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etc. etc. (and life goes on) by justonemorefic

Format: Novel
Chapters: 25
Word Count: 102,085
Status: COMPLETED

Rating: Mature
Warnings: Strong violence, Scenes of a sexual nature, Substance abuse, Sensitive topic/issue/theme

Genres: Drama, Humor, Romance
Characters: Skeeter, Albus, Rose, Scorpius, OC, OtherCanon
Pairings: Other Pairing, Rose/Scorpius, OC/OC

First Published: 02/22/2011
Last Chapter: 05/09/2016
Last Updated: 08/06/2016

Summary:



Extra! Extra!
Clemence Fitzgerald here, reporting for Witchy Business.
You're in for a treat, dear reader: Hogwarts bachelor ALBUS POTTER
has acquired a girlfriend—identity unknown.

Let the witch hunt begin.

an Albus/OC romance-satire beleaguered by
celebrity worship, shipping wars, and too many teen queens
—Dobby Winner: Best OC, Dialogue, Description—


Chapter 1: Manic Panic Mondays
  [Printer Friendly Version of This Chapter]

- A PREFACE -


I consider etc. etc. sister to a few other Albus/OCs, which we all wrote to subvert teen romance trends we were frustrated with at the time. You'll know them as Bathing in Roses by Celestie, Welcome to Blunderland by peppersweet, and The Confectionary by GubraithianFire (since abandoned, but Devilish Delights, Wicked Ends more than makes up for it).

We were each frustrated with different tropes. etc. etc. is my answer to all the romanticized bad boy/ice queen characters that aren't as morally ambiguous as advertised, set in a Hogwarts beleaguered by celebrity worship. It's for all the cynical girls who never wanted saving and maybe even feared it. It's, like how Monika Bartyzel described Heathers, "not a romance; it's a war [story]." There are no clear heroes or villains; just sides.

Love to Annie for giving me the idea in the first place; Gubby, for diving in the insanity with me; and finally, Jordan, because she likes being mentioned.





♥ ci by julia/ahoythere

- 1 -



Upon my entrance to the charms classroom, the girls in the corner go silent out of reverence. Or fear. What's the difference between the two, anyway?

Professor Flitwick taps on the board. The tallest of the girls shoves a newspaper under her desk, and I catch sight of the bold title before it disappears from view: Witchy Business. She shoots me a dirty look. Journalism is a thankless trade.

The name is Clemence Fitzgerald. In the newspaper business, there's a lot in a name. Not rubbish like "Selena means moon" in Latin or Greek or Parseltongue—Clemence means "merciful" and any halfwit can tell you I am anything but. I mean the name in the byline, that one very important bit in ten-point serif font, small caps, and fresh virgin ink saying who wrote the article.

Look closer. What it really says is, "It's me you should thank for digging up what you don't have to."

It runs in my blood. I learned from Great-Aunt Rita, best known for her stint at The Daily Prophet and her scarcely-sourced biographies. Rubbish writing, brilliant businesswoman. She babysat me. Was terrifically enthusiastic about it—"Children are walking paper shredders," to quote her. But in my young age, I showed a spark of talent for her trade, and it was uphill from there. Seven years later, here I am: Machiavellian editor for Hogwarts' hottest news source.

It may sound brutish, but if there were no demand, Witchy Business wouldn't still exist, and my critics indulge in my paper like everyone else.

Cower in the corner. Call me heartless. Call me shameless. My only crime is giving people what they want.


::



"Where's Janey? It's deadline! I need Protean Charms!"

"Sorrysorrysorry, I'm on it!" The bespectacled fifth year rushes past me, parchment in one hand, tea in the other. At her walking speed and caffeine-jitters, there's more tea on the floor than in her cup by the time she reaches the presses at the back of the newsroom.

She points her wand at the stack of papers awaiting distribution and mutters a string of Latin. The main headline blurs into view: DADA Professor: Man, Woman, Troll? Her thumb flips up, and I return my attention to the master copy, red Easy-Edit Quill poised to strike.

As I fix Pickett's ever-awful word choice, Dom swings by with the feature photo and slaps it into place. "Perfect gutters all 'round." She pumps a fist into the air and pouts when I don't react. "Hmph, no one ever appreciates good layout."

She goes on a series of faux dramatics about 'white space' and 'font choice' on her way to help Janey count copies. Onto paragraph four.

"A third year who wishes to remain anonymous reports that she saw Professor Nogget on a morning swim and the amount of hair on his back was 'inhuman'—Pickett! Who's the third year?"

"Um, ah—Bree Delaney."

"She gave us that love triangle last month. Keep her on tab."

"Why do I have to—ah, fine." His voice is much closer than before; a glance to my left reveals his clenched jaw breathing over my shoulder. I can feel his rant about destroying the flow of my article at the ready, and I preemptively slap his mouth shut.

"This article's a complete abuse of commas. I've got semicolons weeping for their brethren," I say. "And how many times do I have to tell you, 'ironic' doesn't mean what you think it means."

"Frmmf." He spits on my hand. Ew. "Fine," he repeats, face aghast when I wipe my hand on his jumper.

Pickett snatches the quill from me, adds in an em-dash to his third sentence, and runs away. I wrinkle my nose.

Nixing one last comma, I tuck my quill behind my ear and check the timepiece at the top of the table. Five minutes until six, an hour past deadline. The other three are already walking out with stacks of parchment.

"Oi, at least wait for the OK until you start distributing," I slide off my stool, picking up my own bundle.

Dom tosses her hair. Every time she turns around, it's like a shampoo commercial in the making. "We're a gossip newsletter. No one cares about punctuation."

"Just because we report rubbish doesn't mean we need to write like it."

"Quality over quantity, got it. Let's go. People are waking up soon, and we have four floors' worth of lavatories to hit. Choppity chop."

I grumble and follow the others out, muttering 'Nox' as I shut the door behind me.


::



Monday mornings are a fascinating study. If you pay close attention, you can see the gossip bleed through the school, threading through crowds until it stains everyone. It's beautiful, in a morbid way.

It starts with the tiny staff of Witchy Business—me, Dom Weasley, Henry Pickett, and new recruit Janey Summerby. Our motto: 'We know everything. If we don't know it, it's not important.' From crack theories to torrid love affairs, nothing goes unwritten.

We collect stories during the week, listening and sleuthing, but mostly, we're tipped off. People love to dish, and for those unwilling, a double-chocolate cauldron cake thrust under their nose does wonders. You don't really want to know if your friendships are stronger than your stomach.

After that, the real fun begins.

Let's follow one thread. Piper and Minka, your typical vapid Gryffs, walk in the loo before breakfast. Primp in the mirror, chit-chat idly. They stop by the doorway—what's this? The latest issue of Witchy Business? They pick it up, scan the headlines. Piper reads about a prank gone wrong. Minka points at the article about the Great Hall catfight two days ago. They titter to themselves as they walk down the hallway and hand it off to another friend, Felicity, who's heading to class.

While Binns drones in the background, Felicity dives into the relationship column, our most frequented section by far. There's a blurb on that cute Ravenclaw boy: he just broke up with his girlfriend of two years. Felicity folds it up and passes it to Nora behind her, who's been clamoring for a look.

Nora keeps it all the way until lunch, where she shares it with her friends at the table. Some have already heard the news—we shan't forget about Piper, Minka, or Felicity; they've been talking. A few whispers go a long way.

That is how, by noon, everybody knows.

The paper only lasts until evening anyway. We wipe and destroy the master copy twelve hours after distribution as a precaution. If we ever get the facts wrong, no one has an archive to trace back to, nor can they edit the master copy maliciously. And once the facts go airborne, well, I can't be blamed for other people's embellishments.

I don't make gossip; I just deliver it. Personally, the whole concept bores me, but journalistic integrity and notoriety are inversely proportional.

I think you can imagine which one I like better.


::



Late evening, my pocket flares with a warmth. I pull out the two-way compact Dom and I share, dodge into an empty corridor by the kitchen, and flip it open.

Her grin crowds the tiny mirror. "You won't believe what Rose just told me."

Unexpected. Rose, in brief, hates me. Most of her family hates me, but that's what I get for stalking them. Knowing Dom, she probably got her cousin in some slip of the tongue.

"It's Al."

My eyes light up. The very last single male of the Potter-Weasleys. Strange one, always keeps to himself, avoiding the flocks of quirky birds hanging off his arms. For all the stories we’ve had on James, Fred, Hugo, and Louis, there’s only been one on Albus, on whether he's secretly snogging that Malfoy boy or not.

"He's got a girlfriend."

Guess not.



A/N It's all downhill from here!

Coming up:
But no matter, my focus is strictly trained ahead—he's sitting like a statue at the edge of the room, contemplating his next move in a chess game against his cousin Hugo. Dark-haired, pale and skinny like his father. Same distaste for reporters.

As I take my first step toward them, he shudders and looks up. That shudder turns into a full-fledged recoil when he spots me. Apparently, he's also inherited the ability to sense approaching evil.


Chapter 2: Chess for Three
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♥ ci by julia/ahoythere

. 2 .



People fit in one of three categories.

First: the attention whores—strutting Quidditch blokes, rich bints, and their groupies. The bulk of Witchy Business's stories start here. That's what happens when life is drinks and shags.

If you're extremely fit, you can find some lovesick puppy desperate enough to do your work. Maybe, they hope, you'll see their inner beauty and fly into the sunset with them while a crowd applauds below. If you're rich, there's bribery—crude but efficient. If you're both, well aren't you a lucky thing?

Going to school to learn? That's for ugly, poor people.

The populars are also the quickest to anger. Caroline Escot has been out to kill me for the seventeenth time after last week's issue. "Can you believe what that bitch Clemence wrote?" she seethed during breakfast, loud enough for the entire hall to hear. "It was supposed to be a private moment! I'll burn that paper of hers!"

Because dumping a bowl of cereal on that troll who stole your boyfriend is supposed to be a private moment.

But if Caroline really wanted to kill me, she would have done it ages ago and she wouldn't have snuck me a note about her so-called best friend snogging two blokes at the same party. Funny how quickly she turns to me when it's in her favor.

Up next: the plain Janes. Not the sort of people that you'd think would make good stories, but on the contrary, they make the best ones. Quiet, studious, or just average, they've never stirred up trouble in their lives—until their first drop of alcohol and then wham, they're up on the table, stripped down to their knickers, screeching out 'Baby you're a Firebolt.'

Everyone loves a bookworm let loose. Sexy librarian fetishes exist for a reason (my condolences if that conjured up an image of Madam Pince).

Finally and most importantly: the enigmas. The ones you can't quite figure out because, well, they're enigmas.

They're a bit too quiet and a bit too worldly to be plain Janes; you never feel like you're getting the whole story. Most of them aren't hiding anything—no dark secret or sensitive soul—but they only need the reputation to make them attractive. Boys love a challenge and girls adore a brooding soul. Mysteries are hard to come by in the modern age and it's not often we get to be the one to play detective.

Albus Potter may as well be their poster boy.


::



Post-dinner, I'm off to snoop for Operation Albusgate. Dom's grown to hate dealing with her cousins, Pickett never fiddles with relationship stories if he can help it, and Janey just isn't aggressive enough.

I arrive at the Fat Lady's portrait, prepped with a line by the time I greet her. "Well, well, hello there. What a hairstyle."

She giggles, "Oh, you noticed. Lenora from the second floor did it for me. Can't keep her hands off the braiding for long."

"It's gorgeous." I lift a brown strand of my own. "She'll have to do mine one day."

Portraits see everything and being stuck on a canvas creates an itch for chatter; Merlin help those who spurn them. They're not so bad—lots of wacky stories if you're patient—but they do like to prattle, which is what the Fat Lady's about to do if I don't interrupt.

"You'll have to excuse me. I've got business to attend to." With a quick glance at my hand where Janey scribbled this week's password, I add, "Gregarious Grindylows?"

A touch of disappointment creases her brow, but her duty supersedes. "Oh oh, of course." She swings open. "Maybe tomorrow. I have all day. All eternity!" She giggles again. "And oh!" she hisses loudly. "Barnabas the Barmy's looking up my skirt again from the frames below!"

I give a scandalized gasp as I enter the common room. As dawdling as the Fat Lady is, I'll likely take her offer up. She gets iffy about non-Gryffindors knowing the passwords—a bit of the traditionalism of her times. One day, she'll have to accept that a word can't keep anyone out anymore. It only strands the saps with short-term memory.

Around the room, a smatter of students fill the desks, snoggers are fused on sofas, and Caroline Escot brushes past me on her way out, sending me a withering glare, but my focus is strictly trained ahead.

Sitting like a statue at the edge of the room, contemplating his next chess move against his cousin Hugo, is Albus Potter. Dark-haired, pale and skinny like his father. Same distaste for reporters.

As I take my first step toward them, he shudders, looks up, and that shudder turns into a full-fledged recoil. Apparently, he's also inherited the ability to sense approaching evil.

"Oh Merlin, it's her."

I steal a chair and drag it up to them, spinning it around so the back is against the table. Hugo greets me with a bemused nod. Albus is silent, his blinking glance trailing from me back to the game.

I'm not a hippogriff, sugar. Ignoring me won't make me go away.

But I let him play his next move before I speak.

"Potter."

Albus takes a deep breath, exhaling discontent. "Fitzgerald." The corner of my mouth tilts up as his green gaze snaps to mine.

"You know what I'm here for."

His reply is swift. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Heard about your new bird. Rose can't keep her mouth shut."

Hugo laughs, not quite catching the severity of his cousin's irritation. "That's for sure. Can't shut her gob to mum about everything I do wrong. Late to class. Can't make my bed right." He smiles, faltering when he sees Albus isn't returning the same joviality. He clears his throat. "Right, er, rook to D5." The piece scrapes across the board.

Albus adjusts his posture to sit a few inches taller. "Don't blame this on Rose," he mutters, glancing between me and the chessboard. "Dom guilted her with the cousin card."

It's Dom's specialty. Adores pushing Rose's buttons, thinks Little Miss Prefect is too uptight to be a Weasley. Dom would go to Rose with puppy eyes and lament, 'What happened to us? We used to talk all the time. You'd tell me everything. I just want to know how my cousins are doing.'

I shrug, curling my hand under my chin. "Whatever works."

"Why should I tell you anything?"

"Because it's better to get your story out how you want it to, instead of me digging it up in the worst way possible." I lean in, one finger on the table in between us. "I'm going to write this whether you want me to or not, Potter. I'm just giving you the chance to do it on your own terms."

Albus hesitates, giving me a lengthy consideration. Meanwhile, the pieces on the board are clamoring for attention and he mutters a quick, "Pawn to G4," just to shut them up, wincing as he does so. He returns his attention to me while Hugo rubs his hands in delight.

I know what Albus is thinking: last year's biggest headline. At their family Christmas dinner, Dom was under the impression that he and Scorpius Malfoy were a little more than best mates. Sharing rooms, secret conversations, suspicious pillow fight activity. I told her that she was imagining things, but she had a clincher: one evening, Scorpius commented on the sitting room wallpaper and said the pattern complemented the furniture.

"Wallpaper, Clemence," she said. "What straight teenage boy notices wallpaper?"

While I try to steer clear of justification-by-stereotype, the prior evidence was already pretty damning. We ambushed Albus, demanding details, but he wouldn't give. In the end, we embellished what facts we had and broke the story anyway. For months, they couldn't be seen together without girls trying to get them to kiss, until the story finally petered out with Scorpius and Rose getting together.

I pull a notepad from my pocket. "Well?"

Albus presses his lips together. "You've got nothing. Just because other people are afraid of you doesn't mean I am too."

"Don't flatter yourself. I've got plenty of people who refuse to speak, and I let them go." I point my quill at him. "But you're a special case, Potter boy."

"Excuse me for having a famous family."

"Then excuse me for doing my job."

The tempo picks up and we're like duelists circling each other, wands out, ready to strike. "Job," Albus scoffs, and pushes his seat back, angling himself toward me, determination set in his jaw. "Can't believe you can get a job ruining lives."

"Leave the exaggeration to me, sugar."

His head cocks to the side. "Have you done a lick of good for this school?"

"I report the truth." It's a shit answer, I admit, but a good standby. "People have a right to know."

"Truth?" He laughs, bitter like the blackest tea. "Like me and Scorpius have the hots for each other?"

My fingers smooth through the plume of the quill. There's real anger surfacing in him; the line between play and seriousness is thin. "The article said it was an unconfirmed rumor."

"Like hell that matters. People take it for truth anyway."

"Ah well, not my job to fix humanity." My defeatism could rival the Russians. "But look on the bright side! You've got a girlfriend. See: clearly not gay. Bisexual maybe? Why don't we put the truth on record?"

The rapid-fire repartee is running circles around Hugo, staring at us dazedly and seems to have forgotten that it's still his turn. "Maybe you should just tell her—"

Albus shushes him, flapping a hand like a mother trying to shoo a curious child away from danger. Hugo continues anyway, "At this rate I don't even think you actually have a girlfriend—"

This time, instead of a shush, Albus lunges across the table, throwing a hand over Hugo's mouth, verifying the truth before my eyes. Cousins make the worst secret keepers.

"Very interesting. Albus Potter and the imaginary girlfriend."

"She's not imaginary," he grits. He let Hugo go with a shove.

The smaller Weasley rubs his shoulder, grumbling, "Well you won't tell any of us her name."

"That's because I want to keep it private from people like her." Albus points in my face while I'm sitting here wondering who exactly people like me are. Are there others in this school this blissfully cutthroat?

Hugo puts his hands up. Nice kid, slow but sweet, got that 'aw shucks' shtick working for him. Pretty much the only thing working for him.

"I told you," Albus whispers, although I'm about six inches away so I can hear every word. Maybe he thinks it's the thought that counts. "I'll probably bring her over for Easter."

"I hope so. Everyone wants to know, mate." Hugo leans back on the chair and he's flirting with gravity as he balances on the back two legs. "Say, Clemence, maybe you should snoop after all and tell us."

Albus promptly smacks him over the head, and Hugo nearly topples over. Albus shoots me a glare. "I think we're done here."

"I decide that." I flip to a new page in my notepad.

"Fine. Hugo, let's go." Albus picks up the robe draped across the back of the chair and grabs his cousin's wrist.

"But the game…" Hugo protests.

"You win."

"Well, as long as you're admitting defeat." Under his mop of red hair, Hugo grins and hops off toward the stairs, saluting me. "You should distract him more often."

I twist around in my chair and throw him a thumbs up before Albus blocks my line of sight. He crosses his arms tightly against himself. "Put your efforts elsewhere, all right? Do you know the kind of permanent damage that paper of yours does?"

"How terribly bleeding-heart of you," I yawn, stretching my arms.

"I think it just means I have a heart. Meddling with people's lives—"

"It's a little late for trying to make me feel guilty." I stand, shrinking the gap in our heights. "If I weren't here, there'd be someone else filling my spot. Besides, everyone will forget when the next big thing hits. Rinse and repeat, et cetera, et cetera. Life goes on."

"Then why write about anything at all if it won't matter in ten years?" He leans in, arching a brow. "Or is what you say like what you write? A big load of shit?"

"You want to tussle, Potter?"

"I'm not stooping to your level."

"If you do, we could use an extra writer."

His voice rises, drawing the attention of nearby students. "I don't have the patience for this."

"Just say you don't have a comeback."

"I—" But he stops himself, which might be the smartest thing he's done so far. "Good night, Fitzgerald."

I tuck my quill and notepad in my pocket and sashay past him. "Good night, Potter."


::



Barry the Breaking News Barn Owl flies out our juicy mid-week news. We pump out a rush issue and he brings a copy to every Seventh Year girls' dorm and it gets passed down the years from there. It's a bit like trickle-down economics, except that it actually works.

He also flies out little notices, like last-minute parties or in this case, Girlfriend Watch.

It's why I'm furiously scribbling while standing knee-deep in droppings in the owlery. It's not pretty, but such journalism rarely is.

Albus Potter has a girlfriend, girls. While we have yet to confirm an identity, she walks amongst us. Look around you. Maybe someone in your House visited the Gryffindors a tad more than usual lately. Maybe even someone in your own dorm. Those with details know who to contact and shall remain anonymous upon request.

—C. Fitzgerald





'Baby, You're a Firebolt' adapted from Katy Perry's Firework

A/N Sorry for the long wait. Gubby was about to kill me to update, so she's been hurrying me along for awhile (ilu ♥ I write at the pace of a decapitated snail and everyone seeing this sentence should flounce over to your authors page and read her Al/OC right now).

Coming up:
"So you want to tussle."

He shoots a stun that whizzes past my ear. Far from ready, I dodge it only by chance.

"You could say that," he says, smirk reigning.


Chapter 3: May I Have This Duel?
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pickett! from julia~

. 3 .


I was once careful about my reputation, as recent as my fourth year when Witchy Business was still The Hogwarts Weekly. It was what professors called a 'respectable publication' and as bland as watered-down porridge. When the old guard left, I took my chance and not only kept the publication alive, but gave it a shot of firewhiskey and turned it into a sensation.

At the time, I was worried that people wouldn't give information to a gossip paper. Certainly would be the sensible train of thought.

People, I would soon discover, are not sensible.

Notes leaked through the door jamb overnight, people accosted me in dark corridors like they were playing spies, and I was the ears for every whisper in school. It bothered me how eager people were. It bothered me so much that one day, I interrupted Demmie Etherson's blabbing about a Beauxbatons exchange student sleeping around to ask, "Don't you have a problem with telling me this?"

She stared at me. "Well, I need to tell someone," she said, and kept on blabbing.

I boiled it down to the adage that everyone has a story to tell but not necessarily their own.

Two months later, there was Felicity, sitting on the steps of the east tower stairwell, in the midst of a cry over her now-ex-boyfriend Geoffrey.

"Can't believe that bastard..." Felicity took a tissue and honked her nose like an elephant stuck in traffic. "I didn't even tell all of this to my bestie yet! I know she'd just tell me 'I-told-you-so.' Been telling me to break up with him for ages."

The poor thing was gratingly gullible. The whole school knew what was happening before she did. Geoffrey had been all over the other girl in plain sight and reassured Felicity that they were simply practicing for a skit on The Tale of the Three Brothers, which to my knowledge didn't involve an extended snogging scene between the second brother and the slag he wished for. Maybe he was improvising.

"What matters is that you broke up with him," I said, rubbing her shoulder.

It wasn't good enough for Felicity, who buried herself deeper into her arm. "It took me too long."

"It's not too long if you did it eventually."

She smiled for a moment, mumbling, "Thanks for not thinking less of me."

For this, I felt bad because I was putting in quite the effort to play nice; there is a difference, albeit slight, between deceptive and manipulative, and I stick to the latter. My intentions are always clear, even if people can't spend half a mind to think about them.

But I really didn't think less of her. So what if Felicity is a little dumb? My life goal is to profit off of other people's misery. To each their own.

When I next glanced over, she was looking straight at me. "I know a lot of people don't like you, but you're pretty nice sometimes. You don't put people down. Even in your articles. They're very professional like the real thing you'd see in the Prophet. It's nice having it told the right way."

I shrugged off Felicity's compliment. "Don't be fooled. I have my reasons."

She sank back into her knees. Maybe she knew that I was only listening to her for her story. Maybe she was thinking about Geoffrey again. I've always hoped (and hope is such a rare word in a cynic's vocabulary) that more might see past the rose-filtered world and join my ranks.

At least we're honest.


::



Girlfriend Watch brings the vultures out.

Just walking out to the common room, girls are shoving notes into my hand by the bucketfuls. By the time I reach the Great Hall, I look like I've been assaulted by a paper shredder.

Pickett's sitting in our usual spot on the Slytherin table, flicking a spoon around an empty cereal bowl. He takes one glance at me and doesn't mince words. "I don't think that's a good look for you."

I dump my loot onto the table, shaking out my hair. Pickett picks up the note Nora gave me. I can tell because she only uses Madame Puddifoot's lacy stationery, which is about as impractical as sounds.

"'Saw him studying with a brown-haired girl with a bow two days ago. Looked like Hen,'" he reads. Snorting, he crumples it up. "Why do people remember these things?"

Irrationality. Jealousy. "Ammunition."

As I sweep the rest of the notes into my Extendable Pouch, he leans over and picks through the rest of the pile. "You're going to read all this?"

"It's not so bad after filtering them. Half of these probably say, 'Go to hell, bitch.'"

"Ah, your adoring fans."

With the last of the mess tucked away, I steal a piece of dry toast and beckon him to follow. Pickett swings his legs over the bench. He doesn't want to move but he doesn't have much else to do; class doesn't start for another hour for him. I, on the other hand, have D.A.D.A. with Monsieur Breech.

We navigate through the hallway crowd. "Where's Dom?" I ask, tearing off a bite. "Still with Malfoy?"

Pickett sweeps the crumbs from his sleeve and slings an arm around my shoulder. "Still with Malfoy."

Dom's been covering the on-going saga of Rose and Scorpius since day one. She weaseled her way in as the occasional confidante and mediator, though whether or not she's actually helping them is up for debate.

"I've been thinking," says Pickett in his slow drawl. "Dom and Malfoy? It's so obviously more than professional. You saw how happy she was when she told us that Hogwarts' Romeo and Juliet were on the rocks."

"Really, now?"

Pickett's what one would call a conspiracy theorist, which is why he sticks to Quidditch reporting. Usually when he feels like there's sabotage afoot, it's actually there, with four more coups in their shadow.

"I saw her flirting with him earlier."

"Dom flirts with everyone. It's how she talks."

"Dom's also reckless and will do anything to piss off Rose."

"She's not idiotic enough to go after a taken man. She knows I'd throttle her."

A surge of students comes up from behind us, so bloody eager for class. Pickett shrugs. "Just watch them when you can. The last thing we need is a story on one of our own."

When we turn the corner, it's pure coincidence that we spot Dom and Scorpius on the far end, standing in the center of the hallway.

Dom is giggling. Scorpius has that twinkle. He's holding her books. She's touching his arm. Meanwhile, Pickett's waggling eyebrows are speaking for him. What a funny coincidence indeed. Merlin must be a riot.

It's impossible not to stare; two of Hogwarts' most stunning blondes side by side, radiating a near-godly beauty. I'd want to see them together just to witness the gorgeous babies they'd grace the world with. Pickett wolf whistles, grinning at me as he runs a hand through his hair. Thinks he's so cool whenever he gets something right.

"Must you jump to conclusions?" I mutter.

"Not a jump, love. Just a bunny hop."

It's a bit worrying, true, but Pickett needs encouragement as much as a fish needs fire. "Don't assume. You don't even know what they're talking about."

"Ninety-nine percent of communication is non-verbal."

"Interpret my non-verbal eye rolling."

"Look at them! Meaningful stares, a touch on the arm... Thank the media; forty-five percent of male-female interaction is subconsciously sexual."

"That's us, too."

Silence.

"Thirty-three percent of statistics end awkwardly," he coughs.

Dom waves at us, and we spruce up an innocent smile. As we walk toward them, I lose no time in dissuading Pickett, even through my forced lips. "Not all things are sexual tension."

His arm tightens around me. "If you look hard enough, everything is sexual tension."

Dom's too close, and our argument ends there lest we risk being heard. Pickett clutches his free hand to his heart.

Dom raises a finger. "Don't."

"Her majesty, Dom Weasley!" He makes a sweeping bow, dragging me down with it until I shove him off.

"God." Dom rolls her eyes.

Scorpius lifts his hand barely past his waist in a short wave. "Hey, Henry. Clemence."

There is fidgeting all around; boys are so obvious. Though I'm not sure why Scorpius has any reason to be nervous—ugh, bloody Pickett. He had to point the two out. Now I'll be noticing the stupidest things.

Consider overthinking an enemy to all. It's led countless numbers to delude themselves into nitpicking everything their crush does ('Oh my god, he looked at me, he looked past me, he looked within a five-mile radius of me!' Cue faint). It drives me crazy searching for stories that don't even exist.

Dom's prattling far too fast for the morning, and I can't quite parse it all without a headache. We start gravitating in the direction of Breech's so Pickett ducks out, though not without giving me one last waggle of his brows.

It's Dom who reacts. "Oi Henry!" she calls after him, nose wrinkled all the way in.

But he's already gone. With a harrumph worthy of a full-blooded Veela, Dom takes my arm and shuffles Scorpius forward. We dip into trite how-are-yous, fit for polite conversation. No need to spook the poor Malfoy boy with newspaper talk. Figuratively poor, of course; his inheritance is literally worth his weight in gold.

Rose and Albus walk in. They're glaring at us, though if I harkened a guess, Rose is glaring at Dom and Scorpius, while Albus is glaring at me. Our little Ravenclaw prefect looks Scorpius up and down, lingering a few seconds longer at the books in his hands. They belong to Dom. Rose doesn't say anything, but is it necessary? The boy is mincemeat. Whether Dom's trying to steal him or not, the wheels have been turning since he first allowed Dom to be their therapist.

If there's anything to be learned about the Weasley family, it's to never get caught between a part-Veela and a redhead.

"Hello, everyone," Rose says sweetly, with a smile that is everything but a smile.

We descend into pleasantries again. There is not much other talk when Dom not-so-secretly hates Rose, Rose not-so-secretly hates me and is—justifiably—paranoid that her own cousin is trying to ruin her life, and I... well, I don't hate anyone. But I won't make things worse.

Albus doesn't join our tiny circle. He wanders around us instead, careful to not make eye contact with me, and nudges Scorpius. After handing Dom back her books, Scorpius leaves with him, and their conversation quiets to a murmur.

Monsieur Breech finally enters the room, clapping his hands for attention. For the record, he insists on the Monsieur title. Makes him feel important like his badly-combed toupee and the stepladder of authority he uses to compensate for his height. One hasn't seen high-strung until French goblins.

"Class! CLASS!" he screeches, waving his arms. He stomps his foot against stepladder, sniffing with a thorough displeasure. "Today continues yesterday's lecture. It's clear that every one of you needs practice on unspoken spells. Sloppy, sloppy! What would your mothers say?"

"Why ze 'ell is zis gnome talking so much?" Dom mutters. I snort and shush her.

"Pair up! Switch when I say! Practice with stunners, shields, and counters. Basics only! I don't need more unnecessary trips to the ward. Remember: timing and focus! Shield spells are not created equal!"

Everyone scatters like dropped marbles, knocking others over to get their first partners. Nothing is more awkward than being the leftover third out of a trio of friends. Dom and I match up without a thought and we throw spells like clockwork. Zip, zing, hex.

"It's the second time I've caught Henry staring at my bum,” Dom mutters while blocking a stun.

I roll my eyes. "Your bum isn't that impressive. He wasn't looking at you anyway. He was..." A quick glance tells me that Rose is on the other side of the room. "He thinks you want to steal Scorpius."

Dom bursts into laughter and is only able to stifle it when Breech frowns at her. "Are you kidding? You'd throttle me."

I'm not entirely convinced from her tone, but it's always been difficult to discern whether Dom is being serious or not. "It seemed possible," I say in Pickett's defense.

"Scorpius is very sweet and um, maybe if he were single?" She giggles. "But your incessant nagging about scandal dodging does have an effect on me. Pity that the boy has such poor taste in women."

While her gaze strays to Rose, who is showing off her repertoire of blue fizzling stuns, I notice her partner. It's Potter, of course, but he's looking right back at me—

"Ow! Fuck." A throbbing stings my arm and I clutch at its center, glaring at Dom. Bint threw a shock jinx.

"Gotcha," she grins. I shoot a quick stun back at her in spite, but she blocks it easily, tutting, "Not quick enough. So how goes the hunt for Al's girlfriend?"

I toss her my Extendable Pouch. "Plenty of required reading for lunch."

"Merlin, they're rabid." Dom crunches through the pile, pulling out fistfuls. "I still find it worrying how anyone can be so interested in my family's life. And that half the school wants to jump my cousin's bones."

"And your brother's."

She shudders. "Don't remind me."

Professor Breech weaves between the pairs. "SWITCH!" he shrieks.

The final spells fly across the room and everyone trades partners. Dom latches onto Sean, a 'Puff boy I know she's been eying for awhile. A bright-eyed girl slides in front of me.

"Clemence! Have you got a partner yet?"

Valencia Oden, Ravenclaw. Nice girl, never minded Witchy Business. "No, not yet," I say.

We pair up and practice the drills. Midway when Breech is out of sight, Valencia leans in. "Did you get my note? I passed it to Adette to give to you."

Adette handed me a slip of parchment when I entered the Great Hall this morning. I shuffled it in with the rest of the papers. “Yeah, haven't read it.”

"Well, I remember you mentioning this place in an issue two weeks ago, and my mates don't want to go, so what I was wondering was if you could show me..." Her voice lowers to a hush. "The Speak Easy."

The Speak Easy is, appropriately, a speakeasy located in the Room of Requirement with the-whole-shebang atmosphere. It's a bit of an open secret, as the only crowd interested is the only crowd they want. Mostly the stock intellectuals: chess players, nihilists, whatnot. The first time anyone goes, it's with someone who's been there before. Mine was with Pickett, two years ago.

I size her up and decide that I like her enough. "Dress sharp, be sharp, and meet me tomorrow by the armor gallery at seven-thirty."

"Sharp, got it." She nods and slips back into a dueling stance. No unnecessary chatter—another plus.

"SWITCH!"

Valencia and others whirl past me and I spin around to meet green eyes.

"Potter," I breathe.

"Fitzgerald." His lips are tight and pensive.

Another sanctimonious scolding already? No, his stance is too calm. He paces two steps back, wand outstretched, and I grin.

"So you want to tussle."

He shoots a stun that whizzes past my ear. Far from ready, I dodge it only by chance.

"You could say that."

Unease settles onto my shoulders. This aggressiveness doesn't fit what I know of him. Another spell flies over, and I counter, following up with a stinging hex of my own. He doesn't shield it in time, and it knocks him to the ground. Too easy.

I extend a hand to him. "If you beat me, I'll postpone the expose for another week or two, give you some time to clean up, and if I beat you, you tell me the girl?"

Albus is crouched, staring at the ground. Take a long consideration, sugar. I may not be top dueler, but put up a prize and I will tear you down.

"Deal."

A blinding flash knocks me back and flips me over. I clutch my side, trying to find my bearings and I spot him, leapt up, ready for more.

"Think you're the only one who knows a few tricks?" He fires three quick hexes. I knock them down and scramble to my feet.

Oh, he wants to tussle.

Our eyes lock and the spellfire ceases. We pace in a ring like pistols at dawn. Ten steps to death, who will it be?

One... two... three…

"You're an awful person, you know that?" His grip on his wand tightens. "It's just that no one's willing to stand up to you."

I laugh, and I really do laugh. I knew he would make this personal. "What, can't find any dark lords to smite, so you come after big, bad me? Go be a martyr. See who cares."

Four... five... six…

His gaze flickers. "Rose has been crying because the whole school knows about her problems with Scorpius."

He's here for revenge. Explains a lot. "Rose is a big girl. She can take care of herself. Contrary to popular belief, I don't have anything against her or anyone else. I'm just here for the stories, like yours. Ask around; I can be quite nice."

Seven... eight...

"You pretend to be nice. You're only here for the stories, like you said." This boy and his grandstanding; it's the worst. He reminds me of door-to-door salesmen, evangelists... or me. We're persistent. And persistence works for only one reason: it's bloody annoying.

I shake my head. "As if you've never had to put up a smile for people you don't like. Potter... you and I? We're more alike than you think. Single-minded pursuits. Unhealthy methods of achieving them."

Nine…

"I'm not anything like you."

Ten.

He acts first—a jinx. I counter and it flies back, absorbed into his shield. There's another streak of silver and another, and then we're pacing again.

"Come on, Fitzgerald. Just counters? Throw one at me."

I lunge with a hex and he blocks it immediately, and a sting hits my side—shit! He baited me. I lunge again and we move into the center of the room. The space between us becomes a blur of colors, flashes, and sparks meeting shields. He can fight for whatever imagined cause he wants; I want my story.

Breech hasn't called 'Switch' yet. Then I hear him lecturing: "Take note of Miss Fitzgerald's stance. That's what you want for good counters. Steady on the feet, forward force upon action—are you taking bets, Mr. Flint?"

There's hardly time for another breath before I'm back to dodging spells. My feet stumble, tangled into each other, but I have my balance. It's the only time I'm thankful for those bloody Yule Ball dance lessons.

Everyone's watching. I can't mess up.

We're too evenly matched, growing reckless as the distance between us nears. Shifting to close-range spells, bursts of color arc from the tips of our wands like sword slashes, gold clashing against green. Instinct takes over; there is no time for thinking.

Contact. A feint drives me to crash into him. He's seeping heat, shirt damp from sweat. I push away and shoot a hex at his shoulder. He tries to shield it, but his concentration isn't there and he takes the hit. His next spell is sorely off target.

"Focus, Potter!" I jeer. "Your spells won't get off the ground like that!"

"Sorry"—Albus runs up, slashing a wide arc of bronze, and blocks the brunt of my stunning spell with the back of his robe—"I was too busy staring"—he grabs my arm and he's closer than close, his face mere inches from mine—"at your gorgeous eyes."

What—

A sharp pain hits my stomach and I tumble to the floor. Fuck! He didn't just—fuck!

When my vision comes to, his wand is pointed at my throat. In the background, there's a murmur of cheers and groans and galleons being exchanged. Professor Breech is clapping. "Wonderful show! That is how a proper knock-back jinx is done."

Albus holds out a hand. "So the devil has vanity."

I scowl. He's all good cheer and fun now that he's won. He pulls me up, even shakes my hand. But in a moment of quiet, as the people around us disperse, he leans in. "We can do this again next week."

The unsettling feeling, I realize, has yet to leave.

"Potter, you have bought yourself a world of regret."

His lips curl into a smirk. "I look forward to it."


Chapter 4: A Vivid Imagination
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all the bamf cis from julia~


Dom and I swing out of Breech's in step. It's twenty minutes until our next class—Runes for her, History for me—and a proper reporter is quick in wit and walk.

I rub my shoulder, still sore post-D.A.D.A. "So Albus wants to remind me of exactly how awful I am," I mutter. Mind, I am very awful, but he's a sopping wet blanket. If I'm Voldemort, he's Filch, and it's a toss-up on who's worse.

Dom's looks over her shoulder at Albus and Rose's departing figures, and I tug on her elbow to remind her of her conspicuousness. "Odd though, don't you think? I saw him go straight for you—when we were picking partners, I mean. I thought he wanted something."

The details slipped my mind. At the forefront has been a single thought: I can't believe that self-righteous bastard won the duel with a compliment.

Dom takes one look at me and flattens her gaze. "You look positively murderous."

"Just a little bloodthirsty."

With an extra scrunch of her nose, her expression takes on a distinctly Delacour note of displeasure. "I'll always take your side, but Al's one of the few cousins I actually like. Don't kill him."

"You know what I mean."

We jostle past the feverish first years bounding out of Herbology. A sleek-haired girl—looks a bit like Escot, maybe a younger sister—points a finger at me and whispers into another girl's ears, glaring. The young learn so quickly.

"No, I don't know what you mean." Dom presses closer as a herd of muddy Quidditch players stampede past. "Don't assume; it's lethal."

"I'm not going to ruin Al over a little bruised ego. Revenge isn't my thing." My principles might not be orthodox, but they do exist. With my job, I can't expect people to be hospitable. Potter, however, is a special case. "Do you know what he did? He provoked me, that's what. He shows up suddenly, all enigmatic, spouting enigmatic speeches, and agrees to duel me with that enigma of a girlfriend on the line. I swear, he was smirking like he planned it."

She straightens. "Did he?"

"Do I look like a Legilimens?" I pivot on my heel and make a sharp turn up the next flight of stairs. Dom follows on a wider arc, still in step.

"Well excuse me for worrying this might lead to a dead end."

I quirk a brow and she sighs.

"I had an inkling but I preferred not believing it. The whole girlfriend rumor... might be planted. When Rose leaked the news, she seemed off. Confused, I don't know, like she was figuring out what to say. But it's obvious, isn't it? Al's baiting you. He has something in mind."

Doubt prickles my neck. I joked that the girlfriend was imaginary, but the story was awfully convenient. "Have you got anything else?"

"Rose doesn't know who the girl is either." Dom winces, not too pleased with coming to the conclusion so late. "I thought, out of everyone, she would know. It doesn't fit."

"She could be bluffing."

"Did she learn to lie overnight? She can't bluff a statue."

If Rose doesn't know, it's likely that no one knows. No witnesses, no evidence, no story. But what would Potter want by planting this? What mouse sets the mousetraps in hopes of catching the cat?

Arriving at History, I slump against the wall. "I'll keep it mind."

Dom nods. Hugging her books, she turns to leave. Runes class is a few hallways down. "By the way," she says, before she's swept away in the sea of students, "you still look murderous."


::



Dom isn't easy to describe in words. You might pass her off as another stuck-up blonde and you'd be completely right. But you have to see the way she talks, the way she captures the space around her. Whether you like her or not, you can't help but get wrapped around the speck of her eye when she looks at you. It's more than charisma; it's presence. You know she's there, and you'll never forget her.

People say we're similar but only because we're always together. I could never be Dom. She flits around, a social butterfly like her older sister (though she'd hex anyone who makes the comparison), but don't let the bubbly metaphor fool you; she revels in the venom. Her thrill, of sorts. I don't exactly approve, but Dom has a foot in every circle and it brings in stories. Whenever she gets in a tiff, I take the heat for her. Annoying, but I like my stories and Dom likes being liked. Even if I weren't okay with it, it's not like I can convince her to change. She gets what she wants and god help you if you're in her way, which sums up her and Rose's rivalry well enough.

Rose—now, she has a lot more in common with Dom than I do, but I can't convince Dom of that either. They're what people call 'frenemies' except that's the stupidest word I've come across since 'guesstimate' and Pickett's version of 'ironic'—frenemies sounds like something you buy at a florist.

It is, unfortunately, what Rose and Dom are. They've been at each other's throats since they were old enough to fit their tiny hands around the other's neck. During their fifth Christmas, Rose received a 'better' doll than Dom. According to Dom, her own doll was wearing a knock-off designer dress, never mind that every single dress was the same. Rose taunted and Dom might have tripped her into a tray of dessert. End result: a full-blown pie fight of three different flavors and no dolls for either of them.

Every fight boils down to the staple disagreements: boys, books, and bitching. Dom likes to flirt; Rose is a one-bloke girl. Dom coasts through class; Rose is in the library every day. Dom is in the gossip business; Rose is trying to get her out. The arguments go around and around on who is the better girl. Dom is catty. Rose is fake. It should only matter to them (it really shouldn't matter at all), but with their popularity, it becomes a school-wide issue: the glamorous rebel versus the golden good girl, which side are you on? Choose wisely; it'll determine which half of the student body hates you.

Dom tells me that I'd never understand her and Rose's relationship and maybe I won't. I can't say they hate each other, and I might even believe that deep down they want to like each other, but they've reached the point where they fight for the sake of fighting. If nothing else, their sheer competitiveness has made them the brightest witches Hogwarts has seen in two decades.

Dom knows what I think: if she tried, she could get back on good terms with every scorned cousin, even Rose. But it's not what Dom wants. It'd be fake, she says, like Rose—whatever that means. And so she sticks by me and she says she's happy but I can't help but wonder about people who declare they're happy.


::



If Pickett dings that typewriter one more time, I am going to rip off his

Ding.

"Pickett." I twist around on my stool, eyes narrowed. It's work day in the newsroom, which means lots of tea, quill-biting, and Pickett's incessant fiddling with the typewriter settings.

"My article's done. I'm testing out things I can do to make it look nicer," he says, wiggling his inky fingers in the air.

Dom, sitting next to him, looks up. Reaching across, she rips the paper off the feed despite a very solid protest of 'Oi, woman.'

There's an incredulous gasp. "What is this?" She thrusts the paper into Pickett's face. "What. Is. This. Line spacing?"

"It looks better." Pickett snatches it back, crumpling and tossing it over his shoulder. It misses the rubbish.

"Better? And how do you get to be the authority on what looks better?"

"I'm brilliant. What've you got?"

"I'm the bloody layout editor!" Dom huffs, crossing her arms. "Clemence, we have to have an intervention. He decreased the line spacing again. This is unacceptable, worse than the time he increased the font size by point five."

"Worse? My, what an accusation," I say, dry as a desert. Dom and Pickett are live newsroom entertainment.

Dom pouts. "It isn't funny."

I call to Janey, who's scribbling away in her own little productivity corner, "Janey, is it funny?"

A grinning Janey fiddles with the rim of her glasses. "Quite."

I mimic Pickett's innocent shrug. "Janey says it's funny and seeing as she's done the most work today, she gets to be the one who's correct. Sorry, Dom."

Dom resumes her photo work grumpily. I turn to Pickett. A pleased smirk is drawn across his face.

"Yes, my lovely chief?"

"Oh, shut up and do something useful for once."

At seven o' clock, I go back to my room to change for the Speak Easy, picking my standbys: Dom's old lace-lined top and charcoal skirt. When I return downstairs to the common room, Dom and Pickett enter the stone doorway at the same time. No surprise, they're in the midst of another spat.

"I'd expect you'd be smarter than that," Pickett barks. "You're just ignoring the consequences—"

"Could you please have a little discretion?" Dom glances around the room. She makes a beeline for me and Pickett shakes his head. She's by my side for only a moment before stomping to our room, long enough to whisper, "Henry thinks I shouldn't make a second expose on Rose and Scorpius."

Pickett is still souring up the entrance when I walk over. "Don't tell me you agree with her," he scowls. "She's going to get too involved."

"She says she's not interested in Scorpius. Give her the benefit of the doubt."

"You can do that."

"We need the story."

His jaw clenches and he looks away. I squeeze his shoulder and it's all I can do before I have to rush over to the armor gallery. The entire drama surrounding Scorpius is such a teeter-totter. I want to believe Dom, but she makes it so hard.

At exactly seven-thirty, sharp on the second, I arrive in the armor gallery. Valencia's waiting, overdressed. We make our way up to the seventh floor with light conversation.

"How's Witchy Business?" she asks.

"Good. A bit busy this week."

It's always the same questions. Is Witchy Business fun? What's it like? What do you do? It's all they know about me, so it's all they can ask. I'd love to boast of my multifaceted soul, but let's face it: I tell other people's stories for a reason.

Outside the Room of Requirement, I walk past the door three times and it creaks open, revealing a long, black passageway. Valencia stares into the darkness, swallowing. She picks up her skirt and steps inside, breathing easier when the wall sconces flicker on.

I lay down the standard introduction. "The Speak Easy is open every other night after dinner. The only rules are common sense. Keep it classy. Enjoy the mood."

We reach another smaller wooden door. I knock and a slat slides across and we're met with a pair of eyes. A short click later, the door swings open and the night's greeter Eddie Burbray welcomes us with a tip of his hat.

"Miss Fitzgerald! And Miss... Oden, am I correct?"

"Yes..." Valencia blinks, slightly taken aback. "Oh, you're in my Herbology class! Eddie?"

"Tonight I'm Mr. Burbray." He smiles and winks. "First time? You've arrived on a good night. The Dead Languages are playing."

She blushes. "Oh, the uh..."

"Jazz band," I whisper to her, pointing to the stage.

Her eyes widen as she takes in the setting for the first time. It's really quite magnificent in comparison to the rest of this shoddy castle, the best a magical room can offer. Dark wood-panelled walls, gold-plated fixtures, sumptuous and refined like chocolate. Past the lounge is the dance floor and stage, where the The Dead Languages' singer is crooning in Latin.

I guide Valencia to one of the tables near the bar and ask a passing House-Elf for two sparkling butterbeers.

"I didn't realize this place was so big," says Valencia. "Is it always like this?"

"Varies. Weekends are more likely to have live entertainment and it's getting pretty popular these days. Other nights you see the same few regulars here." I point to a smoky corner where there are six chess matches in session. "The chess players never leave."

I do a double take. Sitting at the middle table, on the cusp of capturing a knight, and staring straight at me, is Albus Potter.

I turn back to Valencia, smile curving. After the House-Elf returns with our drinks, I show her around. Opposite of the dining area is a curtained-off extension of the lounge, a more social environ. Sofas to relax, minglers for conversation, and an endless stream of drinks for lower inhibitions. Valencia spots some friends and settles in. I excuse myself.

As I slip back out in the main room, the black king in front of Albus crumbles to dust. The board cleans itself up and he shakes his departing opponent's hand, some hipster arithmancer nerd that could easily be mistaken for a husky stuffed into a suit and large-rimmed glasses. He's prepared when I slide into the vacant seat. There is no greeting, merely folded hands and a head cocked to the side. He's in more casual wear: a loose grey shirt, unjacketed and unadorned.

My eyes lower to the board, where the pieces have finished rebuilding themselves, and then to him again. His lips remain shut, waiting. Black is on my side.

"Pawn to E4," I say.

The marble figure slides forward. The clock starts ticking. Ten minutes a player.

"Pawn to E5." Albus holds my gaze.

"You're not talkative."

"I'm usually not to people I dislike," he says as he moves his pawn to capture mine. "You promised you wouldn't do the story this week. You have no business with me."

"So I did. This is a social visit." I smile toothily. I'll need a proper redress for last afternoon' duel. My knight slides forward and there is a wink of a second where Albus' breath pauses and he glances between me and the board. Is that fear or excitement? Either way, it's my kind of game.

"Besides, I never said I wouldn't follow you around." I curve my hand underneath my chin.

A chuckle—more of a doubting breath than amusement. He rolls his sleeves up past his elbow.

While he's taking his sweet time thinking, I delve into bored taunts. "You know, the point of having a girlfriend is to spend time with her." I spin a finger around the chessboard. "This is sort of defeating the purpose."

He glares, his famous spark of anger igniting. Protective of your imaginary girlfriend, how cute.

His bishop to E7. My bishop to C4.

I lean forward. He's stopped looking at me, pretending to be oh-so-absorbed in his next move. "Remind me," I say, "Why do you hate me again? I mean, I don't hate you."

He scoffs. "You don't have a reason to hate me."

"Have you considered the possibility that you're a preachy oversensitive twit?"

"Better than a soulless shell of big words and intimidation." There's a lilt in his voice that I haven't heard before, almost like he's talking through a smirk.

I duck my head a little lower. There it is. "You enjoy this."

"What?" But he can't dim the mischief quick enough.

"Banter." The stubborn comebacks, challenging me to a duel—it all makes sense.

"At least I'm not proud of it."

"At least I'm not in denial about it."

"Who's preachy now? Bishop to H4. Check." Now, he doesn't bother hiding his smirk. Maybe it's because of the check or... Potter, despite what he says, is very proud of it. I might have misjudged him after all; he is far more interesting than I gave credit for.

I lose another pawn. I drop the question I've been waiting all night to ask.

"You don't have a girlfriend, do you?"

He doesn't flinch. He only blinks once, methodically timed to give him a moment without me in his view. "Why would you think so?"

"You don't seem like someone protecting secrets. At least not about your personal life. You seem more like someone who's looking for trouble and found it."

"Maybe trouble likes to find me."

"Don't flatter yourself."

I move my pawn and it's his turn—his last turn, and he knows it. It's pawn to D6 and as it slides across the board, Albus' attention lingers on his king, its death sentence approaching. "Hypothetically, even if I lied about having a girlfriend"—his eyes flick to mine—"looking for trouble as you say... I wouldn't be so quick to think the match is over."

The roguishness never quite left his face since it uncloaked itself, and it's startlingly charming.

Eyes locked, I utter the final move, "Knight to G5." My piece moves forward, and the face of his king begins to crack. "Checkmate."




A/N Sorry about the long wait. I'm a lot busier than i thought *___* and my muse keeps going on and off. Chugging along~ Maybe another update soon? Boo multiple WIPs. I'd love to hear what you think and what you're expecting!

Coming up:
I'm a few doors away when I hear shrieking coming from the east end. My instincts kick in—something's afoot. It can't be less than a mob, so close that I can feel the rumble underneath my feet. Whatever this is, it's stopping for no one.

When a body flashes by, I certainly do not expect Albus Potter to be the one skidding into view. As soon as he spots me, he groans, "Oh Godric, not now."


Chapter 5: Certifiably Quirky
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♥ chapter image by julia/ahoythere

. 5 .


There is a single swivel chair in the newsroom, and Pickett has been on it for the past hour, turning and turning until even I'm dizzy. If Pickett had it his way, every seat in the newsroom would be enchanted to spin.

Pickett pinches his chin. "I dare say this is a most fascinating development," he declares with the exaggerated air of Monsieur Breech.

The afternoon is waning and I'm in a good mood. "Good sir, indeed," I say, mimicking him. Janey giggles across the table. "Sir Potter, thought a-courting, is truly a dastardly knave with coup up his robes?"

"Who would have guessed such a twist?"

I clutch my papers closer than a nun with her good book as I walk them over to the typewriters. "Not a soul, nay, not a soul! The people demand answers!"

Thrusting a finger in the air, he makes one dramatic spin and shouts in his loudest indoor voice, "Throw him to the brig until he speaks!"

My act drops. "Pickett, you went from being a baron to pirate."

"Doth the fair maiden captain disapprove?"

"You sound idiotic."

"You both sound idiotic," Dom says as she walks past holding a fan of photos, ponytail swishing behind her. She taps the table impatiently until the room stills, save for the sound of typewriter gears resting into place. "This is serious. Albusgate is a mess."

Pickett scoffs and he's back to spinning around on his chair. "Oh I see, this is serious but not your meddling with your other cousin's love life."

"Circe, Pickett, don't start."

"I will start whatever I want, princess."

Dom clears her throat and turns very deliberately away from him and toward me. "Anyhow Clemence, when Al gets confrontational, it's a big deal. He definitely has something in mind so—"

"Perhaps, perhaps," Pickett interjects, with equal deliberation as to cut across her sentence, "Al's just saying that to throw us all off. Reverse psychology. There's actually a girlfriend, but he acts like he's just acting that there's an act..." His eagerness sputters. "...give me a second."

Leave it to Pickett to not understand his own conspiracy theories.

He does have a point, though. "I'd consider he has a girlfriend and he's taking advantage of my doubt," I say. "I can't print anything until I know for sure what's going on. People are expecting the story soon. Shit." They'll clamor like a stressed fault line, waiting for a little shake to burst. I do not want to be at the epicenter.

Doom and gloom rains over the room. Pickett's swiveling slows to a stop.

Only when Dom and I leave for our dorms does she speak up again, when we are alone in the halls. "You don't have to worry yet." She drums her fingers on her chin. "For next issue, I have confidence that the Rose-Scorpius split is happening this weekend, straight from Scorpius. He told me that he was going to do it earlier this afternoon."

But instead of grinning with her, my shoulders wilt. "Please don't tell me he's doing it for you."

Every pristine hair on her head bristles. "God, no! Stop siding with Henry. I am not interested in Scorpius and he is definitely, definitely not interested in me."

With her utter vehemence, I'm inclined to believe her but—"Then what's with the break-up?"

"I don't know, it happens! People fall out of love. I told them they were incompatible from the start. This is just my I-told-you-so."

Even under so many layers of irritation, I can still see the glee she gets every time she trumps Rose. But no, I don't have any concrete reason to believe Dom is lying.

I let the matter drop.


::



Despite how I treat Potter, I'd be a fool to underestimate him.

In a world where you either need to be clever or popular to survive, he's both. He knows how to dance with reporters, having dealt with us since he was a clump of cells, and he's sensible (re: paranoid) enough to avoid sins and poisons.

Explaining Mr. Albus Enigma Potter requires explaining his entire family. The story of his dad is History of Magic 101. Golden Trio brought down the big bad Dark Lord before they were even out of their teens. His dad's the big star since he's the one with the funky scar and exciting backstory—every Hogwarts dropout's idol. Mum says you won't ever amount to anything if you don't finish school? Point to Head Auror Harry Potter.

Great-Aunt Rita always likes to talk about Harry, says she saw the boy grow up. She was on the front lines when the war went down and was so happy that she cried when he made it out alive. He would live to grace many more of her tell-alls.

She also says that out of the Potter children, Albus is most like his father. Has the same flavor of anger and fear of cameras, and anyone who really pays attention to the Potter children should be able to see it instantly. Born under the flash of a photographer's bulb at St. Mungo's, James and Lily both embrace their name. On the other hand, Albus was born three weeks early with the help of a local midwife while the Potters were on holiday; the press had hardly any notice of it.

Right now, James is well on the path to international stardom after signing with the Tutshill Tornados. He's bright enough to avoid scandal but you never know. The press is like Voldemort and his horcruxes. Murder a reputation and we become a little more immortal.

But James knows how to play the field, literally and metaphorically. Camera-friendly face helps, but mostly he likes the attention. I suppose that's why I've never been too interested in him; he's too easy.

Lily Luna, too. At fourteen, she's already sitting atop a throne of modeling offers, interviews, and product deals. Her debut perfume line Lis by Lily comes out this summer and it smells like—surprise, surprise—lilies. The name literally means Lily by Lily. Creative, that one.

Albus, on the other hand, considers himself fortunate as the stereotypically forgotten middle child, overshadowed by his more exuberant siblings. Even when he was young, he was always the one hiding behind his dad's robes.

Unfortunately for him, private is synonymous with mysterious, which is synonymous with hot.

Albus tries so hard to stamp out his fans, but they only come back in greater numbers like an angry anthill. They're worse than the average fan. James' Quidditch fans, for example, may be obnoxious but they're mainstream enough to self-police. Albus gets... odd fans.

Quirky ones, to be precise.


::



The common room couches could put me in a coma when falling asleep is the last thing I want to do.

Yawning, I shut my Latin textbook. Reading's a lost cause for the night; listening to the Dead Languages is almost like studying anyway. I put the textbook away and spot a garishly embellished cover peeking out of Dom's bag and pull down the leather flap covering the title: Enchanted at Evening.

"Have you been reading Fifi LaFolle?"

Dom, who's sitting cross-legged on the floor, lunges across the carpet and shoves the book out of view. "Just... the first part!"

"Oh my god, is this what you do with your free time?"

"I was curious! Enchanted at Evening's one of the better ones!"

Fifi LaFolle is a romance novelist who churns out three books a year, all pandering to girls' fantasies. If I recall correctly, Enchanted at Evening is the tale of Sabine Boufette, who runs away at the altar and into the arms of the local barkeep. According to the cover, he struts around with his rippling pecs bared as he dispenses steins of butterbeer. So much for no shirt, no shoes, no service.

Spoiler alert: they end up together after lots of shagging.

Oh sorry, that spoils all of her stories.

A shrill voice shrieks behind us, "Did I hear Enchanted at Evening?"

I wince. There is only one person in this school who can break the sound barrier at such an ear-bleedingly high pitch: Apostrophe Hyphen Colon, founder of Quirky Girls Anonymous. Names like hers don't pop up often and I was convinced she was either the spawn of very unoriginal grammar teachers or post-modernists. The truth is worse: she's the daughter of the Witch Weekly Head Editor.

"I love Fifi LaFolle!" Sure enough, it's perky Miss Colon who flops down between us with her oversized bag and floral-print skirt. She has one in seven different flowers, one for every day of the week. Even after six years of rooming with her, there is no such thing as tolerance. She's why Dom and I hide out in the newsroom until nighttime. The Nott twins busy themselves with extracurriculars—Harriet with Quidditch and Helena with band.

I glare at Dom before turning to our Apostrophe with a plastered smile. "Hello, Apostrophe."

"Oh please, not the full name, anymore. I've decided to go by Appy."

She's been considering this for ages but never found something "catchy" enough. I thought of plenty: possum, strop, trophy. Of all things, she chooses Appy. What kind of quirky girl is she?

Might as well nip conversation at the bud. "We were just talking about, er, the new enchantment seminars in the evening. You know, the ones for aspiring Ministry employees." Inching closer to Dom's bag, I cover up the book with a nudge of my wand.

"Oh." Her toothy smile doesn't falter and a sickening dread washes over me as I realize she's not going to leave. Instead, she clutches my arm. "Sooo... it's Quirky Girls Anon's first anniversary next week. Will there be a story?"

"Maybe." It is, unfortunately, the largest unofficial club on Hogwarts, making it somewhat newsworthy. There's no good way to sum up Q.G.A. but my best attempt would be 'a congregation of hysterical girls whose singular goal is getting into a bloke's pants.'

"Well, we're planning a party in the ballroom, even getting it handled by professionals. Nothing but the best for my girls!" She claps her hands together. "You should come! I know it's not your scene"—how casually she throws out the understatement of the year—"but I try to make sure there's something for everyone, even guests. Who knows? They could be future Quirkers!"

I heard Quackers. Did anyone else hear Quackers? Well, Quirkers isn't much better.

"Future Quirkers?" I repeat in a drawl. "Even for a poor cynic like me? There's hope yet."

Dom groans. She doesn't like it when I egg people on, especially those whose brains are not equipped with a sarcasm meter.

"Of course!" Appy chirps. "We at Q.G.A. believe there's hope for all. With a little effort, every girl can have their own romance story—isn't that what you say, Clemence? Everyone has a story?"

"Not exactly." Thanks for defiling my motto; now I have to make up a new one. Maybe a catchphrase instead. Fitzgerald on the fritz.

"Well, it is what we say. It's a pity we live in a world where girls just trying to be themselves can't get a bloke to notice them." She presses a hand to her heart as if the issue were as grave as mass murder. "If you can't make it to the party, you can come to our next meeting."

Out of nowhere, the Quirker proffers two sets of brochures and hands them to me and Dom. Dom holds it by the corner like a dead possum. I think I'd prefer the possum.

"There's been so much buzz since you said Albus has a girlfriend." Appy leans forward. "Have you found her yet, by the way? The girlfriend?"

"Not yet." I need to kill this rumor now. "It was a confidential tip, so it might not be true after all. Best not to get worked up until there's an official statement."

A squeak. "Oh. Well! That's very interesting. Here I thought that one of my Albus-loving members was keeping something from me..." She chuckles for a moment before stopping abruptly and her grin returns, toothier than ever. "Well, I've kept you long enough." Standing up, she gives a half-curtsey. "I'll see you later. We never hang out much. We should fix that someday!"

I nod until she skips out of view, dragging her bag along the floor.

Dom has been muttering her daily feminist rant in the background. "I can't believe people like her. My nana did not raise me to devote my entire existence to a boy! At least it's only another two years with her."

"Unless Appy goes into politics," I muse. I recall it being her dream once.

"Oh God, no."

Appy's a dumb cow, of course, but the rabid following is real and has a modicum of actual power with her parentage. It's possible. "If you're lucky, she'll go somewhere out of the way. International's even better. Be the new Magical Representative of Alaska."

Dom blinks. "Is that the place with the camels?"

"Wrong latitude. Moose, maybe? You can see Russia from there."


::



Sunday evening, Dom and I are still waiting for the supposed weekend breakup. We stand by the edge of the Great Hall, watching the Gryffindor's table where Rose and Scorpius are sitting—and looking as couple-y as ever. Dom assures me that any minute now, Rose will dash down the hallway in tears or her friends will chaperone her away, leaving a trail of whispers in her wake.

But neither has happened and my patience is thinning faster than Slughorn's nose hair.

My foot tapping grows louder. I have better things to do, like doodling pictures of cows featuring Hogwarts' it crowd. "Dom..."

She crosses her arms in a huff, her gaze unwavering from the pair sharing dinner side by side. "Oh for the love of Rowena, it's five words, Scorpius! 'I just need some space.' 'We're meant to be friends.' 'It's not you, it's me.' 'I'm bloody breaking up with you!'"

"That last one is—"

"Six words, whatever! Just make them break up already!"

I rub my temple. "Look, the greenhouse was ridiculously humid today, and I want to relax in a nice bath. You can tell me if something happens." I tap at my two-way compact.

Dom scowls at my escape; she knows I've been plotting it for awhile. "Leave me to do all the work..."

And that's exactly what I do. Who are we kidding, anyway? This is all Dom's story. I'm just there so she has someone to brag to when it goes down.

I make my way up to the fifth floor. The prefect's bath sounds perfect right now. Helen Nott keeps me up to date with the passwords.

I'm a few doors away when shrieking erupts from the castle's east end. I still my body to listen. It can't be less than a mob, so close that I can feel the rumble underneath my feet.

A body flashes by. Albus Potter skids into view.

Spotting me, he groans. "Godric, not now."

He pushes past before I can ask questions. From his haggard gait, he's been running for a while.

"He went that way!"

"We love you, Al!"

"THROW ME YOUR SHIRT AND I'LL SQUEEZE THE SWEAT OUT FOR YOU!"

A shudder passes through my bones like a ghost except this is much, much worse than the undead. My feet spin around. "Oi Potter, wait up!"

There is a special kind of stampede in Hogwarts. One either follows the pack or becomes trampled and suffocated by the sheer volume of hormones. Even the straggling pig-tailed second-years join in. It happens after Quidditch games, before Yule Ball, on Valentine's Day—any time when a popular bloke is especially desired—but today is none of those and yet this mob sounds bigger than any I can remember, its shrieks on course to break the sound barrier.

Quirky girls.




A/N Thanks to Celestie for introducing me to the gloriousness that is Fifi LaFolle, who is canon. I first saw her in Bathing in Roses, where a character has the most delicious rant on trite romances. Also Rita/Llyralen for the shirt and sweat fangirl. If you don't know her, she writes my fav rom-com After Hours and is my eternal inspiration for writing and graphics. And of course, Sarah Palin for inspiring the comment on Russia.

Coming up:
"What? No comeback? You could be brilliant, Fitzgerald. You're clever. But you choose to roll in the mud and I've got no respect for that."

There it is again — the flicker of satisfaction in his eyes that says, 'Gotcha'. If we weren't in a bloody changing stall and he didn't insist on playing close and rough, I might not have noticed.


Chapter 6: Marginally Better Than a Broom Closet
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ci by me

. 6 .


There are three rules every bloke should know when facing a Quirky Girl horde: do not look them in the eye, stay away from those foaming at the mouth, and for Circe's sake, don't take off your clothes if it gets hot. It only makes them run faster.

It's all about perseverance. The mob's power is in its numbers—a mass of flailing arms paired with harpy mating calls can strike fear in the hardest heart—but it's also its downfall. The girls trample each other, fighting to be the first to touch him, the first to confess, the first to scar him for life. Squeezing the sweat out of his shirt is all well and nice, but who gets to keep it? In what quantity? Mobs have no time to mediate; punch and scream.

When it's down to stragglers, he's home free. Until then, run.

Albus is by the prefect's bathroom. Sweat builds at his brow as he frantically whispers 'King's Hippo' and jiggles the handle.

I shove him out of the way and into Boris the Bewildered's statue, who looks properly bewildered as the shrieking love declarations increase in volume.

"Fitzgerald, not the time—"

"Queen's Hippo," I say, throwing Albus a hard glare as the entrance scrapes open. The desperate joy of deliverance shuts him up. He ducks in after me and slams the door shut.

I lean against it, safe for the moment. But could that flimsy wooden thing, even magically enhanced, keep out a dozen determined girls?

Potter's goes rigid as the patter of feet near.

"He's at the prefect's bath!"

The door begins to rattle. It's only a matter of time before someone who knows the password gets to the front. The frozen idiot isn't even looking for a hiding spot.

I drag him in by the sleeve, and surprisingly, he doesn't resist. I suppose trusting me is a better option than getting his hair harvested by fangirls who want to keep pieces of him by their bedside at night. Along the wall, green curtains hang half-open on their rungs in front of each of the six changing stalls. I shove him into one of them, squeeze in myself, and shut the curtain.

The door bursts opens. Footsteps scatter across the stone. I glance around our tiny confines: three stone walls and a flimsy sheet with barely enough space within to turn around. There's one too many pairs of feet inside.

"Potter," I hiss, "get up on the bench and keep your head down."

He catches on immediately and does what I say. I kick off my shoes and throw my robe to the floor, hoping that anyone who sees will think I'm just another bather, not some Potter-harborer.

"Is he here? Where is he?"

"Hey, there's someone—excuse me!"

Someone pokes the curtain and I, already jumpy, nearly smack it away.

"Very sorry, but did Albus Potter come in?"

"Er—" I begin, but the words stick in my throat. Albus sucks in a sharp breath. I pull my jumper over my head and do a dance, making a show of the rustling fabric. "He better not have; I'm bloody half-naked here!"

Albus, who's already flushed from all the running, turns the slightest bit redder.

There is murmuring deliberation; a face seems to press into the curtain and I nearly squeak. Finally, the grumbling search party leaves, and the peace returns more quiet than ever.

Albus sinks down, his head lolling against the wall. "They came out of nowhere," he pants. "All at once like they were possessed. I don't think I've seen it so bad before."

"Quirky Girls Anon. Unmerciful Merlin, you're in for some fun." I collapse on the seat beside him.

"You told them that I didn't have a girlfriend. Over-excited them."

"I—" Then I remember what I had told Appy. "I said it was an unconfirmed rumor whether you did or not."

"Never get tired of unconfirmed rumors, do you?" He pushes a hand through his hair. A faint bewilderment strikes his eyes. "You saved me."

It doesn't sink in until this post-hysteria slump that I am sitting in a changing booth meant for one with Albus Potter, wonder boy. And I saved his life—well, at the very least, his clothes.

"Yeah, I did."

"Why?"

I snort, kicking my robes up and off the floor. They're sticky and damp from the bath's air. "Are you kidding? I wouldn't wish that mob on the Dark Lord himself." I suppose I could blackmail him and threaten to call the Quirkers back, but I'm glad enough that I'm alive, too.

He coughs—I think he's trying to laugh. "Never thought we'd agree on something."

"S'not hard to agree," I mutter. As if these girls don't muck up the generation enough. They aren't dumb in the traditional sense, which makes it particularly disturbing; they're future Healers, Professors, and Ministry officials. I certainly don't feel safe knowing they'd drop me by the pavement and dash after a boy given the opportunity. It's not like Albus is much of a catch either, when he's related to James. Certainly, I find him more interesting than his older brother, but James has got the genes of his namesake to a tee—and by that I mean he's fit as hell. If you compare him side-by-side to the photo of James Potter I in the trophy room, he's looks exactly the same, sans plaid and bell-bottoms.

But I suppose there's only so many famous sons of Harry Potter to go around. If James is out of their league, unfortunately-named Albus makes a sufficient consolation prize.

Drumming my fingers against the hollow wood of my seat, I ask, "You think there's still girls in the hall?" He is the expert in this sort of thing.

Albus presses against the stall wall, peeking through the sliver-sized gap of the curtain. "Give it five, ten minutes. Better safe than sorry."

I stretch my legs. "So Potter, how's dating an imaginary girlfriend?"

"Subtle."

"Just trying to be conversational."

"Don't be." He crosses his arms as if to create some personal barrier, but he only jabs my side with his elbow.

"Watch it!" I flip my hair off my face, only for the black fly-aways to land across my eyes. "I don't understand why you continue to deny our banter. Clearly you like it. Maybe saying that you don't makes you feel like you're better than me, but mostly it makes you a hypocrite. Like how you continue playing the girlfriend charade just to bait me."

He chuckles. "I never said it's a charade."

"You never denied it. Please, don't even try to retract it. She's obviously imaginary."

"Maybe imaginary. You're not sure. If you were sure, you wouldn't keep bringing her up; you'd already have your story. Albus Potter: Imaginary Girlfriend."

His crossed arms loosen when he sits up straighter, and I become conscious of exactly how cramped this bench is. Moving isn't an option. I either bump into him or jam my shoulder against the wall. This is why banter isn't meant for close quarters. Wit goes out the window and it becomes more about jostling elbows, intimidation tactics, who's less edgy with personal space. I can play that game, but I don't like to.

I twirl a finger in the air and dig it into his chest. "This isn't about the girlfriend." I catch the cocky glint in his eye, and he must think I'm trying to change the subject to cover my failed bluff. He would be correct. "Not the girlfriend or the banter or even my newspaper. This is about which one of us is more stubborn."

He's not the least bit fazed. No, his smile even broadens a little. It's different close up. I can see every muscle twitch, every shift in demeanor, every drop of self-satisfaction. "You talk a lot, Fitzgerald. But you don't really say anything." He lifts my finger and pushes it away with a shockingly cool palm. "Like how you duel and play chess. Make a lot of fancy moves to distract your opponent—keep them guessing—and if you stall long enough, maybe you'll have an actual attack in mind."

"I won that chess game!" But the sharpness he ended with suddenly makes me parched, and I swallow and lick my lips. "Think you've figured me out?" I say airily.

"I don't need to. It's your job to figure me out, isn't it, Editor-in-Chief?"

"If you think I'll treat you like some prize, you are sorely—"

"Aren't I one?" he interjects. "That's what you've made me by making stories out of private lives. So if you don't like it, you can stop."

"Don't even start. It's not me, it's shit like Quirky Girls. They'd be rabid for you whether I'm here or not."

"Blame others. You like to do that, too." He points a finger straight where my heart would be, if I had one. "It's never your fault—it's the public's fault. You're only there to meet their demands."

A foreign quiver beats in the palm of my hand: fear. He shifts forward; I musn't recoil.

"But that's how your precious cycle works," he continues and it is his even gaze that perturbs me. This is calculated—he's been waiting to make this speech. "Make celebrities to make stories to make a loving readership. Until the whole bloody school is overrun with hormonal freaks, because they don't know how to be anything else. But you know that, don't you? That's what you're taking advantage of."

I can hear the sweat trickle down my brow. "Shut up, Potter."

"What? No comeback? You could be brilliant, Fitzgerald. You're clever. But you choose to roll in the mud and I've got no respect for that."

There it is again—the flicker of satisfaction in his eyes that says, 'Gotcha'. If we weren't in a bloody changing stall and he didn't insist on playing close and rough, I might not have noticed.

He's trying to change me.

No, he's obsessed with trying to change me.

I push him away and he lets me; he thinks he's already won. "So you don't respect me. Would you say you hate me, Potter?"

"Don't I?" He doesn't even hide the crooked grin that's been hanging off his face since his little speech.

"You don't." I cross my legs and my heel brushes against his trouser leg. He flinches on contact. Can't handle a little leg graze? "You don't hate me, or else you wouldn't give a fuck what I do. No, this little fascination with me is just your sojourn in the dark side. Satisfy a little curiosity... trying to fix the little problem"—I lay my hand where I had pushed him away and my fingers fan out, smoothing out his shirt, and his breathing becomes shallow—"of your attraction to me."

There is no sound, not even a breath, just the barest heave of his chest inches away. We're playing on the edge of a cliff with no harness; one shove and we both tumble down. In the vacuumous silence, I know I've won. I'm the original prize. His shirt slips through my fingers with the barest touch when I let go.

It's enough to send him over.

His lips slam onto mine. With a gasp, I grab him by the collar as his hand trails behind my neck, and he pushes me back against the stone wall.

This is why changing stalls are not made for banter.

Our kiss is hungry, numbing, except for the shock of his touch. Space scarce, I curl one leg underneath me and the other splays across his lap. Maybe it's the residual hormones floating in the air from the Quirky girls, but good Godric, Potter knows how to kiss and move his hands and do whatever he's doing right now, and when I pull away, he growls, "Shut up, Fitzgerald," even though I don't say anything.

Letting this continue might be the worst idea since Pickett's last idea, but I'm enjoying this, and from his curving smile on my lips, he's enjoying that I'm enjoying this.

I lose my fingers in his hair and an errant sigh escapes when he presses the small of my back. It's slightly terrifying to find that Potter can take charge like this and how oddly fit he is under that scrawny frame. He still might not give James a run for his money in that department, but James also isn't flush against me, skimming his fingers at the edge of my shirt, and making it hard not to moan.

If he asks nicely later, I might consider today's argument a stalemate.

I don't know how long I've been thinking 'Just another second and I'll stop', but long enough that neither of us hear the door creak nor the approaching footsteps nor Dom sliding open the curtains.

"Clemen—oh my god!"

With a gasp, Albus and I break apart, knees knocking and elbows bruising. My head hits a brick above and I nearly kick him in the face.

Changing stalls aren't made for snogging either.

Dom is only now peeking back in. "Um..." She looks as flustered as we do. Her eyes are at the floor at my discarded robes and jumper. "What is going on?"

I brush my hair back and pat my cheeks as if it's supposed to stop it from reddening. "Investigative journalism?" My voice is a note too high.

Albus hides himself behind a knee and is completely rumpled from hair to shirt. If my head hadn't cleared up, I could almost grab him for another snog. Dom can't see the smirk playing on his lips but I can—he regrets nothing.

I shrug at her. "Well, he doesn't have a girlfriend."



A/N One of the things I've always wanted to write is that classically-cliched broom closet style scene. It never really fit in any of my other fics, but at last! I get my wish :D -steeple hands- It's been ages since I've written a kiss scene xD I think I had a little too much fun with this one.

Coming up!
His mouth quirks upwards, and it wouldn't catch me off-guard if he hadn't been so completely blank before. "I wanted to see if you wanted to crash the Q.G.A. meeting with me."

"What," I snort, "like a date?"


Chapter 7: Kiss Me Twice, Shame On Me
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♥ ci by julia/ahoythere


Dom storms into our room, dragging me along. She shuts and locks the door with a flick of her wand, and corners me against my desk—which is an amazing feat considering our room is circular—and the wand is now pointed at me. "Explain what I just saw and don't give me that 'it's not what it looks like' shit."

"Is the wand really necessary?" I ask, flicking it back.

She withdraws for a moment, saying with pout, "...I like being dramatic," before waving it in my face with renewed fury. "Don't change the subject! How long has this been going on?"

"For the thirty seconds before you interrupted us. It was just the heat of the moment." Lots of heat, lots of fuzzy blank spots... Circe, Dom has every right to judge me. I shake my head clear. "Lapse of judgment on both our parts, all right?"

"Lapse?" She draws herself up like a frill-necked lizard. "A lapse does not adequately describe this. This is like a bloody chasm, like Mariana Trench. Of all the blokes to snog, you choose my cousin, the one boy people are expecting a story on—"

"I know, I know."

"—which would include you if I hadn't been the one to catch you two!"

"Who barges into a changing stall? I could've been naked." Which reminds me, I still need to change and shower. Dom can't question me there.

"With my cousin? Oh, that's loads better." She harangues me all the way to my wardrobe. When I grab for a clean shirt, she swipes it out of my hand. "You know why I barged in? You were moaning, bloody moaning. I thought you were in pain! Trust me, if I knew you were about to shag him, I would've stayed far, far away."

"I was not about to shag him," I retort, grabbing a new shirt. "Maybe second base."

Her face scrunches up. "Ugh. So what—what is this, then? Albus doesn't have a girlfriend and he fancies you—"

"He knows better than to fancy me," I correct immediately. "It's a passing infatuation."

"And he planted the girlfriend story, why?"

People plant stories for all sorts of reasons: sabotage, media play, any sort of manipulation you can think of. Potter has something up his sleeve, but after I called him out for the story and for his obsession with me, who knows if he's switched his plans—or if he still has a plan. I wouldn't be surprised if the kiss was just a distraction to throw me off.

It worked, after all.

"I don't know. I just snogged Albus. Does it sound like I'm in a right state of mind?" Dom can threaten the French Revolution all over again, but I'll never admit that I honestly have no idea what's going on.

She crosses her arms. "At least you know that it was stupid."

"Well, I don't intend to do it again." One moment of stupidity a year isn't so bad. He's easy enough on the eyes and I probably would have continued until second base. Now it's done and over with, and I'd just like to move past the mortification phase.

Dom has the audacity to grumble at me, and I slap her arm. "You are actively trying to break up Rose and Scorpius—you are not one to scold me about anything. How did that go, anyway?"

"It didn't happen," she scowls. Note that she doesn't deny my accusation. "You didn't answer your compact when I wanted to tell you because you were shoving your tongue down my cousin's throat."

With the amount of eye-rolling we're doing, we might as well both be staring at the ceiling. "You're holding this over me forever, aren't you? Don't tell Pickett or Janey by the way, at least not yet. I want to put it in the past first." Remembering the shirt in my hand, I throw my pajama bottoms and a pair of knickers over my shoulder and head toward the shower.

She harrumphs. "I didn't think you'd go for Al."

"Yeah, well I didn't expect him to kiss like—"

Her hands fly to the side of her head. "Okay, shutting my ears now."

But it doesn't completely deter her, and barely a second later she stomps over and stops me by the doorway, her arm acting as a barricade. "You don't just snog someone out of nowhere. Do you fancy him?"

"Of course not, he's just..." How to describe an enigma? "...interesting."

"Circe, you would like that. So what are you going to do about it?"

"Nothing?" I say, which immediately puts a frown on her face.

"That's no fun."

"Dom!"

"I can't help it!" Her mouth curves briefly. "What else am I supposed to do? Rose and Scorpius aren't fun anymore, and you hand me this. You expect me to not meddle?" Unfortunately, as the best friend, Dom is somewhat entitled to stick her delicate little nose into my love life.

"Boo hoo," I say, trying to push her out of the way. "Al and I had our tension and we let it go. It's all done and dealt with. Really, do you think I'd moon over him?"

"I didn't think you'd practically shag him with clothes on—"

The rattle of the doorknob interrupts and we jump. We quiet quick enough to hear a muffled 'Alohomora'. The door clicks open and Appy, of all the possible people, peeks in.

"Did you know the door's locked?" she asks.

Dom and I look in separate directions and I respond first with a clear of my throat. "Er, sorry." I'd love to tell Appy to get out, but she unfortunately lives here, too.

Appy waggles her brows. "So what were you guys talking about? I heard shag. Scandal?"

"Um, shag... pile carpet." I give the excuse a seven out of ten. "They installed one in a teacher's office." I limbo under Dom's arm and into the bathroom. This conversation can't end quick enough.

"Did they?" Appy's smile dimples a little more, which, coupled with her love of ruffles, makes her the spitting image of a murderous clown. It's almost as if she found out about my little tête-à-tête with Potter. She would kill over that. "Well, I guess there isn't much talk on anything except the break-up."

My ears perk up. Dom practically charges toward her. "What break-up?"

"Rose... and Scorpius?" Appy blinks, her blank slow-wittedness dragging out the answer. "That's all they're talking about in the common room."

Dom and I take one look at each other and dash out of the room, and I throw my clean clothes back into my wardrobe.

Dom takes the words right out of my mouth. "Damn it! How did we miss it?"


::



"How did you miss it?" Pickett buries his head in his hands. "God, and you were obsessed with them. I will never understand you."

"Ah well, you know. Friend went to the loo," Dom mutters, glancing at me. "Can't let her go alone."

Luckily, Janey saw the break-up and she's come all the way down from Ravenclaw tower to tell us about it, which is why she gets the prime spot of the Slytherin seventh year boys dorm: Pickett's chair. It's the only chair left in the room that doesn't wobble or squeak or look like modern art (something about transfiguration drinking games). Meanwhile, Dom and I are shoved onto Pickett's bed, which he uses as a dirty laundry landfill.

"I don't know what to tell you guys," Janey says, adjusting her glasses. "It wasn't anything exciting. No tears, even. I don't think anyone would have even noticed anything different between Rose and Scorpius if Tamsin hadn't been talking so loudly." Rose's blabbermouth chum Tasmin Greenwood is Merlin's gift for gossipers everywhere. Her mouth is like a flytrap, and she never has the volume dial under eleven. "People started listening in after hearing something about a break-up. Asking Rose if it was true. And... she said yes. And that's it."

It takes a few seconds of silence for Janey's conclusion to become apparent. Dom knits her brows. "That's it?"

"That's it." Janey shrugs. "Scorpius wasn't even there. He'd already left. Not in a rage or anything but like it happened ages ago, and we're just hearing it now."

"There's no story in that," I sigh. No scene, no motive, not even a time-stamp.

Dom shakes her head. "No, there's a story regardless. I've got enough things from Scorpius, but..." Her face screws up like a walnut—a brilliantly complexioned walnut. "This is just so anti-climatic."

"I'm so sorry Rose isn't wallowing in a pit of despair."

Dom jabs an elbow at me, eyes flicking momentarily at Pickett who is keeping mum on the topic. "Don't give me sarcasm," she says. "You're disappointed, too."

"I'm disappointed because I thought we had something big," I say. The universe had split in two when Rose and Scorpius got together; they've been the center of our biggest stories for the past year. "But you—you're disappointed that Rose isn't suffering more."

"See, it's not just me," Pickett mutters.

"I can't believe you both!" The way Dom's looking between us, it's as if Pickett and I just told her we eloped to Gretna Green. She whirls to Janey.

"Don't get me involved," Janey squeaks, holding her hands up.

I cross my arms and Pickett remains poker-faced. Dom gets desperate without allies.

"I know I can be a bitch but honestly, it's not like—I'm not—" With one last sharp inhale, Dom sinks into the bed, arms limp. She scrabbles for her hair to tuck it behind her ear, and for a split-second, she looks pale and flat-featured and less than perfect. "I—I don't come off that bad, do I?"

The rarest sight in Hogwarts: Princess Dominique, humbled.

Pickett is the one who steps up and answers, a grin lifting his lips. "Of course you do."

Janey and I can't help but snicker. Dom glares but she's lost her bite. She's furiously red—that is, until Pickett sits by her and throws an arm around her shoulders. She snaps her out of her wallowing long enough to shove him into his hellish pit of unwashed clothes, where a teetering pile of boxers plummets on his face.

Pickett sputters out a sock, that idiotic grin of his still hanging on.

Finally, Dom laughs, too.


::



Shock of the Decade: Scorpius admits, 'I never loved Rose.'

That headline sits in every loo from the dungeons to the towers. Every girl and ghost has seen it by the evening.

It's a smashing issue, all thanks to Dom's ability to pull a story out of her arse with out-of-context quotes and break every therapist-patient confidentiality rule a dozen times over. It isn't very scathing; it just homes in on how loveless it was and essentially asserts that it's Rose's fault she couldn't keep him. And really, that's all Dom wants to point out.

Still, I thought she was on friendlier terms with Scorpius than that—at least on a 'I'll-keep-this-mum' basis. Dom said that he wouldn't mind, that he'd like all of this to be in the open anyway. If he does mind, I'm sure she'd find some way to convince him otherwise.

Funny thing, the human mind. Even if you're staunchly set, if you hear enough opposition, doubt creeps in. We're self-conscious creatures. It's easier to be wrong with someone else than stand alone, even if you're right.

Down by the Charms corridor, late one evening, I see a pair of stretched shadows, melded together like lovers. When I trace them to their source, I realize it's Dom and Scorpius—conversing, not kissing—by the high arched windows at the end of the hall. Trick of the light.

Maybe it's Dom and her charisma again or the feeling like I'm watching something illicit, but I can't look away. Painted in the red-orange of dusk, it's picture-perfect. Scorpius smiles faintly when they leave together, not like a boy with a broken heart, but one anticipating the future. My visions blurs and the hallway falls dark in the last minutes of sunset.

I have to remind myself, repeating it over and over in my head, that I was too far to see clearly and I must have imagined most of it.

And yet, when I reach the Great Hall and I see them sitting together, the same smile on Scorpius' lips, I have to wonder: did I?


::



Dom, Pickett, and I make quite the racket when walking down a hallway.

Or to be precise, Dom and Pickett do.

They've been arguing about Dom's Hogsmeade date with that Hufflepuff Sean. She's still stuck on him, at least according to our current conversation, which relieves my worries about her and Scorpius a fair bit.

"It's not as if you don't know where he's been—you know exactly where he's been." Pickett counts on his fingers. "Alisha, Evelyn, your own roommate Harriet..."

Dom tosses her hair. "Since when are you my dating authority? Just yesterday you were still haranguing me about Scorpius."

"Not going after taken men is only a mild step up."

"I wasn't going after him in the first place!"

As the squabbling reaches an incoherent din, my attention flicks up ahead, where a familiar dark-haired enigma is ambling toward us. His steps slow, gaze steady on mine.

Dom suddenly hauls Pickett forward.

"What are you—"

She thrusts her free hand in front, waving at air. "Oh look, something suspicious! Your favorite kind of thing!"

Pickett sputters for help, and then frowns questioningly at Albus who stops in front of me. But before he can say anything, he's overpowered by Dom's strong grip and disappears down the hallway.

Albus turns around to watch, and it gives me a moment to consider him. He doesn't seem different—not more purposeful or nervous than previous days. A bit restless perhaps, as his fingers fiddle with the bottom button of his shirt. It's a habit of his.

"Does he know?" he asks, turning to me. He looks almost sleepy, and I can't tell what's on his mind.

"No." My voice is sharp. Nothing's changed and he shouldn't think so, either.

These things never work out cleanly. That's the worst part: there are no take-backs. I don't need a memory of the incident every time I see him. That sort of distraction is for lesser beings, but unfortunately, I am merely mortal. The incident might not mean anything, but it'll still show up on my face, in my voice, in the way I look at him. Potter will be—for the better part of two months or however long until this fades away—that bloke I quite enjoyed snogging in the changing room.

I like control, and these subconscious twitches don't do it for me.

Upon a second glance, Potter does seem different. A little more cautious. "Does anyone else..."

"No," I say again. "No one knows except Dom, and I'd like to keep it that way. Look, I don't really want to do the whole talk—"

"Good. Neither do I."

My unfinished sentence careens to a stop, a traffic jam on my tongue, and its swallowed back down in a flood of relief. At least he makes it easy. "So it's all settled. Just one of those hormonal—"

"—spur of the moment—" he cuts in, and our sentences tumble together.

"—bad things happening in small spaces—"

"—grateful that you saved me—"

"—snogfests," I finish, but a frown flashes across my face at the last second.

Is it possible to be too calm?

Hormonal banter and firewhiskey can be equally potent, but let's face it: we were a damn lot more lucid than any drunk-in-the-closet snog. I haven't exactly spent my previous years tumbling around with boys, but he had to have—Circe, now I remember why I don't do this—felt something. As a matter of pride, mind you. But it could be a lot worse. I should be thankful that he's not hovering over me like he owns me, like he's melted the ice queen.

I clear my throat. "Good, I'm glad we have an understanding. Is that all?"

His mouth quirks upwards and it wouldn't catch me off-guard if he wasn't so completely blank before. "I wanted to see if you wanted to crash the Q.G.A. meeting with me."

"What," I snort, "like a date?"

His brow arches. Amused? Intrigued? "Only if you want it to be."

"Pretty rubbish first date, if you ask me."

"I think you'd like it. It's catered—that's food taken care of. Then we'll follow up with making comments in the back row and feeling superior every time they say something stupid. There's the entertainment."

I laugh and he cocks his head to the side wonderingly.

"You're serious," I say.

"You're interested."

All right, I admit: the little twinkle in his eye, the speech like he knows me? Charming. But underneath, it's still only a contest of who gets the last word. "Please don't tell me this is where you take other girls on a date."

"This is the part where I say, you're not like other girls, right?" He likes stare downs, just as I do. He can see everything—every breath, every reflex—but so can I. For all our lofty wordplay, it's alarmingly intimate. "For the record, I didn't say it's a date. I just want to see a meeting for myself. Have you ever been to one?"

"God, no."

"Aren't you curious?"

I stare at him and can't help but laugh. "Is this how you end up in shit?" No wonder he seeks me out.

He shrugs, unfazed. "Just some fun."

"Fun," I repeat. I take everything I've said about this boy back: he's unstable. "Going into a room full of girls who attacked you yesterday and whose brains combined could almost be the size of"—I hold a finger and thumb up with a rather generous space between them—"a grape... is fun?"

"I can take them. Loosen up, Fitzgerald."

“And now you're telling me to loosen up?"

Albus takes one step toward me, one step too close, and the barest hint of a gasp escapes. The soap is in the air again and I feel his body against mine before the memory flashes away.

"I might be a 'preachy oversensitive twit'"—his gaze drops to my feet, taking its time roaming back up—"but I've been in a lot more trouble than you have."

My throat is thick. We've kept things light until now. I didn't even press any of his usual buttons. Isn't that what he wants?

"So, Clemence?"

I don't trust myself to say anything, lest I confirm that he's getting under my skin. "Time?"

"Noon," he murmurs so close that his breath feels solid. "Sixth floor, by the north stairwell."

There's no reason for our proximity other than him relishing having the upper hand. A thread of his old self lingers in his voice, the one who had said that he despised me so. He has plans still, folded by his chest.

This is no innocent flirtation; this is seduction.

His hand is under my chin but not touching, and his lips are before mine, not kissing. As soon as my eyes flutter closed, the suffocating warmth dissipates. He walks away, Cheshire smirk hanging in the air.




Chesire reference to Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland
A/N For the record, the transfiguration drinking game is called Transfictionary in my head. Oh and hey, look at Albus just kind of casually steaming up the place -innocent whistle- I wonder what he has up those rolled up sleeves.

Coming up:

My gaze lowers. "Why are you here, Rose?"

"I told you why I'm here."

"Why else? Why now?"


Chapter 8: And All the Girls and Boys Merely Players
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chapter image by me

. 8 .


A day can waste away right before my eyes in the Speak Easy. There's quite literally something in the haze, some lingering enchantments of the Room of Requirement that makes time slow down. It shines—that's the best way to describe it. When I breathe, I'm not choking on the idiocy stinking up the rest of the castle.

There is tea and Pickett's babbling to occupy me but, try as I might, my eyes can't resist flitting toward the chess corner. My neck prickles in anticipation, like Potter's about to walk through the door any moment. I don't know what to expect anymore. If he's up to something, he would have had cues—cues that I brushed off because I thought he was just another bitter victim. Pickett and Dom warned me about him, on separate occasions no less, and I should've known better. It's always the quiet ones.

I will admit, without any additional footnote, that I've underestimated Albus. I still do. Arrogance will be my downfall, and I prefer it that way; the only person who will topple me is myself, with my large cancerous ego, not some boy who suddenly decides to play up his cryptic reputation. If he thinks he'll get the jump with a game of seduction, he will be sorely disappointed.

The metal tea tray catches the glint of my gritted teeth. Pickett stops mumbling about Odgen's new Double-Flaming Firewhiskey line and squints at me. I sheepishly loosen my grim smile.

So Potter's got me looking as if I'm about to murder the air. I can't help that he's struck a nerve. Or five. Whether he makes googly eyes at me or not, nothing's changed since he's first declared I'm a no-good stink on the school. It doesn't change the fact that he hates all that I represent, and I can't take that as anything but offense. If he doesn't like me for my opinions or my personality, what would it be then? My looks?

I glance back at the tray, which reflects the same freckled scowl I see every morning. Large foreheads are not the new chic, Clemence. Don't even try.

Vanity aside (he got that right about me), Potter's only interested in me because he wants to sate some morbid curiosity, and while it's been fun, I am not to be used and abused. I am—

A loud clash of plates and silverware spins my head toward the chess corner, where a Gryffindor-robed boy is kneeling on the ground, helping a house elf pick up fallen spoons. My throat closes in a choke. When did Potter—?

It's just a Frankenstein trick of the light, a mirage meshing Eddie's body and the top of a chess player's hair. The latter spots me watching and waves from his seat. I barely recognize him as Dennis Ichobod, who's sporting newly-dyed black hair, styled like a greasy kitchen scrub. It's not a pretty sight.

But there's something more disturbing than Dennis looking like a punk chicken, and the thought stakes into my brain until I heed it. That jump in my veins: was it perfectly timed with the crash or did it happen a moment after, when I thought I saw him?

A hot flash seeps into my cheeks as I relive last week. My eyes squeeze shut.

You're slipping.


::



Dom's on the Quidditch pitch. Merlin does not have enough mercy to spare us.

One of the regular Beaters, Wesbeck Jordan, injured his leg in a "freak" accident (Pickett pointed a finger to the Gryffindor team) involving a rabid Kneazle jumping out of his cauldron during Potions. While he was under assault, he fell into another cauldron, fainting from the residual Draught of Living Death left inside. For his final act, his belt loop got caught on a screw, so not only was he unconscious, he was unconscious with his trousers at his knees and his niffler knickers on display.

The physical trauma should heal completely. The mental trauma's worth a couple years of therapy.

Our captain Will calls up Dom to fill in. She insists on accompaniment to practice, so while Pickett's in class, I'm her chauffeur. We've been waiting for Will to bring out the gear trunk, but it's been ten minutes and he hasn't returned.

Dom swings her beater bat up and down, testing its weight with a gleeful spark in her eye. "There is nothing like smashing a few bones in the morning."

The tendency for murder is a Slytherin trait. I blame the Sorting Hat. No one ever understands when I explain why the Houses are such a problem. We're such carefully shaped products of our social strata—what were the Founders on, thinking it's in our best interest to be housed amongst students like ourselves? Let's make all the brave idiots live together for seven years and call them Gryffindors! Let's not shove a 'Claw in there so they can't gain some sense, nor a 'Puff for humility, nor a Snake for some class. Honestly, they probably could've dodged the glut of the Death Eaters if they just stuck a few more Muggleborns and a few less pompous arses in our House. Impress upon the importance of diversity and tolerance. How's that for preventing a war?

I know we've been waiting too long when I start going off on historical-political tangents.

Harriet Nott, the other Beater and the only girl on the regular line-up, kicks up the ice on the grass. "Honestly, what's taking so long?"

The four boys of the team have taken to their brooms, playing some mid-air limbo to pass the time. They don't seem to mind at all. But for me, it's cold and I was dragged here against my wishes, so if Will could just be a little faster than Binn's droning...

The sound of squabbling emerges from the supply closets. Will finally appears, but he's not alone. He's got one end of the gear trunk and the Gryffindor captain Riley is hauling the other.

"This practice time's been booked since December!"

"Not according to the calendar!"

"You probably blasted it off, you manky—"

"Lads, calm down before I make you calm down." Madame Hooch, who's been following behind them, pushes the trunk to the ground. A hundred and twenty and she's still got it.

The arguing continues at the edge of the pitch and Dom, Harriet, and I collectively sigh.

"Double booked a practice again, go figure. This is going to take ages to sort out," Dom grumbles. "Thought it was strange when I saw Alice down in the showers."

I've only just noticed the Gryffindor team milling about. Some are freshly arriving. Alice and Violet are chatting underneath an overhang.

Harriet drops her broom, dries up a patch of grass with her wand, and sits down. "So, mi'favorite ladies, what's going on with your lives?"

Dom and I glance at each other too quickly and too guiltily. Snogging in a dressing stall? Stealing a cousin's boyfriend? But Dom doesn't know that I saw her with Scorpius in the hallway.

Brow slightly raised, Harriet seems to catch onto us, and she does the hard part for me. "Oi, Dom, I've been hearing about you and Scorpius. Is it true?"

"What? Oh, those rumors? Don't listen to them." Dom recovers quick. I'd be convinced if I didn't see the proof before my eyes. "I'm just helping him get through a rough spot. Break-ups are tough for laddies, but they've got no one to go to."

"That's sweet, though."

"Helping him by stealing him away from Rose?" I mutter before I can stop myself.

Dom's smile drops, slack-jawed. Harriet stares as well. "What?" Dom utters.

This isn't going to be pretty no matter how I present it. "Excuse us for a sec," I say to Harriet, tugging my dear harlot's sleeve.

There's already anger forming in Dom's brow, and I know she must think I'm dredging up old news again. I pull her to the benches, nearly impaling myself on an icicle as I duck under the overhang.

"Dom, sorry but—"

"I thought I explained—"

"I saw you and Scorpius together," I say before she can get any other words out. "In the hallways, few days ago."

The lines on her face harden. "You were eavesdropping?"

"Dom, no—"

Her arms are crossed but she's no cowering flower. "Maybe, just because you lot insisted I was going after Scorpius, I decided to prove you right!"

"Dom! Are you even listening to yourself?"

There's a thin line for bitchiness. It is one thing to stir up drama and another to become its queen.

After a moment, her fists release and her arms fall. She sighs, "You're just worried, I know."

"So it's true then?"

"It's not what you think!" She paces around the small hollow. It’s a little threatening when she’s got her broom around. "Weren't you all the way across the hall? You were probably just seeing things."

I suppose it wouldn't be so surprising; my little episode in the Speak Easy told me that much. But I'm unable to shake the intimacy from my mental image of them. I know Dom. Impassive as she appears, the satisfaction hiding under her skin surfaces eventually.

"You like the rumors, don't you?" I say, frowning. "I know you've heard people talking. Talking about you and Rose, on which one's better suited for him."

She smiles slightly, digging her heel in the dirt. "I might be reveling in the Anti-Rose sentiments of late." Sighing, she bites her lip, and glances at the players on the pitch, all still too far to overhear. "You might not remember, but Rose and I were all right when we started Hogwarts. Going to a new place, you tend to stick to who you know. We'd get in trouble sometimes. Small stuff, like skiving off Charms. But it always seemed to be my fault somehow." She shakes her head. "It wasn't obvious, oh no, and when I told her she laughed. But I could tell. The way she talked about me to our friends and to the professors and to—to everyone else who listened to her—I was a disappointment. Her bloody scapegoat. And six years later, she still has the audacity to think she's better than me."

Dom spits out the last three words and waits for my response, but I don't have one. I've seen so many feuds that I like to think I'd just understand, but I don't. I don't know what to do when it hits close to home.

Silence follows until the Quidditch clamor reaches our ears.

"I'm sorry," I say at last.

Dom sighs again, spent in her rant. "Don't worry about it. It probably is silly."

I let her be. The clamor at the center of the pitch grows, where our lovely captain is sticking up a most friendly gesture at the Gryffindor team. Hooch deducts five points.

"Ugh, we should get back." Dom hauls up her broom.

We trek into the shivering cold and find that, by Hooch's orders, Gryffindor and Slytherin are to share practice space for the day. We have the north end, while they have the south.

The Gryffindor rabble jeer at us as they take off. At least they can’t get the spelling wrong verbally, as opposed to the giant poster they put up outside our common room last month—"Dunjeon Scum, Death Eaters, and Dark Lords Report Hear." Never would've happened if the Sorting Hat chucked a Ravenclaw into Gryffindor. Their maturity is a lost cause, though.

One player is still on the ground. Upon a second glance, I see that he's watching me.

Upon a third, I see it's Albus.

Dom notices him right after I do and gives me a knowing look before joining her team. Albus must be filling in for their Seeker. He plays better than the current one but doesn't have time to play a full season, according to his mates. Merlin knows he just doesn't want the additional fan girls mobbing him down.

He's turned away when I look again. I shouldn't over-think. It's just a trifling coincidence of wrong-place-wrong-time. Nothing can conspire anyway; we're out in the open. Prepared to leave for the stands, I wave goodbye to Dom. A heavy fabric drops on my head, plunging me into darkness.

For a full second, I stand stock-still. It has a funny effect—one really can't fault the parrots for thinking it's night time. If someone's trying to kidnap me, I'd probably be doomed.

But I remember the scent immediately, the same that seeped into my clothes that one day, and I lift a flap over my head to spot Potter just as he swings his leg over his broomstick. His outermost cloak is distinctly missing.

"Doubt it's very comfortable, being so cold all the time," he says with a light grin.

That’s not even clever.

"Har har, Potter," I say with a halting incredulousness. People aren't exactly staring, but our presence is suddenly stark against the grey morning. "What are you—?"

He flies off before I get an answer. He doesn't look back.

I can hear Harriet's chuckle as she swoops down beside me with Dom following.

"So you and—"

"No," I say immediately. I'd been clenching the cloak tight around myself, and only now do I relax my fingers and let it sag by my legs. As soon as the musky warmth leaves, a blast of wind shakes me to my bones and I am, once again, utterly cold.

"Oh yeah, I can see how it'd be strange. I just thought—" Harriet giggles and doesn't go on. "Is it true that he's with someone?"

"Er, no. That was a mistake. I called off the Girlfriend Watch yesterday." Dom is giving me more looks.

She nods. "For the best, yeah? I heard a bunch of, you know, those girls a couple days ago going absolutely bonkers over him. Gag!"

I chuckle along with her, cursing inwardly; it's the first time that Potter and I ever rose suspicions, however inconsequential, and—it's his fault?

But he hates attention. He’s got more to lose than I do.

I pull the cloak back over my shoulders.


::



A delicate balance maintains my common sense. People like me and Potter aren't governed by the rules of typical courtship—and I can hardly call this thing between us a courtship. He is not boy trouble. He is a chess game.

Appropriately, the only clear memory I can seem to grasp at the moment is our singular chess game, still untainted by our physical affairs. I first saw the cracks in his pieces then, like flecks of chipping paint, revealing the not-so-golden boy of repute.

The white knight, losing his luster.

He has neither stone nor faith to protect him but persistence and cunning will save him in the end—Slytherin tricks. Both sides fall around him. Marble crashes harder than blood. When he comes face to face with the king, he will raise his sword like the others.

He marches forward and lifts his helm, and I know those green eyes will be underneath. His fingers wrap around his sword, the same fingers that pulled me astride him in the dressing stall, marking my waist with red—

I suck in a breath. This is not focusing; this is fantasizing.

He leans in with a grin fit for a snake, close enough to kiss.

Check

"Love."

Pickett's voice jolts me back into reality. The only fingers I see are two of Pickett's in front of my nose, poised to snap. "Are you having elaborate, metaphorical daydreams again? Because if you are, that's the third time this week."

My expression remains stony. He takes it as an affirmation and nods. "You had this really pretentious look on your face."

"Oh, shut up."

"What was it?"

"You can know when you become an Occulmens."

"You know I don't trust those," he grins, so proud of himself. He even made himself a tinfoil hat once, as if masquerading as a shiny gnome is supposed to stop magic.

I pour myself another cuppa, letting my nose bask in the steam. It's too easy to drift off again with nothing to catch my attention. Most people are still in class, and the Speak Easy is practically deserted, save for a few house elves.

"It's him, isn't it?"

I look up quicker than I should and a corresponding amusement paints Pickett's face.

"Shit, Clemence, you think it's that hard to see through you?" He lifts the pot from my hand. "Dom isn't as great of an actress as she thinks she is, and you aren't infallible."

"I never said I'm infallible."

"You think you are."

Remembering my tea, I take a sip and watch the specks drift down to the bottom of the cup. "I'm not lovey dovey over him, but..."

He grins. My very own friends like to watch me squirm more than Potter does. "He's getting under your skin?"

Or my shirt. I blink the image away. "It's like that's his goal." A kiss, a cloak, and a date—of sorts—to throw me off balance.

Pickett leans back, lips pursed in thought, and I bristle already at what he might say. He has a heart, unlike the rest of us, and it gives sight to the parts of me that I don't utter aloud for my own sake. He's known me long enough for that to be dangerous.

I clear my throat. "Shouldn't you be worrying about Dom and Scorpius? You being in love with her and all."

His mouth open like a goldfish and he is a sliver away from toppling off his chair. "Why would you say that?"

"You aren't infallible either."

He raises a finger, but the creak of the door interrupts him. A house elf greets the new guest with a bow, who sweeps in with a smile that quickly morphs into a grimace when she spots me.

Rose.

I don't have anything personally against Rose—we've hardly ever talked—but what Dom tells me takes its toll. We've avoided each other, and it's worked for the best. This is the first time in ages that she's explicitly sought me out. I gesture to a chair, which she takes with a slight smile.

"Clemence."

"Rose."

"Henry," whispers the shunt out third wheel.

Rose and I glance at him before turning away. He sighs heavily and pours her tea.

Rose folds her hands together in front of her. "I'll get to the point. You—your paper slandered me this issue. 'Scorpius never loved me'?"

So she's here for reparations. "I left that article up to Dom's discretion. There was a footnote about that."

"Well, you're aware of what Dom and I are like. The whole school knows, of course."

"Of course."

Her smile is strained, but when is it not? Though she usually fidgets more than this around me, so I laud her for keeping her gaze straight.

"She won't reason with me," Rose says. "She’ll never write what she knows to be true. There will always be something out of context... something misconstrued. I know you won't stop publishing things, but I thought I'd at least try giving you my side."

She closes a hand around her cup, nodding to Pickett in thanks. He's happy enough to be noticed. "Scorpius and I are still on friendly terms. It's—it's not that he didn't love me. He didn't, but not in the way Dom put it. Not so... heartlessly. It just didn't work out. There's a difference."

"My readers know there's a tendency for exaggeration in my—"

"Don't."

It is that single sharp word that jars me out of my routine.

I've compared her to Dom many times before, but never has it ever been so obvious. There's a regal quality in the way Rose carries herself. She is unwilling to be pushed around, and when she is, she will build herself up again without thought. Without a whimper. Without scars.

The rook.

My gaze lowers. "Why are you here, Rose?"

"I told you why I'm here."

"Why else? Why now?"

Confusion and anticipation meld together on her face, but Rose pick ups the sudden change in pace of our conversation. "Felicity said I should give you a chance. And I don't want things to turn uglier than they already are."

"What things?"

Frowning, she sets down her tea. "You don't see it yet."

Her disbelief is genuine and worry sinks into me. A sudden chirping alarm breaks the silence.

"I, um—" Rose hurries to stand, glancing at her cuckoo watch. "I've got class. I better go. But—"

She pauses behind her chair before she pushes it in. Her lips are tight and thin. "Maybe you don't think much of the feud between me and Dom because you're close to her. Stuff like this must be nothing after seeing it so much. But other people have strong opinions. You know what they call us—"

The Rebel and the Good Girl.

"—and you know what the girls in this school are like—"

Single-minded and obsessive.

"—and you know what they're capable of."

Tearing apart anyone in their way.

I nod, and with a returning nod, she departs.

After Rose is gone, Pickett hunches forward, arms on the table. "What was that?"

How I wish I could be as clueless he looks right now. I hold my cup out for a refill. "War is coming. Brace yourself."




Chapter title adapted from Shakespeare's As You Like It.

A/N At last, an update! I'll probably keep updating for awhile, though I'm also trying to update Capers monthly and uni's going to be terrible for me this quarter.

This is a pretty important chapter, because it sets up a lot of Rose-Dom conflict I’ve been skirting around, so I finally knuckled down and wrote it right. Twilight levels of frenzy, I say. And Al/Clem's big date/non-date is next chapter~

It's been a very long time since I've had to get into Clemence's head (and all her fantasies of Albus oohlala), so please do leave a review and tell me what you think! :) I'd really also like to know what you think about Rose and Dom.

Coming up: the "date"!
"I liked you better when you were bitter all the time," I mutter.

"I didn't know you liked me at all."


Chapter 9: Who Wears the Horns?
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chapter image by me

. 9 .


It only takes one girl to start a shakedown.

We're a society of followers, self-conscious down to the details, no matter how many be-yourselves and you're-beautiful-just-the way-you-ares you hear. If Miss Polly's Children's Hour has taught me anything, it's that moral lessons over the wireless are set-ups for a life of disappointment once kiddies realize those heartfelt lessons aren't actually society's rules. It'd be fine and dandy if everyone believed it, but we're born selfish. We don't seek improvement; we seek acceptance, which falls in line with our natural instinct to survive. Courtesy doesn't cut it, sugar.

Everyone goes through a bit of teenage peer pressure, some blatant, some not. It's the bits that aren't blatant that stick with you. Like when your bestie jokes about your funny smile, and she doesn't mean anything but now it's out in the open. You spend too long in front of a mirror twisting your mouth around like a contortionist, all because of a single sentence no one else thought twice about.

But then there are the extreme examples—and like anything extreme, they involve the Quirky girls.

As they walk down the hallways of Hogwarts, they may as well be wearing a sign that says 'LOVE ME' in big, bold desperate letters. Like 'Free Hugs', but you’d probably get crushed to death. They pack together senselessly like wildebeest, feeding each other sympathy and validation. They want princes and easy ways out. Reassurance that they're a special snowflake.

But then there is the one who taps into this mentality and corrals it as her own. The trick is to be a little more assertive than the herd. A little louder. A little luckier.

Then she's got followers—and followers are strength. It only takes one girl agreeing to make you sound correct, but you'll need twice as many naysayers to discredit you—our funny flawed sense of credibility at work.

It's in our nature to get other people to believe what we believe. To reassure ourselves that we are correct and, more importantly, that we are not alone. We don't survive alone.

Everyone gets swept in. Listening, idolizing, forgetting how to think. With the crowd behind you, you've won.

You don't have to be like everyone else if everyone else wants to be like you.


::



The first shirt I see gives me a good laugh.

I just got the dish on the 'Puff prefects selling fairy dust under the table, and I'm heading back to the dungeons when this first year barrels down the other side of the hall. Her robes flap open, revealing the tee underneath and the scarlet letters emblazoned across the front: TEAM ROSE. Cute, if a bit weird.

Later, Demmie passes by, having snuck out of the kitchen with an armful of biscuits. She's sporting a similar shirt, but this one is painted with giant purple letters. TEAM DOM.

I remember Rose's warning. New developments in Hogwarts are hardly ever good, and if they are, they turn bad very quickly.

I mention these events to Dom in the morning as we get dressed.

"Honestly, even if the Scorpius thing isn't a big deal to you, people are getting caught up in it." I pull my arm through the sleeve of my blouse. "I think they're making team shirts."

"They're making shirts?!" Dom peers around my mirror with demonic glee, curls bobbing around her face.

She clears her throat when I don't respond with a similar excitement. "I mean, they're making shirts? Do they have lives?" She mumbles a bit before her delight breaks free again. "So what do they look like? Are mine posher than Rose's?

I'm in the middle of rolling my eyes when Helen Nott bursts through our dorm's door, holding up a tee. "See for yourself!"

Dom practically prances all the way to her, manic thrill bursting out of every pore. "Bloody brilliant! Perfect font choice." Dom runs her hand over the gold embroidery. "I mean, I'd have kerned it a bit better but—no, I definitely love my followers."

"Your follow—" Oh Merlin, it's already beginning. "Dom, this is what a cult sounds like."

"My cult." She grins, doing a dance. "I mean, yeah, these girls are probably nuts, but look! They've made a shirt worshiping me! A shirt!"

She can't seem to emphasize the point enough. I don't know how I'd respond if it were a Team Clemence shirt in her hand instead (my name's too long to fit nicely anyhow), but Dom's reaction might be a sign that her big blonde head's growing too large to hold up.

I walk over and pull Dom away. "Don't encourage her, Helen."

Dom grumbles slightly, a huge smile smeared across her face. I finish buttoning my top, and she looks me up and down.

"You look nice. That thing is this morning, isn't it?" My thing with Albus, of course, but she minds her words, knowing Appy is in the loo.

Not that it helps. I don't even know where she came from, but Appy and her trail of glitter suddenly springs into the conversation like she apparated here. "You mean the Quirky Girls' First Annual Bash of the Year?" she squeals, hanging off my shoulder. "You're going?"

I wince before I respond. I can't believe I actually have to lie about my answer. "Oh no, sorry, I have to contribute to society today. I won't be able to make it."

Her smile falters slightly, but not entirely. Probably can't process that much sarcasm at once. "It's all right. I'll have the minutes available afterwards, so you won't miss anything important. Well, except the fun!" One of her legs bends backward into a princess pose and I can practically hear a sparkle ding in the air.

My plastered smile aches until I'm able to escape the room. Outside of the dungeons, I head toward the north staircase, walking up the twenty thousand steps to get anywhere in Hogwarts.

I smooth my skirt with my fingers. So I might have saved my better pair of leggings to wear today—not that I want to impress Potter. I just expect him to try to impress me. If he wants to seduce me or whatever this date-or-not-date's for, he's going to dress for it. If I don't dress to match, Merlin forbid, we'd just look silly, won't we?

I wait at our meeting point, which is thankfully deserted. Dead silent, actually. During the age of The Hogwarts Weekly, I did a series on the extra-haunted areas of Hogwarts (since technically, the whole castle is haunted). This area was the reign of a rare pirate wizard, Captain Barlingby, affectionately named Barnacles the Barmy. No relation to the other Barmy. This one chopped off a lot of heads.

Potter amended the meet-up time and said he'd be here at half past, but he's got to be bloody late by now. The only clock nearby is a balcony sundial which is lots of help with three days of sun a year.

Something brushes my arm and I spin around, frowning.

A strong grip takes me around the shoulder and my stomach sinks, with my immediate thought being I am being kidnapped by a homicidal pirate. A hand presses over my mouth before I can yell. Fuck. There is actually a possibility that I am actually being kidnapped by a homicidal pirate. Can't I go out in a dangerous investigation or by the hand of a bitter ex-source? Even a death by falling printing press?

There's a rustle of fabric and my panic subsides long enough for me to recognize the familiarity of the touch. A split-second later, Potter is before me, inches away and grinning. "Morning." He releases his hand.

"Don't do that," I gasp, ready to shove him, but the tingle of fright slackens my muscles.

"What, thought I was Barmy?"

I'm still trying to catch my breath. "That's ridiculous. Ghosts... ghosts are cold."

"I'm sure you can relate."

With my cursory survey, I can tell Albus is wearing a nicer shirt than usual and it fits him very well. His mouth sports that touch of boredom I've come to associate with him. Above our heads is a transparent, shimmering shroud. So that's how he snuck up. "Invisibility cloak? Is that the—"

"Not the famous one. Not since James filched it last year."

Ah yes, James' spree around London with his mates. Nothing too illegal, but Buckingham Palace has never been the same since.

"Lils gave this to me for my birthday," Albus says, adjusting the cloak's length so it covers our feet. He beckons me to start walking. "Got a few silencing spells woven into the fabric, too. Not going in that hellish party without that on our side. It's made for one, but I think we fit fine."

That's when I notice how small it is, and there's really no proximity except too close. He's still grinning at my expense. A pirate ghost, Clemence. Really, you're losing it.

"I liked you better when you were bitter all the time," I mutter.

"I didn't know you liked me at all."

"I—ugh." It's too early in the morning for this. "Can we skip over the next ten back-and-forths where I clarify and you jab back and I give an even snappier reply and you don't have anything clever to say, so you just get in my face and smirk?"

He steps into my path, stopping us both, smirk already in place. "What, you don't enjoy the last part? Because it seems like you do."

"It's predictable and trite."

"Fair enough." The smirk does not waver. We resume walking.

It still bothers me that we are decidedly undefined as we dabble in light conversation. The murky middle ground of not-mates, not-lovers—but not-enemies either. We could almost look back and laugh—'Hey, remember that time we tried to ruin each other's lives?'

The party’s held in Ballroom A, not that it's difficult to miss the rainbow of balloons decorating the entrance. A banner is draped across the front, declaring in bright pink, F.A.B. for First Annual Bash. If I never see another acronym ever again, it’ll be too soon.

Albus and I slip in on time for the end of Appy's welcome speech.

"... then we'll be the honoring some special members. Without them, Q.G.A. would not be what it is today. Remember: quirky today, quirky for life! Now, enough of my talking. Time to mingle!"

There are maybe sixty or so girls in the audience, not including the staff setting up the refreshments. Unfortunately, it seems that the club has gotten more popular since I last paid attention to it, even when taking account of food-moochers. Albus and I walk along the edge of the room, minding our position.

I've got to give Appy credit. Not many can pull off a party this impressive and creepy at the same time. Everything's got a boy's face on it, from the napkins to the All-Star Quidditch plates to the floating-head balloons. Even the food is themed. There's a meatloaf that appears to be in the shape of Potter's head. Sean Blackbury's posing on a cake. Bicep lollies. Leave it to Q.G.A. to provide girls the opportunity to eat a torso off of the star Keeper's face and wipe their mouth with six different fitty blokes. How can that even feel hygienic?

Unsurprisingly, knowing Appy's bias, most of the decorations are of Potter, who currently looks ready to throw up.

"Just... why?" he asks to no one, but I don't like leaving rhetorical questions hanging.

"Don't you ever listen to Appy?" My voice rises an octave and I turn off the bulk of my brain cells. "Albus Potter is so perfect, bluebirds weep when he talks. His hair is the eighth wonder of the world." He scoffs, but I have to listen to her every night; I will give a dedicated performance. "He once saved a family and twelve kittens from a burning barn. Voldemort would— "

I shut up when a giggling group rushes past us toward the fortune-telling booth, nicking the edge of the cloak. My words stall. Death by fangirl—a worse fate than Barmy. When I glance up at Albus, he doesn't seem the least bit perturbed. How can he, with all his paranoia, trust something so flimsy?

"Really though, Potter, aren't you used to this by now?"

"Unfortunately." He glances around to all the images of him floating above the chairs. His arm slips around my waist, nudging me closer. The slight change in proximity is enough for the cloak to shield us from head to toe again. "I didn't ask to be famous."

"Children in Africa don't ask to be starving. Suck it up. Everyone is born into problems."

"Yeah? What's yours?" He glances down at me for the first time in awhile, fixated.

"I'm an exception, of course."

His arm hasn't left its position. I'd point it out, but then I'd have to bring it out into the open. Even if I'm conscious what he's doing—I'll call it flirtatious sabotage—it's difficult to counter. He pays attention to the details—mussed his hair, doesn't pull me too close but just enough, and he knows I know.

I let my eavesdropping distract me. Albus has brought me to a zoo, each girl her own spectacle. A gaggle of younger Ravenclaws stream by, and one stops to show her napkin to her friend. She points at Brent's wrinkled face, now dotted with frosting and crumbs. "He going to marry me one day. He doesn't know it, but he will."

A whiny voice cries from the other direction. "Miles Wood?" Gryffindor's reserve chaser, Sandra, is shaking her head at one of the non-Albus balloons. "That fascist face does not deserve to be on here." Does she even know what fascist means?

Meanwhile, Albus palms a fortune cookie from the table and breaks it open. He mumbles the fortune to himself, snorting as he hands it to me. "Do they actually believe this?"

'Crushing on a taken guy? It's not cheating if you're his true love.’

I groan, crumpling the scrap of paper. It makes me sick, worse than the smell emanating from the meatloaf. The whole idea of Q.G.A. would be cute if they actually gave sensible advice. A support group to hold a girl's hand as she goes through the minefield of hormones. Instead, they tell girls they're entitled to everything—these boys, happily ever afters. If can't get their fairy tale, it's not their fault, because they are—as Miss Polly's lessons say—beautiful just the way they are, so even the slightest bit of criticism becomes an attack. People become only good or bad: those who cheer for them and those who don't.

Albus whispers, "Don't you just want all this to... go away?" Of course, I'd love if everyone grew a brain, but from Albus' tone, I'd swear he means permanently—in the very most permanent sense of the term.

"Um Potter, I don't know if you've caught up on the latest rule book on socially acceptable behavior, but that was fairly creepy."

"I don't want to kill them—usually." He pauses, scanning the growing crowds around the food tables; someone just brought out the bendy straws. He leads us to the emptier back of the room. "I just don't want them assembling. Take them down with me."

The words drop from his mouth so casually that I almost don't catch the severity of it, but when I do, my heart thumps louder.

"You and I, we could figure something out." His hand grasps mine. It's warm, almost sticky. "We've both got influence. Appy here might have them hanging on her every word, but anything I'd say would win out. She taught them to idolize me, after all. I just need some backup."

I can feel Albus turn and look at me. I keep staring forward. Does he even know what he's saying? He talks so calmly about bringing down an empire. Did he—?

"You planned this from the beginning." I whisper. "You were baiting me for your side."

A derisive edge hones his laugh. "You still think the world revolves around you. You aren't the plan. You got in my way."

My stomach sinks. I jerk my hand from him. "Why'd you plant the girlfriend story?"

"I planted it to get these girls off my back. At least some of them wouldn't go after a taken bloke." He shakes his head. "But then you blew it. Thankfully I can salvage something, and I'd appreciate your help. Certainly would repay things."

"I'll repay nothing. Don't blame me for your shit acting. And not being able to keep your hands off me."

"What, like this?" He turns me toward him with one hand on my waist. A respectable gap remains between us, but I swear there was more space underneath this cloak two minutes ago.

The crowd closes in. A group of girls nearby adds a few members, growing their circle. If they only knew what was going on five feet away. Albus follows my gaze and his hand slides up my back, pressing me closer. "If you don't want to be paranoid about being seen, you should stop scooting off."

"Do you actually fancy me?" I say, a little more frozen in place than I'd like. "Is that why you're enjoying this so much?"

His eyes seem to wink. "Very forward."

"Oh, stop stalling. Do you fancy me or not?"

"Why do you want to know? Do you care if I fancy you?"

"I don't believe in leaving things ambiguous."

"But you don't really want to know." The entrancing lilt of his smile moves a little closer. "Most people don't want to know because they're afraid of rejection. But you... you prefer the mystery." At the last syllable, I can feel his lips brush mine.

"Don't assume," I utter, barely audible. "It's lethal."

Appy's voice booms over the speakers, jolting me away. Albus' grip holds me steady and keeps me under the cloak.

I squeeze my eyes shut and open them again. The first thing I see is Appy's laughing friends pushing her toward the podium.

"Now? Really?" Appy giggles, clutching her blushing cheeks. They gesture for her to go on. "Oh, all right. Well, before Cleo comes up to discuss V-Day D-Day, I have a very big personal announcement. I was going to save this for later, but eek I can't hold it in any longer." Her bashful grin hides behind the amplifying horn. "As you all know, I got to meet Fifi LaFolle last summer, and well, we made plans." With a flourish of her arms, she declares, "It's official now: I'll be publishing my debut novel next year!"

Raucous cheers erupt.

"Oh my god, that's brill!" squeals one of the twins standing in front of me.

"Is there anything she can't do?"

My mouth has gone dry. The world is spinning. Her? Apostrophe Hyphen Colon, the girl who belongs on daytime wireless with the other batshit frauds—she's getting published before I do? This is the girl whose laundry comes back sparkly.

"She's everything you hate, isn't she?" Albus' voice slithers in my ear. "And everyone fawns over her."

I swallow, shaking my head. No, Potter, don't think you understand. "They think she's right because she tells them what they want to hear."

"I told you. We could bring them down."

We may have common goals, but—"I'm not your pawn."

"No, but you are under my cloak."

My heart constricts. He slides in front of me, one hand by his side, the other gripping the cloak at its apex with a terrifying calmness. He's maneuvered to the winning position.

"You know what will happen if the girls see you here with me. They'll get ideas. I don't think you'd like those ideas. If you help me, maybe it doesn't have to end this way."

"You wouldn't."

His fingers curl tighter around the shimmering fabric. "Try me."

"They'll sooner go after you before me." My throat is too dry to utter anything above a hoarse whisper.

"Really? Are you so certain about that?"

He's bluffing. He wouldn't.

"Positive," I breathe.

I hear it before I see it, like the crack of a whip. His green eyes glimmer, so sure, too sure.

And like that, the cloak goes down.




A/N I TOTALLY GOT THIS OUT A WEEK BEFORE I THOUGHT I WOULD :D

Ahem. I did promise Twilight-levels of frenzy for the Rose-Dom feud. Also, the long-awaited "date" is here at last. Once again, Mr. Cliffhanger is stepping in and Albus is curling his dastardly evil mustache.

Thank you to the lovely soliloquy for looking this over before I posted. I totally missed a word and it said "We could bring them", and she asked me, "Bring them what? Cake?" That would've been a lovely climax: "I told you. We could bring them cake," Albus says in his best Tom Riddle voice. Also Gubby for filling in all my missing words and grammar derps.

Thoughts? Pitchforks? Cake? ♥ reviews are lovely.

p.s. etc. hits its first year anniversary soon!

Coming up:
I spare a few breaths to chuckle. He doesn't have it in him. For all his accusations of me being just talk, so is he. What a Gryffindor. "Playing chivalrous now? That's rich."

He parts his lips as if to laugh along, but they pause, open, lingering above mine. "Come on, Fitzgerald. We both know you like me better when I'm bad."


Chapter 10: Everyone Wants Me (Dead)
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It starts with a gasp.

Then two. Then four. Then twelve.

"What's he—?"

"What's she—?"

Fighting the shock, I stumble back from Albus, widening the gap between us from scandalous to innocent. His gaze drills into my skull—I called the wrong bluff. How could I forget that impetuous Potter blood running in his veins?

With all eyes on us, I steady my eyes on him. Why, what are we doing here? his smirk seems to say as it fades into a confused mask for the crowd, and the full force of the room's attention bears down on me.

I never should have gone under that cloak. That was the moment I gave him control. I don't even let Dom choose the wireless channel (lest she keep switching to 'less mainstream' music until we're listening to soothing sounds of static).

I count and I lose count. There are five dozen souls in this room and at least a third have some infatuation with Potter. It's more than enough to swarm us. Both of us.

Mobs don't happen accidentally, or else no remotely attractive person would ever attend Hogwarts, let alone walk outside their common room. Mobs are like weather—part chemistry and part chance—and the concoction of sticky emotions and poured-out hearts has to be mixed just right. The mind shuts down. Pupils dilate. Love makes us fools, but obsession makes us worse. These girls are at the edge of desperation, and the past half hour has only churned the waters.

The calcifying numbness creeps further down my leg. I put on my most innocent smile, a talent I unfortunately lack. "Hi."

The word comes out too loud and eager, and I can practically hear Potter pad his ego. Have you become a sodding amateur, Clemence? Get a hold of yourself; this is just damage control. I continue, calmer, "We just dropped in—"

"Together?" snips pink-jumpered Caroline Escot, who makes up one of the many Quidditch fanatics of Q.G.A.

A tittering erupts near her. But while some girls laugh, no doubt drinking up my obvious discomfort, others remain silent, flooding the room with hunger and envy.

Albus replies before I do, "Yes, together."

I feel his hand hovering near my back. The whispers spread across the room, even to those otherwise uninterested in the golden boy.

"Does that mean—?"

"She called off the girlfriend watch, didn't she?"

"This is too much of a cliffie, I can't—"

"For the last time, Greta, we're not in a story."

I can see the ink on paper, quotes being gathered, a hundred notes attacking my hair, accusing me. My, my, wouldn't that be a surprise? The editor weaving the mystery is the girl in question. It's only the oldest twist in the book. I force the heat in my cheeks down lest it burn up my wisp of a reputation. I will not become my own headline.

When I meet Potter's glance, the charming curve of his mouth lilts knowingly, but therein lies his miscalculation—he's got nothing left.

I could almost cackle. Oh, he'll regret this yet.

"Yes. We arrived together," I say firmly, poise filling out my jelly limbs. The ire of the room presses against me a little more and I hold up my hands. "But don't jump to conclusions. I'm just here as press."

Past gossip subjects roll their eyes. There are many in this room who'd like to kill me whether I'm with Potter or not.

The whispering doesn't cease. "Lindy always did say Clemence was full of shit."

I draw myself up despite them, spreading my arms out. "Now, now, you can't expect Witchy Business to not be on the scene when Albus Potter is auctioning a date to the highest bidder."

The clamor reaches its highest pitch. Three thuds sound against the floor.

Albus snorts. "I am not—"

"Five galleons!" shouts a squeaky voice.

His smirk drops like an anvil. It's almost cute. "Hold on, there's no auction. She's lying."

A dark, curly-haired girl by the refreshments table stands up on a chair, galleons in both hands. "Seven galleons!"

Two girls take him by the arm, squabbling loudly over who would get which limbs if they pooled their money. I swivel on my heel, grinning as the scuffle of purses and bank notes overtake the room.

"Do I hear ten galleons?" Watch and learn from an expert, Potter.

At the edge of my eye, I catch sight of Hogwarts' latest author Appy weaving through the throngs. "Fifteen galleons!" she shouts. I almost hate her a little less.

Albus continues to protest, but the only person listening is himself. No one gives a damn whether I'm lying or whether I actually have any authority to be an auctioneer; Albus Potter is now being sold by the power of the good ol' democracy.

God, I love it when people listen to me.

"Fifteen galleons! Do I hear twenty?" I'm on fire; someone hand me a gavel. If the reporting thing doesn't pan out, I can do this full time. "Fifteen going once!"

The murmuring grows, and I hear the counting of money. Potter tries to back out of the room only to be jostled back in. Behind Appy, a girl swathed in a Team Dom shirt jumps up and down with a twenty-galleon note clutched between her fingers.

"Twenty!"

"Sandra!" The name escapes Appy's throat in a strangled squeak as she whirls toward her, hair frizzing out of her headband. "How dare you outbid me! You know the rules; Albus is mine!"

"Bite me, bitch!" She flips her hair in a most violent manner, knocking out a Ravenclaw behind her. "I said twenty galleons!"

Their squabble proceeds in increasing shrillness as Appy demands her excommunication quill. I'd tell her it's a Catholic thing, but Q.G.A. is practically a religion and, well, this is bloody hilarious. I need to come to this bash every year.

But like love and obsession, power does funny things. Pickett is right; I'm not infallible. It is one thing to be the triumphant trickster and another to play god. The crowd is teetering at the edge of a hurricane and I, at its reins, forget the force I'm dealing with.

Without warning, lightning strikes from a Gryffindor that looks no older than twelve. She's barreling over the seats, pigtails flying and kicking people in the face as she fights through the pack. "Forget the auction! Just grab him!"

It only takes one girl.

From murmurs to shouts, the crowd turns en masse and I'm yanked out of my high. Albus' utters a very loud, "Fuck," as a circle of groping hands close around us.

Nails digs into my cheek. "Oi! I am not Potter!" I screech, slapping them away. I could really use a gavel right now.

I'm shoved along with him in the tangle of limbs. The mob has Potter by the shirt—well, they have him by the everything. Hogwarts has got a lot of torture devices, but drawing and quartering by fan girls is a new one.

Just when I think Potter's a sure goner, the shirt's buttons burst open and little Charlotte, who's clinging by the hem, trips. Like bowling pins, she takes down a whole stack of girls with her. He tears free, shirt flapping and sans tie, and the momentary confusion is enough for me to elbow my assailants away and escape after him.

Next thing I know, we're bolting to the entrance as if our lives depended on it—probably because it does—and while I'd like to imagine it's a thrilling chase a la Bonnie and Clyde, we better resemble two squawking Christmas turkeys.

He's struggling to buckle his belt. "This is all your fault!"

"Me? You took off the bloody cloak in the first place! I hate to say I told you so—oh wait, no I don't!" I gesture wildly behind us. "I told you so, Potter!"

We're out the double doors, but there's not a moment to waste. Albus makes a sharp turn to the left and nearly runs into a girl walking from the library. She yelps as his arm glances off her stack of books. When Muggles Attack falls off the top.

"Sorry! Excuse me!" he calls over his shoulder, and she curses at us in Spanish.

I glance behind us. A bottleneck has formed at the ballroom's double doors, but it'll only buy us a few seconds. Never has there ever been so much drool and so few brains in one spot. Of all of Pickett's conspiracy theories, I never expected zombie invasion to be a legitimate concern. Couldn't they at least be—I don't know—the slow, lumbering kind?

Albus is still wasting his breath trying to stomach the situation. "I didn't have a girlfriend last month and they weren't this bad!"

He is trying to explain the unexplainable. "That was last month; some of them can barely deal with wearing last month's clothes!" Pumping my legs faster, I try to keep up his ridiculously long stride. "What now?"

His black mop of hair whips around. "How am I supposed to know?"

"You prepared to blackmail me, but you can't prepare for this?" I start wheezing, gulping in air. Snark's unfortunately not an efficient use of lungs either. I glance at his clenched hand, where his fingers slip in and out of view. "What about the cloak?"

"They'll see!"

My lungs are burning; this is not time to play you-can-run-but-you-can't-hide. If he's waiting for somewhere safe to stop, he isn't going to find it anywhere on the ground floor. There's too much open space and, even with traffic so slow, too many witnesses. Albus skids on his heels as he swings around the north-end corridor. I do the same, catching sight of a wide-eyed Sean Blackbury.

I hear the Hufflepuff captain bellow, "QUIIIIRKY GIIIIRLS!" as I dash past. Ahead, his mates jolt alert like rabbits, knocking into each other as they scatter.

In front of me, the prized hare is still in the running and the distance between us is growing larger.

"Wait up!"

"Keep up!" Albus growls. He reaches the end of the hall and looks left and right, finally choosing the latter direction. I hear a sharp exclamation, then I spot mangy-haired Professor Babbling picking up her dropped set of runes when I zoom around the corner seconds later.

"Mr. Potter! Button your shirt!" she calls after us.

Albus slows down just long enough for me to catch up. "Sorry, Professor! There's sort of a—a situation!" he pants. "I'm very sorry, but—"

I send him a look, which he responds with a glare, which seems to be the expression stuck on his face for the moment. Yes, we have a situation or how about an understatement with an underline, Potter? There is a running of the cows in the halls of Hogwarts and we are wearing big red flags—this is no time for courtesy.

A first year leaps into view behind Babbling, followed by three more girls. Instincts kicking in, I shove Albus ahead and restart our flight.

As we turn the corner, I hear the Professor's scolding. "Girls! Girls! Explain yourselves!"

The tidal wave of footsteps grind to a screeching halt. Out of view, Albus and I stop for a grateful moment and I rest my forehead against the wall.

The twin voices of Edna and Ella Burton interrupt my short-lived hope.

"Professor, since Q.G.A. is a registered Hogwarts club—"

"—we consider this activity a peaceful protest—"

"—specifically, we demand Mr. Potter's presence—"

"—and we're fully within our rights—"

I don't even need to hear the rest; I know exactly what subsection of the rule book they were pulling. "Damn aspiring lawyers," I mutter. Loopholes are a fickle friend, good and fun until they noose around my own neck. "Seriously Potter, and you complain about the things I drag you into—"

A draft chills my right arm and I whirl around to see Hogwarts' beloved celebrity having already fled down the hall. Just before he disappears around the bend, he sticks his tongue at me.

"Oh, real mature!"

My aching legs spring into action as soon as I hear a very confused Professor Babbling say, "Er, all right. Carry on?" and a split-second later, the stampeding footsteps restart.

When I reach the landing where Albus disappeared, I see no sign of him, but I'm nearly home free. I stumble down the staircase, catching myself on the railing as my foot snags on the rug. With my calves stretched to the point of no return, the common room is so close but so far away.

A hawk-like squeal cuts through the air. So this is what it's like to be the sickly gazelle. On occasion, I've wondered about what goes through their mind when they fall away from their herd. It's quite similar to Hogwarts friendship circles. Bonded for ten years, made our pacts in the watering hole, but you'll still let me get mauled by a cheetah.

I knew I should've done more cardio.

"Fitzgerald!"

Potter's floating head appears at the edge of my sight. Before I can say anything, he yanks me into the shadows.

I don't have the strength fight him even if I want to. He twists my arm around him and pulls the cloak over us, his lips grazing my collarbone in the wordless tumult. My eyes fly open, meeting his shadowed gaze as he pushes me back, and I'm sandwiched between a tapestry and him, a flicker of torchlight revealing the inappropriate thrill embedded in his pupils.

It is, I think as I swallow hard, just a little too appealing for my comfort.

I shift against the rough fabric behind me—and Potter's very bare chest. Focus flickering, I manage to root my attention at the ominous shapes descending the staircase.

The first girl I see is foaming at the mouth and taking the term crazy-eyes to a whole new level. The next one seems normal until her giggle turns into a cackle that could make werewolves curl. Lovely. Hogwarts is not only churning out girls with a twisted concept of how to approach boys, but stage five stalkers and the literal voice of evil. And Beauxbatons says we aren't diverse enough.

"I should throw you out there," Albus whispers. His hand curves around my elbow. "Teach you a lesson." His exhales tickle the skin where his lips grazed, making it blaze red-hot, and I shudder involuntarily. "You're too selfish to stop them. They're your stories and your readership. Who you put yourself above."

My glare hardens. He knows he's struck something.

"That auction trick felt nice, didn't it? Your own flock hanging onto your every word. You thrive on it."

He wants me to admit it—to plead—but I won't give him the satisfaction. "Just do it," I spit. "Cast me out." I jut a staunch chin upwards and resist flinching even as Foaming-Crazy-Eyes looks straight at us through the cloak's shimmering folds.

"You're lucky I'm nice."

I spare a few breaths to chuckle. He doesn't have it in him. For all his accusations of me being just talk, so is he. What a Gryffindor. "Playing chivalrous now? That's rich."

He parts his lips as if to laugh along, but they pause, open, lingering above mine. "Come on, Fitzgerald. We both know you like me better when I'm bad."

The word glides from his breath onto my tongue. He traces his thumb along a ridge of my stretched neck, and I have to bite my lip to stop a mortifying noise from escaping.

Checkmate.

He knows all too well how to strike. Perfected it at some point over the past week. It's not the deranged droves that'll take me down nor the threat of losing power that I gained too easily in the first place. It's cracking into my self-control.

I shouldn't look down, especially not with the danger-equals-excitement quotient on a high—but I can't help it. Light outlines a hard span of muscle and a blaze of heat colors my already-flushed cheeks. I might not be shy but Potter is clothing-deficient, pressed against me, and the subject of multiple fantasies I do not want to revisit. Peeking is not amongst my wiser decisions, next to trying to auction him off.

Just as quickly as my eyes glanced down, they go up and stay up, focusing on the smattering of girls scurrying past. A bespectacled Hufflepuff nearly trips into the invisibility cloak. She swoons onto a friend's shoulder, her batty grin leering inches away.

"I've brought my bucket list along. Let's do number five first."

"Watch Albus play single-player strip poker?" Her friend squeals, dancing on her lavender flats. "Then number twenty three!"

"Is that one still legal in this country?"

Albus shifts almost imperceptibly, not even a sliver closer, but it abruptly fractures my focus. Then he does it again—could he just stand still? Stop breathing? Existing? My now-regrettably brilliant observation skills are working hard at feeling every bit of him against my body.

"Something wrong?" he murmurs.

"Besides the fact that these menaces may one day breed?"

"I don't mean about that."

"Fine, you caught me staring. Flatter yourself. Whatever." Streaks of skirts and hair blur behind him. "Just shut up before someone hears us."

"So don't make a sound."

My throat constricts on cue as he leans in and rests his forehead against mine. Sweat drips from the tips of his hair and the air is thick with a salty-sweet tang. The next heave of my chest almost propels me forward—where did that come from?

I don't notice when the final footsteps fade away. Silence gusts through the hall until we are left with only the vital sounds of our hearts and lungs.





A/N Well, invisibility cloaks certainly are fun. Cough. I don't know what's with me and writing really long single scenes, but I suppose I'm rolling with it for the moment. They can just keep talking forever for the mo. I drew a bit of this chapter, too, as some of you may have seen! And I've planned a few more etc. doodles when I have time~

But alas, finals ;A; I spent my break hours yesterday finishing this, so I hope it doesn't seem too rushed. I just wanted to put something out before exams kill me. It'd be super lovely if you leave some reviews, a bit of pre-exam joy and all that. I probably won't be able to answer any until later this week, so I'm not ignoring them.

The conclusion to the twirly-mustache bad!Potter's plotting will be coming soon to an archive near you~

Chapter 11: He Tempts Me, He Tempts Me Not
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Unless you're a seer—and Hogwarts' own Divination professor can't predict dinner even when there's a menu involved—at some point our lives, we stop and ponder, how did I get here?

How did I become a Hogwarts name, despised and adored? How have I lasted so far with mere printing presses on my side? How have I managed to avoid the minefield of bad decisions known as adolescence until now when it matters most? How did that all lead here, me beneath Albus, our roles reversed, him as the aggressor?

And there are people who wonder why I hate rhetorical questions.

The fact that I can count the numbers of bones in his ribcage right now is irrelevant; what matters is that I am. It goes one, two, three, four, stop fucking moving. It's the edge of the cliff, one step to infatuation. Just because my brand of obsessing doesn't involve cuddling a Potter doll to sleep doesn't mean it's healthy. Pardon the ice queen platitude, but emotion is distraction.

Heat pulses from his body, and I bite the inside of my lip until I can almost taste blood. Remember where you are. A passage in the middle of school, corralled into a corner by literal desperation. This has to be the most unattractive setting ever, next to a broom cupboard.

"You should give me a little breathing room," I mutter when I'm certain that I can open my mouth without embarrassing myself.

But he knows. He can feel it—my heart beating out of my chest into his—and like a guillotine, his smile hangs above me. "I'm not the one holding on."

My hand is still behind his back, holding a fistful of his shirt, which also explains why the fabric is so stretched and why I'm enduring so much of his bare chest. When I'm my worst enemy, I really put up a fight. Staving off a sharp inhale, I shove Albus away, my nails inadvertently biting into his skin. He flinches but he's otherwise too busy being bloody amused by this whole episode. Wiping his forehead, he looks me up and down. Take your time, please; I'll be here all day at this rate. Certainly feels like it.

The space gives me the chance to pluck a fold of the cloak and walk around to the middle of the corridor. The stampede has passed and though I don't take chances, I'm not standing against that wall a second longer. If I only paid more attention to him when I was looking for that non-existent girlfriend. He was still careless back then.

Albus drags his thumb across edge of his mouth, pinching above his chin thoughtfully. "So what do you say, Fitzgerald?"

"To what?"

"Taking down the Q.G.A."

So while I'm here having a crisis with a renegade libido, he's scheming—about a bunch of girls he wasn't pressed up against, no less. Bravo, quirkers: you're in his thoughts. Dream fulfilled. I can't help but scoff knowing how he first treated me. "To think I marked you as another delusional idealist."

Something in his expression lights up at my comment. He tries to circle around me, but I turn with him. I won't give him a single chance. "I marked you as a cold-hearted bitch, but now you're—" He frames his chin between his thumb and index finger, arching a brow. "No, still a cold-hearted bitch. So, your answer?"

"Stop trying. I mean it. Your plans are just a little fanciful."

"You're saying you won't get the slightest satisfaction from seeing this school's reign of idiocy fall? Appy the author get her due?"

So Appy's getting published. I ought to be above jealousy, but...

Look, I've tolerated living with her. All I ask is for her to not be the voice of this generation. Unfortunately, she's marketable. Her taste is all over her bookshelf. Poodles, cliques, chisel-cheeked blokes, and Fifi Lafolle with her banal titles. Anyone who thinks that isn't instant money should to walk into a bookstore and tell me they can't spot the wee witches section from a mile away. Hot pink covers with perfect blondes and girls running through forests wearing gravity-defying dresses from the wrong era—but the story isn't even about them. The only character who matters is the love interest. It's the same story, no matter the cover, no matter the heroine: love will save them all. Spare me.

Without my regular quill, I twirl a loose strand of my hair and tuck that behind my ear instead. I ought to be above jealousy, so I will be. "Despite what you may assume, I honestly don't care enough to bring down the Q.G.A.," I say with a sniff.

"That's always your problem, isn't it?"

"I'm sorry, maybe you missed my job title." I draw a line across my imaginary name tag. "Reporter, writer, professional bitch. Where does it say I'm a saboteur?" My eyes light up in mock surprise. "That's right—it doesn't!"

He advances one step and his words lunge forward with him. "You just can't be arsed. You're too occupied with your cushy little seat behind the printing press."

I raise a finger, sharp as a foil. "It's actually a rather hard stool—“

"Why don't you actually make a change for once?"

Don't dare mask this with principles. "Because it's their lives, crazy or not. Ever hear of meddling, Potter?"

The lines in his brow fold like fault lines, and I bristle as he leans in, the hanging ends of his shirt brushing against my arm. "But you spared a little effort to ruin me and Scorpius?"

"Are you're still on that?" His dour expression remains unchanged and—I don't care how inappropriate the timing is or how my hair becomes a static mess under this cloak—I throw my head back and laugh. "Honestly, once something's old news, it's old news. You're the only one bringing it up again." To be fair, I milked ‘Albus + Scorpius = Secret Lovers?’ for all it was worth. I'm almost disappointed it didn't turn out to be true. Would've got the girls off his back, too.

I can hear the thump of footsteps in the adjoining hallway as Albus' stare trembles at the corner, and for the first time in too long, he's hesitant.

"You could've wrecked his life."

Every chip into his composure tilts my head another length. "What about yours?"

"I don't give a shit about what your paper says about me."

"Chivalrous again, I see. I'll hold you to that."

"Scorpius has got enough trouble now that Rose and Dom have gone mad. You don't help."

Another eye roll to quash all other eye rolls. "What do you want? An apology? Sorry I inconvenienced your life a year ago. There, happy? No, you're never happy." The jab stings as it leaves my lips. I shan't take these slip-ups for granted anymore.

For one slow moment, I stop and think. Thinking is never overrated. Unlike sabotage, thinking is in my job description. Everyone makes up stories, to convince others or to convince ourselves, and I have to filter truth from fiction. Taking down the fangirl legion might be a battle of pride on my end and Albus can tempt me that way, but it's personal for him. He thirsts to prove that good will triumph and as a bonus, a few less girls will bother him. He'd treat it no differently than taking down Witchy Business.

We trade sides as I shift into action. Forcing my heart to slow, I splay my fingers across his bare chest and claim it as my pulpit.

"You know why you're never happy, Potter? Because you won't let the world be. Every bad thing can be fixed. Maybe not the whole world just yet. Start small. Start at Hogwarts."

My hand creeps up. His throat moves stiffly as he swallows.

"What's wrong? I thought you liked little psychology lessons." But I know the warmth of his skin is the only thing that stopping me from trembling, and I steel myself before I go on. "There's so much you want to change. The girls on your tail. Your cousins. A certain editor of a gossip newspaper." I let the words dance in my smile. "But I'm not yours to fix and neither are they."

His voice is but a harsh whisper. "You don't know my mind."

"Maybe, but what... is in your heart?" My tracing finger stops at the center of the beating drum. "The difference between me and you? I don't let it get in my way."

"Is that your excuse to be heartless?"

"I know the consequences of being who I am. Do you?"

The stuffy quiet underneath the cloak is running out of air and my breathing grows shallow like his. I wonder when Potter first learned that he'd have play dirty to get what he wants—and oh, he's greedy. Even now, his fist is clenched and inside is the idea that he's doing the right thing by taking down the Q.G.A.

My fingers retract, and I glance at my wrist. "Ah, the few minutes are up. It's been a nice date. Maybe we can do it again. Owl me."

His grip wraps around my wrist. "We're not done here."

I try to pull away, but Albus doesn't give.

"I can scream bloody murder," I say mildly.

"I think that'll harm you more than it'll harm me, or have you forgotten you're now a wanted woman?" Albus lets go, but the frown remains. Marred by my speech, it's not cocky like before, but something new has replaced it. "Maybe you should let today sink in. Those girls have seen us together. All they'll remember is that they couldn't get their hands on me—but you could, couldn't you?"

Remembering that rabid pack makes me gulp a little. Remembering that I live with one makes me want to sleep with a wand in each hand tonight.

"Those girls can't think that far," I chuckle. "I'm pretty sure some of them can't connect dots even when they're numbered."

"You know as well as I do that they're not stupid." He follows my blithe tone with his own. "I'm shocked, Fitzgerald. Is this just your famous apathy at work or are you that blind?"

"Is this a threat?" Drawing myself up, I search Albus' eyes, green as ever, a complement to devil red. He's still just an angry boy who scorns me. Can't get anything he wants, so he takes what he can get.

"If it were a threat, why would I be worried?"

"Worried?"

"About you. Surprised?" We maintain an inch gap between us, waiting for someone to close the distance, breathe a little harder, as our chests move in sync. "If I wanted to ruin you, I would've kissed you in that room in front of all of them. Sealed your fate."

“I think you still want to," I say, narrowing my eyes.

"It'd be nice if you cared but that's not my concern right now. Right now, you need to get your head out of your arse and see that you're fucked on your own and I’m offering protection." The taut lines on Albus' face suddenly subside. "I wanted to teach you a lesson, but unlike some people, I do care about wrecking someone's life. Giving you this chance is the least I can do. Destroy the Q.G.A. before they destroy you."

"Word of advice on chivalry and intricate revenge schemes: choose one, not both."

"This isn't a joke."

"Let me guess," I say, making space to cross my arms because he refuses to move. "You never expected me to say no to your plan. If I go down trying to destroy the Q.G.A., I'm just a casualty of war. But if I said no and I go down because of these girls, then it's your fault for setting this up, and you'll never be able to stand the guilt because you haven't learned"—I loosen one hand and jab at his heart—"to control this. So don't pretend that you care. You're protecting yourself."

Albus inhales sharply underneath my finger.

"Right, you're even more of a bastard than I suspected." I cock my head to the side, giving him my most acrid smile. "On second thought, don't owl me."

I turn on my heel.

"Clemence." My first name sounds strange on his tongue, and it almost stops my exit.

I send him a wave over my shoulder as I lift the edge of the cloak up. "Toodle-loo."

Albus grabs my arm. "Clemence."

He spins me around, but where I expect another physical tango, his touch curled under my chin is too light, and though our bodies don't meet, I tense from head to toe.

He shifts from one foot to the other and the trail of his gaze stops at my mouth. Drawing his thumb up the center of my throat, his breath weighs heavy above my lips. Even now, we taunt: who will give first? I know the collision is coming yet I do not move, and I wonder—my last thought before my mind blanks—which organ has betrayed me.

He doesn't care about winning this time.

His mouth folds over mine, slow and soft, and the hand underneath my chin pulls me closer. My fingers flutter to his side at the scraps of fabric, and our resulting entanglement is my fault as much as it is his.

We sink into each other, a mad whirl to our steps, and I nearly don't catch the approaching voices, but a girlish giggle breaks the air and I gasp and break off the kiss. I don't get a second to think again, not even to fear the mob's return, before Albus has me against the wall, mouth on my neck. Fevered skin to fevered skin, the suffocating ache of his frame presses against mine as I arch my back. The dressing room incident that haunted me for so long wasn't close to this. We cling, hands roaming, wild because of something like lust or hate. Perhaps we're more like each other than we'll ever know.

As the footsteps near, my hand finds its way to the collar of his shirt, yanking it down just to keep my hold, while his sweat-slicked palms clamber down from my shoulders to my waist and bunch the fabric. An icy shock of stone brushes bare skin and my exclaim is smothered by his kiss.

"Did you hear that?"

"Ghost, probably. Dead creepers."

Those voices shake me from my fervor, if only for a moment. They're two quirky girls, probably returning to their rooms, and they remind me why I'm here and how I got here and why I should have left when I had the chance. That traitorous feeling like lust or hate falls to the latter side, and despite the need searing on my lips, I know that Albus still despises me and the part of him that feels anything for me.

Heartless as I am, blinded as he may call me, a swift repulsion jerks me back into control and sick taste fills my mouth.

As soon as the voices are gone, I wriggle from Albus' hold and shove him away. This time, he's shaken, panting haggardly, and I've even drawn blood at the side of mouth. Even when I shut my eyes, I can't help but memorize his flash of pain when I turn away and whisper hoarsely, “Piss off.”

Albus doesn't stop me when I leave the cloak.

I follow the only path down the hall that I know. Lifting the third tapestry past the Potions classroom, I find the newsroom door already cracked open. When I reach for the knob, I notice my whole body is shaking.

I dig my nails into the door frame. It won't stop.

The occupants' quiet murmurs are barely audible. "God, have you seen the way she looks at me? Like she's ashamed we share any blood. And it's not like I've done anything with Scorpius. People gossip what they want. I just don't correct them."

"You encourage it. That's doing something."

It's Dom and Pickett.

It's almost sweet, how gentle they seem. Contrasts with everything else I've seen today. With a deep inhale, I use it to anchor my sense. The cool air sobers my mind almost too quickly, sending me into another daze.

"Why must you always contradict me?" Dom says it almost teasingly.

"Listen to yourself. Listen to how hard you're trying to justify yourself."

"...I'm not crazy, am I?"

"We all have our blind spots."

I glance up and realize I'm intruding when see Dom and Pickett sitting side-to-side, arms touching. At that moment, Dom glances over her shoulder and notices me.

She springs out of her seat so fast, I almost jump back, even though she's across the room. "Clemence? Are you all right?"

Pickett turns around, his face shaping into the same concern.

My mouth leaps to say, ‘Of course I'm fine. Never been better. I could be as happy as flippin' Appy.’ But a single notes falters and that's all it takes to give myself away.

"No... I don't think I am."



A/N Made it under three weeks! You're probably all tired of them under a cloak now, but I hope you guys like how that 'date' of theirs ultimately ended. Much thanks to Julia and Annie for looking this over.

There's a little bit of everything coming up, and I'm not sure which will get addressed first, but lots of dastardly things to be sure! Appy swoops in with dramatic music.

Coming up:
Appy seems satisfied with this and the second interrogation of the night seems over until I sit up again, and she suddenly takes me by the throat. My next breath dies in a constricted squeak. Never mind: murder metaphors completely justified.

"I know we're not the closest of friends, but... you wouldn't hide anything from me, would you, Clemence?"


please tell me what you think! ♥ Also, I have a new oneshot up! It's been very long since I've written one. If you'd like, check it out :)

Chapter 12: Denial, What's Denial?
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Anyone can be the best liar when they're lying to themselves. Denial, denial, denial—has a certain ring to it.

They say that the hardest part is admitting that you have a problem, but I don't have problems. It's not denial. I know what denial feels like: there's resistance, something to refute. Me? I'm just indifferent.

I don't need people like Potter telling me that I'm heartless. I know. I was the first to know, because it doesn't happen by accident; it's a skill. Just another one of the ways we adapt our silly lives, not so different from hope.

I do, in fact, have a heart, right here in my chest. But the other one, the invisible one, has been on extended vacation. We have two hearts, two different beats, not the least bit interchangeable. One is to live and the other is the reason to live, and that second heart is particularly good at providing a purpose. That urge that pulls us forward in impetuous leaps through life (or onto Potter in badly planned snog sessions). Without it, what will tell us what we want?

So we go to backup: the mind. Instead of feeling, we know. The problem with knowing things is sometimes we're too sure, and it isn't until the quiet moments that we worry.

I say that I want to be the Daily Prophet's ace reporter, but why? For the prestige? For the audience? Just because? And there's a drop in our chests, the drop of a heart that isn't there, when we think: what's the point? There has to be a point, because if there isn't, then what have I been working toward? What am I proving with all these words, with Witchy Business?

I say that Potter means nothing, that he's wrong about me, and that my hums and drums are nothing but bottled-up lust. Even when he's right, his reasoning's all faulty and he's got a prissy attitude to back it up.

But I can say a lot of things.

So maybe I do have problems. I still don't think so. You can call it denial. You even can call it a unicorn, if that tickles your fancy, because in the end, in all my ramblings and moments of doubt, it doesn't matter what it is.

I won't care, anyway.


::



It doesn't take much to turn the newsroom into an interrogation room. Stark walls, bare table, and good-auror-bad-auror duo on the opposite side.

Pickett's the good one. He's concerned about me. Dom... has her own agenda.

"So, how far did you get?"

Her nails clack together as she steeples her hands. Dom's concerned about me, too—really—but being Dom, her first questions were, "Can I tell Harriet yet?" and "How many clothes were off? Or on, if that's easier to count."

The previous worst-thing-that's-happened is back when the faculty threatened to shut Witchy Business down. I'd just taken over the old Hogwarts Weekly publication and we were stupid enough to continue distributing publicly, but when the Headmaster brought us in, I kept cool as a cauldron. The difference between Slughorn and Albus is—well, a hundred-year age gap, but also—their transparency. Slughorn's easy to read, easy to please. As soon as we moved newsstands to the loos and slipped in an advertisement for his nephew's owlery service, he turned the other way or, as we in the business say, 'forgot' about us. Bless dodgy authority.

Albus, on the other hand, who knows what the fuck he wants? He doesn't have a clue. One minute he's condemning me, and in another he's got his hands up my shirt in the middle of a hallway.

Which I remind Dom of as I press my fingers into my temple, squashing the memory. "We were in a hallway."

"That doesn't stop lots of people! Margie and Wesbeck shagged in a hallway."

"I thought that was a rumor," mutters Pickett.

She tut-tuts, shaking a finger in his face, scolding the amateur. "Believe what you want. This is why I let you open doors for me. Who knows how many trysts have happened against those things? Centuries of splinters."

My nose wrinkles, fully regretting letting Dom take charge. "Ew, Dom. Who thinks about that?"

"Me. And now you do. 'sides, it's not like you weren't contributing." Dom slides forward, tilting her head ever so exaggeratedly to make her point. I hoped that she'd be too squicked out to get into the nitty-gritties since her cousin's involved, but my involvement trumps his.

"It was snogging not shagging."

"You said clothes were ripped off!"

"By a mob!"

Dom opens her mouth, but before any further lascivious arguments can be made, Pickett clamps a hand over it. "So er, why don't you expand on how he's 'using you'?"

I relay Albus' joke of a plan to take down the Q.G.A., and now that I have space to think, it wasn't a plan as much as half-arsed drivel about working together. It's so obvious he only thought of it after I auctioned him off and proved I'm on top. What happened to not wanting anything to do with me? And if he thinks I want anything to do with him...

"I could talk to Al," Dom says delicately, after near-severing one of Pickett's fingers to free her muzzle. "Tell him to back off."

I recoil all the way from the table. "God no. Why would you do that?"

She's just as taken aback. "Well, you seemed pretty upset."

"I'm not upset."

"You were when you walked in."

"I was—it was just shock." Her frown only lets up slightly. "I'm embarrassed you had to see that, honestly. Let's forget about it, shall we?" My face screws into a twist.

Dom exchanges a glance with Pickett who, after a cross-eyed scrutiny of me, nods. My eyes dip into a glower as I translate each movement of his squint-aha-wink, and I slam a fist on the table.

"I am not in denial!"

"How did you—"

"Talking without words doesn't really work when I can understand it, too."

Pickett grumbles, but the same exchange of glances occurs again, this time one that I can't catch before Dom rolls her eyes and sighs, "Okay, fine, I'll say it. Clemence, we know you're a big girl. But just because your little thing with Al is casual or mindfucking or whatever it is, doesn't mean you can't get hurt. Things get too far. Circe, knowing you two, it definitely will. Evidenced enough by—" She eyes over my rumpled clothes, silently scolding, 'In the hallway, for shame. You go girl.'

"Thanks, but—"

"But you don't care, he doesn't matter, it's just a game—whatever. However you see yourself, the person I saw coming in this room was not all right." Dom leans across the table and pats my hand. "And I'm not going to argue further, because you'll never give up. So I'll talk to Al."

"And make him think I'm a coward?" I shoot back. As pissed as I am, in the end, it's just Albus. Hardly merits the kid-gloves.

"So are you going to talk to him yourself then?"

"No," I declare rather pridefully. "I'm done with him. Told him to piss off."

"Ah, avoidance," drawls her hot-shot psychologist partner. "The indirect cowardice."

"Shut up, Pickett."

"Funny how denial involves denying you're in denial. You know I'm right."

'"Oh?" As if I haven't noticed how he's been inching closer to Dom's seat the whole time. "Has Dom heard about your love life yet? Ah right, it doesn't exist, because you haven't told her that you—"

"Lalalala I have no idea what she's talking about," Pickett hollers, waving his arms until he's the recipient of Dom's stare.

"You fancy someone?" she asks, brow arched and decidedly cool.

"Absolutelynoidea—" Clearing his throat, he stops yelling in Dom's face, and his cheeks have turned red in the effort. Turning toward me, he mutters, with finger pointed, "You're a cruel woman, love."

Who is now escaping.

I rise from my seat, and Dom is about to follow, but I gesture for her to sit her tush down. "I appreciate the ears, but I'm all therapy-ed out. Don't worry about me—really." Backing toward the door, I shoo her toward our human windmill friend. "Dom, you should grill him. She's a stunner. You'll never guess who."

That does the trick. As I shut I newsroom door behind me, I hear Dom's indignant huff. "I thought she was joking! You really told her and not me?"

Dom can see decimal-point variation in font size, catch a period mistaken for a comma from across the room, and put her ear to school flyers and hear the quiet, anguished scream of bad design. But when it comes to herself, what a major whoosh over her head.

The ache from all the running has finally sunk into my legs and when the dungeon draft breezes underneath my finger, I remember: me and Albus, in this corridor, not even an hour ago, nearly doing the stupidest thing we could possibly do—each other.

Dom and Pickett may be mental with an agenda, but they're... onto something. So I technically didn't tear off Albus' clothes and shag him in the hallway; would I have done it if I hadn't stopped at that last moment? If I didn't remember we stand for different sides and that every move we make, intentional or not, is potential for manipulation?

For once, the Q.G.A. might have done something helpful; if they didn't rip open his shirt first, I might not have been able to tell Dom I didn't rip it off myself. A sixteen-year stifled libido struts through my mind, whispering cloyingly out my ear. You would have loved pulling those buttons apart, Clemence. The snap when they break and his groan on your lips. You would have loved to see him want you. A shudder passes through my body, all the way down to my feet.

Hypotheticals can go rot.

I come home to an empty dorm, a serene quiet where I can, joy of joys, continue to be alone with my thoughts. Throwing myself onto my bed face first, I bite down on my quilt, hoping it might cure me. Dom can't be—it's not—

All right, I felt something, but I'm sure I would have felt the same if it were another kisser like that with a body like that in a situation like that. Potter just happened to be in the right place at the right time with the right chemistry. He doesn't even know my favorite color.

I groan, rolling over. The problem with not having problems is that when I have something resembling a problem, I sulk and flounder and really, after all this time, I should be achieving that wise-but-jaded status like the hardened ex-auror. Or the Muggle Studies professor.

Cotton taste in my mouth and lusty thoughts on the brain, I begin blocking Albus out, bit by bit, starting at his smirk. Think of headlines. Snappy wordplay. Tomorrow's another distribution day, and if I write it in time, the big story might just be the Q.G.A. bash, go figure. With Appy's super-duper exciting book deal, surprise guests, surprise auction, and surprise shirt-ripping mob, it's by far the most newsworthy event that's happened this week—and mostly my fault, double go figure.

Half the school's girls were there, so there's no fudging the fact that I arrived with Albus and ran out with him. If the bash doesn't go in the paper, it'll look like I've got something to hide. Better to spread the story the way I want it than let people talk or—Merlin have mercy—speculate.

I hear a tap on the mail chute as I'm thinking of words that rhyme with quirky (perky turkey?). Dragging myself up on aching ankles, I unlatch the lock, hoping it's a letter from Appy's publisher declaring her manuscript firewood. A snowy white owl's head bobs in and, lifting a claw, drops a note at my feet and then... a present of its own. Lovely. Hate mail.

But when I pick up the parchment and unroll it, I find only one freshly-penned line:

Astronomy tower, tomorrow 10PM—A.P.

That damned owl hoots, and I end up smudging the 'A' as it flies away, leaving the metal door clattering in its wake. Snowy white, how could I mistake it? Albus' owl.

The door clicks open behind me. "Clemence?"

I bite down on my lip hard before a peep can escape. Well if it isn't my favorite one-polka-dot-shy-from-a-psychopath roommate.

"Appy," I grit, turning toward her. She sounds like she's back to her dopey eagerness, but if this afternoon's been any indication of her extremes, I'd rather not associate myself with Potter for the time being.

"Was that an owl? I thought it looked like—"

"Um, spam." I scrunch the note behind my back and chuck it in the rubbish bin at my first chance. "Owlmarketers," I clarify as she prances to her side of the room like a lamb. "Wondered if I wanted carpet-cleaning service. Our floors are clearly stone, so. Yep."

She twirls around, hands primly in the air. "Oh, my aunt's actually been needing her carpet cleaned—"

"Carpetbag," I amend without hesitation. "Carpetbag-cleaning service." I better not need to bring out the carpet bagpipes.

"Oh," Appy says again, disappointed. "My aunt doesn't have a carpetbag."

"Good."

Appy and I aren't exactly known for shooting the breeze, so when we fall into an extended silence, I assume that's all I have to bear. Then she has to ruin it by opening her mouth.

"It's been a crazy day, hasn't it?" Appy stretches over her desk, fixing her makeup in front of her wall mirror. "Sorry for nearly running you over. Sometimes I just get a little," she fans herself, "caught in the moment." A giggle here, a giggle there. "By the way, is that auction valid?" Her reflection bats her lashes toward me on my bed, schoolwork and notes on my knees. Why do I get the feeling today's going to haunt me for a long time?

I plaster on an apologetic smile. "Ah... no. Turns out you actually need the gavel to make a legal transaction." Bullshitting's like breathing today.

"That's a real pity. I was the highest bidder." With a heavy sigh, Appy flops down in her seat, skirts puffed up around her. "Albus is all I want, I'm sure you've heard me say. But I wonder if he sees that."

She's talking as if I'm totally not hiding behind my textbook and looking up only to check if she's still there. She is. I don't know what I'm waiting for, though for the past year, I've got a secret wish she might suddenly and inexplicably implode under her lack of substance and brain cells. It doesn't physically make sense, but it's not like she makes an iota of sense either.

"Those other girls, they're dears but they simply don't love him like I do." Every little syllable is stressed with shake of her head. "They don't get him. He's complicated, you know."

Oh, I know.

"He's just waiting for the perfect girl to come along and lay out the answers for him."

I am so fascinated. Tell me more.

As if she hears my thoughts, she stands—oh Merlin, now she's coming over. When she's too close to be ignored, I lower my book to find the most demented eyes greeting me behind its cover.

There's happy, and then there's happy-crazy, and then there's Appy-crazy. The euphorically deranged expression on her face is like a pyromaniac stumbling upon a match factory next to an explosives warehouse. Doused in kerosine.

The pyromaniac also happens to be a Hungarian Horntail.

"You're... close to him, you would say?" Something in her sticker smile tells me that I'll need to answer this question very carefully. Scooting against my pile of quilts, I prime my book as a shield, the first time Advanced Magick has ever come in handy.

"He's in a few classes." Every inch I retreat, she leans two inches closer. At which point is this considered harassment and beaning her with five pounds of paper is justified? Perhaps I'm taking the murder metaphors a touch too far, but Appy is, without a doubt, a couple nuts short of a fruitcake. It's all giggles and ribbon until she snaps like the Titanic. Seeing me with her dream husband? Makes for a pretty sizable iceberg.

"He was with you today. If someone didn't know any better... it almost looked like you two were," she pauses, bubblegum breath like a cavity to the brain, "running off together, wouldn't you say?"

There's no more space to scoot. "Well—"

"I adore Albus, but how strange it was that he visited the bash today." Her voice is trance-like. "I wonder why he did it."

"There is the auction—"

"He didn't seem too pleased about it. But he is very complicated." Something like a thought almost appears on her face, lighting up—oh no, it's gone.

I dig one elbow into my mattress. "Look, Appy, he probably just heard about your book deal—congratulations by the way—" my mouth painfully forms the words "—and wanted to um, send you his own congrats."

She blinks. "But he didn't."

"Think about it. He didn't get a chance to."

"That's true."

Appy seems satisfied with this and the second interrogation of the night seems over until I sit up again, and she suddenly takes me by the throat. My next breath dies in a constricted squeak. Never mind: murder metaphors completely justified.

"I know we're not the closest of friends, but... you wouldn't hide anything from me, would you, Clemence?" Her voice maintains every drop of syrupy innocence as her nails tap on my collar bone. She's towering so near that I'm legitimately afraid she'll know the truth just by proximity. Like bloodbait for the shark, the hint of his cologne on my collar has become a sharp stink.

It's the gleam in her wide eyes that petrifies me, icy blue and threaded with veins, sapped of all mercy, and a crystal ball for tomorrow—the day that I finally get on the front page of the Daily Prophet. "Clemence Fitzgerald, future Prophet Head Editor according to twenty seer sources, was found strangled in Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry this morning. The only clue is the trail of sequins and glitter leading from a roommate's bed, leaving stumped Aurors with no leads."

By some miracle, the scent and my fear elude her. She holds up her pinky, taking my silence as a yes. "Swear?"

What choice do I have but to hold mine up as well? Appy hooks it with her own and this finally makes the demonic look fade. She skips back to her side of the room, smiling so witlessly, I'm not sure if I imagined the previous minute.

But feeling the hollow of my throat, the marks don't don't lie.


::



I don't end up on the Daily Prophet, not in the obituaries nor in a byline, but tomorrow's another day. Witchy Business's headline remains a benign 'A Bash to Bash all Bashes', and as far as any Quirkers are concerned, my visit with Albus was purely professional.

Not everyone is convinced, but three-quarters success rate is already very high, especially since the public get so choosy about their gossip around the middle of the school year. I'm no stranger to swings in public opinion. After every disaster, I think it's my last. Falsely reported couples, flubbing Centaur names (who apparently read teen gossip and have very loud, stompy opinions about them), the ever unmentionable Doxy incident... the list gets worse as it goes on.

As big of a blunder as crashing the Q.G.A. party was, short-term memory will work its magic. All I have to do is not make it worse such as, for a convenient example, rendezvousing with the hot-topic boy in the Astronomy Tower. Only two people will know every detail of what happened yesterday, and maybe if I forget, yesterday can just disappear. Fell off the calendar.

I stand outside the common room as ten o' clock taunts from my wristwatch. The seconds tick past. Six seconds past ten. Seven. Eight. Nine. I haven't told Dom or Pickett about Albus' note yet, because I know exactly what they would say, but there's a difference between cowardly avoiding and simply taking the smart course of action.

Twenty, twenty-one.

And it's not like I ever accepted his invitation. His risk for sending an owl. I bet he's already pacing about up there, figuring out how to convince me to join him. How long will he wait?

When the second hand goes around to fifty-nine, I turn on my heel and go back into the common room.

I hope it's all night.


::



Proving that my plans are far superior to any of Albus', the avoidance has worked so well, I don't think I've even seen his face the past week, and we have the same D.A.D.A. and Charms classes. I never noticed how little he looks up. It's only to talk, and he only talks when he has to. Maybe that's why he gets the crazy ones; they're the only ones he can't ignore.

The days have returns to a routine, of sorts. Albus hangs about Scorpius, Dom isn't far behind (Pickett chickened out of confessing to her, which proves once again, that we're masters of every relationship except our own), and Rose is there when Dom isn't. Rose's continued correspondence with Scorpius has sparked a lot of talk, especially after their publicized breakup. Admittedly, I'm sort of glad for that Team Dom versus Team Rose rubbish for taking the brunt of the attention away from me.

Today in History, before Binns begins his hour of instruction, I hear the sound of cows on the range.

It's Caroline whispering to her clique around her. "Lindy was so right. That whole girlfriend story was just to get rid of the competition. Clem-clem wants Albus all to herself."

Burning ears pricked, I stop trying to find the page marked on the chalkboard and start listening.

"Can't get a bloke the normal way, so she fixes up some ruse to make up for it. How deplorable."

"Deplorable?" I swing my arm around the back of my chair, unable to help myself. "That's a big word, Escot. Gold star." Her simper sneers at me, along with her four bimbo friends, each sporting more dye than hair on their head. "Maybe he made up the story himself. To get rid of you." I mimic her precious trill.

Her nostrils flare. "He'd never do that. He's not like you! Some people have principles."

"And when did he last he give any of you the time of day?" It's possessive of me, I'll confess, but after all I've gone through, I get that right, don't I?

They fall silent. Her token nerdy friend sitting one seat behind mumbles, "One time he told me my shoelaces were untied." She pauses. "Oh no, that was a House Elf."

Caroline leans forward on her twined hands, her too-plucked brows like curved daggers. "You're just jealous because he doesn't hate me. Don't think that I can't tell you'll dig your claws into him when no one's looking."

Hmm, shrieking fangirls, secret revenge, pinky swears with the devil's devil, i.e. more baggage than Moaning Myrtle—"I think I'll pass. But all the luck to you; you'll need it. Merlin knows you haven't got anything else." I place a hand on my chest, cooing, "And Caroline, my dear bovine, let me assure you: I don't get jealous. Know why? Because I get what I want."

Binns calls for attention and I turn back around as the steam erupts behind me.

For the next half hour, he drones about the Rhine River skirmishes—some lethal mix-up over goblin danishes and Danish goblins; war never makes sense. When class ends, I leave with a six-page assignment souvenir. I've also got a spare quill I forgot to return to Trevor which, at this point, will never be returned. One more class and the week is over.

I head downstairs to pick up my Charms textbook from the newsroom. "Lum—" I cast upon lifting the third tapestry past the Potions classroom, but the candles are already lit. Dom never remembers to extinguish them and it's such a waste of wax.

The tables and chairs are empty. The only other place I study is by the printing press, but I stop far short of it when I see Albus lounged at its seat, holding up my book, waiting for me.





A/N: I couldn't decide what to put in and leave out this chapter and I ended up mashing more and more things in here. It's a bit of a transition chapter. Clemence entwined in her gossip web not looking good for her credibility, Appy the murderer-author, and the ever enigmatic Albus Potter sitting in her territory right now.

I've been extra busy lately (chapters arriving late to everything x__x), so sorry if I don't respond to reviews immediately, but they've been really awesome his week especially, after the long work hours. I'm going to try to get through all of them over the weekend :3 Thanks for reading! ♥

Coming up:
"It was only the heat of the moment," I say, putting him out of his misery.

"We seem to have a lot of those."

"Well, you initiate a lot of them."

"It's a two-way street, dear."

"Don't you dear me, buttercup."


Chapter 13: A Lesson in Persuasion
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"What the hell are you doing here?"

Albus cocks his head. I expect an immediate answer, some rehearsed speech he prepared for this moment. 'Just passing through. Decided to take the grand tour of Hogwarts starting with obscure rooms behind tapestries.'

But instead he takes his time, gaze unwaveringly on mine as he plays with a letter block in his free hand, juggling it over his knuckles until they become black. Elbow on the corner of the printing press, sleeve rolled up, his shirt's barely an inch away from inked ruin. The more his eyes bore into me, the more I want to see that white fabric stained.

He flips the block into the air and it lands in his palm. He sets it alongside the others. "You didn't show."

I nearly forgot about the Astronomy Tower meeting I ditched, though ditch would imply I at least considered showing up. Honestly, if he wants a late-night tryst, think of my calves. Not all of us can be privileged with our seventh-floor towers. Some of us have to slum it in the dungeons.

"I recall telling you very clearly: piss off," I say. Striding forward, hand on my hip, I command the space that's mine. This is my territory, and he's putting his feet up like it's teatime with Trelawney. Those green eyes can go charm someone else like—oh, I don't know, Peeves. Poltergeists get lonely. They can bond over their hobby of showing up where they're not welcome.

The stool legs creak as Albus stands. He takes his time to meet me in the center of the room, my book swinging in his grip. "You're avoiding me."

"See previous statement: piss off. Now answer the fucking question or—do I need to say it again?"

"Just because you hid the door doesn't make this room your property. I have as much right to be here as you do." He's close enough that I have to look up. The tightrope stretches thin. "I only have one thing to ask, anyway."

"Save it for someone who cares. Get out."

"We're just going to pretend like it never happened?" His words gain an edge, and if I were anyone else, I would think it meant something to him.

"It was only the heat of the moment," I say, putting him out of his misery.

"We seem to have a lot of those."

"Well, you initiate a lot of them."

"It's a two-way street, dear."

"Don't you dear me, buttercup." My arms drop to my side and I hook my thumbs into my pockets. "Look, you want to talk about our little date? Fine. You were using me. End of story."

His mouth closes tight and dour, maybe even a little hurt, but I mean nothing to him and I remind myself of that every time I come close to thinking otherwise. The fact is, plain and simple, Potter and I will always be adversaries. We believe in different principles and clip out the meaning of compromise from dictionaries. He may seem like he cares, and he may even believe it himself, but I'm just someone for him to fix.

And that really grates me.

Girls who are well-versed in LaFolle's profound observations of romance might coo, Sometimes you hate someone so much that you fall in love with them, because that's infallible logic. Maybe if I start a hot enough fire, it'll start shitting ice cubes.

Love is love. Hate is hate. For us, it's about neither. It's about respect and power, which is why on any day, he'd rather see me humbled than kiss me goodnight.

So I tell this to his pretty little brooding face. "I'm your backup plan. You can't take me down, so you want me to help you take Q.G.A. down, and when I won't do that, you figure I might be at least good enough for a romp. Don't try to spin it otherwise."

"So?" Albus crosses his arms and tucks the Charms text underneath. Contrary to what self-proclaimed psychologists educated by Witch Weekly's 'Fifty-Seven Ways to Decipher His Body Language' say, there's nothing defensive about his stance. If anything, he's ready to fight, jutting out his elbows, flexing until the veins crawl out. "So what? I'm clearly not a threat then. Getting rid of those Quirkers are for your own good, too. I want it to be for the whole school's good."

"It's the principle of it."

"What's that?" He cups a hand to his ear. "You don't want to admit I'm right? The Quirkers are catching on, aren't they? I hear Witchy Business is... less than credible these days."

Potter heard Caroline's moos; how cute. "Double check your sources. Witchy Business is doing fine."

As I reach over to grab my book, Albus blocks me and my fingers catch on his sleeve—our first contact.

"'A Bash to Bash All Bashes'" He scoffs right through the article title. "Was that the best you had? 'Albus Potter held a surprise auction for an exclusive date, raising money for the Endangered Spotted Kneazle foundation.'"

"Well, it's not like anyone wants to save the Wart-Eyed Spiders. You've got to give them something cute and fuzzy." I resist lunging for the prize; he's easily got faster reflexes, and really, throwing myself at him isn't the greatest plan. I can understand a changing room and an invisibility cloak, but if I manage to get pressed against him in a spacious place like this, that's called a chronic problem.

"Spotted Kneazles aren't even endangered, and that's not the only hole in the story. They'll figure out the truth."

Honeying up my smile, I resist the urge to scoff at how utterly serious he is. "Thank you for your concern. Witchy Business dearly values its readers' opinions. Now if that's all, you've overstayed your welcome. Parting is such sweet sorrow, but alas." I wave and graciously direct him toward the door. "And give me my book back."

He doesn't move. He doesn't even hand over my book. "So we are pretending like it never happened."

I step toward him, patting him on the arm as I go retrieve what's mine, and the slight tensing of his brow doesn't escape me. "All right, we're going to have to upgrade our pronouns for a bit, because I'm pretty certain we just addressed all of 'it' unless 'it' is your inability to accept a no."

As soon as I brush the leather-bound cover, Albus holds me off by the shoulder, and the book slips from its place. Before I can hear it hit the ground, he pulls my lips to his.

Scratch that: extremely chronic problem.

He doesn't force the kiss; it begins almost like a question—a hesitant draw in his breath, thumbs sliding under my chin—and he only lingers long enough for a taste.

I wouldn't be annoyed with this if I put up a fight, especially since Potter is gentleman enough to understand 'no' in this context, but these snog-related moments are also coincidentally when the wires between my body and mind fizzle out.

I feel him smile—it's impossible not to with my bottom lip in his possession—and I swear I'm about to stop him when his fingers bury into my hair. Apparently, I'm a bit sensitive behind my ears, something I learn when he draws a circle around that very spot, and instead of 'Stop that right now', the words that comes out of my mouth have far fewer syllables and sounds suspiciously like a moan.

As his mouth drags down my jaw, he finally gives me a chance to breathe and re-circuit my brain. "Potter, what—"

"We have a thing for each other whether we agree or not." He dips down to my collarbone. "This is going to keep happening."

"No, it won't." I try to push him away. Sort of. Like a tap on the shoulder.

"The heart wants what the heart wants."

"I don't have a—"

Albus shuts me up with another kiss, and by the end of it, our arms have wound around each other and my feet have lost contact with the floor. His lidded gaze seem to twinkle, and I suddenly realize we're in motion.

He's carrying me. Could he always do that?

Meanwhile, my indignation sits like a rock in my gut, increasingly displeased as I ignore it. Bad ideas are either very repulsive or very tempting, and the pendulum has swung far to the latter side, but the only thing that actually worries me is the possibility of Dom walking in and validating her theories. My stomach's done enough backflips to fill a circus act—sixteen years of sexual frustration detonating all at once. That doesn't make it any less appalling, but at least it isn't—forgive me if I sneeze—feelings.

Albus sets me down on a table, hands sliding down to its surface, and with nowhere for my arms to go, I rest them around his collar, which is no longer pristine white. His shirt is smudged with my tell-tale fingerprints, inked at some point in our frenzy; there's no denying how willingly we're entwined with each other.

"We could keep this up. Regularly," he murmurs into my lips, and it's flutteringly unsettling how enamored he sounds.

"Are you dense?" I try not to smile because, again, I'm annoyed. I have principles. Lots of principles. "And you said you wanted to save me from the crazies."

"No one has to know but us. This isn't serious. It's just..." His fingers crawl under my shirt.

Flattening my gaze, I push him away, though not before his touch burns into my ribs. "Shag buddies? Really? Because that always turns out well."

It's obvious from his lazy grin, tipsy with heat, that Albus isn't thinking with his head. "Worried about heartbreak? But you don't have a heart, right?"

I roll my eyes. I can't believe we're even discussing this. "Figure of speech but yes—"

He presses a kiss to the side of my neck, too quick for me to dodge. "Or someone changes their mind and wants a relationship later." The heady ardor in his voice is almost liquid-thick. "But neither of us do and who's more stubborn than us?"

"Point taken, but we"—he's found the spot behind my ear again, and I bite my lip—"stop that." Or don't. Where I was primed to push him away once more, I seize tighter instead. Circe, this is how people end up on my headlines. "Potter, we don't even like each other."

"That's not true. We just don't agree on everything."

"Important things." Jabbing my elbows underneath his arms and using them as a lever, I force enough distance between us to prevent further torture. My irritation finally gets a chance to manifest, even if it's of the hot and bothered and hair-all-over flavor. "Didn't you have principles, Potter?"

He wipes his thumb across his lip. "And where are yours now?"

I'd been doing fairly well ignoring my utter betrayal of myself; I switch the subject back to him. "So between revenge plots and snogging me, you actually choose to snog me."

"That's got nothing to do with this. I'll still get you to bring down the Quirkers." He directs his amused smile down at my straining arms. The lengths I have to go through to keep him off me. "Until then, I'm okay with this."

The side of my face twitches at his arrogance, but for a second, I do consider it. These erupting sexual tension sessions have a habit of occurring, whether we keep arguing or not—particularly if we keep arguing—and they're... well, I'm not opposed to them. At the same time, the whole idea of being officially no-strings-attached rubs me the wrong way. I might not care much about feelings and fucks, but I think I should care, and it makes a difference, oddly enough.

Someone clears his throat by the door.

Pickett is leaned against the doorframe, enjoying our show with an intensely critical gaze, and from the stroke of his chin, he rates us around a B+. "Should I leave a sock on the knob for you two or...?"

I can't untangle fast enough from Albus. "He was just leaving."

Albus straightens his shirt, which is more of a lost cause than I thought. Ink stains all over. It shouldn't be so appealing.

"As long as you weren't defiling Ol' Bessie." Pickett's name for the table. "This is a shared space, you know."

Pressing my palm to my forehead, I could kill either of them right now—Pickett for his commentary and Albus for making me such an easy target.

Lover boy flips his collar back in the right direction and leans in slightly. "Think it over. Think about toppling the Q.G.A. too if you have time."

I glare. "I can't be persuaded like this."

"I'm not trying to persuade you. But we'll see." With that, Albus turns around. He strides past Pickett, nodding. "Henry."

"Mr. Enigma."

Albus raises his brow. He doesn't see me flip Pickett off.

When he's gone, I slide off the table, rubbing my temples until I glance down and groan, remembering the ink on my own hands. I pick up my Charms book, what I came here for originally once upon a time. Picket sidles next to me.

"It's complicated," I grit. I've always scoffed at that term because, really, how complicated can our lives get before Apparition age?

"Oh I see, you're still in—"

"Don't you dare say it."

Pickett holds the whole word in. Freezes in place, in fact, grin and all. I keep my glare on him until I head out the door. Just before we break eye contact, he sings it out.

"Denial!"


::



A little friskiness in the newsroom isn't the end of the world, but the apocalypse is nigh—and it's color-coded.

Even though this is Witchy Business break week as we catch up on schoolwork, I oversleep my Monday morning nap anyway. When I rush out of the common room, there's something wrong with the hallway's burble of activity, thicker and louder than usual.

I can't place it until I reach a good vantage point on the first floor staircase and I see the crowd as a whole. It's red and purple shirts as far as my eye can see, like an ominous cranberry-grape swirl.Those are not happy flavors.

As students spill out of their classes, a good half of the crowd is wearing one of these team shirts, girls and boys alike. I finally spot a friendly face in Janey, who's squeezed in the middle of a Team Rose pack. She struggles to reach me, faltering hand extended and I pull her out just before she's lost to the sea.

We huddle close to the wall as she catches her breath. Shirt-wearers stare at us up and down.

"Janey, I hope you've arrived with an explanation for this," I hiss as we shuffle to avoid the traffic jam.

"I have." Lovely girl, always on top of things. She adjusts her tilted glasses, frowning at the smudges. "Couple of Gryffs got in a huge tiff over Dom-or-Rose-for-Scorpius yesterday. That led to a big rally for both sides—to y'know, show their pride. Shirt production shot way up. Wristbands, too. Anyway, they got the whole tower on one side or the other by the morning."

Circe, Dom must be cackling wherever she is. Too excited to bother waking me up, bint.

"I didn't think it'd spread so fast," Janey says, "but apparently Hufflepuff's fully converted and they're working on us blues and greens right now."

"Merlin's bearded cousin." Fangirl mobs and now this. Hogwarts might be prepared for another onslaught of dark lords or dementors, but they really need a quarantine plan for their own student body.

Mind, it hasn't quite hit the roof of the loony bin yet, but the hourglass has to run out eventually.

Janey and I split to our respective classes none too optimistically. I arrive just before Monsieur Breech taps on his elevated lectern.

Dom looks particularly cheery today. Looking around the room, it's easy to see why: purple outnumbers red. Rose is on the opposite end, surrounded by her color. Chin up, she doesn't seem troubled, but that's half of war: show no weakness, show no mercy.

I rub my neck of the jolt that runs through when I catch Albus' gaze not too far behind her. My eyes snap forward.

Breeches' rehash of our last lesson in wand theory takes up most of the class; he can't resist the sound of his own voice. At last we get to pair up, but when I look to my right, Dom's not there.

Instead, both she and Rose are walking over to Scorpius, and both colors of the crowd surge in after them, waiting for his choice. Usually, Potter's his partner, but he's currently being accosted by a Quirker, and now poor Blondie doesn't even look like he knows what's going on.

I can't help but feel bad, even though it's patently hilarious watching a six-foot stud quake. Everything can be scary in large numbers: lions, tween girls, smiley-face chips. Sighing—because I'm ever so nice and rather not encourage another mob so soon—I dash over to Scorpius' side as Dom and Rose open their mouths.

"Oi, Scorp-o boy! You look like you need a partner."

I throw my arm around his shoulder, straining to match his height. He stares at me perplexedly, as do Dom and Rose and everyone else trailing them.

"I—I do," he stutters, catching on with a small smile.

The crowd disperses. Dom and Rose aren't pleased, but a draw is better than outright losing. Dom sticks her tongue out at me and pairs with a shirt buddy.

"Thanks, Clemence." Scorpius gets into position across from me.

"You're a nice bloke. Shame if you got killed."

He chuckles nervously.

The spells start flying. After a few run-throughs of counters, Scorpius lowers his wand. "So this whole Team-Rose-Team-Dom thing..."

"I'm not on any side, don't worry." I throw a hex, which he doesn't bother shielding but just dodges, and it hits Lindy's bum behind him. She glares at me. Bulls-eye.

"I've got something to do with it?"

I balk at him. "Blondie, you're the whole issue."

"But it's just one of their things. Rose and Dom's. I didn't think I ought to get between them." He fiddles with his collar. Blindingly attractive as he is, he's not quite as bright as his best mate. "I don't know what other girls are saying, but I didn't think it'd get this crazy. They know I'm not interested in either of them."

"What?" All other thoughts careen to a halt. "Hold on, Dom and Rose both know you're not interested in either of them?"

He blinks. "Yeah."

Then what the hell is this all about? "You're sure?"

"I made that clear."

"Very clear? Clearer than air?"

He frowns, looking from side to side like chiseled goldfish. "Yeah."

"But Dom said..."

"What'd she say?"

"I mean, nothing but I thought..." I never forgot that time I caught them talking in the hallway, even after Dom said that it was nothing. But Dom does flirt with everyone, and Scorpius is one of those blokes who's so polite he probably doesn't know what he's saying half the time. Flash a smile and say hello, and he could be courting the whole room.

"We're just friends," he says.

"And Rose?"

"Friends."

Maybe this stupid feud can be nipped in the bud after all. I wouldn't be surprised if Dom and Rose started something just because they're bored and overconfident. Poor Blondie. He didn't know what he was signing up for with the Weasley cousins; they took his hand and dragged it across the signature line.

"Can I quote you on this?" Dom's going to kill me for hijacking her turf.

"Actually, I was hoping you would. This is... I just want it to stop." Scorpius rubs his neck. "I don't know what to do."

"Don't worry." I'd pinch his cheeks, but I'd probably cut myself. "People listen to what I say."

He manages a smile, at which point, three girls swoon to the floor (they got petrified, but it was well-timed).

Scorpius leaves the class in high-spirits, and so do I, because it is pretty nice to help someone when I can. And Potter thinks Witchy Business doesn't do good for the world.

I miss Dom in the crowd, but we've got different classes anyway; I'll catch her at lunch. Walking down the hall, I hear snippets about Dom-this, Rose-that.

"She swears she saw them leave the same hallway. Clothes all mussed up too."

Were they talking about—?

But I can't find the owner of the voice amidst the red and purple. I make my way to the next hall, and then my stomach drops.

Duplicates of my Quirker Bash article are plastered along the walls so thickly that they fall in large sheets, stuck together. I pick one up from the floor, trying not to shake, as the few loiterers turn to stare.

On every single flyer, scrawled with pink lipstick, is a big fat 'LIAR.'

Blood beating fast, I almost don't hear the footsteps near behind me. He stops just close enough for me to feel the heat.

"Welcome to the spotlight," Albus drawls. "Wear sunglasses."

I swallow hard, rubbing the lipstick onto my finger. Glitter. "You better have a damn good plan, Potter."

"The best, buttercup."




"parting is such sweet sorrow" is from Romeo and Juliet

A/N PHEW. Okay, so it's a bit sizzling hot off the press 'cause I've got exams coming up, and I rushed right through this. Forgive me for any spelling/grammar derps. Also updated within TWO WEEKS. Haa, that's like a recent record. I haven't done that in ages.

Thanks for reading! Hope you could follow the crazy ♥ and reviews would be lovely, as always!

Coming up!
I laugh automatically. "Sources? What do your sources know that I don't already?"

"There are plenty of people who want nothing to do with you." Albus rests against the table, one leg half-crossed over the other, and meets my sidelong glance. "You know far less about this school than you think."




Chapter 14: Lesser of Two Evils
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I'm not afraid of my reckoning, the day the mob comes and beats down the doors and demand justice for what I do, and I won't dull what I do with excuses. There's nothing nice or honorable about Witchy Business, even if I have rules about it.

But there is one thing—just one thing when I picked up that paper with its pink word

Not as stifling as fear, but I felt it: a solid lump, leeching from the thing in my chest known as my heart. Instead of beating, it puckered, shirked, and shriveled.

I've felt it a few times before but not in any notable moments. I'd be sitting in the library taking notes about pre-eighteenth century centaur laws when suddenly, mid-sentence, I'm suffocating as I breathe, and what little air makes it into my lungs turns sweet and sticky.

Fellow classmate Felicity saw me once, at the end of it, when I was keeping my shoulders steady so no one would notice the girl gasping by the reference section. She very quietly asked me if I had a panic attack, and perhaps that was it, but what did I have to panic about? Centaur tribes being pushed out of Dutch forests?

She said I ought to get it checked, but I knew I wasn't sickly. It was... I don't know what it was. That seized me most—that I'm a single bag of bones, of finite volume and countable parts, yet there are things I don't know about myself.






Grey carpets my finger as I, nose wrinkled, wipe a line of dust off the newsroom table. The castle sheds, I swear; I just cleaned this yesterday.

Bored but mostly bitter—I like my mornings like I like my tea—I doodle a flesh-eating flytrap in the dust. At some point, Albus walks through the door, puffy-eyed and too tired to form much of an expression or maybe he just likes his mornings bitter, too. Still, he's impeccably dressed, starched white shirt is buttoned up to the top, crisp except where his damp hair meets his wilting collar, and his black robes hang over the crook of his arm without wrinkle.

"You're late," I mutter, adding four struggling limbs and a plethora of sparkles beneath the plant's mouth.

"Had to drop something off at Professor Longbottom's." His voice floats closer, and I hear the thunk of his satchel on the chair across from me.

"Did his pitcher plants seem peckish today?"

"Didn't see, why?"

I rub out the drawing when he leans over. "No reason."

His tie dangles before me, shiny and new; his old one was lost to some girl with extra-long arms in the Q.G.A. bash mob. It's probably traded hands ten times by now, like most stolen boy-toy trinkets. The Q.G.A. have got a black market of them: locks of hair, chewed quills, used tissue. It's as if they want to maintain their creepy reputation.

That's the freaky bit about Quirkers; they haven't got qualms about anything.

"So Potter, let's get this over with." Linking my arms behind my head, I stretch back, throwing both feet onto the table. "What's your grand plan for taking down the Q.G.A.?"

"Getting right to the point?" His lips ease out of their rigid straightness.

"I don't see why not."

"Have it your way. Just thought you preferred—"

"Snogging on ol' Bessie?" I finish without missing a beat. I tap on her with my foot and the hollow wood responds. "Well, if we'll end up doing that anyway, might as well get it over with now."

He shrugs, circling the table. "Have it your way."

"Oi." Even when I shoot him a pointed glare, he doesn't stop; no, I'd say there's even an eager swagger to his steps. "Oi, sarcasm. Oi." I snap my fingers, and in my haste to get up, I tangle my legs with the chair's and nearly fall over.

I hear his laugh before I see It. Ugh, I was hoping his—what do I even call it? Eccentrically roguish side?—wouldn't show first thing in the morning.

"Right. What was it that you wanted?" he asks.

"Your master plan." I wipe my hair from my face.

"Ah. Could've just said so." Albus returns to his satchel with the same strut and takes a rolled parchment sticking out from the open flap.

As he starts making his way back to me, my raised wand stops him. "You stay on the other side. Five foot rule."

"Seriously?"

"Test it out. You can snog my Slug-Vomit Charm."

The lines at the corner of his mouth crinkle and relax, as if trying not to laugh again. "All right." Albus unscrolls the parchment where he stands. "Irresistible for a five-foot radius. Never knew that about myself."

I ought to tell him to piss off again, but I bite my tongue. What's a little pride? I have too much, anyway. All I want are the ends—this surreptitious whispering about the Q.G.A. incident shut up and gone, and me and my paper on our merry way to last week's status quo. With Dom wrapped up in her own scandal-war and Pickett chasing after her, Albus is better than nothing. I'd rather not drag Janey into this; she's a good kid. Someone needs to leave Hogwarts without falling victim to their own creations.

Tucking my wand away, I keep one hand above my pocket as I edge toward the scribbles of writing. My eyes widen. "My god, Potter. You actually planned something out. I figured you were just going to wing something."

"Do I look like someone who wings things?"

"No. I'm still not sure if you fabricated this yourself to get in my pants."

He snorts and slides the parchment over, scraping dust in its wake. "You flatter yourself."

"And you can't keep your hands off of me," I reply coolly. Picking it up, I scan the document. It's one long list. Will Lockhart, Sean Blackbury, Danny Bletchley... "These are just names." Quidditch players, to be precise.

"Potential allies. We'll need as many as we can get. You'll see."

The hairs on my neck bristle the two times Albus says 'we', and again as he suddenly appears behind my shoulder. My hand twitches for my wand; I can't decide whether I was kidding.

"Q.G.A.'s internal affairs are a mess," he says, plucking the parchment from me. "You've got multiple girls going after the same blokes and it's may-the-best-girl-win. There's rampant jealousy, leading to sabotage, wars like Rose and Dom's"—I note the distinct casualness when he says their names, completely unsurprised by his family's affairs—"slander, poisonings, things that could send a person to Azkaban. There's not much loyalty is my point. I've got sources who say—"

I laugh automatically. "Sources? What do your sources know that I don't already?"

"There are plenty of people who want nothing to do with you." Albus rests against the table, one leg half-crossed over the other, and meets my sidelong glance. "You know far less about this school than you think."

It's the bold way he says it that quiets me, as if he can see past the jabs that bounce off like rubber to the few that stick.

Like he's searching for my weak spot.

He rocks to his feet. "You're afraid, aren't you?"

I draw my wand at last and press it into his chest. "Still haven't learned that playing therapist never works?"

He grabs the tip but holds it in place. "You are afraid. I know what you're like when you're confident, and this isn't it."

The flash of my downfall is the same every time I imagine it: me in the headlines in my very own scandal, discredited and shamed, and it's never felt as close as it does now. I blink it away before the details can fill in. "I'm accustomed to a certain level of influence in this school; I'd like to keep it." My lips curve. And so we've begun the dance. "I'm very simple, Potter. I've got loyalties to nothing, no sentiments to speak of. Nothing to lose."

"Then what do you live for?"

"I live for living's sake," I say—or rather, brag. "What'd you expect me to answer? My paper? My friends?" I tilt my head to the side, where I find his hand waiting. His accusation has softened into curiosity, and he cups my cheek, not to draw me near, but to hold me in place and study me like an exhibit. "My paper's rubbish. That's right: rubbish. A stepping stone for the real world, and I'll forget once I accept my first job. I don't need it. It's just useful, like for how I'm going to save your best friend from an idiot relationship war. Thankless task. And friends—they come and go. I adore Dom, but if she takes that study in France after Hogwarts like she wants to, I know there's a high chance that we'll just... drift over those years. I'll find new friends and so will she. Sad but it happens every day. Happens to everyone."

It sounds crueler than I thought it would, but it's the only way to prove it to him. And it's a fact I'll have to face eventually.

I twist my wand, right where his heart is, before lowering it. "So can you see me, at last? You can throw me in the cold, with nothing but my name, and I'll build myself up again, no regrets. It's a blank slate out there."

His hand has dropped as well, his expression clouded. He doesn't know what to think, poor boy. Maybe I've finally knocked him on the head too hard.

But finally, Albus speaks.

And he smiles.

"Hmm. Unsurprised," Albus quips the same as one would say, 'Two scoops, please, hold the syrup.' Then he turns away, as if our up-close confrontation never occurred.

My face falls—splat. That's it?

"Now, about our plans—"

That's not how this goes! "Potter!"

"Yes, buttercup?" He grins over his shoulder.

Eyes narrowed, I don't know what to reprimand him of first. Is he—laughing at me? An eloquent breakdown of how I've beaten life's game and he laughs? Has he gone mad?

"Well, at least tell me why you're fucking unsurprised?" I ask, red splotching my cheeks.

"I expected what you said. Thus, lack of surprise. I can hold your hand and explain again. About the plans—"

"But aren't you going to—I don't know—criticize me?" I circle to the other side of him as he picks up his satchel. "Tell me that I should get a heart, find a purpose, hug a puppy?"

"You said it's not wise to play therapist."

"When do you actually listen to me?"

"Right now." His eyes gleam, puffy as they are. "Frustrating, isn't it?"

While he shakes his bag around, rummaging for god knows what, I'm an ounce of dignity away from stammering. We have an understanding. Unspoken, but an understanding nonetheless. He'll always disagree with me and vice-versa, and we want—no, need—to change the other. That's the crux of our interaction. He can't not argue back. It's throws the world off-balance. It throws me off-balance.

It's cheating.

Albus pulls... nothing from his bag. That is, until I see his hand shimmer and his whole body vanishes. His head appears, followed by an arm held out like a wing. "Five-foot rule's not going to work here."

Ugh. I duck under the cloak, cramped as ever, and his arm lounges over my shoulders. "Where are we going?"

"Out."

"To?"

He shrugs as we leave the dusty room. "It was stuffy in there. Wanted to walk."

It's not that my mouth can't form words right now. My brain can't even think of the words for my mouth to form. He's flustering me on purpose, and he could have the decency to gloat so I can prove it.

But at least when we take to the hallways, we get to business.

"So my sources"—he draws out the word—"think there's been discontent going around. Members are getting tired of Appy. With her focusing on her book, they're not sure if she's committed enough to the club."

We slide between the traffic. The number of early risers is barely enough to muffle an extra presence and as much as I try to wriggle free from him, it isn't worth the risk of the cloak falling off. I'll be civil—barely. "Appy founded it." I accidentally step on his foot. Twice.

His only tightens his hold and rolls his eyes. "You know they don't care. Quirkers just want their blokes, and she hasn't been delivering."

"But she never has." Before he guides me up the stairs, I catch sight of Harriet by the loos, threatening our Team Rose shirt-wearing Seeker with her Beater's bat. I wonder if Dom's up yet.

"They're a bit slow on the uptake. We can take advantage of it."

"I guess," I mutter.

The reality of our collaboration has to be jammed into my brain with a chisel and hammer. Potter is bearable. Smart enough and not a complete bore, and he's got many other... irrelevant talents. But if I have to describe this, it's like I'm working with an ex. Not exactly the most thrilling prospect.

Intimacy makes no sense, really. It's not as if we were together. He stuck his tongue down my throat, and it wasn't even amazing. Though my memories seem to disagree, because they like to remind me of it all the time.

And he is thankfully unaware. "Appy's the problem," Albus says. He glances over his shoulder when we hear squeals. A comically large cake makes its way down a perpendicular hallway; it's just someone's birthday. "Without her, boom goes the club."

"And once she's gone, then what? Appy isn't the problem. Quirkers are followers; they'll rally around the next person who sounds remotely credible and the whole cycle starts again. Idiots following different idiots."

"Already thought of that. We'll have our own replacement. That's what the list is for."

I wrinkle my nose, remembering the Quidditch players. "Them? Sean and Danny—"

"No, the names on the list are just willing volunteers to... help."

We enter quieter halls, where we have to mind our footsteps. No morning classes are held here, and the only occupied room seems to be Professor Flitwick's office, where I hear the crackle of the wireless alongside rapid swishing. 'I whip my beard back and forth, I whip my beard back and forth...'

Albus stops before a classroom, unremarkable until we enter and I see the chalk writing. Half-erased advice litter the board, and one list titled 'The Perfect Personality' remains in its whole with traits like 'stubborn' and 'awkward' checked off. The Q.G.A. meeting was here last night.

"You see, we'll be beating Appy on her own turf." Albus flicks his wand, and a rag begins wiping the board clean. "She can't produce results, but we can. At least, make it look like we can. What better way to get rid of Appy than to siphon her followers to someone new? Someone who promises the same support group Appy does, but more importantly, will deliver on the fairy tale ending a hundred percent of the time?"

For the first time this morning, I'm actually listening. "Potter, are you saying..."

"I've got leverage with the Quidditch lot and a few others. They're willing to bear with a few fake dates with the crazies. As far as the girls will be concerned, they've earned these dates themselves, by using their soon-to-be-leader's good advice."

He's not plotting Q.G.A.'s fall. He's plotting its takeover.

"And once they're in our hands, there's a million ways to go from there," I say slowly, smiling despite myself. "Re-education, stuff some sense back into them. Even if they're crazy until the end of days, at least we'll have them under control." I shake my head; meddling's for twats, but this is extraordinarily despicable. "Quite a Slytherin cunning you've got there, Potter."

"Chivalry can't win every battle." Albus smirks. "You love it."

I decline to comment. "So what am I supposed to be doing in all this?"

I really ought to have figured it out earlier, but I know as soon as the spark lights his eyes.

"You," he chuckles, as the rag erases Appy's name from the board, "are the replacement."




'I whip my beard' is derived from 'Whip My Hair' by Willow Smith

A/N This is actually a half-update, though I sort of ended up padding this chapter enough to let it stand on its own. I took a bit of a break from writing to do fun summer things and I'm only just getting back to it now, and I feel all rusty D:

The next chapter connects a lot with stuff brought up in this one, if it goes as planned. Which it never does, but, well. Clemence's fears will crop up again; that was the overarching theme. It's been pretty fun getting into the bits she's uncomfortable with. Unreliable narrator fun! Everyone will make an appearance, Rose and Scorpius, too. And egads, twirly-mustache Albus' plans! What shall they spiral into~

Thank you for reading! Thoughts/wild mass speculation would be much appreciated ♥

Chapter 15: The Casualties of War
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Think it over. That's what he leaves me with.

Albus said the same thing when he proposed that we shag when we're bored. Same tone, too, like he thinks I'm going to give in eventually because he and his little ideas are too irresistible.

This isn't fun and Quidditch games or off-duty shags; we're taking down an empire.

Quirky Girls Anon may be a ticking time bomb of bona-fide nutters but it's lasted this long; replacing Miss Colon will be no small task. If the only thing a fool knows how to do is keep their power, then they're dangerous enough. Butchers and city-burners have ruled Rome before.

The thing about power is that it's easier to keep the longer you have it. You have time to indoctrinate your subjects, unwind the spools that will secure your kingdom. That little thing people call networking is nothing but a mess of strings, tied to devoted wrists and across hallways to trip and trap. They are your eyes, your ears, and your muscle.

Appy has her web and I have mine. For me to take over, I have to snip her lines and tie them to my own, and when the strings are already so tangled, it'll only take one mistake to drag us both down.

And wouldn't Albus love it if he could kill two birds on one throne?






Albus wants me to wait before deciding. Probably not too keen at the 'No' I screeched after he dished the plans. There's Saturday to deliberate, Sunday to mind my classwork and gossip dealings, and come Monday, after distribution, a verdict.

I deliberate for about half a second, which leaves a peaceful Saturday. Sunday, on the other hand, is one of those days where people suddenly remember everything they want me to do, and then tell me all at once.

Nudged awake, I rub my eyes. "Dom, it's like seven A.M. why are oh fucking hell—!"

Appy's got her grin and a pair of scissors an inch from my face. "Morning, Clemence!" Judging from the weight on top, she's not just by my bedside; she's sitting on me.

"Dom?" I call hoarsely as my terrified reflection on the metal blades near. "Harriet? Helen? Potter?"

Appy carelessly snips at the air. Blonde strands of hair fall on my bedding. "No, silly, it's just you and me. I checked the wardrobes for Albus too, just in case," she whispers, conspirator to conspirator. "Silly boys like to sneak in."

I've woken up enough to wriggle free and grab the scissors from her before she puts out an eye. "Why do you have these—" I throw them on my desk "—and why on top of—just what the hell are you doing?"

She clasps her hands together, giggling as she sprawls backwards over my legs. "Oh silly, it was supposed to be a joke! I was going to ask you for a favor, to cut my novel. See, scissors also cut but they—"

"I get it." I rub my forehead. "Why... do you want me to cut your novel?"

"It's a touch long, and I want to make sure it's as close to ready before I owl it out." She rolls over, kicking her legs in the air like a puppy in a spin cycle. This is the face of evil that I'm supposed to destroy. "And as I was telling my Flappyjacks Snugglekins, who better to edit it than you?"

Of all the people to appreciate my writing for its finesse. "I'm flattered. I really am." My eyes curve into moon shapes above the fakest smile since the invention of the compliment. "To be your first choice, and for a future bestselling hit, no less—there's flattery by the cauldronful. But it's a lot of work."

She nods, perky as a parrot. "Oh no, it's totally a lot of work. That's why there's some Weird Sister reunion tour tickets in it for you. Hovering Booth G seats—"

"Weird Sisters are more of Pickett's thing..."

"—and Mummy says if I want, I can take someone with me when I meet the Head Editor of The Daily Prophet in June, if you know what I mean."

My next inhale is drawn sharp between my teeth. Appy has her clever moments, rare as they are. Great-Aunt Rita always said she would take me to the Prophet headquarters, but let's face it: the woman is much better at being a liar than an aunt.

"I... don't have time, but I'll give it a quick look," I say finally.

As soon as the words come out of my mouth, I regret it. Appy leaps off my bed, liberating my lower legs, at least until an anvil-sized stack of paper takes her place.

"Yuh-ay!" Booty shake-and-stir. "Here's my manuscript! A bit shy of two thousand pages. Don't worry, its front and back; saves trees." Throwing her arms around me, she's trying to kill me again—okay, she's hugging me, but it's getting mighty hard to breathe. "Thank you so much, Clemence."

"You're welcome, I guess." Ten seconds later: "Ahem."

"Right." She releases me at arms length. Her smile tenses. "Oh, and Clemence—another thing. I've heard some stuff about you and Albus and, well, heh." She squeezes my shoulders and nudge-nudge-winks. "Do I have to ask?"

"It's rubbish," I assure, carefully extracting myself from my bed and her.

Like a duck, she follows. "Oh. Oh okay. It's just... you know, weird, 'cause I was in the loo yesterday, one of the corner ones, there was some writing that said—"

"It's rubbish. All rubbish. Appy, we've been roommates for years. You can't spell roommates without mates," I say, backing into the bathroom. "Trust me when I say, I want nothing to do with that boy." I pat her on the cheek and slam the door shut.

It's not a lie.

When I finish showering and come out to a thankfully Appy-less room, I find out that it's actually more like eleven A.M. I rush out, running into Dom, Harriet, and Pickett in the common room, the former two with their brooms.

Dom grabs me by my well-violated shoulders upon first sight. "Good, you're awake!" she says. "You were snoring like a constipated walrus."

"I don't think that means what you think it means."

"Whatever." In half a blink, Dom goes from sour to honey-sweet. "So I totally forgot about an essay due tomorrow. Harriet just told me. We've got practice now, and I'm really, really busy today. If you could please—" She takes a folded parchment from her pocket, and I know that bat of the eye. "It's my article. I know you hate finishing my writing, but it's like three-fourths done already, so just one more time—"

"Yes, I'll do it." I take the parchment with no small huff. "Anyone else need anything? Hmm? Pickett?" The third wheel perks up. Despite hanging around two chatterboxes, it's probably the first interaction he's had all day. "Want me to fold your laundry? Sharpen your quills?"

"Ooh, if you could make me a sandwich, love—"

"Bacon, lettuce, cyanide?"

"...and I'll pass." He slings an arm over my shoulder as we follow Dom and Harriet out the door. "Good morning, I reckon?"

"Award-winning."

I enlighten him with the details of my wake-up call while the two in front jabber about Quidditch. We pass Rose's entourage on the stairs—rather difficult to miss that much red—and the girls at the edge of her group hiss upon spotting us. Rose remains aloofly silent in the center, sleepless circles hollowing her face. As ridiculous as this feud has been, it's been taking its toll.

Surprisingly, Dom has no reaction, which I point out once we're in the clear.

"Oh, Rose was there?" Dom says, shrugging. "Didn't notice."

I raise a brow, muttering, "Didn't notice the Santa convention casually mucking about?" Pickett snorts.

Dom laughs too, refreshingly void of malice. "I've been blocking out all red and purple in my line of sight. This cult war's been fun but it's full of crazies." She spins a circle by her head. "Can't wait for it to end."

I feel a touch guilty for all the suspicion I've drowned her with these days. Despite her naysayers, Dom is a woman of her word, and one of passing fancies. As much as she likes to show up Rose, she's not power-hungry enough to fight until surrender; she is only—and she'd deny it—insecure.

"Scorpius wants it to end; poor kid got the crazies too," I say, drilling down to work. "We can publish a column, say he never really fancied either of you. It's a stalemate."

Dom flaps a hand, steps quickening to catch up to Harriet, who's gone ahead to meet with the team by the entrance hall. "Just let it run its course. No need to make us look like fools."

"I... suppose. But maybe—"

But Dom's already out of earshot, knocking brooms with her teammates, laughing in a different conversation.






The thing about quirky girls is that... well, they're quirky. One might ask what that even means, which is a very good question that no one has answered, despite throwing the word around at every opportunity.

I'm personally waiting for 'quirky' to worm its way through the thesaurus as the new desperate (I'm so quirky for pancakes right now). Look at Appy: she bursts into rooms, shouting at the top of her lungs as if everyone's listening and whinges about the latest in first-world problems, i.e. being single. She was bearable—creepy but bearable, like a lawn gnome—until she nearly strangled me.

But in her mind, like in every quirky girl's mind, she's the heroine of her own story: a misunderstood, fun-loving lassie, and girls who don't like her are bitches, boy-stealers, shallow, or sluts, because god forbid if they have an opinion about her. Why, they might even be implying that she's the bitch.

Call a Quirker names and it's bullying, but when she sling names back, it's justice.

I say Quirkers don't understand boys, that they just believe what they want. I saw this at the bash clearly enough. Boys aren't people; they're boys. Either a prince or an arse with no middle ground. The truth is: no one understands anyone else. Instead, we fall into our black-and-white hierarchy where we speak different languages but seek the same acceptance, from school to work to the rest of our lives.

How simple is it to blame the other side for your problems, pat yourself on the back for being such a good angel who's given such a good effort, and then go on with your life, thinking yourself the victim?

Because then, at least, it isn't your own fault.






The last of the scarlet message disappears under my sleeve, and a cleaning charm takes care of the remaining film on the mirror.

It took five loos before I found the one Appy mentioned—in the opposite corner and farthest floor of where I was searching, naturally. I saw the curl of a question mark a few steps into the dank room, and for a moment, I didn't want to know the rest. But what kind of reporter would I be if my fear overpowered curiosity?

So I faced it and moved my legs like a clockwork soldier, and there upon the glass, my reflection was broken by the red angry paint: 'MISS BITCHY BUSINESS reports on YOU. Who reports on HER?'

It's a harmless statement by any standards, too vague to do real damage, but it's a call to arms, the drum beats stirring bored teens that have nothing better to do than to hate someone, and I can't get rid of it fast enough.

The red isn't gone. There's another scrawl, on a stall door, reflected backwards on the mirror: 'CLEMENCE + ALBUS TUMBLING UNDER TABLES'.

I grope for my wand and slash a spell at it, smearing half the words away. Frustration in place of determination, I cast another one and it nearly cuts into the wood.

When the creaking hinges quiet and the dripping faucet fades to monotony, the damp closes in from my collar to my ears, and I feel sweat in every pore, slicking every hair.

You're falling apart at last.

My fingers clamber down my wand to find a less slippery grip, and I count seconds until it's maddening.

"Scourgify."

As the charm does its work on the door, a cackle sounds behind me. "Well, well, well, destroying the evidence."

Caroline appears at the edge of my vision, up to her neck in periwinkle blue cashmere. Her entourage fills up the space behind her.

I lick my lips. Caroline, I can handle. "Probably shouldn't believe everything you see, especially in a loo," I say, flashing a smile. "The lie isn't a recent invention."

The group advances en masse. I recognize faces—Anna, Heather, Ella. Non-confrontational, but they love a good show. With these numbers, I'd rather flee than fight; I'll bear with the jeers.

Caroline blocks the exit with her arm as I try to pass. "Going somewhere?" Her hand taps the wall in front of my nose. Clack clack. Clack clack.

"Can't escape your face fast enough, Escot." I pinch my cheeks. "Did Daddy buy you a new one over winter? Should've kept the warranty." When I duck under her arm, another body moves in front of me. Big Bertha and her big... berth.

Caroline's laugh chimes through the nook, and the crowd snickers along. "Wow, Clemence. You really don't know when you've been beat. Girls, tell her what this school really thinks of her."

Feet shuffle. A few girls begin a whoop, "Yeah, tell her!" only for it to die in the lack of response and nervous coughs. Caroline rolls her eyes. "Cowards."

She takes another step, backing me into a corner. "You're a desperate, lying bitch, and you always have been," she hisses, grabbing a shoulder and grinding it into the wall. "You'd throw your own mum into a dragon's den for attention."

"I haven't got a mum," I say, holding her gaze steady. Fighting back will be worse.

"You've already done it, then." The nails dig in, and I wince, and four new pairs of claws latch onto my clothes. These are not the girls I know. Even sweet Anna, known for cross-stitching coasters for the Great Hall, has adopted a wolfish look. "It's time you got what you deserve."

They want blood. "Let me go."

"Oh, we will—stark naked."

The claws begin their pull, and a strangled gasp leaps from my throat. I haven't got any defense against brute force; I never needed it.

They're strong. Bertha's got me by the throat, and my arms have become tangled with three others. A button snaps. Two fingers burrow into my hip, trying to loosen my jeans, and another hand jerks me in the opposite direction. My head knocks against the stone wall, and their glowing eyes flash bright white.

A shriek, then a weightless pause. All hands release me, and I skid to the ground.

"Albus! Fancy seeing you here! ...in the girl's loo."

"What's going on?" I hear him ask, almost laughingly. The crowd parts, and I see two of him, until my vision clears and blends his double bodies into one. His smile vanishes.

Caroline rushes in front of him, blocking me from view. "I—we—we're just um, playing dress-up. Make overs. Clemence volunteered to be first. We were very eager."

But she's blind to him as he moves past her and pulls me up. "Really."

"They tried to kill me," I mutter. I flatten my hand against my blouse, feeling for loose buttons.

This would be one of the only times I appreciate Potter's white knighting, seeing as I was just attacked—and I really thought he was concerned, with that look on his face as if I was, well, just attacked.

But when he glances between the jumpy girls and me, the genuine concern I saw—or thought I saw—vanishes in lieu of a lilted smile. "Make-up isn't deadly, Fitzgerald."

It takes a second for Caroline to laugh, which comes out more like a choke, and relief floods her face while disbelief shadows mine. "See, Albus understands!" She pats me on the arm, yelping when I gnash my teeth.

"You can't honestly believe them!" I sputter.

"These are nice girls." Potter's eyes twinkle, sweeping over the dozen or so heads, eliciting a round of sighs. "I'm sure whatever happened was a big misunderstanding."

The crowd responds with murmurs of agreement. They nod like bobbleheads, jostling each other to be near him. "Oh yes," "Mmhmm," "Exactly."

I don't believe it. He's trying to gain their favor. And it's working.

Everyone’s looking at me, trying to hide their smirks. I shake my head. "Well, fuck you too, Potter."

He frowns before I stomp off. The girls let me go, crowding in the space that I leave; I'm no longer their concern.

"Is it true, Al? You're dating her?"

"Clemence?" He's back to chuckling. "She's not interested in me."

"But you've asked her out?"

"Yeah, I like her. Something wrong?"

"You're too nice, Al!"

"She's the biggest harpy in school!" another girl crows. "She'll break your heart!"

"I'll watch out, then."

I'd block off my ears, but I can't fight my nature to listen to the worst; I've made a career out of it, after all.

The voices soon fade, though the squeals are loud enough to be heard over at Beaubaxton. I duck into an empty Herbology classroom, finding a seat amongst the flower pots and fertilizer.

I press my hands up my face, over my hair. I think I'd cry if I could. I can't. Aunt Rita said that I was a quiet child and she was never more thankful, but I wish I cried, just to so I know what it's like. But when I stare into my hands, there's only dry dirt and scratches.

The door creaks open. A pair of scuffed brogues walk in, my cue to leave.

Albus catches me as I brush past him, and he dares to look worried. "Are you okay?"

"Don't touch me."

"Clemence." He brings his other arm around, a cradle for an unwilling prisoner, and draws me in front of him. "I had to."

"Had to what? Feed them shit?" I laugh and it's the closest thing to crying that's come from my mouth, and when I meet his eyes, I show him exactly what his gallantry means to me. "You're marking me as the big, bad bitch who stole your heart, so they'll all fight to be the one to win you from me. That's what you did at the end there, isn't it? When you admitted to them that you liked me. And then stayed to flirt."

"We've been outted! I needed something believable. The more they focus on me, the less they'll focus on you." He runs his fingers through his hair, bunching a fistful of dark strands. "If they knew the rest about us, you'd be dead by the next day."

"I'd rather be dead than a fool," I spit. "And there is no us."

"If it were Caroline there instead, you wouldn't think twice about reporting every detail. And don't forget you threw me to the mob once, too."

He drops his arms. I could leave. But his words hold me, concern harmonized with a harsh undercurrent, accusing, pulling like a rip tide, and I haven't got fight left to deny them.

I flinch when he cups my chin. His thumb sweeps over budding bruises and tucks a strand of hair back in place. "Let's get you washed up," he murmurs.

"I don't need your help—"

"I need yours."

The quiet has cracked us open, and I can see the pleading in his tense frame as he looks upon me like a casualty of war—shrapnel, hardened to die. He'd never treat me like this if he hadn't seen what happened. He didn't think the heartless bled, let alone bled like him, but for this moment, under his gaze, I know what it's like to be mourned.

Albus unfolds his cloak and I step under, and we leave the classroom to the hazard of the halls. His hand finds mine, and we say nothing of it. We say nothing at all until we reach the Gryffindor tower, where he makes a show of hiding the password until I say it first, and the Fat Lady greets me with an invitation to her powder party (I decline).

"I know it's hard," I hear a girl's voice through the sliver of a door crack, as we approach his room. "It was hard for me when you told me, but you've got to—oh, I think he's back."

It's Rose, her hair and scarlet jumper regrettably blending into the surroundings, sitting on the edge of Scorpius' bed next to the hunching boy, hands close but bodies distant. There's a split-second deja vu of Dom and Scorpius by the window and of an intimacy that I should not be witnessing, though the scene is purely innocent.

Albus removes the cloak and bundles it around his arm. "Hey. I've got her."

Rose studies the twined fingers between us before moving to the rest of me. Her brows furrow. "What happened?"

"Quirkers. Could you clean her up, Rose?"

"I'm fine," I say.

Rose's stare moves from Albus to me to him again, while his fixes solely on me like he wants to say something, but he can't.

I pull my hand from his. "Seriously, Potter. I'm fine." I don't want to be on the defensive but I have to face reality: I look like roadkill plucked from the bushes, amongst a bunch of Gryffs who aren't the most fond of me. I could be angry or worn, mute or scathing, and I would still be out of place. I've got to keep what little pride I've got left.

A loud, long clear of the throat arrives from Scorpius, who must relate to Pickett well, as our apparent fourth wheel (it take skill to be an even-numbered wheel). "So... Clemence. How are you on quashing that uh, feud?"

"I'm on it." I loosen my hair and flex the elastic band around a new ponytail, not that it helps much with presentability when my face is half dirt. "Give it some time, Scorpy boy. It's not magic. Can't wave a wand."

Rose stands. "You're really helping us then?"

I thought Albus brought me here to discuss his plans, but he's already left to his corner of the room. I'd help mopey Malfoy, but Rose? "Define help. Define us." At the corner of my eye, Albus opens his wardrobe and peers into a mirror hanging on the door, watching me back.

Rose walks over with a folded paper. "This is a signed statement from Scorpius. I—Scorpius and I—want you to publish it in Witchy Business. It'll end this stupid feud."

I skim the contents, made up of small, neat capitals. It's remarkably unbiased considering it's clearly written by her; Scorpius is as eloquent as a cat yowling on a fence.

In brief, it states that Scorpius doesn't love either of them, nor does he intend to in the future. He and Rose are, as previously reported, broken up. He and Dom are pure exaggeration.

But... it pricks at Dom, subtle but there. Dom and I are just friends, one sentence reads. Sorry if she led you to believe otherwise. An apology on her part, like she's a child in need of discipline. And she might be, but it's not the whole truth, which makes all the difference when it comes time to paint villains and victims. Rose is no angel, not with these covert meetings. This is a plan and I could bloody well do without more plans right now.

"I'd rather let this feud die. It's dying on its own. Not enough dirt to keep the interest." I extend the paper to Rose. "Dom's waiting it out. She won't encourage it any more."

Rose scoffs, snort and all, so unlike her prim-and-proper norm that even Albus turns. "You can't believe that Dom will just stop if I back off. She'll think she's winning. I understand Dom's your friend. I didn't want to push this on you, but he"—she glances at Albus—"said that you and Dom weren't that close."

My throat squeezes shut. I didn't mean what I told him, not exactly. "We're close enough."

"I would do this myself but I'd rather have someone more familiar with..." She clenches her teeth, but in the end, doesn't bother with mincing words. "...dirty work. I've got an image, you know."

"You don't want to be seen handing these out."

Rose nods. "And I think this sort of announcement would mean more under the Witchy Business name."

The still-fresh cuts, like velcroed skin, sting as a grimace stretches my cheeks. "I'm considered less than credible these days."

"I can fix that." Her fingers fly to the golden prefect badge pinned upon her breast pocket. "This is going out whether you help me or not, but both of our lives could be easier if you print this."

The offer is tempting, I'll admit. I work with only numbers on my side—it's the rule of tabloid success: verified by none but talked about by all—but to have Rose say that she reads and vouches for Witchy Business would bring in a whole new audience. Still, the only certain answer my gut gives is I don't like this at all.

Dom's whinging, the stuff I used to roll my eyes at, finally has a base. Rose is the golden girl and I'm her scapegoat, she'd say (though Dom never quite grasped how Rose was her scapegoat). I thought she was exaggerating. Now, I'm not so sure.

The silence draws longer, with only the creaking wood and carpeted footsteps to remind us of the boys in the room. Rose sighs, reaching for the paper. I fold my hand closed.

"I'll think about it," I say. Options never hurt.

"Thank you. It would mean a lot." Another silence follows—a respite, now that we are no longer mud-deep in negotiations—but she isn't finished. Rose chooses her words with care, knowing when to pin pleasantries and when to drive her points down like a fist, and she always means exactly what she says. Qualities I admire. "I know we don't like each other much, but I'm glad we can be civil. Lately, that's been too much to ask for from some people. I don't understand what my cousin sees in you, but I suppose I'm less surprised now."

When her eyes sneak toward Albus, he ducks his head as if embarrassed, and I don't know if I ought to blush. Did she think he and I are serious? It's weird enough to see Rose less-than-dour, and then it also strikes me that to some people on this earth—namely his family—Potter's love life is a subject of amusement.

Albus drums his fingers on the side of his wardrobe. "Rose, are you leaving?"

"Yes." She loops an arm through her tote, culling her smile. "Let's go, Scorpius."

The dreamboat Malfoy, who has been flapping his arms and making bedsheet angels, lifts his head. "But this is my room—"

"Let's go." She calls him like a dog. To be fair, he responds like one, soon shuffling to her with his coat between his legs. When he's outside, she glances between me and Albus, and I swear she, stuffy Rose Weasley, winks. "I'll tell the boys to stay out for a while. Thanks again. Oh, and Al, those books you borrowed from me. Remember—"

"To return them. Yeah, got them," he says. I move to the side of the spectacle as Albus shoos her, but Rose jams an elbow into the room.

"Check that there's three of them—"

Even when he leans against the door, Rose's two-inch padded jacket is too effective as a doorstop. "Yeah, I know. Dragon Spotting, CrimeCrime and Punishment."

Her freckled nose pokes in from the gap. "Crime and Punishment is one book. There's also Twelve Fail-safe Ways to—"

"Got it, Rose!" Albus wiggles her elbow out and slams the door, and swivels around panting. "Sorry, I don't know how to stop her from doing that."

I try not to laugh. "What, being fantastically nosy?"

"No, talking."

Then I do laugh and his eyes twinkle with an off-putting allure, like it shouldn't be there after a day like today's, and I am more aware than ever that we're alone—no, left alone—in his room.

Of all the things I could think when we're in his room and it's fuck, this is weird and that it's us only compounds it. We're not awkward people. We don't stutter or fumble, but then Rose has to mention that Potter gets seduction tactics from Twelve Fail-Safe Ways to Charm Witches, and Quirkers had to beat me up today.

I still can't believe he found me in that classroom like that. It's not looking like a mess; I acted like a mess. Now Potter's got kid gloves on, testing the waters with small talk. "Rose used to be here all the time, for Scorpius," he says, meeting me in the middle of the room. "Sort of glad they're over."

I snort. "You haven't got a high opinion of many people, do you? I don't get why people even like you."

His hands land on my waist and he tips his head for a moment, deciding whether to kiss me. "As opposed to you?"

"No, I'm a bitch," I drawl, unmoving, "but you're no better. The difference is that you're a fitty bloke with pretty green eyes, and I'm just competition so I get beat up."

The green flickers, and I see his swallow travel down his throat and his unbuttoned collar. "I'm sorry."

"If you say so."

His mouth turns grim. "Do you know how much it hurt to see you—"

"Don't give me that. Do you know how much this fucking hurt?" I point to the side of my head, at the blackest bruise, with such swiftness that I shake, and our saunter to normalcy is thrown back to the start. We're not ourselves—or, Salazar help us, too much like ourselves.

But my rigidness caves, and he catches my arm as it falls; I don't have it in me to fight. "...it's not your fault," I say.

"It is." His fingers slide past my shoulders, fanning across my neck, pressing into skin like he's feeling for a pulse. My lids shutter close. I don't pull and he doesn't push.

"Someone would've done it one day, for one reason or another. Or who even needs reasons?" I laugh; it's one of the world's jokes. "Those girls'll try again when they can."

"You say that like you don't even care."

"Like I said: I knew it'd come one day."

Albus' grip tightens and I feel a pinch at my jaw, and when I open my eyes, his brows are crisscrossed with shock. "Are you... justifying them? Do you think they're your punishment?"

"What you said before is true. I threw you to the mob when I had the chance. I'd do it again."

An anger throbs in his fingertips. I'd forgotten, with all his smirking the past few days, that he might genuinely care. "That doesn't mean that..." He never finishes the sentence.

"See. You think I deserved it, too." Maybe he is worse off, because I hardly feel anything, while his insides are waging war. "Come on, Potter, at least pretend that you're proud of yourself. What if I said that because of today, I'm agreeing to be the Q.G.A.'s replacement leader? Not like I have much of a choice if I want to stay alive."

It becomes a physical struggle. He bites his lip until it's as red as blood, and whichever side wins, some part of him must lose. Here I am, his bitterest victory yet: the great Fitzgerald, tamed for his puppeting. He thought he could play cruel, but I was right.

He hasn't learned to control his heart.

Albus rests his forehead against mine, tracing skin and scars down my torso, like he wants to hold all of what's left when the ice melts. "Clemence," his voice is thick and worn—god, it aches—"This..." The word waits, undefined, and my chest strains to beat as his fingers knot in my hair. Our lips brush in a kiss that should be brief, but we draw in each other's breath, a fearful need like fusing shrapnel, and it hurts to part.

We can barely hold onto ourselves and yet our fists are tight on the other's clothes. I swallow and taste him. "If you had to choose, between your plans and me..."

His eyes look nowhere and he gives no answer. I extract myself, limb by limb, backing away until I meet the doorknob. I check outside while the room lies in stasis.

"Figure out what you want, Potter," I say, and only then does Albus lift his head. The cold draft splits my cuts open. "Figure it out, so I can ruin you properly."






"Pickett."

His chair squeaks as he tilts it backwards. "Yes?"

"Tell me honestly." I roll my quill between my fingers, staring between the two folded papers lying on the table. "Did you... did you believe Dom this morning, when she said she's over the feud with Rose?"

Another squeak as his chair descends to the ground. "What do you mean?"

Pickett knows—he probably suspected and I've now confirmed—that there is something strange about my slow question and why I asked as soon as Janey went to fetch tea. Stranger than my new scars that appeared in the short hours since he last saw me.

"I mean, do you think she's only stopping because it's a stalemate and she's bored of it? If she felt like her numbers outranked Rose's—"

"Love... you know how Dom is."

It's all I need to hear. "Thank you, Pickett." I move the paper on the left aside.

He peeks at it, stumbling off his seat. "Eh? That's Dom's article—"

"I know." I swallow. This is going to be a huge mistake. "We're printing this instead."

He spots the parchment under my hand with the small capitals and loopy signature, and I don't dare look up lest I see his jaw drop. "It's from Rose, isn't it? Dom's never going to agree to this."

"After distribution, I'll alter the master copy. Dom won't notice until it's too late." The adrenaline has been pulsing this whole day, but I finally feel it, racing so fast, I hope the regret never arrives.

"Clemence, she'll just be pissed. I agree, we should do something about this feud, but is this the best—?"

"Are you going to talk to her?" I snap. "We've all tried talking to her, and how well has that worked out?" I spit out the words like they're onion flesh and my eyes prick and burn. "I'm not waiting until this thing gets out of hand and girls looking for justice break her bones, or worse."

Pickett wants so many answers; answers are what he lives for. But he sees me like this and he fights his singular goal of prying. He shakes his head and leaves me to my edits, and I scratch the quill so hard that the red bleeds into the table.




A/N "I don't think that means what you think it means." - quote adapted from The Princess Bride. Crime and Punishment is also an actual book, penned by Dostoyesvsky, or as I like to call him, the Russian guy with the fun-to-pronounce name.

SO A LOT JUST HAPPENED. EMOTIONS. EMOTIONS FLYING EVERYWHERE. What is it with me and Very Important Chapter 15s that contain choices BUT BASICALLY EMOTIONS. I wanted to get this out two weeks ago, but I got surprised by full-time work and I've only been able to finish this now. I said I split this chapter from the previous one, but I actually ended up making so many changes to this chapter, that it's nothing like before. Namely, Clemence was never supposed to get physically attacked by the girls but then... she did. And then... everything else.

Many of you are probably already familiar with my tendency to write really fun chapters after really depressing ones, and the next one is going to be pretty frivolously fun. A couple words: manuscript editing drinking party. It goes a bit like this (with loff to Aiedail/Lily, for the punchline):
"Three shots from just the first page."
"How many pages is it?"
"One thousand nine hundred sixty seven."
Pickett glances down at the nine remaining bottles in his lap. "Right, we're gonna need more crates."
"We're going to need coffins."


I'll prod for a review if you mucked through this crazy. And finally, thank you to those who nominated etc. for the Dobbys! :3 I did a bit of an embarrassing dance, just for that!

Chapter 16: Intermission, Enter Firewhiskey
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Scorpius' letter draws mixed reviews, with Team-Roses and Team-Doms shaking their heads alike. The more fervent supporters ready their tomatoes and hound him for an explanation to his explanation, to the point where Rose needs to chaperone him from D.A.D.A to Charms.

And to think, this was supposed to help him.

But by the end of classes, most lay down their arms, and I'm reluctantly thankful for Rose's cleverness. The hot topic shifts to the Music Club drama, where the nasty split between Sophie and Rhys—our songwriting harpist and organist, respectively—has got the whole castle singing, it's time to sever, sever, sever our ties forever. A passing few remember to turn their curiosity toward me, the blessed new subject of whispers. What is happening in our elusive editor's crumbling world that she's knocked around by D-list bee queens and selling out to Rose Weasley?

Dom would like to know.

I haven't been avoiding her per se. Took a few detours, discovered a secret passageway or three (there's one between the kitchens and Transfiguration of all places, meaning some professor must've loved their midnight munchies enough to carve a hole through the walls).

But the inevitable arrives, and Dom finds me on her way to the team photo shoot, three-fifths dolled up and tracky bottoms stuffed in boots. She pulls me to the side of the hall.

"Did Rose strike a deal with you?" She sees the answer even before I hesitate and shakes her head. "I thought so."

A lump rises in my throat. "Dom." But she won't meet my eyes, and suddenly, I feel like a stranger. "I was worried you might get hurt. It was getting out of hand."

"I know." She says this to her rain-speckled reflection instead of me. "Henry told me."

"I didn't mean to keep it from you."

"You don't have to apologize. I'm not mad, just... give me a few days."

Twisting a finger around the end of her braid, she brushes past and my hand jerks to stop her, but she's gone. My fingers wilt. It's not my fault. It's not. She let this mess get as far as it has.

One can question why I'm friends with Dom as much as I question why people befriend Appy or Caroline, let alone fawn over their every inhale. I can tolerate Dom's pigheadedness as long as she comes around in the end. She knows that I have my reasons for what I did; it's not the first time Pickett or I have crossed the line to drag her back to the proper side. But if I truly went too far...

This cousin war isn't my place. It's only proved one thing: I didn't trust her.

Dom busies herself with Quidditch for the rest of the week, spending her days with Harriet, and I don't see her in the newsroom or even our dorm until nighttime. Harriet updates me on Dom's usurping of Wesbeck's main Beater position. She's a better batter than he ever was and knowing Dom, he'll only get re-injured if he tries to argue otherwise.

Meanwhile, I take company with the other Nott twin. Helen stays late during her rounds and I haven't been able to catch up with her until now. We bring our post-dinner dessert out to the bridge and sit on the archway ledges, our backs exposed to the winds.

"I saw your new advice column," Helen says, scooping the last bit of ice cream from her bowl. "It's different. I like it."

"Thanks." I debuted a new section in preparation for the Q.G.A. takeover. Even if Potter's plan never goes down, currying favor with the crazies won't hurt. I've considered inserting the section before, but advice columns strike me as presumptuous. Given a hundred words of context, I'm supposed to help someone on a critical life decision and it all boils down to talk to someone who cares instead of me. Problem with a boy? Tell him. Mum? Tell her. Yourself? Get your arse to a mirror. Communication: it bloody works.

Coming from someone whose bestie won't even look at her, of course.

As lovely as Helen is, I can't talk to her about anything that's going on. She knows Dom and I have "some spat involving Rose," but she hasn't sensed the extent, nor am I about to explain my involvement with the Gryffindors. Though she gets a gold star for trying.

"Are you really shagging Potter?" Helen's red oversized jumper slips from her shoulder as she leans in.

I glare; she and her sister are cut from the same cloth—subtle as neon paisley.

Grinning, she bites her spoon between her teeth. "It was worth a shot. I bet he bangs like a maniac. Harriet and I were discussing it."

"He's overrated. Touch him and a mob comes after you. How is that appealing?"

"So you have shagged him."

"No." I glare again. I ought to stop that. "Anything Quirkers like has to qualify as overrated, hmm?"

She laughs—snorts, really. Queen hog of Hogwarts is her other name. "Amen, they ruin everything. Hipster nightmare."

"There's been less of them lately though."

"Ooh, yeah." Eyes alight, Helen seems to have forgotten about Albus, thank Merlin. "Rose found a rule—very obscure. We're talking dragon-roaming days. Apparently, it's a fire hazard to have more than ten people in a group if you're walking down the hallways. Rubbish, but rule's a rule. Those blasted mobs are officially over. One day we'll ban them once and for all."

"You wouldn't want that," I say, cringing as she leans over the edge so the wind can blast her hair. Between her and Quidditch-playing Dom and Harriet, I'm the only one who evolved with the slightest fear of heights.

"Why not? Good riddance."

"Driving them underground will only make them proud. Give them—must you—" The crazy bint leans even further out over the chasm, totally on purpose to watch me squirm. I smack her leg. "It'll give them an reason to fight for their beloved club. You never want to make underdogs."

She ponders this, fingertips on stone, seven-hundred feet above the air. "You're right. Didn't think of that. Always so clever, Clemence." Finally, she pulls herself upright.

I breathe relief. "Cleverness has nothing to do with it."

"Yeah, yeah, being careful." Helen only giggles as she slides to the ground, dragging me with her. "Let's go see if they've still got dessert out." Looping arms like we used to do in our younger years, she musses my hair with her free hand so it matches hers. "Now we're both freshly shagged. It'd kill those rumors with Potter, eh?"

We cackle all the way back to the castle, but oh, if only she knew how easy it would be.








Take note: uttering 'I need a drink' in Pickett's presence will bring him to your door with a crate of watered-down firewhiskey and a grin of bad intentions.

I holed myself up in the newsroom sort-of-but-not-really editing Appy's manuscript and giving Dom "some space" when Pickett shows up at half past ten and bodily drags me out of the room.

"It's a figure of speech!" I claw at the floor. "You know I don't drink! Unhand me!"

When I finally give up, he pats me on the shoulder and leaves his hand there just in case. How wise that is will depend on my mental coin flip. Heads, I chomp off his hand.

But he gets lucky and I don't, not even when he insists on sneaking out to the lakeside. It's a classic drinking spot and very scenic, if you like that sort of thing—but getting there with a two thousand-page affront to the English language?

"God damn demonic book," I growl as it knocks against my hip. On the upside, the biting cold has begun to numb the bruising.

"Shhh. We're not in the clear yet."

The courtyard hedges block every bit of moonlight, painting the path in black. Between my lack of night-vision and trying to keep up with Pickett, I inevitably trip, and the book slips. I catch myself but the book decides to play hard to get as it clouts my wrist and knee on its way to the ground. It squelches into mud. While I glower into the darkness, Pickett scoops it up. A burst of gold spellwork siphons the dirt off the cover. He tosses the manuscript on his crate of drinks and hauls the whole load himself. Show-off.

But I'll admit that the fuss is worth it. I won't spout poncy-prose like Appy and her 'silvery pearl orb over sapphire waters' on page twelve, but the lakeside does a decent job of taking my breath away when we arrive. Pickett sets the crate down and I head barefoot to the shore.

I got used to the grounds. The forest and lake are nice the first ten times, then they're just dirty and wet. But wait for the night to pull open the curtains, and the world stills for a performance. When my eyes adjust, it begins: one—four—a hundred stars, with every tree pointing up to watch. A watery mirror below glimmers seamlessly out into the valley, until it's as smooth and flat as the sky.

Crunching footsteps prompt me to turn. Pickett arrives with two bottles of firewhiskey. "Nice, isn't it?" he says, handing one over.

I smirk. "You're such a romantic."

"But no one knows that. Otherwise, girls'll be all on me."

"Except the one you want."

"And thus." He clinks his bottle against mine before taking a swig.

We watch the moon rise through the fog of our breaths.

"Dom's not speaking to me either," he says after a moment. "I told her that I was on your side. That she should stop acting like she's five."

I wince. He shouldn't have. "She yell at you?"

"Nah, I yelled at her. She didn't say anything."

Pickett turns the rim around on his lips as if contemplating how quickly he can down the whole thing without seeming desperate, brimming with an almost contagious hurt. A chill scours the bottom of my lungs, and there it is again—the feeling like crying. I hug my arms close until it goes away.

"I should have trusted her," I murmur. "I made things worse."

The hysteria has died, but Rose and Dom's respective teams survive on the fringes, fueling themselves with conspiracy theories worthy of Pickett. Knowing the lot they're speculating over, they're probably not far off the mark. I hear Dom's been talking to each of her followers personally. I drove her deeper into war.

"If she wants to be like Caroline Escot and surround herself with crazies to validate herself, then there's nothing you can do." Pickett touches my shoulder lightly. Sympathy isn't about the words, just the presence, and Pickett probably knows what I need better than I do, dragging me out here to the lake.

"Maybe I haven't dealt with shit in so long, I've forgotten how." Kicking at the dirt, I smile dourly. "God, I've gotten boring."

He shrugs. "Join the club." Tipping his head, he takes a long drink.

"This doesn't sound like a very fun club to join."

"Well, that would defeat the purpose." He eyes my capped bottle. "You should at least figure out your limits."

Booze-blooded Scot that he is, Pickett has a goal of incapacitating Hogwarts via drink; some men just want to watch the world carouse. Me, I haven't ever been piss drunk. I have drank people under the table without a single drop down my throat—credit to a very clever wand trick that gets me by in the gossip trade. But I don't like having less than full control over myself, so that means no dancing on tables for me.

"Not tonight," I say and hand the bottle to him.

"C'mon, love. You've got to read that monstrosity Appy left you. Write drunk, edit drunk." Pickett throws an arm around my shoulders and guides me back around, toward where the book awaits underneath a willow. A grin cloaks his previous bout of gloom and fortunately, it's just as contagious.

"Just one," I relent, climbing the bank.

"Seven."

"It's called compromise."

"Indeed it is. Original offer was twelve."

"Two."

"Fourteen."

Before I sit down, Pickett pulls my sleeve. His hand resting on my shoulder points to two figures approaching from the castle and a delighted anticipation creeps up his face.

The boy on the right is undoubtedly Scorpius Malfoy. His slicked hair glints pale blue under the moonlight, as does his prefect badge, still adorned from patrol. His companion remains in shadow, but I already know who he is, even before I looked up, because let's face it: I'd be more surprised if Potter didn't follow me out here to complete the bad idea brigade.

Pickett's pointing finger turns into a cheery wave, and he crushes his cheek against mine, stubbly grin scraping my face. I growl.

"You want to see how jealous he gets, too," Pickett whispers. "You got all tense when you saw him—hey-ho!"

Albus has emerged from the shadow, swinging his arms with a lazy confidence, but for the first second that I see him, I swear he misses a step, as if there was more staring than walking on his mind.

"What brings Mr. Enigma and friend here?"

Scorpius tips an imaginary hat, then shoves his hands back into his anorak's pockets. "We saw you guys heading out," he says, and Albus holds up a case of Odgen's firewhiskey. "Hope you don't mind if we crash."

"More the merrier!" Pickett beckons them closer, mostly reaching out toward the Odgen's. "Not that we're very merry, but misery loves company, too. Misery shares drinks. Right, love muffin?"

"You're having way too much fun," I grit, digging my feet in the dirt. Still can't dislodge my shoulder from his bear trap of an armpit.

"Consequence of the firewhiskey. I suggest you join." Pickett nods at Albus as he takes a seat beside me.

I finally push him away, knocking into Albus, who decides to put his face right in front of mine when I turn.

"Fitzgerald." The stalwart of our introductions. "Haven't seen you in awhile."

I mirror his cool smile through the thick nest of flyaways, thanks to Pickett's scratchy jacket. "Potter. Should've kept it that way. What are you really here for?"

"No hidden intentions. We want to unwind. It's been hectic." Our game of circling the elephants stampeding through the room—or lake, I suppose—halts when his voice softens. "Have you been okay?"

It doesn't catch me off guard as much as it once would have. "I've been great." I swallow the lump of Dom-related thoughts. Pickett's burning holes through the back of my head. Brought the drinks, forgot the popcorn.

"Quirkers haven't bothered you?"

"Rose made sure of that. No need to worry your pretty, little mind."

Albus takes a moment to puzzle over me. Is there more to what I say? Am I hiding hay bales of hurt? The night shrouds his eyes, but the few times that they catch the moonlight, they're potently green like children of envy.

"Don't look at me like that unless you mean it, Potter."

The corner of his mouth lifts slightly. He's caught.

Pickett and Scorpius talk faintly in the background:

"Do you ever feel like a third wheel?"

"All the time."

"Me too! Bottoms up!"

Albus doesn't move. I can feel his breath on my chin, still warm when it reaches me. "Do you just hate people caring about you?"

"Only those who start caring after I get beat up in a loo." My eyes flick away. That's quite enough; we've got company. "Seriously, I'm fine. Why, soon, I'll be bigger than before. The advice column's a hit. Mail's been coming in at record highs." Piles at breakfast. I only get close to that on Girlfriend Watch—and only notes, not mail. Poor Barry the Breaking News Barn Owl has been bringing it all in, and he's been so tired that he nearly caught fire flying into a candle.

"This is the Q.G.A. takeover nonsense, right?" Pickett tsk-tsks, interrupting with perfect timing, and hands Albus an open drink. "Conspiracy on top of conspiracy. With the likes of you people in this school, how can anyone think I'm the tin-foil nutjob?" He then drops Appy's manuscript in my lap. "So while you two were—" He waggles his fingers. "Scorpius and I thought of a great idea. Seeing as we all have troubles to drown and you have to read the next great classic, why not combine the two and have a little story time drinkfest? Nothing like a round of ridicule to strengthen the bonds of friendship."

Were it a typical night, I'd say that subjecting anyone to Appy's writing would be cruel and unusual. I've skimmed it. Her story is Muggle fiction—the trend of the moment ever since E-Mail My Love smashed the best-selling lists. I never thought there'd be worse than Muggles trying to write the magical genre until wizards tried to write the reverse. Her story tells the tale of Eleanor Isabelle Canterbury (but god forbid you call her by her full name) and her totally wacky adventures in Amberline Academy as she goes through the trials of being sixteen and—gasp—awkward.

But it's not a typical night. It's a night under the moon and stars with enough booze to knock out the Quidditch team, sitting next to blondie who can't catch a break, Pickett with his bad ideas, and Potter, the physical manifestation of bad ideas; Appy's manuscript fits right in. I'm not even drunk—but I will need to be drunk, so I grab Pickett's half-empty Odgen's and down a gulp as he fist pumps in the air. Scorpius settles his tush on a dry rock, and Albus cocks his head toward me as I lift the book and begin to read.

"'My name is Eleanor Isabelle Canterbury...'"

The first chapter is slow going. It's not Appy's fault; the writing itself goes by lightning fast, but that's what happens when it explains the story's entire conflict in one chapter and when the conflict is stupid enough to be explainable in one go. Rather, it's my audience's first exposure to the genre.

And they have a lot of things to say.

"'I have the cutest albino rat called Ampersand,'" I read from page four. "'Much better name than Eleanor. Seriously, what were my parents on when they had me? Mum was pregnant, but Dad had no excuse.'"

"I don't get it. Eleanor's a very pretty name," sighs the boy named Scorpius Hyperion. "I wish I were named Eleanor."

"'I'm warming up to you, but under any circumstances, you better not call Ampersand 'Ampy'. Hell to the no. I'll punch you in the face. And then Ampy will punch you. Shut up, I'm weird, but it's a condition, capisce? Deal with it, homeslice.'"

Pickett scrunches his nose. "This is a very hostile environment for readers. I feel a bit threatened."

"Not too different than real-life Quirkers," Albus mutters.

"'I already told you about darling Mia, but my other flatmate Regina, well, let's just say that heinous troll struts around on five-inch stilettos.'"

"Stilettos." Pickett nods. "That's how you know she's evil."

Fast-forward to the end of the chapter. We learn about Ella's daily problems involving reality TV, chocolate milkshakes and the chihuahua downstairs. She's self-described as "random," the oft-misused cousin of "quirky." Literally, it means that she could be a girl, the number four, or an offshore drilling rig.

Most importantly, we arrive at the big conflict that'll carry us for fifty-odd chapters: "''Eleanor Canterbury and Chase Matthews,' Miss Aurora declared, and my heart sunk to the floor. This couldn't be happening. A whole year of life studies partnered with Chase Matthews, bane of my life? And the worst part? I was horribly, inexplicably, head-over-heels in love with him.'"

Albus spits his drink back into the bottle. "She just said he's the bane of her life."

"No, see, that's why she's in love with him," I say, dog-earing the page. "She loves him because she hates him." Jamming a candle into a light socket would be easier than injecting logic into this story.

"Maybe there's a deeper psychological component." Conspiracist Pickett spins his arms. Flat on the ground, he's the spitting image of a Ferris wheel gone rogue. "Contradicting herself and violent mood swings. We assume she's speaking to the reader, but what if she actually has a legitimate mental condition? Something with multiple personalities."

"And the violent one's a killer," Albus adds, who's talkative tonight. "She's already killed Regina in vengeance and she's reliving her schooldays in her mind whilst locked in an asylum."

"I like the way you think."

Our four clinking bottles silence the crickets. I'd be questioning how we ended up here, but I've forgotten the day even though I'm not close to properly drunk. And... it's nice. House raves are ear-splittingly loud pits of disease, full of people I don't want to talk to and are too stupid even when they're sober, but this—on the lake with chums or whatever you call this lot, tearing apart some quality writing—this is a real party.

Pickett wants a go at it. "How many pages has it been?" he asks, taking the manuscript and searching for my dog-ear.

"Ten."

He flips a chunk of pages to the right. "How many pages left?"

"One thousand nine hundred sixty-seven."

Scorpius hiccups and glances at the bottles cradled between his legs. "We're gonna need more crates."

"We're going to need coffins," Albus mutters, and adds another bottle to the pile as he finishes his.

Pickett finally finds something. "Love—love. Do this bit with the rhetorical questions." He straightens his clothes, prepping for a performance.

Clearing my throat, I fling my pitch high in the heavens worthy of Ella's shrillness and Albus evens recoils. Triggered some fight-or-flight instinct. "'You know how sometimes life just totally sucks?'"

"I do, Ella," Pickett says solemnly.

"'Like it's the Monday of Mondays?'"

"Preach."

"'Today was one of those days. First, Regina brings home her second boytoy of the month. I know, what a slag! At least someone agrees.'"

"Whoa, wait a second, Ella love." Pickett's eyes bulge out. Albus and Scorpius snicker. "Now you're shoving opinions in my mouth. A girl can date whoever she wants."

"'I know what you're thinking—'"

"Let's test this—I'm thinking of a number between one and ten."

"'How bad can it be?'"

"Not remotely close. It was four."

At this point, we bowl over in hysterics. Circe, the drink's getting to us badly. I take a new bottle from the crate, finishing off the row, and stretch out my legs. I scoot not too far from Albus who throws me a funny look.

Pickett wipes the tears from his eyes. "Why are we stopping?"

"I'm tired. You read."

As Pickett hauls the book onto his lap and a glowing moth distracts Scorpius, Albus winds his arm behind my waist where no one can see and I let him leave it there. Terribly strange night. I suppose this is how we're like around other people, with no chance of arguing. Almost an entirely different life.

We trade the book chapter to chapter until the drinks run out. My count ends at three bottles—the watered down ones, thank Merlin. The boys split the rest, and Albus' numbers surprise me considering how paranoid he is; he wouldn't chance a drunken slip-up. I lost count, but he has an origami pile made from Odgen's labels next to him.

The story goes back to Pickett for chapter twelve. "'Why couldn't Ella see how wonderful she was?'" he reads and pulls away from the book. "Wow, narcissist."

I lean forward for a glance and feel the weight of Albus' hand follow. "Oh no, the point of view switched. This is Chase now."

"But I was just warming up to Ella!" Pickett squints at the page as if he can't quite believe it, wobbling back and forth from the whiskey sloshing inside of him. "It sounds exactly the same but with different pronouns."

Albus tugs the hem of my jumper and I fight a smile. I steal the manuscript and slouch into my previous position. "Well, instead of Ella complaining about how awkward she is, you've got Chase gushing over how oblivious beautiful she is, inside and out. Not noticing that you're perfect is a flaw."

Shoulder behind mine, Albus reads over me. He ducks his head when he laughs at something stupid—like he's embarrassed for the world—and he does it now, his alcohol breath in my hair. "Does he think about anything that doesn't involve her? It's bloody creepy."

"It's obviously romantic, Potter. Take a lesson." I trace the next paragraph as I read along. "'Every time we fought, it drove me crazy, but all I wanted to do was hug her and apologize for being such a git.' See, why don't you do that? Accept all the blame like a gentleman."

He holds my sidelong glance with that look I told him not to give me. "I will if you tell me to."

His drunken haze excuses the blistering stupidity pouring out of his mouth, but I can't say the same for me if I respond, so I shrug him off and continue reading more pointedly than before. "'I couldn't help but care. She was so frustrating, but ever since I saw the hurt behind her eyes I knew she was only misunderstood. I could fix her.' You don't fix people, dearie. You fix dogs. 'There I go again. Snap out of it. Think manly.' Like weightlifting pints of ale in shark-infested waters—" Wait, there's more.

"'I'm such a bloody girl.'" I shake my head, scoffing. "Are you, Chase? Because girls are needy, emotional freaks, and boys are clueless jerks, but that's okay because they're fit as hell. But there's no hope for being a girl. Try shouting 'you're such a mudblood' in the halls and see how well that fares, douchebag."

I slam the book shut, waking a red-faced Scorpius from his nap on the tree trunk; bark is not a gentle exfoliator.

Pickett stares at me dazedly from the ground. "You sound just like Dom when you're drunk. ...can I kiss you?"

Before I can respond, Albus drags the manuscript from my lap and lays it across Pickett's face, so it looks like it's devouring him. "You have to admit though," Albus says as he admires his work, "Quirkers are a little bit like that."

I block out Pickett's snicker and his muffled, 'He got jealous.' "Because they're Quirkers and have terrible taste and terrible relationships, because they read shit like this and don't treat anyone who's remotely different from them like human beings."

Albus rests his elbow on his knee, and his chin on his hand. "So in your gossip columns, you're not objectifying people and encouraging that same behavior by commodifying their lives into free entertainment."

We've got ourselves an eloquent drunk. "That's different."

"You don't treat Quirkers like human beings." He drums his fingers on the side of his jaw. "And I don't know, that advice column reeks a bit of pandering...."

"It's—" At least I know I'm doing it. So that doesn't make it okay—some argue that makes it worse—but it means I can set my limits. I can be smart about it, do some good even, like he wants me to. It was practically his god damn idea.

I glare at Albus, muttering, "You're really going to compare the two."

"Yeah."

"Well, you can't."

He grins. "I got you."

"Did not."

"He did," Pickett chimes in; it sounds like he's eating a page.

"See, I did."

"Did not." I mask defeat by looking out toward the lake, and I feel him laugh into my hair.

As the night winds down, we're too tired to go back inside, and we agree on sneaking back before dawn. I can't vouch for the soundness of that plan, it being the brainchild of several liters of drink. The four of us lump together, shoulder to shoulder on the dewy grass with no space for limbs, staring out into the misty lake.

"I'm in love with an irrational harpy," Pickett slurs, holding an empty bottle to his lips.

Scorpius, on my right, slumps onto my shoulder. "I've got two after me."

"Lots of blokes would kill for Rose or Dom. Well, maul, maybe. Don't worry, I won't."

"I just want their fighting to stop." Scorpius makes a whimpering noise like a lost cub. "I don't even know what it's about. Probably over whose sassy gay friend I'd be."

I jerk my head toward him. He's—no, he's just drunk—

"Shhh, mate," says Albus from the other side. He holds a finger in the air that falls to the wayside and prods my cheek. "These two don't know."

Frost starts to form inside my mouth so agape. I look toward Pickett, but he's too ale-addled to notice.

I mean, I'm not surprised Scorpius fancies men; I already believed it once. But how did I miss it the second time around? That story last year still raised a bit of ire and Albus dropped more than a few hints. Then Scorpius was with Rose—when did she find out? When did Dom find out? How did Dom never tell me?

Albus continues the whinging chain, as if the blunder never occurred. "I don't know what I want anymore." He nudges my foot. "Your turn."

I hear his voice from a week past, 'You know far less about this school than you think.' I pride myself on knowing things and knowing when I don't know things; this violates both.

"I need another drink."

Pickett nods. "Don't we all." Dropping his bottle, he stands up and stretches, and then starts loosening his belt. "All right, I'm gonna do it."

We on the ground stare in alarm, even me in my quasi-existential crisis. But then Pickett starts dashing down the bank, shedding his clothes on the way, and cannonballs off the dock.

The splash hits us.

"Oi!"

I thought only Pickett would be stupid enough to want midnight swimming, but Scorpius soon leaves his post and does the same, with a bigger splash. He surfaces for water, his blond mop draping his face, and flounders around like a beluga. "Oh no, I'm Ella, and I can't swim!"

Pickett wades toward him. "Never fear! Convenient love interest is here!"

"No, don't touch me! You'll catch my angst."

"But I can cure you with my love!"

Scorpius' accidental outing has never been more time-appropriate. Gripping Pickett by the shoulders, he says solemnly, "I've got a deep, dark secret. You don't understand."

Pickett cups his cheek. "I'll understand. I've always understood."

"All right, I... I take my tea with milk."

"You monster!" Pickett flings him away. Slaps him too if I hear correctly. Blooming idiots.

I very slowly turn my head when the chuckling beside me slows, because there's only other one person left on dry land, and when I meet his glinting eyes, he takes my hand and—no, no, no, no.

"Come on, Fitzgerald." Albus pulls me up.

"No."

"It'll be fun."

"No."

"I'll go in with you."

"No."

I miss the days when he was the grouchy wet blanket. Pickett's doing backstrokes when Albus gets my feet on the dock. Scorpius is like a mermaid that's finally found home. The rising chill seeps into my leg, through the flannel and alcohol-flushed skin. I crouch down to test the waters, but it's too far.

"How cold is it, Pickett?"

"It's totally fine. What do toes feel like again?"

Albus peels off his shirt, and I don't know where to look, because staring would mean I want to watch and avoiding him would mean I'm afraid to. When I do look up, he's saluting me in nothing but boxers.

"Live a little." He grins and falls backwards off the end of the dock.

I live a lot. I'll live a lot longer without catching hypothermia.

Huddled amongst the piles of sopping clothes, I shut my eyes to the whistles of the boys. I won't be swayed. I learned from Miss Polly's Children Hour: say no to peer pressure.

A minute later, I'm staring into the black waters, shaking in my knickers. I'm not near drunk enough for this. I should've cast a heating charm. It'd probably be like trying to melt a glacier with a kettle. They're cheering me on which makes it worse, because I have to jump, and it's getting colder and the water doesn't look very clean and Potter's staring at my bum and isn't there a squid—?

But I do finally leap off, and regret has never hurt so much as it does in the form of ice masquerading as a liquid. The second of impact isn't so bad. In the first second, there's too many sensations to decipher which one is the blistering cold. Then the water closes over my head and ice rushes in, crumpling my organs like tin foil. I break through the surface gasping, "You—are all—"

Pickett whoops until my hair slaps his face, which he rightly deserves for splashing me as soon as I turn around, and I go after him with a vengeance. I never finish my sentence before the alcohol warms me up, and the night slips away from there.

Limbs grow heavy and drink settles in as the hour wanes. When Scorpius washes up on shore face-down, Pickett goes to check he's just napping. Considering the rest of Pickett's meddling, I'm not surprised when he doesn't comes back, leaving just me and Albus in the water.

The night's been a blank slate, with only the fuzziest concept of what happens before and after these short hours. We've been drinking, we're in our knickers, and now we're alone—the dots are there, and we both know it.

"Tonight was nice. Maybe we don't have to hide this." Albus wears a wicked smirk as he kicks toward me, and I can already tell he's not thinking with his head. "Some girls are sharpening pitchforks, but an equal share want to know how you got Mr. Enigma. It'd be good for your column."

"Or that's the worst plan yet." It also operates on the assumption that we have a this once again, but it's harder to deny with witnesses tonight. But the problem has never been about attraction, only whether it's stronger than the parts we dislike.

He wastes no time in closing that itty-bitty distance between us, hands skimming my bare waist and I seize them before they roam.

"Scared?"

"Yeah, a little bit. When my roommate nearly strangles me because she thinks we've got something going on, I'd rather not encourage her."

He kisses the side of my mouth before I can turn away; we've kept our flirtations coy until now. "No one's going to find out. Besides, you said you had nothing to lose."

I push him, hand fisted against his chest, but only land in the net of his arm. "Just because I can throw away my reputation, doesn't mean I want to—Potter—"

Another kiss traces my shoulders like a trickle, and I swallow so hard I nearly lose my tongue. I bite down, twining my arms around his neck; he called my bluff.

When he returns for my lips, his mouth is familiar. I know how to fit its mold and I taste a craving too intense to be liquor. Without so many words and plans, Potter is simple and carnal and stupid. He wants me—that's how stupid he is.

And me, on any other night, I'd be watching this school's empty little lives, rubbing myself off the population because I'm not one of them. I don't make their kind of mistakes. I don't cavort in lakes with my downfall, leaving an abrasion of prints on his back as I cling.

"Clemence..." Hand sliding down, he makes a point of pulling the fabric at my hip as he licks the water off my neck. "...what's the craziest thing you've done?"

My breath starts to shudder. I look to shore for a second, wondering where Pickett and Scorpius are; can they hear us? The excuse is on the table for me to stop this. Albus ropes the cotton around his thumb, hand splayed between my thighs—fuck. I need to stop this. "Potter."

Hoarse and senseless, he murmurs into my jaw, "I want you, Clemence. I just want you," and I didn't think words could be addictive, but he needs to make a habit of those.

His fingers scrape for the hook behind my back as he swims us closer to the dock's shadow.

"This is stupid," I pant, wrapping my legs around him.

"It's a pretty stupid night."

I hear the snap and I don't quite believe that I let it get this far until my bare spine hits the dock post and the splash separates me from the tangle of straps. He lifts me up to kiss my chest and stomach, but I pull his head back and make him kiss me on the mouth, because I learned in this frenzy that I like how he tastes with the lake water and with my name on his tongue.

We kick off the last of our clothes. My knickers are left hooked around my ankles in hopes I can convince myself that I'm not actually naked against Albus and wanting this as much as I do, when I never have before. It's not even about the sex; there's such fuss over it—and I get it—but it's credit to the build-up, the bared confessions in the touches we hide on our bodies.

Desire is so eloquent in the right hands.

Gripping each other in rhythm, we gulp in breaths, hushing our moans with teeth-marked thumbs. It's messy, not amazing, but hungry and good. He whispers, "Quiet, they'll hear," paired with the slyest of grins right before pushing harder. I like it enough to arch my back and tell him to do it again until our legs ache. And he does, until our bodies sag and they ache with everything else.

It's still night and we're still drunk when we hold each other. The cold trickles in. Albus mumbles words into the crook of my neck that he'll regret in the morning. For now, the waves lull us to sleep.




Lots of help and credits for this chapter. Taylor Swift's 'We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together' inspired the 'sever, sever, sever,' line. Chris Nolan's The Dark Knight inspired 'Some men just want to watch...' Aiedail gave me the line about coffins and ToujourPadfoot, Ellerina, and peppersweet threw me crack on request and GubraithianFire fixed grammar derps; this chapter may as well be a collab.

A/N I APOLOGIZE FOR THE WAIT AND MISSED DEADLINES BUT I HOPE THIS IS WORTH IT? I had no idea how to say, 'Sorry it took so long, blame the sex.'

I cut out a few things that I'll probably insert next chapter, so this chapter was longer before. It's meant to be sort of an interlude, thus the title, and why I went crazy with Appy's manuscript, which is all in good fun; I tried to pick on the things that are agreeably terrible in stories. And also we have some important reveals and some ooh-la-la at the end! I suppose it's too late to warn people to cover their eyes. It was weird and fun to write at the same time. Would do again.

A review would be most appreciated! ♥ ah, and remember to keep the language down, because while I do love that some of you are 'shitting bricks in technicolor' xD you have to be 12+ in reviews!

Chapter 17: Bare-Knuckled Heartbreaking
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I won't open my eyes. I can't. Lashes froze shut, too much grit and frost and asking myself how I ended up on the shores of Black Lake with Albus Potter.

Fuck.

I mean, really: fuck.

Count up all the times I never gave a fuck, smash them into one big fuck, and that would be the one sitting in my head, because I fucking fucked fucking Potter. There's no excuse, no tiptoeing away on snappy retorts—we fucked in the lake. And when the cold became too much, we stumbled to shore and almost did it again.

Pickett and Scorpius were snoring under the willow when Albus and I picked up our clothes from the dock. We tried to put them on—honest—but in the dark, a shirt's a bloody puzzle. There's a million holes and buttons, and you think you know where your head's supposed to go. Then two minutes later, you're stuck in your left breast pocket.

We gave up and collapsed on the grass. Albus pulled me atop him in those sleepy minutes and I can still feel him pressed against my thighs, all sand and skin. Our kisses were salty, careless; there was no more mystery. You don't really know addiction until it happens. Chocoballs, blackjack, boys—pick your poison, I can stop. Addiction's just a choice, and I'm not addicted to him. Encouraged him a little but that's it. I don't need him. I don't want him. I was bored.

Now I lay here with my eyes shut but all too aware of what I'd see: last night was real and so is the morning.

Which brings me to back to my first point: fuck.

There's not much subtlety to mornings. Pruned skin, circulation stopped at my knee, bug up my nose—I'm not looking for LaFolle's set-ups of satin sheets and every candle in the castle here. I'd settle for a little less sand between the cheeks.

Shifting my leg only gets my knickers wedged in. The arm around my waist pulls me closer, scrunching my shirt past my ribs. His lips slumber motionless against my forehead, barely breathing, so little air for such a wanting heart. I could almost fall asleep again, but the hand twined with mine twitches.

He's waking up.

The touch is soft despite his callouses from practice. He mentioned how their Beater Wilkenson 'had a vendetta against lifeforms' when my thumb ran over a scar in the blue dark of night, of all gestures to interrupt us. It was so perfectly moon-shaped, carved into the valley of his collarbone; it distracted me.

In that moment, I envied the blissfully ignorant. Maybe the two of us could work, if only to indulge ourselves. There is a misconception that cynics don't believe in love, but we know when it's not worth the gain, when we see endings clearer than beginnings, and why must we be framed as afraid of hurt? Few true love stories come from taking risks, and they are all with people better than myself. Albus and I will do no better than falling apart in two months, when the thrill's gone and our banter turns frustrated and dies, finally, in silence.

The dawn is rising red and fast. I can't delay it any longer. I crack my eyes open and his blur takes shape, nose and mouth aligned to mine. His eyes lift steadily and they snap wide and—grey.

Gawking back over our knit fingers is Scorpius Malfoy.

"WAUUUGH!"

"AHHHHH!"

Mouths wide with screaming, we kick away from each other fast enough to cause sand burn and bottles behind me skid clinking into the reeds. Scorpius shoots upward, aghast. I wipe—slap—the feeling off my hand. "You—did we—"

"SorryIdidn'tmeanto!" he sputters, fingers curled and clutched together in front of him, and oh god—there is no god.

As I choke on spit and horror, someone else snorts awake. "Wha—what's going on? Is a mob here?" Albus sits up between us, clutching his temples, exactly as rumpled as I left him. Lolling back on the grass, he flumps headfirst into the pile of clothes behind him, completely hungover. "Tell them to bugger off," he groans. "Toss 'em my shirt... or socks. Not today."

My staring goes from him to Scorpius, trying to crank out the logistics. If Albus was between us, then—"Why were you—?" I frantically gesture at the indent where Scorpius took residence.

"Henry was gone and it got cold," he mumbled.

"So wear a jacket, not your best mate! You didn't think it might be, I don't know, overly friendly? Socially unacceptable? Traumatizing?"

Scorpius scratches the tuft of hair stuck on his ear. "I drank a lot, so... no."

The lake burbles to fill the silence. I figure that any second now, he'll look up and realize exactly what he had intruded on, but he doesn't. He looks up, all right. Stares straight at my mismatched underwear that I'd very much like to cover up now that I'm lucid, even though they hide more than most bikinis (clothing logic, like jeans with holes).

No, he sees this in full view and only asks, "Al, did we bring any of those coconut triangles? I'm starving."

Albus rolls over, rubbing the sand off his jaw, and takes in an audible breath when he spies my shirt hanging off my shoulders. Stomach hot, I clamber to my knees and scrounge for my tights stuffed somewhere behind him, and his sidelong glance lands on my arse before quickly moving away.

"Uh... priorities, mate. Let's... put some clothes on."

If Witchy Business ever does a sex issue—and it may as well celebrate its resurgence with a literal bang—I have a long list of advice starting with, 'Don't do it around friends who cuddle ambush,' which barely beats a plain 'Don't do it with Potter.' Merlin's haggy first cousin, what was I thinking? Anyone in a lake, but Potter in a lake? No amount of protection's going to save me from the crazies—fuck.

Teeth gnashed together, the word drops from my breath. Protection and crazies—both things I forgot until now, glory to the morning. There's still time to take the potion, but where am I going to get it?

There's Dom, if we were talking. Helen, I'm pretty sure she never bought more after she ran out. She still risks it with her boyfriend on occasion—'It's all right if you know your schedule'—but I can see the panic rising if her monthly arrives so much as thirty minutes late. We'll chide her and she knows, but there are still nights when she disappears without her vials.

I can almost understand. In the heat of it, it doesn't seem so bad. Take the potion late and just don't do it again. But inevitably, there's an again and again and again, and you start feeling cocky. And then you've got a baby.

I've been picking through the same three pieces of clothing since the thought rooted in. The trousers I'm holding aren't even mine. I hurl them at Scorpius, who receives them with his face.

"Ow."

Albus gets up finally. My shoulders lock when he bumps into me, but I don't look at him. I can't and I won't. He grabs the same grey jumper that I do but I loop my arms through first. It sags over my frame, two sizes too big. It's his.

When I fling it to him, he seizes my wrist; he doesn't mean to, I know. Consequence of reflex—the same as when I jerk away with a force usually reserved for disgust. There's not much to surprise me when our eyes finally meet: an ready apology clenched in his frown, waiting to see how much we ought to regret. That makes two of us who have no idea what happens now.

Zzzloop.

Scorpius zips up his trousers and shakes a leg out, peppering the ground with sand. The rustling slows as he stares. "Um... is something wrong?"

I get that tension is a silent, figurative construct, but he is the most blind-batted ninny I've had the misfortune of sympathizing with.

"You're lucky you've got a face they make statues of," I mutter, taking my sopping tights and rolling then over my foot; it's like trying to squeegee my leg with a cocker spaniel. "Don't worry your pretty little head,"

"Let's just get out of here." The lump of fabric next to me turns back into Albus as he pulls his jumper and shirt on. A shake of his head flicks off the dew.

When we all stand up, it's evident that we're in no way subtle about our midnight activities. We drank and then some, and unlike Scorpius, there are plenty in the castle who can put two and two together.

"Showers, then?" says Albus. "Hopefully no one's on a morning fly-around."

Scorpius' stomach growls and he clutches his middle. "I'm really starving though. Could we stop by Hagrid's? He feeds the Hippogriffs around now."

Albus makes a face. "Yeah, and their chow is about the tastiest food in that hut."

"Um, I vote for Hagrid's, too," I say quickly. When Albus raises a brow at me, my next words fight through my grimace. "Tea... helps the hangover. Especially with a little pennyroyal."

Upon that word, his pupils concentrate into two dots of terror. Pennyroyal, as Longbottom's favorite student would know, is an excellent pain reliever, decongestant, and contraceptive. It's not the shelf stuff but with the right brewing charm, it's better than nothing.

A swallow tunnels down his throat. "Hagrid's it is."

Scorpius turns the other way, quite pleased, but even he senses the off mood. After we pick up the empty firewhiskey crate and Appy's manuscript, we make our way across the knoll, and when he supposes I'm out of earshot, he whispers, "What happened?"

"I'll tell you later." Albus stuffs his hands in his pockets and walks quicker to stay ahead. Did the deed and we can't even face each other—figures that we'd go this route.

As we near, the dung stench invites itself into our nostrils. A stray goat bleats at us and trots over to nibble at Appy's novel. I shoo it away; if you are what you eat, I think I'm doing the goat a favor.

The shack door is wedged open. Albus knocks on the wood and steps in. "Hagrid?"

Hagrid's hut is one of the few buildings on Hogwarts grounds that is exactly the same size on the inside as it is on the outside, and probably the one with the most reason to be otherwise. I have a faint recollection of the interior, though from Merlin knows when; I haven't ever interviewed Hagrid. He's what I call well-intentioned—always eager to help but whenever he actually tries, manages to send someone to the hospital wing or prison.

The figure at the table isn't hairy enough to be Hagrid. It's Pickett, who has his mouth submerged in a mug. A dash of enlightenment strikes his face when he sees us.

"Thatsh what I forgort."

I slide out the chair next to him as Albus and Scorpius wander into the hut's other room. "Thanks. Glad we're nearly in your thoughts."

"Oi, lasht time I woke you, you schtabbed a quill in my hand." Late night in the newsroom. I thought he was a grammar mistake. "I warsn't—" Pickett swallows his bite of charcoal-seasoned crumpet. "I wasn't ditching. Reginalda's brood hatched, didja see?"

"You? Hippogriffs? Really?" I flick off a patch of brown seaweed camouflaged in his hair.

"I dig the chicks."

"Please don't."

Hagrid comes out of the back with Albus and Scorpius trailing. He's wider than a bear-elk these days. Mostly beard. "Yeh shouldn' be out all night. Lotsa critters coming out of the forest this winter." He juggles a tankard and a plate of more blackened crumpets to the table. Seeing me, he pauses. "Er..."

"Clemence." I extend a hand.

He scratches his ear and then goes for the shake. "Righ', the... newspeppery girl."

"That's me." I'll take whatever name-recognition I can get.

"Hagrid, do you still have that soap Aunt Hermione gave you?" Albus sneaks a glance in my direction, a habit of his since ten minutes ago.

"Eh, somewhere under all tha'." He waves him toward the stack of wood by the hearth.

Albus takes the path closest to me around him, and I pretend that I don't notice but he makes up for it by completely crashing into my chair. I have to bite my tongue to not snap back. I can't tell if he's doing this on purpose or if awkward's supposed to be the new sexy, in which case the Quirkers have struck gold.

Meanwhile, Scorpius squeezes through the gap between the table and shelves to get to the last seat, knocking into every hanging cage. The firebirds inside cheep angrily.

Pickett slides a pitcher over to him when he sits. "Milk?"

"Nah, I'll leave it strong." Scorpius sniffs the tar-black mixture. "Or... burnt." He sniffs again and then swats at the tiny flame on his shirt. "Auugh!"

Albus pulls a dented tub from the timber. "And Hagrid, um, do you also have—" His glance this time is more telling and my gut churns. He slinks to Hagrid's side, voice lowered to a mumble.

Circe, do I need this morning over with. It's barely six (says the clock that goes up to thirteen), and Potter's asking Hagrid if he has any birth control growing in his garden. If he were smart, he'd say that the pennyroyal was for his headache, but considering how Hagrid's looking at me like I'm a new species of dragon, I don't find that likely.

The walls rumble with Hagrid's hacking cough. Albus slides out of the cabin door, while the gamekeeper lumbers back into the other room, humming very loudly. At least the morning after has eluded Pickett and Scorpius, who are more concerned with a firebird that hopped out of its cage. Pickett's got his fist in his mouth, trying not to gush at the tuftball on his head.

"Guys, guys, look—ack." It starts pulling at his hair. "Ow, not so cute—ow—anymore—ow, get it off!"

"Oh, oh dear." Scorpius tries to capture it but it screeches fire.

"Best to leave it be!" Hagrid shouts from the other room. "Clamps harder if yeh disturb its nest."

"This is my head!"

While they tussle with a sickle-sized bird, I rise from my seat, taking my tea with me. "I need some fresh air," I say, but no one's listening.

Spoiled by the cabin's hearth, I shiver anew outside as a pocket of wind billows under my jacket. It's been a cold, white but snowless winter. The castle looks so harmless from this distance, like a sketch, erasable by fog. The door clicks in its clasp behind me and Albus, crouching by the windowless side of the cabin, looks up from the pennyroyal with mud up to his wrists.

He wipes his hands and steps over the patch and I step from the entryway. We meet in the middle and he hands me four flat leaves. Our palms brush; they're clammy. Silence isn't much of a conversation starter, but we get by.

"Is that enough?" he asks.

"Probably."

His breath sticks in his chest. "It's just better safe than—"

"You don't have to tell me." Holding my mug steady, I try to crush the leaves over the mug; they only wrinkle.

"Here, let me."

"I've got it."

But he tries anyway, the Gryffindor. "I can hold—"

His finger catches on the handle as I jerk away, sloshing hot tea onto my hand. "Ah—shit!"

"Sorry!"

"I said I've got it!"

The silence mounts. This is bad. This is transcendent. Huddled to my mug, I start shaking and I can't even tear the damned stuff.

He can't help himself. "At least let me—"

He reaches for the mug again, so I end up dumping the pennyroyal in, stem and all, and down it like a shot.

Breath steaming, I wipe the liquid that trickles down my chin. "Do not start treating me like a delicate little flower you plucked.

Without much to stick to, the anger bleeds into wind as quick as it came. I suppose it's sweet how he frets, but forgive me if I'm a touch bitter that he'll leave today unscathed except for a broken heart, and if he's really that torn up, I'll owl him a tub of double chocolate chip.

When everyone finds out—and they will, for bedroom mistakes are the first to rear their ugly, wart-chinned heads—I will be the liar who fancied Potter after all, the witch strapped to the stake for not being good enough for him, and I will burn while he gets the coos. So forgive me again, for tacking the bitter to the sweet and making it harder than it should be, for both myself and the poor boy who got mixed up with reporters. He didn't know any better.

"We can forget it happened," Albus says quietly, like a compromise. "We were drunk."

"You were drunk."

His brows scrunch together and I hug my arms closer, letting my empty mug dangle. I should have just said, 'Yes, all right, we were drunk. That's the mistake. That's why we shagged,' instead of tossing another regret to the pile. But there are truths that I could never keep to myself. "I drank the watered down bottles. I was past tipsy at best. I knew what I was doing." The memory's nearly gone, but not the feeling—the blind stagger of our fingers as we fell asleep smothered in each other. I liked it—too much. "Don't get me wrong; it was still a mistake. Our relationship's as healthy as a dead cow."

But silly me's already given him hope. It's all over his voice. "It doesn't have to be that way."

"You really want us to happen," I scoff. I spy his gaze lingering on the three scratches on my jaw, my gift from Caroline and Co. and I cover them with my shoulder. "Just because we..." There aren't enough euphemisms to finish the day. "Look, I obviously don't do relationships."

"I told you before we could keep it casual."

That's a lie if I ever heard one. "I don't do casual either."

"You've never tried either."

"Well, I'm not going to try it with you."

"Are you scared?"

Great, now he's pushing it. "God no." Before he can open his mouth again, I add, "And not insecure or damaged, so don't come tearing down my walls; I just decorated them. Anything else?"

"Are you—"

"Tired of your fishing? Yeah, very much so."

We're in two totally different conversations. He thinks that we have a chance when the possibility has been all but blasted from my mind. I only gave it up further last night when he whispered those little words, prefaced with an oh-so-romantic, 'Don't tell Sober Albus. He doesn't know,' and placed a finger between our lips to seal the promise.

"The hard part's over." He shrugs and scuffs his brogues on a hill of loose pebbles. "I'll be the one to say it: last night was fun. The part in the lake... was good, too. I don't regret it. I thought, I dunno, you felt the same way."

I guffaw. Not very mannerly, but his pride needs the beating. "You don't get it." I shake my head. "You don't remember."

"If the girls start threatening you again..."

"Potter, just stop." All I'm thinking is: don't remind him. He didn't mean it anyway. I shudder as the memory redoubles, beating my eardrums from the inside out. People never should've let words carry so much meaning. Most don't know how to use them right and his are so bloody loud.

"Clemence." He thinks I'm caving when it's just the opposite as his shadow turns solid on my cheek along the longest scratch, the only one not left by the girls but myself, when I was prying their claws off.

"You said you loved me."

I didn't think it could sound any stupider than when it came out of Albus' mouth, but here I am telling him like it matters when it's just something he said while drunk and shagging in the lake; it was practically under duress. When I hear his swallow hit bottom, I can't even face him to place it in context, so close but so isolated, as if we're counting down rather than across for distance and the thousand years of rocks under our feet have risen to separate us. Not so casual anymore.

"Did you mean it?" My jaw shakes at its hinges when I spit out the question.

I crank my neck around and there is a word wavering on his lips, but he can't decide how it goes, and upon meeting my gaze, the word changes again.

"Stop trying to guess what I want to hear. Did you mean it?" The mug that I've forgotten in my grip could shatter. You're trembling. You don't tremble. Stop trembling.

Albus licks his lips, cherry-red chapped, and the white flecks frosted along the edges fade into skin. In the second he glances toward the sound of the door opening, he whispers, "I don't know," and somehow it's more agonizing than a yes.

There's a cough behind us. Dear Pickett, who probably knew what happened the entire time, ever since he woke up and found us on the beach without Scorpius confusing the scene, has come to save us from ourselves, but it's too late. "Um, you two... want to wash up now?"

"Yeah," I say, finding my breath. "Sorry."

Pickett receives my reply with a pause, and it isn't until he goes inside that I notice that I've been swinging my mug like a maul against my elbow. Pull your arse together; it's the same Potter you've always dealt with.

"I changed my mind. Let's forget it ever happened." Heels squeaking against the grass, I turn from the pennyroyal patch. The stairs at the hut's entrance, with its hundred nails breeding tetanus, have never seemed more inviting.

Albus stays quiet until the bottom step creaks under my weight and then he lets out a sudden, short laugh, no more than a bark. "I can't believe it. You're scared."

"For the love of Salazar—"

"You are." He hasn't moved from his spot when I face him. "You don't want to think I might truly care about you. You thought I'd flat out say no."

"Actually, I thought you'd be moronic enough to say yes," I mutter, moving up another step.

"That's the thing though. You think it's moronic if I loved you, a girl who doesn't give a flying rat's arse about anyone, right? That's your disclaimer, so you don't have to feel responsible for the people you hurt, because that's just how you are. Why feel guilty? Except you do."

I roll my eyes.

"Dom."

Cheap shot.

He spreads his arms, shrugging. "You've always cared. If it were that easy to master our hearts, someone would have invented a spell a long time ago." He isn't wholly wrong, but neither is he right enough to wear that smirk, the same one that convinced me to shag him. "If you think you can stop caring by pretending that you don't matter to people just because they don't matter to you, look at the world again if you know it so well. The person who eats up the most of your bullshit is standing in front of me."

Prove me wrong, he begs. Claim the last word. You were always so good at denial and hypocrisy dressed up as wisdom, so say something, anything.

I don't hear the smash but I know the sound should be there, alongside time and space. Albus flinches for me, mouth closed tight and humbled, when the spray of the chipped pieces jolt the nails awake.

The wind howls. There is a clink at my feet. When he passes by me, he picks up the mug, repaired sans for a sliver crack along its side, and places it in my hand.

"If you want to forget last night happened... fine by me."

He lets go and the door scrapes against the frame as it opens and shuts. The words I wanted to say flood me, flush to my skin. I wait for the burst—tears, the trembling, a sneeze—but there's zilch, and the walls of my chest crumple into the vacancy: one starved heartbeat.

It hurts.






But life must go on.

That's the whole point of a defensive maneuver. I can't get hung up on matters that might sting a little, even if they leave me speechless. I've got a castle to get back to and a shower to take and classes to attend. The world doesn't stop for one shag, so take a scoop of that double chocolate chip and cheers to me.

The four of us thank Hagrid and leave at half past. Albus takes the lead, hauling the crate of empty bottles transfigured as flowers. Points for cleverness—but he takes it further by masking our footsteps and coming up with four different excuses about getting lost in the Forbidden Forest. That's veering into common habits of murderers.

He and I do our best at pretending like nothing happened, if only because Pickett and Scorpius are still with us and no one likes prolonged angst. What's left to talk about on the walk back? Pickett's known me since my more naive days; we can have conversations about air and recite Shakespeare until it drives Dom to a nunnery (library, but close enough). Scorpius is a right chatterbox when I'm not bossing him around with words big enough to make him cry.

So naturally, when all of us are here, we shut up completely.

We can bond over Appy's novel but shove us together sober and you've got so's and um's and boy, it's chilly. When Scorpius decides to have a breakdown midway over his drunken coming out, it's relieving.

He takes his confession in good stride at first. "You know what, I said it. Flaming as a flamingo." He nods at me as if he expects me to magic a notepad and quill from my bra. "Quote me on that. I want people to know. Especially my father."

"Wait for it," Albus warns.

"Screw my father." Scorpius drives a fist into his other hand. "He's not getting a grandson. I'm going to adopt a daughter. Orphanages are overfilled anyway. He's gonna treat me like a p-proper man, and he's going to listen and... a-and... oh grumbly Dumbles..." He crumples to the grass.

"Good effort, mate."

"He's going to d-d-disown me," Scorpius wails. "Clemence, p-please don't publish it..." He latches onto my leg.

"Get off, I won't—sheesh." I pry him off with help from Pickett. Sometimes I forget that underneath his pristine set of abs—ripped like an ear of corn, as Dom likes to describe them—Scorpius has the emotional makeup of a Regency debutante. Squatting to my knees, I shake him until his sniffly head droops in my direction. "You're lucky only me and Pickett found out."

"Editors of the gossip newspaper?" Albus deadpans from behind.

"Shut up, Potter. Blondie, stop crying." I slap him. He stops. "Pay attention. I'm not printing anything you don't want me to print, all right?"

"Really?"

"Really. Come out whenever you're comfortable, but my suggestion: soon. This school is being torn apart over you." Dom and Rose may questionably care for him, but they definitely raised that many followers on the pretense that they do.

His brows knit. "But that's not my fault."

"Neither am I responsible for the Quirkers. Look at what your pal got me into. I'm writing advice columns."

I pat him twice on the cheek. Resigned to his fate, Scorpius sighs and we set off once more, passing the willow where we spent the previous night. Albus falls in step with me and my shoulders are set to cringe. Sorry, did I sound bitter again?

But he only takes his cloak from the crate and places it in my hands. They disappear in a shimmer. "Take it," he says. "You need it more." There's nothing expectant, nothing owed.

I bite my tongue to stop habit; don't snap. "Thanks." I shake it out and drape it over my head.

(Two minutes later, an observant Pickett: "Where'd Clemence go?")

The castle sounds quite awake as we near—bustling, in fact. Albus ditches the crate in a shrub by the entrance.

Pickett pushes the main doors open wider to get Appy's novel through. "But what if your worst fear was something really inappropriate and the boggart..." The din hits a peak and masks the rest his sentence, until a very clear groan: "Bollocks, this early?"

Albus and Scorpius freeze on either side of me when we enter, and I hold the cloak close. Filling the space between the entrance hall and the dining tables are fifty-odd students, not counting overspill, seventh- to first-years of every shape and height, many in their slippers and all in red or purple. At the fringes are mostly spectators but toward the center of this mess, fists of hair are being yanked above the crowd and I can hear Dom and Rose.

"Don't you blame me. Crowds are fire hazards, eh? You brought just as many—more—to back you up—"

"Only because I knew you would "

On a day that starts with shagging Potter at midnight, I'd expect the rest of the day to be less interesting. We've been gone for eight hours—sleeping hours—and the castle goes to shit.

"Let's leg it already," I grit when no one moves, but I'd pretty much have to be a banshee to be heard through the cloak's Silencing Charms. I elbow Albus to my left and he glares at me, except with me being invisible, that glare gets sent to Scorpius.

We tiptoe along the edge of the hall—him, me, Scorpius, and Pickett in that order. A few notice, but some boys creeping in isn't much to call attention to. Pickett hisses encouragement as we round the corner and pass under a portrait of Sir George von Rheticus who has his nose stuck so far up that the paint details the hair inside.

"Be one with the wall. You are the wall."

The horde of bodies are right up to our toes, shoving arguments back and forth over the matter of soul mates, modern romance reduced to the poetry of prepubescent teens who 'know love when they see it.' A yawning girl bounces off me thinking I'm empty space, and I trip over the cloak folds and collide into Albus.

He fumbles with holding me up. "You okay?"

"No," I hiss. "There's sand in my knickers, my best friend's gone bonkers and dragged half the school with her, you're grabbing my boob and just because I liked it last night does not mean you get to do that now, and you still can't hear me, can you?"

He absently brushes off—from the boob—a bit of ash that dropped from the sconce above.

"So sorry!" the girl says to Scorpius, who followed close enough behind me to masquerade as the victim. She does a double-take at his rag-tag group before skipping off. The commotion starts turning people around and a dozens eyes now face us, clumped together like an acromantula head.

"Is that—I thought I heard—" Marisa McLaggen, Team Rose sycophant, parts the crowd with two of her friends in tow and points at Scorpius. "See, he's right there! Just ask him."

He freezes, crouched. "Um, uh, n-no comment." He nudges me in the leg and I pass a kick along to Albus who lifts a small shell-shocked boy out of the way, apologizing profusely as he mows through the bottleneck.

Marisa hustles after us and despite their difference in size, pulls Scorpius by the sleeve. "Just one question! Let's settle this, Mr. Malfoy. Quickly, please. We all know who you'll choose."

Before any of us can snatch his other hand, the sea of bodies swallows him—legs, torso, and finally, his horrified expression contorted worse than a cat stuck between sofa cushions.

"Ah... grumbly Dumbles."

Pickett chucks Appy's novel to where he supposes I'm standing and it lands on a suit of armor. He dives in, a lone Team Green in his tatty surplus jacket. Albus goes in, too, leaving me on the sidelines.

By the Hufflepuff tables, Marisa clears a space around her, presenting Scorpius like a sacrifice to the queens, though neither seem too pleased to see him. Jumping up, I get the first good glimpse of Dom in days. I secretly hoped she'd be as tired as Rose when I last saw her, but she—and Rose—are impeccably dolled in this pit of morning, not a hair out of place even after their screaming. It's a campaign as much as war; appearances are half the battle.

"Look, I found him." Marisa pushes him toward Rose but if I didn't see Marisa, I'd swear Scorpius is being repelled with the way he shuffles back. "It's always been Rose, hasn't it?"

"Oh, stop it, you're scaring him!" Amy, a once-friend of hers before she donned the purple, slaps her hand away. They start bickering.

Pickett has hit an unmovable block of spectators and Albus is trying to shake off stray Quirkers, taking this opportunity of communal rule-breaking to mob him. Neither can make headway toward Scorpius who looks about one incident short of therapy.

I can make my exit. No one knows I'm here. I don't need to save Scorpius. He has two friends coming for him. Even better, this is the perfect time for him to make an inspirational coming out speech and null this whole gathering. He needs the public speaking experience, and it would make a spiffing headline, much better than 'Witchy's Frisky Whiskey Fandango'. Everyone wins.

But damn my soft spot for idiots.

Taking Appy's novel and shoving it under the cloak, I slide into a chink in the crowd as a circle of Ravenclaws vacates. Everyone is too preoccupied to notice the empty space that feels more solid than it ought to.

For what happens next, it's not a matter of I-should-have-seen-it-coming. I did see it coming and I still joined the fray. What good reporter turns tail from the fun?

No one knows who threw the first roll. Some say that it was Dom's side—the obvious answer as Marisa is Team Rose—while those with Dom insist it was friendly fire aimed at Amy, and still others say that there was never an assailant at all and that the collective sentiment in the room was so bloodthirsty that it conjured the offending sausage roll from a nearby plate and sent it arcing to the middle of the hall where Marisa turned at the wrong instant.

It strikes dead-center between the eyes, and she screams amongst the gasps and falls to the ground, slack-jawed, in a pool of grease. The crowd stills in shock.

Then, it erupts.

Butter knives and waffle shields, treacle, jam, toast with eggs, and sticky-with-saliva chicken legs. Everyone at once—those unwilling towed by the rip tide—surge forward in arms and Amazonian battle cries, and the Great Hall sky is blackened with breakfast.

"Aiyiyiyiyiyiyi!" A girl launches herself above the heads, lines of marmite painted on her cheeks.

I wheeze as an elbow pummels my ribs, and the bodies around me turn sharp in motion. The boys are lost to the brawl but I can spot Dom and Rose, the two most horrified of all. They're learning the hard lesson: you can't control the school. Trust me, I try. It controls you.

I'm spat out near the Hufflepuff table, cloak covered in the recipe for a muffin sandwich. Pairs are ransacking the plates for artillery, duplicating scones in conveyor belt fashion. Those not fighting are hauling fellow teammates from the fray. "Jam... everywhere..." croaks a fallen comrade.

"Please, you love Rose!"

"No, it's Dom!"

"Neither. I—I don't—!"

I whirl around. On the next table over, armed with a bread basket, Scorpius is surrounded and chucking iced buns like dungbombs. Clara Thompson of Team Dom goes down in a blaze of powdered sugar.

I smack my way to the front of the pack using the manuscript as a bludgeon. "Blondie!" I lift the cloak over my head. "Just tell them the truth! Or indulge them and choose someone!"

"Then they'll riot over that!" Out of buns, Scorpius swings the basket over his head as a makeshift helmet. "Besides, when the well-being of this school hinges on my sexuality, I think there's a bigger problem to address!"

Next to me, a purple goes down with another purple. This is no longer Dom versus Rose but destruction for its own sake, relishing these few minutes before professor intervention. Civil girls and boys, apples of their mothers' eyes, future of Wizarding Britain, so quick to covet lawlessness; how did civilization make it past a millennium?

I could retch.

Clambering onto the table, I pull the cloak off and take a stand in a bowl of split pea soup. "All of you nitwits, would you take a look at yourselves achppft—" A banana peel slaps my face.

I growl, ready to swipe a missile of my own. As I back into a pile of silverware, my shoulder crashes into someone who I assume to be Scorpius until he mutters, "Sorry."

We both turn around. It's Albus.

"You're—" His note of surprise exposes the rest of his words—still here?

Not running off might be the second-worst decision I've made in the last twenty-four hours but seeing him gives me the very worst idea of all, one that shouldn't even enter my mind. It's neither smart nor noble but perhaps, at last, that elusive something to prove.

I snuck into the castle like a coward, silent and invisible, when I used to strut down the halls after toppling entire Prefect rings. People listened to me once upon a time. Those were good days, about three weeks ago. But when I've lost control of the school, my voice, and my repute, my body is still my own and I will take it all back with just that if I have to.

So with fifty eyes to witness, I grab Albus by his jumper's collar and yank his mouth down to mine.

I stagger under his weight, wet shoes slipping, but he catches me. His fingers dig into my hair as I steal the question from his mouth and sling an arm around his neck to crush him close. I only get to fall from this height once; let's make the most of it.

Shutting off thought, letting sinews dictate, it's too easy to commit the crime. Reasons and actions don't add up. Sometimes it's a mere moment's impulse and that's the justification, for when taking account of our heart—the thing that controls our desires, but also our obsession, spite, and the rest of our sins—are reasons any more trustworthy?

I will placate this horde. I will claim Albus Potter because I can.

In the thick of the tumult, I hear a shriek, and he breathes my name at the same time. He knows how to say it sober. I like it, too much. Fluttering, his touch craves to travel. I hear it again: Clemence, what's the craziest thing you've done?

Then a cake smashes into the side of my face.

We break apart. Blue icing crumbles down my hair. I stare round-eyed at him and he back at me. The hall is hushed sans for one heaving hurricane. Slowly I turn to my right, where Appy is standing in the front row of the audience with an empty cake platter.

And it looks bad. I mean, I've got her novel in one hand and Albus in the other. For all the words I meant to say, all that comes out is a very Scorpius, "Um."

She climbs up on the bench and yanks the manuscript from me. "How could you?" She's actually shaking. "I trusted you."

At the corner of my eye, Scorpius scrambles off the end of the table with Pickett's help and dashes off. There is one friendly face amongst the hostile and confused, and she is blonde, grinning, and covered in cheese sauce. She gives me a thumbs up, probably cackling inside.

Staring in awe as if I'm the one who thinks herself nearly in love, Albus is waiting for my reasons as much as everyone else, but I don't remember them anymore sans for one: this school will not control me.

I turn back to Appy, stealing Dom's grin for my own. "He's mine."

Her jaw drops. The jaws of the Quirkers surrounding her drop. That's not the right answer. That's not even an option. Appy, of course, is best known for jumping to extremes. She fancies Albus, so she'll make a club of it. Match their initials together. 'A' becomes her favorite letter and let it be known in everything she names in her novel: Ampersand, Asterisk, that whole family of Aidens. For three whole pages, she accidentally put 'Appy and Albus' instead of 'Ella and Chase.' Her fists clench and the platter clangs to the ground.

But before she can do anything, a girl climbs onto the Hufflepuff table, fist raised in the air. "Team Clemence!"

Pastries drop. Heads turn to one another. Wait, no, I don't want—

"Appy or bust!" The Quirkers squeal. Across from them, a girl squeezes an 'C' made of mustard on her shirt, and then the whole crowd erupts in new shouts.

Fuck.




A/N SORRY FOR THE WAIT ;_; I have actively been trying to post this chapter for about two months, and I've posted a few explanations here and there but basically I am HORRENDOUSLY SORRY. Hopefully this will make up for it because this is actually two chapters smashed together, and well, WHAM plot twist and shouts all over. I didn't want to separate them because they're the same morning.

Running commentary: so last chapter I wrote my first sex scene, and this chapter I write the first morning after. I've wanted to address the er, practicalities of the whole shebang (pun intended). Shagging in the lake sounds cool until you wake up, and maybe not even before that. I spent 10 minutes zipping up zippers to figure out the sound for 'zzzloop' (this is amongst the reasons why it takes me forever to get anything written). Reginalda pulled a Norberta. And I think we can all agree the winner of this chapter is the girl who drew a mustard C on her shirt.

Lots of cursing this chapter eheheh, but please keep your reviews 12+!

Chapter 18: The Self-Fulfilling Prophet
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— 7:05am —
The seconds plash in their hourglass, numbered, conscious of themselves. There is history in the making and no rewriting it—only damage control.

I drop the book and shove the cloak into Albus' hands. Appy lunges for me, but in the jostle of the crowd, elbows linked with hers yank her back. Still, she tries, a rabid dog fighting her collar. How soon will it snap? As fast as she did?

I grab Albus by the front of his sweater. "Let's go!" Mesmerized by the chaos, he doesn't move. "Potter!"

Then he looks at me—just me—with the same bewitchment, interrupted lust burning green, as if I were as mad as the crowd. The lump in my throat is too big to swallow; how many times have I told him not to look at me that way?

But I kissed him, after all. There are consequences. Exhibit A is foaming at my feet. Exhibits B through Z are shouting 'Team Clemence.'

The hall is all noise. I wanted to stop the war, not start a new one. Letting go of Albus, I jump off the table without him, parting a path with my glare, walking fast but not running. I will not be afraid in my own school.

The whispers are closer to shouts. "It's got to be a publicity stunt!"

"She's desperate, utterly desperate. Advice columns and now this."

A scramble of girls follow me out of the hall, led by the ex-Quirker Sandra with the mustard 'C' emblazoned across her front. "Clemence, don't worry! We're totally in support of you, all of us." She struggles through the throngs of newly-awake students streaming inbound to rubberneck. "Appy's been so goddamn selfish—shove off, Margie, I'm trying to tell her—it's about time someone shut that glitter demon up. Did you see how you left her? Her face looked like a potato!"

Margie edges in front, hair full of hash. "You mean a tomato?"

"To-ma-to, po-tah-to."

Circe, you'd think I'd have picked up a more educated following. Sandra's a prefect and the badge deludes her into thinking she's all-wise; she's more leaky spigot than sphinx and sheer Gryffindor grit rounds out the difference, making her twice the idiot.

Sandra's stomps match mine step for step down the dungeon stairs, leading a platoon of a dozen other devotees. "At least choose a color! What about an army green, you know, for war."

Swiveling around, I hold my index fingers in the air and draw a line at that word. "This is not a war." I point at each girl with a conductor's precision. "No colors. No shirts. You can be part of my team by not being part of a team."

"What about—"

"No." I leave the grumbling assemblage to bottleneck the staircase.

Distantly, I hear Margie suggest, "What about a troupe?"



— 7:12am —
Helen's favorite red jumper is swallowing her when I charge into my dorm. She tunnels her head through the opening and spots me through her nest of fly-aways, flushed a similar red from the effort.

"Clemence!" The more she combs her hair, the more it goes in the opposite direction. "Where were you last night? And—you know you've got a full breakfast on your backside."

"Long story, ask around. And I... went drinking with Pickett." I eye the bathroom, where I hear running water, and my throat knots. "Is Appy here already?"

"No, just sis."

I pound on the door. "Harriet! Hurry up!"

A shadow moves across the gap at the bottom and scarlet-painted toes wiggle back at me. Bint knows full well how much she hogs the sinks. "I've got half a leg left to de-hair! There's a bucket under the bed!"

"I don't need the loo! I need to shower!"

"The bucket does double-duty!"

It takes three veiled threats to her broomstick, two blatant ones, and nearly detaching the door from its hinges in order to haul Harriet's arse out.

Once I'm in, I strip off everything into the laundry chute, crank the shower's temperature knob to hot, and hang my head under the jet. Dirt pools around my feet and globs of icing grease the tile in thick, blue splatters. Every bit of evidence from yesterday evening to this morning, disappearing down the drain.

Facing the spray head-on, a shudder passes through me. The last time I was naked, there were fingers where the droplets are trailing, hands smoothing over my skin like water, following the only path they know down my neck, my breasts, my ribs, my hips. Scoff at love for the heartless, but lust only needs a body. It shouldn't be so easy. More than easy—I like it.

Panting in steam, I grab the soap and scrub.



— 7:39am —
I crack open the bathroom door. The dorm is empty. Wrapping my towel tight, I tiptoe to my dresser, rubbing the grit on my feet against my ankles.

I pick the plainest white blouse, with a black jumper and black, patternless tights. I'll wear black for the next year if I have to; I don't want the next color on me to become Team Me's fashion. Black goes with everything at least, until your whole closet is monochrome and then it goes with nothing, unless you want to look like one of those batty hags who still wears pointy hats.

Before I forget, I also rummage into Dom's bottom desk drawer and pull out her box of contraceptive tonic, hidden behind her revision of the N.E.W. S.P.E.W. constitution. Of the sixteen slots, there are two vials missing; how recently, I'm not sure. Though, Sean Blackbury's been extra giddy, skipping to class like he's in a tampon ad.

Right—Sean. I didn't even remember him with Scorpius around. Wasn't Sean snogging a girl around Dom's height near Charms just two days ago?

A hungry gurgle wakes the cramps in my side, a signal of the dwindling eight-hour deadline for the potion's usefulness. I uncork a vial and knock it back, ears abuzz. A rusted tang sticks to my throat, but it goes away with another swallow.

It unsettles me again—the I'm-not-sure. Dom and I aren't attached by the hip or soul (soul-bonding, done exclusively by Hades' Ladies for demon romance enthusiasts, is a trend that needs to die sooner than the Q.G.A.). I'm not her mother either, and Fleur isn't the type to hover over her daughter as if she can't climb stairs without asking for directions. But Dom is something like my best friend, and I ought to know she's with someone new because she tells me these things, or at least she used to, and I could recognize her in a hallway.

She can't possibly know what I said to Albus. What if Rose told her hearsay? One stupid remark about how we might drift apart—

But it was before that, wasn't it?



— 8:11am —
Stragglers enter the common room with food dripping from their chins. Their silhouettes turn full-color under the light, forming faces of housemates I've known for years or those of younger snakes learning anarchy hard and fast.

And finally, the glitter devil I've been waiting for, Apostrophe "Call me Appy or I'll choke you" Hyphen Colon, appears in the doorway by her lonesome. The vessel of all that is unholy wears a bob cut.

Word has gotten around even without my encouragement. Across the room, people slow their steps, conversations pause, and eyes rise above their books.

I stand from my seat, fingers prickling on the upholstery. I swear I have something prepared for this moment—something diplomatic but firm, where both of us win—but then I remember she's nuttier than a hibernating squirrel.

"Appy—"

"No, no, it's fine." The girl glides closer before I can move; she insists. "I forgive you, Clemence. I really do." She wears a smile to signify her truth, and disturbingly, it looks genuine. "Merlin knows that Albus is hard to resist and, well, it's only natural to want him."

"...right." Unmerciful Merlin, she's probably killed someone already. "Look, Appy—"

"I might be the only one who deserves him, but that doesn't mean other girls won't fall in love with him, too." With a flounce-flounce-flounce, she's in my face, nose a freckle away from mine, eyes bloodshot to hell and back. "I forget that sometimes, and I apologize. That's why I'm giving you until tonight—first curfew—to give him up. Fair?"

"Not really," I croak. Fixation or not, Potter is so not worth this.

She pinches my cheek like I'm being cute when really, my default smugness is petrified; if someone figures out what the appropriate expression is for fucking terrified, I'll switch to that. "That's funny. I didn't hear a yes. But I'll assume you meant that."

There's nothing for me to say. This isn't a dialogue; it's a threat, and threats go one way.

"So, yes then? Good." Stroking the patch of skin where her nails left their bite, Appy coos, "I value our friendship, too."

Skirt whirling, she saunters to our room. The collective quiet ruptures. Out of nowhere—I swear she just excavated herself out from underneath the sofa—a wild Sandra appears, fists clenched at her sides. She shouts after Appy, "She's not going to take that, you know!" She glares at me. "You're not, right?"

I don't dignify her with a response, but no I can't, at least if I want to be taken seriously in this school ever again. But the thought of fighting for Potter—he must have laughed all the way to the Gryffindor tower.

Glancing down at Sandra's clothes, any remaining hope that this commotion will end soon dies agonizingly in the pit of my stomach, with olive-green as its killer.

"When'd you get that shirt?"



— 10:25am —
Caroline Escot, patron of my other cheek's scars, is making her rounds in the social circuits, pretending that she's got seer smarts.

"I called it weeks ago." She shrugs her shoulder, twirling the straw around her drink. "Clem-clem was drooling all over him. It was so obvious, it was vulgar, and she calls the Girlfriend Watch to get everyone looking the other way. But I didn't."

I thought I could find refuge in the Speak Easy, but Caroline brought her whole clique in at quarter past, filling three tables full of airhead lemmings who have no idea why they're there, other than for the famous excuse, "because my friends are, too." What I'd give to shove one of them off the astronomy tower.

"No one listened. But you remember those messages in the loo, right? Don't say I didn't warn you lot." Caroline levels her gaze on me.

She's lying; the lipstick messages were from only last week, and Escot isn't smart enough to pull it off. But her followers would believe in prancing Nargle gods if it came out of her mouth.

It's an easy tale to tell: the school's gossip bitch seduces the most wanted boy in school. You'd believe that even if you had no idea who Potter and I are. Bitches plot evil. They ruin lives because. End of sentence. Compare that to the truth: the self-fulfilling prophet Fitzgerald, in search of a secret girlfriend when there was none, becomes the one.

Likely story.

Caroline calls in another round of butterbeers which means another round of high-pitched tittering and my departure. A house elf open the door for me as I leave. Sour-faced, I scare off the next girl coming in.

When I turn into the main corridor, movement from outside catches my eye. A snowy owl soars past the window, looks straight at me, and hoots.



— 10:57am —
Broken latches rattle as we slam into the cupboard door, his fingers digging under my thighs, pulling at the wool, peeling my legs apart. I tear his sweater upwards, my own having been discarded over the ingredient jars, and grope for a handhold. The knob—slips. My hand lands flat against the door, knuckles white as he grinds against me, his kiss and moan filling my mouth.

Without so many words, we are so very stupid.

When I followed his owl to a disused classroom on the third floor, I expected Albus wanted to talk about what happened. And he did. It devolved.

It's not yet eleven and I've already had enough of this morning; with stress at a peak and the contraceptive tonic working eight-hours before and after imbibing, there's an economical advantage to shagging a lot in that window. The fact that Potter and I tend to start our conversations snippy and tense and in each other's face is just the light to a pre-existing fuse.

Still—"We shouldn't—Potter," I pant as he claims my neck, and I grip at the mangled lump of fabric where his shirt has ridden up. Sweat stings the air; there's hardly oxygen to spare. In the past minutes, we've awoken a frenzy worthy of a mob, all the more potent with only two bodies to latch onto. "Potter, we shouldn't get used to this."

His mouth dips below my blouse's neckline. "I thought the whole point of snogging me in front of everyone is so we can."

"We were talking and—I was going to say sohommething—Potter—" I pull his head back by the hair.

"So say it." There's a time for softer emotions and messy discussions of our relation-whatever-ship, but not when his green eyes flicker so ferally. And damned if the challenge licked upon his grin doesn't make me want him to inconvenience me as much as possible.

He pushes off from the cupboard, sending us spiraling into an old preparation table, where I yank his shirt and sweater over his head—to give myself a few seconds, mind you, as he grapples with it.

"I don't want outright war." I might admit to spectating as he drops his clothes to the floor. His frame is solider than what his frumpy sweaters disclose, something I couldn't see in the dark waters. An old potions classroom with shuttered windows aren't much better, but there is a sensuality about the lines of light that fall across him and the table.

"Look"—I bite my lip as his hands slide up my hips, my ribs—I gasp—under my bra—"at Rose's idea and where printing that fake letter that got us." He slips two fingers under the elastic band of my tights, but I knock them away, lifting my head against the rush. "You Gryffie pot-stirrers never think that letting things be might be better."

Bending down, Albus presses a kiss to my stomach. "Come on, it's too good to pass up. You against Appy; it's the exact match-up we need. She won't even know we're aiming to take down all of Q.G.A. with her." His slighted fingers walk up my body, pressing me down to the table, pinching open any buttons that stand between them and skin. "Just hold your own, nothing more. I'll take care of the rest. I already talked to Riley and Miles about taking some Quirkers on dates, depending on what advice you write. Do you know what you'll print yet?"

So bloody smitten over his own plans that he assumes I'll just fall in line now that we're shagging. "No."

"Could you owl me a draft tonight?"

"No."

This bit of disobedience, of all things, jars him from his teasing, just as he's climbed atop me no less, and he frowns. "It's Saturday. There's no time for planning if you print on Monday—"

"I am aware of the days of the week." Twisting my legs, I flip Albus over and he slams onto the table. A lantern on the other end clatters to the floor. "What I am less aware of is how you managed to get exactly what you want. Taking down the Q.G.A. with me as your champion. I wage war. I get the fallout. While you sit pretty and be Albus Potter."

My elbows pin his arms down and I rest my head in-between, proving myself sober to his seduction after all. He says he cares; proved it once and promptly mislaid that concern as soon as events turned in his favor. He wants to use me, control me, if he could, destroy me. I can be distracted from our relationship's brutal reality, but I will not forget it.

"You'll turn heroes into villains and villains into martyrs if it means getting what you want," I say. "Damn the good of the school. I want what's good for me."

The other houses are so quick to mistake survival for selfishness. I can see in the dullness of his eyes that he doesn't get it; it's tainted instead by the disease he calls courage. "It's too late to change anything. What are you going to do, magically make amends with Appy?"

"I can give you up." I don't say it like a threat, but it could be one. "You need me more than I need you."

"Then we both still need each other." He holds my gaze, hands sliding up my neck, finishing their journey across my body, but the air is tepid and itchy. When he brings my face down to kiss, I turn away.

"Get dressed, Potter."



— 11:16am —
The first headline is scrawled across all four mirrors of the third-floor girls' loo.

'EXTRA, EXTRA, C.F. SHOCKED SHE'S POTTER'S SECRET GIRLF'

I smear my hand across the message, but it only spreads the lipstick. The remaining red runs down my hands like blood.

Whatever, I guess. It's not as if people don't already know. Rolling up my sleeves, I rub off the stains. Then I splash my face with sink water and smooth the crimps in my hair. A fresh blouse will have to wait until I'm certain Appy's left our room, but for the most part, I don't look guilty of classroom indiscretion. I drag my hands down my face; Circe, once the mood's killed, shame wastes no time walking over its dead body and moving in.

Turning off the taps, I stand back before the mirrors. No, the lettering is definitely too neat to be Caroline's. But a Quirker—there are smart girls in there with a flair for sarcasm. It's a pity they go the quirky route, really.

I give up. It could be anyone, even Filch on a bored day; what else would he do with all that confiscated makeup? Taking out my wand, I mutter 'Aguamenti' and begin blasting off the words. My reflection stares back in-between the last F's fencepost strokes and tapered-off tail—

Lumos goes the candle.

The letter isn't finished. The word isn't finished. Whoever wrote this was interrupted.

I spin my heel toward the exit, cursing into my fist. I might have just missed them. There were at least three girls in the halls, but also some heading the other way—for the love of Salazar, I just missed them!

The first step of my run stamps down onto the tile when a draft shudders.

I turn back, blood beating in my ears, and I almost don't hear it, but I can feel it shiver. Something like a gasp and not a draft at all—a human breath.

My eyes fly to the second stall, the only one without the door wide open. Someone is trying to be quiet, their muffled fear escaping between fingers in lieu of breathing. My hand reaches the door and I push—

"Expulso!"

It blasts open, throwing me to the ground. There's a second panicked spell from the girl's voice and the room fills with smoke.

I jerk upwards, wand slashing the air. A flash of a leg, black shoes—I stumble, teary-eyed, brought to my knees with coughing. Water sprays from a broken pipe, melting the message off the mirror. Puddles rim with crimson.

When the smoke finally clears, she's gone.





A/N I'm back! This is a short chapter that continues next chapter~ so we'll have a full 12 hours of this day up until curfew hehe. I'm giving another go at that shorter-chapters-quicker-updates thing now that etc is my main fic, which'll hopefully maintain my sanity with writing, too. I've got a new inspiration blog going on, too~

I'm bringing back a lot of characters and loose threads, but I'm also reintroducing them (like Sandra was briefly mentioned as the Quirker who outbid Appy in the auction and got ex-communicated, but it doesn't matter if you forgot). I'd like to learn how to maintain a cast of background characters *__* The next chapter should have the whole Witchy Business staff and ol' Scorpo and finish off the set-up from this chapter. The situation with Dom is not as dire as it seems, quite the opposite; I only say this because I'm excited to write more of their friendship~ c: This fic is a bit sparse in healthy relationships.

And now to write the next chapter! I hope this chapter's (and next chapter's) timed style works. Sorry for the previous wait! Reviews are appreciated! HPFF has been getting slow, but I see you readers coming back ♥

Chapter 19: Green for Queen
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image by me

. 19 .


— 11:32am —
A smattering of girls mop the morning's mess into barrels, squeezing tapestries dry, and apologize to the portraits residing in today's battlefield. The hungry congregate on the scrubbed sections, huddled around the few unsullied sugar bowls like refugees. Warm milk, jellied curry, eggs twelve different ways—these girls have seen it all.

Professor Breech patrols them in stir-up heels straight out of a western. He hasn't got his Stepladder of Authority so he'll take anything that adds a couple inches vertically. "We'll leave the dishes dirty another day if we have to, if it'll teach you riffraff! Miss Oden—wand away, sponge out!"

House elves claw at the bubble Slughorn cast around the main floor, deep-set agony contorting their faces as they're unable to reach the mess. The kitchens are damn near mutiny over the dishes, according to Hufflepuff reports.

With a rag in each hand, Dom is vigorously wiping—attacking?—the underside of the Ravenclaw table. I sidle by her feet. They're stuck out from underneath the benches, toes tapping. It's our first greeting since last issue's distribution.

"Dom," I say.

The table stops shaking, her toes stop tapping and she squints from the shadows, still not a blonde strand out of place. Seriously, what kind of virgin blood is she bathing in? Her hair was soaking in cheese sauce four hours ago.

I take a deep breath. Sincerity is not my strong point but that doesn't absolve me from apologies, so I clear my throat and begin: "From the bottom of my heartless heart..."

Dom's expression, which seemed quite happy to see me, shrivels into a glower. "Clem—do not."

"I am truly..."

"Stop," she hisses. She kicks at me but I'm an inch too far. I made sure.

Now, louder: "...deeply..."

"Shhhh!"

"...horrennnnndously..."

She flops flat on the floor, arms crossed. "You're worse than Vic."

"...sorry."

Grinning, I sit down. She kicks my heel.

When she's less embarrassed, Dom crawls out from underneath the table, nostrils flared. Four loose curls are frizzed in front of her eyes. "Don't do that ever again."

"Not trust you or apologizing in public?"

"Apologizing! Of course you shouldn't trust me. Do I look responsible?" She whips me with her rolled-up rag and then dumps it into her water bucket, splashing us both with a fragrant mix of soapy chicken-milk-juice. "I've still got jam pouring out of my ears."

She's been at it for two hours straight, she tells me over a plate of griddle scones. She and Rose covered for me and the boys, which explains why the summons I expected from Slughorn never arrived. "It's our mess, anyway," she says.

"How many are in trouble?"

"Thirty-nine girls. Twenty-three Team Dom, sixteen Team Rose," Dom drills out with journalistic precision. Picking off the last raisin, she bites into a scone.

I consider the numbers. "They're loyal."

She smiles. "You're the only one's who's noticed. It's not that there were more of us causing a ruckus. More of us stuck around to accept responsibility." It's been three, four hours into her punishment and she's flaunting her food stains like they're the next big trend, an unflinching general amongst the creaking elbows of the room. I've missed her, pride and all.

A hem-hem clears Dom's throat. "But less about me, please; I've got a cult for that. You didn't come back last night and next I see you, you're with Al, snogging the lights out of him." Her cheeky, sidelong glance arches a little higher. She's missed me too, the presumptuous bint. "In my bottom desk drawer, there's a box."

My eyebrows can't move like hers but they try. "There were two vials missing, hem-hem."

You went looking, her smirk deduces. Does that mean there'll be three missing when I go check? "Oh, yeah, Sean—we're not anything. I just wanted to, you know, dip a quill in that well. See the fuss. But you..." Her tongue digs into her cheek. She wants to talk but we're sitting in a public space, and Breech is circling our way, spurs clinking. "Do you need your own supply?"

"No," I scoff, handing her the dirty plate. She stacks it in an overflowing tub destined for the kitchens, once the bubble charm lowers. The house elves are absolutely salivating. "It was a one-time thing."

"Like your snogging? I'd learn how to count again."

She flicks my head when I scowl, leaving a dripping trail of suds. When she's not looking, I double-check the top button of my blouse. I dressed in a rush.

"I can't help fretting, Clemence. You haven't got a mother figure in your life."

"Right now, I've got bigger worries than relationship shit." Rubbing my face, I glare through my fingers at the end of the Slytherin table, where a yellow-shirted gaggle is seated around Appy like a council of ducks. "I'll be lucky if I survive the day."



— 1:01pm —
Two Quirkers are standing outside of the owlery when I go in to feed Barry, marked by their newly embroidered shirts and shiny, black shoes. Their number has doubled when I step back out.

Clack-clack-clack-clack.

They follow me down the corridor, murmurs rising and falling as hands cup to whisper. Look at her. High-horsed shrew overdue for her due. A fox—a vixen—preying on our boys. Sly, slippery—she has it coming.

They close in. Clack-clack. Clack-clack. The halls are empty on the weekend, bigger without the crowds. I won't reach the stairwell soon enough.

Feeble heartbeats, the forgotten sound of fear, count down time.

Tick. Clack.

Tick. Clack.


Where is your wand?

Tick. Clack.

Where is your fight?

Tick. Clack.

Spent.

Tick.



— 3:20pm —
Cold seeps through my clothes, like a ghostly breath of stone. Scores of interviews have occurred at the foot of this stairwell.

In this quiet crumbling nook, it is easy to forget the castle's five hundred other occupants, as if life beyond this spot were fiction. And why not? Reality is absurd on paper. It's currently dictated by girls who rally around fictional relationships—seeing as none of the established Teams will ever come to fruition since Blondie's gay, Potter and I are moving backwards, and Appy won't get him even in her dreams. Maybe his nightmares.

Like Appy—a reminder that she gets to be the norm in this world—it's not as if these girls mind their odds. If reality were a cannon, their delusions would be a solid-steel warship. Gun it all you want; they'll just keep sailing, straight through the muddy Scottish moors.

Footsteps approach. They leave no sound but I feel their tremor against my skull. At the corner of my eye, two brogue stubs peek out of their shroud.

"Following again, Potter? Let's not glorify stalking for the kiddies."

Albus folds his cloak over his head, where tufts of mussed hair gleam, framed by the mosaic windows.

"We're celebrities now." I spin a finger in the air. "Role models."

"Why are you on the floor?"

"It is ever so slightly farther away from you."

I grab the railing and sit up, knees aching from lying bent against the steps, and the rush of blood throws me into a stagger when I stand. He catches my elbow and I jerk away on contact, wincing as I strike the railing. Bruised and battered by architecture; what is this, recompense for evading the Quirker assault?

"Piss off," I mutter. "I told you that already, didn't I? If you're looking for a shag, there's a mob ready to please you." Clutching my elbow, I charge past him but with most of his body still invisible, I miscalculate and—of course—slam into his shoulder on my way out.

Albus lets the cloak fall as he follows me, and our steps and voices mingle in cacophonous echoes. "Could you stop avoiding me for one second?"

"I wouldn't have to if you left me alone."

"Earlier—"

"I was fine," I grit. The word bounces back at me.

"You couldn't even breathe!"

"It was just—" Turning around, my fists are clenched for a verbal fight. Pain flares from the bottom of my lungs, and I'm transported to two hours prior, when I saw the girls in masks and choked. "I was fine! It's you—!"

You're the problem.

His eyes dart away mid-blink, that ugly reminder of how it hurts for him to look at me because he knows. This is all his fault and he's helpless; how does he suppose I like it?

"I don't know what to do with you, Clemence," he whispers hoarsely. "If you knew how much—how easily you could—"

He laughs suddenly, wipes off the ringing sound with his hand and takes a step, our gravital way of conversing—all wants and needs, bodies and heat, and a dash of to-hell-with-it. Here I shut my eyes, bracing, but his touch never comes.

Instead, a familiar, bitter but fragrant tang wafts from his breath. "You don't even know, but I finally get it. The tragedies. Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, Guinevere and Lancelot. Watching kingdoms burn for the sake of... a thrill."

It's not the window's colored light; his eyes are bloodshot. He's drunk. Just a little, but he's got to be, to spout that sort of shit. I could laugh. Golden Boy Albus, drunk at three o' clock in the afternoon, hoisting our romance to the heights of the tragedies. It's become outright comical, how messed up we are.

"Love isn't some pardon for shitty decisions," I say, letting Albus down far more gently than he deserves, and he is sober enough to recall his shame and close his mouth.

I leave him in the cold to pick up his cloak.



— EARLIER, 1:05pm —
Fine. I'm fine. The words bulge hot and nauseous in my throat, swallowed and regurgitated amongst my sickly gasps. Breathe, Clemence, focus.

There is a blur of bodies on the floor. Scattered Venetian masks stolen from the drama club. And Potter—

"Clemence, hey, are you okay?" His fingers stretch the skin on my cheek, brushing my hair back. "Clemence, look at me."

"Piss... off." It is a haggard gasp, foreign to my ears. There are a million things I ought to shout at him, if I only had a breath.

My knuckles scrape into the wall. He's too close. He doesn't need to be here. I can say it again:
I'm fine. The girls never touched me. They were Petrified by the time I turned around. He should know; he was the one who did it.

But I'm still panicking and it won't stop, and
it’s your fault, all your bloody fault.



— 5:33pm —
"I know. I know I'm being horrible. I know it." Dom pinches her lip.

"Then why keep this up?" Leaning over the banister, I can almost see every floor below. Scattered pink and purple loyals, yellow on the ground floor, and a growing number of greens. It's both comforting and unsettling.

"Why does anyone keep habits they don't like? It's what people expect of us."

"Dom Weasley, a follower?" I snicker and await her fiery, bullet-pointed response.

But she's tired. Her hands are pruned. She'll be picking off cheese sauce for six more showers. "You know what I mean. I'd be a sellout if I liked Rose, she'd be enabler if she let me be, and we'd both be hypocrites. The Rebel and the Good Girl. Once they start calling you things like that, you're committed to it."

Further down the hall, the gargoyle statues scrape apart. Rose exits the Headmaster's office, nodding at something Slughorn is saying.

"Rose and I would be a right force if we ever teamed up," Dom muses, flicking her gaze toward her cousin, "but that's erasing the history books."

"So that's it? Dooming yourself to repeat history?"

She knows about the new message on the mirror and my panic attack and that everything I'm asking her is in preparation for my own inevitable war. Chewing on her lip, Dom barely glances at me as if embarrassed for the answer, but at least I get to be privy to this side of her. "Our rivalry won't flare up any time soon." It isn't a no. "Too many of the shirts got ruined and, I mean, you saw. It takes a load of energy... only to end up exactly where we started. At least Rose got punished, too."

She seems confident about this much, despite the approaching redhead lacking any sign of it. Punishments for Rose are likely slaps on the wrist. Slughorn quashed accusations of playing favorites after retiring his Slug Club, but he only just renamed it to Heads and Prefects.

When Rose passes us on her way to the stairs, she returns Dom's flat smile. A secret one, by its brevity. I wouldn't jump to assuming they gained respect for each other, but there is some understanding between them that exists only when no one can witness. A shared suffering.

Perhaps there was a day long ago when they branded themselves with those titles—The Rebel and the Good Girl—presenting to their peers two girl to admire, two girls to rally for. War, at its most pointless, is an excellent P.R. tool for creating loyalties out of thin air.

This isn't a fight for a boy nor a crown and only barely their principles. It is to seal the cracks of the status quo and maintain the popularity they have grown accustomed to.

If anyone bothered to look a centimeter past the label, they'd see: the Good Girl isn't so good and the Rebel's lacking conviction.



— 6:57pm —
Clack-clack-clack.

They giggle, looming ever-closer except when they stop to hush. The castle only gets darker and emptier this way. Sweat slicking my wand, I turn and I'm met with three pairs of wide, glistening eyes. The mouths underneath are practically slobbering.

"You two're really together?" asks the left-most girl, shadowed by the sconce's backlight. "You and Albus?"

"How'd you do it?" asks the girl clinging to her arm.

There is one more, a runt, hiding under her robes. None of them look older than thirteen. Underneath their collars is a peek of green, the same shade Sandra was wearing.

If I were moral-minded, I tell them all to run now. Apply themselves toward something more useful than a color-coded war. Try fortune cookie telling. Amateur paleontology.

In the end, I merely grin. "Wait for Monday's issue."



— 7:49pm —
Janey twirls her Easy-Edit quill, flipping it one-and-a-half times in the air and catching it by the tail, a habit she adopted from me. They grow up so fast.

After one last red slash, she holds up the interview transcript. "I think that's it. Do you want to look this over?"

"No, I want to burn it," I drawl, spinning on the newsroom's swivel chair. "I'm sure it's fine. I trust your writing—and your commas, unlike Pickett."

She grimaces, adjusting her glasses. "Still..."

All right, I probably should, considering my reputation and possibly my life hinges on this piece. "Toss it over then. Sorry, I'm tired."

The barely legible, tea-splotched parchment she hands me is the means of my first strike. An exclusive interview with yours truly, divulging how Albus Potter and I came to be... and for those soon-to-be-ex-Quirkers reading in between the lines, how to claim an Albus Potter of their own, blinding wit optional.

I could have penned it myself but I find the interview perspective charming. Slightly less egocentric than me writing about an irresistible me. But there is a second reason for calling Janey down here so urgently from the Ravenclaw tower.

I fold the parchment in half after a cursory glance. "Janey?"

"Yeah?" She's pouring tea to the tip-top brim of her mug, solely so she can skim the top with her mouth like a hoover.

"If this goes south... I want you to be prepared for the possibility that Witchy Business will end."

Her hand jerks and the tea overflows. She blinks, wiping her fingers on her coat. "What?"

"If I go, so will Dom. Pickett's finishing at the end of this year. You wanted to go into journalism, too, didn't you? You've got real talent. I don't want for this—whatever happens to me—to hurt that. So you go on if none of us do."

She stammers for a moment, deciphering what I might mean by 'go on.' Making sure Witchy Business survives or just escaping this zoo with some of her scruples in tact? Her rattled stare never entirely fades, more in denial than I am. "How can you just say that? You—we'll all be fine."

I have to smile. "You're sweet. But absolutely no one is fine right now."



— 9:01pm —
Appy towers over me, flanked by her number two and three from Q.G.A. The single sconce in this corner of the Great Hall decides to light up her gleaming teeth. "Albus might be under your spell or whatever you did to make him like you, but it won't last. If you love him, you'll leave him to someone worthy."

When I met Appy at the curfew bell, she motioned to the floor insisting that I sit and I foolishly thought she would also sit. Maybe we were doing this powwow-style like a friendly indoor campfire circle—really, what were you thinking, Clemence? That we lived together for six years, so it surely must count for something? No, the line of thinking goes: oops, not only did I piss her off, I was her friend, meaning that I betrayed her, too.

Hand on her chest, Appy emphasizes what she means by worthy. "Albus and I—we're meant to be." Her eyes glaze over as she slips into a daydream, spot of drool hitting my cheek. "I'm being reasonable. We both know how these stories end, Clemence. The happily-ever-after goes to the good girl and that simply isn't you."

Number two and three nod vigorously in agreement, ponytails swishing. Two other Quirkers are holding me down by the wrists, and two more went rummaging through the nearby broom cupboard. I didn't think to bring backup. I can have every religion's karmic god against me, and I'd still be overconfident.

"So what will it be, Clemence? Please don't make this harder than it needs to be because—I will defeat you."

What am I, a dragon? I making a scoffing sound. I would love to tell Appy that she can have Albus. He isn't worth fighting for, plain and simple. I care for him as much as I do for my cat.

I don't have a cat.

But this morning, I made a spectacle. Claimed him as mine and snogged him, with emphasis. Handing him to Appy after that only brands me as a hypocrite. I know I can end our war before it begins if I only take that label. Shut up, give up, bear the humiliation. News is fleeting. Life goes on. No one will remember this in a week.

But I am nothing if not proud. Like Dom, like Rose, too cowardly to lose. It's fun and games until someone gets hurt.

Then we keep score.

"Appy," I say, grin cocked to the side, not even sweating. "It's time someone said this to your face: you're a delusional bitch."

Her face contorts. I've never seen anything like it. Wait, no—she looks like the plastic guardian lion statue outside of the Chinese take-out by Aunt Rita's. I could never figure out if it was smiling or choking. Appy is currently doing a little bit of both.

"Heh... say that... again?"

I hear the click of heels behind me; the other girls have come back from their search. I stretch as far forward as those holding me down will allow and grin under her nose, ready to eat shit. "Green... for... queen."

A full spray of spit flies in my face as she sputters. Oh yes, she heard right.

Appy swiftly raises a shaking arm. I look up. A string of once-melted cheese slides over the rim of a barrel, one used to store the oozy, putrid breakfast artillery wiped from the walls. The smell hits me first; it could knock me out. Then the liquids—mushy and green. Finally, everything that accumulated at the lip of the barrel falls in one tremendous splotch over my head.

There are yelps from ricocheting foods, but soon they're laughing at the spectacle of me, floundering; eyes, nose, mouth burning.

I can barely make out Appy's departure. "I'm going to go enjoy a long, hot shower. It might take a few hours," she seethes, beckoning her girls to her.

She whirls around and then again, thrusting a finger in the air to claim the last-last word. "Appy: 1, Clemence: 0."



— 9:07pm —
"Clemence? Oh nooooo."

A hand pulls me out of the pile. When the toast slides off my face, I see it's Scorpius. He's on patrol.

He helps me find my wand. I lost it while scrabbling for my pocket, hoping to blast my way out with a spell. The food had jellied around me. I got a hold of something stick-like but turns out I'd been trying to cast with a chicken bone.

He finds my wand skewering two meatballs and a tomato. I pluck it from him and squeeze off the food. "Thanks. Aguamenti." I spray my face and cough; the water running down stinks of egg salad. "A favor: is the password to the prefect's bath still 'Queen's Hippo?'"

"They changed it last week. But I can ask." He flicks a decaying snack from my shoulder. A glob falls from my hair to take its place.

"Never mind," I grumble. It's five floors up anyhow. Maybe Pickett's shower is free. "Good night, Blondie. Stay safe. Blokes like you shouldn't walk around alone this time of night." I start trudging toward the dungeons.

"Oh, er—there's also the showers at the pitch," Scorpius calls after me, wiping his hands on his handkerchief. "No one's there this late. That's why Al likes to fly at night."

I stop, arching a brow. "Does he?"



— 9:24pm —
Locker hinges squeak. I slap my feet against the floor, parading my slime trail as I enter. Our eyes meet over a dividing row. Albus falters as he stares at me, gulp in his throat bobbing. I head straight to the shower area.

Pulling my top over my head, I use it to scrape off the chunks in my hair and then fling it to the floor. He watches me but there's nothing sensual about it. Ogling the bruises and scars and stinking muck that he knows are his fault.

The shower tiles are slick, recently wet. Breathing shallow, Albus stands there pretty and clean, shirt still in his hand. Hasn't moved since I arrived. I face him whilst stripping off my tights—and grin, because it'll hurt him more.

Look at us. Look at what we do. Fighting over such big ideas in such little lives, scrounging for control over people we don't even like for a thimble of power.

Dressed only in my knickers, I turn the shower knob behind me, eyes locked with his as I rake my hair back under the torrent. He swallows his gulp. His hands knead into his towel. Distraction creeps in as the food washes off.

I pull the dispenser lever for the shampoo, scrub a full handful into my hair, and finally speak. "Here's the reality: we're stuck with each other." The bitterness I saved, in barrels and barrels, drip from my words. "In an ideal world, I wouldn't need you, but the Tutshill Quidditch Team isn't shirtless and peeling me grapes right now, so I guess we don't live in an ideal world. If we're going to take down the Q.G.A. with fake relationships, you and I have to be front and center amongst them."

Suddenly, he can't keep my gaze anymore. You chose me, Potter. Out in the lake, you chose me.

"Do you have a problem with that?" I say. "Not like our relationship was very real before."

He stares into his open locker. "...I'll do whatever you want."

"Good." I turn the taps down to let the shampoo sit. "Let's get a few things clear. I'm not your girlfriend. You're my boyfriend." He grimaces at that word, such a strange one to come out of my mouth. "You're going to hold my hand, take me out to Hogsmeade, buy me stupid stuffed toys, and you're going to tell the world that I'm the best bloody thing that's ever happened to you."

His face darkens and he wants to interject. He had so many plans, so brilliant in his mind. This is what he wanted, but it wasn't supposed to turn out like this. It wasn't supposed to hurt.

I can't help sneering. "Did you think war was going to be fun, Potter?"




A/N I am late. I made waaaay too many war metaphors, pseudo-political tangents, a canon/cannon joke, Appy keeping score. There is a lot of angst and wailing and not enough Pickett and I totally didn't mean to have that happen?? But I swear on Merlin's bathroom reading material, next chapters have a lot of cynic-friendly derpy fluff.

They're the Valentine's Day chapters. *thunder and cackling*

I dropped in some new and old stuff: Clemence's panic attacks, Albus drinking habit, WB potentially coming to an end~ I wanted to try this timed-style out for these two chapters, and I'm not entirely happy with it. Maybe it's just me wanting to get to the Valentine's fluff already, hem hem.

etc. also picked up a few awards in the latest Dobbys—both dialogue and description—thank you readers! Aaaah, you guys spoil me c:

Chapter 20: Love Overrated, Overruled
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Somewhere in the maze of Hogwarts, there is a girl, yellow-shirted, furiously scribbling notes on a page ripped from her textbook. The book is thrown to the side and the sticker on the front reveals her full name: Leonora Leech. Leon for short.

Under her knee is the recent issue of Witchy Business. She murmurs the words as she transcribes them. The master copy is due to be wiped within the next half hour. She'll have to write fast to get all the details in time. Better to write fast anyway, lest risking discovery.

Appy announced a new rule at the last meeting: anyone seen reading Witchy Business gets a taste of her excommunication quill. The lawyer-twins Edna and Ella were the first to be struck down—outside of Arithmancy class, where one of the Q.G.A. officers pulled a copy out of Edna's coat pocket. Haughty chins in the air, the twins had their shirts charmed green by the hour's end.

Leon doesn't quite have their dignity, but she too knows little of loyalty. She joined Q.G.A. for the boys and the free sticker. With each meeting Appy's been talking less about boys and more about war and other things Leon didn't sign up for. Bring back the boys!

When she really thinks about it though, Appy isn't very good at bringing in boys. In fact, they tend to run from her.

They're intimidated, Leon figures. Appy's so quirky and all S.A.S.S.—stubborn, awkward, shy, special, the core qualities every Quirker strives toward. Boys are afraid of falling in love with her at first sight. Appy has such lucky flaws, no good for average girls like Leon who are only ever awkward and shy and not in the good flouncing-her-skirt-cutely-as-she-tripped way.

When Leon tripped down the stairs, she broke her leg plus the leg of the boy she fancied since third year, Danny Bletchley, by literally crushing on him.

A year deep into Q.G.A. she's faring no better, so in a fit of desperation, she skulked into a loo after Charms and peeled a soggy Witchy Business issue from the floor. Margie, who doesn't understand how to use air-quotes, said that the head editor's tell-all has quote-unquote "tips"—tips for averagely awkward girls like Leon.

Leon didn't believe them at first read. They're so boring:

'No stalking and don't even think about mobbing.'

And 'No keeping snippets of hair by the bedside.'

'Drool less from afar, not at all when close up, and then actually talk to the bloke.'


But they sort of make sense. And Clemence did win over Albus. More than what Appy can say.

They're still boring though.

Leon finishes copying the tips just in time; the newspaper turns blank. Huddling her notes close to her chest, she makes her escape toward the stairwell. When she reaches it, she pats down her bag and runs back, panting. She forgot her textbook.

She skids to a stop at the last corner. Her book is on the ground, adjacent to Gunhilda's gnarled statue, but someone is there. Ready to double back, Leon trips over her shoelaces instead. Merlin's dotted pants, not so soon. She isn't ready to give up the yellow! Appy'll wring her like a wet rag.

Pressing a hand close to her notes, she squeaks as the person peers up. Stupid, stupid Leon. What a dead giveaway.

But then she looks again. The person's not a Quirker. He's not even a girl.

Deep hazel eyes glinting in the sconce-light, with curls as soft as fleece and a smolder that could ignite steel, Danny Bletchley emerges into view. He moves in slow-motion through a saturated haze, and a sudden draft unveils a hint of his Beater's torso. Amy said he worked out twice a day. Enchanted his wand to double as a dumbbell so he could lift in class.

He takes her book in his hand. Turns it over, scans the name—her name. Saliva waterfalls down her chin. Danny Bletchley, man of her least decent dreams, is reading her name. Leon wipes the dribble on the length of her sleeve. The notes under her jacket crinkle.

Could it be? All she did was write down Clemence's tips and she's already closer to him than ever before, stairs incident not withstanding. Hope blooming, she remembers from the third column: actually talk to the bloke. If something as boring as that works, she'll deliver to Clemence her firstborn on a silver platter. She and Danny will just have to make ten more babies.

Leon manages to stutter, "H-h-h...i," as her eyes glue themselves to his full, kissable lips. Is that creepy? What'd Clemence say?

If you have to think about whether it's creepy, it is.

She shifts her gaze upwards—and hey, the rest of his face isn't bad either. Danny's already waiting for her when she meets his eyes, kissable lips spread out in a smile. He holds out her book as he walks toward her. The background music swells. Where did it even come from?

It doesn't matter; it's perfect.

Appy who?








"Merlin's haggy—watch where you're—oh. You."

"Morning to you too, buttercup."

Stumbling out of the newsroom is a part of my day I prefer no one witnessing. Sleep-deprived, broadsheets stuck to my heel, I'm cranky and have the grace of a moose in a swimming pool. Potter is currently blurry enough to qualify as an Impressionist painting.

An awful stench wafts from the coffee in his hands. I don't know how he brews it so badly, but the smell alone wakes me up.

There is something like a frown on his face. "Did you stay here all night again?"

"Does Appy still sleep in my room? Yeah." Pinching the bridge of my nose, my other hand gropes for his and he charitably obliges. Laces our fingers even, before leading me out of the dungeons. Such a loving boyfriend. What would I do without him?

Die, probably.

The taunts begin as soon as we set foot into more populated areas. Spit-laced vitriol sneered in my face as we pass, declaring me a bitch as if I didn't know first (those too young for the term have taken to calling me 'toad'—and once, 'knotty-pated toad,' from the daughter of a Shakespearian troupe actor). I'm accustomed to having enemies but pissing off Appy's entourage has doubled their numbers, and the hand in mine is the only thing keeping their attacks purely verbal.

On Sunday, Albus made the "official" announcement that we're together—because you can't take my word for it. The dodgy hallway ambushes stopped after that. It was hope—or some feral second cousin of hope—that set those girls on me. Hope that I was lying or that Albus would change his mind. I should've known better than to ignore the distinction between being his supposed girlfriend and one with an anniversary date.

We sealed it with kiss in the courtyard. On the second Sunday of February six days before Valentine's Day, in front of an audience of girls who ought to get a hobby, he became a taken man and I became a romantic obstacle.

"You don't deserve him!" someone shouts behind me as Albus and I enter the Great Hall.

"Got your pronouns switched around, dearie," I call over my shoulder, catching a glance of Albus peering in the same direction. "Way to swoop in, Potter—Al." Trying to break the last-name habit.

"Your ego doesn't need protecting." But his arm snakes around my waist when he sees Appy stationed at the end of the Slytherin table.

Green-shirts amassed nearby clamor and sigh. "He's so sweet..."

Meanwhile, his ego blooms.

We find Dom pushing a pile of berry mush around her plate and sit across from her. Yesterday, Albus and I sat in Gryffindor and entertained his cousin Hugo who guffawed, "So it's Clemence after all, you numpty," upon seeing our linked hands and gleefully threw his dinnertime chess game to regale tales of how Albus had denied it. He begged me to visit over Easter so the whole clan could meet me. "He's been smitten since your first interrogation," Hugo said grinning, to which Albus snarled, "I'll smitten you."

Dom barely looks up when I sit. "This week's been godawful," she mutters. Her fork scrapes metallically as she draws lines in her food.

"Does it involve getting showered with rubbish, forced out of your room, and an elaborate fake-relationship-Quirker-sabotage scheme primarily conceived to get in my pants?" I drawl, scooting right to give Albus space. "Because I think I've got you beat."

Albus raises a brow. "The fake part was your idea."

"And the sex was yours."

Dom rolls her eyes. "Get a broom cupboard."

Melding into each other's friendship circles has been alternately maddening and disturbingly easy. Those closest to us share a similar sentiment about Hogwarts' latest power couple: what a pair of eejits.

"The entire class failed Professor Bechdel's test, so she's making us retake it," Dom says, leaning into her knuckles. "Detention until we pass."

"Muggle Studies?" Albus snorts. "You deserve that." He reaches over to tuck Dom's hair back so it doesn't dip into her drink. I forget they're cousins—cordial cousins at that. How he juggles Rose and Dom is beyond me.

"Oi, you take it. And I got to class late because a certain nut I'm living with was hogging the sinks, dolling up to seduce you. Disgusting."

The three of us turn toward Appy's end. Seeing Albus, Appy perks up, wiggling her fingers in a wave. There's enough makeup on her to make a whale blush. With a shudder, Albus slinks behind me, arm retreating to its previous position around my waist. Her cheeks turn black. Ah, mood makeup.

"I am not your shield," I mutter, wriggling from his fingers on my ribs. I tap my plate. A pancake inflates on the bare porcelain, blowing up like an air mattress.

"I might want you farther away from her."

"But you don't."

Albus sips from his coffee. His arm does not leave. I let it slide this once. Relationships are about compromise. Even—especially—fake ones.

Besides, Hogwarts is chilly in the morning.

"Potter men. Tsk, not a single bone in their backs." Dom uninvites Albus from the conversation with another roll of her eyes but a twinkle remains that only I can see; she thinks we're adorable—as adorable as messed-up can be—and if I didn't threaten to cut up her mint-condition Tutshill Tornadoes calendar (shirtless summer edition), she'd be expressing it loud and green. "Clem, are you sure you like sleeping in the newsroom? I really don't think Appy'll do anything. Playing up that whole, you know, being the good girl."

"Are you kidding? She slashed my pillow. Could've been my head." I jam a wedge of pancake in my mouth. A placard between the bread baskets states that the school is rolling out whole-grain breakfast items, anything to prove that Hogwarts is a progressive institution, at least in its menu options.

"I'm telling you, Leon's ninety percent sure her kneazle got loose—oh, and did you hear? She and Danny are a thing."

"Mm, really?" At the corner of my eye, I catch the edge of Albus' smirk.

"I'll get a statement from her later—but anyway, her kneazle slashed up the fifth-year's dorm, too. Found holes in my favorite leggings this morning."

"You can mend that."

"But I'll know." Dom whines. Her hair is mussed from her frustrated kneading. "It's just been a bad week, okay?"

She's restless, I'll give her that. The Battle for Albus Potter has been primarily long-distance glares and slander, none of the brash, destructive fun of her feud with Rose.

"Cheer up. Gravy's stopped dripping from the ceiling at least. Get some sugar—some pancakes." Not pancakes. They taste like rubber. Well, I can spin it: "They're whole-grain." I shake the placard. "See? And twenty-five percent less fat."

"I need twenty-five percent more fat."

Dom stabs her fork into an entire stick of butter. Albus' eyes round. She cleaves the butter in half, almost exactly. Right next to the dish, Albus has been resting his hand. It is now two shades paler.

The root of her misery surfaces: "Clemence, tell me the truth. Is Henry mad at me?"

"What?" So it's Pickett. I glance around the table, but it's mostly Appy's crowd and a few of the younger set eating breakfast. Sandra's troupe waves back at me; I ignore them. He's not here. It's not like Pickett to miss meals. "Did you piss him off—well, of course you did. What'd you do this time?"

"I didn't do anything!" she wails. "He's avoiding me."

Albus pushes his plate aside, finished with his two bites of toast. His hands are well-away from Dom's striking distance. "You're bloody oblivious."

I stomp his foot and his knee jerks up, clattering the table's silverware.

"Ow—the hell—"

"No hinting."

Dom frowns. "What?"

I cough. Albus clears his throat.

Her frown creases deeper. "What?"

"If you can't already see it..." Albus mutters.

I glare, shutting him up, but his brows strain at the top of their arch with frustration.

Dom slams the table and makes a move for her fork. "You two are not allowed to conspire!" Steam pours from her nostrils. A fleck of butter on her nose melts into a greasy sheen.

Someone ought to take a snapshot of her like this—and coincidentally, someone does. But before that, there is the matter of my eye twitching at her emphasis of you two. Albus and I are barely a couple, not something as casual as you two and certainly not when it's spoken by Dom who knows better.

But a click and a bright flash steals the thought. I flinch. Albus swears. On the bench behind Dom, Team Green General Sandra is obscured by her camera's viewfinder. The single-woman paparazzo leans back for a second shot, casting a precarious shadow over the Ravenclaws' food spread.

"Smile for this one. Al, scoot a little closer. Dom... move."

Eyes veined, Dom starts squabbling loudly about the dangers of unannounced flash. One could blind someone or get bludgeoned by a blonde in a bad mood. Sandra snaps photos through her tirade.

A daily photo-op was my idea. Stifling a sigh, I kiss Albus on the cheek. He turns his face for a better angle. Our foreheads brush—I pull back, swallowing. The next flash catches me full-on.

"Oh, damn," I hear Sandra mutter. "Could we try that one again?"

Black spots swarming my vision, I quickly go in for the kiss, missing his mouth by an inch. "Thanks for the dedication, really, Sandra," I say, shielding against the next flash with my hand, "but if we're trying to eat—"

"Hallo!" A new voice exclaims.

I groan. And so the green parade begins.

It's Margie, Sandra's eager beaver cadet. She runs up to me with a friend on her arm, chubby knees bopping. "Clemence! I have to tell you—I saw Leon holding Danny's hand this morning and it's a miracle, nothing short of it, all thanks to your advice! You need to, I dunno, write a book or something. Like Appy, but better."

I curl and uncurl my fingers. What good is ceaseless adoration if they won't let me eat? "Thanks. Look, I'm hungry—"

Another whirr and click from Sandra's camera. Albus gets up, saying something about "taking care of it."

"So I was wondering if there are any openings in Witchy Business?" Margie asks, twisting on her foot.

Maybe it's better I'm not eating or else I would have choked. Witchy Business is exclusive for secrecy reasons, but that aside, if we wanted writers, we wouldn't be looking in the direction of Margie Dinkle who uses smiley faces for punctuation because they're "more festive" than commas and full-stops.

"Why don't you send in a writing sample?" I say sweetly. "I'll get back to you in five to eight business days."

Margie jumps up with a squeal, shaking her friend who looks as enthused as a beached squid, and promises to not let me down. In Sandra's direction, there is a growing burble of activity. Hopefully it doesn't involve Dom and her beater's bat.

A hand slips in mine. "Let's go before she notices," says Albus. His books are tucked under his arm, and he is pulling me up before I can have a say.

"Oi, I barely ate—"

Then I see Sandra, and I can't help but roll my eyes. Albus is quick—unoriginal but quick. The fittiest bloke in Gryffindor is chatting the girl up. She's star-struck, her camera limp at her side. She might be suffering from heart palpitations.

Albus tosses me a muffin. Post-traumatic flashbacks of the food fight are still rampant, and a nearby diner ducks on instinct.

"Ditch me then," Dom huffs when I swing my legs over the bench. I hesitate and she shoos me away. "Go! Merlin, I'm kidding. Go before you attract more crazies. I'll see you in class."

Even without Sandra's attention, other eyes belonging to the curious, the suspicious, and Appy's seething yellow-shirts watch us leave the hall. Margie's babbling is not far behind but tapers off with the sudden entrance of the fittiest bloke in Gryffindor's fraternal twin.

"We'll need Sandra for tomorrow though. You know, for Valentine's," I tell Albus. I collect my books from him and reclasp our hands. On the first day, we fumbled through the small acts of intimacy. Limbs were snared, teeth were bared. But intimacy, I've discovered, is two-thirds routine. "We—well, you have to make a grand gesture. Something showy so she can snap a few pics. What's Hugo doing for what's-her-name—Wendy?"

"Hugo's strange," Albus mumbles, as if embarrassed for the boy. "He's weaving her a tapestry or something."

I snort and he grins. "Hugo, weaving?"

Albus and I can be friendly. That was never impossible. Steer away from psychology and politics—so all the fun stuff—and we've got a benign conversation to last the two minutes we take to get to the History classroom. After spending three consecutive nights in the newsroom, I haven't got the energy to argue. Albus... has been surprisingly accommodating.

Binns' door is already open as he never leaves. Students are crouched by other classrooms, waiting for the other professors who are living and rather enjoy their sleep, too. Professor Babbling is the first to waddle by, bungling her Unlocking Charm by flicking her teacup instead of her wand.

I unlink hands with Albus. "I'll find you later. Or find me. Whichever." I'll meet him again at Charms, at the latest.

"Don't pick too many fights with Caroline." A soft scold from someone who's accused me of being the devil.

He catches my wrist as I turn to leave. His thumb presses into the soft underside as if feeling for a pulse, a practice in the other third of intimacy, and he pulls me in for a kiss outside of anyone's view. He tastes like coffee and firewhiskey.

It's not the first time he's done this.








A flash of lightning eclipses the candle's glow. The roof comes alive with skittering rain in the first thunderstorm of the year.

I sit outside of the newsroom with my tongue bit down.

"I know, I know I fucked up." Dom's voice is muted through the tapestry. Her shadow flickers across the sliver crack of the door.

"Not just this once," Pickett booms. "All the bloody time. You knew Scorpius was gay."

"Rose did, too!"

"I don't care about Rose!" A chair scrapes against the floor. "You knew. Look what's happening because you were too proud—"

"It is not—you can't keep me in the wrong forever."

They're haggard; I can hear their breathing against the white noise of the storm. I should leave. I should have left five minutes ago when I discovered them, or at the very least, intervene, but my back is still against the wall. My feet are flat on the ground.

"It's not easy ending things that have gone on for so long." Dom is straining for someone to understand her. "Henry... I'm not a saint. I don't hide it. What do you want from me? I fucked up. I'm doing the best I can, and it's not much but I'm trying."

"Bullshit."

I shiver and bite down harder. Arguing has a bit of finesse, chemistry, and—if you're lucky—reason. But fighting is the opposite: books get thrown, tables topple, bodies are hunched and distant. Everyone is shouting and no one is listening.

"I can see it—I can bloody see it in your eyes—you don't get it." Pickett laughs; his emotions have gone full-circle. "Did you apologize to anyone? Clemence? She did so much for you. How is it that she apologized to you? Or you know, Scorpius who, hilariously enough, has nothing to do with you and Rose's fighting. But I suppose getting back at Rose is more important."

"I—"

"What happened to the Dom I knew, who didn't give a rat's arse what people thought about her? Huh?" The volume escalates, and I can hear his heart beat out of his chest. "Who was more courageous than any Gryff I'd seen?"

"Henry..."

"What happened to the Dom I fell in love with?"

Thunder rumbles. A chair crashes to the ground, fallen from a rush to leave as footsteps follow footsteps.

"...Henry!"

Pickett curses at the tapestry as he comes out, punching it to make his way through. He sees me staggering to my feet and curses again. Covering his face, he nearly knocks me into the wall as he pushes past. But I see the red in his eyes, hear his waterlogged throat. I follow, now that it's too late.

He doesn't go far. I find him pacing a dead-end hall like a stray wolf, viscous and whimpering in the same snarl.

"I told her," he says. "I told her."

"I know."

Dom hasn't emerged from the room. Another streak of yellow splits the sky.

"Damn it!" Pickett strikes his fist against the wall. The thunder doesn't quite mask the sickening crunch that follows. "Shit—god damn it." He crumples into a ball and cradles his hand, tears smeared across his face.

"Pick—hey, don't—hey." Dropping to my knees, I hold him; his stubble bites into my shoulder. I gulp down the feeling in my throat, pressing a thumb tentatively to his cheek. "God, I'm sorry. What should I—I don't know what to do."

"It was supposed to go away. I told her... so I'd move on." A garbled laugh escapes. Blame it on the delirium of a cracked heart.

In the distance, something like lightning flashes.

I take Pickett to his dorm. He refuses my offer to stay, pushing me out when I insist, and mumbling through the scarf pulled over his face, "People might get ideas."

"But—"

He nearly clips off my fingers shutting the door, so I'm left alone, sleeves stained, for another night.

When I go back to the newsroom, Dom is gone. My hand turns the two-way compact I share with her in my pocket. What would I tell her? The same nothing I told Pickett? Or that she fucked up, she really did, and that I saw it coming and didn't say anything—or maybe I did, I forget—but I didn't make her listen because I'm more afraid of my friends than my enemies.

Albus knocks on the doorframe. He's been standing there for awhile, having parted ways with Scorpius who's on his rounds.

"Go away, Potter."

He comes in anyway. "I saw Dom."

"Is she okay?"

"No. Are you?"

When he is too close, I shirk from him, crossing my arms and burying my hands deep into the crook of my elbows. I pace to the other side of the printing presses.

"I'm fine."

Albus walks parallel to me, maintaining our distance while staring at the yellowed posters on the wall, old advertisements from The Daily Prophet asking for writers. There is another question on his tongue, the one he truly wants to ask.

"Do you care for him?"

I choke back a laugh.

But he means it: "He holds you close, calls you love, and you don't flinch?"

The barest smile lifts my mouth. "He loves Dom. Always has."

"Doesn't answer my question."

"I shouldn't have to answer it." My gaze narrows; I know where Albus is going and he won't like it. "Our relationship isn't real. Remember that."

"So if you had to choose—"

"Between you and Pickett, you won't even come close."

It stops his breath for a moment. He doesn't expect me to say it outright, without the apathy or long-winded arrogance that dulls my usual rebuttals, but it won't stick unless it hurts.

I only have one question for him: "Why did you never intervene between Rose and Dom? They've been fighting for a long time. You see how many people get hurt."

Albus sways on the spot, fingers fidgeting at his side. They count the regrets over the years, at family dinners, at school, in the quiet conversations where he could have pressed them harder. "It's their lives," he says, echoing the very excuse I once defended myself with.

"Coward," I sneer.

He shuts his eyes. Swallowing thickly, he breathes the word in.






Valentine's Day begins with a photo and two hundred seventy-three copies of it.

The picture is grainy, but Pickett and I are visible enough. Our profiles are quite distinctive—me with my swoop of hair that cuts across my large forehead (all ego) and Pickett with his nose precariously close to mine. The distance is ambiguous, the center of the photo being extra fuzzy like it wasn't exposed correctly. If I squint, it almost looks like we're a lot closer than we actually were—and it already doesn't capture the finer details of the scene, such as Pickett's sniveling and my very wet sleeve, so that's context thrown out the window.

Basically, it looks like we're kissing.

Nearly three hundred prints of this photo plaster the hallways between the Arithmancy classroom and Trelawney's loft. Each one is lovingly, stubbornly glued with a Sticking Charm that makes it nigh impossible to tear down. In the most vandalized hall—the most trafficked one—a collage of them graces the windows in the shape of a broken heart, signed with red streaks of lipstick.

I stare it down, clenching and unclenching my fists. Bystanders who see me quickly look away. Those that don't continue whispering. It must be bloody Christmas for Appy.

"Clemence, holy shit, did you see this?" Pickett strides up next to me with a photo in hand.

"No, I didn't," I deadpan, eyes unmoving. Whoever did this would have to follow me with a camera ready. A heavy, clunky piece of metal. They were prepared.

"There's a bunch of photos with us and it looks like we're kissing and... you're being sarcastic." He clears his throat. "Right."

I turn toward him and a smile immediately springs to his face, but it doesn't wholly distract from the dark lines under his eyes nor the tufts of hair he forgot to smooth down this morning. He's freshly shaved though; he's putting in an effort.

"So about yesterday." He presses his lips together.

"We never speak about it again?"

"Thank you."

There are curious ears trying to listen in; our vague exchange is probably exercising their imaginations on overdrive. Sighing, I let the thought go. It's too late to change anything.

I walk down the hall, surveying the damage, and motion for Pickett to follow. It's probably not the best idea, but hell if I'm letting some lipstick vandal bully me around. "So did you and..." Dom didn't want to talk about it.

Pickett shakes his head.

"Too soon?"

"Way too soon, love. Give me a week and I might be able to spell her name without bawling." He throws his head back, hand clapped above his brow. Poor, dramatic thing.

"Let's get you drunk."

"Thank you."

As we pass Professor Vector's classroom, the door flies open and out comes Sandra charging at me with her arm pulled back. I make the mistake of hesitating before hauling arse, thinking that maybe she has a reason for the angry red face and odd pose. Maybe she wants a horizontal high-five.

She slaps me across the face.

I stagger backwards. Pickett holds her back from going a second round as tears stream down her cheeks.

"I trusted you!" she sobs. This is the most crying I've witnessed since a member of boy-band sensation Two Confections got run over by an elk. "I gave you everything and then you go kiss this—this hussy!" She wrestles from Pickett and points at him.

"For the love of—" I rip a loose photo from the wall and shove it in front of Sandra's face as Pickett mouths, 'I am not a hussy' with a scandalized glare. "Look, it's clearly manipulated. You can see the charms. I was just comforting him, not kissing him."

But she's beside herself and hasn't heard a word I said. "I hope you're happy. We lost."

"Lost what?" I clutch my throbbing cheek, and at the same time, see her camera. The thing's been attached to her hip the whole week.

"The war, you ninny!" Sandra waves her arm toward the yellow crowd I didn't notice until now. "Look!"

At the end of the hall, in the middle of a shrieking horde waving foam fingers marked with 'A's, a dark mop of hair stands out. Albus is amongst them, smiling broadly, and he's got his arm around Appy.






A/N: I'm a month late ;-; But here it is! In all its fluffy/angsty/punny (Professor Bechdel's test, hem hem) glory. This chapter is the beginning of a lot of fun, what with everyone's lives being casually tossed in the air like a salad :D

Teehee, reviews have trickled in and I am cackling. The next chapter is supposed to be fluffy and all Valentines Day, so you can try to figure out what happens from that. I'll be taking a brief break to NaNo-ing my original fic before I start on the next chapter as a heads up, but feel free to nag me about stuff, because I always need nagging.

♥ thank you all for waiting and reading and waiting some more. Please do leave a review!

Chapter 21: V-Day D-Day
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chapter image by me

. 21 .


That second of surprise, eyes wide and lashes pin-straight like a crown, can be pretty on the right person—depending on past experience and, to a lesser extent, the proximity to one's birthday. The higher hopes for something good, the prettier.

My face looks like a pretzel knot.

That second of surprise, i.e. the journalist's worst nightmare: something got past me and everyone has gathered to watch. Pickett is sputtering. Sandra ran off sobbing to the loo, palms black with mascara. It is now the second after. Albus' arm is still around Appy.

"Potter!" I yell.

The excited burble around Appy morphs into gasps and shrieks. Appy is mid-laugh and has yet to hear. Albus, however, turns and when he sees me, he is glassy-eyed... like I'm a stranger.

I draw in a breath too quickly and taste metal. Don't assume, chimes my helpful inner voice. There's a logical explanation for that look, for why Appy fits so snugly in the crook of Albus' elbow, her winter coat creased by their closeness. His arm is tired—or he twisted his ankle this morning coming down the stairs and Appy, never too far from her beloved, was the only one around to help him.

Photos of me and Pickett are peeling from the walls. One is stuck to Albus' shoe, and I wonder if I ought to take that as a sign. But he isn't petty enough for jealous revenge. He isn't cruel enough to ruin me, even if he planned it from the beginning.

Appy sees me now, all-smiles, and my ribs clench at the sight of her gleaming teeth. "Clemence!"

"Clemence," Albus says after her, one note surprise, one note unsure. His eyes are bright, almost unreal in their green, as the edge of his mouth curls into a smirk.

This has to be a dream. I'm snoring in the newsroom, drooling on Ol' Bessie.

The quirky entourage watching me, too nice to mock openly, are stifling their grins to at least appear respectable. "Look at her... never saw it coming," one says. "I almost feel sorry for her."

Pickett places a hand on my shoulder, but it slides off as I march into the yellow crowd, fists clenched and face hot. The few green-shirt floaters wait with bated breath like peas in an omelette. With their winnowing numbers, they don't have the courage to cheer out loud.

Albus' expression doesn't change as I come closer; neither does Appy's. The latter is preening her blonde bob, only one eye on me as she signs a napkin and spews romantic advice to a bespectacled Quirker. The arm around her hangs loosely, not with her clinging like she's about to lose him any second. Not like I'm a threat.

Observers part to the side of the hallway, opening up a semi-circle. Stopping before the happy couple, I sugar up a smile. "Al... buttercup. What are you doing?"

He hesitates before answering, staring as if he forgot something important. In a moment of clarity, a curious regret flashes across his face. "Oh... we were dating, weren't we?"

The crowd joins him in his sheepish chuckle, part of the grand joke they've left me out of.

Appy rubs his back, as if soothing a child. "You have to tell her."

The confusion disappears; his smile dazzles like I've never seen before. "Right, sorry. I... ah, this is awkward. I love Appy."

Laughter rings again like breaking glass, shaking my bones from their joints. My lungs squeeze. It hurts with something piercing, not the suffocation that I recognize, and I wonder—while suppressing my own ghoulish laugh—if this is heartbreak.

I lick my lips. "Then..." Two dozen eyes fall into attention. I need more time. I need to figure this out. It's Albus' smile, his smirk, but whoever is standing in front of me isn't him. I know him.

Appy butts in between us. Her pink-gloved grip on his arm tightens, impatient to leave. "Then! There is no then. Then it's over. You found someone else anyway." She gestures to where Pickett has kept his distance and then to the photo in a yellow-shirt's hands.

"We're not—he was crying."

The crowd titters.

"Pfft. Boys don't cry, Clemence."

I catch Albus grimacing before Appy raises a brow. I make a grab for him, but he notices and stumbles out of my reach. Appy shrieks. The fence of Quirkers bulge inward, pushing me away from them.

"He's a doppleganger, isn't he?" I hiss as someone else yanks me back by my shirt. "Polyjuiced house elf? Is that what he is?"

"Excuse me?" Albus furrows his brow.

"I know this will be hard to take in, but please, for your own sake, let this go." Appy's extra-stiff bob wobbles with a shake. "One day, we'll both get a happy ending."

What a sight this must be; the rubble of my crown is being swept as we speak. The nights in the newsroom haven't been kind to my skin or hair or wrinkled clothing. Everyone thinks I've been kissing another bloke. Meanwhile, Appy—radiant Appy—is on her way to her first date. Dressed in a pink peacoat that suits her color, wearing makeup done by someone who understands moderation, topped by a masterpiece topiary of a hairstyle. Why, she looks practically sane.

Appy ushers Albus away. He looks over his shoulder, and I expect a slip of pity for the fallen queen, but confusion has stretched his eyes wide and—terrified?

It's love potion.

Elbowing my captors, the thought becomes truth in one desperate lunge. It's so simple, so crude. I catch Albus by the sleeve, and before any Quirkers can reach me, I seize him by the chin and kiss him.

He nearly throws me off. Faithful to his new love, he fights against me, pushing at my wrists. But his mouth remembers mine; it parts slightly in his gasp. The taste on his tongue is bitter and sweet. His hand, clenched around my wrist, slackens.

"Get off him!"

Sadly, our magnetism is purely figurative. The Quirkers have caught up to me, Appy has wedged herself between us, and by the end of this struggle, four girls restrain me by each limb.

"She drugged him!" I screech as a fifth yanks my hair.

Appy gasps. "I'd never!"

She doesn't waste any more time. She muscles Albus through the throngs, encircled by yellows. He shouts something; it sounds like my name.

I twist my shoulder free. "It's love potion!"

No one lends an ear. There's a game children play, often their first direct experience with unjust political structures, in which whoever has the stick is the leader and their word trumps anyone else's. Often organized by the person holding the stick.

Appy has Albus. Albus is the stick. I'm the mud.

The few remaining green-shirts have scattered. My right arm is wrenched in a direction it shouldn't go as the girl hanging on is suddenly shoved aside. I hear my name again. Someone grabs around my middle, toppling me and everyone attached. Stubble scrapes the back of my neck; it's Pickett. Hauling me from under my arms, he drags me out of the pile-up.

The world is spinning and the whispers are merciless.

"God, she's thirsty."

"I used to be all right with her, too."

"It's... love potion," I pant. I remember the scent on Albus' breath—parchment, sweat, and lakewater mingled with his morning firewhiskey. But the taste was so sweet. Not like fruit chews or caramel; it tasted pink. Gritty and eye-numbingly tart, like there was a toothache in my brain, and yet I craved it. I might forgive Albus for falling in love with her. It tasted so sweet—like her. Sweet and gorgeous in pink—

I slap myself hard enough that Pickett nearly drops me.

"Are you okay?"

Swallowing, the potion taste slides out of my throat. "No, I think I was just a little in love with Appy."

I'm still in motion, not through any effort made by my own feet. Pickett has dragged us to the Charms hallway. A few girls follow curiously, but the mob has little interest in ex-girlfriend wash-ups now that their beloved leader is safe. They have their own Valentines plans to get to.

"I'm fine—Pickett, let go." Flapping my arms, I slip through his hold into a pile of crumpled photos.

All right, it could be worse. I'm touching gum and only lying in a metaphor for my reputation, but at least I have nothing to lose. I know this vantage point well. I might even miss it.

Some girls aim to climb. I've mastered the fall. Why mind the top when I can tear people down just as easily? There's proof somewhere to stop this Appily-ever-after. A witness, evidence like the residue on my lips, something left in his room—Circe, I'll fudge it if I have to. Fingers digging into the wall grout, I hoist myself up, take the squashed quill from my pocket, and tuck the feather behind my ear.

Potter can reconsider his touchy-feely philosophies after I save his arse. He's coddled me; I'm dangerous again.

I'm about to take off when a cough and rustle of paper interrupts. Turning quickly, I point a thumb toward the grand staircase. "I'm gonna—"

"Go after Appy. Yeah, I know." Pickett wears a sour look, the kind oft given to Dom after her daily reports on Rose, quashing my brazen exit. He saved me without so much of a g'morn or goodbye, let alone a thank you. Devotedly he stands, arms crossed and sigh held in, beside another poor soul sucked into the self-obsession of Valentine's Day.

"Sorry I didn't—" It's too late for that. "Thanks. Sorry and thanks."

He uncrosses his arms. "I only meant to ask, are you sure it's love potion?"

I shrug. We walk. "I tasted it and was ready to recite poetry to Appy."

"I watched her. She looked confused when you accused her. Well, that and ready to club you with a rusty cauldron." Pickett makes a sweeping gesture at the walls, where in between the portraits, hundreds of little me's are almost-kissing hundreds of little him's. "I'm just saying..."

"Albus isn't jealous." I bite my tongue, knowing that when he left the newsroom last night, he was just the opposite.

"How do you know?" Pickett stops at the foot of the stairs, throwing his arm around a gargoyle bust. He cocks his head toward two girls who have stopped trading notes to stare at us. "They think so. You intellectual types think you're above it, but emotions don't always take rest stops at your brain."

"It's love potion," I say firmly and head up the steps.

"You never defended him before. Are you afraid of being wrong about him?"

I spin a half-turn, finger raised. Pickett is on the other side of the railing, having climbed on the opposite side, banister by banister. He hooks his feet around two and hunches forward for my answer. Funny looks abound from below.

"You're making a scene," I say.

His fingers tap on the wood with a grin. "And you're lying."

"Don't you start."

"I start whatever I want, love. So that's a yes?"

Color blotches my cheeks. "Fine! He's jealous." In a low voice, I hiss, "He pissed me off and I told him that I'd choose you over him, happy? Though I'm currently reconsidering."

It's supposed to be an admission of guilt, that the jealousy is my fault. But I forget the larger scope—I've never said anything like this to Pickett in the nearly four years that I've known him—and what comes out of my mouth twists on my tongue from pure embarrassment. God, I can't even look at him directly.

Which is okay, because ever so slowly, Pickett closes his eyes and his palm meets his forehead and drags way, way down. "Oh, for fuck's sake, Clemence."

"Not romantically!"

"No, I know. You didn't kill his pride, just maimed it horribly!" His hands shake in the air, attempting to grasp at my idiocy, and he almost falls backward. "Gee, no wonder he hates me. I mean, I'd choose you over Dom, too—"

"Really?"

"—but I don't go bloody announcing it to—" Pickett sucks in a breath. "Yeah. Really."

Four years of history coil tightly, suddenly lethal. The green of his eyes paints me as I stare. I never noticed its color—or I forgot. Replaced the memory-space with a vocabulary word instead. It isn't a piercing emerald like Albus' but mottled with blue and light from the windows, with my reflection at the center.

I blink and he exhales.

"So it's love potion," he says.

"Love potion."

He nods. "Carry on."

"I will."

"Good."

I stub my toe on the next stair as I turn too quickly. Sweaty-palmed, he nearly slips off the railing.


::



Seven flights to the Gryffindor tower. If only I could 'Accio evidence.'

Scorpius is the straggler of the sixth-year boys, still choosing a jacket when he lets me into the dorm while the others have left for Hogsmeade. I make a beeline for Albus' side table.

"D'ya think it'll rain again? Big storm last night." Scorpius struggles against his wardrobe over possession of his anorak. The hanger is attached to three others and has no intention of leaving without its friends.

"No idea." Outside of the usual clutter, there isn't much on Albus' section of the room: books, ink pots, a candleholder—no empty vials nor suspicious chocolate boxes. Moving his clock aside, I catch a sweets tin that tips over but it's unopened. My hunch is on his morning coffee anyway. "Where's his mug? He always uses the same one, right? The souvenir one, says 'London' on it."

"Yeah, it's his favorite. Muggie the Muggle Mug."

I choke on spit.

"He leaves it down in the Great Hall sometimes—ack." There is a twang-ing sound behind me. "The elves wash it and bring it back up for him."

"Damn it." I pace, fingers tangled in my hair. I can search my dorm. Appy's bound to have left ingredients or a recipe lying around. Or I can transfer to Beauxbatons; great-grandparents are still tottering around the French countryside.

"What's going on?" Having won the battle with his wardrobe (though not without scar, judging from the red mark on his cheek), Scorpius stuffs his arms through his anorak's sleeves, hopping up and down to force it on his muscular frame.

"Appy's got Albus under love potion. I need to prove it."

He freezes. "Oh no no no nooo. How? He was fine when he left today."

"I figure she drugged his coffee—"

Scorpius shakes his head vigorously. "No-o, Al wouldn't fall for that. He knows how dangerous today is." He wiggles the rest of the way into his jacket—which is definitely one size too small and it's akin to watching a snake molt in reverse. Squatting by his bed, he doesn't see my face screw into a knot.

He's right; Paranoid Potter would drink candle wax before a glass of something he didn't plant, harvest, and brew himself. My tongue rolls along my teeth, where I can no longer taste the sweetness. But it was there—wasn't it?

"I never thanked you properly for saving me. I'll help you cure him." Scorpius slides out a metal chest groaning with parchment. The lid springs open upon touch. Vials clink onto the tile. "I've got antidote somewhere."

I stop pacing. "How?" I don't mention my uncertainty.

He coughs, fanning the green dust that rises as he rummages. "I... um, learned to brew it." I can't tell if his expression is one of mild disgust or extreme nervousness. "The antidote, not Amortentia. I mean, I learned that too because of Potions but I haven't ever used it—or even thought about it! I mean, er—oh, here it is!"

Scorpius thrusts a clear vial of potion up in the air, but he keeps his face aligned on the chest as if my hair were full of snakes. I take it from him. Despite lack of contact, the vial's stickiness has already spread to my other hand.

"Al used to get dosed a lot," he says, finally able to subdue his babbling. "I brew a batch every few months. Me or Rose usually save him before he embarrasses himself."

I pinch the bridge of my nose. Circe, this is a chronic problem.

Scorpius, misinterpreting my expression, musters up a smile. "Don't you worry, Al will be fighting against it now that he's got you. Love potions don't work well on the already-in-love."

"How incredibly reassuring."

After Scorpius jams his boots on, we head to Hogsmeade. Originally, I was supposed to meet Albus on the main road. We were to saunter down to Puddifoot's, cooing like doves, and once inside, snag a seat in the back where we make fun of other couples. If we had time to spare, we'd check off a few saccharine relationship milestones to make the singles seethe and swoon.

Instead, Albus is walking into that overstuffed tea shop hand-in-hand with Stroppy Hyphen Colon, and I'm sloshing through puddles with his charity case of a best mate.

"Sometimes I think maybe I'd have been better off if I just came out like I wanted to," Scorpius muses, face sunk into a gloved hand as he falls behind me. "Rose said I didn't think it through—not that I blame her! She offered to date me, after all, when people got suspicious about me and Al. Gave me some time to think about it. I don't like feeling rushed."

He pauses. I've learned to nod at these points. Any other day and I'd have my notepad out, but I am scraping the bottom of my Slytherin zeal. All I want is my goddamn boyfriend and a hot strawberry butterbomb. I've got jacket over jumper over two shirts, damp socks, and a cold head. The only joy I've found so far is from other students traversing the iced-over pavement; those without the sense to cast Sticking Charms on their shoes have been destined for sore bums.

"Dad would probably be okay with me if he had another son to continue the bloodline." Scorpius sighs. "I probably made things worse in the long run. I tried telling Rose, but... well, you know Rose. Thought she was doing what's best for me. I guess that's why I let those rumors about me and Dom keep going. My way of rebellion. Oh gosh, I'm sorry, Clemence. It was all my fault the whole feud went on for so long."

"Huh?" I heard most of that, I swear. "Um, well, what's done is done. Forgiven and forgotten." With Madam Puddifoot's only a few buildings down, I turn an abrupt ninety degrees into the alleyway between Scrivenshaft's and the grocer.

"That means a lot—"

"Keep up, Blondie."

He whimpers. He'll learn to like the rush.

Our destination is the kitchen entrance, accessible via a back road. Our plan is, well, a crapshoot. It's cobbled together from ideas I got from a mystery serial and Scorpius' hazy recollection of Puddifoot's layout, and it amounts to dumping the antidote in Albus' teapot.

Scorpius' first guess is correct: Puddifoot's loo is an outbuilding, which means the back door is open to let customers through. We crunch through the garden, staying close to the wall. Here at the edge of the village, quiet sans the undertones of High Street, our only witnesses are the grazing elk the mayor rented for the holidays and have yet to return.

I peek through the gap. The place is radioactively pink, packed chair-to-chair with overdressed students. Frilly-aproned House elves hoist biscuit platters, cakes, and hot kettles between the kitchen and the main room. Near the front, Albus and Appy sit with their arms entwined around each other as if the short distance across the table is killing them. Or they've turned into squids. They rub noses, googly-eyed, while Quirkers pressed against the window outside sigh dreamily. Ugh.

Scorpius is leaning over me for a peek. "Oh nooooo."

"Don't wail. You sound like a... whale." I take the vial and my wand from my pocket. Peeking in again, I look toward the kitchen. Teapots line the far countertop under their respective order stub, each one porcelain white and identical. Glad to see life throwing me a bone.

I can dump the antidote in the next kettle and hope it won't dilute too much. It'll at least have a chance of making it into Albus' teapot. I also laced a few chocolates as backup and Scorpius left a cauldron bubbling in his room if we need even more, because this is the sort of plan that never fails to fail.

"Keep a look out," I say, opening the door wide enough to stick my arm in. "Wingardium Leviosa."

The antidote flies out of my hand and wobbles its way to the closest bus cart. With a sharp flick of my wand, I transfigure the stoppered vial into a teacup, camouflaging it amongst the dirty dishes.

"Gosh, that's really clever," Scorpius murmurs.

"I said keep a look out."

I hear him scampering away. With my luck, he's probably looking in the wrong direction.

I wait for a house elf to pick up a tray and leave (Scorpius lets out a stifled squeal behind me; he got distracted by the holiday elk). Carefully, I float the teacup the rest of the way into the kitchen. The extra weight of the handle makes it harder to keep level compared to the vial, and my hand begins to cramp trying to keep it steady.

A high-pitched voice filters through giggly conversations. "Al, honey-pie, look!"

Some potion nearly splashes onto an elf's head. I bite my tongue to keep focus. Albus swipes a slip of paper from Appy, and even while concentrated on the levitating, I can see his wide grin at the corner of my eye, so goddamned happy.

"No, they're names I like, silly. Just in case..." Appy titters.

Unmerciful Merlin, she's naming their future children.

The teacup manages a safe landing by the cooker just as I lose feeling below my wrist. I shake out my hand, cursing through gritted teeth. Albus is not helping himself. Extending my wand through the door again, I flick open the kettle's lid and pour the antidote in. There, done.

A chair scrapes. Someone in the main room stands up. I pull my arm out and shut the door quickly—too quickly. It slams.

"Blondie, abort!" I hiss, leaping over the herb patches.

Scorpius is stretching over the fence between the back road and the pastures, trying to feed a leaf to an elk that is more interested in his scarf. Hearing me, he moves to run, but the elk doesn't let go and he flails in place.

A shadow passes over the door's curtained window and the knob turns. I've almost reached the corner of the cottage when the hinges squeak—

"Clemence?"

I know that voice. I turn my head. "Dom!"

I clamp a hand over my mouth as soon as I shout. Good thing I'm not an Auror; I'd be dead three times over by now. Raising a finger to my lips, I motion for Dom to move away from the doorway and I tiptoe back into Puddifoot's garden.

"It is you. I thought I saw you." Dom gives me a once over. I'm a mess, and I'm pretty sure I'm standing in a compost heap. "What are you doing?"

"Albus is, um, under love potion." I eye her; she's dressed for... a date? Can't tell with her recent obsession with lace, but I see a pretty crochet skirt under her jacket and her makeup is rather classic for once.

"Oh, thank God. I thought he was being a jealous idiot."

I frown. "Why would you think—?" First Pickett, and now her. "How am I the only one giving Albus the benefit of the doubt?"

"I can think of a few reasons, but you wouldn't like them."

The back of my neck prickles. "I am not invested in him."

"Invested isn't the word I'd use." Dom grins. "Is that Scorpius? Scorpius!"

Scorpius, stumbling dizzily on the path, has just managed to free himself from the elk though is in possession of one less scarf. "Hey, Dom."

"Did you invite Henry?" she asks.

"Crap, I forgot."

"Well, fetch him, please. I already got a table." Her and Pickett?

Cowed, and perhaps relieved that he has an excuse to leave, Scorpius bounds away despite my protesting.

"Oi, hold it. Oi!" He's gone. I glare at Dom. "He was keeping watch for me! What's going on?"

The side of her mouth quirks. She glances over her shoulder, to the sliver gap of the doorway where Puddifoot's bustles on. "Ahem, I figured Henry and I ought to talk..."

"Now?" I try to look past her to see if any trays have moved onto Albus' table, but I can't see beyond Dom's hair; I swear, her curls prove gravity is biased. Appy must be sorting her children's Hogwarts houses by now, bantering cutely with Albus over whether their first daughter will be more Slytherin or Gryffindor.

"He hasn't responded to my owls." Dom's expression melts the tiniest bit. "You saw him this morning, right? He's okay?"

Remembering how we left each other, my mouth runs a little dry. "Yeah."

"Too okay?"

"...yeah." I shift on my feet, boots squeaking in the mud. "Do you... I dunno, Dom. Do you really not love him? He thinks you're wonderful. That you're the most beautiful girl he's ever seen."

She gives a scoff. "He's imagining half of that. Doesn't ever remember our fighting."

"You'll grow out of it—"

"We won't." Dom scoffs again. "I hate that I have to be the villain, but I'm saying no for the better, I swear. I don't blame you if you don't understand though. Henry's your best mate." Before I can object, she shushes me. "He is. It's okay. I want you to take his side. He needs someone and I'm... fine." I wonder how much she really believes that.

I don't know how much I want to believe it.

"I just need him to understand. You know what it's like—Al does it, too." She shakes her head. "They think they have it hard, the boys. Believing there must be better people hiding under our skins, and by God, it's up to them to uncover us. They put us on pedestals and they get angry when we don't sit still."

I can't help but smile wryly. "You have to admit it's cute."

"Isn't it, at first?"

We share a commiserating sigh. Not much more than a week ago, Dom and I weren't speaking and I was beginning to think that our friendship over the years was a fluke. But there is a lonely side of ourselves that can only find company in each other and we circle back around no matter how far we drift, as predictable as migration.

Inside Puddifoots, there's a crash, followed by tinkling glass. Our heads turn sharply. The teapot.

Dom mimes opening the door and I nod. When she peers inside, I sneak a look over under her arm.

A house elf holding an empty tray grumbles over a circle of broken porcelain. With a wave of her hand, the elf reassembles the pieces into a pot and hurries into the kitchen for a fresh brew, leaving behind a dark splotch of tea in the woodwork.

"Fuck," I breathe. That could have been the one meant for Albus' table.

The second shatter comes in the form of Appy's voice: "Clemence? What are you doing here?"

Fuck.

I didn't think she could see me. Appy rises from her chair. The chatter of the other couples have reduced to a murmur.

"Are you trying to sabotage my date?"

I push the door wide open. Dom moves aside. I consider my first words carefully: fanciful excuse or cutting insult?

I'm exhausted. Let's get to the point: "Yes, I am."

Appy enters a stuttering state of shock as I march into the cottage on this brash admission. Unlike when her Quirkers surrounded her—though many are outside ready to bear arms—she has no overpowering advantage. Here in the tea shop, we must remain civil.

No one minds us yet. The house elves continue serving, wholly uninterested in the affairs of pubescent humans. The Madam herself—no doubt the veteran of messy Valentine kerfluffles—is in the kitchen and equally uninterested as long as said pubescents maintain the day's record-breaking sales.

Albus has been slow to react. Appy's double-poufed skirt blocks my view of him but I see his feet shuffle. He tips back on his chair and cranes his head around her.

"Clemence."

The knot in my throat trembles. There is no veil of love potion in the way he says my name. It's how he says it when he finds me outside of the newsroom or Great Hall, half-breathless like he's been searching for me through seven floors of castle and thinks that I don't know. As if it's a coincidence that I run into him so often.

Yet there's love potion in his veins—there must be. Why else would he, in his next breath, stand and put his arm around Appy's waist?

"You drugged him," I say, sashaying up to Appy and pointedly ignoring Albus. "I'm here to cure him."

Appy makes a 'hmph' sound and rolls her eyes. The clink of silverware has paused and even the murmuring has largely quieted.

"Maybe you didn't drug him." I take an antidote-laced chocolate from my jacket pocket and hold it up. Appy's eyes narrow. She likes chocolates; she won't like them used against her. "If you didn't, nothing should change if he takes the antidote. So let him take it and prove I'm the crazy bitch. I'll gladly let you have him then."

I want to see her sweat, but Appy stares hard at the candy as if considering it. She ought to be pleading on her knees by now; I've checkmated her. Albus merely furrows his brow, murmuring close to Appy's ear with a chuckle, "Drugged? Only on you."

Why does it feel like I am the crazy bitch?

Appy threads her arms around Albus, shaking her head. "Honey, we don't have to prove anything. You, on the other hand—" She sticks her freckled nose up at me. "I knew you were bad, Clemence, but I gave you chances and I can't give you any more. You're a two-timer, first stealing Al from me then cheating on Al with Henry. And now you want him back."

"Oh for Circe's sake—"

"Leave, now, or I'll have you kicked out. Madam Puddifack!"

I have never full-on tackled a person to the ground. I've pushed and shoved, but I mind my strength. At this moment, however, an entire morning's worth of desperation launches me at Appy, separating her from Albus and throwing her to the floor. Albus staggers into the table behind him.

It's a small loss if I get banned from this tea shop. I am not forfeiting for a delusional fairytale.

One hand holding Appy down, I thrust the bag of chocolates at Albus, who shirks. "Potter, take—!"

Appy's palm mashes into my jaw. I drop the bag. My foot snags a tablecloth, bringing down the plates and vase with it.

Chairs scrape back. Quirkers stampede in. Someone steps on my hair, pulling at my roots.

"Heavens!" I hear Madam Puddifoot exclaim.

I also hear Scorpius' voice. "Oh nooooo, we're too late. Stop, everyone!"

I flip Appy over and pin her down, my elbow on her collarbone. She's got fingernails digging into my neck and she bites the back of my hand. I growl, dark mats of hair obscuring my vision. Scorpius, with Pickett, is waving his arms fruitlessly by the entrance.

"Stop! Stop!"

Food soars overhead. The red confetti is beginning to look like a bloodbath.

Taking a deep breath—God knows what just went through his head in this boiling kettle of a shop—Scorpius yells in a booming voice, steamrolling every sound in its path, "I'm gay!"

And because it wouldn't be dramatic enough otherwise, he seizes Pickett and kisses him.

It's a last-ditch distraction tactic—that works. Whoever was tearing off my sleeve lets it go, and even Appy turns her head. One last piece of silverware drops to the floor, and then the room is silent except for Madam Puddifoot's fretting and the suction of Scorpius' lips.

Which goes on. And on. Pickett is wide-eyed and paralyzed, loosely dangling in Scorpius' grip, his eyebrows making all sorts of shapes. At last, with a great smacking sound, Scorpius pulls away, leaving Pickett's lips red and swollen.

Hogwarts is accustomed to interruptions-by-kiss. The hostile climate favors theatrics to get anything done; hell, I've contributed, too. But it can't be any old kiss between any two people. If the warty bloke in the corner and his date started snogging, I'd just be a bit disgusted and carry on with the brawl. It needs to be personal. When I kissed Albus, new factions rose up just to make it personal.

A girl stands up on her chair, fist ready to pump in the air. "Team—"

"NO." Pickett, without moving his gaze, points an emphatic finger in her direction. "NO 'TEAM.'"

Very slowly, she crawls back down.

Former Team Rose and Team Dom members seem less shocked than I expect; they'll likely argue for bisexuality. Scorpius straightens his anorak, cheeks flushed as his eyes dart around at his peers. If there is a fairytale miracle today, what follows is it.

"What do you all think you're doing?" The trembling of his voice, like thread, is deceptively resilient.

For the first time, I take notice of the large number of Team Greens who have risen from their seats to wrestle with the Quirkers. Albus did say he arranged a lot of dates; I wonder what they thought when he came in with Appy. Near the back, Dom is wielding a broomstick and looks rather disappointed that she hasn't threatened anyone with it yet.

"This is crazy." Scorpius shakes his head. "You're tearing each other apart over who Al should be with.... why? What gives you all the right to decide for him? If you truly care about him, you'd just want him to be happy, even if—" He licks his lips; for this part, he doesn't look anyone in the eye. "Even if it breaks your heart."

Sheepish glances are shared all around. Dom lowers her broom.

"Love is hard enough without people shouting in your ear, telling you that you're wrong. That you should be ashamed of what you feel because it's wrong. I know, personally. Let Al choose who he loves. And then let him be."

In the beat after he finishes his speech, a collective shame roots deep into the bones of the room. I'm proud of him. Pickett attempts to start a slow clap.

At the corner of my eye, Albus is crawling out from underneath a table and toward the back door. Seriously? This is my perfect chance. Everyone is distracted... but I'd hate to steal Blondie's thunder.

Who am I kidding?

I wrench away from Appy and dig out my wand. "Locomotor Mortis!"

The curse zips to Albus and locks his legs together. Appy screams, catching my ankle as I dive for him, but I kick her off.

Heads turn. Battle cries erupt.

"Team—"

"—Appy!"

"—Clemence!"

"—Hen—"


"NO."

I'd apologize to Scorpius if I had the breath for it. Albus tries to shake me off but I hold fast; at this point, he is equally terrified of me and Appy.

Throwing my weight forward, I slam him down and grab a chocolate off the floor. "Eat it!"

My hair is yanked back. "Just because your new boyfriend is gay," Appy screeches, twisting my head back and forth, "does not mean you get take-backsies!"

I spit in her face—mostly accidentally. It had to go somewhere. Straddling Albus, I push the chocolate toward his mouth. The cherry filling smears across his cheek. "Hurry!"

He won't unclench his teeth. "It'll ruin my appetite!"

"She'll ruin your life!"

Pinching his jaw open, I cram the chocolate in before Appy and her Quirkers pull me off of him and get a Leg-Locker Curse on me too.

"Potter, who do you love?" I call out.

Albus gags but he's swallowed the antidote. "Appy—I love—"

"Snap out of it!" House elves join in hauling me backwards through the broken glass and confetti. I grab onto a table leg. The table gets dragged along with me. "Who do you love?"

"Apostrophe—"

"You bloody idiot, who do you love?"

When he falls back on the floor, I lose sight of him under mountains of torn cloth and toppled chairs. Appy rushes over but Dom blocks her way. My shoulder bangs into the umbrella stand which means they've nearly got me out of the door. Scorpius said the antidote was fast-acting—why hasn't it worked yet?

Because, says a voice in back of my head, Appy knows nothing about love potion.

Albus isn't dumb enough to fall for it.

You didn't even see it in his eyes.

The better question is: how much would it hurt if he wasn't drugged and he really did betray you? Your amount of denial today has been impressive, from Pickett to Scorpius to Dom; they all raised red flags. Would it hurt so much that you'd actually rather hope?

I latch onto the doorjamb. My fingers scrape across the wallpaper. "Albus Potter!"

There must be someone else who wants me ruined. Albus must have been careless. Now he's fighting the potion like Scorpius had said.

Because it is love potion.

My last finger slips from the jamb. "Albus!"

It has to be.

There is a hoarse gasp. Albus shoots upward, like waking from a nightmare.

"Clemence!"

He bellows just like how Scorpius had—with a room-silencing confession. Appy, having just gotten past Dom, freezes while reaching for him, color draining from her face. Those clutching me release their grips. Half-hanging out of the cottage, I'm too spent to even breathe in relief, let alone run.

Appy's lip quavers. "Al, honey?"

"I... love... Clemence," he pants. The antidote took a toll on him. His arms skid across the floor as he tries to hold himself up.

Wobbly from the Leg-Locker Curse, he lumbers to his feet and ignores Dom's attempt to help him. "Sorry about—" Turning slightly toward Madam Puddifoot, he gestures around the room. A barely-hanging cherub plummets onto a fern. "Send the bill to my dad. Please don't mention this to the Prophet." As if remembering the twenty other witnesses, he adds, "That goes for everyone."

He limps from table to overturned table toward the exit, toward me. A girl moves to grab him but Appy stops her. Another girl in green whoops but no one joins in. The war is over but the promised glory never quite materializes. In its wake, we're left with cut lips, pastries smashed in our fists, and a waning hysteria that we no longer know how to justify.

Debris falls from my lap as I stand, wincing. The adrenaline has subsided and my body reminds me of the broken glass that cut through my tights. I take Albus' arm around my shoulders to support him and our fingers lace. Neither he nor I look directly at the other; the day has been mortifying for just about everyone involved. We shuffle outside.

The sound of clean-up stirs behind us when we are far enough to feel alone. Fat raindrops dot the pavement. As it begins to pour, the streets empty and pub doors shut. The sky doesn't think it's dramatic enough, apparently.

One of us ought to say something. Clarify how we got here, all the way from the start. Someone is at fault for our relationship and thus, at fault for this Valentine's Day. Was it me, snooping for a story with my pride on my sleeve? Or Albus, for planting that story intentionally and igniting anarchy? Frankly, I'm biased but I'm open to debate. It's a long, wet walk back to the castle.

"I drank the love potion."

I stop abruptly. Albus slips and stumbles onto his side.

Rain drips off the tip of my nose as I stare down. I didn't think I heard him correctly but he doesn't try to get up, as if he knows he deserved that. "What."

"I could smell the potion in my coffee and I drank it anyway. It was stupid." With a groan, he maneuvers into a sitting position on the sole raised spot of the path, his legs sprawled in a puddle. Slick black petals of hair hide his eyes. "I was jealous from last night and then I saw the photos and I just—I don't know. I'm sorry."

Good thing he didn't get up because I would've just pushed him down again. "You willingly—"

"Sorry."

"Sorry? Sorry?" I kick water at him. Here I thought Appy had a mysterious mastermind on her side when Pickett was right: Albus was just a dumb, jealous boy. "You fucking idiot. Do you know what I went through today because of that?"

He coughs and wipes the grime from his brow. "Yeah, and I'm sorry."

I laugh, outright bark. "Oh please, I don't even know. People thought I was crazy. I was crazy! I tackled Appy! I could have given up at so many points—and I should have. This was all your fault. All the way from the beginning. You only got a little taste of what I've had to go through." My shoulders are heaving. "I tackled Appy! Multiple times!"

He pushes his hair back, as if those glittering eyes are going to help him now. He's grinning.

"What?"

Albus doesn't answer immediately and instead rolls his tongue along the inside of his cheek, taking his sweet time as our clothes get soaked. "You fought for me."

I scoff. "Oh ho ho, don't try. It wasn't for you."

"You yelled my name."

"I was vindicating myself. And you didn't deserve Appy; no one does. She's too quirky for this world. I was doing the right thing—which I do sometimes, even without your high-horsed Gryffindor meddling. You got lucky is all." I lick the rain from my lips and cross my arms, pressing in the damp. "Besides, I hate you, so there."

"Then leave."

He hasn't stopped grinning and that alone makes me want to. But I don't leave even as I shiver, drenched, because this day has made me crazy. My shoulders are still heaving, I can't feel the tips of my fingers anymore, and the long speeches are making me light-headed.

"I hate you."

"Mmhmm." Albus clambers to his feet, head cocked and eyes lidded.

"I'll have you know that I'd still pick Pickett over you—and oh, he'd pick me over Dom."

"That's nice—can I kiss you yet?"

I figure out why I hate that grin so much. It's the one he wears when he's already made a decision, but he wants to watch me run out of things to say.

Rain trickles down his mussed hair, lips waiting. I'm still thinking of something to say—I should at least use as much effort in that as I did for him today—but there is the added difficulty of blocking out his breathing and the fingers that have crept onto my waist.

The lifting muscles at the corner of my mouth are the first to betray me. "Since when do you ever ask first?"

He laughs, arms sliding behind my back, and in the drumming of the strengthening storm, he kisses me.




A/N *grovels* Sorry for taking so long. I am feeling a little light-headed and crazy too after finally finishing this chapter. I said it would be surprisingly fluffy, have at least two kisses (no one guessed Scorpius and Pickett), elk, and you could ship just about anyone afterwards. I think I upheld all of those pretty well. I didn't think I'd tie up so many threads and drop so many bombshells, but here they are! I've also got a mix that goes along with this chapter, which I'll be posting on ze tumblr soon.

Much much ♥ to GubraithianFire for holding my hand the whole way and writing bits of the scene with Dom because I was that desperate (and has an EEEEVIL!albus/OC up which y'all should read), and Julia/peppersweet for basically reading this fic over a month, paragraph by paragraph and listening to me wail over how I accidentally introduced a sort-of love triangle.

Chapter 22: A Kingdom For My Name
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For the first few hours, it is very nearly bliss.

When Albus and I escape Hogsmeade, our clothes soaked past decency and mouths hot, we have the castle practically to ourselves, or it just seems that way. We stagger down the hall, laughing and gasping, hands under shirts, momentum spinning us into the Prefect's bathroom where we first let our carnal side win. For once, fortune favors the wicked. There is no one in the bath, no screaming mob on our tail, no scheme to argue out—just us, drunk on each other.

"Can't we ever do it somewhere normal? Cushioned?" I say, as we shed our jackets by the tub. Hot, frothy bathwater overflows onto the pearl tile, and I turn off the tap by stumbling onto it.

"If you're free after dinner..." Albus' lips travels down my neck and collarbone into the V of my blouse, where his fingers are unbuttoning as fast as he can kiss. I push his shirt off his shoulders—nearly tear it off as he pulls down my skirt and tights and his lips press below my stomach.

We don't make it to the water.

Down on the tile, our bodies crash and tangle. My fist is in his hair. His mouth is on my chin. This is where he likes me best: underneath him on a bed of his clothes and wrapped in his scent.

I remind him, when he is poised above me with a half-lidded passion, "You don't deserve me."

Albus seems distracted, marveling over my nakedness as if it is art, from my wet hair spilled above me to where the tips of my breasts graze his chest. His discarded shirt is spread out behind me like wings; under his moonstruck gaze, I might pass for an angel.

"I know," he says and kisses me hard.

If the first time was enlightenment, the second is greed. The wrinkles of his shirt dig into my back as his hips roll into mine, and I gasp when it hurts but not nearly enough to stop. Fingers bite into thighs. I move against him faster, faster, A growl tears from his throat. Rain and sweat slick the floor. The lake was good but we've learned something about savagery since.

We don't give in until skin and cloth are worn through, every muscle clenches, and my name resounds against the walls like last words—Clemence, god, Clemence.

Adrenaline beats from my skin. Albus nuzzles my neck, my name still in his breath. Somewhere, a faucet drips, but for the moment, we are alone from the littlest intrusions. Whatever lives we hold outside this room don't exist; there is no past to mar us, no future to doubt. Here, with only each other to want, we kiss and kiss until it could fill a language. Here, we make sense.

The candles floating overhead flicker as a ghostly baroness sweeps through the room, tittering behind her fan. Her laugh is almost anachronistic like it'd belong better in Appy's mouth; the thought makes me shudder. She disappears into the adjacent wall and the draft cools my skin to Albus' touch.

"Just a ghost," Albus says, running his thumb along my brow.

But the spell has broken, and the slow tick of seconds speed to meet reality. I'm naked and grimy, with a besotted boy in my lap and a maelstrom in our wake.

Hail rattles the window with a tak-tak-tak. I imagine the castle filling with students taking shelter, relaying their theories about the worst Valentine's in recent history: Potter's gone missing with that cheating Clemence. Appy's bawling like Myrtle somewhere—or she's missing, too. Murder, maybe. Secret threesome, another suggests. The girls are living together, aren't they? And what about Scorpius Malfoy, spotted sneaking out to the lake with Potter not long ago?

One is never alone in Hogwarts.

"We should get cleaned up," I mumble into Albus' lips. I shift out from underneath him, despite his weight protesting against me.

Albus steals one last dizzying kiss before he relents, slow and yearning as if the image of his goddess hasn't quite faded. Sober of alcohol and aphrodisiacs, a third delirium is drawn to the forefront and the words are all but said.

He bites back a laugh as if to apologize. "Clemence..." My name floods his breath; he drowns in it. I've seen enough to know how he fixates. I am just one in a long line of addictions, from firewhiskey to fixing the unfixable.

He goes to the edge of the bath and slides in without saying more. He doesn't trust me with those other words—not aloud where I can reply. But how much can I say after today? Screaming and clawing with jealousy, all to save him. I was insane. In love.

This is love. This is it.

This... is it?

A ghost's laugh echoes. I slip into the water, into Albus' arms. His heart hums against me like a siren's song, but my own coils deeper into my chest as if it's already done all it can.


::



Once upon a time, there was an evil witch who bespelled Hogwarts. She was no ordinary evil witch. She was... quirky. She made people adore her, made them quirky like her. She raised a quirky army and then a whole quirky kingdom, all in pursuit of the prince.

But when she showed him her handiwork, he was not at all enchanted.

The witch flew into a rage. She dosed his drink, steaming in the winter morning—a warning to those who spurned her—and by noon, she held his quirky-loving heart in her hands.

All seemed lost until true love stepped in...


Well, that's one way to tell the story.

Or, once upon a time, there was an evil witch who had Hogwarts dancing at the stroke of her quill, universally hated from Tuesdays to Sundays and a beloved savior come distribution Mondays. She was respected, feared, unapproachable. She would have liked to stay that way.

Instead she got saddled with a happily-ever-after.

"Clemence has got a good heart," is the first thing I hear through the breakfast babble Monday morning.

At the Gryffindor table, ex-Team Green captain Sandra is preaching to a flock of rosy-cheeked minions, each of them clutching a copy of the new Witchy Business as if it were dogma. "She fought for Al, even when we doubted her. She fought for us," she says. "When new generations of students pass through our doors, you'll tell them how Clemence Fitzgerald-future-Potter saved Britain."

From Appy, she means. There's speculation that my defeated rival put in a transfer to Beauxbatons for her seventh year, but I only know that she hasn't left her room all weekend. Dom says she's been stinking up her corner with a dark aura—"I mean literal black tendrils. You turned Miss Glitter into a cosmic horror."

Sandra fans a set of photos to a chorus of oohs. "You can see the change in Clemence. Al's melting those icy walls—with a little physical therapy I hear."

She manages her wink before my crumpled copy of Witchy Business hits her. When she sees me, she waves with the same hand that slapped me less than forty-eight hours ago.

"She's a little defensive about it," Sandra whispers loudly.

I'd tear through that rabble if I didn't need Sandra's photos from last week for evidence. The person who drugged Albus' drink is likely the same girl who's been slandering me on the walls, and Sandra's the only one who's stalked me as much as my stalker. I'd suspect her if she didn't have the subtlety of a howler.

Beyond Sandra's huddled group, the four long tables of the Great Hall are a minefield of glittering eyes. Tongues flick and draw into mouths with a pop, my name brazen on their lips as I pass down the aisle.

"Clemence can't be so bad—"

"—totally not a virgin—"

"—missed her advice column—"


Dead is the wicked witch and all her proud villainy. Long live Potter's girlfriend.

I sit across from Dom, who is shielding her food as the owl post flies in. Janey, bless her efficient Ravenclaw soul, is dead asleep next to her. Between Valentine's Day and Dom and Pickett's falling out, no one had time to write and I'd have scrapped this edition entirely if Janey hadn't woken me up at midnight with three articles on the newsroom table. The topics are vanilla—an editorial, an interview with N.E.W. S.P.E.W., bare-minimum Valentine's updates—but at least we're circulating.

Letters and parcels volley onto the table. The flurry of feathers is gone as fast as it arrives. Only Barry the Breaking News Barn Owl remains, flapping lopsidedly toward me, overflowing postbag in tow.

"Circe give me strength," I utter.

"Give Barry strength." Dom filters through the post dropped into the fruit bowl and plucks her Mama's weekly letter from the crook of a banana. "Did you see Sandra?"

"Yeah, with the Church of Clemence." I untie the cord from Barry's feet. He droops over the sack, regretful of his career choice. Two girls come up to ask me to sign their toast; I ignore them.

"Church, pshaw. Call it what it is—a cult. Have they built you a statue yet?"

"No idolatry, pagan."

"You're a witch, bitch." Bright blue nails tap against her cheek. Queen Dom's retired from queendom, and she's bored.

I sling the envelopes aside one by one. Witch Weekly. Miss Magic. Salem Star Gazette. Press inquiries for Potter's girlfriend. I'd be fool to think I could avoid them, even with Albus assuring me that he owled his father and large sums of money transferred hands.

Today's Celeb Coven headline blares 'HOGWARTS ON WHOREMONES' above a photo of Puddifoot's in ruins. There's also gems such as 'Potterwatch: our predictions for Al's blossoming romance' and 'Star-crossed lovers or Scarlet Letters?' Bonus column, completely dry of wordplay: 'Malfoy denies rumors about son's sexuality.'

People are queuing to quip about the gossip reporter getting a taste of her own medicine but the scandalizing doesn't faze me; it's part of fame's growing pains. I take more issue with being "the lucky girl who stole Al Potter's heart and maybe more" (Miss Magic, page 16). Because the coy implications of his virginity are infinitely more interesting than my overthrowing a brainwashing tyrant and saving Potter from his own stupidity.

Janey's sleeping figure slumps over and she jolts awake. She mumbles something cluttered with drool, but I make out her last words. "How's... the paper?"

"Entirely too obsessed with my love life," I drawl. "I may be the niece of the famous Rita Skeeter, but please, a little privacy."

"Er... our paper."

"Oh. Well." I found a mess of them underfoot walking into the hall. This issue has our best writing yet thanks to Janey's meticulous research, so obviously it was ill-received. Elsewhere, someone chews with her mouth open: "Even the Prophet's covering her relationship, and we get some tosh about centaurs instead. She's isn't even trying to cover real news—"

"Personally, I liked it," I cut in.

Janey withers. "That terrible, huh?"

I feel bad, I really do. Gave her that whole speech on persevering should Witchy Business end, which she clearly took to heart, and all she gets is sleep deprivation. "It's not your fault people are allergic to substance," I say. "God knows, eighty percent of this school is willfully illiterate. Dom once had to show a third year how to read a book."

Dom nods. "Fourth year. He was stuck on the table of contents and had it upside down. Thought it was Cyrillic."

"But... but if you don't like it either, we can change." Janey licks her lips, suddenly alert. The creases on her face mark her like warpaint. "We're popular. You're popular. We can be better than the Prophet—"

"Yes, we can change," I say. "But we aren't the problem."

Hope clings to the girl's furrowed brows—a far crueler disease than naivety. It endeared me to her when she first asked to write for the paper. She was a wisp of a girl; eighty percent tea, small-voiced, but had eyes like Rowena, thirsting for truth. I knew Witchy Business wouldn't suit her, but a desperate reporter was a rarity I couldn't give up.

Her friend ducks in to grab her for class and Janey gathers her books. The pile of letters weighs heavy on my lap. I say, as she rises, "You're going to be a wonderful newswoman. Just toss in some horoscopes next time."

"I guess." The last syllable drags into a sigh. She joins a throng of Ravenclaws.

Dom chews on a straw, watching Janey until she's gone. "I think you inspired her. This is a dark path for you."

"Shut up. This whole thing is pissing me off, too." I shuffle through the rest of the letters. One seal catches my eye, a gleaming R.S. impaled with a quill.

"Oh my god." An epiphany snakes across Dom's face as her eyes flit between me and the hall's exit. She jabs a blue-tipped finger in my direction. "I think you actually—do you agree with Janey? Do you want to be better than the Prophet?"

"What?"

"Don't what me. You're tired of this, this 'whole thing.'" Dom becomes a jumble of waving arms. Her hand spirals around as if this 'whole thing' were a drunk bird. "Scandals and idiots, the circus of it all. It's no fun anymore—oh my god." Her jaw drops, mouth forming a perfect circle. "You're too good for it now. Literally, too good. You're cleaning up your act."

I lay a hand on the table between us and lean in. "Dom. I'm not judging and I want you to be safe. So I'm asking as a friend, and be honest with me—are you high?"

"Fuck you. It's so obvious. Humoring your groupies... the fairy-tale romance... you've become a role model. Practically Pollyanna."

"Call me that again and I will carve up your broom and dump the splinters in your shampoo." I stand, taking only the R.S. sealed letter from the pile.

"Your threats were the best. Such wasted talent."

"Are you coming to D.A.D.A. or not?"

Dom spins around on her seat. "Nah, I'm skiving. Harriet and I are gonna beat the Gryffie boys in Shuntbunts. A month of pitch privileges on the line." She kicks her broom into her hand and high-fives Harriet as she walks by. "Hex Rose for me, Polly. If you don't feel too prim."

"Broomstick. Woodchips," I seethe.

With Dom gone, I leave the Great Hall without a second glance. Any admirers mustering the courage to approach me are left with their fingers in the air and their questions stuttered. In my jacket pocket, the letter crumples in my grip.

The last time I saw this seal, Aunt Rita was posting back the guardian signature for Hogsmeade trips a year late. She's 'too in-demand' for frivolous correspondence, outside of advertising for her latest book.

I break open the letter. It reads:

Clementine,
It has been ages, hasn't it? I heard you caused QUITE the stir at school this weekend. I had no idea you were so close to Harry's son. You must invite Albus home for Easter, take him around Cheltenham—excellent photo ops. Wear something nice. My newest book also comes out the Wednesday after—

I hurl the letter into a sconce.

Clementine. Ten fucking years raising me, and my aunt calls me Clementine.

Maybe if I were Appy, I would have gotten the saccharine fairy tale, the kind with overstuffed dresses and talking animals. Instead, I've landed in the kind that teaches a lesson and where wishes are never the way you want them.

I want fame. I'm fame's girlfriend.

Stalking past the D.A.D.A. classroom, I keep on walking. Albus, waiting by the door and sipping that firewhiskey coffee he calls breakfast, cuts his chat with Scorpius short and tails me.

"Hey, are you okay?"

"When we started this arrangement, we agreed," I say, teeth grit at him, "that you're my boyfriend but that I'm not your girlfriend."

My words prick ears, and Albus cups his body toward me, a shroud against the turning heads. "If this is about the papers, I did what I could."

"Puddifoot's," I scoff. "That story was always going to break. Too many eyes, too many mouths. You can't hide that short of handing out blank cheques and Unbreakables to every witness. No, Aunt Rita doesn't even know my name, isn't that funny." I choke on a laugh; oh, if I could cry. "But she knows your name. She didn't send post when my pets died at home, but a whiff of you and it's a next day owl."

Albus fidgets. He wants to apologize, but it's not his fault. "I thought you didn't care for her."

I pull away from him. "I care enough to pretend that I care. She can't even return that much."

"Hey—"

I need to be alone, I don't say as I duck into the traffic of students. I don't want comfort; I want my old life back. Neither Albus nor I have a language for this—apologies and sympathies and everything earnest. We endured the war. It's peacetime that'll kill us.

The corridors empty as the clock tower tolls. In the dungeons, I slip past the tapestry into the newsroom, my last stalwart. Here is my heart cracked open: an embrace of stone, windowless and grey, deaf to the world. Any truth can be rewritten inside.

The two printing presses, dull of Protean charms, tower in the shadows. Copies of today's issue litter the floor. In place of our relationship column is the headline: ILL BEHOOVED: HOGSMEADE BUILDS STABLES ON SACRED CENTAUR SITE. Centaur council calls it "an insult upon insult." A bit sensationalist, just enough to grab attention. Better than the rubbish in the Prophet.

Dom's right. I'm tired.

I hear the tapestry flutter and his footsteps near, because of course Albus would follow me; when hasn't he?

He presses a kiss to my shoulder and doesn't utter a word, finally wise enough to refuse me artillery. Are you sure you deserve better than this? he doesn't say. Gossip queen raging over gossip. The hypocrisy escapes no one.

His face is cool against my neck, and he smells of the earth from the greenhouse. His kisses travel upwards, until they are buried in my hair. He loves me like he's afraid to lose me, and he's more afraid of losing me than he hates me.

A prince in my hand, a kingdom usurped.

I have everything I never wanted.




A/N: I DISAPPEARED, I'M TERRIBLE, THIS IS ONLY HALF THE UPDATE. SORRY IT IS SHORT AND ANGSTY. IF YOU ARE STILL READING, BLESS YOUR HEART.

So over the last year I've tapped at the keyboard with a giant frowny face as this chapter did not want to come to fruition. Pretty busy--finished school, first full-time job, moved twice. Still totally no excuse so I've brought complimentary pitchforks and torches (please, only take one). The responses to the last chapter probably terrified me because I thought to myself, "Everyone's so happy with that chapter hahahaha they are going to wish it ended there."

A BIG THANKS to Julia and Gubby for dealing with me for A YEAR and for inspiring various lines and headlines; Roisin for doing a SUPER beta job; Diya for sending timely threats and encouragement; AND EVERYONE WHO STUCK AROUND AND BOTHERED ME. ♥

Chapter 23: Trust Whom You Love, or Is It the Other Way Around?
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. 23 .


Headmaster Slughorn's voice crackles feebly over the Amplifier. "The recent Hogsmeade trip has incurred quite a bit of… destruction."

Eyes turn from the lectern to the end of the Gryffindor table, where Albus stifles a groan and I give the finger behind my coat so everyone except the staff can see.

No one has the courage to look near Appy, who showed up for dinner dressed in mourning black and her blonde hair dyed to match. A dark aura radiates around her, hissing and snapping at anyone too close—some sort of privacy perfume. Breaths are bated for our first interaction, but she's been mute all evening.

"I understand young love can be volatile," Slughorn continues, "but do refrain from forming—what's the term nowadays?" Parchment rustles. "Ah. Armies."

I've never been responsible for a public service announcement. Dom will call it a mark of honor; the Potter-Weasleys have a long history with criminal damage. I'll share this achievement with Albus like I'll share everything from now on.

Lounging in the cradle of his arm, I can't decide if I like how casually he holds me now that we aren't pretending. I'm trying to like it. It won't get better unless I try, right?

"Should any student find themselves besotted, there are appropriate channels for affection…"

As Slughorn drones on about 'responsible romance,' Albus leans close to my ear and whispers, "If you're still exiling yourself from your dorm, you can stay with me tonight."

I hold back a snort. "You're so obvious."

"Not for sex—not just for sex. You know I live with four other guys."

"Silencio is a thing."

"Well, if you insist." His smirk is hot on my ear. "Come on, you don't actually want to keep sleeping in a chair."

As much as I've improved my padding charms, the wooden chairs in the newsroom make a poor bed. "Maybe I do. Think of the Conservatives."

Slughorn has gone through two of the six feet of parchment in his hands, and the snores in the hall are drowning him out. "In spite of the ruckus, I admire the spirit. We will certainly look into more democratic options for the future—"

An owl snatches his notes. It flies out an open window behind Slughorn, trailing the parchment up and over his face. The guilty Gryffindors beside me barely contain their laughter, until Sinistra plucks a student from the group by the collar.

The rest hush, but the disruption is irreparable. Snickers overtake as Slughorn yells out the window. Professor Vector's rolling her eyes as she makes her way to the stand.

She leans into the Amplifier. "Ahem-hem. What Professor Slughorn has been meaning to say for the last ten minutes is… love is the most powerful magic in the world. Don't be an imbecile with it."

With that, she dismisses us with a sharp flap of her hands. Six feet of speech in two sentences; Hogwarts will go into shock with efficiency when Slughorn retires.

As students filter out of the Great Hall, Albus delays me by holding onto my coat. "You haven't looked well for ages. Come up soon," he says, slipping me his invisibility cloak. "Lights go out early. Quidditch lot are all whingers."

"So, loud and angry sex. Got it."

"Sadist." He pulls me in for a languid kiss that prompts wolf whistles.

"Masochist." I pluck myself from him, smoothing my shirt of his grip's wrinkles, and go find Dom. The walk of shame nips at my heels.

The whole school can giggle over Potter and I shagging for all I care—at least the girls here sling names because they hate me and nothing more—but I think of the gossip in the wilds of Britain ready to undermine me as some cheap minx to turn a profit. Sex sells, they'll say with a shrug, yet they'll cry out in shock when the sixteen-year-old girl wants it and, for all their hand-wringing, find no issue with labelling the child a slut.

Or even better: Potter's slut.

I complain to Dom as we walk to our dorm, and she shakes her fist for me at all the right moments. "They're not fit to be owlery lining. How can schoolgirls compete against the Prophet? Scream to the point of hysteria just to be heard and dismissed." She huffs, curls frazzled, and turns to me, hand flat on the arched door to room. "Staying at Al's?"

"I guess." Grabbing my wand, I brace myself for whatever Appy has waiting for me.

Dom raises a brow but asks nothing and pushes the door open.

The room is aglow and much like the mess I remember. Unmade beds all around, books kicked aside, outfits abandoned from the morning. Then the door swings back fully and the lurch of my stomach nearly makes me drop my wand.

When Appy holed herself up in her room, people thought I killed her, and in a way, I had. Every last thing on her side of the room—the walls, the bed, the rug, the wardrobe, even her silky Persian cat—is painted over with a deep, inky black.

"Honestly," Dom says, catching my stare, "it's kinda stylish."

Her bed curtains flutter at me beckoning for a dementor's kiss and I recoil into Dom, who shoots me another funny look. Appy isn't here at least. Only the Nott twins are back from dinner, submerged in Helen's fluffy quilts, tossing jelly beans in each other's mouths.

I pack quickly.

I grab a towel, pyjamas, a toothbrush, a fistful of clothes from my wardrobe and shove it all into a duffel. Albus' cloak is tucked under my arm. The Nott twins' lewd conversation colors the background: "How big is Al's—oi—" Helen bats away the stuffed Quaffle thrown at her "—chamber in Gringotts? 'cause I heard he's—it's huge. Filthy rich, the Potters. Filthy."

The black slinks at the corner of my eyes, never leaving my sight. Dom thought my self-exile was an overreaction, or at the very least not worth bringing clothes and toiletries to the newsroom daily, but I don't know who this New Appy is.

I learned fourth year while exposing Gloria Botts' pixie dust smuggling ring to not underestimate people who have lost everything. Jelly bean heiress shoved a wand to my throat, threatened to murder me and clean the crime scene so thoroughly that she could perform open heart surgery there.

Appy seems halfway down the path to being a Dark Lord.

I sling the duffel over my shoulder, yank the invisibility cloak over me, and receive a chorus of distracted "goodnights" as I leave. The halls will be quiet; few sneak out on a weekday and there will be the barest of prefect rounds tonight.

Outside the common room, the only figures left scuttle in the shadows. I wander toward the dim glow of the dungeon loos and stop to check the stack of Witchy Business issues, now three-quarters depleted.

But a quick glance over the rubbish bin makes me grimace—crumpled copies to the brim. Well, no one can say we didn't try responsible reporting.

As I turn back, a stall door unlatches and opens. I look up at the mirror and my breath hitches.

I hadn't seen Appy up close until now. Watching her at dinner, our room's redecoration, Dom's complaints of her—I thought I'd know what to expect when I'd see her. If she could see me under the cloak, it'd be her hands around my throat. Penance for shattering a girl who was cracked before I stole her dream boy twice.

The Appy in front of me is, honestly, pretty stylish. Buttoned from neck to knees in a black dress and laced from knees to feet in black combat boots, she is a gothic doll ready to strike. Polka dot ruffles and glitter nail polish maintain her trademarks. Black makeup outlines her porcelain-pale face. Color theory wasn't her strong point, and she's fixed that by giving up color entirely.

It's her expression that catches me off guard—her lack of one. She washes her hands two sinks down, and there is no grim reaper smile nor streaming mascara. Not even a sniffle. Appy, who flies off the handle at the mere mention of a boy's name, looks bored.

The cloak stifles my laughter, and I realize the rolling feeling in my gut is disappointment. Don't I get a little satisfaction? One short moment of suffering from her? I'd rather Appy be a madwoman after me, so crazy that even she can't deny it, if it meant she'd finally admit it.

I laugh until my body shakes and my breath draws short. She'll never change. She'll never know to.

I can't stand it.

I could never, can't ever, stand it.

"Appy."

Her name in my voice echoes from the walls. Appy stills.

I sway, cloak pulled off and crumpled in my hand.

Wind up the doll and she'll talk. "Let's cut the crap," I say. "You hate me and I hate you."

A last gurgle of water disappears into the drain.

"I don't hate you," she says. The color has gone from her voice, too.

"Drop the good girl act. You're batshit and everyone knows. Why are you sad? You tore girls down and demonized anyone who had the slightest interest in Al—do you not see that? No one's got sympathy for you."

Turbulence mars her doe eyes, ready to weep a storm. "I don't hate you. Albus was unfaithful, and you showed me his true colors. I'm thankful."

I want to laugh again but no sound comes out.

"I know what you think." She pulls her dark-painted lip taut under her teeth. "I told everyone he was perfect, but oh Clemence, he was. Charming, humble, everything good you can think of… a real prince." Swooning into herself, a flutter of her past self resurfaces before she steadies a hand on the sink basin. "He couldn't take his eyes off of me. Can you blame me for going overboard?"

"Entirely."

"Do you know how much it broke me, Clemence, when he saw you in Puddifoots? When I watched his love for me just… disappear? You see me now." She gestures over her black attire, flicks at her black hair, but there is something else different as she turns toward the candlelight's glow. Something aware, like the lift of a beast's eye. "But I know deep in my heart, I can't give my love to someone doesn't know my worth."

"The strong victim angle. Color me surprised."

"You were unfaithful, too. You said you weren't hiding anything from me and you lied."

"You want me dead—of course I lied!"

Appy's skirt swishes against my robe as the violence of our words propels her forward, and for a second I think we both might raise our fists, but I don't want to see her bloody; I want her humiliated, and she wants the same for me.

"I won't deny that I've considered mild poisons," she says, the madwoman showing her face at last, shaking her head as if she made the most innocent confession. "I don't take pinky promises lightly. You broke my heart that day."

"I? Broke your heart?"

"I loved you." She reaches forward and takes my free hand. No twisting of my wrist or vice grip, just her hands enclosing mine in prayer. "Like my own blood."

The longer I stare at her, the less sense she makes, but I can't look away. It's like staring down a boggart: curiosity is the nightmare. What's worse than not knowing whether there's a greater fear lurking behind the ones you know about, so terrifying you can't even bear to think of it?

Third year defense, I could never cast the charm to repel one, but I never looked away, only straight at my aunt as she laughed at me. Better than having her stab my back.

Appy is real, however. "You're fucking crazy," I say.

Wrenching my hand back as she dares to stand distraught, I pull on the invisibility cloak uncaring that she can see and take off into the hallway. The shimmering fabric sticks to my mouth and it's hard to breathe and my duffel strap is biting into my shoulder, but I can make it to the stairs. I'll drag myself to Gryffindor tower if I have to. As far away as possible.

I don't hear her follow. The castle is nothing but torches and ghosts. As I cling to the banister, a spine-chilling wail cuts through the dark—Moaning Myrtle upstairs in the first floor loo.

The cry breaks, leaving only the sound of a distant, hitching sob.


::



I spend every night of the rest of the week in the Gryffindor boys' dorm. Except for Scorpius, I don't trust Albus' roommates to keep mum about what goes on and what they overhear, but the papers are already worse than the truth. The Silencio holds up well, so they don't hear anything anyway after the lights go out and the curtains draw shut.

Albus likes to sleep curled around me, lips behind my ear where I can hear him sigh as his hands slip into crevices. They rest there until morning, when my wriggling wakes him, and we fool around until we nearly miss breakfast.

It's good in these moments, when the world is as big as the canopy draped above us.

Sunday morning, his owl brings his post the window, including the Prophet. The Potter spotlight corner finally gets my name right: Clemence Fitzgerald, 16, of Cheltenham. Social climbing tart.

"If they reported any less news, the Sunday Prophet could headline with its crossword," I mutter.

Albus, propped up on a pillow next to me, takes the paper and tosses it through the curtain flap. "You get used to the attention. You learn to hide."

"I don't hide." He's wanted anonymity his entire life; he doesn't know the value of a name. I slither out from the blankets. "There's an article on your mum, too."

"Marriage on the rocks. I swear they print that every other day." He tugs my tee—his tee, a Holyhead Harpies one I borrowed—off my shoulder and kisses the bare skin as if it were a treat he's unwrapped. "James has been telling me… um." He frowns for a blink when he meets my eyes, then clears his throat. "He did say Mum's been restless lately. It's not new. She gave up a lot to raise us, so… sometimes I think she regrets it."

"Hold on, the Prophet's telling the truth?"

"No—not the article—no." He clenches a fist in his hair, scrubbing his fingers around like he's searching it. "James just told me things. I was thinking about it."

Albus kisses my cheek too hastily to seal the conversation, and my instincts jerk awake; he got too comfortable and let a secret slip.

Or something like that. A small, albeit personal disclosure. Something I could easily take advantage of.

I frown; that's not right either.

His duvets are warm and dust dances in the light above us. He reaches for his mug on his bedside table and takes a sip like nothing happened. Because nothing had.

He didn't let anything slip. He wanted to tell me.

He… trusts me.

Oh god, I want to throw up.

"Clemence?"

I gag, pounding my chest. "I'm literally allergic to feelings. I knew it."

The crease in his brow gives way to a snicker. Because it's funny. It's a joke.

Hilariously distressful.

If you boil my courtship with Albus down to the essentials—our banter, close encounters, kissing as a show of power—our attraction was very simple: we both thought we were one step ahead and we had to prove the other wrong. I was attracted to him because I didn't trust him.

Now he lies next to me so casually naked in more ways than one, while I am clinging to the duvets nauseous.

I still don't trust him.

Albus tugs me by the hem of my knickers and rolls me on top of him. The whole ordeal has left me winded, and I don't resist. "You should come over for Easter. I promised I'd bring my girlfriend, remember?"

Trust and commitment? "You're trying to kill me."

"My family's hatred of reporters is boundless, but I'll try to get you through the weekend in one piece. Did you have other plans?"

"I, ugh." I can't lie using my family; Albus got enough hints of that dysfunction. Dom and Pickett are probably the closest family I have. "I dunno if I'm ready, all right?" Half-truths are best.

"Think about it." He kisses me here between my fanned hair, the smallest space we share, oblivious to my turmoil.

I pretend to be too tired to answer any more and roll back to the side of my bed. The quilts rustle as he slips under the covers behind me. I can barely hear him breathe, as if he's holding it in, and after a few minutes, he turns away.


::



Scorpius careens through the newsroom tapestry during our evening of edits, his patent oxfords skittering across the floor and stubbing to a halt at my table. My quill goes awry. Ink sloshes from its pot.

"Oi, careful with Ol' Bessie." Pickett, who pushed him in, ambles through the tapestry like a vaudeville villain. He wipes Ol' Bessie the table with a handkerchief, then brings it up to mop the sweat at his brow. He grins at my scowl, and if gravity had a face, his would be its expression as a breeze sets a boulder rolling off a cliff.

"Scorpius," Pickett declares, with a wide sweep of his arm, "wants to write for us."

I stare at him. I stare at the boy next to him shying away hurriedly.

Behind the printing presses, a stool clatters as Janey springs from her desk a few seconds too late to sound polite. "That's great!"

I drop my feet from Ol' Bessie, plucking my wand from my pocket, and walk up to the boys. "Muffliato." A faint buzz fills the surrounding air, clogging up the ears of anyone who tries to listen to our little circle.

I shove Scorpius out of the circle.

"We are not taking in strays," I hiss.

Holding up a finger to the six-foot-two puppy, Pickett mouths to him, 'One moment.' "He wants a voice. He can write."

"I get that his life is sad—tragicomedy, even—but he doesn't belong here. He literally can't fit in here. Did you see him nearly smash his head coming in?"

"Mostly my fault." Pickett's been turning away from the others and only I can see the furrow to his brow. He whispers under his breath, though the muffling charm still holds, "Love, look, we need staff, whether you like it or not. Who's going to write for Witchy Business next year?"

"What are you talking about?"

"Dom's never here anymore. This year's my last. You and Janey are gonna burn yourselves out keeping this up. Haven't you felt it?"

I'm barely in the newsroom lately, but I haven't been able to rest let alone sleep and the bags under my eyes stretch with the debt. It's too stuffy in Albus' room and Appy is always around the corner…

Pickett studies my face too closely, and I bristle. Sea-green eyes—I haven't let myself forget them—flicker upon a thought. "Unless you've… moved on from the paper?"

"Why do you—?" I huddle closer into the quiet center of the charm, clenching my teeth against all our nearness. Circe knows there isn't anything else between us but declare we like each other one bloody time—and it's semantics, not romantic—and the elephant's been stomping its fat feet around the room ever since. "Why do you all think this? Dom said this, too."

"Dom's… usually right." A smile. "Remember when you wanted bigger things?"

"Haven't you heard? I am the big thing."

Tight-lipped, he won't let the comment pass, and I sigh.

"Fine."

I let Scorpius stay.

"Write about your feelings or something," I tell Scorpius, after explaining the ins and outs. "They ate that up last time, a column on your love rectangles could last for at least a month."

"I can write real stuff, too." In the hot seat across from me, hands folded in his lap, the towering boy of small presence pushes for his terms softly. He isn't so graceless when given time to speak. In a life surrounded by those more than willing to talk for him, perhaps it's been his benefit to smile and nod and be no more than a pretty face.

So I flash a grin for the Gryffindor hidden in him. "Prove it."

Janey shows him around the newsroom afterwards, gushing about the antique presses and its fully-stocked type. Her revived animation is worth the trouble Blondie will bring. Pickett's right about Dom skipping out on us for weeks, but I'd been worried about our Janey myself, after last issue. We all want bigger things.

Witchy Business wasn't anyone's end goal. I remember standing in this room at fourteen in braids and full uniform, wanting to taste the glory too easily attained in this school. I hated the world. I loved to hate it. I tell people the best version of myself—that I write because people listen and I can't help what they want—but when you don't believe in anything, there's only so much you can do that doesn't kill you.

Witchy Business was nothing to me, but I was nothing without it.

Around the newsroom, feet shuffle a little slower and the smiles are a little blander, as if everyone has been replaced with actors who don't quite remember their part. We've changed, but our lives haven't changed with us and it's only a matter of time before the room will empty completely. I'll move onto bigger things, too. Be Albus's social climbing tart of a girlfriend or whoever people think I am.

They won't be wrong.

I will be seen and heard and known. My name will come first soon enough. It will mean nothing, like everything before it, and I will be nothing without it.


::



"Easter?"

Propped up on his elbows above me, Albus dangles the question like a prize between his teeth. I've never seen him happier than in the past week, and it's all my fault. Everything he wants is in his arms; he's whispered as much. The tamed villainess has learned her lesson and he's right in the end—there is a heart in her.

I know from how he tolerates Rose and Dom he doesn't care that I don't love him as much as he loves me, as long as I stay. He might call it hope as if it were the brave choice, but is it bravery if loss isn't acceptable?

Even in shadow, Albus' eyes twinkle green. Outside the cocoon of these sheets, I would have reached out and extinguished them. He doesn't deserve jewels that shine like that and he doesn't deserve me, but he's the best chance I've got now that tabloids are done writing mad libs about me and they want the real story.

Easter with his family will not go unnoticed, and Potter's girlfriend will be bold, poised, and highly quotable.

So I say, "Okay."


::



The banner is a deep velvety black with a hint of shimmer where it catches the sunlight. Hung between elective classrooms on the third floor, it is not in the most visible part of school but in the most flattering, allowed to stretch as wide as it can without being blocked by statues or portraits.

Its large curly script announces: Girls for Girls Inaugural Tea Party. Underneath, in smaller but no less shinier text: March 2 at 4pm, Ballroom A. All welcome. Be there and be square!

Quirky Girls Anonymous took a nosedive after Valentine's Day. Rebranding for girl power is the smartest route Appy could have taken. Her followers, though loyal, are self-conscious, and underdog pluck sours fast without a win.

The club would have died regardless on its current mission statement; New Appy doesn't believe in fairy tales.

"I still think she's running a pyramid scheme," says Dom, cross-armed next to me. "She promised romance if they helped her with romance. Takes half a brain to see they can't all get their true love if they're calling dibs on the same bloke. Maybe she's recruiting girls to sell her her godawful book."

"Is that still a thing?" I hoped that her manuscript had met a fireplace since I read it.

"She's been editing it aloud every night. The ending's changed to Ella on holiday with gal pals after catching Chase cheating or something. Can't imagine where she got that from."

We add our sighs to the hallway breeze. Murmurs blow in from stairwells and classrooms, some innocuous, others sly. Without petty squabbles to fuel, they sweep through the castle cracks to never be heard again, and Hogwarts is eerily silent for the first time in a long while.

Dom turns to me. "Worried at all?"

Appy'll survive. She's Slytherin, but—"She's still a joke."

We head downstairs to the newsroom. Dom hopes to find Pickett and have their talk at last after avoiding each other for weeks, though it feels outdated after he and Scorpius took the school's crown for star non-couple. Team Henry became the great unifier Hogwarts didn't know it needed, as former Team Rose, Team Dom, my greens, and Appy's yellows have combined their colors to form a team that is officially, unironically rainbow.

I haven't seen Pickett bat an eye over Dom since, but as soon as we enter the newsroom, he stiffens. Scorpius stands next to him. Can't miss him, him being a towering blonde lighthouse.

"Oh. Are we interrupting?"

Clean-shaven, today would be one of the odd days when Pickett passes for boyish, but Dom's presence draws out scar lines of their past arguments, cutting through any enduring humor. "Dom, if you're here to stir up shit—"

"I'm here to apologize, oaf." Dom is compulsively braiding the entire length of hair in her hand. She thinks she's playing it cool, but nothing makes her more uncomfortable than a bared heart bleeding all over her and their curt exchange has set the whole room bristling. "We left in a pretty bad state, so if you still need space…"

"I'm fine. I'm over it, actually." No sarcasm, no quip.

The civility is... bittersweet.

Did you really love Dom? I want to ask. He never trusted her. How could that be love?

Dom bats her eyes twice; she would like it if the heart bled a little. Trying to keep it light against all conflicting tides, a grin crowds her face. "That was quick. You found someone new, didn't you?"

As I edge into the room, dropping my book bag next to the table, my stare twitches toward Pickett. Dom means Scorpius, obviously, but for half a second, I think she means me, as if her waggling brows know about that stupid imaginary elephant in the room.

Imaginary, if in that half-second, Pickett wasn't staring right back at me.

He glances away, a new crease in his mouth.

Oblivious Dom is waving her fingers between the two boys. "I can sort of see what those girls were saying. You two would be cute. More likely than Rose at least. And of course, Rose and I will back off. We'll find something new to fight over."

Scorpius chokes a little. I gape.

"Kidding. Heavens." She rolls her eyes, and a more demure expression returns. "I'm sorry, though. God, that sounds so trite, but I mean it. Sorry for the messes. You ended up mopping them."

I scrap my chair back. "Please remember what happened the last time you made assumptions about someone's sexuality." Head down, I take out my books and flip through the pages of Modern Magical History, not looking at Pickett who is not looking at me.

"Scorpius?" As Dom says his name, the boy cringes. "Excuse you, we became a hit. And I wasn't wrong."

"You got lucky."

"Tch."

It is as good of an apology as one gets from Dom. She sticks a hand out to Pickett and he takes it grudgingly, as if it were just easier for everyone in the vicinity if he did. He even smiles, but he couldn't have entertained loving her if he weren't so forgiving in the first place.

Work resumes. Pickett has been helping Scorpius with the edits Janey dropped off. Blondie isn't terrible—very nearly an asset, even. I saw him interviewing in the Slytherin common room earlier this week. Rainbow-jumpered girls sprawled on the sofas around him, lamenting their families like he had.

"Mamma wants to arrange my marriage. She tells me, 'Cecilia, I'll let you choose, so long as he's pure five generations back,' and I'm like, 'Mamma, you couldn't be more offensive if you tried. If you have to whisper it, you know you're being rude and awful, and do stop treating my love life as a retirement fund.' When she finds out about me and Minnie, it'll make a wicked scandal, I can't wait…"

Dom showers his article draft with compliments, spliced with euphemisms about retiring from Witchy Business. At some point she outright says that maybe it's best Scorpius joined up since she's been so terrifically busy—whatever that means—and I assure her that yes, the world will spin without her. It's always had to.

I swallow the single knot in my throat and segue into something less sentimental. "I turned down that interview with Miss Magic, by the way."

"What? If you're gonna—" Dom leans in, back to the boys, a lecturer's finger on the table. "If you're gonna make the most of your fifteen minutes, you're gonna have to start talking back. They'll keep calling you a slut until then. Miss Magic isn't so bad."

"They edit for shock value."

"Who doesn't?"

"I already chose who gets my interview."

She quirks a brow.

"Us. Duh."

I could take my chance on one of the big magazines and have them snip me into whatever palatable narrative most likely to sell… or I could tell the story of Potter's girlfriend in Witchy Business. Skip the self-wiping charm we usually apply, make extra copies, and distribute it to interested parties. If they want me, they'll have to quote me verbatim with attribution, and Britain will know my name and my paper as they should have from the start.

Dom throws her head back and cackles. "Oh, that's good." She's somewhat aware of my premeditation for Easter in the coming month as well, and though she doesn't openly approve, neither has she bat those eyes of hers at my taking advantage. Takes the romance out of it, but blame the paparazzi.

I mean, I do like Albus. I lack enthusiasm about it, but it's been only a month since we stopped trying to ruin each other. Baby steps.

Dom finally goes to study, or whatever, and Scorpius tags along. Parchment shuffles behind me and Pickett slides into the swivel seat an elbow length's away, quill out, and it takes as long as the tapestry fluttering closed behind Scorpius for the newsroom to shrink to the space of our table.

It's not a big deal. Or it wouldn't be, if Pickett and I talked about our state of our friendship—and it won't be, once we do. Put off a conversation long enough and the anxiety will churn up enough placebo feelings to drive a nun mad.

Pickett's quill scritches next to me and the sound could tickle. He's doing it on purpose. He won't speak up first and I won't embarrass myself, but it is all I hear, all I feel—

My head jerks toward him. It tumbles out: "You looked!"

He's a beat slower: "You looked!"

We only needed an excuse. We're out of our seats, glares accusing, and when I catch sight of sea-green, I take a breath sharp enough to pierce my lungs. Fuckity fuck, you're fucking kidding me.

"I was looking to see if you were looking, obviously," I practically seethe. I flap my hand between us. "So what is this—?"

"If it were that easy to answer, we wouldn't be whisper-yelling in here!" He throws his arms out to the room. Our gesticulation could conduct a full orchestra.

We used to outright manhandle each other, but it feels illicit just to jut my chin at him, close enough to kiss if I were curious. I'd laugh at the thought of kissing him; my curiosity is another story.

I pace away from him. "This is ridiculous—why are we—there's nothing. Nothing. There's nothing between us. Circe."

"Well, it's not nothing."

"Don't tell me you actually like me." The word squeezes out of me.

He rolls his eyes. "No, I grab breakfast with you everyday to watch you chew with your mouth open."

"You know what I mean."

"No, I don't kn—"

"Are you really over Dom?"

"Yes—no—what does it matter?"

"Scorpius? I know there's something between you two—"

His palms slam the table like an objection from the Wizengamot. Even with the distance between us, too much remains visible in the shape of our bodies—he's hunched like a shell and I'm halfway to running, adrenaline before thought, and I think of the word he used to sing at me.

Denial!

"You're my best mate, not a toad." Running his fingers through his hair like he's goddamn anguishing, Pickett slouches back on his stool. "You make it sound like I might be in love with Appy or something. You're doing it again, by the way—that thing where you shame people for caring about you, which is one of the few things I agree with your lover boy on, as much as I dislike him."

"What?"

He doesn't bother with a roundabout. He pinches his fingers at me. "He's just a little bit of an arse if you haven't noticed. But he doesn't have to be my type, as long as you're happy with him. You are happy with him?"

Still stuck on his mention of Albus, I'm tempted to repeat myself. Pickett only ever teased me about him, never spoke a bad word until now.

Hardly said a thing after Albus and I became official.

"I'm—" I blank on the question. Theatrics stripped away, I can't do this—intimacy—with Pickett. I'm not supposed to need to. He's supposed to stop prying, laugh, and call it a day, like how we've always been. Like how Appy's supposed to hate me. Like how Albus shouldn't trust me.

"You are… happy?" The question comes gentler this time, and it might kill me to look at him.

There's the boggart.

I suck in a breath. "I'm never happy. You know that."

I think I'm being clever. I'm the only one who does. The room teeters to another distressing silence, but it buys me a little time.

"It wasn't going to be a fairy tale. You know that." I can feel the ground beneath my feet again. Turning on my heel, I face Pickett with a sneer meant for someone else. "Why shouldn't I shame Albus? Frankly, I can't think of anything more foolish than falling in love with me. I move on. I move on and I start over. It's all I do. I'll find someone else like him, all enigmatic for me to figure out, and I'll move on from him too. Even if I care for him, he's disposable."

Pickett stares back at me steadily, and I swear his next words mean to egg me on. "I suppose everyone in your life is disposable?"

He's not supposed to do this. It shows—a blink that lasts too long, the peek of a tongue between his lips. He's pushing all his chips in, nothing and everything to lose, and my pulse hammers fast and strange like drums of a revolution calling for a coup.

No no no, it beats, both an answer and a plead. Though there is a heart in me, I am not built for one and I think it will kill me if I don't kill it.

I turn away when I answer. "Yes."

The stool clatters as he rises. He walks past without pause.

I shut my eyes, letting the sound of his footsteps grow further away. I hear them long after they exit to the hall, fainter and fainter, until it's just a phantom echo mocking me. It's the stupidest thing I can do—hold onto the hope, until it is dead quiet, that he might turn back.

When it is finally quiet, I rub my eyes with the flat of my hand and shudder as it comes away wet.

He's not supposed to leave.




A/N: I split the chapter again x_x THIS IS STILL NOT OVER. It better only be another chapter and an epilogue, because I already said this twice, cough. Very very sorry for people who were hoping for the full thing, but there are a lot of emotions to come and it's probably best that I didn't stuff it all into one chapter. Lots of fun development though! I am veeeery interested in thoughts c:

I promised a spiral of doom, and that spiral will still come. And an epilogue! There is much of the next chapter already written, not that that helped me get this chapter out any faster but. Erm.

THANK YOU to the many many people involved in getting me to slog through to this point. GubraithianFire gave me the line about Gloria Bott performing open heart surgery and Celestie inspired the chapter title as well.

Chapter 24: Appy Ever After
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Preliminary A/N: A quick suggested reading if you don't remember what's happened: everything from chapter 21 onwards is best read all together.





chapter image by me

. 24 .



"Are you okay?"

Scorpius peers around my head. I'd been quiet as we waited for girls to pack into the hedged courtyard below. It's finally time for Dom and Rose to move past their squabbles and be mature young women and, like any true coming-of-age, they're doing it with pomp and no less than a militia's worth of attendees.

A few glances from the crowd spot us watching from the first-floor Charms classroom, but we may as well be under an invisibility cloak—credit to Dom and Rose for captivating an audience, I suppose, but the newshound in me knows Blondie and I have been collecting dust on the scandal front.

I press closer to the open window. My unfinished tell-all crumples under my arms. "I'm never okay," I say.

Brows dipping, Scorpius does not retract his head. If he's seen Pickett at all in the last few days, he's probably the only one who knows about our fight. Dom still thinks Pickett's avoiding her at meal times, when she notices his absence at all.

A hush falls over the courtyard as Dom and Rose lift two flowers crowns from their cushions and bow. Arms interwoven, they place them on each other's head. Dom set out to make this whole thing as preposterous as possible, as if people wouldn't drink it up just the same. If they shaved themselves bald, by next week, Hogwarts would look like a monastery.

Beside me, Scorpius takes a deep breath. "Sooo… about your falling out with Henry…"

"Oh, I'll tell him I'm sorry and he'll forgive me. It's stupid how much an apology can do." I step back into the shadows of the classroom. A hidden string quartet in the bushes started playing and I heard weeping; it's too much even for me. "It's a performance—I mean besides this flower-crown-blood-oath bullshit. Like… morning greetings, promises to keep in touch. It doesn't matter if you're sorry; it's the polite thing to say and the polite thing to nod your head to. I just have to do it, so don't worry your pretty little head."

I swallow thickly. I am sorry, but I can't apologize for being who I am. I can't promise Pickett I won't hurt him the same way again.

"Oh. Okay, then." Scorpius takes another deep breath. "It's just—I saw him that day, and I don't think I've ever seen him that—that upset, I guess."

"You've never seen him angry with Dom." Flapping a hand at the ceremony, I change the topic. "Speaking of Dom, don't you feel used? How are you not angry? She and Rose clearly pushed the fake love triangle for their own gain, no matter what they told you."

He shrugs. "If it's getting them back on good terms, it's worth it."

Below, Dom and Rose prepare to embrace. They sell this as much as everything else, pulling each other in so they are chin to shoulder. The courtyard has remained silent—out of respect or some spell, I can't tell. I wouldn't be surprised by either.

People like us are why we can't have nice people like Blondie. "If they end up really forgiving each other, it's a happy accident. You can't let that justify—"

"It's funny," he blurts, "how much they talk about each other."

I stare at him.

"If they heard themselves—if they heard each other—really heard each other—they'd see how close they could be." He chuckles, wringing his hands. "The other day, Rose told me to tell Dom to stop buttoning her shirts so low because their Grandmum was on a conservative streak and could probably spot cleavage a hundred miles away."

Dom told me about her grandmum while swapping her blouse for a crop top. She didn't mention Rose.

"And you've probably seen how Dom covers for Rose."

"She hates doing that," I counter.

"She still does it. You know how they are."

No, I think, you know how they are.

Dom and Rose must be genuinely close to him or the love triangle charade would have fallen fast. I imagined him as merely the rope in their tug of war, but he nervously divulges these details between the two cousins like it is his secret.

As if all this time, he was the rope trying to pull them back together.

"You're their middleman," I say.

He shrugs again.

"After all you've been through, I'm surprised you're not more cynical about love than me."

Scorpius cracks a smile finally. A sad one but it's there.

"Good god, Blondie, I don't only spit fire. You can relax." I slap his shoulder. He stumbles. Poor top-heavy thing.

The ceremony draws to a close without a single punch or sausage roll thrown. Dom and Rose's apologies might be an act, but it's an act they'll have to maintain and we can only hope with time they'll fool themselves into liking each other in earnest.

"Well, that wasn't exciting at all, thank Circe." Turning from the window, I fold up the draft of my tell-all and slip it into my bag. "See you in the newsroom then."

"Er—Clemence—"

Looking back, Scorpius is all in shadow except for a bright halo of hair and I almost miss the wretched expression that flashes across his face.

"I… I don't want you to take this the wrong way. It's old news, but I can't in good conscience keep this from you. I…"

He gulps his next words. If he regrets speaking, he has resigned to finishing whatever he means to reveal, shutting his eyes and throwing his head back so he might not have to look at me while he does it. The dread of it strikes me dizzy and I think to brace myself too late.

"I know how to brew love potion antidote because I brewed it once just in case, a long time ago. I brewed the love potion, too."

My lips part in question. He'd been in love.

"It was just—I was just gonna use a drop—encouragement, you know?"

Desperately so.

"Like rounding up what was already there."

Someone close.

"Just a drop in his meal—"

"Albus."

The name knocks the wind out of him.

The way he stuck by Albus but stayed two feet behind, his speech at Puddifoots—how did I miss it? And—

"The rumors," I say. "The ones we started—"

"No—no—nothing happened!" Scorpius waves his hands, shakes his head, fervent to defend his best friend's honor. "I didn't give him the love potion. I couldn't. I still feel guilty thinking about it."

As if I were staring at him with anything but pity. "You loved him."

"I'm over it. It's never gonna be me, not in that way. I'm just happy if he's happy." He's babbling. "And he is, with you."

"You loved him."

"I'm over it."

But he still loves him, in a broken-hearted way. He came as close to brewing the potion. He might not wait, but if Albus ever felt the same, he wouldn't hesitate if only to undo the hurt since then.

"I'm sorry," I say.

Scorpius unbuttons his collar, red-faced but calming down. "For what?"

I can't think of a way to answer him with anything but another baffled, you love him—truly and madly, would-do-anything love him, while I'm dangling Albus' heart like a cat toy. Scorpius just wants Albus to be happy for god's sake, as if a boy's smile could balance the world out.

Maybe it does. Maybe it's supposed to be that way.

I wouldn't know.


::



Albus' fingers drift through my hair. Held above us is his Marauder's Map, stippled with footprints disclosing the movements of every person in the castle. This is how he found me all those times—how he can find anyone. It's a weapon in my hands, and he placed it in them anyway.

He brought me to his room just to show it to me, made it sound like a surprise but he can't hide desperation; his banter had gone unchallenged and I've been conceding to sleep earlier each night.

"Are you okay?" he asks.

I flip to the next section of the castle. "Why does everyone ask me that?"

"Clemence."

"I'm never okay."

His mouth is tight, but he doesn't say anything yet. I watch Filch's footprints tail a crowd of Hufflepuff boys through the fifth floor. They run past Appy, surrounded by the feet of her new following. Dom and Harriet's labels hover by the entrance hall. Pickett is nowhere to be seen; Speak Easy, I suppose, avoiding me even now.

Albus runs his thumb over two small bruises on my knees. "Tell me."

I fold the map closed. "I'm just tired."

He doesn't press, not at the risk of losing me. I push my textbooks off my pillow, curl up with my back to him, and shut my eyes.

I wait for the sigh, for his arm to slip around me anyway, but it doesn't come. He doesn't leave either. There is only the vacuum of his breath waiting like a siege, and I shut my eyes tighter to resist looking.

Distant as a dream, he murmurs, "You have to trust me."

A barbed laugh surges up my throat. I want to trust him.

This is the tragedy he fails to see: the girl who lies far away next to him isn't afraid of love but disappointed by it. No one would believe me—I hardly believed myself when I gave him the chance—

I want to be in love.

And I wasn't like that before him.

I can leave him right now faster than I'd done to Pickett. I don't need him; I don't need anyone. I’m more than enough, all by myself.

Still.

I heard the promises of love in stories of people gone mad—thousands of years of poetry and anecdotes that seem blessed by fate—and even I hoped, in the way I’d wish upon a lottery, that maybe they were true.

I believe in love as much as I believe in the scarcity of it. I believe amply in tolerance and habit and codependency and fondness. Fools bet their lives—and other lives—looking for love stories that tear kingdoms apart, when there might only be a dozen in all of history worth waging war over.

Ours isn’t one of them.

But for a moment in the chaos of a tea shop, when he awoke from love potion, called my name and silenced the world, I believed in that love—never mind that I shoved the cure that woke him down his throat.

It was just a moment, washed away in the rain minutes later, but the hope that lingered could ruin a person.

What am I doing now, if not punishing him for that?


::



My eyes snap open.

The room is dark except for a grid of moonlight blanketing the bed curtains. Albus shifts in the sheets beside me. He stayed, or he fell asleep too, waiting.

Rubbing my cheek of sticky drool, I turn around. On the other side of my pillow, teeth glittering and gothic doll dress torn to shreds, Appy grins.

"Hi."

I scream. She pinches my mouth, sealing it with a single finger.

"Shh. You'll wake him."

I don't stop screaming. Her fingers mash into my mouth. Albus is nowhere in sight. There is only ice-blue eyes and strawberry breath and curls—back to blonde—bouncing against my face as she straddles me.

"As I was saying, hi. You can stop hollering. Silence-charmed curtains, remember? For the sex?"

Struggling to stay conscious as her other hand grips around my throat, I claw at the bed sheet. This has to be a dream—

"Of course you're dreaming, silly. But it doesn't make your worst nightmare any less terrifying, does it?" Appy presses harder upon my throat—painless but suffocating just the same.

I don't believe her but I'm still breathing—or rather, I don't seem to need to breathe at all. If her knees weren't pinning down my arms, I'd slap myself awake. I'm more unsettled by how competent Dream Appy is.

"Don't worry, I'm only here to tell you that self-pity doesn't suit you. That whole little speech in your head—'I want to be in love'?" She rolls her eyes. "You don't love Albus or want to. I know love, and you just love being loved. Albus is a scapegoat. It was always me."

"You're fucking crazy," I gasp as she releases my mouth.

Her finger traces my bottom lip, tapping it thoughtfully. "Am I? I'm your thoughts, Clemence. I'm only as crazy as you are. Tell me, when you saw Albus and I together on Valentine's Day, what made you jealous? His arm around another girl's shoulder or the fact that that shoulder was mine?"

She pulls the memory out of the haze of that day: her blissfully ignorant blush, her utter joy as her quirky perseverance pays off. My stomach drops all over again when Albus turns around and looks straight through me.

"That was my favorite part, too: him dropping you like people dropped this week's issue of Witchy Business." She claps her hands together. "Ooh, double burn."

"I won in the end," I hiss.

Twisting my hips, I try to topple her over but Appy throws me back down. She rises like a shade and seems to melt into the liquid black behind her, bed canopy and curtains enveloping her like a dementor's shroud.

"So you won—what'd you win? Are you happy? Do you feel powerful? Is your life everything you dreamed of or am I it?" She dives in close, the tip of her nose brushing mine, and her cherry-pink smirk slices through my mind. "Tell me it's him you want, Clemence. Tell me you love him, and I'll go away."

She knows the answer already; she's only an image of Appy usurping my own thoughts.

"Tell me that if it had been anyone else who stole Albus away, you'd have fought for him like you had."

Anyone else but Appy and I'd have holed myself up in the newsroom, tossed cheap Valentine's candies at a picture of Potter until Pickett and Dom come drag me out to Hogsmeade, and we'd have raised hell there until the prefects came looking. And that would have been the last I thought of him.

But Appy isn't like other girls.

On Valentine's Day, when Albus could choose a winner between us, he chose to humiliate me. I'd have done anything to get him back, even love him for a jealous moment so I might fight for him because what motive is as potent or as easily excused as love? A war fought for love is stupid but romantic and honorable. The stuff of epics.

A war fought for territory, for the right to say he's mine—but more importantly, he isn't Appy's—is just petty.

"Tell me, Clemence."

The Appy of my dreams sinks onto me, her dress rags fluttering between my legs. When she parts her lips and inside is nothing but a howling darkness, I thrash to free myself, but everywhere I tangle with some part of her—ribbons, hair, fingers—and I open my throat to shout, I wouldn't have fought for him at all, but she is already near enough to steal my breath if not my soul. I can only gasp as her mouth closes over mine.

I scream, and this time, I hear him.

"Clemence, what's wrong? Are you—?"

The kiss breaks and our heads knock together. Terror drives my fists forward. Her hands become his, stopping mine.

"Hey—!"

The room is dark but not as dark as before. As the dream shears in half, Appy blinks down at me as mournful as I last left her.

"Clemence—"

With one last shove, I push Appy—Albus—off of me and press against the headboard like a caged beast.

"I'm fine!" I gasp, still kicking.

The bed is storm-swept. A bewildered Albus kneels at the center of a pile of blankets, wincing from one of my landed hits. He snaps with a fury to match the scene, "What's wrong with you? I'm just trying to help!"

My response chokes in my throat: What's wrong with me? This is who I fucking am. I was fine until you.

But that's a lie, isn't it?

I was never happy. I wasn't sad but that isn't the same.

I was ruthless, cruel little me, lover of my worst qualities. I hated everything, trusted in nothing, and in the absence of real purpose, it had been enough fulfilling this myth of myself. I wasn't happy but I was triumphant and that was almost the same.

As my vision steadies on the boy who loves me, whose anger is faltering in the face of my silence, I've never felt so alone. Just like I always wanted.

Albus reaches for my hand. "Clem—hey, I shouldn't have—"

"I can't do this anymore."

He's not as surprised by those words as he could be, but I only look at his face for a second—I don't even mean to—before grabbing my belongings from the side table and stumbling out of his bed and room.


::



He finds me.

He always does.

The castle blurs past as I leap down the flights of stairs that'll take me down to the newsroom. Faces gawk at every sharp turn and though there aren't many students out so close to curfew, even I'm beginning to wish for anonymity.

As my second foot lands on the ground floor, Albus catches my wrist. "Clemence, wait."

I spin around and meet his eyes, dimly green in the candlelight. His magical map's taken some romance out of our fated confrontations—if there was ever any romance in suspected stalking—although he doesn't seem to have it with him now.

"What's happened?"

"Oh please, I was never happy."

"Is it—"

"It's because I don't love you." I smile bitterly. "After all this time, I still resent you."

I may as well have slapped him. It's easy to hurt him when I expect him to hurt me but not so much when he would do anything for me. What good is caring, if it's only ever in these small heartaches?

"You haven't given me a chance. You're just running."

I pry his hand from my wrist. "What's so bad about that? You Gryffindors and your bravery shows. You think everyone gets a speech to rouse the crowd and get everyone back together? You think is the best thing you can do is endure? Well, the other name for that is torture." Shaking my head, I search his face of hairline cracks and chuckle at the one I decide to strike at. "Did you know about Scorpius?"

Albus flinches. Blondie wears his heart like a suit; there's no way in hell Albus didn't know.

"I wasn't sure." He lifts his eyes so much like Scorpius had.

"You led him on."

"It's not a secret that I don't like blokes."

"He didn't know. Not one hundred percent. And if you hurt him then, he wouldn't still be carrying that hurt now. Do you see what I mean, Potter?"

"That doesn't always work out for the better."

"Whatever lets you sleep."

A distant audience has begun to gather, and I turn and leave down the hall before we can get uglier. We'll make a wonderful headline tomorrow regardless, but I think I'd take their fabricated reasons for our break up over the truth.

I duck through the newsroom's tapestry door and take my wand from my jacket pocket to seal the entrance from intruders, when I hear her.

"Hi."

Appy—back to blonde—is sitting pretty in pink on Ol' Bessie.

I slap myself. She's still there, frowning now.

Somehow I trust this version of her less than the one I woke up from. "What are you doing here?" The grip on my wand tightens. The newsroom looks the same as I left it, down to the dust; hardly anyone comes in now.

She stands. "I wanted to talk after last time. She told me you'd be here."

"She—?" Images flash: the lipstick messages left on the mirrors. The photos of me and Pickett on the wall. It didn't matter who she was. There are so many feet pattering around me waiting to attack that another name would be a blip.

"Get out." Licking my lips, I pace around Appy, wand extended. "Get out of my head, get out of my life."

"Put the wand down," I hear Albus say behind me. "You're hysterical—"

"Don't—don't you dare—" I aim my wand at him, and whatever he's staring at must be a real marvel as his words turn to stutters. "Get out! Both of you, get out."

Appy has her hands up as she scurries over to his side. "Clemence, please," she says before quickly muttering to Albus, "I told you she's crazy." She considers grabbing his arm but shrinks from the withering stare Albus sends her.

"Oh, just take him." I sling a shock jinx at her feet just to see her jump. "It's true: I don't love him. I hated you. Which, by the way, is what your dear Albus exploited to get me to overthrow Q.G.A."

Her jaw drops. "You—you plotted—"

Albus' glare at her redoubles. "Please leave us."

"Take him with you, I insist." Magic crackles as I swing my wand in an arc—light tricks, but terrifying in a deranged hand—and Appy latches to him. "Believe me, Potter, I'd have left you to suffer your idiotic love potion if I hated her any less. I didn't want you, or love, or anything quite so precious, all right? I certainly didn't want the war you drove me into."

I lower my wand and sweep the hair from my eyes, as if it improves upon the mess who left Gryffindor tower, and I laugh. "But I wanted to win. And I don't even get that anymore." I spread my arms wide, spinning from the rickety tables to the printing presses, all that I have left. "I'm miserable. Is everyone happy now? I'm the villain. I lose. All is right with the world."

Albus just about pushes Appy through the tapestry and the last thing I hear is an indignant, "I didn't like you that much anyway."

He crosses the room, steps barely sounding against the stone, and I stop my spinning inches from his face.

"I was using you," I say, "for the fame."

"Are you trying to hurt me to make me go away?"

"If it works."

His fingers graze my cheek and we hover tense and breathless in our familiar dance, but the spell's been long broken. It was the mystery that drew me to him, but he's bared himself as a coward with a pretty face, a pretty name, and pretty trinkets. If he's more than that, I don't really care anymore.

I step back. "Come on, Potter. You're just sad now."

Albus stares at me unblinkingly and I wonder if I might never convince him. What I say doesn't matter if he doesn't think I'm being honest with myself. If he's right, I don't really care about that either.

He knows I'll hold out longer than he will, so he bites his lip and nods. "I'll go."

With no adornment, he walks away and… doesn't look back. The tapestry closes behind him and I let out a long breath.

Now I'm alone.

Dizzy, I pull the newsroom's single swivel chair out of a corner and slump in. I slip my wand back in my pocket.

The minutes stretch quietly toward an hour. Albus doesn't come back. Appy doesn't come back. No one else knows I'm here except, apparently, some shill who tipped off Appy.

I shut my eyes and laugh.

I've nowhere to go. Not my dorm, not Albus' dorm, and even the newsroom seems unwelcome from its neglect. Can it sense me drifting from it, too? After shaping the ground I stood on for years, I don't even belong in the empire I've built.

Lump in my throat, I twirl around on the swivel chair, fiddling with the quill sticking out from my bag.

There is one person.

I pull the quill out, along with a notepad.

Tearing a page, I scribble: I'm outside. Bring booze.


::



The common room is nearly deserted; it's later than I thought.

A single candle lights the gloomy alcove outside the seventh years boys' dorm. Crouching, I lay the folded note on the ground and tap it with my wand, whispering a spell that sends it under the doorjamb.

I cross my arms and wait.

And wait.

I drum my feet.

Pace.

If the spell sent it to the wrong person—

The door creaks open.

Pickett leans out, dressed in his sleep clothes and bottle in hand. He stares at me for a long moment and scoffs something under his breath.

The knot in my throat aches. Guilt aside, I missed him.

"I broke up with Albus," I say. "I need a drink."

"So?"

I polish the smile I've worn all day to a shine. "You love boozing."

"I'm also," he says and drags his next words like a dull blade, "a disposable fool."

My smile twitches. "Pickett, come on. You know I didn't mean you."

"Yeah, sure." He gives me the bottle and goes back inside the dorm.

"Where are you—"

"Take the booze. Enjoy it by yourself."

The door slams in my face.

In my shock, I stare dumbly at the bottle—a regular, if a bit sticky, Odgen's Firewhiskey— nearly dropping it as it starts to slide from my hands. I'd put the bottle on the floor if I could move.

I was certain—so certain—he'd forgive me, but the tempest I've summoned over the course of the evening dies without so much as a last word.

My face flushes hot. I stand so still that I'm trembling. I'm afraid to breathe, let alone speak. People aren't inclined to admit when they fuck up but what do I do when I suspect everything I've done up to this point is a fuck up?

"It's me, isn't it?" I say, lip shaking. "The crazy one—it's me."

I wipe my stinging eyes with my sleeve. I've never cried and here I am, teary for the second time in less than a week. What's wrong with me, right? I was ready to wear my estrangement like a badge—ruthless, cruel, lonely me. I hardly know who I am anymore.

If I am anyone at all. The only people who know anything true about me leave me.

I cough up whatever sound is being heaved from my stomach—a laugh or a sob, I hardly know. "You'd think I care if I'm crying but I'm just sad about myself, not you or Albus—Albus loves me, and… and I could never see him again, and it wouldn't faze me. I know it should but it doesn't. God, when Scorpius told me about—I can't even fathom that."

The door creaks open again and I laugh a little more, because I'm right. He is a fool.

"What is it that you all feel that never feels real for me? I just want things for myself—Appy's right, I just like being liked. I shouldn't but it doesn't change the fact that I do. I just want you to stop being mad at me right now, and it's working, isn't it?" Tears streak. I watch his gaze unmoving from mine, his expression that is not so different from before, and wait for the door to slam again. "And I see everyone else being as bad as me; they just don't know it. But I know every horrible thing I do and why. Isn't that punishment enough? Or does that just make me more fucked up? Just say it—I'm fucked up. Say it, because I honestly don't know anymore."

I gulp my breaths, trembling like a rabbit under a glare, a sound away from darting. Pickett lets go of the door knob finally, and it's criminal how easily I fold into him.

I bury my sobs into his undershirt and he cradles me under his chin, inside the crook of his arm. Once, I held him like this, under the flash of a storm as his heart broke. It meant nothing then.

"I'm sorry."

Voice strangled, I can't even hear myself, but he can and close to my ear, he murmurs, "I know."

I cry and stop and cry again into the nape of his neck, every space I've kept empty inside filling with a sweet, sharp weeping. Ugly thoughts spill out in half-formed sentences: the fallout tomorrow, intolerable Appy, losing Dom, losing him, losing interest in everything I've worked for. When I think my lungs have given out, they find some way to squeeze another breath. All the while, Pickett holds me tightly, whispering small things to me to calm me down.

It takes until I exhaust myself completely. I drag in deep breaths, hiccuping. Pickett pushes the hair from my face and I lean into his hand.

"Can I stay?"

He smiles slightly. "'course."

Rubbing my eyes, some sense comes back to me. "They awake?"

"Ah—" Pickett drops his arms to his sides and looks over his shoulder into his room. "Belby is. Might already be eavesdropping—I'll threaten his chocolate card collection if he gets chatty. We could go to the lake, yeah?"

"Yeah."

"Lemme get a jacket."

He heads into his room and I hear something strongly uttered about "making your prized holographic Albus Dumbledore confetti over the astronomy tower." He comes back zipped up in his green army parka and holding an extra Odgen's, and we smile at each other. He swings an arm around my shoulders as if nothing's changed at all and for tonight, I'm grateful.

We sneak out of the common room, Pickett leading. The stench of a botched spell lingers in the hallway. I watch for nearby patrols; on nights when my eyes aren't puffy, I'd talk my way out of discipline. As we head toward the dungeon stairs, the smell gets stronger. My eyes burn.

It's smoke.

Fairy tales aren't forgiving to those who defy their endings. There's fine print, careful choice of virgins and monsters—entire fates, after all, are signed and sealed with a true love's kiss. If Belle wasn't keen on the Beast anymore and wanted to see other people, she'd be reneging on her soulmate, her destiny, and some powerful transformation magic.

The corridor of Potions classrooms glows brightly. We rush toward it, coughing, and the heat scorches the tears from my cheeks. I didn't have enough heart for my prince and too much heart to play villain, and so someone decided I ought to lose it all.

The newsroom is in flames.

As Pickett covers his face with his shirt and pulls out his wand, ready to douse the fire, I am frozen in place, more stunned at the thought of someone setting the room on fire than the loss of it. The hollowness digs into my chest; I didn't think that coldness could come from the heart but it's as if it's shouting at me—as if it always has been but I refused to listen. I grab Pickett's arm.

Witchy Business is a refuge I've clung to. Easy ambition. The last laugh belongs to Potter: I am better than it.

"Let it burn," I say.




A/N I feel like my author notes are a countdown, but HERE IT IS—the last chapter before the epilogue!(!!!) Everything spirals downward and turns on its head as promised, but it's not all sad. Was it always going to come to this point? The newsroom definitely went in flames in every version of the ending. Clemence and Albus being together was 50/50. He lost the coin toss.

Thank you to everyone who has gotten me here and beared through my months of spamming and bothering to get this chapter written over the many months. I hope that regardless of what you were hoping for in this chapter, you find that it's satisfying after the wait and leave a review if you're so inclined, whether it's shouty, happy, ragey or bemused. The epilogue, set a few weeks later, is the last chapter to come.



Chapter 25: Epilogue
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chapter image by me

. EPILOGUE .



Monday morning, I sleep in.

I wake in my own bed for the first time in weeks, smelling of salt and smoke and Pickett's old jacket. The girls have gone. Chatter trickles in from the common room.

Stepping outside, I stare over the eyes that turn to me like spotlights. I take Pickett's jacket back to his room, drape it over his bed, and leave my murmuring housemates for the din of the halls.

Crowds take bets. They can taste the ash on my skin as I walk past. If the mighty fall and no one is around to hear them, all the more reason to make a racket.

I saw her there. Set the fire herself, who else?

Words may never hurt, but their carelessness—they know so little yet talk so much. Wouldn't that frighten anyone? Wouldn't you try to control it if you could?

Psychotic bitch.

I breathe slowly, shutting my eyes. The noise ebbs. I could lose myself in here. Alone in my thoughts, I'm a monster in my own maze. Alone, I can conquer anything; I knew this.

But I'd go mad. Alone, I'm safe from everyone but the monster.

"There you are, sleepyhead!"

I open my eyes. Neither dream nor nightmare, a voluminously dressed Appy barges through the gawking throngs to reach me, grinning like her Q.G.A. days. She waves around a velvet-ribboned card. "I meant to give it to you yesterday but, well, Albus came between us again."

She presses a personal invitation for the next Girls for Girls meeting into my hand.

"We've had a very—very passionate month, but I want to tell you that I forgive you. For everything. I wouldn't be doing this without you. Gosh, to think I was in love with someone trying to overthrow me." She shakes her head. "I was so young… so naive back then."

It was three Saturdays ago.

"Can we let bygones be bygones?"

Still half in daze, I must have done something like an affirmation, because Appy squeezes me around the shoulders. "Yay! See you there!" Brushing a spot of ash from my cheek, she flounces off, fingers waving.

It's arguable whether a minimally-informed girl power club is better than no club, but the thought of mobs coming after Potter for reparations instead of his shirt cracks a wistful smile out of me.

I toss the invitation into the rubbish.

Appy's gust of an appearance dispersed much of the crowd. Only scattered mentions of my name follow me down the hall, spoken in hushed tones like they still fear me. It's as if nothing changed at all—and nothing ever does.

Scandals become myth and wars become nostalgia. Whoever I was will be lost to sentiment. I was a mercenary, not a queen—a pawn who crossed the board and crowned herself. I became who I needed to be to survive, and today, I will take the rubble inside of me, forge a new self, and do it again.

But I'll remember.


::



I thought I was done with five-thirty A.M. wake-up calls after losing Witchy Business, but Dom insists I continue being her bloody chaperone for Quidditch practice because Harriet wakes too early for her.

At quarter to six, a newsletter slides underneath our dorm door. Dom, swinging her Beater's bat far too close to the glass windows between us and the lake, picks it up first.

I drop the coat I'm pulling from my wardrobe when I catch sight of THE PHOENIX gleaming in gold letters across the top of the page. As Dom unfolds the paper, I snatch it out of her hand. The inaugural main headline reads, 'A DEMOCRATIC HOGWARTS: ELECTIONS ANNOUNCED FOR HEAD GIRL AND BOY.' By Janey Summerby.

I spit out the hairpins between my teeth. "I can't believe this."

"Yeah, Slughorn had too much punch. We're gonna end up with the Giant Squid. And putting nominations in the Goblet of Fire? That's so tacky."

"No, I mean, what the fuck is The Phoenix?" I hiss, shaking the crumpled paper. There are at least five different bylines between the front-page articles, including Blondie's for some cheesy Around Hogwarts column. There are captioned photos. Sources. Horoscopes.

"I thought you knew Janey's been rounding up a staff. You were practically pushing her into this position."

I would if she hadn't been avoiding me. "That was before! The ashes are still warm and she's moved in!"

Dom rolls her eyes at me as if she wouldn't be just as petty if someone tried to take her place. I suppose after practice, I'll go… congratulate Janey.

Practice is mercifully short, and I make it to the newsroom as the last of the staff is cleaning up. The tapestry covering the door is gone, burned away, but a Janey-run publication won't need to hide. Whether it'll garner enough readership for anyone to care is a different matter.

The Phoenix's newsroom is… just a room. Same stone walls; same fixtures, though tarnished; new furniture but still ones stolen from the school. The two metal printing presses survived the fire without so much as a smolder; they probably thought it was a good cleaning.

It is as close to the old newsroom as it could practically be and utterly foreign at the same time.

Scorpius waves from a wobbly long table set up on the side of the room. Ol' Bessie and her dependable oak were well-mourned. Janey, sorting the wooden type blocks into the printing press drawers, hasn't noticed me in front of her yet.

"Well, well, Summerby. Rising in the ranks."

Janey jolts up. Her smile stutters to start. "Rising from the ashes, you mean?"

I try not to look withering. I pick up a block, and by chance, it's an apostrophe. I hunt for the other two. "In all seriousness: congratulations on the debut paper. You'll never sleep again."

"I hope so." She beams. The shadows under her eyes aren't poor lighting; they're about half a day behind sleep. "Hogwarts is ready for this. I really think so. It'll be slow but we've got a lot of talent—and I took your advice on horoscopes, just in case. There's space for you here, of course, if you want to join. I don't want to seem like a usurper—"

"You don't seem like a usurper; did I say you were a usurper?" I say sharply, pushing a hyphen and colon block next to the apostrophe. Appy's name makes a kissing face, as if she couldn't get more ridiculous.

"N-no."

"Thanks for the offer, but I'm taking a break from the headlines. In all senses of the term." And I'd like to have some pride left.

Newsletters flutter from their stacks as the two other girls, her fellow Ravenclaws, exit the room together.

Janey lifts her cup from its coaster but it's empty. Her glasses are opaque white as they catch the light. "Um, what are you up to, then? If you're retiring?"

"Oh, you know. Cataloging staircases. Actually paying attention in class."

Keeping enemies in line.

Scorpius slings his messenger bag over his shoulder, waves, and ducks out of the room. I pick up another wooden type block and juggle it between my fingers.

"I have to say, it's a miracle these didn't burn."

Janey's cup clatters back on its coaster and both tumble over into the pit of the printing press.

I flick her a cool glance. "You saved these before you lit the place up."

"I—I didn't—"

"No, I suppose I can't prove you did it."

But her drained color betrays her. You could hear a heart drop in this room.

Tossing the wood block into its drawer, I spin on my heel. "Congratulations on the paper, usurper."

"You wouldn't have given up Witchy Business on your own." Her whisper is barely audible, almost desperate. When I'm two strides to the door, courage finally hurtles her feet forward and the words that led her to this room with a wand full of fire press through her teeth: "I just did what you would've done."

I don't even turn my head. "I'm sorry you of all people think I'm that cruel."


::



Meanwhile, Albus Potter gives the Daily Prophet a rare interview, in which he calls me "smart, beautiful, and a force to be reckoned with."

I stare at the paper, hidden behind my History of Magic textbook. We did break up, right?

The night we split fueled weeks of shouty, speculative headlines from the moment I stormed out of Gryffindor tower: ALBUS POTTER REUNITES WITH VALENTINE'S DAY FLAME, HOURS BEFORE FLAMES ERUPT! POTTER'S GIRLFRIEND'S LAKESIDE RENDEZVOUS WITH MYSTERY MAN!

Albus squashes both rumors the next question down: "No one cheated. It wasn't anything like that. It was me. If I were being honest, I just wasn't enough."

The clock tower tolls. I'm first out of the classroom.

I find him out sitting in the courtyard with Rose, who suddenly has other commitments when I arrive. She draws away two girls spying beyond from the hedges as well, admonishing them with a pinch of their shoulders.

I've seen little of Albus except for in the distance as he evaded the hallways I walked, a mirror opposite to the Albus before; here, he glances up at me for but a blink and no more, as if he only can't help himself.

"You didn't have to tell them that," I say.

His cheek dimples. He is gaunt and paler than I remember—both my fault. "You'll have to live up to it now."

Wind howls by, nearly carrying The Prophet off with it. It flaps fitfully in my hand, crunching onto itself. We always find ourselves pretending to be stoic at the center of storms, but his bowed frame sways like a frayed weed and for the first time, I let my heart break.

I want him to look at me again. I want to see that he can. The apology repeats behind my tongue—I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. Pride corrals it—I told you so.

The day I won him, Albus spoke my name in the rain like something precious and I loved him, if only for a moment. It didn't matter in any practical way—it was madness still, born from jealousy and bitterness—but I felt. I wavered. He made it possible.

Maybe love isn't the right word, but love, like history, is written by the victors. I don't trust them to tell all the stories. We were inevitable, as was our demise. We made no illusions and yet, we hoped.

I had a heart after all. Just not for him.

The first drops of rain fall. Albus never turns to me.


::



Hogwarts' walls grow ten inches thicker entering its first Head Girl and Head Boy election season as posters upon posters of posing fifth and sixth years deck the hallways. Booths proffer chocolate frogs wearing rosettes. Colored shirts make their comeback when Rose Weasley drops her bid into the Goblet of Fire and a swath of the audience applauds in red. The Phoenix keeps the running tab of candidates—the only good thing about it, as it gives us a list of people we ought to prosecute for this eyesore.

I veer a hard right to avoid the flyering brigades between me and study hall, only to run into a former follower who wants to know if I'm running for Head Girl. I laugh to their face like I did to the last four people who asked.

"It's really not the worst idea," I hear Pickett say behind me, and when I turn around, the grinning idiot is holding a bouquet of sunflowers. "Terrible slippery slope, innit? First you start caring about friends, then you start caring about total strangers and then, god forbid, the state of the world."

My eyes are frozen on the sunflowers, which are unmistakably tipped toward me. A flush creeps up my neck. "What are you doing?"

"Ah—you should take these." He holds them out.

"I thought we talked about this," I hiss. I mean, barely; we sort of avoided the feelings topic when they came up again—all right, we didn't talk about them at all.

"Love, you don't talk about anything. You speak in roundabout metaphors and surround yourself with people crazy enough to interpret them. Take them."

"I'm not dignifying this."

"Yet I see a smile."

I snarl and grab the flowers. They clink.

They're transfigured cider bottles.

His eyebrows dance. "Lake?"

So we circle around the castle and head down the hill to the Black Lake. On the way, he hands me another bouquet.

"What are these?"

"Those are just flowers."

At the docks, we roll up our trousers and swing our legs over the water, untransfigured bottles at our side, and when the drinks are gone, I rest my head against his shoulder. Whatever our relationship is, it doesn't need saying; this is all we need.

"I wish I wasn't always right." I draw a line in the water with my foot and the black patch of minnows part. "Everyone around me gets hurt in the end, while I come out fine. They never believe me when I warn them."

Pickett doesn't respond for awhile. "You weren't fine that night."

"That was one night. Albus still can't even look at me."

"Different people, different coping methods. Doesn't mean you weren't affected." His cheek presses against the crown of my head. "It was terrifying, just so you know; I hadn't seen you cry before."

I still don't like thinking about it.

"You're not fucked up," he says quietly. "You care more than most people do."

"That's sad if it's true."

But I do smile. When I reigned Hogwarts unchecked, I did so alone and I was invulnerable, unknowable. In reality, I had ties whether I wanted them or not: to him, Dom, Blondie, even the followers who idolized me. I hadn't known until I started losing them.

I chew on my lip. "Henry—"

Someone shouts from the castle; overhead, upset starlings take flight. We turn toward the sound and atop the hill, a tall blonde is waving, with another taller blonde behind her.

"Dom?"

"It's done!" she hollers.

Pickett clears his throat and is suddenly very red. "Ah… right. Dom asked Scorpius to ask me to distract you while they stuff the Head Girl nominations with your name."

"What." Then I remember: earlier, I was going to meet Dom at study hall, but Pickett intercepted me with flowers—oh, I am so going to kill

I've only just pushed myself to my feet when Pickett grabs my legs and charges us both into the lake. Dom shrieks; I sputter as I plunge into the cold underneath him.

I swallow water and surface thrashing, and he's laughing and apologizing as he drags me up and I spit the water back out in his face. "Sorry, love, everyone wants you to run—"

"I'll run you all into the ground!" I try to push him over but my wet coat weighs me down.

"You're the expert at giving the people what they want! The people have spoken—they've spoken and—"

And we're too close and we stumble closer as we find footing on the lakebed, and I like his stammer as he drops my hands but the moment is already dangerous; some accidents are too convenient to be coincidence.

There's a look in his eye that can't wait and I don't remember if my heartbeat was pounding in my ears before. The hand I mean to steady myself with brings his head down to mine.

"Everyone's watching," he murmurs.

I give the barest of shrugs and kiss him.





Final author's note: What a wild, wild ride. When I started etc. etc, I allowed myself to go nuts with whatever I wanted to write, be it fangirl mobs or gratuitous kiss scenes, and as the story grew more serious, I allowed Clemence to explore the contradicting parts of herself that frighten her and put into words all the things that I myself struggle to explain to others. I've been as surprised as readers as to where that's finally led me—to the very end no less, as I mentally swore to never end in any story in a kiss scene and I resisted until literally yesterday.

I have lots of plans for my future writing, one being an original version of etc. etc.; that and an original fantasy story will be my next major projects and won't be posted online, but I won't be leaving fandom in the meantime. The fanfictions I'll write will just be shorter. I probably won't come back to the world of Harry Potter-flavored etc., but feel free to try to spark my muse :)

Thank you to Gubby/GubraithianFire for an enormous amount of starry-eyed everything and being there for every word; to Julia/peppersweet for the shipping and music and internet tea; to Celeste/Celestie for the flailing and eyerolling over the Albus of it all; to all the three of them for being responsible authors and finishing their Albus/OC-with-a-twist years faster than I did; to my sister for gunning for this to be published; to Diya for championing the queen and her knight no matter what canon might be; to Dianne/naughtforreal for the lovely surprises; to Annie for knowing all the right moments; to jkrowlingstone who made the story an incredible fan trailer.

Thank you to everyone who has made fanwork or spread the word or left a review or messaged me. The story's meant so many different things to me over the five years I've been writing it and as reader responses have come in. It wouldn't mean the same without each of you.

http://www.harrypotterfanfiction.com