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etc. etc. (and life goes on) by justonemorefic
Chapter 23 : Trust Whom You Love, or Is It the Other Way Around?
 
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 20


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chapter image by me

. 23 .


Headmaster Slughorn's voice crackles feebly over the Amplifier. "The recent Hogsmeade trip has incurred quite a bit of… destruction."

Eyes turn from the lectern to the end of the Gryffindor table, where Albus stifles a groan and I give the finger behind my coat so everyone except the staff can see.

No one has the courage to look near Appy, who showed up for dinner dressed in mourning black and her blonde hair dyed to match. A dark aura radiates around her, hissing and snapping at anyone too close—some sort of privacy perfume. Breaths are bated for our first interaction, but she's been mute all evening.

"I understand young love can be volatile," Slughorn continues, "but do refrain from forming—what's the term nowadays?" Parchment rustles. "Ah. Armies."

I've never been responsible for a public service announcement. Dom will call it a mark of honor; the Potter-Weasleys have a long history with criminal damage. I'll share this achievement with Albus like I'll share everything from now on.

Lounging in the cradle of his arm, I can't decide if I like how casually he holds me now that we aren't pretending. I'm trying to like it. It won't get better unless I try, right?

"Should any student find themselves besotted, there are appropriate channels for affection…"

As Slughorn drones on about 'responsible romance,' Albus leans close to my ear and whispers, "If you're still exiling yourself from your dorm, you can stay with me tonight."

I hold back a snort. "You're so obvious."

"Not for sex—not just for sex. You know I live with four other guys."

"Silencio is a thing."

"Well, if you insist." His smirk is hot on my ear. "Come on, you don't actually want to keep sleeping in a chair."

As much as I've improved my padding charms, the wooden chairs in the newsroom make a poor bed. "Maybe I do. Think of the Conservatives."

Slughorn has gone through two of the six feet of parchment in his hands, and the snores in the hall are drowning him out. "In spite of the ruckus, I admire the spirit. We will certainly look into more democratic options for the future—"

An owl snatches his notes. It flies out an open window behind Slughorn, trailing the parchment up and over his face. The guilty Gryffindors beside me barely contain their laughter, until Sinistra plucks a student from the group by the collar.

The rest hush, but the disruption is irreparable. Snickers overtake as Slughorn yells out the window. Professor Vector's rolling her eyes as she makes her way to the stand.

She leans into the Amplifier. "Ahem-hem. What Professor Slughorn has been meaning to say for the last ten minutes is… love is the most powerful magic in the world. Don't be an imbecile with it."

With that, she dismisses us with a sharp flap of her hands. Six feet of speech in two sentences; Hogwarts will go into shock with efficiency when Slughorn retires.

As students filter out of the Great Hall, Albus delays me by holding onto my coat. "You haven't looked well for ages. Come up soon," he says, slipping me his invisibility cloak. "Lights go out early. Quidditch lot are all whingers."

"So, loud and angry sex. Got it."

"Sadist." He pulls me in for a languid kiss that prompts wolf whistles.

"Masochist." I pluck myself from him, smoothing my shirt of his grip's wrinkles, and go find Dom. The walk of shame nips at my heels.

The whole school can giggle over Potter and I shagging for all I care—at least the girls here sling names because they hate me and nothing more—but I think of the gossip in the wilds of Britain ready to undermine me as some cheap minx to turn a profit. Sex sells, they'll say with a shrug, yet they'll cry out in shock when the sixteen-year-old girl wants it and, for all their hand-wringing, find no issue with labelling the child a slut.

Or even better: Potter's slut.

I complain to Dom as we walk to our dorm, and she shakes her fist for me at all the right moments. "They're not fit to be owlery lining. How can schoolgirls compete against the Prophet? Scream to the point of hysteria just to be heard and dismissed." She huffs, curls frazzled, and turns to me, hand flat on the arched door to room. "Staying at Al's?"

"I guess." Grabbing my wand, I brace myself for whatever Appy has waiting for me.

Dom raises a brow but asks nothing and pushes the door open.

The room is aglow and much like the mess I remember. Unmade beds all around, books kicked aside, outfits abandoned from the morning. Then the door swings back fully and the lurch of my stomach nearly makes me drop my wand.

When Appy holed herself up in her room, people thought I killed her, and in a way, I had. Every last thing on her side of the room—the walls, the bed, the rug, the wardrobe, even her silky Persian cat—is painted over with a deep, inky black.

"Honestly," Dom says, catching my stare, "it's kinda stylish."

Her bed curtains flutter at me beckoning for a dementor's kiss and I recoil into Dom, who shoots me another funny look. Appy isn't here at least. Only the Nott twins are back from dinner, submerged in Helen's fluffy quilts, tossing jelly beans in each other's mouths.

I pack quickly.

I grab a towel, pyjamas, a toothbrush, a fistful of clothes from my wardrobe and shove it all into a duffel. Albus' cloak is tucked under my arm. The Nott twins' lewd conversation colors the background: "How big is Al's—oi—" Helen bats away the stuffed Quaffle thrown at her "—chamber in Gringotts? 'cause I heard he's—it's huge. Filthy rich, the Potters. Filthy."

The black slinks at the corner of my eyes, never leaving my sight. Dom thought my self-exile was an overreaction, or at the very least not worth bringing clothes and toiletries to the newsroom daily, but I don't know who this New Appy is.

I learned fourth year while exposing Gloria Botts' pixie dust smuggling ring to not underestimate people who have lost everything. Jelly bean heiress shoved a wand to my throat, threatened to murder me and clean the crime scene so thoroughly that she could perform open heart surgery there.

Appy seems halfway down the path to being a Dark Lord.

I sling the duffel over my shoulder, yank the invisibility cloak over me, and receive a chorus of distracted "goodnights" as I leave. The halls will be quiet; few sneak out on a weekday and there will be the barest of prefect rounds tonight.

Outside the common room, the only figures left scuttle in the shadows. I wander toward the dim glow of the dungeon loos and stop to check the stack of Witchy Business issues, now three-quarters depleted.

But a quick glance over the rubbish bin makes me grimace—crumpled copies to the brim. Well, no one can say we didn't try responsible reporting.

As I turn back, a stall door unlatches and opens. I look up at the mirror and my breath hitches.

I hadn't seen Appy up close until now. Watching her at dinner, our room's redecoration, Dom's complaints of her—I thought I'd know what to expect when I'd see her. If she could see me under the cloak, it'd be her hands around my throat. Penance for shattering a girl who was cracked before I stole her dream boy twice.

The Appy in front of me is, honestly, pretty stylish. Buttoned from neck to knees in a black dress and laced from knees to feet in black combat boots, she is a gothic doll ready to strike. Polka dot ruffles and glitter nail polish maintain her trademarks. Black makeup outlines her porcelain-pale face. Color theory wasn't her strong point, and she's fixed that by giving up color entirely.

It's her expression that catches me off guard—her lack of one. She washes her hands two sinks down, and there is no grim reaper smile nor streaming mascara. Not even a sniffle. Appy, who flies off the handle at the mere mention of a boy's name, looks bored.

The cloak stifles my laughter, and I realize the rolling feeling in my gut is disappointment. Don't I get a little satisfaction? One short moment of suffering from her? I'd rather Appy be a madwoman after me, so crazy that even she can't deny it, if it meant she'd finally admit it.

I laugh until my body shakes and my breath draws short. She'll never change. She'll never know to.

I can't stand it.

I could never, can't ever, stand it.

"Appy."

Her name in my voice echoes from the walls. Appy stills.

I sway, cloak pulled off and crumpled in my hand.

Wind up the doll and she'll talk. "Let's cut the crap," I say. "You hate me and I hate you."

A last gurgle of water disappears into the drain.

"I don't hate you," she says. The color has gone from her voice, too.

"Drop the good girl act. You're batshit and everyone knows. Why are you sad? You tore girls down and demonized anyone who had the slightest interest in Al—do you not see that? No one's got sympathy for you."

Turbulence mars her doe eyes, ready to weep a storm. "I don't hate you. Albus was unfaithful, and you showed me his true colors. I'm thankful."

I want to laugh again but no sound comes out.

"I know what you think." She pulls her dark-painted lip taut under her teeth. "I told everyone he was perfect, but oh Clemence, he was. Charming, humble, everything good you can think of… a real prince." Swooning into herself, a flutter of her past self resurfaces before she steadies a hand on the sink basin. "He couldn't take his eyes off of me. Can you blame me for going overboard?"

"Entirely."

"Do you know how much it broke me, Clemence, when he saw you in Puddifoots? When I watched his love for me just… disappear? You see me now." She gestures over her black attire, flicks at her black hair, but there is something else different as she turns toward the candlelight's glow. Something aware, like the lift of a beast's eye. "But I know deep in my heart, I can't give my love to someone doesn't know my worth."

"The strong victim angle. Color me surprised."

"You were unfaithful, too. You said you weren't hiding anything from me and you lied."

"You want me dead—of course I lied!"

Appy's skirt swishes against my robe as the violence of our words propels her forward, and for a second I think we both might raise our fists, but I don't want to see her bloody; I want her humiliated, and she wants the same for me.

"I won't deny that I've considered mild poisons," she says, the madwoman showing her face at last, shaking her head as if she made the most innocent confession. "I don't take pinky promises lightly. You broke my heart that day."

"I? Broke your heart?"

"I loved you." She reaches forward and takes my free hand. No twisting of my wrist or vice grip, just her hands enclosing mine in prayer. "Like my own blood."

The longer I stare at her, the less sense she makes, but I can't look away. It's like staring down a boggart: curiosity is the nightmare. What's worse than not knowing whether there's a greater fear lurking behind the ones you know about, so terrifying you can't even bear to think of it?

Third year defense, I could never cast the charm to repel one, but I never looked away, only straight at my aunt as she laughed at me. Better than having her stab my back.

Appy is real, however. "You're fucking crazy," I say.

Wrenching my hand back as she dares to stand distraught, I pull on the invisibility cloak uncaring that she can see and take off into the hallway. The shimmering fabric sticks to my mouth and it's hard to breathe and my duffel strap is biting into my shoulder, but I can make it to the stairs. I'll drag myself to Gryffindor tower if I have to. As far away as possible.

I don't hear her follow. The castle is nothing but torches and ghosts. As I cling to the banister, a spine-chilling wail cuts through the dark—Moaning Myrtle upstairs in the first floor loo.

The cry breaks, leaving only the sound of a distant, hitching sob.


::



I spend every night of the rest of the week in the Gryffindor boys' dorm. Except for Scorpius, I don't trust Albus' roommates to keep mum about what goes on and what they overhear, but the papers are already worse than the truth. The Silencio holds up well, so they don't hear anything anyway after the lights go out and the curtains draw shut.

Albus likes to sleep curled around me, lips behind my ear where I can hear him sigh as his hands slip into crevices. They rest there until morning, when my wriggling wakes him, and we fool around until we nearly miss breakfast.

It's good in these moments, when the world is as big as the canopy draped above us.

Sunday morning, his owl brings his post the window, including the Prophet. The Potter spotlight corner finally gets my name right: Clemence Fitzgerald, 16, of Cheltenham. Social climbing tart.

"If they reported any less news, the Sunday Prophet could headline with its crossword," I mutter.

Albus, propped up on a pillow next to me, takes the paper and tosses it through the curtain flap. "You get used to the attention. You learn to hide."

"I don't hide." He's wanted anonymity his entire life; he doesn't know the value of a name. I slither out from the blankets. "There's an article on your mum, too."

"Marriage on the rocks. I swear they print that every other day." He tugs my tee—his tee, a Holyhead Harpies one I borrowed—off my shoulder and kisses the bare skin as if it were a treat he's unwrapped. "James has been telling me… um." He frowns for a blink when he meets my eyes, then clears his throat. "He did say Mum's been restless lately. It's not new. She gave up a lot to raise us, so… sometimes I think she regrets it."

"Hold on, the Prophet's telling the truth?"

"No—not the article—no." He clenches a fist in his hair, scrubbing his fingers around like he's searching it. "James just told me things. I was thinking about it."

Albus kisses my cheek too hastily to seal the conversation, and my instincts jerk awake; he got too comfortable and let a secret slip.

Or something like that. A small, albeit personal disclosure. Something I could easily take advantage of.

I frown; that's not right either.

His duvets are warm and dust dances in the light above us. He reaches for his mug on his bedside table and takes a sip like nothing happened. Because nothing had.

He didn't let anything slip. He wanted to tell me.

He… trusts me.

Oh god, I want to throw up.

"Clemence?"

I gag, pounding my chest. "I'm literally allergic to feelings. I knew it."

The crease in his brow gives way to a snicker. Because it's funny. It's a joke.

Hilariously distressful.

If you boil my courtship with Albus down to the essentials—our banter, close encounters, kissing as a show of power—our attraction was very simple: we both thought we were one step ahead and we had to prove the other wrong. I was attracted to him because I didn't trust him.

Now he lies next to me so casually naked in more ways than one, while I am clinging to the duvets nauseous.

I still don't trust him.

Albus tugs me by the hem of my knickers and rolls me on top of him. The whole ordeal has left me winded, and I don't resist. "You should come over for Easter. I promised I'd bring my girlfriend, remember?"

Trust and commitment? "You're trying to kill me."

"My family's hatred of reporters is boundless, but I'll try to get you through the weekend in one piece. Did you have other plans?"

"I, ugh." I can't lie using my family; Albus got enough hints of that dysfunction. Dom and Pickett are probably the closest family I have. "I dunno if I'm ready, all right?" Half-truths are best.

"Think about it." He kisses me here between my fanned hair, the smallest space we share, oblivious to my turmoil.

I pretend to be too tired to answer any more and roll back to the side of my bed. The quilts rustle as he slips under the covers behind me. I can barely hear him breathe, as if he's holding it in, and after a few minutes, he turns away.


::



Scorpius careens through the newsroom tapestry during our evening of edits, his patent oxfords skittering across the floor and stubbing to a halt at my table. My quill goes awry. Ink sloshes from its pot.

"Oi, careful with Ol' Bessie." Pickett, who pushed him in, ambles through the tapestry like a vaudeville villain. He wipes Ol' Bessie the table with a handkerchief, then brings it up to mop the sweat at his brow. He grins at my scowl, and if gravity had a face, his would be its expression as a breeze sets a boulder rolling off a cliff.

"Scorpius," Pickett declares, with a wide sweep of his arm, "wants to write for us."

I stare at him. I stare at the boy next to him shying away hurriedly.

Behind the printing presses, a stool clatters as Janey springs from her desk a few seconds too late to sound polite. "That's great!"

I drop my feet from Ol' Bessie, plucking my wand from my pocket, and walk up to the boys. "Muffliato." A faint buzz fills the surrounding air, clogging up the ears of anyone who tries to listen to our little circle.

I shove Scorpius out of the circle.

"We are not taking in strays," I hiss.

Holding up a finger to the six-foot-two puppy, Pickett mouths to him, 'One moment.' "He wants a voice. He can write."

"I get that his life is sad—tragicomedy, even—but he doesn't belong here. He literally can't fit in here. Did you see him nearly smash his head coming in?"

"Mostly my fault." Pickett's been turning away from the others and only I can see the furrow to his brow. He whispers under his breath, though the muffling charm still holds, "Love, look, we need staff, whether you like it or not. Who's going to write for Witchy Business next year?"

"What are you talking about?"

"Dom's never here anymore. This year's my last. You and Janey are gonna burn yourselves out keeping this up. Haven't you felt it?"

I'm barely in the newsroom lately, but I haven't been able to rest let alone sleep and the bags under my eyes stretch with the debt. It's too stuffy in Albus' room and Appy is always around the corner…

Pickett studies my face too closely, and I bristle. Sea-green eyes—I haven't let myself forget them—flicker upon a thought. "Unless you've… moved on from the paper?"

"Why do you—?" I huddle closer into the quiet center of the charm, clenching my teeth against all our nearness. Circe knows there isn't anything else between us but declare we like each other one bloody time—and it's semantics, not romantic—and the elephant's been stomping its fat feet around the room ever since. "Why do you all think this? Dom said this, too."

"Dom's… usually right." A smile. "Remember when you wanted bigger things?"

"Haven't you heard? I am the big thing."

Tight-lipped, he won't let the comment pass, and I sigh.

"Fine."

I let Scorpius stay.

"Write about your feelings or something," I tell Scorpius, after explaining the ins and outs. "They ate that up last time, a column on your love rectangles could last for at least a month."

"I can write real stuff, too." In the hot seat across from me, hands folded in his lap, the towering boy of small presence pushes for his terms softly. He isn't so graceless when given time to speak. In a life surrounded by those more than willing to talk for him, perhaps it's been his benefit to smile and nod and be no more than a pretty face.

So I flash a grin for the Gryffindor hidden in him. "Prove it."

Janey shows him around the newsroom afterwards, gushing about the antique presses and its fully-stocked type. Her revived animation is worth the trouble Blondie will bring. Pickett's right about Dom skipping out on us for weeks, but I'd been worried about our Janey myself, after last issue. We all want bigger things.

Witchy Business wasn't anyone's end goal. I remember standing in this room at fourteen in braids and full uniform, wanting to taste the glory too easily attained in this school. I hated the world. I loved to hate it. I tell people the best version of myself—that I write because people listen and I can't help what they want—but when you don't believe in anything, there's only so much you can do that doesn't kill you.

Witchy Business was nothing to me, but I was nothing without it.

Around the newsroom, feet shuffle a little slower and the smiles are a little blander, as if everyone has been replaced with actors who don't quite remember their part. We've changed, but our lives haven't changed with us and it's only a matter of time before the room will empty completely. I'll move onto bigger things, too. Be Albus's social climbing tart of a girlfriend or whoever people think I am.

They won't be wrong.

I will be seen and heard and known. My name will come first soon enough. It will mean nothing, like everything before it, and I will be nothing without it.


::



"Easter?"

Propped up on his elbows above me, Albus dangles the question like a prize between his teeth. I've never seen him happier than in the past week, and it's all my fault. Everything he wants is in his arms; he's whispered as much. The tamed villainess has learned her lesson and he's right in the end—there is a heart in her.

I know from how he tolerates Rose and Dom he doesn't care that I don't love him as much as he loves me, as long as I stay. He might call it hope as if it were the brave choice, but is it bravery if loss isn't acceptable?

Even in shadow, Albus' eyes twinkle green. Outside the cocoon of these sheets, I would have reached out and extinguished them. He doesn't deserve jewels that shine like that and he doesn't deserve me, but he's the best chance I've got now that tabloids are done writing mad libs about me and they want the real story.

Easter with his family will not go unnoticed, and Potter's girlfriend will be bold, poised, and highly quotable.

So I say, "Okay."


::



The banner is a deep velvety black with a hint of shimmer where it catches the sunlight. Hung between elective classrooms on the third floor, it is not in the most visible part of school but in the most flattering, allowed to stretch as wide as it can without being blocked by statues or portraits.

Its large curly script announces: Girls for Girls Inaugural Tea Party. Underneath, in smaller but no less shinier text: March 2 at 4pm, Ballroom A. All welcome. Be there and be square!

Quirky Girls Anonymous took a nosedive after Valentine's Day. Rebranding for girl power is the smartest route Appy could have taken. Her followers, though loyal, are self-conscious, and underdog pluck sours fast without a win.

The club would have died regardless on its current mission statement; New Appy doesn't believe in fairy tales.

"I still think she's running a pyramid scheme," says Dom, cross-armed next to me. "She promised romance if they helped her with romance. Takes half a brain to see they can't all get their true love if they're calling dibs on the same bloke. Maybe she's recruiting girls to sell her her godawful book."

"Is that still a thing?" I hoped that her manuscript had met a fireplace since I read it.

"She's been editing it aloud every night. The ending's changed to Ella on holiday with gal pals after catching Chase cheating or something. Can't imagine where she got that from."

We add our sighs to the hallway breeze. Murmurs blow in from stairwells and classrooms, some innocuous, others sly. Without petty squabbles to fuel, they sweep through the castle cracks to never be heard again, and Hogwarts is eerily silent for the first time in a long while.

Dom turns to me. "Worried at all?"

Appy'll survive. She's Slytherin, but—"She's still a joke."

We head downstairs to the newsroom. Dom hopes to find Pickett and have their talk at last after avoiding each other for weeks, though it feels outdated after he and Scorpius took the school's crown for star non-couple. Team Henry became the great unifier Hogwarts didn't know it needed, as former Team Rose, Team Dom, my greens, and Appy's yellows have combined their colors to form a team that is officially, unironically rainbow.

I haven't seen Pickett bat an eye over Dom since, but as soon as we enter the newsroom, he stiffens. Scorpius stands next to him. Can't miss him, him being a towering blonde lighthouse.

"Oh. Are we interrupting?"

Clean-shaven, today would be one of the odd days when Pickett passes for boyish, but Dom's presence draws out scar lines of their past arguments, cutting through any enduring humor. "Dom, if you're here to stir up shit—"

"I'm here to apologize, oaf." Dom is compulsively braiding the entire length of hair in her hand. She thinks she's playing it cool, but nothing makes her more uncomfortable than a bared heart bleeding all over her and their curt exchange has set the whole room bristling. "We left in a pretty bad state, so if you still need space…"

"I'm fine. I'm over it, actually." No sarcasm, no quip.

The civility is... bittersweet.

Did you really love Dom? I want to ask. He never trusted her. How could that be love?

Dom bats her eyes twice; she would like it if the heart bled a little. Trying to keep it light against all conflicting tides, a grin crowds her face. "That was quick. You found someone new, didn't you?"

As I edge into the room, dropping my book bag next to the table, my stare twitches toward Pickett. Dom means Scorpius, obviously, but for half a second, I think she means me, as if her waggling brows know about that stupid imaginary elephant in the room.

Imaginary, if in that half-second, Pickett wasn't staring right back at me.

He glances away, a new crease in his mouth.

Oblivious Dom is waving her fingers between the two boys. "I can sort of see what those girls were saying. You two would be cute. More likely than Rose at least. And of course, Rose and I will back off. We'll find something new to fight over."

Scorpius chokes a little. I gape.

"Kidding. Heavens." She rolls her eyes, and a more demure expression returns. "I'm sorry, though. God, that sounds so trite, but I mean it. Sorry for the messes. You ended up mopping them."

I scrap my chair back. "Please remember what happened the last time you made assumptions about someone's sexuality." Head down, I take out my books and flip through the pages of Modern Magical History, not looking at Pickett who is not looking at me.

"Scorpius?" As Dom says his name, the boy cringes. "Excuse you, we became a hit. And I wasn't wrong."

"You got lucky."

"Tch."

It is as good of an apology as one gets from Dom. She sticks a hand out to Pickett and he takes it grudgingly, as if it were just easier for everyone in the vicinity if he did. He even smiles, but he couldn't have entertained loving her if he weren't so forgiving in the first place.

Work resumes. Pickett has been helping Scorpius with the edits Janey dropped off. Blondie isn't terrible—very nearly an asset, even. I saw him interviewing in the Slytherin common room earlier this week. Rainbow-jumpered girls sprawled on the sofas around him, lamenting their families like he had.

"Mamma wants to arrange my marriage. She tells me, 'Cecilia, I'll let you choose, so long as he's pure five generations back,' and I'm like, 'Mamma, you couldn't be more offensive if you tried. If you have to whisper it, you know you're being rude and awful, and do stop treating my love life as a retirement fund.' When she finds out about me and Minnie, it'll make a wicked scandal, I can't wait…"

Dom showers his article draft with compliments, spliced with euphemisms about retiring from Witchy Business. At some point she outright says that maybe it's best Scorpius joined up since she's been so terrifically busy—whatever that means—and I assure her that yes, the world will spin without her. It's always had to.

I swallow the single knot in my throat and segue into something less sentimental. "I turned down that interview with Miss Magic, by the way."

"What? If you're gonna—" Dom leans in, back to the boys, a lecturer's finger on the table. "If you're gonna make the most of your fifteen minutes, you're gonna have to start talking back. They'll keep calling you a slut until then. Miss Magic isn't so bad."

"They edit for shock value."

"Who doesn't?"

"I already chose who gets my interview."

She quirks a brow.

"Us. Duh."

I could take my chance on one of the big magazines and have them snip me into whatever palatable narrative most likely to sell… or I could tell the story of Potter's girlfriend in Witchy Business. Skip the self-wiping charm we usually apply, make extra copies, and distribute it to interested parties. If they want me, they'll have to quote me verbatim with attribution, and Britain will know my name and my paper as they should have from the start.

Dom throws her head back and cackles. "Oh, that's good." She's somewhat aware of my premeditation for Easter in the coming month as well, and though she doesn't openly approve, neither has she bat those eyes of hers at my taking advantage. Takes the romance out of it, but blame the paparazzi.

I mean, I do like Albus. I lack enthusiasm about it, but it's been only a month since we stopped trying to ruin each other. Baby steps.

Dom finally goes to study, or whatever, and Scorpius tags along. Parchment shuffles behind me and Pickett slides into the swivel seat an elbow length's away, quill out, and it takes as long as the tapestry fluttering closed behind Scorpius for the newsroom to shrink to the space of our table.

It's not a big deal. Or it wouldn't be, if Pickett and I talked about our state of our friendship—and it won't be, once we do. Put off a conversation long enough and the anxiety will churn up enough placebo feelings to drive a nun mad.

Pickett's quill scritches next to me and the sound could tickle. He's doing it on purpose. He won't speak up first and I won't embarrass myself, but it is all I hear, all I feel—

My head jerks toward him. It tumbles out: "You looked!"

He's a beat slower: "You looked!"

We only needed an excuse. We're out of our seats, glares accusing, and when I catch sight of sea-green, I take a breath sharp enough to pierce my lungs. Fuckity fuck, you're fucking kidding me.

"I was looking to see if you were looking, obviously," I practically seethe. I flap my hand between us. "So what is this—?"

"If it were that easy to answer, we wouldn't be whisper-yelling in here!" He throws his arms out to the room. Our gesticulation could conduct a full orchestra.

We used to outright manhandle each other, but it feels illicit just to jut my chin at him, close enough to kiss if I were curious. I'd laugh at the thought of kissing him; my curiosity is another story.

I pace away from him. "This is ridiculous—why are we—there's nothing. Nothing. There's nothing between us. Circe."

"Well, it's not nothing."

"Don't tell me you actually like me." The word squeezes out of me.

He rolls his eyes. "No, I grab breakfast with you everyday to watch you chew with your mouth open."

"You know what I mean."

"No, I don't kn—"

"Are you really over Dom?"

"Yes—no—what does it matter?"

"Scorpius? I know there's something between you two—"

His palms slam the table like an objection from the Wizengamot. Even with the distance between us, too much remains visible in the shape of our bodies—he's hunched like a shell and I'm halfway to running, adrenaline before thought, and I think of the word he used to sing at me.

Denial!

"You're my best mate, not a toad." Running his fingers through his hair like he's goddamn anguishing, Pickett slouches back on his stool. "You make it sound like I might be in love with Appy or something. You're doing it again, by the way—that thing where you shame people for caring about you, which is one of the few things I agree with your lover boy on, as much as I dislike him."

"What?"

He doesn't bother with a roundabout. He pinches his fingers at me. "He's just a little bit of an arse if you haven't noticed. But he doesn't have to be my type, as long as you're happy with him. You are happy with him?"

Still stuck on his mention of Albus, I'm tempted to repeat myself. Pickett only ever teased me about him, never spoke a bad word until now.

Hardly said a thing after Albus and I became official.

"I'm—" I blank on the question. Theatrics stripped away, I can't do this—intimacy—with Pickett. I'm not supposed to need to. He's supposed to stop prying, laugh, and call it a day, like how we've always been. Like how Appy's supposed to hate me. Like how Albus shouldn't trust me.

"You are… happy?" The question comes gentler this time, and it might kill me to look at him.

There's the boggart.

I suck in a breath. "I'm never happy. You know that."

I think I'm being clever. I'm the only one who does. The room teeters to another distressing silence, but it buys me a little time.

"It wasn't going to be a fairy tale. You know that." I can feel the ground beneath my feet again. Turning on my heel, I face Pickett with a sneer meant for someone else. "Why shouldn't I shame Albus? Frankly, I can't think of anything more foolish than falling in love with me. I move on. I move on and I start over. It's all I do. I'll find someone else like him, all enigmatic for me to figure out, and I'll move on from him too. Even if I care for him, he's disposable."

Pickett stares back at me steadily, and I swear his next words mean to egg me on. "I suppose everyone in your life is disposable?"

He's not supposed to do this. It shows—a blink that lasts too long, the peek of a tongue between his lips. He's pushing all his chips in, nothing and everything to lose, and my pulse hammers fast and strange like drums of a revolution calling for a coup.

No no no, it beats, both an answer and a plead. Though there is a heart in me, I am not built for one and I think it will kill me if I don't kill it.

I turn away when I answer. "Yes."

The stool clatters as he rises. He walks past without pause.

I shut my eyes, letting the sound of his footsteps grow further away. I hear them long after they exit to the hall, fainter and fainter, until it's just a phantom echo mocking me. It's the stupidest thing I can do—hold onto the hope, until it is dead quiet, that he might turn back.

When it is finally quiet, I rub my eyes with the flat of my hand and shudder as it comes away wet.

He's not supposed to leave.




A/N: I split the chapter again x_x THIS IS STILL NOT OVER. It better only be another chapter and an epilogue, because I already said this twice, cough. Very very sorry for people who were hoping for the full thing, but there are a lot of emotions to come and it's probably best that I didn't stuff it all into one chapter. Lots of fun development though! I am veeeery interested in thoughts c:

I promised a spiral of doom, and that spiral will still come. And an epilogue! There is much of the next chapter already written, not that that helped me get this chapter out any faster but. Erm.

THANK YOU to the many many people involved in getting me to slog through to this point. GubraithianFire gave me the line about Gloria Bott performing open heart surgery and Celestie inspired the chapter title as well.


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