Chapter 16 : Somersault
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I leaned forward in my seat jaw dropping, eyes widening, brows knitting into the universal expression for 'you have got to be shitting me' and gaped at the (completely loony) woman in front of me. It wasn't a very attractive look, I'll admit, yet I couldn't help myself the shock that was rippling over my features was uncontrollable. And while some people (hint: his name rhymes with 'otter') may be good at hiding their feelings behind cool masks of disinterest, I wasn't one of them.
Headmistress Vespertine quirked a dark eyebrow and clasped her elegant hands together, resting them on top of her shiny mahogany desk. Judging by the unimpressed expression tugging at her stern features, she wasn't in the mood for my disbelief.
Well excuse me, Vespertine, if you find my attitude irritating it's just that I've been having kind of a tough week and all, what with my twin brother slipping into a life-threatening, indefinitely long coma. I know that's no valid excuse, but oh no, wait that's totally a valid excuse. Fuck you.
"You heard me, Miss Bennett. A counselor," Vespertine said firmly, pulling me back into reality. She tilted her head forward, boring her steely grey eyes into mine, face lined with hardened resolve.
"You want me to see a shrink." I stated flatly, brow wrinkling in distaste. Vespertine had been pushing the point for the past hour and I'd been rejecting it for just as long, but that didn't make the idea seem any less surreal. A school counselor, really? Me? I'd always thought that out of everyone in our friend group, Freddy would be the first one forced to seek psychiatric help.
"A counselor, Agatha." Vespertine corrected. She heaved a reproving sigh, looking like a mother who had to deal with a very petulant, very tiresome child. "You've been through a great deal of trauma lately and given the circumstances, I think it wise for you to have someone to talk to. Someone you can rely on."
I do have someone to rely on. In fact, I have several someones. They're called friends, you see they're nice, funny, cool, smart, and the best thing about them? I don't have to pay them to listen to me whine. They do it for free.
"Headmistress," I began cautiously, not wishing to antagonize Vespertine any more than I already had. "Thank you for your concern, but I really don't think this is necessary. I'm managing just fine." As if to prove my point, I fidgeted in my stiff chair and gave a small, entirely unconvincing laugh.
Vespertine frowned. I could sense the annoyance simmering in her gaze, and with a sinking dread, realized she wasn't about to let the matter go anytime soon. "Even so, Agatha," she implored. "I insist you talk to our school counselor for at least one session. I think you'd truly benefit from it."
"I didn't even know Hogwarts had a school counselor," I said quietly, disbelief still clouding my voice.
Vespertine's frown stiffened at my continued impertinence, her voice turning firm and clipped. "Well we do, and I would like for you to see her. I know you're reluctant, but trust me. I only have your best interests in mind."
That's what they all said. Resisting the urge to roll my eyes, I smiled sweetly at the woman in front of me, knowing full well that the day I saw the school counselor was the day Filch began his professional career as a Calvin Klein underwear model.
I knew Vespertine was only trying to look out for her students, but honestly, I was fine. Fine! Yes, Aidan was in the Hospital Wing. Yes, his medical situation remained in a static, frustrating limbo. Yes, everywhere I went I was somehow reminded of his horrible accident. But that was my reality now. I could handle it. I didn't need pity or adult supervision, and I especially didn't need some "counselor" analyzing my every thought and putting words into my mouth. I got enough of that from Potter already.
Vespertine was a considerate Head of Hogwarts, she really was, but she must have been a couple braincells short if she thought that I would actually agree to her request. I was not going to see a shrink.
"So you're seeing a shrink?"
I gave a disgruntled huff, mouth twisting into a bitter scowl as I stormed not strolled, not walked, not sauntered: stormed down the corridor to my next class, fists clenched tightly by my sides.
"Not a shrink, Freddy a counselor. There's a difference," I corrected, and Fred Weasley, my walking partner/general life's nuisance this morning, responded with a look that could only be described as a leer.
"Of course," he said innocently. "Counselors are much more respectable. Their straightjackets are Armani."
I glowered. Back in Vespertine's office, I had foolishly thought that noble protests and sheer free will alone were enough to get out of seeing the counselor. But then reality (as it always did) so stubbornly insisted on asserting itself, and my dreams were dashed.
Turned out that, as our Headmistress/High and Mighty Dictator of Hogwarts, Vespertine retained the final say in any and every matter.
Her decisions were incontestable. Democracy was a fallacy. I was seeing the counselor.
The fact that this was all happening against my will didn't seem to be an issue. Don't want to waste an hour per week in a therapist's office? Too bloody bad. Off to Dr. Loony Tunes you go.
I glanced warily at Fred, who still had on that smarmy, all-too-knowing expression of his.
"Stop it," I said in response to his... er, face. "It's not what you think."
Freddy's light eyes were glimmering, mouth quirked in mirth and thick eyebrows cocked. The expression was so typical for him, so familiar, that it almost felt like old times.
Over the past couple days, Fred had been determined to stay upbeat, to behave positively in the face of what was happening. He was ever the class clown, that bloke, and once we got back to Hogwarts he'd adopted for himself the role of Group Morale Booster. Constantly cracking jokes, pulling theatrical faces it was his way of dealing with the accident, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't the teensiest bit grateful for it.
After all despite the hard time Fred was currently giving me, it was nice to hang out with someone who could act normal for once.
"Well, Aggy, can't say it hasn't been a long time coming," Freddy was saying gleefully, practically skipping as we made our way down the bustling corridor. "We've all known you needed a shrink."
"For the last time, it's not a shrink!" I stated, throwing my hands in the air with more vehemence than perhaps necessary (Fred had to duck to avoid getting smacked in the face). "It's a counselor."
"Riiiiiight," Fred drawled, stretching the word out like elastic. "And it's not a lemon, it's a yellow citrus-y fruit."
I rolled my eyes, giving him a playful shove in the shoulder. "Some friend you are."
"What are you talking about?" Fred pouted as he stumbled backwards, rubbing the spot where I'd pushed him like it was some fatal battle wound. "I'm a perfectly good friend."
"Honestly?" I grumbled. "Sometimes I think I'd be better off with a talking monkey on my shoulder."
"Hey! I'm potty-trained and I have a basic understanding of the English language." Fred retorted defensively. "What more can you want?"
Despite myself, I couldn't quell the laugh bubbling up my throat. "Guess that's all I can expect out of you, isn't it?"
Fred slung an arm around my shoulder, grinning a grin that would put the Cheshire Cat to shame. "That and an endless supply of charm and wit."
"Ain't that the truth."
Together, the two of us ambled down the hallway, bantering and laughing and pretending that we didn't notice the burning glances of other students around us. It was easier that way. Pretending, I mean. We both felt the stares, heard the whispers, saw the pity etched on every passing face but we never acknowledged it.
After all, life went on. After we came back to Hogwarts, it had been surprisingly easy to settle into routine, to throw oneself into a flurry of homework and obligations and normalcy. Hogwarts has been many things for people a safe haven, a second home, a terrifying hotbed of monsters and giant snakes but for me, it was a distraction. After a couple days, I had managed to clamber back onto my feet, and now I was doing fine.
And okay, maybe some days it was difficult to get out of bed. And alright, every now and then I'd be overcome with the sudden urge to scream, to throw up, to curl into a tiny ball and squeeze my eyes shut. And occasionally I did still feel It, creeping up my spine and slithering into my lungs, that same sensation from the hospital when I had first seen him...
But other than that I was fine.
"Honestly, I don't know why Vespertine thinks I need a shrink," I muttered. "It's completely superfluous."
"Hey," Fred pointed out wryly. "I thought it was called 'a counselor.'"
"Just shut it, you."
"I resent that."
Bickering good-naturedly, Freddy and I turned the corner and passed the familiar crumbling statue of Humphrey the Humorous and that was when I suddenly realized where we were heading.
Instantly right as the thought registered inside my addled head I stopped dead in my tracks, my halt so abrupt that I practically left skid marks on the marble floor.
Fred turned around to look at me, face puzzled and eyebrows disappearing into the mysterious regions of his hairline. "What is it?"
I blinked, hands clenching and unclenching spasmodically by my sides. The previously light and happy atmosphere that had surrounded us was completely gone, all that was left a thick, draping cloud of tension.
"Where are you leading us?" I asked, each word rattling and shaking with anxiety.
"Uh, well I was thinking that we could stop by the Hospital Wing on the way to class. We have a few minutes, maybe we could visit Aidan for a bit." Fred shrugged, "We haven't seen him since he was transferred from St. Mun "
I could actually feel all the colour drain from my face. Slowly, as if I were facing a very big, very hungry animal, I began to back away. "Actually, I have to go."
"I What? Why?"
"I have, er, a Potions Essay to work on," I said, forcing myself to meet Fred's confusion-clouded gaze. "I have a Potions Essay," although not incredibly inventive, was the Go To Excuse. Simple and easy, it was a great lie to tell when nothing else came to mind. Don't want to hang out with that annoying friend? Sorry, I can't 800 words on the properties of Murtlap. Don't want to run errands with your Mum? Honestly, I wish I could, it's just that Slughorn's been stepping it up with the assignments lately. Don't want to visit your comatose brother?
Well, you get the picture.
"Aggy, are you okay?"
I looked at Fred, saw the confusion and concern an emotion I'd never seen him wear before swirling in his eyes. And it wasn't that I didn't want to visit Aidan. I just... wasn't ready and besides, I truly did have a lot of work to do.
Fred gazed at me perplexedly, wearing the exact same face he usually reserved for Ancient Runes class. His mouth was open with no words coming out, his head cocked Golden Retriever-style. In any other situation, his expression would have been comical.
"I'm sorry. I really wish I could." I said weakly, and before Freddy could even figure out how to reply, I was spinning on my heel and running off.
That night, I didn't sleep.
Eyes tracing the dark velvety swoops of my bed's emerald canopy, I lay in bed and thought of Freddy's earlier confusion today, the disappointment etched in his features. I had hated leaving him abandoned in the middle of the hallway, but seeing Aidan like... that was out of the question.
I lay quietly, pushing the thought from my head, and listened to the soft noises drifting around me. I could hear the hear the faint snores of my roommates, the groans and creaks and other strange sounds of nighttime that I didn't care to identify. And then I could hear Dom.
Every night, once she thought we were all asleep, Dom would cry. It always lasted a good hour or so, and when she finally fell asleep afterwards (and really, 'fall' is the only word for it falling, plunging, somersaulting into the darkness of slumber) she had nightmares. More than once over the past few days, I'd woken up to the sounds of her terror. She would thrash and kick and sometimes, when it got really bad, she would whimper. I didn't know if Evelyn or the others had noticed. If so, they hadn't mentioned it.
I never did either mention it, that is. Usually, I would just lie in bed and let the noises happen, let them haunt me. Come morning I never brought it up. Maybe under the normal definition of friendship, that made me a bad person. But Dom and I didn't work under the normal definition of friendship. We were Slytherins, and we had our pride. Our definition was to never show weakness, never make the other feel vulnerable. If I brought up her nightmares, the conversation would be humiliating for the both of us.
Tonight it was the usual. Kicking, tossing, turning. I lay paralyzed and frigid doing nothing as it washed over me. I felt each sound that slipped out of her mouth like kicks to the stomach.
After ten more agonizing minutes, I decided I'd had enough. Without any sort of plan or forethought whatsoever, I threw my covers off me and jumped out of bed, my skin erupting in a flutter of goosebumps. Pulling a sweatshirt over my head, I stumbled through the dark obstacle course that was our room, bumping into trunks and bedposts along the way, and then down the stairs to the Common Room.
It was a terrifically stupid thing to do, meandering around the castle after hours. I could get caught by a patrolling prefect or, even worse, a detention-happy Filch. But for once I couldn't care. The dorm room was cramped, packed too full with Dom's lurking nightmares, bursting at the walls, threatening to explode and and I couldn't take it anymore.
Outside of the Common Room, the air felt fresh and cool. The endless dark stone and halls of the castle sprawled out before me, seeming so big and I, so small. Like I could be swallowed up by this huge expansive structure, swallowed into its nooks and crannies at any moment.
Somehow, the nighttime made everything that much more real. During the day, it was easy to be normal, to go through the simple motions of life and act like nothing was wrong. But now, with moonlight leaking through windows and shadows staining the walls, it all felt so much more... raw.
I let my feet carry me on instinct, wandering down the corridors and the staircases that were surprisingly still at this hour. Pretty soon, I found myself standing before an oil-painting of a bowl of fruit arguably one of the most representative images of Hogwarts, a symbol immortalized for any late-night wanderer (or snacker) at this school.
My hand seemed to have a mind of it's own without any direction from my brain whatsoever, it reached up and gave the pear a little tickle an old trick that I had learned from the Tweedle Trio a few years back.
I walked into the Kitchens of Hogwarts.
Inside, everything gleamed seductively in the moonlight, porcelain sinks glistening, slick tiles sparkling. It was a system of silvered shadows and winking light, and I couldn't help myself. Slowly, I skimmed my fingers over a rack of glittering pots that were hanging from the ceiling, enjoying the cool feel of metal against my hot skin.
"Good evening, Agatha Bennett."
My bloodstream froze to ice. Back stiffening and eyes squeezing shut oh bollocks I instantly went rigid with fear.
I should have expected this, really. I was no Potter or Fred, of course I'd get caught. This was amateur hour.
Convinced that Filch was behind me with a detention notice in one hand and a blood-stained torture device in the other, I did what could only be described as a half-whirl, half-seizure, and arms flailing, whipped around to meet my certain doom.
Of course, what I hadn't realized was that my left hand had still been stuck in the middle of a row of hanging pots.
What followed was a series of metallic crashes that must have woken up the entire castle. Pots clanged together like windchimes, a couple even dropping to the floor. For future reference, of the many different noises you don't want to make when sneaking through the castle, 'metal cacophony of cooking tools' is one of them.
My stomach twisted in dismay. I turned around and preparing for the worst saw that... No one was there.
"Hello?" I looked to my left and then to my right, but no Filch. No anyone. In fact, all I saw was empty air.
"Oh my apologies, Mistress! Pipsqueak did not mean to frighten you!"
And then I looked down.
Staring up at me, wearing an expression that indicated complete and utter bliss, was a small house-elf who looked anything but frightening. He was wrinkly, with too much skin for his frail frame and big, bulbous eyes that were silvery like the moon, filled with an unwavering adoration I found to be frankly kind of creepy. On top of his bald head sat a lumpy piece of cloth that, in some parallel universe, might have passed for a hat.
"Please forgive Pipsqueak, Agatha Bennett!" Before I could so much as open my mouth, Pipsqueak the House-elf was wrapping his skinny little arms around me and burrowing his face into my legs. "Pipsqueak is so, so sorry!"
My eyebrows shot upwards as I looked down, rather unsure what to do with this odd new growth sprouting from my kneecaps. "Er um. That's quite alright."
Pipsqueak humbly detangled himself from my limbs, dabbing tears out of the corner of his huge, Bludger-sized eyes. "Sorry, Agatha Bennett. Pipsqueak is often told that he has... er, what do you call them? 'Personal space issues?'"
Raised eyebrows still rendezvousing with my hairline, I nodded faintly. "You don't say."
"Now," Pipsqueak rasped, cheerfully ignoring my cynical tone, face assuming its previous expression of bliss. Bloody hell, the little bugger looked like he'd just reached self-actualization. "How may Pipsqueak help Agatha Bennett?"
"Well, I was just looking for some food, really." I said cautiously, now beginning to doubt the dire necessity of that 2 AM Ben and Jerry's. Pipsqueak looked a bit too eager to help, and I found it a little unnerving. "Also, how do you know my name?"
"Pipsqueak makes sure to learn the names of everyone at Hogwarts," The house-elf said solemnly, puffing his chest out in pride.
'That's... er, impressive," I conceded and then, after seeing the immediate reaction my words brought on, immediately regretted it.
"Agatha Bennett thinks that Pipsqueak is " Gasp. " impressive?" Pipsqueak stared up at me, big eyes getting even bigger, looking in danger of stroking out. Before you could so much as say 'restraining order,' he flung himself at my legs once more, giving them a joyous squeeze.
"Yes. Agatha Bennett thinks Pipsqueak is very impressive," I said, gently trying to the elf off. This was getting weird. "But Agatha Bennett has to go now. So, er, if you excuse me, I think I'll just be on my way..." Slowly, I pushed past the tiny house-elf, making my way to the door and abandoning all hunger cravings. Just as well. I was better off without those frozen calories anyway...
Mentally cursing myself, this school, and whoever it was that invented New York Super Fudge Chunk, I turned around and prepared myself for the worst. I half-expected Pipsqueak to ask me for my autograph or something. "Yes?"
With a happy flourish, Pipsqueak produced a chocolate bar from underneath his hat. Oh. He presented the small rectangle to me, holding it in his palms with a kind of reverence usually shown to important artifacts and religious gurus. "For Agatha Bennett."
"I, um, don't know what to say," I said truthfully, taking the bar from Pipsqueak's gnarled fingers. "Thank you."
Pipsqueak grinned, eyes sparkling, and nodded furiously. "Agatha Bennett looked like she needed it."
After that rather creepy-and-yet-sort-of-flattering incident, I left the Kitchens and set out for the Slytherin Common Room. Taking my own sweet time, I ambled down hallways and up staircases, munching on my chocolate bar as I walked. I'd had my fill of undercover adventuring now, and had decided to restrict any future late-nighters to the library from now own.
I turned a corner on another empty corridor, shivering at the sudden gust of assaultingly cold air. The wall to my right side was only half-way tall, opening up onto the adjacent courtyard and consequently letting the crisp November air pour in.
Honestly, Hogwarts, it's called a central heating system get one. "Why is it so bloody cold?" I muttered to myself, wrapping my sweatshirt tighter around my shivering frame.
"Might have something to do with the season," came a dry voice. "Cold, winter the two can be related, I hear."
For the second time that night, I jumped at the sound of a foreign voice behind me. Seriously? I was getting rather tired of this whole 'let's-give-Aggy-a-heart-attack' shtick.
I turned to see a shadowed, obviously male figure sitting on top of the half-wall, his feet dangling over the edge. It had been so dark, and he whoever he was had been so quiet... I'd walked right past and hadn't even noticed.
"God!" I exclaimed, slapping a hand over my thudding heart.
"Close, but no." The figure raised his hand slightly, ashing what I soon realized to be the orange tip of a cigarette over the stone ledge. "Don't worry. We get mixed up all the time."
I squinted, and was able to make out broad shoulders narrowing into a lean waist and a disheveled head of hair. While the physical qualities were hard to go by, I could've recognized that snarky tone anywhere. "Potter?"
"Gold star, Bennett," Potter drawled, and even in the near darkness, I could make out his typical self-satisfied smirk. Rolling my eyes, I walked over to where he sat until I was standing next to him, arms crossed and scowl in place.
"What are you doing? It's after hours and you shouldn't be out," I said somewhat crossly, conveniently glossing over the part where I, too, was supposed to be in bed.
Potter glanced up to meet my gaze, face inscrutable, hazel eyes squinting in the moonlight.
"Can't sleep," he answered duly, sweeping his gaze to the darkened courtyard before him. His legs, clad in flannel pajama pants, swung in a barely discernible one-two, one-two rhythm, heels kicking at the stone.
I blinked back my shock at the frankness in Potter's voice. I had expected him to duck and avoid the question, to shoot back some cryptic, nonsensical answer. His honesty was...Well, weird.
"Same." I found myself saying, and without any prior approval from my brain, my body was suddenly sitting down next to Potter, legs swinging over the edge with care. It was only a mere meter drop to the courtyard below, but I didn't fancy a tumble this time of night.
Potter gave a mirthless laugh, taking a bitter drag from his cigarette. I stared, marveling at how someone as textbook-smart as he was could have such a stupid, stupid habit.
"Every time in the past, when I and Freddy or Aidan snuck out after-hours, we would always be so careful," Potter said, tone still employing that same brand of odd sincerity. "And now the one time I'm blatant about breaking the rules, Filch is nowhere to be found. Strange, isn't it?"
"Almost as strange as house-elves with chocolate and boundary issues," I said stiffly, glumly. Potter's brow collapsed into a frown of half-confusion, half-amusement, and his gaze darted slyly to me.
"I'm not going to ask," he drawled.
"You don't want to," I responded, ending our surprisingly affable exchange. We sat in silence for a while, Potter smoking, me shivering, the castle hushed around us. I knew that I was going to regret this little escapade in the morning it was 3 AM right now, and I had yet to get a wink of sleep but I wasn't ready to go back to the dorm. Not yet.
"Vespertine is making me see a shrink," I blurted out randomly, words wavering uncertainly in the air. I had no idea where that confession came from perhaps the same mysterious place as Potter's honesty but it was out there now. I couldn't take it back.
Potter turned, face betraying his surprise at the news. He looked at me for a moment head-on, golden eyes inscrutable and intent. "
Aren't they called counselors now?" he finally said. His voice was neutral, no value-judgment or derision to be found.
I stifled an ironic smile. "Does it make a difference?"
Potter cocked a shoulder in a lazy half-shrug. "You're the patient," he said quietly, sweeping his gaze back to the courtyard. "So you're the one who gets to decide. If there's a difference. If you need the sessions." He paused, gaze flicking to me once more. "If they'll help."
A surprisingly wise answer from a surprisingly sincere Potter. I reared back, the corners of my mouth quirked downwards in a thoughtful frown. I hadn't expected Potter to give me sound, valuable advice, yet what he said... Actually made sense.
"Well," I ventured after a long pause. "I've decided it's a waste of time."
Potter stubbed out the cigarette, grinding its end into the blunt stone. "Okay. Then that's what it is."
I narrowed my eyes and peered shrewdly at Potter, who had his concentration zeroed in on the sparks skittering from his dying cigarette. Something about the current dynamic between us... it wasn't normal. It wasn't right.
"Stop it," I said finally.
Potter glanced up, eyebrows cocked. "Sorry?"
"Stop it," I repeated once more, voice flat, blue eyes tapering into even smaller slits. "I said stop."
"Stop what, Bennett?" Potter asked, mild exasperation mingling with confusion on his features. His tone remained calm and even, however revealing an anchored and unflappable composure.
"Stop " I began, voice faltering. "Stop not being mean to me."
Potter slowly shook his head, chucking the cigarette butt into the courtyard and causing my inner-prefect to seize at the blatant display of littering. When he turned back to me again, his mouth was pulled into a biting, sardonic smile.
"Didn't peg you for the masochistic type," he said with that same infuriating calm. "Maybe you do need that shrink, Bennett."
"Stuff it, Potter," I snapped, my voice edged with an unexpected, startling element of hostility. There was a dull pounding in the back of my head, and the ache caused my words to tumble out with hasty ease. "This whole sodding school has been tip-toeing around me ever since we got back, and I'm so bloody argh." My irritation spiked as the pounding in my head seemed to get louder, more insistent. I could feel It rising in my stomach again, a panging jolt of nausea that had my throat constricting.
"I'm so bloody sick of people staring and speaking to me like a zoo exhibit," I growled, body tightening at the thought. "The last thing I need is for you, Potter, to join the sodding peanut gallery as well. Can someone please just treat me like normal for once?! Like I'm not going to fucking shatter to pieces at any given moment?! I am fed up, Potter, I am fed up!"
Ever the over-achiever, I finished on a high note. My voice, which had been climbing steadily over the course of my speech, cracked spectacularly in a grand finale that had the ensuing taut silence throbbing around us.
My chest was heaving rapidly. The rant had come on so strongly and so suddenly I hadn't even been aware of my frustration until it was barreling out of my own mouth.
Potter stared wordlessly at me, neither his gaze or expression betraying what he felt.
There was just the slightest thoughtful squint in his gaze, the tiniest lilt of his mouth. I stared back, somewhat defiant, somewhat abashed at my own intensity.
After a few lingering moments, he swept his gaze back to the courtyard, heels kicking against the stone wall beneath him. "You should get some sleep, Bennett," he finally said to the darkness. "You look like you need it."
There followed a long silence as I gawked at his profile, etched silver in the moonlight. Both his response and tone were astonishing. I couldn't discern any kind of motive behind them, be it mocking scorn or restrained concern, but he hadn't risen to the bait of my anger. He'd stayed miraculously calm.
Resigned, I turned away. A snappy retort would only lead to arguing, and I suddenly felt sapped of energy. "You do too, Potter," I muttered in a voice so quiet, I barely heard myself.
Joints creaking and popping obnoxiously, I clambered off the wall and angled myself to face the dark corridor before me. I was suddenly exhausted.
Not even bothering to spare a glance over my shoulder, I directed my next words to the long stretch of shadow and hallway before me. "Goodnight, Potter."
There was a pause. And then:
"Sleep tight, Bennett."
I began to walk away, fully aware that we both would do anything but that.
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