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Chapter 12 : A Battle of Wits
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Katie watched me as I plopped a tea bag into my steaming mug, stirring the hot water absent-mindedly. The buzz of the Ravenclaw common room enveloped us, even though we were sitting quite remote from the centre of attention, which was the Ravenclaw keeper Hector Chang and his gormless friends, downing copious amounts of slug slime for a bet.
Ravenclaw was seriously going to the dogs.
“Is it safe?” Katie asked quietly, her blue eyes looking unusually anxious.
I lifted my steaming mug to my mouth and took a sip of scolding hot tea, waiting for the group of fourth-years to be out of earshot before I replied. I had succeeded in brewing the basis for the Graviditas potion, which now had to sit for about two weeks in a dark, damp spot until it was fully developed. Hence, I had left it in the potions classroom, hidden behind one of the shelves filled with books. Slughorn rarely used any of these books and I could only hope that he would not suddenly realise that he did indeed need them after all.
“I think so.”
Katie nodded, sipping on her own tea as she watched Hector empty his fourth glass of slime and heaving quite violently in the process. “And James?”
“What about him?” I shrugged my shoulders with an air of indifference. Since the disastrous tutoring lesson three days ago, I had not heard of James Potter again and, honestly, I was relieved; glad, even. It was obvious that we shouldn’t be in a room together.
“Hmmm,” Katie simply sighed, still observing the ruckus in the middle of the Common room. I followed her gaze, just to see one of the boys actually throwing up and, completely disgusted, quickly turned away again to look at one of the tall windows, where rain was pelting the glass.
I didn’t see him at first, too absorbed in my own thoughts; Sam Henderson stood in the corner next to the window, staring straight at me with a quite hollow expression on his face. Apart from the one class we had together, I hadn’t really seen him around lately and I was shocked to notice the dark circles underneath his eyes that bordered to black, and his skin looked sallow and sick. Hidden from the bright light of the torches, candles and fireplaces, he could have easily passed as an Infirius and I felt a cold shiver run down my spine.
“I, um, I should get going,” I said to Katie, after finally forcing myself to look away from Sam again, and got up from the comfortable wingback chair.
“Sure,” Katie said, stifling a yawn. “Have fun.” She stretched her arms above her head as she watched me hoist the handle of my tote bag onto my shoulder. I would have given everything to not have to monitor detention tonight; there was still a ton of homework I hadn’t done yet and I felt tired and exhausted. Unfortunately, however, as a sixth year prefect, I didn’t really have a choice.
The rain was drumming a steady pattern as it hit the tall stained glass windows that adorned the usually vacant classroom, bringing the colourful figures to life. I couldn’t stop thinking of Sam and the miserable state he seemed to be in. Maybe I should have told him that I was brewing the potion for him, but the more people knew about it, the higher was the risk that it got out.
I shook my head to myself and tried to direct my focus back to the books that were strewn across the large desk in front of me. I had decided to use the hours I had to spend overseeing detention to get started on my Transfiguration homework, but I found it unusually hard to concentrate. The soft scratching of half a dozen quills on parchment was oddly distracting, and I let my gaze wander around the room absent-mindedly, unable to think straight.
Suddenly, just as I was looking at it, the heavy oak door at the back of the room began to open slowly. For a second, I thought that Peeves had come to cause trouble, but then a tall – and quite solid – figure slipped into the classroom and silently made its way towards the desk I was occupying.
By the time he had reached the front, everybody in the room was staring at James Potter, who casually pulled up a chair and sat down right next to me, as though it was the most natural thing in the world.
“What are you doing here?” I hissed as quietly as possible, uncomfortably aware of the rapt attention with which everyone was watching us.
“I needed to talk to you,” James replied in a low voice, albeit not bothering to whisper, and he got out a couple of pages that had apparently been sticking in the back-pocket of his jeans. “And McGonagall told me you were monitoring detention tonight.”
I only looked at James, not sure if he was entirely sober. Or maybe he had sustained a particularly hard blow to the head during Quidditch practice. It was the only explanation for why he would suddenly show up during detention on a Friday night, just to talk to me.
“As much as I hate to admit it,” he said, furrowing his brow, “you were right.”
“About what?” I still had no clue what was going on. Only when James pushed the paper, which he had produced before, towards me, I realised that it was a potions essay on Hephadore’s Theorem with a thick, purple Acceptable scribbled into the upper left corner.
“The trick with making a mistake first to understand, actually worked, I guess.” He put his arm up, tousling the back of his head nonchalantly. “I thought you were a nutcase but you are actually pretty smart.”
“How charming,” I replied sarcastically, pushing the essay back towards him again, “I’m glad we sorted that out. And now go away.”
Even without directly looking at him, I could see the amused grin that curled his mouth as he watched me poor over my Transfiguration homework. I wasn’t actually reading the passage I was staring at, but I was trying to make a point, namely that our conversation – if one could call it that – was over.
“You are actually pretty good at pretending that you don’t like me.”
I looked up momentarily, caught off guard by the sudden closeness of James’s face as he had leaned forwards a little, still smirking.
“And you are shockingly full of yourself. It must be hard to get out of bed with that big head of yours.”
James shrugged, his grin widening so that a dimple appeared on his right cheek. “I manage, but thanks for your concern.” It rather seemed as though he was enjoying this and I simply rolled my eyes before looking back down to my half-finished homework. At this rate I would never get it done in time.
“So what about next Tuesday?” James said, after a short period of silence. “I’m sure Slughorn would let us use the potions classroom again.”
“No way,” I said in a tone that would have made my grandmother proud, and continued to highlight random sentences in the book in front of me. I was determined to remain stubborn, although a little voice in my head kept saying that it would actually be great to have a chance to check on the potion once in a while. Unfortunately, I was too disgruntled at the moment to think reasonably.
“I need your help, Woodley,” James said quietly and judging by his voice and the deep line etched onto his forehead, it had actually taken him quite some effort to admit this. I studied him warily for a moment, weighing my options. The potion could be ready much earlier if I got to stew it regularly; on the downside, however, I would have to spend more time with James, who would certainly think I secretly fancied him, if I agreed to more tutoring lessons. It was quite the dilemma.
“Alright,” I sighed, quite against my better judgement. “But just so we’re clear, I’m not doing this for you.”
“Sure,” James smirked, but before I could even so much as react, he had gotten up from his chair and crossed the class in a jog. “See you Tuesday then, Woodley. I owe you one!”
As the door closed behind him, I couldn’t help the small groan that escaped my mouth. Why on earth was I doing this to myself.
There were owl droppings everywhere. The dried ones – while maybe unsightly – didn’t actually matter but, judging by the squelching sound underneath my shoes, I had apparently just stepped into a fresh heap of excrements.
“Ugh, great,” I mumbled to myself, inspecting the damage while ignoring the snickering group of girls that huddled in the corner of the Owlery. There was a gooey white blob on the woven hemp sole of my new Espadrilles, which basically meant that it would stay there forever.
“Don’t worry, owl droppings are lucky,” someone suddenly said next to me and when I looked up, I saw Tarquin, attaching a small parcel to a school owl’s leg.
“At least my nana used to say that.”
“Well,” I sighed, “let’s hope your nana is right then.”
Tarquin grinned, releasing the owl with his delivery into the sky. “Usually,” he said as he watched me feed a couple of owl nuts to Archimedes, who had just returned from delivering my latest excuse for a letter to my parents. The fact that I had carelessly scribbled it with an ordinary ball-point pen, had probably caused a minor scandal in the Woodley household, but fortunately I wouldn’t have to hear about it until the Kick-off event in two weeks.
“How are you? You’ve skipped a lot of dinners lately.” Tarquin observed me from the side, falling into step with me as we descended the staircase together.
“Oh, um, yes.” I pushed my hair behind my ear, hoping that my blush wasn’t too obvious. “I’ve just been really busy. That’s all.”
He nodded and, to my great relief, didn’t seem to want to inquire any further. “Hey, um, can I ask you something?” He said tentatively, a somewhat sheepish expression on his thin face.
“Sure. Shoot.” I expected this to be about Katie. After all, he had been pining for her for years already. However, just for once, Katie did not seem to be the first thing on his mind.
“This might sound weird but – what is going on with you and James Potter?”
“What?” I had halted in the middle of the staircase, quite perplexed. It was indeed a weird question, and I needed a moment to wrap my thoughts around it.
“This came out strange,” Tarquin said lamely upon noticing my rather shocked expression. “What I meant was, I heard a couple of girls talking in our common room about Potter and I kind of picked up your name?” He finished the sentence with a rising intonation, as though he was asking a question, his eyebrows raised as he peered at me inquiringly.
“Oh, well, I am tutoring James in Potions. Slughorn set us up,” I explained shrugging. It wasn’t a big surprise that people knew about this by now; following and discussing James Potter’s social life – as sad as it may have been – was the sole reason of many a student’s existence at Hogwarts. I doubted that he could even go to the toilet without someone writing about it in the school paper, actually.
“Oh, yeah. Right. Okay.” Tarquin had averted his look and suddenly seemed to take a curious interest in the ugly tapestries that lined the corridor wall.
“What’s wrong, Quin?” I asked slowly, somehow sensing that there was still more. He looked thoroughly uncomfortable, obviously trying not to make eye-contact with me.
“Oh nothing. I’m sure it’s just worthless gossip-” He stopped talking abruptly, pressing his lips together as though he was trying to keep something in.
“What is?” I had halted in the middle of the corridor, giving Tarquin an inquiring look. A part of me didn’t actually want to know, but my curiosity was stronger.
“Well,” he said meekly, still avoiding my gaze, “they said something about you stalking Potter but that –“
“WHAT?” My voice reverberated from the high stone walls and Tarquin flinched at my sudden outburst. Why on earth would anybody think I was stalking Potter? After all, he had approached me, asking to continue tutoring him. I hadn’t wanted any of this.
“They were just silly fourth years,” Tarquin tried to reason, but I was only half-listening to him. I didn’t know why it bothered me so much that random people I had never even talked to, gossiped about me. I had never cared about what other people thought about me. Then again, I had also never been accused of stalking anyone, either. Except by Potter, of course.
“Seth?” Tarquin asked carefully, disrupting my train of thoughts. I looked up at him, slightly confused.
“I’m sorry,” I sighed and glanced at my watch. If there was one thing I could really do without tonight, it was seeing James Potter. Unfortunately, I had already agreed to meet him in the Potions classroom at five o’ clock. “I need to go.”
“Oh, okay.” Tarquin looked slightly taken aback, probably because he thought I was mad at him for telling me about his common room gossip. “Say hi to Katie for me?”
“Sure.” I waved at him, before turning around and walking back down the other direction, my mind still on those ridiculous rumours. Who else thought I was stalking James? Maybe he had even started the rumour himself, having a laugh with his stupid friends about it. It seemed like something they would do for fun.
By the time I had reached the potions classroom, I had managed to put myself into quite a bad mood. I was determined to cut James down to size as soon as he would show up, but he was late, as usual, which riled me up even further.
“Calm down,” I told myself, muttering quietly as I pushed aside a couple of dusty books on the shelf to get a glimpse of the Graviditas potion I had hidden there, “don’t let him get to you.”
I whirred around, completely startled, staring straight into a sunken, ashy face. Sam looked even worse from close up than he had done last Friday in the common room. His hair was matted and plastered to his face, as though he had been walking out in the rain, which, judging by his dripping clothes, I realized he had probably been doing.
“Sam,” I said surprised, taking a step back from the sour smell that seemed to come from his soaked T-shirt. “What are you doing here?”
He only stared at me for a moment, not even flinching. Then, quite suddenly, he gripped my arms tightly, his fingernails boring into my skin. “Why are you doing this to me?” He croaked with a horribly hoarse voice. “What are you playing at? Is this payback because I went out with Felicity instead of you?”
“What?” I was thoroughly confused by Sam’s alarming behaviour. “I don’t know what-”
“Why don’t you hand them in?” He shouted, his voice cracking at the last word. “Are you enjoying this? I can’t stand this any longer.” He stared at me, his fingers digging even deeper into my arms, but I was too shocked to even notice.
“Sam,” I began carefully, but before I could say anything else, his grip had slackened and his arms dropped to his sides. He appeared to physically deflate as his shoulders hunched, and suddenly, he was crying.
“What am I doing?” He croaked, burying his face in his hands, sobbing quietly.
“Sam,” I said again, putting my hand awkwardly on his trembling shoulder. “I haven’t turned you in, because I’m trying to brew the potion for Felicity.”
It seemed to take him a moment to realise what I had just said. Finally, he looked up at me, a bewildered expression on his face. “You – what?”
I stepped aside, revealing the small cauldron that stood on the shelf behind me, giving off an herbal scent. Sam peered at it over my shoulder, looking both incredulous and confused. Then, quite unexpectedly, I suddenly found myself enveloped in a tight, wet embrace. He had slung his arms around my midriff, his head resting on my shoulder as he squeezed me so tightly, I thought he was going to crush me.
“I can’t believe it,” he mumbled into my jumper and I patted him on the back weirdly, not sure what else to do. Hugging wasn’t exactly a Woodley speciality.
“It’s – it’s okay. I don’t mind, really,” I stammered awkwardly. “It’ll be ready by the end of next week, I think.”
Sam nodded into my shoulder, his grip tightening yet again. “I can’t even –,” he mumbled close to my ear. “She’s still late and now she’s feeling sick in the mornings. That can’t be a good sign, can it?”
“Um, well, I’m no expert,” I said lamely, feeling my heart sink. “She might just be ill?” I sounded incredibly stupid, but I didn’t know what else to say and I really didn’t want Sam to start crying again.
“I know, I’m late, but it isn’t my –” The classroom door had swung open with a loud thud and there stood James Potter, staring at us with raised eyebrows. “Oh, um, sorry. I didn’t mean to-”
“You didn’t,” I squeaked with an unnaturally high voice. Sam had finally let go of my midriff, looking back and forth between Potter and me, as though he was trying to figure out what was going on.
“Are you sure?” James asked slowly. “Because I can go if you-”
“No, it’s fine!” Sam had apparently gathered himself again, sounding much less hoarse than before. “I wanted to go anyway.” He cleared his throat and, before walking away, turned back to me once more, a serious look on his face. “Thank you. Really.”
I only nodded in reply, quite unsure about how else to react. It was only when the door finally shut behind Sam that I realized, I had been holding my breath. Turning away from James, who still stood in the middle of the room, I inhaled deeply, trying to sort out my thoughts. Maybe it hadn’t been such a good idea to tell Sam about the potion; what if it didn’t work? And even if it worked, there was still a great possibility that it was in vain; Felicity feeling sick in the mornings really wasn’t a good sign.
“Your boyfriend looks like he could use some sleep. Or a shower,” James commented as he approached the table; I could clearly hear the grin in his voice, but I was too weary to be properly annoyed at this.
“He’s not my boyfriend,” I said quietly, not bothering to put more vigour into my answer, and began to set up the cauldron for the tutoring lesson. James watched me for a moment, his hands stuffed into the pockets of his jeans, before picking up the Gillyweed I had just laid out.
“Why is he so miserable then?”
“Oh, very funny,” I snapped, snatching the limp weed out of his grip and slamming it down on the table again. “What a witty reply!”
James simply smirked and leaned against the desk, his arms crossed in front of his torso. “I know. I’m hilarious.”
“You’re just really fully of yourself,” I commented grouchily, glaring at him.
“And you’re a nut job.”
“And you’re a - a dunderhead!”
James stared at me, his mouth slightly open, as though he had wanted to reply but the words had gotten stuck in his throat. Then, finally, he raised his eyebrows at me, his lips curling to a crooked grin. “Did you just call me a dunderhead?”
“Yeah. That’s what you are,” I mumbled lamely, feeling the blush creeping up my cheeks. I had quickly returned to rearranging the ingredients I had laid out on the table before, simply to have a reason to look away from James, who still looked annoyingly amused.
“Let’s just get started,” I sighed after a silent minute, plopping down on a chair. “The sooner we start, the sooner it’ll be over.”
James had bent over my sheet of notes, a look of deep concentration on his face as he raked a hand through his messy dark brown hair. Slughorn’s bewitched windows showed nothing but pitch black darkness and it was only because of the soft drumming noise that I knew it was still raining outside. If the weather would stay like this, there was still a chance that my parents and grandparents would not bother to come to the Quidditch Kick-off next weekend. It wasn’t that I didn’t like to see them at all; they were still my family. But I just knew that, having them here at Hogwarts, things were bound to get complicated.
“I’m not sure I get this,” James yawned, stretching his arms above his head.
“What?” I bent over the paper as well, studying the different formulas I had scribbled down before. It looked a bit of a mess, but I had never been a neat note-taker. There were just too many thoughts in my head to write them down orderly.
“That right there,” James pointed at a particularly long equation that had tiny numbers scribbled next to the different ingredients.
“That’s just proof for Salman’s Law, exemplifying that the equal reduction of the amount of ingredients does not produce less quantity of the same potion, but may have different properties all together.”
“Hmmm,” mused James, apparently mulling the new information over. “And that’s the same as this here.” He pointed at another equation. I nodded in agreement, and, not realising how close James actually was, accidentally bumped my head against his.
“Ouch, I’m sorry,” I groaned, holding my throbbing head as we moved apart.
“No, it’s my fault,” James laughed, mimicking my gesture, “I shouldn’t have come so-” He stopped talking rather abruptly and cleared his throat.
“Well, um,” I finally uttered after a strange period of silence, looking at the dozens of papers and books that lay scattered across the table. “Maybe we should, um,”
“Yeah, good idea.” James had risen from his chair rather quickly, scratching the back of his neck. “I’ve got intense Quidditch training planned until the Kick-Off is over, so I won’t really have time for tutoring lessons.”
“That’s fine,” I said quickly, shrugging my shoulders. “I wouldn’t have time anyway.” It was a lie, of course, but I wasn’t going to admit that to James when he had just made it sound as though I was a crazy fan girl, desperate to tutor him.
“Okay, good.” He looked at me for a moment and then simply nodded his head casually in a farewell gesture. “Bye then.”
The door snapped shut behind him and I could feel the muscles in my shoulders loosen up momentarily. I hadn’t even noticed how tense I had been; it somehow felt like, with James, I was in a constant defence mode, which cost me a lot of energy.
I stifled a yawn and pushed myself up from the chair, pulling my hair up into a messy topknot as I made my way to the wooden bookshelf that stretched across the entire left wall. The small pot containing the Graviditas potion was still visible where I had pushed aside the books, and I peered over the edge, examining the gooey, greyish liquid.
Carefully, I took it from the shelf and put it down on the desk, kindling a fire underneath it with my wand. It didn’t take long for the substance to react to the heat and, within a minute, it was bubbling sluggishly, emitting thin bands of smoke.
“I forgot my books.” A deep voice startled me, and I jerked up my head to see James standing in the middle of the room.
Without thinking, I leaped from my chair, trying to block the cauldron from his view, but it was too late; he had already seen everything.
“I’m, um, finishing off a potions project,” I stammered lamely, my face heating up instantly from the blatant lie.
James only gave me an appraising look as he approached, peering warily into the cauldron. “Has anyone ever told you that you are a really bad liar, Woodley?”
A/N: Sooooh – Seth got caught. By James. What did you think about that? And what do you think about Seth and James together? I am really curious to hear what you guys think! Let me know what you like or didn’t like or what you would like to happen :)…
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