Chapter 19 : Cramped
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TOP TEN REASONS WHY I AM IN A BAD/GRUMPY/SOMEWHAT HOMICIDAL MOOD TODAY:
1. Professor Nott had made it his mission to bury me alive under my own personal Mt. Everest of extra coursework, assignments and readings. This may or may not be due to the fact that he'd heard me (not so) quietly refer to him as Professor Douchepants under my breath the other day. Oops.
2. Dom had another one of her nightmares last night and, after waking up from all the noise she was making, I felt too anxious to fall back asleep. Thus I got about four hours of sleep, and now my face showed just how exhausted I was. I looked as bad as a zombie no, actually, I was past that point. I looked like... like whatever you got when you killed a zombie and brought that back to life. Yeah. Horrid.
3. Pipsqueak the House-elf had taken a special liking to me and now refused to leave me alone. Whether it's leaving little baked goods on my pillow, or popping up at random, inopportune moments in time whenever I was trying to study, the bugger had been forging new frontiers in the name of creepydom everywhere. He was obsessed. I half-expected him to start writing a biography about me. Agatha Bennett: The Sad Story of A Young Girl's Descent into Madness. Nice ring to it.
4. Fred and I had been assigned to work together on a Charms project and, because of his chronic laziness and refusal to work, we still hadn't gotten anything done. The first time I suggested we get started, Fred had waved me aside and muttered some lame excuse involving the words 'pet squirrel' and 'bubble bath.' The second time I mentioned it, he responded with an irrelevant comment about the length (or rather, lack thereof) of Hufflepuff Missy OMaras skirt that day. The third and last time I tried asking, Fred simply looked me dead in the eyes and started to laugh.
5. I had a zit on my forehead that was currently the size of Potter's ego.
6. Ryan had started to notice that I'd been avoiding him. I felt really bad about the cold shoulder, but after what he'd told me, I just hadn't been able to look him in the eye. It was safer that we maintained our distance, anyway, given that Cooper was still walking free. Though this knowledge didn't make any of Ryan's curious, somewhat wounded glances in my direction easier to tolerate.
7. In a sort of half-hearted compromise among the group, we gave Rufus the Gerbil to Pipsqueak as a pet to take care of. Not only had this increased Pipsqueak's adoration for me, but now Fred wouldn't stop complaining about missing his 'baby.' He was being so melodramatic, it was like he didn't realize this 'baby' of his was a glorified hamster-rodent living only a couple floors away in the Kitchens.
8. Dom, Potter and Fred would not stop badgering me to visit Aidan. And every time I refused, they would just give each other these 'looks' that were supposed to be meaningful and discreet but only managed to really bloody annoy me.
9. No matter how much I tried to squash it down, I could still feel It, rising in my stomach and clenching at my throat whenever I thought of Aidan and the accident. I couldn't escape. It was always there, wherever I went, like a second skin that wouldn't peel off. Sometimes, when I'd be busy doing homework or talking to Dom, I could swear it was gone. But then my distraction would leave and It would come back again, stronger than ever before.
10. And last, but certainly not least: the kicker. The worst of it all. The piθce de rιsistance...
Something had happened. Something that I thought would never, not in a million years, occur. Something that topped flying pigs and frozen infernos:
I'd started to feel bad for Evelyn Stanford.
Our plan to destroy Fallon Cooper started out easily enough.
The first step, according to Potter, was to go around and dig for dirt on Cooper secrets, weaknesses, anything that could possibly be used against him. Now, I wasn't normally one for rumors or gossip. I could honestly care less about the who's-with-who and the who's-doing-what of Hogwarts. I found it all pointless at best, malicious at worst so it was hard for me to take Potter's request seriously.
Dom, on the other hand, had immediately launched into Full Gossip Mode. And believe me, when my best friend was on the hunt for information, nothing could be kept from her she left no stone unturned, no illicit affair untold, no incriminating WizBook photo unsaved. She investigated all.
I really had no idea how she did it. Her mind was a reservoir for any scrap of emotional blackmail or sordid tale concerning the Hogwarts population. She was like Nancy Drew, if Nancy Drew was horribly invasive and knew every private detail of your family's medical history.
And sure enough, after only a few days of research, Dom had found something. Or rather, someone.
His name was Bertram Kinley, and he was a first-year Hufflepuff. He was also the younger brother of Caroline Kinley, one of our dormmates and, more importantly, Evelyn's "bestfriend" if your personal definition of "bestfriend" stretched to include minion, sycophantic puppet and human embodiment of an echo. All Caroline ever did was follow Evelyn around, nod at everything she said, and occasionally rub her two sole brain-cells together to produce enough spark to say something along the lines of, 'Evelyn, you are so right,' or 'Is there such thing as zero-calorie hairspray?'
Not very bright, that girl.
Anyway somehow, through means which I knew not, Dom had managed to get her hands on a note between Bertram and one of his fellow first-years. In the note, Bertram explicitly mentioned that his sister had embarked on a secret relationship with Fallon Cooper; the two had been seeing each other since the end of the summer. Bertram knew this because he'd witnessed the tryst live and in action over the holidays, having had the spectacular misfortune of walking in on the two fooling around in his parent's guest bedroom.
This was an incredible betrayal, of course, given the fact that Evelyn was dating Cooper and had been since her third-year. The couple was practically a Hogwarts institution. Never in my life would I have thought Caroline capable of betraying her friend like this (then again, never in my life would I have thought Caroline capable of reciting the alphabet). This shocking piece of information, of course, warranted immediate action. We needed to talk to Bertram face to face, extract further details and perhaps something we could use against Cooper.
So, employing a combination of feminine wiles and old Honeydukes candy, Dom lured Bertram into an empty hallway, kidnapped him, and then locked the poor boy in a classroom for a two-hour long interrogation.
Yeah. I am not even kidding.
To be honest, if the idea behind it hadn't been so bloody insane, I would have considered the whole ordeal to be impressive. I mean, full-scale abduction was a big deal. Just by pulling it off, Dom managed to break about 37 Hogwarts rules (and also, I'm pretty certain, quite a few federal laws). The girl was scarily devoted to the cause.
Anyway, once we got Bertram in the room with us, the interrogation quickly deteriorated. Dom had really committed to her role of aggressive inquisitor, it seemed, having even brought along a muggle lamp to shine into Bertram's eyes as she pummeled him with questions. To top it off, she had somehow coerced me into playing good cop to her unbelievably frightening bad cop.
Our "interrogation" went a little like this:
Dom: (In a really, really bad Mafia accent to Bertram) Look-y here, you smug sonuvabitch. I'm gonna say this one time, and a-one time only: if you don't co-operate with us, we're gonna make your life a living hell.
Me: Dom, don't you think that's being a little... (vague hand gestures to indicate she should tone it down), you know?
Dom: Point taken. Let me start over.
(Bertram and I sigh in relief.)
Dom: Look-y here, you smug son of a bitch. I'm gonna say this two times, and two times only: if you don't co-operate with us, we're not just gonna make your life a living hell. No. Hell will look like a five-star beach resort compared to what's going to happen to you.
Me: Dude, I meant be less harsh, not more!
Dom: (Ignoring me completely) By the time we're finished with you, Bertram, you'll be in so much pain, you won't even know who you are.
Bertram: (Terrified) P-please d-don't hurt me! I-I'll do a-anything!
Dom: (After a dramatic pause) Aggy, do you know what I hate the most? Out of everything in the universe?
Me: (Inching towards the exit) Uh... I don't know?
Dom: What I hate the most in the world, what I loathe with every fiber of my being... are snot-nosed, punk-faced bitchweiners.
Me: Dear Merlin.
Dom: (Shooting a menacing glare at Bertram) And I believe that you, sir, are a bitchweiner.
Bertram: (Close to tears) N-no! I'm not, I swear! Please don't hurt me!
Dom: Do you know what I do to bitchweiners like yourself, huh? HUH, BERTRAM? I eat them for breakfast. I eat them for tea. I eat them for supper. Hell, I even eat them for a midnight snack.
Me: Lord help us all.
Dom: That's right. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
Bertram: I-I'll give you a-anything you want, just please don't eat me! I-I'll co-operate, I swear!
Dom: You better! Because if you don't... Do you know what I'll do to you, Bertram? First, I'll build a box. Then, I'll shove you in that box. Then I'll ship the box to India and back. Then I'll go to the local supermarket and buy myself a big, sharp butcher's knife. Then I'll open that box... (Dramatic pause) And punch you in the face.
(Bertram bursts into tears.)
Me: Dom! Look what you've done! Shit! Please don't cry, Bertram! She didn't mean it like that! Dom just... er has a very weird sense of humor! Yeah, that's it! You have a weird sense of humor, don't you, Dom?
Dom: (Staring at Bertram) That's right, you little baby. Cry those bitchweiner tears. That's nothing compared to the Viagra Falls
Dom: Niagra Falls you'll be sobbing when we're done with you.
Me: Okay, this is ridiculous. I'm done here.
Dom: (momentarily breaking out of the bad Mafia accent) Wait! Where are you going?
Me: I can't go on with this. I can't be your accomplice anymore! This is sick!
Dom: But who's gonna be my good cop?
And so on.
After I refused to participate, Dom continued on with her good-cop-bad-cop routine, only this time playing both parts by herself. Her schizophrenic act managed to scare Bertram even more and, quite frankly, frighten me as well.
Eventually, after thirty minutes, sixteen very colourful threats, and an uncountable amount of tears from Bertram, we finally got the information we needed.
According to Bertram, Cooper and Caroline could be found every Friday at two o'clock in the afternoon, hooking up in the library near the auto-biography section.
This was, of course, a travesty in my opinion. The library was a sacred place for learning and knowledge, not teenage trysts behind bookshelves!
The others didn't seem to care about Cooper and Caroline's meeting place of choice, however. Once Freddy got over the initial shock of there being a library at our school, he (and Dom and Potter) just kind of shrugged it off.
Anyway, despite my blatant disapproval, the information could still be very useful. Because once Evelyn found out about the little escapades happening between her bestfriend and her boyfriend... Well, Cooper would be done for. Evilyn would make sure of it.
Equipped with this helpful tidbit of gossip, our group carefully devised a fool-proof plan fool-proof to the point of being Freddy-proof, in fact.
Pretending to be Cooper, Dom forged a note to Evelyn instructing her to be at the library that Friday at two o'clock under the pretense of meeting for a chat.
There, if everything went according to plan, Evelyn would bump into Cooper and Caroline and hopefully catch them in the act. After that... Well, we could leave the rest up to Evelyn and her violent, bitchtastic ways.
Friday morning came, and we thought the matter had been settled perfectly. Cooper would get his comeuppance, and we would soon enough get our vicarious revenge via a proxy-Evelyn.
But as with all things, our plan had some unexpected consequences.
That afternoon, Freddy and I were walking to Transfiguration class and wondering whether the plan had been carried out successfully yet, when all of a sudden we heard a great commotion near the Entrance Hall.
Curious, Freddy insisted on dragging me to see what all the ruckus was about. With jostling elbows and some annoyed cursing, we struggled our way through the crowded corridor to the center of the noise only to be met with the sight of Cooper, Caroline Kinley and Evelyn surrounded by a crowd of gaping onlookers.
Evelyn had her hands balled into fists, her chest heaving up and down raggedly. Cooper was standing with his arm wrapped blatantly around Caroline's shoulders, a slimy smirk on his face.
I blanched, screwing up my eyes and then opening them once more just to make sure the content expression on Cooper's face was, indeed, what I was seeing and not some horrible mirage. How could Cooper be... happy right now?
Evelyn, on the other hand, looked the very opposite of content. She was screeching at her (ex?)-boyfriend and (ex?)-best friend in front of her, eyes bright and livid, expression fit to murder. From the looks of things, she'd obviously found out about the affair.
"FINE, SEE IF I CARE!" she bellowed, and I was pretty sure I heard the discreet 'pop' of the sound barrier breaking at the sheer volume of her voice. I DON'T NEED YOU TWO!"
Caroline and Cooper exchanged knowing, smiling looks unashamed and seemingly invulnerable to her every word. Cooper didn't look worried that his first girlfriend had caught him with his second girlfriend. Standing there with his shoulders thrust back, chin tilted cockily, he almost seemed to be enjoying himself.
It was like watching a scene from a parallel universe, a grotesque and twisted imitation of reality. Instead of throwing himself across the floor and begging for Evelyn's forgiveness like he was supposed to, Cooper simply appeared cool and comfortable and unperturbed. Caroline, meanwhile, stood haughtily by his side, clearly his replacement for Evelyn, a happy version 2.0.
"It was about time you found out, love," Cooper said, voice coated in false sympathy. "I'm sorry, but you've been holding me back. In Caroline I've found a better fit, a better life." He paused and, if I had previously held any doubts that Cooper was the devil incarnate, they were quickly erased with his next three words. "A better you."
The crowd made a collective noise, similar to the one sports spectators make when they watch an athlete get hit. Face blank with shock, Evelyn opened her mouth, closed it, then opened it once more. Her brows were slanted at scary angles over her eyes, her lower lip trembling.
Desperation scrawled across her face, she seemed naked and lost as, before everyone's eyes, her role as half of Hogwarts Most Infamous Couple was snatched away.
"I'm never speaking to either of you again," she said quietly, furiously, and if it was her dignity or her social capital in shambles at her feet, I couldn't tell.
Without another word, she wheeled around and began to stalk off, hair swishing all over the place in a Pantene-esque bounce. Cooper, his arm still wrapped around a smug Caroline, scoffed audibly.
"Good luck with that, love," he called, voice dripping with superiority, and Caroline simpered in agreement. "We're all you have, and you know it."
Evelyn stopped dead in her tracks.
Her back was turned to Cooper and Caroline, but I could see the look of veritable terror that flitted over her face. It was at that moment when I along with everyone else in the hallway came to the realization that Queen Bee Evelyn had been officially dethroned.
Mouth quivering in an awful manner, Evelyn tossed her head once more and stalked off, leaving a victorious Cooper and a satisfied Caroline in her wake.
Typical Evelyn. Even when being publicly humiliated by her bestfriend and boyfriend, she still went out with a bang or, in this case, a damn good hair-flip.
Released from Evelyn's presence, the crowd was free to turn in on itself, Hogwarts' very own Greek Chorus humming with their whispered thoughts, their gleeful conjectures. No one could believe what had happened, including myself.
"Did you see that?"
"How could they just do this to her?
"How could they not? Evelyn was such a bitch. Go Team Caroline!"
"Nah, Team Evelyn all the way! She's fit as hell, son."
Freddy and I shared a glance, the same sentiment floating through both our brains: ruh-roh. According to the plan, Cooper was supposed to have taken the plunge down the school's social ladder not his ex-girlfriend. How had Evelyn been the victim in this situation? How had Cooper slimed his way out of this one?
I was suddenly struck with the memory of Evelyn's face when I had bumped into her at the therapist's office the surprise, the vulnerability, even the faint twinge of embarrassment in her gaze...
A pang of guilt zinged through me, fast and hot like a repentant meteor. Okay, yeah, I didn't like Evelyn in fact, I bloody loathed her. But did she really deserve being turned into collateral damage?
Did she deserve the public humiliation, the betrayal from both her best friend and her boyfriend?
"Shit," Fred said, and all I could do was nod in agreement.
"Well said, Freddy," I murmured softly, my gaze lingering on the spot where Evelyn had previously stood. Of all the things that girl had made me feel over the course of our stay at Hogwarts anger, hurt, hatred guilt had never been one of them.
"This is not good."
The four of us were hanging out in the Gryffindor Common Room, Potter, Fred and Dom lounging across various pieces of cushy furniture while I stood in front of the fireplace. Well, "stood" wasn't exactly the right word for it. "Furiously paced" was more like it. I was walking back and forth so fast, I wouldn't be surprised if the sheer friction of my movement had burned a hole in the already-worn carpet.
"This is not good," I said once more, voice louder and considerably more anxious. "Not good. Not good at all."
A derisive snort came from one of the maroon sofas nearby, and I stopped my pacing to see Potter, arms crossed and expression unimpressed, leaning back like we were on some sort of bloody Mediterranean cruise ship.
"Merlin, Bennett," he scoffed imperiously. "Aren't you observant today?"
Maybe it was Potter's supercilious tone, maybe it was his languid posture, but I felt irritation suddenly shudder to life inside my chest. After all, we were in crisis mode right now, and he was making sarcastic remarks and smirking about nothing and just being a general annoyance! Was a little bit of civil co-operation too much to ask?
Abandoning my restless pacing, I whipped around and shot Potter a glare that would make McGonagall tremble in her boots. "And aren't you exceedingly unhelpful today?" I hissed, causing Potter to shrug cockily.
"Hey, I'm just happy to be here."
"You are contributing nothing. Nobody thinks you're funny, not even Dom "
"Oi! Don't drag me into this!"
" so why don't you just crawl back into whatever noxious, lava-spewing hole you came out of?
"Oh, my achy-breaky heart. Bennett, you're killing me."
"I'll show you an 'achy breaky' nose, you stupid, inconsiderate "
"Okay, okay!" Fred announced loudly, holding his hands up from where he was sitting in a plum-colored armchair. "How about we all calm down for a second? Can we do that, please?"
I clenched my jaw, teeth grinding to enamel dust as I shot Potter one last withering glare.
Every nerve in my body was incensed, anger sweeping through me in hot, nauseating waves. I was getting way too worked up over some tiny bout of bickering, but I couldn't care less. Being angry at Potter felt good.
It felt more than good, in fact. It felt bloody fantastic. For the past few days, everything had been so weird, so topsy-turvy... Arguing with Potter was a relief from that, a way to pound out all the stress currently churning inside my body.
For a heated moment, Potter and I regarded each other with narrowed eyes. The fire crackled and popped nearby, throwing a warm glow across his face that illuminated every obnoxiously handsome feature. His eyes were burning with dark amusement, one eyebrow quirked into his mess of dark hair.
I tore my gaze away, a sense of satisfaction swelling inside of me. Despite his smirking, I could tell that deep down Potter was irritated. My work here was done.
"Okay, now that we've stopped arguing," Dom ventured tactfully from where she was curled up, cat-like, on an armchair. "Why don't we put our heads together and think for a change? Since our Evelyn plot didn't work, we should come up with another game plan."
Fred shrugged. "Well, the next step's obvious, isn't it?"
I placed my hands on my hips, raising my eyebrows as I swiveled towards Freddy impatiently. "Oh, and what would that be?"
Exchanging a significant glance with Potter (Merlin, I really hated when they did that), Freddy smiled, the corners of his lips curling upwards in an almost no, scratch that definitely sinister manner.
"We prank him."
At night, the dungeons of Hogwarts were eerily quiet. So eerily quiet, in fact, that one might get just the teeniest bit creeped out if one were to, hypothetically, sneak through said dungeons at say, two o'clock in the morning, wearing all black and with no one for company besides a silent Potter and a very maniacal Weasley.
You know. Hypothetically.
Just for clarification, since the label 'maniacal Weasley' could apply to several different individuals here I'm talking about Fred.
"Doo da doo doo, doo da doo "
"Honestly, Fred, do you think this is really necessary?"
"Ba da bee doo ba doo "
I could do nothing but shake my head in dismay as Freddy crept stealthily down the hallway, wearing all black (complete with matching face paint) and humming the beginning refrain to the Mission Impossible theme.
He leapt from statue to suit of armor, suit of armor to tapestry, striking a variety of complicated poses that all seemed to push the very limits of human flexibility. The whole effect was slightly reminiscent of James Bond. If James Bond did yoga. And was on a lot of hard drugs.
"It could be worse," Potter remarked easily, unbothered, as he ambled forward with his hands in his pockets. Unlike Freddy, he had decided to go for the less-crazed route and was wearing a pair of jeans and a simple gray t-shirt, face thankfully devoid of face paint.
"How?" I asked as Freddy's humming reached a horribly off-key crescendo. "How could this possibly be any worse?"
"He could be singing The Final Countdown instead."
I watched as Fred pirouetted out from behind another statue, brandishing the walkie-talkie he had magically altered to circumvent the castle's 'no technology' wards. He gave a furtive look around, scanning his surroundings with a gaze that screamed paranoia, before pressing the button on his gadget. "Silverfox to Nighthawk. We're in the clear."
"Roger that." Dom's voice crackled over the speaker. "Everything's good on my end."
Fred pocketed the walkie-talkie, turning around to fix Potter and I with a fiercely determined gaze that was, quite frankly, a little frightening.
"Alright," he said, clearing his throat authoritatively. "Here's the game plan. You guys will go into the cupboard to get the goods, and I'll stay out here to stand guard "
"Woah there, cowboy," I interrupted hastily, holding my hands out. Before we had set out, Fred had conveniently neglected to tell me anything about his so-called prank. I was therefore in the dark and now somewhat taken aback by all the present instructions. "What exactly do you mean by 'cupboard' and 'goods?'"
Potter and Fred locked gazes, giving each other another one of those Significant Cousin Looks that I adored oh-so-much. Potter, apparently, had been privy to all the details of this fun little expedition that had been kept from me.
What exactly did Fred mean by 'cupboard'? Was he talking about a broom cupboard? There was only one real cupboard I knew of at this school, and that was
"The Potions Cupboard," Fred clarified, and I swear to Merlin my stomach plummeted right down to the soles of my penny loafers. "You see, Agatha, in order to properly prank Cooper, we need certain supplies "
"Oh no. No no no no no," I spat out, the edge of hysteria in my voice growing stronger and stronger with every word. "There is absolutely, irrevocably, unequivocally "
"Oh come on, Aggy!"
" no way that I am going to break into the Potions Cupboard, which is school property, by the way "
"James and I have done it loads of times before!"
" violating about a gazillion rules in the process"
"It's for a good cause!"
" and risking detention, suspension, or even expulsion if we're caught!"
"Bennett." Potter's voice firmly sliced through my babbling. He stepped forward, an air of barely-restrained urgency about him as he leveled me with a commanding gaze completely opposite from Freddy's desperate, pleading one. "You have to do it."
"No," I snipped pettily, my tone curt and final.
"For Aidan," Potter bit out through gritted teeth, this time a little more adamant.
There was a long, pregnant pause. Chest clenching in a very peculiar way, I glanced at the ground and tried to ignore the feeling of Potter's calculating gaze. It had been so long since I had heard his name said out loud... Just that one word was enough to inspire a huge hurricane of emotions charging through me. I could feel It creeping back, clogging my throat again, making it harder to breathe...
"Come on, Aggy," Freddy said quietly. "He would have wanted this."
I met Potter's amber eyes and squashed It down to the pits of my stomach, where it would fester and stew until the next appearance. Faced with Potter's frank expression, I felt my resolve start to crumble.
"Okay, fine," I sighed. "Let's go."
I was going to regret this, I just knew it.
And that was how I found myself, five minutes later, trapped in a small cupboard with James Sirius Potter for company, not knowing which to bemoan more the confined quarters of this room, or the fact that I was sharing said confined quarters with my arch-nemesis.
Potter and I stood stiffly inside the dimly lit cupboard, not breathing a word to each other, the tension thick and palpable in the air. Well, I stood. Potter actually made himself useful by browsing through the racks and racks of colourful ingredients, searching for whatever it was he and Fred needed.
I, meanwhile, was stewing in my own personal little swamp of regret. I regretted agreeing to Fred's harebrained scheme; I regretted ever allowing this prank mess to happen; and I regretted even meeting Potter and Fred in the first place. It was all such bollocks.
I stayed rooted to the spot, my whole body clenched with terror at the thought of us getting caught. At any moment now, Slughorn could just waltz in and find us ransacking his beloved Potions supplies cupboard. And then where would we be? I mean, Potter could probably smooth-talk his way out of any punishment, but I... I was done for.
"I can't believe we're doing this," I mumbled, more to myself than anything, as I stared directly ahead at the mahogany door in front of me. Goosebumps flooded my skin, anxiety causing my teeth to chatter with nervous energy.
"Relax, Bennett," Potter murmured as he picked up a jar of hellebore, inspected its contents, and then set it back down again. He seemed to be working under whatever mysterious instructions Fred had given him, looking for something unerringly specific. "We're not going to get caught."
"That's what you say now, but when we're hanging by the shackles of Filch's torture chamber..." I trailed off, shaking my head fiercely. Can you please just hurry up so we can leave?"
"You know, Bennett, it wouldn't kill you to loosen up every now and then, stop caring so much about the rules "
"Oh, right, because I should really be taking life advice from the person illegally ransacking school property right now!"
"And you officially just proved my point, Bennett. Christ, you're so bleeding uptight all the time." Potter set down a jar of unidentifiable herbs, tossing me a smirk over his shoulder as he did so. "And to think Dom always wonders why you've never had a boyfriend."
At Potter's patronizing tone, I felt a fresh burst of anger surge through my body, hot and blinding. My fists clenched immediately, nails digging red half-moons into my skin as I tried to ignore the mocking edge riding through Potter's jeer. But I couldn't do it. Ignoring him would mean letting him get the last word, and I could not allow that to happen.
Slowly, blue eyes practically spitting sparks, I locked gazes with Potter. The left corner of his lips was quirked in a smirk, his golden eyes swirling with triumph at having found one of my sensitive spots.
"For your information, there's nothing wrong with me choosing to be single," I gritted out. "Sorry I refuse to be easy like the slags you date... Oh, and I use the term 'date' in the loosest way possible, by the way."
With that, I gave a quick sarcastic smile and turned around, ready to go back to ignoring the stupid git now that I'd had my say.
Unfortunately, ignoring James Sirius Potter was easier said than done.
"Is that a hint of jealousy I detect in your tone, Bennett?"
I wheeled back aground. "As if! Sorry to disappoint, Potter, but you are not what I look for. I usually go for guys who are a little more how should I put this? Human."
Potter cocked his head thoughtfully, brow crumpling with condescending mock-concern. "Don't you think that's aiming a little high, love?"
"Oh har har, you just think you're so clever, don't you?"
"As a matter of fact " Before Potter could finish his sentence, however, his eyes were suddenly snapping to something directly above my head, expression shifting from smarmy insolence to sudden intrigue. His gaze seemed to change, somehow, grow darker and more... determined.
"What?" I asked impatiently, eager to continue the fight. I turned around to follow Potter's stare, but could see nothing except for rows and rows of dusty shelves. "What is it?"
"There," Potter said matter-of-factly, pointing to the highest shelf. "That's what we need."
Tucked away in a dark, shadowy corner on the shelf was a jar of little pink crystals that, despite being covered in cobwebs and grime and Merlin-knows-what-else, seemed to emit an ethereal sort of glow in the murky darkness.
"Oh," I said, surprised. From countless pictures and diagrams I'd seen in my Potions textbook, I knew I was looking at a jar of Venus Crystals a common ingredient in love potions and any other concoctions that altered the emotions.
Hmm. I wonder what Freddy could possibly want with those?
"So how are we doing this?" I said brusquely, turning to Potter with a demanding, expectant look. Just from eyeballing the distance, I knew that neither of us would be able to reach the jar. Regardless of Potter's annoyingly tall height, the crystals were situated too high up, the jar's lid nearly touching the ceiling. There was no way.
Before I could even mention this tiny little problemo, though, Potter was already slipping his wand out from his pocket and giving it a lazy wave. "Accio Venus Crystals."
Oh yeah. Use magic. At Hogwarts. Duh.
We both waited in eager expectation for the spell to take effect, but nothing happened. The jar simply shuddered a little bit and then stopped, stubbornly refusing to move from its position on the shelf.
There was a beat of silence.
"Well, try again!" I demanded, impatient.
"It's no use." Potter gave a swift shake of the head. "Slughorn probably has some protective charm cast on the cupboard to void any spell. He'd want to make sure no one tries to magically alter anything."
I folded my arms at this surprisingly reasonable explanation. "Just try again!"
Veering his hazel eyes into a roll, Potter obliged. Once again, the jar shook a little crystals glimmering in a manner that was almost cheeky before going completely still. Potter sighed, mumbling something along the lines of, "of course," and pocketed his wand.
He turned towards me, gaze matter-of-fact. "Get on my shoulders, Bennett."
I stared back dumbly, eyebrows making their way to my hairline. "Come again?"
Potter crouched down and gestured towards his back, sighing again at my apparent stupidity. "You have to get on my shoulders so we can reach the shelf."
"Are you serious ?"
"Do you want to do this or not?"
Looking at the jar of Venus Crystals, and acknowledging the absence of any nearby step-stool or ladder, I knew I didn't have any other choice.
Tentatively (and a bit awkwardly), I clambered on top of Potter's shoulders, placing my hands on his head for balance and trying to ignore the utter weirdness of the position.
And then, before I could even get myself fully settled, Potter was standing in one swift, easy motion. Caught unawares, I started falling backwards.
I gave a loud yelp and, immediately, Potter's hands shot up to steady me, his fingers wrapping themselves over the bare skin of my legs. Flushing from both the feeling of Potter's touch and the embarrassment of almost dying, I tightened my grip onto Potter's (extremely thick) skull and teetered precariously in the air.
There was a pregnant pause. "Are you alright?" Potter finally, grudgingly asked, and I could actually feel his voice, deep and slow, rumbling through his body.
It was a good thing I was on his shoulders, or else Potter would have seen me blushing up a storm. I was completely monochromatic. Red hair, red skin I might as well have been a Teletubby.
"Um, yeah, I'm fine," I squeaked, voice too high and thin to be normal. I couldn't help but notice that, for a boy, Potter had incredibly soft hair.
But that was just, you know, a small observation. Nothing important or anything.
...Seriously, though. What shampoo did he use? Herbal Essences? Pantene?
Ahem. Not the time, Aggy. Not the time.
Potter took a couple steps towards the shelf and, slowly accustoming myself to the jerking sensation, I felt confident enough to release my grip on Potter's head and reach out for the jar.
My fingers came in contact with the glass, wrapping around the cool surface. I stared in awe at the tiny crystals inside. They were so... pretty, sparkling and winking seductively. I was suddenly overcome with the silly desire to eat one just to see how it would taste.
"Yeah," I said, still staring at the jar I was clutching in my hands.
Potter shifted me slightly, his fingers unwittingly grazing up my leg in the process... And that was all it took to break my concentration.
"Woah!" I yelped. Completely startled by Potter's graze, I flung out a hand and grabbed onto the nearby shelf for balance. For a heart-stopping moment I wobbled vertiginously, feeling like I really was going to fall.
But then, muttering a series of creative expletives, Potter somehow managed to steady me, his (rough, warm) fingers pressing deeper into my skin. I regained equilibrium somewhat sheepishly, face flushing furiously with heat.
I sincerely hoped that Potter wouldn't deduce the reason behind my break in concentration. The last thing I needed was for him to think I was some stupid, swooning girl who went around, practically fainting every time a bloke made physical contact.
"Hold on, Bennett." Slowly, Potter began to crouch down. Convincing myself that my rapid heartbeat was due to the near fall and not Potter's warm skin on mine, I clumsily scrambled off his shoulders and onto safe territory.
Potter, straightening to his full height, grabbed my shoulders to steady me.
There was an awkward pause in which my eyes flitted from his hands to the jar in my grip and then, finally, to his expression. It was a surprisingly open combination of frank curiosity and slight discomfort, and it made me feel uneasy in response.
Neither of us said anything, the whole cupboard seeming to pulse with an invisible kind of tension. Silently, Potter took the jar from my hands, his hazel gaze oddly intense.
He cleared his throat. "You good?"
"Yeah," I said a little breathlessly, shaking my head to rid myself of any jittery nerves. Potter and I had never been in such close contact before, and the proximity was... unnerving.
"I'm fine," I straightened, cheeks puffing as I blew out a gusty exhale. "I just... Wow. I can't believe we actually pulled that off."
"You're telling me," Potter agreed seriously. He seemed to regain control a little, his face shifting into its normal disinterested mask of cool superiority. "We should probably go."
"Yeah. Definitely." My gaze flitted to the floor awkwardly and, almost shyly, I glanced back up at Potter. As if I couldn't help myself, a triumphant smile grew across my face. "But hey, we actually did it. Mission success."
Potter nodded, just a hint of a returning smile twitching at his lips. "Freddy would be proud."
The temperature in the room seemed to take a sudden nosedive at the mysterious animal sound, which had come from some hidden source by the doorway. Immediately, simultaneously, Potter and I froze at the foreign noise.
Uh-oh. A cat's meow at a time like this, in a place like this, could never mean anything good.
Slowly, we both reluctantly turned around to identify the culprit responsible for the interruption. And then, after a bit of horrible searching through the darkness... my eyes landed on something that made my stomach flood with dread.
I recognized it immediately. This particular cat was every Hogwarts students' worst nightmare. A monster, a hideous demon the stuff of horror stories and urban legends. It was hell incarnated in tabby fur and whiskers.
And somehow, it had managed to get inside this cupboard and find us. I didn't question how. It had its ways. It always did.
Suddenly, Freddy burst through the cupboard door with a loud bang, panting extremely loudly, a crazed look in his panic-ridden eyes. He didn't even bother to acknowledge the jar in Potter's hands as he fixed us with a terrified expression, chest heaving up and down rapidly. "I JUST SAW FILCH IN THE HALLWAYS! ABORT MISSION, I REPEAT, ABORT MISSION!"
But all Potter and I could do was stare back at Freddy, motionless with terror.
"It's too late, Freddy," I whispered, voice a mere croak. "We're done for."
Freddy's eyes darted around the room, face turning about five shades paler when his gaze finally landed on what Potter and I were staring so fearfully at. And then, voice nothing but a hoarse squeak, Freddy said the three words that struck terror into every Hogwarts student's heart:
"Mrs. Norris, Jr."
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