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Chapter 32 : Fireworks
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“Well, I’d say you breaking his nose was a pretty big hint.”
I whipped around to throw my unhelpful best friend a glare that practically froze the air molecules between us, and her snarky mouth promptly snapped shut. Smart move.
Seething, I turned back to Dom’s bedroom mirror, eyes hardening in irritation as I caught sight of my reflection. This situation would have been a thousand times less awful if I didn’t look so goddamn... pretty, at the moment.
Dom had—after an hour of bickering in which several threats were made on both sides—finally managed to make me over into princess. Seriously. I looked like something in a children’s book. All I needed was some glitter, harp-music and a jolly crew of woodland creatures to follow me wherever I went and I’d be all bloody set.
My hair was in a glossy updo, with loose tendrils of curls falling around my face. Thanks to Dom’s Cosmagic Apricot Scrub (which, if you think about it, is kind of a ridiculous product—not only is a body scrub the equivalent of taking a fruit smoothie and slathering it all over your body, but you’re also paying money to do so. Someone please explain this concept to me), my skin now boasted a glowing, pinkish sheen.
My make-up had been done with an understated but noticeable hand—‘pewter’ (or silver, in normal people terms) smoky eye shadow, ‘cranberry’ blush, and a little onyx eyeliner dusted around the edges. I actually looked halfway decent for a change. No, not just decent. Ethereal. Graceful. Lady-like.
And it was pissing me the fuck off.
But worst of all was the dress. Somehow it had gone from being ‘tangible proof of miracles’ to ‘bane of my existence’ in no less than three words. You’re. His. Date. All of a sudden, I was starting to hate this silk and chiffon prison I was encased in. It represented all that was wrong with this situation, all of my greatest failures in life: Potter. My femininity. Ballroom dancing.
And it jingled. Jingled, as in bells. I sounded like the fucking Snowflake Fairy.
“How does Ginny not know that Potter and I can’t stand each other? I thought she was intelligent,” I mumbled sulkily as, from behind, Dom zipped up the Dress of Dread (Gown of Gore? Toga of Terror? Muumuu of Muck? Pick one, I’ve got more). “Or at least possessing basic observational skills."
“To be fair, she thinks a Bludger broke James’ nose, not your fist. Also, who else was she going to pair him up with? Fred?” Dom snorted and, with one satisfying tug, the zipper sealed together. She stepped back, surveying me in the mirror with a critical eye. “Believe me, I’m not happy with her choices either.”
I nodded sympathetically, mouth curling into a scowl. Stupid fancy ball. Despite the fact that Dom and I were free, independent females living in the 21rst century, it was required of us to have dates to this thing. Required. So, Mrs. Potter had saved us the trouble of figuring it out for ourselves and instead paired everyone off.
Dom was with Aidan, thanks to Ginny’s supreme matchmaking skills. And not only was this awkward to the extreme, but — Well. Actually. That was it. It was just awkward.
And once that was established, Freddy, Potter, and I were left fresh for the reaping. Freddy had insisted on bringing Evelyn...So. Well, there was not much else to be done.
“Process of elimination: it’s a bitch,” sighed Dom dejectedly.
"And I thought karma was supposed to be the bitch?"
“Nah. Maybe you're thinking of Evelyn Stanford."
For a moment, we smiled wanly at each other, a glimmer of grim understanding flickering between us. She knew exactly how I felt; I could just tell. We were in the same (sinking) boat.
And that split-second of wordless sisterhood, that strong and silent bond between us—that, above all, was the reason why Dominique Weasley and I were friends.
Not to mention the bonding fact that all the boys in our lives were batshit psychotic and impossible to understand.
Slinging a skinny arm around me, Dom pulled me close. I got a faint whiff of her usual coconut shampoo. “Let's not think about them. Look at us.” She nodded to our reflection in the mirror, grinning fondly. “We’re just a couple of hot mamasitas, aren’t we? Ayyyyyy papi!”
With that, my best friend threw her head back and belted out a nonsensical string of the only Spanish words she knew ("Buenas Noches! Macarena! Taco Bell Cheesy Gordita Crunch!"), while shimmying around the room. This quasi-dance move managed to knock over a nearby lamp, send red ruffles flying everywhere, and successfully scar me for life.
And tender best friend moment officially ruined.
“GIRLS! AIDAN AND JAMES ARE ‘ERE! 'ZEY ARE WAITING FOR YOU!” Suddenly, Fleur’s silvery voice trilled through the house and put an end to the festivities. The shimmying/blatant butchery of Hispanic culture stopped, and Dom whipped around towards me, wide-eyed. “Shit.”
I grabbed her firmly by the shoulders, boring my gaze into hers. “Okay, game time. We can do this.”
“Deep breaths — ”
“— Remember: no hitting anyone — ”
“Avoid embarrassing yourself — “
"If you do embarrass yourself, try not to do it in front of anyone important — "
“Oh god. I’m panicking.”
“Me too! I’ve never been on a date before!” Which is kind of sad, if you think about it. I’ve snogged a boy in a broom cupboard, but I’ve never had one pay for my dinner. “What am I supposed to do when I see him? This is going to be the first time since... that night.”
“Just...Er, complement him! Tell him he looks nice, or whatever. It’s the polite thing to do!”
“I’m not going to complement him! That’s the last thing his ego needs!” Besides, the only interaction I could remember that involved either Potter or I doing "the polite thing" was when he once held open a classroom door for me... before sticking his leg out so I would trip on the way through. Yeah.
“GIRLS! ‘URRY UP!”
“Okay, okay. Just try not to injure yourself or anyone around you, and you’ll be fine!”
Clutching my hand a little too hard, Dom dragged me out the bedroom and down the gleaming, mahogany staircase of her house, me trying not to hyperventilate the whole while. As we descended, I could see the warm glow of lights from below and hear a dissonant tinge of voices getting louder and louder.
When we reached the last step, I was shaking. I had no idea why, and I hated myself for it, but I couldn’t stop, knowing that Potter was in the next room, that I was five seconds from coming face to face with him... and what I’d done and said that fateful night.
I could hear his voice, pick it out from the cacophony of laughter and chatting. It was deep and smooth, just a little rough around the edges. “No worries, Aunt Fleur... it was just a Quidditch accident. Got blindsided by a Bludger. Happens.” Talking about my birthday present to him, no doubt.
Dom shot me one last nervous look. “You ready for this?” she breathed, and before I could answer, we were rounding the corner into the brightly lit foyer by the door.
And all of a sudden, the talking stopped.
Fleur, who had been fussing over Potter like a flitting bird, turned and gasped. “Oh, Dominique! Agatha! You look beautiful!” She swooped towards us, kissing our cheeks frantically and making a few last-minute remarks about our appearances (“Dominique, are you sure 'zat red is your colour?”), but I barely noticed.
Because Potter was staring at me, and in the millisecond it took for us to lock gazes, all the breath had swooped out of my lungs.
He was wearing a simple black and white suit — obviously not by choice. I could tell that was mostly Ginny’s doing — and I wasn’t a fan of the way it showed off his broad shoulders a little too well, crisp black lines that were tight in all the right places. In contrast to the fancy attire, however, he hadn’t even bothered to brush his hair — it was as tousled as always and slightly damp from the snow outside.
His eyes held that familiar paradox of light and shadow—the vivid bright greens and incensed golds flaring against the dark annoyance simmering in his gaze.
All traces of my punch were gone — his face had been left unmarred, the only proof it had even happened being five angry stitches bruised above his left eyebrow.
I stood there, feeling exposed and vulnerable, as he gave me the customary once-over, flicking up and down my body with a gaze brimming with hostility. Something flickered in his eyes... Something almost bloodthirsty. He had a grudge to settle, and he was hungry for a fight. His jaw was clenched, mouth twisted into a scowl.
...Which I happily returned, all the while deciding if I should set my glare to laser or dagger mode.
“Well isn’t this fun!” Aidan chirped brightly, sauntering between us with his hands in his suit pants pockets. His smile was wide, but his eyes were alert and cautious. “You two. On a date.”
“It’s not a date,” we tore our gazes away to snap in unison at Aidan, with perfect, almost eerie timing. Then we returned to our menacing-glare-off.
Aidan cocked his head to the side. “Good,” he said flatly, making his disapproval perfectly clear, and then he went off to find Dom.
I didn’t even blink at this. Instead, I took a step forward.
As did Potter.
So I stepped even closer.
And so did he.
We kept up this little tango until we were standing in the middle of the room, face to face, no distractions except for the slowly fading noise around us. Dom, Fleur, and Aidan all seemed to smudge together into the background as they chatted inanely on among themselves. Right now, it was just the two of us and our dancing words and Potter’s heady, intense gaze.
It was like we were circling each other, judging the opponent, neither of us willing to make the first move. Silence clogged the air between us, heavy and pulsing.
What had Dom said to do? Complement him?
Well, that I shall do.
“Wow, look at you making an effort for once. And it paid off — you look just slightly less horrid than usual,” I began with mock, cavity-inducing sweetness. Potter’s scowl unfurled into a condescending smirk.
“Wish I could say the same,” came the nasty reply.
I grinned at this. We were falling back into the same routine. Snarking and sparking just like old times - it was almost comforting, to fire back and forth at each other, insults like spitting bullets. Gone were the kisses, those fleeting moments of tenderness, of vulnerability, of I-don’t-know-what that we’d shared. It was back to hate. Solid, burning, easy hate.
“You don’t like the dress?” I simpered, words dripping out my mouth with ease. “I picked it out just for you.”
“It kind of clashes with your superiority complex - don’t you think?”
“Shame. I wanted us to match. Me in a purple dress, you with a purple bruise,” I cocked my head, a dark smile spreading across my face. “Speaking of, how’s your nose?”
“How’s yours? I’m sure it’s been busy, what with you sticking it in other peoples' businesses and everything.” He gave a sarcastic breath of laughter, tugging his tie loose with deft fingers. Obviously, Potter didn’t feel the need to keep up the formalities with me. We were finally getting down to business, hashing it out. Good. It was about time I got my hands dirty again.
“Why don’t you learn some dignity, Bennett?’
I smirked. “Why don’t you learn how to duck?"
“Sorry I’m not a master at avoiding things like you," Potter snarled back. Obviously, the bruise marring his pretty boy face was a touchy subject. I grinned.
"Avoiding things?" I simpered, innocent. "Whatever do you mean?"
Potter gave a shrug that I knew better than to take as casual. "Like that time you visited Aidan in the hospital, remember? — Oh... wait. That never happened."
My eyes shrunk into narrowed slits. That had been a low blow. I could see the triumph shining in his eyes, that smug gleam that said he thought he had me, that he was enjoying watching me squirm.
My comeback was on the tip of my tongue, and for a moment, I wavered. It was terrible. A truly, truly terrible thing to say. The kind that gave us Slytherins a bad name, despicable and unabashedly rotten, the type of thing a shameless child might say and then get put into time-out for.
But I was angry. Angry that he had used me like that, and that now he was too busy hurling insults in my face to even offer one measly, little ‘sorry.’ Well, he could go on trampling over me like this, battering me down every chance he got. But hell if I was going to let him think that I would take it lying down.
Besides, I was a Slytherin. It was kind of my job to play dirty.
“Maybe I would have visited if you’d shown me around first. From what I hear, you know a lot about hospitals. What with Nora and everything.”
The words were out of my mouth before I could second-guess them. I was breathing fast, heat flushing up my bare neck and pooling in my cheeks.
For a second, Potter stiffened, looking completely, utterly terrifying. Something about him just...darkened. His shoulders clenched as he tensed, obviously trying to restrain himself from doing something, and I knew I'd made a mistake in bringing Nora up. His expression, combined with the glaring stitches across his skin...Well, he looked positively dangerous. Capable of anything.
“Go to hell,” he snarled quietly, and it was strange—I’d never heard him talk like that, get so angry before... Except for that one time when he'd threatened Cooper on my behalf.
Funny how things change.
I lifted my chin, feeling a strange sense of satisfaction spreading through me. “I’m here with you, aren’t I? Shouldn’t that be punishment enough?” And even though I tried to stay calm, triumphant—I wasn’t as good as Potter. A little of the fury broke through, flaring up inside me, making my mouth clench and my eyes spark.
“James?” A foreign voice sliced through before Potter could reply, and we both snapped back into reality, turning to see that, sometime in between all our arguing and insults, everyone had left the foyer.
The lights were off. I hadn’t even realized. Only Aidan stood, lingering by the doorway, staring anxiously at the two of us. Behind him, the door was thrown wide open and I could see flurries of fat, wet snow, shivering and leaping erratically in the dark winter sky. “Aggy? We’re...Uh, we’re going now.”
“One second,” I said, trying to keep my voice smooth and even.
“We don’t have a second,” Aidan replied tersely. But nevertheless, he gave us one last withering look before turning around, sweeping out the door with a huff.
Potter took a large step forward, coming so close I practically had to go cross-eyed to keep him in my vision. His unavoidable gaze, spitting hazel sparks, was suddenly all I could see. I could sense the tiny, very perceptible space of air trembling in between our lips, and almost as if in protest of this information, my heart began to pound. Hard.
The anger on Potter's face had dissipated, leaving in its place a scarily calm expression of cool, analytical composure. His bright eyes were scanning my face, sweeping over every inch of skin, and I squirmed, self-conscious. It was just us, too intimate, breathing together, silence in our ears.
He spoke, very flatly, very neutrally, his mouth a straight line.
“Keep feeling sorry for yourself, Bennett. Because no one else’s going to.”
And then he turned around and stalked out the door, leaving me in the middle of the dark, empty room, confused and almost winded
The first and only thing I thought when we walked into the Ministry’s Primary Ballroom was that it would be a great place for sock-sliding.
The floor was shiny, slick marble — prime surface for zooming across the room at perfect speed in a pair of your favorite woollies. For a moment, as I took in the giant, arched ceiling and the 20-piece orchestra sitting in the corner, I had the insane mental image of Eros Humdudgeon, the newly-reelected minister, slipping across the floor in a pair of tube-socks, Risky Business style.
There was something seriously wrong with me.
The atmosphere was... delicate. There was no other word for it. Tinkling fine china. Silvery laughs. A melodious tune whined out on a violin. In the middle of the hall, couples were waltzing back and forth, gown skirts caressing the marble gently. It was so elegant, so refined.
Potter stood stiffly next to me by the doorway, eyebrows tugging upwards as he surveyed the room with obvious skepticism. He looked like he’d rather be listening to a banshee opera than standing here, next to me. The feeling was quite mutual.
Aidan and Dom — all tension apparently gone — had swept off giddily to the dance-floor. For a while, I watched them twirl around in graceful circles, Dom insisting on leading every time. Good God.
“I hope you realize that I hate every single thing about this,” I begun, for a lack of anything to say. I knew I was being immature, but I couldn’t help it. I just wanted to get a reaction out of him.
Potter barely acknowledged me, face stony as he looked out into the hall. “Good.”
“I honestly can’t decide what I loathe more,” I spat back, cocking a hip. We were probably going to be spending the rest of the night like this (God knows we weren’t about to dance), so I might as well get comfortable. “You or this situation.”
“Great,” he deadpanned, stare bored. The twinkling chandelier light painted his face, tracing his tousled hair with gold. I gazed at one particular cowlick that was sticking up in the back, and for some reason, the fact that it wouldn’t lie flat, that he was actually pulling off the just-rolled-out-of-bed look right now, while if I’d try to do that I’d just look like a homeless person... Well, it pissed me off even more.
“I think I’m getting a rash right now. My body is literally rejecting the very idea of this.”
It was bothering me that he wouldn’t pay me attention. I pressed on, prodding him further. “You make me want to vomit.”
“I’m going to stab you with my dinner fork.”
“Will you stop it already?”
I rounded on him, face alight with frustration. We locked eyes, the two of us glowering in identical irritation, and our glare lasted maybe a few seconds too long to be normal. In an almost synchronized motion, we whipped back around, turning away from each other at the exact same time.
The music played on. Somewhere, in the background, a group of people erupted in laughter.
Silence. Anger pulsed between us, palpable, hot. A minute or two of some more furious-watching-of-the-dancers, and then I spoke again:
“So, how are we going to do this?” I asked with scathing, mock chipperness; I’d never been much for the whole ‘stand there like an idiot’ thing. Might as well get this over with and join the party. “Do they announce our names so that you can escort me in, debutante style? Or is there supposed to be some grand musical cue and a spotlight?” I paused, cocking my head thoughtfully. “Dang it — I hope they aren’t expecting us to do a routine, I left my tap shoes at home...”
I went silent as Potter shot me an aggravated glance from the corner of his eye. His mouth was twisted into a dark scowl. “It works like this: you don’t talk for the rest of the night, and I won’t pitch myself out the window. Got it?”
“Well, you’re just wrist-slittingly fun to be around tonight, aren’t you?”
He scoffed. “Tell me: does it physically hurt to be this annoying?”
“Such bitterness isn’t healthy for the soul.”
“Lucky for you, since you don’t have one.”
He was practically exuding hostility, his jaw set angrily — a fact that was only making me angrier. Potter had no right to be annoyed with me! Not after what he did, at least!
I mean, granted, I had punched him in the face. And to add insult to injury (or, I guess, injury to injury), there were, to this date, three other previous.... er, incidents in which I'd broken Potter's nose. These incidents had been bloody and gruesome and controversial, resulting in repeated trips to the St. Mungo's facial reconstruction ward and some pretty heated arguments over the exact definition of the word 'accident.'
Let's see: there was that time with the egg-beater, in which a combination of several unfortunate factors (cramped kitchen space, muggle-style cake recipe, baking hubris) resulted in Potter's nose getting crushed by an airborne kitchen appliance — my fault, allegedly.
After that, there was an episode in Fourth Year when Potter wouldn't stop messing with me while I was PMS-ing, and in response, I "attacked" him in what our friends now referred to as The Great Transfiguration Textbook Bludgeoning of 2018. Though if you ask me, bludgeoning is too a strong word. I would personally go with the phrase 'mild beating.'
And finally, an ill-fated game of pick-up Quidditch at The Burrow last summer, in which Potter's keeping got in the way of my goal, and my elbow got in the way of Potter's nasal cavity. Oops.
I tensed, shaking the images out of my head and turned to see Ginny Potter, breaking through a group of sophisticated-looking adults and making a beeline towards us. Her hair was twisted into an elegant chignon, and she was wearing a beautiful nude, silk dress scattered with sparkling diamonds that I was about 80% sure were real. Her cheeks were flushed. She looked absolutely exuberant.
Well, at least someone here was having fun.
“There you two are! I’ve been looking all over — oh, come now, cheer up. You’d think we were at a funeral, the way you’re both moping around. Agatha, you look lovely. James, you really couldn’t do anything about your hair?”
“What’s wrong with my hair?” Potter said defensively, pouting in mock sulkiness. “Isn’t it your job to love me just the way I am, mother dearest?”
Ginny’s lips twitched upwards. “Fine, you’re off the hook this time. But you are going to behave tonight, so help me God — ”
“God? It's James, mum, though the confusion is understandable.”
“— And absolutely no mouthing back to Ministry officials. You hear me?”
“It’s not my fault they’re stupid.”
Ginny turned to me. Her eyes were warm but intense, and I couldn’t get over how beautiful she was. “See what I have to put up with everyday? If only his father was here—then maybe my children would actually listen to me.”
I sneaked a glance at Potter. At the mention of his dad, he immediately seemed to...withdraw. Become distant and uninterested. One of his eyebrows was quirked coolly, but that was the only giveaway. Other than that, his face was blank.
God. I hated him for how completely, excruciatingly hard to understand he was. Why couldn’t he just be honest, for once? It wasn’t that hard to lay out your emotions on the table—trust me, I would know. I did it all the time without even meaning to.
“Ladies and Gentleman,” a sudden voice boomed through the room. Immediately, all the hoity-toity people with their glittering laughs and glasses of champagne froze. Everyone turned to a man towards the front of the room in a tuxedo and—I kid you not—a monocle.
“Jesus,” I muttered to myself more than anything. “Didn’t those go extinct along with the dinosaurs?”
Surprisingly, Potter snorted in agreement. Ginny quickly shushed us, turning her rapt attention to the fancy-pants Monopoly Man.
“Presenting: the Excellency Himself, the Minister of Magic — Eros Humdudgeon.”
Immediately, applause rippled through the crowd and people began jostling around to make way, forming a clear, decisive path. I watched, feeling almost separated from my body, as Eros Humdudgeon—a man whose speeches I had heard countless times on the radio, whose image I'd seen on the WizTelly, whose policies I read about in history books —stepped towards the front of the room. He was shorter in person, I noticed. His hair was graying on the sides, but he had the same square, stout face, the same politician’s smile.
“Hello,” he greeted. Just like that. As if it were just another day, completely casual. Sup? I half expected him to break into free-style rap. This one goes out to all the fallen homies!
Instead, in a clear, simple voice, he began to address the room: “Friends and associates, today we are gathered to celebrate a joyous holiday and show our gratitude for all that we are blessed with...”
I started to fade into La La Land as the Minister droned on. I watched Aidan and Dom as they stood in the middle of the dance-floor, apparently listening in rapt attention. I wasn’t fooled though. Both their eyes were glazed over in an expression I usually associated with the History of Magic classroom at Hogwarts. I also spotted Freddy and Evelyn, who was wearing an emerald green dress, standing by the corner, so close to each other that I almost felt like I was intruding on something intimate. His arm was wrapped carelessly around her waist, the idle fingers of his other hand playing with the ruffles on her skirt.
Then I looked at Potter. His gaze, dutifully trained on the Minister, was alert and respectful and attentive. He was good at this. Potter — human dispenser of snark, irreverent and contemptuous in the face of all authority — was good at this. It was shocking, actually, just how easily he fit in with all the other guests, looking so comfortable in his suit like another classy politician or high-brow contributor to society. He was one of them.
And then I realized: of course he was. The son of Ginny and Harry Potter would have had years of experience with classy galas and boring politician's speeches. Potter was the eldest son of The Chosen One.
Some children get pony rides for their seventh birthday — Aidan told me Potter, meanwhile, had the opportunity to sit on the back of a mini Hungarian Horntail. My godparents were Susan and Eric Hamm, dental hygienist and accountant, respectively. Potter's were the Minister of Defense and the highest-scoring Chaser on the Chudley Canons.
As if he could read my thoughts, Potter turned his head and met my eye. My stomach gave a not-altogether-unpleasant lurch. He'd caught me staring, and as we both seemed to register this fact, Potter's eyes flicked from my face to my bare shoulders to my dress, lingering on every curve and sweep of fabric. He was sizing me up, taking in everything just like I'd been doing seconds ago to him. I felt something hot pool inside my cheeks.
Before I could do or say anything, however, he turned away, leaving me feeling like my whole body had just been dunked in ice-water. As if nothing had happened, he steadied his gaze on the Minister again, seeming completely interested in what the man had to say.
But after only ten seconds (in which Potter continued to calmly listen to the speech and I tried my hardest not to spontaneously combust into flames), he leaned over towards me and murmured smoothly, mouth way too close to my ear, “Shouldn’t you be listening to the Minister instead of staring at me?”
There was almost a note of... amusement in his voice. A smirk lilted at his lips. He wasn't even looking at me, his eyes still focused on Humdudgeon.
I gaped for a moment, and then snapped around, gaze darting over to see if Ginny had heard. She was watching the Minister as well, nodding her head vigorously to whatever he was saying, but I couldn’t be sure.
“...What’s even more exciting,” he was saying, with the utmost seriousness, “Is the new precious artifact we have on display for tonight.” He gave a curt nod to the orchestra, and a drum roll began. Fancy-pants Monopoly Man strode towards the Minister, carrying something covered in a satin red sheet. A sense of anticipation seemed to swell in the air, all the energy in the room tensing together.
“May I present: the Sword of Godric Gryffindor!”
And then the sheet was whipped off, revealing exactly what he’d said.
I didn’t know what I’d been expecting — as if they had been lying to us the whole time and the only thing under the sheet was a rusty toaster oven, or something, but there it was: the Sword. In all its gleaming, ruby-studded glory. A collective gasp rumbled through the room.
“Holy crap,” I breathed, gaze glued to Minister as, with a simple flick of his wand, he conjured a sparkling wisp of silver light that eventually solidified into a glass case. The Sword slid inside, and then together, the case and the Sword floated into the air, high above our heads so everyone was craning their necks to see it.
“This relic was donated by the Longbottom family, and we are incredibly grateful for their generosity.” The Minister’s lips stretched into a thoughtful smile. “Now, enough of my talking. This is a time to celebrate! Happy Christmas to everyone!”
On that note, red and gold ribbons unfurled themselves seemingly from nowhere, twining together around columns and across walls. The orchestra broke out into a cheery carol as people resumed chatting and dancing — though a little more animated this time.
...And Ginny rounded on Potter and I with her hands planted on her hips, a very expectant look gleaming in her eye.
We stared at her blankly.
“Mrs. Potter?” I prompted, just to be polite.
She smiled. “Well? Why don’t you two dance?”
No way, José.
There was a snowball’s chance in dragon fire that I was going to dance with James Sirius Potter. Not only would that mean I’d have to boil my skin afterwards (he would be touching me! Holding me!), but it also meant I’d have to be within close proximity of his face and we all knew that that was when poor choices tended to be made.
“I’d much rather stay here and, er, stand — “
“Thanks but no thanks, Mum — “
“— I have two left feet — “
“Don’t really feel like putting myself through that — “
“Nonsense!” Ginny sliced through our overlapping excuses, smiling between us. “I dragged you both out here, now you might as well enjoy yourselves.”
“That would be the last thing we’d do — “
“— Really, Mrs. Potter, I’d much rather prefer to stay here and, er, stand—“
“I don’t care! Not another word!” She chirped, and with the same conspiratorial grin as usual, she grabbed Potter by the tie and me by my wrist and frog-marched us to the dance-floor. “Now, I am going to leave you two alone, and you better have danced at least three full songs before I come back. Have fun!”
And I could swear, just before she walked away, she threw a wink in my direction.
I hate my life.
There was a moment of pounding tension as Potter and I stood there, other lavish couples sweeping around us. I didn’t know where to look, so instead I dedicated my energy to inspecting the floor.
“Um,” I began. My brain was lagging on what had just happened. Potter stood in front of me, rigidly straight and so obviously unenthused.
The orchestra music, as if on cue, seemed to dip into a gentler melody — it swayed softly, almost sadly, as we stood there, unmoving. Knowing there was nothing else to be done, I raised my eyes to meet Potter’s.
Our surroundings seemed to slow as we looked at each other, realizing what came next.
“I guess we should...”
Stiffly, Potter held out his hand.
I took it. And then — in a smooth but strangely gentle motion — Potter pulled me close to him. My heartbeat was thudding in my chest as he slid an arm around my waist, and I placed my other hand on his shoulder. Every move was foreign, carried out with the utmost delicacy. This was holding your breath, this was not daring to make a sound. This was walking through a dark house in the middle of the night while everyone else in the world fell fast asleep. Potter was treating me like I was something fragile, and I was all too aware of his hand on the small of my back.
We started to sway, and it was almost scary, how easy it was for me to fall into step with him. Potter was a good dancer, sure of himself, and for once I let him take the lead. I didn’t know if it was the dimmed lights, or the pining, sorrowful music, but all of a sudden we were able to slip into a rhythm. Everything else just disappeared until it was him and I, together, alone.
His eyes were roving across my face, expression unreadable, and I watched him watch me. He was restrained — eyes somber melted gold, swirling with browns and greens and ambers — taking in my every moment. I stared at the stitches above his eyebrow.
The world around us was fading. I didn't know how, but we were slowly getting closer. By the end of the first song, I was pressed wholly against Potter as we swayed around the room, his hands firm and reassuring on me. By the end of the second, we were so close to each other our foreheads were almost touching. By the third, my head had found its way to a resting position on his shoulder, something neither of us chose to remark on. It was like, regardless of the anger and hostility and hurt, our bodies found some way to act on their own accord, to give into the magnetism shivering between them.
My breathing had slowed, and something sad and quiet was welling up inside me. The hall was slowly darkening until the only illumination was the strand of softly glimmering Christmas lights strung intricately around the ballroom. They blurred and gleamed together, glazing everything in soft light.
I thought about Nora, about all that Potter had been through with her. About him now, holding me reluctantly close, his unreadable face inches from mine. And all the anger I’d kept simmering inside me for the past few days seemed to slowly melt into a thick melancholy, shaded with what was maybe an attempt at understanding.
“We’re never going to be on the same page, are we?” I murmured softly, unsure whether the remark was for my ears or his. It seemed like Potter wasn't about to say anything, but then I felt his cheek brush against my hair as he nodded.
“I don't think so, Bennett."
“Why is that?” And I really wanted to know. How could it be that one moment, we were so comfortable with each other — like we’d done this a thousand times before — and the next, we couldn’t stand to be in the same room? I didn’t understand; we were so right and so wrong at the same time.
Potter was silent, holding me as we swayed gently together, his feet guiding mine with firm, easy steps. I wondered what he was thinking.
“Maybe it’s because you make things so difficult,” he finally remarked. His tone was inoffensive, casual, flippant — like he was throwing out some commonly-known fact that we were in agreement over.
I jerked backwards, eyes flashing wide open, immediately incensed. For a moment, we stopped dancing completely, his arm still wrapped around my waist, our hands clasped together. Potter was watching me, stare almost bored and utterly unapologetic.
“Excuse me? I make things difficult?” I hissed quietly, trying to keep my voice down.
He stepped forward and I moved with him, but this time — quicker. Gone was the tenderness, the care and caution. Now the tempo had ratcheted up a notch. This dance was about competition, about out-maneuvering the opponent and seeing who would trip up first.
“You heard me, Bennett.”
“I’m not the one keeping secrets, here! I'm not the one acting like a prattish moron!”
“You punched me,” Potter snapped. Without warning, he spun me away and I went twirling vigorously outwards before he jerked me back into his arms. I tried to keep up and not stumble, unfazed.
I rolled my eyes, shrugging dismissively. “Yeah, yeah, I hurt your feelings and your pretty boy face, whatever. Why don't we stop making a big deal of it?"
"Why don't you stop breaking my nose?"
"Why don't you stop deserving it?"
We were both seething. Potter’s grip on my hand had turned tight and bone-crushing. My nails were digging into his shoulder, my teeth gritted. The skirt of my dress flared out as we tore across the floor together, our movements almost violent in their execution.
“You’re a real arsehole, you know that?” I grunted as he dipped me lower than I thought possible, his hands not supporting me at all. My grip on him tightened, and I tried not to fall. “First you get mad at me, even though you were the one who used me to get over Nora — ”
“For fuck’s sake, Bennett, why do you keep on making everything about you?” Potter yanked me back up to standing and we danced on, him twirling and pulling and spinning me everywhere with fluent expertise. I was starting to get dizzy, but hell if I was going to let him know that.
“Because,” I paused, my skirt blooming outwards as I whirled around in another nauseating circle. The moment I was back in his arms, I was talking again. “It is about me. It always has been, ever since that night in the Astronomy Tower when you chose to use me to get over your messed up, convoluted past. You made a mistake, Potter. Just admit it already like a mature adult."
“You know what, Bennett?,” Potter bit out through a clenched jaw, shaking his head derisively. “You come up with all these bullshit accusations just so you can have the opportunity to get mad and feel superior for once — ”
“They’re not accusations if they’re true!” I had to contain myself from yelling. Anger was boiling over inside me; my blood was bubbling, my eyes slitted as Potter scoffed, looking away in aggravation before swiveling his livid gaze back on me again.
“I’m going to say this once and only once, Bennett," he drawled, and his tone made it so obvious that he just couldn't take me seriously. "I didn't use you."
I laughed, high-pitched with hysteria. “Oh really?”
“Yes, really,” Potter suddenly pressed forward, and I had to catch myself from stumbling. Together, we danced furiously across the marble in wide, swooping circles, passing a bewildered Dom and Aidan in the process. We were stepping lightly, fast but precise. "Whatever crazy motives you're assigning me in your head right now, I can guarantee you none of them are true."
“You truly expect me to believe that?”
“No, because you’re annoying and stubborn. But it is true.”
My nostrils flared. I half-expected steam to start billowing out my ears. “How dare you — ”
“Nora and I,” Again, the way he said her name made my chest tighten. “Were together for one and a half years. I don’t think three stupid fuck-ups are going to make me magically forget about her.”
By fuck-ups, I was assuming he meant our kisses. My cheeks flamed, blooming cherry red. Was he insulting my kissing abilities? I’d have him know I was an excellent snogger! I wore chapstick! My lips were supple.
I stayed silent, glaring murderously at Potter. Tendrils of red curls were clinging to my face. We were both breathing heavily, and Potter’s cheeks now glowed a faint pink. It was satisfying to finally see some sort of physical reaction from him, for once.
“Believe me, Bennett,” he growled quietly, and I immediately scoffed before he could even finish the sentence. Believe him? He was already asking too much of me. “I’ve tried the whole rebound thing before. And it doesn’t work.”
For a moment, my brow collapsed into a bewildered frown. Rebound thing? What was that supposed to mean? Had he hooked up with someone else — someone else who wasn’t me — after Nora?
“What?” I snapped, angry he was confusing me.
Potter exhaled loudly, obviously unwilling to explain. But after a second glare from me, he surrendered. “After Nora and I first... broke up, for lack of better word, I was at a party where Aidan and Fred convinced me to... hook up with this random muggle girl. It was a drunken mistake, and it didn’t help. All it did was just made everything worse,” He stared off stoically above my head, guarded remorse in his eyes. “So if you think I’d do the same thing again — especially with you, of all people — then you’re sodding crazier than I thought.”
My heart was thudding my chest. We fell silent, dancing in quiet, awkward tension. I mechanically followed Potter’s steps, mind whirring. I didn’t understand. Especially with me...of all people?
I took a deep breath. Potter was looking at me, apprehensive but expectant. He knew I would have questions.
So I gave him one. “What do you mean by 'hook up?'”
Potter looked away, drawing back, closing off. “Does it matter?”
I glowered. “Yes.”
“Why do you even care?”
“Just tell me, Potter!”
“Maybe I don’t want to.”
“I’m going to find out anyway!”
Potter swiveled his curiously vivid gaze back on me. “Fine,” he snarled angrily. “We slept together, alright?”
Something inside me seemed to snap like a rubber band. Without even wanting to, I could just imagine Potter with this girl, his hands, her sighs, tangled together, him looking at her with those black-gold eyes, dark with something unmentionable, her fingers tangled in his hair just like mine had been...
I blinked, clearing my head. My chest was clenched painfully tight. I felt sick, like everything inside me had been packed into a miniscule, shuddering ball. I didn’t know why, but I had the sudden urge to hit something. “What about Nora?” Call it morbid curiosity, but I wanted to — had to — know. “Did you sleep with her, too?”
“Did you or didn’t you?”
“Just tell the truth.”
“Why do you care?!"
“I just do!"
“Fine,” Potter looked away, huffing out a breath of air and blowing a few dark locks of hair from his eyes. “Yeah, I did. But we stopped when things got bad.”
“How chivalrous of you.” My words were dripping acid. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, him with that dark, urgent spark in his eye, fingers skimming, fire and need and want...
It was making me sick.
“I don’t see why you care,” he spat caustically. “Besides, it’s not like you have the right to know.”
And that did it. My steps grinded to a halt. I yanked my hand from Potter’s shoulder as if I’d been burned and jerked away. “I need to go.”
“Bennett — ” He reached out to me. I turned away.
“Don’t,” I began, voice shaking. “Touch me."
“Why are you freaking out?” Frustration sliced through his voice, and he shoved an aggravated hand in his hair. People were starting to stare.
I snapped. Whipping back around, I wheeled on him with bright, enraged eyes. “What am I then, huh, Potter? If Nora’s your one true love and that muggle girl’s your rebound shag, then — What. Am. I?”
He stared gravely at me, lips parted, eyes searing and intense. There was a beat of silence; I could feel it like a tangible thing, wiggling between us, making itself comfortable in the empty air. I hated myself for it, but I couldn’t look away.
“You’re Bennett,” he replied, seriously, quietly. “And you don’t belong to me. You’re not my anything because you’re not mine.”
My eyes were stinging. I didn’t know what specific kinds, but emotions were swirling up inside me, out of control, impossible to reign in.
“Damn right I’m not,” I spat, before turning to walk away.
And that was when something strange happened — or rather several strange things happened.
With a sudden clap of noise, the lights went out. The music stopped.
For a brief, irrational second, I thought the sudden blackout had something to do with Potter and I's argument. As if the sheer volatility of our words had sucked all the light from the room. But then I came to my senses, glancing at the other bewildered faces around me, and realized that this was beyond us. This was much more serious.
There was a single, bated second of silence. I'd never heard such a silence before. It seemed to echo, ripple through us. It told me — warned me — that something was about to happen, and I turned back to Potter as all my anger seemed to just drop out of my body, replaced with automatic fear.
And the room started to shudder. Tumultuously, terrifyingly — glassware clanged together, smashing as bottles rolled to the floor. Tables were being knocked over, chairs on their backs or in splinters on the marble. There was a roaring, rushing noise that seemed to rear its head, clouding our ears with white static, as deafening as if we were in the middle of a wind tunnel. The hem of my dress was flickering outwards in an invisible breeze, my hair coming loose from its updo.
My eyes caught sight of Godric’s sword floating above us in its case, and I gasped. Because swirling like a snake around it was something putrid green and inherently, instinctively, frightening.
The Dark Mark.
Potter had noticed it too. He was staring up at the putrid green symbol, face cast in its Delphic luminescence, dark hair flapping in the wind. He didn’t waver, he didn’t shake. He simply stared, purposefully, determinedly, like he knew what was happening and what to do.
“Bennett,” he said flatly, not a hint of panic in his voice. “Get down.”
The floor was trembling, and my legs were shaking all over the place. “What? No!” I yelled stubbornly over the noise. Was he really trying to order me around after the argument we'd just had?
“Get down now, Bennett,” Potter's voice, however, told me that this wasn't just about the argument anymore. This was something bigger, something that mattered. It scared me, because I'd never heard him sound so serious in my life.
“Just tell me what’s going on!”
“GET DOWN!” And then there was a giant 'boom!' that seemed to explode from within the hall, with shockwaves I felt warble through all the fibers of my being, and Potter threw himself at me, pushing my body to the floor, landing painfully on top of me as I collided against the golden marble.
People were screaming. There were flashing lights going off everywhere above us, where our heads had previously been — spells that blinded and blazed in the overwhelming darkness. Glass from the breaking chandeliers was raining down, pelting us with sharp shards. The Ballroom was under attack, I dully realized. Aidan and Dom and Freddy and everyone I loved were here, in this room, and it was under attack.
“Potter,” I wheezed frantically, barely able to breathe with his weight on top of me. It was too dark to see anything. There were just hazy shapes and running shadowed figures, more screaming, more yelling. “What’s happening?”
But he wasn’t answering my question, too busy struggling on top of me as he took off his suit jacket. What?
“Potter!” I yelped, trying to scramble away. Noise clashed and trembled in the air above me, and it was all just a dizzying, disorienting blur of lights and screams and bangs. Everything was happening so fast; I couldn't process it. I had no idea what was going on. All I knew was that I was scared. “What are you doing? What’s going on? WHAT — WHY ARE YOU UNDRESSING YOURSELF?”
“Cover your face,” he directed calmly, eyes narrowed and focused with concentration. He held the jacket above our heads. There was a loud pop and then a barely audible tinkling as more glass rained down. And then I screamed, startled, as some piece of debris, wooden and big and roughly the size of a breadbox, fell on top of us. It caught Potter on the shoulder —more screaming from me — and he flinched reflexively, but didn’t let go of the jacket.
He was, I dimly realized, protecting us. No, protecting me. That was the reason for the jacket, why he was lying on top of me... He was taking the worst of it. For my sake.
“Potter,” I began hysterically, incoherently. I was confused, but there was something urgent tugging inside of me. I knew what we had to do. There was only one thing. “Aidan... We have to find Aidan...”
Potter nodded. And then he was getting up, dragging an unhelpfully shrieking me with him, lifting the arm that was holding the jacket over our heads. We half-crouched, half-ran across the room, ducking shooting spells and falling objects. The booms and clatters shook the ground, and at one point I stumbled, almost falling, but Potter simply hauled me back up again as if I were nothing, pulling me with him.
It seemed like an eternity of running before Potter yanked me behind a large, round table that was on its side, its legs facing a nearby wall. It looked out onto the chaos, its table top a kind of shield from everything going on.
“Here,” he pushed me down behind it, out of harm, and threw the jacket carelessly aside. Then he crouched next to me, grabbing my shoulders and urgently turning me to look him in the eye. “Stay. Here.”
Speechless, I watched as he stood and took out his wand from his pocket, me dimly realizing that he was going to leave me here — to go off and find the others, I presumed.
“What — NO!” I yelped, grabbing him by the shirtsleeves and pulling him back towards me. “Potter — ” I began desperately. Another echoing boom shook the room. More debris rained over our heads. “Don’t leave me here!”
“I have to. You’ll be fine,” Potter’s face was emotionless, merciless. He was going, whether I liked it or not. I shivered in the cool air as he crouched down again, grabbing my face and forcing me to look at him. Even in the dark, I could make out his eyes. “It’s all going to stop in a minute. You’ll be fine. Don’t go anywhere.”
But I knew he was wrong. The booms and bangs were getting louder. The ceiling was practically on fire with spell light, different colored beams shooting in every direction. Smoke whirled in the air. People were screaming hoarsely, almost animalistically, and I was shaking.
Potter's face in front of me was glowing silver in the spell light. He looked fierce, with his shirtsleeves pushed back, his hand clutching his wand, determined. The thought of being alone, unprotected, in the middle of all this chaos was terrifying. Why had I left my wand at Dom's? I was such an idiot.
“Stay with me,” I said weakly.
“Bennett, I can’t — ”
“I need you here. With me.” My voice was trembling. I felt so helpless, so stupid. “I’m scared.”
“I have to be out there, Bennett. I have to go help.”
“Then take me with you — just don’t leave me alone!” I pleaded, refusing to let go of his shirt as he tried to stand up. Never before had I cast away so much of my pride for one person, begged so pathetically for something.
“No,” he firmly peeled off my hands, definite. “It’s too dangerous.”
I was breathing heavily, and I knew I was faced with no choice. I stared at Potter, at the angry stitches above his eyebrow — had I caused those just 48 hours ago? It seemed like a whole different lifetime — and inched forward. His jaw was set, eyes glinting resolutely. Silver starbursts of light from the spells glanced off his face, and I realized the one thing I had to do — the only chance I had — to get him to stay.
I leaned forward on my knees, heart pounding furiously in my ears. Grabbing Potter’s tie and squeezing my eyes shut, I yanked him forward, and his lips went crashing down on mine.
There was a frozen second when Potter did nothing, stoic and unresponsive as a board. Spell light flashed behind my closed eyelids. The ground shook underneath us.
And then, Potter dropped his wand to the floor as all the tension in his shoulders melted away. With a muffled, defeated groan, he shoved his hands into my hair, cupping my face, and kissed me back harder than I’d ever been kissed before.
I wound my fingers around his neck and into his soft hair, leaning back on the floor just behind the table until he was on top of me, my dress hiked up around my legs, him between them, the lines of his body outlined in the glowing silver behind us. I could feel his shoulders, pulled taut and tense, underneath my palms. His shirt collar smelled of smoke and wandfire.
Above us, spell light clashed together and burst over our heads like exploding stars, like fireworks. One of Potter's rough hands skimmed up my thigh, and waves of shivers flicked down the length of my spine. I pulled him closer. A strange fever was beginning to creep up my body as our kiss turned urgent, his mouth searing and hot on mine.
But I knew I could only distract him so long. Already, he was pulling back, and as much as I grappled at him, he was coming to his senses.
“Mmmph — Bennett,” Potter murmured against my mouth, pushing me gently away. “Stop.”
Panic choked me tight. I grabbed his hands, looking him dead in the eye as he leaned back. “Potter. I am begging you.”
“I’m sorry." For a second, something flickered in Potter's gaze — something that told me he was tempted to stay here, twined together. Then his eyes fluttered shut, a faint crease digging between his brows as he gathered all his willpower, as he restrained himself.
I stared at him. This was my last chance — if this didn’t work, nothing would.
Those hazel eyes flashed open again. “I’ll come back for you,” he murmured. "Promise."
And then he stood up, grabbed his wand off the floor, and was striding off into the chaos, into the literal war waging on behind our shield.
I could do nothing but sit on my knees, blinking desperately, and watch as he vanished within seconds.
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