Chapter 4 : The One With Bravery
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"Alison Schaefer is making googly eyes at you." Rose mutters to me during Potions as she carefully adds valerian root to our brew.
I shrug indifferently, peering into our cauldron before giving it a quick clockwise stir.
Rose cuts me a quick skeptical glance, "You okay, Al? You don't seem yourself."
Unconsciously, my eyes glance quickly to the girl laughing at the faces Oliver Curkin is making at her, and glance quickly away, "I'm fine, Rose. Just stressed with everything going on."
And that is true.
What with being a Prefect, Quidditch, and all the grueling coursework for our upcoming NEWTs, it's a wonder I haven't turned into a pile of stress-induced Seventh Year mush.
The fact that Kate Austin has taken over seventy-five percent of my brain doesn't help matters much, but Rose doesn't know that, nor does she need to.
Rose's attention to our potion stops completely as she turns to face me, arms crossed, "I just saw you look at that girl Austin again. You've been doing that all class."
I can feel my face turning red but attempt another indifferent shrug, "I'm just trying to help her out, that's all. It's not a big deal."
Rose shakes her head at me, smiling and sighing, "If by 'helping her out', you mean 'turning the entirety of the female population of Hogwarts against her', then you're doing a fabulous job."
I clear my throat, "What are you saying?"
Rose gives me one of her 'mightier than thou' looks while pulling her red hair out of its ponytail, "I'm not the only one who's noticed your staring, Albus." Rose leans in closer, her hazel eyes going wide with concern, and just a bit of curiosity, "People are starting to wonder what is just so fascinating about the 'strange, quiet freak' who's so entirely captured The Albus Potter's attention." She studies my face for any cracks in my nonchalant expression before leaning away again, finishing off-handedly, "That, and the fact that Claire Upton has a death warrant with Austin's name on it, she's just about the least safe girl in Hogwarts."
My paring knife slips through my loosened grip, clattering to the floor.
I quickly bend down to pick it up, mind racing.
Have I actually managed to make things worse for Kate?
I haven't even done anything to help her yet!
Why is it so freaking hard for people to understand that she's just a normal girl with no ill intentions toward anyone?
Even Rose, the 'Saint' of Hogwarts, talks about her with a slightly disapproving tone.
I just don't get it.
Sighing, I stand up to face Rose, asking in hushed, determined tones, "Why do you think Austin is a freak?"
She looks taken aback, flushing, "I - I don't-"
I give her a look, "C'mon, Rose."
She sighs, running a hand through her hair as she stares into our potion, "I - I don't know, Al. There's just some kind of - of stigma, around her. It's like, her image is so solidified in people's minds that you can't just wipe it out, no matter how normal she seems on a day-to-day basis. Plus, she's always got that camera with her. It's just different, Al. And… I know you have this fixation with helping people, but I'm just not sure if she deserves it."
I stare at her disbelievingly; trying to swallow around the frustration lodged in my throat, finally looking away from her and saying dismissively, "Wow, Rose. Never thought I'd see the day when you would judge someone based on rumors. And, oh yeah, because she has a hobby."
Class ends and I stalk away from Rose's stunned, speechless face.
I am going to clear Kate Austin's name if it kills me.
Turning down the dungeon corridor, I spot a familiar blond head and grin, "Wotcher, Dommie!"
Dominique Weasley looks for the source and grins when she spots me before skipping over to me, linking her arm through mine, "Hello, darling. Have a nice lesson?"
I grimace, "It was… enlightening."
She laughs, "Well, I hope it has the same effect for me, I have it next and I haven't done a lick of studying for it."
She scrunches her nose at my disapproving expression, smiling and bopping me on my nose, "Oh, how I do adore you, my lovely fuddy-duddy cousin."
I make a face at her before an idea comes to me. I pull her to the side of the corridor and I say in a low voice, "Say, Dom, how much do you know about Kate Austin?"
If anyone if going to be kind and compassionate to Kate, it'll be Dom.
That girl is genuinely made of sunshine and rainbows.
Dom scrunches her brows, thinking, "She's in my house but a year above me, I think. I haven't had much of an occasion to talk to her, really. I think she mostly just keeps to herself."
I nod, looking at her sincerely, "Listen, would you mind looking out for her? I mean, just in the Hufflepuff Common Room, really. I think there may be a few girls sharpening their pitchforks, and it may be my fault."
Dom smiles up at me, "Absolutely."
I blink at her, "Really? Just like that?"
She nods, "You're a wonderful judge of character, Al. If you believe in her, so do I."
Kate Austin P.O.V.
"Albus Potter is making googly eyes at you." Oliver elbows me in the side as we walk toward Hogsmeade Village, all bundled up to protect ourselves from the harsh November winds.
I shake my head exasperatedly at Oliver, "You're incorrigible. I bet he's not even behind us."
Oliver throws his arm over my shoulders, "Maybe. Maybe not. But you'll never know because you never look."
"Well according to you he's always looking at me, and I'm not about to get a sore neck like you are just because Albus Potter may or may not be looking in our direction." I declare, crossing my arms over my chest.
"Your direction. I'm afraid I'm not Al's type."
I look at Oliver, trying not to laugh as he attempts to light a cigarette in the blustery winds, "You are genuinely the most ridiculous person on the face of this planet."
He shrugs, cigarette dangling from his mouth, "It's why you love me."
I take a moment to ponder this, "I think you may be right."
Oliver gives up on the cigarette as we reach the village, grumpily stuffing it into his pocket, "Three Broomsticks?" He suggests, inclining his head in the direction of the place in question.
I nod happily, shivering in my many layers.
Oliver offers me the crook of his arm and I take it, nestling close as we walk to absorb some of his heat.
"Oi, look at this walking Freakshow!" a voice crows behind us, making us stop and turn to see a group of Gryffindor boys smirking at Oliver and I.
A group of jeering, idiotic boys is just what this Village needed to really be considered charming.
I am so not in the mood for this.
I'm freezing my face off right now.
I feel Oliver's shoulders tense up as his roommates descend upon us, that guy Tim leading the assault.
"Well well, the gross rumors are true. The world has to suffer looking at the Loser Lovebirds." is how Tim begins.
Oliver defensively brings him arms tightly to his sides, trapping my hand against him.
Usually so talkative and witty, Oliver is speechless.
Heart pounding in my throat with the mockingly amused expressions of the Gryffindors trained on me, my voice is as strong as I could hope for, "Could you move along? I'm allergic to ignoramus."
Tim's expression isn't angry, but it isn't happy either, "Excuse me, little Freak?" he cups a hand to his ear, leaning forward with that stupid look on his face.
His cronies laugh.
I'm breathing heavily through my nose, anger boiling at their pointless condescension, "Ignoramus. A noun expressing, alongside such adjectives as 'deeply' and 'unfortunate', to depict the circumstance of having to describe what an 'ignorant', or 'stupid person' is to just such people."
Tim's face is glowering, but I'm glowing with pride for myself.
I didn't stammer once.
Tim, and all is bigoted butthead friends, can suck it.
Tim advances toward us a few steps, pointing an accusatory finger in my face, "Leave Al alone. He doesn't need to be tainted by whatever psychotic ideas you have for him."
I gape at him, "You think I'm the one bothering him?"
Tim crosses his arms over his chest, scoffing, "Obviously."
I am so done with all this bullshit.
I point my own accusatory finger, "I want nothing from your golden boy. You can tell him that, from me."
Oliver finally speaks, muttering, "I think you just told him that yourself." he jerks his chin in the direction over Tim's shoulder.
Tim and I both look behind the group of Gryffindors to see Albus standing in front of Honeydukes, clutching a bag of sweets, looking fit to murder.
"What," he says loudly, storming forward, "the fucking hell are you doing?"
At first I think he's talking to me, but next thing I know Al is shoving me behind him (effectively shuffling Oliver back as well), shielding me from Tim's view and looking at all his friends.
"Al-" one of his roommates begins, but Al doesn't let him finish.
"No, I mean it. What do you think you're doing?" It's clear he's speaking directly to Tim.
Tim shoves his hands in his pockets, glaring, "I'm trying to be a good friend, Al."
Albus is breathing heavily, hands clenching and unclenching, "I don't care if you think what you're doing is right, or okay, or justifiable. Try being a decent human being for once in your goddamned life."
I can't be here.
Panic is lodging itself in my throat and I need to be far away from all of this.
Wiggling my hand free from Oliver's side, I turn and bolt, Oliver hot on my heels.
I keep running until I can't hear the angry voices of Albus and Tim, and the shocked and awed faces of the crowd that's gathered are indistinguishable from one another.
We reach the fence surrounding the Shrieking Shack, and I'm shivering again, but this time it has nothing to do with the cold.
Oliver hugs me tightly, and after a moment he says, "Merlin, Kate, you never told me you're a badass! You just schooled Timothy Fennwrick, Gryffindor's biggest prick."
I laugh shakily, moving my head from his chest to look up at his grinning face, "I did good back there, huh?"
He squeezes me, "Amazing."
My smile fades slowly as I look at the Shrieking Shack, "What's happening, Ol? Why is my life revolving around some - some guy I don't even know?"
He rests his chin on top of my head, "You are the symbol of Al's crusade. All that he's ever tried to swoop in and 'save'. That, and he's absolutely nuts for you and his friends can't stand it."
I elbow him, "He does not fancy me, Oliver! Quit saying that. He just can't stand the thought of leaving Hogwarts without fixing whatever 'wrongdoings' his brother may have caused."
I can tell Oliver wants to disagree, but he uncharacteristically stays quiet.
We turn and stand side by side, staring at the Shrieking Shack, enjoying the silence.
"Kate!" I jump as I hear my name called in the distance.
I shoot a panicked look at Oliver, who just grins amusedly down at me.
"Time to face your savior." He says brightly, kissing me on the temple before walking away, hands in his pockets and whistling.
"Kate! Seriously, where are you?" Al's voice comes floating toward me again as I turn back toward the Shack, clutching the fence posts.
"Hello, Al! Nice day, isn't it?" I hear Oliver's voice some way off.
There's some urgent murmuring, and then pounding footsteps leading to my exact spot.
I know he's right there, but I still don't turn.
He slowly approaches me, leaning against the fence when he reaches me.
I can feel him staring.
I turn toward him quickly, prepared to ask him -as nicely as possible- to leave me alone, but I stop when I see his smiling face and the large slab of Honeyduke's Finest he's holding out to me.
"Chocolate?" He asks, eyes warm and kind.
"Alright." I say faintly, taking a piece.
I turn toward the Shack again, taking a bite and smiling.
"Tim's really sorry." He says after a long pause.
I shoot him a look and he blushes, correcting himself, "Well, I'm sorry."
I shrug and offer him a forgiving smile, which I know is all he really came here for, "Don't worry, Al. I don't hold your friend’s actions against you. Your conscience is cleared." I push off the fence, walking a few steps before turning, "Thanks for the chocolate."
Brow furrowed and hands in pockets, he looks at me speculatively. I give him a wan smile and a small wave, feet putting distance between me and those eyes of his.
Heart pounding for unknown reasons, I stop at once and turn to look back at his face.
His cheeks pink from the cold or embarrassment or both, he strides toward me.
He slows to a stop and looks at the ground, lips pressed together for a moment before looking at me and smiling slightly, "I like the way you say that. My name, I mean. Usually I can't stand being called Albus, but I like it coming from you."
I swallow quickly, just knowing that my cheeks are surely bright red by now, I say softly, "It's a nice name."
Albus stares at me for a long moment before turning away quickly, hands in his hair and his brow furrowed.
He turns back to me after a moment of what looked like very deep thought, hair wild, "Can I be honest with you, Kate?"
I blink at him, "Yes."
He nods and says very fast, hands in his hair once more, "People don't like you, and I have no bloody idea why and it's driving me just nuts trying to figure it out. You don't want my help but I'm sure by now you've realized that I'm not going anywhere until you can walk through Hogsmeade without getting yelled at by pricks like Tim. Also, you make me nervous."
I make him nervous?
But - how?
I rub my hands together to keep them warm, having forgotten my gloves, "Albus… I-"
I was about to once again say, 'I don't need your help', but I believe him now that he's not going to let this go.
Once a knight in shining armor, always a knight in shining armor.
So instead I say, smiling apologetically, "I'm not sure what you can do to help."
His face lights up upon realizing I've conceded defeat, "Be my friend."
I laugh slightly, "What?"
He steps closer, excited, "I mean it! Be my friend. That way, you'll gain credibility as a normal person and people will leave you alone."
I raise my brows incredulously, "That's one way it could go. Or, like we saw with Tim just a moment ago, people will doubt your credibility and think I've performed voodoo magic on you or something equally strange. I really do appreciate the fact that you care for those who are seen so little by others, but I'm just not comfortable with mixing you up in the weirdness that is my Hogwarts social life. Er, Albus?"
He had been staring at my mouth the whole time I had been talking.
Is Oliver right?
Could Albus Potter actually… fancy me?
He doesn't even know me.
If someone tells me that he likes me because he can see the goodness in my soul, I will walk away right now from that laughable trite.
Good grief, what has my life become?
Albus flushes crimson, "Sorry, I've just never heard you say that much at once before."
He doesn't fancy me, he's just awed at the fact that I can string a semi-long sentence together.
The embarrassment is real.
And I also, apparently, am in serious need of communication skills if my grasp of the English language excites people.
It's my turn to blush, laughing slightly and uncomfortably, "Right, well, I am known to get into bouts of waxing lyrical every now and again."
Holy moly, what am I even saying?
I need to leave, before I really expose my social ineptitude.
But Albus grins, "You should do it more often. You have good things to say. You should also sit with me at dinner tonight."
I smile apologetically at him once more as I back away slowly, "I'm sorry, Al, but I'm afraid I can't join you tonight."
His face is all frustration, "Look, Kate, I really think it would help-"
I put up my hands, laughing, "No, no Albus! It's not that. I just already have plans."
I nod, "I've signed up for one of the free Potions labs, and it's only available at dinner time."
His curiosity is piqued, "What're you doing in the dungeons?"
I grin, excited, "Developing pictures."
"Brilliant! Can I come?"
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