Chapter 21 : V-Day D-Day
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That second of surprise, eyes wide and lashes pin-straight like a crown, can be pretty on the right person—depending on past experience and, to a lesser extent, the proximity to one's birthday. The higher hopes for something good, the prettier.
My face looks like a pretzel knot.
That second of surprise, i.e. the journalist's worst nightmare: something got past me and everyone has gathered to watch. Pickett is sputtering. Sandra ran off sobbing to the loo, palms black with mascara. It is now the second after. Albus' arm is still around Appy.
"Potter!" I yell.
The excited burble around Appy morphs into gasps and shrieks. Appy is mid-laugh and has yet to hear. Albus, however, turns and when he sees me, he is glassy-eyed... like I'm a stranger.
I draw in a breath too quickly and taste metal. Don't assume, chimes my helpful inner voice. There's a logical explanation for that look, for why Appy fits so snugly in the crook of Albus' elbow, her winter coat creased by their closeness. His arm is tired—or he twisted his ankle this morning coming down the stairs and Appy, never too far from her beloved, was the only one around to help him.
Photos of me and Pickett are peeling from the walls. One is stuck to Albus' shoe, and I wonder if I ought to take that as a sign. But he isn't petty enough for jealous revenge. He isn't cruel enough to ruin me, even if he planned it from the beginning.
Appy sees me now, all-smiles, and my ribs clench at the sight of her gleaming teeth. "Clemence!"
"Clemence," Albus says after her, one note surprise, one note unsure. His eyes are bright, almost unreal in their green, as the edge of his mouth curls into a smirk.
This has to be a dream. I'm snoring in the newsroom, drooling on Ol' Bessie.
The quirky entourage watching me, too nice to mock openly, are stifling their grins to at least appear respectable. "Look at her... never saw it coming," one says. "I almost feel sorry for her."
Pickett places a hand on my shoulder, but it slides off as I march into the yellow crowd, fists clenched and face hot. The few green-shirt floaters wait with bated breath like peas in an omelette. With their winnowing numbers, they don't have the courage to cheer out loud.
Albus' expression doesn't change as I come closer; neither does Appy's. The latter is preening her blonde bob, only one eye on me as she signs a napkin and spews romantic advice to a bespectacled Quirker. The arm around her hangs loosely, not with her clinging like she's about to lose him any second. Not like I'm a threat.
Observers part to the side of the hallway, opening up a semi-circle. Stopping before the happy couple, I sugar up a smile. "Al... buttercup. What are you doing?"
He hesitates before answering, staring as if he forgot something important. In a moment of clarity, a curious regret flashes across his face. "Oh... we were dating, weren't we?"
The crowd joins him in his sheepish chuckle, part of the grand joke they've left me out of.
Appy rubs his back, as if soothing a child. "You have to tell her."
The confusion disappears; his smile dazzles like I've never seen before. "Right, sorry. I... ah, this is awkward. I love Appy."
Laughter rings again like breaking glass, shaking my bones from their joints. My lungs squeeze. It hurts with something piercing, not the suffocation that I recognize, and I wonder—while suppressing my own ghoulish laugh—if this is heartbreak.
I lick my lips. "Then..." Two dozen eyes fall into attention. I need more time. I need to figure this out. It's Albus' smile, his smirk, but whoever is standing in front of me isn't him. I know him.
Appy butts in between us. Her pink-gloved grip on his arm tightens, impatient to leave. "Then! There is no then. Then it's over. You found someone else anyway." She gestures to where Pickett has kept his distance and then to the photo in a yellow-shirt's hands.
"We're not—he was crying."
The crowd titters.
"Pfft. Boys don't cry, Clemence."
I catch Albus grimacing before Appy raises a brow. I make a grab for him, but he notices and stumbles out of my reach. Appy shrieks. The fence of Quirkers bulge inward, pushing me away from them.
"He's a doppleganger, isn't he?" I hiss as someone else yanks me back by my shirt. "Polyjuiced house elf? Is that what he is?"
"Excuse me?" Albus furrows his brow.
"I know this will be hard to take in, but please, for your own sake, let this go." Appy's extra-stiff bob wobbles with a shake. "One day, we'll both get a happy ending."
What a sight this must be; the rubble of my crown is being swept as we speak. The nights in the newsroom haven't been kind to my skin or hair or wrinkled clothing. Everyone thinks I've been kissing another bloke. Meanwhile, Appy—radiant Appy—is on her way to her first date. Dressed in a pink peacoat that suits her color, wearing makeup done by someone who understands moderation, topped by a masterpiece topiary of a hairstyle. Why, she looks practically sane.
Appy ushers Albus away. He looks over his shoulder, and I expect a slip of pity for the fallen queen, but confusion has stretched his eyes wide and—terrified?
It's love potion.
Elbowing my captors, the thought becomes truth in one desperate lunge. It's so simple, so crude. I catch Albus by the sleeve, and before any Quirkers can reach me, I seize him by the chin and kiss him.
He nearly throws me off. Faithful to his new love, he fights against me, pushing at my wrists. But his mouth remembers mine; it parts slightly in his gasp. The taste on his tongue is bitter and sweet. His hand, clenched around my wrist, slackens.
"Get off him!"
Sadly, our magnetism is purely figurative. The Quirkers have caught up to me, Appy has wedged herself between us, and by the end of this struggle, four girls restrain me by each limb.
"She drugged him!" I screech as a fifth yanks my hair.
Appy gasps. "I'd never!"
She doesn't waste any more time. She muscles Albus through the throngs, encircled by yellows. He shouts something; it sounds like my name.
I twist my shoulder free. "It's love potion!"
No one lends an ear. There's a game children play, often their first direct experience with unjust political structures, in which whoever has the stick is the leader and their word trumps anyone else's. Often organized by the person holding the stick.
Appy has Albus. Albus is the stick. I'm the mud.
The few remaining green-shirts have scattered. My right arm is wrenched in a direction it shouldn't go as the girl hanging on is suddenly shoved aside. I hear my name again. Someone grabs around my middle, toppling me and everyone attached. Stubble scrapes the back of my neck; it's Pickett. Hauling me from under my arms, he drags me out of the pile-up.
The world is spinning and the whispers are merciless.
"God, she's thirsty."
"I used to be all right with her, too."
"It's... love potion," I pant. I remember the scent on Albus' breath—parchment, sweat, and lakewater mingled with his morning firewhiskey. But the taste was so sweet. Not like fruit chews or caramel; it tasted pink. Gritty and eye-numbingly tart, like there was a toothache in my brain, and yet I craved it. I might forgive Albus for falling in love with her. It tasted so sweet—like her. Sweet and gorgeous in pink—
I slap myself hard enough that Pickett nearly drops me.
"Are you okay?"
Swallowing, the potion taste slides out of my throat. "No, I think I was just a little in love with Appy."
I'm still in motion, not through any effort made by my own feet. Pickett has dragged us to the Charms hallway. A few girls follow curiously, but the mob has little interest in ex-girlfriend wash-ups now that their beloved leader is safe. They have their own Valentines plans to get to.
"I'm fine—Pickett, let go." Flapping my arms, I slip through his hold into a pile of crumpled photos.
All right, it could be worse. I'm touching gum and only lying in a metaphor for my reputation, but at least I have nothing to lose. I know this vantage point well. I might even miss it.
Some girls aim to climb. I've mastered the fall. Why mind the top when I can tear people down just as easily? There's proof somewhere to stop this Appily-ever-after. A witness, evidence like the residue on my lips, something left in his room—Circe, I'll fudge it if I have to. Fingers digging into the wall grout, I hoist myself up, take the squashed quill from my pocket, and tuck the feather behind my ear.
Potter can reconsider his touchy-feely philosophies after I save his arse. He's coddled me; I'm dangerous again.
I'm about to take off when a cough and rustle of paper interrupts. Turning quickly, I point a thumb toward the grand staircase. "I'm gonna—"
"Go after Appy. Yeah, I know." Pickett wears a sour look, the kind oft given to Dom after her daily reports on Rose, quashing my brazen exit. He saved me without so much of a g'morn or goodbye, let alone a thank you. Devotedly he stands, arms crossed and sigh held in, beside another poor soul sucked into the self-obsession of Valentine's Day.
"Sorry I didn't—" It's too late for that. "Thanks. Sorry and thanks."
He uncrosses his arms. "I only meant to ask, are you sure it's love potion?"
I shrug. We walk. "I tasted it and was ready to recite poetry to Appy."
"I watched her. She looked confused when you accused her. Well, that and ready to club you with a rusty cauldron." Pickett makes a sweeping gesture at the walls, where in between the portraits, hundreds of little me's are almost-kissing hundreds of little him's. "I'm just saying..."
"Albus isn't jealous." I bite my tongue, knowing that when he left the newsroom last night, he was just the opposite.
"How do you know?" Pickett stops at the foot of the stairs, throwing his arm around a gargoyle bust. He cocks his head toward two girls who have stopped trading notes to stare at us. "They think so. You intellectual types think you're above it, but emotions don't always take rest stops at your brain."
"It's love potion," I say firmly and head up the steps.
"You never defended him before. Are you afraid of being wrong about him?"
I spin a half-turn, finger raised. Pickett is on the other side of the railing, having climbed on the opposite side, banister by banister. He hooks his feet around two and hunches forward for my answer. Funny looks abound from below.
"You're making a scene," I say.
His fingers tap on the wood with a grin. "And you're lying."
"Don't you start."
"I start whatever I want, love. So that's a yes?"
Color blotches my cheeks. "Fine! He's jealous." In a low voice, I hiss, "He pissed me off and I told him that I'd choose you over him, happy? Though I'm currently reconsidering."
It's supposed to be an admission of guilt, that the jealousy is my fault. But I forget the larger scope—I've never said anything like this to Pickett in the nearly four years that I've known him—and what comes out of my mouth twists on my tongue from pure embarrassment. God, I can't even look at him directly.
Which is okay, because ever so slowly, Pickett closes his eyes and his palm meets his forehead and drags way, way down. "Oh, for fuck's sake, Clemence."
"No, I know. You didn't kill his pride, just maimed it horribly—it's the same thing!" His hands shake in the air, attempting to grasp at my idiocy, and he almost falls backward. "Gee, no wonder he hates me. I mean, I'd choose you over Dom, too—"
"—but I don't go bloody announcing it to—" Pickett sucks in a breath. "Yeah. Really."
Four years of history coil tightly, suddenly lethal. The green of his eyes paints me as I stare. I never noticed its color—or I forgot. Replaced the memory-space with a vocabulary word instead. It isn't a piercing emerald like Albus' but mottled with blue and light from the windows, with my reflection at the center.
I blink and he exhales.
"So it's love potion."
He nods. "Carry on."
I stub my toe on the next stair as I turn too quickly. Sweaty-palmed, he nearly slips off the railing.
Seven flights to the Gryffindor tower. If only I could 'Accio evidence.'
Scorpius is the straggler of the sixth-year boys, still choosing a jacket when he lets me into the dorm while the others have left for Hogsmeade. I make a beeline for Albus' side table.
"D'ya think it'll rain again? Big storm last night." Scorpius struggles against his wardrobe over possession of his anorak. The hanger is attached to three others and has no intention of leaving without its friends.
"No idea." Outside of the usual clutter, there isn't much on Albus' section of the room: books, ink pots, a candleholder—no empty vials nor suspicious chocolate boxes. Moving his clock aside, I catch a sweets tin that tips over but it's unopened. My hunch is on his morning coffee anyway. "Where's his mug? He always uses the same one, right? The souvenir one, says 'London' on it."
"Yeah, it's his favorite. Muggie the Muggle Mug."
I choke on spit.
"He leaves it down in the Great Hall sometimes—ack." There is a twang-ing sound behind me. "The elves wash it and bring it back up for him."
"Damn it." I pace, fingers tangled in my hair. I can search my dorm. Appy's bound to have left ingredients or a recipe lying around. Or I can transfer to Beauxbatons; great-grandparents are still tottering around the French countryside.
"What's going on?" Having won the battle with his wardrobe (though not without scar, judging from the red mark on his cheek), Scorpius stuffs his arms through his anorak's sleeves, hopping up and down to force it on his muscular frame.
"Appy's got Albus under love potion. I need to prove it."
He freezes. "Oh no no no nooo. How? He was fine when he left today."
"I figure she drugged his coffee—"
Scorpius shakes his head vigorously. "No-o, Al wouldn't fall for that. He knows how dangerous today is." He wiggles the rest of the way into his jacket—which is definitely one size too small and it's akin to watching a snake molt in reverse. Squatting by his bed, he doesn't see my face screw into a knot.
He's right; Paranoid Potter would drink candle wax before a glass of something he didn't plant, harvest, and brew himself. My tongue rolls along my teeth, where I can no longer taste the sweetness. But it was there—wasn't it?
"I never thanked you properly for saving me. I'll help you cure him." Scorpius slides out a metal chest groaning with parchment. The lid springs open upon touch. Vials clink onto the tile. "I've got antidote somewhere."
I stop pacing. "How?" I don't mention my uncertainty.
He coughs, fanning the green dust that rises as he rummages. "I... um, learned to brew it." I can't tell if his expression is one of mild disgust or extreme nervousness. "The antidote, not Amortentia. I mean, I learned that too because of Potions but I haven't ever used it—or even thought about it! I mean, er—oh, here it is!"
Scorpius thrusts a clear vial of potion up in the air, but he keeps his face aligned on the chest as if my hair were full of snakes. I take it from him. Despite lack of contact, the vial's stickiness has already spread to my other hand.
"Al used to get dosed a lot," he says, finally able to subdue his babbling. "I brew a batch every few months. Me or Rose usually save him before he embarrasses himself."
I pinch the bridge of my nose. Circe, this is a chronic problem.
Scorpius, misinterpreting my expression, musters up a smile. "Don't you worry, Al will be fighting against it now that he's got you. Love potions don't work well on the already-in-love."
"How incredibly reassuring."
After Scorpius jams his boots on, we head to Hogsmeade. Originally, I was supposed to meet Albus on the main road. We were to saunter down to Puddifoot's, cooing like doves, and once inside, snag a seat in the back where we make fun of other couples. If we had time to spare, we'd check off a few saccharine relationship milestones to make the singles seethe and swoon.
Instead, Albus is walking into that overstuffed tea shop hand-in-hand with Stroppy Hyphen Colon, and I'm sloshing through puddles with his charity case of a best mate.
"Sometimes I think maybe I'd have been better off if I just came out like I wanted to," Scorpius muses, face sunk into a gloved hand as he falls behind me. "Rose said I didn't think it through—not that I blame her! She offered to date me, after all, when people got suspicious about me and Al. Gave me some time to think about it. I don't like feeling rushed."
He pauses. I've learned to nod at these points. Any other day and I'd have my notepad out, but I am scraping the bottom of my Slytherin zeal. All I want is my goddamn boyfriend and a hot strawberry butterbomb. I've got jacket over jumper over two shirts, damp socks, and a cold head. The only joy I've found so far is from other students traversing the iced-over pavement; those without the sense to cast Sticking Charms on their shoes have been destined for sore bums.
"Dad would probably be okay with me if he had another son to continue the bloodline." Scorpius sighs. "I probably made things worse in the long run. I tried telling Rose, but... well, you know Rose. Thought she was doing what's best for me. I guess that's why I let those rumors about me and Dom keep going. My way of rebellion. Oh gosh, I'm sorry, Clemence. It was all my fault the whole feud went on for so long."
"Huh?" I heard most of that, I swear. "Um, well, what's done is done. Forgiven and forgotten." With Madam Puddifoot's only a few buildings down, I turn an abrupt ninety degrees into the alleyway between Scrivenshaft's and the grocer.
"That means a lot—"
"Keep up, Blondie."
He whimpers. He'll learn to like the rush.
Our destination is the kitchen entrance, accessible via a back road. Our plan is, well, a crapshoot. It's cobbled together from ideas I got from a mystery serial and Scorpius' hazy recollection of Puddifoot's layout, and it amounts to dumping the antidote in Albus' teapot.
Scorpius' first guess is correct: Puddifoot's loo is an outbuilding, which means the back door is open to let customers through. We crunch through the garden, staying close to the wall. Here at the edge of the village, quiet sans the undertones of High Street, our only witnesses are the grazing elk the mayor rented for the holidays and have yet to return.
I peek through the gap. The place is radioactively pink, packed chair-to-chair with overdressed students. Frilly-aproned House elves hoist biscuit platters, cakes, and hot kettles between the kitchen and the main room. Near the front, Albus and Appy sit with their arms entwined around each other as if the short distance across the table is killing them. Or they've turned into squids. They rub noses, googly-eyed, while Quirkers pressed against the window outside sigh dreamily. Ugh.
Scorpius is leaning over me for a peek. "Oh nooooo."
"Don't wail. You sound like a... whale." I take the vial and my wand from my pocket. Peeking in again, I look toward the kitchen. Teapots line the far countertop under their respective order stub, each one porcelain white and identical. Glad to see life throwing me a bone.
I can dump the antidote in the next kettle and hope it won't dilute too much. It'll at least have a chance of making it into Albus' teapot. I also laced a few chocolates as backup and Scorpius left a cauldron bubbling in his room if we need even more, because this is the sort of plan that never fails to fail.
"Keep a look out," I say, opening the door wide enough to stick my arm in. "Wingardium Leviosa."
The antidote flies out of my hand and wobbles its way to the closest bus cart. With a sharp flick of my wand, I transfigure the stoppered vial into a teacup, camouflaging it amongst the dirty dishes.
"Gosh, that's really clever," Scorpius murmurs.
"I said keep a look out."
I hear him scampering away. With my luck, he's probably looking in the wrong direction.
I wait for a house elf to pick up a tray and leave (Scorpius lets out a stifled squeal behind me; he got distracted by the holiday elk). Carefully, I float the teacup the rest of the way into the kitchen. The extra weight of the handle makes it harder to keep level compared to the vial, and my hand begins to cramp trying to keep it steady.
A high-pitched voice filters through giggly conversations. "Al, honey-pie, look!"
Some potion nearly splashes onto an elf's head. I bite my tongue to keep focus. Albus swipes a slip of paper from Appy, and even while concentrated on the levitating, I can see his wide grin at the corner of my eye, so goddamned happy.
"No, they're names I like, silly. Just in case..." Appy titters.
Unmerciful Merlin, she's naming their future children.
The teacup manages a safe landing by the cooker just as I lose feeling below my wrist. I shake out my hand, cursing through gritted teeth. Albus is not helping himself. Extending my wand through the door again, I flick open the kettle's lid and pour the antidote in. There, done.
A chair scrapes. Someone in the main room stands up. I pull my arm out and shut the door quickly—too quickly. It slams.
"Blondie, abort!" I hiss, leaping over the herb patches.
Scorpius is stretching over the fence between the back road and the pastures, trying to feed a leaf to an elk that is more interested in his scarf. Hearing me, he moves to run, but the elk doesn't let go and he flails in place.
A shadow passes over the door's curtained window and the knob turns. I've almost reached the corner of the cottage when the hinges squeak—
I know that voice. I turn my head. "Dom!"
I clamp a hand over my mouth as soon as I shout. Good thing I'm not an Auror; I'd be dead three times over by now. Raising a finger to my lips, I motion for Dom to move away from the doorway and I tiptoe back into Puddifoot's garden.
"It is you. I thought I saw you." Dom gives me a once over. I'm a mess, and I'm pretty sure I'm standing in a compost heap. "What are you doing?"
"Albus is, um, under love potion." I eye her; she's dressed for... a date? Can't tell with her recent obsession with lace, but I see a pretty crochet skirt under her jacket and her makeup is rather classic for once.
"Oh, thank God. I thought he was being a jealous idiot."
I frown. "Why would you think—?" First Pickett, and now her. "How am I the only one giving Albus the benefit of the doubt?"
"I can think of a few reasons, but you wouldn't like them."
The back of my neck prickles. "I am not invested in him."
"Invested isn't the word I'd use." Dom grins. "Is that Scorpius? Scorpius!"
Scorpius, stumbling dizzily on the path, has just managed to free himself from the elk though is in possession of one less scarf. "Hey, Dom."
"Did you invite Henry?" she asks.
"Crap, I forgot."
"Well, fetch him, please. I already got a table." Her and Pickett?
Cowed, and perhaps relieved that he has an excuse to leave, Scorpius bounds away despite my protesting.
"Oi, hold it. Oi!" He's gone. I glare at Dom. "He was keeping watch for me! What's going on?"
The side of her mouth quirks. She glances over her shoulder, to the sliver gap of the doorway where Puddifoot's bustles on. "Ahem, I figured Henry and I ought to talk..."
"Now?" I try to look past her to see if any trays have moved onto Albus' table, but I can't see beyond Dom's hair; I swear, her curls prove gravity is biased. Appy must be sorting her children's Hogwarts houses by now, bantering cutely with Albus over whether their first daughter will be more Slytherin or Gryffindor.
"He hasn't responded to my owls." Dom's expression melts the tiniest bit. "You saw him this morning, right? He's okay?"
Remembering how we left each other, my mouth runs a little dry. "Yeah."
"...yeah." I shift on my feet, boots squeaking in the mud. "Do you... I dunno, Dom. Do you really not love him? He thinks you're wonderful. That you're the most beautiful girl he's ever seen."
She gives a scoff. "He's imagining half of that. Doesn't ever remember our fighting."
"You'll grow out of it—"
"We won't." Dom scoffs again. "I hate that I have to be the villain, but I'm saying no for the better, I swear. I don't blame you if you don't understand though. Henry's your best mate." Before I can object, she shushes me. "He is. It's okay. I want you to take his side. He needs someone and I'm... fine." I wonder how much she really believes that.
I don't know how much I want to believe it.
"I just need him to understand. You know what it's like—Al does it, too." She shakes her head. "They think they have it hard, the boys. Believing there must be better people hiding under our skins, and by God, it's up to them to uncover us. They put us on pedestals and they get angry when we don't sit still."
I can't help but smile wryly. "You have to admit it's cute."
"Isn't it, at first?"
We share a commiserating sigh. Not much more than a week ago, Dom and I weren't speaking and I was beginning to think that our friendship over the years was a fluke. But there is a lonely side of ourselves that can only find company in each other and we circle back around no matter how far we drift, as predictable as migration.
Inside Puddifoots, there's a crash, followed by tinkling glass. Our heads turn sharply. The teapot.
Dom mimes opening the door and I nod. When she peers inside, I sneak a look over under her arm.
A house elf holding an empty tray grumbles over a circle of broken porcelain. With a wave of her hand, the elf reassembles the pieces into a pot and hurries into the kitchen for a fresh brew, leaving behind a dark splotch of tea in the woodwork.
"Fuck," I breathe. That could have been the one meant for Albus' table.
The second shatter comes in the form of Appy's voice: "Clemence? What are you doing here?"
I didn't think she could see me. Appy rises from her chair. The chatter of the other couples have reduced to a murmur.
"Are you trying to sabotage my date?"
I push the door wide open. Dom moves aside. I consider my first words carefully: fanciful excuse or cutting insult?
I'm exhausted. Let's get to the point: "Yes, I am."
Appy enters a stuttering state of shock as I march into the cottage on this brash admission. Unlike when her Quirkers surrounded her—though many are outside ready to bear arms—she has no overpowering advantage. Here in the tea shop, we must remain civil.
No one minds us yet. The house elves continue serving, wholly uninterested in the affairs of pubescent humans. The Madam herself—no doubt the veteran of messy Valentine kerfluffles—is in the kitchen and equally uninterested as long as said pubescents maintain the day's record-breaking sales.
Albus has been slow to react. Appy's double-poufed skirt blocks my view of him but I see his feet shuffle. He tips back on his chair and cranes his head around her.
The knot in my throat trembles. There is no veil of love potion in the way he says my name. It's how he says it when he finds me outside of the newsroom or Great Hall, half-breathless like he's been searching for me through seven floors of castle and thinks that I don't know. As if it's a coincidence that I run into him so often.
Yet there's love potion in his veins—there must be. Why else would he, in his next breath, stand and put his arm around Appy's waist?
"You drugged him," I say, sashaying up to Appy and pointedly ignoring Albus. "I'm here to cure him."
Appy makes a 'hmph' sound and rolls her eyes. The clink of silverware has paused and even the murmuring has largely quieted.
"Oi, you two in the corner, zip it. Shit is about to go down."
"Maybe you didn't drug him." I take an antidote-laced chocolate from my jacket pocket and hold it up. Appy's eyes narrow. She likes chocolates; she won't like them used against her. "If you didn't, nothing should change if he takes the antidote. So let him take it and prove I'm the crazy bitch. I'll gladly let you have him then."
I want to see her sweat, but Appy stares hard at the candy as if considering it. She ought to be pleading on her knees by now; I've checkmated her. Albus merely furrows his brow, murmuring close to Appy's ear with a chuckle, "Drugged? Only on you."
Why does it feel like I am the crazy bitch?
Appy threads her arms around Albus, shaking her head. "Honey, we don't have to prove anything. You, on the other hand—" She sticks her freckled nose up at me. "I knew you were bad, Clemence, but I gave you chances and I can't give you any more. You're a two-timer, first stealing Al from me then cheating on Al with Henry. And now you want him back."
"Oh for Circe's sake—"
"Leave, now, or I'll have you kicked out. Madam Puddifack!"
I have never full-on tackled a person to the ground. I've pushed and shoved, but I mind my strength. At this moment, however, an entire morning's worth of desperation launches me at Appy, separating her from Albus and throwing her to the floor. Albus staggers into the table behind him.
It's a small loss if I get banned from this tea shop. I am not forfeiting for a delusional fairytale.
One hand holding Appy down, I thrust the bag of chocolates at Albus, who shirks. "Potter, take—!"
Appy's palm mashes into my jaw. I drop the bag. My foot snags a tablecloth, bringing down the plates and vase with it.
Chairs scrape back. Quirkers stampede in. Someone steps on my hair, pulling at my roots.
"Heavens!" I hear Madam Puddifoot exclaim.
I also hear Scorpius' voice. "Oh nooooo, we're too late. Stop, everyone!"
I flip Appy over and pin her down, my elbow on her collarbone. She's got fingernails digging into my neck and she bites the back of my hand. I growl, dark mats of hair obscuring my vision. Scorpius, with Pickett, is waving his arms fruitlessly by the entrance.
Food soars overhead. The red confetti is beginning to look like a bloodbath.
Taking a deep breath—God knows what just went through his head in this boiling kettle of a shop—Scorpius yells in a booming voice, steamrolling every sound in its path, "I'm gay!"
And because it wouldn't be dramatic enough otherwise, he seizes Pickett and kisses him.
It's a last-ditch distraction tactic—that works. Whoever was tearing off my sleeve lets it go, and even Appy turns her head. One last piece of silverware drops to the floor, and then the room is silent except for Madam Puddifoot's fretting and the suction of Scorpius' lips.
Which goes on. And on. Pickett is wide-eyed and paralyzed, loosely dangling in Scorpius' grip, his eyebrows making all sorts of shapes. At last, with a great smacking sound, Scorpius pulls away, leaving Pickett's lips red and swollen.
Hogwarts is accustomed to interruptions-by-kiss. The hostile climate favors theatrics to get anything done; hell, I've contributed, too. But it can't be any old kiss between any two people. If the warty bloke in the corner and his date started snogging, I'd just be a bit disgusted and carry on with the brawl. It needs to be personal. When I kissed Albus, new factions rose up just to make it personal.
A girl stands up on her chair, fist ready to pump in the air. "Team—"
"NO." Pickett, without moving his gaze, points an emphatic finger in her direction. "NO 'TEAM.'"
Very slowly, she crawls back down.
Former Team Rose and Team Dom members seem less shocked than I expect; they'll likely argue for bisexuality. Scorpius straightens his anorak, cheeks flushed as his eyes dart around at his peers. If there is a fairytale miracle today, what follows is it.
"What do you all think you're doing?" The trembling of his voice, like thread, is deceptively resilient.
For the first time, I take notice of the large number of Team Greens who have risen from their seats to wrestle with the Quirkers. Albus did say he arranged a lot of dates; I wonder what they thought when he came in with Appy. Near the back, Dom is wielding a broomstick and looks rather disappointed that she hasn't threatened anyone with it yet.
"This is crazy." Scorpius shakes his head. "You're tearing each other apart over who Al should be with.... why? What gives you all the right to decide for him? If you truly care about him, you'd just want him to be happy, even if—" He licks his lips; for this part, he doesn't look anyone in the eye. "Even if it breaks your heart."
Sheepish glances are shared all around. Dom lowers her broom.
"Love is hard enough without people shouting in your ear, telling you that you're wrong. That you should be ashamed of what you feel because it's wrong. I know, personally. Let Al choose who he loves. And then let him be."
In the beat after he finishes his speech, a collective shame roots deep into the bones of the room. I'm proud of him. Pickett attempts to start a slow clap.
At the corner of my eye, Albus is crawling out from underneath a table and toward the back door. Seriously? This is my perfect chance. Everyone is distracted... but I'd hate to steal Blondie's thunder.
Who am I kidding?
I wrench away from Appy and dig out my wand. "Locomotor Mortis!"
The curse zips to Albus and locks his legs together. Appy screams, catching my ankle as I dive for him, but I kick her off.
Heads turn. Battle cries erupt.
I'd apologize to Scorpius if I had the breath for it. Albus tries to shake me off but I hold fast; at this point, he is equally terrified of me and Appy.
Throwing my weight forward, I slam him down and grab a chocolate off the floor. "Eat it!"
My hair is yanked back. "Just because your new boyfriend is gay," Appy screeches, twisting my head back and forth, "does not mean you get take-backsies!"
I spit in her face—mostly accidentally. It had to go somewhere. Straddling Albus, I push the chocolate toward his mouth. The cherry filling smears across his cheek. "Hurry!"
He won't unclench his teeth. "It'll ruin my appetite!"
"She'll ruin your life!"
Pinching his jaw open, I cram the chocolate in before Appy and her Quirkers pull me off of him and get a Leg-Locker Curse on me too.
"Potter, who do you love?" I call out.
Albus gags but he's swallowed the antidote. "Appy—I love—"
"Snap out of it!" House elves join in hauling me backwards through the broken glass and confetti. I grab onto a table leg. The table gets dragged along with me. "Who do you love?"
"You bloody idiot, who do you love?"
When he falls back on the floor, I lose sight of him under mountains of torn cloth and toppled chairs. Appy rushes over but Dom blocks her way. My shoulder bangs into the umbrella stand which means they've nearly got me out of the door. Scorpius said the antidote was fast-acting—why hasn't it worked yet?
Because, says a voice in back of my head, Appy knows nothing about love potion.
Albus isn't dumb enough to fall for it.
You didn't even see it in his eyes.
The better question is: how much would it hurt if he wasn't drugged and he really did betray you? Your amount of denial today has been impressive, from Pickett to Scorpius to Dom; they all raised red flags. Would it hurt so much that you'd actually rather hope?
I latch onto the doorjamb. My fingers scrape across the wallpaper. "Albus Potter!"
There must be someone else who wants me ruined. Albus must have been careless. Now he's fighting the potion like Scorpius had said.
Because it is love potion.
My last finger slips from the jamb. "Albus!"
It has to be.
There is a hoarse gasp. Albus shoots upward, like waking from a nightmare.
He bellows just like how Scorpius had—with a room-silencing confession. Appy, having just gotten past Dom, freezes while reaching for him, color draining from her face. Those clutching me release their grips. Half-hanging out of the cottage, I'm too spent to even breathe in relief, let alone run.
Appy's lip quavers. "Al, honey?"
"I... love... Clemence," he pants. The antidote took a toll on him. His arms skid across the floor as he tries to hold himself up.
Wobbly from the Leg-Locker Curse, he lumbers to his feet and ignores Dom's attempt to help him. "Sorry about—" Turning slightly toward Madam Puddifoot, he gestures around the room. A barely-hanging cherub plummets onto a fern. "Send the bill to my dad. Please don't mention this to the Prophet." As if remembering the twenty other witnesses, he adds, "That goes for everyone."
He limps from table to overturned table toward the exit, toward me. A girl moves to grab him but Appy stops her. Another girl in green whoops but no one joins in. The war is over but the promised glory never quite materializes. In its wake, we're left with cut lips, pastries smashed in our fists, and a waning hysteria that we no longer know how to justify.
Debris falls from my lap as I stand, wincing. The adrenaline has subsided and my body reminds me of the broken glass that cut through my tights. I take Albus' arm around my shoulders to support him and our fingers lace. Neither he nor I look directly at the other; the day has been mortifying for just about everyone involved. We shuffle outside.
The sound of clean-up stirs behind us when we are far enough to feel alone. Fat raindrops dot the pavement. As it begins to pour, the streets empty and pub doors shut. The sky doesn't think it's dramatic enough, apparently.
One of us ought to say something. Clarify how we got here, all the way from the start. Someone is at fault for our relationship and thus, at fault for this Valentine's Day. Was it me, snooping for a story with my pride on my sleeve? Or Albus, for planting that story intentionally and igniting anarchy? Frankly, I'm biased but I'm open to debate. It's a long, wet walk back to the castle.
"I drank the love potion."
I stop abruptly. Albus slips and stumbles onto his side.
Rain drips off the tip of my nose as I stare down. I didn't think I heard him correctly but he doesn't try to get up, as if he knows he deserved that. "What."
"I could smell the potion in my coffee and I drank it anyway. It was stupid." With a groan, he maneuvers into a sitting position on the sole raised spot of the path, his legs sprawled in a puddle. Slick black petals of hair hide his eyes. "I was jealous from last night and then I saw the photos and I just—I don't know. I'm sorry."
Good thing he didn't get up because I would've just pushed him down again. "You willingly—"
"Sorry? Sorry?" I kick water at him. Here I thought Appy had a mysterious mastermind on her side when Pickett was right: Albus was just a dumb, jealous boy. "You fucking idiot. Do you know what I went through today because of that?"
He coughs and wipes the grime from his brow. "Yeah, and I'm sorry."
I laugh, outright bark. "Oh please, I don't even know. People thought I was crazy. I was crazy! I tackled Appy! I could have given up at so many points—and I should have. This was all your fault. All the way from the beginning. You only got a little taste of what I've had to go through." My shoulders are heaving. "I tackled Appy! Multiple times!"
He pushes his hair back, as if those glittering eyes are going to help him now. He's grinning.
Albus doesn't answer immediately and instead rolls his tongue along the inside of his cheek, taking his sweet time as our clothes get soaked. "You fought for me."
I scoff. "Oh ho ho, don't try. It wasn't for you."
"You yelled my name."
"I was vindicating myself. And you didn't deserve Appy; no one does. She's too quirky for this world. I was doing the right thing—which I do sometimes, even without your high-horsed Gryffindor meddling. You got lucky is all." I lick the rain from my lips and cross my arms, pressing in the damp. "Besides, I hate you, so there."
He hasn't stopped grinning and that alone makes me want to. But I don't leave even as I shiver, drenched, because this day has made me crazy. My shoulders are still heaving, I can't feel the tips of my fingers anymore, and the long speeches are making me light-headed.
"I hate you."
"Mmhmm." Albus clambers to his feet, head cocked and eyes lidded.
"I'll have you know that I'd still pick Pickett over you—and oh, he'd pick me over Dom."
"That's nice—can I kiss you yet?"
I figure out why I hate that grin so much. It's the one he wears when he's already made a decision, but he wants to watch me run out of things to say.
Rain trickles down his mussed hair, lips waiting. I'm still thinking of something to say—I should at least use as much effort in that as I did for him today—but there is the added difficulty of blocking out his breathing and the fingers that have crept onto my waist.
The lifting muscles at the corner of my mouth are the first to betray me. "Since when do you ever ask first?"
He laughs, arms sliding behind my back, and in the drumming of the strengthening storm, he kisses me.
A/N *grovels* Sorry for taking so long. I am feeling a little light-headed and crazy too after finally finishing this chapter. I said it would be surprisingly fluffy, have at least two kisses (no one guessed Scorpius and Pickett), elk, and you could ship just about anyone afterwards. I think I upheld all of those pretty well. I didn't think I'd tie up so many threads and drop so many bombshells, but here they are! I've also got a mix that goes along with this chapter, which I'll be posting on ze tumblr soon.
Much much ♥ to GubraithianFire for holding my hand the whole way and writing bits of the scene with Dom because I was that desperate (and has an EEEEVIL!albus/OC up which y'all should read), and Julia/peppersweet for basically reading this fic over a month, paragraph by paragraph and listening to me wail over how I accidentally introduced a sort-of love triangle.
Things coming up: Appy is not down the count; the next conversation Clemence and Pickett have which might produce the most concentrated amount of awkward in this fic yet; mature relationship progression???
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