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Chapter 29 : Hate
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A/N: Chapter 29! Enjoy!
Something you should know about me:
I’m not good with kids.
It’s not that I don’t like them. I’m not a child-hater. I just... Well, I don’t see what all the hype is about. I mean, sure, they’re cute and their miniature shoes are adorable (seriously, are those even meant for human feet?). But if I really wanted to take care of something that cried, screamed, and always seemed to have food on its face... Well, I’d just look after Dom when she was drunk.
To illustrate my point: when I was young, I never had an interest in those doll babies with their fake bottles and diapers. I rather preferred my collection of rare and precious gemstones.
This, coincidentally, did not make me all-too-popular on the playground.
Especially when, during one fateful recess, I accidentally stepped on a My Precious Angel baby doll that belonged to Chrissy Madison, the Queen of First Grade, in an attempt to snatch what looked like a chip of quartz out of the sandbox. This earned me the wrath of Chrissy and her league of six-year-old minions for the rest of my career at St. John’s Elementary, and from then on, I was permanently branded as a ‘freak’ and a ‘nerd.’
Oh, and that piece of quartz I had jeopardized my childhood social life for? Turned out to be a condom wrapper.
This anecdote, now that I think about it, could actually be a pretty accurate metaphor for my entire life.
Though what goes around comes around, I suppose, since last year, it was rumored that Chrissy Madison had to drop out of school because she got knocked up by some dude on her school rugby team. So ha ha, Chrissy Madison! Who was the winner now? That’s right! For the first time in the history of forever, the kid with the rock collection comes out on top.
Anyway, what was I saying?
Oh, yeah. Children.
To be honest, I think the reason why I wasn't comfortable around kids was because...well, they were kind of scary. I mean, first they're giving you hugs and telling you how pretty your hair is, and the next thing you know, they’re running away from you screaming like a coke-addict, and you’re stuck nursing a bald patch and a vicious bite-wound on your leg.
So you can understand my apprehension when Potter and I walked into that white-with-blue-shutters house and were greeted by a whirlwind of chaos and noise.
“Don! Don, where’s my shoe?” A frazzled looking woman, who I guess hadn’t noticed us yet, was digging frantically through a nearby closet that was adjacent to the door, looking like one of those housewives that lapse into hysteria whenever Marks & Spencer has a Boxing Day sale and there’s only one last cable-knit sweater in her size.
“I don’t know!” An unseen man hollered from somewhere in a different room. “Maybe Lilia took it?”
“Why would Lilia take my—oh shite, honey, James is here!” The women finally looked up from her frenzied search to lock eyes with us. Immediately, her cheeks flushed red, her posture relaxing with relief.
“James!” Thudding footsteps sounded, followed by the harried appearance of a man skidding into the hallway. He looked handsome but tired, with salt-and-pepper hair and purple bags bruised onto the skin under his eyes.
Before either of us could say or do anything, the woman had rushed forward and embraced Potter as if he were her long-lost son. “Oh, James, thank God you’re here!”
She released him and, much to my surprise, pulled me into a giant embrace as well. I tried not to squirm as my face got acquainted with the boobs of this lady I did not know.
As I struggled not to asphyxiate, the man stepped forward and shook hands with Potter. The woman released me and, startled, I stumbled back into a smirking Potter.
“James, you have no idea how good it is to see you," the man said. He looked tired and had toothpaste on his shirt, but his was smiling.
The woman, who I was presuming to be his wife, nodded fervently in agreement. The two of them together were the picture of 'exhausted married couple.' “I mean, Lilia’s a lovely child and all—”
“But I haven’t seen daylight in weeks,” the man sliced through.
“We’re so glad you’re going to take her for the day—”
“—you don't understand. Weeks, James. Weeks—”
“Honestly, she’s a really easy child to take care of—”
“I’ve been conscious for six straight days in a row."
“Now Henry,” The women gave a nervous, high-pitched laugh and shot us an anxious glance. “Don’t say such a thing. You don’t want to scare away the babysitters.”
The man smiled wanly at his wife. “Of course not, dear.” But the minute she turned back to the closet to find her missing shoe, he put one hand on each of Potter and I’s shoulders and pulled us close, whispering in a raspy, desperate voice of a broken man. “Never have children."
While I was already calculating how fast I would have to run for me to get out the door and into the car before Potter could tackle me to the ground, Potter was grinning. He looked cool and unperturbed as always, genuinely happy to see these crazy people. “Mr. Dauby, have you met Agatha?”
“Oh, where are my manners!” Mrs. Dauby, who had managed to find the second half of her pair of shoes and was currently trying to jam it on her left foot, hopped over to us and extended her hand to me (which seemed slightly formal since she had strangled me with a bear-hug only moments ago). “It’s so nice to meet you Agatha.”
“We haven’t heard a single thing about you,” Mr. Dauby added brightly, a beaming smile on his face.
I couldn't help but laugh at his honesty. “Nice to meet you too, I’m...uh...” What? Potter’s friend? His occasional snog? “The sister of James’ best friend,” I finished lamely, in what had to be the most awkwardly phrased sentence ever spoken.
“Lovely,” Mr. Dauby clapped his hands in a ‘lets-get-down-to-business’ manner that made it obvious he didn't really care who would be taking care of his child. “Marie will just get Lilia and your guys’ money, and then we will be on our way.”
Everything was slowly piecing together in my mind. Henry and Marie Dauby. Their daughter, Lilia Dauby, who was apparently quite the little monster and not a fan of letting other people sleep. Yikes.
“Don’t worry about it, sir, you don’t have to pay us,” Potter smiled, his hand absentmindedly rubbing the back of his neck. He looked, for once, actually sincere in what he was saying.
“Don’t be silly, James!” Mrs. Dauby chuckled, though there was a shine of wistfulness in her eyes, like she was really tempted to take him up on the offer. “We couldn’t just not pay you—”
“Please,” Potter cut through, and I was so amazed by how capable he was of just turning on the charm like that. Potter could be really charismatic when he wanted to. “You helped my mum with her taxes. Just think of this as a way of us repaying the favour.”
“Well, if you insist,” Henry Dauby shot his wife a dubious look. After a second of hesitation, Mrs. Dauby nodded.
“Thank you, James,” she whispered softly, looking so touched, Potter might as well have just saved her house from burning down.
Hmm. These people seemed to idolize Potter.
Shame, really. I was just beginning to like them.
“Well then, we should probably be on our way,” Mrs. Dauby gave a sweet, gentle smile, before snapping around to holler loudly up the staircase. “LILIA! LILIA!”
There was a pattering of little feet. A wisp of blonde hair. And then, peeking out from behind Mr. Dauby’s legs, were two of the biggest, brownest eyes I’d ever seen in my life. They were huge. Like, Puss in Boots huge. Framed with lashes long enough to belong in a Maybelline commercial and sitting below a pinched, anxiously-furrowed brow.
“James, you already know her. But Agatha,” Mrs. Dauby began, taking a deep breath. “This is Lilia.”
With that, Mr. Dauby pried—he literally had to pry, like she was a barnacle or something—the kid off his legs and gave her a gentle push in our direction. Lilia stumbled a bit, before finding another pair of legs—this time they were Potter’s—to latch on to, brown eyes filled with worry and still staring at me.
“Erm, hey,” I said.
Just more staring.
This was really starting to freak me out. I squirmed under The Barnacle's freakishly deep gaze, feeling like all my past lying, manipulating, ABBA-listening sins were being laid out for the world to see.
“Well, looks like you two are going to hit it off,” Mr. Dauby said bright, warm gaze darting between us. “Now, we should probably be off.”
Potter grinned. "Have fun on your date, guys. We'll hold down the fort."
Apparently, Mr. and Mrs. Dauby did not need anymore assurance than that. They practically raced each other to the door (I swear I saw Mrs. Dauby shove her husband out of the way so she could get there first). There was a brief gust of cold air as it was hurled open, and then the couple pretty much vanished into the outside world, gone in the wink of an eye.
After they left, I just stood there for a moment, not sure of what we were supposed to do. The echo of the door slamming rang in my ears. Potter and I blinked in the dimly lit hallway before bleakly locking eyes. In unison, we looked down at The Barnacle, who was still clutching on to Potter’s legs for dear life.
The Barnacle gazed up at us with her freakish brown eyes. It took about two seconds for her to realize that her parents were not coming with us on this jolly little adventure.
And then, she promptly burst into tears.
“MAKE IT STOP—JESUS CHRIST, BENNETT, MAKE IT STOP!”
“OH, YOU WANT ME TO MAKE IT STOP? REALLY? BECAUSE I WAS JUST PLANNING ON LETTING THE HYSTERICAL, BLOODCURDLING SCREAMING CONTINUE!”
Viciously, I slammed the plastic cup of cereal on Lilia’s highchair (causing a subsequent volcanic eruption of cheerios all over the place) before wheeling around to fix Potter with a twitchy, manic glare. It was a glare that could make flowers wilt over and birds drop dead from trees. It was a glare that could shrivel Voldemort into a tiny, human raisin.
And it was a glare that Potter dully ignored, seeing as he was a little busy trying to shut up the bawling, shrieking little banshee that was currently making our lives hell.
“Lilia. Please. Please be quiet,” Potter’s groan was low and pleading, his knuckles white around the edge of the highchair as he gripped it, leaning in closer to level his desperate gaze with The Barnacle. But she didn’t even bother to look at him before breaking out into a fresh peal of screams.
We had tried everything. Jokes. Food. Toys. Begging. At one point, Potter and I had even broken out into an impromptu duet of The Barney Song (something that would never, ever be mentioned for the rest of our lives). But still, nothing pleased The Barnacle. She had been crying for thirty minutes. Thirty straight minutes. And by the looks of it, she wasn’t going to stop anytime soon.
“This is hopeless.” Frustrated, I threw my hands in the air, completely done with the whole mess. I was finished. Caput. Finito. My nerves were grated raw. Tendrils of my hair were slipping out of my ponytail and tickling my face. My eardrums were never going to forgive me for this. Enough was enough.
“I don’t know what’s wrong,” Potter straightened and turned towards me, running an aggravated hand through his tousled shock of hair. He had been doing that so much lately, it looked like he had spent the day making out with a spark plug. “She’s usually fine when it’s just me.”
This was accompanied with a heavy emphasis on ‘just me’ and a pointed glance in my direction—something I did not appreciate at all.
“Excuse me,” I cried as Lilia continued to wail in the background like a toddler opera singer. I wasn’t a fan of Potter’s accusatory tone, or the implication that this was all somehow my fault. “What are you trying to say here?”
Potter paused for a second, as if he was attempting to phrase whatever he was about to say in the most delicate way possible.
“That you’re a shit babysitter,” he said bluntly, eyes locked matter-of-factly with mine.
Indignant, I snapped my head up to glare at him underneath the red frizz sprouting loose from my ponytail. “Oh, and you’re just a regular Mrs. Doubtfire, aren’t you?”
Potter shrugged. “I’m doing better than you.”
“Says the little girl who immediately bursts into tears whenever you come within a two feet radius of her!” Potter threw his hand back to gesture at Lilia, making my eyebrows shoot up derisively.
“Are you saying you want me to leave?” I hissed, trying to lower my voice (Merlin knew that us screaming at each other and adding to the overwhelming volume of the house was not helping the situation). “Because believe me, I would be more than happy to.”
“No way,” Potter planted his hands firmly on the table, leaning over me in a manner that I tried my best to not find intimidating. His gaze was dark and cool, mouth a flat line as he spoke. “If I’m going down, you’re coming with me.”
I scoffed, narrowing my eyes and refusing to break his glare. Potter’s gaze was a challenge — one I wasn't about to lose. "Whatever."
There was a moment of silence.
We were locked in, ice blue on burnt gold. The world slowed to a jerky halt as even the air in the room came to a stasis. It was as if there was a camera lens, zooming in and focusing until it was just the two of us. Alone. Together. Connected and held in place by this invisible bond beaming between us.
In fact, we were both so concentrated on our sudden death stare match that neither of noticed the fact that we were enduring a moment of silence. Silence.
Which meant two things: a) there really was a God after all, and b) Lilia had stopped crying.
I whipped around in my chair, breaking our gaze and whatever spell had just fallen over us, to see Lilia, her chocolate eyes still wet but her mouth blessedly closed. And her tiny little fist clenched around... a strand of my hair. She was staring at it as if it were the most fascinating thing in the world.
“Oh hey,” I said, staring at her staring at my hair.
Potter looked between us and gave a disbelieving breath of laughter, folding his hands behind his head, exasperated. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” he groaned to the ceiling.
“She likes my hair. It must be the colour,” I murmured, perplexed, as Lilia continued to stare wondrously at the bouncy red curl in her hand. "This is interesting."
“This is insane.” Potter dropped his hands to his side. “We tried everything—everything—to make her shut up when all we needed was a chunk of your hair?”
“Hey,” I began defensively. Now that Lilia was quiet (because of me and my hair! Take that, Potter!), I was starting to become rather fond of the little barnacle. “Easy now. It’s not her fault you’re an awful babysitter.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“I mean, thank God I was here to soothe her—”
“Soothe her? Being ginger is not the same as being a nanny, Aggy!”
“—otherwise who knows how long she would have been crying —”
“Just shut up.”
“I mean, you should be grateful, really—”
“And, I wouldn’t blame you if you were a little bit jealous,” I finished, giving a casual shrug and trying to hide my triumphant smile. “It’s just a natural born gift, I guess. I’m just good with kids.”
Potter’s face was priceless. He looked horrified and confused and annoyed all at once, and I couldn’t get enough of it. For once, I had beaten him at something. I came out as the winner.
Today was turning out to be a really good day.
The rest of our babysitting stint passed rather uneventfully at first. As promised, we took Lilia to the arcade. And with the exception of Potter “accidentally” pushing me into the ball pit and proceeding to laugh his arse off as I almost suffocated (why do they even have those anymore? They’re a hazard!), it wasn’t awful. Lilia, once she loosened up, began to actually have fun.
After my little ball pit incident, I had decided that the arcade life wasn’t for me and plunked myself down at the separate eating area, where all the cool kids (read: middle-aged mums) hung out.
It turned out that, as long as we were apart, Potter and I made a great team. He would go into the arcade with Lilia, watch over her as she played all the games her heart desired. Then whenever she started to feel a little overwhelmed or upset, he would haul her over to me and I would dangle a couple locks of my hair over her face, maybe let her grab a few (what can I say? The kid was weird), and calm her down. Problem solved. In the time between, I would sit, relax and eat crappy arcade food. It was a win-win situation for everyone.
After a couple rounds of this (and quite a few french fry baskets), Potter brought Lilia over again. This time, though, two things were different: one, she was in tears, and two, he was carrying her.
“Some other pratty little kid pushed her over near the ski-ball area. I had to carry her all the way here. She won’t stop crying,” Potter tersely informed me as he lightly bounced Lilia up and down on his hip. I couldn't tell who looked more agitated — The Barnacle, or Potter. He was frowning, his eyebrows pinched together and his mouth quirked into an angry, unhappy scowl.
He was looking down at Lilia, who was wrapped around him like a tearful koala bear, with an exasperated but protective gaze. It would have been cute if the circumstances were any different.
Sighing, Potter tried to set her in the chair next to mine, but for some reason, Lilia simply wouldn’t let go of him. She was using her Super Barnacle Powers, wrapping herself so tightly around Potter's torso she might as well have been super-glued there. And despite his best efforts to coax her off, The Barnacle simply wouldn't let go. She was really putting up a fuss, squirming and whimpering. I watched the whole scene, quietly annoyed — but this time not at Lilia, but rather at the pratty kid who must have pushed her. An illogical wave of maternal instinct was overwhelming me, and I wanted whoever was responsible for this to pay.
“Who did this to you, Lilia?” I demanded, standing up so I could look her in her freakishly big eyes.
She shook her head, blonde curls bouncing around frantically, and just started crying harder. Potter shot me an accusatory look as she buried her red face into his shoulder, wailing fit to die.
“Just leave it, alright, Bennett? It’s not worth it,” he snapped, but I could tell that he, too, was annoyed. He wanted to know just as much as I did.
And I couldn’t leave it. As someone who used to get bullied on the playground, I knew how horrid it felt to be pushed around and have no one there to help you back up. Lilia needed retribution. Whoever had pushed her deserved to be disciplined. Not by me, of course, but by their parents at the very least. The Fallon Coopers of this world could not be allowed to run around wily-nily, getting their way and hurting other people in the process — regardless of whether or not they were six years old.
“Lilia,” I murmured, tone gentler this time. I came around Potter's shoulder and gingerly placed my hand on her small, shuddering back, leaning in close. “It’s okay. You can tell me.”
Slowly, The Barnacle lifted her head, peeking out at me underneath long, damp eyelashes. “It was Stanley,” she mumbled in a watery voice.
Then, she raised a chubby finger and pointed a few tables over to some kid wearing a Spiderman shirt and stomping around as his mother, presumably, tried to wipe pizza sauce off his face. Fucking Stanley.
“Excuse me,” I muttered and then I was off, stomping towards the table where the Brat Prat and his mother were, not really aware of what I was doing but knowing that I had to do it.
“Hold on, Bennett. Bennett! Jesus Christ.” I heard Potter hollering after me, but I couldn’t be bothered. This Stanley kid had to learn that he couldn’t just go around pushing other people. It wasn’t right.
“Um, hi,” I said eloquently when I finally reached the table. The mother, who had mousy brown hair and a thin, bony face, lifted her head to look up at me. Brat Pat didn’t even acknowledge me, just carried on with his temper tantrum (“I WILL NOT WIPE MY FACE! YOU CAN’T MAKE ME!” Lovely).
“Hi, er, sorry to bother you, but are you Stanley's mother?”
The lady’s eyes narrowed into slits, her chin tilted upwards superciliously. “Yes. What’s it to you?”
“Well,” I began, feeling my confidence falter slightly under this woman’s intimidating gaze. Jesus, this lady was acting as if my mere presence were ruining her life. “See, it’s not a big deal, really, but Stanley pushed my kid, Lilia, over and now she’s crying. It would be nice if he could, erm, maybe apologize?”
The lady paused, still glaring at me with such hostility I could feel my insides shriveling up. Next to her, Stanley had stopped fussing and was now also glowering at me. Well, weren’t these two just the jolly Sunshine Twins.
“Excuse me,” Stanley's Mum said, and I could see where his kid got the snottiness gene. “But are you telling me how to raise my child?”
I backpedaled, shaking my head hastily. “No, of course not, I’m just—“
“—Because I don’t see how people like you have the right to—“
“Hold on,” I cut across, feeling my anger level spike dangerously. “People like me? What do you mean people like me?”
Before I could get too furious, Potter, no longer carrying The Barnacle and now standing next to me, placed a warning hand on my shoulder. I looked down to see Lilia behind him, peeking out from behind his legs and looking scared for her life.
This only made me angrier.
“Bennett, just leave it.” Potter’s voice was cool and smooth, but his jaw was clenched tight.
“No,” I snapped, wheeling around to face the Brat Pat and his mum. “Not until Stanley apologises.”
“You have no right to tell my son what to do!” The lady suddenly cried, standing up so fast her metal chair went screeching backwards.
“I do when he’s pushing kids around like that!” My heartbeat was ringing in my ears. Roughly, I shook Potter’s hand off and stepped closer, meeting my eyes with the lady’s mousy brown ones.
“Teenaged parents,” the lady scoffed, her sneer making my skin crawl. “They think they know everything.”
I was too angry to even bother denying the fact that Potter and I were parents. I mean, the idea was too absurd to even be acknowledged. “I may be a teenager, but at least my parents taught me some manners."
“What are you, the Neighborhood Playground Vigilante?” Potter sliced across in a growl, stepping forward in an effort to cut me off. I knew I was out of line—even Potter knew I was out of line—but I couldn’t help myself. Never before had I spoken back to an adult, but something about this woman made me so angry, I wanted to scream.
“Yes, dear, how about you listen to your little friend? He’s the one who knocked you up, am I right? And by the looks of it,” she glanced down mockingly at my hands, which were firmly planted on my hips. “No wedding ring. Can’t say I’m surprised. What kind of man would want to marry a rude, lippy S-L-U-T like you?”
Even though she had spelled out the insult, I still felt the full magnitude of it. For a moment, I was stunned into silence. I mean, honestly. First Cooper, now her? This was the second time my... virtue, or whatever, had been insulted this month. Things were getting out of hand.
Luckily, I didn’t have to speak up, because Potter was already doing it for me. “Hey, if you’re not going to discipline your kid like a normal adult, then fine, that’s your decision. But you don’t talk to her like that.”
Maybe it was something about Potter’s voice—the authoritative, indisputable tone in it—or the way his eyes sparked with anger, but for some reason, he looked intimidating. Stanley-the-Pusher cowered behind his mother, and even I had to acknowledge how fucking scary Potter could be if he wanted.
The woman stared at us for a second before giving a simpering smile that made me want to punch her. “You teenagers are so over your heads.”
“We know what we’re doing,” I hissed back caustically.
“Oh yeah, then where’s your kid?” The lady smiled triumphantly. For a second, I just stared at her, perplexed. Then, I turned around to look at the spot where Lilia was. Or rather, was supposed to be.
Because she was gone.
My heart immediately plunged into my stomach as panic gripped me. I locked eyes with Potter, his alarmed eyes telling me one thing, and one thing only:
We were fucked.
Panic surged through me as Potter and I raced through the arcade, searching for any wisp of blonde hair or hint of brown eyes. It was hopeless, though. Chaos swirled around us—flashing lights, the beeps of the machines, the laughter and screams of small children all smearing together into a vivid blend of hysteria as Potter and I continued running.
“Fuuuuuck, fuuuuuck,” I moaned to myself, trying to catch up with Potter unfairly long strides. We were screwed. Lilia was missing. We were screwed. Oh god, we were screwed.
I stopped, out of breath, and bent over to put my hands on my knees, trying to keep the tears from springing into my eyes. If only I hadn’t charged at that lady and her kid. If only we had just stayed at our table. If only I hadn’t made a mess of things, this all wouldn’t be happening.
Why was it that I constantly mucked everything up? It was like anytime I went near something, the worst possible thing tended to happen as a result. I should just go into isolation and stay away from the outside world for the rest of time.
The thought of Lilia—wandering alone and helpless and probably scared—was enough to make me stop breathing. All of a sudden, I needed a break.
Without really caring that there were people watching, or that I was probably surrounded by kids' germs and or that the carpet below me probably contained about fifty different health violations at once, my knees buckled and I sank to the ground. Furiously, I shoved my hands in my hair, squeezing my eyes shut to the flashing lights and whirring colours. Come on, Agatha, a clear voice in my head demanded, Think.
I was going to throw up.
“Bennett, what are you doing?”
Miserably, I opened my eyes to see Potter standing over me, looking a mixture of bewildered and annoyed. Couldn’t he see that I was in the middle of a mental breakdown right now, and that it was rude to interrupt?
“Get up,” he said calmly.
He sighed and, in a surprisingly tender motion, crouched down to make eye contact.
“Believe it or not, but you sitting around like an eejit isn’t going to help anything. Now get up so we can go look for Lilia.”
“It’s no use,” I cried hysterically, dropping my hands. Couldn’t he see? We were screwed. “We checked everywhere—the ski ball area, the games, the bathrooms. There’s no place else but the—“
I abruptly stopped talking as suddenly, I jerked my head up. Above me, snaking around the walls of the room, was a giant, brightly coloured tube, which connected with other giant, brightly coloured tubes and slides to form what I guessed was the arcade jungle-gym. In front of the entrance was a huge sign that proclaimed 'Tube City!' in cheery, bubbly letters.
“Tube City,” Potter murmured, craning his neck to follow my gaze, and never before had I heard those two words whispered in such a reverent tone.
Without further ado, I was getting up and running towards the entrance, almost mowing over a couple of kids in the process, Potter hot on my heels. We reached the first opening, ignoring the sign before it saying you had to be under the age of 12 to go inside. I hesitated a bit before finally diving inside the dark, hot tube, crawling upwards to the first landing. Potter was right behind me.
I paused for a second, sitting dumbfounded on the cushy landing. Besides the netted walls, there were three different entrances to three different winding, twisting tubes, all leading to different places. Which one to choose?
“Just pick one,” Potter said impatiently. Crouched down, he had to bend over a little so his head wouldn’t graze the netted ceiling. With his broad shoulders and bent knees, he looked comically big for the place. I would have laughed at him under any other circumstances.
At random, I chose the blue tube. And then we were climbing again, up the winding, twisting piece of plastic, frantically rounding corners, scrabbling up landings, both of us cursing, until we finally reached —
A dead end.
When we got to the top, there was nothing but the arcade wall, complete with a Plexiglas window and a nice view of the outside parking lot below. There was no where else to go. I had chosen the wrong tube, the wrong route. Merlin knew where Lilia was now.
And that was when I just gave up.
“Bennett. Come on. Bennett.”
I couldn’t help it. I simply slumped against the Plexiglas, exhausted, not caring that we were in the middle of a child's playground, or that there were kids staring curiously at us. I was sweaty, exhausted, sick of everything...I just wanted to go home.
Then, a warm hand was tilting my chin up, and all of a sudden Potter’s hazel eyes were staring right at me, his face completely serious. “Bennett, it’s okay. We’ll find her. She has to be somewhere.”
“It’s just—I can’t—Ugh—“ I shook my head furiously, feeling tears of frustration prickling the back of my eyes. “I ruin everything! This is all my fault!”
Potter, to his credit, could have agreed with me on this one. But instead, he shook his head, pragmatic and rational as always. Through my blurry vision, I could see he was completely, absolutely sincere. “No, it’s not. It’s both of ours. We both messed up.”
I looked away, blinking rapidly as, to my utter mortification, an angry tear slipped out. Merlin. I couldn't believe I was crying. In front of James Sirius Potter. “You were right. I’m a shit babysitter.”
“No,” Potter shook his head firmly, bending down some more so he could get closer, one warm, rough hand lingering on my cheek. I didn’t know why he was being so kind of me. Merlin knew I didn’t deserve it. “You’re not. It was really... brave of you to ask that lady and her kid for an apology. Even if she was being a total bint.”
I shook my head, giving a watery chuckle before I once again remembered Lilia and all traces of amusement were wiped away. “I'm not brave."
"You were then." Instead of consolation, there was actual stubbornness twinging inside his tone. I almost could have laughed — typical Potter, trying to comfort me from within his full spectrum of argumentative and hostile tendencies.
“I'm not brave," I said, one last time. I pointed to myself, a sarcastic smile on my lips. "Slytherin, remember? You of all people should."
"What's that supposed to mean?" he shot back, eyes flashing for a dangerous second.
"Come on, Potter," I said bitterly, dropping my hand to swipe at the tears on my cheeks. "You know all about my faults. You're the one constantly reminding me of them."
For a second, Potter's eyes flickered with something strange. But it was too fleeting and inscrutable for me to read anything into it. Then he was turning away, face stone-smooth. "Maybe we should take a break from searching. Maybe if we wait a bit, just stay put in once place, she'll come to us. I'm sure she's fine. The arcade is really safe, after all."
I didn't reply, still staring, unabashedly, at Potter. He was pretending not to notice as he sighed, leaning back so that he was resting against one of the netted walls. As if he were surrendering to everything—to the situation, to the arcade, to Tube fricking City. He looked frustratingly calm as he stretched out his legs, running a hand through his hair.
For a moment, the two of us just sat there, on the squashed landing on that godforsaken jungle-gym, stewing in complete and total silence.
“Do you hate me?” I whispered after a while, eyes trained on my knees. I hadn't even known that the question was worth asking until just then, but I was suddenly afraid of his answer.
Potter hesitated. My heart pounded. “I... don’t know. Sometimes. Do you hate me?”
I paused, thinking. I didn't think I could answer affirmatively to that question now, with Potter acting like this — calm and thoughtful and keeping me tethered to sanity. He was actually being a big help in this situation. More surprisingly, he wasn't using the moment in a cheap ploy to guilt me or feel superior, even though the option was there for the taking. I couldn't say I would have acted so nobly, if roles were flipped.
“A lot,” I admitted, making him chuckle darkly. “Most of the time. But now? No. Not at all.”
We looked at each other for a second. And then Potter slowly shifted closer until he was right next to me, his left leg warm against mine. My heartbeat stopped and then jerked into action again, racing so fast it hurt. We locked gazes. There was something about the way he was looking at me that was almost overwhelmingly intense. His gaze was a paradox—dark and heavy, though equally as bright. His eyes held something inside them, like gold glimmering under water—radiant, elusive, intangible.
“So how much time do you think we have before you start hating me again?” Potter’s words were heavy, slow, careful.
What was Potter trying to do here? The roguish look in his gaze was, I hated to admit, slightly disarming (I could see why he was always so good at stringing girls around) and it was making me wary. “Probably around five minutes.”
“That’s not very long.” Potter was boasting the slightest of smirks, a challenge sparking in his gaze.
“And whose fault is that?” I shot back. We were dancing in circles now, speaking in code, testing the limit.
“Hey, I’m not the one who can’t play nice."
I narrowed my eyes, annoyance spiking inside me. Challenge accepted, prat. “Maybe I don’t know how.”
"Maybe I could show you."
And before I could process what was really happening, what was on the verge of happening, Potter was leaning close and whispering in my ear, lips barely brushing my skin, sending a tsunami of shivers down my back. “Say when,” he murmured, as if he were pouring me a drink and I had to tell him when to stop. As if it were that fucking, ridiculously simple.
And then he pulled away, wiping away a stray tear on my cheek with his thumb, and gave me a soft, barely-there kiss in its spot.
He pulled away, regarding me with careful eyes. When I didn’t say anything, he kissed me again—but this time on the forehead. And then, after a brief pause, on the nose. On the cheek. On the corner of my mouth. On the other corner. And then I was grabbing him and his lips were on mine, his hands in my hair, the world spinning out of control as I gave a sharp inhale, my whole stomach flooding with butterflies.
My mind was wiped clean, any thought or worry completely dissipating into nothing as logic faded and the pure physicality of my body took over. Potter’s lips were hot and searing and deliciously rough on mine, making my skin tingle and my heartbeat jolt sporadically as he pressed on insistently, almost expertly. Slow and scalding, he dragged his tongue lightly across my bottom lip, giving it a soft nip as, involuntarily, my breathing hitched and my mouth dropped opened, deepening the kiss. He seemed to take this as encouragement, because he pulled me closer until my chest was flush against his, my movements suddenly becoming hungrier as his tongue slid, maddeningly slow, almost teasingly, into my mouth.
I pushed back urgently, wanting to feel every part of him, wanting to get as close as possible, my nerves sparking as our kiss’s pace went from slow and hazy to outright on fire. His hands skimmed from my hair to my hips to back to tangling inside my hair again, leaving trails of fire wherever they went. He gave my bottom lip another nip, eliciting a moan from me. Dimly, I knew I wasn't going to be able to handle much longer of this. He was prodding me closer and closer to the brink of insanity, and there was nothing I could do about it.
And then I remembered—Lilia. Our responsibility. Finding her. And that was enough to get me to snap out of my hormone-induced daze. I mean, Jesus, there was a lost kid running around. Couldn't I keep it in my pants for one second?
“When, when,” I muttered against his lips, mustering all my willpower to push him away. Potter pulled back, his face inscrutable, his eyes dark and molten but holding a glint of... triumphant? Satisfaction? “Potter, what the hell are we doing?”
“I don’t know,” he admitted after a heavy pause. I looked away, trying to hide the torrent of feeling that was surging inside me. There were so many questions I wanted to ask him, the biggest of all being, Why? Why me? Why now?
But I turned away, trying to make my face as impassive as possible. If he wanted to be blank and unreadable, then fine, I could too.
“We have to find Lilia,” I muttered reluctantly, my cheeks flaming red.
“You’re right,” Potter agreed, voice huskier than normal. There was something about his tone though, something that told me he had won the challenge. "Let's go."
Slowly, we started to climb down the way we came up, the air between us tense. All I wanted was to find Lilia and not have to think about all these emotions swirling around inside of me. I was confused. Muddled. How was it that whenever we were alone, Potter and I ended up either screaming at each other or snogging like mad? It didn’t make any sense.
Nothing made any sense.
All I knew was I needed to talk to Dom about this, maybe have a good rant or a pint of ice cream, or both. I was so confused, running around like an idiot and not knowing what to do, when in reality, all I wanted was to wallow in my own troubles.
By the time we were halfway down, I was completely fed up when we heard the voice. “Jamie? Benny?”
Which I assumed translated into ‘James? Bennett?’ in Barnacle language. The light, tinkling tone was unmistakable. It was Lilia.
“Lilia! Lilia, where are you?” I burst, looking wildly around. We were on one of the landings. I looked from side to side, swinging around frantically....
And then there she was, hiding in one of those plastic alcoves, looking scared but thankfully unharmed. Immediately, I was there, wrapping my arms around her, not caring if she was going to fight me or pull away or whatever.
“Oh, thank Merlin,” I breathed, gratitude washing over me like a tidal wave. “Thank Merlin.”
Potter was behind me, looking considerably relieved. “Lilia, you gave us quite a scare. Don’t do that again, alright?” His tone was cheerful and casual—he obviously didn’t want to scare her anymore than she already ways—but I sensed the knot of worry underneath.
In my arms, Lilia nodded quietly, sniffling a little. I turned around to Potter, glad this whole fiasco was over, glad that we’d finally found her.
“Can we go home now?” I pleaded, voice hitching at the end. I was tired. Worn down. I needed some sleep and to think things over.
“Yeah,” Potter nodded, his voice devoid of any hint of what had happened between us a minute ago. “Of course.”
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