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Chapter 29 : Of High Hopes and Low Expectations
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My heart pounded as I walked down the street, heat crawling up my back despite the ten-degree-weather, and my head buzzed as though someone had hit it with a beater’s bat. I knew that I needed to calm down, but it was hard to resist the urge to succumb to my anger.
James Potter was a prat.
A selfish, inflated, big-headed prat.
His words were still ringing in my head, scraps of the conversation blending to a repetitive swirl as they echoed in my head: he’s a prick; you can’t hang out with him; he just wants to get into your pants.
I took a deep, steadying breath, slowly scanning my surroundings. Lucas was nowhere to be seen and I guessed that, upon realising that I had gone, he had probably left. I couldn’t even blame him; I would have done the same thing, assuming that I had been ditched.
My first date had officially ended in disaster and it was all James Potter’s fault.
“Okay, this might sound pathetic since I’m saying this for the second time today, but I thought you stood me up. Again.”
I turned around to find Lucas standing in the middle of the street, both of his hands clutching rather large paper cups bearing Madame Puddifoot’s cutesy logo. He looked slightly wary, as though he still wasn’t sure whether the date had ended prematurely or not.
“It’s cold now,” he added as an afterthought, indicating the two cups. He had gotten us tea; two gigantic vats of tea and I had made him wait for Potter.
“I’m sorry. I just-” I hesitated, thinking for a minute; despite the fact that I was not great at dating, I knew that mentioning the fact that I had actually met another guy (who incidentally had talked badly about my date) probably wasn’t the greatest idea. So I swerved.
“I just needed to use the loo.”
Great, that wasn’t unsexy at all.
Despite my blatant insufficiency at talking normally to boys, however, Lucas smiled in response and I couldn’t help thinking that this was too easy. He didn’t seem to be taken aback by my awkward behaviour or the fact that people had kept staring and pointing at us all day, whispering conspiratorially, which had led me to come up with two possible conclusions; either Lucas was up to something despicable, thinking that maybe a girl with my reputation would not mind accumulating a few more stigmas, or – and this was the much scarier scenario – he genuinely liked me.
“How about the Three Broomsticks?”
“Oh – um – now?” I said evasively as I looked down the street towards where the pub was located, noticing a small crowd that seemed to have formed at the entrance. All around us, the bustle had died down a little, owning partly to the fact that daylight was fading and partly to the ominous clouds that banked up above the village, growing blacker by the minute. Knowing the Scottish weather, it wouldn’t be long before a torrential rain would hit Hogsmeade and the remaining strollers would soon join the queue. It was one thing to be the illegal-potion-brewing freak in a gigantic castle or a busy street, but imagining the intensity of stares and whispers in the packed pub made my stomach writhe.
“Yeah, we could get some food,” Lucas suggested, apparently not having picked up on my reservation.
A gloomy shadow had crept over the village by now and large, heavy raindrops began to fall, beating a scattered rhythm on the rooftops of the wooden stalls.
“Okay,” I finally said, feeling that any other answer would have been unreasonable. Considering the dim light in the Three Broomsticks and the probable possibility that it would be crammed, it wasn’t likely that anybody would even pay attention to us. “Why not.”
As I had predicted, the pub was crawling with students and tourists alike, most of whom were hovering awkwardly somewhere by the toilets, lurking nervously in case a table cleared out. Lucas and I had taken two miraculously empty seats at the bar, squeezing between a rather foulmouthed old man and a slightly red-cheeked Professor Hagrid, who failed to notice us – or anyone, really – over his gigantic tankard of Madame Rosmerta’s oak-matured mead.
“Two menus, please,” Lucas said when a mildly harassed-looking barmaid had come to take our orders, but she simply shook her head, a few strands of hair escaping her disintegrating bun.
“We’re out of food, sorry. Tourists cleared us out.”
“It’s fine,” I said to Lucas, still feeling rather full from the two and a half cups of hot cocoa I had drunk at Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes. “We’ll get dinner at the castle anyway.”
“Oh, right.” He sounded slightly disappointed and – after we had placed our orders and the barmaid had left to pour our drinks – added somewhat sheepishly, “I would have liked to buy you dinner.”
I shrugged, not minding the blush that definitely coloured my cheeks. “Next time.”
Lukas smiled. “That sounds like a plan.”
Our orders – a mug of foamy butterbeer and a cup of tea – had arrived meanwhile and I picked up the cup, cradling it in my hands for something to do. Not only had I just agreed to go on a second date with Lucas, I had somewhat suggested it in the first place.
The pub felt uncomfortably hot all of a sudden.
Not sure how to continue the conversation, I let my eyes wander, scanning the crowded place, taking in its warm, crimson walls and dark wood furniture, which promised comfort and cosiness. The glossy walnut bar was the centre piece, curving smoothly towards the very back of the pub, separating the service area from the bustling behind the counter. It was then – as I followed its bent – that only a few seats away from us, I spotted Freddie Weasley, Augustus Cotton, and, of course, James Potter, whose eyes were fixed on me, his expression grim.
Startled for a moment, I simply stared back, noticing the fresh tumbler of firewhisky which he dangled casually in front of his nose. Despite the fact that he couldn’t be sitting here very long, it didn’t look like it was his first one.
“Potter looks annoyed.” Lucas’s voice startled me and I almost fell from my barstool as I wheeled back around, trying to feign a sort of vague indifference, as though I had neither noticed nor cared.
“Oh, does he?”
“Yeah.” Lucas grimaced, but I wasn’t sure if it was because of his butterbeer or because of James. I could feel him looking at me from the side, somewhat contemplative, and I quickly took a few sips from my scolding hot tea, not wanting to seem anything but completely casual.
I fully expected a question on James’s and my relationship to follow up. After all, a great part of the rumours about me included the Potters and it seemed unlikely that Lucas had not heard of them. While he had had the decency to not mention any of them so far, I could hardly expect him to pretend they didn’t exist.
To my surprise, however, he asked nothing of the sort.
“Hey, um,” he said, sounding nervous all of a sudden, “I’ll be right back, I just – um – loo.” He nodded vaguely towards the very back where the toilets were located and then quickly slid from his barstool to squeeze through the crowd, disappearing between the waiting parties.
I waited, uneasily sipping on my tea while I stubbornly glared at a black and white photograph of Celestina Warbeck, which hung on the opposite side of where Potter was sitting. Lucas’s sudden urge to use the toilet was, of course, not inherently strange or anything out of the ordinary, but the look on his face and the strain in his voice had been slightly alarming.
Of course, it could be nothing. It probably was nothing.
Unknowingly, my eyes had drifted back towards the other end of the bar, where James was no longer staring at me but engrossed in conversation with a tall black-haired girl, who threw her head back laughing, her hands resting casually on James’s shoulders. He beckoned her to lean in and whispered something into her ear, which made her giggle once more before she snatched the whiskey tumbler out of his hand and downed it in one gulp.
The ostentatious display had already attracted a number of onlookers, including a group of snickering girls – some of whom were wearing Hufflepuff scarfs and who I suspected to be Black-Hair’s friends – excited about the fact that one amongst their group had accomplished to be James Sirius Potter’s chosen girl of the moment.
I rolled my eyes at no one in particular and forced myself to turn away from the unfolding scene again; they might start snogging any moment and somehow I felt that I did not want to whiteness it. Not because I cared, of course. James Potter was perfectly entitled to exchange saliva with whomever he liked. I just did not need to watch it.
I slid from my seat, causing an immediate stir in the small, hovering groups by the toilets, ready to pounce in case a seating opportunity had become available, just to see their disappointed faces when they noticed my coat and scarf which I had draped over the barstool to signal that it was still occupied. Some of them – I noticed as I walked past them – where dripping with water, looking as though they had taken a swim with their clothes on. It must be pouring outside.
There was a queue in front of the Lady’s as usual, which I joined just as a tall woman, holding the hand of a little girl with pigtails, who had crossed her thin legs, jittering on the spot, lined up behind me.
“Excuse me,” the woman said with a very distinguished Yorkshire accent, “would you mind letting us go first.”
“It’s an emergency!” The girl – she couldn’t have been older than four or five – shouted so loudly that a few people around us chuckled benevolently.
“Oh, of course. Go ahead,” I said, moving back towards the edge of the narrow hallway to let them pass. It was then that a bit of familiar olive green cloth caught my eye and I turned my head to see the back of Lucas’s jacket protruding from behind the corner.
For a moment, I contemplated tapping his shoulder, but with Potter’s accusations still lingering in my head, I hesitated, moving just close enough to remain hidden behind the corner. ‘He just wants to get into your pants’; the warning still clouded my thoughts. Even the suspicion left a bitter taste in my mouth.
Lucas seemed to be leaning against the wall of the pub and, as I held my breath, I suddenly realised that he was speaking to somebody.
“So you haven’t done it?” A boy’s rugged voice asked.
“Listen,” Lucas answered, sounding defiant, “it’s not that easy, okay?”
The queue in front of me moved, but I remained stationary, my body pressed against the wall as I strained to hear the rest of the conversation. Admittedly, it wasn’t a class act – eavesdropping on my date – but something about the situation seemed off.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” The other boy said urgently. He sounded irritated for some reason.
“It means,” Lucas snapped, “that it’s complicated.”
His conversation partner was silent for a few seconds before saying, very quietly, “Have you asked her?”
My heartbeat picked up speed, probably sensing that something was not quite right, and I held my breath for Lucas to reply.
“Are you waiting?” A high-pitched voice asked loudly and I jerked my head up to find a rather annoyed-looking girl standing in front of me. She was pointing towards the receding queue in front of the Lady’s and I quickly shook my head, at which a small group of eye-rolling and groaning girls pushed past me to close up the ranks.
When I got back to listening in on the conversation, it was just in time to hear Lucas say, “She’s too smart, man.”
“What the fuck are you saying?” His friend said sharply, albeit still trying to keep his voice down. His irritation had turned into blatant anger and I felt even more confused than before.
“Nothing. I – it’s not going to work. It’s not working for me,” Lucas said, obviously in an attempt to explain himself, but he was cut off instantly.
“For fuck’s sake,” the other boy growled, an unmistakable hint of exasperation in his voice. “It was your job to get her to brew the fucking potion. You said you could do it.”
My stomach seemed to twist itself into a tight knot as this last piece of information sank in. Another pair of girls staggered past me, giving me weird looks as I leaned my head back against the wall, trying to breathe calmly.
How on earth could I have been so stupid?
Lucas had asked me out on a date because he needed me to brew a potion for him.
I had been played like a fool.
It hadn’t taken me long to elbow my way back to our spot at the bar where an elderly couple was already standing in front of the barstools, alternating between looking at my coat and scanning the crowd as though trying to figure out if it did, in fact, belong to somebody. There was no doubt that as soon as I had grabbed my clothes, they would scurry like it was a game of musical chairs.
“Hey, are we leaving?”
I turned on the spot, knowing before I saw him that it was Lucas who had spoken to me. There was a politely confused smile on his face as he glanced at the coat I was cradling in my arms and I could feel the definite sensation of anger-induced nausea writhing in my stomach.
I really wanted to run.
But, instead, I charged.
“Oh yes, I’m leaving,” I said curtly, putting an exaggerated emphasis on the ‘I’ as I willed myself to stay calm. The last thing I wanted was to let Lucas know that he had hurt me, but the longer I looked at him, the more I feared that I would betray my own dignity.
“What are you-” He started, still sounding puzzled, but I cut him off mid-sentence.
“I don’t know what you’ve heard about me, but I’m not brewing illegal potions. And if I did, I wouldn’t waste even a single ingredient on a lying prick like you.”
I could literally see his face fall as realisation hit him. “No, Seth,” he said and I was surprised to hear the plea in his voice. “This is not-”
“No!” I said so fiercely that Lucas flinched. “I really don’t want to hear it.”
Quite unexpectedly he made another attempt at moving closer, his arms outstretched as though he wanted to grab me, but I dodged him and, in a kneejerk reaction, I raised my arm into the air, commanding attention from those around us.
“Next round’s on this guy!” I shouted, feeling suddenly reckless. “It’s his birthday, so don’t let him get away!”
As I dived into the crowd I could hear him call out after me, but a growing number of people was already congregating around him, clapping his shoulder and cheering at the promise of free drinks. I simply kept on walking, pushing through the merrily moving masses. For the second time today, angry tears stung in my eyes, but I blinked them away once more as I stormed out of the pub and into the pouring rain.
The street had nearly cleared out, leaving only a few solitary figures who were hastening to find shelter. It was raining so hard that the water that had collected in various pans in the cobbled street streamed downhill in tiny rivulets, splashing excitedly whenever it hit an obstacle. I had bowed my head against the icy shower, feeling the cold seep through my coat as the wool that had kept me so warm just hours ago, absorbed the water like a thirsty sponge.
At least the fear of freezing to death kept me occupied enough to not think too much of the humiliation and mortification I felt at being played like the biggest idiot.
“Hey, watch out!” A few indignant voices shouted just as I felt something hard collide with my shoulder; the unexpected blow flung me backwards so that I landed ankle-deep in a puddle, which immediately spilled into my boots, soaking my socks entirely.
“Hey! It’s Beth!” A familiar voice called out and I looked up to find a positively delighted Demeter Notte, huddled underneath a large umbrella together with her usual entourage. “Look Vala, it’s your cousin Beth!”
Vala, who looked shockingly underdressed for this weather in only a leather jacket and a flimsy dress, rolled her eyes in response; whether it was because her friend had gotten my name wrong yet again or because she was annoyed to run into me, I couldn’t tell. After Christmas, we had fallen into our awkward Hogwarts routine once more, limiting our interactions to mere acknowledging nods whenever we had passed each other in the corridors. It was therefore even stranger to meet her like this, accompanied by her glamorous friends.
“Sorry,” I said quickly, not really feeling up to having a forced conversation with a bunch of girls I barely knew. This was not the time to be friendly. “I didn’t see where I was going.”
I pushed past them without even waiting for an answer. My feet felt like ice as they swam in water and I my jaw had started to tremble so violently that my teeth began to chatter whenever I unclenched it. All I wanted was to get out of this place, away from all those people.
As I reached the town limits, I couldn’t shake off the uneasy feeling that someone was following me, yet I did not dare turn around. Instead, I broke into a run just as the rain turned into fierce sleet, numbing my body with cold.
I had run.
All the way up to the castle.
All the way up to Ravenclaw tower.
But as I stared at the brass eagle knocker, whose half-whispered question I had barely registered, I realised that I couldn’t face it; none of it.
And so I turned around, ignoring the eagle’s protests, and sprinted down dark corridor after dark corridor until my lungs hurt from exhaustion and I collapsed against a gloomy stained glass window.
It was only then – in this dark, lonely hallway – that I permitted myself to sob, my shoulders shaking as my throat constricted painfully, barely allowing me to draw jerky breaths as I struggled not to vomit.
It was disgraceful. I knew it was – but something seemed to have broken; some protective barrier that had enabled me to keep my chin up despite all of the awful things that had happened lately had cracked and the flood had been inevitable. And so I sat on the cold stone floor in a puddle that had been created by my own soaked clothes, dissolving into tears and snot as I sobbed into the sleeves of my coat – the picture of misery.
All the accusations, the rumours, the way people looked at me; it hurt. It hurt in a way that I had never felt before, tearing at my core, clawing into my bones as though it would stay with me forever. As though it would never go away.
I looked up, suddenly uncomfortably aware of the glittering trails of snot that must have covered my face as I stared at my perfectly put-together cousin. Vala was drenched as well, yet her make-up was miraculously impeccable, her ferociously red lipstick glowing in the pale light.
“Are you…” She had probably wanted to ask if I was okay but, at the sight of my puffy eyes, seemed to have thought better of it.
“I’m good,” I said automatically, wiping my face aimlessly in an attempt to cover my pathetic breakdown, “just got into the rain.” I hated how weak my voice sounded, but every syllable hurt as I pressed it through my vocal chords, making it hard to sound anything but brittle.
For an unbearable moment, Vala looked at me and I could feel a hot wave of shame crawl up my spine; in the long, long history of this proud family there had never been anyone who had failed so splendidly at being a Woodley as I.
“Move over,” she commanded, looking unbearably bossy as she sat down next to me, arranging the short skirt of her dress to minimize wrinkles. Rain was pounding against the window, filling the silence with rhythmic drumming as we simply sat there, staring at the opposite wall.
“You look like shit,” she said after a while, her voice quite unsympathetic, and I snorted in response, the strange sound echoing like a ghost as it travelled along the dark corridor.
“Oh, nothing.” I shrugged, trying to downplay the pathetic state in which Vala had found me. Collapsing on the floor like a melodramatic Ambrosia Tinkletabber heroine hadn’t exactly been one of my proudest moments; the fact that someone had witnessed it was just the bitter cherry on top of an incredibly awful day.
“It’s not a big deal,” she said suddenly, her voice barely louder than a whisper. “This whole thing. It will blow over.”
I looked at her but she continued to stare straight ahead, her red lips pressed together as though she had to force them shut. Around us, ominous specks of pale colour dappled the floor and walls, projecting the jaded scene of a pair of duelling wizards – Godric Gryffindor and Salazar Slytherin – onto the rough canvas.
It wasn’t the first time this year that Vala and I had ended up in a gloomy corridor together and, although this school year had been extraordinarily strange so far, the memory of my cloaked cousin pushing me up against a dusty wall had been one of the weirdest incidents so far.
“What was it about?” I said, following my train of thoughts. “When you told me to stay away from Potter?”
I had never asked Vala this. At the time I had thought that it was mostly because I had wanted to leave this alarming instance and the terrible events that had followed it behind; now, however, it seemed nothing short of careless to never have tried to find out the truth.
Vala rolled her eyes, yet her attempt at looking aloof was flawed. “I just – it’s just not a good idea to go after someone like him,” she said, pressing her lips together. “As you can see, nothing good can come of it in a castle full of lunatics and a family like ours.”
“I never meant to go after him,” I protested, my voice ricocheting from the corridor walls. “There is absolutely nothing between us.”
“Well, it doesn’t look like nothing.”
She didn’t look at me as she said this, but I turned away nonetheless. James Potter bothered me in a way that nothing had before and it was infuriating.
“So you really think that all these horrible things are happening to me because of Potter?”
Vala shrugged. “Well, it’s possible.”
“But that doesn’t make any sense.” I shook my head, unwilling to venture too far into the foggy territory of James’s and my non-existent relationship. “What about Athena Notte or Fern Sterling? They’ve actually been dating Potter, haven’t they? Why did no one threaten them?”
It felt good to turn my mind towards something productive rather than allowing it to wallow in self-pity; even if it was the ludicrous idea that someone in this castle might have it out for me because of a stupid boy.
Vala shrugged as she stared absent-mindedly at her pointy high-heels. “Well probably it’s not because of James Potter per se. I guess talking to him just made people talk about you. This castle is a gossip mill, really.”
I frowned, watching the projection of the stain-glass window flicker as another spell of hard rain hit the glass. Wasn’t this exactly what James had insinuated, back when he had still called me Elizabeth and offered to greet me in the corridors in exchange for tutoring lessons; that by simply giving the illusion of being friends with him, I could boost my own reputation?
“I don’t want any of this,” I whispered, leaning my head against the cool glass behind me. This madness had to stop and I needed to find a way to do it.
“I know something that will cheer you up,” Vala said, making me sit up straight again. It seemed quite out of character for her to give me a pep talk now.
“Cassandra Freya Carrington of the noble Woodley family is officially engaged to the honourable Asher Atticus Engelstein.”
“Are you serious?” I said, regretting that I hadn’t opened my mother’s letter, which Archie had delivered yesterday evening. I was sure it would contain the happy news that the family crisis I had started by refusing to being married off at sixteen had been successfully averted by yet another great Woodley ploy.
“It’s going to be the wedding of the year,” Vala sang in a mock-cheerful tone and I couldn’t help laughing; something I hadn’t thought possible only half an hour ago.
“You must be so thrilled.”
“Can’t you see?” She said as she gave me a deadpan look that even Bernice would envy. “I am bursting with joy.”
A/N: I really want to take the time to thank all of the awesome readers who have left reviews on the story so far. I’ve had quite the stressful month, but your amazing messages reminded me that actually there are some people waiting for the next chapter. So this update is really because of you guys; because you took the time out of your busy days to write me a review. It means so much to me. THANK YOU :)
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