Chapter 3 : May I Have This Duel?
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pickett! from julia~
I was once careful about my reputation, as recent as my fourth year when Witchy Business was still The Hogwarts Weekly. It was what professors called a 'respectable publication' i.e. as bland as watered-down porridge.
When the old guard left, I took my chance and not only kept the publication alive, I gave it a shot of firewhiskey and turned it into a scandal sensation. At the time, I worried that people wouldn't give information to a gossip paper. Certainly would be the sensible train of thought.
People, I would soon discover, are not sensible.
Notes leaked through the door jamb overnight, people accosted me in dark corridors like they were playing spies, and I was the ears for every whisper in school. It bothered me—how eager people were, how little sense this made. It bothered me so much that one day, in the middle of Demmie Etherson's blabbing about a fitty Beauxbatons exchange student sleeping around, I asked, "Don't you have a problem with telling me this?"
She stared at me. "Well, I need to tell someone." And then kept on blabbing.
I boiled it down to the adage that everyone has a story to tell but not necessarily their own. But that didn't explain why people were all right with me, until Felicity two months later.
We were sitting on the steps of the east tower stairwell. She was in the midst of a cry over her cheating now-ex-boyfriend Geoffrey.
"Can't believe that bastard..." Felicity took a tissue and honked her nose like an elephant stuck in traffic. "I didn't even tell all of this to my bestie yet! I know she'd just tell me 'I-told-you-so.' Been telling me to break up with him for ages."
I nodded, rubbing her shoulder, trying to think of something remotely appropriate; the poor thing was gratingly gullible. The whole school knew what was happening before she did. Geoffrey had been all over the other girl in plain sight and reassured Felicity that they were simply practicing for a skit on The Tale of the Three Brothers, which to my knowledge didn't involve an extended snogging scene between the second brother and the slag he wished for. Maybe he was improvising.
"What matters is that you broke up with him," I said.
It wasn't good enough for Felicity, who buried herself deeper into her arm. "It took me too long."
"It's not too long if you did it eventually."
She smiled for a moment, mumbling, "Thanks for not thinking less of me."
For this, I felt bad because I was putting in quite the effort to play nice; there is a difference between deceptive and manipulative, and I stick to the latter. But I really didn't think less of her; I wasn't in a position to judge. So what if Felicity is a little dumb? My life goal is to profit off of other people's misery. To each their own.
When I next glanced over, she was looking straight at me. "I know a lot of people don't like you, but you're pretty nice sometimes."
I briefly considering whether her frazzled state was making her delusional, when she continued, "You don't put people down. Even in your articles. They're very professional like the real thing you'd see in the Prophet. It's nice having it told the right way."
The right way, without spite and vengeance in mind. I didn't realize it made a difference, but then again, who ever tries to be unbiased when reporting on gossip? The trick is staying above it, and Merlin knows, looking at Dom, it's harder than it sounds.
I shrugged off Felicity's compliment. "Don't be fooled. I have my reasons."
She sank back into her knees. Maybe she knew that I was only listening to her for her story. Maybe she was thinking about Geoffrey again. I've always hoped (and hope is such a rare word in a cynic's vocabulary) that the naive would one day take off their rose-colored glasses and join my ranks.
At least we're honest.
Girlfriend Watch brings the vultures out.
Just walking out to the common room, girls are shoving notes into my hand by the bucketfuls. By the time I reach the Great Hall, I look like I've been assaulted by a paper shredder.
Pickett's sitting in our usual spot on the Slytherin table, flicking a spoon around an empty cereal bowl. He takes one glance at me and doesn't mince words. "I don't think that's a good look for you."
I dump my loot onto the table, shaking out my hair for good measure. Pickett picks up the note Nora gave me. I can tell because she only uses Madame Puddifoot's lacy stationery, which is about as impractical as looks.
"'Saw him studying with a brown-haired girl with a bow two days ago. Looked like Hen,'" he reads. Snorting, he crumples it up. "Why do people remember these things?"
Irrationality. Jealousy. "Ammunition."
As I sweep the rest of the notes into my Extendable Pouch, he leans over and picks through the rest of the pile. "You're going to read all this?"
"It's not so bad after filtering them. Half of these probably say, 'Go to hell, bitch.'"
"Ah, your adoring fans."
With the last of the mess tucked away, I steal a piece of dry toast and beckon him to follow. "Walk with me."
Pickett swings his legs over the bench. He doesn't want to move but he doesn't have much else to do; class doesn't start for another hour for him. I, on the other hand, have D.A.D.A. with Monsieur Breech.
We navigate through the hallway crowd. "Where's Dom?" I ask, tearing off a bite. "Still with Malfoy?"
Pickett sweeps the crumbs from his sleeve and slings an arm around my shoulder. "Still with Malfoy."
Dom's been covering the on-going saga of Rose and Scorpius since day one. She weaseled her way in as the occasional confidante and mediator, though whether or not she's actually helping them is up for debate.
"I've been thinking," says Pickett in his slow drawl. "Dom and Malfoy? It's so obviously more than professional. You saw how happy she was when she told us that Hogwarts' Romeo and Juliet were on the rocks."
"Really now?" I'm only half-listening. Pickett's what one would call a conspiracy theorist, which is why he sticks to Quidditch reporting. Usually when he feels like there's sabotage afoot, it's actually there, with four more coup d'états in their shadow.
"You don't believe me," he sighs. "I saw her flirting with him earlier."
"Dom flirts with everyone. It's how she talks."
"Dom's also reckless and will do anything to piss off Rose."
I stop, one hand on my hip. Pickett crosses his arms, prepared for a lengthy discussion on the topic. Ugh, I'm getting predictable.
"She's not idiotic enough to go after a taken man. She knows I'd throttle her."
Pickett shrugs and starts moving again as the surge of students comes up from behind us, so bloody eager for class. "Just watch them when you can. The last thing we need is a story on one of our own."
When we turn the corner, it's pure coincidence that we spot Dom and Scorpius on the far end, standing in the center of the hallway. Dom is giggling. Scorpius has that twinkle. He's holding her books. She's touching his arm. Meanwhile, Pickett's waggling eyebrows are speaking for him. What a funny coincidence indeed. Merlin must be a riot.
It's impossible not to stare; two of Hogwarts' most stunning blondes side by side, radiating a near-godly beauty. I'd want to see them together just to witness the gorgeous babies they'd grace the world with. Pickett wolf whistles, grinning at me as he runs a hand through his hair. Thinks he's so cool whenever he gets something right.
"Must you jump to conclusions?" I mutter.
"Not a jump, love. Just a bunny hop."
It's a bit worrying, true, but Pickett needs encouragement as much as a fish needs fire. "Don't assume. You don't even know what they're talking about."
"Ninety-nine percent of communication is non-verbal."
"Interpret my non-verbal eye rolling."
"Look at them! Meaningful stares, a touch on the arm... Thank the media; forty-five percent of male-female interaction is subconsciously sexual."
"That's us, too."
"Thirty-three percent of statistics end awkwardly," he coughs.
Dom waves at us, and we spruce up an innocent smile. As we walk toward them, I lose no time in dissuading Pickett, even through my forced lips. "Not all things are sexual tension."
His arm swings around me again. "If you look hard enough, everything is sexual tension."
Dom's too close, and our argument ends there lest we risk being heard. Pickett clutches his free hand to his heart.
Dom raises a finger. "Don't."
"Her majesty, Dom Weasley!" He makes a sweeping bow, dragging me down with it until I shove him off.
"God." Dom rolls her eyes.
Scorpius lifts his hand barely past his waist in a short wave. "Hey, Henry. Clemence."
There is fidgeting all around; boys are so obvious. Though I'm not sure why Scorpius has any reason to be nervous—ugh, bloody Pickett. He had to point the two out. Now I'll be noticing the stupidest things.
Consider overthinking an enemy to all. It's led countless numbers to delude themselves into nitpicking everything their crush does ('Oh my god, he looked at me, he looked past me, he looked somewhere in within a five-mile radius of me!' Cue faint). It drives me crazy searching for stories that don't even exist.
Dom's prattling far too fast for the morning, and I can't quite parse it all without a headache. We start gravitating in the direction of Breech's so Pickett ducks out, though not without giving me one last waggle of his brows. It's Dom who reacts.
"Oi Henry!" she calls after him, nose wrinkled all the way in. "Must you do that? It's unseemly."
But he's already gone. With a harrumph worthy of a full-blooded Veela, Dom takes my arm and shuffles Scorpius forward. We dip into trite how-are-yous, fit for polite conversation. No need to spook the poor Malfoy boy with newspaper talk. Figuratively poor, of course; his inheritance is literally worth his weight in gold.
It's more aimless dawdling when we arrive in the classroom, until Rose and Albus comes in. They're glaring at us, though if I harkened a guess, Rose is glaring at Dom and Scorpius, while Albus is glaring at me.
Our little Ravenclaw prefect looks Scorpius up and down, lingering a few seconds longer at the books in his hands. They belong to Dom. Rose doesn't say anything, but is it necessary? The boy is mincemeat. Whether Dom's trying to steal him or not, the wheels have been turning since he first allowed Dom to be their therapist. If there's anything to be learned about the Weasley family, it's to never get caught between a part-Veela and a redhead. Blood will be shed.
"Hello, everyone," Rose says sweetly, with a smile that is everything but a smile.
We descend into pleasantries again. There is not much other talk when Dom not-so-secretly hates Rose, Rose not-so-secretly hates me and is—justifiably—paranoid that her own cousin is trying to ruin her life, and I... well, I don't hate anyone. But I'm not going to make things worse.
Albus doesn't join our tiny circle. He wanders around us instead, careful to not make eye contact with me, and nudges Scorpius. After handing Dom back her books, Scorpius leaves with him, and their conversation quiets to a murmur.
Monsieur Breech finally enters the room, clapping his hands for attention. For the record, he insists on the Monsieur title. Makes him feel important like his badly-combed toupee and the stepladder of authority he uses to compensate for his height. One hasn't seen high-strung until French goblins.
"Class! CLASS!" he screeches, waving his arms. He stomps his foot against stepladder, sniffing with a thorough displeasure. "Today continues yesterday's lecture. It's clear that every one of you needs practice on unspoken spells. Sloppy, sloppy! What would your mothers say?"
"Why ze 'ell is zis gnome talking so much?" Dom mutters. I snort and shush her.
"Pair up! Switch when I say! Practice with stunners, shields, and counters. Basics only please! I don't need more unnecessary trips to the ward. Remember: timing and focus! Shield spells are not created equal!"
Everyone scatters like dropped marbles, knocking others over to get their first partners. Nothing is more awkward than being the leftover third out of a trio of friends. Dom and I match up without a thought and we throw spells like clockwork. Zip, zing, hex.
"It's the second time I've caught Henry staring at my bum,” Dom mutters while blocking a stun.
I roll my eyes. "Your bum isn't that impressive. He wasn't looking at you anyway. He was..." A quick glance tells me that Rose is on the other side of the room. "He thinks you want to steal Scorpius."
Dom bursts into laughter and is only able to stifle it when Breech frowns at her. "Are you kidding? You'd throttle me."
I'm not entirely convinced from her tone, but it's always been difficult to discern whether Dom is being serious or not. "It seemed possible," I say in Pickett's defense.
"Scorpius is very sweet and um, maybe if he were single?" She giggles. "But your incessant nagging about scandal dodging does have an effect on me. Pity that the boy has such poor taste in women."
While her gaze strays to Rose, who is showing off her repertoire of blue fizzling stuns, I notice her partner. It's Potter, of course, but he's looking right back at me—
"Ow! Fuck." A throbbing stings my arm and I clutch at its center, glaring at Dom. Bint threw a shock jinx.
"Gotcha," she grins. I shoot a quick stun back at her in spite, but she blocks it easily, tutting, "Not quick enough. So how goes the hunt for Al's girlfriend?"
I toss her my Extendable Pouch. "Plenty of required reading for lunch."
"Merlin, they're rabid." Dom crunches through the pile, pulling out fistfuls. "I still find it worrying how anyone can be so interested in my family's life. And that half the school wants to jump my cousin's bones."
"And your brother's."
She shudders. "Don't remind me."
Professor Breech weaves between the pairs. "SWITCH!" he shrieks.
The final spells fly across the room and everyone trades partners. Dom latches onto Sean, a 'Puff boy I know she's been eying for awhile. A bright-eyed girl slides in front of me.
"Clemence! Have you got a partner yet?"
Valencia Oden, Ravenclaw. Nice girl, never minded Witchy Business, which is a plus for me. "No, not yet," I say.
We pair up and practice the drills. Midway when Breech is out of sight, Valencia leans in. "Did you get my note? I passed it to Adette to give to you."
I remember that Adette handed me a slip of parchment when I entered the Great Hall this morning. I shuffled it in with the rest of the papers I received. “Haven't read it, but she gave me a note, yeah.”
"Well, I remember you mentioning this place in an issue two weeks ago, and my mates don't want to go, so what I was wondering was if you could show me..." Her voice lowers to a hush. "The Speak Easy."
The Speak Easy is, appropriately, a speakeasy located in the Room of Requirement with the-whole-shebang atmosphere. It's a bit of an open secret, as the only crowd interested is the only crowd they want. Mostly the stock intellectuals: chess players, nihilists, whatnot. The first time anyone goes, it's with someone who's been there before. Mine was with Pickett, two years ago.
I size her up and decide that I like her enough. "Dress sharp, be sharp, and meet me tomorrow by the armor gallery at seven-thirty."
"Sharp, got it." She nods and slips back into a dueling stance. No unnecessary chatter—another plus.
Valencia and others whirl past me and I spin around, expecting to see more of the same, but I'm startled when I meet green eyes instead.
I arch a brow. "Potter."
"Fitzgerald." His lips are tight and pensive.
Another sanctimonious scolding already? No, his stance isn't right. He's too calm. He paces two steps back, wand outstretched, and I grin.
"So you want to tussle."
He shoots a stun that whizzes past my ear. Far from ready, I dodge it only by chance.
"You could say that," he says, smirk reigning.
An unease settles into my shoulders. This aggressiveness doesn't fit what I know of him. Another spell flies over, and I counter, following up with a stinging hex of my own. He doesn't shield it in time, and it knocks him to the ground. Too easy.
But this is just a bit of practice in class, and it could be so much more. I extend a hand to him. "So, Potter, how about if you beat me, I'll postpone the expose for another week or two, give you some time to clean up, and if I beat you, you tell me the girl?"
Albus is crouched, staring at the ground. Take a long consideration, sugar. I may not be top dueler, but put up a prize and I will tear you down.
And before I know it, a blinding flash knocks me back and flips me over. I clutch my side, trying to find my bearings and I spot him, leapt up, ready for more.
"Think you're the only one who knows a few tricks?" He fires three quick hexes. I knock them down and scramble to my feet.
Oh, he wants to tussle.
Our eyes lock and the spellfire ceases. We pace in a ring like pistols at dawn. Ten steps to death, who will it be?
One... two... three…
"You're an awful person, you know that?" His grip on his wand tightens. "It's just that no one's willing to stand up to you."
I laugh, and I really do laugh. I knew he would make this personal. "What, can't find any dark lords to smite, so you come after big, bad me? Go be a martyr. See who cares."
Four... five... six…
His gaze flickers. "Rose has been crying because the whole school knows about her problems with Scorpius."
He's here for revenge. Explains a lot. "Rose is a big girl. She can take care of herself." It's mostly Dom's fault for the vitriol of those articles but I don't mention it. She doesn't need any more problems with her family. "Contrary to popular belief, I don't have anything against her or anyone else. I'm just here for the stories, like yours. Ask around; I can be quite nice."
"You pretend to be nice. You're only here for the stories, like you said." This boy and his grandstanding; it's the worst. He reminds me of door-to-door salesmen, evangelists... or me. We're persistent. And persistence works for only one reason: it's bloody annoying.
"As if you've never had to put up a smile for people you don't like." I shake my head. "Potter... you and I? We're more alike than you think. Single-minded pursuits. Unhealthy methods of achieving them."
"I'm not anything like you."
He acts first—a jinx. I counter and it flies back, absorbed into his shield. There's another streak of silver and another, and then we're pacing again.
"Come on, Fitzgerald," he pants. "Just counters? Throw one at me."
I lunge with a hex and he blocks it immediately, and a sting hits my side—shit! He baited me. I lunge again and we move into the center of the room. The space between us becomes a blur of colors, flashes, and sparks meeting shields. He can fight for whatever imagined cause he wants; I want my story.
Breech hasn't called 'Switch' yet. Then I hear him lecturing: "Take note of Miss Fitzgerald's stance. That's what you want for good counters. Steady on the feet, forward force upon action—are you taking bets, Mr. Flint?"
There's hardly time for another breath before I'm back to dodging spells. My feet stumble, tangled into each other, but I have my balance. It's the only time I'm thankful for those bloody Yule Ball dance lessons.
Everyone's watching. I can't mess up.
We're too evenly matched, growing reckless as the distance between us nears. Shifting to close-range spells, bursts of color arc from the tips of our wands like sword slashes, gold clashing against green. Instinct takes over; there is no time for thinking.
Contact. A feint drives me to crash into him. He's seeping heat, shirt damp from sweat. I push away and shoot a hex at his shoulder. He tries to shield it, but his concentration isn't there and he takes the hit. His next spell is sorely off target.
"Focus, Potter!" I jeer. "Your spells won't get off the ground like that!"
"Sorry"—Albus runs up, slashing a wide arc of bronze, and blocks the brunt of my stunning spell with the back of his robe—"I was too busy staring"—he grabs my arm and he's closer than close, his face mere inches from mine—"at your gorgeous eyes."
A sharp pain hits my stomach and I tumble to the floor. Fuck! He didn't just—fuck!
When my vision comes to, his wand is pointed at my throat. In the background, there's a murmur of cheers and groans and galleons being exchanged. Professor Breech is clapping. "Wonderful show! That is how a proper knock-back jinx is done."
Albus holds out a hand. "So the devil has vanity."
I scowl. He's all good cheer and fun now that he's won. He pulls me up, even shakes my hand. But in a moment of quiet, as the people around us disperse, he leans in. "Guess you missed your chance for a story, huh?"
The unsettling feeling, I realize, has yet to leave.
I shake my head slowly. "Potter, you have bought yourself a world of regret."
His smirk returns. "I look forward to it."
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