Chapter 18 : Of Fangirls and Fanatics
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To say that people were looking would have been a mild understatement.
They were staring.
But - weirdly enough - even though I was barefoot, wearing nothing but Potter's smelly Quidditch shirt, it wasn't me they were staring at. They were crowded around the statue of Atticus the Amiable on the sprawling fourth-floor-landing, chatting excitedly as though they had never seen something like it before.
I edged closer, cold stone slapping against the soles of my feet; if I could just slip past the moderately sized mob unnoticed, I might yet get out of this mess without further repercussions. But there was a flash of lilac in the corner of my eye and I almost stumbled to a halt, not sure I even wanted to look. There was a reason why everybody was ogling an old statue and, though I had tried to tell myself otherwise, I somehow knew it before I had actually seen it.
Half-hiding behind a bulky guy in a Slytherin House T-shirt, I glanced at Atticus's head, which was the only visible part of him in the sea of curious onlookers, and barely stifled a groan as I spotted the lilac piece of cloth that was draped across his marble head.
He wore my knickers like a ludicrous crown.
I wouldn't have bothered to claim them, of course - not in front of such an ample audience - but it wasn't only my knickers that had been exposed unceremoniously to the entire student body; I also caught glimpses of my jeans, my shoes, and my wand, which had been stuck to the statue's toga in a place that might have been his genitalia.
My clothing, I could have ignored, but my wand; leaving back your wand was like leaving back your arm - unnatural.
"Excuse me," I muttered as quietly as possible, pushing past a couple of people, straining to not look at them. This was already humiliating enough without making eye-contact.
At first, the crowd only moved reluctantly, but soon, it parted by itself, forming a straight path towards Atticus; they had probably noticed my unconventional getup and redirected their attention on me as I approached the statue, clutching the hem of Potter's shirt, which was only just skirting my upper thighs.
There were whispers - the cruel kind that made your blood freeze when you realised they were about you - but I tried not to listen as I began to prise my wand from Atticus's lumbar region. It had been stuck there with a well-performed adhesive charm and, as people began to snicker, I mumbled a quick "absolve", hoping that it would be enough to unstick it. It fell off promptly and I closed my eyes in relief for a second as I felt the smooth cedar stick resting familiarly in the crook of my palm.
With one swift flick, I removed my knickers from the statue's head and - all of my clothes piled haphazardly in my arms - I turned around again, mildly surprised by the gawking mob. I had hoped they would have scattered by now, letting me keep at least a fraction of my already dented dignity, but they only looked more eager than ever, waiting hungrily for me to humiliate myself even further.
"What are you all looking at?" I snapped, taking even myself by surprise; they were all staring at me like I was the funny monkey in a zoo and I couldn't help feeling reckless. This was getting too much to handle. "Never seen someone removing their wand from a statue's crotch?"
There was scattered sniggering. Most of the onlookers, however, stared at me wide-eyed and almost fearful and I realised that I must have looked positively mad with my wand held out in front of me and my half-dried hair plastered to my cheeks and forehead.
"Honestly, get a life!" I grumbled and, still clutching my damp clothes tightly to my chest, I stalked off towards Ravenclaw tower.
I had pulled on my jeans somewhere along the way, but there was no time for shoes or anything else, really; all I wanted, was to get into the confined safety of my dorm room and crawl underneath my blanket until the school year was over.
As usual on a Saturday evening, the common room was packed as I stormed in, almost stumbling over the sleeve of my jumper, which had untangled itself from the bundle of belongings in my arms, dangling awkwardly between my legs as I walked. A couple of people turned their heads into my direction, probably roused by my boisterous entrance, but I ignored them as I pelted towards the winding staircase, carelessly weaving through knots of of armchairs and coffee tables.
"You won't believe what just happened," I panted as I practically fell into the dormitory, dropping my things to the floor before crossing the room to Katie's bed.
"Oh, I don't know," she said without looking up from the dismembered phone parts that were scattered all around her like metallic bird droppings, "I'm pretty gullible."
"Kat," I said dryly, willing her to look up from her latest technology project, but before I could even end my sentence, a sort of war cry positively shook the room and something large and heavy hit me from the side, knocking me to the ground.
"What the hell?" I shouted at a mutinous-looking Bernice, who had pinned me to the ground, her legs straddling my thighs so that I was rendered completely immobile. Her mouth was moving, but there were no words coming out; instead, she began to jab my collarbone with her finger.
"Potter," she finally said in a very strangled voice, owing to the fact that Katie had jumped onto her back, trying to prise her off of me, unfortunately without any success. "You - and - Potter?"
"What are you talking about?" I shouted, completely out of breath from trying to wrestle my hands from Bernice's death-grip; she wasn't a Beater for no reason.
"Get off of her!" Katie yelled from behind her, still clinging to her back like a manic squirrel. Her auburn curls were dancing into all directions, protruding behind Bernice's head like a fluffy, bronze halo.
"I didn't want to believe it," Bernice growled, her finger still digging into my shoulder blade. "Rufina told me to be careful when the first rumours sprung up, but I told her that I trusted you and now you're - you're-" She seemed to be struggling for the right words. "You're consorting with the enemy!"
"What?" My voice came out much higher than I had intended it to, "Bernice, that's-"
"I trusted you!" She was howling by now, not unlike a wounded dog. "I told you all about our new game plan for next month's match! I'm such an idiot!"
"Get a grip, woman!" Katie screeched from behind, but I had finally understood what this assault was all about - Quidditch.
Dumb, overrated Quidditch.
"Okay, that's it!" I bellowed in a commanding voice I didn't even know I possessed, and both Bernice and Katie froze like statues, barely blinking as they stared down at me. "I am not 'consorting with the enemy' and I didn't even understand half of the things you told me about the 'game plan', so would you please just get the bloody hell off of me!"
For a moment, Bernice seemed paralysed by my sudden outburst but then, like in slow-motion, her grip finally slackened and she rolled off of me, allowing my blood to circulate properly again.
"Thank you," I said with exasperation and quickly got up before she could change her mind again.
"But - the shirt," Bernice uttered, somewhat sheepishly, pointing at the golden embroidered letters that formed the word 'Potter' across my chest. I hadn't even noticed until now that they stood out so prominently against the red, shining boldly, even through the blotches of grass and dirt.
"It's - it's kind of a long story," I sighed, leaning against Katie's bedpost, "Potter simply helped me out of a tight spot, that's all."
"Soooooo." Katie dragged out the 'o' before clicking her tongue; she looked slightly harassed with her curls sticking up in odd angles. "You're actually wearing James Potter's shirt?"
"Yeah," I sighed, knowing that Katie was surely expecting an explanation as to why I was running around in Potter's clothes, "he gave it to me because I was-"
But I didn't get any further than that; Katie had closed the gap between us in a few quick strides and wrapped her arms around my shoulders, her face buried into my neck. as though she was trying to inhale the Quidditch shirt in its entirety.
"Um, Katie?" I asked weirdly, as she snuggled her nose even deeper into the slightly sour smelling fabric.
"It's all musky and manly," she mumbled into my shoulder, "it's almost as though I'm hugging a lankier version of James."
"Are you serious?" I groaned, catching Bernice's eye over my best friend's shoulder, but she simply shrugged, somewhat awkwardly, and sank slowly onto her bed.
I was officially living with a bunch of crazy people.
It was fascinating how the gossip circulation worked at Hogwarts; obviously, people had heard of 'that girl in Potter's Quidditch shirt', whose clothes had been draped across a statue on the third floor landing. There were many different theories as to what had happened - naturally, none of them reflected the truth.
Some were convinced that I was Potter's girlfriend and that we were trying to keep our budding relationship a secret. Others claimed that reliable sources told them, Potter and I were 'friends with benefits'. Most people, however, seemed to think that I had stolen the shirt from the laundry because I was highly delusional and fancied myself to be Potter's girlfriend when, in reality, I was nothing but a sad stalker.
"Any idea who might have done it, though?" Sam said over his steak and kidney pie, careful to keep his voice as quiet as possible. "I mean, that was basically an attack, you know?"
"Well, no," I sighed, jabbing my fork aimlessly into my food; somehow I wasn't feeling particularly hungry at the moment. "Maybe I was just a random pick, you know?"
"Yeah, but someone warned you that something like this might happen," Katie argued, turning slightly towards Sam. "What about Felicity? She was pretty jealous, wasn't she?"
Sam furrowed his brows. "Yeah, but I think she's gotten over it."
"How so?" Katie sounded rather unconvinced as she watched Sam heap even more food onto his already overflowing plate.
"Well," he said, shrugging his shoulders, "she's been snogging Will Waters for two weeks so-"
"What? Will Waters?" Katie whisper-shouted, obviously scandalised that she had missed out on this piece of gossip. But her outrage faded quickly and she shrugged her shoulders after a moment of contemplation. "Well, they kind of fit together. She smells of cabbage and he kinda looks like one."
Sam slopped a remarkable amount of pumpkin juice down his front, covering his uniform shirt in a most unsightly orange sludge. "He does!"
They both sniggered, but I had a hard time paying attention; the feeling that someone inside Hogwarts wanted to hurt me sat on my chest like a heavy weight and it got harder and harder to breathe as I let my gaze wander across the Great Hall; what if the bathroom prank was just the beginning?
'No,' A rather determined voice in my head suddenly said and I put down my knife and fork. I would not let myself go there; whoever had stolen my belongings from the Prefects' bathroom had wanted to intimidate me and I wouldn't let them get the best of me.
I was better than that.
"Um, Seth, are you okay?" Katie asked carefully. Both she and Sam were looking at me quite concerned as I began to pack up my things and - feeling a surge of bravery - jumped up from my seat at the Ravenclaw table.
"Yes," I replied, sounding maybe a tad too enthusiastic; the worried frown on Katie's forehead seemed to drag down her entire face. "I'm good."
It smelled of snow. The cold wind bore the unmistakable scent of winter as it swept across the grounds, rippling the usually smooth, black surface of the lake, and I stopped to take a deep breath. It was crisp and clear as it filled my lungs and for the first time since this school year had started, I actually felt a sort of calm.
Not entirely, of course, but I was determined to fix at least bits and pieces of the chaos that had somehow seeped into my life so that I could finally go back to normal. I didn't know when exactly it all had started - the rumours, James Potter, water being thrown at me - but I knew that I needed it to stop.
It was a short walk down to the Quidditch pitch, whose golden goal hoops were towering over the rolling hills behind which it had been built. The path that led to it was broad and well beaten from the hundreds of feet that marched along it on game days; today, however, I was quite alone as I ambled down the last couple of meters towards the pitch.
The Gryffindor team practices usually drew a moderate crowd, mostly consisting of rivaling captains and giggling girls dotting the stands. Today, however, there was only a rather lonely duo, huddling together for warmth as they watched the red-clad figures on their broomsticks.
"Not exactly the best weather to be out here, is it?" Someone said next to me and I turned around to find a familiar shock of black hair; Albus Potter gave me a smile, his hands stuffed into the pockets of his pressed khakis.
"Yeah," I agreed as a particularly strong gust of wind whipped my hair into my face. "Your brother doesn't seem to care, though."
Albus smiled and squinted up at the flying figures; they had now started passing the Quaffle to each other, their broomsticks swaying in the wind as they hovered above the ground.
"James has always been like this," he said, glancing back at me with a sly grin, "he's a reckless git, of course, but I love him."
I smiled. "You two seem to be very close."
"We are." Albus leaned against one of the pillars that held up the raised stands. "Or, I think."
He paused for a moment, running his hand through his unnaturally slick hair, disheveling it slightly in the process. "It's rather complicated at the moment." He sighed before shrugging his shoulders. "What are you doing here?"
"Oh, um, just returning something." I indicated the bundle of red cloth I was clutching to my chest and then - remembering the abundance of rumours that were circulating at Hogwarts - quickly added "I'm not stalking your brother, if that's what you think."
"I never thought you were," Albus laughed. "You don't seem like the type to run after boys."
"According to everybody else, I am.
I tried hard to keep the frustration out of my voice, but he seemed to have picked it up nonetheless.
"According to everybody else I have a secret relationship with Scorpius Malfoy," he said, giving me a rather familiar crooked smile; apparently it ran in the Potter family. "Believe me, it's not worth listening to what other people say about you. Usually they have no bloody clue."
I nodded slowly, letting his words sink in; he was right, of course, nonetheless I would have prefered it if people stopped spinning tales about the nature of my relationship to James.
The truth was that there really was none.
It didn't exist.
Silence had settled between Albus and me as we watched the players break the circle and fly off into different directions; they all seemed to have trouble navigating as the wind picked up force and speed, drifting off helplessly whenever a particularly strong gust swept across the pitch.
"Well, I should go," Albus finally said, smoothing down his hair again; the rigid hairdo seemed to resist even the boisterous weather and I wondered how long it took him each morning to get it to look this way. "I promised to meet Laura in the Hufflepuff common room."
"Oh, sure." I said, before adding a little more quietly "thank you."
I shrugged, pushing the stray strands of hair out of my face. "For not thinking that I'm a crazy stalker who steals your brother's undies."
Albus's laugh drowned in the howling of the wind, but it was visible on his face as he raised his hand in a farewell gesture.
"See you around, Seth."
"Yeah, see you!" I called after him, before turning back to the pitch again, where practice had apparently been stopped; the players were back on the ground, looking rather sour as they dismounted their broomsticks. Most of them slowly began to trudge back towards the changing rooms, their brooms clutched underneath their arms and their uniforms splattered with dirt.
Only James had stayed behind, jogging over to the sideline where I stood, leaning against the raised stands..
"Woodley," he said, panting surprisingly little for someone who had just completed a couple of hours of intense Quidditch training. "You didn't pick the best day to watch practice."
"That's actually exactly why I picked today," I replied, holding out the perfectly folded Quidditch shirt, willing him to take it. "Here. It's washed and everything."
"Oh, right," he said a little weirdly, tucking the shirt underneath his arm without really looking at it. The Quidditch jumper he was wearing was so filthy that I was sure some of the dirt would rub off on the freshly laundered strip. "Thanks."
"Sure," I replied, hugging my arms around my torso as a particularly ferocious gust of wind rattled the metal stands. "Thanks again for - you know."
"Saving your naked arse?" James smirked. "It was a pleasure."
"You're such a gentleman," I sighed, making him laugh. "Although, I might have attracted much less attention in the corridors if I had been naked."
"I'm sure that's not true," he said, smiling crookedly as he ran a hand through his dark brown hair. I simply snorted - rather unattractively - and looked down to my linen trainers as an awkward silence settled between us. The white shoes were sprayed with little specks of dirt from walking down to the pitch, but it was nothing compared to James's leather shin guards, which looked as though he had been dragging them through the mud.
"Doesn't it bother you?" I finally uttered, looking back up at him. "I mean, all that rubbish people say about you and me?"
James chuckled, shaking his head lightly as he leaned on his broomstick. "Not really." He gave me a long look, the dimple on his right cheek deepening as he smiled. "And it shouldn't bother you either, Woodley."
"It doesn't," I said - probably a little too quickly - and wrapped my arms around my torso defiantly, daring James to contradict me. He didn't, however; the expression on his face simply changed to sheer amusement, as though I had just made an exceptionally funny joke. As usual, he seemed to be thoroughly enjoying my discomfort.
"That's good." He paused for a moment, the smile fading slowly as he locked eyes with me. "You know, it could be worse."
"Worse than being made out to be either a cheap booty call or a creepy stalker?"
James only looked at me, his eyes studying my face as though he was trying to figure out a complicated Arithmancy problem. "People are convinced I'm shagging a different girl each week," he finally said, shrugging his shoulders.
I raised my eyebrows at him, unable to contain a teasing smirk. "You're not?"
"It might come as a shock to you, Woodley," he replied, a sort of boyish look on his face, "but against popular belief, I can contain myself."
"That is indeed a shocking revelation, Potter."
He laughed, once again shaking his head - which he seemed to do a lot when talking to me - and I finally untied my arms, putting my hands onto my hips. I didn't know why, but I found it a lot easier to talk to him like that; in smart comments and snarky comebacks instead of actually talking about - well - real things.
"Oi!" A sharp yell echoed across the Quidditch pitch, making both James and me turn abruptly towards the changing rooms. Freddie Weasley was jogging towards us, wearing nothing but burgundy tracksuit trousers. "Sorry to bother you two lovebirds, or shagmates, or whatever you are these days." He slowed down as he got closer, throwing an arm around James's shoulders, while giving me a toothy grin. "It's really hard to keep up with your relationship."
"Is there a reason why you're not wearing a shirt?" James asked, his eyebrows raised as he looked at his friend with a sort of austerity that, I assumed, came from years of captaining the Gryffindor Quidditch team.
"Not really," he said lightly and, at the same time, gave me quite an obvious wink. "How's it going, Elizabeth?"
"Quite good," I replied, trying not to grin too much at the deadpan expression on James's face as he stood there with Freddie's naked arm around his neck.
Talking to Fred Weasley was surprisingly easy; He was, of course, absolutely handsome with his caramel colored skin and dark brown eyes, but first and foremost, he was funny. He didn't seem to take anything too seriously, which made it hard to feel embarrassed or nervous around him.
"So, you're coming tonight, right?"
"What?" I frowned at Freddie, having no clue what he was talking about. The only place I had planned on going tonight was my bed, actually.
"You haven't asked her?" He asked James with mock-indignation, who simply shook his head, his lips twitching as though he was trying hard to not laugh.
"Not yet," he said, giving his friend a rather hard clap on the shoulder, "but thanks for bringing it up, mate."
Freddie reciprocated the clap, a broad grin plastered across his tan face. "I got your back, J. Po."
"Right." James gave me one of his perfectly crooked smiles. "We're having a small party in our common room tonight," he said quite casually, as though Freddie had not just referred to him as J. Po. "You should come, Woodley."
"Oh, um," I stammered lamely, shifting my weight from one foot to the other as the cold wind howled once again, biting my skin even through my jeans. Besides the fact that my party experiences this year hadn't been exactly encouraging, it also hadn't sounded as though James had actually wanted to invite me, which made the entire situation quite embarrassing.
Not that I was disappointed; the less I had to do with James Potter the better.
"Actually, I've already made plans, so-"
"Oh, come on!" Freddie exclaimed, giving me a quite serious look. "It's just a small get-together, really. You have to come."
"Come on, Woodley," James chimed in before I could even come up with another excuse. "You can wear your pyjamas, if you want to." There was a strange look on his face, which I couldn't read, but he was smiling - the same, warm smile I remembered from the Halloween party - and, for the fraction of a second, I suddenly wasn't so sure anymore that I wanted absolutely nothing to do with him.
Whatever that meant.
"I'll think about it," I finally said, just as another gust of wind whipped all of my hair into my face so that the words came out completely muffled.
After we had said our goodbyes - Freddie insisting that I had better come tonight - the first small fluffs of snow began to fall, drifting quite aimlessly in the storm. Behind me, I could still hear James and Freddie's voices, fading into the howling of the wind, and suddenly, without a reason, I felt the strange urge to smile.
It was always a little weird - walking along the torch-lit corridors when they were empty like that - but the stormy weather, and the fact that it was late friday afternoon, kept the draughty castle quite free of strolling students. Tiny snowflakes drifted lazily past the high gothic windows, swirling in the strong wind, and I stopped for a moment, looking out to see genuine waves crashing on the rocky shore of the Black Lake.
Katie was going to be elated when I told her about the party in the Gryffindor common room - I could already see her, diving into her closet and thrusting inappropriate clothing at me while spinning a lurid tale of how James obviously wanted me around, which he didn't, of course. I was quite sure that he wouldn't even have asked me if it hadn't been for Freddie practically forcing him to bring up the party.
Not that it mattered, really.
I turned abruptly at the quiet hissing sound, looking down the long, gloomy corridor that lay ahead. There was nothing unusual and my muscles relaxed again as I felt the urge to laugh at my own jumpiness; maybe the bathroom incident had affected me more than I liked to admit to myself.
Suddenly there was a muffled rustle behind me, like heavy cloth sweeping the floor, and a hand reached out over my shoulder, covering my mouth before I could even so much as whimper. Panic-fuelled I tried to prise the hand off my face, but my attempts failed miserably as I was dragged backwards and hurled against the wall of a dark alcove.
I squealed into the palm that pressed against my mouth, sure that something terrible was about to happen, when, finally, I managed to look up into my assailant's face and the scream died in my throat.
"Stop struggling, will you?" Vala hissed, glancing nervously over her shoulder as though she was expecting someone to be eavesdropping on us.
"Are you insane?" I snapped at her, my voice still shaking with a mixture of fear and anger. "What the bloody hell are you-"
"Shut up, Seth!" She growled under her breath. "Someone will hear us if you keep shouting like that."
"Well, you should have thought about that before pouncing on me from behind, shouldn't you?"
"Shhhhht." She pressed her finger against her lips, her eyes trained on the dark corridor behind me. I had never seen her this edgy before and, frankly, it was quite alarming.
"Vala, what-" I tried once more to take this conversation to a less crazy level, but she simply shushed me again, her dark eyes growing wide.
"Don't say my name!" She whispered, almost fearfully, her face now only inches away from mine. If either one of us moved, I was sure it would result in a rather awkward nose-rub.
"I'm here to warn you."
"About what?" I frowned, feeling that this situation just kept getting more absurd.
"About James Potter."
"Shhhh - just listen," she urged. "I'm not supposed to talk to you about this but - well - whatever is going on between James and you -"
"There is nothing going on," I spluttered but Vala simply shook her head.
"Doesn't matter. You have to stay away from him."
"But-" I was at a loss for words, only staring at my cousin with total bewilderment. On the one hand, I really wanted her to understand that I had absolutely no interest in James Potter whatsoever; on the other hand, my brain was still grappling with what the bloody hell was going on.
"All these things; the rumours, the assault in the bathroom - they are not happy that James is talking to you so much and-"
"Wait, what?" I raised my eyebrows at Vala, forgetting for a second that she had asked me to lower my voice. "All these things are happening to me because of Potter?"
"Indirectly, yes," she said, drawing the hood of her old-fashioned cloak further into her face; she looked a little like she belonged to some creepy sisterhood, which just contributed to making this situation even stranger. "You've got to stay away from him."
For a moment, I was too perplexed to even form a coherent thought. All of this didn't make any sense; the mere idea of being targeted by a bunch of lunatics because James Potter had talked to me on one or two occasions, was simply ridiculous.
"You can't be serious," I finally said, trying to detect the hint of a smile on Vala's partially hooded face, but her mouth remained a hard, straight line.
"Just - take my advice," she sighed, before taking a couple of steps backwards. "I have to go. I can't be seen with you." And with that she had turned abruptly, her long cloak rustling behind her as she hurried down the forsaken corridor, leaving me behind in the cold, damp alcove.
A/N: All I can say is, I am so sorry for the long wait - I am literally drowning in uni work right now. I hope you enjoyed this chapter nonetheless and I will try to update faster. If you are still sticking with this story, thank you for your awesomeness. It's actually YOUR reviews that make me write on this story after a long day of seminar paper research and writing, so this update is entirely thanks to you lot!
Every review is like a gentle kick in the bum that reminds me that someone is actually waiting to read the next chapter. So thank you for that :)
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