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How not to be a Woodley by NH Stadler

Format: Novel
Chapters: 32
Word Count: 142,969
Status: WIP

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

Genres: Humor, Romance, Young Adult
Characters: Albus, James (II), OC
Pairings: James/OC, Harry/Ginny, Teddy/Victoire, OC/OC, Other Pairing

First Published: 09/18/2014
Last Chapter: 09/17/2017
Last Updated: 09/17/2017

Summary:



*HPFF BEST STORY 2017*
*Dobby Award 2017 Best Post-Hogwarts*
*Dobby Award 2017 Best OC*
*Dobby Award 2017 Best Plot Twist*
*Dobby Award 2017 Most Original Fic*
(THANK YOU SO MUCH!)


 

Spectacular rumours, shocking plots, and outrageous family expectations.
Can you feel the pressure?
I know I do.


Chapter 1: Legacy
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A/N: To new readers, welcome to chapter one. To old readers, I have changed the chapter a bit… not tremendously but a few tweaks here and there to improve it. The story stays the same :)





 







 



Legacy

 

I was not going to go inside.

 

         A cool breeze swept across my face as I drew the thick cashmere blanket a little tighter around my torso, but I was not going to go inside.

 

            The sea was boisterous and the waves whipped against the cliffs with such force that now and then tiny drops of salty water would drizzle onto my face, even though I was up high at the edge of the bluff. My eyes were closed as I listened to the ocean, imagining – like so often – how it would feel to just jump off this cliff and dive into the unruly water. The thought intrigued me as much as it scared me.

            I loved the ocean most when it was blustery like today; with fierce dark grey waves that didn’t stop until they crashed against the coast with such an impact that over the years the water had carved deep holes into the hard stonewalls. Since I had been little, I had been fascinated by the fact that something so smooth like water could be strong enough to mould the rigid cliffs of Cornwall like they were made of clay.

            “Seth!” I heard a high-pitched voice calling out for me from further away.

“Seth! What are you doing?” Ella sounded terribly stressed, her breathing ragged from climbing the slight upward slope to where I was lounging in a sunbed, snuggled nose-deep into a warm blanket.

“Reading,” I said calmly, my eyes still closed. I had actually been reading before until my eyelids had gotten so heavy that it had been hard for me to keep them open any longer.

“You shouldn’t be out here in this weather! There’s quite a storm coming!”

I only shrugged my shoulders. “I like storms.”

“For heaven’s sake, girl; you cannot avoid them forever,” Ella sighed and I finally opened my eyes to look at her. She was dressed like always in a blue and white uniform; the wind had whipped strands of her ginger hair that had escaped her neat hairdo into her friendly, round face and her warm brown eyes looked back at me with a mixture of concern and despair. She always seemed to know exactly what I was thinking.

“I’m not avoiding anyone. I’m just getting started on some school work.”

Despite my fine display of contrived coolness, Ella looked unimpressed. “School doesn’t start before next week. It will be okay if you don’t know every book by heart. The other kids might think you are a nerd, you know?”

Oh my, that would be terrible!” I exclaimed theatrically and touched the back of my hand to my forehead like I imagined Victorian women had done when they had been about to faint, which made Ella laugh.

“Come on Seth,” she said as she snatched away my cosy blanket and exposed me to the cold wind that had become quite strong by now. “Time to go.”

“Alright,” I sighed and, realising that I could not procrastinate any longer, pushed myself up from my comfortable lounging place. It was only now that I noticed how bleak the sky had become while I had been lying there; thick, black clouds loomed above the ocean and the horizon was nothing but a hazy blur. A storm that was about to reach the coast promised to be fierce, yet I would have preferred getting soaked to what was awaiting me inside.

 

***

 

            Classical music filled the spacious room and mingled with the torrential rain that was lashing against the large round-top windows. The view was completely blurred by the thick drops that traced wet paths down the glass, yet I continued to stare. It was mesmerizing.

            “Child, why are you staring out the window? There is nothing to see,” my grandmother’s voice sliced through the music and the rain like a knife and I winced despite myself, “Viola, why is the girl acting so peculiar?”

            I glanced at my mother, who sighed, resignation written all over her face. “She is only fifteen, Cecilia. Girls that age act curiously.”

            It wasn’t really an answer but knowing my family it could have been worse. I had been reprimanded for much more trivial things than staring out the window before.

            The elder, severe-looking lady puckered her thin, blood-red lips, obviously not finding my mother’s answer satisfactory. “Cassandra and Vala have never behaved in such an odd fashion. Have they, Edward?”

            “Not that I know of,” the stately, grey-haired man at the other end of the table supplied in a tone that suggested he hadn’t even been listening, but I could feel my grandfather’s cold, grey eyes resting on my face, which turned pinker with anger every second. I had to take a few sips of my tea only to keep myself from talking back; after all, experience had taught me that any sort of resistance to my family only made things much worse than just sitting through it.

            “Of course, they also didn’t get themselves stuck into the wrong house.” The way Grandmother said ‘wrong house’ was probably similar to the way others would say ‘eternal damnation’. And she meant every meanly pronounced syllable of it.

            I could see my parents exchange quick glances over the untouched plate of biscuits and couldn’t but notice the default embarrassment that was always clearly discernible on their faces whenever the delicate topic of my house came up.  I expected it to be the theme of my funeral speech, really.

            “Well,” Cecilia continued with a sigh when no one at the table seemed to be willing to discuss my failure as a Woodley for once, “At least she doesn’t look like a boy anymore.”  She gave me a scrutinizing look from across the table as she spoke and I was so surprised that the tea in my mouth accidentally ran down the wrong pipe.

It was the first time ever that I had heard something but disapproval about my person come out of her mouth and it was shocking, though I knew what she had referred to, of course: My usually amateurishly cropped hair that had given me the appearance of a scrawny ten year old boy, had grown out a bit and my clothes didn’t come from the boy’s section for once. It had been my own little rebellion, running around like that, knowing my family disapproved with all their hearts. This summer, however, I had decided that I didn’t want to be screamed at again when entering the girls’ bathroom. Also, the Woodley clan had grown surprisingly tired of harassing me because of my looks, which had taken all the appeal out of it, really.

            “Yes,” my father said with something that came close to a genuine smile; it was the first time this afternoon that he had contributed to the conversation, “She has become quite a beautiful young lady.”

            “Indeed,” Grandfather mused, his deep voice void of any emotion. He waved his empty cup at Ella, who had just rushed into the room with a fresh pot of tea and another plate of biscuits. She looked quite stressed out, which was undoubtedly due to the visit of Edward and Cecilia Woodley. My grandparents had that kind of effect on people that made anyone in their vicinity feel like inferior beings.

            “Of course, she is still lacking the grace and the charm befitting a Woodley woman.” Grandmother frowned as she watched me still struggling with breathing after failing to swallow my tea. Of course she wasn’t finished with criticizing me yet; after all it would have been scandalous if she had just said that I was not appalling and then left it at that.

            “OK,” I finally spoke up in between coughs, trying to sound as dignified as possible with my windpipe still irritated. Having sat through many gatherings like this I could feel the onset of the second round of insults about all the ways in which I failed as a Woodley and I was not going to take it. “I think I’ll just go to my room. Grandma, Grandpa; it was lovely as always.”

            I pushed back my chair and tried hard not to look at Ella, whose eyes bored into my temple as though she was trying to telepathically tell me to stay calm but – and I was surprised to realise this after years of not daring to even move in their presence – I wasn’t scared of my grandparents; I was just irritated.

            “If you will excuse me!” I hadn’t meant to shout my exiting words but thrill of defying the Woodleys made it hard to stay cool and so – knowing that it was only seconds before the last bit of my casual façade would crumble – I walked out of the tea room with my head held high and my heart beating in my ears.

            “Preposterous. No wonder the girl was sorted into the wrong house, displaying an intolerable behaviour like that,” my grandmother’s voice boomed behind me but it became less distinguishable as I climbed the stairs to my room.

 

***

 

The branches of the tall maple tree that stood in front of my window rapped on the glass, shaken by the rough wind outside. When I had been little, I had been terrified by this particular sound, always thinking that something evil was knocking on my window, wanting to come in. I would stare at the tree for so long that the branches would begin to look like knobbly arms that tried to pry open the window.

As I had grown older, I had begun to distract myself with books whenever a storm would sweep over Cornwall and just read until I had fallen asleep. And even though I wasn’t afraid of thunderstorms anymore, I had kept up the habit.

            “Elizabeth?” The door to my lofty room swung open and my mother’s head appeared in the small gap. “Are you reading again?” She walked in and carefully closed the door behind her. Her posture seemed terribly tense but she didn’t comment on my glorious exit and instead just sat down beside me on my bed.

            “That was quite an evening, wasn’t it?” she sighed and tucked a strand of wheat blonde hair behind her ear. It was the same colour and wavy texture as mine but so long, she constantly put it up into a tight chignon.

            “Sorry for losing it before,” I apologised half-heartedly and put away the heavy book that had been resting on my lap. I hadn’t even noticed that my legs had gone numb under the weight.

            My mother gave me a small smile and shook her head. “They don’t really mean it like that. Everyone knows that you didn’t want to be sorted into-” Her voice faded abruptly and her eyes seemed to wander to the large, sapphire-blue poster that hung above my bed. A bronze eagle was stretching his long wings lazily across the paper as though he had just woken up from a nap, ready to take off.

            “Ravenclaw,” I supplied unnecessarily, “I’m in Ravenclaw.”

            It upset me that my parents couldn’t even say it, let alone be proud. All they ever contributed to my ending up in Ravenclaw was that ‘it wasn’t my fault’, but I suspected that they, too, contributed this grave error in history to more than just ‘bad luck’. It was said that the sorting hat took personal choices into account, which should make it fairly easy to end up in the house of your choosing. But – and that I was fairly sure of – my head had been uncharacteristically empty at my sorting; in fact, it had been so empty that it had taken me a moment to even realise that the ragged old thing had shouted ‘RAVENCLAW’ into the Great Hall.

Slytherin should have been my legacy. My destiny.

            For more than 500 years, the Woodleys had prided themselves on being so exceptionally pure in blood that, even before the sorting hat of Hogwarts had been placed onto their heads, it had declared them to be in the House of Salazar Slytherin. For generations this had been the case without exception. Hence, when it was time for me to go to the school of witchcraft and wizardry, my parents – both of them Slytherin legacies – had me decked out with green and silver school attire before I had even boarded the Hogwarts Express.

            I was glad I hadn’t been there to see their faces when they had received my owl the morning after the sorting.

“Your grandparents are leaving,” my mother said quietly, finally prying her eyes from the poster above my bed where the bronze eagle had flown out of view, “You should come say goodbye.”

She had gotten up from my bed again and smoothed down her smart Chanel trouser suit which suddenly looked like a carefully constructed costume.

 

When I walked into the great foyer, everybody had already gathered in front of the stately marble fireplace. My grandmother had pulled her long ruby cloak around her, which made her look like a giant bat and I shuddered inwardly; I was fairly certain that – as a toddler – I had firmly believed that she actually could turn into a bat and while it was somewhat funny to think of it now, it still made me slightly uncomfortable.

 “Travel safely,” My father said in that typical rigid voice that he always used when he was talking to his parents and, in what felt like the most cringe worthy moment of the afternoon, they shook hands, looking awkwardly formal.

“We will. Goodbye.” As my grandmother spoke, her thin lips barely moved and her unforgiving eyes rested on me with what could only be described as palpable distaste. It was obvious that she disapproved of me – probably the entire concept of me – but I held my head high as I approached the green flames that were roaring in the fireplace by now. Quick, icy words of farewell echoed in the hall and I watched her walk into the fire, her cloak still wrapped around her like enormous leathery wings. Grandfather appeared to follow her lead after adjusting his hat and putting on his elegant dragon-skin gloves but, just before he would disappear into the fireplace, he turned around once more, looking straight at me.

His eyes were of a strange, dark grey: The colour of storm clouds. It was the ‘Woodley eyes’, as my father had so often told me; charcoal irises that looked like the ocean just before a storm.

I knew them well. They were my eyes too.

Shape-wise they were my mother’s, big and round; yet, the unusual colour was a genetic trait that neither my father nor my aunt or my cousins had inherited.

“I expect to see you at Christmas dinner.”

It sounded as though Grandfather was addressing all of us, yet his gaze lingered on me so intently that it grew silent for a moment.

“Um, yes. Of course,” I finally managed to say, feeling the heat rising to my cheeks.

Grandfather gave me a microscopic nod before vanishing into the green flames and with a great, loud swoosh the fire had died, leaving the fireplace empty.

No one said a word for what felt like eternity, the weirdness of the moment still lingering in the air like an odd perfume, clinging to the objects in the room. I was trying to remember the number of times that my grandfather had addressed me directly but the only image that came to my mind was a stately grey-haired man, sitting in a leather wingback chair in a vast library, reading a book and pretending to not notice me watching him as I crouched behind the large potted plant in a terribly poufy dress.

 





 







 



A/N: Dear reader, hope you’ve enjoyed this first chapter and forgive me for not plunging right into the action. I would love to hear your thoughts and I’m excited about every little word, phrase, sentence, paragraph(s) you leave me in the review section. Thank you for reading :)


Chapter 2: Hogwarts Again
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A/N: To new readers, welcome to chapter two. To old readers, I have changed the chapter a bit… not tremendously but a few tweaks here and there to improve it. The story stays the same

 









Thick clouds of steam wafted into the air, blending in seamlessly with the overcast sky. The platform was bustling with people like it only ever did at the end of September at the start of the new academic year. Towers of luggage piled high in front of the long scarlet train that - despite standing still – was fuming like an angry dragon and the indignant cries of hundreds of owls that were trapped in their travel cages rose above the lively crowd.

            I always wondered how it was possible that no Muggle ever got suspicious at seeing an alarming number of people carrying owls and cats through King’s Cross and vanishing abruptly into a seemingly solid stretch of wall. I knew that people could only see what they want to see but it didn’t stop baffling me that waves of people walking through walls had never caught any attention.

When I had been ten and about to go to Hogwarts for the first time, I knew that someone had watched my disappearing through the barrier between Platform 9 and 10. I had looked into the man’s eyes – a typical London businessman by the look of his suit and briefcase – as my parents had nudged me forwards to the wall and right on through. He must have seen it. I was sure. But he had probably just shaken his head to himself, taken an aspirin and moved on.

“Will you write?” My mother gave me a small smile and hooked a stray strand of hair behind my ear.

I only nodded in response, not wanting to enlarge upon on the subject. Writing to my parents was a delicate task; I had long learned that I couldn’t share any news that were related to Ravenclaw or anything that might remind them that I was not in Slytherin; which was practically everything. Hence, my so-called letters usually consisted of a pitiful two-liner, saying that I was doing OK, which really was the literary equivalent to rice cakes: plain, nondescript and mostly consisting of air.

“If you need something…”

“I will let you know,” I ended my father’s sentence and pulled my jacket a little tighter around my torso, already regretting that I had opted for cropped skinny jeans this morning as another gust of nippy air swept across the platform, biting at my exposed ankles.

 “OK,” I finally said after a lengthy stretch of silence in which my mother had oddly stared at the family next to us that was already into their fifth round of bone-crushing hugs and kisses, exclaiming vows of daily letters and care packages. “See you at Christmas?”

“Yes. Christmas,” my mother nodded quickly, her composure as immaculate as always as she looked away from the now wildly waving family, and clasped my shoulders in what might have almost been a hug. For a second I thought she was going to say something, but the moment passed again and she released me with a small smile.

I turned away from my family and quickly strode towards the nearest opportunity to board the train.

“Take care!” I heard my mother call out just before I had climbed the stairs, and I paused for a millisecond, turning around to give her a tiny wave before taking the last few steps to board the Hogwarts Express.

 

***

 

The corridors of the ancient train were teeming with students who flitted from one compartment to the next, talking in excited voices. It was the usual back-to-school fuss that started as soon as one had boarded the Hogwarts Express and it always felt like a small piece of home.

Taking a deep breath, I pushed on through the narrow hallway, balancing the cage that held my brown-and-white-spotted boreal owl Archimedes (who had gotten quite huge over the summer) and my large leather tote bag that I had slung over my shoulder.

A wave of girlish laughter reached my ears just as I passed another compartment and through the windows I could see a group of girls in designer clothes, giggling and screeching. Two of them were sitting on their friends’ laps since the seating was only designed for six people but they didn’t seem to care all that much. I knew those girls, of course; they were all in my year and immensely popular.

A particularly shrill laugh pierced the mix of moderate clatter and I didn’t need to look to know that it belonged to Vala Carrington. My cousin was sitting in the left corner of the crammed compartment, throwing her head back laughing in a quite ostentatious manner that was typical for her.

Even though she wasn’t carrying the name, she looked more like a Woodley than I did; her hair had the characteristic dark brown shade and pin-straight texture that ran in the family. Her nose was more prominent than mine with a slight up-turn and her lips were thin like those discernible on dozens of paintings in our grandfather’s study. There wasn’t even a single freckle on her pale skin, which always pleased our grandmother vastly and gave her a chance to point out how ‘common’ the few light brown dots that were sprinkled across my nose looked. Only Vala’s almond-shaped brown eyes did not come from the Woodley genetic pool.

A hard shove from behind finally made me prise my eyes from the girls in the compartment and move on along the corridor. Outside of our rigid family gatherings, Vala and I didn’t even so much as greet each other, let alone socialize.

I passed a few more bustling compartments when finally I reached one that was almost empty except for a girl with short auburn curls and a violently pink glittery top that seemed to mock the green army pants covering her legs. Her face was buried in a Muggle gossip magazine while she was kicking her right leg back and forth, seemingly not taking any notice as I pushed open the sliding door and manhandled my heavy luggage onto the empty row on the right side.

“Finally. You have followed my invitation,” she said with a strong Italian accent without looking up from her magazine.

“You know, you’d look much more mysterious without a magazine that announces ‘Seven Super Weight-Loss Tips in Seven Days’”

“For God’s sake, Seth!” She cried laughing, her accent completely vanished. “You’re such a party-pooper!”

“I’m allowed to. I have a crap family.” I plopped down onto the empty seat across from her, snatching one of the glossy magazines, poking out of her bag. As always, my best friend Katie was traveling with an assortment of light entertainment from the Muggle world.

“The woes of being a Woodley,” she sighed, discarding her own issue of InTouch to give me her full attention. “Let’s see; I can smell guilt with a little hint of rigid self-doubt and a dash of ancient fire whiskey. How are your grandparents?”

“Well, after shaming me for being in Ravenclaw again and not having any ounce of grace, or any other presentable abilities again, my grandmother actually said something bordering to not mean.” I had thrown the copy of People Magazine away again, too agitated to actually read about Kim Kardashian’s nudes.

“Ah, bless them.” Katie smiled sarcastically. “I bet Cecilia liked that you don’t look like a ten year old boy anymore.”

“I never looked like a ten year old boy!” I cried indignantly, hurling my already crumpled magazine at my best friend. It missed by several inches and hit Archimedes’ cage, who hooted reproachfully.

Katie raised her eyebrows, amusement curling her glossy lips. “Just last year, Demeter Notte had a meltdown when you came into the girls’ bathroom.”

“Demeter Notte also cried when we had hush puppies for dinner last Halloween, because she thought they were actually made from puppies.”

Katie snorted but I knew that everything she had said was true; I had never looked like a girl; not only have I always been lacking in the curves department but also the fact that my nickname was Seth hadn’t contributed to emphasizing my feminine side, either.

“Have you seen Kim’s nudes? They’re appalling!” Katie waved the magazine I had previously discarded in her hand.

“No, let me see!” I immediately moved onto the seat next to her and together we immersed in the scandalous muggle gossip while the train rattled on through thick wafts of fog. It felt good to be home again.

 

***

 

The ride up to the castle in the ancient carriages was rather unpleasant; hard rain was lashing from the black sky, shaking the magical vehicles so roughly that everyone was relieved when we touched ground again. A mass of black-cloaked figures, all with their hoods pulled tightly into their faces against the heavy downpour, streamed through the wide, impressive front doors into the castle, pushing forwards to get out of the rain.

            Katie and I had fallen to the back, wedged in between a group of loudly chatting people that, by the sound of it, were bubbly second year Hufflepuff girls who had been riding the Thestral-drawn carriages for the first time this year.

            “I can’t believe this!” Katie snapped as she shook the thin candy pink object in her hands so violently that it almost slipped out of her grip.

            I laughed at the familiar scenario and shook my head. “You know that technical devices don’t work at Hogwarts.”

            “Yeah, well, I thought they might have fixed that by now. Google could save us so many hours in the library.” She let her smart phone slip back into the pocket of her cloak, looking agitated as a wave of people swept us into the large, warm Entrance Hall.

            “Probably that’s why they keep it that way.” I said as I pulled off the thick hood of the ceremonial cloak and loosened the ribbon around my throat that held it together. The thing always felt too heavy and I was glad to be rid of it for the entire year after tonight.

            “Over there?” Katie asked over the general clatter that had followed us into the Great Hall, pointing at a free spot at the long Ravenclaw table. I nodded wordlessly and followed my friend through the throngs of students until we had reached the empty seats in between Sam Henderson, a sixth year and Ravenclaw prefect, and Milina Jacobson, a perky seventh year who I only knew from Potions Club.

            “I hope the sorting goes fast,” Katie sighed as we sat down next to each other, the bottoms of our cloaks tumbling to the floor behind us. “I’m starving.”

            “Um, Seth?”  The voice came from my right and I turned my head to find Sam Henderson leaning over the table, his uniform tie piling on his empty plate as he gave me a friendly smile.

            “Yes?” I replied, feeling the heat rise to my cheeks as I realised how snobbish my voice had suddenly sounded. Without meaning to, I had talked like my Grandmother.

Sam laughed – rather uncomfortably – but continued to smile. He seemed determined to have a conversation with me, no matter how incompetent I was.

            “Um, I wasn’t sure if-” he trailed off midsentence but continued to stare at me with a bizarre half-smile on his face, “I like your hair.”

            “Oh.” I stared at him for a moment, feeling Katie’s leg pressing against my shin underneath the table as I desperately tried to think of a suitable reply. “Okay,” I finally produced and practically felt Katie’s eyes roll in their sockets as she quietly groaned to herself. This was uncharted territory; although we had known each other for more than five years, Sam’s and my conversations usually never extended beyond our Prefect duties and maybe the latest Ravenclaw riddle, but that was about as deep as it got.

            “Um, right.” Sam cleared his throat. “Well, then – um – I’ll just…” He pointed vaguely at the clump of people sitting beside him. “I’ll see you around.”

            “Sure,” I said quickly, feeling a mixture of relief and mortification as he gave me one last smile before turning away again.

 

***

             

 “‘Okay’?” Katie groaned, her cloak billowing out behind her like the cape of a superhero in action as she hurried along next to me. “Are you kidding me?”

“I know. I’m pathetic,” I sighed, feeling a whole new wave of mortification as I replayed the conversation I had just had with Sam Henderson in my head. “Watch out for the stairs – they move!

The first-year Ravenclaws behind me exclaimed in awe as one of the seemingly solid stone staircases suddenly lurched and disconnected from the landing it had led to, swinging out of sight. There was something amazing about witnessing this Hogwarts-specific quirk for the first time; after a while – and a couple of unnecessary detours – however, you started questioning the practicality of the whole thing.

“You know that’s why people think you’re stuck up.”

I looked at my best friend, only just dodging a low flying, cackling Peeves who had swooped from the ceiling. “People think I’m stuck up?”

 “Seth,” she said with a sigh, “you barely talk to most people.”

“Well, I don’t like most people. EXPULSO!” I pointed my wand at Peeves, who had begun to flick the first-years’ hats from their heads, and although spells could not actually hurt the poltergeist, it was enough to get the him to leave, his swearwords echoing from the ceiling even after he had gone.

“Are you sure the sorting hat didn’t say Slytherin?” Katie raised her eyebrows at me as we climbed the last flight of stairs to Ravenclaw Tower, before stopping at the tall door that was bare except for a brass door-knocker in the shape of an eagle.

The crowd of first years now pooled around us and I noticed Sam Henderson and two fifth-year Prefects ploughing their way through the crowd to get to the door for the grand demonstration; it had become quite the ritual – answering the first riddle of the new school year.

Uh,” Katie hissed quite suddenly, making me jump a little. “Sam is checking you out.”

What?” I glanced up, shocked to find Sam Henderson looking at me as he passed by and – in an attempt at taking a casual step backwards – I treaded on something small and soft, causing the first year behind me to cry out in agony.

“Oh, I’m so sorry!” I bit my bottom lip as I tried to pacify the little boy on whose foot I had just stepped, ignoring the snickers and snorts that issued from the crowd around me.

I might have mildly injured a kid on his first day at Hogwarts a but at least no one could call me stuck up.

 

***

 

As usual, suitcases were already piling on the wooden floor of the small dormitory and I couldn’t help a smile as a familiar warmth surged through my body. The four four-poster beds had been made to perfection, looking cosy and inviting, and the lit candles dipped everything into an appealing glow. Without hesitation, I made my way through the pieces of luggage to the bed on the far left and let myself fall onto the soft matrass, arms and legs outstretched.

“You know, you might suck at flirting, but at least you made a lasting impression on that poor first year.”

I laughed as I felt Katie sit down next to me. “Oh shut up.”

“I love you,” she said, sinking into my bed as well so that we were lying next to each other. “But you have rotten social skills.”

“I’m just not good at small talk,” I sighed, turning my head to look at my best friend. “What does small talk even mean? I mean, what is small in terms of a conversation?”

“You’re overthinking this, mate.” She had produced a bag of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans from her cloak pocket and popped a few into her mouth, releasing a distinctive fragrance of strawberry and pine.

“Maybe.” I held out my hand to Katie and she immediately shook a handful of sweets out of the bag into my open palm. I regarded them for a moment, spotting a few suspicious khaki coloured ones, but then decided against sorting them out and simply thrust them all into my mouth.

“I’m not stuck up,” I said after a while, grimacing at the strange taste of avocados and chocolate that still lingered on my palate as my thoughts inevitably strayed to my family. “Am I?”

“Of course you’re not!” Katie exclaimed so fiercely that it made me smile. She had turned her head to look at me and I could tell that her handful of beans definitely had contained one or two onion ones.

“I can’t believe we’re back,” I sighed, taking in the ceiling of the room with its elaborate bronze pattern. “Sixth year.”

“It’s going to be brilliant,” Katie said, her voice echoing strangely from the walls, mingling with the shuffling of feet that was clearly audible through the door. “Trust me, I can feel it.”









A/N: Dear lovely readers, I hope you've enjoyed chapter two. As usual, I would love to hear what you think about it. I can't even tell you how excited I am about every little review I get :)


Chapter 3: A Pool of Teenage Hormones
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A/N: Again, this chapter has been revised and slightly improved... no capital changes however so the story stays the same :)




It was a glorious late summer day and the sweeping grounds of Hogwarts were dappled with brilliant sunlight. The lake looked like a giant pool of light that was only occasionally disturbed by a massive tentacle breaking through the surface and vanishing again, leaving nothing but soft ripples that slowly faded into the water.

            “Even the giant squid is catching a few warm rays of sun before the winter,” Katie sighed next to me, her head propped up on her arms as she gazed at the tall window beside her seat, “And we have to sit in here.”

            She gestured roughly into the room, probably meaning to refer to the Transfiguration classroom in general, her voice ringing loudly over the muted buzzing that was typical for lessons.

            “It’s only the first day,” I whispered as I watched Professor Hockanum, Head of Hufflepuff House, striding back and forth between the tables, observing the students, who were in various stages of transforming matches into miniature trees. In front of me, a small tree had already grown, sprouting white pedals that trembled in a magical breeze.

Katie watched the movement of the rapidly blooming flowers for a while, her wand lying quite abandoned at the edge of the table next to a perfect yet deliberately bare replica of a broadleaf tree.

“It’s a winter tree,” she said shrugging, before leaning back in her seat once again and closing her eyes, bathing in the warm rays of sunlight that pooled through the window.

            “Good work, Miss Banks!” Hockanum cried out as he reached at our table, nodding approvingly at the sight of Katie’s tree before scribbling something on the clipboard that was floating around him, bobbing into him occasionally as he walked.  

            “And what do we have here.” He had bent over my table to inspect the tiny tree, whose twigs now bent under the weight of dozens of ripe miniature apples. “Excellent. Five points to Ravenclaw. Now I only wonder if,” he mused and simultaneously plucked a dark red apple from the tree, holding it in between his thumb and index finger. When he popped it into his mouth, a smile appeared on his face and he turned to his clipboard once again to draw a large, purple O next to my name. “Well, that’s it for today! Please preserve your trees, we’ll continue next time.”

            Next to me, I could practically feel Katie’s massive eye-roll.

“You know,” she sighed deeply as she jammed her books into her already bulging bag, “you might not look it anymore, but you’re a terrible nerd.”

            “Thanks for your loving support.” I laughed as we lined up behind the other students, both balancing our trees in one hand and a pile of books in the other. The way to the hallway had cleared, but as I followed Katie through the door, I suddenly felt a push from the side and stumbled.

It was inevitable; I could feel how my fingers slowly lost grip of the pot and – like in slow motion – the mini apple tree flew out of my hands and to the ground of the hallway where it shattered into a thousand pieces: The hard collision with the stone had knocked all magic out of it and it had fallen apart into nothing but a heap of earth and matches.

            “James!” A girl’s voice giggled next to me. “Look what you did you nasty boy!”

            Athena Notte, a beautiful 7th year Gryffindor with swishy dark hair and curves that I could only dream of, threw a playfully reprimanding look at the outrageously handsome, tall boy to whose arm she was clinging.

            “Sorry, didn’t see you,” he said carelessly without even looking at me or the mess he had created and they moved on, Athena’s giggles echoing faintly in the corridor even after they had vanished in the crowd.

Of course, there was nothing sincere about the apology.

 James Sirius Potter probably didn’t give a flying snitch.

            “Thanks a lot,” I mumbled to myself as I bent down to collect the pieces of what was left of my tree. Katie was crouching next to me within a second, her eyebrows furrowed with rage.

            “Stupid git!” She cursed loudly enough for the passing students to hear. “You know, just because he is sort of good looking, he thinks he can treat people like his personal doormat.”

            I couldn’t help smiling at my best friend’s rant. “Sort of good looking?” I repeated, raising an eyebrow at her. “Just yesterday you elaborated on how you would like to – I’m quoting – ‘smack his delicious, tight bum’.”

            “Yeah, well.” Katie didn’t blush, which was a trait I deeply admired about her. “I still stand by that. But I would make it painful.”

            Laughing we cleared the stone floor of the last stray matches that rolled around, before ambling over to the Great Hall, the tree quite forgotten by the time we sat down at the Ravenclaw table, loading our plates with food.

            “There was an article in WitchStyle this summer,” Katie said suddenly, her fork dangling above her plate as though she had put it on pause, “about James Potter and how he was Britain’s Bachelor to Watch.”

            “What does that even mean?” I frowned at my plate as I plunged my fork into the heap of mashed potatoes, “I mean, watch what exactly? Pratting around the castle like the world’s biggest git?”

            Katie snorted, her fork clanking onto her plate as she lost grip of it. “They kept going on about his brilliant future as an international Quidditch star.”

            “Well good for him,” I sighed, eager to put the discussion of James Potter’s fabulous life to rest. It was one thing to constantly pick up his name in the corridors or classes – whispered with nothing less but reverence by both girls and boys alike – but after today’s collision I had had quite enough. “What do we have next?”

            “Uh, let me see.” Katie dug her hand into the pocket of her uniform cardigan and took out a crumpled piece of parchment, studying it for a second. “Ugh, Divinitation. Which means you probably have…”

            “Spell Theory.” I nodded as I ran my finger along the Monday column on my own schedule. “Meet me at the statue of Tristan the Traitor afterwards? We can walk to Potions together”

            “Sure,” Katie said before scrunching up her already dilapidated timetable once again and cramming it back into her pocket. “You know, sixth year is supposed to be the best year.”

            “It is?” I asked, barely able to get out the words through the heap of strawberries I had just stuffed into my mouth.

            “Well we’ve just passed our OWLs, and the NEWTs are not relevant until next year –“

            “I wouldn’t say they’re not relevant I interjected but Katie simply ignored my protest and ploughed on.

            “- which means that this is our one free year; the year we can be crazy and go to parties and date cute guys.”

            “Or, you know,” I said, holding up my fork as though a brilliant idea had just struck me, “lie in bed and eat chocolate.”

            Katie gave me a sarcastic look, her eyes narrowing with mock-indignation. “This year is going to be different,” she insisted, “you’ll see.”

 

***

 

The first week of classes seemed to fly by as usual. It was only then that I felt properly at home again after a summer that had dragged on, especially towards the end. Most people complained, of course; about the educational routine, the homework, and the end of the holidays. To me, however, Hogwarts meant freedom.

            “How boring!” Katie cried out, her blue eyes rolling with an air of ennui that would have looked overly theatrical on anyone else but her. “A whole summer and the most interesting thing people talk about is Demeter Notte’s hair. Seriously, this school is going to the dogs.” She pushed through a crowd of second years, ignoring their shouts of protests. “I mean, it doesn’t even look that great, you know? All that fake blonde seems to seep into her head too. Why else would you ask what kind of juice was in polyjuice potion?”

            “And yet you seem strangely enthralled with her,” I teased as we walked into the great hall, where the house tables were already creaking under the weight of the delicious smelling dinner. “Maybe you should ask her out.”

            “You know, maybe I should.” She had laden her plate with a generous helping of steak and kidney pie. “Then people would at least have something to talk about.”

            I shook my head laughing; Katie had always loved gossip and, frankly, I profited from her ability to always know the latest rumours. It was inevitable at a boarding school, really. Basically, Hogwarts was a pool of teenage hormones running wild.

“What’s with the books, nerdy birdy?” Katie pointed her fork at the pile next to my plate.

            “Detention tonight.” I replied between bites. There was no need to elaborate for Katie to understand; I really wasn’t the type to get into detention. In fact, rather the opposite was the case: As a sixth year prefect, I had moved up from the dull thrills of patrolling the corridors to the much more coveted monitoring of detentions, which, I had heard, was an easy job that could be spent doing something productive.

            “It’s the first week of classes. Who managed to get themselves into detention already?”

            I shrugged, stuffing half a treacle tart into my mouth. It was already past six o’ clock and I didn’t fancy losing house points for showing up too late for my sacred prefect duties.

            “Seth! Hey!” Someone suddenly shouted across the room and I saw Sam Henderson waving at me, a broad smile on his face. I could barely throw an irritated look at Katie before he had slid onto the bench right next to me.

            “How are you?”

            I was still chewing on the gigantic piece of treacle tart, forcing a great lump down my throat.

If that wasn’t sexy, I don’t know what was.

            “Good,” I mumbled between bites. If my grandmother had witnessed my lack of social graces she would have probably suffered a heart attack. According to her, I was a hopeless case; a view that was confirmed by my absolute inability to conduct appropriate small talk.

            “You look really nice,” he still grinned, apparently unabashed by my awkwardness

            “Thank you?” It came out more like a question than a statement and I glanced at Katie, seeking help. This was really not the kind of conversation I was good at. Was Sam flirting with me? Was I supposed to flirt back?

Katie gave me a miniscule, encouraging nod.

Great.

“Um, did you need anything?” I asked lamely and could see Katie shaking her head from the corner of my eye. I knew I had blown it; now had he asked me about my opinion on the preservation of strength-building potions – that I could have answered smoothly. Of course, no normal person would open a conversation like that.

Sam looked slightly taken aback, but only for a moment. “I just wondered if you were going to the party tomorrow?” He said, causing Katie to deal out a particularly painful kick under the table. “The back-to school party, you know.”

While I wasn’t exactly an expert on parties, in this case, he wouldn’t have had to specify which party he was talking about. After all it had been a tradition for several years now; it was the event of the semester and everyone wanted to go.

Everyone, except for me.

“I, um, I still have to-“

“Sure!” It was Katie who suddenly piped up, interrupting my lame attempt at an excuse. “Sure, we’re going. Aren’t we, Seth?”

“Um, yah, maybe,”

“Definitely!”

I looked at Katie, shaking my head curtly but she just continued to beam at Sam.

Great. Just great.

“I have to go,” I finally managed to say after quite an awkward period of silence in which Katie kept nodding at me as though trying to hypnotize me. As I got up from the table, my books naturally all dropped to the floor and, after accidentally jamming my elbow into Sam’s head as he tried to help me collect them again, I left the Great Hall with my face as red as a beetroot.




A/N: Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed the chapter. As always, I am living on coffee, tea, and reviews so if you feel generous, please drop me a line, I'd love to hear what you think! :)


Chapter 4: The Potter Boys
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The Potter Boys

 

Detention was to take place in the Charms classroom, which was one of my favourite rooms by far. It was high up in a tower, overlooking the vast Hogwarts grounds, including the Forbidden Forest and bits of the Black Lake. I had never seen it empty before, without any objects flying through the air; it felt a little odd, like I was intruding.

            Clutching my pile of books to my chest, I ambled up to the large oak desk, not quite sure what I was supposed to do. Sitting down on Professor Flitwick’s place seemed really inappropriate, but I also couldn’t just sit at my usual desk, which left me standing quite awkwardly in the front of the forsaken classroom, contemplating my options and regretting having declined Kristina Jesnek’s offer – a seventh-year Ravenclaw Prefect – to instruct me on the job.

Quite suddenly, the solid oak door swung open with a soft thud and, accompanied by a wave of laughter, a boy came in. He had the definite appearance of someone who had grown a lot in a very short period of time but, nonetheless, his features were handsome. A fading grin was still etched onto his face, even as the heavy door closed behind him with a bang and enveloped the room in complete silence again.

            “Oh, um, am I – am I right here?” Albus Potter gave me a puzzled look before he rumpled his black hair uncomfortably. Thick tufts were sticking out in random directions as though he had forgotten to comb this morning. “Is this detention?”

            “Yes!” I might have sounded a tat too enthusiastic for confirming that he indeed had found the place where he was to sit out his penalty. I really wasn’t good at this yet.

            “OK, I wasn’t sure…” He trailed off and, instead of talking, decided to tousle his already messy hair again. “Here,” he produced a small piece of parchment from his pocket that was scrawled upon with green ink, and then sank onto the nearest seat, pulling out books from his bag. I glanced at the detention slip and back up at Albus, who seemed slightly nervous. Even though I really didn’t mean to, I couldn’t help staring at him a little bit; he was rumoured to look exactly like his father had at 15, just without the famous scar, of course.

            “Great!” I practically yelled, again sounding way too cheerful for the occasion. I hadn’t meant to yell like that, but the sudden realisation that I had been examining Albus like a complete creep, had made me snap out of my stupor momentarily. Luckily, he didn’t seem to have noticed and only gave me an odd look as I cleared my throat.

            “It, um, says you know what to do?” I indicated the detention slip that had Professor McGonagall’s handwriting on it. Strangely, there were no specifics as to why Albus Potter had to spend his Friday evening in detention or what exactly he had to do. Katie would be severely disappointed.

            “Um yes. I have to do lines,” he said sheepishly and I couldn’t help wondering how on earth he had landed himself in detention this early in the semester. He didn’t exactly seem like the roguish type, but, of course, I could have been wrong.

            Albus had started writing on a fresh piece of parchment, his head bent down so low that his unruly hair hid the words he was scribbling from my view. Now and then, I noticed him glancing up at me, probably checking if I was trying to sneak a peek, but I had settled on one of the desks in the first row, flipping through the latest edition of From Abavi Sucus to Zythum Zenonis – A collection of potent potions.  

            With a loud bang, the classroom door suddenly flew open and both Albus and I turned to see a tall, scrawny guy march into the room. Edgar Silverman, the newly appointed Gryffindor Head Boy, was still wearing his entire school uniform with the red tie flapping oddly as he walked towards me so fiercely, I thought he was going to crash into my desk.

            “Elizabeth Woodley?”

            “Yes?” Quite perplexed, I slid off the table, putting my book aside. I had known Edgar as a Prefect but he had never actually spoken to me before. This was probably the very first time he had addressed me by my name.

            “This looks very well.” He let his gaze wander across the room. “You can go now.”

            “Um, what?” I wasn’t sure if I had heard correctly. Edgar, however, looked unfazed, almost annoyed by my lack of immediate compliance.

            “I said you can go. I’ll take over from here.”

            Besides the strangeness of the situation, I couldn’t help but notice that Edgar, as pompous as he might have acted, seemed nervous. His left eyelid twitched and he kept clenching and unclenching his fists rapidly.

            “Listen, it’s okay. I really don’t mind-“

            “I am Head Boy!” Edgar cut me off, his chest swelling to show off the golden badge that was pinned to his cloak. “And if you don’t want to lose your house thirty points you better pack up your things and go.”

            “Thirty points? Are you kidding me?” Everything about the situation was fishy; from the way Edgar nervously glanced over his shoulder in regular intervals to his slightly sweaty forehead. But I decided I didn’t want to risk it. Not only because thirty house points were at stake here, but also because it seemed unwise to pick an argument with a Head Boy only one week into the year.

            “Fine. I’m leaving.” I gathered my books from the table and, hardly seeing where I was actually going, maneuvered my way through the rows of desks to get to the door. It was not before I had reached the last desk that I suddenly heard a quiet voice, barely louder than a whisper:

            “I’m sorry.”

            I turned my head to see where the voice had come from but Edgar was still lingering in front of the class and Albus was busy throwing books into his bag. Neither seemed to even realize that I was still there, and I turned away again, shaking my head to myself. Was I hallucinating? I looked up to the ceiling, checking if maybe Peeves was floating above my head but there was no trace of the poltergeist or any other ghost, for that matter.

            “Did you need anything else?” Edgar’s lofty voice echoed through the room, making me jump.

            “Oh, um, no. No. I’ll just-“ I gestured awkwardly towards the door, almost dropping all of my books in the process, “I’ll go.”

            “You do that,” he said with a definite hint of impatience in his voice, watching me as I turned on my heels and finally strode out of the classroom into the dimly lit corridor.

 

***

 

Dear parents,

I am fine.

 

I groaned with frustration as I stared at the piece of parchment in front of me. The almost blank page seemed to mock me and for a moment I seriously considered throwing it into the fire that roared next to the leather armchair I was lounging in. I had started the letter about an hour ago but I simply couldn’t think of anything to say.

            “You could write about how Albus Potter was in detention,” Katie suggested lazily as she stretched her arms towards the high ceiling of the common room. “They’ll like that.”

            “You are not being very helpful.” I smiled without looking up from the parchment in my lap; there was a glistening ink stain where I had pressed the tip of my quill to the paper for too long, contemplating what to write.

            “How about I’m in Ravenclaw, deal with it bitches.”

            “Yeah, that’s much better.”

            “Come on!” My best friend gave me a pleading look, her auburn curls completely dishevelled from rubbing against the flaky cloth of her chair. “It’s a brilliant day outside and we are the only dunces still left inside!”

            I sighed, banging my head against the upholstery of my chair. Katie was absolutely right; the castle was positively forsaken; even the ghosts seemed to have abandoned the corridors for once. It seemed more than stupid to sit next to a fireplace, hunched over a letter I didn’t even want to write.

            “Come on! You need some fresh air!” Katie had practically leapt up, her fists punching the air energetically. Her sequined headband caught the sunlight that streamed in through the window as she grabbed my discarded grey sweater and threw it into my face. “YOLO, Seth. YOLO.”

            With a smirk, I pulled the loose sweater over my head and stuffed the poor excuse for a letter down the side pocket of my brown leather bag. “You’re right.”

            “I know!” She gave me her most exasperated eye-roll. “As usual.” And with these words, my best friend linked her arm through mine and dragged me all the way out of the empty castle.

 

***

 

The sky was almost cloudless except for a few fluffy white tufts that sailed along the edge of the horizon like a herd of sheep. A soft wind rippled the opaque surface of the Black Lake at the edge of which a few people dared to stick in their feet. The vast Hogwarts grounds were bustling with students, their heads turned towards the sky, basking in the bright sunlight that still had some of the summery warmth left; yet, there was a definite crisp in the air that carried the promise of autumn.

            “Maybe I’ll still catch a tan.” Katie rolled onto her back, exposing her milky white skin to the sun. She was even paler than me, but I always thought it looked somehow less cold on her with her reddish-brown curls and bright blue eyes.

            “Yeah, or a cold,” I said, pointing at the goose bumps on her bare arms. Though the temperature might have been quite pleasant, it wasn’t warm enough to don nothing but a thin strappy top.

            “Beauty knows no pain, darling.”

            I shook my head laughing and turned back to the old issue of Witch Weekly that I had found hidden in one of the books in the library. It was thoroughly wrinkled and someone had filled in all the crossword puzzles already, but I still flicked through the pages, reading bits and pieces of the colourfully illustrated articles. The editorial was a big home story on the Potters and their cottage in the Scottish countryside with a large family portrait that showed them smiling and waving.

            “OK, don’t look now,” Katie suddenly whispered close to me, “But I think Albus Potter is watching us.”

            Rather thickly, I glanced at the 10 year old Albus in the moving photograph, before I had even processed what Katie had just told me. “What?”

            “Over there,” she muttered, “by the jetty.”

            I pushed my sunglasses up the bridge of my nose and inconspicuously turned my head towards the lake, where a group of people was lounging at the edge of the wooden cat-walk that led into the dark water. However, before I could get a closer look, there was a loud splash, followed by a great amount of laughter and whooping that echoed over the lake, and I whipped my head around.

            Like everyone else, I found the source of the ruckus just in time to see James Potter wading out of the Black Lake with his white Henley shirt sticking to his body and a grin plastered across his handsome face, much to the amusement of Freddie Weasley and Augustus Cotton, who could barely stand upright from laughing.

            “Would you look at that,” Katie murmured, biting down absently on the cap of her pen as she watched James ruffle his wet dark brown hair, her eyes glued to the well-defined muscles that were outlined against the soaked fabric that clung to his torso. She wasn’t the only one, either; the majority of people stared at the small group by the lake, some with envy, others with definite longing. Achieving such an effect had probably been the whole purpose of this stunt, but everyone seemed glad that – while not in person – they had, at least, been somehow included in whatever made James Potter and his friends laugh.

            “I wish he’d do that to me,” Katie sighed as James had easily picked up a blond girl that had been sitting with his friends, pressing his drenched body to hers while she giggled and screeched with obvious delight. “


I only groaned in response and let myself plop back down onto the plaid blanket to resume my perusal of the tattered issue of Witch Weekly, discarding the page that flashed the Potter family portrait. Unlike Katie, I had definitely had enough James Potter for one day.


A/N: Dear lovely reader. I hope that you are still enjoying the story and I would love to hear what you think, so leave me a review… getting feedback really makes my day :)


Chapter 5: The Crapula Incident
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Warm, orange light flooded the corridor, the shadows of the elaborate stained glass windows drawing intriguing patterns on the stone floor. People didn’t seem to notice the swirls and colours that draped the entire hallway, stepping over them carelessly as they moved in tight-knit clusters towards their various dormitories. A tinge of excitement lingered in the air and it seemed to inspire more whispering and giggling than usual.

                “Hey Seth!” Someone yelled behind me and I turned my head to find Tarquin Digby jogging along the brilliantly light corridor, dodging a group of chattering girls. With his skin-tight jeans and brightly patterned T-shirt, he looked slightly out of place in the ancient hallway, yet it suited his gangly frame.

                “Long time no see,” he panted as he caught up with me, “I almost didn’t recognize you since you- well, um…”

                “Don’t look like a boy anymore?” I couldn’t help grinning as Tarquin’s slender face turned a violent shade of pink, standing out against his light brown hair. “Relax, Quin. I’m just kidding.”

                “Right,” he grinned broadly, pushing the black-framed glasses further up his nose. “How are you? How was your summer?”

                “Good.” It wasn’t entirely true but I didn’t feel like elaborating on how I had spent the majority of my holidays hiding from my family. It didn’t quite make for a jolly summer story. “Yours?”

                “Great. Listen,” he furrowed his brows, which slightly distorted his glasses, “Sam Henderson asked me if you were going to the back-to-school party tonight.” He gave me a long, curious look and this time, it was my cheeks that blushed. “I had no idea the two of you were so chummy.”

                “We’re not chummy,” I mumbled lamely in an attempt to sound cool. I had successfully avoided Sam ever since my rather awkward exit at dinner yesterday, hoping that he would somehow just stop acting all flirty with me. The simple truth was that flirting with boys was not only out of my comfort zone but also I just wasn’t any good at it, which mortified me.

                “I said I didn’t know.” Tarquin went on, either elegantly bridging my awkwardness or actually not noticing it. “Are you going?”

                We had reached the bottom of the sprawling staircase in the entrance hall, stopping at the first step. The heavy wooden doors were opened wide to admit the golden light of the setting sun that poured into the castle, dipping everything into a warm glow. A few students were just now trickling back in from the grounds, just in time to get ready for the biggest official party of the year.

                “Well, Katie really wants to.”

                “Oh, yeah Katie,” Tarquin’s whole body language had changed entirely all of a sudden: His long, thin arms were suddenly restless as though he wasn’t sure what to do with them and his ears had turned a deep magenta. “How, um, is she?” His voice had cracked at the word ‘she’ and he quickly cleared his throat.

I tried hard not to grin and looked down to my shoes, pretending to examine my laces. Tarquin Digby had had the biggest crush on my best friend since our fourth year, which was so painfully obvious that even I had noticed it. Unfortunately for the poor bloke, Katie was not interested and she didn’t exactly try to conceal it.

“Well, you know Katie. She’s always good,” I paused shortly before I said as casually as possible: “She broke up with John.”

“Oh, did she?” He tried hard to sound unaffected by the news but the slight quaver in his voice gave him away. Even when we said our goodbyes he was still positively beaming at me, his walk fairly springy as he ambled off to the Hufflepuff common room.

***

 

"There you are!" There was a hint of accusation in Katie's voice, as she watched me put down a pile of books on my night stand. She was sitting on my bed quite naturally, her legs crossed and her curls wrapped into a fluffy towel turban, smelling distinctly of coconut. "I already thought you'd been slain by a big-ass book."

I only gave her a sarcastic grin that had to suffice as reply and leaned against the windowsill that divided our beds. It was slightly ajar, letting in a rather crisp breeze that seemed to contradict the glistening light of the setting sun. "I met Tarquin just outside the library."

"Oh great. You didn't tell him about John, did you?"

"No, of course not." The moment I said it, I knew that my voice had been far too stiff and sing-song-y to sound even the slightest bit natural. Even someone who knew me less well than Katie would have probably seen right through my feeble attempt at lying.

"You know I can tell you're lying when you start sounding like a bitter Shakespearean king, right?"

"I know," I sighed as I drew my legs up onto the sill to wrap my arms around them. As a matter of fact, the Woodleys were exceptionally gifted liars. Everyone in my family had the literal 'poker-face'; an imperturbable control over their facial muscles as well as voice that made it practically impossible for anybody to call their bluff. It was yet another lovely family trait that somehow eluded me.

"Well, it doesn't really matter now, does it?" Katie jumped up from my bed, sounding immensely chipper all of a sudden. "I'll just have to put up with having him run after me like a lost puppy all year."

"Which is absolutely terrible!" I cried out in a mock-dramatic manner, earning a drastic eye-roll from my best friend. "I mean, the shame! How can you even bear it?"

"Oh shut up Macbeth!" She had picked up my pillow, throwing it so hard that I lost balance and canted towards the ground; but not without taking Katie down with me.

"You idiot!" She cried as we both collapsed on the hardwood floor in a heap of giggles and snorts, rolling around like complete loons. It was only when I spotted a pair of dirt-caked brown boots in front of me that I finally stopped laughing and looked up.

"I didn't mean to interrupt." The burley frame of Bernice Claville was looming at the foot of my bed, staring down at us in all her broad-shouldered glory. Just like her voice, the expression on her round face was sober, not allowing for any sort of interpretation of her mood. I had never actually seen her smile; she wasn't even smiling when she told a joke, which was probably what put most people off about her. I had been thoroughly scared of her throughout my entire first year, until the day she had saved me from a horde of bullies by throwing her books at them; it had also been the day she had been discovered as a beater for the Ravenclaw Quidditch team.

"No, of course not. How was practice?" I nodded towards the sapphire blue ensemble that covered her tall body. There were visible streaks of dirt on her cheeks and strands of strawberry blonde hair stuck to her sweaty forehead.

"Good," she deadpanned, "We might finally beat Gryffindor this year. They didn't even have tryouts yet."

"Awesome." I nodded approvingly but the truth was that I actually didn't care all that much about Quidditch. It was alright to watch but I just hated the fuss everyone made about it. This was an impossible thing to say at Hogwarts, of course, where people flying about on broomsticks enjoyed privileges that others could only dream of; so I only protested in silence whenever the team members were exempted from doing homework yet again.

"Um, well," Bernice suddenly looked stiffer than usual, her hands knotted behind her back. "I was just wondering, if, um, well – Ursula said she heard you talking about the party tonight?"

"Yup, we're going," Katie piped up before I even had the chance to protest. Actually I would have preferred slipping into my most comfortable pajamas and cuddling up in bed with a nice cup of tea and one of the new books I had procured from the library; however, I also knew I would eternally feel bad for skipping out on my best friend just because I was a socially awkward, lazy bum with the exciting lifestyle of an 80-year-old cat lady.

"Oh great! I um, I wondered if maybe you would mind if I, like, join you?" Bernice looked as inexpressive as always but the hopeful glimmer in her eyes gave her away. Like Katie and I, she didn't really fit into the social scene at Hogwarts; her sheer size – though advantageous on the Quidditch pitch – and her inability to smile seemed to scare people off. The only person she really hung out with was the other girl in our dormitory room, Ursula Mussegros, who was affiliated with probably every single club in Hogwarts and therefore rarely had time for anything else.

"Of course not! Come with us," I said quickly although I could practically feel Katie moan next to me. It wasn't anything personal, really. After all these years, Katie just still had the ridiculous idea in her head that somehow, miraculously, we would suddenly strike up a friendship with the popular crowd and shed our eternal loser images. Showing up with a girl most people only knew as Bulky Bernie probably wasn't that beneficial to her plan.

"Oh come on," I groaned at Katie's reproachful look after Bernice had left for the bathroom with an almost happy expression on her face. "Did you see how excited she was?"

"No," Katie growled in response, "because her face always looks the same, Seth."

"Oh rot!" I waved my hand in the air like I was swatting at an invisible fly, deliberately ignoring my friend's argument as I pushed her towards her wardrobe. "Chop chop! The party starts in fifteen minutes!"

"Yeah, alright," Katie gave me one of her most dramatic eye-rolls before turning to the colorful assortment of clothes that inhabited her closet. "At least we're going."

***

 

The Great Hall – a construction that was already impressive by itself – looked even more awe-inspiring than usual with a blanket of glittery stars hanging underneath the bewitched roof like they had actually fallen from the sky. The light was soft and the music loud though nobody was dancing; they all seemed to scramble around the elf-run bars that offered snacks and, most importantly, butterbeer.

"That's so cool!" Katie was bouncing excitedly, her glittery blouse reflecting the light like a genuine disco ball. Her thick, curly hair was held in place by a velvet bowtie barrette that matched her bright pink lipstick and the converse sneakers on her feet. She had led the way into the Great Hall with Bernice and me trailing behind a little awkwardly; I wasn't sure where to look and my arms suddenly felt weird just dangling next to my body. What the hell did I usually do with them?

"Right," Katie beamed, "Let's get a drink." She pushed ahead through a group of girls and again, completely overwhelmed by the situation, Bernice and I were left to follow her lead. We weaved clumsily through the chattering mass of students – Bernice accidentally knocking a few people over in the process – until we finally reached one of the busy bar counters.

"Alright!" Katie thrust a bottle of butterbeer into my hand before letting her gaze wander across the room, her light blue eyes shining with anticipation. "Let's do this!"

***

Exactly two hours and twelve minutes; that was the amount of time I had been standing against the exact same stretch of wall, nursing the exact same bottle of butterbeer that had turned disgustingly lukewarm in my hands. By now, people were dancing trance-like to Muggle hip hop, holding their cups and bottles up to the enchanted ceiling like they were constantly toasting each other. In the darkness, the mass seemed to move as one, almost like a giant, multi-colored creature.

"You know, maybe we should just go to bed," Katie sighed as she watched the pulsating crowd in the middle of the Great Hall. She looked thoroughly disappointed by the way the evening had turned out and I couldn't help feeling bad for being such a lame party companion. Bernice wasn't much help either; she hadn't said anything for more than an hour and I wasn't entirely sure that she hadn't fallen asleep with her eyes open.

"No!" I cried out firmly, "We're not going home. We're going dancing!"

Katie blinked, looking fairly startled by my suggestion. "Seth," she finally said with a small smile on her lips, "you don't have to do this. You hate dancing."

She was right; I did hate dancing. It was one of the things I was absolutely rubbish at and I hated being rubbish. I liked to be in control of what I was doing; however, for Katie, I was prepared to let go for once.

"I'm serious, let's go." I grabbed my best friend's arm determinedly before whirring around. "Bernice, what do you say?"

Bernice didn't even stir but just sat on her chair, staring into space with quite glassy eyes.

"Right. Just the two of us, then." Ignoring her protests, I pulled Katie with me until we had reached the edge of the throbbing cluster of people that was now shoving against us as they winded their bodies. The air felt hotter and more humid all of a sudden and the beats vibrated in my ears, dulling everything else around me. Katie had begun to move quite expertly and I nodded my shoulders along to the rhythm with as much tact as I could muster.

Next to us, a group of Hufflepuff boys with ties around their heads had started dancing along; one of them held out two brightly orange colored drinks, willing us to take them. He grinned and showed us his thumbs-up as Katie yelled a thank you over the music, toasting him with her cup. She looked positively radiant as she raised her eyebrows at me, her mouth forming the words Oh my god. We had never before been supplied with drinks by random guys; that usually only happened to girls like Demeter Notte and her friends.

"I wouldn't drink that if I were you," a voice suddenly said right next to my ear and I turned a little too abruptly, spilling gooey orange liquid all over someone's lovely white button-down shirt.

"Oh shit! I'm so –" I actually wanted to say sorry, but the shock of finding Albus Potter's face looming so close to mine, put me off completely. Even in the dim light I could see that his eyes were indeed green like his father's.

"No problem," he said with a smile, his cheeks blushing slightly, "It's good you didn't drink it, it's got Crapula in it."

"What?" I looked at the cup with the remaining drink in my hand and took a careful sniff; the treacherous smell of honey mingled with a definite acidic note left no doubt; the drink was indeed interspersed with the highly intoxicating Crapula potion.

"Do you mean to say," Katie asked with wide eyes, "that those boys wanted to drug us?"

Albus ran a hand through his untidy, black hair. "Well, yeah."

"Oh my god," Katie just stared at her drink in awe like she had never seen such a wondrous thing. She didn't look exactly happy about the fact that someone had tried to drug us, but she definitely didn't look appropriately repulsed.

"Thanks for the warning," I said to Albus as I took Katie's glass out of her hand. She didn't protest, but a deep frown appeared on her face as she stared at the drinks that were emitting thin streams of smoke by now.

"Yeah, no problem." Albus grinned sheepishly; he lifted his hand to his hair but suddenly stopped in midair, dropping it awkwardly again. "Um, your name is Elizabeth, right?"

"Seth," I supplied quickly and, after feeling Katie's elbow jabbing into my ribs, I added, "and this is my friend Katie."

"Hi," she gushed, giving Albus a brilliant smile that I had rarely seen on her before, "I'm Katie."

"Um, yeah," Albus grinned, "so I've heard."

Katie didn't seem to notice her mistake and simply nodded enthusiastically. I wasn't sure how much butterbeer she had had already, but it definitely must have been more than one bottle.

"So, um," Albus smiled slightly embarrassed, "You're in Ravenclaw, aren't you?"

"Yeah, how'd you know?" The moment I had opened my mouth, someone had turned up the music and I had to properly scream my answer. A booming voice proclaimed that McGonagall had left to go to bed and a loud whooping echoed through the Hall, momentarily drowning the thick beats.

"Books!" Albus yelled back, leaning in a little bit closer. The gooey stain on his shirt gave off a sour smell by now that was biting in my nose. "You always carry around loads of books so I just guessed."

"Yeah, Seth's a total nerd!" Katie suddenly cried so loudly that the people around us began to snicker. She was swaying oddly to the music and her face had gone a shocking shade of pink. It looked like she was literally glowing; but not in a healthy way. "And she used to look like a boy!" A sputter of giggles that was most unnatural for Katie erupted from her mouth, leaving a dim smile on her face.

Something definitely wasn't right here.

"Katie, look at me," I spoke firmly, feeling a sudden uneasiness crawl up my spine. Her eyes couldn't focus on me and she began to giggle wildly again.

"You look funny." Her fingers had started kneading my cheeks as a curious expression spread across her face. Instinctively, I looked down to the poisoned drink I had taken from her just minutes ago; at the edge of the glass was a faint pink stain.

Oh no. This wasn't good.











A/N: Hello there awesome reader! If you read this, you proabbly made it through this chapter and I would absolutely LOVE to hear what you think! Reviews make my day so feel free to drop me a line or two :) Thank you for reading!


Chapter 6: The Disadvantages of being a Nerd
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Heavy raindrops were drumming against the high windows, filling the hospital wing with soft tapping sounds. The sky was a gloomy shade of grey that was only occasionally lit by dramatic bolts of lightning. It looked like the end of the world outside, but I had always thought that boisterous weather suited Hogwarts well; it made the castle a hundred times cosier and I had the perfect excuse for staying in and reading.

            “Hermione Weasley has passed another Elf Labour Regulation Act. It’s the biggest one in magical history.”

            “Oh stop it!” Katie pleaded as she tried to snatch the issue of the Daily Prophet out of my hands without success. She looked much better already than yesterday night; her lips had lost their orange tinge and the dim grin had faded as well after a while. Only her motor functions were still a little slow, which showed in her sloth-like attempts to rid me of my paper.

            “OK. What do you want to hear then?” I put away the Daily Prophet and began to rummage through the stack of wrinkly Witch Weekly copies – the only sort of entertainment the Hogwarts hospital wing offered – that were piled on a small coffee table. I had read almost all of them, spending the night next to Katie’s bed, alternating between dozing off uncomfortably and reading articles on Celestina Warbeck’s 100th birthday.

            “I think I’m ready to hear about yesterday night.” Katie looked at me quite seriously but I could detect a hint of fear in her light blue eyes. She couldn’t remember anything after taking a sip of the Crapula infused drink last night.

            “Well, it wasn’t that bad, really,” I began carefully after checking again that we were quite alone in the room. Apparently, no one else had been tricked into drinking the intoxication potion.

            “Seth.”

            “No, really! You just giggled a lot and called me a nerd and then Professor Longbottom came and brought you up here.” It was the truth, though not exactly all of it. It had taken quite some effort, to get Katie to leave the party; she had been exuberant, throwing everyone we passed kisses and waving like she was the queen herself.

            “I know you’re lying,” Katie sighed, pulling the fluffy white blanket up to her chin as she watched Madame Pomfrey, the matron, bustling around the ward, fluffing up cushions, “and I really appreciate it.”

            I only smiled in response, drawing my legs up to my chest. My back felt sore from spending the whole night on this bare wooden chair and my butt had fallen asleep about an hour ago. Madame Pomfrey, who had tried to send me away several times already, only shook her head at me as I caught her eye across the room. She hadn’t been too happy with me when I had insisted on staying up here with Katie but in the end, though grudgingly, she had given in.

            “So, what did I miss? Did you meet Sam?” Katie inquired quietly after the matron had brought us two cups of steaming hot tea.

            “Oh,” I bit my lip before smiling somewhat crookedly, “well, um, no – since he was busy snogging Felicity Bolder in a dark corner.” Sam’s attention had shifted fairly quickly when I hadn’t thrown myself into his arms immediately. I can’t say that it really bothered me, but the fact that Sam had lost interest in me so easily wasn’t exactly flattering either.

“That bloody prick!” Katie had abandoned her quiet voice, crying out indignantly. “What an idiot! You are way better than Felicity Bolder! She always smells of cabbage; that’s bloody weird!”

“Thanks, that’s such a comfort.” I took a sip of Madame Pomfrey’s tea before cradling the warm cup in my hands. A snuggly feeling immediately spread through my body and the tension in my shoulders began to recede. For a moment, it was pure bliss.

“Well, who needs Sam Henderson when you have Albus Potter, right?”

Katie grinned broadly as I stared at her a little dumbfounded. Of all the things she could have remembered, it had to be Albus Potter, of course. I wasn’t sure how, but her brain seemed to work in odd ways.

“What are you talking about?” I whispered, feeling Madame Pomfrey’s reproachful stare on my back. “He’s a year younger than me.”

Of all the arguments I could have come up with, this was certainly the lamest.

“Oh please,” Katie raised her eyebrows slowly, “You don’t turn sixteen before next week. And Albus is hot. Who cares if he is in fifth.”

I had started shaking my head so vigorously at the word ‘hot’ that bits of tea slopped over the edge of my cup and stained my white sweater. Katie was being ridiculous; I had absolutely no interest in Albus Potter, whatsoever. It hadn’t even occurred to me to look at him that way. And certainly he hadn’t either.

“Madame Pomfrey?” The door to the hospital ward had opened with a blast and a small group of people in muddied clothes entered, looking exhausted. Their clothes all were completely soaked and they seemed to be shaking heavily as they moved further into the room, leaving great, brown puddles of water in their wake.

“What is going on here?” The matron had appeared immediately, taking in the scene with a wary look on her usually friendly round face. “What happened?”

“Quidditch try-outs,” a thin girl with a bloody cut on her chin panted out of breath. Only now, as I followed Madame Pomfrey’s quizzical gaze, I noticed that two of them looked like they actually couldn’t stay upright by themselves, swaying oddly as they leaned on their companions’ shoulders.

“Quick, get them over here,” the matron ordered briskly, leading them to a section in the back. Katie and I craned our necks a little to follow the events but within seconds, Madame Pomfrey had strode back across the room, drawing the curtain next to Katie’s bed so that our view was blocked by a baby-blue piece of cloth.

“Quidditch. In this weather. Unbelievable,” she muttered angrily under her breath, stalking off again to tend to her new patients.

Katie gave me a long meaningful look before she whispered “Gryffindor”. I only nodded in response, having seen the hints of scarlet fabric showing through the layers of mud that clung to the uniforms. It really wasn’t the right weather for flying, let alone leaving the castle. The rain pelted even harder against the windows by now and a proper storm whipped the trees so violently, it looked like they were about to be unearthed. None of the other team captains would have held try-outs under such horrible conditions but, of course, James Potter didn’t care. He had a reputation for working the Gryffindor team quite hard, which most people thought was admirably fierce and brave. Never mind that he was a reckless, self-important git who gave a boggart’s arse about other people’s safety.

 

***

 

As September progressed, it seemed, the last traces of summer had vanished as well. A permanent cold wind swirled up the orange and gold leaves that had gathered underneath the towering trees at the edge of the Forbidden Forrest and the promise of rain loomed in the dark clouds that hung low over Hogwarts.

            I wrapped my woolly scarf a little tighter around my neck as a particularly cold gust of wind swept along the edge of the forest, positively howling. Next to me, Adina Singer and Morgana Evenberg shivered, huddling up with their teeth clattering and their bare knees quivering. They hadn’t even bothered to put on a sweater over their uniforms, wearing nothing but thin blouses and their shortened uniform skirts, which earned them quite disapproving glances from Bernice, who was standing behind them.

            “Alright!” Professor Hagrid had reappeared from his hut, carrying a wooden crate that was large enough to hold a small dragon, a broad grin lighting up his bearded face. “I got ya a real treat for today. Thought you might like ‘em.”

            A few people exchanged nervous looks; many of them had not yet overcome the disastrous confrontation with the baby Pogrebin last year that had attempted to bite off Fergus Seelie’s arm. Hagrid was quite notorious for taking a liking to all sorts of dangerous creatures and bringing them to class; however, no one could argue that his lessons weren’t exciting.

            “I’ve got enough for all of you!” He proclaimed as he set the box down in front of his feet. “Who can tell me what they are?”

            Together with a few others, I moved in on the box, peering over its edge: Nestled in a layer of straw were tiny lizard-like creatures that shimmered in a striking silver-green colour.

            “Mokes,” I whispered awestruck without taking my eyes off the thimble-sized reptiles that now craned their heads upwards quite curiously. I had read about them before but, like Hagrid had said, they were extremely rare and usually hard to spot.

            “Exactly! Five points to Ravenclaw!” Hagrid cried out enthusiastically. “Clever little creatures, they are. Tricky to find since they can shrink themselves on the spot.”

            By now, the rest of the class had dared to approach the Mokes as well and – after realising that they weren’t in immediate danger – longed heartily into the crate when Hagrid told us to pair up and get hold of one. This was harder than it sounded, however, since they kept shrinking and growing rapidly again, making it almost impossible to seize them as they dived into the straw.

            “Wanna pair up?” Bernice appeared next to me just as I surfaced from the crate, clutching a struggling Moke in my hand that had already shrunken to minimum size. I could feel its tiny talons scraping my palm relentlessly.

            “Sure,” I panted, dropping the reluctant Moke into the bucket Bernice was holding up. In its understandable struggle for freedom, the creature had left quite a few cuts on the inside of my hand, some of them already gushing blood.

            “How is Katie?”

            “Good,” I replied as I wiped my hand on my black tights for lack of a proper tissue. “She can leave the hospital wing tonight.”

            Bernice nodded, prodding the Moke with the tip of her wand as though trying to get it to grow again. At the moment it was so miniscule that it was hard to draw even a fairly accurate sketch of its features. Many people around us seemed to have the same problem, squinting aimless into their buckets and sticking in their wands.

            “Take one o’ these!” Hagrid shouted over the usual chatter, producing a good dozen of magnifying glasses from one of the countless pockets of his bulging cloak. It simplified the whole task immensely.

            “So the poisoning wasn’t too bad?”

            “No, thank god.” I sighed as I watched the Moke frantically skirting the inside of the metal bucket. According to Madame Pomfrey, Katie had been quite lucky; apparently there had been a lot of severe cases of Crapula poisoning last year, where people, in a spree of unreasonable exhilaration, had attempted to jump off towers or almost drowned themselves in the Black Lake. The sip Katie had taken from her drink had only contained a marginal amount of the potion and, when I had visited her this morning before breakfast, she had already seemed quite like her usual quirky self again, perusing a copy of the latest Marie-Claire issue.

 

“Lesson’s over! Just put your Mokes back in the crate!” Hagrid hadn’t even finished his sentence, when half of the class was already on their feet, making a great deal of noise as they emptied their buckets rather carelessly, sending their Mokes skidding down over the metal edges. It had started drizzling by now and everyone was eager to get back up to the castle, where it was warm and dry.

            “Thank you, Seth,” Hagrid boomed as I began to collect the buckets that were strewn haphazardly across the lawn. I actually didn’t mind staying behind a little; for the last 40 minutes, Bernice had been elaborating on how Ravenclaw was going to beat Hufflepuff in the traditional kick-off friendly in October, which would have been fine, really, if I hadn’t heard it for the umpteenth time already. Since Katie hadn’t been there, I had somehow ended up eating my meals with Bernice and Rufina Pinkerton, the other Ravenclaw Beater, who took it upon them to educate me on various Quidditch tactics. And, while I liked Bernice, I just needed a little break from hearing about blagging and Bludger Backbeats.

            By the time I had collected all the buckets, the Hogwarts grounds were positively forsaken. Tiny drops of rain spattered against my face as I climbed the slight upwards slope towards the castle, almost slipping twice on wet patches of grass. The sound of thunder that had been growling in the distance, seemed menacingly close by now and I picked up speed as the rain drops grew considerably larger.

            “Seth!” Someone suddenly called behind me and I turned around to find Albus Potter jogging towards me, strands of damp black hair clinging to his forehead. “Care of Magical Creatures?”

“Yup,” I gave him a smile as he caught up, falling into step with me. We hadn’t talked since the party on Saturday and, honestly, I hadn’t expected us too. After all, we weren’t friends. In fact we barely knew each other. Nonetheless, there was a certain familiarity about Albus that made it surprisingly easy to talk to him. “You?”

            “Herbology. Greenhouse three,” he retorted, indicating roughly the direction of the Hogwarts greenhouses. “How is your friend? I hope she feels better?”

            “Oh, yeah,” I threw my arm out a little awkwardly in an attempt to make a nonchalant gesture, but instead caused half of my books to fall down onto the rain sodden ground. They landed on the grass with a squelch and I couldn’t help the tiny groan that escaped my mouth.

            “Wait, let me help you.” Albus made to crouch down but I was quicker.

            “It’s fine,” I sighed as I scooped my soggy books up with one swift movement, “that happens to me all of the time, really.”

            “Maybe you should consider not carrying around so many books?” He gave me quite an adorable crooked smile as we continued to walk the last few meters to the castle. “I’ve never seen you without any.”

            “Oh really? How often have you actually seen me?”

            It was meant as a joke but, to my surprise, Albus’ cheeks suddenly turned slightly pink and his gaze shifted awkwardly towards the floor. I got the uneasy feeling that I had said something wrong, but when Albus looked up at me again, smiling unperturbed as usual, I discarded the thought immediately.

            “Are you going to Hogsmeade this Saturday?”

            “I think so, yes,” I said truthfully albeit leaving out that it was actually my birthday on Saturday and that Katie had planned a birthday pub crawl, which was totally not going to happen, of course.

            “Cool.” He nodded, his hands stuffed firmly into the pockets of his dark grey uniform trousers. “So – um – maybe I see you there?”

            “Um, yes, maybe,” I mimicked his nodding gesture, feeling weirdly awkward all of a sudden. I couldn’t put my finger on what exactly it was that felt odd about the situation but it was definitely there, and it lingered even after Albus had left to join his friends for lunch in the Great Hall.

 

***

 

Torrential rain lashed against the tall windows that had fogged up from the hot wafts of steam, curling lazily above the half-dozen cauldrons. My hair too had absorbed the thick humidity that hung in the classroom air, frizzing it so that it looked like a wheat blonde halo around my head. I didn’t care much however, seeing that the Calming Draught I had carefully stirred for the last half-hour, had turned the exact shade of ink blue that was described as ideal result in my Advanced Potions Book. Of all subjects, Potions was probably my favourite; unlike most things in this world, it was guided by sheer rules of logic and, hence, wonderfully predictable. That was, if you got the instructions right, of course.

            “Alright now; time is up!” Professor Slughorn’s voice carried over the hissing and clinking that filled the classroom. “Bottle up a sample of your work and bring it to my desk, please!”

            The reaction was immediate; chairs scraped on the stone floor and the volume rose threefold as everyone hastened to join the beeline for the teacher’s desk. It was the last lesson for today and most people were probably eager to get to dinner.

            “Ah, another Outstanding, I suppose,” Slughorn said amicably as he examined the small flask I had just handed in. He watched the thick blue liquid swirl idly as he surveyed it against the candlelight on his desk, when suddenly he knitted his eyebrows musingly. “Miss Woodley, would you mind staying behind a minute? There is something I need to discuss with you.”

            For I moment I was too perplexed to respond. Judging by the sudden serious note in Slughorn’s voice it almost sounded as though I was in trouble. I had never been in trouble before and the prospect positively mortified me. Also, the whispered ‘uuuhs’ behind my back didn’t help much either.

“Oh, OK. Sure,” I finally managed to say, before trailing somewhat awkwardly to the side of the teacher’s desk. The few people that were still queuing to submit their samples, gave me appraising looks but I simply turned away, pretending to study the tall Georgian windows. Considering that the Potions classroom traditionally was in the dungeons of the castle, the windows were indeed a strange sight; the classroom was somewhere underground, yet the windows made it look like there was a vast sky just outside the room.

“Beautiful, aren’t they?” Slughorn’s deep voice boomed lazily as soon as the last pair of students had cleared out. He stroked his enormous walrus moustache and I couldn’t help thinking that it looked a little like a very furry, very chubby caterpillar. “Bewitched them myself, of course. Reflect the weather outside, just like the ceiling in the Great Hall.”

He had gotten up from his chair and walked around the desk, one hand twirling the tips of his moustache as he studied me for a moment. “Miss Woodley, you are quite a natural at Potions. Of course, you are aware of that, I dare say?” His booming laughter echoed from the walls and I felt myself relax a little; maybe I wasn’t in trouble after all.

“I guess I am quite OK, Sir,” I replied meekly, still not quite sure where this conversation was headed. I knew I was good at Potions, but this fact alone didn’t seem to justify the talk I was just having.

“OK?” Slughorn yelled loudly, amusement crossing his plump face as he looked at me quite intently. “Miss Woodley, I have, in fact, a favour to ask you. I have a student – a particular favourite of mine, I have to admit – who, well, does not perform as well as he ought to in Potions, I’m afraid.” He paused for a moment, apparently contemplating how to continue before clearing his throat. “You see, James is a smart boy but there are, well,” he chuckled jovially, “other things on his mind. I don’t blame him, mind you.”

He laughed again and I suddenly felt a sinking feeling in my stomach. I had finally realised what this conversation was about; or rather who it was about. “Sir-“

            “I know, I know,” Slughorn cut off my attempt to wriggle out of this sticky situation, “tutoring is not part of your Prefect duties and it is a most unusual favour to ask. But I assure you, I would not do so if it wasn’t for my complete trust in your profound skills, Miss Woodley.”

            I hesitated for a second, not sure how to respond. There was no doubt that this James, Slughorn was talking about, was James Potter. After all, it was commonly known that he had a soft spot for the Potter kids; the famous offspring of the saviour of the entire wizarding world.

            “But, isn’t James Potter one year above me, Sir? Shouldn’t he be tutored by another seventh year?” I asked rather hopelessly, feeling that a trifle like this would not really impress Professor Slughorn. He merely chuckled again, holding his great belly that protruded underneath his emerald green robes.

            “Oh no, Miss Woodley. Like I said, I have absolute faith in you. And besides, I need someone, who puts academics fist, if you know what I mean.” He winked quite obviously and I had to refrain from groaning loudly. Whatever ‘putting academics first’ meant, I was sure that it couldn’t be anything good.








A/N: Hello wonderful reader who made it to the end of this really long chapter! I hope you enjoyed it! As always, I would love to hear your thoughts and opinions :). Thank you for reading!


Chapter 7: The Awkward Hug Incident
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A/N: I am sorry this chapter took me so long to upload. I promise I will resume my weekly uploads as of now J. Enjoy.

 







Katie stalled in the middle of the narrow path, barely allowing the group of overly excited third years behind her to scuttle to a halt. They gave her quite reproachful glares as they flitted past but she didn’t even notice as she rummaged frantically through her blue sequined bag.

            “Kat, I told you I have enough for both of us,” I said seriously, tugging on her sleeve to edge her on a little. We were blocking the entire path, but apparently my best friend didn’t care.

            “No! It’s your birthday, Seth. I am not going to let you pay for everything.”

            “But that’s ridiculous,” I groaned while trying to dodge a couple of small boys that ran past us, evidently racing each other to get to Hogsmeade. “It’s my parents’ money anyway.”

            Katie only huffed in response, now digging even fiercer into her bag on the search for her wallet. Her cheeks had turned a glowing shade of pink and her auburn curls had been messed up by the strong wind, giving her the slight appearance of a particularly mad professor.

            “OK, now stop violating your bag and look at me,” I said as seriously as possible while keeping my hair from whipping into my face. The thin parka failed miserably at keeping me warm and I quite regretted not having taken my snug woolly hat. “I will pay today. My birthday, my rules.”

            Katie made to open her mouth in protest but before she could say anything, she was cut off by a wildly waving Tarquin Digby, who was running towards us down the sloping path.

            “Hey girls!” He came to a halt in front of us, looking thoroughly windswept but with a broad grin on his slender face, “Whazz happenin?” He croaked feebly and I couldn’t help cringing inwardly at his awkwardness that only ever surfaced when he was talking to Katie.

            “What?” She said rudely, the annoyance practically oozing from her voice.

            “Um, where are you going?” I wasn’t sure if he only pretended to not have noticed Katie’s obvious lack of enthusiasm or if he actually hadn’t picked up on her less than friendly demeanour, but Tarquin was still grinning at her as though she was the most wonderful thing he had ever seen.

            “Strip club,” Katie shrugged and I punched her shoulder reproachfully. Sure, it had been a rather stupid question but he clearly wasn’t in full command of his mental capacity.

            “Actually, we were just heading to Hogsmeade. Do you want to join us?” This time it was Katie who jabbed her elbow into my ribs, hissing under her breath. I wasn’t sure what exactly she had planned for today but it certainly hadn’t involved Tarquin Digby.

            “Yeah, sure!” He said happily, once again apparently oblivious to Katie’s theatrical eye rolls and overly loud groans, as he made to follow us down the narrow path.

“This thing,” Katie whispered, flourishing her index finger oddly in front of my face, “I mean, you inviting random strangers to join us, has to stop. Now.”

“Random strangers?” I raised my eyebrows in a mock-serious gesture and then linked my arm with hers. She complied, albeit slightly reluctantly, and let me pull her along after Tarquin, who was basically skipping down the narrow path, humming a cheerful melody.

 

***

 

The rain had set in again and cleared the usually busy streets of Hogsmeade. Only a few stray shoppers braved the downpour, holding their umbrellas close in front of their faces to keep them from being blown away. Naturally, the cold wind had driven everyone into the Three Broomsticks, which appeared to be busting at the seams. Almost every Hogwarts student who had ventured to leave the castle, seemed to be in here, shoving and pushing to get to the bar.

“This isn’t the way I planned it,” Katie moaned before giving Tarquin a nasty sidelong glance. It was hardly his fault that we were sitting in a remote corner, crammed around a table that would easily fit into a doll’s house, but she glared at him nonetheless. Tarquin, on the other hand, seemed to enjoy the lack of space between the two of them; his hand was resting remarkably close to hers and I had an odd feeling that he was going to take it.

“I’ll get something to drink!” Realising that I really did not want to whiteness this scene, I got up from my wobbly chair and left the table as quickly as possible. The crowd had swallowed me instantly and I suddenly felt like I was swimming against a strong current, constantly being pushed to the side as I tried to make my way to the bar. It had taken quite some elbowing skills to finally reach the oak counter and I clutched the wooden bar immediately to prevent being carried off into the crowd again.

“Three Butterbeers, please!” I shouted over the impressive noise level, still clinging to the counter like my life depended on it. I couldn’t tell if anyone behind the bar had heard me; the two barmaids seemed completely overwhelmed by the sheer amount of orders as they ran from one end of the long bar to the other.

“Hey,” someone suddenly breathed into my ear and I instinctively jumped to the side, letting out a small scream. Albus Potter smiled at me sheepishly, a slightly bemused expression on his face.

“Sorry,” he said, ruffling the black hair on the back of his head, “did I scare you?”

“No. I mean, yes. A little, maybe.” I stammered clumsily, my left arm still clutching the counter like a lifeboat.

Albus grinned apologetically as he leaned against the bar. There was a certain glint to his eyes and I guessed that he had had more than one Butterbeer already. “I saw you fighting your way through the crowd. Quite impressive.”

“Yeah,” I shrugged laughing, “I’ve got a mean elbow.”

Albus didn’t laugh; instead I found him staring quite obviously at my chest, his eyebrows furrowed with concentration. It was not like there was a lot to see; nonetheless, it wasn’t a very gentlemanly thing to do.

“It’s your birthday?” He said quite unexpectedly, looking up into my face again.

Right. I had forgotten about that. Albus had not been staring at my chest but at the unproportionally large badge Katie had stuck to my cropped jumper this morning. It was a fluorescent pink colour and flashed the words ‘Super Seth’s Super Sweet Sixteen’.

“You should have said something! Happy birthday!” Albus grinned a little too brightly again and suddenly I found myself enveloped in a hearty hug. Over his shoulder, I noticed some people in the closer vicinity casting curious glances in our direction and I felt my cheeks blush.

“Oh, um, thank you,” I stammered lamely after Albus had released me and, not exactly sure how I was supposed to act, I gave him an awkward pat on his arm.

Great. That wasn’t weird at all.

“Here is your Butterbeer,” a busty waitress slammed down three bottles on the counter, looking extraordinarily bored as she watched me fumble with my wallet, scattering a couple of Sickles.

“Thank you.” I took all three bottles at once, balancing them quite shakily in my arms. There was a big chance I was going to smash at least one of them but I didn’t care; people around us were still staring blatantly and I just wanted to get away.

“Should I help you?” Albus offered, already extending his hands to take the bottles out of my arms but I shook my head quickly.

“No, it’s fine. Really. I should – I should get back to my gang, you know?” Even as I had said it, I realised that I sounded like a middle-class wannabe gangster rapper. Who the hell called their friends a gang? I was really on form today.

“Okay, um,” Albus looked at me weirdly, probably deciding if I was crazy or just odd, and I simply made a tiny waving gesture before turning on the spot and diving back into the crowd.

 

***

 

            “Why didn’t you ask him to join us?” Katie plopped down onto her bed, eyeing me with a mixture of excitement and indignity. She was eating chocolate frogs out of the massive box she had given me for my birthday while watching me rummage through my wardrobe.

            “I thought I wasn’t allowed to invite random strangers,” I said as I surfaced from the mess that was my closet; its untidy state would have probably given my grandmother a heart attack if she had ever seen it.

            “That doesn’t apply to Albus Potter,” Katie replied, dropping the frog she had just picked up, back into the box again. “Maybe he’ll ask you out soon. We’ll be invited to parties and everything; oh god, I need new clothes.”

            “OK, Queen Mum, how about you help me look for my copy of The Advanced Potioneer.” I was slightly stressed, having tried to locate the book for the last fifteen minutes while Katie was indulging into unrealistic scenarios. She didn’t seem to want to pay attention to such mundane things as school books, however, and simply stretched cat-like on her bed.

            “Where do you think he will take you on your first date?”

            I couldn’t help the frustrated groan that escaped my mouth. “Nowhere. Katie, I’m serious,” I gave her a long, exasperated look, trying to somehow convey that I felt extremely uncomfortable talking about this topic. I didn’t believe that Albus Potter fancied me – most of all after what had happened at the Three Broomsticks earlier – and I didn’t want to, either. “I just want to find my damn book, OK?”

            Maybe it was the slightly pathetic whiney tone in my voice that did the trick; Katie huffed somewhat discontented and, stuffing an entire chocolate frog into her mouth, she said “Unger ge beg”.

            “Oh, thanks.” I had bent down to find a rather thick book lying carelessly underneath my bed. It must have fallen off my nightstand, which was overflowing with books and pieces of paper and parchment. I picked it up and replaced it carefully on the already impressive pile I had assembled on the top of the old-fashioned wooden chest at the foot of my bed.

            “OK,” I sighed less than enthusiastically, “I think I should go.”

            “Wait, what?” Katie sat up so quickly it looked like she had been on the receiving end of a stinging hex. “You are not going like that?!”

            Bewildered, I looked down on me, somehow expecting to find a large coffee stain on my cropped jumper, but it was perfectly white and clean.

            “Seth, seriously,” Katie had gotten up from her bed and crawled over mine to get to my closet, “skinny jeans and a jumper may be fine for Hogsmeade, but you are going to meet with James Potter, so you’ll need to step up your game, if you know what I mean.”

            “No, actually I don’t,” I spoke to Katie’s butt, which was the only part of her that was not immersed in the depths of my closet. She had started throwing around tops and dresses, apparently not hearing any of my attempts to protest, until she finally emerged again, holding up my pair of skinny leather-look trousers and a frilly top I could not remember buying for the life of me.

            “No,” I simply said, shaking my head fiercely, “just no. I am not going to change clothes.”

            “Don’t be so stubborn,” Katie pleaded but I was still shaking my head so vigorously that my top-knot had loosened and was bobbing oddly on top of my head.

            “Fine,” she huffed, throwing the clothes she had picked out back into my wardrobe, “but at least do your hair, OK?”

            “No,” I insisted firmly, quite aware that I sounded like a three-year-old, “it’s bad enough that I have to spend the evening of my birthday with James Potter. I am not going to dress up for that git. Never.”

            Katie rolled her eyes in that annoying older-sisterly manner and plopped down onto my bed as though she owned it. “Seriously, Seth – you don’t even know James.”

            “Oh,” I said heatedly, feeling the colour rise to my face, “I do know him, believe me.” The image of a brown-haired boy, laughing gleefully as I crawled on the floor, collecting pens and paper that lay strewn across the corridor, surfaced in front of my eyes.

            “Just because he tripped you up that one time doesn’t mean you actually know him,” Katie said calmly, albeit with an air of exasperation in her voice, “That was five years ago. You can’t still be mad about this.”

            “I’m not!” I said a little too quickly and practically hurled the neatly stacked pile of books into my bag.

“Yes you are.” Katie spoke unbearably patiently, like she was talking to a raging toddler, who was about to have a screaming-fit in the toy section of Walmart. “You hold grudges like only a Woodley can.”

For a moment I was too perplex to reply and only stared at my best friend, my mouth hanging open in disbelieve. “You take that back!”

Katie only shook her head, her arms placed firmly on her hips. She looked intimidating, even in her pink unicorn pyjamas. “No. You know it’s true.”

Again, I was reduced to staring at her, failing to come up with a plausible counter argument. Luckily the arrival of Bernice and Ursula saved me from having to give an answer. “I have to go,” I said curtly and, after picking up my bag, I left the dormitory.

“Don’t be mad, okay?” I could hear Katie’s voice shouting after me as I paced down the stairs. “Remember that I love you! And don’t be grudgy, okay?”

“That’s not even a real word!” I yelled back and then pushed open the door to the bustling Ravenclaw Common room.

 

***

 

            It was slightly uncanny to sit in the candlelit Potions classroom all by myself, with only the light, steady tapping of rain on the windows to keep me company. Somewhere in the closer distance I could hear the rattling of chains that sounded much like the Bloody Baron was haunting the dungeons again and I felt a slight uneasiness at the thought of the terrifying ghost. After more than five years at Hogwarts, I was not particularly scared of the resident ghosts anymore but I also did not need them to bother me when I was quite alone in a dimly lit classroom.

            I glanced at my watch for what felt like the hundredth time, tracing the second hand that seemed to drag itself across the dial. It had been almost an hour already that I had been waiting for James Potter, yet there was no sign of him. The fire I had lit underneath my cauldron was dying slowly and the ingredients, which I had prepared and lain out neatly on a white cloth, were untouched. The whole setup looked a little like a scorned dinner invitation and I suddenly felt immensely stupid for coming early and preparing everything; even more so, now that it had become apparent that James Potter had stood me up.

Nonetheless, I waited another ten minutes before finally deciding that it was time to pack up and leave the forsaken Potions classroom behind. I had no idea what I was going to tell Professor Slughorn if he asked me about tonight, but for now, I was somehow glad that James Potter had not shown up, mostly because I had been slightly nervous. I would never admit this to anyone, of course, but the prospect of spending my evening alone with Hogwarts’ most eligible bachelor had greatly intimidated me.

            I had reached the first floor, still deeply in thoughts, when suddenly there was a bang, followed by heaps of giggles and I stopped dead in my tracks. A few hushed whispers floated along the dimly lit corridor, interspersed with fits of snorting laughter, and there a black, multi-limbed mass stumbled around the closest corner. On first sight, I thought that some spidery creature from the forest had strayed into the castle but as it moved closer, I realised that the swaying spider was actually a tightly knit group of scarcely dressed girls. Their high heels clacked loudly on the marble floor as they proceeded along the corridor, striking up the chorus of the latest Miley Cyrus song.

            “Where did you say the party was?” I heard one of the girls shout over the chant, who was immediately shushed by her friends.

You be quiet!” She protested even louder with a definite slur in her squeaky voice, “I’m sure she,“ at that word, she had stretched out her arm sloppily, pointing directly at me, “is going to the party too, right?”

“No. She is not,” drawled a quite familiar voice before I even had the chance to open my mouth. Vala entangled herself from the group, her hands perched on her hips as she surveyed me through squinting eyes. Her dark brown hair was pin-straight and fell almost to her waist, covering parts of the cherry red barely-there dress that clung to her body like a second skin.

“Hello, cousin,” she smiled drily at me. It was quite an odd situation; mostly because we usually ignored each other when we were at school. We weren’t in the same houses and, obviously, our social circles couldn’t be further apart.

“Hi,” I replied somewhat lamely and, after an uncomfortable pause, added “Well, see you around, I guess.” I had already turned halfway towards the stairs, when suddenly a different, perkier voice piped up.

“Aren’t you the girl who was hugging Albus Potter in the Three Broomsticks today?” Demeter Notte flipped back her long blonde tresses as she frowned at me. The other girls in the group immediately broke out in curious whispers, except for Vala, who simply rolled her eyes with an air of annoyance.

“Yes, um, listen,” I gestured awkwardly towards the stairs, “I really should go. I have to-“

“Have we met?” Demeter squinted a little unflatteringly, twirling a strand of hair around her index finger. The image of her screaming into my face in the girls’ bathroom came to my mind but I simply shook my head.

“Um, no.” I cast another longing glance towards the staircase, having a vague idea about what was going to happen next. “We haven’t.”

Demeter blinked, her head tilted to the side as though she was trying to solve a difficult Arithmancy problem. “Are you shagging Albus?”

For a moment it felt like someone had muted the entire scene. I had not expected this. At all. What kind of question was that? Who on earth asked other people if they were ‘shagging’ someone, and with such casualness?

“Can we just go?” Vala had stomped her foot on the floor, not unlike a grumpy toddler, her hands knotted tightly in front of her chest. “I’m freezing.”

“Oh don’t be such a cry-baby,” Demeter moaned before turning back to me, her eyes moving rapidly from my buckled Chelsea boots to the messy, slightly askew knot atop my head as thought she was trying to take a mental picture of my entire appearance. Then, with a sudden indifference on her perfectly made-up face, she shrugged, linked arms with Vala and another girl, and they strode past me as though they had never noticed me in the first place.

I exhaled deeply, not exactly sure what had just happened. Somewhere in the distance the girls had resumed their wobbly interpretation of Wrecking Ball, which reverberated from the stone walls, and I quickly began to climb the stairs before they could change their minds and come back.

When I entered the Ravenclaw common room, it took me a while to find Katie, sitting hunched over a thick book and a heap of metallic pieces that looked a lot like they belonged to some electrical device. Even though the room was fairly packed, she had managed to secure a spot next to one of the idly crackling fireplaces. Just like the number of dorm rooms that had multiplied with every new year, the castle had adapted to the greater number of students by expanding the common rooms to entire areas, allowing for more secluded niches and cosy spots.

“What in Merlin’s name are you doing?” I plopped into the overly stuffed armchair next to Katie’s and let my bag drop carelessly to the floor. She looked up startled, apparently not having expected me to be back so early.

“What are you doing here already?” She asked curiously, pulling on the hem of her slouchy knitted jumper; just above the collar I could see the pink unicorn patterned cloth of her pyjama top protruding.

“Oh, well,” I sighed, pulling up my legs and resting my head on top of my knees, “I told Potter to piss off and then threw my books at him.”

Katie’s eyes had widened with shock, her mouth hanging open a little as she stared at me with such horror that I had to focus hard on maintaining a straight face. “You – you are joking, right? Tell me you are joking!”

“Of course,” I grinned at my best friend, “but I should have done it if he had bothered shown up.”

“He didn’t show up?” Katie’s facial expression changed from anxious to enraged within seconds. “That git! Who does he think he is?”

I laughed, shaking my head slightly. “Whatever. Let’s just forget about James Potter.”

Katie nodded but did not say anything for a while. She only stared at the shiny metal pieces in her lap, prodding them with her fingers, before finally looking up at me again.

“I’m sorry,” she said quietly, “for what I said before.”

“Don’t be,” I assured her quickly, “you’re right. I might tend to hold grudges a little too long sometimes.”

A little?” Katie had raised her eyebrows but she was grinning broadly. “You still haven’t forgiven me for losing your fluffy, glittery teal quill in our first year.”

“Because it was super awesome!” I protested in mock-indignation. “I’ve never found another one like it.”

“Yeah, because you would still use it!” Katie chortled, the book and the metal pieces, which I had identified to be mobile phone parts, sliding from her lap unnoticed.

“I totally would!” I insisted firmly, yet unable to keep the laughter out of my voice. It somehow felt like all the tension and uneasiness that had bothered me just a few minutes ago had simply been washed away.

“OK, well that’s good to know,” Katie said cheerfully and pulled a neatly wrapped package from underneath her jumper, holding it out to me. “Happy birthday, Seth.”

Curiously, I took the thin, long parcel and, as I opened the lid, I found a bright turquoise quill, glittering in the dim light of the common room. It looked illegally fluffy, even as it lay embedded in the black velvet cloth.

“I do expect you to use it,” Katie said with a smirk. “Everyday.”

I grinned back at my best friend, feeling a comfortable warmth permeating throughout my entire body. “Oh, trust me, I will.”







 

A/N: Hello lovely reader! Thank you for reading this chapter! I hope you enjoyed it and will come back for more J. I would love to hear your thoughts, wishes, complaints, etc. so please feel free to comment or review! I also want to thank everyone who has taken the time to review my story so far! I really really appreciate your kind words and your comments make my day! You are awesome! Thank you! 


Chapter 8: An Educated Meltdown
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The sun was blazing from the clear, pale blue sky above Hogwarts like it had to make up for the last couple of rainy days. It was so strong that I had to squint all the way down to the Quidditch pitch, barely able to see what was going on around me. Nonetheless, the October air was crisp and I shivered slightly in my long-sleeved jersey as I stopped next to Katie. She looked quite uncomfortable as well, her teeth clattering softly and her hands hidden in the sleeves of her jersey that bore the same, small Hogwarts emblem in the top right corner as mine.

            “It’s too early for physical activity,” she whined just loudly enough so that Professor Lupin, who had marched onto the pitch with a horde of unmanned broomsticks following him obediently, would not hear her. Today, his ever-changing hair was ice blue, almost white, and despite the long sleeves of his vest, it was possible to discern his muscular arms.

            “That’s my Jack Frost daydreams come true right there,” Katie murmured and quickly adjusted her sequined hairband, which gleamed in the sunlight. She wasn’t the only one, either; at the sight of Professor Lupin, most of the good dozen girls that were huddled at the side-lines of the field, began to pull on their unflatteringly wide Hogwarts jerseys and vigorously fluffed up their hair. Their behaviour was quite understandable; Ted Lupin, a student teacher who had been entrusted with the unloved but compulsory subject of Physical Education, was barely older than us and undeniably handsome.

            “Alright ladies!” He smiled dazzlingly, the broomsticks now hovering next to him like a swarm of bees. “Since we are blessed with great weather this morning, I thought a bit of flying practice  would be fun.” He sounded chipper but at the sight of a dozen unenthusiastic faces, his expression faltered a little. “I promise, it is going to be fun, OK? Now everybody grab a broom.”

            Almost immediately, the usual rush on the pile of broomsticks broke out, in which everyone struggled to get hold of one that was not yet dented or broken or a falling hazard. Katie and I hung back deliberately, watching Demeter Notte – who was particularly ruthless – jamming her elbow into Morgana Evenberg’s stomach when Lupin wasn’t looking.

            “What are you going to tell Slughorn?” Katie asked quietly as the crowd around the broomsticks dispersed gradually and we were left to choose from the saddest bunch of brooms Hogwarts could offer.

            “I don’t know yet,” I sighed, examining the pitiful excuse for a broomstick I had just picked up. The brushwood was rather thin and brittle and the handle, which was patched up with flaky pieces of Spellotape, had definitely seen better times as well. “Maybe he doesn’t ask.”

            “You still have to say something.”

            “I know,” I groaned as we returned to the side-lines, joining everybody else. I knew that Katie was right; I needed to tell Professor Slughorn that Potter had not shown up for the scheduled potions tutorial on Saturday but despite the fact that I did not care if James Potter got into trouble, I was not particularly keen on ratting him out either. It was quite the dilemma.

            “OK, listen up, girls!” Lupin shouted loudly, silencing the chatting crowd, “We are going to play Capture the Flag, so I need two teams.” He made a kind of ploughing motion with his hands, dividing the group in the middle. There were a few unhappy protests of those who had been separated from their friends but Lupin ignored the complaints easily, continuing with his instructions. “You know the rules. The team that finds and captures the flag first, wins. No foul play! That means no hexing, no hitting, no spitting – yes, I am looking at you, Maude – and absolutely no hair pulling.”

            “Um, Ted?” Demeter said in a sickly sweet voice, “I mean, Professor Lupin,” she giggled and looked around at her equally giggling girlfriends, “could you help me with my broomstick? I never know how to mount it properly.”

            “Jesus,” Katie moaned and rolled her eyes at the sight of Demeter clinging to Lupin as he held down the broom for her to mount. It looked almost comical but, of course, no one dared to laugh and I quickly turned away, focusing instead on Hagrid’s hut, where thick clouds of smoke were billowing from the chimney.

            “Have you heard from Albus?” Katie asked in a would-be casual voice, playing with a loose twig on her broom. I knew she had been dying to ask this question, yet she pretended as though it was absolutely random.

            “Nope,” I replied, shrugging my shoulders. It wasn’t entirely true; I had actually caught a glimpse of him in the corridor yesterday, but, upon seeing me, he had abruptly changed direction and walked away without a word. I couldn’t even blame him. The image of me lamely patting his arm was quite vivid in my mind and it somehow seemed to get more embarrassing the more I thought about it.

            “Well,” Katie sighed as nonchalantly as possible, giving me a small smile “whatever, right?”

            “Yes,” I returned her smile thankfully, “whatever.”

 

***

 

The glitter particles that stuck to my teal quill glittered excitingly as I turned it in my hand absentmindedly. The Potions classroom was, as usual, filled with intriguing smoke but, having just returned from an emergency Prefect meeting, I had nothing to do but to stare at Katie’s slowly bubbling potion.

“Seriously?” She raised her eyebrows at me, her face hidden behind thin, pinkish wafts of smoke that smelled strongly of leather-bound books and dewy grass. 

            “Yes,” I replied under my breath to avoid being overheard, “but only the Prefects are supposed to know, so…”

            “Sure.” Katie nodded enthusiastically. The news that a batch of dried Caleria roots and a flask with Gravida essence had been stolen from Slughorn’s personal cabinet, had demanded her full attention. Strictly speaking, the Prefect regulation prohibited the repetition of any of the topics that were discussed in our meetings – especially those that were as delicate as this – however, I knew I could trust Katie to not blab.

“But that means,” she said in a hushed tone, stopping briefly as Professor Slughorn passed our table, “that means someone is trying to brew a pregnancy test?”

“Probably,” I confirmed, watching her stew the bubbling substance in her cauldron that now had taken on a beautiful mother-of-pearl sheen.

“Oh my god,” Katie whispered, barely able to keep the excitement out of her voice, “Who do you think it is?” She looked around the room expectantly as though she was hoping the possibly pregnant thief would somehow reveal herself to her.

“Honestly, I don’t even want to know,” I continued in a low voice, careful to not attract Slughorn’s attention, “McGonagall was livid. She instructed all the Prefects to keep their eyes and ears open and to report to her immediately if they hear anything.”

“Time is up!” Slughorn suddenly announced in his booming voice, interrupting our whispered conversation. “You know the drill: Fill a vial with a sample of your potion and bring it to my desk!”

I watched Katie ladle some of the fragrant potion into a small glass bottle and corking it carefully. “Have you decided what you are going to do?” She nodded towards Slughorn’s ample form, striding up and down in the front. “I mean, because of –“

“No,” I sighed, pushing around the leftover rose thorns next to Katie’s cauldron. My plan had been to just duck out of the class and hope that Slughorn would never mention James Potter again, but I seemed to be out of luck; even as Katie and I had prepared to leave, I bumped into something very soft, just to find a beaming Professor Slughorn blocking my only escape route.

“Miss Banks,” he addressed Katie good-naturedly, “May I borrow Miss Woodley for a moment? I promise it won’t take too long.”

“Um, sure.” Katie gave me a wide-eyed look before turning on the spot and filing out behind the other students. Slughorn waited until the room was completely empty before he finally cleared his throat and gave me a benevolent smile.

“Miss Woodley,” he began seriously and for a second I still nursed the tiny flicker of hope that he was just going to tell me I had to make up for this lesson, which I had missed because of the Prefect meeting. “I just wanted to ask how the tutoring lesson went.”

I shifted uncomfortably, trying to somehow delay my answer. I had not planned on telling on James Potter but I was surely not going to lie for him, either. I supposed that he usually got away with quite a lot, being surrounded by people who were eager to take the Bludger for him in the hopes of attracting his attention. It was quite pathetic and I had decided that I was not going to take any part in this.

“Well-“ I started bravely just to be immediately interrupted by Slughorn again.

“Of course, James told me how well you two got along.”

I blinked dumbfounded, only staring at the plump professor for a few seconds. “What?” I finally blurted out, hardly able to keep the surprise out of my voice.

“Oh yes,” Slughorn chortled, “it seems the two of you hit it off, haven’t you?”

My brain was wiped blank. Either Slughorn had had one too many of Rosmerta’s oak matured mead or – and this was much more likely – James Potter had lied. He had lied blatantly about attending a tutoring lesson he had never even shown up to and, what was worse, had recklessly dragged me into this as well. Did he just expect me – a random girl he had never even talked to – to blindly go along with this? I couldn’t do this; I was not going to lie for James Potter.

“Professor,” I said a little too quickly, feeling the nerves in my body tingle, “About that tutoring lesson-“

“Yes, yes. I greatly appreciate your effort, Miss Woodley. Of course, I knew you would be just perfect for the job,” Slughorn beamed at me again, “Have you arranged to meet again yet?”

“Oh, um, no we-“ I stammered helplessly just to be interrupted once again.

“Would Saturday morning suit you? Nine o’ clock after breakfast?”

“Nine o’clock?” I repeated lamely, struggling to regain composure. This whole situation was getting out of hand.

“Excellent!” Slughorn, who had obviously mistaken my lack of protest as some kind of approval, had pulled a scruffy diary and a swatted quill from his cloak pocket and began to scribble something in miniscule writing. “I will let James know to meet you here. Now, don’t let me keep you any longer, Miss Woodley,” he said, stuffing the book back into his cloak, “I see you tomorrow.”

For a moment, I could not move; I only stood there, watching Slughorn walk back to his desk to prepare for his next class. This could not be happening. I needed to say something; to clarify.

“Sir!”

“Yes, my dear?” He had turned around, looking at me with a soft expression on his chubby face. I only stared at him for a moment, feeling my determination falter. I couldn’t do it after all.

“Oh, um, nothing. Sorry. I’ll just – I’ll go.” I turned on the spot and began to speed-walk towards the door, heat rising to my face. I might have inherited my family’s tendency to hold grudges but I surely lacked the Woodley bluntness; I wasn’t blunt or brave at all, I was a pathetic coward.

 

***

 

The heap of scrambled eggs on my plate looked positively disgusting after I had pushed it around for a good half-hour, unable to take even a small bite. Around me, the Great Hall was bustling with people and the clinking of dishes rose into the coffee-scented air. Usually, Saturday mornings were my absolute favourites at Hogwarts but today all I really wanted to do was to crawl back into my bed, pull the blanket over my head and stay there until the day was over.

            “OK that’s enough.” Katie had reached out, taking away my scrambled eggs so that my fork stabbed the wooden table instead. “Has your mother never told you to not play with your food?”

            I looked up at my best friend, my fork still hovering pointlessly above the table. “Are you kidding me? I wasn’t even allowed to move my lips too much during meals. My grandmother called it useless fidgeting. You try chewing without moving your lips!”

            “OK, let’s forget about your weirdo family and focus on your foul mood,” Katie said business like, snatching the fork out of my hand. “Just do yourself a favour and don’t overthink; just this once, please.”

            “I don’t overthink,” I protested immediately, feeling profoundly misunderstood, “I just don’t want to spend half of my Saturday with stinking Potter, that’s all.” It was the truth; I really did not want to see James Potter; most of all because I had no idea how I was supposed to act. Did I confront him with the lie he had told to Slughorn? Did I just pretend that nothing had happened? And what if Slughorn realised I had been lying about that tutoring lesson? 

            “Seth, I can literally hear your synapses humming,” Katie interrupted my train of thoughts, staring at me with raised eyebrows. “Just stop it, OK?”

            “Fine,” I mumbled listlessly, grabbing my enormous book-filled cotton bag from the floor, “I have to go anyway. In case I don’t return I have probably been expelled.”

            “OK,” Katie sang cheerfully, buttering a fresh scone before waving her knife in a farewell gesture, “have fun!”

            “Sure,” I grumbled unenthusiastically and then followed a group of tiny boys out of the Great Hall. I still had not made up my mind about what I was going to say to James Potter – or if I was going to say anything – but this lie I had slithered into, gave me quite an uneasy feeling, making my stomach ache.

            Lost in thoughts, I turned the corner of the daylight flooded corridor, not expecting to meet anyone on my way down to the dungeons on a Saturday morning. However, after I had walked a few steps, a girly giggle suddenly echoed from the high walls, mingled with a squelching sound, and as I looked up to see where the noises had come from, I realised that I had just walked in on a vigorously snogging couple: Tightly wrapped as though melted together, Albus Potter was leaning against one of the tall Gothic windows, holding a petite brunette in his arms. They both stared at me like startled deer, obviously not having expected to be disturbed in this secluded spot, and I suddenly felt like an intruder.

            “Oh, um, sorry – I – I didn’t - ,“ I began to stammer helplessly, racking my brain for the right words to say, but they just wouldn’t come.

            “Seth,” Albus finally managed to say in an odd voice, detangling himself a little from the girl he had just been snogging a few seconds ago. The entire situation felt absurd and uncomfortable; why on earth did I have to walk in on this?

            “You know each other?” The girl asked perkily and gave me a bright smile. She was very pretty with her olive complexion and smooth brown hair that contrasted well with her cream-coloured dress. Somehow I couldn’t help feeling a little shabby in my loose black T-shirt, which I had tucked sloppily into my high waisted skinny jeans this morning.

            “Um, yes, we have met. Briefly,” I answered, feeling idiotic all of a sudden, “I’ll just – I’ll go.” I gestured vaguely down the corridor behind me, trying to muster a smile. I wasn’t sure if it had worked, however, since my facial muscles felt oddly frozen. This was really uncomfortable.

            “Seth,” Albus started again in a tone that made me feel quite pathetic, though I wasn’t sure why. Probably because I was still standing there lamely, staring at them like a creep.

            “Well, I guess I see you around,” I said in an unnaturally random voice, “or, well, not. You know, whatever.” I shrugged unnecessarily and gave them the most nonchalant wave I could produce, before turning on the spot and quickly walking away. I was fully aware that I was walking into the opposite direction of where I should be headed, yet I did not slow down until I had reached a forsaken side corridor, which I sometimes used as a shortcut to get to Ancient Runes.

My cheeks were glowing as I climbed down a narrow staircase, feeling the cool air from the dungeons tingling on my hot skin. I wasn’t entirely sure why I had run off like this, most of all into the wrong direction. I was already late for the tutoring lesson and now I had to take a different, longer route to the potions classroom, which would delay me even further.

I began to jog down one of the torch-lit corridors, feeling the strap of my heavy bag cutting unpleasantly into my shoulder. My awkward encounter with Albus had somehow caught me off guard and I had completely forgotten to worry about James and tutoring and Slughorn for a moment. Now, however, as I was nearing the potions classroom, I felt the tension crawling back up my spine like a spindly beetle. If there was one thing I absolutely did not need right now, it was definitely James Potter.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I muttered to myself as I pushed open the classroom door; it was pitch black and, by the looks of it, completely empty.

The universe really had a rubbish sense of humour. 

 

***

 

So he had done it again. Prick. Seriously, how could someone actually be that inconsiderate? Against my better judgement, I had waited for almost half an hour for Potter to show up – again – only to feel like a complete idiot for actually thinking he might. He was probably laughing his arse off with his super-cool friends at this very moment, joking about that stupid 6th year that had once again dragged ten pounds worth of books down to the dungeons through the entire castle.

“Hey, Seth!” Bernice’s strong hand clapped my shoulder and for a moment I thought I would collapse from the sheer force. She had streamed out of the Great Hall with a couple of other Ravenclaw players, some of them wearing parts of their Quidditch attire. “Where did you come from?”

“Oh, um, library,” I lied to avoid lengthy explanations; unfortunately my face didn’t want to play along and turned pink immediately. “Where are you headed?” I asked quickly, trying to steer the conversation as far away from me as possible. “Quidditch practice?”

Bernice snorted, along with a few others. “We wish. The pitch has been booked for the entire day.” She exchanged knowing looks with her teammates. “Potter’s got some special treatment again, of course.”

            “Wait, what?” I stopped walking immediately, causing Bernice to bump into me. “Did you say Potter?”

            “Um, yes?” Bernice looked perplexed. “Why?”

My mind failed to register her question; instead, I felt a soft ping somewhere close to my temples and something seemed to snap. “I’m sorry, there is something I have to do,” I mumbled quickly as I turned on the spot, leaving Bernice and her confused-looking friends behind. They probably thought I was a nutcase but at that moment I could not care less.

As I left the castle, my thoughts were whirring, white-hot anger burning in my stomach. Who the hell did Potter think he was? Did he think this was funny? Determinedly, I marched down towards the Quidditch pitch, ignoring the unpleasant feeling of soggy earth seeping into my shoes through the cut-out bits in my Chelsea boots. I had no idea what I was doing, neither did I have a plan; yet I couldn’t stop. The dislike I felt for Potter seemed to blank out every ounce of reason or caution in my body, propelling me forwards so that I suddenly found myself right at the edge of the pitch; and before I could stop myself, I had opened my mouth:

“Oi, Potter!” I yelled as I marched directly towards the small group of people in the middle of the field. Most of them were staring at me by now, but for the first time in my life, I actually didn’t care.

“Uh-oh,” Freddie Weasley said with a smirk on his face, putting a hand on James’ shoulder, “looks like you forgot to call someone after last night, mate.”

James shook his head, though with an undeniably amused expression on his face. “I swear, I don’t even know who that is.”

“Well, you wouldn’t, wouldn’t you?” I heard myself speak but my voice sounded foreign and far away, as though I was listening to an entirely different person.

Potter simply smiled wryly, shoving his hands into the pockets of his jeans. “Yeah, listen. Whoever you are, this is going way too far. You’re not the first one who has some weird obsession with me so just go find the others and, I don’t know, start a club or something.”

Everyone around me began to laugh and I could feel the heat rising to my cheeks. The anger I felt at Potter’s smug arrogance, however, easily overpowered the feeling of humiliation that was pushing against the surface.

“You think I’m stalking you?” I asked in disbelieve, ignoring the continued sniggering around me.

Nooo,” Freddie said very slowly and in a tone that suggested he was talking to a mentally unstable toddler, “You are his girlfriend, right?” Everyone exploded with laughter again and I felt angry tears stinging in the corners of my eyes.

I could not start to cry. Not now. Not in front of James Potter.

Pulling myself together, I straightened up and looked at Potter with as much defiance as I could muster. “Here!” I had slid my cotton bag that was bursting with books, from my shoulder and thrust it directly into his hands. He gasped, probably from the unexpected impact of the ten-pound-bag, but grabbed it nonetheless, apparently too nonplussed to react any other way. The others had taken a few steps backwards, probably thinking I was going to run amok.

“Knock yourself out,” I said, unexpectedly aloof, “and tell Professor Slughorn to find you another idiot to help you with potions.”

A sliver of comprehension seemed to appear on Potter’s face, but I didn’t even care anymore. Holding my head high, I turned around and walked off the pitch, trying not to listen to the hail of catcalls and teasing ‘meows’ that followed me even after I had left the stadium.

As soon as I was sure to be out of sight, I broke into a light jog, which immediatelly turned into a genuine run. What the hell had got into me? This wasn’t me. At all. Yet I had just publicly humiliated myself in front of the Gryffindor Quidditch team. By tonight I was probably going to be the laughingstock of the entire school.

Out of breath and weak-kneed, I finally collapsed behind greenhouse four, an abundance of thoughts chasing each other in my head. At least I could be sure now that I would never have to lie for James Potter again. 

 







A/N: Soooh what do you think? I am eternally grateful for every review, comment, word, emoji, or letter you leave me! AND thanks to all the wonderful people who have taken the time to review my last chapters! Every single comment seriously made my day! :)


Chapter 9: A Pocket full of Secrets
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Darkness. Complete darkness enveloped me as I lay there motionlessly, staring at the ceiling. I didn’t know for how long I had been lying in this position or even what time it was. It could have been the brightest day outside, yet no light penetrated the thick, blue cloth that surrounded me. The darkness was of such density, that even after a while my eyes did not manage to adjust to the lack of light.

            “OK, I have to ask,” Katie said next to me and I did not need to look to know that she had rolled to the side, her eyes fixating my left temple, “what made you do it?”

            I shrugged as I continued my staring contest with the ceiling. “I don’t know. Everything.” Images were chasing each other in my mind: Albus, snogging that girl and looking at me like I was a pitiable stray puppy, me sitting in that empty potions classroom like the biggest dork, James and Freddie, laughing like arrogant pricks. “Hearing that Potter is casually flying around on a broomstick while I have been waiting like an idiot for him to show up – I guess I was just mad at myself for being such a gullible dork. And then I just-“

            “You cracked like Gretchen Wieners,” Katie supplied, still staring at me with her head propped up on her elbow.

            “Who is Gretchen Wieners?” I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to know this girl, but Katie simply sighed with exasperation, which was an infallible sign that she was referencing a movie I didn’t know.

            “The point is, that you stood up for yourself, which is great!”

I simply groaned in response, not really seeing the greatness in yelling at the ‘Chosen One’s’ son in front of the entire Gryffindor Quidditch team. In the aftermath of my proper meltdown, I felt actually quite humiliated.

“You could have been more subtle, I suppose, but you stood your ground,” Katie continued, apparently determined to cheer me up. “You know, maybe you’ve got more Woodley in you than you know.”

“God, I hope not,” I sighed, hoping that my family would never ever get wind of this. Despite the fact that they were definitely not part of the Potter Family fan club, they would not approve of such a crude form of communication, most of all in public.

Silence fell for a while and my thoughts began to circle again, producing the same images I had been seeing for the last couple of hours. Katie had assured me that my little meltdown would not qualify for school-wide gossip, yet I already dreaded the end of the weekend.

“You know that you have to leave your bed eventually?” Katie suddenly said into the darkness as though she had been reading my mind. “Or at least stop staring at that ceiling.”

 

***

 

Monday had come, faster than usual, and so I found myself trudging along in Katie’s wake as we headed up to the third floor for a double period of Ancient Runes. I hadn’t been very keen on going to the Great Hall for breakfast this morning, expecting pointing fingers and gloating laughter, but, much to my relief, there had been nothing of that sort. People, as usual, were positively unaware of my existence; a fact that I had never been more thankful for.

Hence, for a glorious hour I was lulled into a sense of security that my moment of self-control-loss had actually remained uncovered by the gossip-loving student population of Hogwarts; that was, until I accidentally picked up snippets of conversation from a couple of Hufflepuffs that occupied the table in front of Katie and me.

 “Have you heard about that crazy girl assaulting James Potter on Saturday?” One of them asked in the middle of a rather complicated translation task and I looked up with a jerk, abandoning the cluster of runes I had just been deciphering. 

“Of course,” a girl with a thick black braid, tumbling down her back, answered in a tone that suggested scandal, “I heard that she was some creepy stalker, claiming James was her boyfriend.”

“How pathetic,” the boy next to her laughed like he had never heard of anything that pitiable, “what’s her name? Maybe I know her.”

My insides clenched as I held my breath, readying myself for the unavoidable humiliation I was about to face. However, to my great astonishment, the girl simply shook her head. “No one knows who she was. Could have been anyone, really.”

“Anyone who’s got a serious obsession with James Potter, which is basically everyone,” her strawberry blonde neighbour added in a whisper, as Professor Theta drew nearer to their table. “Mind you, I wouldn’t say no to James, either.” Both girls broke out in heaps of giggles, which earned them a dismissive headshake from the boy, who immediately turned back to his translation work.

Katie, who had apparently been eavesdropping as well, gave me a soft nudge. I hadn’t quite been spared the disgrace of being the school scandal – the stalker girl who assaulted James Potter, whatever that was supposed to mean – but at least the fact that Potter had never even bothered to remember my name, had saved me from facing school-wide humiliation. Who would have thought that James Potter would be good for something after all.

 

***

“I told you it wouldn’t be that bad!” Katie slipped her arm through mine, her smile wide as we ambled down the broad corridor together. The October sun was low on the horizon, hitting the stained-glass windows at an angle that made them glow like gems.

“Yeah,” I muttered quietly. Though glad that I had not yet been connected to Hogwarts’ latest rumour, I couldn’t help thinking that there was something fishy about this whole situation. Snippets of gossip concerning my meltdown – which had somehow mutated to a proper scandal by making it sound as though I had ripped my clothes off right there on the Quidditch pitch and literally thrown myself at Potter – had been floating around school all day and the fact that people were still puzzling over the identity of James Potter’s latest stalker, seemed almost too good to be true.

It would not be too hard to actually find out. In fact, it was positively easy: Besides the rather obvious fact that a good half dozen people – who incidentally all lived in the same castle as I did – had witnessed the scene, Potter simply had to ask Slughorn about my name, or – if he ever considered to take a look at the books I had thrust at him – he would find my name scribbled into the margins of the first pages. Hence, if all laws of gossip were still intact at Hogwarts, my name should have been on everyone’s lips, and the fact that it wasn’t, suggested that something wasn’t right.

 “Would you please just relax?” Katie squeezed my arm. “What happened to fierce, Voldemort-may-care Seth from the other day?”

I shook my head laughing, about to answer, when suddenly something further down the corridor caught my eye and in a wave of blind panic, I grabbed Katie’s arm and pulled her behind the ample statue of Leander the Literate.

            “Ouch!” Katie complained, completely aghast, looking at me like I had lost my mind. “What the hell are you-“

            “Shush!” I peeped carefully around Leander’s large belly but backtracked again immediately. “James and Albus,” I explained in a barely audible whisper, “they are talking to each other. Why are they talking to each other?”

            Katie raised her eyebrows at me, probably contemplating the possibility of me having an aneurism. “Um, well, I guess because they are brothers?”

            I exhaled deeply and pressed my body against the wall, feeling stupid and helpless. Was this how my last two years at Hogwarts were going to be? Ducking and hiding whenever I ran across Albus or James?

“Ouch, you’re hurting me!” Katie cried out, pulling her arm out of my grasp, which apparently had been a little too firm. “Jesus, Seth!”

“I’m sorry. Can you look if they are still there?”

Katie rolled her eyes but complied, stretching just enough to see past the statue. If the boys had suddenly decided to look around, they would have probably spotted a tuft of her auburn curls protruding behind Leander’s belly.

“And?” I prompted after a few seconds, trying to peep through the small gap between the wall and the statue’s bottom without success.

“They are still there,” Katie commented in a low voice, “James has just gotten something out of his pocket. It looks like old parchment. He gives it to Albus. That’s weird. What do you think it is?”

“Maybe some old homework?” I shrugged, trying once again to find a gap between the statue and the wall. “Hey, does James look like he has any books with him?”

Katie turned back to me, her eyebrows once again raised with disbelieve. “Are you serious? What kind of question is that?” She whispered, giving me a look that suggested I had gone mental.

Her reaction was quite understandable; my question had been completely out of context and sufficiently weird. However, this had bothered me for quite a while now: Not long after I had marched off the Quidditch pitch last Saturday, I had realised that I had just left some of my favourite Potions books in the care of James Potter and I had no idea how to get them back.

“Quick, someone’s coming!” Katie hissed as a group of people had turned the corner of the corridor, having a full view of us half-cowering behind Leander’s ample bottom.

“That’s quite an interesting sculpture style,” I said clumsily, pretending to be very interested in the folds of Leander’s toga, “with all the – um – the lines and, um –“

“The alignment of the, uh, material,” Katie chipped in, imitating my poor performance that earned us weird looks from the passing group. However, it seemed to have been enough for them to not question our odd behaviour. As soon as they had walked by, Katie and I exhaled with relief; no matter what the purpose might be, lurking behind overly large statues to spy on people usually never looked too good.

 

***

 

            “Calfacto.” I tapped my wand softly against the brim of my mug and the water within began to bubble for a second before thin wafts of steam rose snakelike into the air. Quite pleased with my own spell-work, I plopped a tea bag into the now heated water and stuffed a large biscuit into my mouth, before balancing the mug on a stack of books, carefully making my way to a quiet niche of the common room.

            “What are you doing?” Katie watched me, clumsily trying to set down my books without spilling scolding hot tea all over them, her arms folded in front of her chest. “Don’t tell me you are skipping dinner again.”

            “I’m not hungry,” I replied, though it sounded more like ‘I nog hungee’ as I was still clenching the large biscuit with my teeth.

            Katie gave me one of her most exasperated eye-rolls. “You know that you could just as well run into James during breakfast or lunch, right? This is ridiculous.”

            “Actually, it’s not,” I countered, as I set up my books on the table, “sixth and seventh years have completely different schedules so we rarely have lunch or breakfast together. At dinner, however, the entire school shows up.” Trying to minimize the chances of running into James Potter, I had given this matter quite some thought and decided that being cautious for a few more days until everything had blown over, couldn’t hurt.

            “Fine,” Katie sighed reluctantly, “I’ll go alone. But this is the last time. Tarquin always tries to chat me up when you’re not around and it’s annoying.”

            “OK,” I agreed, nipping on my still steaming tea, “and don’t be too harsh to the poor boy.” I grinned at her, earning another massive eye-roll.

 

            After Katie had left, the common room was empty to a point that was almost eerie. Nobody usually missed dinner if they didn’t have to. It was the biggest social event of the day; a chance to finally ditch the school uniforms and to flirt and interact with people from different houses. I didn’t mind the quiet, yet it was strange that the loudest sound was the gentle crackling of the fireplaces.

I took a generous sip of my tea and then longed into my pocket, pulling out a neatly folded piece of parchment, tied together with an emerald bow. Archimedes had delivered my parents’ letter this morning but, never opening my mail at the table, where basically anybody could read it, I had not yet gotten around to have a look at it.

“Dear Elizabeth,” my mother’s slim, loopy handwriting sprawled across the page, “Thank you for your letter. Your father and I are glad to hear that you are well. Everything is fine at home although the weather in Cornwall is horrid. I spent the last week in London to prepare for the Conservatory Gala. Incidentally, I met Charlize and Justus Engelstein and their charming son Asher (I don’t know if you remember him; you used to play together as children); he studies Magical Law at the University of Beaufort. He is such a handsome, well-mannered young man.”

As a matter of fact, I did remember Asher Engelstein quite well; mostly because of the mortifying, rather sloppy kiss he had planted on my mouth behind my mother’s peony bushes about three years ago. He hadn’t been so well-mannered back then.

Your father and I will be attending the Quidditch event at Hogwarts at the end of October. Your grandparents might accompany us as well. We are looking forward to seeing you then!”

I groaned inwardly at the information in the last two lines; it wasn’t unusual for the students’ families and alumni to join the Quidditch Kick-off celebrations, yet I had a hard time picturing my parents enjoying the event. The entire day was usually messy and loud, involving impromptu dancing and barbeques; not exactly what my family usually considered to be fun.

I leaned back in my chair, staring at the writhing flames in the fireplace until they began to look like actual shapes and faces. I wasn’t sure how I felt about my parents’ visit; while the fact that I was in Ravenclaw was hardly a secret, it had been easy to avoid the topic when I was at home. Here at Hogwarts, however, it was an entirely different story.

            Discarding the letter, I reached for my tea and the book on Shield Charms, which I had borrowed from the library for my Defence Against the Dark Arts homework, and began to browse the yellowed pages for useful information on shield radii and protective properties. I was halfway through a passage on negative influences affecting shield strength, when, all of a sudden, the silence in the common room was broken by a strange gulping noise, followed by a miserable moan that sounded much like a dog’s. I sat up straight, looking around for the source of the noise but from my secluded spot, I could hardly see anything at all.

As the wail sounded again, I got up as quietly as possible and moved further into the room, careful not to make too much noise. Whatever had gotten into the common room didn’t sound too happy and I was not sure I wanted to run into it. The nooks and corners that have been added over the years, provided ample hiding space and made it fairly difficult to spot anyone who did not want to be spotted.

Once again, a howl pierced the silence. However, this time, it didn’t sound menacing but somehow desperate, and, as I turned the corner, I saw a slouching figure, sitting in one of the armchairs, their face buried in their hands as they sobbed convulsively into their palms.

For a moment I was paralysed, unable to think of anything to say or do. I had never seen Sam Henderson like this; in fact, I had never seen anyone like this. He was crying so much that he was shaking, occasional wails mingling with the sound of his sobbing, and I took an instinctive step backwards. I couldn’t deal with this. Growing up in a family where public displays of emotions were frowned upon, I was absolutely useless when it came to comforting people.

Very slowly, I turned around and began to walk away again, hoping that he would not look up in time to see me. I probably would have gotten away unnoticed, but, unfortunately, I hadn’t seen the random, misplaced coffee table that was in my way, and ran straight into it, banging my knee rather noisily.

“Seth?” I stopped dead in my tracks, resisting the urge to groan. I had messed up my chance to walk away without looking like a git, and so, taking a deep breath, I turned around to face Sam.

“Hey!” I waved, feeling rather awkward when he only stared back at me with red, puffy eyes. “Are you – are you alright?” I had no idea why I had asked that. He was crying like a maniac; obviously he was not alright. “Can I – can I help you?”

Sam continued to stare at me for a moment, his cheeks completely wet and snot dripping from his nose. Then he finally shook his head. “No one can help me,” he said in a strangled voice and his face screwed up as he resolved into tears again.

I could only stand there like an idiot, feeling helpless and uncomfortable at the same time. I was probably the most useless person to stumble across Sam in this situation.

“Should I – should I get someone? I could-” I stammered, fidgeting with the cuffs of my slouchy jumper. However, when Sam did not react and continued to sob into his hands, I finally sat down in the armchair next to his and began to pad his arm awkwardly. He looked up, a strange expression on his face, studying me like he was seeing me for the first time.

“I screwed up,” he gulped suddenly and began to shake his head slightly, “I really screwed up.”

“I – I’m sure it’s not that bad,” I replied, but he only shook his head more vigorously.

“No, it is. It is bad.” He paused and gave me a weird, long look. Then, he suddenly dug his hand into his pocket and pulled out two small vials; one of them contained a clear liquid, the other one a flaky powder.

I stared at the items, feeling something clench in my stomach; this wasn’t good. “It was you?” I whispered, even though we were still quite alone in the common room. 

Sam nodded gravely, staring at the vials like he couldn’t believe it himself. “I took it. I thought I could do it, but I can’t. I don’t even know how-” His words drowned in his sobs and he simply sat there, his shoulders heaving as he cried silently into his hand. I was at a loss for words; how on earth was I supposed to deal with this?

“I’m sorry-” He suddenly said, a fearful expression on his face. “I shouldn’t have told you.  I promised Felicity – I promised I wouldn’t. But I can’t-” He wiped his face with the sleeves of his jumper and looked up at me, his eyes red and swollen. “Here.” I felt his hand grab mine and he pressed the vials into my palm so forcefully as though he was afraid he would change his mind half-way through.

            “What – what are you doing?” I stared at Sam, who had risen from his chair, looking slightly wobbly on his feet. Did he expect me to hide the stolen potions ingredients for him until he had found out how to brew the pregnancy test? Was I supposed to help him? I couldn’t let him drag me into this mess.

            “You’re a prefect,” he suddenly said, his voice surprisingly clear, “you know what to do with this.”

            “Sam,” I rose in protest but was immediately interrupted by a loud thud, followed by a jumble of different voices that made both Sam and me look up apprehensively. People were apparently returning from dinner and soon the whole room would be bustling with Ravenclaws again.

            “I should go,” he said quietly and, before I could come up with anything to say, he had turned around and strode away towards the boys’ dormitories, leaving me standing there with the vials clutched in my hand.

 

***

 

The ugly face of the stone gargoyle stared back at me, its mouth slightly opened; just enough to reveal a row of pointy, sharp teeth. It had never looked that menacing before and it seemed to get worse, the longer I stared at it. My hand was buried in the pocket of my uniform cardigan, clutching the vials for reassurance; I was doing the right thing. There was no other way.

            I had barely slept last night, rolling around in my bed restlessly, and got up before sunrise, sneaking out of the dormitory. My plan had been to go straight to McGonagall, hand her the stolen ingredients, and be done with it before breakfast. After all, it was not a question of keeping a secret or not: Sam had been quite clear when he had given me the vials; he wanted me to turn him in. I couldn’t help being mad at him for dragging me into this. I had never wanted any part of this.

            Suddenly, the stone gargoyle rumbled, moving to the side to reveal a tall, cloaked figure, briskly walking down the spiralling staircase. At the sight of Professor McGonagall, a dignified witch with iron grey hair, I took a step backwards, quickly fumbling with my bag, as though I had not just been waiting in front of her office. Unfortunately, my clumsy cover had absolutely no effect.

“Miss Woodley,” she said, sounding slightly irritated, “what are you doing here?”

I looked up at her, feeling the blood rush to my cheeks. The vials in my pocket suddenly felt unnaturally hot against my skin, yet I couldn’t loosen my grasp. I had to tell her. There was no other way. If I didn’t hand in the stolen ingredients and report Sam, I would break school rules and maybe even face expulsion.

“Miss Woodley,” McGonagall said curtly, yet not unkind, “Are you feeling alright? You look unwell.” She was probably referring to the puffy, bluish circles underneath my eyes that had been resistant to any amount of concealer this morning.

“No,” I said quickly, “I’m fine. I just – I was-” I paused for a moment, squeezing the vials in my pocket. “I was just looking for Professor Vector. I am having trouble with my Arithmancy homework.”

“Well, she would be in the Great Hall for breakfast.”

“Oh, yes, right. Thank you, Professor,” I blurted and then quickly turned on the spot, walking away before McGonagall could see my bright red face. I had no idea why I hadn’t told her. I should have; not only was I now running around school with incriminating objects in my pocket, I was also lying – again – for another boy I barely even knew. Maybe my grandmother had been right after all, when she had told me that sympathy made people weak and vulnerable; it didn’t get you very far and, hence, was a waste of time.

            “Seth!”

            I looked up, though not consciously, since my thoughts were still revolving around the vials in my vest pocket. Hence, for a moment I only stared at Albus Potter’s face, probably looking rather gormless as my sleep-deprived brain tried to cope with the new situation.

            “I was looking for you,” he said with a smile on his face; it was the first time I noticed that his eyes were actually green. They contrasted nicely with his black hair.

            “OK,” I uttered sluggishly after realising that Albus had been looking at me expectantly, waiting for me to respond. I must have sounded really stupid, since he furrowed his brow, the smile fading from his lips.

            “Are you alright?”

            “Yeah, sure,” I waved my hand as casually as possible, barely missing Albus’ face, “I’m sorry. I didn’t sleep much last night.”

            Albus continued to frown at me and, for a moment, I was sure he was going to ask me why. Yet, when he spoke again, it was about something else entirely.

            “I – I wanted to talk to you about, well, last Saturday.”

            “Oh, um, sure.” I had actually hoped that I would never have to talk about the embarrassing encounter in that forsaken corridor again. It wasn’t exactly a moment I wanted to remember.

            “What you saw, well, I just wanted to ask you-” Albus halted, a sheepish look on his face. “Laura and I are not officially going out and we don’t want anybody to know yet. It would be great if you could, um, keep this a secret for now?”

            I felt an unexpected twinge in my stomach, yet I managed a flimsy smile. “Sure!” I blurted brightly, “I always do!”

I wasn’t entirely sure why I had said it like this; it sounded as though I had loads of friends who I regularly walked in on when they were snogging in dark corridors. I actually had not thought it possible, but my attempt at being cool, had made me look even more pathetic.

“OK, great.” Albus gave me another smile. “Thank you.”

“Sure thing,” I said in an odd voice that made me sound like a 90s rapper on speed. It was the obvious sign for me to leave, before I could embarrass myself even more.

“Well, I promised Katie I would meet her at breakfast, so – I see you around.”

Albus nodded, his hands buried in the pockets of his uniform trousers. “Yeah. I see you around.”

I watched him walk away and, as soon as he had turned the next corner, I let my back hit the stone wall and closed my eyes. At least, sixth year couldn’t possibly get any worse than this.

 







A/N: Hello lovely reader! I hope you enjoyed this chapter, which is a little filler-y, yet somehow necessary to propel the plot into the right direction. Feel free to review, critique, comment, ask, etc.! Most of all, I want to wish you all a merry Christmas (or Chanukah, or Kwanzaa), hoping this chapter reaches you before the holidays :). 


Chapter 10: The Potter Complication
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 A/N: First of all, I am so sorry it took me that long to update. I was facing a massive writer’s block which took a while to overcome. I hope you enjoy this chapter, though, and I promise that the next update will be quicker. J

 

I was scribbling frantically on a piece of paper as I walked down the overcrowded corridor, regularly bumping into other people as I progressed. My parents probably wouldn’t be too happy with the sloppy reply letter, but, since I had had hall duty for most of my lunch break, I had barely found the time to finish it before my afternoon classes started.

“What are you doing?” Katie, who had been steering me through the crowd, asked, sounding somehow irritated. “Is that your Defence homework?” She laughed about her own joke but stopped immediately when I stalled, my mouth opened in shock.

“Oh no!” I slapped my hand against my forehead; in all this chaos two nights ago, I had completely forgotten to finish my Defence homework. Panic-fuelled, I dropped my bag to the ground and began to rummage for the book on shield charms and the half-finished essay. Maybe I could still add a couple of sentences before the class started.

“OK, stop that!” I heard Katie’s voice above me, “Seth, stop it!” I felt her hand grasp my elbow and with a strong pull, she had dragged me up from the floor. I tried to protest, but she didn’t listen and simply hauled me out of the corridor and into the nearest bathroom, closing the door behind us.

“What is going on?” She gave me a long, worried look. “The circles underneath your eyes grow darker every day and you have a bird’s nest in your hair that is the size of a saucer. You’ve been up before sunrise the past two days, yet you forget to do your homework. What is going on, Seth?”

I blinked, feeling my head ache as my sleep-deprived brain tried to cope with the task of inventing an answer. For two days already, I had been carrying around illegal potions ingredients, not wanting to leave them in the dorm room in case someone might find them. I still hadn’t had the heart to turn Sam in and I just could not involve anyone else in this mess; most of all not my best friend.

“Seth,” Katie said, somewhat calmer, after I had failed to come up with an answer. She looked actually concerned and I quickly averted my eyes; it felt wrong to not share this secret with her, yet I knew she was better off not knowing. “Are you going to talk to me at all?”

“Don’t worry, Kat. I’m alright.”

“Liar,” Katie said, fixating me with her gaze. She looked actually intimidating and I shifted uncomfortably under her knowing look.

“I can’t tell you,” I said finally, realising that there was no use in trying to deceive her, “you could get into trouble and I don’t want to pull you into this.”

Katie’s blue eyes widened and she took a step back. “Trouble? What trouble? Is it still because of James Potter?”

“No,” I sighed, shaking my head. I had known that Katie would not let go that easily. If anything, she looked more concerned than ever.

“Come on!” She urged, giving me a crooked grin. “Pull me into it!”

I couldn’t help smiling at that point, feeling warmth surging through my body, and as I retold the events of the last couple of days, it felt like a heavy weight dropped from my shoulders. I hadn’t even noticed how much energy it had cost me to keep all these secrets to myself until the moment I could share them with Katie.

“So,” she said, drawing out the last syllable, “basically you are in possession of incriminating objects, defy your duties as a prefect, protect the true culprit and his pregnant girlfriend and incidentally violate about a dozen school rules.”

I nodded, biting my bottom lip. “Yup. That about sums it up.”

Katie’s face lit up, a blazing look in her eyes as a broad smile curled her mouth. “This is so exciting. What are we going to do now?”

            “Oh, um.” I shrugged my shoulders, hooking a chunk of hair behind my ear. I had asked myself the same question for two days now, not able to see any kind of solution. However, the moment Katie had asked, it seemed suddenly obvious that there had only ever been one thing to do. “I guess, I’ll try to brew the potion for Sam.”

 

***

 

I had never been more aware of my own movements than the moment I ambled up to Madame Pince’s desk, presenting her with a permission slip for the restricted section of the library, signed by Professor Flitwick. Katie, who had been trailing awkwardly in my wake, peered over my shoulder as the hawk-like librarian examined the piece of parchment against her table lamp as though she expected it to be a fake.

            “This seems to be in order,” she finally said, albeit sounding rather wary, as she gave us an appraising look that oozed of mistrust. It was completely misplaced however; Flitwick had signed the permission form without even asking about the kind of books I was looking for or what project I was working on. It had almost been too easy.

“Good old Filius,” Katie sighed as she followed me to the very back of the vast library, her auburn curls flying out in all directions. Now that we had passed the last barrier, it suddenly seemed not only possible, but frighteningly easy to carry out our plan.

As expected, the restricted section was completely empty. In fact, it even looked much more gloomy and eerie than the rest of the library and I felt a cold shiver run down my back. I loved books, but something told me that there were some volumes in these shelves that even I would not want to pick up.

“Now what?” Katie whispered. “Is there a book on pregnancy tests?”

I shrugged, suddenly realising how clueless I was; we didn’t even know what we were supposed to be looking for. “Maybe we could search for books on healing?”

“Good idea,” Katie agreed and immediately began to browse the right shelf for suitable titles.

I dropped my bag and took on the opposite wall, running my finger over the fading leather spines as I went along. There was a strange humming sound that seemed to come from the books themselves; some of them seemed to be breathing clouds of dust, others felt unnaturally cold, and some even pulsated like living hearts.

As I had reached the end of the row, my finger had collected an admirable layer of dust and my initial hope abated. It was an impossible task; how were we supposed to find a book we didn’t even know among the unlabelled mass that filled the shelves of the restricted section.

“I got something! Ouch.” Katie was holding a ridiculously large book in her arms while sucking on her index finger. “It bit me.”

“Let’s see.” I helped her haul the monstrous book onto the wooden table in the middle of the room and swept the layer of dust from the cover. It was bound in thick, coarse leather that looked very much like dragon hide, with gilded embossed letters that glinted in the dim light.

            “Ars Salvandi,” I murmured as I traced the sharp-edged letters with my fingers, “the art of healing.”

 

            It was not easy to skim-read a book that was the size of a small kitchen table; most of all because the pages were unnaturally heavy and could only be turned with great effort. So far, we had discovered spells to feign a pregnancy, a potion that could influence the sex of a foetus, and multiple recipes to facilitate impregnation; however, the potion we were looking for, was nowhere to be found.

            “This is pointless,” Katie moaned as she took a step back from the book, looking disgruntled. “Can’t we just use a spell?”

            “I doubt that Accio pregnancy test potion instructions would work,” I said, leaning against the table and massaging my sore arms. I had meant it as a joke, but Katie’s eyes lit up.

            “It’s worth a try,” she said as she snatched her wand from her bag and pointed it at the book. “Accio pregnancy test potion instructions!”

            There was an unexpected dull plunk, but the book in front of us had remained motionless, not even so much as flinching at the spell.

            “The corner,” Katie whispered, pointing at the far left corner of the restricted section, where a small but thick book had apparently fallen from the shelf, now lying open on the floor, its pages flipping rapidly as though moved by an invisible hand.

            “That was unexpectedly easy,” I said, following Katie as she bent down over the ominous book. The page that had opened, showed the skilfully ornamented instructions for the Graviditas Potion.

“Look.” Katie pointed to the list of ingredients, which featured the dried Caleria roots and the Gravida essence; it was exactly the potion we had been looking for.

“This is it!” Katie gave me a triumphant smile and, for a moment, relief washed over me. This was actually going to work.

It was only when I read on that I realised, we had gotten our hopes up too soon. Besides the Gravida essence and the Caleria roots, the potion required other ingredients, which could hardly be found in a student’s potion supply. They weren’t needed in large quantities, but they were still vital to the brewing process. Even if we somehow managed to procure those ingredients – which was next to impossible with the extra security spells now placed on the potions cabinet – the potion still needed to be brewed over the course of almost three weeks. With all the teachers and prefects on their guards, there was absolutely no possible way to brew a potion that complex and keep it a secret.

“We’re screwed,” I sighed, leaning my back against the cold stone wall and let my body sink to the floor. Katie ran her hands over her curly hair, looking as frustrated as I felt.    

 

***

 

A cold wind bit my cheeks as I crossed the courtyard, my thoughts still occupied with yesterday’s disappointment. Katie and I had stayed in the restricted section for hours, searching for alternatives for the Graviditas potion, until Madame Pince had shooed us away. Unfortunately, our attempts had been futile; there was absolutely nothing we could do.

            “Elizabeth!” A voice suddenly broke through the howling wind, but I was too deep in thoughts to actually register that someone had been calling my name. After all, no one at Hogwarts actually called me Elizabeth; at least not the people I liked.

            “Elizabeth! Elizabeth Woodley!”

            I turned on the spot, scanning the few people that had ventured out into the courtyard in such a weather, and immediately saw the tall figure that was jogging towards me, carrying a bulging cotton bag. I was none other than James Potter.

            “Great,” I mumbled to myself and, without really thinking about what I was doing, I turned around again and took up speed as I walked towards the castle entrance. Maybe I could still pretend I hadn’t heard him.

            “Hey! Woodley!” He called out again, much closer this time. “Are you running away from me?” James Potter had cut off my escape route, coming to a halt right in front of me. His chest was heaving slightly and his dark brown hair was ruffled like he had just gotten out of bed. Even though classes weren’t over yet, he had rolled up the sleeves of his white uniform shirt and the red tie dangled limply around his loosened collar.

            I bit the inside of my lip, suddenly awkwardly aware of my limbs. How was I ever going to get out of this without making a complete fool of myself; again.

“Are you not talking to me? You seemed rather chatty when you were yelling at me on the Quidditch pitch last week.” James raised his eyebrows and examined me with vague interest for a moment, before finally holding out the cotton bag to me. “I thought you might want your books back.”

            “My books,” I said relieved, talking more to the cotton bag than to James. Maybe he wasn’t a complete jerk after all. “Thank you.”

            “You’re welcome,” he stuffed his hands into his grey uniform trousers and I noticed a group of girls giggling ostentatiously as they walked past him. “Are you free tonight?”

            “What?” I almost dropped my bag from shock as I stared at James, who simply grinned.

            “The tutoring. For potions, remember?”

            For a moment I only stared at him, thinking he was pulling my leg. He couldn’t actually be serious about this after standing me up twice and calling me a stalker in front of his friends.

            “You’re kidding me,” I said, before being able to stop myself, “that is a joke, right?”

            “Actually, no.” He gave me a crooked smile that had probably worked on many girls before. “I failed the last test and I can’t risk being banned from Quidditch, so…”

            “No,” I said so quickly, I surprised myself. “No way. I’m sure there are plenty of others who can help you -“

            “Probably,” James interrupted me as another gust of wind swept across the courtyard. A few people had abandoned their conversations to watch, not exactly trying to be subtle about their eavesdropping. I doubted they could hear anything over the howling storm, yet I felt thoroughly uncomfortable. “Unfortunately, I have been telling Sluggy how well we both worked together and now I can’t just ask for another tutor.”

            “That’s hardly my problem,” I said in a lofty tone that was very unlike myself; in fact, it had shockingly reminded me of my grandmother and I quickly cleared my throat.

            “Well, maybe not,” James said calmly, a small smile playing on his lips. He looked like someone, who had been challenged to a game and he was determined to win. “If you don’t mind the entire school knowing that you are the crazy stalker girl that tried to throw herself at me.”
            “I did not!” I said indignantly, feeling a burst of anger in my stomach. My face felt hot and I knew I must have looked like a ripe tomato, but at that moment, I didn’t care. “You know I didn’t stalk you!”

            James shrugged, his hands still in his pockets as he smiled at me, looking insufferably arrogant. For the fraction of a second, I felt the strong urge to throw my books at him, but I resisted the temptation; mostly because I would have felt sorry for my books.

The smug look on his face left no doubt that he thought he had hit a sore spot; weirdly, however, he hadn’t. As much as I had dreaded people talking about me last week, it had suddenly become absolutely meaningless. Maybe it was the anger I felt at Potter’s obnoxiousness, or the fact that there were so many other things on my mind, but at that moment, I couldn’t have cared less about school gossip.  

“You know what?” I said, feeling a definite surge of pride at not letting Potter get to me. “I really don’t have time for this.”

“No, wait!” James said quickly, just as I made to walk away. The smug expression had been wiped from his face and he looked suddenly sincere. “Look, we both could profit from this situation.”

Against my better judgment, I stopped in mid-turn, frowning at him; this conversation had gone from weird to simply ridiculous. “Look, I really don’t-”

“Just, hear me out,” James pleaded, albeit still sounding rather smug. “You help me with potions and, in return, I’ll greet you in the corridors.”

I was still frowning when he had finished, looking at me like he had just offered me a very special treat. Either he was making fun of me, or he was having a stroke. “Just out of curiosity; in how far would this ‘arrangement’ be profitable to me?”

“People will think we’re hanging out, of course.” James raised his eyebrows at me, as though this should have been obvious.

“Why would I want that?”

“Oh, come on.” He smirked smugly, obviously very sure of himself. “Who wouldn’t want that?”

I blinked, unable to react for a moment. This couldn’t actually be happening. James Potter was officially the cockiest, most self-absorbed git I had ever met; and, being a Woodley, that meant something.

“Right,” I said, adjusting the straps of the heavy cotton bag on my shoulder, “good bye.” And with that, I simply turned around and walked away, leaving James Potter to stare after me as I left the courtyard.

 

***

 

“You did not!” Katie stared at me, her eyes wide with admiration.

“I did,” I said before stuffing a sticky biscuit into my mouth. Katie had just received a care package from her mother and we had spread the entire contents, which consisted of mostly sweets, on her bed, eating our way through the different kinds. “I don’t know how, though,” I managed to produce in between bites, “I never talk like that to anyone. Except for my family,” I added as an afterthought, grabbing a chocolate covered square of fudge.

“Interesting, though, how he seems to bring out that side of you,” Katie mused, popping an ominous-looking, green tartlet into her mouth.

I only shrugged, still chewing on the fudge that seemed to grow bigger in my mouth. “He’s just so urgh.” There was no other way to describe the effect James Potter had on me; everything about him, from his arrogant grin to his stupid messy hair, made me infinitely mad.

“I know what you mean,” Katie sighed, though she sounded rather dreamy than annoyed, “that jawline and that body –“

“Ew,” I said drily, making Katie throw a raisin biscuit at me in mock-indignation.

Ew?” she said laughing, “You can’t tell me that you don’t think he is handsome.”

“I don’t.” I shrugged, picking another plain biscuit out of the shrinking pile.

“Liar!” Katie threw another biscuit but missed by several inches, hitting the window instead.

“I’m serious,” I said, leaning back against her bedpost. I could obviously tell that James Potter wasn’t exactly ugly, but that was it. “He’s just not my type.”

Katie raised one eyebrow, giving me a disbelieving look. “Are you kidding me? James Potter is everybody’s type.”

 I shook my head laughing, before stretching my arms above my head. My neck was still sore and I felt exhausted; the last couple of days had been tiring and my body was yearning for a good night’s sleep. “Let’s forget about Potter,” I sighed, picking a weirdly shaped chocolate out of the pile. “What are we going to do about the ingredients?”

“I suppose we couldn’t just get rid of them?” Katie suggested hopefully, but I shook my head, dropping the chocolate back onto the bed.

I had considered this option before, of course, but the risk of being caught was simply too high. We couldn’t just throw them away; not with everybody still looking for the ingredients. Flitwick had placed regurgitating charms on all the toilets, bewitching them to chuck out everything that was not supposed to be flushed down, and I was sure that similar measures, regarding the grounds and the lake, had been taken as well.

“I guess that’s it huh?” Katie sighed, playing with a silver wrapper that she had peeled from a bonbon. I watched her for a second, the terrible thought that had bothered me for days already, pushing to the surface.

             “What if I’ve made it a lot worse for Sam because I have kept it to myself for so long?”

            “Hey, it’s not your fault, OK?” Katie said fiercely as she grabbed my hand. “You only wanted to help.”

            I nodded, albeit half-heartedly, and pulled my legs to my torso, staring at the scattered pile of sweets and wrappers that littered Katie’s bed. The fact that I had failed so miserably, made me feel sick to my stomach. I had wanted to help Sam, but all I had done, was to make things worse for him and his girlfriend.

            “Wait a moment!” Katie cried out so suddenly that I almost lost balance. She was kneeling on her matrass, her eyes wide as she stared at me with her arms outstretched in front of her, as though she was holding an invisible tray. “Wait. A. Moment.”

            “What?” I said, staring at her empty hands. “What?”


            Katie grinned so broadly that it was almost scary. “I know what we are going to do!” She said excitedly. “I know how we can brew the potion!”




 A/N: So, finally James entered the scene again J I hope you enjoyed this chapter and, as always, I would love to hear your thoughts, feelings, complaints, etc. on it! I also want to thank all the awesome people who took the time to comment on my last chapter! You are all amazing and made me really, really happy. 


Chapter 11: A Mature Arrangement
  [Printer Friendly Version of This Chapter]

I was stalling for time, pretending to be deeply concerned with my Ancient Runes homework, but I couldn’t fool Katie. I could feel her eyes on me, but I simply refused to look up. I knew I had to eventually, but until that, I would stay nestled in my cosy cocoon of ignorance just a little bit longer.

            “Seth,” Katie said, a hint of exasperation in her voice, “Seth!” I could feel a burning pain on my arm where Katie had pinched me and jolted out of my pretence.

            “Okay, okay. I’m listening,” I replied gruffly, rubbing the sore spot on my arm.

            “Good,” she said, lowering her voice so that the handful of Ravenclaws that were sitting close to us, would not hear her. “Now, you know what you have to say.”

            I nodded unenthusiastically, feeling a tight knot forming in my stomach.

            “Good, good,” Katie said again, as though she was using the word as a mantra. “Now we just have to wait for-” She stopped talking so abruptly that her mouth was still opened in mid-sentence, staring at something behind my back.

            “What is it?” I whispered, trying to turn around in my seat as subtly as possible, but Katie had already begun to push me from the bench.

            “It’s him!” She hissed, never ceasing to prod me. “Go! Go, go, go!”

            “But,” I said feebly, looking around the table for some counterargument. “But, my muesli. I haven’t finished my muesli!”

            “No time for that!” She urged, giving me what probably was supposed to be an encouraging smile. “You can do this. Are you ready?”

“Not really.”

“Good. Now, go!” She gave me a forceful nudge and I finally got up from the bench, feeling slightly nauseous.

            “Okay,” I whispered, more to myself than to Katie. “Okay.” Taking a deep breath, I turned around and began to walk towards the small group of people that was standing in a circle near the Gryffindor table. My neck felt suddenly hot and sweaty underneath the thick layer of hair that fell over it, but I tried to ignore it and continued to move. I probably imagined it, but it felt like all eyes in the Great Hall were on me, watching me as I approached James Potter, who was leaning against the table, one arm around a pretty blonde, the other gesturing wildly, to the great amusement of his friends. And suddenly I realised that I wasn’t cut out for this. Not at all.

            I couldn’t just walk up to James Potter, surrounded by his friends – half of whom had witnessed the embarrassing scene on the Quidditch pitch – and talk to him. Unfortunately, it was already too late to turn around now; I had come to a halt only a few inches from the laughing group, panic surging through my body.

I needed to act – now – before it got any weirder.

In a kneejerk reaction, I turned right, walking past the group, as though it had always been my intention to look at the weirdly coloured portrait that hung next to entrance. I remained in front of it for a moment, feeling incredibly stupid. What had I been thinking?

After I felt like I had been staring at the painting for long enough to make it look believable, I followed a chattering group of Slytherins out of the Great Hall, hoping that my embarrassing stunt had been unnoticed. I knew that I would have to try again; at least if I still wanted to help Sam.

It was ironic, really. Out of all the students at Hogwarts, my last resort just had to be James Potter, of course.

 

***

 

It was bucketing down and I could feel the water seep through my uniform as though it wasn’t even there. The bigger problem, however, was the gigantic winged horse that reared up in front of Katie, Bernice, and me, kicking its forelegs wildly.

            “You need to hold them! Show’em who’s the boss!” Hagrid yelled over the rain, but it wasn’t much help. The Abraxan mare, which was twice the size of a regular horse, kept kicking out and flapping its enormous wings, making it impossible to approach it. Close to me, I could hear Morgana Evenberg cry out in panic as their stallion had advanced on her with flaring nostrils.

            “They are lovable creatures, really,” Hagrid assured us, though he didn’t look very confident saying it, “just need a strong hand, that’s all.”

            “I think it bit me!” Adina Singer screeched and the colour drained from Hagrid’s face as he marched across the clearing.

“It’s only a scratch,” he tried to comfort a sobbing Adina, “it didn’t bite you.” But the damage had been done: Most people had abandoned their attempts to restrain the horses and now scurried to bring as much distance in between them and the creatures as possible. Even Katie, who usually loved Care of Magical Creatures, had grabbed my arm and tugged on it furiously, trying to get me to budge.

“I don’t want to lose a limb just yet,” she said as I gave her a questioning look. However, before we could even move so much as an inch, our Abraxan mare reared up again so vigorously that we both, trying to avoid the painful impact of its dinner plate-sized hooves, slipped on the rain-sodden ground and fell into the mud.

“Don’t move!” Hagrid’s voice hollered over the clearing, but Bernice had already taken a step towards the agitated horse, her eyes narrowed and her arms raised above her head.

“Calm down!” She yelled in a commanding voice, walking determinately straight towards the horse.

“Bernice!” I called out to her, although doubting that she would even hear me through the rushing of the rain. Next to me, Katie made a feeble screeching noise and buried her face in her hands as she mumbled: “I can’t watch this.”

It was going to be a catastrophe; the horse was going to rip Bernice apart like a ragdoll. I squeezed my eyes shut, waiting for the screams and the snapping of bones, yet it didn’t come. Instead, Hagrid’s booming voice echoed along the edge of the Forbidden Forest, flushing up a couple of birds.

“Twenty points to Ravenclaw!”

I opened my eyes again, feeling my mouth drop open at the unexpected scene; Bernice was actually padding the creature, which stood still like a statue, its large head bowed. Slowly the other horses gathered around her as well, looking positively harmless as they flicked their tails idly, queuing for their turn to be padded.

 

***

 

Mud was dripping from my uniform, leaving unsightly clumps on the corridor floor as I walked toward the door at the very end. Torches had been lit along the stone walls, yet they were not enough to stop me from shaking. The cold seemed to have seeped through my skin and right to my bones, and all I could think of at the moment, was a nice, hot bath.

            I had just reached the statue of Boris the Bewildered, ready to give it the password for the Prefects bathroom, when, all of a sudden, it jumped open by itself and almost hit me in the face.  

            I quickly moved to the side, feeling my heart plummet to my stomach as the secret door revealed a barely dressed James Potter, wearing nothing but grey sweatpants. I hadn’t expected to meet anyone up here during dinner time, most of all not a half-naked guy. And, even worse, he didn’t just ignore me, as he would usually have done, but raised his eyebrows at me and gave me an appraising look.

            “What the hell happened to you?”

            It wasn’t exactly a charming remark, though I knew what he was referring to; I must have looked like a complete mess with wet hair plastered to my dirt-streaked face and clothes caked with mud. My arms sported a few fresh scratches and I could literally feel a lump of mud dripping from my earlobe. Of course, I just had to run into James Potter when I had horse manure in my hair.

            “Care of Magical Creatures,” I replied, taking a step backwards so that he would not pick up the mixture of sweat and dung that oozed from my clothes.

“Right,” James chuckled. My misery obviously amused him and I could feel the familiar impulse again that told me to whack him with something. Maybe, if I shook my head hard enough, I could splatter him with a bit of dung.

            “I know you insist that you’re not a stalker, but this is starting to get weird,” he said and I could feel the blood rush to my face, although more out of anger than of embarrassment. Only James Potter could be conceited enough to think that any girl he randomly ran into, had been stalking him.

            “Don’t flatter yourself,” I finally said in a surprisingly cool tone, “I just wanted to take a bath.” As soon as I had said it, I wished I had skipped the bath-part. It sounded weird to talk to James about taking baths, most of all when he was giving me this unbearably cocky grin. Also, he still had not bothered to put on a shirt, which made me feel awkward on so many more levels than I had ever thought possible.

            “You know, that’s actually quite a good cover story, Woodley.”

            “What?” I tried to glare at him, but, fearing I would accidentally look at his torso, I somehow ended up staring at his hairline. “I am not stalking you. I- ugh, you know what, forget it.” I trailed off lamely, observing the gigantic picture of tiny mermaids, swimming in and out of the frame, right behind James’s right ear.

            “Relax,” he laughed. “I’m joking. Although you were staring at me for ten minutes straight this morning without saying a word.”

            “Oh,” I said before I could stop myself, feeling my cheeks heat up instantly. I hadn’t thought that anyone had noticed my embarrassing manoeuvre in the Great Hall, but apparently I had been wrong. As much as I disliked James, I had to admit that it did look weird if someone just stared at you for a while and then turned around and walked away without a word. There wasn’t even a plausible explanation; at least none that I could share with James Potter.

            “I – um, I totally didn’t stare at you.” I tried to sound unimpressed, leaning casually against the corridor wall. Unfortunately, however, I had misjudged the distance and ended up crashing into the stone like a complete idiot. “I just wanted to tell you that I reconsidered tutoring you,” I said, and, in an attempt to pass my clumsy move off as completely intentional, I remained propped up against the wall in an awkward angle that was not only uncomfortable but also must have looked really stupid.

            “Okay,” James said slowly, looking at me with one eyebrow raised as though he was contemplating my sanity. He didn’t comment or laugh, however, which I took as a sign that he really needed those tutoring lessons. “And what do you want in return?”

            “Nothing.” I shrugged my shoulders and quickly looked down to the floor, where a small puddle of mud had pooled underneath my shoes. “I just – I get extra credits for it from Slughorn. That’s all.” Of course, this was a lie. I had never even heard of such a thing as extra credits at Hogwarts. Fortunately, James didn’t know me well enough to realise that my glowing red face would have given me away immediately.

            “Okay, great.” He untied his arms and stuffed his hands into his pockets, exposing his bare torso once again. “When do we start?”

            “Oh, um.” I had trained my eyes on his hairline again, unable to look anywhere else. “I was thinking the sooner the better. Maybe tonight?”

            “Um, sure-“

            “Great!” I cut James off. “Seven o’ clock, Potions classroom. See you then! Bubbles,” I said to the statue of Boris the Bewildered, which sprang open immediately, revealing the entrance to the vast bathroom facilities. And, without looking back at James, I slipped through the secret door, enjoying this small moment of relief. I was far from having solved all of my problems, but this was a very good place to start.

 

***

 

            “You look good,” Katie said as she watched me drag a brush through my wavy hair.

            “It wasn’t my intention.” I replied, examining my reflection in the mirror; I actually didn’t want to look like I was trying to impress James. Because I really wasn’t. “Do I look too nice?” I tugged on my asymmetrical, white jumper, which kept sliding off my right shoulder.

            Katie only rolled her eyes in response. She had been sitting on her bed, painting her toenails and asking for details on James’s stomach, which I couldn’t give her, of course, since I had put quite some effort into not looking at him.

            “Are you ready?” She had walked over to me, careful to not let her toes touch the floor, and held out a stack of potion books for me. “Remember, the instructions are glued to the last page of Potions & Plants. Do you have the Caleria Roots and the Gravidas essence?”

            “Yes,” I patted my bag, in which I had hidden the ingredients, and then took the pile of books from Katie. “I’m ready.”

            I really wasn’t. At all. Not only was I about to brew a highly illegal potion, I also would have to come up with a plausible cover story for needing a fair amount of expensive ingredients from Slughorn’s cupboard  and somehow hide everything from James Potter. The mere thought of the task ahead, gave me a queasy feeling.

 

The bad feeling stayed with me all the way down to the dungeons. By the time I had reached the potions classroom, I wasn’t at all sure anymore if I actually wanted to go through with the plan. I basically risked losing everything, just to help a classmate and his girlfriend. And, if it actually turned out that she was pregnant, it all would have been in vain anyway. There was so little to gain and so much to lose – I didn’t even want to think of what my family would say if they knew.

            “Ah, Miss Woodley!” Professor Slughorn greeted me enthusiastically, as I entered the classroom. He was bending over a small, steaming pot that stood on his desk, apparently sniffing the scarlet red smoke that rose rapidly into the air. There was no sign of James anywhere, and I could feel my heart sinking to my stomach. Slughorn would hardly let me stay down here alone if Potter didn’t show up. And even if he did, how would I explain the missing ingredients?

            “I will be gone in a second,” Slughorn said jovially. “Just wanted to prepare this little treat for my fourth years tomorrow.”

            “Volatus?” I said, having identified the characteristic steam of the flying-potion.

            “Correct!” Slughorn beamed at me. “It always makes for a memorable lesson. Ah, James, there you are!”

            I turned my head as James approached the teacher’s desk, his hands stuffed into the pockets of his jeans. By the looks of it, he hadn’t bothered to bring any books or ingredients, which – although really inconsiderate – I could actually use to my advantage.

            “I’m sorry, I’m late,” he said politely as he reached the desk. The flickering candle light fell onto his face and I noticed that his lips were sloppily stained in a berry colour that looked a lot like lipstick. “I was busy with an essay for Charms.”

            “Don’t worry, my dear boy!” Slughorn, who apparently hadn’t noticed the lipstick on James’ face, clapped him on the shoulder, beaming like I had never seen him beam before. “You are just on time. I will leave you both to it, then. James, you could not wish for a better tutor than Miss Woodley here.” He gave me a broad smile, putting his other hand on my shoulder and pulling me closer to him and James. “She is the most talented potion-maker I have taught since your father, actually.”

            James seemed to supress a grin and I narrowed my eyes at him. If he didn’t think I was good at potions, why did he even bother at all? Maybe this had all been a stupid idea.

            “Let me just lock the cupboard before I leave.” Slughorn had dug an old-fashioned key from his leather bag, making for the large wooden cabinet in the back of the room.

            “No!” I had cried out before I could stop myself, making Slughorn stop dead in his tracks. “I mean, could you maybe leave it open for us, Sir? We might need some ingredients.”

            “Oh.” I could almost see Slughorn’s brain working as he looked at me, his eyes narrowed as he considered his answer. “Well,” he said appraisingly, his small eyes traveling back and forth between me and James. Finally, however, his face lightened and I could detect a smile underneath his walrus moustache. “Of course, of course, Miss Woodley.” He removed the cupboard key from the chain and held it out to me. “Just make sure to lock it when you are done. But don’t tell anyone, will you. The headmistress would be most unhappy if she knew I let students use the ingredients in the cupboard unsupervised.”

            “Of course, Sir.” My fingers tingled as I grabbed the key and pocketed it, hardly believing my luck. So far, things were working out perfectly.

            “Okay,” James sighed as soon as the door had closed behind Slughorn, leaning against the teacher’s desk like he owned it, “where do we start?”

 

***

 

Thick, silver smoke hung above the cauldron, seemingly too heavy to rise any higher. The fumes had seeped into my hair, turning it into a bushy, wheat-blonde afro, but what bothered me more, was the sour smell that burned in my nose. I had already pulled up my jumper as a barrier, breathing into the soft cotton, but the effect was only marginally helpful.

            “That can’t be right!” James exclaimed, moving away from the now vibrating cauldron.

            “Well, it isn’t!” I called back, mimicking his move and taking a couple of steps backwards. I didn’t think the potion would explode, but the smoke was getting denser and the smell more acidic.

            “I thought you were a potions genius!” James had to yell as the kettle was now whistling in a high-pitched tone. “Shouldn’t you have noticed that something was wrong?”

            “I did!” I yelled back indignantly. “You already screwed up your calculations!”

            “What? Why the hell didn’t you tell me that?”

            There was a loud pouf as a

 black cloud exploded above the cauldron, which ceased to vibrate at once, looking perfectly harmless again.

            “Hephadore’s theorem is easier to understand if you make a mistake,” I explained, walking back to the desk with the kettle, where the smoke had almost evaporated completely again. “If you find out where you went wrong, you’ll know how to do it right.”

            James looked at me with raised eyebrows, his arms knotted tightly in front of his chest. “And you couldn’t have told me that before this thing almost exploded, could you?”

“Well, if I had, you wouldn’t have tried to make the potion in the first place, would you?” I fired back, feeling thoroughly wrong-footed. “And it wouldn’t have exploded!”

“Oh, that’s reassuring,” James said mockingly, “coming from someone who looks like a crazy professor!”

“At least I’m not wearing Ravishing Raspberry on my lips! It’s really not your colour.” I knew this had been quite a low blow, but making fun of my frizzed up hair wasn’t much better.

James wiped the lipstick into the back of his hand, examining the purplish-red stains with mild interest. “Thanks for telling me right away.”

I rolled my eyes and began to clean up the mess of unused ingredients that littered the desk around the cauldron. I was completely exhausted and I still hadn’t started with the Graviditas potion, which would probably take me at least another hour.

“Can we just – Let’s just call it a day,” I sighed, feeling too tired to come up with a clever retort.

“Good idea,” James said coldly and, after grabbing his notes, simply left the potions classroom without a word, slamming the door shut behind him.


 





A/N: So that’s another chapter. I hope you enjoyed it and I would love to hear your thoughts on it!!! What did you think of James’s and Seth’s interaction? I’m super excited about every little comment! :)


Chapter 12: A Battle of Wits
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A/N: First of all, I just really want to thank all of the majorly AWESOME people who read my story and take the time to leave me a note in the review section, or favourite it. Every single one of you makes me infinitely happy and had me grin stupidly in the middle of class more than once already. You are literally the reason I am writing. So thank you for that.






 

Katie watched me as I plopped a tea bag into my steaming mug, stirring the hot water absent-mindedly. The buzz of the Ravenclaw common room enveloped us, even though we were sitting quite remote from the centre of attention, which was the Ravenclaw keeper Hector Chang and his gormless friends, downing copious amounts of slug slime for a bet.

Ravenclaw was seriously going to the dogs.

“Is it safe?” Katie asked quietly, her blue eyes looking unusually anxious.

I lifted my steaming mug to my mouth and took a sip of scolding hot tea, waiting for the group of fourth-years to be out of earshot before I replied. I had succeeded in brewing the basis for the Graviditas potion, which now had to sit for about two weeks in a dark, damp spot until it was fully developed. Hence, I had left it in the potions classroom, hidden behind one of the shelves filled with books. Slughorn rarely used any of these books and I could only hope that he would not suddenly realise that he did indeed need them after all.

“I think so.”

Katie nodded, sipping on her own tea as she watched Hector empty his fourth glass of slime and heaving quite violently in the process. “And James?”

“What about him?” I shrugged my shoulders with an air of indifference. Since the disastrous tutoring lesson three days ago, I had not heard of James Potter again and, honestly, I was relieved; glad, even. It was obvious that we shouldn’t be in a room together.

“Hmmm,” Katie simply sighed, still observing the ruckus in the middle of the Common room. I followed her gaze, just to see one of the boys actually throwing up and, completely disgusted, quickly turned away again to look at one of the tall windows, where rain was pelting the glass.

I didn’t see him at first, too absorbed in my own thoughts; Sam Henderson stood in the corner next to the window, staring straight at me with a quite hollow expression on his face. Apart from the one class we had together, I hadn’t really seen him around lately and I was shocked to notice the dark circles underneath his eyes that bordered to black, and his skin looked sallow and sick. Hidden from the bright light of the torches, candles and fireplaces, he could have easily passed as an Infirius and I felt a cold shiver run down my spine.

“I, um, I should get going,” I said to Katie, after finally forcing myself to look away from Sam again, and got up from the comfortable wingback chair.

“Sure,” Katie said, stifling a yawn. “Have fun.” She stretched her arms above her head as she watched me hoist the handle of my tote bag onto my shoulder. I would have given everything to not have to monitor detention tonight; there was still a ton of homework I hadn’t done yet and I felt tired and exhausted. Unfortunately, however, as a sixth year prefect, I didn’t really have a choice.

 

***

 

The rain was drumming a steady pattern as it hit the tall stained glass windows that adorned the usually vacant classroom, bringing the colourful figures to life. I couldn’t stop thinking of Sam and the miserable state he seemed to be in. Maybe I should have told him that I was brewing the potion for him, but the more people knew about it, the higher was the risk that it got out.

            I shook my head to myself and tried to direct my focus back to the books that were strewn across the large desk in front of me. I had decided to use the hours I had to spend overseeing detention to get started on my Transfiguration homework, but I found it unusually hard to concentrate. The soft scratching of half a dozen quills on parchment was oddly distracting, and I let my gaze wander around the room absent-mindedly, unable to think straight.

            Suddenly, just as I was looking at it, the heavy oak door at the back of the room began to open slowly. For a second, I thought that Peeves had come to cause trouble, but then a tall – and quite solid – figure slipped into the classroom and silently made its way towards the desk I was occupying.

            By the time he had reached the front, everybody in the room was staring at James Potter, who casually pulled up a chair and sat down right next to me, as though it was the most natural thing in the world.

            “What are you doing here?” I hissed as quietly as possible, uncomfortably aware of the rapt attention with which everyone was watching us.

            “I needed to talk to you,” James replied in a low voice, albeit not bothering to whisper, and he got out a couple of pages that had apparently been sticking in the back-pocket of his jeans. “And McGonagall told me you were monitoring detention tonight.”

            I only looked at James, not sure if he was entirely sober. Or maybe he had sustained a particularly hard blow to the head during Quidditch practice. It was the only explanation for why he would suddenly show up during detention on a Friday night, just to talk to me.

            “As much as I hate to admit it,” he said, furrowing his brow, “you were right.”

            “About what?” I still had no clue what was going on. Only when James pushed the paper, which he had produced before, towards me, I realised that it was a potions essay on Hephadore’s Theorem with a thick, purple Acceptable scribbled into the upper left corner.

            “The trick with making a mistake first to understand, actually worked, I guess.” He put his arm up, tousling the back of his head nonchalantly. “I thought you were a nutcase but you are actually pretty smart.”

            “How charming,” I replied sarcastically, pushing the essay back towards him again, “I’m glad we sorted that out. And now go away.”

Even without directly looking at him, I could see the amused grin that curled his mouth as he watched me poor over my Transfiguration homework. I wasn’t actually reading the passage I was staring at, but I was trying to make a point, namely that our conversation – if one could call it that – was over.

Arrogant git.

“You are actually pretty good at pretending that you don’t like me.”

I looked up momentarily, caught off guard by the sudden closeness of James’s face as he had leaned forwards a little, still smirking.

“And you are shockingly full of yourself. It must be hard to get out of bed with that big head of yours.”

James shrugged, his grin widening so that a dimple appeared on his right cheek. “I manage, but thanks for your concern.” It rather seemed as though he was enjoying this and I simply rolled my eyes before looking back down to my half-finished homework. At this rate I would never get it done in time.

“So what about next Tuesday?” James said, after a short period of silence. “I’m sure Slughorn would let us use the potions classroom again.”

“No way,” I said in a tone that would have made my grandmother proud, and continued to highlight random sentences in the book in front of me. I was determined to remain stubborn, although a little voice in my head kept saying that it would actually be great to have a chance to check on the potion once in a while. Unfortunately, I was too disgruntled at the moment to think reasonably.

“I need your help, Woodley,” James said quietly and judging by his voice and the deep line etched onto his forehead, it had actually taken him quite some effort to admit this. I studied him warily for a moment, weighing my options. The potion could be ready much earlier if I got to stew it regularly; on the downside, however, I would have to spend more time with James, who would certainly think I secretly fancied him, if I agreed to more tutoring lessons. It was quite the dilemma.

“Alright,” I sighed, quite against my better judgement. “But just so we’re clear, I’m not doing this for you.”

“Sure,” James smirked, but before I could even so much as react, he had gotten up from his chair and crossed the class in a jog. “See you Tuesday then, Woodley. I owe you one!”

As the door closed behind him, I couldn’t help the small groan that escaped my mouth. Why on earth was I doing this to myself.

 

***

 

There were owl droppings everywhere. The dried ones – while maybe unsightly – didn’t actually matter but, judging by the squelching sound underneath my shoes, I had apparently just stepped into a fresh heap of excrements.

            “Ugh, great,” I mumbled to myself, inspecting the damage while ignoring the snickering group of girls that huddled in the corner of the Owlery. There was a gooey white blob on the woven hemp sole of my new Espadrilles, which basically meant that it would stay there forever.

            “Don’t worry, owl droppings are lucky,” someone suddenly said next to me and when I looked up, I saw Tarquin, attaching a small parcel to a school owl’s leg.

            “At least my nana used to say that.”

            “Well,” I sighed, “let’s hope your nana is right then.”

            Tarquin grinned, releasing the owl with his delivery into the sky. “Usually,” he said as he watched me feed a couple of owl nuts to Archimedes, who had just returned from delivering my latest excuse for a letter to my parents. The fact that I had carelessly scribbled it with an ordinary ball-point pen, had probably caused a minor scandal in the Woodley household, but fortunately I wouldn’t have to hear about it until the Kick-off event in two weeks. 

            “How are you? You’ve skipped a lot of dinners lately.” Tarquin observed me from the side, falling into step with me as we descended the staircase together.

            “Oh, um, yes.” I pushed my hair behind my ear, hoping that my blush wasn’t too obvious. “I’ve just been really busy. That’s all.”

            He nodded and, to my great relief, didn’t seem to want to inquire any further. “Hey, um, can I ask you something?” He said tentatively, a somewhat sheepish expression on his thin face.

            “Sure. Shoot.” I expected this to be about Katie. After all, he had been pining for her for years already. However, just for once, Katie did not seem to be the first thing on his mind.

            “This might sound weird but – what is going on with you and James Potter?”

            “What?” I had halted in the middle of the staircase, quite perplexed. It was indeed a weird question, and I needed a moment to wrap my thoughts around it.

            “This came out strange,” Tarquin said lamely upon noticing my rather shocked expression. “What I meant was, I heard a couple of girls talking in our common room about Potter and I kind of picked up your name?” He finished the sentence with a rising intonation, as though he was asking a question, his eyebrows raised as he peered at me inquiringly.

            “Oh, well, I am tutoring James in Potions. Slughorn set us up,” I explained shrugging. It wasn’t a big surprise that people knew about this by now; following and discussing James Potter’s social life – as sad as it may have been – was the sole reason of many a student’s existence at Hogwarts. I doubted that he could even go to the toilet without someone writing about it in the school paper, actually.

            “Oh, yeah. Right. Okay.” Tarquin had averted his look and suddenly seemed to take a curious interest in the ugly tapestries that lined the corridor wall.

            “What’s wrong, Quin?” I asked slowly, somehow sensing that there was still more. He looked thoroughly uncomfortable, obviously trying not to make eye-contact with me.

            “Oh nothing. I’m sure it’s just worthless gossip-” He stopped talking abruptly, pressing his lips together as though he was trying to keep something in.

            “What is?” I had halted in the middle of the corridor, giving Tarquin an inquiring look. A part of me didn’t actually want to know, but my curiosity was stronger.

            “Well,” he said meekly, still avoiding my gaze, “they said something about you stalking Potter but that –“

            “WHAT?” My voice reverberated from the high stone walls and Tarquin flinched at my sudden outburst. Why on earth would anybody think I was stalking Potter? After all, he had approached me, asking to continue tutoring him. I hadn’t wanted any of this.

            “They were just silly fourth years,” Tarquin tried to reason, but I was only half-listening to him. I didn’t know why it bothered me so much that random people I had never even talked to, gossiped about me. I had never cared about what other people thought about me. Then again, I had also never been accused of stalking anyone, either. Except by Potter, of course.

            “Seth?” Tarquin asked carefully, disrupting my train of thoughts. I looked up at him, slightly confused.

            “I’m sorry,” I sighed and glanced at my watch. If there was one thing I could really do without tonight, it was seeing James Potter. Unfortunately, I had already agreed to meet him in the Potions classroom at five o’ clock. “I need to go.”

            “Oh, okay.” Tarquin looked slightly taken aback, probably because he thought I was mad at him for telling me about his common room gossip. “Say hi to Katie for me?”

            “Sure.” I waved at him, before turning around and walking back down the other direction, my mind still on those ridiculous rumours. Who else thought I was stalking James? Maybe he had even started the rumour himself, having a laugh with his stupid friends about it. It seemed like something they would do for fun.

 

***

 

By the time I had reached the potions classroom, I had managed to put myself into quite a bad mood. I was determined to cut James down to size as soon as he would show up, but he was late, as usual, which riled me up even further.

            “Calm down,” I told myself, muttering quietly as I pushed aside a couple of dusty books on the shelf to get a glimpse of the Graviditas potion I had hidden there, “don’t let him get to you.”

            “Seth.”

            I whirred around, completely startled, staring straight into a sunken, ashy face. Sam looked even worse from close up than he had done last Friday in the common room. His hair was matted and plastered to his face, as though he had been walking out in the rain, which, judging by his dripping clothes, I realized he had probably been doing.

            “Sam,” I said surprised, taking a step back from the sour smell that seemed to come from his soaked T-shirt. “What are you doing here?”

            He only stared at me for a moment, not even flinching. Then, quite suddenly, he gripped my arms tightly, his fingernails boring into my skin. “Why are you doing this to me?” He croaked with a horribly hoarse voice. “What are you playing at? Is this payback because I went out with Felicity instead of you?”

            “What?” I was thoroughly confused by Sam’s alarming behaviour. “I don’t know what-”

            “Why don’t you hand them in?” He shouted, his voice cracking at the last word. “Are you enjoying this? I can’t stand this any longer.” He stared at me, his fingers digging even deeper into my arms, but I was too shocked to even notice.

            “Sam,” I began carefully, but before I could say anything else, his grip had slackened and his arms dropped to his sides. He appeared to physically deflate as his shoulders hunched, and suddenly, he was crying.

            “What am I doing?” He croaked, burying his face in his hands, sobbing quietly.

            “Sam,” I said again, putting my hand awkwardly on his trembling shoulder. “I haven’t turned you in, because I’m trying to brew the potion for Felicity.”

            It seemed to take him a moment to realise what I had just said. Finally, he looked up at me, a bewildered expression on his face. “You – what?”

            I stepped aside, revealing the small cauldron that stood on the shelf behind me, giving off an herbal scent. Sam peered at it over my shoulder, looking both incredulous and confused. Then, quite unexpectedly, I suddenly found myself enveloped in a tight, wet embrace. He had slung his arms around my midriff, his head resting on my shoulder as he squeezed me so tightly, I thought he was going to crush me.

            “I can’t believe it,” he mumbled into my jumper and I patted him on the back weirdly, not sure what else to do. Hugging wasn’t exactly a Woodley speciality.

            “It’s – it’s okay. I don’t mind, really,” I stammered awkwardly. “It’ll be ready by the end of next week, I think.”

            Sam nodded into my shoulder, his grip tightening yet again. “I can’t even –,” he mumbled close to my ear. “She’s still late and now she’s feeling sick in the mornings. That can’t be a good sign, can it?”

            “Um, well, I’m no expert,” I said lamely, feeling my heart sink. “She might just be ill?” I sounded incredibly stupid, but I didn’t know what else to say and I really didn’t want Sam to start crying again.

            “I know, I’m late, but it isn’t my –” The classroom door had swung open with a loud thud and there stood James Potter, staring at us with raised eyebrows. “Oh, um, sorry. I didn’t mean to-”

            “You didn’t,” I squeaked with an unnaturally high voice. Sam had finally let go of my midriff, looking back and forth between Potter and me, as though he was trying to figure out what was going on.

            “Are you sure?” James asked slowly. “Because I can go if you-”

            “No, it’s fine!” Sam had apparently gathered himself again, sounding much less hoarse than before. “I wanted to go anyway.” He cleared his throat and, before walking away, turned back to me once more, a serious look on his face. “Thank you. Really.”

            I only nodded in reply, quite unsure about how else to react. It was only when the door finally shut behind Sam that I realized, I had been holding my breath. Turning away from James, who still stood in the middle of the room, I inhaled deeply, trying to sort out my thoughts. Maybe it hadn’t been such a good idea to tell Sam about the potion; what if it didn’t work? And even if it worked, there was still a great possibility that it was in vain; Felicity feeling sick in the mornings really wasn’t a good sign.

            “Your boyfriend looks like he could use some sleep. Or a shower,” James commented as he approached the table; I could clearly hear the grin in his voice, but I was too weary to be properly annoyed at this.

            “He’s not my boyfriend,” I said quietly, not bothering to put more vigour into my answer, and began to set up the cauldron for the tutoring lesson. James watched me for a moment, his hands stuffed into the pockets of his jeans, before picking up the Gillyweed I had just laid out.

            “Why is he so miserable then?”

            “Oh, very funny,” I snapped, snatching the limp weed out of his grip and slamming it down on the table again. “What a witty reply!”

James simply smirked and leaned against the desk, his arms crossed in front of his torso. “I know. I’m hilarious.”

“You’re just really fully of yourself,” I commented grouchily, glaring at him.

            “And you’re a nut job.”

            “And you’re a - a dunderhead!”

            James stared at me, his mouth slightly open, as though he had wanted to reply but the words had gotten stuck in his throat. Then, finally, he raised his eyebrows at me, his lips curling to a crooked grin. “Did you just call me a dunderhead?”

            “Yeah. That’s what you are,” I mumbled lamely, feeling the blush creeping up my cheeks. I had quickly returned to rearranging the ingredients I had laid out on the table before, simply to have a reason to look away from James, who still looked annoyingly amused.

            “Let’s just get started,” I sighed after a silent minute, plopping down on a chair. “The sooner we start, the sooner it’ll be over.”

 

***

 

James had bent over my sheet of notes, a look of deep concentration on his face as he raked a hand through his messy dark brown hair. Slughorn’s bewitched windows showed nothing but pitch black darkness and it was only because of the soft drumming noise that I knew it was still raining outside. If the weather would stay like this, there was still a chance that my parents and grandparents would not bother to come to the Quidditch Kick-off next weekend. It wasn’t that I didn’t like to see them at all; they were still my family. But I just knew that, having them here at Hogwarts, things were bound to get complicated.

            “I’m not sure I get this,” James yawned, stretching his arms above his head.

            “What?” I bent over the paper as well, studying the different formulas I had scribbled down before. It looked a bit of a mess, but I had never been a neat note-taker. There were just too many thoughts in my head to write them down orderly.

            “That right there,” James pointed at a particularly long equation that had tiny numbers scribbled next to the different ingredients.

            “That’s just proof for Salman’s Law, exemplifying that the equal reduction of the amount of ingredients does not produce less quantity of the same potion, but may have different properties all together.”

            “Hmmm,” mused James, apparently mulling the new information over. “And that’s the same as this here.” He pointed at another equation. I nodded in agreement, and, not realising how close James actually was, accidentally bumped my head against his.

            “Ouch, I’m sorry,” I groaned, holding my throbbing head as we moved apart.

            “No, it’s my fault,” James laughed, mimicking my gesture, “I shouldn’t have come so-” He stopped talking rather abruptly and cleared his throat.

            “Well, um,” I finally uttered after a strange period of silence, looking at the dozens of papers and books that lay scattered across the table. “Maybe we should, um,”

            “Yeah, good idea.” James had risen from his chair rather quickly, scratching the back of his neck. “I’ve got intense Quidditch training planned until the Kick-Off is over, so I won’t really have time for tutoring lessons.”

            “That’s fine,” I said quickly, shrugging my shoulders. “I wouldn’t have time anyway.” It was a lie, of course, but I wasn’t going to admit that to James when he had just made it sound as though I was a crazy fan girl, desperate to tutor him.

            “Okay, good.” He looked at me for a moment and then simply nodded his head casually in a farewell gesture. “Bye then.”

            “Bye.”

            The door snapped shut behind him and I could feel the muscles in my shoulders loosen up momentarily. I hadn’t even noticed how tense I had been; it somehow felt like, with James, I was in a constant defence mode, which cost me a lot of energy.

            I stifled a yawn and pushed myself up from the chair, pulling my hair up into a messy topknot as I made my way to the wooden bookshelf that stretched across the entire left wall. The small pot containing the Graviditas potion was still visible where I had pushed aside the books, and I peered over the edge, examining the gooey, greyish liquid.

Carefully, I took it from the shelf and put it down on the desk, kindling a fire underneath it with my wand. It didn’t take long for the substance to react to the heat and, within a minute, it was bubbling sluggishly, emitting thin bands of smoke.

            “I forgot my books.” A deep voice startled me, and I jerked up my head to see James standing in the middle of the room.

Without thinking, I leaped from my chair, trying to block the cauldron from his view, but it was too late; he had already seen everything.

            “I’m, um, finishing off a potions project,” I stammered lamely, my face heating up instantly from the blatant lie.

James only gave me an appraising look as he approached, peering warily into the cauldron. “Has anyone ever told you that you are a really bad liar, Woodley?”


 






 

A/N: Sooooh – Seth got caught. By James. What did you think about that? And what do you think about Seth and James together? I am really curious to hear what you guys think! Let me know what you like or didn’t like or what you would like to happen :)…  


Chapter 13: A Rescue Mission
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 I stared at James, dumbstruck. My mind was suddenly wiped blank and I could feel the palms of my hands get sweaty, as I frantically tried to come up with something plausible to say.

Or anything, really.

“I’m not lying,” I said, terribly aware of how feeble my voice sounded.

James frowned. “Your lips are twitching.”

I clamped a hand over my mouth, suddenly feeling like I was six years old again and playing a game of cards with Grandmother. “It’s a project for Slughorn, okay?”

James raised an eyebrow. “No, it’s not,” he insisted and, bending over the cauldron, he sniffed at the slowly bubbling potion. “What is this, Woodley?”

“Nothing that concerns you,” I replied as sternly as possible, crossing my arms in front of my chest. “Now, would you please just go away?”

He gave me a weird, long look, almost as though he was about to say something, but then he simply shook his head to himself, muttering something that contained the word ‘crazy’, and began to gather the books and papers, he had come back for in the first place. I watched him reach for them over the table, assembling them into a messy pile, which he picked up at once, swiping a couple of loose sheets off the table in the process.

“I’ll do it,” I said quickly, but James had already bent down, snatching the pages from the floor. Instead of putting them back, however, he stared at them, his brows furrowed in consternation. It was only now that I realised, he was reading the instructions for the Graviditas potion.

“Give that back!” I tried to yank the sheet from his hand, but he reacted too quickly, pulling his hand out of my reach.

“You’re pregnant?” He sounded shocked, staring at me as though he was seeing me for the very first time.

What? No!” I had finally reached the instructions and tore them from his grip, unable to look at him. How on earth was I going to get out of this mess?

“Are you kidding me?” James still stared at me incredulously. “You’re brewing a pregnancy test.”

“So what?” I snapped, busying myself with putting away the loose sheets of paper. There was no more use in denying it. And if he thought, I was brewing the potion for myself, all the better. I didn’t care what James Potter thought about me anyway.

“I just – I guess, I didn’t think you –“

“Were having sex?” I supplied rather aggressively, slamming the papers carelessly onto the table. I hadn’t meant to yell at him like this, but it was hard to keep calm at the moment.

“What? No! I didn’t mean that!” He snapped back, clearly upset. “I never even thought about you having sex! I mean – ugh.” He raked a hand through his hair, dishevelling it even more. “That came out wrong.”

Sure,” I mumbled, more to myself than to James, and sank onto the nearest chair, rubbing my tired eyes. This was getting way too much for me to handle. “It’s not mine, okay? I’m only helping a friend.”

James only stared at me for a moment, before taking the seat across from me. “That miserable bloke from earlier?”

I nodded in response and it grew quiet again.

After a while, he leaned forwards, resting his elbows on his knees and giving me a weird look. “Why are you doing this?”

I shrugged, not exactly sure what to say. I had asked myself the very same question a couple of times already. “I just – I couldn’t turn him in. It felt wrong. And I just figured – if I can help him, why not?”

James regarded me with an almost curious expression on his face. “That is really-”

“Stupid?” I supplied, but he shook his head and the small dimple on his right cheek appeared as he smiled lightly.

“Actually, I wanted to say that it is very Gryffindor of you.”

At this point, I couldn’t help a grin, which I tried to cover up by rolling my eyes. “I’m not sure that’s a compliment, either.”

“Well,” James replied casually, rising from the chair again. “Considering you’re a Ravenclaw, I would say it is.”

 

                                                                                                  ♦

 

Thin, green vines were flailing through the air like rabid garden snakes, lashing out at my gloved hands. Loud swearing mingled with cries of panic, as people dived underneath the long table or ducked behind one of the shelves. Across from us, one of the tentacle-like tendrils had gotten hold of Adrian Leigh’s wand, swinging it back and forth like it was waving it in triumph, but we barely noticed. 

“Can we trust him?” Katie whispered, using the outburst of laughter to cover our conversation. 

“Don’t make me feel even worse about it than I already do, okay?” I groaned, swatting at a particularly ferocious vine that had wrapped itself around my wrist. “Diffindo!”

The tentacle recoiled, hiding behind the others like a wounded animal.

“I just thought, the two of you are not exactly friends, and –”

“I know,” I sighed, hitting a couple of other vines with my wand. It had been stupid to confide in James Potter. He had promised that he wouldn’t tell but, honestly, there was nothing that actually kept him from doing so. And I didn’t know him well enough to rely on his word alone.

“Ladies, how is your Venomous Tentacular getting along?”

Katie and I both jerked up our heads, staring straight at Professor Longbottom’s face. It was hard to believe that he was the same person as the round-faced boy, smiling tentatively into the camera on the large photograph of Dumbledore’s Army that adorned the Albus Dumbledore Memorial Hall. His chubby cheeks had vanished since then and, while still being one of the nicer teachers, there was nothing tentative about his demeanour anymore.

“It’s going great!” Katie said, a little too brightly, leaning rather obviously over our pitiable attempts at sketching the plant’s poisonous buds. Drawing was not exactly our forte.

Professor Longbottom frowned at us warily but, before he could say anything, there was a blood-curdling scream and suddenly, Jasper Holt was born up into the air, ensnared by countless wriggling vines.

“Out of the way!” Professor Longbottom had yanked his wand from his cloak, pointing at Jasper’s Venomous Tentacular, which suddenly stopped writhing uncontrollably and began to sway gently, not unlike a many-headed snake that had been hypnotized. As it slowly put Jasper back onto the ground and retreated, thunderous applause filled Greenhouse 5.

“So, when will it be ready, then?” Katie mouthed, giving me a meaningful glance.

“Thursday, I think,” I whispered back, feeling a definite surge of relief at the thought of it. Only two more days and then this mess would finally be over and I would be able to breathe again.
 


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I felt like a criminal as I leaned against the stone wall, my gaze wandering up and down the forsaken corridor. My blue uniform tie felt unnaturally tight around my throat but I didn’t dare loosen it just now. It was a crucial moment – the last hurdle – and it all depended on me.

Unfortunately, I was sweating like a pig.

Finally, Sam’s tall figure appeared at the end of the hallway, walking towards me rather swiftly. It was obvious that he wanted this to be over as much as I did.

Relieved that everything was working out according to plan, I took a couple of steps towards him, ready to hand over the small vile with the Graviditas potion, which I was clutching tightly in the pocket of my dark grey cardigan. It was then that an icy cold wind suddenly swept the corridor and a malicious cackle reverberated from the lofty ceiling, making Sam and me stop dead in our tracks.

“Ooooh, what is this?” Peeves, the poltergeist, had literally plunged through the ceiling, a gleeful expression on his translucent face as he swooped back and forth above our heads. Sam was still too far away to discern his features, but I was sure he looked just as anxious as I felt.

“Go away, Peeves!” I said bravely, trying hard to hide the fear in my voice. “Or I’ll call the Bloody Baron.”

The ghost summersaulted above my head, before cackling once more. “Ickle prefects, meeting in secret. Should call the headmistress, I should!”

“No!” I said a little too quickly, watching the stout man’s face light up with sardonic glee. He had sensed it – that he had actually walked in on something – and, before I could draw my wand to silence him, he took a deep breath and bellowed, “ALARM! ALARM ON THE THIRD FLOOR!”

Almost immediately, I could hear doors flying open in the close distance and hurried footsteps approaching the usually unused corridor. Sam had already turned on his heels, fleeing from the scene with Peeves in his wake, shouting abuse at him.

I wheeled around, running off into the other direction, my clammy fingers still wrapped tightly around the potion in my pocket. A couple of indistinguishable voices grew louder behind me, and I sped up, running as fast as I could. Unfortunately, it was not fast enough.

“Miss Woodley!”

I slithered to a halt, just before I would have crashed into the towering figure of Minerva McGonagall. Behind her, a couple of curious students craned their necks to get a better view, and still more were trickling in from all sides, eager to see what had happened.

“What is going on here?” She gave me a stern look that made me feel as though she could see right through me, and I took an instinctive step backwards, tightening my grip on the vile in my pocket. Now, if ever, I needed to stay cool. Just for once.

However, when I opened my mouth to speak, nothing came out. I was frozen, unable to even blink.

“Miss Woodley,” McGonagall said again, this time warier still, and my heart sank, as her gaze fell onto the bulging pocket of my uniform cardigan. “What is in your pocket?”

“My pocket?” I croaked feebly, feeling my heart hammering against my ribcage. It felt as though it was struggling to break free. This was it. I had been caught and there was no way I could prevent the consequences that were bound to follow.

“Your pocket, Miss Woodley.”

It was over.

“Professor!” There was a wave of muttering from the small crowd and suddenly, James Potter had entangled himself from the gathered onlookers, striding confidently towards us, his burgundy tie loosened around his open collar and his shirt-sleeves rolled up.

“Potter,” McGonagall said with surprise, though her voice sounded softer than usual. It wasn’t a secret that she was close to the Potters and it showed in the way she talked to their offspring.

“I – er – Hagrid sends me,” he said and, without so much as looking at me, positioned himself right in front of me, as though I was a mere part of the dirty stone wall.

Such a gentleman.

“Hagrid?” McGonagall frowned. “Potter, I don’t have time for this now.”

“But it’s urgent!” He insisted. “Really urgent.” A sharp jolt of pain rushed through my body, as the heel of James’s desert boot slammed into my toes, and I gasped, stifling the cry of pain that had threatened to burst from my mouth. I looked up at his back, blinking away the tears in my eyes, and suddenly noticed that he was discreetly holding out his hand to me.

“What is it then?”

McGonagall seemed to lose her patience with him and, not really knowing what I was doing, I quickly produced the vile from my pocket and pressed it into James’s open palm.  His fingers closed around it immediately and he pulled back his arm.

“Oh, um, you know what?” He said quickly, a nonchalant smile on his face. “Now that I think about it, it’s really not that important.” He scratched the back of his head as he began to walk backwards down the corridor. “Sorry, Professor!” And with that, he simply turned around and left the hallway in a jog.

“Potter!” McGonagall called after him, but he had already disappeared behind the corner. “That boy,” she mumbled to herself, shaking her head slightly, before turning her attention back on me. “Where were we? Ah, yes. Your pocket, if you may.”

But there was nothing to show her anymore and, concluding that Peeves had once again pranked the entire school, she told me to return to my common room, before shooing away the curious flock of students that had ventured out of their dormitories, following Peeves’s call.

 

I literally stumbled into the Ravenclaw common room, still feeling trance-like. A couple of people gave me curious looks, but I neither had the time, nor the nerve to worry about them now. I needed to find Sam, to talk to him, but he was nowhere to be seen.

“Seth!” Katie had stumbled towards me, looking stressed. “Seth, what happened? Someone said Peeves-“

I shook my head quickly, not wanting anyone to overhear, and pulled my best friend into a quiet corner, before retelling the outline of what had happened. Her eyes seemed to grow bigger with every word and when I finished, she had raised her eyebrows so much that they threatened to disappear into her auburn hairline.

“You mean James-?”

I nodded, once again looking around if anyone was close enough to eavesdrop.

“And -” She paused, a confused expression on her face as she seemed to put the pieces together. “What do you think he has done with the potion?”

“I don’t know,” I admitted, raking a hand through my slightly sweaty hair. “He just ran off.”

“You need to talk to him!” Katie urged. “Maybe he’s in the Gryffindor common room?”

“Yeah, maybe,” I mumbled, still feeling a little disoriented. I didn’t even know how to get into the Gryffindor common room. Wasn’t there a password or something?

“Sam!” Katie nudged my arm and I wheeled around on the spot. Sam had indeed just entered the common room, his eyes searching the closer vicinity. When they found me, he suddenly smiled very slightly and gave me a tiny nod, as though to say that everything was alright.

“The potion?” I whispered as he joined Katie and me in the corner.

“All went well,” he said, and I was relieved to hear that there was a little more life in his voice again. “James found me and gave it to me.”

“He did?” I couldn’t help sounding surprised. “Why? I mean, how?”

“He caught up with me after I had run off. He said, you’d almost gotten into trouble?” He looked guilty, almost worried, but I quickly shook my head, eager to hear the rest of the story.

“It’s fine. I got away. What happened then?”

“Well,” Sam, who was still panting slightly, probably from running up the stairs to the tower, took a deep breath. “I gave it to Felicity and she did the test immediately.”

“AND?” Katie and I both spoke simultaneously. My stomach clenched and the mounting tension was hard to bear. But suddenly Sam smiled; and it was a genuine, easy smile that curled his chapped lips and he simply shook his head.

“Not pregnant.”

I could barely believe it. After everything, I honestly had not believed in a happy ending anymore. “But, what about the morning sickness and her being late and-“

Sam shrugged, now leaning against the bookshelf to our right. “She reckons it was only her psyche acting up. She’s feeling better already. It was a good idea to have a back-up plan.”

            “Oh, um, yeah,” I said lamely, producing a feeble smile that hardly could have looked genuine. Sam, however, seemed too relieved to even notice.

            “Seth, thank you so much. You are seriously awesome.”

            “You’re welcome.”

I watched him walk away and then let myself fall against the wall, suddenly feeling immensely tired. Of course, I hadn’t had a back-up plan. If it hadn’t been for James Potter, I would have probably been sitting on the Hogwarts Express right this moment, on my way back to Cornwall.

            “That was really nice of James,” Katie said, albeit tentatively, glancing at my profile as we trudged up the stairs to the girls’ dormitories.

            “Yes.” I wasn’t sure what else to say. It had been nice. But somehow, I wasn’t sure I liked the thought of owing James Potter.


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There was a sudden burst of light and a loud rattling sound, as the dark blue curtains around my bed were yanked open and I groaned, covering my stinging eyes.

            “Rise and shine!” Katie chirped and I could feel her sitting down on my bed, probably staring at me as I lay there, refusing to accept that it actually was morning already.

            “Go away,” I groaned once more, pulling the blanket up to my face. “It’s, like, midnight.”

            “It’s 10 o’ clock.”

            It took a moment for the information to sink in. Then, in a spurt of sudden panic, I sat up straight, blinking at the glaring rays of sunlight that lit up the entire room. It was the first time I had slept that long in, well, ever. “What? But why?”

            “That’s a really deep question for Saturday morning.” Katie laughed.

            It was Saturday. The Kick-Off Saturday. And my family would be arriving in less than an hour. Panic-stricken, I peeled myself out of my cosy bed and began to pace around frantically, not exactly sure what I was even doing.

            “I need to wash. And dress,” I mumbled, still pacing, “and brush my teeth.” I caught a glimpse of the bushy, unkempt blonde mop on my head in the mirror and another moan escaped my mouth. “-and my hair.”

            “Those are all good ideas,” Katie chimed in, “but how about some breakfast first?”

            It was only now that I noticed the small tray on my bedside table, containing a steaming mug of coffee and a buttered scone. The sight somehow had a soothing effect on me, and I could feel my heartbeat slow down again.

            “You are literally the most awesome person I know,” I said, as I sat down next to Katie, cupping the warm mug in my hands.

            “I know,” she shrugged, and we both looked up as the door to the dorm-room flew open, revealing Ursula Mussegros.

            “Hi!” She greeted us in her usual squeaky voice, and slipped into the room, closing the door quietly behind her. There was something about the way she spoke and moved – all very softly and never too quickly – that was slightly weird. It had probably also been the reason why Adina Singer and her posse had bullied her out of their dorm room in third year.

            “You look really nice,” I told her, when she had sat down on her bed, her light eyes gazing at the window. Her dark blonde hair was in a neat plait and she even seemed to have applied a little lip-gloss.

            “Oh, thank you.” A tentative smile appeared on her lips and she smoothened out the skirt of her blue midi-dress. “My boyfriend is coming today. He’s a Muggle,” she explained, a slight blush appearing on her cheeks. “Are your families coming?”

            I simply mumbled something close to a ‘yes’, not feeling particularly psyched about the weekend that lay ahead, but Katie’s loud ‘YES’ would have drowned out my answer anyway.

            “My Mum comes. And I think-” She had leaned over me, peering at the watch that lay on my bedside table. “- Oh, I should probably get going. She arrives with the first group.”

            I simply nodded, unable to speak because of the large piece of scone I had just stuffed into my mouth. Since Hogwarts was unplottable and, hence, invisible to Muggles, non-magic family members attending the Kick-Off had to be charmed by Flitwick first, before they would even be able to see more than a mouldy old ruin.

            “Say ‘hi’ to her. I’ll catch up with you later,” I muttered, despite the lump of scone I was still chewing on.

            “Right,” Katie pushed herself up from my bed, pulling on the light pink blouse she wore underneath a tailored military jacket. She too, had obviously made an effort to look nice. But then again, unlike me, my best friend usually made an effort.

            “See you in a bit.” Katie smiled at me as she reached the door. Ursula, who was coming with her to get her boyfriend, trailed mouse-like in her wake. “And don’t let the Woodleys get you down.”

            I only grimaced and, when the door had shut behind them, finally dragged myself up from my bed again, ambling through the now empty dorm room, the cup of coffee still in my hand.

Just like the House teams, I had prepared a game-plan for today: Firstly, dodging any kind of questions by my family, related to Ravenclaw or Slytherin. Secondly, ignoring anything my grandmother said; or anyone else from my family, really. Thirdly, avoiding James Sirius Potter, come what may.

The last point wasn’t actually related to anything, I just wasn’t ready to face him yet and I needed time to think. Saying ‘thank you’ really sounded easier than it was, especially when it was James Potter I had to be grateful to.
 


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Tents had sprung up everywhere, dotting the vast Hogwarts grounds like sprinkles on a cake. The rain had stopped two days ago and the autumn sun graced the treetops of the Forbidden Forrest, which glittered in brilliant shades of gold and orange.

            I breathed in the crisp air and drew my large, knitted cardigan a little tighter around my torso as I took in the scene from the distance. There were already flocks of people, marching towards the Quidditch pitch, looking like tiny dots of red, yellow, green, and blue. The Kick-off would not begin before an hour, but the hard-core Quidditch-nuts, as usual, scrambled to get a head-start, securing the best seats. It wasn’t hard to guess that my family would not be among them; the Woodleys never scrambled for anything.

            I continued my walk down the grounds, passing by oddly shaped tents, adorned with various House flags and banners that all billowed in the soft breeze. Jovial chatter and music filled the air and the tingle of excitement for the oncoming Kick-Off games was almost tangible. A group of children raced past me, weaving through the tents with scarlet and gold banners tied around their necks like capes, screeching and giggling as they chased each other. Despite the uneasy feeling that had settled in my stomach in the past days leading up to this event, I was actually beginning to relax a little; that was, until I had spotted the blinding white pavilion that towered a little distance away from the others.

            A tiny groan escaped my mouth as I stared rather thickly at the elegant construction in front of me. I wasn’t the only one, either; a couple of people stopped as they passed, pointing at the pavilion with gaping mouths. I couldn’t even blame them; it was magnificent with its polished wooden floor and glittering chandelier hanging from the ceiling. A couple of white-clothed tables bore bouquets of fresh peonies and around them, two neatly dressed waiters dashed back and forth, carrying silver trays with sparkling Champaign and miniscule hors d’oeuvres.

            “Elizabeth! There you are!” My mother had spotted me amongst the onlookers, immediately ushering me towards the pavilion, her long, jewellery adorned fingers clasping my shoulder tightly as though she feared I would run off otherwise. I did feel the strong urge to turn away, but as I was even too dumbfounded to speak, I could only hope that no one I knew witnessed how my mother pushed a glass of Champaign into my hand, explaining that I had to try the Norwegian Caviar with it. Leave it to the Woodleys to turn a simple Kick-Off camp-out into a five-star gala event.

            “Elizabeth!” My grandmother’s melodious voice had reached me even before I had gotten a glimpse of her; her long, forest green cloak billowed behind her as she approached, but her neat white-blonde hair-do was rigid and unmoving. Like my mother, she was a tall, slender woman, who, despite her age, was still towering over everyone else; at least it had always felt like that to me.

            “You are late,” she sighed as she stopped in front of me, her pale, blue eyes narrowing, as she stared at my white linen trainers as though they had personally offended her. “And, apparently, you forgot how to dress properly as well.”

            I only pursed my lips, biting my tongue to restrain myself from giving her a stroppy reply. I had actually thought I looked quite nice today in my pair of dark, cropped jeans and the silky camisole underneath the oversized woolly cardigan.

            “Oh, well at least she can go to the girls’ bathroom now without causing a scandal,” a snide voice said next to me, but I didn’t need to look to know who had spoken.

            “Hello, cousin,” Cassandra drawled in an almost bored voice, taking another sip of her Champaign. While she and Vala had the same brown hair and dark eyes, Cassandra was distinctly bonier than her sister, and it seemed to have gotten worse ever since she had graduated from Hogwarts two years ago. “I must say, I didn’t really believe it when Val told me, but here you are.”

            Vala, who was standing next to her sister, only rolled her eyes and downed her glass at once, before stalking off into the pavilion. Her gait seemed a little shaky, but it was probably due to the six-inch heels that kept getting stuck in the earthy ground.

            “Nice to see you too, Cassie,” I said so brightly, the sarcasm should have been hard to miss. Cassandra, however, didn’t seem to notice or care about that. She simply swiped her pin-straight hair over her alarmingly knobbly shoulder and smiled brilliantly. Confused about her reaction, it took me a moment to realise that she was not beaming at me; her gaze was fixed on something behind me, and suddenly, I felt a strong hand gripping my shoulder.

            “Elizabeth!”

            I wheeled around, looking straight into the wrinkly yet stately face of my grandfather. The thin lines around his dark grey eyes crinkled as he found mine, and, even though his mouth did not twitch, it looked as though he was smiling.

            “Didn’t I tell you, son?” He boomed and I felt taken aback for a moment, not exactly knowing what the hell he was talking about. Then, I spotted the tall figure next to him, scrutinising my face.

            “Oh yes, exactly the same colour.” The young man smiled somewhat complacently, as he gave me a very obvious onceover. “Of course, it is hard to focus on eye colour in the face of such breath-taking beauty.”

            I couldn’t help a confused frown as I watched the two men exchanging knowing glances. Next to me, Cassandra looked like she had just eaten something disgusting and was about to throw up.

            “Elizabeth, you surely remember Asher,” Grandfather said, clapping the guy’s shoulder. “He is Justus and Charlize Engelstein’s son.”

            “Well, Edward,” Asher said, giving me a bright smile, “It has been a while since Elizabeth and I have seen each other. I surely would have not recognized her.” He winked at me and I cringed inwardly, remembering the last time we had seen each other and he had forced a wet kiss onto my lips. What on earth was he doing here?

            “As you know, Asher didn’t attend Hogwarts,” Grandfather began to explain, as though he could read my thoughts, “So I invited him along. I was thinking, you could show him around a little. After the game, of course.”

            “Um, but,” I said rather slowly, not quite sure what Grandfather was playing at, “I, um, I already – uh, made plans.” Meeting up with Katie and her mum hardly qualified as ‘plans’. It had been a lame attempt to talk myself out of having to deal with Asher all day. After all, Cassandra, who was now sulking next to the waiter with the Champaign, had seemed rather eager to do it. And I really wasn’t.

            “Perfect!” Grandfather boomed, much to my surprise. “Then it is settled.”

            “Oh, I -” I tried once again, suddenly realising that I really didn’t have a good excuse. “Well, I’m not sure I can -”

            “When does the game start?” My mother had interrupted my feeble stammering, shooting me a glance that told me to stop trying to wriggle my way out of this. “Isn’t it soon?”

            “There’s still time,” Vala, who had emerged from the backrooms of the pavilion, was leaning against one of the tables, looking bored. “Ravenclaw against Hufflepuff is first and, honestly, who wants to watch that.”


            “I do!” I said indignantly and, not caring about my mother’s and grandmother’s disapproving looks, I turned on the spot and marched off towards the Quidditch pitch. I had only spent half an hour with the Woodleys and I already felt exhausted. This was going to be a long day.







A/N: If you got this far, thank you for reading! As always, I would love to hear your thoughts and feelings on this chapter! What did you think about James saving Seth? And finally, the Woodleys reappeared – what did you think about that? And what about Asher – why did Seth’s Grandfather bring him along? I a really looking forward to hearing what you guys thought! Lots of love!


Chapter 14: A Game of Quidditch
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A/N: First of all, I AM SORRY it took me that long to update. I had a gigantic exam last week and therefore couldn’t finish this chapter. But now it is here and I made it extra-long, hoping that you guys forgive me.







 

“They are unbelievable.” I plunged my hand into Katie’s popcorn bucket and stuffed a handful into my mouth, not caring that I probably looked like a hamster. “Forgot how dress properly,” I spat, spraying tiny bits of popcorn onto my jeans. “What am I supposed to wear to a Quidditch Kick-off? A ball gown?”

“You look very nice, dear.” Katie’s mum had leaned over her daughter to pat my shoulder, giving me a warm smile.

I replied the gesture and slumped a little in my seat. “Thanks Gemma.”

“Just don’t let them get to you,” Katie said, offering me her popcorn, but I declined, shaking my head. This was easier said than done; standing up to one Woodley at a time might have been manageable, but dealing with all of them at once felt like being sent into battle with a blindfold.

There was a sudden wave of cheers and applause and as blue-clad figures all rose around me, punching the air with their fists, I realised that the game was over. And, by the looks of it, Ravenclaw had won.

A spectacular catch by Ravenclaw seeker Hector Chang!” The magnified voice of the commentator echoed across the elevated stands, just to be drowned out by the smattering applause and cheers that followed.

“Great job, Hector!” Adina Singer cried out a couple of rows in front of me, waving her hands like a maniac as the entire team did a victory lap around the stadium. Bernice and the other beater trailed a little behind the others, looking thoroughly exhausted.

“Good game,” Katie said as she got up and stretched rather noisily. “A bit short.”

“I thought it was brilliant!” Gemma beamed, her eyes still trained on the flying blue blob that was the Ravenclaw team. Katie’s mum had come to see the Kick-off every year, yet she was always fascinated by every piece of magic she got to see.

“I think I should go look for my family,” I sighed after a couple of minutes and finally rose from the comfortable seat. I actually didn’t have to look for them; I had already spotted my grandparents’ house elf Trixie on the Slytherin side, running back and forth frantically to save a couple of perfectly located seats for my family.

Typical.

“See you later!” Katie shouted after me as I made my way through the now shifting crowd; everybody seemed to use the short break in between the two games to stretch their legs a little and it was difficult to manoeuvre through the throngs of people. It was only with quite a bit of elbowing that I reached the stairs, when suddenly, someone stopped right in front of me, blocking the way.

“We need to talk,” Felicity Bolder said in a low voice, her dark hair flying wildly around her round face. Although we had never actually spoken to each other, I wasn’t surprised that she had chatted me up. After all, she probably knew that I had made the potion for her.

“Oh, um, Sam already told me,” I said quickly, not wanting to go into too much detail when there were so many people around us. “I’m glad I could help, really.”

“Help?” Her voice cracked oddly and angry red blotches appeared on her face. “Help? Are you serious? You ruined everything!”

I was so taken aback that I failed to react and, for a moment, only stared at Felicity, my mouth literally hanging open. What on earth was going on?

“I found your letters underneath his bed,” she hissed, her eyes narrowing to slits.

What?” I finally managed to say, still absolutely clueless about what was going on. Somehow, I seemed to have missed out on some crucial piece of information that would help me make sense of this strange conversation.

“Oh please.” Felicity rolled her eyes, knotting her arms tightly in front of her chest. “Sam broke up with me. I hope you’re happy now!” She spat the last couple of words with such menace that tiny drops of saliva flew from her mouth. Then, without waiting for a reply, she stalked off, disappearing into the crowd.

            For a moment, I still stared at the spot where she had vanished, feeling completely wrong-footed. I couldn’t be entirely sure, but it seemed as though she had just accused me of breaking Sam and her up. This was ridiculous, of course; besides the fact that I had absolutely no interest in interfering with anyone’s relationship, I hadn’t even known that they weren’t together anymore.

            This day just kept getting worse.

 

**

 

I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Green and red blurs swished through the air in front of me, rousing the people in the stands as they performed risky stunts on their broomsticks, but I simply couldn’t focus on the match. All I could think about was Felicity and the odd conversation we had had about an hour ago. As soon as this was over, I had to find Sam and ask him what was going on.

            “Who is the Gryffindor Seeker?” My father asked as he squinted at the pitch, his arms crossed in front of his chest. He had just arrived in time for the match, still wearing the suit-and-tie combo he usually wore to work.

            “James Potter,” Vala replied with a breathy voice that was very unusual for her. She seemed to have noticed too, since her cheeks blushed pink and she quickly cleared her throat. “He’s the captain too.”

            “Potter,” my father mused, a deep frown appearing on his face. It was no secret that he wasn’t a fan of the Potters; in fact, my entire family wasn’t. This was not so much due to some old pureblood prejudices (although, I couldn’t be entirely sure about that), but rather related to the fact that old money families like mine traditionally disapproved of those, who had only recently acquired a certain status and prominence in the wizarding world.

            “In Danston,” Asher began, as a Bludger swooshed dangerously close past the Slytherin stand, “we didn’t have Quidditch matches. The emphasis was on academics rather than on chasing a tiny ball on a broomstick.” He chuckled as though he had just made a great joke, and I simply rolled my eyes. I really wasn’t a particular Quidditch fan and I disliked the privileges that came with being on one of the house teams, but I would never agree with Asher. On principle.

            He had taken the seat next to mine and, since then, not even once shut up about how crude Quidditch was and about his elitist all-boys school and about studying magical law, which was honestly one of the dullest topics I had ever been forced to listen to.

            “Asher’s father owns the biggest magical law firm in England,” Grandfather supplied from the row behind us, clasping Asher’s shoulder, who smiled complacently.

            I simply nodded in silence, not sure what I was expected to say to that. It wasn’t exactly an achievement to have successful parents. Unfortunately, my mother had noticed my less than enthusiastic reply and shot me a stern look that was the same one she had given me when I had been a toddler, struggling to hold the teacup with only two fingers.

            Suddenly, there was a loud whoosh and I looked up just in time to see two blurry figures racing above our heads, taking a sharp turn and then suddenly plunging towards the ground. James Potter was neck on neck with the Slytherin seeker as they sped downwards and the crowds in the stands had sprung to their feet, yelling and cheering so loudly, their voices melted to an indistinguishable roar.

            “When you study magical law,” Asher began to talk next to me once again, but his voice drowned in the noise. Potter and Hatte were mere inches from the ground and, for a moment, it looked like they were going to crash. Suddenly Hatte pulled up his broom, shaking his head wildly as he trailed off to the side-line. James, however, was still approaching the pitch at breakneck speed, his arm outstretched as though he was reaching for something. People began to scream, probably thinking, like me, that he was about to collide with the ground; however, just when it seemed too late, he pulled out of his dive and soared upwards again. In his hand was a struggling golden ball, flapping its tiny silver wings.

            I rose with the crowd in the stadium, which had exploded with shouts and cheers, and clapped along wildly, until I realised that no one else around me had gotten to their feet. In all this excitement, I had completely forgotten that I was in the Slytherin stand.

            “Oh, I meant boo Gryffindor! You stink!” I hooted feebly, trying to avoid my family’s disapproving looks.

“Sit down!” Grandmother hissed, looking thoroughly embarrassed, and I let myself fall back onto my chair again, feeling my face heat up.

“Well, it was a great dive,” someone said behind me and I wheeled around instantly to stare at my grandfather, not believing that he had actually just said that. The rest of the family seemed to feel the same way, as they all regarded him with a mixture of shock and disbelieve, but he didn’t seem to notice or care. His grey eyes simply met mine and suddenly his right eyelid twitched briefly, before he rose from his seat.

Seriously, if I hadn’t known better, I would have thought that my grandfather had just winked at me.

 

**

 

I had dived into the crowd; quite recklessly, but it had been the only way to shake off Asher, who had launched into yet another speech on magical private law. I knew that I would have to endure a lecture on manners from my mother later, but Asher had been more than I could bear at the moment.

I was tossed around a bit, before I finally emerged again, finding myself at the edge of the Quidditch pitch, where a couple of house elves had started picking up the debris of the games, including cups and stray wrapping papers. Exhausted, I let myself plop down onto one of the benches on the side-line, watching the little creatures darting around the grass, collecting rubbish as though they couldn’t imagine anything better.

At least someone was having fun.

I let my gaze wander, not really taking in the huddled groups of people that had gathered on the pitch, talking in excited voices. Most of them seemed to be the families of the players, catching their loved ones before they could vanish into the changing rooms.

“I knew James wouldn’t fall,” A young girl with long, auburn hair and an overly large Gryffindor Quidditch strip said loudly, earning a playful shove from the tall boy next to her.

“Yeah right, Lily,” he said with exasperation, his voice ringing across the pitch, and I sat up a little straighter, realising that it was Albus Potter.

I hadn’t seen him for a while, yet I hadn’t expected him to look so different; his usually messy black hair had been slicked back unnaturally and the stiff, beige khakis that covered his legs looked more like something Asher would wear. It was such an odd picture that, for a while, I didn’t even notice that he was standing among, what must have been his family; his father, tall and black-haired, towered next to a very pretty woman with brilliant ginger hair, who was caressing the shoulder of a very rumpled looking, dirt-splattered James Potter. He was still wearing his Quidditch clothes and clutching a broomstick in his hand, a broad grin on his face.

“It was still a bit risky, though. You could have seriously injured yourself.”

Mum,” James groaned, albeit still smiling as he exchanged knowing looks with his father, “I’ve heard stories of you in which you crashed into the commentator’s stand. On purpose.”

“Well, that was different,” she said very firmly, but her voice drowned among the shouts of protest from her family and I couldn’t help smiling along as they all burst into laughter.

Unfortunately, James had chosen exactly that moment to look up and, of course, spotted me immediately, hanging around all by myself at the edge of the pitch, watching them like a total creep.

Great.

Without really thinking, I simply turned on my heels and walked off the pitch rather awkwardly, accidentally knocking down two tiny house elves in the process. Maybe there was still a chance that he hadn’t actually seen me. After all, he could have just been staring into my general direction, right? And even if he had seen me it didn’t matter. I hadn’t been doing anything weird. I had simply been hanging out. At the pitch. By myself. Staring at the Potters. With a dim-witted smile.

            Quidditch Kick-Offs sucked. Big time.

 

**

 

I squinted as I stared at the setting sun, watching it sink slowly behind the dark treetops of the Forbidden Forest. The Kick-Off festivities were in full swing, with loud music blasting from all sides and alluring barbeque scents drifting in the evening air, but I hardly felt like partying. I had taken refuge behind the pavilion, only barley shaking off Asher, who apparently had taken my unenthusiastic nods and sighs as encouragement to tell me even more about the fascinating world of magical law.

“Oops, sorry.” Vala had stumbled around the corner, holding up her Champaign glass as she tried to regain her balance. “What are you doing here?” There was a definite slur in her voice as she spoke, still wobbling slightly on her heels.

            “Just waiting for this day to be over,” I sighed, not bothering to come up with some clever reply.

            Vala stared at me for a moment, taking another swig from her drink and then simply chucking the empty glass towards the edge of the forest, where it landed with a dull plunk. “You’re really weird,” she finally said, her dark eyes narrowing like she was trying to zoom in on me.

            I simply shrugged, not looking at her this time. If there was one thing I didn’t need right now it was my legless cousin telling me that I was weird.

Unfortunately, Vala did not walk away again, but stumbled towards me, her heels getting stuck in the dirt every other step. “You know,” she sighed, pulling on the skirt of her designer dress, “I would never say this if I wasn’t completely pissed, but I’ve always envied you a little.”

What?” I looked at her with raised eyebrows, not sure I had heard correctly.

“You’re so… fearless.”

I had to hold back a sarcastic snort. There were probably a range of adjectives to describe me, but fearless was definitely not among them. Vala, however, didn’t seem to have noticed my reaction.

“I mean, yes, that boy-phase was weird,” she continued unperturbed, staring at the glowing evening sun. “I mean, you really looked horrible with that choppy hair and don’t get me started on the clothes… But the point is that, despite what everyone said, you didn’t change.  And you chose Ravenclaw over Slytherin-“

“Well, technically I didn’t choose, so-”

“Whatever,” Vala waved her hand impatiently, accidentally slapping her own face. “Everyone knows that’s a hoax. Anyway,” she sighed, struggling to keep her balance as she straightened up, “in case you haven’t noticed, I’m really drunk so hopefully I won’t remember any of this tomorrow. Don’t tell Cassie I was nice to you, okay?”

“Sure.” I couldn’t help a smile as I watched my cousin stagger back around the corner to join our family again. This was probably the longest, albeit weirdest conversation Vala and I had ever had. And, most surprisingly, it had been kind of nice.

            “There you are!”

I looked up in shock, staring directly into Asher’s eager face.

“Vala told me you wanted to meet me here?” He squinted, shielding his eyes against the glare of the now orange sun, but I could still see the hint of a knowing smile on his face. Asher was probably quite handsome; at least in that preppy kind of way that really appealed to girls like Cassandra. However, besides the fact that boys really were among the last things on my mind right now, I just couldn’t see it.

“Oh, um, what?” I stammered lamely, taking an automatic step backwards.

Asher smiled, looking around haphazardly as he slowly moved closer to me. “Cosy,” he simply said, winking at me as though we were sharing an inside joke. “Now, what’s next?”

Not liking the sudden raspy quality of his voice, I stumbled backwards as he drew closer to me. “Um, I, well-” I stammered, almost falling over a rock as I continued to walk backwards. The image of a pair of slimy, wet lips pressing hard onto my mouth kept popping up in my head and I shuddered momentarily.

I had to get away.

“I, uh, I have to check on something,” I almost shouted at Asher, finally getting him to stand still, “in there.” For lack of a better idea, I had pointed at the dark mass that was the Forbidden Forest.

“In there?” Asher looked slightly put off for a moment as he peered over my shoulder, apparently examining the dense forest. “Well, I’ll come with you then to, um, help you.”

“No!” This time I had yelled properly, my arms outstretched in front of me like a protective shield. “I mean, you can’t. It’s, um – Hippogriffs.”

“Hippogriffs?”

“Yeah,” I said feebly, entirely aware of my burning face. Not only was my own body betraying me, but also my usually quite reliable brain seemed to have abandoned me. “It’s a project for Care of Magical Creatures. They are really dangerous, though. Hate strangers.”

“But-” Asher started, taking another step into my direction, but I had already made up my mind; ignoring the voice in my head that kept yelling I was breaking school rules, I turned on my heels and – with as much determination as I could muster – stalked off into the dark forest.

 

**

 

It had been a stupid idea. I was fully aware of that, but I couldn’t turn back. Not yet. I had ventured a fair bit into the forest, careful not to go too far. The trees were not as dense here, still allowing a faint orange glare to trickle through the dark treetops. I didn’t really have a plan, except for maybe finding a rock to sit down and wait for a while, hoping that Cassandra would have snatched Asher by the time I returned, sparing me an awkward goodbye.

            In retrospective, I probably should have just told Asher to leave me alone, rather than running off into the Forbidden Forest. It would have been majorly uncomfortable and I would have had to suffer the wrath of the Woodleys, but at least I would have saved myself the agony of roaming a potentially dangerous forest on my own.

            Suddenly, there was a crack, followed by an odd grunting noise and I stopped dead in my tracks, listening intently. Low humming noises mingled with the muffled music from the grounds, but there was no indication of movement around me.

Deciding that I had only imagined it, I moved a little closer to a particularly bright spot, where the weak light of the setting sun dappled the earthy ground. However, just before I had reached it, there was another gurgling sound to my right and I jumped back, spotting it immediately: A big, wriggling black mass stood against a group of trees, uttering low grunts as it continued to writhe its body, oddly changing its shape and, before I could stop it, a panic-fuelled shriek had escaped my mouth.

            “Who’s there?” It shrieked back in a high, girlish voice and, as my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I finally realised that I hadn’t run into some gigantic, wriggling creature after all; staring back at me were the tightly wrapped figures of Athena Notte and James Potter.

            “Oh god, I’m sorry!” I groaned immediately, closing my eyes at the compromising sight in front of me. I had definitely seen Potter’s hand shoved underneath her skirt and that was already more than I had ever wanted to see. “I didn’t see anything! Or kinda. I’m just gonna-” Squinting, I began to backtrack, barely managing to not stumble over the wealth of branches and stones that littered the ground.

            “Woodley, is that you?” James said and I thought I could hear a tinge of amusement in his deep voice.

            “Um, yes,” I finally admitted after a second’s hesitation. There was really no point in pretending to be someone else. That would have only made it more embarrassing than it already was.

            “Wait, who is that?” Athena sounded resentful, but I couldn’t really blame her. After all, I had just rudely interrupted her snogging session with James.

            “I’m no one, really,” I assured her quickly and, feeling I had clearly hung around for long enough, turned on the spot to walk off into the opposite direction. Unfortunately, in my eagerness to get away from them, I had turned a little too swiftly and slipped on a patch of wet leaves, painfully falling to the hard ground.

Into the dirt.

Face down. 

For a moment, I didn’t move, hoping that I would somehow just magically melt into the ground; was there a spell for that? If not, someone should really think about inventing one.

“Woodley, are you alright?” James voice tore me out of my thoughts and I quickly scrambled back up to my feet again, brushing leaves and dirt of my jeans. The fabric had torn around my knee cap, which now sported an impressive bleeding gash.

“Yeah, of course,” I said quickly, waving an airy hand at James, who had jogged over to me.

“That doesn’t look too good.” He pointed at my bleeding knee, which had soaked the torn edges of my jeans by now.

“James!” Athena yelled impatiently, still standing next to the group of trees where James had left her, her arms crossed tightly in front of her torso.

“I’m fine, really,” I said quickly, “I’ll just-”

“What are you even doing here, Woodley?” He looked at me with raised eyebrows, the corners of his mouth twitching lightly.

“I haven’t been stalking you, if that’s what you think,” I said quickly, feeling annoyed that he apparently still thought I fancied him. “I was just – well - strolling.”

Strolling,” he repeated, sarcasm oozing from his voice as he smirked at me.

“Yes,” I said defiantly, holding my head a little higher, “strolling. Now, if you would excuse me, Potter.”

James,” Athena called once again, approaching us with a rather menacing look on her pretty face. “I want to go. It’s getting cold.”

“Yeah, you should!” I said quickly, eager to just sit down on a rock and heal the gash on my knee. It had started throbbing uncomfortably and it was getting harder to stand upright. “I’m meeting someone, so-” It was, of course, a lie, but James’s incredulous expression made me so furious that I didn’t even blush.

“You are?” He arched an eyebrow in that arrogant manner that made me want to pummel him.

“Yes, of course,” I said somewhat loftily, taking on what Katie always referred to as the ‘bitter Shakespearean King’ voice, “Did you think I was just running around the Forbidden Forest by myself?” I mustered an awkward chuckle, as though I found the mere idea of that ridiculous.

James gave me a weird look, apparently not noticing Athens’s fingers that had wrapped around his biceps.

“Let’s go, James,” she said in a somewhat breathy voice and finally, after a bit of pulling on her side, he turned around and followed her lead towards the edge of the forest. 

            As soon as they were out of sight, I let myself sink onto the forest ground with a low moan, examining the damage on my right knee. It probably looked worse than it really was and, after wiping off the blood a little, I pulled my wand out of the pocket of my jeans and pointed it at the wound, muttering “episkey”. For a split second I felt a burning sensation and the gash closed up, leaving only a slightly red spot where the cut had been.

 

**

 

It had gotten dark by the time I had emerged from the Forbidden Forest again and the countless illuminated tents glowed like jewels all around the towering castle. The music had gotten louder, mingling with delighted hoots and shrieks of laughter and I could see the dark figures of dancing people in the distance. There was a definite chill in the air, now that the sun had set, but no one seemed to even notice the dropping temperatures.

            “How’s your knee?”

            I looked up startled, staring at James Potter with a bemused expression on my face. He stood there quite casually, one hand stuffed into the pocket of his jeans, the other clutching a piece of old, yellowed parchment, as he gave me a crooked smile. What the hell was he doing here?

            “Potter, are you stalking me?” I raised my eyebrows at him, but he simply grinned.

            “I just wanted to make sure you got out before nightfall,” he said nonchalantly, stuffing the parchment into his back-pocket. “I would have felt bad if something had eaten you.”

            “I can look after myself, thank you very much.” I had knotted my arms tightly in front of my torso, giving him a defiant glare.

            “Apparently,” James said with a small smile, turning towards the hub of the noise. “Well, I guess I see you around then, Woodley.”

            “Yeah, um, right. Potter?”

            “Yes?” He had stopped in mid-turn, his hands still in his pockets. The soft wind was ruffling up his messy brown hair and the thin, white T-shirt accentuated his athletic built. And for the first time – after managing to remain ignorant for so long – I could see why all the girls basically dissolved into manic squeals when James Potter walked by.

            Damn it.

            “I just – um – I” Great. I was stammering like an idiot. “I just wanted to say, um, thank you. For – you know – last week. Not that I needed help, of course,” I added quickly as I noticed the cocky smirk that had appeared on his face while I had been talking.

            “You really hate that I saved you, don’t you?”

            I opened my mouth with indignation but failed to come up with an answer. What the bloody hell was that supposed to mean? “Excuse me, but you didn’t save me,” I finally retorted, feeling my face burn, “I had everything under control.”

            “Sure,” He said slowly as though talking to a raging toddler.

            “I did!” I insisted stubbornly, knowing full-well that I probably wouldn’t be standing here if Potter hadn’t distracted McGonagall and delivered the potion to Sam. But something about his cocky demeanour, the arrogant assumption that he knew anything about me when he really had no idea, made it impossible for me to admit it.

“Right,” James said smugly, “just like you are not stalking me.”

“I know it’s hard to get that into your big head, Potter, but I am not bloody stalking you!” I growled, feeling slightly reckless all of a sudden as I thought of a couple of hexes I could use on him.

“Oh please,” he laughed, his voice charged with pure arrogance, “Like I haven’t seen you staring at me and my family earlier. And then you follow me into the Forbidden Forest-”

“I didn’t follow you!” I shouted at him, infuriated by his insulting insinuations. Maybe there had been a string of awkward coincidences, but that didn’t give him the right to call me a stalker. “I told you, I was meeting someone!”

James only looked at me, somewhat exasperatedly. “How come you’re alone then?”

Admittedly, that stole my thunder for a moment. Lying wasn’t my forte and making up new things as I went along usually never ended well. But I couldn’t just admit defeat. I couldn’t let Potter walk away, thinking that I was some sad, obsessed fan-girl, salvaging his tissues from the bin.

“Thank god, I found you!”

Potter and I both turned towards the Forest immediately, staring at the figure that had stumbled out of the thicket, looking slightly harassed.

“Asher?” I said, barely able to hide my astonishment. There was a light scratch on his cheek and his crisp, blue button-down was now rumpled and dirty. “What-?”

“I tried to find you,” he panted, wiping a few beads of sweat from his forehead. “I thought you shouldn’t be in there alone, so-”

I only stared at him for a moment, too perplexed to answer. Had he really followed me, just to make sure I was alright?

“That was really-” I had wanted to say ‘nice’, but, remembering that Potter was watching the scene, I simply wrapped my arm around Asher’s, who looked mildly befuddled, and wiped some dirt off his cheek.

“Are you alright?” I said softly, making sure Potter could hear every word.

“Oh, um, yeah. Sure.” Asher looked at me with a mixture of wonder and disbelieve.

“Good. Let’s go.” I pushed him softly to make him move and, with one last smug look at Potter, I turned around and left with Asher.

 

**

 

The pavilion, with all its furniture, wooden floors and chandeliers, had vanished within seconds, leaving only a blank square of flat grass. The party wasn’t over yet, but I had never expected my family to stay the night; this wasn’t exactly their thing.

            “So, I will write to you,” Asher said with an earnest expression on his face and I blushed instantly. Now that my irritation with Potter had faded away again, I couldn’t believe I had actually used Asher to show him up. This wasn’t like me at all.

            “Oh, um, yeah. Okay,” I said hesitantly, not sure what else to tell him. After all, it had been nice of him to come looking for me, and I couldn’t help wondering if maybe I had judged him too quickly.

            “Great.” Asher smiled. “I hope I will see you again soon.”

            “Yes – er – great.” I stammered, having no idea what else to say. Luckily, Asher seemed to be quite satisfied with this answer and, after an awkward handshake, he made his way over to where my father and grandfather stood.

            “It was good to see you,” my mother said softly, placing a hand on my cheek as she examined my face. I simply nodded and gave her a small but genuine smile. Spending the day with my family had been thoroughly exhausting, but at the end of the day they were still my family and, no matter what I always said to the contrary, I loved them.

            “Take care, will you?” Mum placed a kiss on my forehead. “And do write sometimes.”

            “I will,” I assured her, feeling slightly bad for the awkward two-liners I had been sending to her. Maybe I would make them a little longer.

“Ready?” My Father called out as everybody had gathered around him, holding on to the copper pot –one of the special portkeys that had been created solely for the Quidditch Kick-Off – and almost immediately they spun out of sight, disappearing into the night.

“At least that is over.”

            I hadn’t even noticed that Vala had been standing behind me, until she had spoken. She seemed to shiver slightly in her flimsy dress but judging by her otherwise stable stance the effects of the Champagne must have been wearing off.

            “I thought you loved being a Woodley,” I said as we both continued to stare into the darkness where our family had just vanished mere seconds ago.

            “Well, I’m not really a Woodley, am I?” She answered after a while, obviously referring to the fact that she wasn’t actually carrying the name. “You are, though.”

            “On paper maybe,” I sighed, rubbing my sore neck. It really was time I got into bed.

            “You are a Woodley,” Vala said softly, “more than you know.”

            I turned to look at her, not sure what on earth she was talking about. Maybe she was still drunk after all. There really was no other explanation.


            “Goodnight, cousin,” she said, sounding weary, and, with a tiny nod of her head, she simply turned around and walked away towards what looked like the hub of the party.







 

A/N: Dear reader, thank you for sticking with this story until now! I would really absolutely totally LOVE to hear your thoughts, feeling, complaints, opinions, etc. Getting feedback on this story is one of the best parts of my day (I swear, that’s totally not as sad as it sounds...) and I can barely wait to hear what you have to say! So cookies, unicorns and rainbows to all you wonderful people who take the time to review or comment :)


Chapter 15: Where there's a Weasley, there's a Potter
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Chapter 15: Where there’s a Weasley, There’s a Potter
 
 

“He came back for you,” Katie said in a low voice, yet the underlying squeal was still evident. “That’s so sweet!”

“Yeah.” I looked up from the plethora of books and parchment on the table, frowning at the air in front of me. “It is, isn’t it? I feel bad somehow for being so rude to Asher before.”

What?” Katie said so loudly that a couple of people in our closer vicinity shot reprimanding glares at us. “I wasn’t talking about Asher,” she continued in a whisper that couldn’t hide her indignation. “I meant James.”

James?” I stared at her in disbelief for a moment. “He didn’t come back for me. He just came to gloat.”

Katie arched an eyebrow, a definite look of exasperation on her face. “About what?”

“Well,” I said as I twisted my hair into a messy top-knot, “obviously about the fact that I had lied about meeting someone.”

Katie simply snorted in response. “Yeah, right. Because James Potter has nothing better to do.”

“Well,” I said hotly, but the words got stuck in my throat as suddenly the wiry figure of Madame Pince appeared behind a shelf of books, swooping down on us like a vulture.

“This,” she hissed in a menacing tone, “is a library. If you cannot be silent, you have to leave.”

Katie and I both mumbled an apology before sheepishly returning to our half-finished Ancient Runes translations.

A hard rain was pounding the high windows of the Hogwarts library, sounding loud and callous, and after only a few minutes, I found myself staring into nothingness again. I hadn’t gotten much sleep; the Kick-Off party had gone on well into the night and the mixture of music and cheerful yells had carried up all the way to Ravenclaw Tower, preventing me from even closing my eyes. It was not until the wee hours that the sky had suddenly cracked and unleashed a torrential downpour over Hogwarts, putting an end to the 20th annual Quidditch Kick-Off.

“Have you seen Albus Potter lately?” I had turned to look at Katie, who surfaced behind a huge rune dictionary, looking bemused.

“Um, yes,” she said sarcastically, “We’re hanging out all the time, didn’t you know?”

I rolled my eyes at her and leaned back in my comfortable wing-back chair. “It’s just, I saw him yesterday and, well, he looked strange somehow. Different.”

“Different in what way exactly?” Katie had carelessly dropped the dictionary, leaning towards me with an eager expression on her face. Gossip was her favourite pastime.

“Well,” I shrugged before taking a quick look around to make sure no one would overhear. “His hair and clothes, it just looked odd; very preppy.”

“Oh that,” Katie sighed, waving her hand, “it’s probably just his new girlfriend.”

“Girlfriend?”

“Yes,” Katie gave me a scandalised look as though she couldn’t believe I would miss a chunk of Hogwarts gossip of such importance. “Haven’t you heard? Apparently he is dating Laura Valenti from Hufflepuff. She’s in his year, extremely pretty, very popular…”

“Oh, right.” The image of Albus snogging a petite Brunette appeared in front of my mental eye; so they had made it official after all.

“Yeah,” Katie sighed wistfully, “They are such a cliché.”

“That’s enough!” A shrilly voice bellowed and we both jumped, staring into Madame Pince’s bulging eyes. “Out! Out! Out! The both of you! OUT!”

“But we haven’t-”

OUT!” Madame Pince cut Katie off and, barely leaving us enough time to gather our things, literally shooed us out of the library.

 

***

 

The Ravenclaw common room was bustling with students like it usually was when the weather as bad as today, and it seemed like every chair, nook, and corner was occupied. I sometimes forgot just how many students actually lived in Ravenclaw Tower, although – as far as I could tell – some seemed to be guests from other Houses.

                “Great. I’m going to bed,” Katie grumbled, looking daggers at a couple of first-years in wing-back chairs, who crumbled underneath her glare.

                “I’ll come with you.” I stretched my arms above my head, thinking that it wouldn’t be too bad to call it a day and go to sleep. However, just as I made to follow Katie upstairs, I spotted Sam, leaning against the wall, looking quite miserable.

What had he gotten himself into this time?

                “Go on,” I told Katie, who had stopped as well, looking grumpy. “I’ll be there in a minute.”

                “Sure,” she sighed, not bothering to ask me what I was doing, and simply continued to mount the stairs to the girls’ dormitories.

               

“We need to talk,” I said as I had reached Sam, who looked up at me with surprise. He seemed to have been immersed in his thoughts and apparently it took him a moment to even register what I had said.

                “Seth? Is everything alright? Was something wrong with the potion that-”

                “No,” I said quickly. “But something odd happened at the Kick-Off yesterday. Felicity accused me of breaking you up?”

                I had expected Sam to look puzzled or clueless at least, but his face had turned an unhealthy shade of white and his expression was clearly uncomfortable. “Did she?”

                “Sam,” I sighed, ignoring his attempt to feign ignorance, “what is going on?”

                He looked at me for a moment, probably sorting his thoughts, before finally letting out a deep sigh. “I’m sorry, Seth,” he said, rubbing his eyes. “You’re such a great person and you don’t deserve this.”

                “Deserve what?” I had absolutely no clue what he was talking about. “Why does Felicity think I broke you up?”

                He took a deep breath, his hazel eyes finding mine. “Well, um, Felicity found a couple of – well- letters in a box underneath my bed.”

                “Letters,” I repeated, remembering Felicity mentioning something like that, “like, love letters?”

                Sam nodded, his face now turning a light shade of pink. “She became furious and demanded to know who they were from and – well-” He trailed off, looking thoroughly uncomfortable.

                “You told her they were from me?” I could hardly believe it as I watched Sam nod his head slowly. “But, why?”

                He hesitated for a moment, looking at something behind my back. “Felicity has always been a little jealous of you; she knew I had wanted to go out with you. She just jumped to this conclusion and I didn’t contradict her.”

                “But why didn’t you tell her the truth?” I still couldn’t follow; if Sam had fallen in love with someone else, surely he could have told Felicity who it was, instead of dragging me into this.

                “I can’t, Seth,” he finally said, sounding sad, “No one can know. It has to remain a secret.”

                “But-” I began but Sam shook his head, cutting me off.

                “I’m really sorry, Seth. I just can’t.” He pushed himself off the wall and dived into the bustle of students, leaving me standing there alone, even more confused than before.

 

**

 

Wednesday had started just as grey and dull as Tuesday had ended, with heavy rain pounding the castle windows and soaking the grounds, transforming the trip down to Hagrid’s hut into a muddy glissade. As interesting as Billywigs were, the cold, wet weather simply didn’t allow for an enjoyable Care of Magical Creatures lesson and, after shouting over the rain for half-an-hour, Hagrid sent us back up to the castle to dry up before our next classes would start.

                “I guess, summer is really over, then.” Katie looked somewhat mournfully at the closest window, where rivers of rain ran down the glass, obscuring the view.

                “Yeah,” I sighed absentmindedly, as I dried my uniform skirt with my wand. Even though it was only the end of October, it felt as though the term had been going on for much longer than merely two months.

                “Oh Hector, I’d love to!” A loud squeal echoed through the entrance hall and heads turned towards Adina Singer, who was clinging to Hector Chang’s arm like poison ivy. She seemed to be examining something in his hand, a delighted expression on her face.

                Katie simply rolled her eyes. “Ugh, nauseating.”

                “Are they dating?” I asked casually while checking if the books in my bag were still whole and dry.

                “Goodness, Seth!” Katie gave me an indignant look. “Are you living in a cave? They’ve been dating since the Kick-Off.”

                “How was I supposed to know?” I laughed, mostly because Katie’s incredulous look was simply hilarious.

                “They’ve been snogging in the common room, like, every night since Saturday – and disgustingly so. How could you not see that?” She was laughing too by now, throwing an arm around my shoulders as we began to climb the stairs together.

 All around us, students were pouring out from their morning classes, instantly filling the corridors with cheerful chatter, which multiplied as is bounced off the high ceilings.

                “Tarquin asked if we wanted to come to the Hufflepuff common room after the feast tonight – they are having something like a costume party.”

                “Uh, when have you been talking to Tarquin?” I could barely supress a grin, earning a deadpan look from my best friend.

                “I’m sorry,” I laughed and quickly cleared my throat. “Sure, why not. Hufflepuff sounds fine.”

                “Yeah,” Katie sighed, “better than spending Halloween eating sweets in bed. Again.”

                “Although-” 

                “No,” Katie cut me off quite resolutely, “you can do your grandma stuff any other night of the week. Let’s just act like young people. For once.”

                “Sure,” I said, barely able to keep a straight face. “I can take my knitting stuff in case it gets boring.”

                “That’s a great idea,” Katie said, her lips twitching. “Maybe you should also bring a pillow, in case you get tired and want to take a nap.”

                “Good thinking,” I mused and we both began to laugh, barely watching where we were going. It wasn’t such a bad idea, actually.

“Seth! Watch out!” Katie had stalled suddenly, tugging on my arm as though trying to pull me to the side, but it was too late already; there was a hard bump as my body collided with something solid, and I slammed into the obstacle with full force.

                “Oh, sorry!” A deep voice said somewhere close to my ear. “I wasn’t looking where I was going.”

Still slightly disoriented, I looked up; straight into a pair of deep blue eyes.

Augustus Cotton smiled, revealing a row of perfectly white teeth.

“Did I hurt you?” He asked in a low voice, the smile never fading from his handsome face.

“Um, no,” I said, still quite perplexed. It even took me a moment to realise that his fingers were wrapped around my arm and that something pointy was digging into my wrist.

What-” I looked down immediately, shocked to see his wand pressed into my skin, the tip glowing in a faint purple light.

“What the bloody hell are you doing?” I yanked my arm away from him, tumbling backwards a bit as his grip had already loosened again.

“Nice to meet you, Elizabeth.” He winked, still smiling as though nothing weird had just happened, and then simply walked away again, disappearing into the crowd.

“What was that?” Katie had pulled me closer to the wall, shieling me from the curious stares of passers-by. 

“I don’t know,” I said, looking down at my wrist; right where Augustus’ wand had touched my skin, thin writing had appeared, almost like a tattoo: Find Barnabas the Barmy.

Katie, who had looked deeply worried, suddenly gasped, her eyes widening as she examined the words on my arm. “Do you know what this means?”

I raised my eyebrows at her. “Um, that Augustus Cotton is a psychopath, who has marked me for murder?”

“No,” Katie said, rolling her eyes as though I was being ridiculous. “It’s a clue.”

“I don’t-”

“Seth,” she sighed with exasperation, “it’s an invitation.” She paused, probably for the dramatic effect, looking at me with a mixture of excitement and disbelieve.

“It’s the invitation.”

 

***

 

I was sitting on my bed, looking at the plush cat-eared slippers on my feet as I swung my legs back and forth. The bathroom door was closed, yet loud clanking and occasional cursing could be heard as Katie probably went through every single make-up product she had ever bought.

                “And what if it’s a hoax?” I said loudly, examining the words on my wrist once again. The whole thing just seemed too weird – sure, Katie and I had been invited to one or two common room parties before, but this was different.

                “Stop overthinking, Seth!” Katie called back. “It’s happening, OK?”

                “Fine,” I sighed, still not fully convinced. The fact that there was no information about the location or anything really, bothered me; I didn’t even know why I had been invited in the first place.

                “OK, I’m ready!” The bathroom door had swung open and I was momentarily blinded by a startling amount of teal glitter.

                “Ta-dah!” Katie sang, throwing her arms up as she twirled on the spot to show off the long, sparkly dress. “What do you think?” She ran her hand over her auburn braid, which was adorned with bits of glittery shells and tropic flowers.

                “You look great, Kat,”

                “I know,” she sighed, examining her reflection in the mirror, “I make such a great mermaid. What about you?”

                “I’m ready,” I said, stowing my wand in the front pocket of my fluffy blue bathrobe.

                “What?” Katie’s voice had come out unnaturally high as she stared at me incredulously. “You can’t go like that!”

                I looked down at my flannel pyjama bottoms and the furry slippers. Maybe it wasn’t very sexy, but the entire outfit was immensely comfortable. Also, I really didn’t own anything else that might have passed as a costume.

                “I’m a sleepy person.”

                Katie groaned. “Seriously, that’s the lamest thing I have ever heard.”

                “It’s a Halloween party. Everyone is going to look lame,” I said, waving my hand airily. “Now, are you coming or not?”

 

**

 

Frankly, I had been sure Katie and I would be back in our dormitory within a couple of minutes. Finding the way to a secret party with only a vague instruction to guide us, had seemed like an almost impossible task. Most surprisingly, however, it had been positively easy. Inhabitants of several portraits had been eager to point us into the right direction. It didn’t take us long until we finally ended up in front of a gigantic tapestry of a man, teaching ballet to a couple of trolls in tutus.

                “Over there,” Katie whispered, pointing at a lanky boy, who was sitting on a stool in front of a bare stretch of wall, reading a magazine. He looked immensely bored and, even after we had approached him, he took his time to finish his article before finally looking up.

                “Invite only,” he grumbled, frowning at my cat-eared slippers.

I rolled up the sleeve of my bathrobe, holding the tattoo-like markings on my wrist right under his nose. For a moment, he looked thoroughly taken aback, but then simply got up, put his magazine down on his stool, and began to walk up and down in front of the empty wall, mumbling quietly to himself.

                Katie and I exchanged doubtful looks; maybe I had been marked for murder after all.

However, as he passed the wall for the third time, the faint outline of a door appeared, seemingly materialising out of thin air. I couldn’t help gaping thickly as I watched the door grow solid, looking like it had been there for a thousand years already.

                “Have fun,” the boy drawled in a monotonous voice, returning to his magazine. He was obviously quite unimpressed and I wondered how often he had already performed the trick tonight.

                “This,” Katie said, her voice quavering slightly, “Is going to be the best night ever.”

               

**

 

                It was one of those moments – when you just knew that you were the odd kid on the playground; the one everyone was avoiding because it had dirt smeared all over its face and snoot dripping from its nose. Only that this was about a hundred times worse.

“Seth,” Katie said slowly, sounding almost as though she had fallen into some kind of shock-related trance. “Seth.”

“Yes,” I replied, unable to take my eyes off of the scene in front of me. We were suddenly standing in what looked like the latest London it-bar: Low-slung lounge chairs were grouped around drink-laden tables and a pulsing crowd moved to thick hip-hop beats. Countless bare light bulbs were hanging from the high ceiling, dipping everything into a soft glow that was just enough to create a cosy yet enticing atmosphere.

It was, however, not the location, which made Katie hyperventilate next to me; it was the mass of beautiful people in tiny dresses and crisp shirts that pushed past us, giving us looks that suggested we were a pair of slimy flobberworms.

“Seth, why is no one wearing a costume?” Katie squeaked uncharacteristically, her eyes wide with mortification as she hid her glittering self behind me a little.

“I think it’s not a costume party,” I said, feeling quite uncomfortable as a couple of girls examined my bathrobe, collapsing into hysterics.

“OK, well – that’s no problem.” I had composed myself quickly, turning towards Katie to give her a reassuring glance. “We’ll just go change and then come back.”

“No!” Katie grabbed the sleeve of my bathrobe, pulling me back to her. “We can’t.”

I wasn’t sure what she was talking about at first, but when she pointed at my wrist, I realised that the words on there had vanished. Apparently, after leaving the party, we wouldn’t be able to get back in.

“Maybe we could fake it?” I said, trying to remember the exact look of the words that had been written on my wrist until a couple of minutes ago. It couldn’t be too hard to perform the spell, but to make it look exactly like the one Augustus had produced might be quite a challenge.

“No,” Katie said, looking determined all of a sudden. “We just need to find a bathroom.”

 

**

 

                I took a doubtful look at one of the full-length mirrors that covered the bathroom walls; while Katie – who was standing behind me, fussing with my hair – looked almost normal without all the shellfish jewellery, I was still wearing my flannel pyjamas (the bathrobe had been cast aside) and the cat-eared slippers. Our countless cries of Accio had had virtually no effect, which probably was connected to the magic of this strange place.

After finally accepting that, apparently, things couldn’t just be magicked in, Katie had announced ‘plan B’, which was basically trying to make us look as normal as possible. It had worked fine with her outfit; she might have looked slightly overdressed in her all- sparkly dress, but without all the seafood it was actually okay.

I, however, still looked like a dork in my loose, checked pyjamas and fluffy slippers and Katie’s attempts to style my hair – no matter how skilled she was – weren’t going to change that.

“You know, I think I should -“

“No!” Katie’s eyes were wide as she gave me an imploring look. “You can’t leave me alone here!”

I sighed, leaning against one of the sinks with my arms folded across my chest. “Kat, I’m wearing pyjamas. I look like an idiot.”

“So what? You ran around Hogwarts looking like a boy in a girl’s uniform for five years,” she said, her eyebrows raised. “You didn’t care what anybody thought about you back then, did you?”

She was right somehow. Even if her argument had sprung solely from her desperation to be part of this party, she did have a point. Of course, it was considerably more embarrassing to wear pyjamas to a fancy party; but then again, I doubted anyone here even knew my name.

                “Alright,” I sighed, rolling my eyes dramatically as Katie engulfed me in a bone-crushing hug. “But I get to be a granny for the rest of the semester.”

                Katie simply beamed. “Anything!”

 

**

 

                Katie had vanished.

Without a trace.

After about half-an-hour of running around aimlessly, looking for hints of glittery teal cloth, I had retreated to the bar, which stretched in a circle across the middle of the room, hoping that my best friend would find me again somehow.

It should have been obvious, really; after everything that had already gone wrong tonight, I should have realised that it wasn’t a day to follow strange invitations to secret – and, most probably, illegal – parties, but a day to build pillow forts and wait for the day to be over. Instead, I was sitting amidst beautiful people on a barstool in my most unflattering pyjamas, wanting nothing more but to crawl into my warm bed and read until I fell asleep.

 “I’m so drunk, I don’t even feel my legs anymore!” A pretty blonde told her group of friends as they staggered past me, apparently finding this a valid reason to squeal with delight. Demeter Notte’s dress had ridden up her thighs, exposing probably more than it was supposed to, but she didn’t seem to neither notice, nor care as she stumbled towards the dance floor.

This really wasn’t my kind of thing; parties and dancing and bodycon dresses. I sighed quietly to myself and raked my hand through my hair as I stared absently at particularly glamorous-looking group in the back. They were occupying one of the few tables on a raised platform, looking more like a couple of celebrities in a VIP section rather than regular teenagers. Among them, I could spot Freddie Weasley, dark-haired and freckled, his arms wrapped loosely around the waist of a pretty brunette, who was sitting on his lap.

And, of course, wherever Freddie Weasley was, James Potter couldn’t be too far; he was leaning forwards, his elbows on his knees, with a characteristic smirk on his lips as he talked to the broad bloke opposite him, who was a beater on the Gryffindor Quidditch team. Meanwhile, the stunning blonde to his right could barely take her eyes off of him, leaning towards him in an obvious attempt to get as close as possible. She seemed so immersed in making mooneyes at Potter that she didn’t notice Athena Notte, staring daggers at her from the side.

I rolled my eyes inwardly, yet I was compelled to keep on looking; it was like watching one of those teen dramas on television. Augustus Cotton, who I hadn’t seen until he had leaned across Freddie, was whispering something into James’s ear. Potter gave him a crooked smile and took a generous sip from a glass tumbler before turning his head towards the bar.

But he wasn’t looking at the bar.

He was looking at me.

I sat up a little straighter, feeling caught. Why, for the love of Merlin, did Potter always have to find me staring at him?

To make things worse, Freddie and Augustus had joined him, looking very obviously into my direction. It wasn’t hard to guess what they thought, judging by Freddie’s amused grin as he checked out my flannel top.

At least they couldn’t see the cat-eared slippers.

I blushed violently but didn’t dare to swivel around on my barstool just yet; that would just make me look like the pathetic stalker James already was convinced I was. Instead, I simply let my gaze wander a little further, hoping that it looked as though I had merely been taking in the scenery.

Apparently, however, I hadn’t been as smooth as I had thought.

 “That’s quite an interesting outfit, Woodley.”

I raised my eyebrows at James, who had leaned against the bar counter next to me, looking awfully confident. As usual, he had rolled up the sleeves of his checked shirt and his dark brown hair looked windswept.

“I don’t know if I should get you a drink or a glass of warm milk.” He smirked and I narrowed my eyes at him.

“How about you don’t get me anything?”

                “Oh, Lizzy,” he said cheerfully, raising himself onto the barstool next to me. There was a slight slur in his voice but he still seemed relatively sober otherwise.

                “Please don’t call me Lizzy,” I sighed, but he didn’t seem to have heard me as he had already turned to the bartender, ordering two glasses of Firewhiskey.

“No, I don’t-” I tried to protest, but the lanky guy behind the counter had already pulled up two tumblers and filled them to the brim with deep amber liquid from a bottle of Odgen’s Old Firewhiskey.

I only stared at it for a moment, reluctantly remembering last Christmas, when I had had some of my grandfather’s impossibly expensive Firewhiskey and ended up chanting ‘wit beyond measure is man’s greatest treasure’ over my grandmother’s favourite string quartet version of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite.

“So, what’s up with the pyjamas?” James asked, not even trying to hide his grin as he examined my fluffy slippers.

“I thought it was a costume party.” I shrugged, sounding much cooler than I really felt about this whole thing.

James frowned. “And what exactly are you dressed up as?”

“A sleepy person,” I said, somewhat defiantly, which made James burst into laughter.

“That is seriously the worst costume I have ever seen, Woodley.”

“Oh, shut up,” I grumbled, picking up my untouched Firewhiskey and taking a large sip. The thick liquid burned as it made its way down to my stomach and a deep, comfortable warmth spread through my entire body.

James watched me curiously; there was a certain twinkle in his eyes, which – as I had noticed for the very first time – were very alike in colour to the Firewhiskey in his glass. “How’s your brother,” he finally said, swivelling his tumbler lazily so that the golden-brown liquid rolled around the glass. “I hope he didn’t hurt himself in the Forbidden Forest.”

I almost chocked on the swallow of whiskey in my mouth, coughing as a bit of the burning substance trickled into the wrong pipe. “You mean Asher? He’s not my brother.”

“Your cousin?”

I shook my head, feeling slightly irritated; was he insinuating that I had asked one of my relatives to pretend to be my boyfriend in front of him? “You really do think a lot of yourself, don’t you?”

James frowned, but there was a mischievous glint in his eyes. “Generally.” He took a sip from his drink. “I’m pretty awesome most of the time.”

I only rolled my eyes. “More like inflated.”

He smirked, leaning his back against the countertop. “I’m having a hard time taking you seriously with those fluffy mouse slippers.”

 “They’re cats,” I said firmly, with as much dignity as I could muster. “And, just so you know, they are very comfortable and warm.”

James laughed; but it wasn’t a mean sort of laugh. It was unexpectedly warm. I had never heard him laugh like this.

“What?” He said, the dimple on his right cheek still clearly visible. I must have been staring at him a little weirdly and, realising this, I quickly shook my head, hoping he wouldn’t notice my burning cheeks.

“Nothing.” I took an automatic sip from my glass and, forgetting that is was filled with alcohol, spluttered as the burning sensation took me by surprise. “Merlin, that’s awful.”

“You don’t drink much, do you?” James asked, watching me with a crooked smile on his face.

“Well,” I said, looking down at my dreadful appearance, “I know it’s hard to tell with my sense of style and everything but, I’m not really a party girl.”

                He chuckled. Suddenly, however, the smile on his face froze and I noticed how his eyes had shifted focus. He was looking at something behind me, his eyebrows furrowed, and I turned around to follow his gaze.

                It was Albus.

                Albus and a petite girl with long, brunette locks, who was hanging on to his arm, dragging him towards a waving group of people. He was dressed like he was going for a game of golf with a bunch of snooty businessmen and his black hair was pushed back, looking horribly slick.

                “What’s wrong?” I asked James, who had taken a large sip of his drink, looking rather irritated all of a sudden.

                “Nothing, just-” He sighed, raking a hand through his dishevelled hair before looking up at me again, studying my face.

“It’s my brother, Albus,” he finally said, “We’re having a bit of a rough time.”

“What did you do?” The words had been out before I could stop myself, but James simply grinned.

“Well, I’m not a big fan of his new girlfriend.”

 I nodded slightly, not really knowing what to say. I could have come up with some lame cliché about siblings and fights, but, honestly, I had no clue how those things worked. After all, I was an only child and the inner workings of sibling-relations had always been a mystery to me.

“Also,” he said with the air of someone remembering something very uncomfortable, “I might have told him that he looks like a pompous prat with that stupid slicked-back hair and that Rosie is right in calling Laura a prissy little bitch.”

“Ouch.” I grimaced.

“Yeah, I know,” James sighed, “but all that beige and those creases – that’s not him. She’s dressing him up and the git is too smitten to notice.”

I smiled slightly, looking down to my still rather full glass of Firewhiskey. I had never seen this side of James before – the concerned brother. Frankly, I hadn’t known that he even had more than the strutting-arrogant-prat side.

“It might just be a phase,” I told him after a moment of silence. “My friend Katie once dated this Muggle boy, Kevin, who was really into bomber jackets and had about three brain cells. He once set his own hair on fire just to see what would happen, but she still insisted that he was a secret genius.”

James laughed. “When did she realise that he wasn’t?”

“She just outgrew him at one point,” I shrugged. “People grow all the time. Things change. Faster than you might think.”

He gave me a long look, a kind of curious expression on his face. “You’re kind of smart, Woodley.”

I rolled my eyes, sliding from my barstool. “And you’re kind of tolerable when you’re drunk, Potter.”

He smirked, watching me roll up the sleeves of my pyjama top.

“Where are you going?”

“It’s late,” I sighed, rubbing my tired eyes, “and I really have to go look for Katie.  I’ve lost her a while ago and, while I know she can take care of herself, I also know that she once dated Kevin.”

James smiled and I couldn’t help but notice that the dimple on his right cheek was even more pronounced in the dark violet light that swept the room.

Maybe it was only the Firewhiskey that still burned in my stomach, but, for the very first time, I literally saw him in an altogether different light.

 

**

 

                My search for Katie was thoroughly unsuccessful; I looked everywhere, even in the boys’ bathroom, but she didn’t seem to be at the party anymore.

It wasn’t until I discovered her empty bed in our dormitory, however, that I began to panic.

One horrible thought chased another in my head as I paced the completely empty common room in circles, thinking of places I hadn’t checked yet. Scenarios in which she had been poisoned with Crapula again, had even made me sneak up to the Astronomy tower, where I had searched every nook as the combination of icy wind and rain had drenched me within a couple of minutes.

It was nearly three o’clock in the morning when I had finally retreated into one of the big wingback chairs, my arms wrapped around my legs as I tried to fight off sleep. The fires in the common room had been extinguished by the house elves about an hour ago and darkness engulfed me, making it even harder to stay awake.

I couldn’t just go to sleep when my best friend was missing.

But my eyelids were so heavy.

I just needed to close them for a second.

Only for a minute, maybe.

The rain was drumming a steady pattern as it hit the windows.

It was almost like a melody.

A lullaby.

Crack.

I jerked up, blinking rapidly. My head was still drowsy but I had definitely heard something. Someone was in the common room; I could hear the rustle of their clothes as they moved across the carpets.

For a sleep-drunken second, I was convinced that it had to be Katie. Who else would sneak around Ravenclaw tower at this hour?

But then someone talked; and it wasn’t a girl’s voice.

“Such a clever plan,” he hissed angrily. “You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?”

“Don’t be ridiculous!” Another, deeper voice said, somewhat soothingly. “I’m just trying to keep up appearances.”

The other one snorted. “Yeah, right.”

“Sam, I swear.”

At the sound of Sam’s name, I shifted in my chair, careful not to make a sound, and peered over the backrest. Two tall silhouettes stood clearly visible in front of one of the windows, apparently in deep conversation.

“Do whatever you want.” This time, I clearly recognised Sam’s voice. “I’m going to bed.”

“Sam,” the other boy pleaded, “don’t go.” He grabbed his hand and took a step towards him. A glimmer of light fell onto his face and I only just managed to stifle a gasp.

Right there, holding Sam’s hand, was Hector Chang, the Ravenclaw Seeker.

“I don’t even like Adina,” he said quietly, “I like you.”

There was a dull thud as my knee slid from the chair, scarping the wooden frame painfully, and the two boys whipped their heads around in shock. I had ducked instantly, feeling my heartbeat crawl up to my ears, hoping that I had reacted in time.

“What was that?” Sam whispered, sounding scared.

“Who’s there?” Hector’s deep voice bellowed, but I remained hidden, squeezing my eyes shut like a toddler who was trying to become invisible.

“Let’s go,” Sam said after a period of silence and I could hear them climbing the stairs to the boys’ dormitories.

Only when the sound of their footsteps had faded away completely, I dared to breathe again; my heart still thumping wildly against my chest.

Great. This was just what I had needed.

Another bleeding secret.


 





 

A/N: Thanks for sticking with this über-long chapter… I have re-written this a couple of times, which is why it took me so long to upload. I’m still not completely happy with it. As always, I can’t wait to hear what you guys think! Your feedback is greatly appreciated and always makes my day, which I spend studying for enormously boring exams these days. You people are seriously awesome!


Chapter 16: Of Good Girls and Bad Influences
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Chapter 16: Of Good Girls and Bad Influences



“Seth!”

The sound of my name echoed in my head and with a jolt, I realised that I had been sleeping. Forcing my body to wake up, I struggled against the drowsiness that made my head feel heavy, blinking rapidly at the concerned face of Bernice, which was hovering only centimetres above mine.

“Katie!” I spluttered the first thing that had come to my mind; how could I have fallen asleep when my best friend was missing? “Where’s Katie?”

I had scrambled to an upright position in the wingback chair in which I had settled last night, throwing off the woollen blanket that had probably been provided by the cleaning house elves.

“She’s upstairs,” said Bernice with a slight frown, “in her bed.”

“What?” I almost fell from my chair as an immense wave of relief flooded my body. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah.” Bernice was still looking at me, traces of concern etched into her angular face. “Have you slept down here?”

I nodded, twisting my disheveled hair into a knot. “What time is it?”

“Eight.”

“What?” I practically leapt from the comfortable chair; the shock of adrenaline had pushed all sleepiness out of my system. If it was really eight o’clock, I had barely half-an-hour to get ready for my morning classes.

“Maybe you can get Katie to wake up,” Bernice said as she watched me pull on my bathrobe over the flannel pyjamas, my wand tucked safely into the front pocket.

“Katie isn’t awake yet?” I asked, raising my eyebrows at her; sure, Katie wasn’t exactly a morning person but she usually never overslept on schooldays.

Bernice shook her head in response. “No, Ursula and I tried to shake her awake but she just grumbled and told us to go away.”

“Oh, okay, I’ll check on her,” I said, already crossing the room to get to the stairs. “Thanks for waking me up, Bernice.”

“Sure, no problem!” she called after me, and I waved, sprinting up the stairs to the girls’ dormitories.

 








 





Katie was fast asleep when I drew back the thick curtains surrounding her four-poster bed, her hair sticking up from her head in wild curls and her sparkly dress, which had dusted her sheets in teal glitter, was wrinkled. Otherwise, she looked unhurt however, and I felt the muscles in my neck relax a little.

“Kat!” I sat down on her bed, poking her shoulder softly. When she didn’t react, I shook her a little harder.

“Katie! You’ve got to get up!”

She stirred and finally turned towards me, squinting through the mess that had once been her perfectly done make-up; she looked scary, really, with thick streaks of black on her cheeks and red stains from her lipstick all over her chin.

“Where the bloody hell have you been?” I asked, not entirely sure I wanted to know the answer. “I have been looking for you everywhere!”

“Ah Seth, don’t talk so loudly,” she croaked miserably, covering her ears with her hands. “I feel like I’ve been hit by a truck.”

She looked like it too, but I bit back the remark and instead repeated my first question. “Where were you? Did you get lost?”

She shook her head, sitting up slowly in her bed. “I ran into this group of guys and they showed me how to do jello shots.”

For a moment, I only stared at her blankly, trying to make sense of what she had just said. “Jello shots?” I finally repeated, raising my eyebrows at her in disbelief. “Are you saying you ditched me for jello shots?”

Surprisingly, Katie blushed violently all of a sudden - something that happened very rarely - and quickly peeled herself out of her bed, obviously avoiding my gaze. “Don’t be so melodramatic, Seth. I didn’t ditch you. I just - I couldn’t find you anymore when I returned.”

“But,” I said bewildered, watching her as she tried to rub off the clumps of mascara that had glued her lashes together, “I didn’t move. I was right there where you left me.”

“Rubbish.” She shook her head as though I had just said something completely outrageous, and then stumbled into the bathroom to wash her face.

I followed her immediately; there was something off about this conversation. “Where were you the entire night? I was worried sick!” I was standing behind her, watching her smeared face in the mirror.

“I’m sorry you were worried,” she said briskly, “but I’m fine, OK? I just need a shower.”

With these words, she had edged me out of the small bathroom and closed the door in my face. I remained stationary in front of the wooden door, staring at it in disbelief as the muffled noise of the shower filled the dorm room.






As Professor Hockanum strode among the backrows, I chanced a subtle glance at Katie; she was bent low over the saucer in front of her, listlessly taping her wand against it to add a couple of flowers to the pattern. We hadn’t spoken all morning and it felt not only uncomfortable but also unnatural. We had only been fighting once; in the summer before our fifth year, when she had introduced me to Kevin and I had asked her if he had been hit by a Bludger several times in a row.

This, however, was different. We weren’t actually fighting; Katie was simply giving me the cold shoulder and - because I was unbearably stubborn - I followed suit.

“That looks lovely, Miss Woodley,” Professor Hockanum commented on my blue-patterned sugar bowl, which, at the beginning of the lesson, had been a mouse, and scribbled something on his parchment. “Good work.”

“Thank you, Sir,” I mumbled, glancing over at Katie again, who usually would have given me a massive eyeroll by now, calling me a nerd. However, she didn’t even budge, continuing to stare at her transfiguration work as though she hadn’t even heard the conversation.



When the lesson had ended and everyone was pushing out of the classroom to get to the Great Hall for lunch, I hung back a little awkwardly, waiting for Katie to pack up her things. She seemed to take extra time and looked somehow surprised that I was still standing there when she finally swung her bag over her shoulder.

We walked out into the corridor in silence, but it wasn’t one of those comfortable silences that had settled between us; it was tense and strange.

“I’m starving,” I said when I couldn’t stand it any longer, trying to sound cheerful, but it came out rather strained. “Aren’t you?”

Katie didn’t answer; she didn’t even seem to have listened to me but was only staring - somewhat fearfully - at the Entrance Hall ahead, which loomed at the end of the corridor.

“Katie,” I finally sighed, feeling thoroughly exasperated. This was ridiculous and I wasn’t going to just put up with this awkwardness between us. “Could you please talk to me? What is going on?”

But Katie had stopped abruptly, a deep frown creasing her forehead. “I just remembered, I need to check something in the library.” And she simply turned on the spot, leaving me behind in the bustling corridor, feeling completely helpless.





It was an unusually nice day for early November; although the pale sun that was shining from the sky couldn’t provide much warmth, the temperatures were still pleasant. Not that weather really mattered to Ted Lupin; inured to extreme conditions from six years of playing Beater on the Gryffindor Quidditch team, he seemed to be of the opinion that the only kind of sport that counted, was sport outside.

“Alright ladies.” He threw a dazzling smile into the group, his turquoise hair rippling in the soft breeze. “Today we’re going to do some running.” A collective groan resounded, but Lupin, as usual, ignored it. “Now, last time, it didn’t work out that well-”

A couple of girls grinned at each other; Lupin had insisted we each have a ‘running mate’ to keep us motivated, which, naturally, had ended in everyone ambling around the lake, chatting away happily to their friends.

“So today,” he continued, producing a list from the pocket of his tracksuit bottoms, “I have taken the liberty of personally assigning your running mates.”

Desperate shouts of protest rose immediately, lead by Demeter Notte, who insisted Lupin re-assigned her running mate after being paired with Chelsea Best, a scrawny Ravenclaw with beady eyes.

Instinctively, I turned to grin at Katie, but she was staring straight ahead, her mouth not even twitching. Her behaviour towards me hadn’t changed after lunch and I stubbornly reassembled an icy expression to match hers.

“Woodley and Carrington,” he yelled, “you’re next!”

I looked over to find my cousin standing among her usual group of friends, her dark, straight hair up in a perfect ponytail. After the Quidditch Kick-Off, we had - in appropriate Woodley fashion - gone back to our usual routine of polite disregard towards each other, which just seemed more natural within the castle walls.



It felt a little weird, running next to Vala; we hadn’t even been running together when we had been kids. Unlike me, she had always known how to behave, drinking afternoon tea with the adults while I had barely even managed to sit still without kicking my legs underneath the table.

“So, what’s up with you and your little sidekick?” Vala suddenly said into the silence and I looked up at her with utter bewilderment.

“What?”

“That friend of yours?” She rolled her eyes “What happened? You always seemed to be attached at the hip.”

“Nothing,” I said quickly, not feeling like pouring my heart out to my cousin; I actually rarely poured my heart out to anybody; except for Katie.

I could feel Vala’s glance from the side. “You can’t fool me,” she finally sighed. “We come from the same family, remember?”

I couldn’t help smiling a little at that. We had reached the lake by now, running along the shore, our steps weirdly in sync.

“I actually don’t know,” I finally admitted, glancing over at Vala; her long ponytail was swinging back and forth like a pendulum. “She gives me the cold shoulder but I don’t know why.”

“Maybe she is jealous.”

“Of what?” I couldn’t help the sarcasm. It was a ludicrous idea, Katie being jealous of me.

Vala, however, gave me a knowing smile. “James Potter, maybe?”

I was so shocked by her answer, that I forgot to lift my foot properly and fell over an exposed tree root, scraping my knees on the pebbled ground.

“I saw you talking at the party yesterday,” Vala explained as she watched me get up, brushing the dirt off my leggings, “and people are talking.”

“About me?” I stared at her, feeling as though something heavy had dropped in my stomach.

“Oh dear,” Vala sighed, rolling her dark eyes at me. “You’re hanging out with James Potter. In your pyjamas. Of course people talk about you.”

“I’m not hanging out with Potter,” I told her firmly; the mere thought of it was simply ridiculous. “We barely even get along.”

Vala raised her perfectly plucked eyebrows, suddenly bearing a frightening resemblance to our grandmother. “It didn’t look as though you weren’t getting along yesterday.”

“That was - it’s not-” I groaned with frustration as I failed to find the right words. “It doesn’t matter,” I finally sighed, eager to drop the topic of James Potter. “I know that Katie isn’t jealous of me. She has never been - it’s just not how our friendship works, if that makes sense.”

It was true; jealousy had never been an issue between the two of us; whether I had gotten better marks or Katie had had yet another boyfriend, we would have never begrudged each other these things.

Vala only looked at me curiously for a moment before shaking her head and glancing at the small figure that was Demeter Notte, running a couple of metres ahead of us.

“Oi, Woodley!” I heard Professor Lupin yell and was sure he would tell us to get on with running. After my inglorious crash, we had simply fallen into a kind of stroll, which definitely did not qualify as proper workout.

“Woodley, over here!” He called out again and both Vala and I turned our heads towards Lupin, who was standing on the small mound that raised above the lake.

Talking to James Potter.



I had sprinted up the slight slope, partly in an attempt to show at least some athletic effort but mostly, because I was anxious to hear what nonsense Potter had been telling Lupin to make him call me back. Ted Lupin wasn’t one to take workouts lightly.

“Professor,” I panted, bending over as I tried to catch my breath.

“Woodley, you’re terribly out of shape,” Lupin asserted, somewhat wondrous, as he watched my pathetic attempts to stabilize my pulse with raised eyebrows.

“I know. Sorry Professor.”

Did he call me back for that? To tell me that I was unathletic? James chuckled and I looked up to glare at him with all the energy I had left. Of course, he wasn’t reprimanded by Lupin - everyone knew that, having practically grown up together, they were as good as brothers to each other.

“We’ll have to work on that,” Lupin continued after having scribbled something on his clipboard. “The headmistress wants to see you.”

“What?” I jolted up, looking from Lupin to Potter, who - I had just realised - was holding a crumpled note in his hand; even through the wrinkles, I could discern McGonagall's typical green-inked writing. “But why?”


I had gathered my things from the changing room rather haphazardly, feeling slightly panicked. It rarely meant something good when the headmistress summoned you during a school lesson, even as a Prefect. It either meant you were in serious trouble or it was to tell you that something tragic had happened to your family.

“Do you know why she wants to see me?” I asked James as we hurried up towards the castle, my bulging sport bag bumping against my hip as I struggled to keep pace with him. If McGonagall had given him the order to get me, maybe she had specified as to why she needed to see me immediately.

“Nope,” James said and I was surprised to see an amused smile curling his lips. What the bloody hell was wrong with this boy?

“But, maybe she hinted at something? Did she mention my family?” I didn’t care that I sounded overly anxious; My heart was beating in my ears by now and I could feel the impending panic attack prickling in the back of my head.

“Relax Woodley,” he laughed and I was shocked to see him scrunch up McGonagall’s note and, quite unceremoniously, stuff it into his uniform trousers. “You’re worse than my aunt Hermione.” He suddenly swerved, abandoning the path that led up to the castle entrance and I stalled, feeling utterly bewildered.

“What are you doing?” I called after him and, when he merely grinned in response, I reluctantly followed him to a group of beautiful ash trees that were still carrying a couple of brilliant orange leaves.

“It’s pyjama-girl!” Freddie Weasley shouted over the chattering group that was sprawled lazily over blankets in the grass, soaking up the late afternoon sun. “Come on, have a butterbeer!”

“What is going on here?” I had turned to James, who had taken off his uniform jacket, rolling up the sleeves of his white shirt. “What about McGonagall?”

“Ah, the good old ‘the-headmistress-wants-to-see-you’ trick,” Freddie, who had gotten up from his comfortable lounging place, sighed as he handed James a bottle of butterbeer. “A little worn out but works every time.” He held another bottle out to me, but I shook my head, not exactly feeling like having a drink right now.

“You lied?” I asked, somewhat aghast. For the past five minutes I had gone through every horrible scenario that might have been in store for me, just to find out that Potter had played a practical joke on me.

“To get you out of class, yes,” he said, as though it should have been obvious, taking a swig from his butterbeer.

“Blimey, James,” Freddie said with a chuckle, “pyjama-girl doesn’t look too happy about it, does she?”

Freddie Weasley was right - I wasn’t. And not only because I felt wholly uncomfortable skipping class, but also because James Potter had taken the liberty to decide that I should, simply assuming that that was okay.

“Well, pyjama-girl is leaving now,” I growled, hoisting the slipping handle of my heavy Hogwarts duffle bag further up my shoulder. Maybe I could still make it back in time for Herbology.

“What, no,” James laughed, “come on, Woodley. It’s alright - you’re not going to be in trouble.”

I simply shook my head, feeling completely out of place. Athena Notte and the pretty blonde from the party yesterday had started sniggering, pointing very obviously at my dirtied leggings and sweaty ponytail.

“I need to go,” I only sighed, feeling exasperated, and, with a quick nod at Freddie, I finally turned around and began to walk away.

“Woodley! Wait!” I heard James call out behind me.

“For Merlin’s sake let her go, James!” Athena’s voice rang out loudly and I could almost hear the massive eyeroll that accompanied her words.

James, however, seemed to ignore her as he caught up with me almost simultaneously, walking down the rolling hill we had just climbed a couple of minutes ago. “Hey, where are you going?”

“I’m going back to class,” I said simply, “if I hurry up I might still be able to take a shower and change before Herbology.”

James watched me for a second and I could see the crooked smile on his face from the corner of my eyes. “Come on, it’s just a bit of fun! Don’t be such a nerd.”

“But I am,” I said, almost laughing as I remembered the countless instances in which Katie had called me a nerd. “I’m a total nerd and I really don’t like skipping class.”

James regarded me with an expression of utmost bewilderment, as though he couldn’t believe I had just said that about myself.

Clearly, we were living completely different lives at Hogwarts.

“Goodbye, James.” I gave him a small smile before turning away again to jog down towards Greenhouse Seven, leaving him behind.

And this time, he didn’t follow me.





Soft rain was tapping on the library window, lulling me into a comfortable stupor as I stared down at my half-finished Arithmancy essay. Usually, Katie and I spent our Saturday mornings together, finishing off what was left of our homework and eating the sweets we had snuck in under Madame Pince’s nose. It was strange to not be sitting here with her, listening to Hogwart’s latest scandals whilst flipping through dusty pages, looking for useful information.

She hadn’t been to dinner last night and when I had gone to check on her, she had pretended to be asleep - it had been rather obvious that she wasn’t, considering that it had only been seven o’ clock, but I hadn’t challenged it.

It hadn’t been any different this morning, really; the curtains around her four-poster bed had still been drawn when I had left the dormitory and I hadn’t dared waking her up. I still had no clue why she was acting like this towards me, but I knew that I needed it to end; right now. I needed my best friend back and, for that, I needed a plan.

“Elizabeth Woodley?”

I snapped out of my daze with a jolt, throwing the heavy book off my lap in the process. However, when I looked around me, I was completely alone.

Bewildered, I shook my head and bent down to pick up the book again; maybe I had dozed off a little without noticing. I had been studying for quite a while now and my brain was getting tired.

“Elizabeth Woodley.”

There it was again, and this time, I was sure I had not imagined it.

“Who’s there?” I whispered as I slowly got up from my chair, pulling my wand from my bag for good measure.

“There is a plot,” the mysterious voice said; it was barely louder than a whisper but I was sure by now, that it belonged to a girl, “against you. You have to be careful.”

“What? Who are you?” I demanded, talking a little louder this time, but there was no response; instead, a couple of books fell from the shelf behind me and I whipped around, my wand raised in front of my face, ready to defend myself. However, the aisle was completely empty.

“What are you doing?” Madame Pince had suddenly pelted around the corner, a look of fury on her heavily lined face. “Throwing around books! Desecrating the library! Shouting-”

“I - I’m sorry,” I stammered and quickly began to stuff my books into my bag quite haphazardly, ignoring the enraged rant of the librarian, who was hovering above me by now.

“I really need to go, sorry,” I told her as I scooped up the mess of parchment and quills that was left on the table and then  simply ran past her towards the exit.

My head was going to explode; I was sure of that. Voices telling me that someone was plotting against me really was the last thing I needed right now.





I stormed into the room, dropping everything at once as I stalked towards the only four-poster bed in the room whose thick curtains were still drawn close. Rather recklessly, I pulled at the bronze drawstrings and the blue cloth swiped open, revealing a rather disheveled Katie, leaning against the bed frame with her legs propped up and a copy of Witch Weekly in her lap.

She looked up at me with utter bewilderment but didn’t protest as I kicked off my shoes and plopped down on the other end of her bed.

I still didn’t really have a plan, and I had realised that I didn’t need one; not with Katie.

“James Potter got me out of sports yesterday so that I could skip class with him and his friends. I told him that I was a nerd and walked away.”

“You - what?” Katie’s magazine slid off her lap as she sat up straight, her mouth opened in shock.

“Sam has a secret affair with Hector Chang, which I actually shouldn’t know about and just now, a bodiless voice in the library warned me that someone is plotting against me. I might be going insane.”

“What?” Katie repeated, her eyes wide as she stared at me with such a Katie-ish look on her face that I almost had to laugh. Just sharing these things with her made everything already feel so much less horrible.

“I slept with Tarquin,” Katie suddenly blurted, burying her face in her palms.

“You did what?” I exclaimed with a mixture of shock and utter disbelief. “But that’s gre-”

“Don’t,” She cried out from behind her hands, “say the word ‘great’! It’s awful! He shouldn’t have!”

The grin on my face faded instantly as a horrible idea formed in my head. “Did he make you? That little bast-”

“No,” Katie groaned, peeking out at me from behind her fingers. “I made him; kind of.”

“What?” I was properly confused by now, frowning at her as she dragged her hands from her face quite theatrically.

“Remember, I told you I ran into this group of boys at the party?”

I frowned at her. “The ones with the jello shots?”

“Yup.” She nodded, looking thoroughly miserable. “Well, first I was flattered but I actually got bored pretty quickly and I went back to find you but, well- you were talking to James Potter at the bar and I kind of felt a little-” she paused, giving me a somewhat embarrassed frown, “jealous.”

“But-”

“I know,” she groaned, slapping her hand against her forehead, “but I was drunk and weird and I left the party to go to the Hufflepuff common room and, well-” she trailed off, her face burning crimson by now.

“I still don’t get it,” I said into the silence, mostly to bridge the obviously awkward moment for Katie, “How did you make him have sex with you?”

“Well,” she sighed, grabbing her pillow and pressing it to her chest as she gave me a sheepish look, “I might have told him to man up and stop being such a wuss when he insisted I was too drunk to make this decision.”

“Oh Katie,” I groaned, slapping my hand over my eyes; I could practically see my best friend -  a force of nature - telling a bewildered Tarquin to shut it and show her his dorm room.

“I know,” she moaned, shaking her head to herself. When she looked up again, I knew that she was about to apologise but - finding that she really didn’t need to - I only gave her a crooked smile and nudged her leg with my foot.

“So, jello shots…”

The gesture was understood immediately and Katie simply grimaced, reciprocating the friendly nudge. “God, they’re awful.”







A/N: I just want to say that I’m overwhelmed by all of your wonderful reviews and kind words for this story! And, at the risk of sounding like the sappy old cat-lady that I am, I can’t even tell you guys how much every one of them means to me! All of your reviews are greatly appreciated, occasionally read out to my boyfriend (who knows nothing about fanfiction but puts up with my nerdy-ness nonetheless) and always read aloud to my cat Hobbes.

You are all amazing people and the reason I am writing! I hope you enjoyed this chapter :)... more action is to come :)


 


Chapter 17: The Naked Bathroom Occurrence
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Chapter 17 - The Naked Bathroom Occurrence

The seasons always seemed to fade fast at Hogwarts; where the grass had still been green and juicy a few weeks ago, white frost now covered the grounds on this cold November morning. Thick bands of smoke curled above Hagrid's hut and the fires in the castle burned brighter to provide the lofty corridors and halls with enough warmth. There was, however, unusual bustle in the castle for a chilly Saturday morning, which might have best been spent in bed, as throngs of students poured out into the bone-chilling cold.

"Quick, hide me!" Katie squealed, jumping behind my back to duck. She had been doing this all morning already; giving me half a heart-attack because some lanky bloke in skinny jeans had strolled by.

"Katie," I sighed as I watched the tall kid with floppy blond hair and bad acne pass by, "that guy doesn't even look like Tarquin."

"Are you sure?" She peered over my shoulder, sounding anxious.

"Quite."

"Good." Katie surfaced again, although still looking wary as she scanned the groups of people around us. She seemed to expect Tarquin to jump out at her any second, even though he had left her well alone ever since Halloween; in fact, he seemed to have made sure to stay out of both of our ways.

"Oh look," Katie whispered as we climbed up the slippery steps to the top of the stand, where clusters of blue-clad people were already huddled against the cold wind, "it's Sam. He looks lonely."

He did indeed look lonely; sitting all by himself on an empty bench with his elbows propped up on his knees, staring at the Quidditch pitch.

"Mind if we join you?" I asked as I sat down next to him, giving him a smile; I was still not happy that he had told his ex-girlfriend I was the reason for their breakup, but then again, the boy didn't have it exactly easy at the moment and, really, I cared only little what Felicity Bolder thought of me.

"Yeah, sure." He looked at me, slightly taken aback. "Aren't you mad at me? You should be. I'm a horrible friend."

"Oh please." Katie had leaned forwards, rolling her eyes at him in a perfect circle. "You're just a bit of an idiot, really. But we all are sometimes." She glanced at me with a crooked smile on her face.

"Katie's right," I sighed, wrapping my blue scarf a little tighter around my throat as a cold gust of wind swept across the stand, "let's just forget about it."

"Sure." Sam grinned as I bumped my shoulder against his. "So who do you reckon will win? Us or Slytherin?"

"Ravenclaw, of course," I said as though I had an actual clue about Quidditch; after all, Bernice had insisted they would win the Cup this year. "What do you think?"

But Sam wasn't listening to me anymore; he was staring at something further down the stands, frowning deeply. I didn't even need to ask what was wrong with him; a couple of rows in front of us, Adina Singer was holding up a hand-painted sign saying 'I love you Hector Chang' in flashing blue writing.

For a second, I had the urge to tell Sam not to be bothered by her, but I quickly remembered that I wasn't supposed to know anything about Hector and him and so I simply leaned back and studied the green bevy of Slytherins on the opposite stands. They looked horribly certain of victory.

"James Potter is looking at us."

"What?" I turned back to Sam, who was still frowning into the same direction as before, squinting slightly as though he was trying to sharpen his vision.

"James Potter," he repeated, without moving his head, "he is looking at us."

Still rather confused, I followed his gaze, moving past Adina Singer's poster this time, and there he was; looking straight at me. I hadn't seen him since he had gotten me out of sports to skive off class with him and I hadn't expected to, after the way we had said goodbye; it had felt somehow final.

It was only a second that our eyes met. I couldn't be sure that he had even been looking properly before, but, without really thinking about it, I raised my arm and waved at him.

I was actually waving.

At James Sirius Potter.

And it wasn't the cool, nonchalant kind of lifting-your-arm-for-a-second wave, but the spastic, dorky kind that made people look like overly excited Golden Retrievers. The kind of wave that only got more embarrassing the longer it lasted.

"What are you doing?" Katie hissed into my ear and, realising that I had drawn the attention of a couple of sniggering onlookers, I finally dropped my arm lamely again, feeling heat crawl up my face.

James was still looking at me, slightly dumbfounded. Then, quite unexpectedly, his mouth suddenly curled upwards as though he was trying to hold in a fit of laughter, and he raised his arm high above his head, waving back at me.

Despite myself, I couldn't help a smile.

 





                                                                                                ☊

 






"This is actually perfect." Katie tapped her red-lacquered nails on the oversized Ravenclaw notice board, where Professor Flitwick had put up the dates of our apparition lessons earlier today.

I couldn't bring myself to muster more than a half-hearted nod as I continued to stare at the opened book in my lap, muttering a listless 'hmm'. Arithmancy was working my last nerve today.

"You're not even listening, are you?"

"What?"I mumbled in response as I flipped back a couple of pages to find clues on where I had gone wrong in my calculations.

"Seth," Katie huffed, slumping in the wingback chair across from me, her arms knotted tightly in front of her torso.

"I'm sorry." I pushed away the book a little and leaned back in my chair, cradling the now lukewarm cup of tea in my hands as I looked at my best friend. "So, apparition lessons?"

Katie shook her head with exasperation, but I could detect the hint of a smile that lurked behind her unnerved expression. "I'm not talking about apparition lessons," she said as though it was the most boring thing she had ever heard, "I'm talking about the next Hogsmeade weekend."

I frowned at her, unable to hide my confusion; sure, Hogsmeade weekends were great but they certainly weren't more exciting than the upcoming apparition training. Everybody in sixth year was talking about it, telling wild stories of horrible splinchings that had happened to people they knew.

"Have you heard anything I've said this past half-hour?" She asked, clicking her tongue at me as though chastising a toddler.

"Don't be such a drama queen," I laughed, leaning over to tickle her chin with the end of my teal glitter quill. Katie flinched, swatting at the feather like it was an irksome fly; it was obvious from the way she pressed her lips together that she was trying hard not to laugh.

"I'm serious," she insisted, "Next Hogsmeade weekend is in two weeks' time and it's probably our only chance to go dress-shopping for Slughorn's Christmas party."

"Oh right." I leaned back in my chair, piling my hair high atop my head and fixing it rather haphazardly with the hair tie that was dangling from my wrist. "Slughorn's party."

Katie rolled her eyes as she eyed the messy bun I had just created; it was probably crooked. "Please, don't be so enthusiastic."

"I am, though," I insisted, and I actually meant it; Slughorn's Christmas parties, which were some sort of Hogwarts tradition, were really quite fun; he usually invited a couple of famous people to showcase his web of influence, but there was always great food and drink and fantastic live music. The party was, however, also highly exclusive, which meant that towards the middle of December, people were getting reckless to score an invite.

"It's going to be really good this year," Katie sighed; she had picked up my glitter quill and twirled it lazily in her hand, watching the glitter particles flash as they met the light. "I heard that Hey Hey Hippogriff are playing," she hesitated for a second, giving me a weird look, "and Harry Potter might be coming."

I grimaced at the sound of the familiar surname, well aware that Katie was closely watching my reaction. She had been waiting to bring this up, of course, ever since the Quidditch match last weekend; ever since James Potter had reciprocated my dorky wave in the packed stadium.

Not many people had actually witnessed the scene but somehow, by Monday the entire castle had known. And even worse, as the story milled through the Hogwarts gossip machinery, it got distorted beyond recognition so that, by Wednesday, James Potter was having a secret affair with 'that Ravenclaw sixth year', who no one had ever seen before and who - and people would insist on that - was probably a veela, a ghost, an undercover princess, a mermaid, an undercover mermaid-princess, or a transfigured bowtruckle.

"Can we not talk about this?" I groaned, hugging my legs to my chest for comfort. For the past five years, I had perfectly slipped under the radar; there might have been the odd occasion in which someone had realised that I was, indeed, a girl and not a small boy crossdressing in a girl's uniform, but those instances had been rare and so insignificant that they had been nothing more but a mere dust grain on the dirty floor that was Hogwarts' social scene.

"Well, we have to," Katie said firmly, sitting up a little straighter, some sort of stubborn determination glinting in her eyes. "Do you like James Potter?"

I almost spilled my tea from indignation. "No! Definitely not! I don't like him. At all."

"Then why did you wave at him like a frantic pygmy puff?" She arched her eyebrows. "People don't wave at people they don't like."

She did have a point, but I wasn't going to admit that; I didn't like James Potter. I couldn't.

"It was just a weird spur-of-the-moment kind of thing. I wasn't thinking."

"Because you fancy-"

"Don't!" I cut her off, giving her a stern look. "Don't go there."

Katie threw up her arms as though mere words were not enough to express her exasperation with me. "But you are friends?"

"I don't think so," I said, after I had considered the idea for a moment. Potter and I weren't exactly friends; however, we also weren't 'not friends'. It really didn't make any sense at all and the longer I was thinking about it, the more my head seemed to throb; it felt like my brain was twitching.

"How about we try sorting out your social life for once?" It wasn't the most elegant change-of-topic-manoeuvre but my synapses were threatening to snap cleanly in two if they had to process the word 'Potter' just one more time.

"No thanks," Katie said quickly, producing a glossy copy of InStyle from seemingly out of nowhere, "I'm good." And with that, her head disappeared behind the polished cover, announcing the perfect guide to choosing the right first-date outfit.

I stared at Emma Stone's beaming face for a moment; her eyes were huge and they were staring directly at me - as though she was watching me - and before I could help it, my mind dug up a flashback of the bodiless voice in the library, warning me to be careful. It might have been my imagination playing tricks on me, but sometimes I couldn't help feeling like I was being followed; like someone was creeping around the fringes of my vision.

"What's wrong?" Katie was peering at me over the edge of her magazine. "You look weird."

"I'm just tired." I rubbed my eyes, deciding that there was no need to burden Katie with this; it was probably only a figment of my imagination. "I think I'll go to bed."

"Already?" Katie had dropped her magazine in her lap, looking wary.

I only nodded. "I could use some sleep. And besides, there is a suspicious-looking first-year skulking around us for the longest time already and there is only so many times I can stomach being asked if my tail glitters under water."

 





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The first week of November had flown by, sweeping away the last remnants of what was left of the balmy October weather, colouring the sky above Hogwarts a permanent, drab grey. The fine drizzle that sprayed the grounds had blended perfectly with the misty, cold weather so that it felt like the air itself was wet. No one in their right minds would have ventured outside if they didn't have to; except for the Gryffindor Quidditch team, of course, who - as Bernice had told me quite indignantly this morning - had been on the pitch since six o'clock. It did explain why the Great Hall felt unnaturally quiet - even for a Saturday morning.

"Can you believe him?" Katie huffed as she proceeded to stab a fork into her bowl of cereal, her teeth clenched tightly as she peered past my right ear. She hadn't eaten one bite of her breakfast yet; and it was not because she was using the wrong piece of cutlery.

"Why does it bother you so much?" I said, after having caught a brief glimpse of Tarquin Digby, sitting at the Hufflepuff table next to a laughing girl, who I assumed was one of his classmates.

Of course I did know why this scene bothered Katie; it would probably bother anyone, really. First the guy has been running after her like a love-sick puppy for years and then she sleeps with him and suddenly he is Mr. Unavailable.

It's not exactly an ego-boost.

"It doesn't bother me," Katie said, her voice sounding just a little bit too high to be genuine, "it's just sad that he thinks he has to put on a show."

I glanced back at Tarquin again; he had apparently just said something hilarious, since his conversation partner let out a cry of mirth, her hand touching his shoulder; it actually didn't look as though they were putting on a show.

"Aren't you glad, you don't have to have the awkward 'let's-just-be-friends-and-forget-this-night-ever-happened' talk?" It was a legitimate question; after all, Katie had been keen to avoid Tarquin after Halloween, ducking and hiding whenever she had spotted him across the hall. However, when it had become clear that he had no apparent intention to talk to her, her attitude had changed abruptly.

"Sure," Katie puffed, aiming a particularly violent stab at her cereal bowl. "I'm thrilled."

I wanted to say something to her; to tell her to go and talk to him - tell him how she felt about this whole thing - but before I could even open my mouth, someone sat down heavily on the empty seat next to me.

"I hate people. All of them," Sam spat disgustedly. There was no need to ask; Hector Chang and Adina Singer had walked into the Great Hall holding hands.

"Me too!" Katie agreed and she and Sam bumped their fists above the table.

"I can't wait for apparition lessons today," he sighed, looking wistfully towards the closest window, "maybe I'll manage to apparate out of this hell-hole."





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"I'm like - I can't," Katie whined, leaning against a thick pillar in the Entrance Hall as more moaning people proceeded to spill out of the Great Hall, rubbing their necks and limbs. The chatter was subdued, as though something terrible had happened, and the sixth years quietly trudged back to their respective common rooms.

Clearly, the first apparition lesson had taken all of us by surprise; while we all had been supplied with enough horrible splinching-stories to last us a lifetime, no one had cared to mention that learning to apparate was actually exhausting - physically exhausting.

Of course, nothing of the splinching-stuff had happened - only Peony Butler, a quirky Gryffindor, had had a crying fit towards the end of the lesson because her friend had made her believe that she had apparated off her eyebrows. It took the apparition instructor a solid 15 minutes to convince her that that was not possible.

"Come on," I held my hand out to Katie, pulling her back to her feet. My limbs were sore and felt bruised and my back was seriously killing me; trying to get my rather rigid body to dissolve and reform at another place had clearly taken its toll on me.

"No, you go," Katie groaned as though she just had been mortally wounded on the battlefield, "just leave me here. I can't feel my legs."

"Don't be such a-" I began to laugh, but something in Katie's eyes made me stop; they had widened with shock, staring at something behind me, and I turned around to see what was going on, but it was already too late:

An icy cold wall of water hit me full-on, drenching me from head to toe in what smelled like rainwater.

For a moment, I was too perplex to even move; a couple of leftover sixth years, who had witnessed the scene, dissolved into fits of laughter, pointing at me and then at the group of tiny first-years, who stared at me, eyes wide and full of expectation, with their now empty buckets still clenched in their short arms.

"You little-" Sam roared all of a sudden, advancing on the small culprits like a maniac, making them all scatter and scream for their lives, "-that's 50 points from whatever houses you're in, you bloody-"

"Sam," I said quickly, shaking my arms to rid my soggy jumper of the excess of water, "it's fine. Let them go." There was no use in running after a horde of first-years; not only were they unbelievably nimble and quick, but also rather crafty. They could basically hide everywhere.

"But- they -" Sam spluttered, looking at me as though he wasn't sure the cold water hadn't rendered me temporarily incapable of thinking clearly. "They-"

"I know," I groaned, stepping out of the lake-like puddle that had pooled underneath my feet. The water had a distinctly stale, earthy smell to it and I suddenly realised that it wasn't rainwater; it was water from the Black Lake. "They probably wanted to see if I turn into a bowtruckle or something."

I wasn't even joking; Hogwarts first years could be extremely gullible - unhealthily so - even more if they were Muggle-born. And really, who could blame them? All of a sudden you were at a magical castle, living with other underage wizards and nothing seems impossible anymore; even the idea of mermaids living among the student body.





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My own squelching footsteps echoed loudly down the corridor; this part of the castle was eerily forsaken and I was glad for it. The last thing I needed right now was to hang out in the crowded common room, surrounded by people who either thought I was some supernatural creature or a creepy stalker. I had much preferred being that girl no one really noticed.

I wanted to blame Potter so badly for the dubious attention I suddenly seemed to receive from the student body, but deep down I knew that it was just as much my own fault as it was his; why did I have to wave at him? What the hell was wrong with me?

There was a strange rustle behind me and I stopped dead in my tracks, looking around; something was moving behind me. I had seen it from the corner of my eye, slinking along the stone wall.

I fumbled for my wand in my bag, expecting another attack, yet, when I had turned, I was almost surprised to find that I was still quite alone.

"Hello?" I called out, rather feebly, and my shaky voice bounced off the towering walls, multiplying to a strange echo. There was no answer; I hadn't expected one, really. Whoever had heard of an axe murderer announcing themselves formally to their victims before butchering them into pieces.

The dim, flickering light of the torches danced in the soft draught, casting odd, writhing shadows onto the walls, and I dared to take a shallow breath. It had been a mere trick of the light - I had been scared of nothing but shadows.

"Dewy Grass," I told the statue of Boris the Bewildered, who was guarding the entrance to the Prefect's bathroom at the end of the corridor, and he moved instantly, allowing me to slip inside.

The bright marble interior was a stark contrast to the gloomy passageway and I felt myself relax a little; it was hard to be scared of ominous shadows when there were about a hundred lit candles floating above you, dipping everything into a soft, golden glow.

I crossed the room swiftly, turning on the taps that surrounded the embedded marble pool, watching as it filled with foamy water. The scent of creamy coconut rose into the air and I peeled myself out of my wet clothes, dipping my toes into the balmy warmth before finally diving in.

Crack. The sudden sound - though rather soft - startled me as I surfaced again and I turned in the water, surveying the room. I could have sworn it had come from the door but, knowing that its magic prevented anyone from entering whenever the bathroom was occupied, I quickly convinced myself that it had yet just been another figment of my overly productive mind.

I really needed a timeout.

Tilting back my head, I let the warm water swallow me again, shutting out all sight and sound for a blissful moment; I couldn't let things get to me like this; Hogwarts rumours - while ruthless - were also fickle things and prone to fade out after a couple of days if there wasn't enough fuel to power them any longer. All I had to do was to stay well away from James Potter and with some luck, by next Monday, the school would already be buzzing with the next great scandal.

A loud bang suddenly reverberated from the high bathroom walls and I emerged with a jolt, sure that I had not imagined things this time. My eyes burned as I struggled to keep them open despite the soapy water that ran down my face, but it was too late; all I could see through my blurry vision was the glimpse of a foot and the bathroom door snapping shut heavily behind it.

I swam to the edge of the pool, frantically groping for the towel I had placed there before, only to feel a slab of cold, hard marble underneath my fingertips.

It had gone.

And, with a wave of blind panic, I realised that so had my clothes and my wand.

I climbed out of the pool, not caring that I was causing a minor flood, and scampered to the usually well-stacked towel rack on the wall, just to find it completely cleared; apparently, someone had been doing a thorough job.

The air around me felt thick all of a sudden, like it was trying to smother me, and the whiff of coconut that was still lingering in the steamy air, filled my nostrils with a sickly sweet stench that made it hard to breathe. I was trapped; stark naked in the Prefects' bathroom, completely wandless and, alas, also without a plan.

All of a sudden, the thick stone door emitted a deep rumbling sound and I whipped around, instinctively covering my most private parts. I had heard this sound before; it was the sound of someone trying to get in. Usually, this wouldn't have bothered me; I had always counted on the door's magic to work. In light of recent events, however, I couldn't be so sure anymore.

"Is someone in there?" A muffled girl's voice carried through the thick wall and I stood frozen, like an awkward statue, my heart hammering against my chest and my mind racing.

"Hello?" She called again, knocking on the door. "It's only - I really wanted to take a bath and it's been occupied for quite a while now."

I could have let her in; ask her to lend me a jumper or to magic up a towel from the laundry. However, a small voice in the back of my head kept me from acting on my impulse; what if it was a trick? What if the pranksters had returned to put the finishing touch to their work. I couldn't risk being dragged out into the corridor completely naked.

"Anybody in there?" The girl now positively pounded on the door before finally aiming something that sounded a lot like a kick at it. It grew quiet after that and I tiptoed towards the door, pressing my ear against the wood to listen; she had gone, maybe to get Filch or a teacher, and I sank down to the damp floor, my back resting against the cold stone wall.

I was so screwed.
 





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In the minutes that followed (or was it hours - I couldn't tell) I had three fits of reckless indifference, in which I had actually considered simply taking the corridors at a run, hoping that they would be conveniently empty. This idea, however, had lost all its appeal the minute I had realised I really had nowhere to run. If I didn't find my clothes or my wand along the way - which was highly unlikely - the only place I could go was the Ravenclaw common room and, for obvious reasons, this was not an option.

The door rumbled again and I lifted my head, which had been resting on my knees, listening intently for the person on the other side to speak, desperately hoping that it was Katie who had come looking for me.

"You've got to be kidding me," a deep voice growled from behind the thick door and my heart sank.

So much for Katie rescuing me.

"Any idea how long you're gonna be?" The person called again, this time louder, and I felt a jolt in my stomach; I knew this voice.

"Only, I've had a really rough day of training and I'd really appreciate a bath. Now."

I scrambled to my feet, leaning against the rough wooden door, behind which I could hear impatient footsteps.

"Is anyone in there?"

I jerked away from the door as I felt someone lean against it from the other side, probably listening for a sign of movement. My heart was beating so loudly I was sure it was going to betray me; scattered yet rhythmic, it sounded like tribal drums in my ears.

"Potter?" I finally uttered, resting my clammy fingertips against the moist wood as I waited for an answer.

It came promptly.

"Woodley?"

"Um, yes," I hesitated for a moment, taking the time to choose my next words carefully. I really didn't want to explain my misery in too much detail; not to James Potter. "Could you - could you do me a favour?"

"Um, sure." He sounded puzzled but I decided to ignore the implicit question.

"Can you get Katie?"

"Who?"

"My friend Katie," I said, rolling my eyes at his obvious lack of interest in the people around him. "She's probably in the Ravenclaw common room. I really need-" I broke off, suddenly realising the absolute futility of my attempt; even if James managed to get into our common room on his own, which I seriously doubted, he still wouldn't have a clue who Katie was. It was hopeless, really.

"Hey, are you alright?" He asked and by the quality of his voice I could tell that he was standing close to the door now.

"Not really," I sighed, resting my head against the wood. All the steam and heat from before had evaporated by now, and I was starting to shiver as the cold from outside seeped through the cracks in the walls. "Someone stole my clothes and my wand."

There was a short pause. "Um, what?"

"Someone stole all of my things, including the towels," I repeated, feeling the blush creep up to my cheeks. It was one thing to be left stark naked in a boarding school bathroom; it was another to share this information with James Potter.

"So - um." I might have imagined it, but James's raspy voice had suddenly become just a little coarser, "you are-"

"Yup."

"Completely?" As he said it, I could basically hear the smirk that was plastered across his face.

"I'm already regretting this," I mumbled, more to myself than to Potter; if this hadn't already been a disaster before, it surely was now.

"I'm only joking, Woodley." His voice sounded oddly muffled, as though he was speaking through a piece of cloth. "Open the door, will you?"

"What? No!" I cried indignantly, automatically wrapping my arms around my torso. "If you really think I'd let you in, you're thicker than I thought you were."

"Don't be such a wuss, Woodley and open the door," he said, stifling a laugh. "I promise I won't look."

"Never."

"You can't stay in there forever."

"I don't know," I said stubbornly, looking around the marble-coated room, "it's starting to grow on me, really."

James laughed. "Come on, Lizzy. Trust me."

"But I don't."

"Woodley."

"Potter."

It grew quiet for a moment and I wondered if James had left; maybe he was getting a professor to break the charm on the door - it really couldn't get any more humiliating than that. In fact, that would have been even worse than streaking down the corridor.

"Please," he suddenly said quite softly and - for lack of a better alternative - I caved in.

"Fine. But I swear, if I catch you looking I'll hex you into next week."

"Deal," James said and, after I took one more steadying breath, I slowly turned the doorknob, opening the door just an infinitesimal amount.

I couldn't see James at all; only his outstretched hand, in which he was holding a burgundy coloured piece of cloth. I snatched it from his grip and then quickly retreated into the bathroom again, closing the door behind me for good measure.

As I unfolded the piece of cloth, I realised that it was James's Quidditch shirt.

"I syphoned off most of the dirt."

"Most of the dirt?" I repeated, looking at the crumpled T-shirt that had massive grass-stains all over its front. What the hell was he doing on that broomstick?

"I really don't think you are in a position to be picky, Woodley."

As much as I hated to admit it, he was right; a dirty Quidditch shirt was better than nothing. Even if it smelled of musk.

I pulled the shirt over my head and it fell down to my upper thighs, only just covering my bum. Considering that many girls at Hogwarts wore dresses like that on a regular basis, it really wasn't too bad. At least I wasn't naked anymore.

"I think that works," I told James as I stepped out into the corridor, both of my hands gripping the hem of the shirt, trying to stretch the rigid cloth as much as possible. "Thanks."

"Sure," he said, leaning against the doorframe, his arms crossed in front of his shirtless torso as he gave me a weird look. "Do you know who did it?"

I shook my head. "No idea," I sighed, thinking automatically of the bodiless voice in the library. Apparently, for whatever reason someone really had it out for me - a stunt like this wasn't a coincidence; it had to be planned.

"Well, I think I should go," I said awkwardly, not quite sure what the protocol for such situations was; what did you say to the guy who had just found you locked into a bathroom, completely naked. "Thanks again."

"It's no big deal." James smiled and, as I began to walk away, I realised that this was probably the most normal conversation we had ever had.

"Hey Woodley!"

I turned back, still clutching the bottom of the Quidditch shirt. "Yeah?"

"I was just wondering," he said casually, "does your hair turn blue underwater? Cause I heard that happens to mermaid princesses."

"Oh, shut up!" I called back, and - before James could see the grin on my face - I quickly turned away again, disappearing behind the next corner.









A/N: So I feel really bad for taking so long to finish this chapter... I just really wanted to get it right and uni is killing me right now :( All of your lovely comments actually made the last two weeks bearable for me, so thank you so much for that! I know I say it a lot, but you guys are all awesome human beings who deserve all kinds of wonderful things! This just had to be said.

I hope you liked this chapter and, as usual, I can hardly wait to hear your thoughts on it! I really greatly appreciate your opinions and the feedback you give me. Thank you so much and lots of love :)


Chapter 18: Of Fangirls and Fanatics
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Of Fangirls and Fanatics

To say that people were looking would have been a mild understatement.

They were staring.

Bluntly.

But - weirdly enough - even though I was barefoot, wearing nothing but Potter's smelly Quidditch shirt, it wasn't me they were staring at. They were crowded around the statue of Atticus the Amiable on the sprawling fourth-floor-landing, chatting excitedly as though they had never seen something like it before.

I edged closer, cold stone slapping against the soles of my feet; if I could just slip past the moderately sized mob unnoticed, I might yet get out of this mess without further repercussions. But there was a flash of lilac in the corner of my eye and I almost stumbled to a halt, not sure I even wanted to look. There was a reason why everybody was ogling an old statue and, though I had tried to tell myself otherwise, I somehow knew it before I had actually seen it.

Half-hiding behind a bulky guy in a Slytherin House T-shirt, I glanced at Atticus's head, which was the only visible part of him in the sea of curious onlookers, and barely stifled a groan as I spotted the lilac piece of cloth that was draped across his marble head.

He wore my knickers like a ludicrous crown.

I wouldn't have bothered to claim them, of course - not in front of such an ample audience - but it wasn't only my knickers that had been exposed unceremoniously to the entire student body; I also caught glimpses of my jeans, my shoes, and my wand, which had been stuck to the statue's toga in a place that might have been his genitalia.

My clothing, I could have ignored, but my wand; leaving back your wand was like leaving back your arm - unnatural.

"Excuse me," I muttered as quietly as possible, pushing past a couple of people, straining to not look at them. This was already humiliating enough without making eye-contact.

At first, the crowd only moved reluctantly, but soon, it parted by itself, forming a straight path towards Atticus; they had probably noticed my unconventional getup and redirected their attention on me as I approached the statue, clutching the hem of Potter's shirt, which was only just skirting my upper thighs.

There were whispers - the cruel kind that made your blood freeze when you realised they were about you - but I tried not to listen as I began to prise my wand from Atticus's lumbar region. It had been stuck there with a well-performed adhesive charm and, as people began to snicker, I mumbled a quick "absolve", hoping that it would be enough to unstick it. It fell off promptly and I closed my eyes in relief for a second as I felt the smooth cedar stick resting familiarly in the crook of my palm.

With one swift flick, I removed my knickers from the statue's head and - all of my clothes piled haphazardly in my arms - I turned around again, mildly surprised by the gawking mob. I had hoped they would have scattered by now, letting me keep at least a fraction of my already dented dignity, but they only looked more eager than ever, waiting hungrily for me to humiliate myself even further.

"What are you all looking at?" I snapped, taking even myself by surprise; they were all staring at me like I was the funny monkey in a zoo and I couldn't help feeling reckless. This was getting too much to handle. "Never seen someone removing their wand from a statue's crotch?"

There was scattered sniggering. Most of the onlookers, however, stared at me wide-eyed and almost fearful and I realised that I must have looked positively mad with my wand held out in front of me and my half-dried hair plastered to my cheeks and forehead.

"Honestly, get a life!" I grumbled and, still clutching my damp clothes tightly to my chest, I stalked off towards Ravenclaw tower.

::

I had pulled on my jeans somewhere along the way, but there was no time for shoes or anything else, really; all I wanted, was to get into the confined safety of my dorm room and crawl underneath my blanket until the school year was over.

As usual on a Saturday evening, the common room was packed as I stormed in, almost stumbling over the sleeve of my jumper, which had untangled itself from the bundle of belongings in my arms, dangling awkwardly between my legs as I walked. A couple of people turned their heads into my direction, probably roused by my boisterous entrance, but I ignored them as I pelted towards the winding staircase, carelessly weaving through knots of of armchairs and coffee tables.

"You won't believe what just happened," I panted as I practically fell into the dormitory, dropping my things to the floor before crossing the room to Katie's bed.

"Oh, I don't know," she said without looking up from the dismembered phone parts that were scattered all around her like metallic bird droppings, "I'm pretty gullible."

"Kat," I said dryly, willing her to look up from her latest technology project, but before I could even end my sentence, a sort of war cry positively shook the room and something large and heavy hit me from the side, knocking me to the ground.

"What the hell?" I shouted at a mutinous-looking Bernice, who had pinned me to the ground, her legs straddling my thighs so that I was rendered completely immobile. Her mouth was moving, but there were no words coming out; instead, she began to jab my collarbone with her finger.

"Potter," she finally said in a very strangled voice, owing to the fact that Katie had jumped onto her back, trying to prise her off of me, unfortunately without any success. "You - and - Potter?"

"What are you talking about?" I shouted, completely out of breath from trying to wrestle my hands from Bernice's death-grip; she wasn't a Beater for no reason.

"Get off of her!" Katie yelled from behind her, still clinging to her back like a manic squirrel. Her auburn curls were dancing into all directions, protruding behind Bernice's head like a fluffy, bronze halo.

"I didn't want to believe it," Bernice growled, her finger still digging into my shoulder blade. "Rufina told me to be careful when the first rumours sprung up, but I told her that I trusted you and now you're - you're-" She seemed to be struggling for the right words. "You're consorting with the enemy!"

"What?" My voice came out much higher than I had intended it to, "Bernice, that's-"

"I trusted you!" She was howling by now, not unlike a wounded dog. "I told you all about our new game plan for next month's match! I'm such an idiot!"

"Get a grip, woman!" Katie screeched from behind, but I had finally understood what this assault was all about - Quidditch.

Dumb, overrated Quidditch.

"Okay, that's it!" I bellowed in a commanding voice I didn't even know I possessed, and both Bernice and Katie froze like statues, barely blinking as they stared down at me. "I am not 'consorting with the enemy' and I didn't even understand half of the things you told me about the 'game plan', so would you please just get the bloody hell off of me!"

For a moment, Bernice seemed paralysed by my sudden outburst but then, like in slow-motion, her grip finally slackened and she rolled off of me, allowing my blood to circulate properly again.

"Thank you," I said with exasperation and quickly got up before she could change her mind again.

"But - the shirt," Bernice uttered, somewhat sheepishly, pointing at the golden embroidered letters that formed the word 'Potter' across my chest. I hadn't even noticed until now that they stood out so prominently against the red, shining boldly, even through the blotches of grass and dirt.

"It's - it's kind of a long story," I sighed, leaning against Katie's bedpost, "Potter simply helped me out of a tight spot, that's all."

"Soooooo." Katie dragged out the 'o' before clicking her tongue; she looked slightly harassed with her curls sticking up in odd angles. "You're actually wearing James Potter's shirt?"

"Yeah," I sighed, knowing that Katie was surely expecting an explanation as to why I was running around in Potter's clothes, "he gave it to me because I was-"

But I didn't get any further than that; Katie had closed the gap between us in a few quick strides and wrapped her arms around my shoulders, her face buried into my neck. as though she was trying to inhale the Quidditch shirt in its entirety.

"Um, Katie?" I asked weirdly, as she snuggled her nose even deeper into the slightly sour smelling fabric.

"It's all musky and manly," she mumbled into my shoulder, "it's almost as though I'm hugging a lankier version of James."

"Are you serious?" I groaned, catching Bernice's eye over my best friend's shoulder, but she simply shrugged, somewhat awkwardly, and sank slowly onto her bed.

I was officially living with a bunch of crazy people.

::

It was fascinating how the gossip circulation worked at Hogwarts; obviously, people had heard of 'that girl in Potter's Quidditch shirt', whose clothes had been draped across a statue on the third floor landing. There were many different theories as to what had happened - naturally, none of them reflected the truth.

Some were convinced that I was Potter's girlfriend and that we were trying to keep our budding relationship a secret. Others claimed that reliable sources told them, Potter and I were 'friends with benefits'. Most people, however, seemed to think that I had stolen the shirt from the laundry because I was highly delusional and fancied myself to be Potter's girlfriend when, in reality, I was nothing but a sad stalker.

"Any idea who might have done it, though?" Sam said over his steak and kidney pie, careful to keep his voice as quiet as possible. "I mean, that was basically an attack, you know?"

"Well, no," I sighed, jabbing my fork aimlessly into my food; somehow I wasn't feeling particularly hungry at the moment. "Maybe I was just a random pick, you know?"

"Yeah, but someone warned you that something like this might happen," Katie argued, turning slightly towards Sam. "What about Felicity? She was pretty jealous, wasn't she?"

Sam furrowed his brows. "Yeah, but I think she's gotten over it."

"How so?" Katie sounded rather unconvinced as she watched Sam heap even more food onto his already overflowing plate.

"Well," he said, shrugging his shoulders, "she's been snogging Will Waters for two weeks so-"

"What? Will Waters?" Katie whisper-shouted, obviously scandalised that she had missed out on this piece of gossip. But her outrage faded quickly and she shrugged her shoulders after a moment of contemplation. "Well, they kind of fit together. She smells of cabbage and he kinda looks like one."

Sam slopped a remarkable amount of pumpkin juice down his front, covering his uniform shirt in a most unsightly orange sludge. "He does!"

They both sniggered, but I had a hard time paying attention; the feeling that someone inside Hogwarts wanted to hurt me sat on my chest like a heavy weight and it got harder and harder to breathe as I let my gaze wander across the Great Hall; what if the bathroom prank was just the beginning?

'No,' A rather determined voice in my head suddenly said and I put down my knife and fork. I would not let myself go there; whoever had stolen my belongings from the Prefects' bathroom had wanted to intimidate me and I wouldn't let them get the best of me.

I was better than that.

"Um, Seth, are you okay?" Katie asked carefully. Both she and Sam were looking at me quite concerned as I began to pack up my things and - feeling a surge of bravery - jumped up from my seat at the Ravenclaw table.

"Yes," I replied, sounding maybe a tad too enthusiastic; the worried frown on Katie's forehead seemed to drag down her entire face. "I'm good."

::

It smelled of snow. The cold wind bore the unmistakable scent of winter as it swept across the grounds, rippling the usually smooth, black surface of the lake, and I stopped to take a deep breath. It was crisp and clear as it filled my lungs and for the first time since this school year had started, I actually felt a sort of calm.

Not entirely, of course, but I was determined to fix at least bits and pieces of the chaos that had somehow seeped into my life so that I could finally go back to normal. I didn't know when exactly it all had started - the rumours, James Potter, water being thrown at me - but I knew that I needed it to stop.

Now.

It was a short walk down to the Quidditch pitch, whose golden goal hoops were towering over the rolling hills behind which it had been built. The path that led to it was broad and well beaten from the hundreds of feet that marched along it on game days; today, however, I was quite alone as I ambled down the last couple of meters towards the pitch.

The Gryffindor team practices usually drew a moderate crowd, mostly consisting of rivaling captains and giggling girls dotting the stands. Today, however, there was only a rather lonely duo, huddling together for warmth as they watched the red-clad figures on their broomsticks.

"Not exactly the best weather to be out here, is it?" Someone said next to me and I turned around to find a familiar shock of black hair; Albus Potter gave me a smile, his hands stuffed into the pockets of his pressed khakis.

"Yeah," I agreed as a particularly strong gust of wind whipped my hair into my face. "Your brother doesn't seem to care, though."

Albus smiled and squinted up at the flying figures; they had now started passing the Quaffle to each other, their broomsticks swaying in the wind as they hovered above the ground.

"James has always been like this," he said, glancing back at me with a sly grin, "he's a reckless git, of course, but I love him."

I smiled. "You two seem to be very close."

"We are." Albus leaned against one of the pillars that held up the raised stands. "Or, I think."

He paused for a moment, running his hand through his unnaturally slick hair, disheveling it slightly in the process. "It's rather complicated at the moment." He sighed before shrugging his shoulders. "What are you doing here?"

"Oh, um, just returning something." I indicated the bundle of red cloth I was clutching to my chest and then - remembering the abundance of rumours that were circulating at Hogwarts - quickly added "I'm not stalking your brother, if that's what you think."

"I never thought you were," Albus laughed. "You don't seem like the type to run after boys."

"According to everybody else, I am.

I tried hard to keep the frustration out of my voice, but he seemed to have picked it up nonetheless.

"According to everybody else I have a secret relationship with Scorpius Malfoy," he said, giving me a rather familiar crooked smile; apparently it ran in the Potter family. "Believe me, it's not worth listening to what other people say about you. Usually they have no bloody clue."

I nodded slowly, letting his words sink in; he was right, of course, nonetheless I would have prefered it if people stopped spinning tales about the nature of my relationship to James.

The truth was that there really was none.

It didn't exist.

Silence had settled between Albus and me as we watched the players break the circle and fly off into different directions; they all seemed to have trouble navigating as the wind picked up force and speed, drifting off helplessly whenever a particularly strong gust swept across the pitch.

"Well, I should go," Albus finally said, smoothing down his hair again; the rigid hairdo seemed to resist even the boisterous weather and I wondered how long it took him each morning to get it to look this way. "I promised to meet Laura in the Hufflepuff common room."

"Oh, sure." I said, before adding a little more quietly "thank you."

"What for?"

I shrugged, pushing the stray strands of hair out of my face. "For not thinking that I'm a crazy stalker who steals your brother's undies."

Albus's laugh drowned in the howling of the wind, but it was visible on his face as he raised his hand in a farewell gesture.

"See you around, Seth."

"Yeah, see you!" I called after him, before turning back to the pitch again, where practice had apparently been stopped; the players were back on the ground, looking rather sour as they dismounted their broomsticks. Most of them slowly began to trudge back towards the changing rooms, their brooms clutched underneath their arms and their uniforms splattered with dirt.

Only James had stayed behind, jogging over to the sideline where I stood, leaning against the raised stands..

"Woodley," he said, panting surprisingly little for someone who had just completed a couple of hours of intense Quidditch training. "You didn't pick the best day to watch practice."

"That's actually exactly why I picked today," I replied, holding out the perfectly folded Quidditch shirt, willing him to take it. "Here. It's washed and everything."

"Oh, right," he said a little weirdly, tucking the shirt underneath his arm without really looking at it. The Quidditch jumper he was wearing was so filthy that I was sure some of the dirt would rub off on the freshly laundered strip. "Thanks."

"Sure," I replied, hugging my arms around my torso as a particularly ferocious gust of wind rattled the metal stands. "Thanks again for - you know."

"Saving your naked arse?" James smirked. "It was a pleasure."

"You're such a gentleman," I sighed, making him laugh. "Although, I might have attracted much less attention in the corridors if I had been naked."

"I'm sure that's not true," he said, smiling crookedly as he ran a hand through his dark brown hair. I simply snorted - rather unattractively - and looked down to my linen trainers as an awkward silence settled between us. The white shoes were sprayed with little specks of dirt from walking down to the pitch, but it was nothing compared to James's leather shin guards, which looked as though he had been dragging them through the mud.

"Doesn't it bother you?" I finally uttered, looking back up at him. "I mean, all that rubbish people say about you and me?"

James chuckled, shaking his head lightly as he leaned on his broomstick. "Not really." He gave me a long look, the dimple on his right cheek deepening as he smiled. "And it shouldn't bother you either, Woodley."

"It doesn't," I said - probably a little too quickly - and wrapped my arms around my torso defiantly, daring James to contradict me. He didn't, however; the expression on his face simply changed to sheer amusement, as though I had just made an exceptionally funny joke. As usual, he seemed to be thoroughly enjoying my discomfort.

"That's good." He paused for a moment, the smile fading slowly as he locked eyes with me. "You know, it could be worse."

"Worse than being made out to be either a cheap booty call or a creepy stalker?"

James only looked at me, his eyes studying my face as though he was trying to figure out a complicated Arithmancy problem. "People are convinced I'm shagging a different girl each week," he finally said, shrugging his shoulders.

I raised my eyebrows at him, unable to contain a teasing smirk. "You're not?"

"It might come as a shock to you, Woodley," he replied, a sort of boyish look on his face, "but against popular belief, I can contain myself."

"That is indeed a shocking revelation, Potter."

He laughed, once again shaking his head - which he seemed to do a lot when talking to me - and I finally untied my arms, putting my hands onto my hips. I didn't know why, but I found it a lot easier to talk to him like that; in smart comments and snarky comebacks instead of actually talking about - well - real things.

"Oi!" A sharp yell echoed across the Quidditch pitch, making both James and me turn abruptly towards the changing rooms. Freddie Weasley was jogging towards us, wearing nothing but burgundy tracksuit trousers. "Sorry to bother you two lovebirds, or shagmates, or whatever you are these days." He slowed down as he got closer, throwing an arm around James's shoulders, while giving me a toothy grin. "It's really hard to keep up with your relationship."

"Is there a reason why you're not wearing a shirt?" James asked, his eyebrows raised as he looked at his friend with a sort of austerity that, I assumed, came from years of captaining the Gryffindor Quidditch team.

"Not really," he said lightly and, at the same time, gave me quite an obvious wink. "How's it going, Elizabeth?"

"Quite good," I replied, trying not to grin too much at the deadpan expression on James's face as he stood there with Freddie's naked arm around his neck.

Talking to Fred Weasley was surprisingly easy; He was, of course, absolutely handsome with his caramel colored skin and dark brown eyes, but first and foremost, he was funny. He didn't seem to take anything too seriously, which made it hard to feel embarrassed or nervous around him.

"So, you're coming tonight, right?"

"What?" I frowned at Freddie, having no clue what he was talking about. The only place I had planned on going tonight was my bed, actually.

"You haven't asked her?" He asked James with mock-indignation, who simply shook his head, his lips twitching as though he was trying hard to not laugh.

"Not yet," he said, giving his friend a rather hard clap on the shoulder, "but thanks for bringing it up, mate."

Freddie reciprocated the clap, a broad grin plastered across his tan face. "I got your back, J. Po."

"Right." James gave me one of his perfectly crooked smiles. "We're having a small party in our common room tonight," he said quite casually, as though Freddie had not just referred to him as J. Po. "You should come, Woodley."

"Oh, um," I stammered lamely, shifting my weight from one foot to the other as the cold wind howled once again, biting my skin even through my jeans. Besides the fact that my party experiences this year hadn't been exactly encouraging, it also hadn't sounded as though James had actually wanted to invite me, which made the entire situation quite embarrassing.

Not that I was disappointed; the less I had to do with James Potter the better.

"Actually, I've already made plans, so-"

"Oh, come on!" Freddie exclaimed, giving me a quite serious look. "It's just a small get-together, really. You have to come."

"I don't-"

"Come on, Woodley," James chimed in before I could even come up with another excuse. "You can wear your pyjamas, if you want to." There was a strange look on his face, which I couldn't read, but he was smiling - the same, warm smile I remembered from the Halloween party - and, for the fraction of a second, I suddenly wasn't so sure anymore that I wanted absolutely nothing to do with him.

Whatever that meant.

"I'll think about it," I finally said, just as another gust of wind whipped all of my hair into my face so that the words came out completely muffled.

After we had said our goodbyes - Freddie insisting that I had better come tonight - the first small fluffs of snow began to fall, drifting quite aimlessly in the storm. Behind me, I could still hear James and Freddie's voices, fading into the howling of the wind, and suddenly, without a reason, I felt the strange urge to smile.

::

It was always a little weird - walking along the torch-lit corridors when they were empty like that - but the stormy weather, and the fact that it was late friday afternoon, kept the draughty castle quite free of strolling students. Tiny snowflakes drifted lazily past the high gothic windows, swirling in the strong wind, and I stopped for a moment, looking out to see genuine waves crashing on the rocky shore of the Black Lake.

Katie was going to be elated when I told her about the party in the Gryffindor common room - I could already see her, diving into her closet and thrusting inappropriate clothing at me while spinning a lurid tale of how James obviously wanted me around, which he didn't, of course. I was quite sure that he wouldn't even have asked me if it hadn't been for Freddie practically forcing him to bring up the party.

Not that it mattered, really.

"Pssst."

I turned abruptly at the quiet hissing sound, looking down the long, gloomy corridor that lay ahead. There was nothing unusual and my muscles relaxed again as I felt the urge to laugh at my own jumpiness; maybe the bathroom incident had affected me more than I liked to admit to myself.

Suddenly there was a muffled rustle behind me, like heavy cloth sweeping the floor, and a hand reached out over my shoulder, covering my mouth before I could even so much as whimper. Panic-fuelled I tried to prise the hand off my face, but my attempts failed miserably as I was dragged backwards and hurled against the wall of a dark alcove.

I squealed into the palm that pressed against my mouth, sure that something terrible was about to happen, when, finally, I managed to look up into my assailant's face and the scream died in my throat.

"Stop struggling, will you?" Vala hissed, glancing nervously over her shoulder as though she was expecting someone to be eavesdropping on us.

"Are you insane?" I snapped at her, my voice still shaking with a mixture of fear and anger. "What the bloody hell are you-"

"Shut up, Seth!" She growled under her breath. "Someone will hear us if you keep shouting like that."

"Well, you should have thought about that before pouncing on me from behind, shouldn't you?"

"Shhhhht." She pressed her finger against her lips, her eyes trained on the dark corridor behind me. I had never seen her this edgy before and, frankly, it was quite alarming.

"Vala, what-" I tried once more to take this conversation to a less crazy level, but she simply shushed me again, her dark eyes growing wide.

"Don't say my name!" She whispered, almost fearfully, her face now only inches away from mine. If either one of us moved, I was sure it would result in a rather awkward nose-rub.

"I'm here to warn you."

"About what?" I frowned, feeling that this situation just kept getting more absurd.

"About James Potter."

"What?"

"Shhhh - just listen," she urged. "I'm not supposed to talk to you about this but - well - whatever is going on between James and you -"

"There is nothing going on," I spluttered but Vala simply shook her head.

"Doesn't matter. You have to stay away from him."

"But-" I was at a loss for words, only staring at my cousin with total bewilderment. On the one hand, I really wanted her to understand that I had absolutely no interest in James Potter whatsoever; on the other hand, my brain was still grappling with what the bloody hell was going on.

"All these things; the rumours, the assault in the bathroom - they are not happy that James is talking to you so much and-"

"Wait, what?" I raised my eyebrows at Vala, forgetting for a second that she had asked me to lower my voice. "All these things are happening to me because of Potter?"

"Indirectly, yes," she said, drawing the hood of her old-fashioned cloak further into her face; she looked a little like she belonged to some creepy sisterhood, which just contributed to making this situation even stranger. "You've got to stay away from him."

For a moment, I was too perplexed to even form a coherent thought. All of this didn't make any sense; the mere idea of being targeted by a bunch of lunatics because James Potter had talked to me on one or two occasions, was simply ridiculous.

"You can't be serious," I finally said, trying to detect the hint of a smile on Vala's partially hooded face, but her mouth remained a hard, straight line.

"Just - take my advice," she sighed, before taking a couple of steps backwards. "I have to go. I can't be seen with you." And with that she had turned abruptly, her long cloak rustling behind her as she hurried down the forsaken corridor, leaving me behind in the cold, damp alcove.






A/N: All I can say is, I am so sorry for the long wait - I am literally drowning in uni work right now. I hope you enjoyed this chapter nonetheless and I will try to update faster. If you are still sticking with this story, thank you for your awesomeness. It's actually YOUR reviews that make me write on this story after a long day of seminar paper research and writing, so this update is entirely thanks to you lot!

Every review is like a gentle kick in the bum that reminds me that someone is actually waiting to read the next chapter. So thank you for that :)


Chapter 19: Into the Lion's Den
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Into the Lion’s Den

 

Katie narrowed her bright blue eyes and pursed her lips, reminding me a little of the tiny freshwater plimpies that lived in the pond behind our house. I could practically feel her thought process as she watched me from her perch on her unmade bed, her legs crossed and her hands gripping her knees; she was itching to contradict me - to tell me that I had imagined James not really wanting to ask me to come to the party and that it was stupid to trust Vala, who had never really cared for me before.

But she didn’t. And somehow, this made it worse.

“I’m not going,” I said stubbornly, sitting down on my bed with my arms folded tightly in front of my chest.

“I didn’t say you should,” Katie replied, still acting way too calm; usually, the potential invitation to a Gryffindor common room party would have made her squeal with excitement, but, until now, she hadn’t even so much as squeaked.

It was weird.

“Good. Because I won’t.” I was well aware that I sounded a little like a moody toddler, but I couldn’t help it; somehow Katie’s refusal to challenge me on my decision had caught me off-guard.

“I mean, if avoiding Potter solves all of my problems, I’d be stupid not to do it.” I only just refrained from adding a questioning ‘right?’ at the end and instead swallowed the half-formed word again.

“Yep.” Katie shifted her position so that her head was now propped up on her elbows, which rested on her knees. She didn’t say anything else, but I could see it in her face; she was fighting the urge to speak her mind.

“I mean, I don’t even like James, so it’s really a win-win situation for me.” I had slid off my mattress and started pacing in front of my bed again. Katie simply smiled slightly, which made me even warier.

“Although, it’ll look like I’d actually let a bunch of lunatics scare me into hiding.” The thought didn’t sit well with me; I wasn’t sure why, but the idea of letting some immature girls get to me like that just felt wrong.

“Why was Vala there?” Katie suddenly interrupted my train of thoughts, giving me a quizzical look. “I mean, how did she know where to find you?”

I only looked at her for a moment, realising that - with the general absurdity of the situation - I hadn’t even thought about this until now. It couldn’t have been a coincidence that I had run into my cousin; she must have been waiting there for me, in the dark, forsaken corridor.

Images began to swirl in my head - Vala’s strange, long cloak. the way she had literally attacked me and dragged me into the alcove; I could feel a great lump forming in the pit of my stomach and finally stopped pacing in front of my four-poster, snatching my wand from my nightstand.

“We’re going.”

“What?” Katie sounded clueless, but she followed me nonetheless as I marched towards the door. “But - where?”

I took a deep breath, feeling a surge of reckless bravery tingling in my limbs as I turned to face my best friend. “Into the lion’s den.”

 

***

 

            “You know, maybe we should go,” Sam whispered next to me, his eyes still glued to the towering painting of the Fat Lady, who famously guarded the entrance to Gryffindor Tower. He had been sitting in the Ravenclaw common room, watching Hector Chang and Adina Singer snogging ostentatiously for the entire world to see, and the expression on his face had seemed to get gloomier with every second.

We couldn’t have left him there, really.

“No,” I said, sounding much braver than I really felt. “We’re going in.” It was the first time I had been invited to the Gryffindor common room and - while I liked to tell myself that it really was no big deal - the prospect of facing what - or rather who - was inside, made my stomach churn.

“OK great,” Katie said on my other side. “Could we just maybe try to look a little less intimidated?”

She was right, of course. I couldn’t go in there looking like I was scared; even if there were a bunch of groupies out there, who probably wanted to claw my eyes out. What I needed was composure.

“Right,” I sighed and looked up at the Fat Lady, who had started to languidly inspect her nails, pretending she had not been listening to our conversation. “Um, cornua arborea?”

“Is that a question?” She inspected me slowly, her dark eyebrows  raised suspiciously as her gaze wandered  from my white linen trainers up to my messy blonde waves,

            “Um, no?”

            The Fat Lady rolled her heavily made-up eyes, but her portrait swung forward nonetheless, releasing a sudden burst of loud music and bubbly voices that spilled into the dark corridor, filling the silent castle with life. A glowing cylinder of light came from the door-shaped hole in the wall, which had been revealed by the portrait, opening the view to a dimly lit room that seemed to be bursting with people.

            “Oh, don’t mind me,” the muffled voice of the Fat Lady made me snap out of my daze momentarily. “I’m just hanging around here.”

            “Right, sorry!” I called and, with Katie and Sam following in my wake, I climbed through the hole, ignoring the voice in my head that told me to run into the other direction.

 

***

 

            Considering what I had heard about Gryffindor parties - including thrilling tales of impromptu sword fights - it really wasn’t that bad. At least it was much better than the Halloween party; the common room looked actually cosy and inviting, with fires and candles casting a warm glow over red velvet wingback chairs and haphazardly placed coffee tables. Groups of people were either sprawled over the chairs and sofas or stood huddled together in circles, talking over the moderately loud music that seemed to come from no visible source.

A couple of them had glanced into our direction when they had noticed the portrait hole opening, but hadn’t seemed particularly surprised to find a couple of Ravenclaws crashing their party. I supposed it wasn’t uncommon for people of other houses to be invited, although I could tell that we were definitely outnumbered.

“So, should we just, uh.” Sam scratched the back of his head, looking slightly lost as he scanned the vast room; like Ravenclaw tower, Gryffindor common room had adapted to the growing number of students, expanding magically over the years and adding bits and pieces whenever needed.

“Get drinks?” Katie supplied, nodding towards a couple of tables in the corner which were laden with all sorts of alcoholics. “Yeah, I think that’s a great idea.”

She led us to the makeshift bar-area and immediately began to grab various bottles, pouring them into three plastic cups. Sam was watching her with wide eyes, looking fascinated.

“I didn’t know you can mix drinks.”

“She can’t,” I said, rolling my eyes. “She’s just randomly pouring things together.”

I had to admit that it did look rather purposeful, but after more than five years of being friends with Katie, I knew that she was simply going for the bottles that looked the flashiest.

“That doesn’t mean it’s not good,” she said in a sing-songy voice, thrusting a cup into each of our hands. “Cheers!”

“Cheers,” Sam and I echoed, lifting the cups to our mouths. The moment the liquid touched my lips, I felt the strong urge to gag; an overdose of sugary sweetness combined with artificial flavours numbed my mouth for an instance, but I swallowed, forcing the drink down my throat until only a burning sensation was left.

“That was horrible,” Sam gasped in between coughs. “Can I get another one?”

“Sure.” Katie beamed, taking the empty cup out of his hand. “Seth?”

I quickly shook my head, indicating my still rather full plastic cup. After that drink, I was sure I wouldn’t need anything else tonight but a good headache cure. “I’m fine. You two go ahead.”

As Katie and Sam crowded around the surprisingly well-stocked bar, I took the opportunity to look around a bit, taking in the scene while nibbling half-heartedly on my toxic drink; Since I didn’t have any Gryffindor friends, I had never been in Gryffindor tower before and, even though the tower was similar to Ravenclaw, the common room looked completely different. Naturally, there was a lot of red and gold in form of banners and posters, but there were also less bookshelves crowding the high walls, creating a lofty atmosphere. More cosy lounging opportunities were grouped around low-slung tables, now laden with bowls of crisps, sundry wrapping papers, and plastic cups, making the place look more like a trendy coffee shop than a boarding school common room.

“Is it weird that I’m kind of disappointed you’re not wearing pyjamas?” a deep voice suddenly said next to my ear and I jumped, spilling bits of the disgusting drink on my white jumper.

“Sorry,” James said, obviously trying to keep a straight face, but a smile was tugging at the corners of his mouth as he examined the blue drops of liquid on my top. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”

“You didn’t,” I said defiantly, wiping my sticky hands on my jeans. “I just, um, tripped.”

“Right.” James smirked before taking a sip from his own drink. “You seem to trip a lot when I’m around.”

“Dear Merlin,” I sighed and rolled my eyes, though, strangely, I wasn’t as annoyed by his arrogance as usual. Most probably it was Katie’s toxic drink, but it almost seemed endearing. “You’re right; my world revolves around you, James Potter.”

He merely laughed and lifted his cup to his mouth again without breaking eye contact. For some reason, he seemed to be studying my face, like he was trying to measure every inch of it, and I could feel my cheeks heat up. Yet, I held his gaze.

I wasn’t going to back down.

“What are you doing?” I finally asked, managing to sound playful rather than nervous. The bronze specks in his eyes had a compelling glow to them in the warm candle light and I couldn’t help feeling that if he stared at me just a second longer, I might forget that I actually didn’t like him.

“I’m trying to figure you out, Woodley,” he said calmly, not smiling this time but, instead, moving a little closer.

I swallowed, shifting my weight uneasily as I forced myself to stand my ground.

“And?” My mouth had gone dry but I still managed to raise an eyebrow, hoping that I looked unimpressed and not absolutely terrified.

James frowned, which, unfortunately, didn’t distract from his admittedly quite handsome features. I didn’t want to notice his chiselled jaw-line or the spot where I knew to be a dimple when he smiled, but suddenly there seemed to be little else to look at.

“I can’t,” he said and I could feel my legs twitching; my entire body pushed backwards, telling me to move, but I was strangely paralysed. It was simply ridiculous, the idea of someone finding it difficult to figure me out; I wasn’t exactly mysterious.

“You can’t have tried really hard then, Potter,” I laughed, trying to bring this conversation back to a less awkward level. I couldn’t deal with - well, whatever this was -  and my head was starting to get dizzy.

James grinned, although it wasn’t his usual cocky grin. “I think you underestimate yourself, Lizzy.”

I simply shook my head and leaned against the wall as another wave of dizziness caught me by surprise. The air in the room was hot and heavy and I couldn’t help feeling like it was going to smother me any second.

“Hey, are you alright?” James’s voice seemed to come from somewhere far away but I could tell that it sounded worried. “You look pale.”

“Yeah, sure,” I panted, surprised at how breathy I sounded. “I’m fine. I just need to -”

James had grabbed my arms, just before I would have lost my balance and tumbled over. All of my limbs felt heavy and sluggish, as though I needed extra strength to control them, and I couldn’t think straight anymore. Random thoughts seemed to chase each other in my mind, making it impossible to even formulate a sentence.

            “Elizabeth!” James’s voice echoed somewhere in my head. “Hey! What’s wrong?”

He was behind a glass wall.

            I was behind a glass wall.

            A glass box?

            And then, I fell into a deep, black hole.

 

 

***

 

            She was blurry at first; a blend of dark brown and white that hovered above me, breathing onto my face. Only after I had blinked a couple of times, her face came into focus and her fierce brown eyes narrowed dangerously.

            “What the hell -” I wanted to scream but all that came out was a miserable croaky sound. My throat was bone-dry, like I hadn’t swallowed for days, and every syllable that tried to push through my vocal chords hurt.

            “What on earth do you think you’re doing?” Vala hissed, her face still only inches from mine. “I told you to stay away from Potter.”

            I was completely confused and disoriented, struggling to make sense of this situation. I had no idea how Vala managed to sneak into Ravenclaw tower in the middle of the night, but she was definitely not supposed to be here.

“What are you doing here?” I still sounded like a bulldozer had ran up and down my throat, but at least the fog inside my head was lifting, allowing me to think a little clearer.

“Do you ever listen to anyone?” She snapped under her breath, completely ignoring my question. She was obviously furious with me but I had no idea why. “That’s just like that one time we all got new dresses from Grandmother and you jumped into the Carmichaels’ muddy pond to catch an ugly tote.”

I did remember the Carmichaels’ pond and the tote, which I had named Cinnamon, but I still had no clue what Vala was trying to tell me. Had she snuck into my dormitory just to remind me that I had ruined an impossibly expensive dress as a toddler?

“How did you even get in here?” I demanded, trying to sit up, just to fall back down onto my pillow again as Vala’s face started spinning wildly. Something was wrong with my head; it felt too light and too heavy at the same time, like it had collided with a rogue bludger.

“Do you know where you are?” Vala asked, her expression softening up just a little bit.

I frowned, feeling like this was quite a strange question, considering the circumstances. “Of course I know where I am. What kind of question is that?” I tried to lift my head once again, but gave up eventually; all the dizziness was making me nauseous. “I’m in my dorm room.”

Despite all the angry tension in her face, I thought I could detect a hint of sympathy as Vala watched my futile struggle to force my body into an upright position. “Seth, you’re in the hospital wing,” she sighed.

“What?” I asked incredulously, but even as I said it, I knew that she was telling the truth; around me, the clean white-sheeted beds were empty and the faint smell of disinfecting potion lingered in the air. Images came rushing back into my head, filling the empty spaces, I hadn’t even been aware of just a second ago: I had been on a party - the Gryffindor common room - and then there was James Potter’s face, way too close.

“What happened?” I rasped, willing my heavy eyelids to stay open; it felt like I had been running a marathon, only without the endorphin-high.

“I warned you.” Vala’s lips tightened and her gaze became harder again. “They aren’t joking. Not about James Potter. Just - stay away, okay?”

“But-” I wanted to protest - to tell her that I wasn’t even interested in James; that I wasn’t scared of some loony fangirls - but my words blended to a mere slur and I gave up. I was tired and exhausted and my surroundings seemed to be slipping away like they were nothing more but a strange dream.

“You need rest.” Vala decided. “Don’t tell anyone I was here.”

 

           

Pale light flooded the airy room when I woke up again. I didn’t know how long I had been sleeping; it could have been a couple of hours or a couple of days. My body felt tired and weak, but the light-headedness seemed to have gotten better and I managed to sit up without collapsing immediately again.

“Finally,” Katie sighed, dropping the glossy magazine she had been reading onto her lap. “I thought you’d never wake up.” She made it sound like she was joking, but I could hear the concern through her chipper pretence.

“How long have I been out?” I groaned, not sure if I even wanted to know. “I feel like I’ve been in this bed forever.”

“Two and a half days,” Katie said, obviously trying to sound as casual as possible. “It’s not like you’ve missed anything. Hogwarts is as boring as ever.”

I managed a weak laugh but my throat was still parched and rough, making laughing rather painful. “So, it’s what - Tuesday?” I turned towards the window next to my bed where snow was slowly building up on the ledge; judging by the weak light it must have been late afternoon.

“Yup.” Katie nodded, fumbling with the thin pages of her magazine. “Sam has just left for the Prefect meeting and, um, Bernice brought you these.” She indicated a large box filled with chocolate frogs. “I might have eaten a couple of them.”

I laughed, but stopped immediately when a sharp jolt of pain shot through my body. “What happened? I mean, I can only remember feeling dizzy and then -”

Katie nodded. “Yeah, James told us.”

“James?” I felt a sudden surge of panic; the thought of having done something stupid under the influence of some intoxicating party potion made my stomach clench, but Katie, who seemed to realise what I was thinking, quickly shook her head and put a soothing hand onto my arm.

“You didn’t do anything embarrassing. It wasn’t like when I drank that Crapula potion. You simply got dizzy and passed out.”

I let the information sink in for a moment, but it wasn’t exactly reassuring. “So, it wasn’t Crapula?” I asked, watching in horror as Katie’s face paled. I hadn’t even considered any other explanation until now.

“No,” she said quietly, shaking her head. “It took them a while to figure out but apparently someone slipped you badly brewed Pustula potion.”

What?” I jolted up, ignoring the stinging pain in my head; images of pimply faces and acne-scarred features I had seen in some of my potions books pushed to the surface, making my blood run cold. Immediately, I pressed my palms to my face, feeling for grooves or bumps that were not supposed to be there, but it felt just as it always did.

“It didn’t do anything to your appearance,” Katie said quickly, “like I said, it was poorly done.”

My heart was still racing, but I forced myself to slow down my breathing as I leaned back against the bedhead. Vala was right, whoever had done this wasn’t joking; As funny as it might have sounded, slipping Pustula potion into someone’s drink wasn’t a mere schoolgirl prank. The effects it caused, if brewed correctly, were awful and sometimes even irreversible. 

“Are you okay?” Katie asked softly, squeezing my arm.

“Yeah,” I sighed, though fear was still coursing through my body, making me want to hide underneath my blanket. “I think so.”

It grew silent for a moment and I watched Katie shifting in her seat uncomfortably; she was chewing on her lips, which usually meant she silently debated whether or not to tell me something. It was so familiar and normal, that it instantly made me feel better,

“Spill it out, Kat.”

She looked up, her front teeth biting down on her bottom lip as though she was attempting to eat it.

“James carried you up here. Like, in his arms.”

“Oh no,” I groaned, pulling my blanket up to my nose. This wasn’t good; it was terrible, actually. If Vala was right and I was being targeted because of the rumours surrounding James and me, this was only going to make things worse. I really wasn’t keen to learn what people, who didn’t shy away from using amateur black market potions, were capable of doing.

“How bad are the rumours?”

“Not bad, really,” Katie said weirdly, shifting in her seat again. “Actually, the rumours about you and James they’re -well - old news.”

If she hadn’t looked so serious, I would have thought she was lying to make me feel better. After weeks of spinning all kinds of lurid tales about my non-existent relationship with James Potter, it seemed impossible that people would just let this go.

“He’s - um - apparently James is dating Fern Sterling. From Slytherin. He asked her to come to Slughorn’s Christmas party with him and, well-” she finished lamely.

“Oh - um - wow,” I stammered, sitting up a little straighter; my heart was suddenly beating unnaturally hard against my chest, which I attributed to the aftermath of being poisoned, and I felt slightly lightheaded. “Um, since when?”

“Since Sunday, I think.” Katie gave me a weird smile that looked a lot like pity. “But - that’s good, right? I mean-”

“Yeah, absolutely!” I said quickly, my voice sounding unnaturally high. “It’s great!”

Maybe I had sounded a tad too enthusiastic, since Katie gave me a strange look, but I really meant it. James officially dating someone, solved all of my problems; no more ridiculous rumours, no more crazy fangirl attacks, and, most importantly, no more James Potter.

“Are you sure?” Katie asked, raising her eyebrows and giving me a stern look. I simply rolled my eyes in response; it was ridiculous to think that there could have ever been more than a couple of tutoring lessons and accusations of stalking. James Potter simply wasn’t that boy and I - well, I had never been that girl.

“Of course I am sure!” I tried to laugh but it came out more like a raspy cough. “Stop looking at me like this. I don’t like James, OK?”

Katie still looked doubtful, but the creases on her forehead softened and she sighed in defeat, apparently deciding - most probably for my sake - to let this argument go.

“Fine,” she sighed and picked up the magazine from her lap, practically shoving it in front of my face. “What do you think about this?”

I blinked, trying to focus on the colourful page. “What, the article on dirty talk?”

“No.” She rolled her eyes as though it should have been obvious what she was talking about. “The dress. I want to get one like this for Sluggy’s party. Do you think I’ll find one in Hogsmeade?”

Suddenly, there was a soft click, indicating that someone had entered the hospital wing, and both Katie and I immediately turned our heads towards the door; looking a little lost with a bunch of squashed flowers clenched in his hands, was Tarquin Digby, staring back at us like a deer caught in the headlights.

“Oh, um, I’m sorry,” he stammered, pushing the black-framed glasses up the bridge of his slender nose. “I didn’t know - um - I thought you’d be alone and I wanted to-” He indicated the flowers, of which some where already hanging their heads.

“That’s so sweet of you,” I said quickly and - ignoring Katie’s death glare - waved him over to my bedside. “Come on, sit down. There must be a vase somewhere.”

 Tarquin seemed reluctant to follow my invitation at first, but, after a short moment of hesitation, he finally came over and put the flowers in the empty vase on my nightstand. Only now that I saw them from up close, I realised that they weren’t actually flowers but quite well-scented herbs that reminded me of summers in Greece.

“They’re Nepemi,” he explained awkwardly, stuffing his hands into the pockets of his skinny jeans. “I got them from Greenhouse five; their scent keeps away nightmares.”

“Thank you Quinn, that’s really nice,” I said, smiling. “Isn’t it, Kat?”

Katie, who had resorted to staring out the window, merely shrugged, not even deigning to acknowledge Tarquin’s presence. He seemed to imitate her behaviour, stubbornly staring at his shoes, his lips pressed together as though he was holding something in. They could barely look at each other and I hated it; most of all, because it could have been so easy, if they just stopped acting like idiots.

“Well, I should - um - go, I guess,” he stammered after an awkward period of silence, sneaking a covert glance at Katie, who was still pretending to watch the snowstorm outside. “I still have to - uh - do things.”

“Um, sure,” I said weirdly, feeling a little bad for him. “Thanks for stopping by, though.”

He gave me a weak smile before he turned and left the hospital wing again; only when the door had snapped close behind him, Katie let out an exasperated groan.

“Can you believe him?”

“I can’t believe both of you, actually.”

“Whatever,” Katie grumbled, pulling her legs up on her chair and wrapping her arms around them. “He’s going to Slughorn’s party. With Cecily Winterberg.”

I didn’t even know who this Cecily Winterberg was supposed to be, but I decided that it wasn’t the right time for further inquiries. With Katie and Tarquin avoiding each other, Sam and Hector denying each other and, well, James and his new girlfriend in love, this Christmas party was practically destined to suck.

Big time.

 

 

***

 

            Winter at Hogwarts was magical. Of course, everything at Hogwarts was magical, but there was something about the crackling fires and the scent of conifers filling the corridors that put you into the mood for Christmas like nothing else. A thick blanket of snow covered the castle and Hagrid’s cabin looked like a life-sized gingerbread hut, nestled to the edge of the Forbidden Forest, whose snow-covered trees glittered in the pale winter sunlight.

It could have been so peaceful, really.

If it hadn’t been for the throng of overly-excited girls, pushing through the narrow doors of WitchWear, a small Hogsmeade shop that clearly wasn’t built to cater to so many people at once. Even from the other side of the street, it was possible to tell that there was a fair amount of shoving and scratching going on, as even more girls tried to fight their way through the mob.

“So desperate.” Katie rolled her eyes, although I could tell that she was slightly disappointed; just like these girls, we had ventured into Hogsmeade, braving the icy streets and cold wind, to buy an outfit for Slughorn’s Christmas party.

“Do we have to go in there?” Sam asked feebly, his eyes wide with shock as he watched a petite blonde whacking the girl in front of her with her tiny handbag.

It really wasn’t pretty.

“No,” Katie sighed, somewhat wistfully. “Let’s move on.”

There weren’t many alternatives when it came to shopping in Hogsmeade; Most stores only sold stationery supplies or groceries and, of course, traditional wizard’s robes, which made WitchWear really the only clothing store in town that actually catered to a younger clientele. It was therefore no surprise that, when we entered the small charity shop at the end of the street, it was almost completely empty.

“Hey guys!” A young witch sitting behind a wooden counter called out lazily without looking up from her magazine. “Feel free to browse. Everything on the right side is 20 % off.” She gestured half-heartedly towards a colourful assortment of clothes, popping her chewing gum.

“What a service,” Katie mumbled and, only grudgingly, followed me towards the section labelled ‘dresses’.

 

 

***

 

            The crowd in front of WitchWear seemed to have grown even bigger, as we walked back down the street, swinging our Hogsfam shopping bags and sipping on paper cups, filled with Madame Puddifoot’s scolding hot Christmas punch. It was slowly getting darker and the fairy lights that were draped across trees and building entrances lit up, dipping the whole town into a festive light. It had started to snow again and I took a deep breath, inhaling the clean, cold air.

            “I’m in love with my dress,” Katie announced, padding her shopping bag affectionately. “And everything else I bought.”

Considering that she had been rather reluctant at first, she had quite enjoyed herself and ended up cleaning out half of the shop. Once we had sorted through the voluminous Victorian frocks, Hogsfam had turned out to have quite an admirable selection of nice clothes.

            “You should be.” I laughed. “You spent your entire pocket money on those clothes.”

            Katie simply shrugged. “Yeah well - it’s for a good cause, isn’t it?”

“You’re such a selfless person,” I teased, lifting my steaming cup to my mouth to take another careful sip.

“Oh James!” Someone suddenly shouted next to me and almost simultaneously, I felt something heavy bump into me from the side. Instinctively, I tried to swerve, but it was too late; the impact had knocked the paper cup out of my hand, causing the searing hot punch to spill all over my woolly coat and my jeans, burning even through the fabric.

I winced at the sudden surge of pain, still too perplexed to realise what had hit me, when suddenly a girl’s voice piped up angrily next to me.

“Can’t you, like, watch where you’re going?”

I looked up at the petite blonde, who had narrowed her pale green eyes at me; she looked vaguely familiar and, even though I was more than a head taller than her, she seemed to be looking down on me.

Much worse, however, was the look on James Potter’s face, who stood next to her, his hands stuffed into the pockets of his jeans. I hadn’t seen him since waking up in the hospital wing on Tuesday and it felt unexpectedly weird. It shouldn’t have bothered me, but he regarded me with such indifference that a cold shiver ran down my spine; it was like he didn’t even know me.

“Sorry, didn’t see you there,” he said casually and I couldn’t help feeling like someone had thrown me back in time. I didn’t expect him to be nice, but he could have at least asked how I was doing after what had happened last weekend.

“Apparently,” I said, trying to mimic his casual tone.

“Babe, come on. Let’s go,” Fern urged, tugging on his sleeve until he finally yielded. I didn’t watch him walk away, but instead bent down to pick up the now empty paper cup that bore Madame Puddifoot’s cheerful logo. Apparently, I had been right after all; James Potter was an arrogant, selfish git.


 




 

A/N: It took me forever. I know. And all I can say is, I’m sorry. I’m having quite a stressful couple of weeks but after next week, the semester will be over and I’ll have time to write full-time again :). I still hope you enjoy this chapter and I would love to hear your thoughts, wishes and, of course, theories :). Again, I want to thank all of the wonderful people who favour and review and give this story so much love… you people are awesome. It can’t be said often enough.

Your awesomeness is simply beyond words. 


Chapter 20: An Abundance of Potters Part One
  [Printer Friendly Version of This Chapter]

A/N: The wait was getting long. Again. I know I promised to be quicker and I’m sorry. To be honest, this chapter was getting longer and longer – too long, in fact, to post it as one chapter. So, instead of keeping you waiting any longer, I have decided to split it and post the first half now. This also implies that the Seth/James moment, which I have announced, will be in the next part. The good news is, however, that, since a lot of the second part is already written, I might actually manage to not make you wait for so long again. I told myself to stop promising, however.

Anyway. I hope you enjoy the chapter

 










An Abundance of Potters – Part One

 

I forced myself to look at the untouched muesli in front of me, counting the once crispy clusters that had not yet sunken to the bottom of the bowl. The clamour in the Great Hall was unnaturally loud for breakfast, which was a sure sign of the approaching Christmas holidays; it had been a couple of stressful days for Hogwarts students and now everybody was looking forward to going home for a couple of weeks.

            Everybody, except me.

            Christmas at the Woodleys’ was not exactly a jolly affair and the mere thought of having to endure passive-aggressive side blows from my family for two entire weeks, really didn’t help much to put me in the mood.

            “You look awful,” Katie said next to me as she basically scoffed her scrambled eggs like she was afraid they would run off if she slowed down.

            “So would you if you had to spend two weeks with the Woodleys.”

            Katie rolled her eyes in response, which was more due to the fact that her mouth was busy chewing the truckload of eggs she had just shoved into it. It was easy for her to talk; she would be spending Christmas with her lovely mother and adorable grandfather. It wasn’t hard to love something when you only had good memories to associate with it.

“Are you afraid of a hibernal food shortage?”

What?” Katie somehow managed to speak despite her full mouth, heaping another generous helping of eggs and toast onto her plate. “I’m on a diet.”

I frowned as I watched her pile greasy sausages onto her already overflowing plate. “I’m not sure you know what a diet is.”

            “I do know,” she sighed, giving me an exasperated look as though she had absolutely no patience for my ignorance. “I’m not eating anything three days before the party, so I have to eat ahead.”

            “Kat, that’s completely illogical,” I told her as I watched her alternatingly eating marmalade toast and sausages. “You’re going to be sick.”

            “I’ll be stunning at the Christmas party.”

            “And most possibly unconscious.”

            Katie simply shrugged, apparently not impressed by my arguments, and I turned towards Sam, who had been unnaturally quiet all morning.

            “Sam, tell Katie that this is crazy,” I sighed, hoping that he would side with me, but he simply looked back and forth between us, a slightly panicky expression on his long face.

            “Sam, tell Seth that she is being unsupportive,” Katie ordered, apparently not noticing the weird look on our friend’s face. It seemed like he hadn’t even been listening. “Sam?”

            “I -” He started, his face draining of all colour. “There is something I need to tell you. Maybe this isn’t the right place, but-”

            There was a clang as Bernice let herself fall onto the seat next to me, her plate already heaped with bacon and eggs and a tower of crispy pieces of toast that threatened to collapse any second.

            “Can I sit with you lot?” She asked, piling up eggs on a piece of toast and taking a large bite off of it. “Ursula’s busy writing a letter to her boyfriend.” She snorted, spraying tiny pieces of egg all over her own hands, which made Katie cringe in disgust.

            “The same one she brought to the Kick-Off?” I asked, trying not to look at the spatters of egg on her sleeves while Katie made a point of pushing away her plate very slowly.

            “Yup. Same one,” Bernice replied, still chewing on the bite in her mouth. “Bit scrawny for my taste, but well - What’s new with you lot? I saw the ice-skating rink opens tonight?”

            “What?” Katie seemed to have forgotten all about feeling disgusted as she leaned in, giving Sam and me a wide-eyed look.

            “You guys didn’t tell me the rink opens tonight already!” Her voice was charged with excitement as she squeezed my upper arm so tightly, I was sure it would go numb eventually. There was a glint of madness in her eyes and I couldn’t blame Sam for looking slightly alarmed; he couldn’t possibly know what he had gotten himself into.

“And that’s exactly the reason why,” I said, pointing at her manic facial expression. “You look crazy.”

“Crazy talented,” she supplied, smoothing down her uniform blouse like she was wearing a glitzy evening robe. “I got the perfect costumes. We’ll look amazing.”

Bernice didn’t seem too weirded out by that announcement but Sam frowned, looking deeply bewildered. “Did she just say costumes?”

“Are you kidding?” I tried to look as serious as possible even though I was barely able to suppress a grin at Sam’s baffled expression.  “Costumes are really half the fun.”

I had learned long ago that when it came to ice-skating with Katie, there was only one way to do it; her way. And that included frills, fringes and fluff.

Sam cleared his throat. “I’m not exactly the - um -  ice-skating type,” he said, just a little too quickly to sound casual, but Katie was too excited to pick up on the dread in his voice.

“Oh, you will be! Believe me! I’ll teach you.” She gave him a wide, toothy grin, before poking her elbow hard into my ribcage. “I taught Seth and now she loves it.”

I frowned. “I wouldn’t exactly say love -”

Loves it,” Katie repeated, throwing her arm around my shoulders. “It’ll be great. You’ll see.”

“Oh - um - alright.” Sam sounded less than convinced, which I really couldn’t blame him for; while Katie was a terrific ice-skater, she was a mediocre teacher at best and the various fluffy bobbles she passionately attached to your shoes and clothes, didn’t exactly make it easier to not feel like a helpless klutz as you stumbled and bumped into approximately every single person on the rink, before falling face down onto the ice.

 

***

 

With the semester fading out and most of the teachers in a generous Christmas mood, the piles of homework were slowly dwindling and the library had become conveniently empty again as everybody was preparing for Slughorn’s party rather than for tests.

It was, thus, no surprise that the annual improvised ice-rink on the Black Lake, had brought almost the entire castle to the cold, snow-covered grounds, getting everybody to leave their cosy, warm common rooms, even though going outside implied the actual chance of freezing off a finger or too.

“Seth! Seth! Over here!” Katie waved her arms happily above her head before performing a graceful pirouette, accidentally slapping a bewildered first-year with her outstretched hand.

I waved back at her, abandoning the book in my lap for a moment, and gave her a thumbs-up.

“When are you finally done?” She asked as she glided over to my solitary wooden booth; behind her, Sam was struggling to keep up, moving forward only by a sort of awkward mixture between walking and skating, while flailing his arms wildly.

At least he had escaped the shiny leotard that Katie had picked out for him.

“Soon,” I replied, pulling back my woolly glove to check my watch. “Actually, Liesel should be here already.”

“That girl is always late,” Sam panted, completely out of breath as he finally reached the booth as well, holding on to the counter for balance. “I’m sorry, I really tried to get you out of this, but they were ruthless. You know how they get when someone is missing a meeting.”

“It’s no problem.” I shrugged. “I really don’t mind.” The fact that the other prefects had assigned me to the skates-rental during the ice rink opening, while I had been lying unconscious in the hospital wing, really hadn’t been all that surprising. It was the least wanted job, since it mostly consisted of sitting encased in a tiny wooden construction filled with smelly skates while everyone else arrived with their friends or dates.

In terms of Hogwarts social life, the ice-skating rink really was the prelude to Slughorn’s Christmas party; it was the perfect opportunity to see and be seen and usually also the last chance to score an invite. Naturally, the amount of times that two people ‘accidentally’ bumped into each other on the ice, would have made any outsider believe that all Hogwarts students were lumbering idiots.

“Just, join us as soon as you can,” Katie sighed, obviously eager to get back on the ice, “will you?”

I nodded and watched my two friends make their way back into the middle of the rink before slumping back down on the tiny uncomfortable stool in the corner, on which I had spent the entire evening already, reading.

            I actually doubted that Liesel would show up; I had seen her skating along the rim of the ice field, holding hands with her boyfriend just ten minutes ago - it hadn’t exactly looked like she was eager to work.

“Oi! Customer service?”

I sighed and put away my book once more; I had failed to finish the same sentence for the fifth time already, which really didn’t make for a pleasurable reading experience.

“Hello there.” Freddie Weasley gave me a somewhat mischievous grin as I approached the counter, leaning casually against the booth. “I didn't expect to meet you here, pyjama girl.”

“What can I say.” I shrugged. “I’m a woman of many talents.”

Freddie chuckled, running his fingers through his dark hair. “That, I believe you.”

For a second, I could feel a slight blush colour my cheeks, but Freddie’s casual demeanour made it hard to feel embarrassed around him and I relaxed immediately.

“I need a pair of skates,” he continued, looking at the wall behind me, which was laden with differently sized skating shoes. “Preferably something fancy with lights and stuff. I don’t want to look like all the other dunces here, you know?”

“Sure.” I nodded, looking around the wooden booth, which was just big enough for the approximately thousand pairs of skates and my pathetic little stool. “Let’s see. We have white with a few scratches and - oh, yes, white with even more scratches. What will it be?”

Freddie laughed as he examined the pair of scruffy skates I had put onto the counter in front of him. “Thanks a lot.”

“No problem.” I pushed the shoes towards him. “Have fun.”

“I will.” He smiled and took the skates but, instead of walking away, he remained stationary, giving me a weird, long look. “Hey, um, can I ask you something?”

“Sure,” I replied, putting down my book again; he seemed unnaturally serious all of a sudden and it was quite unsettling.

“Well, um.” He stepped closer to the counter and leaned in a little, his voice low. “What happened between you and James?”

I couldn’t be entirely sure, but, for a moment, it felt like my heart had stopped and someone had pulled the rug out from right under my feet.

Considering everything Freddie could have asked me, this was really the last thing I had expected. It was also the last thing I wanted to talk about.

Not because I cared about James Potter.

Because I didn’t.

He was simply an arrogant clodpole, who didn’t deserve even a second of my attention.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I finally managed to say in a moderately casual voice and - for the sake of occupying my hands - began to cram individual skates into random shelves. “He needed my help with potions - then he didn’t. That’s it, really.”

“Come on,” Freddie said, watching me patiently as I jammed yet another odd pair into a small nook. “That’s not - I mean, it wasn’t just that. He really -” He rumpled his hair with both hands and let out a frustrated groan. “Forget it.”

“I already have,” I replied stubbornly, ignoring that one of the skates I had just violently pushed into the shelf, had catapulted itself to the opposite wall, leaving a blade-shaped cut in the wood.

“Well - okay then.” Freddie sounded disappointed but he managed a smile nonetheless; it just seemed to be in his nature. “I’ll let you get back to - um - work. Thanks for the shoes.”

 I tried to reciprocate the smile, hoping to convey that I hadn’t meant to be rude to him. After all, Freddie seemed like a nice bloke, who couldn’t be held responsible for having a complete git for a best friend.

“You’re welcome.”

 

***

 

In the end, Liesel had turned up; about an hour too late, but she had come and - albeit grudgingly - taken over the skates-rental. Apparently, she hadn’t been so eager to hold her boyfriend’s hand anymore after he had shamelessly tried to flirt with her best friend, while she was still standing next to him.

            Needless to say, Katie was thrilled.

            “I love this time of the year,” she sighed as she turned to face me and Sam, gliding backwards so smoothly as though it was the easiest thing in the world. “The air is pregnant with unhealthy relationship drama.”

She twirled in a flawless motion, making the glitter particles in her purple tutu sparkle, even in the dim light. She had tried to talk me into wearing the same one in mint green, but after an intense discussion, I had managed to convince her, that the shiny nylon leggings and the fluffy pink bobbles, dangling from both my skates and my hat were ‘bedazzlement’ enough.

“Talking about drama,” Sam said, holding on to my shoulder for balance as he was about to trip for the upteenth time. “There is actually something I wanted to - Katie!

The moment Sam had shouted her name, something white had lashed against Katie’s legs and her feet lost contact with the ground as she fell backwards, hitting the ice with a painful crack.

“Katie!” I fell down to my knees, ignoring the sharp jolt of pain that coursed through my kneecaps as they made contact with the ice. “Are you okay?”

She groaned, her left hand clasping her forehead. “Is my skull split? It feels like it’s split.”

“No,” I said, taking a deep breath after I had examined her head for eventual cracks or pools of blood. “But you hit your head quite hard. Can you move?”

“I’ll get help!” Sam, who had been crouching next to us, his face slowly turning a mixture of white and green, pointed vaguely towards the bank of the frozen lake where a group of house elves stood huddled together against the cold. “I’ll be right back.” He fought to get up, wobbling dangerously on his skates, and skated off as quickly as he could manage without tripping.

            “Here, take my arm,” I offered, as Katie attempted to sit up, her hand still pressed against her head; her curly pigtails were lopsided and a couple of glittery pink pompoms had detached themselves from her puffy jacket, now lying scattered around her like weirdly fluffy rocks. “We better get you to the hospital wing.”

            “My bobbles,” she moaned as Sam and a group of house elves heaved her onto a stretcher, preparing to carry her off the skating rink. “I can’t-”

            “I’ll get them. Don’t worry,” I told her, patting her arm for comfort. It seemed to somehow soothe her, as she simply closed her eyes and nodded, allowing the house elves to take her away, Sam struggling to follow in their wake.

            Taking a deep breath, I turned back around to where Katie had fallen; but not to pick up her bobbles. Right there, unnoticed by anyone else the entire time, stood the reason why she had tripped in the first place - and he looked as though he was going to vomit any second.

            “I - I didn’t mean to - I just wanted to - and then I got way too fast and -” Tarquin stammered, his face red and blotchy in the dim glow of the Christmas lights; it looked like he was breaking out in a nervous rash and I untied my arms, giving him a small smile.

            “Quin, I appreciate that you try to get closer to Katie again. - it’s time you lot sorted things out - but it’d be really nice of you if you could not kill my best friend in the process. I’m quite fond of her, you know.”

            He nodded, a kind of droopy expression on his thin, long face that was only emphasized by the wildly patterned earflap hat. “I know, I’m sorry. I just don’t know how,” he shrugged his shoulders helplessly. “I like her, Seth. I really do. A lot, actually.”

“I know,” I sighed, studying his sad face for a moment. “I think you should tell her. Tell her that you like her instead of asking a random girl to go to Slughorn’s party with you.”

“Yeah, that was stupid.” Tarquin jabbed the tip of his blade at the already napped ice; the skates somehow added to his gangly appearance, making him look like an overgrown, sad puppy. “And you think this will work? Telling her, I mean.”

            I shrugged, not exactly sure what to say; I was convinced that Katie liked him, but I couldn’t guarantee that she was ready to admit it to herself.

“It might work,” I told him. “The important thing is that, no matter what happens, you don’t ever have to regret not trying.”

            Tarquin nodded and, for an uncomfortable moment, I thought he was going to cry; then, however, he gave me a wonky smile. “Thanks Seth.”

            “You’re welcome.”

            As soon as Tarquin had turned around, I made to pick up Katie’s bobbles that still marked the scene of the accident. I knew that she would kill me if she ever found out that I had just advised Tarquin to confess his love to her, but I felt that, in this particular situation, it had been okay to go behind her back.

            Still deeply immersed in my thoughts and too many pink pompoms in my hands, I made my way through the crowd towards the bank, barely noticing what was happening around me. It was only when a particularly high-pitched laugh sounded close to me that I snapped out of my trance and looked up, just to find a couple of people staring at me, laughing into their palms.

            Fern Sterling stood among a group of friends, leading them in a chorus of laughter as she pointed directly at me. Close to her, I could make out James and Freddie, who didn’t seem to be laughing, but were staring at me nonetheless, probably too cool to actually join in on the fun.

            “Oh my God, have you ever seen something that ridiculous?” Fern cried loudly enough for everyone around us to hear, causing another round of giggles.

            “It’s pathetic,” another girl spat. “And have you seen her friend? In a tutu?”

            I balled my fists, squeezing the fluffy bobbles I was still holding in my hands; for a moment, I felt the overwhelming urge to throw them at James and his girlfriend and tell them where they could stick them, but I didn’t.

I didn’t want to stoop to their level.

I didn’t even want to be mad at Potter or his new girlfriend, for that matter; being mad implied that I cared - and I didn’t.

So, instead of falling apart, I simply continued to skate towards the bank and, as I passed them by, took a deep bow - the kind that professional figure skaters do after their performance -  my hands outstretched and head low, but my eyes trained directly on Fern, who had stopped laughing meanwhile, looking utterly perplexed.

I might have not done it as smoothly or elegantly as Katie would have, but at least I didn’t trip and, as I went back into a regular skating movement, I held my head up high with pride.

“That girl’s a freak.” I heard someone say behind me, but all it did was make me smile.

I was wearing shiny silver leggings with pink legwarmers and more pompoms attached to my clothing than any sane person should have, but, at that moment, I couldn’t have cared less.

 

***

 

            The upbeat rhythm of Hey Hey Hippogriff filled the dorm room, which was heavy with a mixture of perfume and hairspray, inducing a kind of woozy stupor that soaked my brain as I stood there, staring at my favourite pair of cut-out Chelsea boots. Somewhere behind me, I could hear Katie singing along to the lyrics and replacing every second word by indistinguishable humming sounds as she tried to keep up with the fast-paced beat.

            “You look really good,” said Bernice, who was sitting on her bed in a large Ravenclaw Quidditch T-shirt, an issue of Which Broomstick lying open in her lap. Her hair was tied together in a short ponytail with random chunks of brown hair sticking out all around her head and her pyjama bottoms were faded and saggy.

I had never envied her so much as I did in this moment.

            All week, I had actually been looking forward to Slughorn’s party; the food would be amazing and I was excited to see Hey Hey Hippogriff, but somehow, my anticipation had evaporated, now that the evening of the party had arrived. I didn’t know why, but I felt slightly nauseous at the mere thought of tonight.

            “Thanks, Bernice,” I replied, running my hands along the silky cloth of my dress; underneath all the frilly tassels and bows that Katie and I had magicked off, it had turned out to be a deep anthracite grey slip dress; it was quite short, but the loose fit somehow compensated for the length.

            “OK, I’m done!” Katie announced as she stepped out of the bathroom, a wide, red-lipped smile on her perfectly made-up face; she looked stunning in her pale pink tulle dress and her auburn curls tied loosely in the nape of her neck, held together by a white flower pin.

            “You look amazing,” I told her as she twirled in the middle of the room, getting even Ursula to look up from her boyfriend’s latest love letter.

            “And you - look at you.” she gave me a sappy smile as she scanned my appearance from head to toe, stopping abruptly when she had reached my feet. “You’re not wearing shoes. Why are you not wearing shoes?”

            “Oh, yeah right.” I glanced at my boots, which still stood in front of the floor length mirror. “Let me just-”

            “No!” Katie had thrown up her arm to block me from moving forwards, her eyes wide as she shook her head at me. “No way, Seth. There is absolutely no way I’d let you walk around like the generic sulky protagonist in every bad teen film. The world has seen enough of the ‘I’m so cool and special, I wear Chucks with my ball gown’ type of girl, really.”

            I frowned at her. “I don’t even own Chucks.”

            “That’s not the point.” She waved her hand impatiently and pushed me towards her wardrobe, where she began to pull out several pairs of shoes, practically throwing them at me.

“Try those!”

 

***

 

It was with some delay that Katie, Sam and I finally made our way through the torch-lit castle towards Professor Slughorn’s office; unlike us, the other guests all seemed to have been punctual, and so we found ourselves quite alone in the dimly lit corridors. Also, the fact that I constantly tripped over my own feet in the silver strappy sandals I had borrowed from Katie, slowed us down considerably and wasn’t helped by Peeves floating above my head, cackling loudly every time I stumbled.

            “Will you shut up!” I shouted at the poltergeist as I grabbed Sam’s shoulder for balance; my nerves were quite raw by now and I already felt stupid enough without the constant reminder that I was not exactly the epitome of elegance.

            “Ignore him,” said Sam as he put his arm around my back for more support. “You look absolutely stunning.”

            “Yeah,” Katie agreed as she led us around the corner, where loud music was clearly audible from behind the door at the very end of the corridor. “I bet James kicks his arse if he sees you tonight.”

            There was a slight lurch in my stomach, which I deliberately ignored. “I have actually planned on not seeing him at all.”

            Katie exchanged a quick yet meaningful glance with Sam, which I couldn’t even have missed if I had tried. “Hmm, interesting. I thought you didn’t care about James?”

            “Well, I don’t,” I said, sounding unnaturally snappy even to my own ears. After my glorious performance on the ice-skating rink a couple of days ago, I had been fortunate enough to avoid any further run-ins with Potter or his girlfriend, which I was glad about. The less I had to deal with those people, the better - and I was determined to keep it that way.

 

***

 

Horace Slughorn might have been many things - pompous and slightly overpowering definitely were among the many adjectives to describe his personality - but he certainly wasn’t cheap. The minute we had stepped into his office, it felt like we had entered a completely different location altogether; the room itself was wide and spacious, far bigger than his regular office, and, in addition to the huge chandelier in the centre of the room, countless balls of light now hovered underneath the vaulted ceiling, dipping everything into a vague glow.

            House elves bustled around, holding trays of food and drink above their heads, serving well-dressed people - some of whom were wearing gowns and suits, others dress robes - chatting loudly over the sounds of upbeat music. On the far right of the vast room, I could make out a quite impressive looking stage, which was still empty except for a lonely drum set and a large banner, bearing Hey Hey Hippogriff’s logo.

            “Oh my Merlin, someone bite me!” Katie’s voice quivered as she grabbed my arm and practically yanked me towards her. “It’s them.”

            Unabashed, she was pointing at a group of twenty-something boys in casual, dark clothes and ripped jeans, who were positively mobbed by a bunch of overly excited girls.

            “I can’t believe they are actually here,” she gushed, thrusting her hand into her tiny purse and rummaging wildly until she produced a folded piece of paper and a pen. “Let’s go talk to them!”

            She made to pull Sam and me along, but I stalled quickly, feeling suddenly nauseous; the air in the room was hot and heavy and I already regretted having eaten nothing for dinner. “You know, I think I need a glass of water - or chicken wings. You two go ahead, okay?”

            For a second, Katie looked like she was going to protest, her eyes darting back and forth between me and the boys of Hey Hey Hippogriff. When she finally nodded and let go of my arm, it was only reluctantly. “Well, okay. But you come join us the minute you’re done.”

            “Sure,” I told her before watching her drag a slightly helpless looking Sam along as she ploughed her way through the crowd.

            Immediately, I started into the opposite direction, where I had just seen a house elf with a huge plate of cheese and grapes vanish into the mass of people; I really needed something to eat, quickly, otherwise I was sure I would collapse on the spot.

            “Ah, Miss Woodley!” A deep voice suddenly boomed next to my ear and, before I even knew what was happening, a pudgy hand had grabbed my shoulder and I was sucked into the crowd like a boat into the maelstrom.

            “I have been looking for you,” said Professor Slughorn jovially, snatching a glass of champagne from a passing elf’s tray and trusting it into my hand. “Harry, this is the young lady I have been telling you about.”

            It was only now that I realised what I had actually been dragged into: right there next to Slughorn, holding a Butterbeer, was a tall man with glasses and rather unruly black hair, giving me a polite smile. On his forehead, a thin scar shaped like a lightning bolt was half-visible underneath a shock of hair.

“It’s nice to meet you,” he said and shook my hand.

“Um, hi,” I replied awkwardly. Apparently talking to Harry Potter on an empty stomach had reduced my otherwise overly productive mind to approximately three brain cells.

“Let me tell you, Harry; without Miss Woodley, James - where is that boy?” Slughorn scanned the crowd around, his face suddenly lighting up. “Ah there you are!” As if on cue, he had thrown out his free hand and, to my great horror, pulled none other than a very puzzled looking James Potter into the conversation.

“I was just telling your father what a great idea it was to bring you and Miss Woodley together.”

James didn’t respond for a moment, but his eyes met mine as he finally nodded. “Yes. Great.”

            I suppressed the urge to ask him what his bloody problem was and, instead, took a large sip of champagne to down the swelling anger in my stomach.

            “Absolutely.”

            Slughorn laughed, apparently not aware of the awkward atmosphere that suddenly enveloped us. “Although, considering your grades, one might suspect that the two of you have been neglecting Potions for a while now.”

He winked at James for Merlin knew what reason and I gulped down the rest of my champagne, feeling my stomach rumble in protest. There was absolutely nothing in my body to buffer the rapid consumption of bubbly alcohol and it all went straight to my head.

“Well, I really think there is nothing I can do for James anymore,” I said to Slughorn, albeit never taking my eyes off of James, who had buried his hands in the pockets of his slim-fit suit. I would have expected him to throw some stroppy, arrogant retort at me, but he simply continued to look at me, an unreadable expression on his face. Next to him, Mr Potter frowned at his son, apparently not quite sure what to make of this weird situation.

“If you would excuse me,” I said, finally breaking the eye contact with James. As much as I hated to admit it, it bothered me to be this close to him. My head was pulsing from the alcohol and, with my heart hammering against my chest, I conceded defeat.

I had to get out of here.

“I really have to find my friends. It was nice to meet you, Mr. Potter. Professor.” I nodded at them and, without even so much as glancing at James, I turned on the spot and dived aimlessly into the crowd.

 

A/N: I really hope you liked this chapter and, as always, let me know what you think. I enjoy all of your feedback and also your theories as to what is going to happen… it really makes my day. You lot are amazing.

Potterheads are the best.

Much love to all of you!


 


Chapter 21: An Abundance of Potters - Part Two
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An Abundance of Potters - Part Two

 

The true disadvantage of wearing a rather low-back dress was the staggering amount of sweaty arms and shoulders that had already made skin contact with me tonight. Fortunately, somewhere between my third and fourth glass of champagne, I had stopped to care.

                “This is my friend Seth!” I heard Katie shout over the loud background music and suddenly her hand wrapped around my elbow, tugging urgently. “Seth, what are you doing?”

                “Just a moment,” I protested, trying to get the large strawberry at the bottom of my empty champagne flute to roll into my mouth. Despite the many delicious dishes that were carried around by an army of house elves, the fruits in the drinks had been the only food I had been able to scavenge this evening. It might not have been a substantial food source, but it was still better than nothing.

                “Seth is also a big fan,” Katie announced to the group of guys in front of us, her fiery red lips curling upwards into a bright smile. How on earth she had managed to hog Hey Hey Hippogriff for half an hour already when there were at least a dozen other girls, clustering round the musicians like insects around a light source, was beyond me.

                “Seth - that’s a weird name for a girl.” One of them said in a kind of bored, drawling accent that reminded me of old American western films. His hair was dark and almost shoulder-length; probably an attempt to disguise his soft pretty-boy features that would have ruined his rock n’ roll credibility.

                “Not really.” I gave him a deadpan look, which earned me a rather hard blow into my ribcage from Katie.

                “Don’t take her too seriously, Fate,” she said, forcing a laugh, “Seth likes to joke.”

                “Fate?” I looked at him with an arched eyebrow, ignoring Katie, who let out a long, deep groan next to me. “That’s your name? Fate?”

                “Yeah, why?” He drawled in that lazy I-don’t-really-give-a-damn kind of voice; yet, his blue eyes rested on my face curiously.

                “Well,” I snorted, unable to stop myself. “It’s just really absurd that someone called Fate thinks I have a weird name.”

                “What?” Fate frowned at me, looking thoroughly bewildered. It was hard to believe that no one had ever commented on his name before. However, before I had the chance to point this out, one of his band mates announced that they had to perform in about ten minutes and they left for the stage.

                “What is wrong with you?” Katie looked at me, her heavily made-up eyes wide with disbelief. “Why are you being so aggressive?”

I sighed, shaking my head at her. “I don’t know,” I whined. “I’m hungry and I feel like I want to punch someone. Really hard.” There was a sort of inexplicable anger bubbling in the pit of my stomach ever since I had run into James Potter before and I just couldn’t shake it off.

Katie studied me for a moment, her facial expression softening slightly. “How much have you had to drink?”

“A bit,” I admitted. “I’m woozy.”

“Come on,” she sighed, putting her arm around my shoulder and leading me out of the crowd that had started to gather in front of the stage. “Let’s find you something to eat.”

 

***

 

I would have preferred to be in my most comfortable and soggy pyjamas, curling up in bed with the blanket over my head. Instead, I was leaning against an incredibly uncomfortable wall, nibbling on a piece of dry baguette as I stared vaguely into the distance. The party was in full swing with everybody dancing to Hey Hey Hippogriff and enjoying themselves as they were tossed around in the dense crowd that had accumulated in front of the stage.

                “There you are!” I heard Sam’s voice before I actually saw him, tripping over a chair as he stumbled towards me. His short hair was sticking up oddly and the silver tie hung crookedly around his collar, dangling back and forth as he moved. “I hate parties.”

                “Me too! Baguette?” I offered him a piece of bread as he slumped against the wall next to me, a sort of miserable scowl on his face.

                “No thanks,” he shook his head, accidentally hitting the wall. “It took me an hour and a half to get drunk. I can’t risk sobering up again.”

                I watched him for a moment as he fumbled clumsily with his tie, probably trying to remove it for good.

“Here,” I said, loosening the knot and pulling it over his head. “Better?”

“Yeah, thanks.”

“No problem.” I handed him the silky tie, watching him crumpling it up and unceremoniously stuffing it into his pocket. When he looked up again, he was grinning broadly, looking like a mischievous four-year-old.

“Hey, can you remember when I tried to hit on you?”

I snorted, leaning my head against his shoulder. “I try not to.”

“Yeah.” Sam laughed, examining the slowly fading butterbeer foam on the bottom of his empty glass. “That was weird. You’re really bad at flirting, Seth.”

“I know,” I sighed, not even bothering to contradict him. I hated flirting - it was something you couldn’t actually learn; there were no rules, no definite instructions, which made it unpredictable and, frankly, quite scary. “I’m really good with cats, though.”

Sam laughed, grabbing two glasses of red wine from a passing elf’s tray and handing one to me. “I’ll drink to that. Cheers.”

“Cheers,” I echoed and took a sip from the rich, sweet liquid.

“What the hell are you two doing?” Katie’s voice cut through the loud music, her pink dress swinging back and forth as she moved towards us. “You’re not supposed to give her more to drink!” She chastised Sam, taking the glass out of my hand so ferociously that some of the wine slopped over the edge and right onto the floor.

“I’m fine, Kat,” I assured her, hoping that she wouldn’t notice the slur in my voice. It was weird, but I felt lighter than usual, almost relaxed.

Katie frowned, obviously not quite convinced, and thrust a plate of bite-sized puff pastry into my hand. “Here, eat.”

She watched me study the small squares on the plate, her arms knotted tightly in front of her torso. The pastry smelled delicious and my stomach churned desperately at the mere prospect of biting into one of them, but somehow I was reluctant to eat. As much as I knew that my body needed food to cope with the unusually large amount of alcohol in my blood, I didn’t want to lose this feeling. For once, I wasn’t thinking - I wasn’t analysing everything and everyone around me - and it was like a heavy weight was lifted off my mind.

“I don’t really feel all that-” I had wanted to say ‘hungry’, but the word got stuck in my throat the moment I looked up at Katie; Tarquin stood right behind her, his eyes meeting mine as he gave me a nervous nod.

“What’s wrong?” Katie asked, looking at me concerned. “You look weird. Are you going to throw up? I can’t handle vomit, you know that.”

I began to shake my head, not sure if I was doing it in response to her question or to keep Tarquin from doing anything rash. This party was hardly the right place to declare his love to Katie; there were people around us everywhere, pushing and shoving into each other and it felt as though the room had a thousand degrees. Tarquin, however, didn’t even look my way.

“Can we talk?” he said briskly, his brows furrowed behind his black-rimmed glasses. He looked unusually formal in his black suit and bowtie - a little like a gameshow host.

Katie whipped around, her eyes widening with surprise for a moment before she began shaking her head. “No.”

“Katie.”

“I’m busy, Tarquin.” She pointed vaguely behind her back, where Sam and I were still lingering awkwardly like a couple of toddlers that were already way past their bedtime.

“I love you,” Tarquin spluttered, his face turning a dark shade of puce.

“No,” Katie hissed as she looked around anxiously to see if people were watching.

“Yes. I do,” Tarquin insisted, the red colour slowly draining from his face as he stood up straighter. “I love you. You’re amazing and funny and fierce and beautiful. I know that I’m not exactly your type, but that doesn’t change that I love you.” He paused, his chest heaving as he looked at her, obviously unaware of the crowd that had meanwhile gathered around us, observing the scene.

“I just - I wanted you to know this,” he said, somewhat lamely, looking thoroughly flustered. “And - thank you. And, um, goodnight.” With that, he turned on the spot and walked away, almost running into a house elf before vanishing into the crowd.

For a moment, no one said anything; I could feel Sam staring at me from the side, but my eyes were trained on Katie. Her cheeks had flushed with colour and she seemed to be breathing more quickly.

“Can you believe him?”

I had opened my mouth, trying to think of something to say, but my brain was sluggish and slow, and before I could produce anything helpful, Sam had chipped in.

“Actually, no,” he said, sounding almost angry. “Because no one does that, ever.”

“Exactly,” Katie agreed heatedly, but Sam was shaking his head, running a hand through his hair.

“No, Katie. I mean, no one does that,” he said, considerably softer this time, giving her a sad smile. “Ever. Not in real life.”

It seemed to sink in very slowly; Katie’s furrowed eyebrows rose again and the creases on her forehead vanished as her features softened to an almost bemused expression.

“But I don’t-”

“You should,” said Sam firmly.

Katie stared at him for a moment before she turned to look at me, her eyes wide. “Seth?”

I shrugged and gave her a small smile. “No one can decide this for you, Kat. Just - don’t make him wait around for you. He’s a good guy. He deserves to be treated that way.”

Katie blinked and stared down at her shoes, her eyes unfocused. When she finally looked up again, she seemed determined.

“Don’t drink any more alcohol,” she told me firmly. “I’ll be right back.” And with that, she plunged into the crowd, vanishing between clusters of glitter and cloth, until even the last layer of her tulle skirt had been swallowed.

“Well, I guess that leaves only the two of us,” I sighed, turning around to face Sam, just to discover that, he too, had disappeared.

“Or me,” I said to myself, snatching a glass of wine from a passing elf’s tray. “That leaves only me.”

 

***

 

I hadn’t moved; not much, at least. After half an hour of standing at the wall, clutching a wine glass that was approximately the size of a baby Niffler, I had relocated to a slightly less sad spot, leaning against a window sill as snow drifted by idly behind my back.

The party was still in full swing, but without Katie and Sam, I really was quite alone. Katie had not returned from her hunt for Tarquin and, frankly, I was glad about it. It meant that they were together, which was good. Sam had not reappeared either and I had the strong suspicion that he had long gone back to Ravenclaw Tower to sleep off the alcohol. There was, thus, no reason for me to prolong this evening any further.

Yet, I couldn’t get myself to leave.

“Great party, isn’t it?” A deep voice suddenly said and I looked up, surprised to find Harry Potter standing next to me. “May I?” He gestured towards the free space on the window sill and I simply nodded, still too dumbfounded to produce actual words. It wasn’t everyday that the saviour of the entire wizarding world asked to share a window ledge with you.

“I was actually never a fan of Horace’s parties,” he sighed, the green eyes behind his round glasses scanning the sprawling room. “Always tried to find an excuse if I could. There are just too many important people here.”

I nodded again and, realising how idiotic I must have looked, added a meek “I know what you mean.”

Mr Potter gave me a warm smile and I noticed with a jolt that it was the same one I had seen on James.

“So, according to Horace, you actually saved my son from failing potions.”

It was as though he had read my mind and I shifted uncomfortably on the sill. After all, Harry Potter was head of the Auror office and I was sure he knew a wealth of mind-reading methods that I hadn’t even heard of yet. It seemed ridiculous that he would use them in a situation like this, but I couldn’t help feeling uneasy; if he knew what I really thought about his oldest son, he would probably stop being nice to me.

“I wouldn’t say that,” I said quickly, looking down at the strappy sandals on my feet. “It was just a couple of lessons. He didn’t show up for half of them.”

I hadn’t meant to say the last bit; it had simply spilled from my mouth before my brain had even realised what was going on.

To my surprise, however, Mr Potter laughed, nodding his head slowly. “Yeah, that sounds like James. Has he been giving you a hard time?”

I contemplated the question for a moment, staring at the velvety liquid in my wine glass. A part of me wanted to say yes - the sudden appearance of James Potter had made my life not exactly easier - but I hated to admit that his existence had had even the slightest impact on me, so I shook my head.

“No. I mean, it’s not like we spend much time together. I just helped him with Potions, that’s all.”

“Oh. Right.” Mr Potter nodded very slowly before looking up at me with a sort of searching look. I couldn’t be sure but it looked like he wanted to say something. Then, quite suddenly, he seemed to have changed his mind.

“Well, then. I don’t want to keep you from enjoying the party any longer. It was a pleasure meeting you, Miss Woodley.”

I shook his outstretched hand, unable to ignore the sudden awkwardness that seemed to have settled between us. “Oh, um, yes - I mean, you too, Mr Potter.”

He gave me one last smile and then - like everyone at this party - disappeared into the crowd.

 

***

 

It was time to go. It had been for a while but - for reasons I didn’t even know myself - I had hung around, scanning the room from my perch on the window ledge without knowing what I was actually looking for. There was no one left to wait for and Katie’s shoes were killing me. I had definitely been at this party for too long already, drinking too much wine and ignoring the pitying looks that were cast my way whenever a group of people walked by my window.

Sighing deeply, I slid off the sill, wincing inwardly as my sore feet made contact with the ground. It was then that I suddenly saw him in a shady corner in the back of the room: James Potter had lost his black jacket; the sleeves of his white shirt were rolled up carelessly and the tie dangled loosely around his opened collar as he bent over a dark figure that was leaning against the wall. They looked like they were entwined, doing Merlin knew what, and I forced myself to look away again, brushing aside the sudden heavy feeling in my stomach.

Whatever Potter did, it was none of my business.

                “Wanna dance?”

                “What?” I squinted at the tall boy that had planted himself in front of me. Distracted by the low cut V-neck that exposed his curly dark chest hair and the silver cross dangling from a chain, it actually took me a moment to realise that I was talking to Fate, the unfortunately named drummer of Hey Hey Hippogriff.

                “Dance,” he repeated, exposing a row of blindingly white teeth. “I asked if you wanna dance.”

                The frown on my forehead probably deepened to an unprecedented level as I stared at him, trying to figure out if he was being serious. There was, of course, the likely possibility that he was completely high on Gillyweed.

                “Fate, listen, I really - I don’t dance.”

                “You should.” He was still smiling, which was somehow off-putting; apparently, he seemed to think I was flirting with him.

                Great.

                “Yes. Right,” I sighed, glancing towards the exit. “Listen, I-”

                “I’ve been watching you,” he said confidently, but when he noticed the slightly alarmed look on my face, he quickly shook his head. “Not in a creepy way, of course. You’ve been standing against walls all night. Mostly alone.”

                “Thanks, Fate, for summing up my tragically sad life.”

                He laughed, probably thinking I was joking. “That’s not what I meant. Just, dance with me, okay?”

                I knitted my eyebrows, not sure how to respond. Fate the drummer wanted to dance with me and, even though I was a lousy dancer and Katie’s shoes hurt like hell, I hesitated. After spending the majority of the evening alone, backed up against walls and windows, it was somehow nice to be asked to dance.

                “So?” Fate asked, his eyebrows rising expectantly as he studied my face.

Before I could even open my mouth to answer, however, a loud, high-pitched screeching sound filled the room and the music stopped abruptly.

For a short moment, I thought that maybe Slughorn had decided to give a speech, which, after a certain amount of Ogden's Old Firewhiskey, he usually did, but as I turned to look at the stage, my heart plummeted to my stomach; Sam was tapping his fingers clumsily against the microphone, making it screech once again.

                “‘Ello?” His slurred voice rang out, reverberating from every corner of the room. “Can you ‘ear me?”

                He was swaying back and forth dangerously and I knew that, no matter what he was about to do, it couldn’t be good.

                Without thinking, I thrust my half-empty wine glass into Fate’s free hand and, ignoring his shouts of protest, began to plough my way through the crowd, recklessly pushing and shoving people out of the way as I tried to get to the stage. I wasn’t sure what exactly I was going to do, once I had reached it, but I needed to get Sam out of here.

Unfortunately, my progress was too slow.

                “My name is Samuel Henderson,” he continued, looking oddly hunchbacked as he cowered over the microphone. By now, a low humming sound filled the room and absolutely everybody seemed to be staring at him.

                “And I jus’ wanted to say that-” He paused for a second, squinting into the room as though he was looking for someone, and I suddenly knew what he was about to do.

                “No! Sam!” I cried out, but my voice drowned in the buzzing that had erupted around me. I was tossed to the side and my shoulder collided rather painfully with a hard obstacle, just as Sam bent down to the microphone again, slurring into the speaker.

                “I’m gay. And Hector Chang is a fucking coward!”

                The muttering grew into excited clamour and I resumed my struggle to get to Sam as two security wizards climbed the stage, trying to drag him off. He was clutching the microphone reluctantly, apparently unwilling to come quietly, but they finally managed to remove him from the stage, leading him towards the exit.

                I swerved, elbowing my way through the mob to get to the door, but suddenly a sort of uniform motion swept across the crowd - almost like a wave in the ocean - and it parted as Hector Chang emerged, his face a deep shade of red.

                We reached the door at the same time, but, just as I wanted to push it open, he suddenly turned towards me, a determined look on his face.

                “I got it.”

                I narrowed my eyes at him, ready to protest; I wanted to tell him that he had absolutely no right to go after Sam after everything that had happened and that I really didn’t trust him to be alone with him right now, but something in the way he looked at me, made me hesitate.

                Hector’s face was still a formidable nuance of magenta, but there was a sort of sincerity that, in six years of sharing a common room and sitting in classes together, I had never seen on him before.

                “Right,” I finally said, taking a step back to clear the exit. “But, just so you know, I know hexes you haven’t even heard of, so -” I trailed off but my message was understood; Hector simply nodded, somewhat grimly, and then walked past me and out the door.

 

***

 

I had waited a couple of minutes before following Hector out onto the dimly lit corridor. I didn’t want it to look as though I was checking on Sam and him, even if that was exactly what I had in mind. Naturally, my trust issues - which, after sixteen years of being a Woodley, had carefully been inculcated in every fibre of my body - extended beyond my own personal life to include my friends.

I treaded carefully, trying to keep the clacking of my heels to a minimum as I skulked along the sombre corridor. At least my family couldn’t see me like this, hobbling on the balls of my feet, peeping around corners.

I must have looked like an idiot.

Suddenly, there was a weird grunting noise, followed by a dull thud, and I stopped dead in my tracks, pressing my body up against the wall. It took me a moment to notice the dark mass that moved rather jerkily on the second floor landing and I quickly reached for my wand, my heart beating in my ears.

It seemed to be two people who were either embracing each other or fighting, but it was impossible to tell which one it was. If Hector was hurting Sam, I needed to act; if the two of them were sharing a romantic moment, however, I would look quite the prat pointing my wand at them.

“Come on, move!” One of them whispered and they both tumbled towards the stairs without breaking the embrace. It looked odd - almost like only one of them could walk properly - and I realised that, whatever this was, I definitely had not stumbled in on a love scene.

Taking a deep breath, I pushed myself off the wall and strode towards the landing, my wand pointing at the two figures, who had frozen at the sound of my heels hitting the stone floor. I was prepared to hex Hector Chang into next year; however, as I got close enough to discern more than vague shadows, I realised that it wasn’t Hector Chang who was looking at me with a mixture of shock and disbelieve.

“Woodley?”

I blinked, unable to produce actual words as my wand pointed directly at James’s heaving chest.

In his arms, he held the limp form of Albus Potter.

 

***

 

                “What the hell is this?”

I could hear the panic in my own voice as I stared at the two brothers; Albus’s head was lolling on James’s shoulder, who seemed to be struggling to keep his younger brother from slumping to the ground.

“It’s - nothing. Just, go,” James snapped, still trying to keep Albus upright. It was only now that I realised he wasn’t unconscious; Albus, while definitely drowsy, was apparently fighting his brother’s attempts to hold him.

“Did you hex him?”

“What? No!” James said indignantly, a sort of angry look flashing in his eyes. “He’s completely pissed, the prat. I told him to take it slow at the party but then I found him squatting in a corner like this.”

I narrowed my eyes at James, still not fully convinced by the story; everybody knew that Albus was the good brother and that James was usually the one who got drunk and needed assistance to find his way back to the Gryffindor common room.

“Are you taking him to Madame Pomfrey?”

James looked at me as though I had just suggested throwing his brother off the Astronomy tower. “Sure, so that he gets a life-long detention.”

“But-” I protested as James dragged Albus’s arm around his shoulder and made to haul him down the stairs. “Where are you taking him?”

“Hagrid,” he said, slightly out of breath. “And I’d really appreciate it if you - you know - don’t report this.”

It took me a moment to even realise what he was talking about, but then it dawned on me; I was a prefect - technically it was my duty to report any kind of substance abuse to the headmistress immediately.

“I - I won’t,” I said quickly and James gave me a miniscule nod.

“Thank you.”

I watched him half-carry, half-drag Albus down the first couple of stairs and knew that they weren’t going to get far. If they were lucky, they would maybe make it to the entrance hall without being caught by Peeves or Filch, but then James still had to wade through the thick blanket of snow to get to Hagrid’s hut.

They were going to get caught and, even though I shouldn’t have cared, I couldn’t just let them go.

“Wait!” I hissed and climbed down the steps towards the Potters, my heels clicking loudly on the stone staircase. James simply stared at me, looking utterly bewildered.

“What are you doing?” He whispered, just as Albus let out a low groan.

“I can help,” I told him, but he just shook his head.

“I don’t need-”

Yes, you do.” I pushed past him, my wand outstretched as I led the way down the stairs. To my surprise, James did not protest again, which was probably due to the fact that he had to force Albus to come with us while simultaneously supporting his entire weight.

“Why are you doing this?” He panted as we reached the first floor landing, adjusting his grip on a feebly struggling Albus.

“I don’t know.” I simply shrugged without turning around to look at him. “I’ve had a lot to drink.”

 

***

 

Getting Albus out of the castle had proven easier than I had expected; at one point, Mrs Norris II had poked her head around a corner, but the small yellow bird I had conjured up had quickly attracted all of her attention so that we managed to slip out unnoticed.

                The grounds, however, were quite a different story. Despite my rather accomplished hot air charm, which cleared a broad path for us in the deep snow, James had difficulty navigating on the rough ground with Albus - who had fallen asleep halfway - draped over his shoulder.

I was freezing in the thin dress and Katie’s sandals, already regretting not bringing a change of clothes. It would have been too risky to summon anything from the castle now; randomly soaring jumpers and shoes in the middle of the night usually attracted attention, even in a school for magic. It was, thus, quite a relief when the small wooden cabin at the edge of the forest finally came into view.

                “I can see light,” James said behind me as we had reached the porch; Albus was dangling from his shoulder like a sack of potatoes, his bum next to his brother’s face, and I couldn’t help wondering if James had carried me like this too, after I had been poisoned at the Gryffindor common room party.

                I hoped not.

                “Professor?” I called out after knocking twice, listening intently for any signs of movement behind the thick wooden door. For a moment, it looked as though nobody was home, but then heavy footsteps were clearly audible on the other side and the door swung open, revealing the bearded face of Professor Hagrid.

                “Seth?” He said, a look of confusion on his wrinkly face that was only surpassed by the one on James’s.

                “Who’s Seth?” He asked, frowning deeply as he cast a quick look around to see if there was somebody else.

                I simply rolled my eyes, feeling once again confirmed in my opinion that James Potter was a self-absorbed git; even after all this time, he didn’t even know my name.

I’m Seth,” I snarled and pushed past him, bumping hard into his shoulder as I did so.

 

 

James had dropped Albus onto Hagrid’s large bed, immediately making way for the Care of Magical Creatures teacher to examine his brother.

“What did Al do that for, eh?” He grumbled as he searched his lax arm for a pulse.

“No idea,” James admitted, mussing up his already dishevelled hair.  He glanced up at me but when our eyes met, he quickly returned to staring at Professor Hagrid’s enormous back. “I found him like that.”

“I’ll need milk thistle and berberis from the garden.”

“I can get it,” I offered immediately, feeling quite useless only standing around in the corner; however, before I could even so much as move, James had already crossed the cabin and opened the backdoor.

“I know where it is,” he mumbled and slipped out into the darkness.

As soon as the door closed behind him, Hagrid shook his hairy head, giving me a slight smile.

“Those Potter boys, I tell ya,” he grunted, albeit not without affection in his booming voice. “Nothin’ but trouble, they are.”

“So, this happens a lot?” I asked, leaning against the wooden wall, hugging my arms around my freezing torso.

“Well, usually it’s not Al,” Hagrid sighed, picking up a woollen blanket from a large basket at the end of the bed and handing it to me. “James and Freddie, though - well, ye know.”

“Thank you.” I wrapped the plaid piece of cloth around my shoulders, feeling an immediate surge of warmth spreading through my body. At least I wouldn’t have to freeze to death on my way back.

“It’s nice of you to help James,” he said and I looked up, feeling my cheeks blush immediately. It just hit me that Hagrid didn’t seem properly surprised at the fact that I had helped James to get his drunk little brother out of the castle, wearing nothing but a tiny party dress and high heels.

“Oh um, I didn’t do it for James,” I said quickly, feeling my face burn even more. “I just wanted to help Albus.”

The door snapped close and I jerked my head up to find James’s tall frame standing in the dimly lit room, a bundle of reddish and green plants in his hands and a deep frown on his face.

“Here,” he said gruffly, holding the herbs out to Hagrid without even so much as looking at me. I wasn’t sure if he had heard me, but it shouldn’t have mattered anyway.

“Good,” Hagrid sighed, “that will do. Now, how ‘bout some tea?”

                “Oh, um, I think I should go, actually,” I said quickly, pointing vaguely over my shoulder towards the door; with James standing at the opposite wall, his hands knotted in front of his torso, the cabin felt terribly small all of a sudden and I had the strong urge to run, just so that I wouldn’t have to look at his broody face anymore.

 

 

The door fell into the lock behind me and I closed my eyes as the cold, clean winter air enveloped me once again. I hadn’t even noticed that I had been holding my breath, until I had left the warmth of the cabin behind me.

                Still wrapped into the woollen blanket and wearing a pair of too big, old rubber boots that Hagrid kept as a spare for students, I left the porch and headed out into the snow, hoping that none of the creatures that lived in the Forbidden Forest had decided to take a night-time stroll on the castle grounds. As much as I hated to admit it, I had felt considerably safer with James trailing behind me.

                Suddenly there was a sharp bang, followed by the scrunching of snow, and I whipped around, my hand wrapped around my wand.

                “Seriously, Woodley, that’s the second time in the last hour that you’re pointing that thing at me. Maybe you should consider yoga. I heard it helps.”

                For a moment I only stared at James dumbfounded, unable to lower my wand.  “What are you doing?”

“What does it look like?” He snapped, looking rather annoyed as he stuffed both of his hands into the pockets of his black trousers. There was something odd about the way he spoke, almost as though he had to force himself to talk to me, and I realised that Hagrid had probably made him follow me to make sure I got back up to the castle alright.

“I don’t need you,” I said flippantly, drawing the blanket a little tighter around my torso; I must have looked like a crazy old cat lady with the green plaid draped around me like a cape and the too large wellies that flapped around my naked calves. “I am perfectly capable of looking after myself.”

Even in the weak moonlight, I could see James roll his eyes. “That again.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I snapped, narrowing my eyes at him. He acted as though he actually knew me - the boy who had had no idea I was called Seth until two minutes ago - and it agitated me even more.

“You’re incapable of admitting that you need help,” he said matter-of-factly, an infuriatingly arrogant look on his face that made me grind my teeth.

“Well, I don’t.”

“Yeah, right,” he scoffed and for a moment I thought I saw a small smile flit across his face. “Except for when I saved your arse this year. Multiple times.”

Multiple times?” I could only stare at him with disbelief, fighting the urge to throw a stinging hex at him. Who did he think he was?

“Hey!” He shouted after me as I turned on the spot and began to trudge up the path I had cleared before, taking large strides. The faster I walked, the sooner I could get away from James Potter.

“Running away only means that I won the argument,” he taunted and I stopped dead in my tracks, turning around once again. To my surprise, James was much closer than I had expected and I stumbled backwards a little, only just regaining my balance. Like so many times before, it seemed as though he was only playing a game and, all of a sudden, a hot wave of anger swept over me, drowning out my usually powerful voice of reason.

And before I even knew it, I was shouting at him.

“You tripped me up!”

“What?” He looked at me, a frown creasing his forehead.

“And you ruined my miniature tree!”

What?” The wrinkles around his eyes deepened as he furrowed his brows, looking completely bewildered.

“You ruined my miniature apple tree and you can’t even remember!” I snapped, only dimly aware that I probably wasn’t making much sense.

James simply shook his head. “I don’t even know what-”

“It was perfect!” I cut him off. “Perfect miniature apples. On a miniature tree. I could have had tiny apples for breakfast every day!”

“You’re bonkers.”

“Oh, am I?” I said sharply, my breath banking up in front of me in small, white clouds. I had no idea what I was doing, but I knew that I needed to get away from James before I embarrassed myself even further. “Just, leave me alone.”

“Woodley, wait!” He called as I turned around again and resumed my climb up the rolling hills. I could hear him run after me, his footsteps falling heavily behind mine. “Listen -”

“No, you listen,” I snapped, cutting him off in mid-sentence again. “First you leave me waiting in the potions classroom like a complete idiot. Twice. Then you accuse me of being a crazy stalker. Suddenly you invite me to parties and expect me to skip class with you and your exclusive friends - for whatever reason - and I get attacked by some crazy loons because they think I’m your shag mate. And then, suddenly, it’s the cold shoulder again.”

“Woodley-” He started, but I didn’t want to listen to him. I had never meant to say any of this; it had simply spilled from my mouth and I was unable to stop.

“I don’t mind that you got bored of me, really.”

“Woodley.”

“I really don’t care. It’s great actually, now I can-”

Seth!” James had gotten hold of my arm from behind and suddenly I was tugged backwards, crashing into his chest. Instinctively, I wanted to pull back but his arm had wrapped around my waist and I couldn’t move.

He was close - way too close - so close that I could see the concentrated look on his face, the tiny birthmark next to his ear, the snowflakes that had caught on his dark eyebrows.

I could feel his warm breath on my cold skin, his nose brushing against mine and then, suddenly, his lips on mine.

“James! James!” A booming yell pierced the quiet night and I pulled back with a jerk, biting my own lip in the process.

“James!” Hagrid yelled again and James’s hand slid from my waist as he turned around towards the wildly waving gamekeeper.

“It’s Albus!” He called, the panic now clearly audible in his voice. “Something’s wrong!”

 

A/N: Ta-dah! Finally, the scene I have been promising you for so long. I hope you enjoyed it and I am really really looking forward to hear what you lot think about it and the whole chapter in general. Also, I am really interested in what you think is wrong with Al and what will happen after this - maybe slightly awkward - kiss between Seth and James...

 

I also wanted to say that I really appreciate all the love this story gets from you guys! It is so amazing to get your feedback and I can’t tell you enough how much it means to me that so many people are sticking with Seth and putting up with my belated updates.

 

You’re all fantastic, brilliant people and I just want you to know that you’re the reason I’m writing this story :) 


Chapter 22: Of Potters and Woodleys
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 Of Potters and Woodleys

 

Pale, golden sunlight poured through the tall windows, dipping the otherwise bleak corridor into a warm glow. It had stopped to snow in the early morning hours and the grounds were wrapped into white blankets that glittered underneath the winter sun.

            It was the first day of the holidays and the castle was teeming with students, lugging their heavy trunks down the stairs, their farewells echoing from the towering ceilings as they wished each other a merry Christmas. I, however, didn’t hear any of this; the hospital wing was completely quiet - almost eerily so - allowing none of the commotion that swept through the rest of the castle to penetrate this secluded spot.

            For the past couple of hours, people had been arriving, conversing in low whispers as they hurried along the corridor and disappeared into the ward with worried expressions on their white faces. Mr Potter had looked like a ghost in the weak moonlight as he had followed Professors McGonagall and Longbottom along the corridor, his snow-caked traveling cloak sweeping the floor behind him.

            I had retreated into a corner, leaning against the wall with Hagrid’s plaid blanket still wrapped around my shoulders and the too large wellies on my feet. I had simply lacked the strength to summon anything more practical or warmer; all I had been able to do was stare at the closed door of the ward, replaying last night’s event over and over again in my head.

It hadn’t looked good; his face had been grey and ashen, his body limp and lifeless as Hagrid had scooped him up into his arms. I had tried to feel his pulse but there had been no sign of a heartbeat and James’s face had lost its colour.

It had been the moment when two healers from St. Mungo’s had rushed past me and into the ward, however, that I had realised how serious the situation actually was.

            I didn’t know what time it was, but it must have been hours that I had been waiting here, watching people go in but never come out. It wasn’t my place to ask questions; this was a family matter and I was merely an outsider who had been at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Yet, I simply couldn’t leave.

            The door to the ward swung open so suddenly that I jumped involuntarily; McGonagall had emerged, followed by Professor Longbottom and an old, bearded healer, who was consulting an ancient looking clipboard that floated in front of him. For a second, I considered clearing my throat in order to let them know that they were not alone, but at that moment, the healer began to speak.

            “This is quite curious, I must say,” he said slowly, a rather grim expression on his wrinkly face. “Very curious, indeed.”

            “It was a poison, you say?” McGonagall said sharply. I had never seen her this dishevelled before; she was wearing a plum morning robe over her nightgown and her usually perfectly tied, grey hair had come undone in some places, sticking up oddly from her head.

            The healer studied her for a moment and I held my breath, feeling my heart beat loudly somewhere in my throat. “Well, it appears so, yes,” he said as a deep frown creased his forehead, “but it is nothing I recognise.”

            “Well, moonlace is a very potent intoxicant. Taken in excess it might -”

            “While that is perfectly true, Professor,” said the healer, raising his eyebrows at Professor Longbottom, “it couldn’t have been the moonlace. In fact, we cannot say anything until Professor Slughorn has had a look at the isolated poison from young Mr Potter’s blood.”

            McGonagall let out a small sigh that completely contradicted her usually poised demeanour. “Will he be able to analyse its components, though? Can it be isolated, Magnus?”

            The old healer smiled weakly at her, apparently remembering who he was talking to. “Minerva,” he said softly, “you know as well as I do that once they have been administered and mingled with blood, potions are rarely concentrated enough to be properly identified.”

            The lines on McGonagall’s face seemed more pronounced than ever as she pressed her thin lips together and shook her head. She looked so desolate, so very unlike her, and I realised - maybe for the first time - just how close she actually was to the Potters.

            When they began to walk away, it was in complete silence and I sank back against the cold window to resume my awkward wait. It was then that I noticed the door to the ward was slightly open, allowing for a glimpse of the hospital wing and a group of people

Only when James looked at me, I realised that I had been holding my breath.

“Hey,” he said quietly after he had slipped out of the ward and closed the door behind him. His hair was even messier than usual but it somehow looked less purposeful, less nonchalant.

“Hey,” I replied, tugging on Hagrid’s blanket in an attempt to wrap it a little tighter around my shoulders. I suddenly felt childish for staying in the hospital wing; I must have looked like a nosy intruder or, worse, an avid stalker who hoped for some inclusion. And then, there was the thick awkwardness of the kiss; the kiss that had happened just hours ago and that neither of us seemed to want to talk about.

I was glad of that, at least.

“You didn’t change,” James said, nodding at the large wellies that still covered my feet. His hands were in the pockets of his rumpled suit trousers; he was standing further away than he had to and I shivered as a cold draft breezed through the corridor, making the fires in the torches tremble.

“How’s Albus?” I spoke quickly, not sure if I was even entitled to ask such a question. James looked at me for a moment, his brow furrowed as he seemed to study my face.

“It’ll take a while, but the Healers say he’ll recover.”

I could feel something inside my chest loosen and, for the first time this night, I took a deep breath. “That’s good.”

“Yeah,” he said, somewhat coldly, albeit not taking his eyes off of me. “Well, I think I should get back inside…”

“Yes, sure! I’ll-” I pointed vaguely towards the other end of the corridor, feeling relieved that the kiss had not come up. I still wasn’t entirely sure how I felt about it but, taken all things into account, kissing Hogwarts’ golden boy surely had been a bad idea.

 

***

 

People turned to look at me, but I barely noticed their stares as I climbed the winding staircase to Ravenclaw Tower, my wellies squeaking oddly with each step. My thoughts were still revolving around Albus and the poison that seemed to puzzle even the healers, when suddenly a soft, musical voice said:

            “Would you rather never be able to answer a question or never be able to ask a question?

            I looked up perplexed, wholly surprised to find the brass eagle head that guarded Ravenclaw Tower staring at me. It shouldn’t have been a surprise, of course - I had been answering tricky philosophical questions and riddles to get into the common room for more than five years now - but, as I looked into the door knocker’s shiny bronze eyes, my mind was wiped blank.

            “What?” I said thickly, feeling as though someone had given me a particularly hard whack on the head. The eagle, however, did not get the chance to repeat its question, for the door it was fastened to, swung open so suddenly I had to jump backwards to avoid taking a hit.

            “Seth!” Katie cried out in relief as she flung her arms around my neck, squeezing so tightly I was struggling to breathe. “You’re okay! You look okay; are you okay?”

            “Sure, I’m fine,” I mumbled into her unruly mop of hair, the sticky scent of Luscious Liquorice tingling in my nose.

            “Thank Merlin.”

I could see Sam standing behind Katie through the mass of auburn curls that danced in front of my face; he looked relieved and I realised for the first time that they must have been quite worried when they had realised I hadn’t returned to the dormitory last night.

“I’m okay, really,” I said quickly, tugging my matted hair behind my ears. Katie had loosened her grip on me and I was pleasantly surprised to find Tarquin standing somewhat awkwardly behind her, his hand on her shoulder.

“Where have you been?” She demanded, her bright blue eyes searching my face for possible giveaways. “And what on earth are you wearing?”

“I - um - I went for an early walk. That’s all,” I said as casually as possible, though I knew it was hardly a convincing story. The few people that were still milling around in the common room, looked way to interested in my appearance to even feign disinterest and I was certainly not keen on indulging them in a fresh batch of gossip which they could spread during the holidays.

“Are you sure, you’re okay?” Sam asked gravely, surveying my unconventional getup. He had the distinctive hue of someone who had had one too many the night before, but otherwise he looked fine.

At least not like Hector Chang had tried to hex him.

“Yes, don’t worry,” I assured him, before lowering my voice a little. “Where is Hector?”

Sam’s face flushed with colour and he gave me a miniscule smile. “He - um - his parents have picked him up early this morning. But we talked.” His smile grew into a grin. “I don’t know what you said to him, but he is really scared of you.”

“Good.” I smiled back and a knowing look passed between the two of us.

“Can someone please fill me in?” Katie said as casually as possible, though I knew she could hardly stand not knowing what exactly was going on.

Sam laughed, somewhat sheepishly, scratching the back of his head. “Let’s all go down to breakfast. I promise I’ll tell you everything.”

“Um, you go ahead!” I said quickly, seizing the opportunity. “I really need a shower.”

“Are you sure?” Katie gave me a wide-eyed look that implied the unspoken offer to stay with me if I needed her. I knew she would skip breakfast in an instant if I asked her to, but I shook my head. I would tell her everything eventually, of course, but for now, I needed time to process everything on my own.

“It’s fine. You go ahead.” I said in a much more cheerful voice than I actually felt like; the events of last night were wearing on me, as was the lack of sleep, and I was longing for some solitude; some time to think. “I’ll be right down with you.”

 

***

I stared at the icy window, not actually seeing what was going on beyond it. The hot shower had given me the brief illusion of strength, washing away the chill that had seeped through to my bones, but it had only lasted for a moment. As I had stepped out of the fogged up cubicle, the residue of last night’s adrenaline had left my body entirely and my muscles felt suddenly sore and stiff from the cold and the lack of sleep.

There was no time, however, to rest; my suitcase was packed and ready, looking rather dull as it sat on the floor next to Katie’s neon pink duffle bag. My portkey would leave in less than an hour to take me to my grandparents’ place for Christmas and there was no way I could miss it without having to bear the Woodleys’ displeasure for the remainder of the holidays.

“Oh my God, are you serious?” Katie screeched so loudly that Bernice and Ursula, who had been packing their things at the other end of the room, stopped their quiet chattering and glanced towards us curiously. I was sure they hadn’t heard any part of our whispered conversation, but I wasn’t keen on starting any new rumours and so I simply shook my head at Katie and began to busy myself with folding Hagrid’s blanket to a neat square.

She looked as though she was going to explode any second, yet she kept her lips sealed and simply watched me, her blue eyes wide with a  mixture of shock and excitement. The news of Albus being poisoned had appropriately horrified her, of course, but her interest in his wellbeing had subsided immediately after I had told her about James.

“He kissed you?” Katie mouthed as Bernice and Ursula had gone into the bathroom to clean out their shelves. “That’s so romantic.”

“It wasn’t really,” I said quickly, thinking back of the fight we had had just before it had happened; if Potter thought he could play his stupid games with me, he was wrong. “And it wasn’t really a kiss. It was more like – like brushing lips.”

Katie gave me an annoying knowing look, which I blatantly ignored. I knew what she was thinking – what she wanted to think – but nothing had changed between James and me. He was still a prat and I was not his plaything for when he was bored.

“But James Potter kissed –“

I shushed Katie just as Bernice had walked back into the room again, Ursula trailing in her wake.

“Who did James Potter kiss?” She asked interestedly while carelessly dropping a couple of toiletries into her open trunk.

“No one,” I said quickly, feeling caught when she gave me a suspicious frown. “I mean, who knows, right?”

“Yeah!” Katie chimed in quickly, coming to my rescue. “After all, he’s got a different girl each week, hasn’t he?”

Bernice gave a short, snorting laugh before forcing her bulging trunk to close. “Well, he certainly isn’t kissing Fern Sterling anymore, that’s for sure.”

“He isn’t?” Katie asked wide-eyed, all air of pretence gone from her demeanour as she stared at our roommate as though she had never seen her before.

“I recon not,” Bernice snorted once again, exchanging a knowing look with Ursula, who sat rather timidly on her bed, her arms folded in her lap. “Since he broke up with her and all. But haven’t you heard?” She added when Katie’s mouth had dropped open in response. “Apparently it was quite ugly too.”

“How – how do you know?” Katie was completely aghast, but I couldn’t tell if it was because of the scandalous news or because she hadn’t heard them before now.

“I’m friendly with Sissy Twicross. She’s the reserve beater on the Gryffindor team and she told me the whole story. She reckons they must have had a fight or something; she stumbled upon them in the hallway on her way to the common room and heard James tell Fern that he didn’t want to see her again. She was positively wailing, of course, begging him to not break up with her. He wasn’t impressed, though; said she’d better go now.”

“When was this?” Katie demanded, not even bothering to feign indifference. “At Slughorn’s party?”

But Bernice shook her head, her deadpan expression almost resembling a knowing smile as she shut the locks on her trunk with a piercing click. “No, it was much earlier than the party. It was the night after the ice rink had opened.”

Katie whipped around, her eyes so wide they looked almost comical, but I simply shook my head, ignoring the meaningful look she gave me. I knew what was going on in her head, of course, but I was unwilling to indulge her; James breaking up with Fern had nothing to do with what had happened a couple of hours ago, however much Katie wanted it to.

“I have to return this,” I said after picking up Hagrid’s woolly plaid and the green wellies, careful not to mention who had lend them to me in front of Bernice and Ursula. “I’ll be right back.” And with that, I quickly left the dorm room, ignoring Katie’s shouts of protest.

 

***

 

I was standing knee-deep in glittering snow, staring at the clouds of grey smoke that billowed from the brick chimney on top of Professor Hagrid’s hut. The path I had cleared yesterday night had vanished completely underneath a thick, fresh coat of snow, erasing the remaining traces of last night’s events.

            I couldn’t shake it off entirely - what I had overheard in the hospital wing this morning. Though it was absolutely none of my business, I simply couldn’t stop thinking about the poison that puzzled even McGonagall and the healers. There was definitely something off at Hogwarts; something sinister was going on and I felt as though I was on the verge of understanding, yet the solution was out of reach.

            “Come in!” The booming voice of Professor Hagrid answered from within the hut after I had knocked on the wooden door and I pushed inside, stopping short only when I realised that I wasn’t the only visitor.

            “Miss Woodley.” Harry Potter gave me a smile, although he looked much more exhausted, much older than yesterday evening. The woman next to him frowned slightly as she took in my appearance and I wished I hadn’t been wearing a pair of jeans that was torn at the knees. I had actually planned on irritating my family; not Ginny Potter.

            “Yer must be freezin’. Have some tea, will yer,” Hagrid said warmly, indicating the large copper pot that stood in the middle of the table amongst gigantic mugs.

            “No, um, thank you Professor,” I said quickly, holding out the blanket and the pair of rubber boots to him, all the while being aware of Mrs Potter’s eyes that rested on my face. “I didn’t mean to interrupt. I just wanted to return this to you.”

            “Hagrid told us, you were with James and Al yesterday night?” Mrs Potter’s voice cut across Hagrid’s attempt to answer and I turned to meet her fierce glare, which hadn’t left me since I had entered the room. Mr Potter looked at his wife with a mixture of exasperation and foreboding but she didn’t seem to even take notice of him.

            “Um, yes,” I finally said, deciding that there really was no point in lying, although her frown made me nervous. “I was.”

            “Why?” The familiarity of that question caught me off guard and, for a moment, I saw a defiant James standing in front of me on the dark landing, clutching his nearly unconscious brother, wanting to know the exact same thing.

            The problem was, that there really wasn’t an answer; not a good one, at least. And somehow I had the feeling that ‘I don’t know’ wasn’t going to cut it for Mrs Potter.

            “She’s not going to sell the story to the papers, mum,” A deep voice suddenly said and I turned to see James standing behind me, his little sister Lily pushing in after him, her large green eyes resting on me curiously. Snow was clinging to their clothes and their cheeks were reddened from the crisp cold outside.

            “She doesn’t need money,” James insisted when his mother’s frown had deepened, apparently not at all convinced of my decency. “Do you know who her family is?”

            Although James didn’t look at me once, I could feel my cheeks blush. Until now, I hadn’t even realised that he was aware of my family background; it had simply never seemed important.

            “I do,” Mrs Potter said coldly. “That’s what bothers me.”

            It was like missing a step on the way up to Ravenclaw Tower; my heart plummeted to my stomach where it landed with a painful thud and I felt as though I had to catch my breath.

            “Gin,” Mr Potter said reproachfully before turning to look at me. “You have to excuse my wife; it’s been a long night.”

            “It’s-” I tried to say ‘fine’, though the word wouldn’t come out as I withstood Ginny Potter’s stubborn glare. “I have to go.”

            As I turned and walked towards the door, I accidentally bumped into James’s shoulder on the way out and stopped; our eyes met for a brief moment - his warm brown ones staring into my grey ones – and for the fraction of a second, I thought he was going to say something. But his mouth opened and closed again without any sound coming out, and I pushed past him and out into the painfully bright morning.

 

***

 

“Where the hell have you been?” Vala asked half-annoyed, half-curiously as I hurried towards her, struggling to not trip as I pulled Archimedes’ cage and my heavy suitcase along the corridor.

            “Saying goodbye to Katie and Sam,” I replied breathlessly as I lugged my belongings into Slughorn’s open office, which served as a kind of temporary travel station for those whose families had requested a portkey.

            Vala simply rolled her eyes but refrained from commenting. Instead, she held out a heavily ornamented golden mirror. “You almost missed it.”

            I sighed as I reached for the surprisingly heavy object, which had started to glow, holding tight to its other end. “If only I had.”

            For the fraction of a second, I thought I could see my cousin smile, but her face blurred instantly as I felt the familiar tug behind my navel, and Slughorn’s office vanished in a blur of colours.

 

            There was a sharp jolt of pain as my feet made contact with the ground again and I toppled over from the sudden impact, my knees crashing inelegantly onto my grandparents’ invaluable handmade ornamental carpet.

            “Can I help you, Miss?”

            “I’m fine,” I blurted out as I stood up, still a little shaky from the journey, giving the withered house elf a smile. She didn’t reciprocate it, however, and simply eyed me with a sort of disapproving expression on her bat-like face.

            “The family is in the saloon, Miss Woodley and Miss Carrington,” she said quite dignified, before finally bowing out of the room.

            “Does it seem bigger to you?” I asked Vala, who had already half-crossed the gigantic foyer, the clacking of her heels hammering on the marble floor. She stopped at my question, however, and turned around to follow my gaze, which was directed at the impressive Christmas tree that towered between the set of elaborate, sprawling stairs.

            It was hung lavishly with glittering ornaments that had been passed down the family for centuries, and live ferries, who were nothing but glowing dots, floating lazily around the lush, green twigs.

            “It feels bigger,” she replied oddly and I peeled my eyes off the tree to look at her. I hadn’t really thought about it before, but our relationship – if one could call it that – had somewhat improved; we still weren’t close, of course, but some of the ice that had always been part of our interactions seemed to have melted away.

 

***

 

The room I inhabited at my grandparents’ house was one of the smaller ones, but, unlike the rest of the estate with its elaborate frescos and golden panels, I liked the high-ceilinged bedroom with its sturdy oak bed and pale blue sheets. There wasn’t much of the flimsy flourish that could be found in the other rooms, but rather simple, functional pieces of furniture like a beautiful wooden desk that stood right in front of the tall window and a small dresser on top of which I had arranged all of the books I had taken with me.

I didn’t know who’s (if anyone’s) room it might have been in these hundreds of years of family history, but when I was younger I had imagined that it had once belonged to a reluctant lady, who had preferred venturing into the woods in search for an adventure rather than sitting in front of her vanity, combing her hair.

Snow was still building up on the window ledge outside, wrapping the sprawling garden and nearby forest into a thick, white mantle; I had been sitting at the desk, trying to read, but my thoughts were scattered, always returning to Hogwarts and Albus and - as much as I hated it – to James.

It wasn’t altogether surprising that his family would distrust me; the Woodleys were not exactly famous for their kind-heartedness. Nevertheless it had felt strange to be accused of ulterior motives and to see James simply staring at me like he had. It really shouldn’t have bothered me, but it did.

The sudden chiming of delicate bells tore me from my spiralling thoughts and I blinked rapidly, focusing on the thick snowflakes that fell lazily in front of my window. It was the call for dinner, which I followed only reluctantly; unfortunately, the only way I would have been allowed to miss it was to drop dead on the spot, which, upon entering the high-ceilinged dining room with its illustrious artwork and dainty antique furniture and noticing my grandmother’s disapproving frown at the sight of my oversized knitted jumper, did not seem like such a horrible alternative anymore.

“Say what you will, father,” aunt Martha said loudly, ignoring me completely as I sat down between Vala and my mother, “it is not right to meddle with laws that are as ancient as those concerning house elves. To have a common Muggle tell me what to do-“ She shook her head indignantly and quickly lifted her wine glass to her mouth, probably to keep herself from saying anything illegal.

“Our house elf Wollie up and left just before the holidays when Hermione Weasley’s new elf labour act took effect,” Vala whispered to me behind her glass, a kind of amused glint in her brown eyes. “My parents were livid, of course.”

“Well, according to Charles many ministry officials would like to see her run for the top job next year,” my mother said with an air of indifference that she always adopted when speaking to my aunt. Deeply-rooted conservatives, my family would never support a liberal candidate, but I had long realized that my mother and my aunt were not exactly friends and liked to bully each other whenever they got the chance.

Aunt Martha snorted dismissively, but she did not get the chance to elaborate on her objections to Hermione Weasley becoming Minister for Magic, since grandfather had put his glass down, his booming voice filling the sprawling room.

“Where is Charles, incidentally?”

“Oh he is still at work, of course.” My mother rolled her eyes, not bothering to conceal her annoyance. It had been like this ever since I could remember; my father rarely being at home and my mother waiting for him all day, mostly bored and upset. His absence at dinners had been so frequent that one might even call it a Woodley family tradition.

“Well, Ludwig never misses a family dinner, don’t you love?” Aunt Martha said loudly, looking at my mother rather than her husband, who had just shoved a large piece of bread into his mouth.

Obviously,” my mother drawled, casting an appraising glance hat my uncle, whose protuberant stomach quite resembled Professor Slughorn’s. She shuddered quite pointedly before continuing to sip on her wine, ignoring my aunt’s death glares.

Christmas was going to be wonderful.








A/N: What can I say… I am sorry it took me so long to update. I hope you still enjoyed the chapter and I’ll be back with the next one much sooner this time J. As usual, reviews mean the world to me and I would love to hear from you guys!

Lots of love


Chapter 23: The Gift of the Woodleys
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The Gift of the Woodleys

 

The slowly dwindling pile of wood in the large fire place crackled pleasantly, mingling with the soft sounds of Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata that filled the vast room. Thick snowflakes obscured the view of the white forest as they fell relentlessly in front of the tall windows, hypnotising me as I stared at them until they were out of sight.

Christmas dinner had left me full and slightly nauseous and the rich, earthy wine had made my limbs heavy and my mind sleepy. My eye lids were drooping and I had a hard time keeping them open during the annual procedure of handing out presents, which, unlike in most British homes, never took place on Christmas morning but in the late afternoon after a sumptuous dinner.

“Oh, it’s fantastic!” My cousin Cassandra cried out over a pair of diamond studded earrings she had just unwrapped; while they were, of course, classically elegant, they seemed unproportionally chunky in the dim lights of the Christmas tree and I supressed a chuckle as she fastened them to her tiny ears. It was the kind of present I had been used to since I was a child; exuberantly expensive and mindlessly extravagant.

“Elizabeth, you haven’t opened yours yet.”

I looked up from the half empty wine glass which I was cradling in my hands, staring at the small parcel, Grandfather was holding out to me. It looked similar to the boxes that had contained Cassandra’s earrings and Vala’s bracelet, which was no surprise; our Grandparents usually gave us similar gifts (hand-picked by Trixie, of course), mostly, I suspected, to avoid open favouritism for once.

“Oh, right. Thank you.” I put the wine glass aside and took the parcel from my grandfather’s hand, startled once more when I looked into his eyes and found my own. It was strange to see something so familiar on someone I felt I barely knew; my Grandfather had always been a taciturn man, who, in proper Woodley vein, never revealed much of himself. When I had been little, I had sometimes watched him brooding in the library, pouring over strange books without titles that had puzzled me back then. Looking back, he must have known that I had been there, hidden behind a potted plant and watching him, but he had never spoken of it.

“Well, open it,” my mother said softly, her voice melting with the classical music in the background. She was sharing the couch with my father, who was immersed in the latest issue of the Financial Prophet, seemingly unaware of everyone else around him.

            I obliged her and tore the golden wrapping paper off the square parcel, not surprised to reveal a velvety jewellery box; it was slightly smaller as the ones my cousins had unwrapped just a few minutes ago and I couldn’t but notice the smug look on Cassandra’s face as she came to the same conclusion.

            “Go on,” Grandfather urged in a most unusual manner that even got my father to look up from the article he had been reading, and I prised open the lid, revealing a tangled, fragile looking chain.

As I carefully lifted it out of its container, the thin golden necklace dangled in front of my face and I was pleasantly surprised to find no glittery pearls or diamonds dangling from it, but a small, tear-shaped stone of opaque white, embedded in a fine gold setting. It might have looked simple in comparison to the jewellery that glittered on my cousins, but I couldn’t help thinking that it was the most beautiful necklace I had ever seen.

“It’s an old family heirloom,” Grandfather said into the silence as he watched me examining the stone. “It has belonged to our family since the 14th century and has only been passed down to Woodley women.”

I looked up at him, slightly aghast. From the corner of my eye I could see Cassandra’s gloating face falling as she followed the softly swinging necklace in my hand; she had been pining for the family jewellery ever since she had been old enough to understand its value, yet no one had been presented with such a priceless piece until now.

“Are you – are you sure you want to give it to me?” I said awkwardly, ignoring my grandmothers disapproving frown that creased her forehead.

“Quite sure, yes.” Grandfather smiled, which baffled me completely. “Unless, of course, you don’t want to keep it.”

“I do!” I said quickly, looking once again at the milky white stone. “It’s beautiful. Thank you.”

“Here, let me help you,” my mother offered and she expertly unfastened the delicate clasp and slid the chain around my neck so that the stone rested perfectly in the hollow between my collarbones, just like it had always been made for me.

 

***

 

            “It looks really nice on you,” Vala said with a sigh as she plopped down on the leather sofa next to me, her freshly refilled glass of wine held up high to keep its contents from spilling onto the expensive furniture.

            I automatically touched the fragile necklace, fingering the small pendant, and couldn’t help but feeling weird for having been given something so valuable. “I really don’t know why I got it and not -“

            But Vala quickly held up her hand, her diamond bracelet catching the dim light. “It’s fine, Seth. I’m not Cassy.” She laughed and we both sneaked a peek at Cassandra, who had been sulking ever since I had opened my Grandparents’ Christmas present. “Besides, there is way too little glitter and sparkle for my taste.” She reached out and examined the small tear-shaped stone with interest. “But it really suits you – it’s like they actually know you.”

            I laughed, although I quite agreed with my cousin; it was almost uncanny that I was not only given something so priceless but also something I actually liked. “I really don’t know why they gave it to me, though.”

To my surprise, Vala rolled her dark brown eyes in response. “Oh, it’s obvious, isn’t it? You’re Grandfather’s favourite,” she said, quite seriously, and then – in reaction to the disbelieving look on my face – added, “Grandmother disapproves of you with every fibre of her being, or course; but Grandfather – well.”

            I couldn’t help but frown at her; the mere thought of being anyone’s favourite in this family was ridiculous, really. Almost automatically, I glanced towards the roaring fireplace, where my grandfather was in deep conversation with my father, a quite serious look on his face.

“Don’t tell me you didn’t know?” Vala said quietly, smiling at my complete bewilderment. “He’s always boasting about how smart you are and all that nonsense. That’s why I used to hate you, really.”

“Oh wow, thank you Vala.” We both laughed, which attracted Cassandra’s sulky glare; she didn’t seem to like the fact that Vala was not sitting with her, abusing me. “He never said anything to me, though.”

“You know how we Woodleys are.” Vala shrugged her shoulders and gave me a wry smile. “We detest feelings. Everything we can’t control, we simply push away.”

I had meant to protest, but for the fraction of a second, the image of James surfaced in my mind and the words got stuck in my throat. So, instead of contradicting my cousin, I quickly took a large sip of red wine, drowning my thoughts in the drowsy cosiness of Christmas Day.

 

***

            Dear Seth,

            I hope you are doing OK – I know how you hate Christmas at your place, but it actually sounds like it wasn’t so bad after all. I do miss you. It sucks that you can’t wriggle out of that Ministry New Year’s thing (sounds like a bore!), but at least you get to wear an awesome dress. Tarquin writes to me every day – he really does try too hard but I kind of like it. Do you think it’s strange that I do? I mean, am I getting soft?

            Anyways, have you heard anything from you-know-who? I know you don’t want to hear about it. Or talk about it, or think about it (btw, what the hell is wrong with you???), but that doesn’t change the fact that Jams bloody Potter KISSED you! Have you told anyone? Have you told Vala? I know she’s being kind of nice but I don’t trust her. At all. So be careful!

            Anyways, let me know if there’s anything new (you know what I’m talking about!) and I’m so looking forward to seeing you next week!

                                   Love,

                                   Katie

P.S.: Mum says hello and good job on snogging James Potter (she has no clue who he is, of course, but she thinks (as I do) that some snogging is good for you.)

 

            The doorbell rang loudly, echoing through the house, and I sighed, putting down the letter in my hands. The paper was pink, of course, and smelled faintly of Katie’s flowery perfume, which she had a habit of spritzing on everything that inhabited her room. My eyes lingered, quite involuntarily, on the words ‘snogging James Potter’, which sounded just wrong, somehow.

I had had time to reflect upon ‘the incident’, as I now liked to refer to the kiss in my head, and come to the conclusion that, in the end, it really didn’t mean anything. Except that Potter was an arrogant prat, of course; after, all, he had never even considered the possibility that I might not want to be kissed by him.

Frustrated with my own thoughts (which seemed to be circling back to James Potter a lot these days) I groaned and hoisted myself out of my comfortable bed. The holidays were nearly over and I still had an Arithmancy paper to finish for Professor Sinistra, which was very much unlike me.

Grabbing an assortment of books and sufficient paper and ink, I ventured downstairs and slipped into my Grandparents’ grand library, which had turned out to be a great place to study: The soft crackling of the fire place always had a soothing effect on me and, more importantly, it was also conveniently forsaken; none of my family, except for Grandfather, ever seemed to set foot in it.

Unfortunately, I was out of luck today.

“Oh, hello!” 

I halted abruptly, almost dropping my writing supplies from shock as I stared at a brightly smiling Demeter Notte.

“Um, hi,” I replied rather oddly, not sure how else to react. The last time I had ‘talked’ to Demeter, she had asked me if I was ‘shagging’ Albus Potter and I wasn’t keen on repeating that conversation.

“I’m Demeter,” she said in a chipper voice, politely holding out her hand to me.

I narrowed my eyes at her for a moment, convinced that she was pulling my leg; it was sheer impossible that anybody would be that dim.

“I… know,” I said very slowly, as though talking to a slightly dense toddler, and when she still showed no sign of recognition, I added. “We’re in the same year at Hogwarts.”

Her forehead creased in a deep frown as she squinted at my face, apparently trying to make the connection, before finally shaking her head, looking confused.

“I’m Vala’s cousin? Seth?” I supplied, feeling a sudden urge to laugh as I remembered the nickname Katie had given her: ‘Dim-meter’. It did fit rather nicely.

“Oh, Vala!” She cried out in what I initially thought to be a bout of joy upon recognising the name, until I realised that Vala had actually walked into the library behind me.

“You didn’t tell me you had a cousin!” Demeter said happily, looking back and forth between the both of us as though she had never seen something so wondrous. Maybe she was looking for similarities, which she certainly wouldn’t find.

 “Let’s just go upstairs,” Vala said in a bored voice without even so much as acknowledging that I was in the room with them. She seemed suddenly rigid; almost uncomfortable at merely standing next to me.

“Oh but we can study down here. With Beth,” Demeter suggested, still talking as though she did not have a care in the world.

 “No.” Vala’s voice was so cold that it actually rivalled the thick snowflakes that were still falling relentlessly in front of the window behind her. “Let’s go upstairs.”

There was a moment of silence in which Demeter simply looked at my cousin before finally shrugging her shoulders.

“Fine.” And she gave me a last chipper wave before trudging out of the library, Vala following at her heels.

I simply stared after them, not sure what exactly had just happened. After spending the last couple of days with Vala, studying together and even talking about non-school related things, I had completely forgotten that, actually, we weren’t friends.

 

***

 

I couldn’t help but stare; it was simply too bright, too – well – not me. I had told my mother that I was perfectly fine with the one from last year, but she had simply laughed as though I had made a really funny joke, airily waving her hand.

            “Nonsense, Elizabeth,” she had said, “last year was last year. There is no need to repeat it.”

            I knew what she had meant, of course; last year, I had still looked like a ten year old boy. This year, however, I would actually look like a girl, not like a cross-dresser in a glitzy ball gown.

That’s why it was red; bright red with an alluring off-shoulder neckline and layers of sheer chiffon that, although falling all the way to the ground like transparent red waterfalls, would surely not suffice to conceal my legs.

“Have you seen Levine?”

The door had swung open violently and I jumped, quickly crossing my arms in front of my chest as Vala stormed into my room, the silver silk skirt of her dress swishing behind her on the polished wooden floor. She looked slightly mad with half of her dark brown hair in tiny ringlets and the other half pin straight as usual.

“How about knocking?” I growled as I searched the pile of clothes on the bed for a shirt to throw on over my knickers, which earned me a slow eye roll from my cousin.

“Oh please, don’t be such a prude,” she said as she pranced towards the vanity and bent down to examine her face. “I look like a fucking panda.”

“What are you doing here, Vala?” I sighed as I buttoned up the white shirt I had just found, watching my cousin rubbing at the massive black stains on her eyelids. We had barely talked to each other since the awkward encounter with Demeter Notte last week, mostly because I had kept my distance and followed Katie’s advice.

“I thought we could get ready together.” She shrugged, still trying to wipe off the excessive eye shadow that extended all the way to her eyebrows. “Honestly, I should have never trusted my grandmother’s stylist.”

I squinted at Vala’s reflection in my mirror, my arms still firmly knotted in front of my torso as I watched her smudge the make-up around her eyes. It was the tenth year our family took us to the Ministry of Magic’s annual New Year’s Eve ball, but I couldn’t ever remember Vala suggesting getting ready together; it was quite out of character.

“Are you drunk?”

“Unfortunately not,” she sighed, now pulling at strands of her multi-textured hair. “But I really hope that's going to change in the course of the evening"

 

***

Green flames were licking at the skirt of my floor-sweeping gown, only releasing the cloth as I stepped out of the tall fireplace and into the grand foyer of the Ministry of Magic. As usual, the towering hall was lavishly decorated with glittering garlands that floated lazily above the arriving guests’ heads, merely hinting at what was awaiting us in the actual ball room.

            “Ah, there they are.” I heard my mother say to no one in particular and, with a dignified flick of her jewel-bedecked wrist, she beckoned over the small party that had just appeared in the fireplace across from ours. Who she had spotted, I did not know, for my attention had momentarily been drawn away from my family as I spotted a familiar black head in the crowd: Albus Potter was lingering awkwardly next to the pillared entrance to the ball room, looking rather white-faced but otherwise quite well. In fact, he looked better than before he had been poisoned, with his hair no longer slicked back but sticking up randomly again and his green eyes wide and alert.

            “You look absolutely ravishing.”

            I jumped at the voice that had spoken close to my left ear and spun around, only to come face to face with a grinning Asher Engelstein, who was standing uncomfortably close to me.

            “Asher,” I replied lamely and took a step back, still processing this very unexpected turn of events. From the corner of my eye I could see his parents, chatting happily with mine as they cast regular glances at us, looking oddly pleased.

            “What are you doing here?” It was a stupid question, of course, but I really couldn’t think of anything else to talk about; after the Quidditch Kick-Off in October, we had exchanged a few short letters until I had realised that we had absolutely nothing to say to each other and stopped writing altogether.

            “I really like your dress,” he continued, unperturbed by my clumsy attempt at sounding casual. “Red suits you well.”

            “Um, thanks,” I replied awkwardly, tugging a strand of wavy hair behind my ear while already perusing different strategies of how to get rid of him in my mind; I just somehow had to avoid sitting next to him and everything would be fine.

            “Let’s find our table, shall we?” Grandfather said behind me and I made to move closer towards Vala, who gave me an amused look. Alas, my attempt at bringing some distance between Asher and me was shattered within an instance.

            “Asher, why don’t you escort Elizabeth into the ball room?” Grandfather suggested quite casually and I had no other choice but to accept the arm Asher was offering to me.

            “Don’t they look perfect together,” I heard my mother say to Asher’s parents as they trailed along behind us, apparently watching our every step.

 

The ball room was filled with elegantly dressed people already, swarming around the many white-clothed tables, exchanging pleasantries and compliments. No one actually paid much attention to the twigs of mistletoe that grew extravagantly across the high ceiling, rustling in an invisible breeze, or the bits of floating gold dust that infused the room, making the air glitter; no one, but two small children, who were jumping around at the edge of the still empty dance floor, trying to trap the flimsy particles in their hands.

            I watched them for a moment, not really looking but still thinking of ways to escape Asher, when suddenly I realised with a jolt that, right next to them, sat none other than James Potter; and he was chatting very intimately with a pretty round-faced girl with long, golden locks.

            “You’re so beautiful, everyone is looking at you,” Asher whispered next to me and I quickly tore my eyes off of James, feeling caught.

            “Sure. Let’s find our seats,” I mumbled distractedly, pulling him towards the other side of the hall, hoping that the sheer size of the event would prevent me from running into James Potter tonight.

 

***

As the evening progressed, the dance floor began to fill as more and more couples joined the swaying crowd. Unfortunately, they were not enough to obscure my view of the table across the room, where James Potter was still having an animated conversation with the pretty blonde, who made such obvious moony eyes at him that her face was a display of adoration. What was even worse, however, was Ginny Potter, who sat across from her oldest son, observing him and the girl with radiant approval. Obviously she didn’t think this girl would trade her son’s secrets for a cover story in Witch Weekly.

I didn’t care what James was doing, of course, but it bothered me that he was doing it in my field of vision while, as far as I could tell, he hadn’t even noticed me.

“Will you dance with me?”

What?” I looked up perplexed, only staring at Asher’s eager face for a moment before finally realising that the question had been directed at me. “Oh, um, no thank you. I don’t-.”

“Of course she will dance with you,” my mother, who had apparently been listening in at our conversation, said quickly, giving me a reproachful side-glance.

“I don’t bite, I promise,” Asher said in an annoyingly chipper voice and extended his hand towards me.

I took it reluctantly – mostly because I couldn’t stand the weird looks anymore that I had been getting from my family all evening already – and followed Asher onto the dance floor, where, most inconveniently, a very slow song had just started to play.

“Isn’t this great?” Asher said as he pulled me closer to him, swaying to the music as though he couldn’t imagine anything better than this. Over his shoulder, I could see our table, where everybody was watching us; it seemed as though they were all waiting for something to happen, but I didn’t know what exactly they were expecting. Surely everybody had realised by now that this weird attempt at pairing us off had failed miserably.

“Asher, what is all this about?” I asked, feeling a sudden bout of frustration at the situation; I was at an event I really didn’t want to be at, wearing a dress my mother had chosen for me, and dancing with a boy whose endless monologues on magical law frequently put me to sleep.

“What are you talking about?”

Come on,” I said warily, putting a bit of distance between us to better see his face. “We have absolutely nothing in common; I mean, there is literally nothing we can talk about that bores neither of us to death and you know it. There is no chemistry. No excitement. We couldn’t be more different but still you act like – well – like this.”

“Well,” he said, suddenly sounding much less corny than he had just a few minutes ago, “it’s not really up to us, is it?”

I frowned at him, not sure he had gotten the point of what I had said to him. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Elizabeth,” he sighed as though explaining to a raging toddler that it couldn’t have sweets before dinner. “You know how these things work in families like ours. My parents think this is a good match, so does your family. This has been decided years ago, really.”

I stopped dancing abruptly, completely ignoring the moving bodies that bumped into me as I stood like a statue, staring disbelievingly at Asher, who looked wary.

“You can’t be serious,” I said slowly, feeling as though something very hot was trickling down my back. “This is complete nonsense.”

“Is it?” He raised his eyebrows at me “Why do you think they force us together like this?”

“No.” I simply shook my head at Asher, taking a couple of clumsy steps backwards. “No, this is impossible.” But somehow, deep down, I knew that it really wasn’t. In truth I had always known. Arranging appropriate matches for their children was still a very common practice in many pure-blood families; and mine wasn’t an exception.

“Let’s be reasonable,” he said calmly, trying to come closer, but I had already turned on my heels and began to fight my way through the crowd. I had no idea where I was going until I had spotted my mother, chatting animatedly to one of her friends.

            “You’re marrying me off?” I yelled as I approached her, a definite hint of hysteria in my shaky voice.

“Elizabeth, what –“

“You’re marrying me off to some guy I barely know like this is the 18th century?”

“What are you talking about?” My mother said soothingly, throwing an apologetic smile at her friend, who looked rather scandalized and grabbed her glass of Champaign before quickly moving away from us, probably not wanting to be involved in any kind of embarrassing display.

“Elizabeth, darling,” my mother sighed, sounding somewhat exhausted. “We’re not ‘marrying you off’. We only want the best for you and Asher comes from a great family-”

“I don’t even know him!” I protested in a fruitless attempt to make my mother understand how completely ridiculous this entire match-making spectacle was.

“But you’ll have time to get to know him. Years, really. I promise,” she said as though this would solve everything. “You don’t have to marry right away.”

“Oh goody!” I cried, sounding slightly mad, even to my own ears. “Well, then this is not atrocious at all, really.”

“I know this might seem strange to you at the moment, but it will make sense eventually.”

“What about what I want?” I could feel angry tears stinging behind my eyes as I stared at my mother, who had reached out in what might have been an attempt to hug me, but dropped her arms half-way. “Does that matter to you at all?”

“Of course it does,” she said softly, once again reaching out to touch my arms, but I had moved back before she could reach me and simply turned around, storming out of the ball room.

 

Heat was coursing through my body as I ran past blurry figures and into the darkness. My head was spinning and I was struggling to breathe as my dress seemed to tighten around my torso, constricting my lungs. I had no idea where exactly I was headed but I knew that I needed to feel cold, fresh air on my face or I would collapse.

            I stopped at the first window I found, pulling frantically at the lever to open it, but nothing happened. It was apparently stuck and after a few futile attempts, I gave up and ran to the next one, tearing at the handle again, just to find it locked as well.

            “Please! Just open, please!” I groaned as I rested my forehead against the surprisingly warm glass, half-heartedly banging my fists against the window.

            “Woodley, what are you doing?”

            I whirred around, staring wordlessly at James Potter for a moment; he looked handsome and careless as usual, but there was definitely a bit of concern visible on his face.

            “I can’t breathe,” I told him, just as I felt a couple of tears roll down my cheek. It was mortifying to have James Potter find me in the middle of a panic attack, but there was absolutely no way I could pretend I was okay. Not when I had never been less okay in my life. “I can’t breathe and I can’t get these bloody windows to open.”

            “They – they are not real windows,” he said, somewhat awkwardly, taking a tentative step towards me as though he was afraid that sudden movements would scare me away.

            “Of course.” I nodded, only just remembering that the Ministry of Magic was, in fact, underground. “Of course they’re not.”

            James only looked at me and I quickly wiped away the tears, feeling utterly exposed.

            “Let’s go,” he suddenly said and I looked up in surprise.

            “What? Where?”

            “I don’t know.” He shrugged, looking around him as though he could see a thousand possibilities. “Just out of here.”

            “But-”

            “Come one. Don’t think.”

            “Easy for you to say,” I mumbled loudly enough for him to hear, but he only grinned in response and held out his hand. “Trust me, Woodley.”

            I frowned at it for a moment, ignoring the urge to just grab it. “I thought we have already established that I don’t.”

            “Woodley.”

            “Potter.”

            And without really knowing what I was doing, I took his hand and he pulled me with him along the dark corridor.


 







Happy Christmas to all of you! I hope you enjoyed this chapter and I am really looking forward to hearing your thoughts and theories! Reviews will be my greatest gift this year J I hope you all have great holidays and a happy New Year!

Much love to all of you!


Chapter 24: The Stumbling Stag
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The Stumbling Stag

 

It had been a stupid idea. It occurred to me as I ran along the deserted corridor, my red gown flying behind me like I was on fire, my eyes firmly on James Potter’s suit-clad back, who seemed to know exactly where he was going. I was acting like the over-emotional teenager I had never wanted to be – running from my family and their expectations – but, oddly, I also felt a twinge of excitement, even satisfaction, at the thought of defying them.

I was supposed to dance with my ‘suitable match’, instead I was running away with a Potter.

“Still with me, Woodley?” James called out as we turned yet another corner, stopping so abruptly that I crashed into him inelegantly.

“Obviously,” I grumbled, tumbling a few steps backwards. “Though I really don’t know why.”

A familiar, crooked smile curved his lips as he watched me rearrange the skirt of my unmanageably long dress, trying to hide the fact that it was basically see-through.

“Do you always need a reason to do something, Woodley?”

I squinted at him for a moment, contemplating his features; they were barely visible in the dim light, just as they had been that night on the Hogwarts grounds.

“Why would you do anything without a reason?”

For the fraction of a second his smile faded to a frown, but then he quickly rearranged his features again, flashing an unbearably cocky grin.

“For fun,” he said as he took my hand once again and pulled me out of the corridor into a brightly lit hall.

It took me a moment to realise where we had landed, until I recognised the gaudy glittering garlands that floated above the heads of the dozen of ball guests that had come here to take a break from the buzzing ballroom.

After running down all these dark corridors, we had ended up in the foyer once more – in a different, slightly more concealed corner, maybe, but still in the foyer – and I couldn’t help the sinking feeling in my stomach as the full force of the anti-climax hit me.

“And I actually thought you had a plan, Potter.”

James, however, grinned. “Always so doubtful,” he said, walking off towards what looked like a deserted reception desk and – and it took me a moment to realise this – a most peculiar, seemingly random telephone booth.

With a quick look around to check if no one was watching, James casually pulled open the door of the iconic red cubicle and gave me a challenging smile. “Come on, Woodley.”

I shook my head before I could even find the words to reply. If he really thought I would consent to cramming into this small old telephone booth with him, he was dimmer than I actually thought.

“You’re thinking too much,” he said softly, the smile lightening as he looked straight into my eyes. My heart was hammering against my chest as I withstood his gaze, unable to look away. He had no idea what he was asking of me.

            Somewhere in the distance I could hear the music and noises of the ball. I could just return and pretend I had simply been out here all along. Alone. I could try to arrange myself with my fate, my duty, as Grandmother would put it, and live the legacy that had defined me from the moment I had been born.

            But then, I suddenly remembered; I remembered what I had long decided to forget – so fiercely that it had actually disappeared. And even though it had just been a quiet thought, a mere whisper underneath the cover of an ancient, moth eaten hat, it suddenly echoed in my head as loudly as though it had never been gone: Not Slytherin.

            “Let’s go,” I said as I gathered up the many layers of my dress and folded myself into the telephone box with James Potter grinning wickedly as, this time, he followed my lead.

 

***

 

I hadn’t had time to marvel over the moving phone box, nor the fact that James apparently knew that it would take us to a deserted backstreet in central London. Before I could even find my bearings, we were sailing down a brightly lit street, past partying folk, donning funny glittering hats and staggering arm in arm towards the River Thames, talking about fireworks that would erupt over the city in less than two hours’ time.

I didn’t even realise that it was actually freezing, with the fire of my rebellion still burning through my entire body as we moved swiftly through the crowd.

“Eh beautiful! How ‘bout a New Year’s kiss fo’ good luck,” someone called out next to me and I could feel the grip of a sweaty hand on my bare arm reaching out of the roaring mass around me, but before I could even react, James had put his arm around my waist and pulled me out of the tangle of bodies into a sparsely lit side street.

“I could have handled it,” I said quickly, not liking the idea of James having to rescue me from a drunk’s clumsy advances. “I don’t need to be saved, you know.”

“So I’ve heard,” James replied, sounding thoroughly amused as he studied my defiant face. “And I didn’t. I just needed you to come with me.”

He turned around, pointing at the red-lacquered door behind him, above which a sooty wooden plate flashed a fading picture of a wonky sort of deer and the words ‘The Stumbling Stag’. Attached to the wooden board was a lopsided sign which said, in capital letters, ‘NO FOOD’. Right beneath the pealing print, someone had scribbled, also in capital letters, ‘NO SERVICE’.

It definitely wasn’t magical; in fact, nothing could ever be less magical than this run-down Muggle dive.

            “I bet you take every girl here, Potter, don’t you?”

            “Not really,” James replied simply, ignoring the sarcasm in my voice. “You’re special, Woodley.” And with that, he had pushed open the door.

            A pungent mix of sour spilled beer and mouldy cloth insulted my nose the moment I stepped into the low-slung room, causing a fleeting wave of nausea. The air was sticky and heavy with cheap aftershave that clung to sweaty skins, which belonged to dubious figures that cowered over shadowed tables, staring down their lukewarm drinks.

            Some of them had raised their heads at the disturbance of their drunken stupor, looking at me as though they weren’t sure if I was real or just a figment of their inebriated minds. To be fair, I did look quite out of place, standing in the middle of this dilapidated pup in my floor-dusting ball gown.

            “Um, hi,” I said feebly and, not sure what exactly the protocol for such places was, threw a small wave into the room before slipping into the only free booth, my face probably quite as red as my dress.

            “Tell me you didn’t just wave at everybody?” James laughed as he reached the table, carrying two extraordinarily full glasses of what I supposed to be Muggle Whiskey.

            I simply shook my head, trying hard not to laugh as he took the seat across from me, handing me a glass.

“What do we drink to?”

            I looked at the amber liquid in the dirty glass, wondering if my family had already noticed my absence. Their wrath was going to be outrageous; so was my punishment, but the thought of it only kindled the fire, goading on the sulky, defiant teenager-part of me.

            “To family,” I said bitterly and, in one swift movement, had lifted the glass to my lips and emptied it in one burning gulp.

            “Oh-kay,” James said slowly, raising his eyebrows at the empty glass I had slammed back down on the sticky table. “Maybe you should take it a little slower, Woodley.”

            “Or maybe,” I said, rising so quickly that the world around me began to spin, “I should get us more drinks.”

 

***

 

The wooden table was scorched with ominous black marks – maybe cigarette burns – and showcased half a dozen lovers’ oaths, carved into the once glossy surface to last for eternity. I ran my finger along a particularly vigorously engraved V that pierced the centre of a clumsily drawn heart, wondering about the person behind the letter.

            “There you go.” James had returned to the booth, placing a pint of golden liquid onto the table, obscuring the carved V. Despite my thorough protests, he had switched us from whiskey to beer after I had downed my second glass, immediately slowing down my alcohol intake. It was still enough to make my head feel light and my family far away.

            “Thanks,” I said, nipping at the stale drink and, in spite of myself, puckered my lips at the bitter taste. “I have to say, I’m kind of warming up to this place.”

            James grinned and took a long sip from his beer without taking his eyes off of me. “I usually come here with Freddie whenever we’re stuck at some boring event in London.”

            “Oh no!” I cried out, feeling suddenly inexplicably sad at the thought of Freddie, sitting around at the Ministry ball all by himself. “Poor Freddie! We’ve just left him there. You’re a terrible friend, Potter.”

            “He’ll be alright,” James replied grinning, but when he looked up again, his smile had faded to a more serious expression and his dark eyebrows furrowed. “Are you?”

            I regarded his face for a long moment – a liberty I wouldn’t have allowed myself if it hadn’t been for my intoxicated brain – contemplating my answer.

            “Sure.” I took another sip of beer, watching James’s eyes narrow with disbelieve over the brim of my glass.

            “You’re a rubbish liar, Woodley.”

            “I –“ I sighed, turning the half-empty glass of beer in my warm hands. “I really don’t want to talk about it.”

            “Why?”

            “Because you wouldn’t understand,” I said, a frustrated laugh escaping my lips. James Potter with his picture perfect loving family would never understand.

            “Try me,” he insisted, a kind of fierce stubbornness glinting in his eyes, and I found myself once again staring into them, not sure how to read them.

            “It’s just,” I sighed, my eyes still focused on the swirling yellow liquid in my glass rather than James’s face. “You know my family, don’t you?”

            “Yes,” he said simply, albeit sounding slightly uncomfortable, and I could only guess that he – like me – was remembering the last time we had seen each other in Hagrid’s hut. “I know your family.”

I looked up at him momentarily, scowling at the cold undertone I thought I had detected in his voice. It was almost instantly that I regretted saying anything to him.

            “Well, they are not that horrible,” I snapped, not entirely sure why I was defending my family after everything that had happened tonight.

            “I didn’t mean - I just. I’m sorry.” James ran a hand through his messy brown hair, rumpling it up even further in the process. “I just thought-“

            “You think all pureblood families are scum.”

            “Obviously,” he scoffed. “That’s why I’m sitting here with you, Woodley.”

            We glared at each other stubbornly for a couple of seconds, but then James’s expression softened again and he leaned forwards a little, playing with his empty beer glass.

            “Look, I just – I saw you arguing with your mum tonight before you-”

            He refrained from finishing the sentence, but I knew that he was talking about the state of panic he had found me in at the Ministry. The fact that he didn’t elaborate on my moment of weakness seemed to loosen the arms I had knotted tightly in front of my chest a little.

“My family is just frustrating sometimes.” I said quietly, “You wouldn’t understand.”

            “Are you kidding me?” He snorted, giving me an incredulous look. “I’m the Chosen One’s son. Try living up to that.”

            “I – I forgot,” I admitted, feeling quite stupid all of a sudden; strangely it had never occurred to me that there might be some family pressure on James as well.

            “I wish I could, sometimes,” he said bitterly. “I’m a Potter. The entire world has been watching me since I was born, waiting for me to screw up. I got my first spread in Witch Weekly when I was six.”

            I considered him for a moment, as he sat there with his rumpled white shirt and the rolled up sleeves; his light brown eyes were searching mine, as though he wasn’t sure he should have told me all this, and I felt an involuntary surge of understanding for Ginny Potter’s harsh reaction towards me.

            “Do you remember Asher?” I suddenly heard myself say, not quite sure that my brain had still sufficient influence over my vocal chords. “The guy from the Quidditch Kick-Off?”

            James nodded silently, evidently not wanting to interrupt me now that I had decided to stop snapping at him.

“Apparently I’m going to marry him.”

“Wait, what?” James laughed, although it seemed more like a gesture of incomprehension than amusement. “You’re joking, right?”

“I wish,” I said quietly, pushing aside my glass to look at the carved V again, thinking that, even if its whittler was a sorry drunk, spending his days in a dingy dive, at least he was free to live his life as he chose. “Unfortunately my family has already decided for me.”

“But,” James said, still looking like he was waiting for someone to shout ‘April fools!’. “You’re not going to do it.”

I had told myself the exact same thing, ever since I had been old enough to understand how families like mine operated; I had insisted that I would be different, that I would defy these ancient practices. But it was exactly this moment – the disbelieving look in James’s eyes – that made me admit what I had known all along.

“It’s what is expected of me,” I said calmly in an attempt to not sound like I was falling apart. “My family is not like yours. I can’t get out. I can delay it, maybe; for a couple of years so I can go to university, but-“

Seth.”

I looked up at the unexpected sound of my first name; James stared at me as though he was searching for something in my face that would give away the lie. “You can’t be serious.”

I smiled slightly at his unwillingness to believe me. “It’s fine,” I said, although it wasn’t, and when he opened his mouth to protest, I quickly shook my head, knowing that anything he could say now would only make me feel worse.

“I have to deal with this; one way or another,” I said, sitting up a little straighter and lifting my chin defiantly, “probably for the rest of my life – but not right now. Not here. Not tonight.”

For the fraction of a second I was sure he wouldn’t give up; he looked positively livid, like he was keen to start a fight, if only for the chance to punch something; but, to my surprise, he simply picked up his half-full glass and, in less than three gulps, had downed its contents completely.

“I’ll get us some shots, then,” he said casually and, with that, walked away towards the bar.

 

***

 

The world spun – wonderfully so – as I gazed at the black sky beneath the glare of the streetlights, looking for stars that were invisible.

            “Here,” James said softly and I felt a sudden surge of warmth spread through my body, reminding me that it was actually really cold outside. As I looked over my shoulder, I saw that he had draped his suit jacket around my shoulders, which felt heavy in the most pleasant way.

            “What about you?” I asked as I watched him walk next to me, his hands in the pockets of his trousers and his thin white shirt pressed against his torso by the wind.

            “I don’t mind the cold.” He shrugged and I couldn’t help but laugh, which seemed to come more easily with the alcohol cursing through my blood.

            “What?” He asked, barely able to mask the grin on his face.

            “Nothing,” I said, giving him the most serious look I could muster. “I just thought how super cool you are.”

            “Oh, shut up.” James gave me a playful shove, which, considering my slightly wonky tread, would have probably sent me straight to the rough asphalt if he hadn’t – instead of pushing me – slid his arm around my waist.

            “I feel that I am drunker than you are,” I said to him as we walked along the still buzzing street arm in arm; judging by the obnoxious sound of the cheap plastic horns around us, it must have been shortly before midnight.

            “That’s because you are, Woodley,” he replied laughing while simultaneously steering us through an a capella group that had just struck up a wistful version of Auld Lang Syne. His hand was still firmly placed on my waist and I was shocked to realise that I did not completely detest the feeling.

            “Do you think we’ll make it in time? Before midnight, I mean,” I asked as the large party of girls in front of us had initiated a false countdown, which, at three, terminated in drunken giggles.

            “Maybe.” James shrugged. “Why?”

            I watched him for a moment as he scanned the crowd quite unconcernedly, without any haste, and I couldn’t help but think of the pretty round-faced girl that probably had been sitting around by herself all night, waiting for James Potter to return. The way she had looked at him had spoken volumes, really; I had seen it on countless girls before.  

            “You broke up with Fern Sterling,” I said boldly, not bothering to formulate it as a question; after all I had bared enough of my soul to James tonight to expect some honesty in return.

            He gave me a strange look before replying quite casually. “She wasn’t really my type.”

            “Is anyone?” I said laughing as we had turned the corner and landed on a barely lit side street that was completely bare except for an old red telephone box, bearing a crooked ‘out of order’ sign.

            James simply shook his head, a small smile on his face, before letting go of my waist as we reached the secret entrance to the Ministry of Magic. “After you.”

            I walked past him as he held open the door, squeezing into the cubicle again with my thousand layers of red cloth taking up the space that was left, surrounding me like a sea of chiffon. It would be only seconds until I had to face reality again; a fact that all the shots in the world could have never remedied.

            “James,” I said quietly as he closed the door behind him. When he looked up I realised that our faces were as close as they had only been once before. “Do you believe in love?”

            He frowned slightly, his brown eyes scanning my face with such intensity that I felt my cold cheeks blush. If anyone could give me reassurance that love was simply an overrated figment of human imagination, nothing but a petty meaningless detail of life, I was sure it was James Potter.

            “Do you?” He asked so softly that his voice was barely more than a rasp. Around us, the windows of the telephone box had begun to mist up, blurring the view of the dark street as though it only existed in a faraway reality.

            “I don’t think I want to, really,” I said in an attempt at sarcasm, but James did not laugh. He didn’t even smile as he continued to look at me, his eyes traveling over my face as though they were trying to take in every feature; every imperfection, every scar. And before I had even realised it, the small gap between us had vanished and I was pushed against the cold, fogged up glass, feeling James’s hot breath on my skin and the familiar sensation of our lips clashing.

            But it was different this time. I couldn’t help thinking so as he pulled me closer and I wound my arms around his neck in return, reluctant to let even a sliver of air come between us.

            My head was spinning and the ground was moving as somewhere in the distance an orchestra of bagpipes played the solemn chorus of a familiar tune. A cluster of explosions mingled with the melancholic melody and a rainbow of colours lit up the entire city, but neither of us was willing to break the embrace.

The old year had gone, the new one begun, but time had become irrelevant in this crammed old telephone box and, just for the fraction of a second, I actually allowed myself to forget about tomorrow.

            “Oi!” The urgent whisper was accompanied by a sharp rap on the door and I jumped at the sight of Freddie Weasley’s mildly amused face that stared at us through one of the windows. “Sorry to interrupt, but you might consider taking this somewhere else.”

            It took me a moment to comprehend what had just happened but, as I turned my head, I realised that we were no longer in the lonely, dark backstreet, but in the middle of the brightly lit Ministry of Magic foyer, surrounded by curious onlookers who were craning their necks to get a better view at the entwined couple in the phone booth.

It hadn’t only felt like the ground had been moving; it actually had.

            Withdrawing my arms from James’s neck I scanned the gawking crowd as they raised their eyebrows at the scene, a disapproving humming filling the room. Scandal laced the air and everybody seemed to soak it up willingly as, slowly but steadily, gazes shifted towards a group of people in the front; Harry and Ginny Potter looked befuddled, but their expressions were nothing in comparison to the look of utter disbelieve that had appeared on the Woodleys’ faces.

            “This is preposterous,” Charlize Engelstein suddenly hissed into the buzzing silence. Next to her, Asher looked at me as though I had sucker-punched him.

“We will not be treated like this!” She threw what could only be described as a death glare at my family, before grabbing her son’s shoulder and steering him out of the crowd.

            The Woodleys simply stood there, my parents next to my grandparents, staring at me like they were seeing me for the very first time, and I knew that I had managed what no one else had before me: I had publicly humiliated the probably proudest family in England.


 





A/N: The end.

No, just kidding, of course ;).

 

You guys, I just can’t believe that this story has OVER 240 REVIEWS… Honestly, when I started ‘How not to be a Woodley’ I would have never expected this. At all. And I know I’ve said this before and it makes me sound like a really sappy old cat-lady, but you lot are just AMAZING and you inspire me and make me happy and I am so incredibly thankful to all of you who read and leave me reviews.

 

Having said this, I hope all of you lovelies have enjoyed this slightly shorter but all the more intense chapter and leave me lots and lots of reviews to squeal over as I am working on the next one ;).

 

(P.S.: Since I am frequently asked if I have some kind of soundtrack in mind while writing this story, I thought I’d give you a list of the songs that inspired this particular chapter and hope you enjoy them as much as I do ;):

Scene One “Running Away”: Charles William – Starts

Scene Two “The Stumbling Stag”: James Bay - FourFiveSeconds (in the Live Lounge)

Scene Three “The Way Back to the Ministry”: Mairi Campbell and Dave Francis - Auld Lang Syne

Scene Four “The Kiss”: James Bay - Incomplete 


Chapter 25: A Teenage Frenzy
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So, I’m usually not a fan of author’s notes at the beginning, but I just wanted to prepare everybody that there is some mature content in this chapter (I know it’s rated M anyway but just in case)… it’s not too extreme but – well – a little bit ;) Have fun!




 

The Woodleys would have never made a scene.

As usual the struggle was internal.

            I had stumbled out of the phone box inelegantly, my legs still slightly wobbly, which even I knew was just embarrassing, but no one had spoken a word; not to me, nor to each other. I had simply been ushered away from James with as much dignity as the situation would allow, and steered into the nearest fireplace.

            Even now upon returning to my Grandparents’ house, away from prying eyes, my mother had calmly sent me up to my room, her voice curt but composed. No one had raised their voice. No one had even looked at me; except for Vala, who had given me weird glances whenever she thought I hadn’t been looking.

            In proper Woodley vein, I was to be ignored until my parents and my grandparents, who had retreated to my Grandfather’s study, had reached their verdict concerning my fate.

            It was frustrating, to say the least.

            “What the hell were you thinking?” I heard Vala hiss as she followed me up the stairs, keeping just enough distance so that she would not tread on my dress as it swept the staircase behind me.

            “Leave me alone, Vala,” I growled, not even bothering to turn around and face her. I couldn’t help thinking that it was rather rich of her to chastise me for my behaviour when she had done much worse things already than merely kissing a boy.

            “Do you know what this means?” She had pursued me all the way down the corridor, apparently unabashed by my unwillingness to join the conversation.

Of course I knew what this meant. It meant the end.

The end of Hogwarts. The end of my freedom. The end of everything.

But the thought was too painful to allow into my head just yet and so I forced myself to push it away.

            “I don’t need to be lectured by you,” I snapped as I had opened the door, whipping around to finally look at my cousin; the scared look on her face caught me off guard and I lost my train of thoughts for a moment. “I – I need to be alone.”

            As the door snapped close behind me, I allowed myself to lean against the warm wood, my eyes closed to shield them from the glare of the ceiling light. My head throbbed in sync with my heart as one thought chased another, whirring so fast that I had difficulty holding on to one for longer than the fraction of a second.

            I forced myself to stand upright again and quickly crossed the room to the desk in front of the window, grabbing a piece of wrinkled paper and an old ballpoint pen. But, just as I had written the words ‘Dear Katie’, my hand froze and I stared at the empty white sheet, realising that writing a letter could never have calmed the storm that was raging in my head, forcing me to trace my own footsteps over and over again, trying to disentangle the blur of tonight’s events so they made sense.

But they didn’t. None of it made sense. None of it was logical, yet, it had happened.

            Frustrated, I crumpled up the almost empty page and chucked the pen I was holding carelessly at the small, round mirror on the vanity, where it hit the glass sharply and left a fine crack. I barely noticed, however, as my thoughts kept circling back to my Grandfather’s study, where surely my transfer to Madame Esther’s Magical Academy for Etiquette and Manners would be decided this second.

            The sheer helplessness of my situation hit me hard and it induced a sudden recklessness that seemed to boil in my blood. An irresponsible urge to just run downstairs and tell them that I wasn’t a bloody puppet had gripped me, and I began to pace once more, yelling the words inside my head.

            It was then, that my gaze fell onto the colourful piece of paper that stuck out from between the pages of one of my books; it was the old issue of Witch Weekly, which I had found in the library a couple of months ago, featuring the cover story of the Potters’ cottage on the Scottish country side.

            A younger, roguish version of James was staring back at me from underneath the crumpled title and, suddenly, an idea began to form in my head.

 

***

 

I didn’t have a plan. My thoughts were running wild, disobeying any attempt to disentangle them, and all I knew was that I needed to get out of this house.

            For a moment, I contemplated grabbing a coat and simply sneaking out the door, but I discarded this idea momentarily again when remembering once again that, in fact, there was nowhere to go. My grandparents’ house was conveniently located in the middle of a dense forest, so that no wandering Muggles would stumble upon the vast estate coincidentally.

            Floopowder wasn’t an option either, since I had no clue where my grandparents kept their reserve and searching for it would not only raise suspicions, but also seemed rather futile considering the sheer size of the house. Hence, the only way I could effectively leave without scouring through the dark, snowy woods for hours, was apparition.

            Legally, I wasn’t allowed to apparate, of course. I wasn’t even allowed to take the official test for another year. But during the last lesson before Christmas, I had actually succeeded in disappearing from inside the wooden hoop I had been standing in and appearing inside Thomas Walder’s. Admittedly, my aim had been slightly off, but, in principle, I could apparate.

            Like a glowing door, a wealth of possibilities suddenly seemed to have opened up for me; I could go wherever I wanted. I wasn’t quite sure yet where exactly that would be, but the sheer prowess of being able to exert at least a quaint of control over my mess of a life filled me with reckless elation.

            “Seth?” There was a sharp knock on my door and I froze momentarily, staring at the key underneath the handle and wondering if I had locked it. “Seth! Are you in there?” Vala’s muffled voice spoke again. “Let me in! We need to talk!”

            I stared at the slowly moving handle, thinking that maybe it would be better to just stay; to let Vala in; to accept whatever my family would throw at me. It would have been the smart thing to do; the thing I usually would have done.

            But I couldn’t –I did not want to do the smart thing. Maybe it was the residue of alcohol that still coursed through my veins, clouding my judgment, but just for once in my life, I did not want to be reasonable and responsible. And so I picked up James’ jacket which I had discarded on the floor before and, trying hard to get my cluttered mind to focus on my destination, I began to revolve on the spot as a roaring filled my ears and a terrible sensation of being sucked into a vacuum rolled over me until the room around me had dissolved into a whirl of indistinguishable colours.

 

***

No matter what people might say about apparating, materializing was definitely the worst part of the whole procedure; most of all when it included landing on a soggy patch of earth with a freezing wind whipping small, hard snowflakes into your face. Also, there was always this awful feeling of disorientation that accompanied the process, usually setting in after having made sure that there were no body parts missing.

Hence, for a moment, I was almost certain I had messed up my great escape and landed just a few miles from my grandparents’ house, whose outline was clearly visible among the towering snow-covered trees. However, when my eyes had adjusted to the darkness, I realised that the building that was nestled against the edge of the forest was much smaller and less intimidating than the house I had just fled from. Dark wafts of smoke were softly billowing from the chimney and warm light filtered through the drawn curtains, casting a faint glow on the snow that had built up on the window ledges of the cottage.

I had actually planned on apparating to Katie’s house, but, as I stared at the Potter’s home, which looked exactly like it had on the Witch Weekly cover, I realised that my subconsciousness must have had other plans. What exactly they were, I wasn’t quite sure; but I was beginning to shiver in my thin ball gown and so I began to move towards the house, hoping that some sort of plan would have formed in my head by the time I had reached it.

Alas, the only thoughts that ran through my mind were questions; I still wasn’t exactly sure how I had gotten here and, most of all, why. Not only was there a quite likely possibility that the Potters did not live here anymore, but I also wasn’t sure I wanted to come face to face with James or his family after everything that had happened tonight. After all, if the Woodley’s were any indication to go by, I wasn’t keen on learning how the Potters handled snogging in an enchanted phone box in front of Britain’s magical high society.

The only plausible idea that occurred to me was, thus, to get close enough to the house and hope that it was inhabited by wizards so that I could disparate again without anyone ever finding out what I had done. After all, no one had to know where I had been; I would simply sneak back into my room and wait for my family’s verdict.

It was a good plan – not brilliant, but solid; or, at least, it would have been, if I hadn’t mindlessly turned the corner and stopped in front of a brightly lit window with sloppily drawn curtains, staring at a scantily dressed James Potter like a deer in the headlights.

I could hear him yell out in shock, even through the glass, as he toppled backwards, the hem of his T-shirt (which he had been in the process of pulling over his head) awkwardly stuck to his upper-arms and shoulders.

For the lack of a better plan, and because I might still have been a little drunk, I smiled and waved.

“Seth?” James whispered, completely bewildered, as he opened his window while struggling to pull his shirt all the way down. “Are you okay? What happened? How did you-“

“I apparated,” I said quickly, not feeling like elaborating on what was actually going on. “I meant to end up at Katie’s house but – well, I kind of messed up.”

James stared at me for a moment and I was sure he was going to ask why on earth I had ended up here, lurking in front of his window like a complete creep; for all the times he had accused me of stalking him, this was the first instance I couldn’t have even blamed him for doing so. To my surprise, however, he didn’t say anything but simply held out his hand to me.

I stared at it stupidly, not sure what to do; the last time I had taken James Potter’s hand it had gotten us both into quite a sticky situation.

“Come on, Woodley. It’s freezing,” he urged softly and because it really was and because I wasn’t keen on running into any of the Potters while hanging out in front of their house like an overzealous fangirl, I reached out and let James pull me inside.

 

***

 

“You’re not seventeen yet, are you?” James had crossed the room in a few quick strides, rotating the key in the lock before turning back to look at me.

            I simply shook my head, feeling suddenly awkward as I stood there in my bright red dress with James’ black jacket still draped across my shoulders. In comparison to his simple grey pyjama pants and the plain white T-shirt, I felt as though I was wearing a costume.

            “So –“ He said slowly, raising his eyebrows at me with what seemed to be a mixture of disbelieve and curiosity.

            “I’m not supposed to apparate, no,” I said as nonchalantly as I was able to, trying hard to ignore the slight prickle of panic that threatened to surface at the thought of having broken wizarding law. Shockingly, it hadn’t even been the first time this semester.

James frowned at me. “What’s wrong? Did you get into trouble?”

He sounded honestly concerned, but I could not allow myself to think about my family. Not in front of James. It had taken me about a year to open up to Katie; hence, baring my soul to a boy I barely knew was certainly not going to happen. Instead, I forced a smile. “Did you?”

“For kissing a girl?” He grinned slightly.

I couldn’t help a genuine smile but quickly reassembled my features in an attempt to look casual; as though I was kissing boys in phone boxes on a regular basis. James’ lips curled to a crooked smile and I felt my heartbeat quicken as he moved a little closer. He smelled of soap and fire wood and I suddenly noticed a sort of warmth spreading through my body.

            “I still have your jacket.” I cleared my throat awkwardly, sliding the black cloth from my shoulders and handing it to James, who looked slightly bewildered as I thrust the piece of clothing at him. It felt simply too weird to hang around in his room like this; from the corner of my eye I could see sloppily hung up posters in red and gold and besides the pile of crumpled clothes that were heaped on the swivelling chair in front of his desk, lay what looked a lot like padded Quidditch underpants.

            “Maybe – maybe I should go,” I said quickly, realising at the same time that, despite the dirty laundry and the awkward tension that had seeped into the room, leaving was the last thing I wanted to do at the moment.

            “Yeah,” James said weirdly, his voice sounding hoarse. “Maybe.”

            “Yeah,” I repeated and, without really meaning to, took a step towards him. My racing thoughts had picked up speed so that nothing but a soft pleasant buzz filled my head, tuning out every ounce of reason I might once have possessed.

            James did not move – neither away nor towards me – and so it was me who closed the gap between us this time, my fingers clinging to his T-shirt, digging into the thin fabric as our lips touched.

            I could feel his arms slide around my waist, but resisted his pull and, instead, tugged at his shirt; he understood immediately and lifted his arms above his head so that I could remove it, all the while looking at me with a somewhat astounded expression on his face.

            I kissed him again, not wanting to give myself – or him – enough time to doubt my behaviour. I knew that whatever I was doing at the moment was somewhat against everything I was supposed to be, but it was exactly this thought that fuelled my actions.

            My skin tingled as I felt James’ fingers fumble with the zipper of my dress and within seconds, the many-layered cloth had slid off my body and onto the floor, crumpling around my feet in a red heap. Usually, the fact that I was standing in a boy’s room, wearing nothing but gauzy underwear, would have triggered a mild panic attack, but before I could think too much about it James had pulled me towards him again, one hand in my hair, the other on my lower back.

            Completely entwined, we staggered towards his unmade bed and collapsed clumsily into the sheets. James had pulled me on top of him, his warm breath prickling pleasantly on my skin as his lips grazed my neck, and I couldn’t help wondering if he could tell that I had never done anything like this before; rolling around half-naked with a boy. The girls he had been with surely had been more experienced than me and the fact that I didn’t exactly know where to move my legs might have been a bit of a giveaway.

            But I wanted this – him; his body pushing against mine, our lips touching lightly as I hovered just inches above him, my fingers entwined in his hair as his moved upwards to undo the clasp of my bra. A jolt of excitement cursed through my body as James pushed himself up, his mouth brushing against my collarbone and I closed my eyes.

Obviously he knew exactly what he was doing.

And then, just as we had launched into our most passionate kiss yet, James suddenly pulled back.

For a moment I hadn’t even registered the sudden change in his demeanour, but when I opened my eyes, I found him lingering above me, propped up on his arms with a concentrated look on his face. He seemed to focus on a particular freckle on the bridge of my nose before finally looking up into my eyes, a slight frown creasing his forehead.

            “I can’t believe I’m doing this,” he murmured, apparently more to himself than to me, and pushed himself off of me completely, relieving me of his weight.

            “What?” I couldn’t help the confusion in my voice as I sat up, instinctively yanking the covers up to my collarbones. James had pressed both of his palms onto his face, muffling his voice as he spoke again.

             “I – I can’t do this,” he said, running his hand through his dishevelled hair before scrunching it up in a fist.

             “Are you serious?” I snapped, feeling the heat of humiliation crawling up my spine like a spindly spider. Everything that had happened up until this moment suddenly seemed incredibly embarrassing; like a painfully bad movie that was only possible to watch through the cracks between one’s fingers.

            “Seth,“ James sighed as he watched me clumsily crawl out of his bed, dragging along the blanket that I had wrapped around my shoulders like an oversized cloak. “Listen –“

            “No!” I said sharply, holding out a hand to stop him from coming closer. “Stay away from me!”

            He halted, looking at me for a moment, probably expecting me to cry or shout or go to pieces at his rejection, but I was not going to. Instead, I quickly picked up my discarded dress and laboriously tried to pull it on underneath my makeshift cloak, ignoring the fact that I felt like a complete idiot.

            “Seth,” James tried again, but this time another voice interrupted him, making both of us freeze for a second.

            “James?” Ginny Potter asked loudly as she knocked on the locked door. “Are you alright?”

            “Sure!” James called back, his eyes still fixed on me as I yanked up my dress, holding on to the loose neckline as I shook the blanket off my shoulders.

            “It’s just – your brother thought he heard you talking to someone.” Something in her voice told me that this might not have been the first time that James had gotten caught with a girl in his bedroom and I couldn’t help rolling my eyes at his promiscuity and my own stupidity.

            “James?” Ginny called out again when her son had failed to reply and we both watched the door handle move downwards slowly.

            “Merlin,” James muttered angrily under his breath before turning towards the door, calling back through clenched teeth. “I’m fine, mum!”

            Taking advantage of his momentary distraction, I quickly moved towards the window I had come in through and, with my wand wedged in between my teeth, I pushed it open and climbed onto the snowy ledge, slipping down onto the snow-covered ground.

            “Seth!” I could hear James hiss behind me but I did not turn around to look at him as I squeezed my eyes shut, focusing with all my might on my grandparents’ house until I finally felt a familiar tug behind my navel, and the darkness swallowing me on the spot.

 

***

 

I barely felt the icy wind as I ran towards the dark building, my dress catching on bushes as it dragged behind me in the snow. After one failed attempt that had taken me to a creepy deserted playground and cost me a strand of hair, I had finally managed to apparate back to my grandparents’ house. Unfortunately, since I had not been able to magic myself straight into my room, I was left to climb the trellis that conveniently snaked up the entire south-wall and all the way up to my bedroom window, which, to my great surprise, wasn’t even closed but left ajar just the slightest bit.

            Lacking the time and nerve to question this conspicuous coincidence, I slipped into my room, feeling an unreasonable urge to laugh as I considered the amount of times I had performed this move tonight; maybe I was losing my mind. At least that would have explained why my life was crashing in front of my eyes.

            “Where the fuck have you been?”

            Vala’s voice startled me and I barely stifled a yelp as I whipped around and found her lounging on my bed with my crumpled, old With Weekly issue lying in her lap.

            “What are you doing here?” I demanded as something hot seemed to trickle down my spine. If Vala knew I had been gone, my family might know too.

            “How about saving your arse.”

            I watched her crawl out of my bed, her hair piled on top of her head and a Maggie’s Magical Blackhead Remover patch plastered across her nose. “Does anyone else know? That I was… gone.”

            Vala looked at me for a moment, taking in the creased ball gown, which I was still holding up to my chest like a large towel. For a moment, I felt as though everything about me must have been giving away the unfortunate events of the evening – the way I had made a fool of myself – but, to my surprise, Vala did not ask where I had been. Oddly, she did not appear as though she even wanted to know.

“No, no one knows,” she said slowly. “I’ve pretended to be you all night, sending Trixie and your mum away when they wanted to come in.”

For a second we simply stood there, in the middle of my room, looking at each other as though we both were not exactly sure what to make of this situation. After everything that had happened tonight, I would have never guessed that, in the end, it would be Vala who saved me from getting into even greater trouble.

“Thank you,” I finally said and gave her a small smile.

“You’re welcome.” She returned the smile and then, very quietly, slipped out of my room and softly closed the door behind her.

            As soon as I was alone, I let go of my dress, which I had been holding on to like it was a life vest, and discarded it on the floor. The red cloth looked like a pool of blood and I felt like I could not look at it for another second.

Instinctively, I began to pace my room, looking around wildly for something to do; something to make this entire day disappear. It was a useless endeavour, of course, but I felt as though I would go mad if I did not continue searching. Only when my gaze fell onto the small vanity in the corner I finally stopped pacing.

It was barely visible from the far, but as I moved closer to examine the damage, the thin rift was clearly discernable, snaking jaggedly across my grandparents’ priceless antique mirror; the mark my ballpoint pen had left on it just an hour ago.

            “Brilliant,” I mumbled to myself as I sank onto the cushioned chair in front of the vanity, staring at the broken glass. “Just brilliant.”

            For a moment, I deceived myself that I could actually fix it – that the crack was so small, it would be easy to repair – but without magic, my hopes dwindled rapidly. There was nothing to be done and I could only sit there with resignation and stare at my dishevelled reflection in the damaged mirror.

And suddenly, all I wanted to do was cry.


           




A/N: First of all, thank you lovlies for all those reviews and reads, it really really means a lot to me! I am sorry for the long wait but it has been a very stressful time for me. My boyfriend had had a really bad accident downhilling with his mountain-bike and he had to go through complicated surgery, which made it impossible for me to sit down and actually write. That is also why it took me so long to answer reviews… I haven’t been on HPFF a lot and during the more difficult days I simply couldn’t get myself to reply right away. I just want you to know that those reviews still made my days and made me smile when I did not feel like smiling.

So, thank you. Really.

 

I hope you enjoyed the chapter and now that life is looking better again, I will write more frequently again J. Just one last sappy note: Take care and live every day to the fullest… because life really is short and unpredictable and wonderful and crazy and worth every second. 


Chapter 26: A Woodley Never Quits
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The hot bath had helped.

To clear my head.

To remind me of who I was.

All that was left of yesterday night was a slight headache and a bitter taste in my mouth. Whatever had happened, it was over now. There was nothing to be done, nothing to change it, and I had decided I wouldn’t want to. Sure, I could not remember last night without cringing inwardly at the humiliation, but I refused to regret it. I refused to let James Potter make me feel even worse than I already did.

And even though I had considered it for a moment, I was not going to resign myself to misery. Instead, I intended to heed Katie’s advice and kept reminding myself of the positive aspects of this nightmarish experience. Admittedly there were only three, but it was enough to keep me from losing my sanity.

Number one: Nothing of the whole James Potter debacle – which was how I preferred to refer to not only last night but generally everything that had happened from the moment Potter had been shoved into my life by Slughorn – had apparently leaked through to the press, which was a miracle, considering the Potters’ popularity and my family’s social standing. Or maybe it hadn’t been so much of a miracle, but rather the fact that my grandfather had considerable influence on all wizarding news sources, who regularly received a very generous donation from the Woodley family.

Number two: I had achieved a new level of resistance to all things Woodley, which was but a small triumph, considering the damage it had caused. Nonetheless, I had at least succeeded in breaking up my future engagement with Asher Engelstein, who I couldn’t have married in a million years. I doubted that his parents wanted me to become their daughter in law any more than I did, after I had snogged another guy right in front of their eyes.

Number three: None of it mattered anyway, since I was not going to return to Hogwarts. Although it hurt to admit it, and the thought of not being able to finish this year together with Katie and Sam made me feel sick to my stomach, I had come to terms with the undeniable truth: I wasn’t going to go back. Only last year, my great-cousin Alfie, who had attended Beauxbatons, was sent off to military school in Croatia for getting caught at an unauthorized party in the school’s stables. Two years before that, my great-great-something cousin Selina suffered a similar fate. The Woodleys were unapologetic about sending off misbehaving family members to serve their sentences in rigorous and stifling places and I was not going to be an exception.

For all I knew, I had already been enrolled in Madame Esher’s Magical Academy for Manners and Etiquette; an all-girls school somewhere in the south of the United States of America, which was not only famous for its exorbitantly high tuition fees but also for the amount of rebellious upper-class daughters it managed to turn into pretty-looking air-heads by the time they graduated. Needless to say, university qualifications such as NEWTS were not on their agenda.

But I wasn’t going to give up that easily.

If I couldn’t control anything else, at least I was going to take control of who I was.

And I wasn’t going to wait any longer.

 

***

 

The marble tiles felt cold against my slipper-clad feet as I walked across the entrance hall, willing my heart to slow down. Traces of wintry morning light drew strange patterns onto the high walls, lightening up the otherwise dark house, but I barely noticed. My eyes were trained on the wooden door at the end of the hall, behind which I knew I would find my assembled family, probably still discussing how to proceed with me. In my hand I was clutching the thin necklace I had gotten from my grandparents – the priceless heirloom – tracing the jagged ‘L’ which had been engraved onto the back of the pendant. I hadn’t even noticed the letter until I had taken it off this morning, but I hadn’t had the mind to give it much thought.

            My knuckles rapped on the door, echoing loudly through the otherwise quiet house. I knew it was somewhat unwise to find them before I was called downstairs, but neither patience nor obedience had ever been among my strong suits, and so I did not even wait for an answer, but simply pushed open the heavy door and entered the room.

            The Woodleys usually looked imposing; most of all, when they were gathered like this in the impressive setting of my grandfather’s study, where dark wooden shelves covered the walls and thin, long windows allowed pale specks of morning light to dapple the walnut floor. The first person I saw, however, was my grandfather who was standing at the window opposite the door, staring back at me as though he had long expected to see me.

            “Elizabeth,” my mother said in such a surprisingly soft voice that it startled me; she stood next to the thick wooden desk in the middle of the room, still wearing her silky ball gown and looking exceptionally tired. It was only now that I realized they all were still in their formal attire, which meant they had probably been up all night.

            If there had ever existed something like an ideal condition to revolt against the Woodleys on top of publicly tarnishing the family honour, this certainly wasn’t it. However, I was sufficiently sleep-deprived and hung-over to not pay attention the little voice of reason in my head that told me to run, and so I forced myself to hold my head high and take a deep breath.

            “I am sorry for what happened last night,” I began, ignoring the sharp snort that came from my aunt, who was sitting on the soft leather couch next to her husband. “But I can’t say that I regret it.”

My heart jumped as I said the words which I had recited in my head all night and I felt a definite surge of fear as my grandmother’s mouth shrank to form a tight, straight line on her wrinkly face. I was treading on thin ice but I also knew that, whatever happened, I could still swim.

“But I’m not here to discuss last night. I’m here because I have a proposition for you.” A definite hush had fallen over the room by now, but I refused to be irritated, neither by my father’s stony expression, nor my mother’s fearful look. “I will apologize to Asher and to his parents, but I will not marry him. Also, I accept that I won’t go back to Hogwarts, but I won’t go to that horrible etiquette school either.”

My grandmother muttered something that sounded a lot like “preposterous”, but I was too nervous to pay attention to anyone else but myself. “I will go to Rabenstein in the Black Forest. It’s far away from the UK but also a really good school. I just… I don’t want to end up as just the wife of someone. I want to go to university and I want to have a career.” I took a deep, steadying breath to calm myself before finally looking up at my mother. “After I graduate I might consider possible matches which you find suitable, but I can’t promise anything.”

            Whenever I had played out the scenario in my head, I had imagined gasps, shouts, maybe even disinheritance to follow my performance; however, of all the horrible scenes I had imagined, I had never expected that there would be complete and utter silence.

            “And, um – well, that’s all I had to say,” I finished lamely when I couldn’t take the silence any longer.

            My father was the first to come out of the apparent shock I had put my family in, rubbing his eyes with his thumb and index finger before looking up at me. “This is not how it’s done, Elizabeth,”

            “I know,” I said quietly. “But I can’t let somebody else decide over my life.”

            All eyes were still on me as I moved towards the sturdy wooden desk, squeezing the necklace in my palm once more before finally placing it on the table, not daring to look up at my grandfather. After everything that had happened, it didn’t feel right anymore to wear a Woodley heirloom.

            “I’m sorry I disappointed you,” I said and then quickly turned on my heels to leave the study to give them some time to consider my proposition. Whatever the outcome would be, at least I couldn’t say that I hadn’t tried.

            “Wait!” A booming voice called out before I had even reached the door and I stopped dead in my tracks, not daring to turn around. I had hoped to at least escape before the Woodleys could realise what had just happened, but apparently I was out of luck. Whatever my grandfather was going to say, it wasn’t going to be good.

            “Edward,” my mother started in a mellow, soothing sort of voice, but Grandfather had raised his hand into the air and silence fell again.

            “You will not go to Rabenstein,” he said firmly and I could feel a great lump forming in my throat as I stared down at my plush and most inappropriate cat slippers.

I should have known.

“I think we better discuss this before we make a decision,” my father said firmly, probably in response to my mother’s pleading looks. However, Grandfather was adamant as usual.

“There is nothing to discuss,” he said and I finally found the courage to look up into his face – the expression on it was as hard as stone. “Elizabeth will return to Hogwarts after the holidays.”

At first, I didn’t even register what he had just said; my grandmother gasped audibly as my mother exchanged a surprised look with my father, but I still couldn’t quite grasp the meaning of my grandfather’s words.

Maybe I had fainted and this was only happening in my imagination.

“I will talk to Justus and explain the situation, of course,” he continued, now addressing my aunt and uncle. “I will suggest Cassandra as suitable replacement. She seemed quite infatuated with Asher. I believe you will agree that they make a respectable match.”

            My aunt nodded so slowly, someone might have pressed the slow-motion button.

            “Good.” For the fraction of a second it looked as though the corners of his mouth were twitching upwards, but as Grandfather looked at me again, his face was as composed as ever. “No matter what happens, a Woodley never quits, Elizabeth.”

            “Right,” I answered before I had even realized it, and before anyone could stop me again I had turned on the spot and fled the study in a run.

 

***

 

I had given up trying to write a letter to Katie; whichever way I put it, nothing came even remotely close to what had just happened. Most of all, I wasn’t exactly sure if my return to Hogwarts was sheer dumb luck or actually a punishment; after all, I had already put James Potter behind me, just to come to terms with having to face him again.

So instead of confronting my rotating thoughts, I had resigned to sitting on my bed and staring at the blue ‘Ravenclaw’ lettering that adorned my grey tracksuit trousers, listening to the moodiest Ben Howard song I had been able to find. As Katie always used to say, there was a time to be strong and there was a time to pathetically wallow in one’s own misery.

            Not a very Woodley thing to do, but after everything that had happened, I knew that there was no more need to pretend; My entire life felt like a practical demonstration on how not to be a Woodley, which had culminated in my stupid attempt to hook up with James Potter and, ultimately, his rejection.

            I felt as though I was in some sort of daze – so much that it took me a moment to realize that someone had been knocking at my door.

            Loudly.

            “Yes?” I answered still perplexed, surprised by how steady my voice sounded when I felt anything but.

            “May I come in?”

            I stared at my grandfather for a moment, too taken aback to even react. I wasn’t quite sure who exactly I had expected, but it definitely hadn’t been him.

“Um, yes, of course” I finally managed to say after a couple of quite awkward seconds in which I had simply stared at him like a complete idiot.

“Well,” he said firmly as he closed the door behind him. “That was quite the show, I have to say.”

I automatically pressed my lips together and watched him walk across the room towards my bed, on which I was still sitting cross-legged and muted.

“May I?” He gestured at the spot next to me.

For a moment I didn’t quite realise what he was getting at, until I finally understood.

“Oh - um – sure.” I moved to the side a little and, to my utter astonishment, Grandfather sat down next to me, his big hands folded in his lap as he stared at the old, weathered desk in front of the window.

“Being a Woodley is not easy,” he finally said, very quietly, and I glanced at his profile; the wrinkles on his skin seemed more pronounced than ever and for the first time in my life, he didn’t look cold or hard or imposing; he simply looked weary. “I know you think no one understands. But I do.”

I watched him unfold his hands and suddenly realised that he had been holding the golden necklace I had just returned to him; the pendant was turned upside-down in his palm, displaying the jagged ‘L’. Grandfather looked down at it, brushing his thumb against the amateurish engraving, and I was surprised to see his mouth curling into the smallest of smiles.

“It belonged to my sister,” he said after a moment of contemplating the piece of jewellery and I couldn’t help the frown that creased my forehead. It seemed more than just odd that my grandfather actually had a sister and I had never even heard about her.

“Her name was Elizabeth,” he continued, suddenly digging his hand into his breast pocket and producing his ancient silver time-piece. As he clicked it open, I saw the faded portrait of a young woman on the inside of the lid; she was looking at someone in the distance it seemed, laughing brightly as a soft breeze dishevelled her light-coloured bob. “Lizzie. You were named after her.”

I only stared into my grandfather’s dark grey eyes, not sure how to react. I felt as though I should have known. Someone should have told me; a great-aunt – and I was named after her. Yet, no one had ever even mentioned this other Elizabeth Woodley to me.

“It all started when she was sorted into Ravenclaw,” Grandfather said slowly, raising a bushy grey eyebrow at me as he handed me his pocket watch. “I dare say you can imagine our parents’ reaction when they heard?”

Still too perplexed to produce actual words, I cradled the watch in my hands and studied the black and white picture of the woman who shared my name before finally uttering “Yes”.

“She was the brave one,” Grandfather continued, the small smile appearing on his lips again as he watched me from the side. “Always determined to go her own way. She refused to marry the man my parents had chosen for her. And then she fell in love with a muggle.”

I looked up from the picture, observing my grandfather’s face very closely. Falling in love with a muggle was not exactly an option when you were a Woodley.

“What – what happened then?”

Grandfather sighed, his gaze wandering once more towards the old desk in front of the window. “I was torn between my sister and the rest of the family. I loved her. More than anything. But I wasn’t brave like her.

Still, she never held it against me. Lizzie was a wonderful person.” He blinked suddenly before looking down at his hands, which were folded in his lap, still holding the dainty gold necklace. “And then she died. In a car accident.”

It felt as though a heavy weight had settled on my chest as I looked at my grandfather’s face; his features still seemed rigid and composed as usual, but for the first time, I could see more. I could see behind the mask. “I didn’t know”

“Well.” He gave me a miniscule smile. “It’s been a long time. And we don’t talk about it. We are Woodleys, after all.”

“Yeah, great,” I muttered, unable to conceal the sarcasm in my voice. 16 years, and I hadn’t even known that my grandfather had had a sister; a sister who bore my name and who apparently hadn’t quite fitted into the family either. I felt as though there should have been stories, and photographs, but, most of all, there should have been memories.

“You are a Woodley, Seth,” Grandfather suddenly said as though he had been reading my thoughts and I looked up, realising that he was holding out the necklace to me – Lizzie’s necklace. “Whether you like it or not.”

I took it without hesitation, squeezing the pendant between my thumb and index finger. It was strange how it suddenly felt much warmer – much more familiar – than it had before.

“No matter what happened – and I don’t want to know the details – you are going to be fine, Seth.”

I looked up at my grandfather once again, tracing the sharp-edged ‘L’ as I gave him a small smile. “Yes,” I said, thinking of Katie and Sam and Hogwarts. “I know.”

 

***

 

The platform had seemed moderately full, yet the train was much less crowded than it had been at the beginning of the school year. In fact, most compartments where eerily empty when I passed them by, pulling my book-filled bag behind me as I walked along the narrow corridor. It seemed as though, despite the ample choice of seating possibilities, Katie had, as usual, opted for a compartment at the rear end of the Hogwarts Express.

Elizziebeth!”  Someone suddenly shouted, and I looked up to find Freddie Weasley walking straight towards me, his arms outstretched in a welcoming gesture. “I haven’t seen you in ages. Well, not since you snogged my best mate in a phone booth, at least.”

“Freddie, hey,” I said quickly, hoping that he would stop shouting about topics that included James and me in promiscuous situations. After all, I didn’t know how much James had actually told his best friend about what had happened and, honestly, I wasn’t keen on finding out. “How was your Christmas?”

“Oh, you know. Family. Tons of people. Grandpa mixing up everybody’s names,” He said brightly as a broad grin appeared on his handsome, freckly face. “You?”

“Lots of wine; lots of guilt-trips, mostly,” I sighed, trying to sound at least vaguely sarcastic as I said it. “The ususal.”

Freddie laughed, obviously thinking I was joking. “Well, that sounds like fun.”

“I wish I had your sense of humour,” I said as I squeezed past him, trying not to jam my bulging back into his stomach.

“Oh wait.” He stopped me before I could move on, his face looking suddenly excited as though he had been struck by a genius idea. “You wanna join us in our compartment? It’s only James, Augustus, and me, so-“

No! I mean, um, no… thank you,” I stammered a little too quickly, barely able to hide the panic in my voice. Sitting in a compartment with James Potter was really the last thing I wanted to do. “I said I’d meet my friends, so-“

“Right. But you should drop by later!”

“Yeah. Maybe.” I lied, giving him one last wave before turning around again, only to find that my way was blocked again.

For a moment, James and I only looked at each other and I could feel my heartbeat quicken. Everything I had felt when he had basically thrown me out of his bedroom came flooding back in, washing over me like an icy, unfriendly wave. I had known that I would inevitably have to see him again at some point, but not this soon; not in this bloody narrow corridor.

“Hi,” he said weirdly as he continued to stare at me as though I was a pink Hippogriff.

“Hi,” I replied in a fake casual voice and then quickly attempted to move past him. I simply wanted this to be over – to bring as much distance as possible between us – however, as usual, James didn’t understand.

“How are you?”

I only stared at him incredulously for a second. Was he actually trying to make small talk? Or maybe he was making fun of me; either way, the situation was unbearably awkward and I needed to get away.

Splendidly,” I said “Now, can I-?” I gestured past him, hoping that he would get the hint. However, he simply continued to stare and I began to shift my weight uncomfortably from one foot to the other.

“Oh, um, yeah.” He finally said, running a hand through his messy hair as he moved towards the wall as much possible. Unfortunately, the train corridor was still too narrow to allow us to pass without touching one another, and so I squeezed myself past him, all the while firmly keeping my eyes on the ceiling to avoid any accidental eye-contact as our bodies brushed against each other.

Finally, as I hurried away red-faced and refusing to look back, I couldn’t help thinking that this was a whole new level of awkward.

 

“There you are!” Katie exclaimed cheerfully as I slid open the compartment door and hauled my gigantic book bag into the small room. She was sprawled across an entire row of seats, her fluffy sock-clad feet resting in Tarquin’s lap. Across from her, Sam had taken the seat next to the window, a broad smile on his face as he padded the empty place next to him.

“Hey. Sorry. Couldn’t find you,” I said quickly, not really keen on recounting the disastrous encounter with James in the hallway.

“You look flustered,” Katie said as I tried to stuff my bulging back into the luggage rack above my seat. “Everything okay?”

“Yeah,” I replied as casually as possible and sat down next to Sam. “Sure.”

I could see that Katie did not buy my lame attempt at playing it cool, but thankfully she didn’t say anything. Instead, she slid into a lounging position and smiled at me as Tarquin began to massage her feet.

“I’m so glad everything worked out. I knew you could convince the Woodleys to let you stay in Hogwarts.”

“Well, I didn’t,” I sighed, sinking a little further into the plush seat. “My grandfather did.”

At these words, Katie jumped so violently that she accidentally kicked Tarquin’s chin. Her face looked like she couldn’t decide whether to be scandalized or pleasantly surprised as her eyebrows threatened to vanish into her hairline.

“Wait, I thought your grandfather doesn’t like you?” Sam looked properly confused, which was understandable considering that he had only recently been familiarised with my complicated family history.

“So did I,” I said and – as the first, thick snowflakes whirred by the window – I launched into the thrilling tale of the other Elizabeth Woodley.

 






A/N: Hello lovely readers! I’m so sorry it took me that long to update. It was quite a stressful month. But now that boyfriend is much better again and my Master thesis is almost completed, I will definitely find more time to write again. Thank you so much for sticking with this story and with me. It really means a lot to me. I love to read your reviews and I want you all to know that they really make my days. So thank you for that!

P.S.: I hope you liked the chapter. Suggested music to go with it:

Ben Howard - ‘Depth over Distance’ (The chorus is just amazing)

Kodaline – ‘Take Control’

 

 

 

  


Chapter 27: Rumour Has It
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Rumour Has It

 

It hadn’t spread. Although, there was a certain buzz.

While I couldn’t be quite sure, I sometimes felt as though people were looking at me; and not in a normal, random kind of way. They were looking weirdly, as though they knew something they weren’t supposed to.

It didn’t happen all the time, but occasionally; like when I had walked into Transfiguration on Monday, two Gryffindors I had never spoken to in my life had sneaked a quick glance at me before lapsing into excited whispers. A few days later in the restroom on the second floor, a young girl had stared at my reflection in the mirror as I had been washing my hands, her face flushing red when she had realised that I had seen her.

It was only little things, but they were enough to make me feel on edge.

“Did you see that?” I hissed through gritted teeth, quickly turning away from the group of seventh year Ravenclaws that had just stretched in their seats at the other end of the table, glancing suspiciously into mine and Katie’s direction.

“That’s ridiculous, Seth.” Katie speared an exorbitantly large blueberry on her fork, waving it exasperatedly in front of her face. “Nobody is looking at you.”

I glared at her as she popped the blueberry into her mouth. Naturally, I had told Katie and Sam about these weird incidents as they kept happening. However, both of them seemed to think that I was just overly sensitive since the whole snogging-James-Potter-in-public-debacle. Katie was even convinced that I was simply trying to steer the topic away from James, so that I didn’t have to talk about him; or the fact that he had rejected me when I was lying half-naked in his bed, which, admittedly, I had refused to discuss so far. As much as Katie disagreed, in the spirit of leaving everything behind – most of all James Sirius Potter – I needed to not talk about it.

That didn’t change the fact, however, that somehow something must have seeped through and the tale of my utter humiliation by James Potter would soon be fuelling the Hogwarts gossip machine.

“There, they just did it again.” I let my spoon plop back into my coffee as I noticed the same group angling their heads to get a better view of us. It was so blatantly obvious that I wondered if they actually wanted me to notice.

“Honestly, you’re being paranoid. Believe me, nobody knows of-“

“Psht-“ I cut Katie off before she could finish her sentence, earning an irritated eye-roll.

 “No one knows, okay?” She insisted. “I asked Angela Kovak what’s up and she said ‘nothing’”

“Oh well, then.” I couldn’t help the sarcasm as I spoke. “If Angela Kovak says that nothing’s up-”

“The point is,” Katie insisted as her blue eyes found mine. “It hasn’t gotten out. Just be happy and – oh.”

“Oh what?” I turned my head automatically and instantly noticed the two girls at the Hufflepuff table who were obviously looking at me. As soon as they realised that they had been caught, they jumped and turned away again, huddling together to converse in excited whispers.

“Well, that was a weird coincidence,” Katie said quickly when she saw the alarmed expression on my face. “Relax, okay? Anxiety is bad for your skin.”

            I didn’t reply and continued to sip my cold coffee, trying hard to follow my best friend’s advice. I really wanted to believe that everything was okay and that I was simply overly alert and seeing things that weren’t there. But somehow I couldn’t shake off the uncanny feeling that something bad was about to happen.

 

 

***

 

The thick snowflakes fell heavy that day, laced with rain and weighed down to plummet from the sky ungracefully. As January slowly faded into February, the weather got more boisterous, changing the Hogwarts grounds from glittering white fields to a soggy brown mud landscape that made leaving the snug warm castle a proper ordeal. It was, thus, no surprise that the Ravenclaw common room was unusually crammed for a Saturday afternoon, making it impossible to find a quiet corner to study.

            “How is it going with Hector?” I asked Sam as we made our way through the clusters of tables and chairs, noticing that Hector Chang was – as usual – sitting with a group of Quidditch players, engrossed in deep conversation.

            “Well,” Sam sighed, obviously trying not to look at him as we passed by. “We’re kind of seeing each other but not in public.”

            “So nothing has changed?” I pushed open the common room door, glad to leave the hubbub behind for a moment. I still felt as though I was being watched and sitting amongst a massive cluster of people didn’t exactly help to calm me.

            “No, it’s different, I guess.” Sam frowned as though he was contemplating something. “I mean, it’s not like a huge secret, really. He’s just scared of what would happen if we – you know – made it official.”

            I looked sideways at Sam’s profile for a moment and couldn’t help feeling bad for having been so absorbed in my own life lately. All this drama that had seeped in had taken control of it, but slowly, now that James Potter had miraculously disappeared from my life, it was getting back to normal again.

            “Are you? Scared, I mean.”

            Sam smiled slightly as he pushed open the door to the library, holding it for me. “I don’t know. Not really. I guess it’s harder for Hector with Quidditch and everything. But if he needs time I’m okay with it. I’m just glad he’s still there.”

            We fell silent as we entered the extensive library, our last words still echoing from the vaulted ceiling. A couple of people who were grouped around the seating possibilities near the entrance looked up as they heard the door close, but – to my great relief – did not seem to be even remotely interested in us and quickly turned their attention back to their books and parchments.

            “Let’s try back there,” I whispered, immediately attracting the unwanted attention of Madame Pince, who perched behind the wooden counter across the library entrance. She looked as though she was ready to pounce if I opened my mouth again and so I simply grabbed the sleeve of Sam’s jumper and dragged him with me into the labyrinth of groaning book shelves.

            “Where did Katie and Tarquin go?” Sam asked as soon as we had brought a couple of shelves between the librarian and us, his voice barely louder than a whisper.

            “Well, I know that Quin was planning a picnic,” I said as we turned a corner and a large round-top window came into view. Usually it offered a sweeping vista of rolling hills and the Quidditch pitch in the distance; today, however, there was nothing but torrents of rain.

            “He probably has a plan B, though.”

            “Who wants to have a picnic in January anyway?” Sam mumbled, probably more to himself than to me, as we put our books down on the last free space next to a towering shelf full of dusty volumes which apparently hadn’t been picked up in over a century. The prime seats in front of the window had already been claimed by a group of girls who were poring over their grade four spell books.

            “Defence against the Dark Arts?” Sam sighed heavily as he held up a thick, purple book which looked as though someone had kicked it around the common room several times.

            “Go ahead,” I told him as I dived under the table to pull the largest and heaviest of my books out of my bag. “I have to finish my essay on poison distillation for Slughorn.”

            Sam watched me flip through the mouldy book for a moment, a sudden frown creasing his forehead. He looked as though he was fighting a bout of nausea which, even though the book smelled mildly of old socks, seemed out of place.

            “What is it?”

            “What?” Sam looked me as though I had just slapped him across the face. “Um – oh – nothing. I just – I thought how glad I am that I dropped Potions when I had the chance.”

“It’s not that bad,” I laughed, unfurling the scroll of parchment on which I had started my essay, scanning the last paragraph to remind myself where I had stopped last night.

            “Only out of interest-” Sam interrupted my train of thoughts, just when I had figured out how to pick up the essay. “How long does it take before potions turn bad? I mean, until they cannot be identified anymore.”

I looked up at him, frowning and he shifted in his seat uneasily, his eyes avoiding mine. Like most of the school, he was probably talking about Albus Potter. After Christmas, Albus had returned to Hogwarts, looking healthy and more like himself than ever with chaotic hair, normal clothes, and – if the rumours were true – newly single again. There was no trace of the terrible effect the mystery poison had had; unfortunately, however, the potion that had been responsible for his alarming collapse at Slughorn’s Christmas party had remained exactly that: A mystery.

It wasn’t official knowledge, of course, but among the prefects Slughorn’s failed attempts at identifying the remnants of poison in Albus’ blood had been discussed at length. The common opinion was that, if one of the most renowned potioneers of our time was unable to even name the potion that had almost permanently harmed a Hogwarts student at a teacher-supervised party, one could only hope that the perpetrator had not set their eyes on them next.

“Well, that depends,” I said, leaning in a little when one of the girls next to the window looked up from her book and casually turned her head towards the corner we were sitting in. “Some potions last for years, others only for a day or even an hour. It really comes down to the ingredients.”

Sam bit his lower lip as he contemplated my answer. Something about the way he behaved seemed off; his features were taut and his brow furrowed as he began to knead his hands in his lap. He still seemed to avoid my gaze and there I finally realised what was really going on.

“Sam,” I whispered, leaning across the table even further to ensure that no one would overhear. I grabbed his hands and he stopped fidgeting immediately. “You don’t have to worry about the Graviditas. Felicity took it. It’s gone. No one will ever find out. I promise.”

He finally looked up at me, the odd expression still on his face as he forced a tight-lipped smile. “Yeah. Right.” He swallowed, attempting another smile. “You’re right. Thanks Seth.”

“Sure.” I squeezed his clammy hands comfortingly and gave him what I hoped to be a reassuring smile before leaning back again to resume my Potions essay.

 

***

 

The hours slipped away as I moved through the homework assignments that had piled up during the week. By the time I had finished my Ancient Runes translation, the sun had set and my right hand was sore and weak.

“I can’t believe I’ve still got one to go,” I groaned, pulling a grimace at the piercing pain that flashed through my neck and shoulders as I sat up straight for the first time in two hours. Across from me, Sam’s head was drooping, his mouth hanging open as soft snoring noises accompanied his low and deep breathing.

“Really?” I laughed, bumping my foot against his shin underneath the table. “Hey sleepyhead!”

Sam grumbled in response, releasing a string of incoherent syllables before shifting his position to a more comfortable one, his eyes still closed firmly and his arms folded in front of his chest.

“Fine,” I sighed, supressing a yawn myself as I stretched my arms above my head, “I need a book from the Arithmancy section. Don’t go anywhere.”

Sam answered with another slurred grunt and I pushed myself up from the comfortable wingback chair, resolving to definitely wake him up when I came back. It looked like he had dozed off in the middle of his Astronomy homework, which featured a wonky sort of line-drawing that probably was supposed to be a stellar constellation, but which rather resembled a connect-the-dots colouring page.

 

The library had emptied considerably in the last couple of hours, but there were still a few people – mostly fifth and seventh years – occupying the many nooks and corners of the sprawling construction, bent low over books and parchments. There was a particular mood to the Hogwarts library at night, when the flickering flames of the countless candelabras were the only source of light, casting ever-changing patterns onto the bookshelves.

It was intriguing, yet slightly eerie, and I couldn’t help feeling uneasy as I ran my index finger across the backs of the ancient Arithmancy books, scanning them for the title I was looking for. It was strange, but as I stood there alone in front of the towering shelf, this feeling I had had all week – that I was being watched – suddenly intensified, making the fine hairs in my neck stand up.

I was relieved to finally find the volume I needed and quickly pulled the heavy book out of the shelf, eager to get back to Sam. However, just as I turned around to leave, there was a bang and I crashed – book-first – into something large and hard.

“Woah, Woodley,” someone called out and I felt two hands gripping my arms as I threatened to fall backwards against the shelf.

For a moment I simply stared at James, my heart still racing as I pressed the dusty old book to my chest as though I was expecting him to steal it. The truth was that I simply needed something to hold on to until my heart would stop trying to force itself through my ribcage.

Finally, after what felt like an awfully long minute, I managed to catch my breath. “Are you insane?”

James looked at me, his brown eyes almost black in the dim light as he took in my face; to say that the situation was strange would have been an understatement.

“I didn’t mean to scare you,” he said after a moment of silence and I could feel the awkwardness between us creep back in like the foul smell of rotten doxy eggs. There was the boy who had seen me in nothing but my knickers. Worse than that, however, he was also the boy who reminded me of that insecure, weak version of myself that had done something so stupid in the first place.

“Well then you shouldn’t have crept up on my like a mad axe-murderer, should you,” I snapped in a hushed voice, forcing myself to withstand James’s gaze. The last time we had been this close to each other had been almost a month ago on the train back to school; an encounter which I would have gladly erased from my memory.

“Just out of interest, what exactly did you expect to happen in the school library?” James raised an eyebrow at me, looking annoyingly amused all of a sudden. Of course, there was no logical explanation for why I had been so jumpy. In my defence, however, I had spoken to a bodiless voice once who had insisted that someone was plotting against me.

“What are you even doing here?” I said briskly for lack of a better retort. I was, of course, referring to the perpetually forsaken Arithmancy section. James, however, deliberately misunderstood.

“It’s a library. What do you think I am doing here?”

“Oh I don’t know,” I said in mock-contemplation, “It can’t be studying so –“ I stopped abruptly, suddenly realising what I was actually implying. It felt not only awkward but also uncomfortable to talk about the possibility of James snogging some random girl in a dark corner when, only a couple of weeks ago, I had been that girl with the poor judgment.

James seemed to have picked up on the underlying insinuation of my statement; strangely enough, however, he didn’t retaliate as I would have expected him to, but simply kneaded his dark eyebrows.

“Oh, there you are!” A soft voice suddenly broke the silence, slicing through the awkwardness like a knife. As if on cue, a girl had appeared behind one of the shelves, taking a few tentative steps towards us before suddenly stopping dead in her tracks. “Oh – um – am I interrupting?”

It took me a second to realise what she was even talking about; only when her eyes travelled down to my shoulders, I understood: James’s hands were still resting on my arms, making it look as though we were tangled up in some weird half-hug.

“Um, no,” I said quickly, taking a step backwards just as James pulled back his arms, bringing a reasonable distance between us. For an excruciatingly long moment, no one said anything; I wasn’t even sure where to look until James finally cleared his throat.

“Um, Seth, this is Helen, she’s…,” he paused for a moment, giving me a strange look. “She’s helping me with Potions.”

I could feel a tiny pang somewhere in the pit of my stomach, but willed myself to retain what I hoped was an indifferent expression as James’s gaze lingered on my face. I had seen him look at me like this before; almost as though he was trying to solve a difficult Arithmancy problem.

“Helen, this is –“

“I know,” the girl said quickly, cutting James off midsentence. “I mean, Seth and I know each other,” she explained, giving me a small smile. “We’re both in Slughorn’s Advanced Potions club.”

            “Hi Helen,” I said awkwardly, although trying to force a smile as I briefly raised my hand to greet her. It had taken me a moment to identify the curvy brunette with the long, shiny braid and the flattering black skirt as Helen MacFarley, a seventh-year Hufflepuff who usually occupied the seat in front of me at the club’s monthly meetings. I had never seen her looking so dressed-up before, which was, of course, no surprise as we never actually hung out outside the confines of the Potions classroom.

“I just thought I’d see where you had gone,” she said to James, her pouty lips now curling into an adorable smile. “I saw you wandering off into the wrong section and thought you might have gotten lost.”

There was some sort of coy undertone to her voice; she flashed him another smile and I suddenly felt wildly out of place as I stood there in my loose jumper and the dusty old book wedged in between my arms and my chest. It somehow bothered me that Helen looked so put-together and smart while I had thrown on the first pair of jeans that had fallen out of my wardrobe this morning. The fact that I cared about this in the first place, however, bothered me even more.

I needed to get out of here. Now.

“Well, happy studying then,” I said in a lame attempt at cheerful nonchalance, which I regretted almost instantly as I noticed James’s deepening frown and the politely confused look on Helen’s face.

“I’ll -” I stopped talking abruptly as soon as I realised what I had wanted to say: ‘I’ll see you around’, which – and this hit me with a sudden force – wasn’t actually true. We wouldn’t be seeing each other around; there was simply no more reason to.

“Goodbye,” I said quickly, just as James had opened his mouth to say something and, ignoring the strange expression on his face, I pushed past him, leaving the Arithmancy section as fast as I could.

It was good that he had asked for someone else to tutor him; I kept telling myself so as I paced past overflowing bookshelves, barely paying attention to where exactly I was going. This probably saved us both hours of mortifying awkwardness.

Why then did my chest feel so tight and heavy?

            I stopped to catch my breath for a second, trying to breathe through the large lump that had lodged itself somewhere in the region of my sternum, but it only seemed to swell, pushing violently against my ribcage.

            My head spun and I leaned against the shelf behind me, feeling the sturdy saddles of the old books pressing against my spine as a few wet drops suddenly rolled down my cheeks, dripping from my chin and onto the book in my arms.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” I whispered to myself as I quickly wiped away the tear streaks on my face, thankful that nobody was around to whiteness this pathetic display of weakness; no one would ever know that James Potter had made me cry.

 

***

 

            “You look-”

            “Radiant?” I interrupted Katie, flashing a big smile at her.

            “No.” She frowned. “Worrisome.”

            “Why thank you Kat,” I laughed, turning my attention back to the bewildered frog on my desk which, just seconds ago, had been a mouse. As it kept trying to hop off the desk, I couldn’t help wondering if it had always been that suicidal or if the transfiguration had triggered this particular need to jump to its death.

            “Please, talk to me?” Katie wailed under her breath, her eyes piercing my temple as though she was trying to see inside my head. “I can’t stand this any longer.”

            “I am fine,” I whispered as Professor Hockanum strolled past our table, looking pleased at the sight of the two healthy frogs that roamed around our desk. “There is nothing to talk about. Honestly.”

            “Sam said you were crying.”

            I didn’t look up at her but shifted in my chair uneasily. “I told you; I was just overly emotional – it was late and I was tired and overworked-”

            “Oh bollox!” Katie snapped, squeezing her frog so tightly that it issued a panicked squeal. I watched the newly created amphibian’s anxious struggle for freedom for a bit, not sure what else to say. Frankly, all I wanted was to finally forget about James Potter.

            “Maybe – maybe you should talk to him,” Katie said hopefully, loosening her grip on the writhing frog. Despite the growing scowl on my face, she continued unwaveringly. “Maybe it’s all just a big misunderstanding. I mean, maybe-“

            “Maybe we should just forget this whole thing ever happened and just move on.” I looked up at my best friend and, in the process, let go of my frog for the fraction of a second, which was enough for it to take a great leap of freedom and promptly fall off the desk with a pitiful squawk. “Honestly, Katie, I don’t want to talk about it – him – anymore, okay?”

            She looked at me with a fierce defiance glinting in her eyes and I was sure she was going to argue; after a second, however, her features softened. “I want you to be happy”

            “I know. I am. Really,” I assured her quickly. “Look, I was just embarrassed. This whole thing was excruciatingly humiliating and I guess it just kind of was a bit too much that day.” It was the truth; or at least so I had been telling myself ever since my inexplicable breakdown in the library last Saturday. The last couple of months had been more emotionally straining than the past five years at Hogwarts and it was time things went back to normal again.

            “Well, can we at least talk about who you’ll go to the Valentine’s Dance with?” Katie said after a while and I couldn’t help groaning as I shook my head.

Fortunately, I was saved the need to reply when suddenly there was a loud knock on the classroom door and the entire class turned around curiously, apparently in desperate need for a distraction.

“Yes!” Professor Hockanum boomed and the door opened with a creak, revealing a tall, blonde boy, who I thought I had seen on the Slytherin team before. A couple of girls giggled irritatingly, but he didn’t seem to even notice as he walked up to Hockanum’s table and handed him a neatly folded piece of parchment.

The Professor studied it for a moment before looking up again, a slight frown creasing his forehead. “Very well then. Miss Woodley-”

I jumped at the sound of my name, meeting Hockanum’s gaze with complete bewilderment. He looked unusually stern and a sudden uneasy feeling washed over me.

“You are to see the headmistress in her office. Without delay.”

“What? But why?” Katie’s voice rang out loudly before I could even so much as open my mouth. Her tone carried a definite note of indignation and a few people snickered at her boisterous reaction. Most of the class, however, was simply staring at me, some undeniably intrigued, others – so it seemed – with knowing looks on their faces.

“I’m afraid that is no concern of yours, Miss Banks,” Professor Hockanum sighed, albeit sounding quite resolutely as he did so. “Miss Woodley. The headmistress awaits you.”

 

***

 

My eyes travelled over the paintings that hung impressively behind the sturdy oak desk, but I barely registered the vaguely interested glances I received from their inhabitants. My heart was once again thumping against my chest and my hands felt clammy as I forced them to lie still in my lap. By now, my mind had conjured up the wildest theories of why I had been called into the headmistress’s office in the middle of class and none of them was good.

“Miss Woodley,” McGonagall finally addressed me after putting down the quill in her hand. Next to her pristine stationary stood a large tartan cookie jar, which somehow looked at odds with the otherwise functional items on her desk. “You are aware of what has happened to Albus Potter, I assume?”

I looked up at her, completely caught off guard. “I – um – no. Well, I mean, yes. I know something happened.”

“He was poisoned.”

I shifted in my seat involuntarily, hoping that the heat that was crawling up my face did not show on my cheeks. Of course I knew that Albus had been poisoned; everybody knew. That didn’t change the fact, however, that I wasn’t supposed to.

McGonagall studied me for an endless second, her eyes narrowing warily when she finally said: “You don’t look surprised.”

I sighed, realising that there was no point in pretending. After all, I had been a witness to part of the crime and it was quite understandable that I would be interrogated about what exactly had happened the night of Slughorn’s Christmas party. “I just – I heard rumours that it might have been that.”

McGonagall still looked rather stiff as she scrutinized me over the brim of her glasses. “I understand that Albus Potter and you have been,” she paused for a second, pressing her thin lips together, “- friendly before the incident.”

I blinked, too perplex to actually realise the implication of this statement. “We talked occasionally. Yes. But I don’t understand-”

“Apparently,” McGonagall continued before I even had the chance to finish my sentence, “there is a rumour going around school that it was you who poisoned him.”

What?” I jerked forwards, my fingers wrapping around the armrests of my chair as my head began to swim. “But-“

The headmistress held up her hand, silencing me once again before I could lounge into a ferocious speech for the defence. “Of course, I do not care about juvenile gossip and I usually abstain from indulging in such trivial diversions,” she sighed, sounding weary all of a sudden. “But this is about a student’s welfare.”

“I understand,” I said quickly, now gripping the armrests so fiercely that my knuckles turned white. “But I didn’t do it. I would never do such a thing!”

She gave me a long, appraising look and a soft muttering broke out around the room as the portraits began to discuss the question of my guilt among each other.

“I wouldn’t even have called you here if there had not been a witness who has come forth, linking you to the disappearance of dangerous ingredients from Professor Slughorn’s cabinet.”

            I could feel the muscles in my neck tighten, but I forced myself to sit still as my stomach began to twist.

This could not be happening.

“Caleria root and essence of Gravidas in combination are commonly used to brew a highly complicated potion to determine whether its taker is pregnant,” she gave me a stern look before adding, “which is – and I am sure you are aware of this as a Prefect – on the list of forbidden substances at Hogwarts.”

            It grew silent as McGonagall’s gaze continued to linger on me and I knew that I needed to say something. Anything.

I couldn’t tell her the truth; admitting to brewing the pregnancy potion would automatically link me to the poison attack on Albus. There was no way anyone was going to believe that I had had nothing to do with it. Even worse, the truth would not only get me into trouble but also incriminate Sam and Katie.

However, I also didn’t want to lie.

“I didn’t steal the ingredients,” I told her truthfully, withstanding her piercing gaze. “I never took anything from Professor Slughorn’s cabinet without permission.”

The door creaked and, as if he had been waiting outside for his name to be called, Slughorn entered the office, looking mildly curious as he caught sight of me.

“Horace,” McGonagall said in a tone that suggested she had been expecting the potions master. “You know Miss Woodley, I take it?”

“Of course,” Slughorn boomed in his usual ostentatious manner, giving me a bright smile. “She is my most talented student.”

McGonagall raised her eyebrows and I knew instantly that Slughorn had just unknowingly gotten me into even greater trouble. “Do you consider Miss Woodley capable of brewing advanced and potent potions such as Graviditas?”

At the sound of the potion’s name, realisation seemed to dawn on Slughorn’s face and his chubby cheeks lost some of their puce colour. “Well I-” He spluttered, looking quite helpless as his gaze wandered from McGonagall to me, “Minerva, I really don’t think that Miss Woodley would ever-”

“Is she capable, Horace?” McGonagall cut across his meagre attempt at backpedalling.

The two teachers looked at each other for a moment and, after an excruciatingly long pause in which Slughorn kept dabbing his sweaty forehead, he said meekly: “Yes. Yes, she is. But-”

McGonagall nodded, taking off her glasses as she turned back to me, her expression as unreadable as ever. “As I said, I disapprove of rumours. I have known you as an excellent student, Miss Woodley, but I also have to inform you that I will monitor this situation most closely from now on.”

“I – I understand,” I replied somewhat trance-like. None of this seemed real and I wondered vaguely if there was still a chance that this might be a bad dream.

“Very well. You may go.”

 

I couldn’t remember leaving the office nor descending the winding staircase. The way up to Ravenclaw tower was nothing but a confused blur as I paced along the corridor, bumping into slowly moving bodies left and right, all the while feeling a wave of nausea crawling up my throat. All these weird incidents; the whispers, strangers staring at me – it had had nothing to do with James Potter.

            It was me.

            People thought I was brewing illegal potions and – worst of all – they seemed to think that I had poisoned Albus Potter.

 

A/N:

DUN DUN DUN.

And thus the plot thickens.

I hope you guys enjoyed this chapter (which I made extra-long to make up for the lengthy wait) and I honestly can’t wait to hear what you think about it! I literally am addicted to your feedback and can’t tell you enough how much it means to me to read your notes, comments, reviews, suggestions, etc. Also, I’m always curious on your theories as to WHAT ON EARTH IS GOING ON ;) So leave me a comment, drop me a note, or, if you’re feeling extra fancy, I do enjoy poetry as well ;)

Love to you all – I hope you have a spectacular day, wherever you are. 


Chapter 28: Going Down
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A/N: I AM SORRY

It took me forever and I hope you can forgive me. I did make the chapter super long in an attempt to bribe all of you

 

28

Going Down

 

I twirled; not gracefully like Katie, who performed an elegant pirouette to my left, but just fast enough to not trip over my own feet this time. It seemed absolutely ridiculous – turning on the spot with your eyes closed like a complete loon without any apparent outcome. Not even the flimsy wizard that strolled lazily among the rows of rotating sixth years, seemed remotely interested in the task as his gaze wandered from person to person, his eyes glazed.

There was, of course, a purpose to the drill; apparition lessons, which had been moved to the school grounds now that the initial theoretical input had been completed, were probably the only activity that could succeed in keeping a group of 200 teenagers present and alert for more than ten seconds and willing to spend a Saturday afternoon in the freezing and unpredictable February weather. Despite the fact that no one had actually managed to apparate yet due to tightened safety regulations which had followed a series of horrible splinching incidents in the previous decade, the mere idea of de- and re-materialising was fascinating enough to keep everybody reasonably committed to perfecting their three Ds; Destination, Determination, and Deliberation.

„Very good, boys and girls!“ The tiny wizard finally shouted across the lawn when the fine drizzle that had been spraying us for about half an hour had turned into large, heavy drops, causing Demeter Notte to abandon her designated spot and hold her hands protectively over her perfectly straight hair. “Let’s pack up. You’ve all done -“

But the rest of his sentence drowned in a smattering of screeching and shouting as an ear-splitting crack of thunder rolled over the sky, releasing torrents of rain which sent the entire assembly running towards the safety of the castle.

Except for me.

The rain was cold and unpleasant, yet I made no effort to catch up with the others. The last week had almost been the worst week of my life, coming in second only because of the awful ten days that my parents had forced me to attend Little Lady Magical Manners Camp the summer before I had started Hogwarts.

It had been a week since McGonagall had called me into her office; a week of stares and whispers and sidelong glances cast from across classrooms and hallways, some of them barely concealed so that I was sure to notice them, others clandestine and fearful of the girl that had poisoned Albus Potter.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure which ones were worse.

No one had said anything to my face, of course – probably out of concern for their own safety and health – but the aftermath of being called into the headmistress’s office was disastrous. As with most shocking rumours at Hogwarts, word travelled silently through the school and, while Katie and Sam tried to convince me that it wasn’t as bad as it looked and that my alleged aptitude to brew sinister potions would soon be old news, I could feel it spiralling out of control, mutating relentlessly so that, within only eight days, I had become notorious.

“I’m starving,” said Sam loudly as we trudged up the sludgy trail to the castle, already drenched by the relentless downpour. He looked rather unhappy, as did Katie, whose auburn curls hung sadly around her pale face. Ever since the school was buzzing of my rumoured criminal activities the both of them had made a point of not leaving my side, which – inevitably – had pulled them into the slipstream of my infamy. And, while it couldn’t be easy for either of them, they made a point of not letting it show.

“It feels like I disapparated the entire contents of my stomach,” Katie moaned as we finally reached the safety of the dry castle, clutching her midriff. “Is that possible?”

We moved towards the Great Hall and immediately the latent stomach-ache that had accompanied me ever since I had exited McGonagall’s office became more bothersome. Lately, entering the Great Hall for meals had felt more like running the gauntlet and, even though I forced myself to hold my head high and ignore the silent stares and carrying whispers, the experience was still awful.

“Seth?” A soft voice rung out behind us and I stopped momentarily, somehow glad that I had a reason for stalling. Simone Servatius, a seventh year Hufflepuff prefect, stood by the wide staircase at the edge of the entrance hall, looking at us through large, brown eyes. “Can I talk to you for a second?” She said, her voice echoing from the high walls as she cast quick glances at Katie and Sam, who were standing on either side of me like wary sentinels. “It’s about the Valentine’s Dance.”

“Oh, sure,” I said, relieved by the triviality of her inquiry; the annual Valentine’s Dance, which was to take place the Wednesday after next, was traditionally organized by the Prefects and – while I had no intention of going – I was still obligated to help with the planning.

“I thought it was all planned,” Sam said, furrowing his brows. The Valentine’s Dance was never fun to plan, owing largely to the fact that students could not choose their own dates but were allotted escorts by a random lottery system which, initially, had been installed to foster school spirit and unity. Of course, by now it had developed into a giant black market swap-meet, in which certain names generated quite ludicrous sums of money, James Sirius Potter leading the way.

James. As the name flitted through my mind I felt an involuntary pang somewhere in my chest. I hadn’t seen him since our awkward encounter in the library last week and for the smallest fraction of a second I had wondered if he had heard the rumours about me.

Surely he must have; not only because they concerned his brother, but also because some people had expressed considerable concern for James, who – and this seemed to be the general consensus – obviously must have been drugged by me at some point this year, but, heroically, had broken free of the curse and was now in immediate danger from my ugly retribution.

Everybody seemed to think this was a sound theory and maybe – I couldn’t help thinking – James did too.

“Um, no,” Simone said quickly, “it’s about the dress code. Some people have suggested changing it to a more formal one and I just wanted to discuss possible implications if we decide to do it. Seth is in charge of decoration, so… ”

“Oh,” Sam said slowly, apparently glad that he would not be included in this discussion. “Well then, we’ll wait inside, shall we?”

“Yeah, go ahead,” I told my friends, glad for the convenient excuse to delay – maybe even avoid – entering the Great Hall.

“I thought everyone was happy with the semi-formal theme.” I said as I watched Simone approaching, her long, black hair swishing behind her as she took long, urging strides. When she reached me, I suddenly noticed that her gaze was oddly tense.

“I need your help,” she whispered, her voice uncharacteristically high and shaky as she knotted her arms tightly in front of her ample chest. “I’ve tried everything but nothing’s worked. You’re my last hope.”

“Okay…” I replied very slowly, now slightly alarmed by the amount of stress the dress-code issue seemed to cause her. Surely I wasn’t the right person to ask for advice on dress-codes.

“I tried those ruddy pills you get at the apothecary and my friend Isla had some Mexican herbs that she swore have worked for her sister, but nothing happened. I even tried not eating for a week but that was a disaster,” she said, forcing a dry, humourless laugh that echoed strangely around us before she fixated me with her eyes, a strange, curious glint in them. “You’re my last hope. Everyone’s talking about it and you – you used to look so different before… and then this year – well, look at you. We all wondered – and it makes sense now, doesn’t it?”

It took me a moment to fully understand; to realise what I was being asked for. The request as well as the implication were so outlandish that I failed to reply, but the mixture of incredulity and offence that must have shown on my face at the insinuation that I had magically altered my appearance seemed to sufficiently alert Simone and she immediately began to backpedal.

“It doesn’t have to be something major,” she said and I was shocked to notice the plea in her voice this time as the full extent of her desperation surfaced. “Maybe just something to speed up my metabolism. Something that works fast – until next weekend. I heard Gracilitas is really efficient.”

“Are you – are you serious?” I finally managed to utter, looking aghast at Simone’s eager face, still not fully grasping the situation. “Gracilitas is extremely dangerous and illegal.”

Simone, however, did not seem to have heard me. “I have money – I can pay you,” she insisted, producing a bulging leather pouch from her skirt pocket. “I have ten Galleons from Christmas and my 17th birthday is coming up so I’ll have more then.”

“Simone,” I said, this time more firmly, “whatever you have heard, I don’t brew illegal potions!” It came out sounding more aggressive than I had intended it to, but the strain of the previous week and the ludicrous assumption that I would sell unlawful substances, made it very hard to withstand the looming panic attack.

“Oh…” Simone said after a moment of silence, her hand still clutching the small purse. “Oh, right. I just heard that – well, whatever.” She trailed off and – just as a loudly talking group of students ventured into the Entrance Hall – she turned on the spot and ran back up the stairs.

I remained in the middle of the hall, completely paralysed as the surge of panic that had built up over the last couple of days, and which I had deliberately ignored for so long, washed over me, burying me underneath it.

 

***

 

I could hear a faint pop as the fly flew against the bedpost; unyielding, headfirst. I had been watching the tiny creature for a while now, observing its outraged buzzing as its flight was yet again interrupted by another insurmountable obstacle. At first, I had thought it was simply trying to find its way out of the labyrinth of heavy curtains and wood into which it had ventured in pursuit of food, but even as I offered it a chance to escape by pulling aside the heavy blue drapes, it failed to leave, continuing its relentless circles almost as though it revelled in its trapped state.

            “Fine, have it your way,” I sighed, propping the large book in my lap up against my legs once again to resume my reading.

            After only three sentences, the fly landed on the page, crawling over the writing.

            “I can kill you, you know?”

            It looked thoroughly unimpressed as it continued to move jerkily across the page, only stopping occasionally to rub its tiny front legs against each other like a mad scientist.

            With a lurch, the thick blue curtains I had drawn all around my bed were suddenly yanked open and Katie’s mop of shiny auburn curls appeared as she stuck in her head.

            “Who are you talking to?” She said with a mixture of concern and curiosity, scanning the moderately sized bed. I wasn’t quite sure who she was expecting to find, and, frankly, I did not want to know.

            “Um, no one.” From the corner of my eye I watched the fly take off again, resuming its senseless routine. “I was… reading aloud.”

            Katie frowned. “I thought I heard the word ‘kill’”, she said, looking down at the book in my lap. “What are you reading?”

            I contemplated my answer for a moment, biting my lip. “Ancient Runes?”

            “Rubbish!” Katie cried out, snatching the book out of my hands and dangling it above my bed so that the flashy cover print of a setting sun and a half-naked man cradling a busty woman with long, black hair was clearly visible. “Ambrosia Tinkletabber? Seriously, Seth?”

            “What?” I said defensively, albeit unable to supress the colour that rose to my cheeks. “It’s yours. You read them all the time.”

            “Seth,” Katie said again after a short pause, this time more seriously. “You’ve got to stop this.”

            “Stop what?”

            “This here. All of it.” She waved the well-used novelette in front of my face, agitating the fly that had settled on her arm just a second ago. “Stop spending all of your free time in bed, reading crap, wallowing.”

            “I’m fine,” I said defiantly, hugging my legs to my torso, unwilling to discuss my questionable lifestyle choices.

            “You’ve been eating nothing but Ginger Newts for five days,” Katie sighed, sitting down at the edge of my bed, her expression full of genuine concern. She seemed exasperated by my stubbornness and I felt a twinge of guilt for acting like I did.

While I refused to admit it, I knew that my best friend was right. Between classes, I had rarely ventured beyond the confines of our dorm room, skipping meals and avoiding crowds and busy places. I could feel the stares; the eyes that followed me down the corridors as I tried to navigate the castle, making as little eye contact as possible. Even the professors behaved differently towards me, treating me – or so it seemed – with some sort of wariness that implied a certain alertness.

Worse even than that, however, were the notes; jagged little pieces of paper and parchment that had suddenly begun to appear on my desk during classes, on the library shelves I was perusing, on the bottom of my bag; all of them queries for specific potions of various degrees of illegality with the promise of generous monetary compensation.

“You need to get out of this bed, Seth,” Katie said, watching me as I tucked my chin between my kneecaps, still refusing to look at her. “Come with us to Hogsmeade this weekend. It’s the winter carnival. It’ll be fun.”

“No thanks, I’d rather stay in the castle.” I had actually been looking forward to the prospect of empty hallways and a forsaken library, which would allow me to study without eager girls creeping up behind me, loudly discussing their needs for love potions and the enormous amount of pocket money they would be willing to spend on them.

Katie let out an exasperated groan. “You can’t shut yourself off forever,” she insisted, slamming her fist on the Ambrosia Tinkletabber book in her lap. “I let you wallow in self-pity long enough. It’s time you get a grip on yourself.”

I grimaced but did not contradict her; my rotten mood hadn’t exactly been easy on her and Sam. While I didn’t want to hear all of this, I also knew that hiding out in my room could barely be considered a permanent solution, even if I wanted it to be. If anything, it only seemed to have made the rumours even worse.

I looked up at Katie, somewhat defeated. “I’ll think about it.”

She beamed. “Then it’s settled.”

I watched her leap up from my bed, the cheap novelette – of which she harboured an entire collection – pinned firmly between her arms and her torso.

“Wait!”

“What?”

I hesitated for a moment, tucking my legs underneath the blanket. “Let me just finish this chapter. Lucrezia just found out that Juan-Carlos has an evil twin.”

Katie rolled her eyes, not showing the slightest inclination to return the book to me. “Juan-Carlos is the evil twin,” she said mercilessly. “And now get out of this bloody bed!”

 

***

 

            Warm specks of light danced on the grey stone walls as I walked along the corridor, books clutched against my chest, the dull thuds of my sneaker soles hitting the floor echoing faintly from the high vaulted ceiling. It had been a long time since I had had the luxury to peruse the library at my leisure, which was also why I had completely lost track of time. I had almost forgotten how it felt to spend more than an hour in one place without the constant presence of prying eyes in my neck.

            Much to Katie’s and Sam’s relief, I had braved the rumours and stares as best as I could, bearing them with some sort of fake casual aloofness that would have made my grandmother quite proud. Keeping it up was exhausting, however, and it had felt wonderful to simply let my guard down for a few blissful hours as most people spent their Friday nights in their dorm rooms, preparing for the greatly anticipated Hogsmeade winter carnival tomorrow.

            “Oi, careful there!” Someone suddenly called out even as I rounded the corner and I swerved, just in time to avoid a painful collision. Unfortunately, my jerky movement had unsettled the stack of books in my arms, sending half of them flying to the floor.

            “I’m sorry,” the blond boy said sheepishly, his hand scratching the back of his neck as he took in the half dozen books that lay scattered on the dirty stone floor. “I didn’t expect to run into anybody at this time.”

            “It’s fine,” I sighed, feeling that it was just as much my own fault as it was his. “I didn’t look either.” I bent down to pick up the library goods, glad that Madame Pince had not been here to witness the scene, when suddenly my hands brushed against another pair of hands and I looked up to find the blond boy crouching as well, a smile on his rather handsome face.

“I’m Lucas,” he said confidently, still smiling as he held out the books to me.

            I took them rather awkwardly. “Um, thank you.”

            “You’re Seth, right?”

I frowned in response, my shoulders suddenly rigid as every fibre of my body tensed up. Of course he knew who I was. I should have realised what this really was the moment he had ‘accidentally’ collided with me in an entirely empty corridor.

            He seemed to notice the wary look on my face, apparently thinking I was upset that he knew my name for he quickly said, “We’ve met before – on the Quidditch pitch.”

            My frown only deepened. Not only could I not remember having met this boy – Lucas – before, it also seemed very unlikely that someone would know me from the Quidditch pitch of all places.

“You were shouting at Potter.” He grinned as though the memory of my meltdown still gave him immense pleasure. “You were brilliant.”

            “Oh,” I replied as a vague memory took shape; of me, marching down the mushy lawn and an arrogant James Potter I had hardly known then, smirking as I flung my books at him. “Right. That.”

            “I’ve never seen anybody talk to him like that before,” he continued, now looking at me somewhat curiously. “Especially not pretty girls.”

            The blush that crept to my cheeks was inevitable; luckily the flickering torchlight concealed my absolute ineptitude at handling complements and so I simply tucked a strand of hair behind my ear, pretending I had missed the obvious implication.

            “So you’re on the Gryffindor team?”

            “Yup,” Lucas replied, leaning casually against the wall. “I’m a chaser.”

            I nodded my head slowly in response as an awkward silence settled around us. I wasn’t quite sure why I was still talking to a stranger in the middle of a scantily lit hallway, but it was somehow nice to have a conversation without being asked the price of Amortentia.

            “So, um, I should probably get back to my common room,” I finally said, unable to think of anything else to say. Social awkwardness should have been my middle name.

“Oh, um, sure.” He stepped aside to allow me to pass. “It was nice meeting you, Seth.”

            “Yes, um, you too.”

            Continuing my swift walk, I had already half-way reached the end of the corridor, when suddenly, Lucas called out after me, his voice echoing strangely from the ceiling.

            “Seth?”

            I stopped and turned around, the heavy stack of books still wedged uncomfortably in between my arms. “Yes?”

“I’m going out on a limb here,” he looked at me, the handsome smile still in place. “But I’d probably kick myself if I don’t ask, so… do you want to go to the carnival tomorrow? With me?”

I froze, unable to hide the surprise in my voice. “What?”

My utter astonishment must have come across as slightly aggressive, for Lucas quickly rubbed the back of his head and said almost apologetically, “Of course, you already have a date”.

“I – no,” I said lamely, shifting my weight from one foot to the other. Something weird and fluttery had come to life in my stomach as my face turned a bright shade of red. “I mean, I don’t have a date.”

“Oh, great!” He looked oddly relieved, the smile back on his face once more. “So, do you want to go?”

An avalanche of thoughts descended in my head, rendering me speechless for a moment. This was the first time I had been asked out on a date – by a quite handsome guy, at that – and I was utterly overwhelmed. After all the bad things that had been happening in my life lately, this seemed almost unreal; too good to be true.

However, before I could contemplate the implications and possible risks of this situation any further, my mouth had opened and I heard myself say, “OK.”

“Brilliant!” Lucas called out. “It’s a date then.”

“Yeah,” I said, feeling odd. “I guess.” And with that, I simply turned around and speed-walked to the end of the corridor, not looking back once until I had run all the way to Ravenclaw Tower.

 

***

 

“Lucas Gallagher. You know, I think I’ve seen him before,” Katie said, somewhat muffled as she was just applying several generous coats of tinted lip balm to her mouth. “This is going to be great!”

“I shouldn’t have said yes,” I moaned and let myself fall back onto my bed, staring at the intricate bronze pattern that laced the high-vaulted sky-blue ceiling. I had spent half the night glowering at it, thinking of ways to get out of having to go on a date with a guy I barely knew to a place where literally everybody could watch.

“Of course you should have!” Katie protested and – quite unceremoniously – threw my woolly grey coat on top of me.  “Now, woodley up.”

            I pushed the piece of clothing off of me, feeling queasier by the second. “That doesn’t mean anything.”

            “It means stop whining and get dressed.”

            I lingered for another second, then followed Katie’s order and pushed myself up into a sitting positing, the coat cradled awkwardly in my arms. “This is going to be a disaster.”

 

 

            Sam was already waiting by the stairs to the girls’ dormitories when we made our way into the common room, his gaze resting on one of the gaudy posters for the Valentine’s Dance that had been put up all over the castle last week. By Monday, the lottery pairings would be announced and only then the real matchmaking would start as people threw in bids on their girlfriends, boyfriends, and crushes, happily defeating the purpose of the entire system.

            “Where’s Hector?” I asked Sam as we had reached him which earned me a rather dramatic eye roll.

            “Oh he’s meeting me in Hogsmeade,” he said, not without a slight bitterness in his voice. “Doesn’t want people to stare at us. Bloody coward.” He grumbled a few other, indistinguishable words under his breath before looking up at us again. “You two look nice. I bet your dates are happy to be seen with you.”

            Katie said, “Thanks”, just as I said something along the lines of “urgh”.

            “She’s just nervous,” Katie explained in response to the confused look on Sam’s face.

            “I’m not nervous,” I insisted stubbornly. “I just don’t want to go. Dating is not my thing, that’s all.”

            Katie sighed, giving me an annoyingly patronising look as she pushed open the common room door. “How can you say that? You’ve never been on one.”

This seemed to take Sam by surprise for he almost tripped over the threshold, his brow furrowed in utter bewilderment as he stared at me. “Wait, you’ve never been on a date?”

I shrugged, hoping that I looked much cooler than I actually felt. “If you don’t count my parents trying to force me into a loveless arranged marriage then no, I guess not.”

“But – I mean, you’re sixteen.”

“Thanks for bolstering my confidence, Sam.”

“Sorry,” he said quickly. “I just – you don’t even look bad or anything.”

“For Merlin’s sake, why are you still talking?” Katie hissed, pummelling Sam’s arm, who looked simply aghast.

“I was just – It was a compliment!” He gave me a desperate look but our conversation was forced to a sudden halt as we rounded the corner and joined the considerable crowd of overly excited students in the entrance hall, filing out through the large set of doors past Filch, who checked off names on a very big and very old clipboard.

“I’ll go find Tarquin,” Katie said as she stood on tiptoe, scanning the considerable mob of people before diving into the mass and vanishing from sight.

“And I’ll see if I can find Hector so I can skulk after him, pretending we don’t really know each other,” Sam said miserably. “Will you be alright?”

“Sure,” I lied, my voice brimming with false confidence. “Go find your man.”

“Good luck,” he smiled, squeezing my shoulder comfortingly before he, too, disappeared into the crowd, leaving me by myself amidst the sea of hostile Hogwarts students.

Ignoring the group of fifth years that was blatantly staring at me, exchanging barely whispered Is-that-her-s and are-you-sure?-she-doesn’t-look-that-crazy-s, I took a quick look around the slowly emptying entrance hall, contemplating my options. Nothing had been lost yet; I could still leave and return to Ravenclaw Tower, put on my most comfortable jumper and horrible baggy tracksuit bottoms, and spend all Saturday in bed, reading.

But then the crowd moved and he saw me and my heart stopped.

I hadn’t seen or talked to James for two weeks, which I had largely attributed to the fact that he probably didn’t want to be seen with me after everything that had happened. It was therefore quite strange that he continued to stare at me from across the hall; and it was even stranger that I couldn’t look away either.

“There you are!” Lucas said brightly as he came up to me, ploughing his way through the crowd, and I instantly tore my eyes off of James. A couple of people began to whisper as he reached me but if he had noticed, he didn’t seem to care. “I thought you might stand me up.”

            “Of course not,” I said, my voice sounding a tat too dramatic, and I quickly cleared my throat. “That’s a nice jacket.”

            I had said it before really thinking about it; the looming awkward silence had made me panic and I had simply spat out the first thing that had come to my mind, not thinking that it might make the situation even worse.

            Lucas looked down at his green parka, first obviously bewildered, then laughing. “Thanks,” he said, before adding, “You look great, Seth”.

            I hid the oncoming blush by fishing my hat from my coat pocket and putting it on rather slowly, hoping that it still came off as naturally. The date hadn’t even started yet and I was already wishing I was back in my bed, reading Ambrosia Tinkletabber.

 

***

 

A blanket of vivid grey clouded the Scottish sky, the threat of rain looming in every gust of cold wind that swept over the rolling hills. This gloomy prospect was quite forgotten, however, amidst the bright lights soaring above the bustling street and the rows of cheerfully decorated wooden stalls that sold homemade mulled wine and roasted chestnuts as soft music filled the heavy, sweet air. It mingled with Lucas’s laugh and I felt a tiny jolt in the pit of my stomach.

            “Are you serious?” He said, the skin around his eyes crinkling as he continued to grin. I couldn’t imagine how I had failed to notice the startling blue of his irises before.

            “Well, what was I supposed to do?” I replied, laughing as well. “I thought it was drowning.”

            Lucas raised his eyebrows as he looked at me, his blond hair sticking out from under his hat. “Don’t toads live in the water?”

            “It didn’t look as though it could swim. I swear!”

            He shook his head before he said, “Poor Cinnamon.”

            “Hey,” I protested half-jokingly, half-seriously. “He had a great old life with me.”

            “I’m sure he did.” I could feel Lucas’s eyes on me and quickly began to sip on my mulled wine in desperate need for something to do. So far, the date had been unexpectedly fun, with light banter and comical stories, but it suddenly felt as though the mood was changing.

            “You look really good,” he said, the amusement gone from his voice, and I forced myself to look up. My cheeks felt hot – maybe from the mulled wine – and a sudden burst of excitement flickered in my stomach.

            “You – said that already,” I replied lamely.

And I had been doing so well.

            Lucas, however, did not seem to be offended as he chuckled and – quite suddenly, without any warning – took my gloved hand into his so that we were walking along the busy street hand in hand as though it was the most natural thing in the world.

            It happened then – unintentionally and unexpectedly – that the memory of another boy grabbing my hand in the midst of a yelling and shoving crowd pushed to the surface; a deep, throaty laugh, a mass of swirling colours, the pleasant heaviness of a warm jacket around my shoulders.

            “Refill?” Lucas’s voice cut across my thoughts like a knife and I looked up to find him pointing at my almost empty mug.

            “Um, sure,” I said perplexed, still drowsy from the scenes I had just seen in my head. “Maybe something without alcohol.”

            “You got it.” He let go of my hand to take my mug. “I’ll be right back.”

            As I watched him disappear into the crowd, I couldn’t help feeling angry at myself. I was on a date – a good date – with a nice boy who obviously made an effort and who seemed to be genuinely interested in me.

Why then – why on earth was I thinking of James Potter.

In an attempt to divert my mind, I looked around, vaguely taking in the colourful booths, stopping only when a frantically waving arm caught my attention, forcing me to focus on the person it belonged to.

Freddie Weasley, who was encased by a slightly crooked yet colourfully lit stall, beckoned wildly for me to come over and, after a moment’s hesitation, I decided to oblige him before even more people would pause their perusal of various merchandise to stare at me.

“Look who it is, the one and only pyjama girl,” he said brightly as I approached, holding out a steaming paper cup. “Weasley’s finest hot cocoa.”

I took the cup hesitantly, sniffing warily at the creamy brown substance which, coming from Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes, probably made you belt out Celine Dion at the top of your lungs or something equally mortifying.

“Not everything we do is a joke, Lizziebeth,” Freddie said seriously after watching me for a moment. At a closer look, I noticed that his eyebrows and hair seemed to be sparkling. “I swear the cocoa’s fine. Would I lie to you?”

I looked up at Freddie’s lopsided grin and finally took a sip of the drink, thinking that the rich, sweet taste was probably worth any mortifying side-effects it might cause.

“Good, eh?” He said, refilling my cup without waiting for a reply. “We’ve been drinking it all day to keep warm. Technically we’re not supposed to but what Dad doesn’t know…”

“Are you working here?” I asked, feeling sung and warm as Weasley’s finest hot cocoa travelled to my stomach. Above my head a yellow bird had just dissolved into a cloud of vivid red smoke with a loud puff, attracting the eyes of a couple of bored kids that trailed after their parents.

“Yup, my dad says it’s character moulding to know what real work feels like.” He leaned against the counter of the booth, his arms folded across his chest, hiding the brightly orange shop logo emblazoned on his jumper. “He really just can’t be bothered to stand out in the freezing cold all day.”

Somewhere out of sight, a renewed bang rattled the booth and I was instantly showered with glittering confetti.

 “Oh, sorry for that,” Freddie said as he watched a few glitter particles land in my cocoa. “Great sellers but a bit uncontrollable.”

“It’s fine,” I laughed, brushing a thick layer of silver confetti off my coat. “My friend Katie would love this.”

“We’ve been glittered all day,” he said, trying to diffuse the cloud that still floated around me by waving his hands. “James was hit by a vicious pink one before we even opened. I reckon he’ll sparkle forever.”

As if on cue, the back of the spacious wooden stall swung open and, hidden behind a pile of heavy-looking boxes, James came in, swearing under his breath.

“What the fuck is in those boxes?” He practically slammed them into the corner, looking as though he only just restrained himself from aiming an additional kick at them.

“He’s been a bloody sunshine all day,” said Freddie, a sort of weary expression on his handsome face.

Apparently at hearing his friend speak, James looked up and his features seemed to freeze as he saw me, standing at the counter with the paper cup cradled in my hands, still engulfed by a faint silver cloud. There was a moment when I considered running, but my feet would not move and so I simply gave him a friendly nod, which he did not reciprocate.

“Oh drat, those are the wrong ones mate,” Freddie said loudly, as though determined to break through the awkwardness, and – stalking purposefully past James – called out, “Don’t worry, I’ll get them!”

I wanted to cry out for him to wait, to not leave me here alone with James, but Freddie had shut the door behind him with a bang that seemed to echo from the wooden walls.

I hesitated, waiting for James to say something, but he simply stood there, his hands buried deeply in the pockets of his jeans. He, too, was wearing a Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes jumper in grey, which seemed to have a soft pinkish shimmer that clashed horribly with the vivid orange logo.

 “So, you’re working here too?” I said in an attempt at friendly conversation, not really sure what else to say.

“Yah,” he replied coldly and something heavy seemed to dislodge itself from my chest and sink to the bottom of my stomach. Of course he didn’t want to speak to me; after all, I still stood accused of poisoning his little brother and, according to rather persistent rumours, him as well. I wasn’t surprised he believed the stories; still I had secretly hoped that he might not.

“How’s – How’s potions going?” I continued lamely, shifting my weight from one foot to the other as the cold air slowly crawled underneath my coat. Why on earth I was trying to make conversation with a boy who obviously wasn’t interested, I didn’t know; but somehow I just couldn’t walk away.

James only glared at me, his eyebrows knitted as thunder growled threateningly in the distance.

“How’s your date going?”

I stared at him, too perplexed to answer for a moment. It wasn’t the fact that he knew about my date with Lucas that rattled me, but rather the strangeness of hearing him say it out loud.  “Oh, um, good.”

He nodded, slowly, and began to arrange items on a random shelf, slamming them aggressively on the wooden ledge. When one of them fell over and knocked down the rest, he stared at the mess for a second, the expression on his face livid. I was sure that this time he would deal out the kick which he had held back before, but instead he turned around to face me.

“I don’t want you to hang out with Gallagher.”

Excuse me?” I snapped as the familiar feeling of irritation that was especially reserved for James Potter prickled in the back of my head. This conversation had gone from weird to outrageous within the mere fraction of a second.

“You can’t hang out with him,” James insisted, an infuriatingly imperious tone in his voice. “He’s a prick.”

I shook my head before I was able to produce actual words. Both bewilderment and anger seemed to be battling it out in my head. “What are you even talking about? He’s on your Quidditch team.”

“He’s on the reserve team!” He practically shouted, just as one of the weirdly shaped objects on the shelf behind him exploded with a loud fanfare. A couple of people had stopped their merry shopping to stare at us, apparently trying to make sense of this strange scene.

“Well,” I said as calmly as possible, lowering my voice to avoid attracting any further attention. “I’m on neither of your teams so luckily I don’t have to listen to you.”  

James glowered at me.  “All he wants is – he just wants to get into your pants.”

“What in Merlin’s name is wrong with you?” I was furious, unable to contain my temper any longer. For weeks he had ignored me, not even bothering to talk to me about all the awful rumours that circulated at school; let alone ask me how I was. His audacity to even comment on my love life when he was the guy who had basically pushed me out of his bed was simply the final straw.

All I wanted was to scream – to yell at him.

Instead, I took a deep, steadying breath.

“Goodbye James.”

I had put down the paper cup – tiny silver confetti were still swirling in the now cold cocoa – and made to leave, but James had reached out, grabbing my arm. I looked up at him, focusing on the smudge of pink glitter on his right cheek.

“For fuck’s sake, Woodley, just listen to me this one time,” he said darkly, his voice throaty and low. “He’s bad, okay?”

I hesitated for a moment, feeling slightly nauseous as I looked straight into his eyes.  “Well haven’t you heard?” I said, freeing my arm from his grip. “So am I.”

And I turned around and walked away from James Potter, only just blinking away the angry tears that stung in my eyes.

 

A/N: I hope you lovelies enjoyed the chapter despite the long wait. I know it’s not ideal to take that long but I’ve had quite the writer’s block (which only your fantastic reviews have managed to dissolve). The good news is that the next chapter is already in the making and should be up much sooner than this one was. Also, I was made a trusted author so the whole uploading process is faster :)

I really want to thank all of the people who not only read but also take the time to leave a review, however short or long. All of you who have stories on here as well know how much reviews mean, especially when you put so much time and effort into your chapters, so thank you guys so much!

Cookies and Kneazles to you!


Chapter 29: Of High Hopes and Low Expectations
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Of High Hopes and Low Expectations

 

My heart pounded as I walked down the street, heat crawling up my back despite the ten-degree-weather, and my head buzzed as though someone had hit it with a beater’s bat. I knew that I needed to calm down, but it was hard to resist the urge to succumb to my anger.

            James Potter was a prat.

            A selfish, inflated, big-headed prat.

            His words were still ringing in my head, scraps of the conversation blending to a repetitive swirl as they echoed in my head: he’s a prick; you can’t hang out with him; he just wants to get into your pants.

            I took a deep, steadying breath, slowly scanning my surroundings. Lucas was nowhere to be seen and I guessed that, upon realising that I had gone, he had probably left. I couldn’t even blame him; I would have done the same thing, assuming that I had been ditched.

            My first date had officially ended in disaster and it was all James Potter’s fault.

            “Okay, this might sound pathetic since I’m saying this for the second time today, but I thought you stood me up. Again.”

            I turned around to find Lucas standing in the middle of the street, both of his hands clutching rather large paper cups bearing Madame Puddifoot’s cutesy logo. He looked slightly wary, as though he still wasn’t sure whether the date had ended prematurely or not.

            “It’s cold now,” he added as an afterthought, indicating the two cups. He had gotten us tea; two gigantic vats of tea and I had made him wait for Potter.

            “I’m sorry. I just-” I hesitated, thinking for a minute; despite the fact that I was not great at dating, I knew that mentioning the fact that I had actually met another guy (who incidentally had talked badly about my date) probably wasn’t the greatest idea. So I swerved.

            “I just needed to use the loo.”

            Great, that wasn’t unsexy at all.

            Despite my blatant insufficiency at talking normally to boys, however, Lucas smiled in response and I couldn’t help thinking that this was too easy. He didn’t seem to be taken aback by my awkward behaviour or the fact that people had kept staring and pointing at us all day, whispering conspiratorially, which had led me to come up with two possible conclusions; either Lucas was up to something despicable, thinking that maybe a girl with my reputation would not mind accumulating a few more stigmas, or – and this was the much scarier scenario – he genuinely liked me.

            “How about the Three Broomsticks?”

            “Oh – um – now?” I said evasively as I looked down the street towards where the pub was located, noticing a small crowd that seemed to have formed at the entrance. All around us, the bustle had died down a little, owning partly to the fact that daylight was fading and partly to the ominous clouds that banked up above the village, growing blacker by the minute. Knowing the Scottish weather, it wouldn’t be long before a torrential rain would hit Hogsmeade and the remaining strollers would soon join the queue. It was one thing to be the illegal-potion-brewing freak in a gigantic castle or a busy street, but imagining the intensity of stares and whispers in the packed pub made my stomach writhe.

            “Yeah, we could get some food,” Lucas suggested, apparently not having picked up on my reservation.

A gloomy shadow had crept over the village by now and large, heavy raindrops began to fall, beating a scattered rhythm on the rooftops of the wooden stalls.

“Okay,” I finally said, feeling that any other answer would have been unreasonable. Considering the dim light in the Three Broomsticks and the probable possibility that it would be crammed, it wasn’t likely that anybody would even pay attention to us. “Why not.”

 

***

 

            As I had predicted, the pub was crawling with students and tourists alike, most of whom were hovering awkwardly somewhere by the toilets, lurking nervously in case a table cleared out. Lucas and I had taken two miraculously empty seats at the bar, squeezing between a rather foulmouthed old man and a slightly red-cheeked Professor Hagrid, who failed to notice us – or anyone, really – over his gigantic tankard of Madame Rosmerta’s oak-matured mead.

            “Two menus, please,” Lucas said when a mildly harassed-looking barmaid had come to take our orders, but she simply shook her head, a few strands of hair escaping her disintegrating bun.

            “We’re out of food, sorry. Tourists cleared us out.”

            “It’s fine,” I said to Lucas, still feeling rather full from the two and a half cups of hot cocoa I had drunk at Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes. “We’ll get dinner at the castle anyway.”

            “Oh, right.” He sounded slightly disappointed and – after we had placed our orders and the barmaid had left to pour our drinks – added somewhat sheepishly, “I would have liked to buy you dinner.”

I shrugged, not minding the blush that definitely coloured my cheeks. “Next time.”

Lukas smiled. “That sounds like a plan.”

Our orders – a mug of foamy butterbeer and a cup of tea – had arrived meanwhile and I picked up the cup, cradling it in my hands for something to do. Not only had I just agreed to go on a second date with Lucas, I had somewhat suggested it in the first place.

The pub felt uncomfortably hot all of a sudden.

Not sure how to continue the conversation, I let my eyes wander, scanning the crowded place, taking in its warm, crimson walls and dark wood furniture, which promised comfort and cosiness. The glossy walnut bar was the centre piece, curving smoothly towards the very back of the pub, separating the service area from the bustling behind the counter. It was then – as I followed its bent – that only a few seats away from us, I spotted Freddie Weasley, Augustus Cotton, and, of course, James Potter, whose eyes were fixed on me, his expression grim.

Startled for a moment, I simply stared back, noticing the fresh tumbler of firewhisky which he dangled casually in front of his nose. Despite the fact that he couldn’t be sitting here very long, it didn’t look like it was his first one.

“Potter looks annoyed.” Lucas’s voice startled me and I almost fell from my barstool as I wheeled back around, trying to feign a sort of vague indifference, as though I had neither noticed nor cared.

“Oh, does he?”

“Yeah.” Lucas grimaced, but I wasn’t sure if it was because of his butterbeer or because of James. I could feel him looking at me from the side, somewhat contemplative, and I quickly took a few sips from my scolding hot tea, not wanting to seem anything but completely casual.

I fully expected a question on James’s and my relationship to follow up. After all, a great part of the rumours about me included the Potters and it seemed unlikely that Lucas had not heard of them. While he had had the decency to not mention any of them so far, I could hardly expect him to pretend they didn’t exist.

To my surprise, however, he asked nothing of the sort.

“Hey, um,” he said, sounding nervous all of a sudden, “I’ll be right back, I just – um – loo.” He nodded vaguely towards the very back where the toilets were located and then quickly slid from his barstool to squeeze through the crowd, disappearing between the waiting parties.

I waited, uneasily sipping on my tea while I stubbornly glared at a black and white photograph of Celestina Warbeck, which hung on the opposite side of where Potter was sitting. Lucas’s sudden urge to use the toilet was, of course, not inherently strange or anything out of the ordinary, but the look on his face and the strain in his voice had been slightly alarming.

Of course, it could be nothing. It probably was nothing.

Unknowingly, my eyes had drifted back towards the other end of the bar, where James was no longer staring at me but engrossed in conversation with a tall black-haired girl, who threw her head back laughing, her hands resting casually on James’s shoulders. He beckoned her to lean in and whispered something into her ear, which made her giggle once more before she snatched the whiskey tumbler out of his hand and downed it in one gulp.

The ostentatious display had already attracted a number of onlookers, including a group of snickering girls – some of whom were wearing Hufflepuff scarfs and who I suspected to be Black-Hair’s friends – excited about the fact that one amongst their group had accomplished to be James Sirius Potter’s chosen girl of the moment.

I rolled my eyes at no one in particular and forced myself to turn away from the unfolding scene again; they might start snogging any moment and somehow I felt that I did not want to whiteness it. Not because I cared, of course. James Potter was perfectly entitled to exchange saliva with whomever he liked. I just did not need to watch it.

I slid from my seat, causing an immediate stir in the small, hovering groups by the toilets, ready to pounce in case a seating opportunity had become available, just to see their disappointed faces when they noticed my coat and scarf which I had draped over the barstool to signal that it was still occupied. Some of them – I noticed as I walked past them – where dripping with water, looking as though they had taken a swim with their clothes on. It must be pouring outside.

There was a queue in front of the Lady’s as usual, which I joined just as a tall woman, holding the hand of a little girl with pigtails, who had crossed her thin legs, jittering on the spot, lined up behind me.

“Excuse me,” the woman said with a very distinguished Yorkshire accent, “would you mind letting us go first.”

“It’s an emergency!” The girl – she couldn’t have been older than four or five – shouted so loudly that a few people around us chuckled benevolently.

“Oh, of course. Go ahead,” I said, moving back towards the edge of the narrow hallway to let them pass. It was then that a bit of familiar olive green cloth caught my eye and I turned my head to see the back of Lucas’s jacket protruding from behind the corner.

For a moment, I contemplated tapping his shoulder, but with Potter’s accusations still lingering in my head, I hesitated, moving just close enough to remain hidden behind the corner. ‘He just wants to get into your pants’; the warning still clouded my thoughts. Even the suspicion left a bitter taste in my mouth.

Lucas seemed to be leaning against the wall of the pub and, as I held my breath, I suddenly realised that he was speaking to somebody.

            “So you haven’t done it?” A boy’s rugged voice asked.

            “Listen,” Lucas answered, sounding defiant, “it’s not that easy, okay?”

The queue in front of me moved, but I remained stationary, my body pressed against the wall as I strained to hear the rest of the conversation. Admittedly, it wasn’t a class act – eavesdropping on my date – but something about the situation seemed off.

            “What’s that supposed to mean?” The other boy said urgently. He sounded irritated for some reason.

            “It means,” Lucas snapped, “that it’s complicated.”

            His conversation partner was silent for a few seconds before saying, very quietly, “Have you asked her?”

            My heartbeat picked up speed, probably sensing that something was not quite right, and I held my breath for Lucas to reply.

“Are you waiting?” A high-pitched voice asked loudly and I jerked my head up to find a rather annoyed-looking girl standing in front of me. She was pointing towards the receding queue in front of the Lady’s and I quickly shook my head, at which a small group of eye-rolling and groaning girls pushed past me to close up the ranks.

When I got back to listening in on the conversation, it was just in time to hear Lucas say, “She’s too smart, man.”

            “What the fuck are you saying?” His friend said sharply, albeit still trying to keep his voice down. His irritation had turned into blatant anger and I felt even more confused than before.

            “Nothing. I – it’s not going to work. It’s not working for me,” Lucas said, obviously in an attempt to explain himself, but he was cut off instantly.

            “For fuck’s sake,” the other boy growled, an unmistakable hint of exasperation in his voice. “It was your job to get her to brew the fucking potion. You said you could do it.”

            My stomach seemed to twist itself into a tight knot as this last piece of information sank in. Another pair of girls staggered past me, giving me weird looks as I leaned my head back against the wall, trying to breathe calmly.

            A potion.

            How on earth could I have been so stupid?

            Lucas had asked me out on a date because he needed me to brew a potion for him.

I had been played like a fool.

 

***

 

            It hadn’t taken me long to elbow my way back to our spot at the bar where an elderly couple was already standing in front of the barstools, alternating between looking at my coat and scanning the crowd as though trying to figure out if it did, in fact, belong to somebody. There was no doubt that as soon as I had grabbed my clothes, they would scurry like it was a game of musical chairs.

            “Hey, are we leaving?”

            I turned on the spot, knowing before I saw him that it was Lucas who had spoken to me. There was a politely confused smile on his face as he glanced at the coat I was cradling in my arms and I could feel the definite sensation of anger-induced nausea writhing in my stomach.

I really wanted to run.

But, instead, I charged.

“Oh yes, I’m leaving,” I said curtly, putting an exaggerated emphasis on the ‘I’ as I willed myself to stay calm. The last thing I wanted was to let Lucas know that he had hurt me, but the longer I looked at him, the more I feared that I would betray my own dignity.

“What are you-” He started, still sounding puzzled, but I cut him off mid-sentence.

“I don’t know what you’ve heard about me, but I’m not brewing illegal potions. And if I did, I wouldn’t waste even a single ingredient on a lying prick like you.”

I could literally see his face fall as realisation hit him. “No, Seth,” he said and I was surprised to hear the plea in his voice. “This is not-”

“No!” I said so fiercely that Lucas flinched. “I really don’t want to hear it.”

Quite unexpectedly he made another attempt at moving closer, his arms outstretched as though he wanted to grab me, but I dodged him and, in a kneejerk reaction, I raised my arm into the air, commanding attention from those around us.

“Next round’s on this guy!” I shouted, feeling suddenly reckless. “It’s his birthday, so don’t let him get away!”

As I dived into the crowd I could hear him call out after me, but a growing number of people was already congregating around him, clapping his shoulder and cheering at the promise of free drinks. I simply kept on walking, pushing through the merrily moving masses. For the second time today, angry tears stung in my eyes, but I blinked them away once more as I stormed out of the pub and into the pouring rain.

The street had nearly cleared out, leaving only a few solitary figures who were hastening to find shelter. It was raining so hard that the water that had collected in various pans in the cobbled street streamed downhill in tiny rivulets, splashing excitedly whenever it hit an obstacle. I had bowed my head against the icy shower, feeling the cold seep through my coat as the wool that had kept me so warm just hours ago, absorbed the water like a thirsty sponge.

At least the fear of freezing to death kept me occupied enough to not think too much of the humiliation and mortification I felt at being played like the biggest idiot.

 “Hey, watch out!” A few indignant voices shouted just as I felt something hard collide with my shoulder; the unexpected blow flung me backwards so that I landed ankle-deep in a puddle, which immediately spilled into my boots, soaking my socks entirely.

“Hey! It’s Beth!” A familiar voice called out and I looked up to find a positively delighted Demeter Notte, huddled underneath a large umbrella together with her usual entourage. “Look Vala, it’s your cousin Beth!”

Vala, who looked shockingly underdressed for this weather in only a leather jacket and a flimsy dress, rolled her eyes in response; whether it was because her friend had gotten my name wrong yet again or because she was annoyed to run into me, I couldn’t tell. After Christmas, we had fallen into our awkward Hogwarts routine once more, limiting our interactions to mere acknowledging nods whenever we had passed each other in the corridors. It was therefore even stranger to meet her like this, accompanied by her glamorous friends.

“Sorry,” I said quickly, not really feeling up to having a forced conversation with a bunch of girls I barely knew. This was not the time to be friendly. “I didn’t see where I was going.”

I pushed past them without even waiting for an answer. My feet felt like ice as they swam in water and I my jaw had started to tremble so violently that my teeth began to chatter whenever I unclenched it. All I wanted was to get out of this place, away from all those people.

As I reached the town limits, I couldn’t shake off the uneasy feeling that someone was following me, yet I did not dare turn around. Instead, I broke into a run just as the rain turned into fierce sleet, numbing my body with cold.

 

***

 

            I had run.

All the way up to the castle.

All the way up to Ravenclaw tower.

But as I stared at the brass eagle knocker, whose half-whispered question I had barely registered, I realised that I couldn’t face it; none of it.

And so I turned around, ignoring the eagle’s protests, and sprinted down dark corridor after dark corridor until my lungs hurt from exhaustion and I collapsed against a gloomy stained glass window.

It was only then – in this dark, lonely hallway – that I permitted myself to sob, my shoulders shaking as my throat constricted painfully, barely allowing me to draw jerky breaths as I struggled not to vomit.

            It was disgraceful. I knew it was – but something seemed to have broken; some protective barrier that had enabled me to keep my chin up despite all of the awful things that had happened lately had cracked and the flood had been inevitable. And so I sat on the cold stone floor in a puddle that had been created by my own soaked clothes, dissolving into tears and snot as I sobbed into the sleeves of my coat – the picture of misery.

            All the accusations, the rumours, the way people looked at me; it hurt. It hurt in a way that I had never felt before, tearing at my core, clawing into my bones as though it would stay with me forever. As though it would never go away.

            “Seth?”

            I looked up, suddenly uncomfortably aware of the glittering trails of snot that must have covered my face as I stared at my perfectly put-together cousin. Vala was drenched as well, yet her make-up was miraculously impeccable, her ferociously red lipstick glowing in the pale light.

            “Are you…” She had probably wanted to ask if I was okay but, at the sight of my puffy eyes, seemed to have thought better of it.

            “I’m good,” I said automatically, wiping my face aimlessly in an attempt to cover my pathetic breakdown, “just got into the rain.”  I hated how weak my voice sounded, but every syllable hurt as I pressed it through my vocal chords, making it hard to sound anything but brittle.

            For an unbearable moment, Vala looked at me and I could feel a hot wave of shame crawl up my spine; in the long, long history of this proud family there had never been anyone who had failed so splendidly at being a Woodley as I.

            “Move over,” she commanded, looking unbearably bossy as she sat down next to me, arranging the short skirt of her dress to minimize wrinkles. Rain was pounding against the window, filling the silence with rhythmic drumming as we simply sat there, staring at the opposite wall.

“You look like shit,” she said after a while, her voice quite unsympathetic, and I snorted in response, the strange sound echoing like a ghost as it travelled along the dark corridor.

            “What happened?”

            “Oh, nothing.” I shrugged, trying to downplay the pathetic state in which Vala had found me. Collapsing on the floor like a melodramatic Ambrosia Tinkletabber heroine hadn’t exactly been one of my proudest moments; the fact that someone had witnessed it was just the bitter cherry on top of an incredibly awful day.

             “It’s not a big deal,” she said suddenly, her voice barely louder than a whisper. “This whole thing. It will blow over.”

            I looked at her but she continued to stare straight ahead, her red lips pressed together as though she had to force them shut. Around us, ominous specks of pale colour dappled the floor and walls, projecting the jaded scene of a pair of duelling wizards – Godric Gryffindor and Salazar Slytherin – onto the rough canvas.

            It wasn’t the first time this year that Vala and I had ended up in a gloomy corridor together and, although this school year had been extraordinarily strange so far, the memory of my cloaked cousin pushing me up against a dusty wall had been one of the weirdest incidents so far.

            “What was it about?” I said, following my train of thoughts. “When you told me to stay away from Potter?”

I had never asked Vala this. At the time I had thought that it was mostly because I had wanted to leave this alarming instance and the terrible events that had followed it behind; now, however, it seemed nothing short of careless to never have tried to find out the truth.

            Vala rolled her eyes, yet her attempt at looking aloof was flawed. “I just – it’s just not a good idea to go after someone like him,” she said, pressing her lips together. “As you can see, nothing good can come of it in a castle full of lunatics and a family like ours.”

            “I never meant to go after him,” I protested, my voice ricocheting from the corridor walls. “There is absolutely nothing between us.”

            “Well, it doesn’t look like nothing.”

            She didn’t look at me as she said this, but I turned away nonetheless. James Potter bothered me in a way that nothing had before and it was infuriating.

            “So you really think that all these horrible things are happening to me because of Potter?”

            Vala shrugged. “Well, it’s possible.”

“But that doesn’t make any sense.” I shook my head, unwilling to venture too far into the foggy territory of James’s and my non-existent relationship. “What about Athena Notte or Fern Sterling? They’ve actually been dating Potter, haven’t they? Why did no one threaten them?”

            It felt good to turn my mind towards something productive rather than allowing it to wallow in self-pity; even if it was the ludicrous idea that someone in this castle might have it out for me because of a stupid boy.

            Vala shrugged as she stared absent-mindedly at her pointy high-heels. “Well probably it’s not because of James Potter per se. I guess talking to him just made people talk about you. This castle is a gossip mill, really.”

            I frowned, watching the projection of the stain-glass window flicker as another spell of hard rain hit the glass. Wasn’t this exactly what James had insinuated, back when he had still called me Elizabeth and offered to greet me in the corridors in exchange for tutoring lessons; that by simply giving the illusion of being friends with him, I could boost my own reputation?

            “I don’t want any of this,” I whispered, leaning my head against the cool glass behind me. This madness had to stop and I needed to find a way to do it.

“I know something that will cheer you up,” Vala said, making me sit up straight again. It seemed quite out of character for her to give me a pep talk now.

“What?”

“Cassandra Freya Carrington of the noble Woodley family is officially engaged to the honourable Asher Atticus Engelstein.”

“Are you serious?” I said, regretting that I hadn’t opened my mother’s letter, which Archie had delivered yesterday evening. I was sure it would contain the happy news that the family crisis I had started by refusing to being married off at sixteen had been successfully averted by yet another great Woodley ploy.

“It’s going to be the wedding of the year,” Vala sang in a mock-cheerful tone and I couldn’t help laughing; something I hadn’t thought possible only half an hour ago.

“You must be so thrilled.”

“Can’t you see?” She said as she gave me a deadpan look that even Bernice would envy. “I am bursting with joy.”

 

A/N: I really want to take the time to thank all of the awesome readers who have left reviews on the story so far. I’ve had quite the stressful month, but your amazing messages reminded me that actually there are some people waiting for the next chapter. So this update is really because of you guys; because you took the time out of your busy days to write me a review. It means so much to me. THANK YOU  :) 


Chapter 30: The Edge of Reason
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30

The Edge of Reason

 

Archie nibbled on my finger as I tied the letter to his leg, chipping off the plum nail polish Katie had insisted on applying this morning. While she had claimed that she had only wanted to see how the colour looked on me, I know that she had really done it to make me feel better.

It had been a nice gesture – even though a beauty treatment really wasn’t the soul-healing, therapeutic experience for me as it was for her – but after waking up this morning with my eyes red and burning and a glorious head cold that was responsible for the permanent ringing sound in my ears, it was hard to feel anything but defeated.

Even with fabulous plum fingernails.

“Don’t be so fidgety, Archie,” I mumbled as he lifted his leg once again, causing the ribbon to slide off for the third time in a row. “For Merlin’s sake, why are you so nervous?”

He hooted in response before sticking out his claw obediently, allowing me to retry attaching the letters I had penned in bed last night. Both of them were addressed to my family: one to my mum, and one to my grandfather.

Of course, I had skipped the part of me being accused of brewing illegal potions; the fact that my family hadn’t contacted me about the rumours that were flying around school yet, must have meant that Professor McGonagall had decided that the allegations against me weren’t substantial enough to inform my parents, and I was glad for it. The last thing I needed was the burden of causing yet another Woodley family scandal.

            “Off you go, mate. Be careful.”

            I watched Archie take off and – as he struggled to find his balance after a rather wobbly start – I was once again reminded why I had picked him all these years ago; like me he wasn’t very graceful, yet he was efficient.

            “Seth.”

            I spun around at the sound of my name, only just supressing a small scream.

            “Lucas?” Strands of hair had been tossed into my face as a strong gust of wind blew through the droughty Owlery, but I could still make out his slightly bent figure and the tousled blond hair. After what had happened the day before, I had been sure that I had seen the last of Lucas Gallagher.

“Um, yes?” He frowned as he took a few tentative steps towards me. “Who did you think it was?”

            “What?” I asked, half- confused, half-annoyed at his odd behaviour; the last thing I wanted to do was to have small-talk with a boy who had pretended to like me because he thought I could supply him with illegal substances.

            “It’s just – It almost sounded like you were expecting someone else.” He said it with a laugh – obviously trying to diffuse the tense situation – but I could feel a jolt in my stomach as I tried to keep my thoughts from wandering to James.

Of course I hadn’t really been expecting James Potter to show up in the Owlery on a Sunday morning, but the fact that his image had popped up so casually in my head in a situation like this disconcerted me more than I liked to admit to myself.

            “What do you want?” I said as composedly as I could manage, just as another gust of cold wind swept through the room, swirling up bits of straw and feathers. There was something very odd about having this conversation whilst surrounded by hundreds of owls who seemed to be watching our every move.

            “I need to talk to you,” he said, the humour suddenly gone from his voice. It was then that I realised that his presence wasn’t a coincidence; he must have followed me up here on purpose. I didn’t know what kind of potion he needed, but his persistence could only mean that he was quite desperate.

            “I’ve already told you,” I sighed, “I don’t brew –“

            “No!” He almost shouted, causing dozens of owls to flutter their wings and hoot indignantly. “I mean, that’s not – I wanted to apologise. To you.”

            “Okay…” I frowned at him, not sure what to make of this unexpected turn of events. All I knew was that I was majorly uncomfortable and simply wanted to extract myself from this conversation. “Well then, I need to…” I gestured awkwardly towards the exit, but Lucas – seemingly in a flight of panic – threw out his arms and blocked the door.

            “I want a second chance!”

            I blinked, too perplex to react properly at first as Lucas’s words slowly sank in. “Are you serious?”

            “I mean it,” he insisted, his arms still outstretched as he barred the only exit. It was definitely one of the weirder moments of this school year, which – considering that I was currently Hogwarts’ resident felon – did mean something.

            “Yeah, so did I when I told you to stay away from me yesterday.” I had finally pushed past him, eager to get to the staircase and leave, but he called out after me.

            “Please, Seth.”

            “No!” I was surprised to hear that I had yelled at him; it was only now that I realised how angry I actually was; at this boy who had played me like an idiot and who had the nerve to demand a second chance. “I don’t like to be used, Lucas. How does that saying go? Fool me once?”

For a second it looked as though he wanted to say something, but I had already turned around, ending the conversation before it would get even more awkward. There was already enough on my plate without having to deal with Lucas Gallagher.

 

***

 

Gaudy streaks of gold and bright fuchsia flashed merrily above the slowly moving mass as it pushed through the corridor, voices soaring upwards to join the muffled bangs of Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes’s glitter explosives. The castle had been in uproar for two days already; ever since the Valentine’s Dance lottery – which was quite a complicated process – had provided every boy in the castle from year four upwards with a random date for the upcoming ball. Needless to say, there were many things that were not only impracticable about the whole system, but straight out wrong, which led to an annual black market bidding war in which students ruthlessly haggled over desired dates as though they were in a bazar. Originally intended as a way to promote positive inter-house and –year relationships, the Valentine’s Dance had become a rather ingenious opportunity to force yourself on your crush.

            “I hope Tarquin doesn’t forget to buy my ticket,” Katie shouted over the considerable noise. “It’s not going to be expensive anyway – Since I have a boyfriend, no one else will be interested in me.”

            I couldn’t help smiling at the slightly bitter expression on my best friend’s face. “That’s the saddest thing I’ve heard this week.”

            As usual, Katie ignored the sarcasm. “No, the saddest thing is you boycotting Valentine’s Day.”

            I knew better than to respond to this and simply shook my head as we let the crowd push us through the broad doors into the Great Hall. I was not ‘boycotting’ Valentine’s Day; while I was neither opposed to, nor enthusiastic about the concept of it all, I had simply come to the conclusion that – regarding my current reputation – it would be best to sit out the festivities in my bed with a good book and a hot cup of tea. 

To my defence, there was a feasible chance that my name would be among the few sad leftovers that ended up partnerless and forgotten on the bottom of the lottery pot anyway, once the bargaining had ceased.

“You need some fun in your life,” Katie insisted as we made our way to the Ravenclaw table. She had been quite adamant in her resolution to convince me to go to the dance ever since I had told her about my plans; almost as adamant as I had been about not going.

“The ABC of Alchemy is fun.”

“Sure.” She rolled her eyes and muttered something under her breath that definitely contained the words ‘old funny lady’ and ‘cats’.

“Leave her alone, Katie,” Sam sighed as he had ploughed his way through the crowd, sitting down with us at our regular spot. “If Seth doesn’t want to go she doesn’t have to.”

“Thank you Sam.” I gave Katie a triumphant look which was answered by yet another eye roll.

“You’re welcome,” Sam said as he prodded his potatoes with his fork quite unenthusiastically. “I’m boycotting too. Stupid Valentine’s Dance.”

“Okay, first of all I’m not ‘boycotting’ anything,” I insisted, “and secondly, why aren’t you going? I thought you were excited about the ball.”

Sam shrugged as he pushed around a few lonely peas on his plate. “I’m just not in the mood,” he explained and, after a few seconds of contemplative silence, added, “Hector has just told me that he has bought Sarah Selwyn’s ticket. He made it sound like it was some sort of great romantic gesture. Even worse, he couldn’t even understand why that would make me mad.”

“Sam,” Katie said very slowly, her fork dangling in her hand in mid-air as she looked at him with raised eyebrows. “You do know that Sarah Selwyn has a girlfriend, right?”

What?”

“Sarah Selwyn is dating a seventh year girl from Gryffindor. She has been for a year.”

“Oh God!” Sam shouted, his cutlery clattering onto his plate as he jumped up from his seat, comprehension dawning on his face. “I need to find Hector!”

As he stormed out of the Great Hall, pushing people aside left and right, Katie and I exchanged meaningful glances; who would have thought that Hector Chang would come around eventually.

“See, the magic of Valentine’s is already bringing people together.” Katie gave me a long look, as though she had just presented a failsafe argument, to which I simply responded with a nonchalant shrug.

“I’d rather do homework.”

You’re going to miss something,” she sang in that suit-yourself-tone that she regularly adopted whenever she felt I was being unreasonably stubborn.

I don’t think so,” I replied in that same annoying singing voice and began to pack up my bag, ignoring the fact that afternoon classes wouldn’t be starting before half-an-hour. While my best friend had been exceptionally annoying the past few days, I couldn’t help feeling like a traitor.

Of course, it was true that the events of the last few weeks made it hard to get into a party mood, but the truth was that that wasn’t all there was to it; the looming advent of Valentine’s Day had brought on involuntary yet deeply disturbing thoughts about James Potter, which I was not prepared to share with anybody, let alone deal with.

Ever.

 “Hey, something fell out of your Charms book,” Katie said despite the half-chewed potatoes in her mouth and leaned forwards to pick up a neatly folded piece of paper that had landed on my empty plate.

I watched her fumble to unfold it with dread. “Oh don’t open it. It’s probably just another request for a ridiculous potion that doesn’t even exist.”

There had been dozens of them, stuffed somewhere in between my personal belongings, asking for prices and modalities concerning various potions or even just magical solutions to a wealth of problems ranging mostly from body-improvement issues to illegal study aids.

Katie, however, had already unfurled the small note, her eyebrows furrowing as she stared at it.

“What?” I urged, feeling a quite familiar pressure building in my chest as I observed the odd expression on her face. “Do I even want to know?”

Without words, Katie simply passed me the slip and I took it, my fingers suddenly tingling as I read the message it carried.

 

***

 

WE NEED TO TALK

The words stared at me; boldly, daunting, taunting. The handwriting was tidy yet leaning slightly to the right as though wanting to convey an urgency that surpassed that of any exclamation mark. Above the message, scrawled into the corner like a negligible afterthought, were the words ‘Entrance Hall’ and ‘11:00pm’.

“It could have been in that book for weeks.”

“What?” Katie peered over the edge of my wardrobe, her auburn curls fuzzy from the fitting marathon she had been performing for the last thirty minutes.

I discarded the slip of paper on my nightstand and sat up straight in my bed, willing to move past the mysterious note. “I said it could have been in my book for a long time already.”

“Possibly,” Katie said, stepping out of the closet, a sheer, pink strappy top pressed to her chest. “Can I borrow this?”

I nodded and, with a groan, picked up the note once more, unable to redirect my thoughts. It was true that there was no indication for it being dropped into my bag today; there was no date on it, nor any other clue as to when or by whom it could have been written, yet, something about it intrigued me.

“Well, you’re not going to find out anyway, right?”

“What?” I was still staring at the capitalized letters, only half listening to Katie as she made her way towards me, stepping over discarded clothes that littered the floor like colourful casualties.

“The note,” she said impatiently. “You’re not going to meet up with that person.”

“Of course not,” I snorted; maybe a little too loudly, as Katie raised her eyebrows momentarily, looking scandalized.

Seth!”

“I said I wouldn’t.” I crumpled up the note in my hand to underline my statement; I certainly was not going to meet up with a stranger who had dropped a note into my purse.

Katie seemed to relax again as she watched me transform the note into a tiny ball of rubbish. “You don’t know what sort of lunatic is behind this.”

“I know,” I mumbled as I let the paper ball roll around in my palm. Katie was right, of course; anyone could have written the note. Yet – and I felt embarrassed to even let my thoughts wander that way again – the enigmatic message and the way it had found me carried the excitement and thrill I had inevitably come to associate with James Potter.

“Damn,” Katie cried out, forcing my train of thoughts to a crashing halt as she leapt from my bed. “I said I’d meet Tarquin ten minutes ago.”

I watched her grabble for her jacket among the assortment of rejected tops on the floor – some of which were mine – and struggle to pull it on as she made her way to the door. Before she had even opened it, however, she had turned around, a mildly worried look on her face.

“Are you going to be fine?”

“Yes! Go!” I made a shooing gesture with my arms. “Your boyfriend is waiting to sweep you off your feet.”

“Yeah.” She rolled her eyes, yet a smile had appeared on her dark red lips. “He’s probably going to make a big fuss over it.”

“As he should.”

Katie’s grin conveyed a sort of giddiness that I had rarely seen on her before and, despite being sincerely happy for her, I suddenly felt inexplicably lonely; a sensation that lingered as I sat in my bed, surrounded by a half-finished essay and an assortment of books on human transfiguration, staring at the door that had just closed behind my best friend.

 

***

 

There was a quite intriguing pattern adorning the vaulted ceiling of our dormitory: swirls of blue, interlacing with bold bronze, running towards the centre where they melted into a beautiful eagle, wings spread wide as though it was about to take off. It felt as though – after having stared at it for so long – I knew each line and flourish by heart.

            My eyes watered and I blinked, just as a loud snore rattled the room; two beds away, Bernice turned noisily, her bed creaking as she settled into another sleeping position. I sighed and rolled over to look at my watch on the nightstand; it was five to eleven. Katie was still on her date with Tarquin, but she wasn’t the only one who had not returned to Dormitory 24 tonight; Ursula’s bed was empty too, which was a rather strange occurrence considering that – besides her Muggle boyfriend and Bernice – she didn’t really seem to hang out with other people.

            Bernice let out another snore and I dropped the watch, my eyes wandering automatically to the small paper ball that lay next to it like a discarded gum wrapper. Strangely it was then, as I stared at the piece of paper, thinking about the message I knew it contained, that I could feel a faint pop above my collarbone; the dainty moonstone I wore around my neck had dislodged itself from the patch of skin it had been stuck to and now dangled merrily on the thin chain, catching the silver moonlight that poured through the windows.

            I looked at it for a moment, thinking of the other Elizabeth Woodley as I had come to imagine her in my head – a daring smile on her face and permanently wind-swept hair. There was no doubt in my mind that she would have followed the mysterious invitation in a heartbeat, taking every chance to indulge in an adventure, however small.

            A sharp knock resounded in the dark room and I snapped out of my thoughts momentarily, sitting up a little straighter. There was a quite possible chance that Bernice had hit her head on her bedpost while tossing violently in her bed, yet, the sound had been almost too precise to be random.

            Very slowly, I drew back the curtains around my bed, just as the door creaked and slowly opened, allowing a sliver of warm, orange light to crawl into the moonlit room.

            Katie, I thought with relief, feeling the urge to laugh about my own silliness, but as a head appeared in the door crack, I realised that something was wrong.

            “Seth.” Her voice was barely a whisper, but I immediately recognised the visitor as Mona Williamsburg, the Ravenclaw Headgirl. “Are you awake?”

            “Yes,” I whispered, adrenaline pumping through my body as my eyes adjusted to the change in lighting. I couldn’t see her face in detail, but her presence in my room at this late hour was enough to make my stomach twist.

            “You need to come with me,” she said, a strange quiver in her voice, “McGonagall called an emergency Prefect meeting.”

 

***

 

I had pulled on the first pair of jeans that I had come across on the clothes-strewn floor of our dormitory, only noticing that they were Katie’s when I had almost reached the Headmistress’s office. The waistband kept sliding down to reveal the checked flannel of my pyjama shorts and I needed to hold on to one of the belt loops as I ran along the dark corridor to not lose them altogether.

            “What do you think happened?” Sam whispered as we rounded the corner, the midnight blue cloak he had thrown over his pyjamas flapping wildly as it billowed out behind him.

            I shook my head, my lungs burning as we finally met the monstrous guards to McGonagall’s tower office, which sprang aside without even requesting a password. Too many thoughts seemed to be filling my head, crashing like waves as they tried to push to the surface, only just to be reeled back into the depth of my mind as another thought attempted to emerge from the sea of jumbled words.

Loud voices echoed from the twisted walls as we began our ascent, indicating that other Prefects must have already arrived for the meeting; the tone was that of uneasiness and dread, which resonated with the unpleasant heaviness that had settled in my stomach. Emergency Prefect meetings never meant good news and the fact that this one couldn’t even wait until morning did not bode well.

The end of the winding staircase came unexpectedly and the bright light blinded me as I stumbled into the large, round office, my head still spinning from running up the stairs. Quite abruptly – as though muted by a spell – the chatter faded to low humming before ebbing away entirely: The room had fallen silent as I walked in, Sam trailing along behind me, his floor-length cloak making awkward sweeping noises as he moved. A dozen pair of apprehensive eyes were watching us and I pulled once more self-consciously on the sliding pair of jeans which – and I just realised this in the well-lit office – sparkled with silver glitter.

“Well then,” McGonagall’s curt voice cut through the silence and naturally commanded everyone’s attention, eyes shifting from Sam and me to the headmistress’s tall, willowy frame as she entered from a door behind her desk. Behind her, the Heads of Houses filed into the room, all of them looking frighteningly serious as they scanned the assembled crowd.

“It is late so I will get to the point.” She talked in her usual brisk manner, but there was something about her face – the deep lines on her forehead – that betrayed concern.

“There has been… an incident. Another student has come to harm through the use of an unauthorised substance; this time administered by choice yet, in its effect, almost fatal.”

The headmistress seemed unperturbed by the shocked whispers that erupted all over the room, yet it was hard to ignore the tight knot in my stomach as more and more faces turned away from her and, under pretence of looking around the room, covertly landed on me. Even Professor Longbottom, whom I had always liked as a teacher, had lost the morose expression on his face in favour of staring at me, a dark look crossing his face.

Heat crawled up my neck and I shifted in my chair, feeling ridiculously flamboyant in Katie’s sparkly jeans. The immediate urge to scream ‘it wasn’t me’ was pounding in the back of my head, but I willed myself to stay calm as I focused my gaze on McGonagall, blocking out my surroundings.

“I am very sorry to inform you that a Ravenclaw student has been injured during an attempt to jump from the second-floor railing in the Entrance Hall under the influence of Euphoria.”

Gasps filled the room, eyes still boring into me from all sides – not concealed behind timid looks any longer but open; hostile – yet, I hardly noticed as dread trickled down my spine like ice water, all other concerns wiped from my mind as only one thought consumed every single fibre of my body: Katie.

I glanced at Sam but he simply looked politely shocked and curious like the rest of the assembled Prefects; he didn’t know, of course. He couldn’t know that Katie had not returned from her date with Tarquin.

“I urge you all to be alert and cautious at all times. All incidences whatsoever must be reported directly to me.” McGonagall’s voice cut through the conspiratorial whispers like a knife. “It goes without saying that such spineless law-breaking will not be tolerated at Hogwarts and that the culprit will be removed from this school without delay.” She paused, looking around the room, her eyes resting on me for a little too long to be casual. “Very well, you may return to your dormitories.”

There was supressed uproar as movement swept through the crowd, a unanimous mass pushing towards the exit, eager to evacuate the office and indulge in the steaming serving of gossip that had just been delivered to them by an infallible source.

It was going to spread like wildfire, there was no doubt about it.

“Sam,” I whispered as we abandoned our chairs to follow the crowd of Prefects. I wasn’t eager to leave too close to the group considering the looks I had just received, yet it was hard to not be consumed by complete panic.

“Miss Woodley!”

I turned my head at the sharp sound of my name – as did a couple of others – meeting Professor McGonagall’s eye. “A word, please.”

 

***

 

The leather of the chair squeaked awkwardly as I moved, echoing from the tall ceiling in the otherwise silent room. Katie’s jeans had slid down the moment I had taken a seat, revealing the bright blue flannel of my pyjama bottoms which seemed to mock the excessive glitter that covered my thighs.

             I could hardly stand to look up at the intimidating display behind the desk: The four Heads of Houses and the headmistress, all focusing on me, now that the last student had left the office, closing the door with a thud.

Professor Flitwick caught my eye and gave me a weak but friendly smile. It was only a small gesture, but it gave me hope; maybe it wasn’t as bad as it looked right now.

“Miss Woodley,” McGonagall said, her voice slightly softer than before. “Have you noticed the absence of one of your roommates tonight?”

I shifted in the chair once more, holding on to the seat with my clammy hands as the room began to spin. Katie had been hurt. My best friend had been hurt and I needed to be with her.

“Is she OK? Can I see her?” I was flooded with blind panic, the sensation overpowering any other reasonable thought I might have had. My outburst was met with blank stares, however, and McGonagall and Flitwick exchanged a brief, albeit mildly confused look.

“Miss Mussegross will be fine. A little bedrest and she’ll be on her feet again.”

I blinked, taking in the small form of Professor Flitwick as he stood wedged between ample Horace Slughorn and the towering Professor Longbottom, allowing his words to roll around in my head. A sudden sense of relief washed over me, yet it was overshadowed by the twinge of guilt I felt on behalf of Ursula; the mere thought of her turning to drugs seemed simply outrageous.

Which,” McGonagall said in an unmistakably trenchant tone which tore into my thoughts, “does not render the circumstances any less severe.” She put a long, slender finger to her temple and began to massage it by drawing small circles.

            I watched her for a moment and, as the fog of wild panic lifted and allowed my mind to operate properly again, I suddenly saw this gathering for what it really was; I hadn’t been held back to discuss anyone’s welfare or give information on my dorm mates’ whereabouts; I had been asked – or rather made – to stay not because I was a witness but because I was the prime suspect.

“I am sorry to say that – considering recent events – the school had to take appropriate actions.”

            There wasn’t much time to ponder the implication of McGonagall’s statement. As if on cue, the idly crackling fireplace had lit up, emerald flames licking the mantelpiece as though they were trying to escape their confines. Within seconds, a large lump had settled in the pit of my stomach, and I wrapped my clammy hands around the armrests of my chair as I stared at the revolving mass that had appeared in the green fire.

            They had told my family.

            For a moment, I imagined them – all of them – striding out of the flames, looking haughty and dignified; a united front against the girl who had once again managed to single-handedly shame the entire family. But as the revolving particles materialized, I realised that it was only one person who stepped into the round office:

My mother.

“Mrs Woodley.” McGonagall greeted her with a stiff nod, motioning for her to come in. It was a superfluous gesture since my mother had already entered the office, looking impeccable as usual in a sleek, all-black outfit, dark red painted lips, and her blond hair pinned up in a smooth chignon. Even when I had been little I had understood that – to outsiders – she had the sort of look that screamed money and class at once and I was not surprised to see the Heads of Houses shrink a little in her presence.

“Headmistress,” she replied in an equally formal fashion and I noticed that she was holding a folded piece of parchment in her hand, filled with familiar green writing.

“I see you have received my letter.”

“Apparently.” She leaned slightly against the mantelpiece, not losing her elegant posture as she met McGonagall’s gaze, crossing her slender arms in front of her torso. It almost looked as though she was bored to be here, which probably wasn’t the kind of reaction the headmistress had expected from a parent whose only child stood accused of running an illegal potions ring.

However, being an expert at reading Woodley code, I knew that aloof coolness was my family’s way of screaming at the top of their lungs.

McGonagall frowned; she looked strained – even exhausted – yet intimidating in her dark, ornament-free robes that made her seem even taller than usual.

“Very well then,” she said, turning back to me without paying my mother any more attention. “Miss Woodley, is there anything you want to tell us?”

It sounded as though she was expecting an apology – a confession even – and I felt a surge of reckless anger burn in my chest. Every bad thing that had happened to me this year; every outrageous accusation, every humiliation seemed to suddenly melt into one gigantic lump of rage that pulsated in the back of my head, waiting to explode. Hogwarts – the place I had called home for almost six years – had turned against me.

I wanted to scream. A number of expletives had popped into my head, queuing for the mental breakdown that seemed inevitable at this point but, before I could act on the irresponsible impulse, it suddenly hit me.

“That’s not the effect of Euphoria.”

“Excuse me?”

There was a stifled murmur coming from the shadowed walls; behind an indignant Professor McGonagall, the four professors shuffled their feet uncomfortably at my bluntness, but I was too wound up to care.

“Euphoria makes you giddy and binged up - not reckless, let alone suicidal. No amount of Euphoria would ever cause someone to deliberately jump from a balcony, unless…”

McGonagall’s lips transformed into a thin, straight line as she seemed to consider her answer, but comprehension dawned on me long before she finally spoke.

“It seems the potion was not brewed correctly.” She glanced at Slughorn before regaining her icy composure. “I don’t see how that matters, however.”

For a moment, my heart sank. She was right, of course. It hardly seemed to matter whether the potion had been contaminated; if anything, it only made the situation worse and I realised that this was never going to be over. It was never going to stop. After tonight, not only the entire school would be buzzing with yet another rumour about that loony Woodley girl who dealt with illegal potions, but also my family would have heard. And if – by some miracle – I was not suspended or, worse, expelled tonight – there was no way the Woodleys would forgive me this time. Because even though I had underestimated them before, there was only so much shame this family could take.

“Is this a joke?” My mother’s voice suddenly rung out loud and clear, commanding the room’s attention like a spell. I stared at her, my heart beating in my ears as I watched the dancing flames casting intriguing patterns onto her black trousers, making it even harder to look away. “Elizabeth could brew Euphoria in her third year at Hogwarts. Perfectly so. Horace?”

“Oh yes!” Slughorn agreed without skipping a beat, ignoring the disapproving glare of Professor Longbottom. “She did indeed, I remember. Quite impressive at that age but, of course, only a trifle for someone as talented as Miss Woodley.” He winked at me; almost as though we were in the middle of a rather challenging Potions lesson and I had answered a difficult question.

            “So basically,” my mother continued, walking slowly into the room until she stood next to me, her hand finding my shoulder, “you are accusing my daughter – who has managed to make a potion which most seven years fail to accomplish, at the age of twelve – of brewing and dealing with illegal substances that are obviously made by someone who has only a vague grasp of what they are doing. Excuse me, but this is simply ridiculous.”

            The silence that followed my mother’s words felt heavy yet charged; I could feel her fingers digging into my shoulder – almost as though she was holding on to me for support – but the expression on her face was as relaxed and cool as ever. She could have been welcoming guests at one of her charity events, really.

            “Mrs Woodley has a point, Minerva,” Professor Flitwick said, breaking the buzzing silence. “And as her Head of House I have to say that it seems very unlikely that Miss Woodley would ever do such a thing.”

            “Well said, old chap!” Professor Slughorn gave Flitwick a jovial pat on the back that almost sent the tiny wizard to the floor. “Well said!” He beamed as though he was at a party, ready to crack open a fine bottle of Odgen’s Old Firewhisky and I felt a surge of appreciation for the two teachers.

            “Well then,” my mother sighed, her tone once again akin to boredom as she addressed McGonagall for the last time, “if this is all, I would ask you to let my daughter return to her dormitory, which, incidentally, our family has supplied with generous funds among many other institutions at Hogwarts. She has a long school day ahead of her and needs her sleep.”

           

***

 

The door to the hidden stairwell sealed itself behind us with a dull rumble and my lungs expanded as I let the cold air of the droughty castle stream through my body. It felt as though I had been holding my breath for the past hour and I salvaged the prickling feeling in my chest as I inhaled the cold.

“So… you know everything?” I glanced at my mother and noticed that her chignon had loosened, allowing a few stray strands of blond hair to escape the once tight up-do. She looked exhausted and I felt like the most horrible daughter in the world. Once again I had proven just how much of a disgrace I was to our family.

“I do.” She combed her hair back with her fingers before giving me a small smile. “I don’t think anyone else has to, however.”

I watched her for a moment, not sure what to say; there was a lump swelling in my throat, constricting my airways. I wanted to tell my mother that I hadn’t done any of the terrible things I had been accused of tonight; instead, I let myself slump against the cold stone wall, crumpling like parchment in the fire.

“I don’t know if I can do this any longer.” I swallowed in an attempt to ease the pressure that had built in my throat; it felt like it had been there for months, hanging around my neck like a noose, tightening slowly until I would suffocate.

“Elizabeth.” Her voice was soft, like it had been the day Cinnamon the tote had vanished from our pond, and I knew what she was going to say; that I was a Woodley and that I had to be strong.

But I didn’t want to hear any of it.

“I know, a Woodley never quits and all that, but I’m not – I’m not like that.” I shook my head, blinking as my eyes watered, and quickly brushed the tears off my face, feeling even more inadequate. “Don’t tell grandma that I cried, please.”

It grew silent for a moment in which I frantically tried to stop myself from dissolving into tears, which, oddly, only seemed to make it worse. The mixture of being both angry and self-pitying at the same time apparently didn’t exactly help to bring out the best in me.

“I was nineteen when I married your father,” my mother suddenly said, leaning against the wall next to me. “We knew each other from Hogwarts, of course. Our families had been pushing us together since we had been fourteen. It never would have occurred to me to rebel against my parents, against tradition. I was happy about marrying into such a good family, about having a husband and being a wife.”

“Mum,” I sighed as I realised where this conversation was going. “We’ve talked about this, I-“

No,” She looked up. “You don’t understand. I might not say this enough but I am so proud of you. Of the way you stand up for yourself. Of everything you do.” She smiled. “Well, maybe except for kissing the Potter boy in the Ministry phone booth.”

I grimaced, hoping that the colour on my cheeks wouldn’t show in the dim light of the corridor. “Yeah, that wasn’t my greatest moment.”

“Well, he is quite handsome.”

I could feel my mother’s eyes on me, scrutinizing me as I stared at my shoes like they were something marvellous. “Some might think so, I guess.”

“So… you’re not…?”

No. Definitely not. He is…” I bit my lip as I tried to ban the image of a smirking James Potter from my mind, “…not my type.”

My mother nodded, although I couldn’t tell if it was because she believed me or because she didn’t. When she spoke again, however, it wasn’t about James Potter.

 “The Woodleys aren’t perfect. We have our flaws as does any family. But if we did something wrong, we own it. And if we didn’t, we fight.”

            I turned my head to look at her and couldn’t help but smile at the fierce look on her face. “Why can’t we be a little less dramatic? You know, a little mollycoddling would be nice for a change.”

            “Wrong family, I’m afraid.” She laughed and pushed herself off the wall, holding her hand out to me. “Come on, you need some sleep.”

            I wanted to protest, but the moment my mother had mentioned the word sleep, my body suddenly seemed to realise that it was indeed aching for some rest, and so I took her hand and let her pull me to my feet, fully aware that I would leave a smudge of glitter on the wall.

            There really was no way around it; I was going to fight. 

 





A/N: Sorry for the long wait. Writer's block is not my friend :). I hope you enjoyed the chapter despite the lack of a certain J.P. but I promise he will feature prominently in the upcoming chapter which takes us the annual Hogwarts Valentine's Dance.

As always I want to emphazise how much your reviews mean to me. They are my motivation to write on days when I get home from work and feel like doing nothing but watching Netflix. You guys are amazing and the reason I am still writing this story. I seriously couldn't do it without you! :)

 


Chapter 31: Of Rebels and Romantics
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A/N: Inspiration for this chapter: Sia’s We can hurt together.

 

Rain had returned to Hogwarts; permanently it seemed as walls of water cascaded down the windowpanes, blurring the view of the mountain range that hid the castle from the world. It seemed ludicrous to leave the cosy confines of the school for anything other than classes, yet I could still make out half a dozen hazy smudges soaring above the Quidditch pitch. It was impossible to recognize any of their features, of course, but I still had quite a good guess who they were.

            “Gryffindor?”

            “Hmm, what?” I snapped my head away from the window so quickly that I irritated a muscle in my neck, which instantly began to throb with pain.

            “The team on the pitch,” Katie said, a deep frown appearing on her forehead as she watched me massage my fresh injury. “Are you okay?”

            “Sure.” I smiled, only just suppressing a yawn. “I’m just tired.” The pile of parchment crumpled a little as I pushed it off my lap before curling up in the plush wingback chair, trying to find a comfortable position for my neck.

            Katie still looked wary but she didn’t say anything, which I was thankful for; while it hadn’t been said, I could feel it in the air, hanging above us like a dark cloud that has been threatening to release a torrent of rain. I knew that she wanted to talk about James Potter and she knew that I didn’t.

The news that he was taking that pretty Hufflepuff girl I had seen him with at the Three Broomsticks last weekend to the Valentine’s Dance had travelled through the castle like a highly contagious virus, but I couldn’t care less. I had put it – him – behind me; like a bad dream that haunted you even after you had woken up.

            Whatever might or might not have been between us, I had moved on.

            “You said you’d be in the history section. I’ve been looking all over for you.” Tarquin looked mildly stressed as he appeared behind one of the towering shelves, his forehead sweaty as though he had just run a marathon.

            “Oh good, you’re here.” Katie beamed so brightly that an outsider might have thought she and Tarquin had been separated for days. “Tell her, Tarquin.”

            “Tell me what?” I shifted in my chair, feeling slightly uneasy about my friends’ behaviour; something was fishy about Katie’s sudden change of mood, but instead of answering my question, Tarquin began to fumble with the cuffs of his shirt.

“Well – um – actually, Katie, can we-”

            “You’re coming with us tonight!” Katie practically shouted at me and threw her arms up as though she had revealed the grand prize at a quiz show, seemingly unaware that she had just cut her boyfriend off mid-sentence. “Tarquin bought your ticket!”

            “Um, no I – I didn’t,” he said, scratching the back of his head as he tried to avoid Katie’s disbelieving gaze.

            “What? Why the hell not?”

            “Because I don’t have 50 Galleons.”

            There was a moment of silence in which the full meaning of Tarquin’s statement sank in before both Katie and I finally burst out, “What?”

            “50 Galleons?” I repeated, only just remembering that I was still in the library and had to lower my voice. “But who…” My voice trailed off as a frantic search began in my head in which I raked through my brain for any sort of explanation until it dawned on me. “Oh no. No, no, no, no. I bet it was Lucas.”

I was sure I had figured it out – there really was no other plausible theory – but, to my great surprise, Tarquin shook his head. “It wasn’t Lucas.”

            “How do you know?” Katie asked before I had the chance; she had half risen from her chair, hovering in an awkward angle that appeared not only uncomfortable but also dangerously precarious.

            “Because he asked me if I knew who had bought Seth’s ticket.”

            For a second I mulled over this new piece of information; it could have been a clever cover-up, of course – Lucas asking one of my friends if they knew who had gotten my ticket and thus throwing us off his trail – yet it seemed unlikely that anyone would bother to construct such a plan around a school dance. “Someone must have bought the wrong ticket then,” I finally concluded. “This is obviously a mistake.”

            I looked at Tarquin expectantly, hoping to see some sort of affirmation in his face, but he simply shook his head. “I don’t think it is, Seth.”

            “OH. MY. GOD.” Katie pressed both of her hands to her chest as she slowly sank back into her chair, the expression on her face resembling the one she got whenever she was reading Ambrosia Tinkletabber. “This is so romantic.”

            “No! No, it’s not.” I could feel panic prickle in the back of my head and, without meaning to, pushed myself off my seat, sending a couple of books and pages to the floor. Considering recent events and the fact that someone in the castle definitely seemed to have it out for me, this newest oddity in a series of strange events didn’t bode well. Spending such a completely disproportionate amount of money on a date to a lame, romance-themed school party was absolutely ridiculous – unless, of course, someone wanted to make absolutely sure I would be present at the ball, with or without an official date. “This is a trap.”

            “Okay, now you’re being paranoid.” Katie held out her hands, trying to stop my thought process like it was a speeding train. “Someone just really wants to go to the dance with you.”

            “Oh really? Who?” I crossed my arms in front of my chest, my eyebrows raised at my best friend who simply stared back at me, her mouth half-open as though she was hoping something would come to her eventually.     

            “This is great,” I whispered as I began to pick up my books and belongings from the floor, throwing them into my bag. “Somebody bought me. Like it’s 1485.”

            “Seth…” Katie had gotten up from her chair as well, watching me as I haphazardly crammed random pens and papers into my already full bag. From the corner of my eye I could see her exchange a look with Tarquin and I cringed inwardly at the sympathy it carried.

            “It’s alright,” I said quickly, hoisting my heavy bag over my shoulder. “I’m fine. Really. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go to Potions Club.”

            “Seth,” Katie tried again but before she could say anything I gave her and Tarquin a quick smile and left the compartment.

As the heavy library door closed behind me and I found myself running along a chilly and barely-lit corridor, it suddenly hit me; besides a guy who was willing to feign interest just to get a bloody illegal potion, there really was no one. After five and a half years at Hogwarts I had no one to go to a stupid school dance with and, although I had never cared about Valentine’s Day or school parties before, it made me feel strangely alone.

 

***

 

“It needs to be stirred exactly at the right pace. Not too fast, not too slow – there, that’s it.” Professor Slughorn tapped his wand against the large, wooden metronome on his table, which instantly stopped changing its tempo and settled on a steady, mellow pace that echoed from the high-vaulted ceiling.

            I closed my eyes for a moment, partly because I was starting to feel tired, partly because I wanted to focus on the consistent tick-tock of the metronome that was supposed to guide my spoon as I stirred the Erlkraut potion, and suddenly that new Hey Hey Hippogriff song that had been haunting the common room all week popped into my head, facilitating the rhythmic movement of my hand.

            “Nice,” someone suddenly said right next to me and I opened my eyes to find Helen MacFarley peering into my cauldron, “how did you get it to liquefy that fast?”

“Oh, um.” I pushed a stray strand of hair out of my face with the back of my hand, noticing that my skin had gotten sticky from the fumes that came from my cauldron. “I just followed the metronome, that’s all.”

Helen nodded as she leaned against the table, a grin appearing on her face. “It sounded as though you were humming When She Walks.”

“It’s annoyingly catchy,” I admitted and she laughed, her voice sounding over the sluggish bubbling of potions and the clanking of spoons against copper.

“So do you know who you’re going to the dance with tomorrow?”

“Um, no.” I bit my bottom lip as I watched the colour of my potion slowly fade from purple to a soft periwinkle blue, hoping that my answer had sounded casual enough to avoid any further questions. “You?”

“Yeah.” Helen wrinkled her small nose as she bent over her own cauldron to examine the texture of her Erlkraut. “Some fifth-year-boy from Slytherin got my ticket. This lottery system is just so wrong.”

I nodded, not too keen on deepening the discussion as I had tried my best to supress any thought of the Valentine’s Dance and the fact that someone had spent 50 Galleons on my ticket.

“Can I – can I ask you something?” She cleared her throat, abandoning her potion once more as she leaned against the table, a strange look on her face. “I was – I was wondering… you and James Potter – I mean, are you – like – close?”

The change of topic came so unexpectedly that I lost grip of my spoon, causing it to clatter noisily against the kettle as it plunged into my potion. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to conceal the small pang that I had felt somewhere in my stomach at the mention of James’s name.

“I’m not talking about all these stupid rumours –” Helen said quickly, apparently taking my clumsy reaction for a defensive strategy. “I know you didn’t poison anyone – it’s just – last time in the library you looked so – so familiar.”

“Oh. Um, no. I mean, we’re not. Familiar.” I could feel the heat crawl up my neck and face as I tried to feign absolute indifference. “Or anything, really,” I added lamely before swishing my wand over my cauldron to retrieve the drowned spoon. It slowly rose from the thick substance, dripping with gooey blue slime.

“Oh. Okay.” Helen watched me, unfortunately not showing any interest in resuming work on her own potion. “It’s just-” She laughed, her cheeks flushing as she shook her head, “I kind of fancy him and I thought if you knew him you could – you know – talk me up a bit.”

I hesitated for a second, searching my brain for ways to get out of this conversation; if there was one topic I wanted to avoid even more than the Valentine’s Dance, it was James Potter and the many women that fell for him. Yet, I couldn’t help feeling a small spark of curiosity. “Aren’t you tutoring him?”

“Occasionally, yes. But I barely get a word out when I’m around him. I mean, he’s just-” She sighed as though words simply weren’t enough to describe the miracle that was James Sirius Potter.

“Ladies, how are your potions coming along?” Professor Slughorn had ambled up to our table, his hands folded behind his back as he peered into my kettle. “This looks promising, Miss Woodley. Maybe a little too much white dittany?”

“My spoon fell in,” I explained and held it up to proof that the slightly off colour of my potion was due more to my clumsiness than lack in potion skills. Next to me, Helen slowly moved away to tend to her own potion, undoubtedly trying to make it as presentable as possible before the potions master would reach her cauldron.

“Oh dear, well not to worry.” Slughorn winked at me. “After all, Eldritch Brockenhirst wouldn’t have discovered the cure for Mersuring Disease if he hadn’t dropped his spectacles in his kettle.” He smiled at me before he moved on and I pushed up the sleeves of my jumper, determined to prove myself worthy of Slughorn’s trust. After all, he was one of the few teachers who didn’t give me wary looks whenever I turned around, wondering whether I really was the mastermind behind a student-run underground potions ring.

“I meant to ask you, Miss MacFarley. How are your tutoring lessons progressing?” Slughorn’s booming voice carried over the bubbling and hissing that filled the room and – despite myself – I looked up, sneaking a covert look to my right.

Helen was standing behind her cauldron, her brown hair bright and shiny despite the humidity that clung to the walls of the dungeon, and for a second I wondered how James might see her; her full but well-proportioned figure and her bright green eyes.

“Quite well, Sir. James is really good at potions.”

I rolled my eyes at the obvious lie before turning back to my kettle and adding way too much powdered bicorn horn, causing my potion to erupt in a micro-explosion, showering me in bright blue slime.

 

***

 

I bent over the washbasin, my hipbone grinding uncomfortably against the cold ceramic as I inspected the faint blue spot that stood out against my light skin right underneath my collarbone. Everything else had faded entirely in the shower; the blue hue in my face and my hair, the blotches on my neck, even the particularly bright stain on my left ear – yet the small, almost circular mark refused to vanish, no matter how vigorously I scrubbed at it.

            “Seth!” There was a sharp knock on the bathroom door and I moved back from the mirror, examining the greater picture. For the fraction of a second it occurred to me that long hair would have done a nice job concealing the blemish but – pinching a chunk of blond ends that barely even graced my shoulders – I quickly discarded the thought again.

            “You look fantastic,” Katie said as she pushed open the bathroom door, her silvery, layered skirt spilling into the room as though it was made of liquid metal. “I told you it would suit you.”

“I can’t breathe,” I wheezed as I tugged at the gauzy lace thing she had thrust into my arms the moment I had returned from the library. The entire dress was clinging to my body like a second skin, clearly tailored to fit a pre-teen, both in length and size.

“But it looks great.”

“I’m going to faint.”

“You’re going to be fine.” Katie moved her fingers expertly through my wavy hair before tucking one half behind my right ear.

            I let myself fall against the sink like a stiff board, the unyielding fabric not even allowing for the slightest bent. “Why did I agree to this again?”

            “Because you want to find out who your mystery date is and have the most romantic night of your life.”

            “No.” I shook my head, unhooking the strand of hair she had just pinned behind my ear. “I’m fairly certain that’s not it.”

“Then because you love me.” Katie smirked as she pushed open the door. “Now let’s go. The boys are waiting downstairs.”

I made sure she would see me grimace before following her out of the small en-suite bathroom and into the warmly lit dormitory. The room appeared to be even cosier than usual and I groaned inwardly at the prospect of having to leave it.

A flash of emerald suddenly caught my eye and I looked up, my mouth dropping slightly at the sight of Bernice, clothed in a sparkly form-fitting dress that moulded her harsh, rectangular shape into soft curves. Her strawberry blond hair – usually matted and tangled from Quidditch practice – was pinned up in elaborate braids that formed a crown around her head, flattering her sober features.

“Bernice, you look gorgeous!” Katie exclaimed. “Hot date?”

“I’m going with Jester Holston,” Bernice said, her deep voice bending just enough to suggest coyness as she clutched her tiny purse to her body. “He’s a beater for Hufflepuff.”

“Well, Hufflepuff men are the best.” Katie said as she casually swiped the entire clutter of lipsticks and concealer off her nightstand and into her bulging clutch. “Maybe we should find you one too, Seth.”

“Yeah,” I mumbled as I glanced towards the door that had just swung open, revealing a white-faced Ursula. She didn’t look up as she entered, her head bowed towards the book in her hands, but the pretence was weak and I could feel my heart sink.

“Are you going to the dance too, Ursula?” I asked, trying so hard to make my voice sound casual and friendly that it rang false in my ears.

She looked up like a deer that found herself in the headlights of a car, her complexion paling even more as her eyes lingered on me. She hadn’t spoken a word to me since she had been released from the hospital wing last night, much less even looked at me and, while she had never been quite outgoing or social, I knew that her strange behaviour was motivated by something else entirely.

“Don’t take it personally,” Bernice said in a soft voice after Ursula had practically fled into the bathroom, slamming the door close behind her. “She can’t remember what happened and people talk.”

“Yeah, I know.” I tried to feign a smile, but Ursula’s behaviour bothered me more than I wanted to let on. We had been rooming together for years and – although it was bad enough to have half the school believe that I was an unscrupulous criminal mastermind – the fact that someone who had lived with me for so long thought me capable of recklessly poisoning fellow students was even worse.

“I keep telling her that she is being stupid – that you would never do anything like that.” Bernice shook her head, her Scottish accent growing thicker as her voice became lower. “I know you were in the dorm when it happened. That’s what I told McGonagall too – told her that you never did anything you shouldn’t, no illegal potions or anything.”

“That’s really nice of you, Bernice.” I gave her a smile, hoping that it conveyed the gratitude I felt for her in this moment; burly, no-nonsense Bernice, who had had her own share of Hogwarts cruelty, believed me. “You look fantastic, by the way.”

 

***

 

            “That prissy little b-”

            “Katie!”

            “Well it’s true.” She rolled her eyes, her heels stabbing the hardwood floor as we walked along the railing towards the stairs. “She knows full well that you didn’t poison her. Mixed in her drink – rubbish.”

            I tried to breathe through the rigid confines of the dress as I noticed a familiar weight settling on my chest once more, obstructing the air that tried to get to my lungs. It seemed stupid now to have ever hoped that Ursula would clear me of all suspicion when she woke up from her drug-induced blackout. With rumours still travelling through the castle it was, after all, only too easy to succumb to the maelstrom of peer pressure.

            “I say she’s lying to cover up her own drug escapade.” Katie raised her eyebrows at me. “Wouldn’t look too good in her records, don’t you think?”

            “Do you really think that?”

            “I’m just saying that it’s convenient to have a rumoured potions lord as your roommate.”

            “Maybe.” I leaned against the banister and glanced at the bustling common room underneath me, trying to spot Sam and Hector in the sea of colourful dresses. “But it’s Ursula we’re talking about.”

            Katie shrugged as a group of overly excited fifth year girls in bright, slinky outfits pushed past us, their voices unifying in the chorus of When She Walks. The way they swayed on their stiletto heels suggested that they had already had a couple of Gilly shots in their room.

“Do you remember the note?” I said quietly when the girls had reached the stairs and were safely out of earshot again. “The one that fell out of my book?”

“Yes, wh-” Katie’s eyes widened as her mouth dropped slowly. “You think it was a trap?”

“Well, it seems fishy, doesn’t it?” I let my fingers trail along the gleaming wood of the banister as another group of girls walked by. I hadn’t wanted to tell Katie about my suspicions – mostly because they seemed slightly paranoid and I didn’t want to worry her – but it was hard to keep something like that from my best friend. “A mysterious note telling me to come to the Entrance Hall at 11 o’clock. I mean, why the Entrance Hall of all places? You’re basically bound to be seen by someone there.”

“Didn’t McGonagall say that Ursula fell around 11?” Katie had leaned in, her voice barely louder than a whisper.

I nodded, feeling a cold shiver run down my spine. “Whoever they are, they are using other people to get to me.”

That’s why you are going tonight,” she hissed. “You think someone is setting you up.”

“I don’t know.” I felt the cloth of the dress press against my ribcage as I tried to take a deep breath. “But I have to find out. This has to stop.”

“Seth.” Katie gripped my arm and her eyebrows furrowed as she gave me a long look. “You have to promise me that you’ll be careful.”

I smiled, hoping that it was convincing. “Don’t worry, okay? It’s going to be fine.”

 

***

 

It was not as though I hadn’t expected it. Unlike Katie or Sam, who had continued to crane their necks as we had made our way to the Great Hall, I hadn’t been surprised that nobody had been waiting for me in Entrance Hall, brandishing a bouquet of flowers and declaring to be my secret Valentine. However, I couldn’t completely ignore the sinking feeling in my stomach as my eyes travelled over the clusters of brightly dressed couples, talking and laughing as they dived in and out of the dancing crowd. Some of them might have been slightly mismatched, but they looked happy nonetheless while I was, once again, the girl standing by the wall, pretending to be cool with leaning against a windowsill as a mixture of noise and music pulsed around me like a gigantic beating heart.

            “Where the hell is your date, Lizzibeth?”

            I looked up, unable to not smile at Freddie Weasley as he plunked down next to me, a broad grin spreading across his lightly bronzed face. There was something so earnest and easy-going about him that made it hard not to like him.  “I have no idea.”

            “He must be quite the stupid git,” he said with a crooked smile, “leaving a girl like you alone with all these horny boys.” He made a sweeping gesture into the room like a real estate agent showing off the grand dining room.

            “As you can see, I can hardly handle the crowds of admirers.”

            Freddie laughed and shook his head. “James is right, you’re really funny.”

            There was something about hearing James’s name so casually thrown into the conversation that made my dress feel even tighter than before. Especially since I had tried not to think about him after I had spotted him in the crowd earlier, the pretty Hufflepuff girl dangling from his arm with a brilliant smile on her face.

            “He can be an idiot.”

            “What?” I looked up at Freddie, my heart pressing against my caged chest as it picked up speed.

            “James,” he said, sounding much more serious than before. “He can be a bit thick. Or, a lot.”

            I frowned, not sure what to make of this sudden change in topic; James and I hadn’t talked since the winter carnival and with all the shouting and angry accusations, it had somehow felt final. And I needed it to be final.

            “It’s fine,” I said, because there was nothing else I could think of, and I gave Freddie a casual smile. His eyes narrowed as he looked at me and for a moment it seemed as though he wanted to say something, but his brows furrowed and he pressed his lips together, swallowing his words just as a group of girls emerged from the crowd, heading straight towards us.

“Freddie, you liar!” One of them shouted at us as she grabbed hold of his arm, her long, blond curls flying out behind her. “You promised you’d dance with us!”

“Elena, I was just going to look for you,” he replied before winking at me, the grin back in place as though it had never been gone. “If you’ll excuse me, Lizzibeth.”

“Sure.” I smiled, somewhat relieved that I did not have to continue this conversation. “See you around.”

“You will!” He called out as he let the girls drag him onto the dance floor where they immediately clustered around him, pulling him further into the writhing mass until they vanished in the crowd.

            I inhaled slowly, aware that I was pushing the dress to its limits, and settled into my comfortable nook again as I let my gaze wander across the room towards where I had seen James last; he was still there, talking to his date, who looked like a film star in her shimmery golden dress that hugged her body perfectly, showing it off in all the right places. It was somewhat fitting that she looked like a Greek goddess while I had spent most of the night at this wall, squeezed into my best friend’s old Bat Mitzvah dress that threatened to burst with every deep breath I took; clearly, I wasn’t even playing in the same league.

 

***

            Katie smiled as she surfaced from the dancing crowd, her slightly fuzzy curls bouncing with every step she took as she walked towards me with Tarquin following in her wake.

            “Come dance with us!” she shouted, even though she had already reached me, her cheeks glowing in a bright pink. While she looked elated, Tarquin just looked exhausted.

            “Nah, I’m fine.” I shrugged, hugging my arms around my torso; it was getting chilly next to the window and my legs began to feel slightly numb from balancing on Katie’s high heels all night; that, or the dress was starting to cut off my blood circulation.

            “I’m sorry I made you go,” Katie said but I shook my head and smiled.

“You didn’t. I went voluntarily.”

            She nodded and let her gaze wander across the room as though she was looking for someone in particular. “So… still no sign?”

            “Nope. No suspicious activities whatsoever.” I shrugged, not sure if I felt relieved or disappointed about the lack of dodgy behaviour around me. It seemed strange that someone would go through all this trouble and expense to get me to the Valentine’s Dance just to ignore me all night.  “Although I saw Lucas lurking around me before so I’ll just take off before I get accused of poisoning him with Amortentia.”

            “Are you sure?”

            “Yes.” A slow song started playing and the lights dimmed, dipping the Great Hall into nothing but warm candle light. “That’s my cue.” I pointed my finger at the crowd that had quickly arranged itself into intertwined swaying pairs.

            “Okay,” Katie sighed and I knew that she was itching to drag Tarquin back onto the dancefloor. “But are you really -”

            “Yes, Kat. For the hundredth time. I’m fine.” And it actually felt as though I had said it a hundred times already; so much that it sounded more like a mantra than the truth. “I’m alright.”

            “Don’t you want to-” Katie started, but knowing what she was going to say I shook my head and gave her a hug before she could protest.

            “Fine,” she said, giving me the smallest of eye-rolls. “I will let you go, but you have to promise me that-” She stopped abruptly, her eyes widening in shock as she stared at something behind my back. “Oh no. No, no, no, no.”

            “What?” I could feel the familiar prickle of panic and immediately spun around, my heart sinking fast as I saw the brightly lit dancefloor; illuminated by soft pink spotlights, Sam and Hector were dancing arm in arm to the slow beat that oozed from the invisible boxes, their movements becoming tense and rigid as the floor around them emptied, leaving them exposed to a staring and whispering crowd.

They had been dancing together all night, but in fast-paced, loose formations that apparently hadn’t attracted any special attention; now, however, they had become the main attraction in the Hogwarts teenage zoo.

            “You’d expect more tolerance from a bunch of people that would have been burned at the stake in the Middle Ages.” Tarquin growled behind me and I looked at Katie, who looked back at me with a fierce expression on her face.

            “Shall we?” I asked, holding out my hand and she took it without hesitation.

“Always.”

            I could hear a few people giggle as we joined Sam and Hector on the dancefloor but the sound quickly dissolved in the slow beats of the song that still blasted through the room on full volume. I caught Sam’s eye over Katie’s head and he gave me a miniscule smile; there wasn’t much we could do to actually help them but at least they weren’t the sole focus of the gawking crowd anymore.

            “And there I thought Hogwarts was open minded.” Katie shook her head as her gaze wandered across the room. A formidable ring of spectators had gathered around the dancefloor by now, looking almost as though they were expecting a show, and I clenched my fingers that were resting on Katie’s waist.

            It was then that I suddenly saw him, standing in the middle of the crowd, looking straight at me. As usual, it was hard to read the expression on James’s face and I strained to hear his voice as he turned to Freddie to say something, but his words didn’t carry, drowning in the music.

            I frowned as I watched Freddie’s face light up, apparently amused at his best friend’s comment; of course, James must have found this - me - hilarious, embarrassing even, and I felt a wave of angry heat crawling up my spine until, suddenly, he held out his hand and Freddie took it, shouting at the top of his lungs, “I thought you’d never ask, J.Po.!”.

And the entire room seemed to hold its breath as James Potter and Freddie Weasley took to the dancefloor together.  

The impact was instantaneous; first there was a wave of excited chatter and wolf-whistling but then, as though prompted by a chain reaction, other same-sex couples, both friends and lovers, suddenly began to detach themselves from the crowd of onlookers, flooding the dancefloor so that, within seconds, the entire room seemed to be moving.

            My heart was beating in my ears as I found James in the twirling and swaying sea of people that suddenly felt as though they were far away. He grinned at me over Freddie’s head, who was performing exuberant dance moves, and before I realised it, I was smiling back at him.


 


 

A/N: To all of my lovely readers, thank you for your patience. It has been a stressful two months and writer’s block is a thing :). I hope you enjoyed this chapter and I’d love to hear what you think about this development :)

 

Thank you for sticking with Seth and for nominating this story for the Dobby Awards, I can’t even tell you how much this means to me! All you amazing people who take the time to read and review are my inspiration and the reason this story even exists. 


Chapter 32: Of Knights in Filthy Armour
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A/N: I know It’s been a while but I am back and I’ve missed you all. Tons of things have happened, keeping me from writing, including a new job, a new apartment and, on top of it all, my boyfriend had had another mountain bike accident including surgery and a longer period at the hospital. I hope you can forgive me and enjoy this chapter.




Also I want to apologize for lagging behind with my responses to your lovely reviews but please know that I am working on it and that each and every one of you wonderful people will get a response from me!

 

Thanks for your love and your patience with me. And for reminding me that someone is waiting for the story to go on. You all are amazing.

 

 







I could see him across the room, surrounded by dozens of people who had been fighting for his attention ever since the last song had ended. He was smiling, running his fingers through his messy hair and I could feel my heart beat faster as I got closer.

            “You two looked adorable,” Athena Notte sighed as she leaned on James’s shoulder; she looked stunning in a black silky dress with her neat updo slightly coming undone and the straps on her shoulder threatening to slide off.

I stopped, breathing in slowly. Maybe I would have felt more comfortable if I hadn’t been squished into a dress that severely restricted my mobility and threatened to burst with each step I took, but it was too late to turn back now.

James looked up just as I was close enough to hear Freddie complain about his best friend’s uninspired dancing skills and I wished I had been doing something less weird than lingering at the fringe of the group like a stalker; especially when I panicked and, for lack of a better idea, waved at him.

            He stared at me for an unbearably long moment and I hugged my arms around my torso, considering flight. But before I could move, James had detached himself from his friends and walked over to me    

            “I just wanted to say thank you,” I said quickly and tucked my hair behind my ears as my face glowed with heat. “For doing this.”

            James shrugged; I had forgotten it for a moment but the sober expression on his face reminded me again that we hadn’t exactly parted amicably the last time. “It’s no big deal. Hector’s my friend.”

            “Right. Still, it was nice.” I cleared my throat, already preparing to turn away, when James suddenly grabbed my arm.

            “Woodley,” he said quickly and I stopped mid-turn, only vaguely aware that I was holding my breath as I looked at him, “that doesn’t mean I only did it for him.”

            He grinned before stepping closer - his hand still grasping my arm - and, despite not having had any alcohol, I suddenly felt mildly drunk as I smiled back at him.

“What the hell are you doing?” The voice wasn’t loud, yet there was an angry urgency to it that made me snap out of my drowsy stupor; Albus Potter was glaring at his brother, his jaw clenched as though he was trying hard to contain himself. “You know you shouldn’t be talking to her.”

He didn’t look at me as he said it, but there was no doubt who he was talking about and I my stomach dropped a few inches.

James shook his head, trying to maintain a casual attitude, but I could see the muscles in his neck tense up. “Just shut up, Al.”

“Mum told us to stay away from her.” Albus hissed, still acting as though I was not standing right next to him, and I felt like somebody had kicked me in the gut. I had, of course, suspected that Albus, like most of the castle, thought I was responsible for what had happened to him and I could hardly blame him, but the reality of it was still crushing.

James’s brow furrowed as he glared at his little brother. “Which part of shut up didn’t you understand?”

“It’s fine!” I said before Albus could retaliate, only vaguely noticing that my voice sounded rather curt. James looked at me - somewhat pitying - and I instinctively lifted my chin up. “It’s – I should be going anyway. So – um – bye.”

“Seth!”

James’s voice mingled with the beats of the music, but I had already turned around and walked away, fighting the urge to run.

 

***

 

I let my head drop backwards, allowing it to sink into the soft pillow until my ears were covered completely, drowning out the soft patter of rain against the tall windows. I forced my eyes to close, distracting my mind with - as Katie had put it - happy thoughts, but the voices trickled back in - first slowly then flooding my brain with a plethora of unwanted images that penetrated the darkness.

            Did Albus Potter really believe that I had had something to do with his poisoning? We had barely even known each other and, if anything, it had been him who had started talking to me, not the other way round. After years of passing through Hogwarts undetected, I had somehow managed to maneuver myself into the worst possible situation. In just a couple of months had gone from perfect student and law-abiding Prefect to notorious potions dealer and crazy stalker.

            ‘Elizabeth Woodley, there is a plot against you’.

The words echoed faintly in my head and I groaned and flopped onto my stomach, burying my face in my pillow as though I could muffle my overactive brain. Once again, it looked as though I was going to spend the night trying to pinpoint the exact moment my life had turned into a trainwreck.

 

***

 

“Seth!”

There was a bang and something heavy fell onto my legs, prompting me to flail my arms wildly around my head in an attempt to ward off whatever was attacking me.

“Seth,” the voice said again, “relax. It’s only me.”

             It took my brain a while to absorb the words as they seeped into my muddled consciousness and I blinked rapidly as Katie’s slightly hazy shape slowly came into focus in front of me. “What - what time is it?”

            “Almost noon,” she said and my mind instantly jolted awake.

            “What? I’m late!” I cried out, peeling myself out of the cozy blanket before clumsily waddling off towards my wardrobe where I began to haphazardly pull out bits and pieces that mildly resembled the grey school uniform. I had just yanked the sleeves of my white shirt over my pyjama top when Katie called out my name once more, stopping me as I tried to pull my tights over my flannel trousers.

            “It’s Saturday,” she said, looking somewhat concerned as she examined my sloppy dressing job. “I didn’t want to wake you. You needed the sleep.”

            “Oh.” I looked around the empty room, not quite sure what I was looking for, and then slowly sank back onto my bed, the blue and bronze tie dangling sadly around my neck. “Right.”

            “I would have let you sleep but it’s almost twelve and I got the whole day planned out.” Katie produced a glittery pink notebook from her pocket and opened it in her lap, her index finger trailing the page as she read aloud. “I booked us the all-around beauty package at Gisele’s, then lunch at that new place next to Madame Puddifoot’s. If it stops raining, we can stroll around town a bit, check out the shops. If not, we’ll just buy loads of chocolate and have a girls’ night in.”

            “Um, okay?” My brain was still sluggish and I struggled to follow Katie’s recital, hoping that she had not been serious about Gisele’s. “What about Tarquin?”

            “What about him?” She shrugged nonchalantly but faltered a little when I raised my eyebrows at her. “I just,” she sighed, closing her calendar with a snap. “I feel like I haven’t been a great friend lately.”

“That’s not true, Kat,” I said quickly, ridding myself of the uniform shirt that had gotten stuck on my pyjama top, making me feel as though I was laced up in a straightjacket.

“No it is. I’ve been absorbed in my relationship.”

“Which is totally normal.”

“It shouldn’t be,” Katie said fiercely. “You’ve been dealing with so much awful stuff lately and I haven’t been there.” She took my hand in hers, studying my fingers for a moment before looking up at me. “So will you please let me take you to the beauty salon?”

           

***

 

The little shops were bustling with people, as were the cobbled streets that wound their way through the village. I could see a sea of brightly coloured umbrellas rubbing against each other as I peered out the large ornate shop window of Gisele’s Magical Beauty Salon & Supply, but my head was yanked back instantly by the heavily made-up woman who was running her perfectly manicured fingers through my hair.

            “How about an extensions-charm, love?” She said, pinching a strand of wavy hair and critically examining the ends that barely grazed my collarbone.

            “Um, no thanks,” I said quickly, sneaking a glance at Katie, who had already been supplied with an impressive dome-shaped updo by Gisele herself. “Just a trim, please.”

            Katie grinned, her eyes closed firmly as a young witch with dangerously long fingernails applied liberal amounts of glittery purple eyeshadow not only to her lids but all the way up to her eyebrows.

            “Maybe you should dye your hair pink.”

            “Oh, no!” The woman who was pulling on my hair, trying to twist the short strands into tiny ringlets, said very seriously as she shook her head, making her chandelier earrings jingle. “That would look horrible with your complexion, sweetie.”

            “Can you remember that time we tried to dye my mum’s old cat pink?” Katie mumbled through the attempts of her stylist to put lipstick on her.

“Oh my god, of course.” I snorted. “We stalked him all day.”

            “He didn’t know what hit him.”

“Poor Mr. Snuggles.”

            “May he rest in peace,” Katie sighed.

            “You were right.” I turned my head towards her as much as I was able to with someone pulling and teasing my hair as though it wasn’t attached to an actual person. “This is really nice. Thanks.”

            “You’re welcome.”

           

***

 

It was getting dark when we finally trudged back up to the castle, blending into the stream of students, some of whom were giving us strange looks as we passed them. Rain was still pelting down hard and Katie and I had huddled together underneath her tiny pink umbrella, which was just enough to protect our horrible hairdos and makeup, but otherwise quite useless against the slanting downpour.

            “I’m so hungry I could actually eat a hippogriff.” Katie looked wistfully towards the castle that had just come into view atop the hill; its windows glowed brilliantly despite the rain, radiating warmth and comfort like no other place could.

            “Who would have thought that Chez Marco would be such a failure,” she sighed and shook her head, the beehive atop of it moving with her as though it was made of cement.

“It should have been a tip off that they spelled it “Chess”, though.” I laughed, feeling a sort of giddiness that I hadn’t felt in a while. I might not have realised it before, but I had really needed this day with Katie; away from all the drama and the rumours.

“Yeah.” Katie frowned as we joined the queue that was pushing towards the softly lit entrance of the castle, desperate to get out of the rain. “It should have tipped us off.”

We let ourselves be swept along through the wide doors, but as soon as we had reached the Entrance Hall, the excited buzz suddenly ebbed away, fading to a low, ominous mutter.

“What’s wrong?” Katie asked as she craned her neck. “Why are we all standing here?”

“Maybe Peeves blocked the Great Hall again,” I said, balancing on my tiptoes to get a better overview. It wouldn’t have been the first time that the poltergeist had taken advantage of the almost empty castle to wreak havoc. He usually stuck around to watch the confusion and chaos unravel, though; strangely, however, there was no sight of him anywhere.

It was then that I finally realised what everyone else was looking at: They were standing on the stairs like statues - tall and unmoving as they surveyed the murmuring crowd beneath them - with a stony-faced Minerva McGonagall in the middle, surrounded by the Heads of Houses. Her eyes travelled over the crowd, observing every detail, before finally settling on me. Suddenly, as though on cue, people began to step away from Katie and me, forming a small circle around us, and I could feel my stomach clenching up in fear as more and more faces turned towards me.

 “Miss Woodley.” A chill ran down my spine as McGonagall’s voice carried through the Entrance Hall, magnified by the vaulted ceiling, instantly muting the crowd like a magic spell. “Follow me.”

“No,” Katie hissed as she wrapped her hand around my arm. “Seth -”

“It’s OK,” I said calmly, softly prising off her fingers as I tried to ignore the stares and whispers around us. “I’ll see you later.” I tried to smile although the sudden urge to vomit may have interfered with my attempt at reassuring coolness.

This couldn’t be good.

In fact, this probably was a disaster.

 

***

 

            There was a new plant on Professor McGonagall’s desk; but it wasn’t so much its writhing tentacles that worried me but the fact that I had noticed. I had been to the headmistress’s office so often this year that I could tell when she got a new potted plant.

            “Take a seat,” she said curtly as she walked around her desk and I let myself sink into one of the chairs, simultaneously trying to hide the sleeves of my grey jumper, which glittered with the electric blue eyeshadow I had furiously tried to wipe off my face as I had ascended the stairs to the tower.

Whatever was going on, I was sure that looking like a mid-eighties drag queen would not help the situation.

            “Miss Woodley.” The headmistress didn’t sit down but simply stood behind her desk, looking somewhat exhausted. “Can you identify this?” She had dug her hand into the pocket of her swishing cloak and produced something small and glittery. It took me a moment to realise what it was, but when I did, I could feel my heart plummet to my stomach, causing a paralysing wave of nausea that caused my throat to swell.

            This was impossible.

It simply couldn’t be.

            “I take it you know what this is?” She said drily and, as though in a trance, I nodded.

            “I thought so,” she sighed, placing the vial on the desk in front of her, “since it has your fingerprints all over it.”

The silence was thick and heavy as all eyes were on me, waiting for me to confess, but my mouth had gone dry and my head was spinning as I stared at the small glass container that was  filled to the brim with Graviditas potion.

How was this even possible? In order for the test to work, Felicity would have had to use it all; there shouldn’t be anything left. There couldn’t be anything left.

“We found this in your nightstand,” McGonagall continued, her voice sounding as though she was standing far away.

“My nightstand,” I repeated lamely, still not fully grasping the situation.

“Yes. We searched your room on an anonymous tip.”

Her words rung in my head as I was seized by panic. This was it. I didn’t know why or how, but my life had spiralled out of control and there was nothing I could do. My family was going to be notified - probably they were on their way already - and I was going to be expelled.

The wave of fear that had paralysed me at first, gave way to my flight instinct that kicked in, making my legs pulse as all my blood rushed to my feet. But I knew that there was no point in running and so - as the image of my mother popped into my head - I decided to do the only other thing I could think of: I was going to own it.

“I - I was desperate,” I finally said, my voice sounding steadier than I felt as I forced myself to look up at the headmistress. “I was in a bad situation and I didn’t know what else to do.”

My cheeks had turned violently red even though, technically, this wasn’t a lie. I had been in a bad situation after Sam had given me the stolen ingredients. From the corner of my eye, however, I could see the disappointed expression on Slughorn’s face as he drew the wrong conclusion; just as I had hoped they all would.

“You - you mean you-” McGonagall didn’t finish the sentence but exchanged quick looks with the other teachers before clearing her throat. “You should have consulted Madame Pomfrey.”

“I couldn’t,” I said quickly, “She would have told my parents, even if the result had been negative.”

Again, this was perfectly true; every administration of a pregnancy test implied the immediate notification of the student’s parents. That I actually hadn’t been the one needing the test really was a minor detail at this point.

“So you admit to stealing the ingredients from Professor Slughorn’s cabinet and brewing a restricted potion?” McGonagall looked at me with raised eyebrows almost as though she was expecting me to suddenly laugh and shout “Psych!”.

“Yes.” I said as firmly as I could, “It was -”

There was a dull bang, followed by a string of muffled swear words, and I swivelled around in my chair, just as the door to the office flew open and a tall figure stumbled into the circular room.

“It was me!” James Potter shouted, clutching one hand to his side and panting heavily. His hair was matted and wet and his usually red Quidditch gear was smeared with dirt. “Woodley made the potion for me!”

There was a moment of stunned silence as both McGonagall and the Heads of Houses stared at him in complete shock. For the first time in my life I saw the headmistress flustered, her eyes wide as she seemed to struggle for words.

James? How did you- ? What are you- ?”

“I asked her to help me,” James said firmly, now breathing more evenly as he walked further into the office, leaving blotches of sludge in his wake. “For – um – a friend.”

“No! No he didn’t,” I said quickly, not quite sure what the hell was going on. “Potter has got nothing to do with this, headmistress.”

James simply shook his head as he turned to me, a pitiful expression on his face. “It’s OK, Woodley.” His voice was low and soothing, as though he was talking to an agitated toddler. “You don’t have to lie anymore.”

“I’m not lying,” I stuttered lamely, still unable to fully grasp the situation. “The potion is mine.” I turned back to McGonagall and gave her an imploring look. “I stole the ingredients. I made it. All by myself. Why would I lie about this?”

My reasoning seemed to jolt her out of her perplex silence, for when she spoke again, her voice was as fierce as ever. “Yes, James. Why would Miss Woodley take the blame if it wasn’t hers to take?”

I watched James bite his lip, his brows furrowed as he stared at the headmistress. A streak of drying mud was smeared across his cheek, hiding the yellow of the emerging bruise underneath.

“Because – well,” he finally said, “Woodley’s in love with me.”

There was a second of silence, but I hardly noticed as I spun around in my chair, almost hurling myself off the seat.

What?” I practically shouted. “What are you talking about?” I turned back to McGonagall, unable to conceal the panic in my voice. “I am not in love with him.”
            Unfortunately, no one seemed to be very impressed by my indignation - least of all James Potter.

“I knew that Woodley was in love with me and that she would help me if I asked her.”

What on earth was he doing?

This entire thing was so ridiculous, I was sure McGonagall wouldn’t buy into this cock-and-bull story; but - to my horror - she suddenly sighed, comprehension dawning on her face.

“James, I thought we got past that phase.”

“I know, I’m sorry Professor.”

I was shaking my head before actual words came out of my mouth. “It’s not true!” I sounded desperate as I addressed the Heads of Houses that stood behind the headmistress, all looking slightly uncomfortable. At least Flitwick and Slughorn had to believe me; they had to know that I wouldn’t do something like this to impress a boy. “I don’t know why Potter is doing this, but it’s not true.”

A sort of wrinkle appeared on Slughorn’s forehead and, for a moment, I was sure they were reconsidering. However, before they could make up their mind, James had walked up to McGonagall’s desk, his dirt-caked Quidditch boots squelching almost comically with every step he took.

“If you examine the vial again, you will find my fingerprints on it.”

            It was true. I had completely forgotten about this, but James was right; the vial would have his fingerprints all over it. After all it had been him who had delivered it to Sam.

            “OK, well… you – you might, but – “ I stammered, frantically searching for a way to explain this without dragging Sam into the whole mess, but McGonagall’s voice cut right through my lame excuses.

            “I have heard enough. I think I don’t have to express how very disappointed I am; in the both of you.” She paused for a second to remove her glasses and placed them on her desk, not looking at James or me. I hadn’t noticed before how exhausted she looked, but as the candle light flickered on her face, the lines around her eyes seemed deeper than ever. “Mr. Potter will lay down his captaincy as he is banned from the Gryffindor Quidditch team for at least the next game. Miss Woodley is relieved of her Prefect duties effective immediately. Both of you are asked to return your badges to your Heads of Houses by tomorrow. There will be additional punishment, of course, which will be in the form of –“

            I blinked as McGonagall’s voice faded to mere background noise and the reality of the situation hit me, leaving a sour taste in my mouth. I was no longer a Prefect; what was worse, however, was that I had dragged someone else down with me.

As I glanced at James’s profile, I could see the tension in his jaw, the line on his forehead as he stood tall, listening to the rest of the sentence. I could only imagine how it must feel for him to lose Quidditch.

But I hadn’t asked for this; for him to take the blame. I hadn’t asked him to put himself on the line when I was trying so hard to keep everyone else out of my mess. I felt a sudden bout of anger about his reckless behaviour; about the fact that he had put me in the awful position of costing him so much.

 

Looking back at it, it all seemed like a blur; I had only half-listened to the rest of McGonagall’s punishment, which included a couple of delightful hours of manual cleaning chores. Now that the door to the winding staircase had closed behind us, the sudden silence felt smothering. I glanced at James, whose face seemed unusually pallid in the gloomy light that trickled through the narrow windows; he looked somewhat sick, as though he was going to throw up, and I felt another wave of anger crawl up my spine. He had acted as he always did; thoughtlessly. And now he had gotten himself into this awful situation and, ultimately, it was all my fault.

“Are you insane?”

I was surprised by how aggressive my voice sounded as it bounced off the stone walls around us. For a moment James looked at me, bewildered; there was a dried smear of dirt across his slightly crooked nose and it just hit me that he must have come here straight from practice.

“You’re welcome!” He snarled, sarcasm oozing from every word. He looked like someone had dragged him through the mud and I once again I wondered how someone could get that dirty flying around on a broomstick.

“Why on earth would you do something so stupid?”

“I was saving -“

“Don’t you dare say it, Potter!” I snapped at him before he could finish his sentence, my arms knotted tightly in front of my chest. Deep down I knew that I was overreacting, but logical thought wasn’t exactly reigning my faculties at the moment.

“Without me you would have been expelled!” James was yelling by now, his brow furrowed as he glared at me.

“I was handling it, okay?”

“Oh sure, you were doing great, Woodley!”

I could tell by his tone that he was livid with me, but the feeling was mutual. I didn’t know why I was so angry, but the sensation was so strong that it cancelled out every ounce of reason I possessed.

“I was before your ridiculous performance!”

James shook his head so violently that actual drops of water lodged themselves from his hair and were now dripping down his dirt-caked face. “I can’t even – how can one person be that stubborn!”

“I’m not stubborn!”

“You!” He pointed at me and I was sure that if he had been holding his wand, it would have emitted a couple of sparks. “You are driving me mad!”

“Well, back at you!”  

James opened his mouth and I was sure he was going to retaliate, but, instead, he just shook his head again before suddenly turning around and walking away.

“Your friend is a nutcase!” He muttered as he passed a thick stone pillar against which – and I only just realised this – Katie was standing like a statue, her face white and anxious as she watched James vanish into the darkness of the corridor.

 

***

 

The rain was hitting the ground hard, only slowly seeping into the still frozen earth. Technically, it was still winter in Scotland but, came March, there was a sort of vacuum when it didn’t quite feel like winter anymore but spring was still too far away to even imagine walking outside without being wrapped into a thick coat.

            “OK,” Katie broke the silence that had settled between us while we had been watching the rain from the porticoed hallway that circled the courtyard. She had led me here – away from possibly prying crowds – and I had simply followed, unable to even think straight. “You’ve got to fill me in here. What happened?

            I took a deep breath, feeling somewhat disoriented as I tried to arrange the rogue thoughts in my head in the proper order. “They found out about the Graviditas.”

            “What?”

            I nodded, experiencing a mild rush of panic as realisation hit me once again. “McGonagall had the vial. The exact vial I put the potion in before giving it to Sam.”

            “But – that’s impossible,” Katie whispered even though we were quite alone in the courtyard, her brow furrowed with concern; she was still wearing the flashy beauty salon makeup and I suddenly remembered that all this time – during McGonagall’s lecture and the fight with James – I must have looked like a very shabby clown with powdery blue blotches around my eyes and unnaturally pink cheeks.

            “Did James rat you out?” She asked and I could hear the indignation in her voice. “Because if –“

            “No – no, he – he didn’t,” I said quickly before taking a deep breath, the cold, wet air stinging in my throat as it travelled to my lungs. I had trouble getting my jumbled thoughts to form a coherent account of what had just happened, but the entire thing didn’t make much sense to me, no matter how long I thought about it. “He – he claimed that he asked me for the potion. He said I made it to help him because I was in love with him.”

            Katie faltered, “He – what?”

            “I mean, can you believe him?” I knotted my arms tighter around my torso.

            “Seth.” Her voice was calm, sober and I knew what she was about to say.

            “No.” I shook my head as I tried to avoid Katie’s eyes. I simply wasn’t read to hear it.

            “He saved you.”

            “No!” I said again, this time a little sharper, but my voice cracked oddly as a large lump grew in my throat.

            “I know you hate to hear this, but he did,” Katie said, her breath fogging up as it mingled with the damp air. “They would have expelled you.”

            “I had it all under control.”

            Katie threw her arms up in a sort of exasperated manner. “For god’s sake, Seth, they would have EXPELLED you!”

            I bit my lip as I stared at my dirt-caked trainers, wondering if the horrible feeling in my stomach would ever go away, before saying very quietly, “He had to give up his captaincy”.

            “What?”

     &n