, mysteriously, as if she was about to let me on to some big, life-shattering secret.

"I get a wheelie chair."

I blinked back my disbelief. A wheelie chair?

"Yes," Marvona said, face and tone completely serious. "A wheelie chair. A Grand Throne of Wheeliness."

As if to demonstrate, Marvona used her hands to push away from her desk, sending her chair flying backwards across the wooden floor. Speechless, I could only watch as my shrink — my obviously insane shrink — spun in dizzying circles on her Grand Throne of Wheeliness. She whirled around and around in little loops, becoming nothing more than a blur of black clothes and lilac hair. "Wheee! Wheee!"

This went on for a good five minutes.

I gaped, unable to react. Dr. Marina Marvona was obviously bonkers — completely, utterly, indisputably bonkers — and Vespertine had sent me to dissect my psyche with her? Leave it to me to have a shrink who needed a shrink. Just my bloody luck.

Finally, right as I was beginning to contemplate just standing up and leaving Marvona spinning there like a depraved, purple merry-go-round, the doctor stopped spinning. She clutched at her desk, eyes unfocused, wobbling a little as she tried to regain equilibrium.

I watched, gaping, as Marvona then cleared her throat, clasped her hands together, and smiled serenely. As if she hadn't just spent the last couple of minutes spinning around like a child. As if she wasn't completely and utterly bananas.

"That was fun," She quipped, a little breathless.

I stared.

"Now, Marina," She muttered to herself, cocking her head to the side. "What was the point of that?"

Apparently in addition to spinning around on wheelie chairs, my shrink also enjoyed talking to herself. Wonderful.

I watched as Marvona squinted at the ceiling, face hardening with the effort to recall her train of thought. And she perked up. I could practically see the light bulb flicking on above her head. "Oh! I remember!"

Well then please, by all means, enlighten me.

Marvona crossed her legs and wiggled to a comfortable seated position in her Grande Throne of Wheeliness, face adopting a solemn expression that I simply could not take seriously. "I told you what my favorite thing about my job is, right?" she said easily. "Well, now I want to tell you what my second favorite thing is."

Marvona paused dramatically, eyes scanning the room, and then began to speak.

"I get to help people, Agatha," she said matter-of-factly. "And okay, maybe I'm not smart enough to be a Healer, and yeah, I mostly have to deal with sulky teenagers who look like they'd rather swan dive off The Astronomy Tower than listen to me and alright, frankly, the pay sucks." She took a deep breath, exhaling all the air out of her lungs in a loud whooshing sound. "But regardless, I get to help people. People like you. And that's what makes it all worth it."

"When I was little," she prattled on. "I would spend my time taking apart my brother's action figures and putting them back together again. Because I liked the feeling of fixing stuff. I liked the thought of piecing things back together again. And Agatha, call me crazy," — too late, I already had — "but I've got a feeling you need piecing together."

Marvona leveled me with her heavily made-up gaze, sincerity just barely visible under all that eyeliner. "So let's talk about your brother."

All I could do was sit and stare. At the mention of Aidan and the prospect of actually speaking about his accident, I suddenly felt It swell inside of me like an expanding balloon. Something sour and tangy was rising up my throat. My body felt like it had been sliced open, and everything inside — my heart, my lungs, even my kidneys — scooped out. The backs of my eyeballs were prickling, but I didn't cry. I couldn't cry.

Marvona smiled at me, mistaking my speechless panic for acquiescence. She nodded sagely, "It was a great speech, I know. You can clap if you want."

"I'm sorry," I whispered quietly. "I can't."

"Of course you can! It's not that hard, all you have to do is smack your hands together — "

"No," I cut through, shaking my head fiercely. "I can't talk. About my brother. And I can't be here."

Before I could fully register Marvona's reaction, I was leaping out of my chair and slinging my bag on my shoulder. I didn't fully comprehend what I was doing, but there was an important voice inside me — important and loud — telling me that I had to get out of here. I had to leave.

"Wait!" Marvona exclaimed, leaning forward in her chair. She ran a hand through her ridiculous lavender hair, eyes pleading. "Agatha! Are you — are you leaving?"

"I'm sorry." It was all I could say. The words were gushing out my mouth in a harried whisper, and even though I felt guilty — Marvona just wanted to help, after all — I knew staying put in that chair was out of the question. "I have to go."

Marvona fell back in her own chair, saddened, but obviously unwilling to try and restrain me from leaving. She gave a small, crestfallen shrug. "Alright. Just... wait a second."

Holding up a placating hand, she bent down and opened her mini fridge. After briefly rummaging through its contents, she finally resurfaced with a curvy purple bottle, the glass steaming ominously in the fresh air.

"Here, take this." She pressed the bottle into my hands; its surface was cool against my flushed skin. "You look tired. I know how things like this can affect your sleep patterns. If you're ever experiencing any insomnia or night terrors, this is a non-habit-forming potion you can take to help you sleep. Just read its label, okay? Be careful of any side effects. Also, if you do change your mind and ever want to talk, I'm here."

I clutched the bottle to my chest, nodding vaguely at her senseless words, only really understanding about half of what she'd said. Dazedly, I swiveled around, without sparing another glance, and took two long, hasty strides to the exit. I twisted the knob, opened the door...

And jumped back in surprise when I came face to face with Evelyn Stanford.

"Wha — ?"

"Agatha?"

"Evelyn?"

There was a long, tense moment as we stared at each other, our shock mirrored in each other's faces. Evelyn looked like a deer caught in the headlights. Her mint green eyes were wide and brimming with disbelief, her eyebrows rising to her golden hairline. Her rosebud mouth — which was normally twisted into a sneer — had dropped open to form a little 'o' of surprise. It was the first time I had seen anything but hate and disgust on Evelyn's face, and it was so strange that for a brief moment, I forgot we were, indeed, standing in a therapist's office.

A therapist's office.

We were standing in a therapist's office.

...And according to my brilliant, ever-so-insightful deductive reasoning, that meant Evelyn must see a therapist.

"I — " I stuttered, blinking rapidly. "You — "

Evelyn Stanford saw a shrink. Why? What could possibly be wrong in her life? She was beautiful, popular, not to mention dating one of the most popular guys at Hogwarts, Fallon Cooper (not only a Seventh Year, but also star of the Slytherin Quidditch Team). She lived the charmed life. What could possibly be wrong with her?

Not saying a word, I pushed past Evelyn and half-ran, half-stumbled out of the office, a slew of questions buzzing through my mind as I walked back to the Slytherin Common Room. Who knew that Evelyn Stanford was... Well, an actual human being? With feelings?

And a therapist?

—*—

I spent the next day cooped up in the library — avoiding Dom, avoiding Potter, especially avoiding Evelyn. I didn't want to deal with any of it, so instead I threw myself into my studies, point-blank refusing to dwell on petty relationships and extraneous distractions. Transfiguration? Made sense. My life? Not so much.

Honestly, why did everything and everyone insist on being so damn complicated all the time? My brother in a coma? Adoring house-elves adoring me? My arch-nemesis seeing the same shrink I did?

I needed a break, a purge, an opportunity to rant it all out. If I wanted any chance of actually focusing on my external obligations and surviving the day, then I needed to press pause and just... cram all the frustration, all the confusion, all the woe-is-bloody-me in my life into five indulgent seconds of Teenage Angst. Just get it all out there. Like the emotional equivalent of a juice cleanse.

Alright, here goes nothing:

I HATE MY LIFE.

NOBODY UNDERSTANDS ME.

WHY, MERLIN, WHY?

I WISH I WERE NEVER BORN.

EVERYTHING SUCKS. A LOT.

ANGST ANGST ANGST, ETC.

RAGE, AND SO ON.

Whew, this really felt good. I bet if everyone ranted like this once a month, we'd have a lot less warfare on a global scale.

"Hey, Agatha!"

I started, glancing up from my Transfiguration homework to see none other than Ryan Fisher sliding into the seat across from mine. Summoning myself from my emotional crisis, I mustered as realistic a smile as I could before giving a tiny wave.

"'Lo, Ryan." I greeted half-heartedly, voice distant. "How's life?"

"Pretty good." Ryan nodded, stretching his (beautiful) mouth into a fleeting smile. It quickly faded, though, to be replaced by a grim expression that was a remarkable shift from his usual cheer. His hands, stretched on the table in front of him, were fidgeting. "Listen, Agatha, I need to talk to you."

I dropped my brow into a crumple of mild consternation, unable to imagine what Ryan could possibly want to discuss so seriously. Unless, of course, it was what everyone wanted to discuss with me these days. I gave a barely-audible sigh. Please don't be about Aidan, please don't be about Aidan, please don't be about Aidan...

"It's about Aidan."

Damn it.

"Yeah?" I asked innocently, glancing back down at my homework as I felt my stomach sink in trepidation.

"Yeah, Aggy," Ryan responded firmly, the pity already shining through his eyes. "I'm really sorry about what happened."

I pulled a wan smile, trying to show my friend appreciation for his concern but feeling unnerved all the same. I was sick of hearing that people were "sorry about what happened." I knew they were only being nice, but their apologies and fidgeting and obvious discomfort only served to make me feel worse. Plus, it forced me to respond with insincere gratitude, and then they had to respond with something else, and the interaction was just awkward for everyone involved.

But Ryan, it seemed, wasn't content with only formalities. He was already talking once more, his eyes growing stony with determination. "Look, I — I don't really k-know how to put this, but —" Ryan stuttered, wincing a little at the sound of his own voice. He was obviously anxious to get it — whatever it was — out, and yet had no clue how. "There's something else. To do with Aidan, I mean."

"Well in that case, just tell me, Ryan," I murmured distractedly, still staring at the papers in front of me. Refusing to look up at my friend, I dipped my quill into its inkpot and dotted a random 'i' on my essay. "Whatever it is, you can say it."

Ryan sighed, twisting his fingers together timidly. It was the first time I'd seen him nervous. In fact, it was the first time I'd seen him looking anything but affable and easygoing like the happy prefect he was. "Regarding Aidan's... er, accident, there's something you should know."

"Okay?"

"See," Ryan paused, sucking in a deep breath, and I suddenly realized how scared he looked, how serious this matter must be. "Aggy, it wasn't exactly an accident."

"What?"

Chapter 18: Electric
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"I really shouldn't be telling you this." Ryan stared pensively into the calm, glassy surface of the Black Lake, his face tight with worry. Shoulders slumping in sudden exasperation, he dragged an aggravated hand down his forehead. "Oh man, I really shouldn't be telling you this."

The two of us had left the Library (and Vulture Pince's laser glare) for a nicer, scenic walk around the Hogwarts Grounds.

The castle was too stuffy, too crowded, Ryan had said, and his next few words necessitated the utmost privacy. So we escaped to somewhere outside, far away from any possible eavesdroppers. Whatever it was that Ryan Really Shouldn't Be Telling Me But Was Going to Anyways, it was strictly confidential.

This whole time, Ryan was acting really strange. His shady behavior, in fact, was causing my imagination to run rampant. Part of me half-wondered if Ryan was about to bring up some alien conspiracy or, like, reveal that he was a surprisingly young-looking thirty-year-old spy working undercover for the government. Or maybe he'd had a run-in with the law, and was now fleeing Britain as an escaped convict and wanted me to come with him.

Actually, I rather liked that last idea. Running away with Ryan, I mean. We could start afresh, move to some rural, unpronounceable city in Mongolia and build new lives together. We'd live in the countryside. Maybe buy some small mud hut, learn the language, earn lucrative livelihoods as yak-herders. There was yak in Mongolia, right?

Yeah, that sounded pretty decent. Just me and Ryan and the Mongolian countryside. Like eloping together, except no romance.

And with yak.

"Just tell me, Ryan," I finally said, shaking my head to clear it of daydreams. I squinted at my friend's face, noting his pale, wobbly expression. "You're really starting to freak me out."

Ryan cracked an awkward smile, looking like he was finally about to say something. But then his mouth snapped closed once more and, with a frustrated sigh, he turned away.

For a moment we were both quiet, absorbed into our own thoughts as we stared into the Black Lake. From the looks of Ryan's crumpled frown and pursed lips, he could have been pondering the meaning of life, the existence of a benevolent god, the fragility of human connection, etc.

I, on the other hand, was thinking about how much money a yak-herder made per hour. Was there minimum wage in Mongolia?

The water was completely still, save for the occasional pink tentacle that popped above the surface and wiggled around as if to wave at us. It was strange, really — the Black Lake was never really black. It was more of a purplish color than anything, though I suppose Hogwarts couldn't very well change the name to the Purplish Lake. Didn't quite have the same ring to it.

"Okay, here goes," Ryan finally said, ruffling a hand through his hair, and I turned to him expectantly. "I'm just going to get it out with."

I nodded, prompting him with a hand to continue. "Go on."

Ryan wouldn't meet my eyes, restless grey gaze landing anywhere but on me. "You know how I said that Aidan's accident wasn't an accident?"

"Yeah," I said slowly, feeling a creeping sense of trepidation.

Ryan's mouth was a flat line. "Well, I meant it in the most literal sense possible." He paused, obviously struggling to gather the courage that would help him form his next words.

"What happened to Aidan," Ryan said firmly. "It was done on purpose. Someone made Aidan fall off his broom and caused him to slip in that coma."

You know how, in mystery novels and thrillers, authors usually write about a character's blood going cold in order to convey the proper sense of fear or shock that person's feeling? Well, it's not just a literary tactic. It's real. It happens.

And it was happening to me.

I stared at Ryan in horror, feeling as if glacial water was running through my veins. His words seemed to throb throughout the empty spaces of my head. Someone had caused the accident. Someone was at fault for this.

Someone had wanted Aidan to fall.


Ryan was looking at me, eyes brimming with concern as they traveled the length of my face. "I am so, so sorry Agatha. I wish it weren't true."

I had to take a moment to reattach my jaw to the rest of my face. "What did you just say?" I whispered, voice deathly quiet.

"It was Fallon Cooper." Now that the words were out in the open, Ryan seemed to have recovered his courage. He was looking at me with urgency in his frank gaze, hands coming up to grip my shoulders. "Agatha, it is so important that you know this. Fallon Cooper, Captain of our Quidditch team, made Aidan fall. He is the one responsible."

"Fallon Cooper? Evelyn Stanford's boyfriend?" I wasn't able to look at Ryan, instead gazing beyond his shoulder into the shadowy, hulking forms of the trees across the lake. My voice was a flat sound, lacking any sort of inflection at all. Ryan's presence — and for that matter, my own — felt so unreal. As if this whole conversation had been dreamed up, a work of my imagination, a scrap of silly make-believe. This wasn't happening. It couldn't be happening.

"Yes, Fallon Cooper," Ryan nodded bitterly, eyes dark, each syllable enunciated crisp and sharp. "When Aidan was looking for The Snitch, Cooper followed him to where he knew they'd be high enough for the clouds to hide them. And then he knocked your brother off his broom, Agatha, he hit Aidan in the head with his Beaters Bat and — "

"Stop," I gasped, stumbling backwards out of Ryan's grip. "Stop."

There followed a silence in which Ryan stared, guilty and pitying, and I shivered in the cold November wind. My skin flooded with goosebumps, and I was suddenly struck with the random, laughably irrelevant thought that I should have brought a sweater.

"I'm sorry," Ryan said once more. His grey eyes were sad and mournful. "I should have told you this sooner."

I shook my head, unable to form words or sentences or even thoughts. None of this could be true. None of this.

How? How could anyone do such a thing? What Ryan was telling me — it had to be some kind of sick joke. Who would possibly want to hurt my brother like that? Who would possibly want to hurt another human being like that?

Who would go so far for a stupid Quidditch game?

But deep inside, though I hated to admit it, there lived an answer in the darkest nooks of my brain. It grappled for attention, loud and nagging and refusing to be ignored.

A Slytherin. A Slytherin would.

And Fallon Cooper was the worst kind of Slytherin. I had seen the way he treated others, whether it be professors or first-years in his own House. Normally I steered clear of the bloke. I'd never interacted with him outside of the occasional awkward run-in when he was with Evelyn — but I knew his type. Cunning, slick, impervious to any kind of sentimentality or human empathy — he had seen his chance for glory whizzing across the sky, and he had taken it. He had shoved my brother to the ground.

Then again, I was in Slytherin and you never saw me running around, knocking people off their brooms wily-nily. I mean, no matter how much Potter made me doubt my moral opposition to homicide, I'd never actually hurt someone. Self-control, people.

But that didn't matter, because the Fallon Coopers and Tom Riddles and Bellatrix Lestranges of the world always gave us good Slytherins a bad name.

Honestly. This was going to be fantastic PR for the House. Now not only were we a bunch of muggle-hating Voldy supporters, but we were a bunch of muggle-hating Voldy supporters who liked to bash people's heads in with bats. Excellent. Welcome to the Slytherin House. Our motto? We're not murderers. We're just really misunderstood.

Sometimes I really wish I'd been sorted into Hufflepuff. Sure they were all daft and annoying, but at least none of them had ever tried to execute a genocide plot.

I jerked my head upwards to look at Ryan, mind clearing of any flimsy musings as I took in his serious expression and solemn eyes. Before I did anything rash, I needed to know: "Are you — are you sure?"

"Positive," Ryan said grimly. "Cooper was bragging about it in the locker rooms, saying he'd "won us the match.'" Ryan pulled a disgusted face. I appreciated his support, but it still wasn't enough to alleviate my growing nausea, or stop me from feeling like today's breakfast would soon make an encore. That second-helping of pancakes had been a really bad idea.

"Ryan," I began, growing sicker and sicker by the minute. "I have to go. I can't — I just — I can't right now."

And with that display of educated eloquence, I turned on my heel and began to make my way to the nearest castle entrance, huddling into myself in a effort to stay warm. I prayed Ryan wouldn't follow, knowing that me interacting with another person right now was out of the question. I needed solitude. I needed to be alone with my thoughts, needed to get to the privacy of my own room and reflect on what I'd heard — you know, do some journaling, meditate, smash all the windows in the dorm and set fire my bed or something.

"Hold on!" Ryan was hollering from behind me, and grimacing, I turned to meet his incredulous gaze.

Standing by the Lake, looking unsure and frightened, he seemed so young.

"That's — that's all you have to say?" he asked. "Nothing else?"

Impassive and stoic, I flicked my gaze away to the silhouette of the castle, tracing its dark, sharp lines and spikes. Hogwarts' lights blazed, hanging in the bright blue night like a thousand paper lanterns. Finally, I turned to face Ryan.

His eyes shone like quicksilver in the light.

"Yeah," I said. "Nothing else."

—*—

The next day was like any other.

Despite — or maybe because of — the fact that I felt like my brain was about to implode on itself, I threw myself into the endless flurry of routine. I went to class, ate my meals, chatted with Dom — all the while pretending as if nothing was wrong. It felt good to melt into the masses, to become just another student sitting through the minutes and hours of class, holding their breath for the weekend.

I was doing alright. I was getting through the day, just looking forward to when I could finally get back to the dorms and begin to process all of what I'd learned.

And then... I snapped.

Now, before you start getting mental pictures of me running down the halls naked and singing the national anthem, perhaps I should clarify. I didn't lose control of my mental faculties; I never, at any point, lapsed into a nervous breakdown. I remained fully aware and in control of my actions the whole day.

No, perhaps 'snapped' wasn't the best word for what happened. After all, seeing as I associate with crazy people (re: my friends) on a daily basis, I'd say I'm more than qualified to define what "snapping" is.

"Snapping" is Freddy Weasley in Third Year, after the Chudley Canons lost the World Cup to the Wasps in a spectacular defeat. Unable to grapple with this incredible blow to morale, Freddy had just sort of... gone berserk one day. As a coping mechanism, he had slipped into this delusional, alternate reality in which he convinced himself he was the grand leader of some country that nobody else — except for him — knew about.

Yeah, no lie. He called his kingdom Weasleyland and started going around school, screaming "Off with your head!" at random intervals, usually to no one in particular. He also started to "banish" people for strange arbitrary crimes, such as "not showing adequate support for the Canons," "wearing the color green" and — I quote — "being fugly."

Yeah, needless to say, it had gotten pretty serious. We had to stage an intervention before he started enslaving all the first-years.

So no, I did not snap. Not in the strict psychological sense of the word, at least. What I did, rather, could be described as me simply releasing all my repressed, pent-up emotions in a violent outburst. Yeah. Much better than snapping.

Dom and I had been wandering aimlessly through the castle when it happened.

We had tried to take a shortcut to the Commons but, despite having lived in this school for the past five years, somehow gotten lost. After an hour of navigating narrow detours and random passageways, we resigned ourselves to roaming the halls until someone could point us in the right direction. We didn't mind. We weren't missing any classes — we both had our free periods — so we took our own sweet time trying to find our way back.

We were walking together, chatting inanely (the Oh So Important Topic of the Day: Should Dom switch face creams? If she did switch face creams, what kind should she get? What if the new cream turned out to be defected and caused her to break into ugly, disfiguring purple boils? Did Dom have anything in her closet that went with purple? Should she buy some new clothes to match this hideous skin disease in case it occurred?), when all of a sudden, I saw him.

Fallon Cooper.

I stared, not believing my eyes. It seemed unreasonable to me that someone who had committed a crime like Cooper had could just... walk around freely, with such impunity.

There he was, loitering at the end of the corridor with two other Slytherin seventh-years who, as expected, had clustered around to give him their undivided attention, orbiting Cooper like a ring of arse-kissing planets. They seemed to be telling cruel, jeering jokes, laughing and nudging at each other. Occasionally, Cooper would turn away to boredly flick his wand and send a spark of light flying at the stone walls.

At the sight of him, all my blood rushed to my ears in a dull, brash roar. I felt something in my chest, hot and tight and coiled, spring free.

I snapped.

And then without really thinking, I was striding swiftly towards Cooper, my gait an awkward half-run, half-walk like the kind people do when they try to cross the street and the light's about to turn red. My hands were shaking, and I tried to steady them, tried to keep myself together, but I couldn't stop my quick steps or racing heartbeat.

Cooper, meanwhile, hadn't noticed me. He was laughing at something one of his cronies said, teeth gleaming, black hair slick and shiny in the November sunlight. I picked up my pace, shoes slapping against the marble floor, ignoring the tiny voice in my head telling me to turn back.

"Aggy? What are you doing?" Dom had abruptly stopped in her Purple Boils Rant. She stood dumbfounded, watching with mouth open as I charged ahead at one of the most popular boys at our school.

I had no plan, no idea what I would do once I reached Cooper — I was running on sole instinct alone. There was a feeling inside of my gut, an overwhelming, irrepressible force telling me: left right left right, one foot in front of the other.

I pushed past both of Cooper's little cronies, and then I was looking at him, staring straight at him. Simple as that — face to face. Slytherin to Slytherin. Puny Little Fifth Year Girl to Considerably Bigger Seventh Year Boy.

Surprise briefly flitted over Cooper's chiseled features — he was probably wondering who in Merlin's pink booty shorts I was, and how I had such nerve to approach him out-of-the-blue without soliciting his time first.

As if in slow-motion, I saw him open his mouth to say something. But I didn't let him finish.

No. Apparently, I had eaten an extra helping of stupid for breakfast that day, because all of a sudden I was reaching out and pushing Fallon — Fallon Cooper — into the wall behind him.

Cooper stumbled. Dom yelped. The cronies gasped.

"What did you do to my brother" I said, and I was quite surprised to hear that I wasn't, in fact, saying it at all. I was yelling. Loudly.

I pushed him again. "What the hell did you do to my brother?" It felt as if my blood was shuddering inside me, rioting against the skin of my body, foaming hot like oil. I was combusting into flames. I was going to kill him.

"Answer me! What did you do?" Before I knew it, I was taking out my wand — my hand acting on its own accord — and pressing it against the hollow of Cooper's neck. "Answer or so help me — "

"Agatha! Stop! What are you doing?" And suddenly Dom was pushing through the cronies, her hand settling on my left arm as she insistently tried to tug me away. Despite her hysteria, Cooper appeared calm and almost dignified, the surprise long gone from his face. His gaze was trained on me, thin lips stretched into a malevolent, ugly sneer.

"Agatha Bennett," he quipped lightly, as if this was an everyday occurrence. "Should have known I'd be seeing you around."

"What. Did. You. Do?"

When Ryan had told me the truth about Aidan, I hadn't reacted with anger. Shock, maybe, but not anger. Which wasn't normal or even remotely natural, because who wouldn't be angry if confronted with that kind of information? It was the logical thing to be.

But now... Now I knew where that missing anger had been: inside me all along, stewing in the pit of my stomach, waiting for the right moment to appear. It was like I had misplaced my anger and now, upon seeing Cooper with his stupid slick-backed hair and malicious sneer, I had found it again.

Boy, had I found it.

I wasn't just angry — I was livid. Furious. Seething.

...Which probably had something to do with that fact that Cooper was currently pressed into a wall with a wand at his throat.

One of the cronies lunged towards me, obviously no longer able to tolerate this sudden threat to his leader (as tiny and inexperienced in dueling as this threat might be). Eyes menacing, face red, this crony was roughly the size and shape of a refrigerator. He was so large, in fact, I'm pretty sure he had his own gravitational pull.

As if his sheer stature wasn't terrifying enough, even the bloke's face was scary to look at. With his brute features and furry brow, he looked like the type of guy who spent his free time strangling newborn puppies.

In other words, his hands were puppy-strangler hands. Puppy-strangler hands currently reaching out towards me.

...And this was when I realized that — maybe, just maybe — assaulting Hogwarts' Slytherin Underlord and his Crew of Puppy Stranglers in an abandoned hallway had not been the best of ideas.

"What's going on here?!"

The crony paused mid-charge, Cooper blinked, and Dom froze with wand already half out of pocket. Immediately, the lot of us all turned in the same, jerking motion to identify the source of the foreign voice.

Potter and Fred were heading towards us quickly, backs stiff and shoulders tight with alarm. Mid-walk, Potter was already slinging off his messenger back and dumping it to the floor, Fred rolling up his sleeves with his jaw clenched. They knew Cooper, knew what type of bloke he was, and no doubt seeing me and Dom in close proximity to him — not to mention intense, emotionally-charged proximity — was a sure cause for concern.

Despite knowing I'd just been saved from a Puppy Strangler demise, I couldn't help but internally groan. Of all the hallways in all the schools in all of Scotland, Freddy and Potter just had to choose this one...

"Fallon Cooper?" Fred was exclaiming, voice incredulous and edged with hostility. "Aggy, what are you doing? With him?"

Even without knowing what Cooper had done, Freddy wasn't exactly the Slytherin Quidditch Captain's Number One Fan. And maybe it was the scowl of unbridled disgust, or the murderous, 'I-want-to-kill-you-and-feed-each-of-your-organs-to-different-kinds-of-animals' glare, but his dislike was made somewhat obvious.

Cooper took one look at two-thirds of the Tweedle Trio and snorted, amusement dancing in his steel eyes. "Reinforcements of yours?"

He craned his neck — the only movement allowed by the point of my wand against his neck — and regarded the Puppy Strangler with a benevolent, unbothered smile. "It's alright, Goyle. You can stand down. I'd like to see where this goes."

Expression much the same as when he'd been about to attack me, the Puppy Strangler fell back, cracking his knuckles menacingly. Next to me, Dom gulped.

"What's going on here?" Freddy repeated once more, slightly out of breath as he reached us. He sidled up to my side, Potter standing silent and stoic behind him.

"Oh, nothing." Cooper waved his hand airily, voice casual, as if there wasn't a wand currently being held to his throat. "Agatha and I were just having a little chat." My grip tightened on my wand. "See, I was telling her all about the importance of Quidditch safety." He leveled his gaze on me, dark eyes gleaming, lips stretched into a frightening smile. "I'm sure we can both agree your brother could stand to learn a few things, don't we? For one, he should really be more careful when — "

But he was cut off when, in a flash of confusion and noise, three things happened in very quick succession:

1. My wand fell to the floor, the clattering noise echoing through the hallway. I drew my hand back, ready to lash out —

2. But was quite literally beaten to the punch by Dom, who, despite having remained calm up until this point, must have lost it at the mention of Aidan. A half-scream, half-growl ripping from her throat, she suddenly launched herself at Cooper, throwing me backwards as she did so.

3. Before my best friend could reach her target, however, Goyle was stepping forward and — reflexes lightning fast — had slashed his wand in a wordless hex that sent my bestfriend flying into the nearest wall.

A sickening noise, not quite a crack and not quite a thud, reverberated off the stone walls. All I could register was Dom's suddenly slack form crumpling to the ground, head lolling to the side, before my vision clouded in a furious blur of red. I lost sight of everything as suddenly, this huge wave of I-don't-know-what washed over me. It was rage. It was murderous.

And then my vision suddenly cleared, and I could see everything unfolding before my eyes — Freddy lunging at Goyle, Dom curling into a ball and holding her head, Cooper smirking — but I couldn't hear a thing. It was as if all sound had been sucked from the air.

First my vision, then my hearing — my anger was causing me to lose my senses one by one. I could see Freddy's mouth dropping open, lips forming soundless shapes (which were no doubt a series of creative cuss words), but I couldn't hear his voice. I couldn't hear Cooper's dark chuckle, or Dom's surprised yelp of pain. It had all been muted. The only noise remaining was my heartbeat, loud and sharp and ringing in my ears.

Cooper and I locked gazes, and before I knew it, I was charging towards him, not even caring that he was withdrawing his wand as I did so. All I could feel was the anger churning inside me, sparking every nerve, tightening my chest with fiery, blazing bloodlust. It rendered me breathless.

But before I could reach Cooper, I was suddenly thrown backwards by some unseen force which, upon further revelation, turned out to be Potter, who had flung out his arm in my path and basically clotheslined me in the chest, causing me to go reeling backwards.

I stumbled, the breath gone from my lungs, and watched speechlessly as Potter took his own wand out and sent a beam of something blue and shimmery at Cooper. Cooper deflected it with a flick of his wrist, eyes narrowed in concentration, lips curled triumphantly.

No. I'd be damned if I was going to let Potter have all the fun. Cooper was mine.

Gritting my teeth, I hurtled towards Potter, pushing him out of the way without a word of explanation.

He stumbled backwards, jaw dropping open in silent protest, and a jet of purple light streamed from his wand to ricochet off the wall. It zinged back at an odd angle and narrowly missed Freddy, who had his wand out and was flicking spells at Goyle and the other crony.

Goyle, face sweaty with seemingly arduous concentration, shot back a yellow jinx at Potter, and all of a sudden they were embroiled in a duel. Cooper turned his head to watch, and I took his momentary distraction as the perfect opportunity to hurl myself into him.

We landed on the floor with a heavy thud, Cooper sprawled across the stone and completely caught off guard. I was working on primal instinct only, my wand forgotten on the floor. Magic required thought, concentration, skill — none of which I had at the moment. No. Physical violence was the way to go. Already I was reaching out by pure instinct, clawed fingers scratching and tearing at anything I could get my hands on.

With a howl of pain, Cooper, sneer finally wiped off his face, reached out to block my blows but then, when that proved unsuccessful, wrapped his hands around my neck.

I'd never been deprived so unpleasantly and so suddenly of oxygen before. Finally accustomed to my weight, Cooper had been able to lift his torso slightly off the ground, keeping me at an arm's length as his fingers curled over my throat.

Gasping for air, my arms reached helplessly towards Cooper's face in an effort to do something — anything to stop him from choking me — but I could only graze his nose.

For a split-second, I was clawing frantically at his arms, not knowing what to do, writhing around like an addict deprived of a favorite drug. And then, without even really meaning to, I jerked my leg upwards and kneed Cooper in his groin.

Hard.

He groaned — a sound I didn't hear due to my heartbeat thudding in my ears like a perpetual drum solo — and, eyes glazing over, released his boa-constrictor grip on my neck.

Oxygen — sweet, blissful oxygen — poured into my lungs. I coughed, eyes tearing up, ready to resume my attack when all of a sudden, I was viciously yanked backwards by none-other-than Potter.

He had his arms around my waist and was swinging me off Cooper like a sack of potatoes. For a moment I was in the air, squawking in protest, and then Potter was setting me down on my feet a safe distance away from motionless Cooper.

I went stumbling backwards, equilibrium upset by this sudden change in position. I barely had time to right myself when Potter's hands were wrapping themselves around my shoulders as he advanced angrily forward and, with considerable strength, pushed me into the nearest wall.

"Are you crazy?" He was saying, all up in my face, expression livid. All the noise that had been muted came suddenly rushing into my ears. I could hear Cooper cursing on the floor and Dom stumbling to a stand to join Fred in his duel against the other Slytherins. It was chaos. Loud, uncontrollable chaos.

"Let go — of me — " I bit out, wiggling against Potter's grip. It was no use, however; he had me totally pinned.

"Bloody hell I'll let go of you!' Potter snarled, eyes flashing a million shades of gold. He looked furious. "You'll get yourself killed! What were you thinking, going against Cooper like that?"

"You're not my bodyguard, Potter!"

"Well have you considered getting one, seeing as you're obviously insane?!"

"Let go of me!

"No effing way — Ow! Fuck! Bloody — Bennett!" Despite the swift kick in the shin I'd just delivered Potter, he stayed admirably composed, his hold still on my shoulders, teeth gritting together in pain.

Glaring, I raised my knee again — ready to give Potter a little taste of the medicine I'd just doled out to Cooper — but he was two steps ahead of me. With reflexes that could only be cultivated from years of Quidditch, Potter let go of one of my shoulders to grab my thigh, holding it in mid-air between us.

A look of surprise flitted over my face, but I quickly replaced it with a withering glare.

"Honestly, Bennett," Potter drawled sardonically, obviously unimpressed by my antics. "If you want to touch me there, all you have to do is ask."

Heat flooded my face. I tried to ignore the proximity of our noses, the sensation of his fingers burning against my bare leg, and bared my teeth in what I hoped was a menacing manner. "Go to hell." I spat, reaching out with my newly-freed arm to shove Potter away.

Conceding me this small, surprising victory, Potter stepped backwards with ease, hands held up in wry defense. I directed a withering glare at him and began to push forward, ready to kick Cooper while he was down (and I mean literally kick Cooper repeatedly in the stomach while he was still on the ground and I had the chance). But before I could get any further, Potter reached out once more and suddenly had me by the wrist.

I jerked to a stop, turning in consternation.

"Wait," Potter warned.

"What?" I snapped. I was impatient to go help Freddy and Dom fight, though not before I subjected Cooper to a good ol' fashioned Bat Bogey Hex.

Potter simply looked at me, hazel eyes imploring. "Don't, Bennett. He's not worth it."

We stared at each other, held in this position by some invisible energy crackling in the air between us, something that I couldn't exactly describe or identify. It was fast and sharp like a whip, making my stomach clench.

Potter let go of my wrist — a mistake on his part, really, because as soon as he released me, I set off for Cooper, who was now stirring and groaning on the ground before me. I was going to kill that sodding prick.

Potter apparently foresaw this, however, because with a flick of his wand and a hasty "Protego!" he had sent an icy blue shield to bloom across the room.

I stumbled back, pushed by the sheer energy of the magic produced, unable to cross the blue enchantment before me. Freddy and Dom, who had gone flying apart from their crony counterparts at the spell, landed in an assortment of surprised 'oof's and 'ow's by my feet.

I looked up. There was now a shimmery force-field dividing the hall — Potter, Dom, Fred and I on one side, the rest on the other. Nobody could cross now.

"Bloody hell," Fred groaned, thoroughly stupefied. He clambered to a stand while Dom cursed next to him in the background, on the ground for the second time that day. "What was that?"

"I told you," Potter bit out evenly to me. "It's not worth it."

"Yeah, listen to him, Agatha," a voice was saying, and I turned my head to see Cooper wobbling to a stand from his position on the floor, swaying back and forth as he approached us, his image slightly colored by the blue film slicing the hallway in two.

"I'm not worth it," he sing-songed, mouth twisted into something resembling a smile. He was bleeding above his right eyebrow. "Better safe than sorry. You wouldn't want to end up in the Hospital Wing just like your brother, now would you?"

"What's he on about?" Dom grumbled, but Fred shushed her, his wary green gaze intently fixed on Cooper.

I jerked towards the Slytherin, but I couldn't reach him through the shield between us. Even so, Potter calmly grabbed my shoulder to restrain me. "Watch your mouth, Cooper," he said calmly, as if he was asking someone to pass the butter.

Cooper merely leered, drawing his wand from his pocket and aiming it unsteadily at me, squinting a little as he did so. "I'm afraid you really shouldn't have done that, Agatha. Because now — well, now we have a debt to settle. You owe me something." His gaze, I hated to admit, was kind of frightening. I felt a chill zip down my spine as I cocked my head to the side, holding my stance.

"What do I owe you, exactly?" I snorted with as much nonchalance as I could muster. "Your manhood, your dignity? Your ability to conceive children?"

"No," Cooper growled, advancing towards the blue shield. "Your pain."

Potter let go of my shoulder, stepping quickly in between Cooper and me so that his broad shoulders completely obscured me from my view. "Not a good idea, Cooper."

The Slytherin merely laughed — a cold, burning sound. "That's fine. Hide behind your shield charms and your friends now. You're forgetting we go to the same school, Agatha, and I can find you no anywhere."

"Touch her, and you'll wish you'd never been born," Potter replied, voice eerily quiet, before adding as an afterthought: “Just like anyone else who's ever had the misfortune of meeting you."

"Hilarious," Cooper snarled. I stepped out from Potter to lock my angered gaze on the git, taking in his rumpled gelled hair and worse-for-wear form.
"You know, I always heard about how witty you are, Potter," Cooper continued, face a nasty sneer. "I guess the rumors are true. James Potter truly is too clever for his own House. A shame you hang around those Gryffindor oafs — now, if you excuse me."

Cooper made to advance towards me, but Potter held his ground.

"I'm pretty sure you don't want to do that," he said coolly, eyes narrowed. Cooper glowered in response.

I gaped, glare alternating between an irritated Cooper and a darkly furious Potter. A sense of indignant irritation was swelling inside my chest, stoked by the thought that Potter was acting like he could just waltz in and "rescue" me as if I were some helpless damsel in distress.

Over my dead body.

"As much as I appreciate the thought," I said dryly from where I stood, shunted to the side. I crossed my arms in a clear gesture of defiance. "I don't need you to fight my battles for me, Potter."

"Oh, Merlin," Fred groaned quietly in the background, at the same time Dom — the eye-roll practically audible in her voice — muttered: "Of bloody course."

Potter turned, shooting me a warning glare that plainly said, "Shut up, I'm trying to help you for once."

And I responded with a look of my own, saying, "You're an idiot! Get out of my way!"

Even when we were on the same side, Potter and I still found a way to bicker with each other, even if it had to be telepathically. Go figure.

"Hear that?" Cooper practically screeched, voice mocking and filled with delight. "The girl doesn't need you, Potter. So how about we step aside and save the heroics for the Quidditch Pitch?"

But Potter was refusing to budge. "Leave, Cooper." Potter turned away from me to frankly lock gazes with the boy in front of him, voice firm and authoritative. "And take your friends with you."

There was a beat of silence. Cooper and Potter seemed to be mired in a strange showdown, some sort of wordless, macho language beaming between them. The air shivered in tense anticipation, and I looked between the two, on edge.

And then, much to my amazement, Cooper surrendered. With a whistle, he summoned the other two Slytherins, who had been watching this whole spectacle with folded arms and glowering faces.

"Fine." He shrugged, stepping backwards with ease. His face glowed eerily in the wavering blue light. "Suit yourself. Just remember to watch your backs."

I gave an incredulous "Ha!" of disbelief, unable to help myself. "Yeah right," I burst, leaning forward menacingly. "Like we're going to let you get away with anything. I'm telling Vespertine what you did. Not just here but to Aidan, too."

Cooper smiled, baring a row of shiny white teeth. "And how do you think that will play out, Agatha? It's my word against yours. Who do you think they're going to believe? The crazy sister distressed with grief or the upstanding Quidditch captain? After all, I can be awfully convincing when I want to." His voice was soft and taunting, each word digging under my skin like a tiny needle.

"I have a source." I insisted, ignoring Potter's confused gaze. "He can vouch for me."

"And whoever 'he' is, I'll make his life a living hell. Do you really want that, Agatha?"

I thought of Ryan, who had seemed so worried and concerned about me. Ryan, who was so sweet and kind and considerate.

And for once in my life, I stayed quiet.

Cooper scoffed, face glowing with triumph. "I didn't think so." Without another word to me or Potter, he turned swiftly to his cronies. "Goyle! Murray!"

Like a pair of trained dogs, the Slytherins scurried to Cooper's side, shooting a bemused Fred and Dom nasty glares as they did so. Cooper turned to me, his grey eyes glittering. "I'll be seeing you around, Agatha."

I half-expected him to throw his head back and give an evil cackle, but he simply walked away instead, Goyle and Murray trailing close behind.

And then they were gone.

There was a long moment of silence.

"What in the name of Merlin's left nut was that all about?" Freddy cried, apparently no longer willing to just stand by and watch patiently. He stepped forward, his expression emphatic and demanding answers.

"Yeah," Dom said as she scrambled to a stand, rubbing her head and wincing as she did so. "Tell us, Aggy. And don't you dare leave anything out. We want the whole story."

Turning to Dom, I suddenly remembered that none of my friends had any idea what Cooper had done to Aidan. They had simply jumped to my defense against the other Slytherins, not even asking for a reason.

I suddenly felt a warm feeling spread through my chest, as if I had just drunk a whole gallon of Butterbeer. I looked from Fred to Dom to Potter, my mouth open but no sound coming out. I almost felt like crying.

"Explain," Potter said.

And so I did.

Huddled in a circle around me, they listened as I told them everything. Starting from Ryan's confession to seeing Cooper in the hallway, it all came pouring out like water from a broken damn.

When I finally finished, we stewed in silence for a while, absorbing the full reality of the situation.
"Blimey, Aggy," Fred mumbled, gobsmacked as his eyes widened with realization. "This is so surreal."

"I know," I said, shooting a wary glance at Potter. He was standing with his shoulders tightened stiffly, his mouth pressed into a thin, inscrutable line, and his gaze dark. I was wary of Potter's reaction — knowing his temper, it would be rash and even dangerous.

Dom's face furrowed into a painful-looking frown as she cocked her hip to the side, voicing the one question that had been running through all our heads: "So what should we do?"

"We tell Vespertine, of course." I said firmly, not even considering any other options.

"No," Potter finally spoke, swiftly shaking his head. "We can't. She won't believe us."

I grimaced.

Even though I hated to admit it, I knew Potter's words held a grain of truth. Vespertine would think we were insane if we told her the true story, and Cooper would be able to laugh off any accusations we threw at him. According to Magical Law, a Headmaster or Headmistress of Hogwarts wasn't allowed to administer Veritaserum to a student, so truth-telling serum was out of the question. And without any concrete evidence from us... Well, it was pointless, really.

I mean, there was always Ryan to vouch for us. But I knew that as soon as I brought him into this, his life could be in danger as well. Not to sound overly-dramatic, but Cooper probably had his ways of keeping people quiet. Whether it be from force or manipulation... Who knew? And, when it came down to it, who really cared? Cooper was Cooper. He would do anything to have his way, and I refused to put Ryan at risk for me. He didn't deserve that.

Freddy spoke quietly, startling me out of my thoughts, "James is right, Aggy. This calls for something else."

My gaze flitted from Fred to Potter and then back to Fred again. I could sense an idea growing between the two, an idea that had their brows darkening and their eyes glinting.

"Like what?" Dom arched an eyebrow, face quizzical.

Potter's gaze gleamed wickedly, the sides his lips quirking upwards. I could practically see all the cogs shifting in that calculating brain of his. Before he opened his mouth, I already knew what he was going to say:

"Like revenge."


Chapter 19: Cramped
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Disclaimer: I do not own Harry Potter. I also do not own Pantene, Teletubbies, James Bond, Mission Impossible, Herbal Essences, the Mafia... Or anything else that I've missed, for a matter of fact.


TOP TEN REASONS WHY I AM IN A BAD/GRUMPY/SOMEWHAT HOMICIDAL MOOD TODAY:

1. Professor Nott had made it his mission to bury me alive under my own personal Mt. Everest of extra coursework, assignments and readings. This may or may not be due to the fact that he'd heard me (not so) quietly refer to him as Professor Douchepants under my breath the other day. Oops.

2. Dom had another one of her nightmares last night and, after waking up from all the noise she was making, I felt too anxious to fall back asleep. Thus I got about four hours of sleep, and now my face showed just how exhausted I was. I looked as bad as a zombie — no, actually, I was past that point. I looked like... like whatever you got when you killed a zombie and brought that back to life. Yeah. Horrid.

3. Pipsqueak the House-elf had taken a special liking to me and now refused to leave me alone. Whether it's leaving little baked goods on my pillow, or popping up at random, inopportune moments in time whenever I was trying to study, the bugger had been forging new frontiers in the name of creepydom everywhere. He was obsessed. I half-expected him to start writing a biography about me. Agatha Bennett: The Sad Story of A Young Girl's Descent into Madness. Nice ring to it.

4. Fred and I had been assigned to work together on a Charms project and, because of his chronic laziness and refusal to work, we still hadn't gotten anything done. The first time I suggested we get started, Fred had waved me aside and muttered some lame excuse involving the words 'pet squirrel' and 'bubble bath.' The second time I mentioned it, he responded with an irrelevant comment about the length (or rather, lack thereof) of Hufflepuff Missy O’Mara’s skirt that day. The third and last time I tried asking, Fred simply looked me dead in the eyes and started to laugh.

5. I had a zit on my forehead that was currently the size of Potter's ego.

6. Ryan had started to notice that I'd been avoiding him. I felt really bad about the cold shoulder, but after what he'd told me, I just hadn't been able to look him in the eye. It was safer that we maintained our distance, anyway, given that Cooper was still walking free. Though this knowledge didn't make any of Ryan's curious, somewhat wounded glances in my direction easier to tolerate.

7. In a sort of half-hearted compromise among the group, we gave Rufus the Gerbil to Pipsqueak as a pet to take care of. Not only had this increased Pipsqueak's adoration for me, but now Fred wouldn't stop complaining about missing his 'baby.' He was being so melodramatic, it was like he didn't realize this 'baby' of his was a glorified hamster-rodent living only a couple floors away in the Kitchens.

8. Dom, Potter and Fred would not stop badgering me to visit Aidan. And every time I refused, they would just give each other these 'looks' that were supposed to be meaningful and discreet but only managed to really bloody annoy me.

9. No matter how much I tried to squash it down, I could still feel It, rising in my stomach and clenching at my throat whenever I thought of Aidan and the accident. I couldn't escape. It was always there, wherever I went, like a second skin that wouldn't peel off. Sometimes, when I'd be busy doing homework or talking to Dom, I could swear it was gone. But then my distraction would leave and It would come back again, stronger than ever before.

10. And last, but certainly not least: the kicker. The worst of it all. The pièce de résistance...

Something had happened. Something that I thought would never, not in a million years, occur. Something that topped flying pigs and frozen infernos:

I'd started to feel bad for Evelyn Stanford.

Here's why:

—*—

Our plan to destroy Fallon Cooper started out easily enough.

The first step, according to Potter, was to go around and dig for dirt on Cooper — secrets, weaknesses, anything that could possibly be used against him. Now, I wasn't normally one for rumors or gossip. I could honestly care less about the who's-with-who and the who's-doing-what of Hogwarts. I found it all pointless at best, malicious at worst — so it was hard for me to take Potter's request seriously.

Dom, on the other hand, had immediately launched into Full Gossip Mode. And believe me, when my best friend was on the hunt for information, nothing could be kept from her — she left no stone unturned, no illicit affair untold, no incriminating WizBook photo unsaved. She investigated all.

I really had no idea how she did it. Her mind was a reservoir for any scrap of emotional blackmail or sordid tale concerning the Hogwarts population. She was like Nancy Drew, if Nancy Drew was horribly invasive and knew every private detail of your family's medical history.

And sure enough, after only a few days of research, Dom had found something. Or rather, someone.

His name was Bertram Kinley, and he was a first-year Hufflepuff. He was also the younger brother of Caroline Kinley, one of our dormmates and, more importantly, Evelyn's "bestfriend" — if your personal definition of "bestfriend" stretched to include minion, sycophantic puppet and human embodiment of an echo. All Caroline ever did was follow Evelyn around, nod at everything she said, and occasionally rub her two sole brain-cells together to produce enough spark to say something along the lines of, 'Evelyn, you are so right,' or 'Is there such thing as zero-calorie hairspray?'

Not very bright, that girl.

Anyway — somehow, through means which I knew not, Dom had managed to get her hands on a note between Bertram and one of his fellow first-years. In the note, Bertram explicitly mentioned that his sister had embarked on a secret relationship with Fallon Cooper; the two had been seeing each other since the end of the summer. Bertram knew this because he'd witnessed the tryst live and in action over the holidays, having had the spectacular misfortune of walking in on the two fooling around in his parent's guest bedroom.

This was an incredible betrayal, of course, given the fact that Evelyn was dating Cooper and had been since her third-year. The couple was practically a Hogwarts institution. Never in my life would I have thought Caroline capable of betraying her friend like this (then again, never in my life would I have thought Caroline capable of reciting the alphabet). This shocking piece of information, of course, warranted immediate action. We needed to talk to Bertram face to face, extract further details and perhaps something we could use against Cooper.

So, employing a combination of feminine wiles and old Honeydukes candy, Dom lured Bertram into an empty hallway, kidnapped him, and then locked the poor boy in a classroom for a two-hour long interrogation.

Yeah. I am not even kidding.

To be honest, if the idea behind it hadn't been so bloody insane, I would have considered the whole ordeal to be impressive. I mean, full-scale abduction was a big deal. Just by pulling it off, Dom managed to break about 37 Hogwarts rules (and also, I'm pretty certain, quite a few federal laws). The girl was scarily devoted to the cause.

Anyway, once we got Bertram in the room with us, the interrogation quickly deteriorated. Dom had really committed to her role of aggressive inquisitor, it seemed, having even brought along a muggle lamp to shine into Bertram's eyes as she pummeled him with questions. To top it off, she had somehow coerced me into playing good cop to her unbelievably frightening bad cop.

Our "interrogation" went a little like this:

Dom: (In a really, really bad Mafia accent to Bertram) Look-y here, you smug sonuvabitch. I'm gonna say this one time, and a-one time only: if you don't co-operate with us, we're gonna make your life a living hell.

Me: Dom, don't you think that's being a little... (vague hand gestures to indicate she should tone it down), you know?

Dom: Point taken. Let me start over.

(Bertram and I sigh in relief.)

Dom: Look-y here, you smug son of a bitch. I'm gonna say this two times, and two times only: if you don't co-operate with us, we're not just gonna make your life a living hell. No. Hell will look like a five-star beach resort compared to what's going to happen to you.

Me: Dude, I meant be less harsh, not more!

Dom: (Ignoring me completely) By the time we're finished with you, Bertram, you'll be in so much pain, you won't even know who you are.

Bertram: (Terrified) P-please d-don't hurt me! I-I'll do a-anything!

Dom: (After a dramatic pause) Aggy, do you know what I hate the most? Out of everything in the universe?

Me: (Inching towards the exit) Uh... I don't know?

Dom: What I hate the most in the world, what I loathe with every fiber of my being... are snot-nosed, punk-faced bitchweiners.

Me: Dear Merlin.

Dom: (Shooting a menacing glare at Bertram) And I believe that you, sir, are a bitchweiner.

Bertram: (Close to tears) N-no! I'm not, I swear! Please don't hurt me!

Dom: Do you know what I do to bitchweiners like yourself, huh? HUH, BERTRAM? I eat them for breakfast. I eat them for tea. I eat them for supper. Hell, I even eat them for a midnight snack.

Me: Lord help us all.

Dom: That's right. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Bertram: I-I'll give you a-anything you want, just please don't eat me! I-I'll co-operate, I swear!

Dom: You better! Because if you don't... Do you know what I'll do to you, Bertram? First, I'll build a box. Then, I'll shove you in that box. Then I'll ship the box to India and back. Then I'll go to the local supermarket and buy myself a big, sharp butcher's knife. Then I'll open that box... (Dramatic pause) And punch you in the face.

(Bertram bursts into tears.)

Me: Dom! Look what you've done! Shit! Please don't cry, Bertram! She didn't mean it like that! Dom just... er has a very weird sense of humor! Yeah, that's it! You have a weird sense of humor, don't you, Dom?

Dom: (Staring at Bertram) That's right, you little baby. Cry those bitchweiner tears. That's nothing compared to the Viagra Falls —

Me: Niagra.

Dom: — Niagra Falls you'll be sobbing when we're done with you.

Me: Okay, this is ridiculous. I'm done here.

Dom: (momentarily breaking out of the bad Mafia accent) Wait! Where are you going?

Me: I can't go on with this. I can't be your accomplice anymore! This is sick!

Dom: But who's gonna be my good cop?

And so on.

After I refused to participate, Dom continued on with her good-cop-bad-cop routine, only this time playing both parts by herself. Her schizophrenic act managed to scare Bertram even more and, quite frankly, frighten me as well.

Eventually, after thirty minutes, sixteen very colourful threats, and an uncountable amount of tears from Bertram, we finally got the information we needed.

According to Bertram, Cooper and Caroline could be found every Friday at two o'clock in the afternoon, hooking up in the library near the auto-biography section.

This was, of course, a travesty in my opinion. The library was a sacred place for learning and knowledge, not teenage trysts behind bookshelves!

The others didn't seem to care about Cooper and Caroline's meeting place of choice, however. Once Freddy got over the initial shock of there being a library at our school, he (and Dom and Potter) just kind of shrugged it off.

Anyway, despite my blatant disapproval, the information could still be very useful. Because once Evelyn found out about the little escapades happening between her bestfriend and her boyfriend... Well, Cooper would be done for. Evilyn would make sure of it.

Equipped with this helpful tidbit of gossip, our group carefully devised a fool-proof plan — fool-proof to the point of being Freddy-proof, in fact.

Pretending to be Cooper, Dom forged a note to Evelyn instructing her to be at the library that Friday at two o'clock under the pretense of meeting for a chat.

There, if everything went according to plan, Evelyn would bump into Cooper and Caroline and hopefully catch them in the act. After that... Well, we could leave the rest up to Evelyn and her violent, bitchtastic ways.

Friday morning came, and we thought the matter had been settled perfectly. Cooper would get his comeuppance, and we would soon enough get our vicarious revenge via a proxy-Evelyn.

But as with all things, our plan had some unexpected consequences.

That afternoon, Freddy and I were walking to Transfiguration class and wondering whether the plan had been carried out successfully yet, when all of a sudden we heard a great commotion near the Entrance Hall.

Curious, Freddy insisted on dragging me to see what all the ruckus was about. With jostling elbows and some annoyed cursing, we struggled our way through the crowded corridor to the center of the noise — only to be met with the sight of Cooper, Caroline Kinley and Evelyn surrounded by a crowd of gaping onlookers.

Evelyn had her hands balled into fists, her chest heaving up and down raggedly. Cooper was standing with his arm wrapped — blatantly — around Caroline's shoulders, a slimy smirk on his face.

I blanched, screwing up my eyes and then opening them once more just to make sure the content expression on Cooper's face was, indeed, what I was seeing and not some horrible mirage. How could Cooper be... happy right now?

Evelyn, on the other hand, looked the very opposite of content. She was screeching at her (ex?)-boyfriend and (ex?)-best friend in front of her, eyes bright and livid, expression fit to murder. From the looks of things, she'd obviously found out about the affair.

"FINE, SEE IF I CARE!" she bellowed, and I was pretty sure I heard the discreet 'pop' of the sound barrier breaking at the sheer volume of her voice. “I DON'T NEED YOU TWO!"

Caroline and Cooper exchanged knowing, smiling looks — unashamed and seemingly invulnerable to her every word. Cooper didn't look worried that his first girlfriend had caught him with his second girlfriend. Standing there with his shoulders thrust back, chin tilted cockily, he almost seemed to be enjoying himself.

It was like watching a scene from a parallel universe, a grotesque and twisted imitation of reality. Instead of throwing himself across the floor and begging for Evelyn's forgiveness like he was supposed to, Cooper simply appeared cool and comfortable and unperturbed. Caroline, meanwhile, stood haughtily by his side, clearly his replacement for Evelyn, a happy version 2.0.

"It was about time you found out, love," Cooper said, voice coated in false sympathy. "I'm sorry, but you've been holding me back. In Caroline I've found a better fit, a better life." He paused and, if I had previously held any doubts that Cooper was the devil incarnate, they were quickly erased with his next three words. "A better you."

The crowd made a collective noise, similar to the one sports spectators make when they watch an athlete get hit. Face blank with shock, Evelyn opened her mouth, closed it, then opened it once more. Her brows were slanted at scary angles over her eyes, her lower lip trembling.

Desperation scrawled across her face, she seemed naked and lost as, before everyone's eyes, her role as half of Hogwarts Most Infamous Couple was snatched away.

"I'm never speaking to either of you again," she said quietly, furiously, and if it was her dignity or her social capital in shambles at her feet, I couldn't tell.

Without another word, she wheeled around and began to stalk off, hair swishing all over the place in a Pantene-esque bounce. Cooper, his arm still wrapped around a smug Caroline, scoffed audibly.

"Good luck with that, love," he called, voice dripping with superiority, and Caroline simpered in agreement. "We're all you have, and you know it."

Evelyn stopped dead in her tracks.

Her back was turned to Cooper and Caroline, but I could see the look of veritable terror that flitted over her face. It was at that moment when I — along with everyone else in the hallway — came to the realization that Queen Bee Evelyn had been officially dethroned.

Mouth quivering in an awful manner, Evelyn tossed her head once more and stalked off, leaving a victorious Cooper and a satisfied Caroline in her wake.

Typical Evelyn. Even when being publicly humiliated by her bestfriend and boyfriend, she still went out with a bang — or, in this case, a damn good hair-flip.

Released from Evelyn's presence, the crowd was free to turn in on itself, Hogwarts' very own Greek Chorus humming with their whispered thoughts, their gleeful conjectures. No one could believe what had happened, including myself.

"Did you see that?"

"How could they just do this to her?

"How could they not? Evelyn was such a bitch. Go Team Caroline!"

"Nah, Team Evelyn all the way! She's fit as hell, son."

Freddy and I shared a glance, the same sentiment floating through both our brains: ruh-roh. According to the plan, Cooper was supposed to have taken the plunge down the school's social ladder — not his ex-girlfriend. How had Evelyn been the victim in this situation? How had Cooper slimed his way out of this one?

I was suddenly struck with the memory of Evelyn's face when I had bumped into her at the therapist's office — the surprise, the vulnerability, even the faint twinge of embarrassment in her gaze...

A pang of guilt zinged through me, fast and hot like a repentant meteor. Okay, yeah, I didn't like Evelyn — in fact, I bloody loathed her. But did she really deserve being turned into collateral damage?

Did she deserve the public humiliation, the betrayal from both her best friend and her boyfriend?

"Shit," Fred said, and all I could do was nod in agreement.

"Well said, Freddy," I murmured softly, my gaze lingering on the spot where Evelyn had previously stood. Of all the things that girl had made me feel over the course of our stay at Hogwarts— anger, hurt, hatred — guilt had never been one of them.

Until now.

—*—

"This is not good."

The four of us were hanging out in the Gryffindor Common Room, Potter, Fred and Dom lounging across various pieces of cushy furniture while I stood in front of the fireplace. Well, "stood" wasn't exactly the right word for it. "Furiously paced" was more like it. I was walking back and forth so fast, I wouldn't be surprised if the sheer friction of my movement had burned a hole in the already-worn carpet.

"This is not good," I said once more, voice louder and considerably more anxious. "Not good. Not good at all."

A derisive snort came from one of the maroon sofas nearby, and I stopped my pacing to see Potter, arms crossed and expression unimpressed, leaning back like we were on some sort of bloody Mediterranean cruise ship.

"Merlin, Bennett," he scoffed imperiously. "Aren't you observant today?"

Maybe it was Potter's supercilious tone, maybe it was his languid posture, but I felt irritation suddenly shudder to life inside my chest. After all, we were in crisis mode right now, and he was making sarcastic remarks and smirking about nothing and just being a general annoyance! Was a little bit of civil co-operation too much to ask?

Abandoning my restless pacing, I whipped around and shot Potter a glare that would make McGonagall tremble in her boots. "And aren't you exceedingly unhelpful today?" I hissed, causing Potter to shrug cockily.

"Hey, I'm just happy to be here."

"You are contributing nothing. Nobody thinks you're funny, not even Dom — "

"Oi! Don't drag me into this!"

"— so why don't you just crawl back into whatever noxious, lava-spewing hole you came out of?

"Oh, my achy-breaky heart. Bennett, you're killing me."

"I'll show you an 'achy breaky' nose, you stupid, inconsiderate — "

"Okay, okay!" Fred announced loudly, holding his hands up from where he was sitting in a plum-colored armchair. "How about we all calm down for a second? Can we do that, please?"

I clenched my jaw, teeth grinding to enamel dust as I shot Potter one last withering glare.

Every nerve in my body was incensed, anger sweeping through me in hot, nauseating waves. I was getting way too worked up over some tiny bout of bickering, but I couldn't care less. Being angry at Potter felt good.

It felt more than good, in fact. It felt bloody fantastic. For the past few days, everything had been so weird, so topsy-turvy... Arguing with Potter was a relief from that, a way to pound out all the stress currently churning inside my body.

For a heated moment, Potter and I regarded each other with narrowed eyes. The fire crackled and popped nearby, throwing a warm glow across his face that illuminated every obnoxiously handsome feature. His eyes were burning with dark amusement, one eyebrow quirked into his mess of dark hair.

I tore my gaze away, a sense of satisfaction swelling inside of me. Despite his smirking, I could tell that deep down Potter was irritated. My work here was done.

"Okay, now that we've stopped arguing," Dom ventured tactfully from where she was curled up, cat-like, on an armchair. "Why don't we put our heads together and think for a change? Since our Evelyn plot didn't work, we should come up with another game plan."

Fred shrugged. "Well, the next step's obvious, isn't it?"

I placed my hands on my hips, raising my eyebrows as I swiveled towards Freddy impatiently. "Oh, and what would that be?"

Exchanging a significant glance with Potter (Merlin, I really hated when they did that), Freddy smiled, the corners of his lips curling upwards in an almost — no, scratch that — definitely sinister manner.

"We prank him."

—*—

At night, the dungeons of Hogwarts were eerily quiet. So eerily quiet, in fact, that one might get just the teeniest bit creeped out if one were to, hypothetically, sneak through said dungeons at say, two o'clock in the morning, wearing all black and with no one for company besides a silent Potter and a very maniacal Weasley.

You know. Hypothetically.

Just for clarification, since the label 'maniacal Weasley' could apply to several different individuals here — I'm talking about Fred.

"Doo da doo doo, doo da doo — "

"Honestly, Fred, do you think this is really necessary?"

"Ba da bee doo ba doo — "

I could do nothing but shake my head in dismay as Freddy crept stealthily down the hallway, wearing all black (complete with matching face paint) and humming the beginning refrain to the Mission Impossible theme.

He leapt from statue to suit of armor, suit of armor to tapestry, striking a variety of complicated poses that all seemed to push the very limits of human flexibility. The whole effect was slightly reminiscent of James Bond. If James Bond did yoga. And was on a lot of hard drugs.

"It could be worse," Potter remarked easily, unbothered, as he ambled forward with his hands in his pockets. Unlike Freddy, he had decided to go for the less-crazed route and was wearing a pair of jeans and a simple gray t-shirt, face thankfully devoid of face paint.

"How?" I asked as Freddy's humming reached a horribly off-key crescendo. "How could this possibly be any worse?"

"He could be singing The Final Countdown instead."

I watched as Fred pirouetted out from behind another statue, brandishing the walkie-talkie he had magically altered to circumvent the castle's 'no technology' wards. He gave a furtive look around, scanning his surroundings with a gaze that screamed paranoia, before pressing the button on his gadget. "Silverfox to Nighthawk. We're in the clear."

"Roger that." Dom's voice crackled over the speaker. "Everything's good on my end."

Fred pocketed the walkie-talkie, turning around to fix Potter and I with a fiercely determined gaze that was, quite frankly, a little frightening.

"Alright," he said, clearing his throat authoritatively. "Here's the game plan. You guys will go into the cupboard to get the goods, and I'll stay out here to stand guard — "

"Woah there, cowboy," I interrupted hastily, holding my hands out. Before we had set out, Fred had conveniently neglected to tell me anything about his so-called prank. I was therefore in the dark and now somewhat taken aback by all the present instructions. "What exactly do you mean by 'cupboard' and 'goods?'"

Potter and Fred locked gazes, giving each other another one of those Significant Cousin Looks that I adored oh-so-much. Potter, apparently, had been privy to all the details of this fun little expedition that had been kept from me.

What exactly did Fred mean by 'cupboard'? Was he talking about a broom cupboard? There was only one real cupboard I knew of at this school, and that was —

"The Potions Cupboard," Fred clarified, and I swear to Merlin my stomach plummeted right down to the soles of my penny loafers. "You see, Agatha, in order to properly prank Cooper, we need certain supplies — "

"Oh no. No no no no no," I spat out, the edge of hysteria in my voice growing stronger and stronger with every word. "There is absolutely, irrevocably, unequivocally — "

"Oh come on, Aggy!"

"— no way that I am going to break into the Potions Cupboard, which is school property, by the way — "

"James and I have done it loads of times before!"

"— violating about a gazillion rules in the process—"

"It's for a good cause!"

"— and risking detention, suspension, or even expulsion if we're caught!"

"Bennett." Potter's voice firmly sliced through my babbling. He stepped forward, an air of barely-restrained urgency about him as he leveled me with a commanding gaze completely opposite from Freddy's desperate, pleading one. "You have to do it."

"No," I snipped pettily, my tone curt and final.

"For Aidan," Potter bit out through gritted teeth, this time a little more adamant.

There was a long, pregnant pause. Chest clenching in a very peculiar way, I glanced at the ground and tried to ignore the feeling of Potter's calculating gaze. It had been so long since I had heard his name said out loud... Just that one word was enough to inspire a huge hurricane of emotions charging through me. I could feel It creeping back, clogging my throat again, making it harder to breathe...

"Come on, Aggy," Freddy said quietly. "He would have wanted this."

I met Potter's amber eyes and squashed It down to the pits of my stomach, where it would fester and stew until the next appearance. Faced with Potter's frank expression, I felt my resolve start to crumble.

"Okay, fine," I sighed. "Let's go."

I was going to regret this, I just knew it.

—*—

And that was how I found myself, five minutes later, trapped in a small cupboard with James Sirius Potter for company, not knowing which to bemoan more — the confined quarters of this room, or the fact that I was sharing said confined quarters with my arch-nemesis.

Bollocks.

Potter and I stood stiffly inside the dimly lit cupboard, not breathing a word to each other, the tension thick and palpable in the air. Well, I stood. Potter actually made himself useful by browsing through the racks and racks of colourful ingredients, searching for whatever it was he and Fred needed.

I, meanwhile, was stewing in my own personal little swamp of regret. I regretted agreeing to Fred's harebrained scheme; I regretted ever allowing this prank mess to happen; and I regretted even meeting Potter and Fred in the first place. It was all such bollocks.

I stayed rooted to the spot, my whole body clenched with terror at the thought of us getting caught. At any moment now, Slughorn could just waltz in and find us ransacking his beloved Potions supplies cupboard. And then where would we be? I mean, Potter could probably smooth-talk his way out of any punishment, but I... I was done for.

"I can't believe we're doing this," I mumbled, more to myself than anything, as I stared directly ahead at the mahogany door in front of me. Goosebumps flooded my skin, anxiety causing my teeth to chatter with nervous energy.

"Relax, Bennett," Potter murmured as he picked up a jar of hellebore, inspected its contents, and then set it back down again. He seemed to be working under whatever mysterious instructions Fred had given him, looking for something unerringly specific. "We're not going to get caught."

"That's what you say now, but when we're hanging by the shackles of Filch's torture chamber..." I trailed off, shaking my head fiercely. “Can you please just hurry up so we can leave?"

"You know, Bennett, it wouldn't kill you to loosen up every now and then, stop caring so much about the rules — "

"Oh, right, because I should really be taking life advice from the person illegally ransacking school property right now!"

"And you officially just proved my point, Bennett. Christ, you're so bleeding uptight all the time." Potter set down a jar of unidentifiable herbs, tossing me a smirk over his shoulder as he did so. "And to think Dom always wonders why you've never had a boyfriend."

At Potter's patronizing tone, I felt a fresh burst of anger surge through my body, hot and blinding. My fists clenched immediately, nails digging red half-moons into my skin as I tried to ignore the mocking edge riding through Potter's jeer. But I couldn't do it. Ignoring him would mean letting him get the last word, and I could not allow that to happen.

Slowly, blue eyes practically spitting sparks, I locked gazes with Potter. The left corner of his lips was quirked in a smirk, his golden eyes swirling with triumph at having found one of my sensitive spots.

"For your information, there's nothing wrong with me choosing to be single," I gritted out. "Sorry I refuse to be easy like the slags you date... Oh, and I use the term 'date' in the loosest way possible, by the way."

With that, I gave a quick sarcastic smile and turned around, ready to go back to ignoring the stupid git now that I'd had my say.

Unfortunately, ignoring James Sirius Potter was easier said than done.

"Is that a hint of jealousy I detect in your tone, Bennett?"

I wheeled back aground. "As if! Sorry to disappoint, Potter, but you are not what I look for. I usually go for guys who are a little more — how should I put this? Human."

Potter cocked his head thoughtfully, brow crumpling with condescending mock-concern. "Don't you think that's aiming a little high, love?"

"Oh har har, you just think you're so clever, don't you?"

"As a matter of fact — " Before Potter could finish his sentence, however, his eyes were suddenly snapping to something directly above my head, expression shifting from smarmy insolence to sudden intrigue. His gaze seemed to change, somehow, grow darker and more... determined.

"What?" I asked impatiently, eager to continue the fight. I turned around to follow Potter's stare, but could see nothing except for rows and rows of dusty shelves. "What is it?"

"There," Potter said matter-of-factly, pointing to the highest shelf. "That's what we need."

Tucked away in a dark, shadowy corner on the shelf was a jar of little pink crystals that, despite being covered in cobwebs and grime and Merlin-knows-what-else, seemed to emit an ethereal sort of glow in the murky darkness.

"Oh," I said, surprised. From countless pictures and diagrams I'd seen in my Potions textbook, I knew I was looking at a jar of Venus Crystals — a common ingredient in love potions and any other concoctions that altered the emotions.

Hmm. I wonder what Freddy could possibly want with those?

"So how are we doing this?" I said brusquely, turning to Potter with a demanding, expectant look. Just from eyeballing the distance, I knew that neither of us would be able to reach the jar. Regardless of Potter's annoyingly tall height, the crystals were situated too high up, the jar's lid nearly touching the ceiling. There was no way.

Before I could even mention this tiny little problemo, though, Potter was already slipping his wand out from his pocket and giving it a lazy wave. "Accio Venus Crystals."

Oh yeah. Use magic. At Hogwarts. Duh.

We both waited in eager expectation for the spell to take effect, but nothing happened. The jar simply shuddered a little bit and then stopped, stubbornly refusing to move from its position on the shelf.

There was a beat of silence.

"Well, try again!" I demanded, impatient.

"It's no use." Potter gave a swift shake of the head. "Slughorn probably has some protective charm cast on the cupboard to void any spell. He'd want to make sure no one tries to magically alter anything."

I folded my arms at this surprisingly reasonable explanation. "Just try again!"

Veering his hazel eyes into a roll, Potter obliged. Once again, the jar shook a little — crystals glimmering in a manner that was almost cheeky — before going completely still. Potter sighed, mumbling something along the lines of, "of course," and pocketed his wand.

He turned towards me, gaze matter-of-fact. "Get on my shoulders, Bennett."

I stared back dumbly, eyebrows making their way to my hairline. "Come again?"

Potter crouched down and gestured towards his back, sighing again at my apparent stupidity. "You have to get on my shoulders so we can reach the shelf."

"Are you serious — ?"

"Do you want to do this or not?"

Looking at the jar of Venus Crystals, and acknowledging the absence of any nearby step-stool or ladder, I knew I didn't have any other choice.

Tentatively (and a bit awkwardly), I clambered on top of Potter's shoulders, placing my hands on his head for balance and trying to ignore the utter weirdness of the position.

And then, before I could even get myself fully settled, Potter was standing in one swift, easy motion. Caught unawares, I started falling backwards.

I gave a loud yelp and, immediately, Potter's hands shot up to steady me, his fingers wrapping themselves over the bare skin of my legs. Flushing from both the feeling of Potter's touch and the embarrassment of almost dying, I tightened my grip onto Potter's (extremely thick) skull and teetered precariously in the air.

There was a pregnant pause. "Are you alright?" Potter finally, grudgingly asked, and I could actually feel his voice, deep and slow, rumbling through his body.

It was a good thing I was on his shoulders, or else Potter would have seen me blushing up a storm. I was completely monochromatic. Red hair, red skin — I might as well have been a Teletubby.

"Um, yeah, I'm fine," I squeaked, voice too high and thin to be normal. I couldn't help but notice that, for a boy, Potter had incredibly soft hair.

But that was just, you know, a small observation. Nothing important or anything.

...Seriously, though. What shampoo did he use? Herbal Essences? Pantene?

Ahem. Not the time, Aggy. Not the time.

Potter took a couple steps towards the shelf and, slowly accustoming myself to the jerking sensation, I felt confident enough to release my grip on Potter's head and reach out for the jar.

My fingers came in contact with the glass, wrapping around the cool surface. I stared in awe at the tiny crystals inside. They were so... pretty, sparkling and winking seductively. I was suddenly overcome with the silly desire to eat one just to see how it would taste.

"Got it?"

"Yeah," I said, still staring at the jar I was clutching in my hands.

Potter shifted me slightly, his fingers unwittingly grazing up my leg in the process... And that was all it took to break my concentration.

"Woah!" I yelped. Completely startled by Potter's graze, I flung out a hand and grabbed onto the nearby shelf for balance. For a heart-stopping moment I wobbled vertiginously, feeling like I really was going to fall.

But then, muttering a series of creative expletives, Potter somehow managed to steady me, his (rough, warm) fingers pressing deeper into my skin. I regained equilibrium somewhat sheepishly, face flushing furiously with heat.

I sincerely hoped that Potter wouldn't deduce the reason behind my break in concentration. The last thing I needed was for him to think I was some stupid, swooning girl who went around, practically fainting every time a bloke made physical contact.

"Hold on, Bennett." Slowly, Potter began to crouch down. Convincing myself that my rapid heartbeat was due to the near fall and not Potter's warm skin on mine, I clumsily scrambled off his shoulders and onto safe territory.

Potter, straightening to his full height, grabbed my shoulders to steady me.

There was an awkward pause in which my eyes flitted from his hands to the jar in my grip and then, finally, to his expression. It was a surprisingly open combination of frank curiosity and slight discomfort, and it made me feel uneasy in response.

Neither of us said anything, the whole cupboard seeming to pulse with an invisible kind of tension. Silently, Potter took the jar from my hands, his hazel gaze oddly intense.

He cleared his throat. "You good?"

"Yeah," I said a little breathlessly, shaking my head to rid myself of any jittery nerves. Potter and I had never been in such close contact before, and the proximity was... unnerving.

"I'm fine," I straightened, cheeks puffing as I blew out a gusty exhale. "I just... Wow. I can't believe we actually pulled that off."

"You're telling me," Potter agreed seriously. He seemed to regain control a little, his face shifting into its normal disinterested mask of cool superiority. "We should probably go."

"Yeah. Definitely." My gaze flitted to the floor awkwardly and, almost shyly, I glanced back up at Potter. As if I couldn't help myself, a triumphant smile grew across my face. "But hey, we actually did it. Mission success."

Potter nodded, just a hint of a returning smile twitching at his lips. "Freddy would be proud."

Meow.

The temperature in the room seemed to take a sudden nosedive at the mysterious animal sound, which had come from some hidden source by the doorway. Immediately, simultaneously, Potter and I froze at the foreign noise.

Uh-oh. A cat's meow at a time like this, in a place like this, could never mean anything good.

Slowly, we both reluctantly turned around to identify the culprit responsible for the interruption. And then, after a bit of horrible searching through the darkness... my eyes landed on something that made my stomach flood with dread.

I recognized it immediately. This particular cat was every Hogwarts students' worst nightmare. A monster, a hideous demon — the stuff of horror stories and urban legends. It was hell incarnated in tabby fur and whiskers.

And somehow, it had managed to get inside this cupboard and find us. I didn't question how. It had its ways. It always did.

Suddenly, Freddy burst through the cupboard door with a loud bang, panting extremely loudly, a crazed look in his panic-ridden eyes. He didn't even bother to acknowledge the jar in Potter's hands as he fixed us with a terrified expression, chest heaving up and down rapidly. "I JUST SAW FILCH IN THE HALLWAYS! ABORT MISSION, I REPEAT, ABORT MISSION!"

But all Potter and I could do was stare back at Freddy, motionless with terror.

"It's too late, Freddy," I whispered, voice a mere croak. "We're done for."

Freddy's eyes darted around the room, face turning about five shades paler when his gaze finally landed on what Potter and I were staring so fearfully at. And then, voice nothing but a hoarse squeak, Freddy said the three words that struck terror into every Hogwarts student's heart:

"Mrs. Norris, Jr."

Chapter 20: Lost
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Disclaimer: I do not own Harry Potter, Calvin Klein, Pikachu, Hello Kitty, Kodak... Or anything else I might have missed, for that matter :)


There is only one thing to do in a situation like this:

Run.

That is to say: exactly what I was doing at this very moment.

My lungs itched for air as I sprinted down the empty corridor, every fiber of my body focused on the simple, yet somehow excruciating, act of putting one foot in front of the other.

My surroundings had melted away into an indistinct smudge. Gone was my practical Slytherin logic. Gone was the coolheaded reasoning that I used to pride myself in. Judgment, rationality, common sense... All of it. Gone. The only thing remaining was the little voice in my brain, chanting the words 'faster faster faster! ' as I pushed my body to its limit. Despite my exhaustion, I didn't dare to even think about stopping.

“Run as fast as yeh can, I'll still catch yer, ye' filthy good fer nuthin’ hoodlums!” Filch’s voice boomed off the stone walls of the corridor, creating an echo effect that was both confusing and terrifying, and I picked up my pace. As much as I wanted to pause and marvel at the fact that I had just heard someone, in complete seriousness, use the word ‘hoodlum’ in an actual sentence, I knew I couldn't afford to. Filch was getting closer.

I trained my gaze on Potter, who was far ahead of me and still sprinting in long strides that each doubled one of mine. Merlin, how could the prat have not tired out by now? Stupid Quidditch advantage. After years of training and playing, this was probably like a bloody walk in the park for him.

I, on the other hand, was feeling what I'm pretty sure were the first few symptoms of cardiac arrest.

Seeing Potter so far in front of me was enough motivation to stoke my competitive streak. Gritting my teeth together, I pushed on, the muscles in my limbs stretching and contracting painfully with every stride. I could hear my heartbeat skittering frantically inside my ears, my breath coming out in a hitched, pathetic sort of wheezing. Right now, even the process of breathing — something I used to take for granted — was agonizing.

Potter threw a quick glance over his shoulder and stopped, his calculating hazel gaze taking in me and my struggling. As I caught up to him, I could just barely register the way his features shifted slightly, as something—an idea, maybe?—dawned on him. And then, in a swift flash of movement, he was grabbing my arm and hastily whipping me around a corner.

“Over here." Yanking a raggedy blue tapestry out of the way, Potter pushed me into a dark hole that had been crudely carved into the adjacent stone wall.

What happened next was a little confusing.

I'm not sure what came first — the sudden darkness, Potter's shove, or the upset in my equilibrium from our abrupt stop — yet regardless of order, all these factors resulted in my feet tripping, my body pitching forwards, and my face getting reacquainted with the ground.

“Oof,” I grunted on impact, mouth flooding immediately with dirt and soot and Merlin-knew-what littering the passageway floor. Struggling to an upright position, I spat out my lovely debris cocktail and stifled a groan. Face-planting onto rocky surfaces wasn't exactly my idea of fun.

And yet, I seemed to do it an awful lot.

Wincing, I picked myself up off the floor and did the customary once-over usually required after an Agatha Bennett Tumble. All thirty-two teeth? Check. No broken bones? Check. Sufficient damage to my self-respect and dignity? Check, check and check. We’re good to go.

Potter, I guess, had chosen to ignore my brilliant display of grace, turning around matter-of-factly and letting the tapestry fall closed behind him. Without the light from the hallway, we were suddenly submerged into total darkness.

For a minute, we just stood there, breathing heavily and trying to let our eyes adjust. Except for our exhausted panting, it was completely silent.

Then, I opened my mouth and let the million or so questions that had been buzzing in my head come spilling out.

“Where are we? What’s going on? What is this place? Did we lose Filch? Where’s Freddy? Where are the Venus Crystals?”

Even though I couldn’t see him, I could just tell that Potter was rolling his eyes. “Get walking, will you?”

I planted my feet firmly into the ground, which was not the usual stony texture of Hogwarts’ hallways, but rather consisting of dirt and small pebbles that made it quite easy to dig my heels in — both figuratively and literally, of course.

“I’m not going anywhere,” I said stubbornly. “Not until you tell me what’s going on.”

Potter sighed, irritated by my obstinacy. “Fine. We’ll walk and talk. Ladies first.” In true gentlemanly fashion (not), Potter gestured for me to lead with a sarcastic sweep of the hand. I could barely make out the movement with my slowly-adjusting eyes.

Carefully, I began to walk, and it soon became apparent that this hole was not, in fact, just a hole, but rather a tunnel, a corridor of darkness that stretched on into seeming infinity. The air was musty and thick, the walls huddling close together to exacerbate the suffocating feel.

I trailed my fingertips across the stone wall as I walked, using this as guidance through all the twists and turns. It was quiet save for Potter’s steady breathing and a faraway scuttling, scurrying noise that I was definitely not going to try and identify.

Finally, Potter began to speak. “This is a secret passageway that leads to the Gryffie Common Room. Fred and I found it last year.”

I nodded, more to myself than anything. “Speaking of Fred, where is the dolt?”

“We lost him when Filch was chasing us, but I’m pretty sure he went to find Dom.”

I nodded again. During this whole... debacle, Dom had been playing lookout by Slughorn’s office. It made sense that Freddy would want to go and check on her. Hopefully, both of them had managed to escape Filch’s clutches amidst all the chaos.

Potter spoke again, his deep voice ringing through the tunnel. “As for the Venus Crystals — well, I think Fred took them with him. I think.”

I groaned. “They’re in his hands now? Great.”

“Have some faith, Bennett,” Potter said wryly. “Fred’s smart. He’ll keep them safe.”

“You can't seriously think that. The Crystals are probably lost already. Why did we let Fred take them?" My voice was high with panic, but I couldn’t care less. All our hard work — breaking into the Potion’s cupboard, running from Filch, almost dying several times in the process — it would be in vain if Freddy lost the Crystals.

Potter’s cool reply sliced through my hysteria, his voice cutting and unimpressed. “I'd trust Fred with my life."

“Um, are we talking about the same bloke here? This is Fred Weasley — the guy who once tried to boogey board down the Entrance hall steps in Third Year. He’s reckless, rash, impulsive — ”

“ — stubborn, determined, brave. And the same bloke who, last year, managed to smuggle sixty or so dung-bombs into school right under Filch’s nose,” Potter retorted easily. “I think we’ll be okay.”

“Whatever.” I gritted my teeth together and quickened my pace, trying to ignore the palpable smugness that was seeping from the pores of Potter’s unfairly flawless skin.

How could he be acting so calm right now? We were sodding fugitives! Running from the law! Alright, maybe that was a slight exaggeration — it wasn't so much 'the law' we were running from as 'Filch armed with a broom-handle.' But still! We were running nonetheless!

“You know, it wouldn’t hurt for you to trust people once in a while, Bennett,” Potter called out, his words like annoying pokes at my back. I clenched my fists and tried to brush off the jab, which was obviously just a poorly-veiled attempt to bait me into another argument.

Unfortunately, it was working.

“I trust people!” I exclaimed, inwardly wincing at the defensive tone my voice took on.

The only reply was a deep, mocking chuckle.

I stopped walking, facial features setting to ‘Scowl Mode’ as Potter’s stupid guffawing echoed off the tunnel walls. This was the precise reason why I hated Potter. He was just so quick to make rash judgment calls. He didn't even know me, and yet he acted so — ergh — patronizing and — ugh — superior and — augh!

“What are you laughing at, exactly?” I snapped irritably as I wheeled around, foot beginning an incessant tap-tap-tap against the rocky ground. This was just so typical of Potter. He always did this, always said or did something cryptic — yet vaguely mocking — and then never bothered to explain himself.

Potter's laughter abruptly died. “Nothing," he said casually, voice far too innocent-sounding for my liking.

“No, it’s obviously not nothing, otherwise you wouldn’t be laughing your arse off like a bloody hyena! Tell me!”

“Touchy, aren't we?” He was chuckling again — that complete and utter arse.

"I am not touchy!"

"This behavior makes sense, though, what with all your trust issues."

“Wha — ? Just because I don't think Fred is a responsible person doesn't mean I have trust issues!"

"It's okay, Bennett. Don't feel like you have to justify yourself in front of me — this is who you are — "

“I don’t know what you’re talking about! I’m a very trusting person!“

“It's okay. Embrace yourself, Bennett. We'll get through this together."

“I trust people all the time!“

“You can seek help, reach out, find others who are just like you...”

“Bloody — argh!” Vision clouded with a dangerously red haze, I marched towards Potter — or at least, the Potter-shaped blob that I could vaguely make out in the darkness — and crossed my arms, sticking out my hip and staring menacingly at his silhouette in front of me.

Cue Boxing Referee Voice: In one corner we have Potter! Coming in with a weight of 75 kilograms and a height of, er, tall, this five-time champion is certainly a formidable foe! He’s got mystery, he’s got wit — not to mention the fact that he’s a complete and utter arse! Any person daring enough to challenge this bloke is going to need skill, nerves, and a whole lot of luck!

In the other corner, we have... Agatha Bennett! Despite the fact that she weighs in at a measly 50 kilograms, this contender is not to be underestimated! She’s fiery! She’s tenacious! Cross her and you’ll wish you’d never been born. Nay, scratch that — cross her and you’ll wish your parents had never been born! She’s that scary, folks!

In the fight of the century, who will win?


I glared at Potter, practically burning holes into his skull — not an easy feat, mind you, giving its extreme thickness — and pursed my lips unhappily.

“I — do not — " I began, enunciating each word clearly and slowly. "Have trust issues."

"Sure, Bennett." Potter cocked his head to the side, voice a light and easy lilt. “Except that you totally do.”

I gaped at him, jaw open, blue eyes nothing but mere slits. “I do not!”

“Do too.”

“Do not!”

“Do too.”

“Do not!” Somehow, the three foot or so distance that had been between us had, over the course of our bickering, shrunk to only a mere centimeter or two. We were now standing nose to nose (or nose to neck, if you factored in Potter’s annoying height) as I glared menacingly at Potter and tried to reign in my anger.

“I — do — not — !” Teeth gritted, I raised my finger and poked Potter in the chest three times. Each word was accompanied by a vicious jab, courtesy of me, myself, and my raging temper. I hoped the stupid git bruised easily.

“Okay, fine, fine! I was wrong! You don’t have trust issues,” Potter exclaimed, hands held up in a gesture of surrender. “You don’t have anything."

I turned away, satisfied, and began marching down the dark tunnel again. I was mid-stride when I heard Potter say something, his voice low but still loud enough for me to hear every single, unmistakable syllable.

“— except for a severe anger management problem.”

What was that?”

—*—

By the time we finally reached the end of the tunnel, I was at my wits end. After quite a bit of bickering and squabbling and anger (which came, admittedly, mostly from my side), Potter and I had eventually settled into a terse silence. While Potter looked like he was completely at ease with himself, I was a different story. Teeth gritted, breathing sharp, fists clenched — every part of my body was on edge. My nerve endings were sparking with a volatile irritation that, at any moment, could be set off into a flurry of explosive rage. One wrong word from Potter, folks, and we would have a dead body on our hands.

When we finally arrived at the exit, I was just about ready to fall dramatically to my knees and start kissing the ground, thankful to be finally out of that confined, unbearable space with Potter. As the prat pushed aside the exit's tapestry, I half-expected some kind of heavenly display to greet us — clouds parting, bursts of celestial light, a glee club of angels in a Hallelujah chorus, jazz hands included...

Instead, Potter and I were simply met with the rather unexciting sight of yet another Hogwarts' hallway. Whatever. Still good enough for me.

Squinting my eyes in the new light, I scanned our surroundings. We appeared to be right outside the entrance to the Gryffindor Common Room. On a nearby wall, The Fat Lady was snoring peacefully in her portrait, her soft sighs drifting languidly through the air. A nearby clock declared it was almost four o’clock in the morning — so much for beauty sleep.

I clambered out of the hole, frantically pushing away a few errant locks of hair that had fallen into my face. Despite the numerous anti-frizz potions Dom had recently been forcing me to use, my tresses had morphed into an unrecognizable monster sometime during the night. My hair now orbited my head in an angry cloud of crimson frizz.

Potter climbed out after me, hazel eyes squinting in the light. From the looks of things, I wasn’t the only one suffering from a bad hair day. Potter could have passed for an electrocution victim. His hair looked just like mine, the only difference being that, despite appearing as if he had just received a zap from Pikachu, Potter still could have easily fit in on a Calvin Klein billboard, no questions asked.

Damn him and his stupid ability to get away with the whole rugged and disheveled look. I seriously loathed that stupid git.

Which was a good thing, really, because if — by some hideous twist of fate — Potter and I ever ended up married, our kids would have seriously fucked up hair. Just saying.

“Well,” Potter began slowly. He stretched his arms above his head, the movement languid and lazy, as if he had all the time in the world. “This night has been...interesting.”

“It sure has. Now, if you excuse me, I’m going to go back to my dorm to record every enthralling second of it in my secret diary. Toodles!” My voice was coated with fake girlish enthusiasm, so sugary and sweet that, if you listened hard enough, you could hear the sound of a million cavities burrowing themselves into the molars of all the sleeping students within a thirty-foot radius.

Potter did not appreciate the sarcasm. “Yeah, sure, Bennett. You go do that — "

He suddenly stopped mid-word, face flickering in surprise.

“What?” I asked uneasily, taking an involuntary step backwards. Potter was staring intently at my forehead, and it was starting to creep me out.

“You’re bleeding, Bennett.” Potter murmured, a tiny line creasing the tan skin between his eyebrows.

Blinking in surprise, I reached up to touch my forehead and found a sticky gash in the skin matted with dirt and hair — a souvenir from my little spill in the tunnel, natch. As soon as I touched it, the pain registered instantly.

I sucked in a sharp breath through my teeth, wincing as the sting seared, red and hot, through my head. I glanced at my fingers, which were covered with a bright, scarlet coloured substance that I belatedly identified as blood.

“Oh,” I said rather intelligently. “Okay.”

Instead of being concerned, however, Potter simply looked annoyed — as if my injury was some giant inconvenience, like I had purposely fallen just to spite him.

“Wait here,” Potter said, a scowl twisting his lips. The crease between his eyebrows was gone, face smoothed into the same, unreadable mask that it always was.

I didn’t say anything, just continued to stare dazedly at my fingers, glazed in blood. I may have nodded.

After a minute or two, Potter came back. Not saying a word, he grabbed me by the shoulder and half-dragged me to the entrance of the Gryffie Common Room, which was now swinging open. I didn’t protest Potter’s manhandling, nor did I fully register the irritated grumbles of the freshly awoken Fat Lady. All I could do was let Potter haul me through the portrait hole, knowing he must have bargained with the irritable portraitress to bring me inside.

Everything was quiet in the Common Room. The only source of light being the cluster of softly fading embers glowing gently inside the fireplace. Of course, I’d been in the Gryffie Common Room many times before, but never in the middle of the night (or, to be more exact, morning). It all seemed much... dimmer. Cozier. As if the room itself was asleep.

“Be quiet,” Potter mouthed. Slowly, cautiously, he led me to a stone staircase that seemed to spiral upwards into darkness. I didn’t ask any questions, just followed in his silent footsteps.

After more climbing than I would have preferred, we finally reached a wooden door with the number ‘5’ crudely carved into its surface. Potter cracked it open, before slowly turning to me and putting a finger to his lips in the universal sign for ‘be quiet or else we're royally screwed.' I was surprised to see that he was smirking. In that moment, with his burnt-gold eyes glimmering and his finger pressed against his mouth, he looked oddly... mischievous. It was an expression that immediately had me on edge. And from it, I could guess that this wasn’t the first time Potter had snuck a girl up to his room.

Potter walked inside, pushing the door all the way open, and I was hit with an overwhelming stench that, I’m pretty sure, took about ten years off my life. It was a lethal combination of sweat and boy, with a hint of ‘dead troll’ thrown in for good measure. It forced its way into my nostrils, snaking down my windpipe and awakening my until-then-dormant gag reflex.

Once I got over the overwhelming smell (and the hacking coughing fit that it had brought on), I took a tentative step inside. Six beds took up most of the space in the room, all in varying states of messiness. They were each occupied by a sleeping inhabitant, all the curtains pulled shut. Which meant Fred had made it safely back and, during the long time it took for Potter and I to get here, had fallen sound asleep. I sighed in relief — if Fred had escaped Filch, that most likely meant Dom had, too.

One bed, however, remained conspicuously empty. Aidan's.

It was pretty dark, but Potter managed to navigate his way through the dorm easily. Unfortunately, I could not say the same for myself. As I followed Potter, I managed to trip over a grand total of four trunks, twelve schoolbooks, two broomsticks, and one unidentified cotton object. I picked up the scrap of fabric only to realize it was a pair of boxers, and quickly dropped it to the ground.

“Bennett, you coming or not?” Potter’s voice sliced through my thoughts (re: horror), and I turned around to see him standing by a poorly painted door on the opposite side of the room. Tearing my eyes away from the ground and the underclothing on it, I wound through the labyrinth of beds and wardrobes to make my way towards Potter.

Potter opened the door to — what I was guessing to be — the bathroom, and I was momentarily blinded as a rectangular chunk of dazzling light hit me square in the face. My eyelids fluttered shut, a squeak of surprise slipping through my lips, but Potter shoved me inside anyways. Eyes still shut, I stumbled helplessly around a bit until, firmly guiding me by my shoulder, Potter led me to the sinks.

“Sit,” Potter ordered and, cracking my eyes open wearily, I hauled myself onto the counter. The bathroom was surprisingly clean, with white walls, squeaky tiles and gold accents. Multicolored toothbrushes were clustered in a cup on the counter. For a moment, I just sat there awkwardly, legs dangling, still blinking child-like in the new light.

Twisting myself around, I was met with the somewhat horrifying sight of my own reflection. I jerked back in surprise and then leaned closer to stare at myself. Merlin, I looked a right mess. My skin was pale, my eyes bleary, my hair a lost cause. The wound on my forehead looked just as bad as it felt, and I was pretty sure that, given some special effects and the right lighting, someone could have made a decent horror film out of me.

I hastily turned back around, lest I started giving myself nightmares, to see Potter rummaging through a cabinet on one of the far walls. I watched him work, the muscles of his shoulders tightening underneath his grey t-shirt, and I was suddenly struck by how boyish Potter was. Rumpled hair, broad shoulders, a lean waist... He was all hard angles and straight lines.

It, er, worked for him, to say the least.

Blushing for some unknown reason, I fidgeted awkwardly from where I was sitting, biting my lip and wrapping my fingers around the cool edge of the counter. The silence was killing me. I just wanted to say something — anything — but I was at a loss for words. Finally, I resorted to simply averting my gaze and counting the tiles on the floor. Quite a fascinating task, as you can imagine. Almost as fun as watching paint dry.

I was on tile number thirty-eight when Potter finally re-appeared by my side, his hands full with an assortment of colorful potions bottles that he proceeded to dump on the counter.

“Hold still,” he ordered curtly, grimacing as he pulled the cork out of one of the bottles. It came loose with a loud ‘pop’ that echoed off the tiled walls.

Slowly, almost hesitantly, Potter poured some of the liquid on to a white cloth. I watched, a look of disgust on my face, as the bubblegum-pink medicine oozed out of the bottle. It — whatever it was — looked about as appetizing as Filch in his underwear.

“Um, what is that?” I asked apprehensively, ducking out of the way as Potter came towards me, cloth in hand.

“Bennett, I said hold still.” Potter snapped back exasperatedly, blatantly ignoring my question. Again, he reached out towards me with the cloth, and, again, I swerved out of the way.

“No! What is it?”

“It’s nothing,” Potter said, spitting the words out through clenched teeth. “Now hold still.”

Nothing? What do you mean nothing?”

“Just antiseptic for your cut, okay?”

“Will it hurt?”

“I don’t know!”

“You don’t know?”

“Well, how about you hold still for one bloody second and we can find out?“

“Like hell! Will. It. Hurt?”

“Okay, it might sting a bit.”

“A bit? What is that supposed to mea — Ow! Merlin’s beard!”

I pushed Potter away from me, clutching dramatically at the stinging wound on my forehead. Somehow, in a totally unfair display of Quidditch agility, Potter had managed to pin my shoulders to the mirror, rendering me helpless as he swiped some medicine onto my cut.

I squeezed my eyes shut, gritting my teeth together as my forehead throbbed in agony. Damn Potter and his sneaky ninja ways! Merlin! It felt like someone had set my skin on fire and then rubbed sandpaper onto the third degree burn! How was that stuff even legal?

Potter remained unfazed by my suffering. He simply poured some more medicine onto the cloth, his jaw clenched as he slammed the bottle back onto the counter. “Stop being such a wimp, Bennett," he said evenly.

“A wimp? You just flipping tried to kill me!” Okay, so maybe I had a flair for dramatics. Sue me.

“Come on, it’s not that bad.” Potter rolled his eyes, still advancing towards me, cloth in hand. His eyes — normally bright swirls of colour — were now dark, gleaming with something determined. Something dangerous. “Now can you hold still —?“

“Are you kidding me?”

“ — just for one sodding second — “

“No!”

“— while I apply some more!”

“NEVER!”

With that sweeping declaration, I leapt off the counter and, heart skittering in legitimate fear, made a break for it. At this point I didn’t care if I had to wake up all of Potter’s dorm mates. Hell, I didn’t care if I had to wake up the whole entire castle! I wasn’t going to go through anymore of this sadistic torture — I was done.

I started to sprint towards the door, but before I could really get anywhere, Potter had smoothly grabbed me by the right arm and halted me in my tracks. I struggled furiously, feet skidding helpless across the tile floor like one of those sodding cartoon characters that walk off a cliff and are left running in mid-air.

"Let go of me!"

"Merlin, Bennett — "

"I do not appreciate being man-handled!" Even as I was saying this, however, Potter was using his stupid Quidditch muscles to swing me firmly away from the exit. I went reeling backwards, freshly released from his grip, and my lower-back bumped the edge of the counter. Potter advanced menacingly, eyes narrowed with concentration, his medicine-holding arm raised and ready to strike again.

As if in slow-motion, I saw his hand come down, raised my own to block it — and soon enough we were engaged in a rather stupid-looking physical grapple, my hands gripping Potter's wrist as he pressed forward, my flimsy bicep muscles the only things standing between me and a smarting forehead.

"You're at risk for infection, Bennett!"

"You're at risk for getting your teeth kicked out!"

"Bennett, you can either keep on struggling, or you can sit down and play nice. Either way, this potion is going on your forehead," Potter growled irritably, and I could tell my his increasing proximity and my decreasing strength that he was right. "What’s it going to be?”

For a moment, I pondered the possibility of giving in. It would only take another minute, really, for Potter to apply the potion, and then we could all be on our merry way. But there was another side of me — the not so mature side, the one that liked to jump on beds and eat cookies before supper — that hated the thought of giving in. It was the same side of me that made me bawl like a baby everytime the nurse brought out a needle at the Healer’s office.

Suddenly, the answer was very clear: no way in hell was I going to succumb to Potter and his evil potion of death, which I was pretty sure had been made out of the crushed remnants of kitten souls. Nope. I was not going to go down without a fight.

Suddenly slackening my grip, I ducked out from under Potter's arms and made another dash for the exit. I was sorely foiled however, as Potter — realizing what I was about to do — lunged forward and grabbed me by the waist, hauling me off of the floor like a sodding sack of potatoes.

Chaos ensued.

“Ack! Potter! What are you doing — ?“

“Stop flailing!”

“No! Let go of me!”

“Bloody hell — your hair's in my face. I can’t breathe!“

“Good!”

And then I was kicking and screaming, and Potter was struggling to dodge my flailing limbs, and the room was spinning around me in a dizzying swirl of tile and sinks and light, and I was just about ready to surrender and give up, when, all of a sudden, the door opened.

We froze.

Voice dying in my throat, I craned my head around to see Fred Weasley stumble through the door, his face glazed over with a dim, dazed expression.

Dangling in mid-air, I stared at Fred with comically wide eye. In my peripheral vision, I could see that Potter, too, was completely motionless, his jaw slack. After all, we were in a slightly, er, compromising position, what with Potter’s arms wrapped around me from behind, me dangling in the air, mouth open mid-scream, one of my feet planted on the tiled wall... We were the perfect example of the medical condition known as stark raving mad.

And yet, Freddy didn’t utter a single word as he walked right past us, turned on one of the sinks, and started brushing his teeth.

We gaped at him incredulously, not knowing what to say. We were still frozen in our ridiculous position as Freddy continued on his merry way, mouth foaming with toothpaste. Like brushing his teeth in the middle of the night was a completely normal thing to do, like he didn't notice Potter and I standing (if you could use that word) right next to him.

And then I realized. Freddy actually didn't notice us. Because he wasn't awake right now. He was sleep-walking. Or, rather, sleep-brushing-his-teeth. Maybe this was a habit of his. Maybe he did this every night. Dental hygiene could be a big concern for Fred's subconscious. Who knew? It was Freddy, for Merlin’s sake. No one knew.

We watched as Freddy spat, rinsed, gargled and then, without another backwards glanced, shuffled out of the room, closing the door behind him.

Well, that was —

“Weird.” Potter remarked conversationally, his grip around my waist slackening. I fell to the ground, letting out a squawk of surprise that I'm sure was insanely attractive. “I never knew Freddy did that.”

I stumbled around a bit, disoriented, and then turned to face Potter. For a moment, I considered bolting for the door again. But Fred's interruption had seemed to put a damper on my will-power — I know longer had any fight left into me and, judging from the determined glint in Potter’s molten eyes, even if I did decide to run, I most likely wouldn’t get very far.

Still concentrated on the complete and utter weirdness of the situation, I didn’t even realize that Potter was guiding me to the counter until I had already sat down. I looked up, startled, and my gaze locked with his — blue on hazel, sapphire mingling with gold. He was staring at me intently, something that I found very unnerving. “Now that that's over with, Bennett," he said patiently, as if talking to a small child. "Will you please hold still?”

I could only nod, letting my eyes flutter shut.

Quietly, Potter pressed the cloth to my forehead, holding the back of my head lightly with his other hand. It was odd — his touch was slow, almost gentle, fingers feather light and soft.

It took a second for me to feel the potion, but when I did, I felt it. Oh man, did I feel it. Sucking in a breath, I bit down on the inside of my cheek, trying to stifle the squeak of pain clawing its way up my throat. We were witches and wizards, for Merlin’s sake! Shouldn’t we have made a good, painless antiseptic by now? One that didn’t make me want to set myself on fire, perhaps?

“Sorry,” Potter muttered.

I tensed, so surprised at Potter's reaction that I forgot about the pain for a split-second. Had that really just happened? Had Potter... apologized? To me? Agatha Bennett?

I opened my eyes, ready to make some snippy, snide remark — most likely along the lines of ‘You’re apologizing? Where’s the flying pig?’ — but the words died in my throat.

Because Potter was staring at me with the most curiously intense look in his eyes, his face inches from mine, and I could see every one of his annoyingly handsome features in detail. The dark, tousled hair. The faint scar slicing through his left eyebrow. The straight nose and completely unfair, Michelangelo-sculpted cheekbones. The lips that curved into a wry smirk. And the eyes.

Oh Merlin, the eyes. Describing them was impossible — any way I did it, it would just end up sounding clichéd and trite. But they really were kaleidoscopes of colour and swirling eddies of burnt liquid gold. And they really were smoldering and dusky and any other trashy-romance-novel adjective you could think of. They were all of that and more.

My brain cells seemed to fizzle into a slow, hormone-addled demise, and I felt my mouth go dry. Because okay yeah, I hated Potter, but I was also a girl. A girl who noticed things like high cheekbones and shoulder muscles and really, really nice eyes.

Potter seemed to notice my gaping, because the left corner of his lips quirked upwards. "Everything alright, Bennett?"

“Blurgh,” I responded.

Potter’s smirk widened, somehow becoming more smug than before. “One second.”

Reaching over, he grabbed a plaster from the assortment of first-aid stuff on the counter and then stuck it onto my forehead, using his thumb to smooth the adhesive into my skin. “There. All set.”

“Hnnnnnng,” I replied, just really sparkling with wit today.

Desperate to say something — anything — that didn’t make me sound like a mental patient, I hastily added: “You’re, um, very good at this. I mean, you seem to know what you’re doing, is all.”

My cheeks were blushing up a storm. Luckily, Potter had turned around to gather up all the potions bottles and hopefully hadn’t witnessed my quick transformation into a cherry tomato.

“Eh, I’m no Healer, that’s for sure.” Potter shrugged modestly as he stacked the potions back into the cabinet. “I just have to do it a lot, being Quidditch Captain and all. First-aid is kind of a requirement when you have Freddy on your team.”

I didn’t reply. Instead, I looked down at my lap and fiddled with my hands. There was a part of me — a very loud part — that wanted to know why Potter had been so insistent on fixing my cut, why he had gone so far just so that he could put a teensy bit of Potion on a weensy little scrape. For a moment, I almost considered asking him, but then I realized that I already knew the answer.

Yes, we hated each other with a burning passion. Yes, I was annoying and irritating to him. But I was the annoying and irritating sister of his best friend. The same best friend who was lying in a hospital bed at this very moment. Somewhere, deep inside Potter’s very chivalrous, very Gryffindor mind, he felt the need to...Protect me? No, that wasn't the right word. Look out for me, was more like it.

I didn’t like that idea. To Potter, I was just another pesky responsibility. A burden. I was the little sister that everyone in the family had to look out for.

On the other hand, this mentality did explain a lot about the way the whole group had recently been behaving — the worried and furtive looks between Freddy, Dom, and Potter, the way that they had been so quick to jump to my defense against Cooper...

“Oi, Bennett, you coming? Or are you just going to sit there for the rest of the night?”

I shook my head quickly, startled out of my thoughts, and looked up to see Potter standing by the door, his hands in his pockets.

“Um, yeah,” I mumbled, hopping off the counter and following Potter out of the bathroom.

Once we were inside the dormitory, I felt much better. Safer. It was dark and cool; snores and the sound of deep breathing drifted through the thick air. In here, it was harder for Potter to look at me, to judge and gauge my expression like he always did.

Daylight was slowly beginning to leak through the windows, illuminating an empty bed that sat near the end of the room. And like a moth to a flame, I was immediately drawn to it.

Ignoring Potter’s curious gaze on my back, I walked straight towards what I knew to be Aidan's bed. It was meticulously made, the crimson sheets smoothed and folded. It looked like it had never been slept in — like the person who it belonged to had never even existed.

My entire body was wound taut as I grazed my hand over the pillow. My knees seemed to have forgotten how to function — I was liable to melt into a human puddle on the floor in any minute. I could feel It stirring idly in the pit of my stomach, ready to awake and rear itself to full ugliness. Potter was watching me from the opposite side of the room, his gaze dark.

On the bedside table, there was a small, silver picture frame. The second I laid eyes on it, I recognized the photograph inside.

It was of the two of us. Aidan and I, no one else, grinning at the camera like there was no tomorrow.

It had been our First Year, I remember. We were standing in front of the Hogwarts Express; I think it had been Mum who had taken the picture. We were both so small — Aidan was all cowlicks and knobby knees and toothy smiles. I stood next to him, proud and beaming as I waved to the camera. Everything was so much simpler back then.

Back then, I could smile without feeling like I was about to fall to pieces. Back then, I still had my brother.

“Bennett.”

I looked up from the picture to see Potter standing by the dormitory entrance, his face completely serious.

“Yeah?” I tried clearing my throat, but my voice was still hoarse and thick with an unspoken emotion. Damn it. Act casual, Aggy. Nothing is wrong. It’s all okay.

“Why — why don’t you ever visit Aidan in the Hospital Wing?”

I reeled back as if the question had physically slapped me across the face. Setting the picture frame back on the table, I looked down, suddenly unable to meet Potter's accusatory question as I adjusted the buttons of my blouse.

“Because it’s none of your fucking business, that’s why.” I replied frostily, each word soaked in disdain. Stupid Potter with his stupid prying questions and his stupid knowing looks. He was completely insane if he thought I was going to suddenly start opening up to him, of all people. What did he expect me to say? ‘Hey, Potter, why don’t we talk about our feelings regarding this whole Aidan deal? And then afterwards, you can braid my hair and we can make friendship bracelets together!’

Not that the idea didn't sound absolutely riveting and all, but I’d rather do a cannonball off the Astronomy Tower than speak to Potter about how I was feeling at the moment.

I expected Potter to brush my comment off like he always did, but, to my surprise, a spark of legitimate anger flashed through his eyes. “See, that’s where you’re wrong, Bennett. Because it is my business.”

“Oh yeah, how so?”

“How so? Do you hear yourself? You weren’t the only one who lost him, you know. Dom, Freddy, your parents... Me.” His voice was quiet and infuriatingly calm, which somehow made the words he was saying sound that much worse. “How about you get off that high horse of yours and look around yourself for change?”

“I don’t need to stand here and take this from you!” With each word, my anger was growing stronger and stronger, and my voice was getting louder and louder. There was definitely a correlation between my temper and my volume — when one seemed to grow, so did the other. In fact, I was surprised that none of the Gryffie blokes hadn’t woken up to the lovely sounds of our fighting, yet. Honestly. What a wonderful way to start off the morning. The birds chirping, the sun shining, and — oh, yep, that’s Potter and Bennett arguing again.

“Then don’t!” Potter snapped, anger suddenly breaking through his maddening calmness. He actually looked pissed — his eyes were flashing a million different shades, his jaw clenched tight. He gestured outwards with his hands, taking a step in my direction. “No one’s asking you to! So why don’t you just leave? Run away! Because that’s what you do, isn’t it, Bennett? It’s the Slytherin M.O.! Run away and hide until the problem disappears on its own!”

“Oh, and what are you doing, Mr. Gryffindor? Are you going to save the day with your heroics and your pranks and your cavorting around the castle at midnight?!"

“It’s better than sitting around and doing nothing!”

“Newsflash: hospital visits and silly pranks aren’t going to bring him back!”

“And neither will your passive-aggressive behavior!”

"Oh, so we're diagnosing my behavior now? Funny, I don’t remember signing up for psychotherapy!”

“That’s weird, because you sure as bloody hell need it!”

I had no response to that. At that moment, all I could think about was Dr. Marina Marvona and her purple hair and her wheelie chair and that damn look in her eyes — sympathy and pity mixed with a little bit of sorrow — as she tried to talk to me. I bloody hated it how people thought they knew — knew what it was like, how I felt...

In any corny, teenage movie, this would be the part where I screamed, “NOBODY UNDERSTANDS ME, I WISH I WERE NEVER BORN!” and then marched up the stairs to my bedroom.

Instead, however, I could only stare at Potter, my chest heaving up and down with fury. I felt like there was an honest-to-Merlin volcano inside my chest, spewing out lava and anger and any other venomous feeling. It was churning in my stomach, rising up my throat...

Potter, on the other hand, seemed to have checked himself.

He drew backward, the livid, frustrated expression on his face suddenly wiped clean as he averted his gaze, face blank.

"You should leave,” he muttered quietly. "Before we wake everyone up."

"Fine," I snapped, fed up with it all.

I marched past him, making sure to push past with as much rough force as possible, and slammed the door on my way out. I probably woke up the whole entire Gryffindor tower while doing so, but the anger flooding through my bloodstream made it physically impossible for me to care.

I stormed down the boys’ staircase, the clattering sound of my footsteps echoing through the air. How dare he! Confronting me like that, with his accusations and his finger-pointing... What did he know? Nothing! He knew nothing!

And yet, I could still hear his voice in the back of my head, mocking, haunting:

You weren’t the only one who lost him, you know.

Why did that stupid git always make things so complicated?

Chapter 21: Fearless
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Disclaimer: I do not own HP or Mean Girls, which inspired one of the lines in this chapter and is owned by Paramount Pictures.



The next morning, I woke up feeling surprisingly refreshed. Despite the fact that I’d just slept a grand total of two hours, and despite the fact that I’d spent the majority of the previous night illegally traipsing around the castle with Freddy, Potter and Dom, I was still feeling surprisingly... Content. Against all odds, we had pulled off our mission — Freddy had the Venus Crystals, Cooper was oblivious, and no one was getting their limbs gruesomely pulled off in Filch’s secret underground torture chamber. It was a good day.

In fact, Freddy had explicitly promised Dom and I that we would no longer have to worry about the Cooper Prank, that he wouldn't be roping us into any more of his foolhardy schemes. Now that Freddy had the Venus Crystals, our work here was done, and we could sit back, relax and, as Freddy said, "leave it to the experts" — whatever that meant.

That meant no more embarking on silly missions throughout the castle. No more breaking into school property. No more getting into compromising positions with James Potter inside broom cupboards. The prank was history — for all intents and purposes, it had never even happened in the first place. In fact, the only evidence of my involvement in it was the tiny, barely noticeable cut on my forehead.

Well, that and the slight faint homicidal urge I felt whenever I thought about Potter’s smarmy face. After all, our argument — fight, row, whatever — was still simmering fresh in my mind, and now I wanted nothing more than to take all the stupid, condescending things he had said, shove them down his throat, and watch him choke to death on his own words as I sat by with a jumbo bucket of buttery popcorn.

But other than that, I was feeling just peachy.

Honestly. Murderous intentions be damned, for once I was in a good mood, and I wasn’t about to let you-know-prat spoil it. I’d put some serious thought into the matter, and I’d finally come to the realization that I could do or say whatever I wanted, but Potter would never apologize. There was no use confronting him. Most likely, he’d just say some other pratty thing that would leave me speechless and fuming, and I’d be left off even worse.

No, I wasn’t going to waste the time. For now, I would simply ignore what had happened and take a drive down the high road — or, as I liked to call it, ‘push-all-emotions-into-the-back-of-your-brain-where-they’ll-fester-as-mental-illnesses’ boulevard. It was much easier — not to mention smarter — than approaching Potter and risking the chance of possibly strangling him.

Today, I was going to relax, stay calm, and ride out the wonderful wave of sunshine-y cheer that I was currently on. It was a beautiful morning, the birds were chirping, the autumn sky was a crisp, beautiful blue and, for once, I was feeling happy.

Dom, however, wasn’t so chipper.

“I fucking hate my fucking life.”

I grinned to myself as Dom and I walked into the Great Hall, the savory smell of breakfast wafting through the air. The only thing that made me feel better than a Hogwarts breakfast was a Hogwarts breakfast with the ever so entertaining one-woman show that was a sleep-deprived Dom Weasley.

For some reason, Dom never functioned properly if she didn't get her healthy eight hours in. By some biological malfunction, she always lost two important things: her ability to tolerate even the slightest annoyance, and the little filter thing that all normal humans have between their brains and their mouths. The result was a slew of snarky comments, creative cursing, and the occasional bout of verbal abuse directed towards some trembly first-year who Dom always said "deserved it" because she "didn't like his face."

I could see Freddy sitting at a table towards the end of the Great Hall, and I began to make my way in that direction, Dom shuffling her feet behind me in some semblance of a walking motion.

"Morning," Fred greeted, glancing up from his pancakes as I bounded up to the table, sliding onto the bench across from him.

"Good morning," I replied brightly, snatching a piece of golden toast off his plate and nibbling on it.

Fred raised his eyebrows, too surprised to object to me nicking his food. "You're awfully cheerful today."

"You're awfully observant today," I shot back, but the comment couldn't achieve the normal level of snark I had been aiming for. I was too happy. Humming to myself, I reached over and started loading my plate with anything and everything in my reach. Crispy bacon, buttery pancakes, golden slices of toast and colourful globs of jelly... For the first time in a long, long while, I actually had an appetite.

I looked up from my overflowing plate to see Fred gaping at me, mouth dropped open, his eyebrows climbing higher and higher on their ascent to Mt. Fred's Hairline. THere was the faintest hint of a grin twitching at his lips.

My lips curled into an unsure smile. "What?"

"And here we see," Freddy began in a comically deep 'tour guide' voice, holding his fist up to his mouth in an invisible microphone. "The ever-elusive creature, the Agatha Bennett Smile! Thought to be long extinct, this creature has evaded the eyes and notebooks of scientists everywhere, along with its peers: the yeti and the Loch Ness monster. But now we do have concrete proof that, yes, folks, it does indeed exist! And it’s making an appearance before noon, no less! Careful folks, we don't want to scare it off!"

I shot Freddy a look, but my lips were still twitching annoyingly upwards. "Are you quite finished?"

Fred opened his mouth to retort, but was interrupted as Dom plunked herself down next to him, apparently having finished her long and treacherous journey across the Great Hall.

"Morning," Fred said brightly, but she simply replied with a nasty look and a Frankenstein-esque groan.

At this, Freddy immediately grinned, obviously familiar with his cousin's lovely morning persona. His caramel eyes took on a sly, mischievous glimmer. "A little cranky today, are we?"

Dom mumbled back something unintelligible (but probably insulting) and grabbed the nearest pot of coffee, sloshing about a gallon of the black liquid into her goblet.

"Woah, easy there, tiger. Save some for the rest of us!"

"Go away."

Fred's grin widened, his lips curling devilishly at the corners. "Ah, there's the Dom we all know and love."

Wordlessly, Dom snatched her goblet and took a guzzling sip of coffee, draining every last drop of caffeine. Apparently it was exactly what she needed to give her that extra energy boost. Bitch-o-meter freshly filled, she slammed the goblet back down onto the table and shot Freddy a sarcastically sweet smile that could make your skin crawl.

"Hey, Freddy."

"Yeah?"

"Guess what?"

"What?"

“I got a new pet bird.”

Fred frowned, his eyebrows scrunching together in bewilderment. “A bird?”

“Yeah.” Dom nodded over-enthusiastically, psycho smile still plastered across her face. “Wanna see it?"

Before Fred could answer, Dom raised her hand and flashed her middle finger at him, waving it directly in front of his face.

Lovely — granted, it wasn't very sophisticated, but she earned points for creativity.

"Har har, I get it, flipping the 'bird,'" Fred nodded, a condescending smile of his own splayed across his face. "Very witty of you, cousin dearest."

“Just fuck off,” Dom spat back, suddenly incensed, and Fred and I immediately reared back. Dom's sudden flares in temper were normal on mornings like this, but that didn't make them any less scary. My best friend's golden-green eyes were practically sputtering with sparks, and I had to marvel at how her mood could swing from ‘living-dead’ to ‘human volcano’ in the span of seconds. It was a bit scary, actually.

“Now, Dom," Fred began, holding his hands up in mock-truce. "There’s no need to be such a grumpy-pants...”

Grumpy-pants? Are we in third grade?" Dom scoffed, voice brazenly loud as she sloshed more coffee into her goblet, spraying drops of it on some nearby unsuspecting bystanders.

“Crabapple,” Fred sing-songed in that maddening, know-it-all tone of his. Dom arched an eyebrow, unimpressed.

“Seriously?”

“Cranky-face.”

"Go away, Fred. I can't handle you or your vocabulary right now."

“Grouchosaurus Rex!”

I sighed to myself, glancing down at my plate and impaling a piece of sausage onto my fork. Once Freddy and Dom got started, they could go on for hours — especially if Dom was suffering from sleep deprivation. I knew that they wouldn’t quit until one of them was successfully rendered speechless, be that from a particularly scathing comment, actual physical violence, or a damn good silencing charm... It really didn’t matter. Neither would quit unless the other had effectively shut up.

“I’ll show you cranky-face, you little — “

“Ow! Merlin's balls — !”

“Yeah, take that!”

I looked up from my plate to see that Dom currently had Freddy in a headlock and was attempting to shove his face into a bowl of porridge. “Say it!”

“No!”

“Say it!”

“Never!”

“SAY IT!”

“Ow — okay, okay!” Fred sighed, wincing in pain as Dom thrust his face even closer to the porridge. “I’m a little girl!”

“And?”

“And I like to dress up in my mommy’s clothes!”

“And?”

Fred grimaced. These lines had a rehearsed air about them, and it was evident this wasn't the first time Freddy had been forced to recite them. Dom applied more pressure, and the tip of Freddy's nose came down to graze the thick, gooey substance. I couldn’t help but feel a little twinge of pity for the poor bloke. “No.“

“Say it!”

Eyes filled with self-loathing, Freddy mumbled, "I have to use — "

"Louder!" Dom barked, tightening her boa-constrictor grip on Freddy's head.

“No!”

“LOUDER!” With a vicious yank, Dom twisted her hand in Freddy’s precious locks and pulled. Hard. Merlin, she was terrifying.

“Ow! Okay, okay, careful with the 'do! It’s delicate!” Freddy flinched, finally relenting. “I use — “

“I said LOUDER!”

"I USE SUPER JUMBO TAMPONS BECAUSE I HAVE A HEAVY FLOW AND A WIDE-SET — "

You know those moments when you say something out-of-place, maybe even a little inappropriate, and everyone in the room happens to go silent at the exact same time?

Yeah. This was one of them.

The Great Hall suddenly hushed as students and teachers alike turned to stare, eyebrows raised and jaws dropped at the spectacle that was a Weasley Cousin quarrel. A resounding silence seemed to travel through the room, the air heavy with tension, as everyone stared at Fred, and Fred stared at the porridge in front of his nose.

" — er, pashmina," he finished weakly.

McGonagall, who had been standing at the staff table with a dangerous look on her face, grudgingly sat back down. Dom released her vice-like grip on Freddy and nodded, looking satisfied with herself.

"That's right," she said, before turning back to stab at her eggs as if nothing out of the ordinary had just happened. "That's right."

Fred straightened, half-grimacing and half-smiling at his audience, and gave a cheeky little wave to the entirety of the Great Hall. "Alright, people," he said loudly. "Nothing to see here, just my cousin at work obliterating all my dignity and sense of self-respect. Carry on, carry on."

Gradually, everyone stopped staring and turned around, most likely to chat with their neighbors about what they had just witnessed. I glanced at Freddy, mouth pulled into a sympathetic line. "Tough break."

"This isn't the first time it's happened. I'll bounce back." Fred shrugged, not seeming fazed. It was just like him. Fred was, in truth, the most easy-going person I had ever met. He was never angry, never ashamed, never embarrassed... He was just Freddy.

Dom snorted at this, but before she could utter whatever snarky comment she was surely about to make, a loud, fluttering noise was heard overhead. We all glanced upwards to see a huge cluster of owls streaking over the ceiling of the Great Hall, their feathery wings flapping rhythmically, and I shuddered. Ugh — owls. I hated owls.

I mean, it wasn't like I was scared of them or anything. No, not at all. They were just. gross. And unhygienic. And...

Okay, maybe their eyes crept me out a little. But that wasn't my fault! They were just so beady and piercing, like they could stare into your soul!

One of the owls dropped two identical, elegant-looking letters in front of Freddy and Dom, unfortunately missing its target and sending the papers plunging into the bowl of porridge Fred had just so dramatically managed to avoid.

"Ugh, lovely," Dom muttered, fishing her letter out and shaking it off.

"Hey, it looks like an invite to Vic and Ted's wedding!" Freddy exclaimed. Dom's sister, Victoire Weasley, had somehow managed to ensnare a poor, unsuspecting bloke by the name of Teddy Lupin into her well-manicured clutches. He was now doomed to marry her and suffer as her slave-cum-personal doormat for the rest of his miserable life. Needless to say, we were all very happy for them.

"Joy unbounded." Rolling her eyes, Dom snapped the letter shut and tossed it back into the bowl of porridge.

"I'm guessing I'm not invited," I said dryly. There had been an incident over the summer at Dom's birthday party — Victoire had tried to announce her engagement and upstage Dom, I'd tried to stop her, chocolate cake had been involved... Long story short, Victoire wasn't a huge fan of me.

"No, I don't think you are." Dom shrugged. "But I'll sneak you in anyway."

See, that was the thing about Dominique Weasley. She might be a colossal bitch, but she used her colossal bitch powers for good. She was kind of like Superman. Except with, you know, a manicure and PMS.

I should get her a cape.

Grinning, I raised my goblet and tilted it towards my best friend in mock salute, but she didn't seem to be paying attention. She was already deep in thought, swirling in her own little Dom Land of clothes and fashion and shoe shopping. "I'll have to buy a dress for the reception," she was mumbling. "There's no way in hell I'll stay in whatever horrible bridesmaid get-up Victoire puts me in. But what to buy? I always look good in a sweetheart neckline, but that might be too playful for the occasion — "

Fred groaned, sensing that this conversation was heading in the direction of fashion and clothes and not liking it all. "Can you two save this topic of discussion for a later time? When I'm not around, maybe?"

"You could go strap-less," I suggested, partly to appease Dom and partly to upset Freddy.

"I could, but then I wouldn't know what kind of skirt to pair it with. I don't like the flow-y cut, but I also don't want anything too tight-fitting — "

"Is this necessary?" Fred complained, but he was duly ignored.

"And then there's the color. I need something appropriate for spring. Maybe a nice lilac? I'll have to be careful with my make-up, pastels always wash me out — "

"Wow, I can actually feel my testosterone count dwindling with every word," Fred remarked, seemingly to nobody in particular.

"And then there's the shoes — "

"Please god make it stop."

"I think a trip to Madame Malkin's is definitely in order. Oh, that reminds me! Hogsmeade is next weekend and I have not a thing to wear — "

Fred stood up so quickly, the movement was barely perceptible to the human eye. "I can't take anymore of this. I'm going to class."

I grinned, eyebrows waggling conspiratorially. Did it say something bad about me that Fred's inner agony was a source of joy for me this morning? Probably. "We'll walk with you, Fred," I said brightly, lips pulled into a smirk that was only slightly sadistic. "We all have DADA, so we'll be going to the same place anyway. Right, Dom?"

"...I mean, I could wear that orange sweater I just bought, but I dunno. It kind of clashes with my hai — What? Oh, yeah, sure."

I could see all the emotions flicker across Fred's face — surprise, panic, dread — as he struggled for some kind of excuse but, ultimately, failed. Glumly, he adjusted the strap to his messenger bag and nodded, looking like someone who'd just been told he was about to be publicly executed. It was comical.

What can I say? I was a Slytherin at heart.

Together, the three of us made our way out of the Great Hall, Fred and I walking as we listened to Dom blather on about V-neck shirts and floral patterns and the like. Nott didn't ever care if we showed up late (or if we showed up at all, for that matter), so we took our time winding through throngs of bustling students and strolling up shifting staircases. It was bright out, and crisp, November sunlight streamed in through the dusty windows, pooling into the centuries-old cracks inside the stone floors. Cheery portraits greeted us, tipping their hats and flashing us oil-paint smiles. It was a nice day, and I felt my mood brighten with every step.

"Aggy! Oi, earth to space cadet!"

I snapped out of my reverie, pulling myself back to reality just in time to see Dom standing before me, her lips pressed into a straight, angry line. She was hopping around impatiently from one foot to the other like a puppy looking for attention from its owner. A very angry, very unpleased puppy.

"Well?" She thrust her face towards mine, leaning in way too close and basically gettin' all up in my grill. For a moment, the only thing I could see were two huge, bulbous green eyes.

Personal space boundaries? Who needed those pesky things when you were Dominique Weasley?

"Um..." Quick, Aggy! Say something vague and general so that she'll think you were listening ! "I completely and totally agree with everything you just said — ?"

The two green eyes narrowed into angry slits. Fred snickered from where he was standing next to me, obviously pleased to discover that the concept of karmic retribution did indeed exist, and that it was now my turn to suffer at the hands of Dom Weasley. "Try again," my best friend hissed.

"Er, no those pants don't make you look fat?" I offered. If possible, the green slits got even angrier and smaller.

"Strike two," Fred mouthed.

I ignored him, wracking my brain for the right thing to say. "You've lost weight, haven't you?"

Dom sighed, pulling away from me and pursing her lips. Freddy grinned, eyes glimmering, looking like the kid who had just watched his sibling get in trouble with the angry parent.

"No one listens to me! I was saying that — " But before Dom could finish whatever wise, all-important thing she was going to tell me, a sudden crashing noise sounded from behind us.

Slowly, we turned around to see none other than Evelyn Stanford sprawled out before us, the contents of her bag scattered across the floor. There were books open at random pages, inkwells rolling around frantically, quills drifting towards the ground. Her shiny blonde hair was splayed everywhere, and for a moment, I couldn't help but stare. It was just so weird to see Evelyn looking anything else besides her usual, presentable self.

She must have tripped — or rather, someone must have tripped her, with a passing jinx, probably. Several onlookers were snickering. No one came forward to help Evelyn up like they would have two weeks ago, when she had still been the reigning Queen Bee of Hogwarts. Now, I guess she was just a nobody like the rest of us.

I quickly averted my eyes, ready to drag Fred and Dom away from the scene of the crime, but someone, apparently, had other ideas.

With swift, light strides, Fred rushed over to Evelyn, bent down, and gallantly began gathering up her books. "Are you alright?"

Dom and I stared at him, incredulous. Did he not see who he was talking to? This was Evilyn Stanford, for Merlin's sake! The girl who had made the past few years of our lives a living hell! Thanks to her, I would probably spend the better part of my adult life in therapy, trying to undo the damage she'd wrecked on my self-esteem! This was the girl who, in Third Year, poured maple syrup into my shampoo bottle. How could Freddy even think about helping her?

Freddy, it seemed, simply didn't understand the finer concepts of female warfare. And how could he, really? He was one of the most popular guys at Hogwarts. He had never been the victim of Evelyn's cruel comments, or her one-woman rumor mill. He didn't see Evelyn for who she truly was — a mean girl, with a heart roughly the size and temperature of a polar bear's left testicle.

Evelyn looked up from her pathetic position on the floor, strands of golden hair falling into her pinched, flushed face. "Leave me alone," she muttered fiercely, scrambling around for her belongings and cramming them haphazardly into her bag.

Fred stood up, shrugging as he handed her the contents of her bag. "Just trying to do my job as a Good Samaritan," he said, flashing an amiable grin.

"Yeah, well, you can go be a 'Good Samaritan' somewhere else. I don't need your help," Evelyn literally growled. She snatched her bag and stood up hastily, mint green eyes landing on anything other than Fred's face.

Fred didn't reply. He simply quirked his lips into a small half-smile as Evelyn jostled past him, an idea simmering thoughtfully in his light gaze. For a moment, it looked as though he was just going to let her walk away. But then he turned around and, cupping his hand around his mouth, shouted at her retreating frame:

"Hey, Stanford!"

Evelyn whipped around, impatience etched in the lines in her face.

"Go out with me," Fred said simply, as if he were requesting for someone to pass him the salt and not asking one of the most terrifying girls at Hogwarts on a date. For one ephemeral moment, Evelyn's face was not tight and snarling with anger. She simply looked like... A girl. A very shocked, very startled girl who had just been caught off guard by a very nice, very unflappable guy.

But then she rearranged her features into a sneer and hitched her bag higher up her arm. "Like hell," she growled.

Freddy only shook his head, the same jovial smile still on his face. "You know that thing you do, Stanford?" he said, loud enough for the words to travel down the hall and, consequently, draw everyone else's attention. "Where you intimidate everyone into being afraid of you? Yeah, it's not going to work on me." He shrugged, holding up his hands. "You don't scare me, Evelyn Stanford."

And I actually believed it. Freddy Weasley was not an easily intimidated bloke, after all. He was absolutely fearless, the sod, and he refused to let himself be scared of anything. I remember one summer, when the five of us had been on a hike through a forest by Shell Cottage. A huge black snake had slithered onto our path and, naturally, we had all freaked out. Dom had jumped into my arms, Aidan had jumped into Potter's... The only one who had remained unfazed was Freddy, who picked up the snake with a branch and named it 'Albert.'

Evelyn's scowl deepened as she raised her arm to shoot Freddy the middle finger, successfully making it the second time this morning Fred had been flipped off by a member of the opposite sex. Then, in a sudden flourish of glimmering gold hair, she twirled back around and stalked off, leaving the poor bloke standing there with a goofy grin on his face.

Dom and I gaped, two incredulous bystanders to this very strange incident, as Fred shrugged, glanced up at the ceiling, and sighed. Dreamily.

"She totally wants me."

This could not end well.



A/N: Alrighty, so I know that this chapter is shamefully short and has absolutely no plot in it whatsoever, but I'm going away on vacation for two weeks and I wanted to give you guys at least something to read before I left. Hopefully you enjoyed!


Chapter 22: Falling
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Like with many things, it all started in Defense Against the Dark Arts.

The class had been a rousing hour of sitting in boredom, listening to Professor Nott gripe about our 'awe-inspiring stupidity' and the 'nature-defying speed' at which we managed to 'swiftly and effectively' destroy all his faith in humanity. While Nott's rants were normally a drag to listen to, I was too happy to let it affect me. Because Freddy had finally relieved me of my obligations to his prank and his harebrained scheme.

I had been so happy to be done. Happy! Imagine that! Agatha Bennett, Queen of Teenage Angst, happy for once.

Ridiculous, I know.

And I must have been delirious that morning, or someone must have slipped something into my pumpkin juice during breakfast, because I had actually, foolishly carried out the next few hours believing Freddy would uphold his promise.

Silly me.

I had believed that things were going to work out. That no longer would I have to illegally trek through the castle anymore. That I was done fleeing from Filch and his broomhandle, breaking into school property and, most of all, getting into compromising positions with James Sirius Potter inside broom cupboards. I was a free woman.

Or so I had thought.

But then, while in the midst of leaving class after the hour was over, Freddy pulled me aside in the hall so we could "chat."

“Agatha,” he said. “This is a serious matter.”

That was when I first knew something was wrong. Freddy Weasley was never serious about anything.

“What’s up?” I shifted my weight from foot to foot, hooking my thumbs through the straps of my backpack. Around me, students were filtering out of Nott’s classroom, looking tired and weary from the hour of verbal abuse we’d all just endured. Everyone looked near tears, either from boredom or distress, I couldn't tell. I was impatient to get to Transfiguration before I showed up late and Professor McGonagall turned me into a can of Fancy Feast.

“It’s about the prank,” Fred said anxiously, lips quivering into a weak smile, and I snapped my attention back towards him. “Turns out, I still kind of need your help.”

The words hit me. Like really, hit me — that was the only way I could accurately describe the feeling. It was as if someone had taken a magic marker, written Freddy's words on their fist, and then punched me straight in the face.

I stared at him in shock, unblinking, all the breath gone from my chest. “Please tell me you're kidding.”

"Sorry, Aggs, but that's where I'll have to disappoint you," Freddy admitted, still smiling that half, uneasy smile.

"Is that a feeling you're familiar with? Disappointing others?" I said in a hollow tone, but I was too surprised to put the full force behind my snark.

Freddy winced. "I'm sorry."

“You want help.” I stated flatly, shaking my head from side to side.

Sheepishly, Fred nodded.

Help. He wanted help. With his stupid, juvenile, immature prank. As if I hadn’t already done enough! Who had been the one to break into the Potions cupboard and steal from school property? Who had been the one to blunder around the castle in the middle of the night, running from Filch like a sodding ex-convict? Honestly! I was a Prefect, for Merlin's sake. I was supposed to be preventing this kind of behavior, not... participating in it! How could he even think about doing this to me, when he had promised

“Aggy, I’m sorry. But it’s really important and you’re the only one who—”

“I seriously cannot believe this,” I muttered, more to myself than anything. And then I was jostling past Freddy, ignoring his cries for me to stop, just trying to get as far away as possible before I did something rash like hex all the kid's face off.

Anger. That was all I could feel, thrumming through my entire body. Anger at Fred, anger at Cooper, anger at this whole, stupid situation. Of course this would happen. I had known it would, deep down, known that at some point promises made to me would be broken just like they had been before. But I hadn’t expected it from Freddy.

Freddy, who was usually so good on his word. Freddy, who had actually seemed to understand my feelings about the whole prank business. Freddy, who I had even started to consider as a good friend...

I wiped that thought furiously from my mind as I rounded the corner, my head throbbing violently. This was just too, too much — I felt like I was going to explode.

I kept walking, trying not to think about Freddy and how he was probably still standing where I left him, no doubt trying to fit all the pieces together in this latest round of the Why Aggy’s Pissed Off game (also known as What Did I Do This Time?). He would most likely be attempting to figure out how angry and violent I was right now, and whether it would be safe to follow me (very, and it wouldn’t).

The thought made me quicken my pace angrily, angril the next corner at practically the speed of light. All of a sudden, there was a fleeting glimpse of unruly dark hair, a red gold tie — and then, I was colliding with someone.

Weightlessness, the world veering out of control, tilting topsy-turvy. Me, falling.

As the stone floor raced towards me in the epic battle of Aggy vs. Gravity (hint: gravity was winning), I braced myself for the inevitable impact, eyes squeezing shut in anticipation for the ensuing pain and dent to my dignity. But then, out of nowhere, my fall was suddenly stopped. I felt something — this unseen force — jerk me back and upwards and hold me there, frozen to the spot, dangling in mid-air. It was as if someone had pressed the pause button on reality — my body was now halted in space, inches from the floor.

I looked up.

Potter. He was staring at me, eyebrows raised, a cool expression on his annoyingly handsome face. His fingers were curled around the strap of my backpack, which he had lifted and, along with it, the person attached to the straps — me . His steady hand held me safely above the ground, and my eyes flickered from the floor to Potter to his hands as I quickly tried to make sense of what just happened.

I had been rounding the corner. Potter had been on the other side, doing that stupid, annoying thing he does where he goes off and... exists, and stuff. The inevitable happened, and we must have collided. And since I was Agatha Bennett, Bonafide Swag Master and all-around embodiment of grace, I had tripped over him and fell. And because he was James Potter, Pratface Douchepants and possessor of amazing Quidditch reflexes, he had simply and easily grabbed me by my backpack straps, stopping me in midair and effectively preventing my fall.

Ugh. The prick.

Yeah, yeah, I knew it was great he had helped me and everything. I mean, he probably did just save me a sprained ankle and an ice pack or two, but honestly? I’d rather have fallen. Because now Potter got to gloat and act all athletic and cool, while I had to — shudder — thank him.

Gross.

There was a long, frozen moment of nothing. My surprised gaze locked on to Potter’s cool one, and slowly, I straightened so that instead of just my toes grazing the floor, I was standing firmly on my own two legs. Potter let go. We stared at each other for a minute, and then:

“You are so irritating!” I blurted out, perhaps a little louder than necessary.

Potter quirked a dark eyebrow, hand falling to his side. “Excuse me?” For once, he looked caught off guard. Obviously, he had been expecting a gushing wave of gratitude (or at least a grudging ‘thanks’), and my unexpected response had surprised him.

“You heard me!” I threw my arms into the air, exasperated. I knew it was rude, but I couldn’t bring myself to care. First Freddy, now Potter — today was just not my day. “You’re irritating!”

“And what exactly about me,” Potter began slowly, looking unimpressed. "Is so irritating to you?"

“Ugh, I don’t know! You, you...” I stammered, flapping my hands around in a charmingly epileptic manner as I tried to form the right words. “Just you, alright?!”

“Oh, okay, then I'm sorry for — what would you call it? Existing?” Potter’s tone was anything but sincere. It was dripping with sarcasm, each word loaded with mockery.

“Sounds about right,” I spat back just as venomously.

“In that case, I apologize for my existence,” Potter said gallantly. “I’ll try and tone it down next time.”

“Please do,” I snapped back.

There was a heavy, angry silence.

“Jesus, Bennett,” Potter finally said, letting curiosity get the better of him. “What’s got your knickers in a twist today? You’re even pissier than usual.”

I could have insulted him again, but this time, I decided to play it cool. I didn't want Potter to have the satisfaction of getting to watch as I hysterically launched myself from one end of the human spectrum of emotion to the other. I was going to be composed.

“Thinking about my knickers, Potter?” I asked, raising a sole eyebrow.

Potter cringed, face twisted into a expression of over-exaggerated disgust. “Please, spare me — I just ate.”

“Oh, and how was your daily helping of children's souls and puppy dreams? Tasty, I hope.”

"It'd be even better if I didn’t feel like vomiting everything back up after seeing your face.”

"Mature."

"I know."

“Fuck off.”

“Gladly.”

Potter was just turning around, ready to leave, when suddenly, someone else dashed around the corner, slamming into my body and successfully sending me into another tailspin. I felt myself trip over some unknown object (Potter’s big ego, perhaps?), my body hurtling through the air at breakneck speed.

I was just about to greet my old chum, the Ground, with a friendly face-plant when, out of nowhere, I was jerked upwards and back onto my feet. Again.

Courtesy of Potter and his ‘look-at-me-I’m-so-fast-and-cool’ Quidditch Reflexes.

...For the second time today.

This is just getting ridiculous.

Potter released his hold on my backpack, not even looking at me as I stumbled to a stand, disgruntled, and turned around to face the person who had just zoomed around the corner and caused this whole ruckus.

Freddy.

Of course.

“Aggy.” Fred was panting. It was obvious that, after a lot of self-debating, he had decided to go after me and had sprinted all the way here. I watched as he bent over to put his hands on his knees, now completely out of breath.

“Aggy,” he gasped, “I just want to say that I’m sorry, and that I know you’re mad and everything, but can you please hear me out?”

I stared at him, silent.

“Okay, cool,” Fred prattled on, taking my sulking as wordless agreement. “Look, I’m just going to be honest here: I need you for this prank. And I’m really sorry to ask you for your help.”

I couldn’t help but let some of my previous anger leak through. “You promised—”

“I know, and I was wrong! I miscalculated! Believe me, I feel awful about it. I hate asking you for favors, and I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t absolutely have to. But that’s the thing—I do absolutely have to. If you don’t do this, Aggy, then the whole prank’s going to fall through. And then all of our work will have been a waste.”

He paused, taking in another deep breath. I didn’t say anything, just mulled over what he had said and allowed myself to concede that maybe Fred had a point. No matter how childish or petty I thought this whole ordeal was, Cooper did deserve at least some form of karmic payback. And if it would help Cooper get what he deserved, then maybe doing one more thing for the prank wouldn’t be that terrible...

“Please, Aggy,” Fred implored. Next to me, Potter said nothing, his expression completely blank.

“Well...” I began slowly, but I already knew I would relent. Who was I kidding? I was a sucker, and I always caved for these boys.

“It’ll only be one little thing,” Fred added hastily, holding up an arbitrary finger. “One little thing, and you’re done. For good, this time.”

For a silent moment, I simply let Freddy hang there in agonizing suspense.

“Oh, alright," I finally said.

Freddy breathed a huge sigh of relief, letting out a ‘whoop!’ of jubilation and pumping his fist into the air. Potter said nothing, as apathetic as ever, but I could see his shoulders tense ever so slightly underneath his white oxford.

“But on one condition,” I said, interrupting Fred in the middle of his celebratory victory dance.

“Anything,” Fred said boldly as he thrust his pelvis from side to side and wiggled his hips. “You name it, and it’s done.”

“I work with a partner,” I declared. If I was going down, then by god, someone was coming with me. I didn’t care who—Dom, Freddy, whoever—just so long as it wasn’t—

“I’ll go,” Potter interjected in his usual, obnoxious manner.

What? Immediately I whipped around, unable to do anything but stare in incredulity. Why would Potter willingly volunteer to work with me? He loathed me just as much as I loathed him, and it was an unspoken policy between the two of us that we always avoided each other unless we absolutely couldn't help it.

Had the kid gone mental? Did he not realize how poorly this would end if we teamed up?

But Potter wouldn’t meet my gaze. Instead, he was staring steadily at Freddy, his face completely inscrutable and leaving me to wonder what in Merlin’s name was going on on behind that thick skull of his.

I turned as well to look at Fred, straightening as I gazed at him in confidence. There was no way in hell Freddy would agree to Potter being my partner. As mastermind of the prank, he had final say, and he knew full well that Potter and I would not work effectively together. We would fight, argue, probably jeopardize everything. I mean, even though maths wasn’t exactly Fred's forte, he had to at least known that the basics, right? One plus one was two. Two plus two was four. Potter plus Aggy? Disaster.

Fred was going to say no. He had to. After all, what kind of brain-dead, idiotic moron would even think about agreeing to such a — ?

“Sure, sounds good to me!”

Oh bollocks.

—*—

And that was how—two tantrums and a whole lot of pointless bickering later—I found myself standing next to Potter outside the Gryffie common room, wearing all-black, carrying a large, shady-looking knapsack and ready to embark on yet another crazed, all-nighter mission through Hogwarts.

Except this time, it wasn’t just stealing from school property. No. This time, it was much, much worse.

We were catnapping.

I’m not talking about the brief, hour-long snoozes you take in the middle of the day. No, not that kind of catnap. What I'm talking about is something different. I am talking about actual, genuine feline abduction.

Tonight, Potter and I were going to kidnap a cat.

...Filch’s cat, specifically.

Yeah.

We were so going down.

Scowling not at anybody in particular, but rather at the general situation before me, I folded my arms across my chest and hugged myself against the brisk November air. Merlin’s knobby kneecaps, it was drafty in this castle. You'd think after a couple centuries of educating children, Hogwarts could figure out a bloody central heating system.

“You should relax, Bennett,” Potter said calmly from where he was standing next to me, eyes squinted as he surveyed the empty hallway.

Jerking out of my reverie, I swiveled around to point my scowl at Potter, arms still crossed defensively.

“I’m relaxed,” I said, shrugging over-casually, though I wasn’t so convincing with my voice an octave higher and my foot rapping incessantly against the ground.

For once, Potter didn’t reply. He simply shot me a doubtful look that said everything it needed to.

“What?” I asked, waving my arms in the air frantically to illustrate my point. “I am! I’m the picture of relaxed! The epitome of relaxed! The very definition of it! I’m relaxed!

Potter ducked swiftly as, in the midst of my indignant flapping, one of my spastic hands reached up to almost hit him in the face. "That's great, and I'm happy for you, Bennett," he said wryly as he straightened. "But do you think you could maybe 'be relaxed' over there by that corner? Out of arm's-length from me?"

I responded with a petty, albeit effective, eyeroll. “Oh, you think you’re so witty, don’t you?”

Actually—“

“Why are you doing this, Potter?” I blurted out suddenly, unable to contain myself any longer. “I can manage this job perfectly fine by myself!”

You were the one who asked for a partner.”

“Yeah, but I didn't mean you! Why on earth would you volunteer?"

“Well, someone has to be there for when you inevitably muck everything up!” And there it was. Out and in the open, the reason that gave sense to all of Potter's actions up to this point. The prat didn't trust me not to mess this up. He thought I was incompetent.

“Don’t you dare cast me into some weak, helpless Damsel in Distress stereotype,” I fumed, voice dangerously low, as I took an incensed step forward. “I’ll have you know that it’s derogatory and sexist and — ”

“ — insulting and archaic and blah blah blah,” Potter finished for me, practically taking the words out of my mouth. He had heard my anti-sexism rant many times before and could now probably recite it by heart. “Merlin, Bennett. I’m only stating a fact. No need to get in a strop.”

“I am not in a strop.” I was totally in a strop, but I’d be damned if I was going to let him know it.

“You’re talking fast and your left eye is twitching in the way it usually does when you're angry,” Potter stated flippantly, as if he knew me or something. “You are definitely in a strop.”

I glared at him.

He didn’t return my glare. Instead, he turned away and blew out an exasperated sigh, obviously annoyed at my 'unjustified anger.' I watched through slitted eyes as he pushed a had through his dark, tousled hair. “Are we really going to argue right now?”

“Oh, like it’s my fault!” I spat back, affronted.

“Well, maybe if you didn’t insist on contradicting everything I say—”

“Maybe if you didn't insist on acting like such a big-headed twat—”

“Look!” Potter wheeled around suddenly, his golden eyes blazing like two identical embers. He looked actually...angry. Not annoyed, or frustrated, or vexed. But angry. It was so unlike his cool, freakishly calm self that I inadvertently took a step back. “I’m not saying you’re weak or helpless or a damsel in distress, or anything like that!”

Despite his uncharacteristic and, quite frankly, surprising anger, I stood my ground. “Oh," I said coolly, folding my arms across my chest. "Then what are you saying?”

“You really want to know?”

“By all means, enlighten me!”

“I’m stating the simple fact that you’re clumsy and uncoordinated—”

“Excuse me?”

“—and that you have a very convenient knack of always being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and that someone has to be there to drag you out of all the ridiculous situations you get yourself into!”

I had to take a moment to find my reply, struggling for the adequate words to express my ire. “I—You—Stop flattering yourself, Potter! I don’t need you to hover around me like some sodding bodyguard!”

“Well we’re stuck in this together, Bennett, so you don’t really have a choice. Now just shut up and bloody deal with it, will you?”

I snapped my mouth shut, furious that, like always, Potter was right, and that, like always, I couldn’t do a thing about it. Gritting my teeth together, I stormed forward through the corridor, legs moving at marathon power-walking pace, trying to put as much distance as possible between me and The Git.

Stupid Potter! Stupid, magnanimous, righteous... Gryffindor! I knew why he was doing this, of course. He felt obligated. By the sacred bonds of Bromance, he had to protect me, look out for me, just because I was the sister of his best mate.

Well, to hell with Bromance. And to hell with Potter!

We walked the rest of the way in a stiff silence, both of us stewing in quiet fury. I didn't trust myself to say another word for fear of starting an explose row, so I just settled for imagining all the different ways I could bring Potter to a slow and painful death. That made me feel a teensy bit better.

Finally, right before we neared Filch’s office, Potter stopped.

“You sure you know what to do?” Merlin, he was so patronizing.

“Yes, I know what to do,” I said through gritted teeth. My hand was clenched around the catnap-knapsack so hard, I was worried my fingers would break off.

Despite the fact that I was going on this insane mission, I still did not fully know what the Cooper Prank consisted of, exactly, or what kidnapping Filch's cat would serve for. I had asked Freddy to explain everything, but he had steadfastly refused, saying that the less I knew, the better for me. I believed him.

So all I understood, at the current moment, was what I was supposed to do, as Freddy had given me clear instructions for the task ahead of me. It wasn't a complicated process, actually. Disregarding the risk of getting caught by Filch and having my fingernails pried off one by one in his torture chamber, it was practically a piece of cake.

It was common knowledge throughout Hogwarts that Filch was totally bat-blind when he wasn't wearing his reading glasses. So, all that remained to be done was find a way to exploit that weakness. Eventually, we (or rather, Freddy’s deranged mind) came up with a solution.

In the knapsack I was carrying, there was a stuffed cat. Not the child's toy kind. No, an actual taxidermy cat — a real, ‘this-was-once-a-living-being’ cat.

...Yeah, I had no idea how Freddy procured it either. When I asked him, he simply responded with a shifty glance and mumbled something about EBay.

What was supposed to happen was this: Potter would set off a series of dungbombs throughout the corridor. He would then run into Filch’s office, pretending that he was some innocent bystander who heard the bombs go off and that he thought he knew which way the perpetrator had gone. Of course, Filch, thirsting for fresh adolescent blood, would demand for Potter to show him where. Potter would then lead Filch through a wild goose chase throughout the castle, which would hopefully give me the time to sneak into Filch’s office, steal his glasses, nab Mrs. Norris Jr., and leave the taxidermy version in it’s place.

Filch would come back to his office completely blind and would probably mistake the fake Mrs. Norris for the real one. He’d go on with his day, oblivious to what had transpired, until we would finally return the real cat a couple days later.

For a super-evil-revenge-plan, it was actually pretty simple.

"Bennett? Earth to Bennett?" Potter snapped his fingers in front of my face, and I jolted back to reality, blinking furiously in the dim light of the hallway. "Are you sure you're ready?"

I turned around, eyeballs flicking to the ceiling, and sighed. “Yeah.”

Potter nodded, his face hardened with determination. Raising a finger, he pointed to a nearby tapestry that looked about as old as McGonagall herself. “Alright. You hide behind that tapestry and wait until I get Filch out of the office. Then you can go inside and grab Mrs. Norris.”

“Aye aye, capitano.” I gave a sarcastic little salute, and Potter rolled his eyes as I turned on my heel towards the tapestry. While I ducked behind the musty fabric, I could hear Potter walk in the opposite direction. There was a rustling as he took a dungbomb out of his pocket, and then a satisfying little poof sound as he lobbed it inside an empty classroom.

The stench was immediate. Eager to put more distance between myself and the smell, (and Potter), I scurried further behind the tapestry. It was a pale blue colour, sprinkled with moth holes and worn with age. Retching from the dungbombs, I ducked inside.

The tapestry smelled worse.

Muttering angrily to myself (which was kind of hard to do when trying not to breathe too much), I crouched down in the dark and waited. Remind me why I was doing this again?

I remained silently behind the tapestry, knowing full well that with each second I was losing more and more self-respect, and that it wouldn't be long before my olfactory receptors started committing mass suicide. One minute later, and I was gnashing my teeth in fury. Two minutes later, and I was mentally cursing Potter, this prank, and this godforsaken tapestry. Five minutes later, and I was just about ready to pass out due to lack of oxygen.

But then I heard footsteps.

“I think he went this way, sir.” Potter. His voice was deep and clear, ringing throughout the narrow corridor, and I stiffened. My heartbeat faltered, stopped, and suddenly jerked into double-time.

They were right outside, possibly only a meter away. All Filch had to do was notice the odd, Aggy-shaped lump behind the tapestry, and we’d be caught.

“Are you sure?” Filch’s croaking rasp was unmistakable.

“Positive.”

“Well, hurry up, kid,” sneered our wonderfully charming caretaker. “Mrs. Norris and I were in the middle of our Song and Story Time before you barged in, and I’d like to get back.”

Deeply disturbed by this information (what the hell was Song and Story Time?), I shifted my weight and listened carefully as Potter and Filch’s footsteps faded away. When I was absolutely sure they were gone, I waited ten more seconds and then ducked out of the smothering tapestry.

Oh, oxygen! Clean, pure, dungbomb-scented oxygen! How I’d missed you!

Knapsack in hand, I scampered off, rounded the corner, and plastered myself quickly against the nearest stone wall. At an agonizingly slow rate, I inched towards the open door of Filch’s office, careful to not make even the slightest sound.

Believe it or not, but this was indeed my first cat abduction job, so I was feeling a little nervous. My palms were sweaty (attractive), my mouth as dry as cotton (charming), and I kept on having to fight off sudden urges to pee (convenient). By the time I reached the doorframe, I was a shaking, sweaty wreck.

Gulping in some deep breaths to collect myself, I craned my neck around and poked my head into the empty room. All clear.

I ducked inside, immediately dropping into one of those ninja-rolls that I'd always wanted to do but never got the chance (they're fun, okay?), and then quickly stood up. Filch’s office was cramped, full of strange but menacing contraptions that held mysterious purposes I was unaware of. I made sure to steer clear of those.

There was a desk at the far end of the room, and then a small, wooden door that, from what I could see through the adjacent small windows, led out to a balcony. I snorted in amusement. Really? Filch got a balcony? Was there a minifridge in the desk? A heart-shaped Jacuzzi in the bathroom?

The amusing thought made me relax a little. Now that I was inside the office and sure Potter wouldn't be coming until later, I wasn’t feeling so nervous (re: cripplingly terrified) anymore. Idly, I browsed around the room, looking through dusty bookshelves and cabinets, making sure to nab Filch's reading glasses off his desk, and then plant the taxidermy cat in one of the cobwebby corners.

Mission successful. Now, all I had to do was get the real cat.

I found it quick enough. It was sitting on the ledge of an open window that looked out towards the balcony and a dark night sky sprinkled with stars. The beautiful scenery behind her was a direct contrast to the skinny, haggard-looking bag of fleas and bones that was Mrs. Norris, Jr.

Her yellow eyes were narrow and unblinking. Even though I was several times bigger than her, I still couldn’t help the shiver of fear that glided down my spine.

“Here kitty, kitty, kitty,” I cooed softly, holding out the empty knapsack. “It's Song and Story Time!”

No response. Mrs. Norris just looked at me like I was a Class A Idiot (which, to be honest, was exactly how I felt at the moment), and then went back to cleaning her paw.

Bollocks. Guess I had to use physical force here. With slow, careful steps, I advanced towards Mrs. Norris, clutching the knapsack like a lifeline and making cooing, kissy noises that had no effect.

I was almost there, only a couple centimeters away, when — looking almost cheeky — Mrs. Norris suddenly ducked out the window and onto the balcony outside.

Bloody—damnit! Cursing to every deity/god/spiritual being I could name, I quickly scrambled towards the balcony door and wrenched it open, cringing at the sudden gust of icy November air. I gritted my teeth, bracing myself, and stepped outside onto the paved grey stone. There was a sudden gust of wind, and then a loud slam as the door closed behind me.

Well. Hope it didn't lock.

Scowling in the chilly air, I looked up to see Mrs. Norris sauntering on a ledge that jutted out of the castle wall about two meters above my head. She—it—whatever was staring down at me with a smug expression on her furry face as she paced from left to right, tail swaying with a nonchalant, ‘bitches-can’t-touch-this’ air. Stupid cat.

Gritting my teeth, I craned my neck and stared at the ledge, knowing full well what I had to do. That cat was so going down.

I refused to give myself the time for doubt. Clenching the knapsack in my teeth, I used my newly freed hands to climb up the side of the wall, gripping the uneven stones that protruded from the surface for balance.

And that was how I, Agatha Bennett, ended up scaling the fucking side of the fucking castle of fucking Hogwarts, all in search of a fucking cat.

This made it official — I had lost my mind. I was like one of those deranged muggles who go off the deep end and start climbing up city buildings. All I needed right now was a discount-bought Spiderman costume and a long history of drug abuse, and I’d be golden.

What was the weirdest thing, though, was that I wasn’t even afraid at this point. I mean, there were a lot of things I was scared of (snakes, owls, Dom with a hangover), but heights wasn't one of them. For some reason, I felt perfectly at ease clinging to the wall of the castle, despite the fact that I was up possibly hundreds of feet in the air. I mean, granted, if I fell, it would just be onto the balcony a couple feet below, but still. I wasn't even the slightest bit nervous.

Eventually, after a lot of scraped knees, almost-slips, and the most creative cursing I’d done in years, I was finally able to clamber on top of the ledge, exhausting just about every muscle in both my arms to do so. The ledge was approximately two feet wide, so I still had to hold onto the wall in order to keep my balance, and like this I slowly shuffled towards the cat. She had curled up on the other end and was appearing to enjoy watching me flounder this entire time.

I held out my bag, calling to Mrs. Norris Jr. in a manner that was, at first, sugary sweet, and then desperate, and then just straight out vicious.

“Here, kitty cat! Over here! Please? Please come over here. I’m begging you!—Oi! Litterbreath! It's cold, I'm tired, this is stupid. Just get in the fucking bag before I turn you into a coat with matching gloves!”

This non-PETA-approved threatening seemed to finally get Mrs. Norris Jr.’s attention. She snapped her furry head up, fixing me with a peeved, scrutinizing stare, and remained firmly seated in her spot. Damnit. I needed to get closer, but the ledge was tapering into a point, getting more and more narrow with every step I took. What if I fell off? I’d have to start all over again—and the cold, hard stone of the balcony below did not look very welcoming.

That was when an idea hit me.

Dangling only a meter away, just within my arm’s reach, was one of the few thousand flags that Hogwarts hung to adorn its outer walls. The banner jutted out on its gleaming brass pole, its dark material swaying slightly in the wind. The flag itself was huge—bigger than me by far—and boldly displayed a giant, gleaming picture of the Hogwarts crest. I hastily shimmied towards it, ignoring Mrs. Norris’s piercing gaze, until I was close enough to grab onto the cloth. Then, with all the skill and expertise of a Girl Scout on crack, I managed to clumsily fumble a corner of the flag through the belt-loop of my pants, and then hastily tie it into something that vaguely resembled a knot.

Feeling much more secure now that I had an anchor, I continued to scoot along the stone. I was near Mrs. Norris now. She was on the very edge, with no where to escape, and I was almost there...

Like a striking King Cobra, I lashed out with my knapsack and—after a brief episode in which I had to frantically fend off a pair of claws going for my jugular—managed to get the cat in the bag. Success!

I straightened, sending a triumphant ‘whoop!’ into the icy air. Had I really just done that? Had I just successfully kidnapped Filch’s cat—without falling off the castle or getting one of my main arteries punctured by Mrs. Norris’s deadly talons? I could hardly believe it! It had almost been too easy.

The very minute that thought crossed my mind, however, the stone ledge underneath my feet gave way ever so slightly.

It happened so fast — too fast for me to register the real succession of events. One second, I was standing on the ledge, about to break out into a victory dance—and then the next, I was hurtling through the air, knapsack in hand, racing towards the stone of the balcony above head-first. All of a sudden I was falling towards the ground and everything was going hideously wrong.

I was bracing myself for impact when, all of a sudden, I jerked to a stop mid-fall in a manner terribly reminiscent of this morning, when Potter had grabbed me by my backpack straps. There was a jerking suspension of gravity, and then I found myself hanging in mid-air, suspended by the flag I had stupidly knotted to my pants.

And that was how I, Agatha Bennett, ended up dangling off the castle of Hogwarts, flipped upside down and held in place by nothing more than a very precariously-tied flag... All the while clutching a stolen cat.

I am unsure as to how this situation could get any worse.

“...That’s so weird, Professor. I could have sworn that whoever did it went that way...” I immediately froze at the sound of the deep, familiar voice, leaking through the window from within the office. Oh no. Oh no. Please don’t tell me that was Potter’s voice I heard. Please don’t tell me he was back right now. Please don’t tell me Potter and Filch were walking inside at this very moment, while I was dangling helplessly outside the window only a few meters away. Please, please, please.

But no. It was all actually happening. I watched through the open window, an expression of abject horror on my face, as Potter and Filch entered the office. For a moment, I was tempted to scream, to alert them both of my presence and give away everything. Somehow, though, I managed to keep my mouth clamped firmly shut as I watched Filch take a seat at his desk, his back (thankfully) turned towards me.

I was so dead.

Wincing, I wiggled around slightly, trying to somehow maneuver the flag so that it could swing me out of the window’s view... But no such luck. In fact, all the momentum just sent me into a complete tailspin, and I started frantically swinging back and forth, spinning through the air like some sort of demented human pendulum. The world began whirling around me in a dizzying blur of stars and stone and light, and inside the knapsack, Mrs. Norris Jr. yowled unhappily.

“Well, thanks for wasting my time, kid,” Filch’s sneering voice floated through the window, each word making my stomach clench tighter and tighter with fear. Oh god. I felt like I was going to be sick, though I wasn't sure if it was from the fear of Filch killing me or the fact that I was hurtling upside-down through the air at 30 miles per hour. “Teenagers these days... Useless...”

Potter stood in front of Filch’s desk, looking haughty and almost bored as Filch continued to grumble about the plague that was Hogwarts' latest generation of filthy miscreants. Potter hadn’t noticed me yet (weird—you’d think it’d be hard to miss the GIANT HUMAN PENDULUM SWINGING OUTSIDE THE WINDOW), so I started to wave my arm back and forth, hoping to catch his attention.

Potter seemed to be zoning out and I watched, unable to do anything, as his dark, gilded eyes drifted idly around the room, taking in his surroundings.

And that was when he saw me.

To his ever-lasting credit, Potter managed to keep his cool. For one, fleeting second, I could see a barrage of emotions—alarm, panic, horror—flicker across his face. And then they were gone as soon as they came, Potter's eyes quickly flicking away as he smoothed over his expression with an impressive mask of cool, arrogant indifference.

“Actually, Professor Filch,” I heard Potter say, and if his voice was sounding just a little bit strained, Filch didn't seem to notice. “I just remembered—a bunch of Ravenclaw kids have been stashing Firewhiskey in a cupboard near the Charms classroom.”

“Is that so, Potter?”

“Yeah. So isn’t it my duty as an, er, ex-Prefect to, uh, show you where it is? So you can confiscate everything?”

There was a pause. “Are you sure about this?” Filch finally rasped. I could practically see the emotions battling inside him—the reluctance to trust Potter versus Filch's burning desire to get some students in trouble.

Eventually, the latter won out. Filch stood from his desk, mouth turned downwards under his hooked, shiny nose, and followed Potter out of the room. I dangled in the air, watching them leave with a growing sense of dismay. What was going on?

As soon as they exited the room, I heard Potter murmur something. Bewildered, I strained my ears to hear what it was.

“Oh, one second—I think I forgot my wand inside. Just a moment.”

And then he was racing back into the office and bursting through the balcony door, ignoring its slam against the stone wall as he marched towards me, cheeks flushed, chest heaving. His eyes were blazing uncannily bright—he looked fit to murder. It was the most flustered I’d seen him since... Well, ever.

Because the fall had flipped me upside down, and because Potter was so bloody tall, I was now dangling at eye-level with his mouth. Any other time and I’d maybe find this fact distracting, but right now, I was actually sort of afraid. Because although Potter's lips were diverting and interesting to look at, they were also currently twisted into a scowl. A scowl that, I would be the first to admit, was a tad frightening.

“Are. You. Fucking. Insane?” Potter hissed, and I couldn’t stop myself from staring at the smooth way his mouth curved and shaped to form each word, the edge of his teeth scraping ever so slightly against his bottom lip to form the letter 'f.' "How did this happen?"

“Oh, you know,” I replied meekly, still unable to tear my eyes away. "Gravity and all that."

Potter looked like he was about to have an aneurysm. He gaped at me for a bit, and then turned swiftly on his heel. “I’m going to figure out a way to get rid of Filch so that I can come back and get you down. Try not to do anything fantastically stupid while I’m gone.”

He started to walk away, wrenching open the door so that light spilled out onto the balcony. “Wait!” I called frantically.

“What?” He stopped, annoyed, and swiveled back around to look at me.

“How long are you going to be gone?” I tried to keep my voice steady, but there was the slightest tremble of anxiety. I mean, I was suspended upside down, for Merlin's sake, in the middle of the air, clutching a cat in my hand. There was only so much longer I'd be able to hold on for.

Potter stared at me, the anger in his eyes fading away as his gaze took on a glint of sadistic amusement.

“Not long,” he said, a smirk tugging at the corner of his lips. He was getting satisfaction from watching me like this, I could tell. “Why don't you just try and... hang in there?”

“Hang in there. I get it. Ha ha, very funny,” I sarcastically grumbled, but Potter didn't respond, already walking back out the door.

Time seemed to tick by at a snail’s pace as I waited, swinging softly by the flag, Mrs. Norris squirming uncomfortably in my knapsack. It seemed like eons until Potter finally waltzed back into the office, Filch nowhere to be found. Oh, Merlin. Where was Filch? I knew it was ridiculous, but there was a small, irrational part of me that was kind of afraid Potter had killed him.

“Don’t move.” The second Potter walked out onto the balcony, he was by my side and tugging at the knot around my belt-loop.

“How’d you get rid of Filch?” I asked suspiciously, staring at Potter as he worked. He was biting his lip in concentration, eyes sharp and focused as he stared at my haphazard knot. I tried not to shiver when his fingers accidentally grazed the skin of my hipbone, which had been left exposed by the slipping hem of my shirt.

“Locked him in a broom cupboard,” Potter said offhandedly, not even bothering to look at me as his slender fingers wriggled into the knot.

“You what?”

“Locked him in a broom cupboard. Bennett, stop squirming so much.”

“Are you serio—” I began to exclaim, but I was suddenly cut off as the knot gave way. With a squawk of protest, I felt myself fall through the air...

...And into Potter’s arms.

My voice died in my throat as Potter caught me with ease, looking completely nonchalant and not freaked out in the slightest. I gaped, opening and closing my mouth uselessly, shocked into silence and unable to think of anything besides the fact that I was currently close enough to Potter to count the green flecks in his eyes.

Before I could say or do anything stupid, Potter swiftly set me down on my feet, with about as much concern as if he were handling a sack of potatoes. He was all business, completely oblivious to the tension I had been feeling between us, as he grabbed the knapsack from my hands and turned curtly on his heel.

“Let’s get out of here,” he said sharply, and too dazed to protest, I staggered around a bit, trying to regain my footing, before following Potter back into the office. We were almost to the door when, all of a sudden, we heard him.

“WHERE ARE YOU, YOU MISERABLE, GOOD-FER-NUTHIN’ CRETIN?”

Filch was back. And he was not happy.

Potter stopped walking immediately, his eyes fluttering shut, jaw working in mild consternation. “You've got to be kidding me," he bit out, voice suppressing barely-contained agitation.

I took this as my cue to launch into full panic mode. “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god—Filch is back, we’re going to die, he's going to kill us and make rugs out of our skin, oh my god—”

I couldn’t believe it. We had come this far—I had dangled off the side of a castle, for Merlin’s sake—only to get caught now? I was starting to hyperventilate.

Potter wheeled around, grabbing me by the shoulders. “Bennett?”

“Yeah?” I gasped breathlessly, my eyes desperately searching his face for a sign that he had a solution to this mess, that everything was going to be okay.

“Shut up,” Potter said flatly. And then he wrenched open a nearby door and dragged me inside the dark, musty walk-in closet of Filch’s office.

The door swung closed behind me, and all of a sudden we were drowning in darkness. And because I was just oh-so-graceful (Bonafide Swag Master in the house!), I somehow managed to trip over one of the many random cleaning supplies (at least, I hope it was a cleaning supply) cluttering the floor. Desperate, I reached out to grab something to stop my fall and ended up settling for Potter’s shirt. Then we were both tumbling down, me on top of Potter, Mrs. Norris yowling somewhere in the background.

...And that was how I, Agatha Bennett, ended up straddling James Sirius Potter inside a broom cupboard.

Lucky me.

“Ow—Merlin, that hurt!”

“Fuck, Bennett!”

There was a huge, frenzied ruckus as we tried to detangle ourselves, limbs flying every which way in the darkness. Vaguely, in the back of my mind, I realized that if someone were to see us right now—scrambling frantically together in a cramped, dark broom cupboard—they would interpret the situation in a very different way, and the thought made the back of my neck tingle.

“Shit—”

“Get off me!”

“I’m trying to, you git!”

“Well try harder! Jesus, you’re heavy. What do you eat for breakfast? Cement mix?”

“Careful with what you say, Potter. My knee is very close to your groin right no—”

All of a sudden, Potter’s rough hand came flying over my mouth, muffling my threat, and I stiffened. Ears picking up the sound of Filch's footsteps, I froze in my awkward position sprawled over Potter's torso.

Shit.

In the dim, barely visible light, Potter and I stared at each other with wide, panicked eyes as Filch's footsteps grew louder and louder. Neither of us wanted to move for fear of Filch hearing us, and this made the situation all the more uncomfortable given the position we were currently in. Potter was lying flat on his back on the dusty ground of the cupboard. I was literally straddling him, one of my legs on either side of his hips, my hands planted on the wall behind his head. My dark red hair fell around us like a curtain, a few tendrils curling onto his chest. But most horrifyingly of all, however, was the fact that Potter’s warm hands were currently wrapped around my waist in an ill-fated effort to steady me.

Any other time, I would have slapped him upside the head and told him to get his slimy, disgusting hands off of me, thank you very much. But, here, inside this dark, quiet broom cupboard, I couldn’t do that. Filch was directly outside the door, so close that I didn’t dare breathe, let alone move, and Potter’s hands were pretty much the only thing keeping me from flopping right down on top of him.

This was wrong. So terribly wrong. I mean, I could actually feel Potter’s body underneath mine, warm and solid and—and—

I blinked rapidly, trying to clear my mind of any and all thought, and instead concentrated on the present. There was a very angry caretaker outside the door. If he found us, he would most likely try to dismember our bodies limb from limb. So I thought about that. I did not think about Potter’s hands burning through the flimsy material of my shirt, or the way his eyes were bright and sharp in the darkness.

The air seemed to thud against my ears as I closed my eyes and strained to listen to Filch’s pacing footsteps outside. For one horrifying moment, I really thought he was going to open the door and discover us. But then it passed, and Filch was walking away and leaving the office, and we were safe.

We waited a moment, breathless, until we were absolutely sure he had gone. And then I slowly, gingerly climbed off of Potter, the two of us unable to look at each other as we both struggled to a stand. The air hung thick and palpable around us, and I couldn't find it in myself to breathe a word.

Stiffly, Potter opened the door, making me wince as light washed over me and filled my vision with blinding brightness.

“Well,” he cleared his throat uncomfortably, reaching up to rub the back of his neck.

“Yeah.”

There was a pause, and we crept outside into the office. Potter's mouth was drawn into a flat line.

“We should probably get out of here — ”

"Yeah, definitely. "

"Right. Okay. "

"After you — "

"No, after you," Potter amended, striding over to gallantly swing the door open with a forced politeness that, I knew, in Potter's mind was somehow meant to compensate for the fact that his best friend's sister had just been straddling him in a broom cupboard.

I swallowed nervously, unable to even look at him any longer. We had been close. Too close for comfort, and we both seemed to recognize this, acknowledging the danger of the situation like in an unspoken agreement.

Gravity, it seemed, was just not on my side today.

Head ducked, face flushed, I stepped out into the dark, shadowy corridor. It had been a mission success — we'd nabbed the cat, after all — but for some reason it didn't feel that way as I began to walk down the hallway, conscious of Potter behind me trying to keep as much distance between the two of us as possible.


Chapter 23: Ache
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“I don’t understand.”

I stared blankly at the grave, somber faces of the three people speaking in front of me, unable to comprehend a word. They sat with sad eyes and patient, horribly kind smiles, pitying my confusion, and I felt my agitation spike. They were just trying to be nice, of course, and yet I found them inexplicably, overwhelmingly irritating.

I knew that this was important, that Headmistress Vespertine had called me into her office for a mandatory meeting with Aidan’s healers and lawyers and that I should be carefully scribbling down every scrap of information they offered me, and yet I just couldn’t bring myself to pay attention. I was trying — really, I was — but each droning word and legal term seemed to go in one ear and out the other.

And thanks to years of retaining my status as Dominique Weasley’s Official Best Friend, I had successfully mastered the art of pretending to pay attention. It was quite simple, really. There were three steps, and three steps only:

1. Smile

2. Nod

3. Make vague affirmative noises like, “Mhmm” or “Uh-uh,” or even, if you’re feeling particularly daring: “I see what you mean and I completely agree."

All three of these steps were put into action the minute one of Aidan’s doctors had begun talking. A plump man with a bowtie, the healer had an air of pompousness and, if you looked closely enough, a pair of beady eyes that were barely visible beneath a vast amount of furry facial hair.

He was about as attention-grabbing as my left thumb.

“Miss Bennett, you have to understand that Aidan’s condition right now is at a stasis. He’s stable, but he isn’t getting any better...”

“Mhmm.” Not registering a word this man was saying.

“Because of this, we thought it wise to call a meeting...”

“Uh-huh.” Wow, this dude had really long nose hairs. He should think about investing in a good pair of tweezers.

“Of course, nothing is set in stone right now...”

“I see what you mean and I completely agree.” Could you pluck nose hairs? Maybe you had to shave them.

“But I still believe that it would be wise to convene together, just to throw some ideas out in the open...”

“Right.” Wow, I was really glad I didn't have nose hairs.

“So it’s quite important that you pay attention and listen carefully.”

“Of course.” Wait, did I? Shit. I bet I did and I just hadn't noticed them yet. The hairs were probably lying in wait, biding their time until the perfect moment when they could sprout out and into the open. That would be just my luck.

“Now, you see, my colleagues and I have been discussing a few options, and we believe that...”

As Healer FurryFace (Ph.D. in boring) continued to ramble on, I leaned forward and attempted to get a peek at myself in the reflective surface of Headmistress Vespertine's mahogany desk. Did I have nose hairs? Maybe I did, and up until now, all of my friends had just been too polite to mention it. I tilted my head from left to right, flaring my nostrils erratically in an attempt to garner a good look at the offending nasal invaders. The whole effect was vaguely ‘self-conscious schoolgirl' meets ‘constipated orangutan.’

“Do you agree, Miss Bennett? Miss Bennett? Miss Bennett?"

I startled and gave a shocked little yelp in my uncomfortable wooden seat, jolting suddenly and unpleasantly back to reality. “I DON’T HAVE NOSEHAIRS — uh, what?"

There was a slight pause in the conversation. Dr. FurryFace shifted in his chair, expression scrunched into a half-disapproving, half-confused frown. Professor Vespertine, who was standing quietly in the corner, smiled in a way that was confusingly both gentle and condescending at once.

"Agatha," she said pointedly, gesturing with her head to the healer.

I coughed, tugging meekly at my collar. Headmistress Vespertine already thought I was “mentally disturbed” — she had been the one to send me to the bloody school counselor in the first place — and after that little display of complete what-the-fuckery, she was probably going to start scouting the neighborhood for the nearest loony bin. Wonderful. I should just buy my own straightjacket while I was at it. At least that way I could make sure it was the correct size.

"Right," I coughed. "Paying attention. Sorry."

FurryFace cleared his throat, his moustache bristling slightly in irritation. It looked like a small, hairy little ferret. On his face. And all the nose hairs were baby ferrets. It was just one big, hairy ferret family. “Anyway, back to what I was saying. Miss Bennett, your brother has been comatose for almost two months, and we think it may be time to start taking some...precautionary measures, in case—“

“Wait,” I held up a hand, effectively cutting him off mid-sentence. “Be kind, rewind—what did you just say?”

The healer blinked owlishly, slightly taken aback by my sudden interest in the conversation. “I... I w-was saying that it might be advisable if... as a family, you and your parents began to take some precautionary measures concerning Aidan—“

“What do you mean precautionary measures?” I demanded, slicing through FurryFace’s monotone.

“Precautionary measures such as establishing a good life-insurance plan for your brother, sorting out his trust funds, maybe even creating a will—“

“A will?”

“Deciding whether, if the time comes, Aidan could serve as an organ donor—“

“If the time comes? What time? Organ donor?”

My head was starting to spin. There was this low buzz humming in my ears, growing louder and louder with every word out of this dull man's mouth. I could feel It stirring in the pit of my stomach, hot and acrid and—and...

FurryFace sighed. “I know this is difficult to hear, Agatha, but at this point in time we must take into account the possibility of Aidan’s death.”

And there it was. The very word that had been haunting me, every minute of every day. The very word that I’d been too scared to speak or hear or even think about. Laid out on the table, just like that.

I was going to be sick.

I jolted to my feet, my chair screeching backwards and toppling over with a clumsy thud. “I’m sorry, I can’t do this.”

Professor Vespertine’s head snapped up, her features slack with surprise. FurryFace gaped and stuttered for words, “B-But Miss Bennett, this is important—”

“I don’t care!” I suddenly blurted out. “I just... I can’t do this, okay?”

I didn’t bother to wait for an answer to my question. Instead, I wheeled around on my heel and, trying to ignore the scalded expressions of Vespertine and the healers, strode with quick steps out the office.

The door slammed loudly on my way out. I couldn’t find it in me to care.

The second I was out of that hot, stuffy office, I already began to feel loads better. Around me, the air was fresh and crisp and, through the wrought iron windows of the castle, I could see the murky blue shimmer of twilight. Students were probably flooding the Great Hall right now, ready for dinner, chatting about mundane things like homework and classes and Quidditch...

But I couldn’t bear to try and join them. I needed to be alone. It was still writhing and squirming under my skin, and I had to get it out. I had to forget.

And I knew exactly to go.

—*—

The Hogwarts' Kitchens were bustling during dinnertime. House-elves scrambled from steaming pot to smoking oven, too busy to even acknowledge the small, shivering redhead girl who walked through the door. Not that I minded. It was nice to be alone and not have to deal with —

“Miss Agatha Bennett! Miss Agatha Bennett! Thank Potter you’re here! You’ve come for Pipsqueak, haven’t you?”

Crap.

My stomach—or what was left of it since that conversation in Vespertine's office—immediately plummeted to the soles of my shoes. Of course. Of bloody course.

I glanced down at Pipsqueak the House-elf, somehow stretching the muscles in my face into a horribly artificial smile. “Pipsqueak! What a surprise! Fancy seeing you here, uh, in the kitchens. Where you work.”

Pipsqueak nodded furiously, his bulbous eyes round and shining with a slightly disturbing glint of adoration. “Yes, yes, Pipsqueak can always be found in the kitchens. Or at least when he’s not cleaning the Commons or dusting the shelves or watching you sleep—“

“Pardon?”

“Or stirring the fire or whatever else Hogwarts has Pipsqueak do! Yes, yes, indeed! Pipsqueak loves his work!"

So, I had a coma patient for a brother, a Potter for an arch enemy, and a house-elf for a stalker. No wonder I was spiraling. Hey, I might as well just embrace the crazy while I was still lucid enough to do so. Honestly, my life was currently such a pit of chaos and mental instability, I could probably start charging people to watch me flounder. It'd be entertaining, at least. I could make flyers and everything.

AGATHA BENNETT, ONE WOMAN FREAKSHOW.
Embrace the Crazy!
(Tickets $15 online, $20 at the door. You may take pictures, but please turn the flash off because bright lights and sudden movements will frighten the skittish Aggy. Do not feed the Aggy. Do not attempt to pet the Aggy. We are not responsible if the Aggy lashes out at you, bites you, or if one of your personal possessions gets lost in her hair.)

“Miss? Miss?” Pipsqueak’s voice floated into my ears, jerking me down to reality, and I gave my head a firm shake to clear it out. Merlin, I really need to stop with the daydreams. “What’s wrong?”

“Er, nothing," I said distractedly. "Just, Pipsqueak, you should know that you can be a bit over-bearing at times."

“Ah, yes. Occasionally people tell Pipsqueak that he has... uh—how do you say—issues with personal space. But Pipsqueak does not mind. Just so long as his friends are safe.” Pipsqueak paused, his luminous eyes traveling across my face. "Have you been feeling well lately, miss?"

I gaped at him, unable to comprehend how a house-elf like Pipsqueak could exist in the same world as war and terrorism and other generally bad things. “I... well, yeah," I said, so caught off guard I found myself telling the truth. "I've been taking a sleeping potion this counselor prescribed me, and it's been working. There are some side effects, apparently, but I haven't noticed anything."

Pipsqueak’s eyes widened in shock. “Is Agatha Bennett saying that she has been poppin’ bottles?”

“Poppin — what? Excuse me?”

“Poppin’ bottles,” Pipsqueak replied with utmost seriousness. “Getting crunk in da club with the biddies."

“Pipsqueak, what on earth are you talking about?”

“Oh! You see, Pipsqueak has recently purchased a muggle mp3 device with his Hogwarts salary.” The house-elf nodded furiously, sounding almost proud. “It is great fun. Pipsqueak especially enjoys the songs by rapper 50 Centaur.”

“Okay, I can’t handle anymore of this,” I announced, shaking my head furiously in astonishment. What a world it was we lived in. “Could you please just get me a bottle of Butterbeer or something?’

“Fo’ rizzle, home dawg.” Pipsqueak stated primly, and then he was off, disappearing into the heat of the kitchen and the bustling mob of the other house-elves.

Merlin, I needed to get my head checked.

—*—

Six butterbeers later, and I wasn’t feeling too good.

Over the course of draining each bottle and ignoring Pipsqueak's pleas for me to 'slow down,' the strangest thing had happened — whenever I walked one way, the world began to tilt the other. Objects took on the strange tendency of magically duplicating themselves whenever I looked at them. And it was suddenly really, really hard to stand straight without feeling like I was about to tip over.

It was odd.

But kind of cool.

I giggled to myself as I stumbled down a random poorly-lit hallway, free of the humid underground murk of the kitchens. It was midnight, and I was out wandering the halls. Being bad. Well, not really bad. I was just wandering harmlessly around, tipping over the occasional suit of armor (by accident, of course — they would just appear out of nowhere!) and making conversation with some of the portraits. But still. It was after curfews, against the rules—and it was fun.

I made my way down the hall, my head spinning and my movements jerky as I stumbled. This was so weird. I’d only had six — or was it eight? nine? eleventeen? — butterbeers, and yet I was feeling like I was...well, drunk. Silly Aggy! How could that be? Butterbeers didn’t make you drunk.

And yet I suddenly had the urge to make out with someone and/or start doing the Macarena.

Hmm. I really wanted some pudding right now. Yes. Pudding sounded nice. We should get pudding.

I immediately turned on my heel, not registering that the fast motion had been too much for my dizzy brain to handle until it was too late and I found myself sprawled face-down on the floor, legs spread akimbo. Oww.

Suddenly, I wasn’t feeling so good. Suddenly, pudding didn’t sound so appetizing. Suddenly, I felt sick.

It was rearing its ugly head again and, in my state, I felt its grip on me tighten tenfold. The nausea, the pain — it was all magnified, and I half-crawled, half-lumbered to the nearest bathroom, not caring if it was girls or boys. My head seemed to spin and swim at the same time, my stomach doing unpleasant little somersaults. And It was crawling back up all the while, ready to take over, swallow me whole — and with the room swimming around me like this, I found myself unable to maintain the control I usually did.

I was almost to the sinks when my knees gave out, and I surrendered. I surrendered to the cold tiles on the floor, to the reality of my conversation with Aidan's healers. I surrendered to It.

—*—

“Bennett.”

A voice. Poking me. Jabbing me. Loud in my ear. Merlin, it hurt.

Ughhhh, I hurt.

“Bennett," that same voice said, oddly familiar in the haze, and I squeezed my eyes shut as whoever it was kept on talking. Well, not really talking. It was more cursing than anything — a stream of really creative, explicit cursing grumbled under the breath. But still. Annoying all the same.

“Urghhhh...”

A voice. My voice? What was going on?

Someone was shaking me. Nooo, mum. Five more minutes.

"Bennett," the voice said again.

Gingerly, I pried my eyes open, only to immediately regret doing so a couple seconds later. Because swimming in my vision was a dark, tousled shock of hair, a pair of brightly incensed hazel eyes, and, of course, a red and gold striped tie.

Potter. Looking really, really pissed.

“Morning, Sleeping Beauty.”

Fuck.

I blinked twice, choosing to ignore Potter's lovely little salutation and instead scanning the fluorescent lighting and glimmering tiles of my surroundings. “Where am I? What time is it?”

“The Third Floor boys’ bathroom. Roughly, ah — " His eyes flicked briefly towards his watch, “— 12:30 in the morning.”

I didn’t say anything. Summoning all the willpower in my small body, I slowly struggled to a stand in a feat that I personally felt deserved a medal from the Tour de France committee. My joints popping obnoxiously, I rubbed my aching head and looked anywhere but at Potter. Despite my 30-minute cat nap, I didn’t feel any better. In fact, I felt worse. My head was throbbing, my throat scratchy, and my stomach still churning with nausea.

Potter studied me for a minute from where he was crouching by where I had been sprawled out. Then he stood up, face unreadable, and fixed me with his bright stare. “I found you lying by the sinks and mumbling something about pudding. Care to explain?”

“Not really.”

He stared at me, his jaw working. I stared back, silently daring him to challenge me. Let him argue. See if I cared. I was beyond caring, now.

Instead, Potter just shrugged his stupidly broad shoulders and said, “Fair enough. Let’s get you back to your Common Room.”

I gaped at him, shaking my head in disbelief. Potter? Back down from a fight? Never, in all the agony-and-bickering-filled years that I had known Potter, had I ever seen him just let something go so... easily.

And then I looked at him. Really looked at him. I saw his disheveled hair, the grim line his mouth was pulled in, and the dark glint of his eyes, like two coals that still burn faintly after a fire goes out. And then I realized that maybe I wasn’t the only one who was past caring.

Aidan’s coma had aged us. Some days I looked at Freddy and saw the bags under his eyes, or the way his smile flickered a little, as if he was trying to keep it in place. Some days I looked at Dom and realized how different she was now, how her shoulders almost seemed to curve inwards, how my sassy, unstoppable best friend had somehow turned into a mere shadow of herself. And I knew that — no matter what happened in the future — none of us could ever be fully the same again. We were grown up now.

Potter and I locked eyes, and I suddenly felt like crying. Like forgetting, just for a moment, that he was my sworn enemy, and pulling him close to me and pressing my face into the clean, smooth linen of his shirt, just so that his arms would come around me, just so someone's arms would come around me.

There was something sour rising up my throat, and I suddenly felt very hot.

Potter squinted at me. "You alright, Bennett?"

“I’m fine,” I said quietly, mostly just to convince myself. “I don’t need your help.”

This statement was punctuated by me turning a nice shade of puce after I said it, and then running to the nearest toilet to offer it this afternoon's lunch.

I heard Potter sigh, calmly and quietly, as he conjured a glass and filled it with water from the tap. His footsteps echoed off the shining tile as he walked closer, growing louder and louder.

The muscles of my back tensed and, furiously, I wiped at my mouth with the back of my hand. Damnit. The last thing I needed right now was for Potter to see me like this. Miserable, broken, and defected, someone who couldn't even keep it together.

I felt warm hands press against my shoulders, gently pulling me back, and then there was Potter crouching besides me, face hard and unreadable as he handed me the water.

Glaring up at him, I took it. “I’m fine.”

“No, you’re not.” Potter shot back, stubborn as ever. “Bennett—“

“What?” I snapped, embarrassment flooding my face. I felt like something inside me had broken, and all of a sudden I was furious. "What is it?"

Potter matched my anger, emotion flaring in his gaze. “I found you lying on the floor, for fuck’s sake!”

“I don’t need your lectures right now — "

“No! Listen to me!” Potter was standing up, his eyes bright again with roiling anger. “I found you lying on the floor. I thought you were — you could have been — Jesus, Bennett. Do you know what that was like?”

“Oh drop the fucking act, already!” I sneered, standing up to meet his gaze and swaying slightly on wobbly legs. “Stop pretending like you actually care — “

“You think I don’t care — ?”

“I know you don’t!”

“Christ, Bennett, you’re my best friend’s sister!”

“Exactly! I’m your best friend’s sister. You don’t care about me. And if you did, it’d only be out of obligation, or pity, or guilt — “

“I’ve known you for five years!”

“Yeah, known and hated. This isn't how our relationship works, Potter. You don’t get to care about me.”

Potter gave a harsh, barking laugh. "You're oblivious. Bennett, when are you going to stop acting like a kid and realize that there are people out there who—for completely unfathomable reasons—actually care about you—?“

“Oh, and I’m guessing you’re one of those 'people'?”

“And what if I am?” Potter bellowed, wildly throwing his hands up in the air. His voice echoed against the tiled walls, each reverberation coming at me like a punch to the gut.

I flinched, snapping my mouth shut. I knew my feelings were flicking across my face plain and clear as day, feelings I wasn’t supposed to show to anyone, least of all Potter, but I couldn’t help it. The air around us pulsed with an unseen energy as the two of us stared at each other, both breathing heavily, our faces flushed. It was amazing how we could instantly go from exploding — meteorites bursting, stars combusting — to a sudden, static silence.

“You care about me?” I asked quietly, eyes brimming with a mixture of disbelief and surprise.

“I — of course, Bennett.” Potter’s voice was weary, tired. He had given up. “How could you even ask that?”

I couldn’t handle this. Potter barging in here and mucking everything up, telling me that he cared about me and causing me to reevaluate the order of how our relationship had been for the past five years. No. Impossible.

Right now, Potter and I’s relationship was the one anchor I had, the one certainty in my otherwise volatile life. And now he was changing everything, upsetting the balance and... It was too much.

“I can’t do this right now,” I said hastily, pushing past him as I stumbled towards the exit.

Potter threw his head back in exasperation, eyes fluttering shut. “Bennett — “

“Don’t.”

Amazingly, he kept quiet and let me go.

I staggered towards the doorway, my head still spinning, my breathing ragged and jittery. All of that screaming had worn me out. I'd been weak before I'd thrown up, and now it was worse, my legs like limp noodles, my muscles heavy like metal. Not to mention the pesky black dots that kept on popping into my vision...

I made it two meters out the door before collapsing, succumbing to darkness for the second time that evening.

Bollocks.

—*—

I woke in a dark room on an unfamiliar bed. It took a moment for me to remember what had happened, that something had even happened in the first place, but then the memory came hurtling back to me, hitting me with as much force as the Hogwarts’ Express.

Passing out. The bathroom. Potter. Our fight.

Where was I now?

I looked around. Surrounding me were other beds, but I couldn’t make out their occupants in the hazy darkness. Then I jolted in surprise; Potter was lying asleep in a nearby chair, his feat propped up on my new bed.

Wait.

Other beds. Other beds... Did he...?

Did he take me to the Hospital Wing?

No. He couldn’t have. He’d know better than that, right? I mean, he couldn’t have taken me here! Where... Aidan was staying! The one place I'd been avoiding like death for the past two months! No. No no no no no.

It was becoming hard to breath. I gasped frantically for oxygen, but it was like my heart was beating too fast for my lungs to catch up. My tiny, ragged pants punctured the air, the noise only increasing my mounting panic.

It was too hot. I kicked off the covers, jostling Potter’s legs in the process. Oh god. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t be here. Near Aidan. Aidan. Oh god, no.

“Bennett?” Potter’s voice was heavy with sleep as he came to. He blinked, straightening in his chair and squinting at me. But I ignored him, too busy struggling for air to pay him any heed.

“Bennett? What’s wrong?” Potter was standing up now, grabbing me by the shoulders and forcefully turning me towards him. I couldn’t reply, not enough air in my lungs to breath, let alone speak. I wanted to push him away, to get out of here, but my legs seemed to have mysteriously turned into stone while I'd been asleep. There was a metallic taste in my mouth. My heartbeat thudded furiously in my ears and I felt unbearably dizzy, like the world itself was spiraling out of control.

Suddenly I was thrashing, kicking and flailing and wild, my voice a weak panting between gasps. I had no power over my own body any longer. I was going berserk, but I couldn’t stop myself. The world was spiraling away from me, and I couldn’t stop myself. It was taking over, consuming me, swallowing me whole —

I got about two good kicks in before Potter finally managed to subdue me, my spastic flailing no match for his physical strength as, cursing, he used one hand to press my shoulder into the mattress and the other to grab my chin, swinging my face around to look at him so that we were practically nose to nose.

“Agatha,” Potter said urgently but calmly, his grip tightening. “Calm down. Listen to me. You’re okay. You’re here, in my dorm. It’s okay. You’re going to be okay.”

I went instantly rigid at the word 'dorm,' and then my body suddenly was slack as relief seemed to course from my toes to the top of my head. Dorm. Not Hospital Wing. I relaxed, my mind inwardly chanting Potter’s words like a mantra.

Somehow, I managed to catch my breath and my body became limp and tired once more. Slowly, cautiously gauging my expression for any sign of hysteria, Potter pulled away.

We stared at each other for a moment.

And then I promptly burst into tears.

It was strange. This whole time, with Aidan being in a coma and everything, I hadn’t cried once. And here I was, in Potter’s dorm — probably in Potter’s bed — and I was sobbing my bloody eyes out.

They weren’t loud. They were the soft, whimpering kind, the pathetic kind, and I just sort of curled myself into a little ball and started shaking for a bit as I let them out. I stayed like that for a while, crying, not making a sound.

Potter didn’t try and rub my back or tell me everything was going to be alright—something that I appreciated. He just sat on the edge of the mattress next to me silently, jaw working, his eyes trained on me in a look of neither pity nor contempt but something else entirely, something slow-burning and hard. And then, when I had stopped crying, he conjured a couple of tissues and handed them to me, expression unreadable as always. I buried my sniffling face in them, feeling utterly mortified.

This couldn’t be happening. Right now, Potter was witnessing me at my weakest, most vulnerable state, with my eyes all puffy and an absolutely charming combo of snot and tears smeared across my face. I crumpled the tissues in my fists, looking up at Potter. “Sorry.”

“Don’t be," he said quietly.

I nodded and looked away, staring at the maroon comforter draped across my legs. There wasn't much to say. “So I’m in your dorm?”

Potter shrugged. “Yeah. I couldn’t carry you to the Slytherin commons, because I don’t know the password, so I just brought you here.”

I closed my eyes, shaking my head from side to side, and dabbed at my face once more with the tissues. “I can't believe you put up with me."

Potter was silent for so long that I didn’t think he was going to reply. He wasn’t meeting my eyes, instead staring off into the darkness of the room. “You don’t have to always be so strong, you know," he said quietly, so the others wouldn't hear. "It’s okay to fall apart sometimes.”

“But I have to be strong. For Dom and Freddy and my mum and...”

Potter turned around and looked at me for a long while, his topaz eyes narrowed in careful concentration, the white line of his teeth cutting into his lower lip. Then he reached up and, with a flick of his fingers, brushed a tear off my cheekbone. Innocent. I blinked, and his fingers stayed there for a moment, on my cheekbone, skin touching skin as we looked breathlessly at each other.

Then suddenly, unexpectedly, Potter drummed his fingers lightly against my cheek — just that, a slight, one-two-three motion that was both surprisingly intimate and earth-shattering all at once. It was a motion that didn't seem to belong to this world or the people in it. It was a motion that happened so quickly, it didn't even register, and then Potter was dropping his hand back down to his lap and looking away.

There was a long silence.

Potter rubbed the back of his neck, and then cleared his throat. “Your mum and Dom and Aidan," he said lowly. "They're not here. You don’t have to be strong for them right now.”

It felt like Potter’s fingertips had left a trail of fire across my skin. Our faces had been inches apart. Everything was quiet, and then he turned to me again, his eyes sprinkled with the silver moonlight slanting through the windows. There was something important about this moment. Something fragile and delicate and shuddering just beneath the surface.

“You’re here,” I whispered, not daring to speak any louder.

Potter's lips quirked upwards in an ironic, small smile. “I won’t tell.”

I opened my mouth to argue, but thought better of it.

Fuck it. There was something that I had to get off my chest, and what the hell, why not tell Potter, of all people? I could never breathe a word to Dom, or Freddy, or my mum... But something about Potter. I didn’t know what it was. Maybe it was the fact that he had just watched me burst into tears. Maybe it was the fact that he could see past the Prefect, goody-goody act I put up and recognize that I was human. Maybe I was just crazy. But I was going to tell him.

"There's something inside me," I said hesitantly to the dark air in front of me. "A feeling. And I call this feeling It, and everyday, when I'm going to class or just walking down the hallway or brushing my teeth, It will show up. And it's like standing on the edge of a pit when the dirt is crumbling underneath your feet. Sometimes I'm able to control myself, to not let myself fall, but I fear... I fear that I'm losing the power to do so."

Potter didn’t say anything for a long moment, letting me stew in mild regret and embarrassment as I waited for him to say something. Oh, Merlin. Please say something. He must have thought I was talking absolute nonsense, that I needed to be locked up somewhere with padded walls and people who confiscated any and all pointy objects. In a brief flash of mortification, I considered just tumbling out of the bed and scurrying out the room in shame.

But then he said, quietly, "I know what you mean."

I looked up at him, features slackening in amazement, and saw that Potter's frown was furrowed and his mouth drawn and unhappy and his eyes tired but, also, more importantly, burning with sincerity. He had felt it too, I realized. He understood and had maybe experienced what I hadn't even been able to put into words.

It was like his confession had filled my entire body with warm air. I looked at Potter in amazement, wondering if he would reach out again, do that thing with his fingers on my cheekbone that I had liked so much. I wanted him too and, realizing this, I sighed and leaned down on the mattress. I felt drained. There was nothing left inside of me to offer.

Potter was just about to stand up and leave when I grabbed him by the shirtsleeve.

“Wait,” I mumbled and he blanched, looking almost caught off guard. I got the words out fast, before I could regret them. "Will you stay with me? Tonight? I just. I can’t be alone right now.”

Potter paused. I couldn’t read his face in those few, agonizing seconds until finally, he nodded. “Alright.”

The moment he lay down next to me, I scooted towards him. I didn’t need to actually touch him, but just get close enough so that I knew he was there. He was warm, breathing steady and slow, and in the murky light of dawn struggling through the windows, I realized that there was a sudden absence inside of me.

It was gone and, instinctively, I knew that it wouldn't be coming back.

Sleep swallowed me in an instant.


Chapter 24: Explode
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The way I saw it, this situation could be a lot worse.

For example: I could be naked.

Seriously — everything was totally fine. So I had a monumental freak-out. So it was big enough to rival the time Dom went shopping for last year’s Yule Ball, discovered the dress she wanted didn’t come in her size, and ended up biting the sales employee in a fit of rage. So James Sirius Potter witnessed said freak-out and, twelve hours later, I was now waking up in his bed. So what?

It was no biggie.

Really. I was fine with it — totally chill. Like whatever, dude.

I mean, okay, Potter and I did hate each other with a burning, fiery-hot passion. And alright, admittedly, waking up in the same bed as him was a huge betrayal to my personal values and fiercely-held principles. But truthfully? I was okay.

Because like I said, I could be naked.

It was kind of an accomplishment, if you thought about it. After all, not many girls at this school could brag about sleeping in the same bed as James Sirius Potter while still managing to stay fully clothed. I should actually be congratulated for such will-power.

And I definitely should not be freaking out about this whole situation in the slightest. Nope. Not even one tiny bit. Because I was totally chill.

Chill, dude. Chill.

I incessantly repeated this phrase in my head as, slowly, I half-rolled, half-fell out of Potter’s bed, trying my best not to wake the still-sleeping prat himself. He was currently sprawled out across the mattress, half his stupidly attractive face smushed into his pillow, limbs thrown in every which way. Bloody tosser had taken up the whole bed. Go figure. Even when unconscious, Potter managed to still be a git.

I tore my gaze from his unconscious form, jaw gritting resolutely. Over my dead body would I get caught staring at James bloody Potter while he slept. Nor would I let anyone see me gawking at the sickeningly adorable way Potter's hair had been mussed with sleep, or the golden patterns the morning light made on his cheekbones, or the tiny smattering of freckles on his nose. Nope. I wasn't looking at any of that. Because I had will-power.

At a pain-staking pace, I crouched down to all four knees and began crawling my way through the nuclear implosion of clutter that was the Fifth-Year Boys' Dormitory. As ridiculous as I felt on the ground, I knew that the sprawl of books and broomsticks in front of me would make for a sodding obstacle course if I were standing. And the last thing I wanted was to wake Potter with the graceful sounds of another classic Agatha Bennett Tumble. No. Best to stay close to the ground — this was enemy territory after all.

And so I headed for the door, contemplating my current life's position the whole way. Here I was, esteemed Prefect and proud Slytherin, crawling army-style across the floor of the boys’ Fifth Year Gryffindor Dorm with both my dignity and my left shoe mysteriously missing.

It was a time for a serious re-evaluation of some of my life-choices. And perhaps a couple disinfectant wipes as well — Merlin knew what had been spilled, left or living on this floor.

By the time I finally — thank Merlin — reached the door, my heart was thudding furiously in my chest,my entire body taut with anxiety at the prospect of waking Potter or any of his dorm-mates. I clambered to a stand, throwing a glance over my shoulder at Potter, who was still sprawled out on his bed and thankfully, peacefully asleep.

I was so screwed.

It seemed to hit me all at once, my forced attempts at calm dissolving in the face of reality. I had slept with — next to, next to — James Sirius Potter. In his bed. This was the boy who, in Third Year, hexed my hair green for a week. This was the boy who insulted me practically every chance he got. This was the boy who I hated, loathed, absolutely despised —

And who last night, had picked me up off a bathroom floor and somehow managed to put me back together again.

He had watched me utterly and completely break down. He had seen all my hidden insecurities, my buried weaknesses. He had watched me cry, for Merlin's sake. I didn't even cry in front of people I liked, let alone the ones I hated.

So how could I face him now?

No, I silently reprimanded as I dusted myself off, sharply exhaled and cracked open the dormitory door. I wasn’t going to freak out about this. I was going to reign in my neuroses and stay calm as I tried to figure out a solution to this mess. After all, I was Agatha Bennett — esteemed Prefect and proud Slytherin. I could handle anything. Even a mortal enemy who had suddenly turned into a naptime buddy.

I was not going to start freaking out about this.

—*—

“I am so freaking out about this.”

Dominique Weasley rolled her eyes at my vehement proclamation, petal-pink lips shaping into a letter ‘o,’ as she poured a stream of cigarette smoke out into the chilly air. “Oh, relax. So you guys slept together — "

“Next to each other. Next to each other!

“Technicalities.” Dom shrugged her slim shoulders and took another drag of her cigarette, eyes unfocusing as she stared moodily into the stormy distance. “Either way, it’s nothing to have a strop about.”

The two of us had perched ourselves on a cluster of jagged rocks near the Black Lake, enjoying the wonderfully arctic weather and the self-satisfying feeling of a good ol’ fashioned brood. The sky above looked to be on the brink of a thunderstorm, the chilly air around us charged and humming with electricity. Sprawled out before us, the Black Lake swirled and crashed in a temperamental fashion that fantastically matched our collective mood. Dom sucked on a cigarette, looking tired and unhappy, while I sat next to her, looking...well, just unhappy.

“Nothing to have a strop about?” I exclaimed to the open air, throwing my arms out heatedly. “Dom, it’s Potter. And me. In the same bed.”

She smirked and rakishly wiggled her eyebrows, though her eyes were still trained carefully on the water. “I always thought you two would make a cute couple.”

I inhaled sharply, unable to believe the blasphemy I was hearing. “How could you even say such a thing?"

“I’m being serious." Dom looked darkly amused as she flicked the ash off her cigarette. "You’ve got that whole ‘sexual tension’ thing going on.”

I snorted. “Yeah, if by 'sexual tension' you mean the uncontrollable urge to strangle each other.”

Wrong thing to say. Dom simply chuckled and threw a coquettish wink my way. “Kinky.”

“Not kinky. Homicidal,” I waspishly corrected, before quickly plucking Dom’s stupid cigarette from between her two fingers. “And give me that — do you want to die by the age of twenty? Because if so, please do remember we promised each other back in Third Year that whoever dies first has to leave behind all her clothes to the other."

Dom didn't reply, shooting me a withering look as I chucked the cancer- stick into the swirling, slate abyss of the Black Lake. “That’s littering, you know.”

“And that was smoking on Hogwarts Grounds," I pointed out helpfully. "So I think we’re even.”

The minute that last word left my mouth, however, something in my brain seemed to suddenly click together. I froze, back stiffening as the strange mental shift, like a giant puzzle finally being put in place, had my brain start humming excitably. Even. I let my jaw drop, eyes widening slightly as the epiphany hit. Of course! Why hadn't I thought of it earlier?

Dom was peering at me with an air of vague concern, flapping a hand in front of my face. “Hello?" she snapped impatiently. "Earth to Aggy? Are we having a Freddy moment here?”

I slowly turned to Dom, an awed grin spreading itself across my face. “Tell me I’m a genius.”

“You’re a genius,” she deadpanned, pausing before quickly adding: “And I’m a liar. What gives?”

“I have a plan," I announced proudly, feeling my mood lift considerably for the first time in a a while. "I know how to fix this Potter... mishap."

“Uh oh." Dom rolled her spearmint eyes, no longer interested in what I had to say. "Spacing out, delusions of grandeur, impulsive planning... You are definitely having a Freddy moment.”

My best friend was looking at me like I had just expressed a hidden desire to eat my own sock — her eyebrows were quirked together, lips pursed in a skeptical way that practically came with its own free sassy finger snap. She definitely thought I was losing my mind (if she even believed I had one in the first place), yet I couldn’t bring myself to care. I was having a goddamned epiphany, son. An actual epiphany! I thought those only happened in history books and on House M.D., but no! It was happening right now — to me!

I scrambled to a stand, suddenly equipped with absolute certitude as to what I had to do and where I had to go. "Dom, I have to go," I announced and, not even giving her the time to act properly bewildered, I slung my bag over my shoulder and tried not to slip on the wet surface of the rocks as I clambered my way to firm ground. "See you later!"

And with that, I left my best friend sitting there, obviously perplexed, and started to half-jog, half-walk back to the castle.

Dom and her sexual tension theory could suck it.

I knew what I had to do. I knew how I was going to fix this.

—*—

Two hours later and I found myself standing outside the History of Magic classroom, foot tapping impatiently and fingers fiddling with a shiny gold badge.

I had done it — I had actually done it. Granted, it had taken a lot of begging, groveling, and some none-too-sincere complimenting ("Your nose hairs look especially... luscious today, Professor!”), but for once in my life, I had actually pulled something off with minimum humiliation involved.

Drum roll, please....


I had gotten Potter’s Prefect's badge back.

And not just the badge. I had successfully reinstated Potter’s position as a Hogwarts Prefect. All it had required was time, some expertly executed butt-kissing towards one somewhat-bemused Professor Nott, and a lot of my already-crumbling dignity.

But that was okay! The point was that I'd achieved what I'd been aiming for, and now I was one step closer to alleviating the weird emotional tension now strung between Potter and I.

See, the reason why I wanted Potter’s badge was simple — to even out the playing field. After all, I owed Potter right now. He had helped me after The Freak Out, had consoled me during my worst moment, and — as far as I knew — hadn’t told a soul about what'd happened.

I owed him so much for that.

And I hated owing people. I hated walking around with that hanging over my head, feeling my heart jump guiltily out my chest every time I so much as caught a flash of tousled black hair or a red-and-gold tie in the hallway. Besides, Potter and I's strange relationship wasn't equipped to handle big emotional debts. We had a system of easy, automatic hate, and any sort of weird past favors or good deeds messed that system up.

So I did this one thing for Potter, hoping it could balance out the scales. The plan was pretty simple — get Potter his badge, give it back (hopefully in a manner that didn't invovle actually interacting with him), and never speak to the git again. Perfect.

This way, I would have finally returned the favor. Nobody would owe anybody. Potter and I could move on with our separate lives and The Freak Out would just be nothing but a tiny blip on our otherwise spotless record of hatred and quarreling.

“Bennett?”

I practically jumped out of my skin at the voice — deep, lilting, and a bit confused — tearing through my thoughts. Heart a-skittering, I wheeled around to come face to face with Potter, having just spotted me after exiting the History of Magic classroom, where I'd known he would be.

...Er, in a totally unstalkerish way, that is. I'd found out Potter had HoM by asking some of the smitten third-year girls who had his schedule memorized. If anything, they were the creepy ones.

Potter looked all sleepy and mussed as he regarded me with bewilderment, like he had just woken up from a long nap (which, given the class he'd just been in, he probably had). His white button down was crinkled in some places, the sleeves hastily pushed up to expose tanned forearms. Tanned forearms with muscles that rippled and tensed whenever he adjusted his bag, or ran his hand through his hair, or — okay, stopping now.

“What are you doing here?” Potter asked, brow furrowing. He looked completely composed and normal, his demeanor devoid of any sign of last night's... er, activities.

“I — uh — erm,” I said oh-so-eloquently, trying my best to rip my gaze away from Potter’s biceps (I had a thing for arms, okay?). Snapping myself into reality: “I just came here to give you this.”

I thrust out the badge, giving a half-sheepish, half-’yeah I know I’m awesome whare are you gonna do about it?’ shrug. But Potter simply stared blankly at me.

I frowned. According to the detailed game-plan in my head, this was supposed to be the point where Potter gleefully accepted my gift, showered me in thanks and words of praised, and perhaps ripped his shirt off in a passionate display of gratitude. Instead, he was simply staring at the golden badge in my hand, one eyebrow quirked skeptically.

“What is it?”

“What do you mean what is it?” I huffed exasperatedly, shoving the badge under his nose as if that would make him appreciate it more. “It’s your prefect's badge. I got it back for you.”

“You got it back for me?” Potter shot back quickly, then — hazel eyes hardening with realization — seemed to finally understand the implications of my statement. "Wait, Bennett. Did you — ?"

"Yup," I said, unable to keep the edge of pride from creeping into my voice. "I got your position re-instated. You're officially a Prefect again."

Potter stared at me for a long moment, gaze flat and unfazed. "Why?"

Just as I was about to open my mouth to give Potter some bullshit excuse (probably along the lines of, “Because I’m a good person and I pity you, now shut up, take off your shirt and leave me alone”), Potter’s face suddenly brightened, illuminating with a look of realization. A look I did not like at all.

“You’re trying to make us even.” Potter crossed his arms, leaning languidly against the doorframe of the classroom and arching a brow. Several nearby Hufflepuff girls (and I think one bloke) sighed dreamily at the movement. “This is about last night.”

I shuddered at his words — the way he had phrased that made it seem like ‘last night’ was something more than it... er, actually was. “Not at all!”

He rolled his eyes at my obvious lie, still refusing to accept the bloody badge now resting rather uselessly in my hand. “Bennett, when are you going to stop running away and actually confront what’s right in front of your face?”

I stiffened defensively, sensing that my act of goodwill was starting to backfire on me. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Yes you do!” Potter seemed to be getting more and more frustrated by the minute. He was tugging his hand through his hair and clenching his jaw, just like he always did when he got agitated. “Do I have to spell it out for you? Aidan’s in the hospital. You're too scared to actually cope with the fact — ”

“Will you just take the badge already?”

“So you run away. Last night — ”

“Everyone has different ways of dealing with things!”

“I found you lying on the bathroom floor, drunk, hysterical... I — You scared the living hell out of me, Bennett.”

“Don’t.” I hated how Potter could act like this. Like he actually cared about my well-being, like he was worried about me. No doubt he secretly just enjoyed the whole state of things, watching me act all helpless and needy while he got to stand by, superior and smug.

But Potter was already ranting on, leaving me no time to stew in my self-righteous anger. “And now, Bennett, instead of talking about it, you’re trying to make things better by giving me a fucking prefect’s badge! How about a gold star and a pat on the head while you’re at it?” He scoffed, pushing himself off the doorframe and coming close — much too close — to where I stood. His eyes were bright and incensed — amber slits that simmered with so much anger, so much feeling, I inadvertently took a step back. “When are you going to face the truth and stop hiding from everything?”

“Probably around the same time you stop acting like a self-righteous bastard,” I shot back, grappling to regain control over my emotions.

I was amazed at how quickly the mood had changed. This smoldering, furious Potter was so different from the gentle, quiet Potter from last night, the one who had tucked my hair behind my ears and told me it was okay to be scared, it was okay to want to fall apart. Last night... things had been so different. The line between us, the one that usually separated us as enemies, had blurred. I had confessed things to Potter that I hadn’t dared breathe to anyone else. And now here we were, that very same line carved once more, deeper than ever, bickering and quarreling and fighting just like old times. It was like last night had never even happened.

“You know what? I’m done with your denial, Bennett.” Potter pushed past me, lips curled in disgust, eyes flashing with surprising intensity. “You can keep the fucking badge.”

And then he walked away. Just like that, leaving me standing there alone, holding nothing but a glittering gold badge that, all of a sudden, was starting to feel a lot heavier.

—*—

I liked heights.

A lot.

As a diehard Slytherin, I was scared of a lot of things — spiders, commitment, little children, owls — but strangely enough, I'd never been scared of heights.

I actually enjoyed the feeling of being high above my surroundings, of being withdrawn from the world. I liked being able to take a step back and survey the landscape. It gave me time to think and room to breathe.

So that night, I found myself standing by the North window of the Astronomy tower, staring out at the dark cobalt sky spread before me. It was that weird ‘limbo’ time of evening — the sun had just finished setting, and it wasn’t daytime, but not quite nighttime either. A thin feather of light still clung to the horizon, fading into an otherwise flawless sapphire sky.

The French had a name for it, actually, this strange time of day. L'heure bleu. Literally translated, it meant 'the hour blue.' It was a sentiment that seemed to perfectly encapsulate the beautiful simplicity, the glittering mysticism of this half-step between sunset and dusk.

I swallowed hard, pushing my rippling hair out of my eyes, and shook myself from my thoughts. It was pretty windy out — and cold. The kind of cold that gnawed at your bones, dug under your skin, and lingered there even after you went back inside to drown it with a gallon of hot cocoa. A haunting cold.

Below me, I could see as far as Hogsmeade, its twinkling lights peeking sleepily underneath a haze of snow and dark sky. Oh yeah. Snow. It had snowed. Wow. I had been locked up in this castle for so long, going absolutely bonkers, I hadn’t even realized that there was an outside world with changing seasons and everything.

Speaking of... Hadn't there been a Hogsmeade Outing recently? I remembered Dom had mentioned something during lunch about Fred taking Evelyn. Yes, the one and only Evilyn Stanford. It was a miracle that she had even said yes to the bloke. And it would be a bigger miracle if it turned out she had actually survived the date — knowing Fred, he had probably tried to get her to do something crazy like ‘ice-fishing’ or ‘naked-sledding’ or whatever else his twisted brain could come up with.

I sighed, leaning onto the ledge of the half-wall that separated me from a lurching, unpleasant drop of Merlin-knows-how-many feet. All my friends were somewhere in the castle, laughing, talking, and trying to forget. And here I was looking down into the darkness, alone and trapped in my own thoughts. And whose fault was that?

Maybe Potter was right. Maybe I needed to finally face things.

“It’s pretty, isn’t it?”

I jumped at the familiar voice. Steeling myself, I turned around to face — who else? — Potter, who was standing nonchalantly in the doorway of the Tower. Half his face was obscured by shadow, and he had his hands shoved into his backpockets.

“Merlin! You scared me," I bit out accusingly, heart practically leaping out of my chest.

Potter didn't reply, his face unreadable partly because of the shadow, and partly because that's how he always sodding was. For a while, there was nothing but the sound of the wind howling between us, my heart thumping furiously, and then:

“The French have a name for it.” Potter stepped closer, and his expression was finally thrown into the light. I took in the intense, liquid amber of his eyes, the clenched jaw that seemed to hold some barely-surpressed emotion, and frowned. There was something...off about him right now, something that seemed different.

His eyes were uncannily bright, his words slurring together at their ends. He wasn’t as put together, as collected as usual. His clothes were disheveled and, most alarmingly, there was a contempt, a stark bitterness twisting his expression into a snarl tinged with hollow amusement — as if he was finding this whole ordeal funny in a strange, morbid way.

“L’heure bleu.” I finished quietly. “Potter, are you drunk?”

He smirked. “What's it to you?”

“Potter, you shouldn’t be — “

“What was it you said earlier? Everybody has different ways of dealing with things?”

I snapped my mouth shut — gaze flattening into a glare at having my own words thrown in my face. It was so sodding typical of Potter that, even when drunk, he would somehow try to out-argue me.

“What do you want? Why are you hear?” I tried to snap, but my voice was too weary and too tired to carry the intended acidic edge.

Potter simply kept walking, staggering forward until we were almost nose-to-nose.

His eyes seemed to soften slightly when they met mine, the derision on his face melting away for a heart-stopping second. “I want to tell you something," he murmured quietly, voice as slow and thick as molasses.

A wave of shivers was undulating down my spine. I licked my dry lips and looked up, refusing to let go of Potter’s black-gold gaze. “What?”

Potter stared at me for a moment, openly, frankly, eyes shockingly sincere — and then his expression hardened, snapping back to its usual harsh brand of superiority and annoyance. He flicked his derisive gaze over me in a judgmental once-over, mouth twisting unpleasantly. "You're a coward, Bennett," he said flatly, and his tone was sharp and unforgiving.

The words hit me hard, for some reason, and I reared back as if I'd just been slapped. Though I shouldn't have been surprised — what else would Potter have said? "I think you're really cool and pretty and I hope you like the friendship bracelet I braided for you"? Not bloody likely.

Still, though. Somehow those words hurt a lot more than I thought they would. Maybe it was because of the completely detached scorn in Potter's gaze. Confronted with it, I felt like I wasn't even deserving of being his best mate's annoying prude-sister. I felt like less than that. He'd looked at me as if I were a nothing, as if I disgusted him.

I stepped back, unable to tolerate Potter's hot gaze any longer.

...And he stepped forward, evidently refusing to let me back away from the confrontation. The torchlight of the tower fell across his face, etching in detail the smooth line of his jaw, his tousled shock of black hair, the specks of gold in his eyes.

We stared at each other, hostile blue meeting contemptuous gold. I was breathing heavily, my heartbeat ringing deliriously in my ears, mingling with the sound of the howling wind...

“You’re a coward, Bennett," Potter reiterated simply, angrily, not holding back a single drop of loathing. "You run away, pull back from the people who care about you. You think that will solve things, right?"His voice was a murmur, words light and precise and dizzyingly quick ."You think that, if you hide any weaknesses and act like everything’s okay, then everything will be okay. But it’s not.”

He paused, obviously savoring this moment, eyes glinting with a kind of malice that I’d never seen before. Sure, Potter and I obviously hated each other. We fought and bickered and used every tactic in the book to get under the other's skin. But it had just been a game we played. Push each other to the limit and see who could make the other back down first. Never, in all of our arguments or pranks, had Potter actually gone out of his way to hurt me like this. These words... they weren’t part of a game anymore. They were real and true and chosen specifically to dig at all my sore spots.

“You’re crumbling from the inside out, Bennett," Potter was continuing frankly, with no regard for the growing horror on my face. "And he isn’t getting any better — “

“Stop.” My facade was cracking. I could feel my lower lip trembling, the back of my throat stinging in a strange, bitter ache.

“No, I’m not going to stop. Just grow up, will you?” Potter’s voice was slowly getting louder and louder, edged with frustration. I had never seen him like this, so intense, so raw, so fervent with feeling. “Just admit it. You’re a coward — “

I shirked away. “Back off, will you?!”

“No.” The word echoed, lingering meaningfully in the silent air. “Not until you admit it.”

“You — you don’t understand," I said meekly. I felt trapped, like Potter had backed me into an invisible mental corner with no way out. My cheeks were hot and feverish, my hands shaking. But still he pressed on, features twisted into a cruel scowl.

“You really think I don’t understand?" At this, Potter let out a quiet, grim laugh, shaking his head in mocking incredulity. "You think I don’t know what it’s like, Bennett? You don’t think I feel guilty too? I was up there with him, that game. I'm the sodding Captain. I should have been there to stop what happened, should have known what Cooper was planning — "

He trailed off, golden eyes dimming slightly as he seemed to withdraw from the present, sinking back into that long-ago memory. And I suddenly realized that, just like me, Potter was going through hell each day to cover it all up, to put on the usual mask of indifference and apathy and get on with life. But it was too late. He was drunk and fed up, and I could see every emotion on his face — Regret. Sorrow. Remorse.

Never, in all this time, would I have guessed Potter could feel this way. But the more I thought about it, the more sense it made. Yes, I was Aidan’s sister. But Potter was his best friend, and he had been there during the accident, watched it happen. Despite myself, despite everything Potter had said to me in the past few minutes, I still felt guilty understanding swell inside of me. That must have been truly awful.

“Potter.” I reached out to put a hand on his shoulder, grab his arm, do anything to convey my empathy — but all of a sudden he was pulling away, leaving the space before me feeling oddly cold.

“No, Bennett," he shook his head, eyes alight with a sudden spark of anger. "No. Your pity's not going to work — "

“Potter — ” I began exasperatedly, but my voice broke off when he wheeled around and I watched, in horror, as he walked away and climbed onto the ledge of the Tower wall, surprisingly agile for being so drunk. My stomach plummeted, my heart started beating so hard it hurt. “What are you doing?”

“You’re not a coward, Bennett?” Potter was smiling in a strange, rueful kind of way. He held his arms out in a mock version of a tightrope walker, putting one foot carefully in front of the other as he walked the length of the ledge. The ledge that opened up to nothing but the sky and a neck-breaking fall.

“Prove it," Potter said, hazel eyes burning into my skin, triumphant with the knowledge that he was playing with his life and daring me to do something about it.

“I — don’t — you —“ I stuttered incompetently. My mind was racing furiously, and yet I couldn’t seem to figure out what to say. Dread’s icy cold fingers were raking down my spine, its frigid chill a direct contrast from my sweating skin. Oh god, no. This couldn’t be happening. Potter. On the ledge. Of the Astronomy Tower. One misstep, one stumble, and he’d be dead.

My muscles were screaming for me to do something, anything, but it was like I was paralyzed. I was unable to do anything but watch with a mixture of terror and morbid fascination as Potter carelessly, tauntingly ambled from one end to the other.

“What?” he spun on one foot as he turned around in a quick, fluid motion that nearly gave me a heart attack. Fear, panic, hysteria all battled inside my chest, clawing at me from the inside out — I felt dizzy, sick. “Cat got your tongue?

I was suddenly aware of tears burning hot in the corners of my eyes. I tried to say something, anything, but it was like my throat had closed up. I was being strangled by my own voice. “Please, Potter —” I whimpered.

“Scared yet, Bennett?”

He was playing with me, toying with my fear for his own cruel amusement, which was so unlike him. I mean, yes, we hated each other. But even through all those years of bickering and fighting, Potter had still managed to be like a brother to me. A very annoying, very inconvenient brother, but a brother all the same. Like I said, this whole hatred business — it was just a game. When it came down to it, when it really mattered, Potter would never do anything to deliberately hurt me. After all, he was a Gryffindor through and through. Chivalrous and noble to a fault, even with me, the girl he despised above all. Nothing had demonstrated that better than last night, when Potter had been my rock, my anchor. I had held onto him, of all people, while it had felt like the rest of the world was slipping away.

But right now, last night seemed like forever ago, a parallel universe with its own parallel universe Potter. Because here this Potter was standing in front of me, on a ledge two-hundred metres above the ground, twisted and warped by anger and alcohol and whatever-else into some cruel, malicious person I didn’t know.

Potter eyes locked with mine, and immediately, my gaze hardened over. I suddenly knew what I had to do, and the realization made me stiffen with resolve. If he wanted to play dirty, then fine, we could play dirty.

“No.” I straightened, trying my best to keep my voice from shaking. The wind had dried my tears. Yes, I was trembling head to toe, but I was still standing and I wasn’t backing down no matter how far the arsehole pushed me. “I’m not scared.”

Potter stared at me for a moment, gauging my expression with thoughtful interest. And then slowly, the left corner of his lips tilted upwards in a smirk. He understood what I was doing. And he liked it.

He hopped off the ledge and staggered towards me, still smirking in an implicit acceptance of my challenge. I took a step back, only to feel my back inadvertantly bump into the wall behind me. Without me knowing it, Potter had backed me against the wall.

I watched with angry eyes as, realizing this as well, Potter placed both hands on the stone wall on either side of my head, effectively trapping me, and leaned in provocatively close. We were basically nose-to-nose, and this was far too close for comfort for me.

Expression one of dark amusement, Potter slowly reached out and gently tucked a strand of my hair behind my ear. The movement was so similar to what he had done last night, but with an entirely different context to it.

“How about now?” he murmured softly. "Are you scared now, Bennett?"

I resisted the urge to shiver. It was like all of my senses were tingling with a dizzying, renewed awareness of reality. Everything suddenly seemed sharper, more vivid as I stared into Potter’s bright hazel eyes and shook my head.

“No, I'm not,” I gritted out, flashing a wavering smirk of my own.

And then Potter did something I was totally unprepared for. The smirk seemed to fall from his face, replaced by something intent and almost curious as, eyes darkening, he reached down and — slowly, so slowly — drew a feather-light line from my left jawbone to my mouth, tracing with agonizing slowness the outline of my lips with his finger. The movement was so simple and yet so totally mesmerizing, I couldn't even think of backing away.

I simply stared at Potter like a deer caught in the headlights, waiting with bated breath until he finally stopped at my cupid's bow, squinting inscrutably at me.

“Now?” Potter murmured, his finger still on my skin.

Oh my god. My entire body was trembling, every nerve fizzling with energy. What Potter had done — plus the fact that it had been Potter doing it — had left my heart seizing and my brain cells incoherent.

What we were playing right now was, essentially, a game of chicken. Just like old times, except with entirely new stakes. The rules were simple: push each other to the limit, see who cracked first, who betrayed their discomfort. The person that backed down first would be the loser.

“No," I bit out, but my voice sounded strangled and unconvincing. This was entirely new territory for the two of us — this was flirtation and attraction and toe-ing the line. This was dangerous.

I tilted my chin, trying to appear confident as possible, but Potter didn’t seem to notice... Since he was too busy doing the exact same thing as before, except this time — oh god, oh fuck — with his lips.

Holy naked Merlin, what the hell was happening? My eyes fluttered closed, a feeble gasp escaping my mouth as Potter’s lips — soft and so, so, light — brushed against my jaw, trailing across my own skin as his left hand came up to cup the side of my face. My nerve-endings weren’t just fizzling anymore — they were bloody on fire. My legs had forgotted how to function. I was practically collapsed against the wall as my heart pulsed furiously, pumping heat and fire through my bloodstream, making my head spin, my toes curl, my nerves spark...

“What about now?” he murmured against my skin, and I practically dissolved right then and there. This was too much. This couldn’t be happening. This shouldn’t be happening. We hated each other. He was drunk. I was emotional. There were too many built-up feelings right now, raw and dangerous like live wires, at any moment ready to...

Explode. Oh god, oh Merlin, I couldn’t even think right now, my surroundings clouded with a hazy, muddled heat. Potter was going deliberately slow, I knew, as he made his way up and down my jawline and then, fuck, I could hardly even breathe, because all of a sudden his mouth was barely brushing mine, teeth scraping lip, the synapses in my brain exploding, my stomach fluttering, my skin on fire —

All of a sudden, my hands were reaching out of their own accord and scrabbling across his chest until they found purchase. Before I knew it, I was pushing Potter away, and then there was air, and I was opening my eyes, and the world was still spinning but slower, now, slower...

Potter and I stared at each other, his eyes darker than ever, molten black gold, completely unreadable and almost... hungry-looking. I flicked my gaze to the ground.

We were both breathing heavily. My cheeks were flushed, my heart racing a mile a minute. Despite my relief at finally having pushed him away, I was also...almost put out. My skin suddenly felt cold, empty.

I locked eyes with Potter again. His gaze was heady and intense as he regarded my stunned expression head-on, no hesitancy, no fear in his demeanor, just the angry determination clenched in his jaw.

There was a beat of silence that seemed to last forever, the air around us pulsing with an unseen energy, our ragged breathing puncturing the quiet.

"I'm not a coward," I finally snapped, voice adamant and dangerous. But it was so hard to lie and sound convincing when I was staring into Potter's knowing hazel eyes, my skin aching for his, the world tumbling out of control.

"Prove it," he snarled back.

...And then all of a sudden I was stepping towards him and he was shoving his hands into my hair and we were kissing each other, the world exploding, the universe splitting at its seams, hell freezing under our feet as we lost ourselves in a tangle of mouth on mouth and skin on skin and heat on heat.

It wasn’t anything sweet or tender, like in those romance novels where the Tall-Dark-and-Handsome sweeps the Damsel in Distress off her feet. It was rough and intense and urgent and all different kinds of wrong. It was my nails digging into his shoulders and my hair tangled in his hands and me against a wall and his tongue doing that and oh, god, people always said they felt fireworks when they get kissed but I was feeling goddamn nuclear explosions...

Snogging Potter, it turned out, was a lot like fighting with him. Angry, aggressive, and a little bit violent. Each of us pushing the other to the limit, battling for dominance, for the upper-hand. It was pounding out our emotions — all that frustration, all that anger and bitterness and hurt, all poured into one, single kiss.

It seemed to last for a second and an eternity at once. Somewhere, in the back of my head, I knew I ought to be disgusted, that I should be pushing Potter away and slapping him in outrage. But that was easier said than done, especially when James Sirius Potter's lips and tongue and hands are making your head whirl, clouding everything over with this sweet, hazy heat...

The frigid wind howled around us, a stark contrast to the heat of our bodies, and the sensation made me subconsciously draw him closer until I was pressed flusha gainst him. With every movement, it felt like Potter was pushing me closer and closer to the brink of insanity. The world was spinning, my head spinning, everything spinning. His hands went from cupping my face to running through my hair to pressing insistently against my hips, all the while streaking trails of fire and sparks across my skin. His mouth seared hot on mine as our bodies frantically tangled closer, every inch between us an abomination, a crime. I felt like I was exploding, splitting apart, like everything I had ever known was being turned inside out and backwards...

And then he was pulling away, breaking our kiss, and I was suddenly left there feeling cold and strangely hollow, wanting more. Both of us were panting heavily, staring at each other with bright, disbelieving eyes, skin flushed and hot. My mouth tingled with a curious mixture of hot and cold. My gaze flitted from the ceiling to the floor, landing on anywhere but Potter.

Finally, I looked up and we locked eyes. There was a silence that seemed to close in on us, empty and quiet and unbearable. Potter’s jaw was set, his eyes glinting with unreadable emotion.

“I—“ I began.

But my voice was drowned out as all of a sudden, Freddy burst through the door, eyes wide and panicked and carrying what looked like a map of some sort, and oh god, this whole day was like a freaking episode of The freaking Twilight Zone.

“Aggy, James — “ Fred suddenly keeled over, chest heaving, blissfully oblivious to the shivering tension between Potter and I. He had obviously just been running a great deal. There was snow in his curly hair, and two girls were standing behind him — an anxious-looking Evelyn and a stricken-looking Dom.

For one terrible second, I thought that they had seen, or that they somehow could read our thoughts and knew what had just happened. But no. Freddy looked like he was wrapped too deep in his own feelings to even suspect something.

“I — What?” Potter’s voice was thick and hoarse, but at least he wasn’t slurring his words like before. Maybe the kiss had had an opposite effect on him. Whereas for me, it had hazed everything over in this sweet fog of blurriness, it seemed like it had actually sobered him up — a slap from reality. He was back to the regular Potter, emotions reigned in, face expressionless and guarded as always.

“Aggy, James — “ Fred began again, but Dom impatiently pushed past him, stepping into the torch-light, her movements brusque but, at the same time, almost meek-looking. She drew in a shaky breath, and somehow, I knew what she was going to say before she actually said it:

“Aidan’s awake.”


Chapter 25: Tangles
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And that was how, five minutes later, Madame Pomfrey discovered a stampede of four breathless, wide-eyed teenagers bursting into her hospital wing in the middle of the night — unstoppable, hysterical, and knocking down everything in the way.

“Out, out! Family only!” Pomfrey shrieked, fluttering her hands in the air, but none of us seemed to hear her... Seeing as we had all gone a little mad.

Dom was alternating between hyperventilating and spontaneously collapsing on the floor in shock. Potter looked deep in thought as he furiously paced back and forth across the room, absentmindedly stepping over Dom’s crumpled body whenever he came across it. Fred was running around (Evelyn helplessly following after him) like an emotional chicken with its head cut off, throwing back the curtains of all the beds and screaming, “WHERE ARE YOU HIDING HIM, WOMAN?”

And I... I was just standing amidst all this chaos, not quite knowing what to do, trying to figure out what in the world had just happened.

I had kissed James Potter. Or rather, he had kissed me. Frankly, I wasn't too sure how that part went, since it had gone by in mostly just a blur of heat and anger and need and — and...

AS I WAS SAYING — Potter and I had kissed. Then, minutes later, my twin brother woke up from his two month-long coma.

And here I was, not sure if I should be happy or hysterical, not sure about anything, really, except for the fact that somehow my life had turned into a soap opera without me knowing it, and now we were living out what looked like a real-life episode of Jersey Shore, except with more teenage angst and everyone a lot paler-looking. Because England.

“You!” Madame Pomfrey bustled towards me, looking harried and absolutely fit to murder. I stared at her, dumbfounded, as she started to speak, watching her mouth open and close to form the words but not quite hearing what she was saying.

“...Chaos! Absolute chaos! This is a place of healing and peace, and you bring in these — these ruffians!” Pomfrey's livid face, already lined from old age, was etched with worry. Her hair was slipping out of its usually pristine bun. She seemed frazzled as she stepped towards me, gettin’ all up in my grill, looking like she was mere seconds away from wrapping her hands around my neck and throttling the living Merlin out of me.

I stepped back carefully. I quite liked air and would prefer to keep breathing it, thanks. “Madame — ”

“Hooligans! Deranged hooligans, all of you!” Pomfrey warbled, thrusting a shaky finger at my chest.

“Madame, can you please — ”

“ — vandals, hoodlums, scoundrels — ”

“DUDE! CHILL YOUR TITS!” I burst out, grabbing Pomfrey by the shoulders and giving her a rough shake. Okay, so perhaps that had been a smidge melodramatic. But hey, I was mere feet — mere seconds — away from seeing my twin brother... My twin brother who had just, in fact, woken from a coma. My twin brother who I’d been missing so much, I hadn’t even realized the extent of me missing him until now. My twin brother who... Come to think of it, probably hated my guts at the moment.

So cut me some slack, okay?

Pomfrey snapped her mouth shut, looking affronted, but I really couldn’t bring myself to care. The others had halted in their shenanigans and were now turned around, facing me, curious. Waiting.

After what seemed like forever, Pomfrey finally pushed my hands away, eyes sharp and murderous. She dusted herself off and straightened stiffly.

“Excuse me,” she said, voice prim and tight. "But that was out of line and highly inappropriate.”

Fred waggled his eyebrows knavishly, leering forward with a look he usually reserved for the table in the Grand Hall where all the Third Year Hufflepuff girls sat. “Damn skippy it was.”

There was a long pause in which everyone contemplated whether or not Freddy had really just tried to hit on Madame Pomfrey, and in which everyone seemed to individually reach the conclusion that, uh, yeah, he kind of had.

“...Wow. That was unnecessarily creepy,” Dom piped up from the floor.

“Damn skippy it — "

“Okay!” I exclaimed before anyone could respond and we were launched into a whole new round of chaos. “Madame Pomfrey, can you please take me to see my brother?”

Pomfrey blinked a few times, her face softening for an instant as she seemed to remember where we were and who exactly I was. She straightened and gave a curt nod. “I — yes, yes, of course.”

She turned around, patting her frizzing hair slightly, and started bustling past a row of neatly-made beds. The others quickly followed, and I could have sworn that, while she passed him, Fred threw a saucy wink towards Pomfrey.

Seriously? At a time like this? My whole existence was hanging in a delicate balance right now, and he was making passes at a woman who could be his grandmother?

I followed Madame Pomfrey through the labyrinth of bed and medical supplies, unsuccessfully trying to steady my heartbeat as I walked. For some reason, being in the Hospital Wing now reminded me of when I had first heard about Aidan's accident. I had run through the entirety of St. Mungo's trying to find him, completely out of control — I had socked Potter in the nose, for God's sake. What a complete contrast that was from now, with all five of us walking calmly towards the beds, taking our own sweet time. It seemed to last an eternity. Each footstep was agony, each second that ticked by a millennium.

And then finally, we were there. Behind me, Dom was sniffling. Fred’s hand was on my shoulder (it amazed me how he could go from creepy to comforting in two seconds flat). And Potter was standing right next to me, so close I could feel the warmth radiating from his body, the back of his hand barely brushing against mine, feather-light but enough for me to feel.

I took in a deep breath and prepared myself. Madame Pomfrey reached up and drew back the curtain...

And there he was.

Lying on the bed, healthy and breathing and miraculously awake. He looked the same as ever — boyish toffee-colored hair curling up around the ears. Warm, twinkling blue eyes. And that smile on his face — oh god, I had missed it so much. It felt like my whole body had compressed into one single, shuddering sliver of amazement, glowing with the impossibility of it all — here he was, awake, alive, amazing...

Aidan.

“Hey, sis.”

—*—

This was weird.

Like, really weird.

Maybe I had gone in to this with unrealistic expectations. Maybe the shock of it all was causing me to say and do all the wrong things. Maybe I had simply seen too many movie scenes of tearful reunions, and reality would never be able to compete with that. But I couldn't help but think that out of all the possible descriptors out there — joyful, miraculous, heartwarming — being with my brother for the first time after his accident was just... Well, weird.

After Dom had finished hyperventilating and Freddy had released Aidan from his twenty minute long bear-hug, Madame Poppy and the others had graciously left us alone so that Aidan and I could “chat.” They were probably expecting heartfelt declarations of sibling-love and joy, probably expecting me to collapse in a puddle of tears and emotional vulnerability. But that was not reality... Reality was two of us just sitting on Aidan's bed. In. Complete. Silence.

I couldn’t stop staring at him. It was amazing how much had changed, and yet, when my gaze was locked with Aidan's, there still remained underneath it all the enduring, unshakeable fact that I was tethered to him. Between us existed a bond, one that would always be there, even if I didn’t truly realize it. He was my brother. And as much pain and stress and heartbreak as he’d put me through, I couldn’t — literally, physically couldn’t — forget that.

“Hi,” I breathed.

There was a long, long pause. We didn’t break eye contact, just stared at each other, sitting together cross-legged on his hospital bed. Not touching. Tentative. Nervous. Quiet. We might as well have been meeting for the first time.

“Hi,” he said back, and oh god, it was Aidan. Talking. Smiling. With his fresh-laundry smell, and that dimple in his left cheek, and the sprinkling of freckles across his nose. With every little splash of detail I noticed, it was like a pleasant surprise, the resurfacing of some happy memory — like finding a galleon in your jeans pocket, or remembering the lines to a song you used to love a long time ago. I couldn’t get enough of him. All I could do was stare and stare and stare, unwilling to believe that this was truly happening, gulping in the vision in front of me.

Aidan. My Aidan.

We looked at each other some more. I hungrily drank in the features of his face, trying to memorize every freckle and dimple in case he ever left me again. God, I’d missed him. There was so much I had wanted to say, everything ranging from emotional proclamations of joy to a mum-style lecture about Quidditch safety, but now that I was finally faced with my brother, I was left blank.

Instead of words, I had only a singular memory of the two of us, stubbornly resurfacing to my mindseye. We had been seven years old. It had been summertime, I remember, and I had been getting ready for a dance recital after having taken a couple free ballet courses at the community center. It was right after my parents got divorced, and when you’re that young and your life changes like that, the little things — even stuff like crappy kid dance recitals — start to mean a lot.

I reminded my mom of it everyday, making her promise to take me. It was on a Sunday night, seven o’clock at the community theatre. I even hung up the flyer advertisement on our fridge. I was so excited, I practiced my bows and how I would wave to the audience.

But, as you'd probably guessed already, mum didn’t follow through. See, she’d taken the divorce pretty hard. Already a sensitive person, my mum had been left in tatters after my dad abandoned us. There had been a whole sixth-month long period in which she'd just suffer random, delirious breakdowns, bursting into tears while she was in the middle of doing something menial like sweeping the floor or folding our laundry. She would lock herself in her room for days on end, the blinds and door shut, refusing to come out unless for food. To this day, mum and dad still insist that their divorce had been a mutual decision. But Aidan and I knew better — dad left mum, and that had destroyed her.

For the next few months after the divorce, I had to take care of myself. And Aidan. I would pack our lunches, order take-out for dinner, even clean and go grocery-shopping. At the age of seven. Occasionally, Mum would decide to come out of her room and carry out the charade of the family unit for a bit longer, maybe do some dish-washing — her movements always so jerky and mechanical, that dazed look in her eyes — but she would either just give up half-way through, or, worse yet, smash whatever she washed into little pieces.

Yeah. Those few months, the Bennett Household hadn't been a very fun place to live.

Anyway, my dance recital. Like I said, mum was shut off in her own little word. I was distraught — I knew that she wasn’t going to take me or watch the show, hell, I had always known from the start that the thing was a lost cause. Which was why I'd been so surprised when Aidan showed up at my bedroom door, told me to “quit crying like a little baby,” and declared that he was taking me to the show.

Impossible, I had told him. After all, it was late on a Sunday, most of the buses had stopped running, and walking wasn’t an option since it was too far. We were doomed.

But then Aidan pulled out his shiny red bike. It was practically new — dad had bought it for him after the divorce in one of his lame attempts to appease his guilt and win us back over with shiny things. Aidan, Gryffindor through and through even back then, had refused to ride it on principle. But he made an exception for me.

Aidan was always making exceptions for me.

So that was how we got to the community theatre. Me on the handlebars of Aidan’s shiny red bike, wearing a ridiculously fluffy tutu, Aidan peddling furious behind me, the evening rushing past us in a blur of adrenaline and laughter and blue summer air. Several near spills, scraped knees, and minutes of bickering later, and we were there.

He watched the whole show, smiling from ear to ear like a proud parent, and when it finished, he'd jumped to his feet in a standing ovation.

I wasn't sure what this story had to do with what was happening now, or why it had even drifted to the surface of my memory. It just.... It just went to show, though, that we took care of each other, Aidan and I. That was just what we did.

First day of primary school, a teacher yelled at me for spilling glue on the desks. The next day, that same teacher mysteriously found all of her papers and supplies on the roof of the school, courtesy of my brother and a little bout of accidental magic.

When Bethany Rodman pushed Aidan into the sandbox in second grade, I put a living frog on her head. When we were ten, Aidan started learning how to skateboard. Consequently, I started learning first aid.

That was us in a nutshell. We sure as hell weren’t perfect, but we looked out for each other.

...And that wasn’t going to stop. Ever.

I looked at Aidan now, watched the way his eyes seemed to twinkle in the light, noticed the slight lilt of his mouth, the confused scrunching of his brow... and I knew that I had to get it out. I had to come clean.

“I didn’t visit you in the hospital,” I blurted out. I had no idea where the words came from, but strangely enough, they just seemed like the right thing to say.

There was a pause in which my brother took this in. Considered it. Mulled over the words in his head, like they were a new pair of jeans he was trying on for the first time. Finally, he nodded. “Okay,” he said solemnly, face uncharacteristically serious, and that was that.

But still, I felt the need to justify myself. "I just... I couldn't, Aidan. After you left, I was destroyed. And I know that sounds melodramatic and teenage-ish and stupid, but that's what it felt like." It was true. I hadn't been able to walk into a classroom without being pelted by pitiful glances. There was this... perpetual feeling of not ever being able to breath easy, It following my every footstep like some menacing, hulking shadow... I felt literally destroyed, every waking moment of every day.

"Anyway," I continued, taking in a deep breath and not meeting his eye. The back of my throat was stinging and even though I hated myself for it, my vision was beginning to blur with tears. "I just couldn't handle it. The thought of you lying in the hospital, the possibility of you... dying — "

All of a sudden, Aidan grabbed me by the shoulders, swiveling me around to meet his gaze, which was hard and icy with determination. "Aggy, look at me. Look at me. I'm sorry — "

" — no, I'm sorry. I was such a stubborn cow. I put Potter and the others through hell — "

" — that doesn't matter now. None of it does. I should be the one apologizing — I left you guys."

I shook my head fiercely. Aidan had already been through so much. I wasn't going to book him on a first-class guilt trip with Apology Airlines too. "Aidan, you didn't mean to leave us, it wasn't your fault. Fallon Cooper — "

"I know what Fallon Cooper did, and I'm prepared to forgive him for it." Aidan's grip on me tightened, his jaw set in a straight, firm line. I had never seen my flighty brother so passionate, so sure of something. For a brief moment, I wondered if the coma had changed him. If it had changed us all. "But that's not important. What's important is that I promise you, Agatha, that I will never leave you guys again."

I blinked dumbly for a moment, letting his words ring in my ears and allowing them to sink into recognition. Then, I shrugged Aidan's grip off. Hard. His hands dropped to the bed uselessly, surprise flickering across his face.

"I'm sorry, Aidan," I whispered quietly, tilting my head back and finally allowing the tears to fall. "But I can't believe that."

"Agatha — "

"I love you. But please, please — for my sake — don't make any promises you can't keep."

Aidan hesitated, and I could see in his eyes that he was probably thinking about the last time we had talked, when he had broken one of his biggest promises to me and consequently started the worst fight we'd ever had. It had been a nuclear, disastrous fight, and the only real reason why it still wasn't ongoing was because the coma had interrupted it. Even now, I could still feel the harsh words, the bitter resentments riding under the surface, bulky and noticeable, a hippogriff in the room. I was of course prepared to forgive Aidan for everything, but only if I could be sure that never again would he make another promise to me that he couldn't keep.

"Alright," he eventually said, face hard and unreadable. "Alright. I understand."

My smile was weak but grateful, and I reached up to touch Aidan on the shoulder, half-afraid that my hand would pass through him like a ghost's. But no. I could feel him. He was there, solid and alive.

I knew that what had happened with Aidan was far from being history, but now that he was awake, it was almost easy to pretend like the world had gone back to normal. Obviously there were things that were different, but that didn’t mean that we weren’t okay. Aidan was alive, for Merlin's sake. And for now, that was enough. What had happened in the past — the buried feelings, the hidden secrets and the angst-filled snogs with archenemies — were exactly that: the past. They could all be worked out later.

Speaking of angst-filled snogs — Potter and I would have to talk at some point. Right now, my feelings for him were coiled inside my chest in a clump of contradictions. On one end, there was resentment, anger, hatred. But on the other, there was grudging respect. Gratitude. and maybe eve a little bit of... attraction? At the moment it was impossible to tell, because in between those two ends of the spectrum, in between all our bickering and our make-ups and our interactions, there were a thousand undecipherable tangles of emotion that complicated everything, made it impossible to see the truth and decide what, exactly, were my real feelings for James Sirius Potter.

I shook my head, trying to get you-know-prat out of my head, and took a deep breath. I was here, in this moment with my brother, and for now that was all I needed.

“I love you, Aidan.”

“Love you too, Aggs.”

Even though life had been a horrible mess over the past few months, and the present continued to be not that different, there were a few things — Aidan’s smile, memories of summer nights and pink tutus, and most importantly, knowing we were back together in our little motley family — that made it all worth it.

It was the little things, really, that got us through the day. Seeing Dom hold Aidan’s hand. Watching Fred and Evelyn share a secret smile. Madame Pomfrey trying not to let on that she was tearing up when she saw us all reunited. Feeling Potter’s hand brush against mine and knowing that, whatever happened, whatever the two of us actually "were" (bitter arch enemies, semi-friends, occasional snog buddies), we were still, when it came down to it, stuck with each other, and I was prepared to live with that.

Those little things made all the confusion and anger and messes that came with life worth it. Because I knew now that I had Aidan, and he had me, and we had all our friends. And — cue corny ending — that was all that really matters.

Plus, it was my life. I was Agatha Bennett — a couple messes here and there were to be expected.

Chapter 26: Off-kilter
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Before we knew it, the news of Aidan’s awakening had spread around the castle like a bad case of herpes. We had barely stepped foot outside of the Hospital Wing, and yet it seemed like everyone already knew that Hogwarts' Resident Heartbreaker was back in—not to mention ready for—action. I didn't know how it happened, it just did.

Everywhere you went, there were bets being lost (yes, actual bets had been placed on my brother’s almost-fatal coma), tears of gratitude shed (mostly by third-year girls) and, more importantly, celebrations planned.

And by celebrations, I mean a string of ridiculous, ill-fated RoR parties in which everyone consumed buckets of alcohol, did a countless number of YouTube-worthy, terrifically stupid things (I vaguely remember Freddy last night, dancing Macarena whilst wearing nothing except for a very strategically-placed party hat), and then later threw up half the liquid content in their bodies.

What fun.

To me, these parties sounded about as enjoyable as playing charades with an epileptic troll... but Dom had badgered me so much to come with her that eventually, I had relented.

So I would get all gussied up in my jeans and t-shirt and let myself get dragged along from drunken party to drunken party, where I usually spent most my time loitering by the drinks table, sipping on Butterbeer and quietly observing as my friends made complete tossers out of themselves.

There was one memorable moment when everyone hoisted Aidan up on their shoulders and carried him around, only to accidentally drop him on some unfortunate first-year minutes later. There was the other time when Fred and Potter organized a sixty-people game of drunken Duck Duck Goose (which later had to be ended after someone slipped and fell in their own throw up—gross). Then there was the episode when Dom stole a lamp from one of the Common Rooms, started calling it her best friend and screaming at anyone who dared touch it (halfway through the night, Mr. Lampy had to be pried out of Dom’s grasp while she clung to it, singing ‘My Heart Will Go On’ from the movie Titanic in between sobs—I have to say, I’ve known Dom for about five years... that would have to be one of her low moments).

“I don’t see why we can’t just have a simple sit down dinner like normal people,” I huffed moodily one day as the five of us trekked to the Greenhouses for Herbology. “I mean, an ice sculpture, Dom? Was that really necessary?”

It was a beautiful morning—snowing those fat, fluffy flakes that you just can’t help but ooh and ahh at because they were so pretty. The giant fir trees that surrounded the castle looked sleepy, all covered in white and drooping with sparkling icicles. Everything was peaceful as we marched across the Grounds, stomping through giant dollops of pure, frosting-esque snow, our breaths little puffs in front of us.

This Hogwarts’ winter wonderland, however, was lost on all my friends. It was the night after one of our biggest parties yet, in which Dom had conjured a life-size ice statue of Aidan’s face, resulting in numerous incidents of people getting their tongues (and...erm, other body parts) stuck to the freezing sculpture throughout the night. Needless to say, it had been a complete disaster.

When I so kindly pointed this out though, Dom’s pear green eyes widened to the shape of saucers, and she stopped right in her tracks, giving a shrieking gasp of outrage. This set off a chain reaction in which Aidan, Freddy and Potter all winced, clutched their heads, and groaned. Simultaneously.

Huh.

Apparently, hangovers and loud noises don’t mix. Who would have thought?

“Jesus Christ, Dom!”

“Yeah, indoor voices please—”

“—we’re outdoors, you moron—”

“I don’t bloody care. Just please, I’m begging you, for the sake of humanity... shut the fuck up.”

Dom did the classic ‘roll-the-eyes-and-toss-the-hair’ move, shaking out a sprinkling of white flurries from her honey-red tresses. “Wimps,” she scoffed, and except for a couple of scathing glares, the Tweedle Trio didn’t reply.

While Dom was hangover-free and as chipper as a chipmunk, the boys seemed to be experiencing Dante’s fourth circle of hell right now, Aidan was reduced to monosyllabic words and the occasional grunt, Potter was wearing Ray-Ban sunglasses because the "fucking sun was too fucking bright for my fucking eyes," and Freddy was incapable of any physical exertion except for breathing... very, very gently.

Dom, however, was hopping around like a member of the Lollypop clan on acid, which even I found annoying despite the fact that, last night, the only thing I had consumed had been about nine packs of Capri Suns.

What can I say? I’m a party animal.

Some nights, I even go to bed at nine... thirty. Yeah, watch out.

“All I’m saying,” I huffed defensively as we continued to trudge along, “is that we probably could have done without the giant frozen replica of Aidan’s face. Just saying.”

Aidan nodded profusely, his cheeks flushed from the chill, snowflakes clinging to his tousled mop of hair. Even though I had insisted on him bundling up in about fifteen layers (and two scarves), he still looked cold.

“Yeah, no more ice sculptures. The things I saw done to my face...” He gave a jerky shudder. “Never before have I felt so violated.”

Potter's lips quirked upwards. “Alright then,” he began, voice husky and a little rougher than usual, “all in favor of no ice sculptures next time, say aye.”

“Aye,” everyone but Dom chorused together.

“You guys just don’t know the meaning of class,” she grumbled, kicking a nearby mound of snow and sending swirls of cold powder everywhere. As Dom continued to march forward, evidently distressed over us revoking her party planning rights, I couldn't help but chuckle. With friends like these, who needs a loony bin?

Evidently, I wasn’t the only one amused by Dom's temper tantrum. Potter had given a little snort of laughter, and for one brief, terrifying second, we locked eyes, a beam of understanding stretching between us. Something inside my chest gave a little twitch.

Confused and a bit dazed, I quickly flitted my gaze to the ground and tried to hide the beet red of my cheeks. But Potter didn’t stop staring, just continued to bore white-hot holes through the back of my skull, his face unreadable behind his sunglasses. Damn it all.

This little exchange had gone unnoticed by the rest of the group, which was just as well, because so had all of Potter and I’s other awkward, tension-laden interactions. Like a couple days ago, when we had been eating breakfast and Potter’s knee accidentally knocked into mine under the table. I had sent a mouthful of orange juice spewing everywhere, and while everyone else dried themselves off, attributing the incident to another ‘Spaztastic Aggy Moment,’ Potter had caught my gaze and shot me a tiny, baneful, knowing little smirk.

Ever since the snog, I’d decided to go the tried-and-tested ‘avoid all problems until they blow up in your face’ route. So while Potter remained about as cool as a cucumber, I was ducking down random corridors and using first years as human shields whenever I spotted a shock of tousled black hair, or a red-and-gold tie. I was jumpy, paranoid, jittery... And despite all my duck-and-cover precautions, I still couldn’t avoid Potter forever because Aidan was back, and that meant the five of us were hanging out... All. The. Time.

So Potter and I would lock eyes, and I’d choke on my drink. Or he’d accidentally brush his arm against mine, and I’d jump away like I’d just received a 3000-volt shock—which, incidentally, was what skin-on-skin contact with him actually felt like. And while Potter seemed to be enjoying himself immensely (I swear he was doing some of these things on purpose, just to watch me squirm), I was about two days away from a mental breakdown.

We had to talk, that much I knew. Because I was driving myself crazy with all of these unknowns running through my head, analyzing every glance, every word that passed between us. Not to mention the fact that I was still sorting out my feelings—a feat easier said than done, let me tell you. I was angry and shocked and panicky and just...confused. I mean, how could we have gone from hating each other to snogging each other just like that? No prelude, no warning... Just like that. It didn’t make even a modicum of sense. And why was Potter so...unfazed? It was like what happened didn’t mean anything to him, whereas I was barely struggling through the aftermath of it all.

And while my Slytherin non-confrontational side was dreading the thought of walking up to Potter and striking up a conversation (I mean, what was I going to say... ‘Hey, so we snogged a couple days ago and I’m just wondering what you thought about it? Or if you even remembered it at all?’), I knew it had to be done. There was only one other option: spiraling downwards into insanity.

Dom suddenly jumped up in front of me, jerking me out of my little mental-tirade. She gave a sharp gasp—I could practically see the light bulb going off in her head—and snapped her fingers. “I’ve got it! I have an idea for the next party!”

The rest of us stopped in our tracks, exchanging wary glances. This could not be good. A look of solemn concern on his face, Freddy cleared his throat and placed a hand on her shoulder. “Dom,” he said gently, “We already told you—we’re not getting a moon bounce.”

She shook her head furiously, “No, no, I’m talking about something bigger. Something better than a moon bounce.”

Aidan’s eyebrows crept up his forehead in apprehension. “Er, better than a moon bounce? Is that possible?”

Dom nodded, a demonic smile slowly stretching across her face. Suddenly, the air around us seemed to get much colder. I could practically feel everyone hold their breath as we all waited, hesitantly, for my best friend to announce her next psychotic scheme.

“Yes, Freddy,” she purred. “I’m talking about a costume party.”

—*—

Six hours later, Dom was already regretting her proclamation.

“Too tacky! Too bland! Too—argh! I haven’t a thing to wear! I might as well just go naked!”

I watched, poker-faced, as my best friend threw the entire contents of her wardrobe into the air in frustration. Brightly-colored scraps of lace, satin, sequins — and oh Merlin, was that white pleather? — all fluttered through the air in a quasi-whirlwind of clothing... And in the eye of the storm was Dominique Weasley, her face glowing pink with distress, wearing nothing but a wonder-bra, a pair of booty shorts and, curiously enough, a pink feather boa.

During The Great Typhoon of Dom’s Wardrobe, a sheer camisole thing had fallen on my head. I picked it off and let it drop to the ground. “Dom, calm down. We’ll find you something.”

“No we won’t! I’m a fat ugly troll and nothing will look good on me! Whose idea was it to have a bloody costume party anyway?”

I decided that saying ‘umm... yours?’ would probably not be beneficial to Dom’s crisis right now, so I just sat tight from my perch on her bed, my lips zipped closed.

Turns out, though, that I didn’t have to say anything, because she suddenly sprung upwards excitedly, an idea dawning her. “Oh, I’ve got it! I’ll just wear my black leotard and go as catwoman! Yes, I’m a genius!”

I wanted to say something encouraging to this, but all I could manage was, “You own a leotard?’

“Yeah, it’s leather.”

“Leather?” I choked, “What would you even do with a leather leotard?” But my disbelief went unheard as Dom started to search frantically throughout our dormitory like a mother who had just lost her child in a supermarket, muttering furiously to herself all the meanwhile. She overturned chairs, looked under beds, behind dressers...all in search for this beloved leather leotard.

What has my life come to. Seriously. I would like to know.

“Got it!” Dom emerged, victorious, from behind her dresser, clutching some shiny, slick-looking material. She waved it about, dangling it in front of my face. “What do you think?”

The leotard simply screamed 'Dom.' ‘Ta-da!’ it seemed to say, glinting coquettishly in the light like a disco ball. One only needed to imagine the jazz-hands and Cabernet music that went with it, and the whole spectacle was complete.

But if there was anyone who could pull it off, it’d be Dominique Weasley.

“Perfect,” I said.

Dom winked, cocking a saucy hip, and grinned. “I know.”

As she wiggled into her costume, I flopped backwards on the bed, huffing an exasperated sigh. It was ten o’ clock, thirty minutes before the party was supposed to start, and I still hadn’t decided what I was going to wear. While Dom could show up wearing nothing but a barrel and some tube socks and still look gorgeous, I was utterly clueless to this whole ‘sexy-sultry thing.’ Plus, I didn’t own a costume, nor was I creative enough to think up of an original idea.

In short, I was screwed.

I stayed like that for a while, sprawled across Dom's bed, staring at the velvety, emerald green canopy above me, as my best friend did her makeup and put the finishing touches on her catwoman costume—a tail, some ears, even a cute pink nose. When she was finally done, it was about ten twenty. I still didn't have a costume but Dom—her eyes all sultry and smudged with silver eye shadow, skin exfoliated and moisturized to a sheen, peachy glow, and honey and rose tresses spiraling into perfect, so-shiny-I-can-see-my-reflection waves—looked absolutely stunning.

I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of jealousy, which provided a nice accompaniment to the tidal wave of dread currently churning around in my stomach. Potter was going to be at this party, no doubt in some ridiculous getup, being doted on by a bunch of giggly girls wearing skimpy costumes... In comparison to them, I might as well go to the party dressed like a hobgoblin.

Dom, who had been glued to the mirror for the past twenty minutes while trying to perfect her eyeliner, suddenly whipped around. “Aggy!” she cried out, realization dawning. “You’re not dressed yet!”

“Nope,” I said matter-of-factly from my spread-eagled position on her bed.

“Well what are you going to wear?”

“Nooooo idea.” Okay, so maybe I wasn’t exactly putting my 110% effort into this. Sue me. There were dozens and dozens of girls out there who could out-gorgeous, not to mention out-slut, me in so many ways. I mean, they probably knew all the makeup tricks in the book, while I could barely put on eyeliner without blinding myself. I'd never been interested in make up, though I had nothing against girls who were — I'd just always felt like there were more important things besides mascara wands in life (like real wands, for instance).

Dom, in one valiant sweep, cast aside her eyeliner and marched up to the bed, grabbing my wrists and tugging. “Unacceptable. You are getting your lazy-arse over here because we need to find the perfect, just-slutty-enough skirt to show it off. Capiche?”

“Nothing is going to be “showing off” my arse,” I said adamantly, but already Dom had pulled me to a standing position and was rummaging through The Fashion Ground Zero that was our dormitory, looking for something appropriate (or rather, inappropriate) enough for me to wear.

“I know I have something here...” she murmured to herself, tossing clothes hitherto and thitherto. It was really no use though. Just one look at Dom’s perfect hour-glass physique, clad in leather and fishnets, and I knew it was over.

“Really Dom, it’s okay... You don’t need to get me anything. I’m fine the way I am.”

She stopped in her hunt, turning around to shoot me a no nonsense glare. “Don’t be stupid, Agatha. I’ll find something”

“No, seriously, don’t even bother—”

“—no, I said I’ll find something, just wait a sec—”

“Really, it’s no big deal, I can just—”

“Need some help?”

Both of us startled at the familiar voice. Dom dropped the pile of clothes she was holding, straightening up with a ridiculous squeak of leather. “Who’s there?” she said sharply.

Evelyn Stanford’s glossy blonde head peeked out from the drawn curtains of her bed, which Dom and I had previously mistaken to be empty. Her face was thoughtful, eyebrows drawn together, eyes eager and ready to help.

“Is that you, Stanford?” I said unnecessarily, eyebrow raised. My tone was reigned in, not to its full potential of hostility, but there was still an edge to it. An edge that, I’m sure, Evelyn didn’t hesitate to pick up.

“No, it’s Santa Claus,” she snapped back, before swiveling her pointed glare to Dom (or, more specifically, her barely-there outfit), “Ho, ho, ho.”

“Ah, now there’s the Evilyn we know and hate,” Dom retaliated, unfazed by the jab at her virtue, “What does her bitchiness want today?"

Evelyn gave a humorless laugh, pushing back her curtains and stepping daintily onto the hardwood floors. “My senses are picking up a fashion crisis here, and I’d like to offer my assistance.”

“You’re kidding me,” I said flatly. For a minute, I almost considered rushing towards the window to see if there was a herd of pigs flying out there, perhaps playing a casual game of pick-up Quidditch. “You want to help us.”

Evelyn gave an exasperated sigh, obviously fed up with our dim-witted idiocy. She shook out her glossy sheet of hair, cocking a hip—and for a ridiculous moment, I was reminded of Dom from five minutes ago.

“Look,” she began, voice high and snotty like usual. “I know that, for some unfathomable reason, you two seem to share a... dislike of me — ” I snorted at this. “ — but... Well, now that I’m with Freddy, I’d like to... Start over. Make amends. You know. Whatever.”

Oh yeah. Freddy. The guy who not only attempted to expose Cooper Fallon, her then-boyfriend, as a lying, conniving criminal mastermind, but also managed to completely destroy Evelyn's entire social life in the process.

Wow. Until now, I hadn’t truly realized that Freddy had been the inadvertent cause of Evelyn’s exile to Social Siberia. I briefly wondered how he was going to explain that one.

As Dom and Evelyn began arguing over various outfit choices, I slumped down onto the bed, gazing vacantly into the canopy's thick, endless sea of emerald. I felt tired. Not just physically, but emotionally. I felt like a roaring whirlpool of feelings, and like there was no one out there with whom I could talk. Not even Dom, not Freddy, especially not Aidan. I mean, I could barely understand my feelings right now... So how could anyone else? I wasn't a fan of the age-old ‘I’m-an-angsty-teenager-and-nobody-gets-me-blah-blah-blah’ cliché, but that was honestly what it felt like at the moment.

Ever since that kiss, everything had become unbalanced, off-kilter. Potter and I used to have a hate-filled, terribly unhealthy relationship — and I was happy with it. It could have stayed that way and I would have been utterly dandy. But noooo, he just had to go and muck it up like he always did. That seemed to be Potter’s main priority in life. Mucking things up—’things’ being my life, sanity and general well-being, of course. And he was bloody good at it, too. Aidan had just woken up. My friends and my life were finally being pieced back together...And yet here I was, in a perpetual state of inner rant, agonizing over one, simple little snog. Honestly, only Potter could turn a kiss into some kind of psychological warfare tactic. That took skill.

Everything was supposed to be good right now, and yet I was unhappy.

I couldn't keep up with this vicious cycle of... Of whatever you could call this. I mean, I was about to 'go and get my slut on' (Dom’s words, not mine) so that I could attend a drunken teenage party and make drunken, terribly stupid decisions. I was about to have fun. I wanted to throw caution to the wind, let loose, go wild. No more thinking about Potter or snogs or pointless, troubling feelings. I was fed up with that stuff. There was only thing I wanted to say right now, and that was:

Fuck it.

Fuck it, fuck it, fuck it, fuck it, fuck it. That was my mantra for the night.

“Potter and I snogged.”

Like I said, fuck it.

Dom and Evelyn, who had been bickering and seemed to be embroiled in some sort of tug-of-war with a red satin skirt, suddenly froze.

I couldn’t look at either of them. I just sat there, staring intently at my cuticles, waiting for the impending explosion. Dom was going to have a fit, of course. Things were going to thrown, glass about to be broken... The dormitory would be a mess after this. The poor house-elves wouldn't know what hit them.

After what seemed like ten agonizing hours, I finally looked up, trying to gauge their expressions. Evelyn’s perfectly arched eyebrows were raised in surprise, her minty green eyes bright and—dare I say it—looking a little impressed. Dom, on the other hand, was completely expressionless. For a moment, her face looked clenched together, just a pile of separate, blank parts that had been constructed into some sort of facade.

And then:

“Oh, cool.”

My heart leaped in amazement as, just like that, Dom shrugged everything off as if it were no big deal and went back to yanking on that red skirt. Evelyn shrugged too and pulled back, and once again they were engaged in that same stupid little game of tug-of-war, grunting and hissing and cussing at each other as if nothing had even happened.

“What?” I said loudly over their endless stream of profanity, rising from the bed. “That’s it?”

I stuck my hands to my hips and turned to my best friend, fixing her with a full-on glare. I mean, was one single exclamation of surprise too much to ask for?

Evelyn’s eyes flickered towards Dom as well, oddly curious, and for a moment we both stared at her. Waiting. I mean, it was no secret that Dominique Weasley had a temper—in fact, I had fully expected her to go all Real Housewives of Orange County on my ass. But here she was, as cool as a cucumber... She’d just found out that I’d snogged my archenemy—and her cousin—without even batting a lash.

“You’re not going to say anything?” Evelyn said, finally letting go of the flimsy garment in her hands. Dom stumbled backwards a bit, as her arm raised to the sky, triumphantly waving her prize.

“No, of course not," Dom remarked as she nonchalantly smoothed out the skirt and revealed it to possess a hemline so short, I could hear my mother cringing from miles away. "I mean, it was about time. Your sexual tension was through the roof. We’ve all seen it coming."

“So you’re not mad?” I asked, voice high with incredulity. I knew I was pushing my luck here, and that I should just accept Dom’s blasé attitude seeing as I’d been expecting much worse. But I couldn’t let it go. It amazed me that Little Miss Drama Queen, the girl who practically went through a three-act tragedy whenever she broke a nail, was acting... cool about this.

“Mad? Why would I be mad? Fred owes me three galleons now!”

“Three gall—Wait, what?” My mouth dropped open as, from next to me, Evelyn guffawed. “Are you telling me you guys bet on this happening?”

"Well, I bet on this happening. Fred thought it would take another two years before you guys finally succumbed to your hormones," Dom shrugged casually. "Hence, three galleons."

There was a long moment as I grappled for words, looking between Dom and Evelyn, trying to make sense of it all. Finally, I grabbed my best friend by the shoulders, turning her roughly to me so I could look her dead in the eye. “Dom, I don’t think you understand.”

“What’s there to understand?” She scoffed. “You guys smooched, I get three galleons, those dragon-hide boots on sale at Madam Malkin's are now finally mine. End of story. Now can we please get back to outfit-planning?”

“Outfit-planning? How can you be thinking of outfit-planning at a time like this?”

“Well, I for one do not want to show up at this party looking like Drabby McGrannyPanties. I mean, Aidan’s going to be there. And Potter...! Don’t you want to get dressed up for your man, Aggy?”

Evelyn snorted at this.

“My man? No, no, no... no! I don’t think you understand, Dom. Potter isn’t my man.”

“So he’s just your snog-buddy then?”

“I—no! Shut it, Evelyn!”

“Just trying to help, you don't need to have a cow...”

“The only cow around here is you!” Okay, not my best comeback, but it was the best I could do on short-term notice.

Before Evelyn and I could dissolve into more bickering, Dom gently peeled my hands off her shoulders, clasping them together in her own. Surprised by the strangely maternal nature of this action, I suddenly fell silent.

“Look, Agatha.” Her pear-green eyes were, for once, gentle and soft. “I know that you and Potter are...complicated. And I know that, what with everything that’s been happening lately, things are all different and muddled and scary for you... But tonight’s not the night to worry about that. Tonight’s the night to do something crazy, like dance drunkenly on a table, or take fashion advice from Evelyn Stanford. And trust me, that's the pinnacle of craziness."

“Offence taken,” Evelyn piped up dryly, eyebrow cocked in flat disdain.

“What I’m trying to say here," Dom continued, shooting Evelyn a withering glance. "Is that sometimes you just have to forget about the big stuff and be someone else for a while."

Apparently, 'someone else' in this situation meant 'sexy Halloween kitten.' Needless to say, this did not have me feeling very reassured.

“Dom —” I began, but was cut off as Evelyn smoothly intercepted.

"Look, as tender and wonderful as this Best Friend moment is," she said, words paper-dry with irony. “The party’s about to start. So why don't we move this conversation to the Room of Requirement — or, more specifically, the bar inside the Room of Requirement? Because I seriously need a Firewhiskey in my hand if I'm going to listen to you two whine on and on for the rest of the night."

“Oh right!” I exclaimed, feeling my spirits suddenly stir with hope. Evelyn's words had just given me the perfect idea for a way out of this party. “As much as I hate to admit it, Evelyn’s right. The party starts in five minutes, and I still have no idea what to wear. So how about you guys go ahead, and I'll catch up with you later — ?"

Dom turned towards Evelyn, a slow grin creeping across her face. Much to my amazement — and fear (seriously, were they really bonding over this?) — the two shared a look. A look that I did not like at all.

“Not so fast, Aggy. We have just the thing for you...”

I should probably be worried. I mean, best case scenario, they were going to put me in a super tiny outfit that had my arse hanging out one end and my cleavage bursting out the other. I was probably going to spend the night fidgeting in a too-tight, too-short dress as random blokes ogled at me and Aidan looked up the names and addresses of all the different nunneries in our immediate area.

I should probably be worried.

But as I watched Dom and Evelyn start to frantically whisper to each other, no doubt planning out the next steps of my slutty metamorphosis, I found myself not caring. In fact, I was almost growing a little...giddy. I mean, here I was, healthy, alive, with two of the craziest girls in all of Hogwarts (one of whom was wearing a leather leotard), and the night just beginning. We were about to go to a party and see our friends and, more importantly, I was about to see Potter.

Honestly, I had no idea what was in store for the three of us, but all of a sudden I was looking forward to finding out.

—*—

First rule of RoR parties:

Don't talk about RoR parties.

Second rule: once you’re in a RoR party, you’re in. There’s no coming out unless you are completely one-hundred-percent sober (trust me, there are tests). We wouldn’t want Filch to find some drunken teenager roaming around the castle at two thirty in the morning, now would we? That’d just be poor taste. Please keep the drunken wanderings within the pre-approved confines of the premises.

Last, and most important, rule: what happens in a RoR party stays in a RoR party. You hooked up with so-and-so’s boyfriend last night? Gave a third-year an inebriated, impromptu lap-dance while everyone else cheered on? Too bad. Next morning, no one’s going to want to hear about it. Don’t mention it in class, in the hallways, in the Great Hall during breakfast (everyone’s too hung-over to speak anyways). No one. Wants. To. Hear. It. Anything that goes down in the RoR is left in the RoR, and that’s just the way it is.

Most of the time, anyway.

I had to hand it to the Tweedle Trio (god, I'd missed calling them that), they knew how to throw a party. Walking into the Room of Requirement was a transformative experience. The only way I could describe it was that it was like getting concussed, if concussions involved flashing lights, thumping dance music and screaming intoxicated youth.

The room was cavernously huge, high-ceilinged with old-fashioned, Gothic arches that contrasted starkly with the rave-style interior decoration. There was a giant banner stretching from one wall to the other, proclaiming, ‘CONGRATS ON NOT BEING DEAD, AIDAN!’ in glow-in-the-dark, flashing letters. But it was barely visible, seeing as the entire room had been bathed in black-light. Which basically meant that you couldn’t see a thing, save for the occasional flash of white clothing or neon paint, which was conveniently splattered everywhere—on the walls, on the floor—people were even squirting it at each other in little ‘paint battles.’

Above us sprawled a replica of a starry sky, except instead of giving off the normal serene ‘twinkle-twinkle, each star was a miniature strobe light that pulsed wildly to music, flashing white light onto the top of peoples’ heads, outstretched arms and drink glasses. Everyone danced together, bumping and gyrating in a highly inappropriate fashion. A techno beat grinded out from invisible speakers, so loud it made my skull shake and my thoughts rattle.

As we entered the room, Evelyn let loose a very loud expletive, her sharp eyes taking in our surroundings, but it went unheard over all the music. Next to her, Dom whistled slowly. “Merlin’s Beard, how many people do you think are here?”

I couldn’t bother counting. First of all, it was too dark. And second of all, the pulsing crowd was so big it’d be impossible to do so. “No idea,” I yelled over the music, “I didn’t know this many people actually went to Hogwarts.”

“Fuckin’ A,” Evelyn nodded in agreement, “Now lets go get some drinks.”

We started to make our way across the room towards the RoR’s giant, gleaming bar. It was very chic-looking, what with it’s eye-assaultingly bright violet colour and the so-cool-I’m-bored-right-now seventh year who was standing behind it, juggling vodka bottles in front of a crowd of squealing fourth-year girls.

But before we could make it to what seemed like Hogwarts’ secret end-of-the-world stash of hoarded alcohol, we were intercepted by Freddy and Aidan, who had appeared out of nowhere and, by the looks of it, were completely hammered.

“Ladies!” Aidan roared, whipping an arm around Dom’s shoulders and practically tipping over in the process. “What a pleasure to see you guys, hope you enjoy the party and OH MY GOD AGATHA, FOR MERLIN’S SAKES COVER YOURSELF!”

“Shit, dude!” Fred exclaimed, taking in my outfit in one, appreciative glance. My mouth dropped open, not in outrage, but in a grim, scoffing smile. I had expected this.

“Nice to see you too,” I said coolly, cocking my head to the side. I knew I was wearing one of the most ridiculous get-ups in the world, but I refused to be self-conscious about it. Dom was right. Today, I was going to be someone else. I was going to be...

“A Sexy Librarian?” Aidan moaned, slapping an exaggerated hand to his forehead, “Seriously?”

Yes, seriously. The costume had been Evelyn's—she'd dug it up from her wardrobe after a couple minutes of searching—so of course it was skimpy, absurd and managed to cover about as much skin as a lingerie set, or two strategically-placed handkerchiefs.

As of now, I was wearing a low cut button-down shirt, which by itself would have been fine... Except that it was tucked inside a clingy, so-tight-it-might-as-well-be-painted-on black skirt. Of course, this wasn’t enough. We just had to amp it up to the next level...Literally. So the aforementioned skirt was not only sinfully tight, but also sinfully short — hiked up far enough to reveal two lacy black garters and a pair of stockings, which then streamlined down my waxed, exfoliated, and tanned legs to meet a pair of the tallest, most lethal, most incapacitating stilettos I’d ever seen. Or worn, for that matter.

To top off the whole look, Evelyn had pinned a fake, miniature tie to my collar. The tie served no purpose, though I guess its teeny size was keeping in theme with the rest of the outfit.

“Doesn’t it suit her? Isn’t ‘sexy librarian’ just perfect for Aggy?” Dom giggled, ducking underneath Aidan’s arm to come and spin me around. Reluctantly, I let her, mostly because I was too tired to put up a fight, but also because if I made any sudden movements in these heels, I would most likely kill myself. And all those around me.

“Aren’t you guys proud?” Evelyn glided up next to Dom and held out her arms, displaying me in a grand gesture a lá Ivana White. The movement actually went well with her costume, which was ‘1920s Hollywood Star.’ Wearing a slinky, midnight blue gown with just the right amount of skin shown, and her hair in perfect, sultry waves, Evelyn looked dewy and fresh and beautiful. I swear, the chick must drink protein shakes made with unicorn piss and the blood of young virgins every morning, because there was no way her skin could look that clear on its own.
Ever the catwoman, Dom gave a coquettish smile, wiggling her hips a little. “It’s absolutely purrrrfect...”

As everyone else groaned at the joke—seriously, purrfect? In the vast world of cat-related humor, could she do no better?—Aidan shook his head, exasperated. Though I guess the movement was too much to handle in his intoxicated state, because without Dom there for support, he went stumbling backwards, trying to regain footing and a sense of physio-spatial awareness. “I still — hic — can’t believe — hic — you’re wearing that, Aggy.”

“And what are you wearing?” I shot back. It was a completely legitimate question, because I honestly had no idea. It looked like my brother had cut a hole in a big sheet, painted some giant polka dots on it, and then decided to wear it like a rain poncho. Needless to say, I was left a bit bewildered.

Aidan held out his arms, affronted. “I’m Twister!”

“What?”

“Allow me to explain.” Fred stepped forward, carrying a bottle of Firewhiskey and looking suave in a tux and bow tie—James Bond, I was guessing. “You know Twister, right? The famous muggle game and pastime? Also known as the best thing to happen to birthday parties since the humble piñata? Well...That's Aidan.”

Aidan nodded vigorously. “Twister!”

I couldn’t help but laugh. It was a silly idea, sure, but I was in too good of a mood to be pissy about it. Sure, if my mother saw what I looked like right now she'd probably have a myocardial infarction, but I wasn't going to worry about that. My schoolmates were here, dancing their arses off, and I was about to join them. Everything was okay... or going to be, at least. “Are you serious?”

“Are you? I can’t believe you’re actually wearing that,” Freddy remarked conversationally as he slowly gravitated towards Evelyn, wrapping an arm around her waist and nestling his chin on her shoulder. Evelyn smiled contentedly at the action—like an actual, real smile—and I couldn’t help but roll my eyes a little at the sickening cuteness.

I shrugged. “Sorry, Mr. 007. But I can safely say that I was held under duress the whole time. I had no choice but to comply.”

“Is that so?” Fred murmured, turning his head and cocking a knowing eyebrow at Evelyn, who responded with a devilish smile.

“Yeah,” she said softly, reaching up on her tiptoes to gently press her lips against his. He kissed back for a moment, before pulling away slightly to turn her body more towards him so they could resume in a full-out snog.

“Ew, kissing! Gross!”

“Seriously, get a room.”

“Yeah, if we wanted an up-close-and-personal with Fred's salivary glands, we’d just go and watch him sleep. He drools, you know.”

“Oi! Do you mind? I’m trying to kiss my girlfriend!”

“Whatever, mate.”

Fred and Evelyn soon drifted off, presumably to play a hearty round of tonsil-tennis, which left me, Dom and Aidan.

“Well, I’m going to go dance! Bye!” And with that, Dom bounded off too, her cat tail wiggling in the air.

“Guess it’s just you and me, sis.” Aidan slung an arm over my shoulder, dragging me towards him. His breath smelled like fruity alcohol, his hair rumpled and disheveled.

“Guess so.”

“I still can’t believe you’re wearing that. Sexy Librarian, Jesus Christ.”

“Your bloodstream is probably 80% Firewhiskey right now,” I said dryly. “It’s not like you’re going to remember any of this tomorrow morning.”

“Lucky Aidan,” a voice interjected, and we both turned around to see Potter, wearing a pair of dark jeans and a grey shirt, ambling towards us. He was referring to my get-up, obviously, and the expression on his face was a picture-perfect example of the word 'derision' and all its synonyms.

I tried not to flush, aware that, under any normal circumstances, this would be my cue to blush, fidget uncomfortably, and then storm off in a huff. But nothing about this party was normal. So instead, I looked Potter in the eye and straightened, changing the topic in a very transparent (but effective) attempt at deflecting attention. "And what are you supposed to be, Potter?"

Potter held out his arms as if it should be obvious, but I just stared blankly at him. Despite the confusion, I had to admit he looked good. His hair was carelessly tousled to the perfect degree of disheveledness. The sleeves to his shirt were rolled up, revealing tanned forearms, his shoulders a wordless endorsement for five years of hard Quidditch training.

“I’m a muggle,” Potter stated simply.

“You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Aidan nodded along faintly, obviously tuning out the details and, uh, subtler tensions of the conversation “Genius, innit? Anyway, I have to go... I see a couple of fourth-year girls who might need help, ah, with directions and whatnot. Smell ya later, Aggs!”

And with that, my brother stumbled off, wrapping his arms around the aforementioned fourth-years and exclaiming loudly, "Now which one of you ladies wants to put their right hand on green?”

Wow. Glad to know that’s in my gene pool.

There was a moment of silence as Potter and I stood there, sizing each other up with hard jaws and squinty eyes. For a moment, I considered running off like Dom had... But I knew that I had to face this. I mean, this was why I was here. To talk to him. Right?

"Nice miniature tie," Potter finally quipped as he swilled around the half-empty drink in his hand. "Didn't know librarians normally wore those."

"But the garters and five-inch stilettos you found believable," I grumbled, in no mood for another verbal-fencing match.

The left side of Potter's mouth tilted upwards. "Nope," he said, drawing out the syllable to pop the 'p.'

"Not objectionable in the slightest?" I pressed on drily.

Potter leaned against a nearby wall, shoving his free hand into his pocket as he adopted a mock-somber look on his face. "I never object to garters and five-inch stilettos, Bennett."

My eyes narrowed at the flirty undertone, just detectable, in his comment. What exactly was this kid playing at here? For the past few days, he had been pushing the boundaries, enjoying watching me squirm at any passing graze or accidental eye-contact between us. I was an easy target for him; while he obviously didn't give our kiss a second thought, I was making my discomfort plainly visible.

"James! Aggy!"

The two of us turned around as Fred and Evelyn, evidently having sucked face to satisfaction, bounded over to us hand-in-hand. In their costumes, they looked years older, like the type of classy couple that might host fancy dinner parties for international diplomats and famous artists. They looked sophisticated.

"What are you guys doing just standing around? Time to do some shots, bitches!"

Nevermind.

The only thing that sounded worse than 'a shot,' right now, was 'shots' plural. I hastily backed away, as if the prospect were something physical in front of me, palms held upwards defensively and trying my best to maintain equilibrium on the tiny soles of Evelyn's stilettos.

"I'm not really a shots kind of gal, you guys," I said with as much cheeriness as I could muster, but Fred was already giving me that look — the very same look he acquired whenever he thought of a great prank idea, the same look that once, in third-year, ended us up in the Shrieking Shack with a stolen goat, five metric tons of bleu cheese and an arrest warrant in Freddy's name. Don't ask.

"It's happening, Aggy," Freddy said seriously.

I gulped, suddenly recalling those PSA commercials about peer pressure that they used to show in primary school. 'Just say no' didn't seem like it would work on Freddy Weasley. After all, Fred had a pretty limited vocabulary aready, most of which was composed of singular syllables and words that Fred liked to make up ("If you can be disgruntled, why can't you also just be 'gruntled?'). Unfortunately for me and the nation's War Against Drugs, 'no' was not a part of aforementioned vocabulary.

In contrast to my inner freak-out, Potter did not seem to have a problem with these new developments. Calm and cool like always, he downed whatever was left in his glass in one quick, easy tilt. "What are we drinking?" he asked, and his nonchalance only served to make me more anxious.

I was able to do nothing as Freddy grabbed me and Potter by the arm and all but frog-marched us to the bar, Evelyn trailing behind us as she boredly inspected her nail beds. I looked on with the same vague sense of horror as a bystander at a car accident while Fred ordered four shots of tequila from the seventh-year behind the bar. Oh Merlin. This could only end in trouble. Trouble, and vomit.

Fred passed around the shot glasses, lime slices and salt shaker, his light green eyes glowing eerily in the black-light. I'd never taken a tequila shot before, and was thrown off by the extra ingredients and what seemed like an over-complication of a, theoretically, pretty simple process. I hadn't thought alcohol involved any other steps besides 1) Drink it and 2) Try to keep it down and 3) Repeat steps one and two.

I tried my best to follow Freddy's lead, aware that Potter was watching, his eyes slanted towards me in amusement. Salt on one hand, tequila in the other, lime in the... Wait, I'd run out of hands. This whole process was almost ritualistic in how many steps it had. Like a religious ceremony. Except with, you know, binge-drinking.

And I'd be damned if I were going to make a fool out of myself in front of Potter.

Fred held out his shot glass, exuberant. "To a good night," he exclaimed. Hand trembling only slightly, I raised mine to meet his, and we all cheers'd, and before I knew it the alcohol was suddenly not in the glass and now in my mouth.

Disgusting. It tasted like someone had taken fermented apple juice, added cayenne peppers and a little bit of hot sauce, and then thrown out the concoction and decided to slap a tequila label on a bottle of lighter fluid instead. I somehow choked it down, feeling a tiny bit dribble down my chin, and my eyes watered.

Evelyn slammed her glass down on the bar, grinning coquettishly, almost as if she liked the feeling of her esophagus being singed to bits. Potter set his down next, then Freddy, who was muttering a creative mix of expletives.

I gingerly placed my glass on the counter, wiping at my mouth with the back of my hand. I could not seem to rearrange my face back into its normal expression.

"Did you like?" Fred heartily clapped me on the back, which did not feel good for my already-traumatized throat. I nodded, trying not to throw up my trachea. Whenever I heard people say 'keep it down' in relation to alcohol, I always just thought they meant the alcohol. I didn't know internal organs would be involved.

"Yeah, Bennett, did you like it?" Potter raised his eyebrows. The mocking tone in his voice was barely discernible.

I swallowed. "Mmm, yeah," I lied, fully aware that I sounded like a recording of The Batman's voice getting tossed down a garbage disposal. "Alcohol is... great. I love alcohol. I would like another alcohol, please."

Potter's eyes met mine. His gaze was coal-dark, his mouth curved into a dangerous half-smile. I held his stare, determined not to let him see my doubt, my fear. Like Dom said, now was the time to forget about my troubles, to be someone else. That someone else turned out to be Aggy the Sexy Librarian, and Aggy the Sexy Librarian would not back down from a challenge.

"Great," Potter said, before turning back to the bar. "We'll have two more rounds."

...Crap.

—*—

An hour later and I was stumbling through the crowd, trying and failing to remember who the current Queen of England was and also my middle name. Somewhere between shots numbers four and five, I had ditched the others and managed to find Dom. This was not an improvement, as Dom seemed just as dedicated to plying me with drinks in the name of teenage delinquency. But she had also dragged me to the dance floor and there, amid the grinding bass and other joyous party-goers, I had found myself enjoying things despite the tequila (and rum, and vodka, and Firewhiskey) sloshing in my stomach.

After about two straight hours of dancing, Dom and I had decided to take a break. We stumbled out of the crowd, gulping for air and laughing hysterically about some comment Dom had made that I wouldn't realize wasn't actually funny until the next day. Those shots — combined with the throbbing beat of the music — were making my head spin.

“I’m going to get us more to drink.” Dom giggled.

“No, you can’t!” I shook my head frantically, then stopped when I realized that 'alcohol' and 'sudden movements' were not a good mix.

“No, I have to! It's a matter of life and debt! Er, wife and death! No — life and death!” Dom rambled drunkenly as I tried to grab her and drag her back.

In what I was pretty sure was a combination of Quidditch strength-training and sheer will, Dom suddenly lunged forward and broke free of my grip, sending me reeling backwards and landing with an ungraceful ‘oomph!’ on the floor.

Sprawled out on my back on the floor, I blinked several times, vaguely acknowledging the fact that I should be feeling pain right now but wasn't, and that this was probably not a good sign. The artificial stars on the ceiling swam above me, and my eyelids drooped downwards as Dom wandered off towards the bar, either not knowing or not caring that I had fallen. I couldn't find it in myself to be mad at her for abandoning me. This actually felt... nice. Lying beneath the stars... How romantic.

“Well isn’t this just charming?”

I opened eyes to see two shiny black shoes, and then a pair of pinstripe slacks. The rest was shrouded in darkness.

I struggled to prop myself up on the elbows, but apparently I didn’t need to, because all of a sudden the mysterious figure bent down, grabbing me by the arms, and hoisted me up in one sweeping movement.

“Hey, don’t woman-handle me!” I cried indignantly, but my voice suddenly died in my throat as I came face to face with Fallon Cooper.

No.

This was not good.

Cooper was wearing a fedora, a cigarette dangling lazily out of his mouth. Stuck to the lapel of his pinstripe blazer was a red rose. He had dressed as a mafia member, one of the Godfather characters. And while I would normally find a costume like that to be laughably stupid... Right now, it was downright terrifying.

Because I knew what Cooper was capable of. And it was definitely very Godfather-esque.

"Let go of me,” I croaked.

Smirking, Cooper released his grip on me, holding out his hands in surrender, and I went staggering backwards. “Why so serious, Agatha?" he jeered. "You look like you’ve just seen a ghost.”

“What do you want?” My voice was trembling. I desired nothing more than to just turn around and walk away, but I couldn’t.

Something kept me there, rooted to the spot. Maybe it was the need to prove that I wasn’t afraid, that he couldn’t faze Aggy the Sexy Librarian. Maybe it was the alcohol. Maybe it was sheer stupidity. Or a combination of all the above. But whatever it was had me frozen, paralyzed.

Cooper came closer to me, his harsh, angular face obscuring my vision. His breath smelled like stale smoke, his mouth was twisted into an ugly leer. “I think you know what I want, Agatha.”

I stared at him, jutting my chin out in a half-arsed attempt at defiance. “No, actually, I don’t.”

He gave a quiet laugh that made my stomach clench. “For a Slytherin, you sure are naive. Don’t you realize, Agatha? Your brother might be safe for now, but that doesn’t mean you are.”

My stomach plummeted as fear, so cold it was hot, crept up my legs. Quickly, my eyes darted around in search of a saviour, someone who could pull me out of this situation (shouldn’t Dom be back by now?). They landed on Potter a few feet away, joking and talking in a rowdy circle with his Quidditch teammates. As saviours went, Potter would not be ideal. His bad temper, and the almost-empty drink glass currently in his hand, were two indicators of that.

As if he could feel my gaze like a tangible, heavy thing, Potter turned around, and we made eye contact. It took him two seconds to register the conversation in front of him and its participants. My dismay took on a new dimension as his easygoing smile began to fade and he handed his drink to the bloke next to him, beginning to walk in our direction, jaw set in a way that meant trouble. Cooper seemed to notice too, as he had followed my gaze and a grimace began to curl at his mouth.

"Is there a problem?" Potter’s expression voice was casual, but his posture was rigidly set, shoulders tight and alert as he came to stand by me.

Cooper glowered, his face turning scarily dark. He glanced angrily between Potter and I. It was plainly evident that he did not want to pick a fight around Potter, and for a strange, fleeting moment, he looked like he was about to scream. Or hit one of us. But he simply gave me a scathing look that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, and then turned around to walk away.

Once his back was to us, I whipped around to face Potter. I sincerely hoped my slitted eyes and clenched jaw would be enough to mask the fear roiling in my stomach.

"What are you doing, Potter? I have the situation under control."

"That wasn't what it looked like."

"You're drunk right now."

"You're drunk right now."

"I — you're drunk right now!"

"Good point."

Sick of our pointless arguing, I prepared myself to turn around and leave when, suddenly, Cooper halted in his tracks. Potter and I both snapped our mouths shut, suddenly stiff and wary as Cooper turned around and began calmly striding back towards us. This could not be good.

He planted himself right in front of me, his tall figure hulking over my small one, and I tried not to flinch while he looked me up and down, spat on the ground in front of my shoes, and hissed, “Slag.”

Big mistake.

It was a lightening fast movement. One second, Potter was standing across from me as we bantered, the next, the small smirk had slid off his face and he had Cooper against the wall, expression contorted with fury.

“What did you just say?” he said, voice tight. Cooper gave a half-yelp, struggling to escape, but it was no use.

My heart leaped in my chest. Never before had I seen Potter look so serious. He was glowering, his jaw set in stone. “Potter!" I blurted out, not knowing what else to say. But it was like he hadn’t even heard me. I stood uselessly to the side, not knowing whether I should stop this or just stand by and let my archenemy throttle the living shit out of... Well, my other archenemy.

“You even look at her the wrong way, and I will fucking kill you,” Potter said matter-of-factly, and it was the calmness, the completely practical tone in his voice, that made him so freaking terrifying.

“Why so protective of the little whore, Potter? She putting out for you?”

Wrong thing to say. In a flash, Potter let go of Cooper, drew back his arm... And then Fallon Cooper was on the floor, clutching a bleeding nose, while Potter stood above him, looking so scary it was almost ethereal, rubbing the already-bruising knuckles of his right hand.

“Potter! Just leave it!” I cried almost hysterically. I could feel my heartbeat pounding furiously inside my head. Around us, people were starting to stare. They had finally taken notice.

Cooper stumbled to a stand, something dark and rust-colored dribbling down his face, and swung at Potter. Potter ducked, swung back, and soon enough there was a full-on fight breaking out.

I tried to get to Potter, to pull him back, but it was no use. All of a sudden I was swallowed by a mob of people rushing towards the scene, eager to watch two of the most infamous boys at Hogwarts fight it out. Some were trying to break it up, others were cheering and screaming... But I couldn’t see any of it, my vision obscured by heads and backs and shoulders. I was getting pushed backwards, shoved away, and I was screaming, screaming for Potter, panic surging up my throat, trying to figure out what was going on, what the hell was going on...

I turned around and started running. My brain had been swiped clean and blank, and there was no thought, just the sudden urge to leave. All of a sudden I found myself racing outside of the RoR, not stopping until I was outside, down the corridor, and had safely locked myself in one of the numerous broom cupboards of Hogwarts.

I couldn’t breathe. I was panicking. Hands shaking, I yanked my hair down from its mussed up-do, letting it spill down my shoulders. I kicked off my high heels, almost moaning in relief as I finally set my poor feet free from the confines of their strappy, stiletto prisons.

...And then I slumped against the wall, sliding down until I was on the floor, my arms wrapped protectively around my bent knees.

Everything had all happened so fast. Stupid Potter and his rash, Gryffindor decision-making. He had no concept of personal safety, no consideration for the way his actions might affect others. Take shots, throw punches, who cared?

He was an idiot.

Inside the broom cupboard, it was cool and dark, a nice change from the hectic, throbbing heat of the RoR. There was no noise except for the ringing in my ears, and my short, shallow breathing.

Fuck.

Did Potter not know the meaning of hate? Ever since our kiss, he had been acting differently. He wasn't following our usual script of insults and mockery! For Merlin's sakes, he had just tried to defend my honor in a brawl! Oh Merlin... A brawl! He was out there, right now, pummeling Cooper to the ground because of me! And here I was, hiding like a little coward in a broom cupboard... What was wrong with me?

I was going insane. I had to do something. Take action and storm back inside the RoR, grab Potter by the collar and drag him to safety... Where I could slap him hard upside the head for being such a chivalrous, brave, noble, idiot.

When had things gotten so complicated?

I knew that lying in fetal position inside a broom cupboard and asking myself rhetorical questions wasn’t going to help anything. But I just couldn’t imagine myself going out there and facing all of that.... So instead, I decided to stay in my pathetic position for just a wee bit longer—curled in a little ball, my heart racing, mentally berating myself for being such a sodding coward.

I don’t know how much time passed, it seemed like hours and minutes all at once, but eventually I had enough. I was tired, exhausted. All I wanted to do was go to the Prefect’s bathroom, take a scalding hot bath, and then crawl into bed and sleep.

I was just about to make myself stand up, however, when all of a sudden the door was flung open.

"Bennett?"

Great.

Just great.

How is it that Potter always manages to find me at such inconvenient times?

"Do you have a radar, or something?" I asked weakly from the floor.

Potter, silhouetted by the light in the hallway behind him, stepped inside. I wondered how intoxicated he was. "Huh?"

"A radar," I repeated dully. "That tells you when and where to find me whenever I'm at my most pathetic."

Potter bent down and rubbed the side of his ribcage with his right hand, wincing. "I borrowed the Marauder's Map from Fred, Bennett. I wanted to make sure you were alright."

"Alright?! How drunk are you right now?" I stood up quickly, and Potter's hazel eyes warily followed me as I rose up to full height. I didn't know what freaked me out more — the fact that Potter had just embroiled himself in a fight with a murderous, seventh-year Slytherin, or the fact that he was even worried about my well-being.

I was about to say something, probably along the lines of ‘Go away, you sodding fucking idiot,’ but my voice suddenly died in my throat. Because Potter had straightened as well so that he could lift up the hem of his shirt and observe, with an odd, detached kind of curiosity, the massive bruise blooming across his rib cage.

Shit.

It was an ugly blotch of purple and red, marring the otherwise tan skin of his abdomen. It did not look good. At all. In fact, it looked like one of his ribs might be broken.

“Potter, are you okay?” I blurted out, and he dropped the hem of his shirt, rubbing the spot.

I wasn't about to wait for an answer. I walked towards him, crossing the cupboard in two swift strides so we were face to face. I could barely make out his features in the hazy dark, but I knew he was there. Silent. Waiting. I couldn't tell if I felt guilty or furious at the moment.

I stared at the spot where the bruise had been. I couldn’t make myself look away. “Was that...” I paused, sucking in a deep breath, “Because of me?”

“Don’t flatter yourself, Bennett," Potter said lightly, but I could hear the wince of pain in his voice. "Are we done here?" He reached behind himself, grappling for the doorknob, but I stopped him.

“Don’t,” I grabbed his hand, and surprise flickered across his face. “Potter...”

There was a long, bated silence. Something in my chest seemed to give a funny little jump. We were standing so close...

He leaned back against the door. “Bennett,” he said flatly, and that was answer enough. One word, one single acquiescence...But it seemed to fall between us like a brick.

“You shouldn’t have... have...” I began, but there was nothing left to say.

Slowly, cautiously, I reached up, aware that my body seemed to be rebelling against the orders coming from my frazzled mind, and I kissed him. Very, very lightly. My lips, barely grazing his. Me on tippy toes and him leaning against the door, eyes fluttered shut.

I didn't know why, but at the time, it just seemed like the right thing to do.

It was hot and fast and fleeting, like a shooting star. It didn’t last very long, but I felt it. Oh, I felt it. That kiss pulled at me from the inside, made my chest clench and my throat ache. It was... different from last time. Scarier. More intimate. Just my body against his, our hearts beating so close together, everything silent inside that tiny broom cupboard except for our breathing.

I pulled away, letting go of his hand. He was staring at me. And I could tell, just by looking at his eyes, that he had felt it too. That strange feeling of being empty and full at the same time. That shooting star.

He leaned back, his head gently thumping against the door. It was eerily quiet, save for my heartbeat, which was sputtering inside my chest.

“Bennett,” he said quietly. “What are we doing?”

I opened my mouth to answer, but he didn’t give me the chance. Because all of the sudden Potter was swiveling us around with surprising speed, pushing me back so that I was the one against the door...and then he was kissing me.

It was more intense this time. Potter’s urgent mouth found mine, his hands clasping my face. It was fast and hard and pure need. And I wanted it. Wanted him. Being this close to him, with my hands against his chest, feeling his heartbeat thrum against my palm... This was the only time when Potter actually felt human to me.

I parted my lips, allowing him to deepen the kiss as his tongue slid between my teeth. We grappled desperately at each other, trying to get as close as possible, tangling together in a hot blur of lips and tongue and touch, all intertwined. I wrapped my arms around his neck, pulling myself towards him. My head was spinning with that same, heated dizziness that only Potter could make me feel. He was pressing me so hard against the door, I thought we might break it.

I knew what we were doing was wrong, that this wasn’t how I was supposed to fix things, but I couldn’t help it. I was drawn towards him, addicted and intoxicated by the haze and muted heat between us. I needed it, craved it, wanted it...

Then all too soon, Potter was pulling away, his breathing raggedy, eyes dark. We both stared at each other for a second, gasping for air, our lips swollen — the telling giveaway of a good snog.

My mind was trying to catch up with my body. It was moving sluggishly, trying to make sense of what happened. I wish I could find out what Potter was thinking. Finally, after a while of staring, I murmured, “I should go.”

Potter nodded. “Probably.”

For a moment, I lingered, wondering if he was going to stop me. When he didn’t, I turned away and opened the door, slipping into the cool air of the corridor without a backwards glance.



Chapter 27: Inescapable
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A/N: Alright guys, here's chapter 27 (finally)! I'm terribly sorry for the long wait, but as some of you know, I've been going through a tough month, what with APs, getting sick (twice), and prom and such, so thank you for your patience! Oh, and also the formatting for this might be a bit weird. I don't know why, but everytime I click the little 'preview' button, it automatically adds like, a bajillion empty lines between my paragraphs. Blurghhh. Oh well, what can you do?



The Hogwarts Express was a cherry-red train that puffed out cheerful marshmallows of grey steam and shuttled happy school-children between their school and their loving families. It looked like the kind of train that could be Thomas the Tank Engine’s jolly best friend, the kind of train that took you on wonderful journeys filled with double rainbows and baby kittens feeding you Girl Scout cookies. It made you feel wholesome, family-friendly and, most importantly, happy.

And at this moment, it was also the train currently zooming me to my demise.

Should I explain? Let me back up a little.

You see, it all started with a letter.

—*—

Dear Agatha,

I am writing this with about fifteen minutes to spare before your stepfather and I have to get on our Portkey to the Bahamas. Like I told you before, Arnold and I are so excited to be going there for the holidays. We've practically been counting down the days! Also, I’ll have you know that I’ve been extremely organized in setting this all up. I bought the tickets, made an itinerary, even used your label-maker to put Arnold’s name on all of his boxer shorts (just in case he forgets them)! Can you believe it? Your scatterbrained, frazzled mother.... Labeling things! You would be so proud, darling.

(Now, if only I could find my wand. I misplaced it somewhere last night and haven't seen it since... )

Anyway, enough of me rambling. The point of this letter is to let you know the plan for the holidays. See, given everything that’s happened with your brother recently, I think it might be for the best that this year, the two of you spend Christmas break together. Just for safety’s sake. Obviously I trust Aidan, but you know how he can be. He’s always so... Careless. Absentminded. Forgetful. Honestly, I don’t know where he gets it from.

I just think that everyone would feel much more at ease knowing you'd be there to keep an eye on his health and make sure he’s recovering well. So please, I’m asking you—if it’s not too much trouble, would you mind spending break with Aidan?


Hold on.

Let us pause for a bit.

Now, after reading the first half of this letter, I’m pretty sure you know where this is going, yeah? And if you don’t, you’re at least getting some creeping sense of foreboding, a faint inkling that this can not turn out well for dear Aggy. And you'd be right (because it never does).

You see, since second-year, our family had developed a system for every Christmas break. Mum and Arnold would jet off to some beachy locale to get silly on fruit cocktails and rekindle their love (gag), while I would spend my Christmas at Dom’s. Aidan, of course, would stay over at the Potter house (sorry, mansion), and that was how it had always been.

But not this year. No. This year, I would be spending my Christmas break with Aidan, which also meant I would be spending it with Potter.

Because, yes, folks, my life was that predictable. Once you stripped away all the pesky details and irrelevant facts, you could basically boil my existence down to one unfortunate formula.

(Nearest terrible thing that could happen x Potter) — any sort of fairness/mercy = the life of Agatha Bennett.

Rinse and repeat.

Honestly. I couldn't decide whether my life was some sick joke and this letter was the punchline, or an epic, Macbeth-esque tragedy with this as the creepy foreshadowing of more doom to come. I guess we would just have to see.

Anyway. On with the letter.

Now, I know the original plan for this Christmas was for Arnold and I to go to the Bahamas, Aidan stay at the Potter’s, and you stay with Dominique and her family. And I really would love to stick to that plan, seeing as everyone had been so happy with it. But...

Ah, yes. The elusive ‘but.’ My life would be incomplete without it. In fact, these days, it seemed like I was encountering a new ‘but’ everyday. I could never just have anything good, could I? There was always a string attached, an asterisk tacked on, or a fine print at the bottom.

For example:

'Hey Aggy, Ryan Fisher — also known as the guy of your dreams — is your perfect soulmate and your Prefect partner and he would totally go for you... But you’re not a dude.'

Or, ‘Hey Aggy, we’re going to make you Prefect this year, seeing as that’s been your one goal throughout your whole academic career... But we’re also going to make your worst enemy one too!”

I bet if I were to one day win the lottery, the universe would probably be like, ‘Hey Aggy, you can have all these billions of dollars... But only in the form of vouchers for free cat food! Have fun!’

Anyway, I’m getting off topic, yeah? Sorry, that tends to happen when I find out my life has been ruined (again). Continuing with the letter:

So, since Aidan will be staying at the Potters, I would like it if you’d join him there.

If you listened hard enough, you could actually hear the final nail being driven into my proverbial coffin. I was going to be spending seven days—yes, you heard me. Seven. The number after six. The one that ate nine—at James Sirius Potter’s house. Living where he lived. Eating where he ate. Sleeping where he slept.

So I guess now the formula should be changed to:

Aggy + (Potter’s house x two weeks vacation) — any sort of possibility that this might turn out okay = unmitigated disaster.

The letter went on:

I know that you and James share a sort of ‘dislike’ between you (I don’t know why, he’s a very nice boy—and handsome too! Wink wink!), but I’d like you two to at least try and get along, for Aidan’s sake. Sounds good?

Thank you so much, Aggy, you’re a star. You have no idea how much help you’re being.


And you, mother dearest, have no idea how much money this will cost you in future psychotherapy bills. When they lock me away in that nice white-padded room, could you be a star and maybe send me a fruit basket every now and then?

Oh, Arnold just called from downstairs to say that he’s found my wand! It was in the pantry, for some reason.

I wonder how it got there? Odd.

Anyway, I suppose that’s my cue to leave. I’m sorry to change things up on you, Agatha, but I hope you understand it’s for the best. Give your brother my love and say hello to the Potters for me. Also, remember to use your please’s and thank you’s when you’re over there! Manners are important!

I’ll miss you, darling.

Lots of love,

Mum.


I’ve obviously said it before, but there's no harm in a little repetition for emphasis:

I hate my life.

—*—

I clutched the letter tighter in my fist as the train zoomed on through the verdant Scottish countryside, rattling like a heaving, asthmatic beast and causing me to wobble unsteadily as I made my way down the corridor.

Half an hour.

That was, roughly, the time left before this train pulled into Kings Cross and I would be forced to come face to face with the Potter family... And the reality that I’d be staying with them for the next week.

For the train ride, I’d taken to wandering the hallways on half-hearted Prefect patrols, preferring to catch up on my duties rather than sit in a compartment with the rest of the group and have to deal with Potter's presence in such a confined space.

Ever since the party last week, I’d been unable to stay in the same vicinity as him for longer than five minutes — not when I was still grappling with the fact that our kiss, something I had promised myself would be a one-time occurrence, had turned out to be definitively not a one-time occurrence. This was distressing news, and every time Potter and I were together, it was like a full on torture session of trying to act normal, to not stare at his mouth, or his arms, or the way his hand sometimes passed through his black hair (which I knew from experience was very soft—stop it, Agatha). It had gotten to the point where he couldn’t even say something in my general direction without my face turning into a cherry tomato.

Not that it seemed to be bothering Potter in the slightest. During the past week, Potter had regarded me with simple, bland indifference, betraying no sign that he had thought about the two of us. This was different from the usual slew of snark and insults that I usually received from Potter. Now, it was as if he simply didn't notice me. Whenever we were together, his (always unimpressed) gaze would pass through my body like I didn’t exist. When he walked by me in the hallway, he didn’t bother to offer a snide comment or a shoulder shove like normal. No, he would just breeze by me like I was any other classmate, eyes trained forward.

And our conversations were, as always, riveting. From the thrilling, ‘Pass the salt,’ to the absolutely charming, ‘You’re in my way,’ we just couldn’t shut up around each other.

Not.

Potter had said six, maybe seven, words to me in total. And that was from the entire past week. While I used to think a silencio’d Potter would be a gift from the heavens, it was actually... Distressing.

So today, I gave it right back to him. For the past hour, I hadn’t bothered to actually sit and relax in our compartment. Not even once. Instead, I’d been mumbling excuses to go to the bathroom, or find the trolly cart, or visit other Prefects. Whenever I poked my head into our compartment and saw Potter reclined all casual and languid-like on the bench, or playing Exploding Snap with Fred and Dom, I immediately ducked out again and left.

James Sirius Potter, meet my shoulder. It’s feeling a bit cold.

Though all of this didn’t change the fact that in half an hour, Potter was going to be inescapable. I was going to have to eat meals with him, spend Christmas with him — hell, we’d probably have to share a bathroom. A bathroom. God knows what kind of airborne diseases I could pick up. At least I'd already had all my injections — fingers crossed that would help me ward off Potteritis (symptoms: excessive arrogance, pratiness, and the propensity to snog innocent girls and then never talk to them again).

I viciously shook my head at the thought and crumpled the letter in my hand, feeling satisfied with its ensuing papery crunch. Leaning against one of the smooth, paneled walls of the corridor for balance, I slowly staggered down the hallway, passing compartments of laughing first-years or gossiping Hufflepuffs. It was amazing how carefree they were. Little did they know that I’d be meeting my demise in thirty minutes time.

Not that I was being dramatic or anything.

Stumbling a little as the train gave a particularly rough lurch (hate you too, Hogwarts Express), I tried to quicken my pace. For this past round of The Avoid Potter Game, I had spent almost forty whole minutes wandering around the train, pretending like I was actually carrying through with my prefect orders. It’d been nice, though I would have to get back to the compartment sooner or later, or else Dom would surely get suspicious.... If she wasn’t already.

“AHHHHH, FUCK YOU, YOU STUPID FUCKING FUCK!”

I gasped as a sudden, far-away scream tore through my ear drums, making me wince involuntarily. What in the world? Turning around from side to side, I could see other kids in their compartments looking around bewilderingly, frowning to themselves.

Immediately, though, I knew just where it had came from. Only one person had a sound-barrier-shattering shriek (and cussing creativity) like that. And that person was Dominique Weasley.

Instinctively, I broke into a run, not caring about the less then steady train or the fact that people were looking. Worst case scenarios flitted through my head — a dementor somehow broke into the compartment, or a band of robbers, or Fallon Cooper —

Oh god. Fallon Cooper. I ran faster.

I knew where we were — second compartment to the last, our usual. Already, I could see a figure was standing in front of the door. Probably one of Cooper’s cronies, making sure no one could get in — or out. Fuck. If he did anything to my best friend, I swear to god I would —

Potter.

I squinted, trying to see if I was mistaken, or being taunted by an optical illusion. But I wasn’t. The closer I got, the clearer it became. No one else had the same rumpled hair or perfect Chaser’s build — the intangible balance between lithe and muscular. The figure standing in front of the compartment was definitely, unarguably Potter.

“What the hell are you doing?”

Potter looked up from where he was leaning, nonchalant, on the door of the compartment, arms folded languidly across his chest. His eyes were squinted into hazel slits, his mouth a lazy, lopsided curve.

“Open the door, Potter,” I barked before he could so much as blink. My whole body was jittery with anxiety as I hopped from one foot to the other, trying to peek into the compartment through the window. It was no use, though, the shades were drawn. Damnit. “Whatever’s going on, whatever crazy, ridiculous prank you’re playing on Dom, I don’t care. Just open the fucking door.”

Shaking his head, Potter gave a short, almost disbelieving breath of laughter. He kicked himself off the wall, leaning forward as his face — bingo — finally assumed its usual expression of scorn.

“What’s this?” Voice loaded with mockery, he slapped an over-dramatic hand to his chest and turned in fake astonishment from side to side, pretending to check that it was actually him I was talking to. “Agatha Bennett? Acknowledging my existence? Well this is definitely going in today’s diary entry!”

As soon as the sentence was out, he dropped his hand, abandoning the whole star-struck act, and eased back into his previous position of leaning against the door, all bored and insolent. “Don’t bother, Bennett. The door’s closed until I say so.”

Immediately, I felt my chest clench tight in anger, my breathing shallow with hot irritation. "What are you doing in there?" Honestly! This was my compartment too (sort of)! I had rights, okay? He couldn’t just parade around, blockading people from their rooms...It was unjust!

Eyes narrowed, teeth set, I forced myself to meet his flat gaze. “Okay, Potter, while you’re surely enjoying the power rush that comes from being the Super Special Guarder of the Door, I would like to get in. So move out of my way.”

“Make me.”

Arrrrrrrgh.

Potter was obviously enjoying this. His chin was tilted upwards as he appraised me with a smug, satisfied gaze, bronzed eyes sparking with enjoyment.

I, on the other hand, was not so happy. I could feel fury, almost as if it were literally tearing through me, like a stinging white-hot gash across my chest. My fists clenched and my blood pounded. It was getting hard to breathe. I just wanted, once, to knock Potter off his high-horse, to win, to not feel so damn helpless anymore.

“AHHHHHHHHHHHHHH! YOU BASTARD!”

Another scream from the compartment sliced through the air, and I knew I couldn’t waste my time anymore. I didn’t know what was actually happening in there (most likely some harmless but humiliating prank courtesy of the Tweedle Trio), but if Potter was involved, it couldn’t be good. I had to get in and come to my best friend’s rescue — she would do the same for me.

I went right. So did Potter. I dodged left. He did too. Finally, I made a snap-decision and just dived for the door handle, figuring the only way to pass Potter was to go through him.

This turned out to be a not-so-great idea.

In a flash of motion I could barely register, Potter grabbed my wrists and smoothly wheeled me around. I stumbled backwards, losing balance, and my back crashed into the door. A muffled squeak of protest slipped from my lips, my surprised gaze raising to lock with Potter’s cool one —

And I tried my hardest not to think about our close proximity... Or about the last time this boy had me against a door.

Um.

Cue: hysterical internal-monologue.

Oh god. His face was right there. Right there. If I just maneuvered a little closer, I could graze my lips against his, one last time, to feel that shooting star sailing through my body — Roman candles, chemical reactions, blazing meteors, gold sparks showering down like cosmic rain, like chips of sunlight.

Or... I could headbutt him.

Frankly, both options sounded quite tempting.

Potter, on the other hand, seemed completely unaffected by the situation. His expression was flat and bland, though I could see the first signs of annoyance at my aggression, as he spoke:

“Here’s a little tip, Bennett: next time you want to pass someone, try not to lunge directly at them.” With that, he quickly released my wrists, stepping back as if I was something contagious under the subway. I half expected him to wipe his hands on his shirt and Accio some Purell over for good measure.

For a moment, I just stood there, blinking at him dazedly. My mouth dry and scratchy like sandpaper. Since my hands were finally free, I took the opportunity to try the door-handle. It was locked. Surprise, surprise.

“Is this how you treat all your guests?” I bit out as I reached behind me, viciously jangling the handle some more, to no avail.

He shrugged. “Just think of it as practice for when I lock you out of my actual house.”

“You wouldn’t.”

“Wanna bet?”

I narrowed my eyes, giving up on my efforts to rip the door off its hinges and resorting to my normal arms-folded, hip-cocked stance. First he was kissing me, than he was ignoring me, now he was threatening me with eviction. I couldn't keep up with Potter's emotional acrobatics, and for the life of me, I couldn't figure out what went on inside that boy's head.

“And here I was thinking that somewhere deep down, underneath all those layers of soot and dust, you had a heart," I hissed. "Oops, my bad.”

“Oh, burn.” Potter’s voice was bored and sarcastic as he shoved his hands into his pockets, the corner of his mouth tugging upwards — but there was irritation in his eyes. “Now, tell me — this thing where you insult the person whom you want something from — does it work often?"

My face twisted itself into a sneer. “It’s not exactly an insult if it’s true.”

His hazel eyes veered towards the ceiling. “You should really double-check your definition of ‘insult.’ And while you’re at it, ‘true.’”

I scoffed. How could this prat have a comeback for everything? It was impossible. And it made me want to throttle him — hard. “Potter, you are so lucky I have morals. Otherwise — ”

“Otherwise what?” Potter stepped forward, voice suddenly dark and smoky with interest. He placed a hand against the door I was leaning on, his languid gaze flicking almost suggestively down my body. In the overflowing sunlight of the train, his features looked like they were traced in gold, the amber sparks in his eyes flickering with fire. Almost imperceptibly, the shadow of a smirk tugged at his lips.

“Otherwise — ” I began, but suddenly it was hard to find my train of thought. Or, for that matter, my voice, because Potter was inches away, staring me down with his uncannily intense golden gaze. I was uncomfortable, and Potter could see this. Argh, why was he so hell-bent on messing with me like this?

I was suddenly aware of every inch of space between us, every shivering molecule of bated, empty air. He was right there, waiting to hear what, exactly, I would do without my pesky morals. All I had to do was tilt my head a little to the side, reach up slightly, curl my fingers around the collar of my shirt and pull him closer...

Cue: hormone implosion.

Everything was silent. The train continued to rumble underneath us.

Potter was playing with me, pushing and probing at all the spots that made me squirm. I was aware of this, and he was aware that I was aware, but none of that made it any less harder to stop fidgeting. Ever since our kiss, Potter had found a new way to get the upperhand — care less. I made it so obvious that this new, physical dimension of our relationship bothered me; I couldn't hide my embarrassment over the kisses, or my regret that they had happened. Potter, on the other hand, maintained his cool. He just smirked and stood by — no, stepped closer — simply because he was strong enough to not let it get to him.

Meanwhile, on the inside, I was brimming with questions and angst. I had so much I wanted to ask. I had no doubt that Potter had a few questions of his own, but he wasn't invested or curious enough to ask them. And we both knew the first person to break down and admit fear or doubt was the loser.

I was just about to cave and push Potter away when, all of a sudden, the door behind me opened.

“Aggy?”

Without anything to lean on anymore, I went tumbling backwards and into Dom, whose hand was on the door and whose mouth twisted in a confused scowl.

Struggling to right myself, I wheeled around to see Fred and Aidan sitting in the back of the compartment, staring at Potter and me with a mixture of alarm and intrigue. This, plus Dom’s shrewd, ‘I-have-a-sixth-sense-about-these-things-and-I-know-you-were-just-five-inches-and-two-sexual-tension-charged-insults-away-from-snogging-my-pratty-cousin’ glare, was more than a little unnerving.

“Oh,” I said faintly. “Dom. You're alive.”

“What are you doing here?”

“Well Bennett was just in the middle of braiding me a friendship bracelet — ” Potter began all obnoxiously, but I cut him off, not even bothering to look at him as I stepped brazenly into the compartment. Dom moved aside, still holding the door, eyebrows raised in expectation.

“I heard you screaming and I tried to get here as soon as I could," I told her, surveying the compartment for the usual signs of damage/fire/bloodshed. “You’re okay, right?”

At this, there was a thick silence. Dom’s expression contorted from one of suspicion to annoyance, and Fred and Aidan, who hadn’t uttered a word so far, both shifted uncomfortably in their seats.

“Well?” I demanded (at this point, I could practically feel Potter rolling his eyes behind me). “What happened?”

More silence.

Then, finally —

“He bit me.”

I paused for a moment, blinking rapidly as Dom’s words, bitter and wounded, hung in the heavy air.

“Come again?”

“I said,” Dom declared icily, swiveling her resentful gaze towards Freddy, who was still lounging, slightly sheepishly, in his seat. “He bit me. As in sunk his teeth into my skin.”

At this, Potter stifled a laugh, which quickly became a hasty cough when Dom shot him one of her famous stink-eyes. Aidan, who looked like he would rather be snogging a cheese grater than be here at this moment, averted his gaze, cheeks blooming pink.

“Um,” I said. “Why?”

Immediately, Freddy leaped to his feet in a frenzied, almost manic motion that had me taking a wary step back. “Aha! Funny you should ask that, Aggy, because has anyone bothered to hear my side of the story yet? Noooo. Of course not! You bite someone and all of a sudden you’re the villain — ”

“Okay, can someone please explain to me why Freddy is biting people?” I cut off, raising my voice slightly.

Aidan, who was still blushing up a storm, suddenly jumped up from his chair as well and dramatically started to shake his fist at the air in typical Shakespearean manner. Oh Merlin, I needed new friends. And siblings.. “It was terrible, Aggy! Terrible! He made me watch... MADE ME WATCH!” In a move that I found to be slightly over-the-top, Aidan collapsed to his knees, pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes. “THE THINGS I’VE SEEN! THE HORRORS I’VE LIVED!”

And with that, my fifteen-year-old brother curled himself into a fetal position and started to whimper. Yes. Whimper.

What is wrong with these people.

I should get a medal for dealing with this insanity every day. “Okay, guys, this isn’t that hard. Just tell me what happened... All I want is a clear, detailed explanation — ”

“It was all Dom’s fault, I was provoked!”

“Provoked? How were you provoked, you bloody moron? You attacked me!”

“What I did was justified!”

“THE GUILT! OH, THE GUILT! I CAN’T LIVE WITH IT ANYMORE! I JUST STOOD BY AND WATCHED! I’M A SHAME TO THE GRYFFINDOR NAME!”

“Aidan, shut up already.”

“Hey, don’t you dare tell him to shut up, Dom!

“I can do whatever I want, I was just mauled!”

“Oh, stop being so dramatic — ”

I turned helplessly to Potter as all of a sudden, our compartment launched into chaos. Fred stormed up to Dom so that they were nose to nose, and both began screaming and gesticulating wildly at each other in a manner that I had seen many times before, at Weasley Family Reunions and whenever the two cousins fought at home over who got rights to the telly remote. Aidan was now plugging his ears and quietly singing to himself as he rocked back and forth, apparently traumatized by the horrific biting incident. And Potter was watching all of this contentedly, having found himself a seat with a close-up view, his legs stretched out and his arms folded behind his head.

“Dramatic? You bloody eejit, I have teeth marks in my arm!”

“Yes, teeth marks of justice!”

“What the fuck are you talking about? You’re paying for my rabies shot!”

“For the last time, I do not have rabies! God, you get bit by a monkey at the zoo one time, and everyone starts assuming you have rabies! Why is that?”

“You sodding prat, it was two times! Don’t you ever learn?”

“Well how was I supposed to know it was vicious! It looked so darn cute!”

“You kept sticking your hands inside the bars and trying to tickle it! Of course it — you know what — THIS CONVERSATION IS TAKING A WEIRD TURN!”

“STOP IT! EVERYONE STOP IT!” My shriek was ear-drum-shattering. I was pretty sure all of the birds in Scotland just took flight from their homes in the treetops, it was that loud.

Immediately, everything jolted to a halt. Dom froze, her hands inches away from Freddy’s neck, fingers already clawed into optimum strangling form. Aidan stopped rocking back and forth, looking like a scared animal in captivity. And Potter finally leaned forwards in his seat, eyebrows raised, watching all of this like it was a particularly amusing telly show.

“Look at yourselves!” I cried, crossing over to where Aidan was cowering. “Look what you’ve done to Aidan! You’ve broken him!”

More whimpering, courtesy of Aidan. There was a sheepish silence as Dom lowered her hands, clearing her throat, and Fred adverted his gaze to fix his collar.

Surveying the compartment to make sure I had everyone's full attention, I took a shaky breath and tried venturing once more into the unfamiliar territory of Common Sense and Reason. “Now, can someone please just explain to me what happened?”

Fred sighed, running an exasperated hand through his hair, his shoulders slumping forwards as he sat down. “Fine. If you really have to know, Aggy, here’s the full exciting story: Dom told Evelyn about my snoring/drooling issue, which was supremely embarrassing — "

“I thought it would be funny!”

“And so — ” Fred interrupted, gaze darkening. “We decided that she would have to pay. No one can just get away with something like that. No one!” Fred’s voice had taken on a scary, almost demonic tone to it. “There would have to be punishment for what she did.”

“So you locked her into a train compartment... And bit her.” I said flatly, gaze flitting between the two crazy Weasleys.

“Eye for an eye. I regret nothing.” Fred shrugged, leaning back in his seat with his arms behind his head.

I stared at my friends, from Fred to Aidan to Dom to Potter, flicking between all their different levels of craziness. I was suddenly not amazed at all. Of course. Of course they would do something like this. I should have expected it.

I felt a sense of resignation well inside me as Dom rubbed her sore arm, muttering nasty words under her breath, and took a seat. Aidan started to uncurl out of his trembling fetal position, and Potter, his desire for some good old soap-opera action obviously fulfilled, leaned back contentedly in his seat. Suddenly, everything was calm again. Just like that. Like nothing had ever happened in the first place.

I looked around myself. With a vague sense of dread, I realized that I would probably have to deal with these people for the rest of my life. Insanity was like a parasite, or a stubborn stray dog — once it found you, there was no getting away.

You were stuck for good.

"I've had my vengeance," Fred announced to nobody in particular. "And am satisfied. The balance of the universe has been restored."

Merlin help us all.

—*—

By the time the train pulled into Kings Cross, the insides of my stomach felt as tangled as a kindergartner's shoelaces. I literally felt sick as we slowly rolled into the platform, the blurry faces of all the friends and family members suddenly becoming all too clear.

The Hogwarts Express gave a sharp whistle and we yanked to a stop. Aidan, who had fallen asleep in his little corner, jolted awake with a yelp. Potter cracked his neck in an obnoxiously loud manner as he stood up, earning him a dirty look from me. Slowly, we all got to our feet, shaking ourselves off. In a true example of poetic justice, Fred had fallen asleep on Dom and, much to her dismay, drooled all over her new t-shirt.

You know that feeling when you get on a rollercoaster, and slowly you start ascending the tracks up the biggest drop on the ride? And as the tracks tick-tick-tick underneath you, all you can feel is this creeping sense of dread, this knowledge that something terrible is about to happen?

Yeah, that was kind of how I was feeling right about now.

As everyone filtered out, I stretched upwards, feeling my sweater ride uncomfortably up my back as I reached for my trunk, which was sitting on the top rung of the compartment’s shelf and just out of reach.

I stretched and stretched, even doing a couple hops for good measure, but it was no use. My fingers grazed the worn leather but couldn't find purchase. Sitting up high beyond my grasp, the trunk seemed to be mocking me in my silent agony. Really, this was just perfect. I couldn’t even get a stupid trunk down without making a fool of myself.

I was just starting to think of all the ways in which this situation could be an apt metaphor for my entire life when, all of a sudden, a tan, calloused hand reached up and grabbed the brass handle, yanking my trunk down as easily as though it was full of nothing but air.

And that was when I turned around to see Potter, wordlessly setting my trunk on the ground.

My lips parted. Our eyes met.

Great, and now the feeling of dread in my stomach was starting to mix with a hint of nausea.

Stupid, chivalrous Gryffindor.

I had no idea what to say. This was the first time we had been left alone together since the RoR party, and I didn't know the exact protocol for being around your brother's best friend after you'd snogged him.

So, of course, I decided to diffuse the situation with some awkward humor.

“Oh, my knight in shining armor, thank goodness you were here to save me from that evil trunk! I don’t know what my weak, trembling female arms would have done without you! Swoon! Sigh! Faint!” I slapped a hand to my forehead and, much to Potter's unamusement, stumbled around in a mock imitation of the Damsel in Distress.

Potter tossed me a look over his shoulder as he reached up for his own trunk, and I couldn’t help but let my eyes graze slightly over the tensed muscles of his back. “You know, normal people just say thank you.”

He set his trunk down and straightened himself, staring at me expectantly, eyebrows raised in irritation. I blinked at him, trying to muster the appropriate amount of disgust on my face and act like I hadn’t just been ogling the more... Er, noticeable benefits of his Quidditch career (in my defense, Potter really shouldn’t wear t-shirts — the fabric was, er, far too thin. Really. It was just indecent).

“Whatever.” With that, I grabbed the handle of my trunk and tried to march off, though the effect was slightly ruined by the fact that I had to half-drag my giant, Canada-sized trunk behind me.

“Hey, Bennett!”

He’s just trying to get under your skin, pull you back into another argument. Just ignore him.

“What?”

Or, you know, not.

“Is this yours by any chance?” On Potters index finger dangled a somewhat embarrassing bra with dancing monkeys on the front. I started, and then looked down to see that my trunk had fallen open and that I had left a marvelous little trail of underwear behind me.

Potter tossed me the bra, one eyebrow cocked, obviously enjoying himself. I barely caught it before frantically stuffing it back in my trunk.

“Sorry, but my Knight in Shining Armor duties don’t include underwear pick-up. You’re on your own, m’Lady.” He gave a sarcastic, flourishing little bow and then grabbed his trunk, ambling out of the compartment and leaving me all alone to pick up my mess.

And they say chivalry is dead.

—*—

The first thing I noticed about Ginny Potter was that she raised her eyebrow exactly like Potter did — in a perfect, smooth arch, with so much ease it looked effortless. She was his spitting image, and I found that really disturbing.

The second thing I noticed was that Ginny Potter was friendly. So friendly, it caught me off guard.

“Agatha!” Without any forewarning whatsoever, I found myself enveloped in a very tight, rib-crushing hug. ‘We are so glad to have you with us — you know you’re welcome at our house anytime!”

“Er, thanks,” I mumbled, slightly chagrined, as Mrs. Potter pulled back, her sheet of dark red hair swinging around her slender waist. It did not seem just that someone like her could have red hair and still look like a supermodel, while I, at the best of times, resembled a weasel with skin disease. Unfair.

“And Aidan!” Smile widening, Mrs. Potter reached over and hugged Aidan, who looked all too happy to be pressed up against the woman who Witch Weekly had named Hottest Quidditch Star of 2015.

Potter coughed loudly. Aidan reluctantly stepped back, shooting Potter an apologetic look that obviously meant something along the lines of, ‘Dude, sorry I just totally creeped on your mom.’

Potter retaliated with an admonishing glare that probably said, ‘Dude, it’s alright, just don’t do it again.’

And Aidan: ‘Dude, I won’t. Promise. Dude to dude.’

‘Dude, cool.’

'Dude.'

And that, my friends, is what we call bromance.

“So, is everyone here? Are we good to go?” Mrs. Potter asked, completely oblivious to the invisible conversation going on between her son and my brother. She surveyed the crowd, warm brown eyes narrowed and slightly anxious.

I nodded hastily. We were all standing in the middle of the platform, huddled together against the whirlwind of smiling faces and cheery greetings, and I was starting to feel a little claustrophobic.

Potter, who was standing next to me with his arms crossed, nodded curtly. “Yep. We’re all here. Can we go now?”

Mrs. Potter sighed. “Is that really the greeting I get from my long-lost son? I was expecting a few tears of joy at least.”

“Sorry to disappoint,” Potter grinned, but already he was letting his mum pull him into a hug, which looked slightly awkward since Potter was so much taller than her. “Alright, enough. There are people watching.” There was a mock-stern tone in his voice, a kind of fond, light teasing that I had never heard before. “I can't be seen with my mum here. You'll ruin my street cred.”

At this, Lily Potter, who was standing next to Ginny and had previously been glancing at her nails in typical bored-teenage-girl fashion, gave a derisive snort. “Street cred? Please. Mum, I don't think I can be around James' delusions any longer. They're making me sad. Can I go say goodbye to my friends one more time real quick?”

Woah, looked like Potter’s snarkiness was hereditary. And he was also somewhat of a Mama’s Boy. And Lily could do that weird eyebrow thing too. God, this was all so strange.

Potter rolled his eyes. “By friends, you mean the twitchy little kid you call your boyfriend, right?”

Lily’s mouth dropped open in outrage. “James! I do not have a boyfriend! And since when have you been so interested in my love life?”

“She definitely has a boyfriend,” Potter muttered in a stage-whisper to Ginny, who allowed an almost imperceptible smirk to flit across her face. “I saw them holding hands the other day. Lils, I hope you’re using protection. You must always remember to practice safe hand-holding — ”

Lily gave him a sharp look, “You better shut up before I tell Mum about all the stuff you do at school. And I’m not just talking about hand-holding.”

At this, I couldn’t help but feel a rash of heat crawl down my neck. This was so weird, listening to the family of the boy who I hated and snogged (last weekend, in fact), throw witty banter around like it was nothing. Not to mention witty banter about his sex life. Not that Potter had a sex life. Well, actually, of course Potter had a sex life. He was Potter. But he didn’t have a sex life with me. We... we had an Occasional Random Snog Life, and that was it.

Mrs. Potter did the eyebrow thing again. Freaky. “James, is there anything I should know about?”

“Yes, mum,” Potter paused for dramatic affect, gravely staring into his mother’s eyes with an expression of utmost seriousness. “I’m pregnant.”

From next to me, Aidan snickered a little.

Oh, dear brother, l bet if you knew what had happened at that costume party a few weeks ago, you would not be laughing as much.

“As long as you name it after me, I’m fine with it.” Ginny’s lips were tugging upwards into a wry smile. “Anyways, we should probably get a move on before everyone else starts leaving and the parking lot becomes too crowded — come on, man slaves.” With that, she gestured to the two carts filled with all our possessions, and immediately, Potter and Aidan started to push them, being their good little Gryffindor selves.

“Oh, before we leave — did you see Albus go off with that friend of his, Scorpius? He's spending Christmas at his place.”

“Yeah, though I don’t know why he hangs out with that Malfoy prat all the time.”

“Did you just call Malfoy a prat? Um, pot and kettle, much?” Lily trilled as we started to make our way towards the barrier.

Hey, I was really starting to like this Lily kid. She seemed like a cool gal.

“Don’t you have some more scandalous hand-holding to do?”

“Mum!”

“James, be nice.”

Potter met Ginny’s slightly amused glare with an impish grin before turning back to his sister. Aidan and I trailed behind the trio, entertained by their antics. “You do realize I’m going to have to meet this kid someday, right, Lils?”

“No! Absolutely not!”

“Why not? Are you ashamed of your big brother, Lils? I’m hurt!” With the one arm he wasn’t using to push the cart, Potter pulled his sister into an uncomfortable-looking half-hug, keeping her close as she tried to squirm away.

“Stop it, you buffoon! And the reason you can’t meet him is because he’s completely terrified of you!”

“Why are you acting like that’s bad? That’s a good thing, right Mum?”

Ginny gave a half-laugh, half-scoff. “Leave me out of this.” She paused. “But yes, that’s a good thing. A really, really good thing.”

With that, Ginny glided, impossibly graceful, into the barrier between the Platform and Kings Cross. We quickly followed, not knowing what else to do.

It was so weird to see Potter in this setting, I mused as we followed Mrs. Potter to the parking-lot. To see him acting all carefree and easygoing with his family... Of course, I’d been on the opposite end of his mockery before (loads of times), but I’d never heard him do it in such a warm, teasing manner. It was so easy, the way they tossed insults back and forth, but you could tell there was an underlying sense of affection underneath it all.

We finally reached the Potter’s car, a sleek black sedan, and we piled our luggage into the magically enhanced trunk before slipping inside. I felt awkward and uncomfortable, squashed between Potter and Aidan (earlier, Lily had called shotgun and after much heated bickering in which Ginny had to step in multiple times to referee, Potter had relinquished it to her). I could feel the whole side of Potter’s body, pressing, warm and insistent, against mine. Our knees were grazing. He wasn’t paying any attention to me, though, he just stared out the window, expression unfathomable, as Ginny pulled out of the parking-lot.

The ride was long and uneventful, livened up by Lily's ramblings as she prattled on about her friends, her classes, the Harpies-Canons match tomorrow. She was full of restless energy, bouncing up and down in her seat and fiddling with the radio, occasionally leaning backwards to snip at Potter or ask Aidan and I something. She was completely different from her brother, who, I knew, could pass for a statue at times — unfazed, unruffled, unreadable.

Eventually, we pulled into a pretty, curving street that looked almost muggle-style. I’d heard about the Potter’s house many times from Aidan, but I’d never actually visited. When I finally saw it, though, there was no denying that it was breathtaking. Not small, but not grotesquely big either. It was a Victorian-style house with a white outside and pretty grey shutters. It looked like the kind of house that would have tons of nooks and crannies to hide in, the perfect house for curling up and reading a book while it thunder-stormed outside. You could tell that the lawn in front, although it was now covered in snow, would be perfect for lazy summery nights. And even though I couldn’t see it, I had heard rumors that the house had a Quidditch field and a pool in the back.

“Woah,” I breathed almost inaudibly, taking it all in. Ginny swerved sharply into the driveway (another thing about Ginny Potter: not the world’s best driver) and we jolted to a halt. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the house looming in front of me.

In fact, I was so absorbed in my staring that I almost didn’t notice Potter was looking at me. He was observing me with a careful expression as he gauged my reaction, his own expression closed-off and guarded.

The others unbuckled their seatbelts and slowly got (or in Lily’s case, literally leapt) out of the car. But I was left, frozen, my gaze locked on to Potter’s.

“What do you think?” He said neutrally, and I honestly had no idea what to make of him. His eyes were thoughtful, as if he really wanted to know. Some tendrils of his hair were curling up ever so slightly at the tops of his ears.

“It’s beautiful,” I said finally, truthfully. “You’re lucky.”

Potter stared at me for a second, and then looked away, shaking his head, giving a breathless huff of laughter. “Lucky,” he repeated, almost incredulously, and I had no idea what he was thinking. And then he was getting out of the car and leaving me, once again, alone and confused.

—*—

Mr. Potter was away on an Auror-related business trip (darn, guess that signed autograph would have to wait), and Albus was staying at Scorpius’ house, which left the guestroom for me. I didn’t mind this at all, seeing as the guest room was basically the equivalent of a suite at a five-star hotel.

The minute I walked into the room, I went straight for the bed. It was king-sized, with a delicious-looking lavender comforter that squished around me when I belly-flopped on top of it.

“Ugnnnnnnnnh,” I moaned into one of the five goose-feather pillows. “I never want to leave.”

“You’re liking it, I take it?” Aidan trailed in behind me, looking rather amused and considerably better after today’s traumatizing biting incident.

“The soft-as-a-cloud bed? Yes. The fact that I’m living in enemy territory? No.”

Aidan rolled his blue eyes, crossing his arms as he sat down on the edge of the bed. I stopped smothering my face into the marshmallow-like pillow to look up at him in annoyance, though it wasn’t like he was encroaching on my personal space or anything, the bed was so big.

“I don’t get why you insist on making this thing between Potter and you such a big deal.”

And it’s funny, the word ‘thing.’ Because it could encapsulate so many different definitions. A ‘thing’ could be a feud, a rivalry, even a...Well, romantic-natured relationship (as in, we had a 'thing' but then I realized he was a giant effing prat). And really, wasn’t it like Potter and I were all three definitions? Not that our connection was necessarily romantic, but still, there was an undeniable spark between us, something that kept pushing us together again and again.

“I’m not making it a big deal,” I sighed, speaking slowly for clarification. “That’s just how it is. He hates me, I hate him, the sun shines, dogs bark, etcetera etcetera.”

Just before Aidan could open his mouth to utter a surely witty reply, we were interrupted by a shout so loud it couldn’t possibly come from such a small lady like Ginny Potter.

“AIDAN! AGATHA! TIME FOR DINNER!”

I raised my head, heaving a giant sigh, and looked at Aidan. He glanced at me. We seemed to share some kind of twin telepathy for a moment, where we both acknowledged how much we didn’t want to go to dinner, and how much we’d rather just stay here, together, quiet, peaceful.

But then, like all things, it was ruined. “We should probably go, you know,” Aidan mumbled. “Mrs. Potter isn’t the most patient of people.”

“But I’m so comfy,” I whimpered.

He shrugged, jumping to his feet and stretching. “I’ll meet you downstairs in a few then.”

“Alright,” I mumbled.

After Aidan left, I just stayed like that, lying on the Heavenly Bed of Comfiness. I don’t know how long I stayed there, just reveling in the cushy softness of it all, but it was probably a while. Eventually, I figured that I better do the polite thing and go downstairs (plus, the smells coming from the kitchen were tantalizing, and hunger was starting to win out in my life's eternal struggle of Need for Sleep vs. Need for Food), so I heaved myself out of the bed and staggered into the hallway.

The house was huge, but still maintained a sense of coziness, what with all the family pictures on the walls and the cool, cushy cream carpet underneath my feet. I shuffled my way to the giant, mahogany staircase, but stopped dead in my tracks when I noticed something.

A closed door.

Which, in a house like this, could only mean one thing:

Potter’s room.

I had seen him go into it when we settled in. I hadn’t gotten a good peak inside, seeing as the door had remained firmly shut for the past hour... But maybe now that he was downstairs and I was here, alone, curious...

I cracked open the door.

Silence.

I opened it a little wider.

Silence. The deafening kind.

Slowly, I took one step in. And then another. Nothing happened, nobody stopped me, Potter didn’t pop out from behind the door and scream ‘AHA, I CAUGHT YOU!”

No. Just silence.

Finally, I threw the door open all the way and stepped inside, flicking on the light-switch so that everything was suddenly illuminated.

And I stopped.

The first thing I saw was red and gold. A lot of it.

There were three deep crimson walls, and then one gold one. The bed was huge, like mine, but bare, with a simple black comforter. In fact, the whole room was bare. There was a wardrobe in the corner, a desk on the opposite side and a Gryffindor flag stuck to the wall, but that was it. Otherwise, it might as well have been empty. It looked like one of those rooms from furniture catalogs, where everything's too neat and freakishly organized to be real.

I knew it was wrong, barging into Potter’s privacy like this, but I couldn’t help myself. Potter was just so closed off, so secretive, I couldn’t resist the temptation of trying to find out something more about him. Not that I would be able to find anything, judging by the looks of the room. This place was so boring, Professor Binns would be proud. Plus, Potter wasn’t exactly the type to have A Sooper Secret Diary that he’d just leave lying around.

I walked over to the wardrobe, curiously dragging a finger across the edge of it and half-expecting to come up with dust. But no, it was clean as ever. There was a small clutter of items—a mini broom model that was charmed to whizz around in circles, which I remembered Dom had given to him for his birthday last year, plus a couple untouched-looking textbooks, a stack of worn Hemmingways and Capotes... And then a picture.

I picked it up. It was, surprisingly enough, of the five of us. I didn’t know what I had expected—my face to be cut out, or a black X scribbled over it—but it wasn’t what I got. I was included in that photo just like everyone else—the five of us laughing and smiling, standing right in front of Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour. Aidan was smearing some of his ice cream cone on Dom’s nose, who was giggling with her arms slung around Potter and me. Fred was standing to the side, giving me bunny ears (so mature) and grinning like a moron. It was just like any other photo of a group of teenaged kids. If a stranger looked at it, they could never have guessed, in a million years, the history between me and Potter that trembled underneath the surface.

I was just about to set the picture down and leave when, all of a sudden, I noticed something. A small flash of light, glinting off a reflective surface. For some reason, my heartbeat quickened. Upon further inspection, I found out that the mysterious object was another picture, hidden behind the first one. I set down the picture of us and picked it up.

It was a lot smaller and, strangely enough, a muggle photo, judging by the fact that its occupants didn’t move. A simple, silver frame, and in the picture, the most beautiful couple I’d ever seen. Potter and...a blonde girl. She was gorgeous in the girl-next-door type of way, so wholesome and pretty and blond, it made me feel like a cow just looking at her. The thing about her beauty was that she wasn’t perfect—she obviously didn’t cake on makeup or do anything fancy to her hair. There was a slight gap in between her front two teeth. But it was the imperfections that made her so heart-wrenchingly, unfairly beautiful.

In the picture, Potter was kissing her cheek. Mystery-girl had her eyes squeezed tight, her mouth dropped open in a giant smile. Potter himself looked the happiest I’d ever seen him, the corners of his eyes scrunched slightly in laughter, his arm wrapped around this girl’s waist.

It took me a minute to realize that my hands were shaking—the photo in my hands was trembling so hard, I was surprised I hadn’t dropped it already. There was a loud noise thumping in my ears—oh wait, that was my heart beat—and my stomach felt like something had clawed out everything until I was nothing but an empty, hollowed pit.

I couldn’t believe Potter had a girlfriend. Or, more importantly, Potter had a girlfriend and still snogged me. Twice. I mean, I knew I called him a prat a lot, but I never would have thought that he’d stoop as low as cheating on someone. With me.

I felt sick. Used. Trampled on.

People say Slytherins don’t have moral codes. If that’s true, then why do I feel like I’m about to throw up right now?

Oh god, I was the other woman. And Potter's girlfriend — she was blond. Blond. Blond! How could I ever compete with that?

Not that I wanted to. Compete with that, I mean. What was I even talking about?

There was too much whirling through my brain, I couldn’t make sense of it. The nausea coursing through my veins, clawing at the inside of my throat, was slowly turning to anger. How could he do this to that girl? To me?

But of course, I should have expected it. I was the snog that Potter kept in his back pocket whenever he wanted it, while he had the real girlfriend back home. I was just... a slut, basically. A slut.

Oh god. I was about to throw up.

“Bennett?”

I whipped around, the frame in my hand falling to the ground as a startled squeak slipped out of my lips. What I saw was enough to make my heart stop completely.

Potter was standing in the hallway, one of his hands clenched around the door-frame, hazel eyes furious and cold, like chips of amber ice. He looked so angry—and for the first time in weeks, I saw emotion breaking through his usual placid apathy. Fear began to squirm inside my stomach, and it was suddenly very hard to remember how to breathe.

I wanted to hurl accusations at him, to hurl fists at him, to unleash my fury and let him have it. But I couldn’t. As I stared into Potter’s stony face, unable to tear my gaze away, all I could muster was a stuttering, “I s-swear I c-can explain.”

“Well then, explain.” Potter folded his arms across his chest, leaning against the doorframe. And I flitted my gaze, from him to the picture on the floor back to him, cheeks flaming red, no doubt in my mind that I was done for.

Chapter 28: Swirl
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A/N: Not too bad of a wait, eh?? I hope you guys enjoy this chapter! Please review if you get the chance :)

Disclaimer: I own nothing. 



“Well then, explain.”

I had experienced a temporary loss of sanity. That must be it — like those people who go into blind killing sprees, or suddenly decide getting a mullet is a good idea. That was the only way I could explain this... this situation. What else would have possibly made me think I could snoop through Potter's room without getting caught? I was Agatha Bennett, for god's sakes. Of course I was going to get caught! When it came to matters of the universe, I was Public Enemy Number One — the gods of fate probably had my face on a Most Wanted poster. If there was a wrong place, you bet your bottom galleon that I’d be there—at exactly the wrong time.

How could I have been so stupid?

I stared into Potter’s burnished gold eyes, willing myself not to start hyperventilating. I mean, I’d always prided myself on my quick-thinking. I was a Slytherin, after all. We were supposed to be cunning and sly, always prepared with a healthy dose of charm to grease us out of any sticky situation. But right now, my silver tongue felt a little tarnished. It sat in my mouth, heavy and fat and useless, as I waited for some slippery lie, a convincing excuse, to come to my brain. But nothing happened. My mind, at this moment in time, was completely empty.

Well, except for the mental image I had of a toy monkey playing the cymbals... But that was always there.

I was so screwed.

“Bennett,” Potter bit out in warning, his gaze darkening scarily. I could tell that, with each ticking second, he was becoming more and more pissed. Currently, his anger level probably hovered somewhere between ‘simmering’ and ‘volcanic.’ His jaw was locked, his arms tightly folded across his chest. One more minute, and I was pretty sure I’d be facing the nasty prospect of one of Potter's famous Bat Bogey Hexes.

"Um," I said brilliantly, in what was probably Troll for something along the lines of, 'Please don't kill me.'

Potter shook his head roughly, and I was surprised to see that there was a hollow sort of smile tugging at his lips. “You know what, Agatha?” he gave a humorless laugh that was almost as scary as the fact that he had just used my first name. My first name. “Forget about it. I’m not interested in whatever idiotic excuse you can come up with this time.”

Woah. Hold up. I was a lot of things. Morally corrupt. A ginger. Possibly lacking a soul. But I was not idiotic, and Potter (who spent his free time hanging out with two blokes who once tried to build a Slip n’ Slide down the hallways of Hogwarts) did not have the right to call me that.

“Look, Potter—"

“Don’t want to hear it,” he cut through, tone final. "Just leave, will you?"

Why was he being such a prat? I mean, I knew I had invaded his sacred right to personal privacy and all that, but honestly. Interrupting me? Ruuuude. “Potter—”

“Sorry,” he declared loudly, throwing open his door with a flourish. “The Unofficial Tour of James Potter’s room is now over. Hope you enjoyed your stay and got some good pictures in. Stop by the gift shop and maybe—” his voice suddenly turned nasty. “—you can buy yourself some common fucking decency on the way out.”

I gaped at him for a bit, unable to formulate an adequate comeback to the stinging insult—or even just a coherent sentence, for that matter. Honestly. This was just like him. I found a picture of a girl—girlfriend, most likely—in his room, just days after we... you know, but somehow I was the one who had to end up explaining. Typical.

I felt a spark of frustration flare inside my chest. Watching Potter in all his high-and-mightiness, it was hard not to get annoyed. And alright, maybe I was feeling a teensy smidge of guilt, but it wasn't like I had done anything terrible. There were puppy-killers out there! Grandma-muggers! When you put things into perspective, taking a little peek into someone else’s room wasn’t that terrible of a sin.

There was nothing I could do, though. Nothing I could say that might convince Potter to see things from my point of view —that of harmless curiosity. Obviously, I had to be the villain in this situation. I always had to be the villain.

I should really invest in a fluffy white cat that I could carry around and pet menacingly all the time. It would make the act a whole mot more authentic.

“You know what,” I spat, feeling absolutely, self-righteously indignant for myself. Potter quirked a dark eyebrow into the tousled mess of his hair, betraying surprise at my tone. “Fine. I’ll leave. It’s obvious that no matter what I say, it won’t make a difference.”

“Finally, she catches on,” he drawled, cool gaze following me as I made my way to the door. Just the lazy, all-knowing tone of his voice made me grit my teeth. I sucked in a deep breath, though my lungs were so squeezed tight with anger, I might as well have been gasping at smoke.

“Piss off,” I snarled, shoving my way past him and out the door. See, this is why Potter and I could never be anything more than... well, whatever we were now. I mean, even the thought of us actually being in anything remotely smelling of romantic was laughable. I couldn’t imagine us on a date — one that didn’t end in a trip to some hospital's Intensive Care Unit, at least.

My left foot was out the door when, suddenly, I stopped.

No.

I couldn’t just slink away, bashful and ashamed with my tail between my legs. Not while Potter got to prance around on his stupid pedestal of self-righteousness. Because no matter how wrong it was for me to poke around his room, he was the one who had cheated on his girlfriend (possibly). With me! So that meant I wasn’t the only immoral one, and he was (again, possibly) just as bad as I was. Even worse.

Slowly, I spun around, shaking my head. “No.”

“What?” Potter had one hand on the door, ready to slam it shut behind me.

“No,” I said, clearer this time “No. You can yell at me all you want, Potter,” I continued, voice growing louder and stronger with each word. “I know what I did was wrong. But I deserve an explanation. You don’t get to act like you’re the better person, especially not when you have a picture of your girlfriend—”

“Which you found by playing Nancy Drew in my room,” Potter sliced across, his voice rising to meet mine. I could tell, just by the classic warning signs (my shortness of breath, Potter’s eyes spitting hazel sparks) that we were getting dangerously close to a full on shouting match. Ah, just like old times.

I almost choked. “So you admit it! She is your girlfriend then?”

“I never said that.”

"You basically confessed.”

“Either way, it’s none of your fucking business!”

“Um, yeah it is!” I cried. I had officially gone off the deep end, I could tell. My hands were waving around in the air, willy-nilly, my voice stopping just short of Banshee pitch. I could feel my eyebrow slowly climbing up my forehead in incredulity at his complete thick-headedness. “Hate to break it to you, Potter, but I kind of have the right to know whether or not you have a girlfriend, seeing as at the party we—”

Suddenly, without even meaning to, I stopped short of the next word. For some reason, I couldn’t choke out the letters. I wanted to say it—desperately, in fact—but my voice box was stubbornly refusing to cooperate with my brain. It was like I couldn’t bring myself to utter the word—kissed. Which was ridiculous, really, because it was just a word. Six letters. One syllable. Easy.

But I couldn’t do it.

There was a heavy moment of silence. A bitter smile was pulling at Potter’s lips.

“You can't say it, can you?” Potter seemed to be enjoying himself, savoring my newly mute discomfort. A wry sort of humor had crept into his voice. He knew just what I had been going to say, and that I hadn’t been able to bring myself to say it. The very thought made my knees weaken. “You can't even mention what happened without going into convulsions. Jesus, you're immature."

That, I felt, was a rather unfair assessment.

I mean, okay, I would be the first to admit that I didn't like thinking about our kiss, much less talking about it. But it wasn't like Potter had been eager to bring up the past, either!

“I, um, well—” My windpipes were petrified, my brain slowly chugging to a halt as I scrambled for words. The monkey with the cymbals played on.

“That’s what I thought,” he said, satisfied, his hazel eyes gleaming. He crossed his arms over his chest, leaning against the doorframe as he once-overed me with narrowed eyes. “Now are you done yet?”

Oh no, he wasn’t ducking the topic that easily. What did he think he was trying to pull? I was a Slytherin, Queen of Deflection. I knew every trick in the book. With that bolstering thought, I found my voice again. “You didn’t answer me, Potter. She’s your girlfriend, isn’t she?”

As much as I hated myself for it, my voice wavered at the end, vulnerable and tinged with worry.

There was a silence. My words hung in the air, trembling.

“No,” Potter finally said, definitively. “Not anymore.”

I waited for further elaboration.

“We broke up,” he added. “A while ago. Happy?”

His expression was unreadable, eyes hard and cold. I stared at him, expecting relief to start flooding through me at the knowledge that, thank God, Potter hadn’t cheated on someone me. But there was nothing. I just felt anger — white hot, pounding, stifling anger — and an accompanying twinge of guilt.

“Ecstatic,” I said frostily, “One question, though: if you two broke up, why do you still keep her picture?”

For once, Potter seemed to not have an answer. He met my gaze, mouth a firm, stubborn line, unrelenting. He obviously didn’t want to talk about it.

Then, a horrible thought occurred to me:

“Do you still love her?” The question was out of my mouth before I could even stop myself. And much to my annoyance, my voice didn’t sound as uncaring and casual as I’d have liked it to. I didn't know why, but suddenly my face was flushing. Just the thought of Potter in love with someone else—I hadn’t known he was capable of human feeling in the first place—for some reason, it made me feel...sick.

Potter gave a mirthless laugh. “Wow, Bennett, you really don’t understand the concept of personal privacy, do you? First you barge into my room, then you—”

“Stop deflecting. Just tell me—do you still love her?”

“Why is it any of your business?”

I sighed gutsily, throwing my hands in the air. “I don’t know, Potter! It just is! You want to know why I was snooping around your room in the first place? I was curious. You never talk about yourself. I mean, I’ve known you for five years, for Merlin’s sake, and this whole girlfriend thing is complete news to me! You.... You read me like an open book, but then you get to walk around like Mr. Tall, Dark and Mysterious! Tell me, how is that fair?”

Potter scoffed, eyes brimming with disgust. “I don’t bloody care about being fair, okay, Bennett? This is my life, my business. Stay out of it."

“So you’re not going to tell me anything about her, then? Not even her name?” I hated the desperation clinging to my voice. I sounded like the psycho-jealous girlfriend who kept a serial-killer wall with photos of all her boyfriend's exes. I had turned into a sodding cliché.

“No,” he bit out, jaw clenching and unclenching, his gilded gaze averted. “I’m not.”

Five years, and not even a name. Wow. “Why not?”

“Because we’re not friends!” Potter's gaze, suddenly fired with anger, snapped back to meet mine. I was almost thrown by its force. “Alright, Bennett? I don’t know which parallel universe is the one where we walk around like best friends, shopping and gossiping and splitting iced mocha lattes, or whatever, but guess what? We're not living in it. This is reality, and we are not friends. I'm not Dom. I don't know if hanging out with Fred and Aidan made you think otherwise, but you don't get to look through my shit, or hear every detail of my personal life. Understand?"

Pounding silence followed his words. Potter’s eyes were molten gold, his jaw clenching tightly in anger. He had just given me the talking-to of my life, and yet I couldn't find it in myself to acknowledge the significance of his words. For some reason, even in the face of all his hostility and agitation, all I could think to say was:

"Is that really your idea of what friendship is? Shopping and mocha lattes?"

"Get out, Bennett."

"Who even splits a mocha latte? I believe you're thinking of a milkshake, Potter — "

"Out."

"I'm just saying — know your dessert beverages, alright?"

“Hey guys, what’s going on?!”

Both Potter and I stiffened like scared cats as, seemingly out of nowhere, Aidan came up behind us, slinging a carefree arm around my shoulder. He was smiling, dark sapphire eyes brightly oblivious to the tension hanging between us. “Ginny—Uh, I mean, Mrs. Potter wants to know if you guys are coming down for dinner. The lasagna’s getting cold.”

Silence. Potter and I stared at each other, our faces flushed, breathing heavy.

“Um...” Aidan’s eyebrows furrowed in confusion. He looked a bit scared. “Is there something going on?”

“No,” I said flatly, crossing my arms, refusing to tear my gaze away from Potter. “There’s nothing going on.”

He sighed. “You guys got into another fight, didn’t you?”

A muscle in Potter’s jaw jumped. My chest tightened. “No, no...” I said, but the lie was evident in my voice. Jesus. We were like the two divorced parents who tried to cover up their fighting in front of their kid. “We were just talking. About, er..." My roving eyes landed on Potter's bedroom window curtains. "Upholstery.”

“Upholstery,” Aidan repeated flatly, deadpan.

“Upholstery." And because I knew nothing at all about upholstery, I couldn't elaborate. A long pause ensued.

Finally, Potter relented, rolling his amber eyes to the ceiling. “We got into another fight.”

Aidan nodded, unsurprised. “Ah. Well, do you guys think we could maybe bury the hatchet? I'm hungry, and that lasagna smells really good. How about we just let bygones be bygones?"

Tense silence. Potter and I both turned to shoot Aidan identical scathing looks.

“Or not,” he added mildly.

I sighed, shaking my head. I was just so sick of this. All the mind-games, all the fighting, all the agonizing over what he said or how he said it. It was so stupid.

How was I supposed to reconcile this Potter — the angry, furious Potter — with the one who had picked me up off a bathroom floor once and carried me to bed? He was so hot and cold, and I had had enough of it.

Not caring that my brother was simply an innocent bystander in this whole ordeal, I roughly shoved past him and out of Potter’s room. Enough was enough. I could feel Potter (bitterly) and Aidan (curiously) staring after me, but I didn’t bother to look back as I marched down the hallway and into my room, not uttering a word.

“So I’m taking that as a no then...?” I could hear Aidan trail off in the hallway.

I could tell that my brother was probably shooting Potter a quizzical look, and I knew without seeing, that Potter was shaking his head in response, expression defiantly smooth.

“Forget it, mate,” I heard him say.

And then there was the sound of Potter’s door slamming. And Aidan sighing. And silence, once more.

I leaned against the wall of my room and waited, heart thumping dangerously hard, until I finally heard my brother’s footsteps down the stairs—the signal that I was alone, finally, inside this empty room, in this empty house, my ears ringing with empty silence and Potter’s haunting words.

Bollocks.

—*—

“Knock knock.”

I woke suddenly, snorting attractively as I jolted from my sprawled position on the bed. Like a freight train, the past twenty-four hours came barreling into me.

The Potter Manor. The not-girlfriend. My fight with You-Know-Prat and how I had promptly collapsed into bed afterwards, exhausted.

Oh yeah.

I rolled around, stifling a groan as several of my joints popped, and peered through the red haze of my bedhead to glance at the clock. 11:38 PM. Huh. Was it really that early? It felt like I had been asleep for days.

“Alright if I come in? I brought some lasagna. It’s kind of cold but, well... Still good.”

I jolted again, looking up to see Aidan poking his head inside the doorway, his hopeful eyes contrasting with the nervous smile pulling his mouth taut. He had been responsible for waking me up and, from years of experience, understood that this was not a pleasant position to be in.

I sighed, knowing that I was facing two choices. I could either act like a nice sister and welcome him in, or be the Dragonlady I truly was and banish him from my lair forever. I debated between the two, but eventually, my conscience (and stomach) won out. Nice sister, then.

“Yeah,” I said tiredly, nuzzling my forehead into my pillow. “Come on in.”

Aidan grinned that boyish grin of his and swiftly crossed over, setting the lasagna on the bedside table and flopping down next to me on the cushy mattress. I stared at him, face half-buried in blankets, gaze tinged with annoyance.

“So,” he said, still grinning.

“So,” I mumbled back, suspicious. I knew my brother. He hadn’t come all the way to ply me with lasagna for nothing. There was a motive behind that plate of tomato-y and cheesy deliciousness, and I had a sinking feeling I was going to find out what it was soon enough.

“Well?” Aidan waggled both his eyebrows, as if signaling for me to speak.

I scowled. “Well what?”

Aidan heaved a sigh, as if I were purposely being thickheaded just to annoy him. “Don’t you want to talk about it?”

I knew, immediately, that he was referring to Potter and I’s little spat. I sighed. If I really wanted to participate in a pointless, unimportant conversation, I would ask Freddy about his action figure collection, not have a Sharing Circle with my brother. I didn’t need this.

“Look, Aidan,” I began, throwing the covers off my body and reaching over his torso to grab the lasagna. As soon as I got my hands on the plate, I dug in, stuffing my mouth attractively as if I hadn’t seen food for days. “I appreciate the effort, but I’m really not in the mood right now.”

Except, since my mouth was stuffed with cheese, it came out more like, “I appweetheate th’ efthwat, buth I’m fweally nawth in da mooth ri’ now.”

My brother, being a fifteen-year-old male who ate like a barbarian and hung out with other fifteen-year-old males who also ate like barbarians, understood me perfectly. “Aggy, it’s not healthy for you to bottle up these feelings. Especially if said feelings happen to be of the homicidal nature. You really have to let them out.” He paused, gently taking my fork—which was halfway on its journey to my mouth—and setting it down. “Just this once.”

I gave him a withering looks. "Since when have you been so in touch with your emotions? I think those romance novels you read are really getting to you, Aidan."

Aidan smiled ruefully at my transparent attempt to change the subject. “I really don’t get why you hate Potter so much. He’s a good guy.”

Debatable. “He’s a prat, Aidan! Did you know he had a girlfriend back home? A muggle girlfriend? And he didn’t tell us?”

Okay, so a lot of this was speculation. I didn’t know if The Mysterious Girlfriend was actually a muggle or if she lived in the neighborhood. But still. Since Potter was withdrawing all this information, I believed I was allowed some creative license on my part.

I looked up to gauge Aidan’s reaction, expecting him to jump up/gasp dramatically/fall off the bed in shock, but I didn’t get any of that. Instead, I was met with an unsurprised expression, tinged with guilt.

My mouth dropped open. Indignation charged through me, and the lasagna fork clattered as I slammed it down on the plate. “You knew!”

“Well, of course I knew,” Aidan mumbled sheepishly. “I’m his best mate.”

“You’re also my brother! And you didn’t even tell me?”

“Why would I? I didn’t think you would be interested in his love-life!”

Lucky for me, Aidan was too busy being ashamed to notice me blushing fire-engine red. Shit. Play it cool, Aggy. There’s no way he could possibly know about what happened between you and Potter. Just stay calm.

“Besides,” Aidan continued, fortunately still oblivious. “It doesn’t matter now. They’re not together anymore.”

"Yeah, I know that now,"I grumbled, before suddenly frowning to myself as I mulled over his words. Something else had occurred to me. “Did Dom and Freddy know about this?”

Aidan looked down, fiddling with a thread on the comforter. “Maybe...”

Wow. Okay. I shouldn’t have been surprised, really, but despite myself, a part of me felt hurt. I mean, I knew that Potter and I weren’t exactly the best of chums, but was it really necessary for the whole group to keep a secret from me for his sake? I felt so...Dumb. This had all been going on under my nose, and I hadn’t even noticed it.

I sighed, shaking my head clear. “When did they break up?”

“Break up?” Aidan blinked, expression wiped clean with confusion. “Who? Potter and his girlfriend?”

“No, Freddy and Dom,” I snapped sarcastically. “Of course Potter and his girlfriend!”

“Oh—Oh,” My brother roughly shook his head, realization falling upon him like a loony-tunes-style anvil. “They... um, broke up last year. Towards the end of the summer holidays.”

“What’s this girl’s name?” I prodded.

“Um. Nora. Her name’s Nora,” Aidan bobbed his head, obviously feeling ill at ease. I ignored his comfort, sinking into my own swirling thoughts.

Nora. It was a pretty name. Simple. A name you could crawl inside, a name that would swallow you up whole in a four-lettered embrace. Nora.

“Have you met her?” For some reason, I found myself growing curious. I wanted to know more about this girl, the one who had managed to break past all of Potter’s barriers, dig beneath the apathy and snark. What was it that made him like her?

She probably had big boobs.

“Yeah,” Aidan said, snapping me out of my internal-grumbling, “I have.”

“Is she nice?” At least a c-cup. At least.

“Yeah. She’s lovely, really. One of the nicest, most genuine people I’ve met.”
I frowned to myself, digesting this information. Nora sounded like the kind of a girl who probably volunteered at the local homeless shelter during the weekend. The kind of girl that liked to read to blind, three-legged puppies. The kind of girl who didn’t have a sarcastic bone in her body. Not the kind of girl who goes snooping through her arch-nemesis’s room.

Ugh. And now... I officially hate myself.

“Look, Aggy, I know you’re upset. Don’t try and deny it—” Aidan began, raising his eyebrows as I opened my mouth to protest. “But...Well, it’s not like Potter didn’t want to tell you. He's just a private bloke."

And McGonagall’s the new Crocodile Hunter. Right.

“You know what, Aidan?” I half-grimaced, half-smiled, dropping the newly bare plat