“I can’t believe this. I can’t freaking believe this. Of all the people—she chooses me to be his date? I hate—no, loathe. No, abhor—him! Did I not make that obvious enough?”
“Well, I’d say you breaking his nose was a pretty big hint.”
I whipped around to throw my unhelpful best friend a glare that practically froze the air molecules between us, and her snarky mouth promptly snapped shut. Smart move.
Seething, I turned back to Dom’s bedroom mirror, eyes hardening in irritation as I caught sight of my reflection. This situation would have been a thousand times less awful if I didn’t look so goddamn...pretty, at the moment.
Dom had—after an hour of bickering in which several threats were made on both sides—finally managed to make me over into princess. Seriously. I looked like something in a children’s book. All I needed was some glitter, harp-music and a frolicking baby deer to follow me wherever I went and I’d be all bloody set.
My hair was in a glossy updo, with loose tendrils of curls falling around my face. Thanks to Dom’s Cosmagic Apricot Scrub (which, if you think about it, is kind of a ridiculous concept—not only is it the equivalent of taking a fruit smoothie and slathering it all over your body, but you’re also paying money for it. Someone please explain this to me), my skin was now a glowing, pinkish sheen.
My make-up had been done with an understated but noticeable hand—‘pewter’ (or silver, in normal people terms) smoky eye shadow, ‘cranberry’ blush, and a little onyx eyeliner dusted around the edges. I actually looked halfway decent for a change. No, not just decent. Ethereal. Graceful. Lady-like.
And it was pissing me the fuck off.
But worst of all was the dress. Somehow it had gone from being ‘living proof of miracles’ to ‘bane of my existence’ in no less than three words. You’re. His. Date. All of a sudden, I was starting to hate this silk and chiffon prison I was encased in. It represented all that was wrong with my life, all of my great failures: Potter. My femininity. Learning how to dance.
And it jingled. Jingled, as in bells. I sounded like the fucking Snowflake Fairy.
“How does Ginny not know that Potter and I can’t stand each other? I thought she was intelligent,” I mumbled sulkily as, from behind, Dom zipped up the Dress of Dread (Gown of Gore? Toga of Terror? Muumuu of Muck? Pick one, I’ve got more). “Or at least possessing the power of sight.”
“To be fair, she thinks a Bludger broke James’ nose. Not your fist. Also, who else was she going to pair him up with? Fred?” Dom snorted and, with one satisfying tug, the zipper sealed together. She stepped back, surveying me in the mirror with a critical eye. “Believe me, I’m not happy with her choices either.”
I nodded sympathetically, mouth curling into a scowl. Stupid fancy ball. Despite the fact that we were all living in a free, independent world during the 21rst century, it was required of us to bring dates. Required. So, Mrs. Potter had saved everyone the trouble of figuring it out for themselves and instead paired us all off.
Dom was with Aidan, thanks to Ginny’s supreme matchmaking skills. And not only was this awkward to the extreme, but—Well. Actually. That was just it. It was awkward.
So once that was established, that left Freddy, Potter, and me fresh for the reaping. And Freddy had insisted on bringing Evelyn...So. Well, there was not much else to be done.
“Process of elimination: it’s a bitch,” sighed Dom dejectedly.
"And I thought I just had karma to worry about.”
“That and Evelyn Stanford."
For a moment, we smiled wanly at each other, a glimmer of understanding flickering between us. She knew exactly how I felt; I could just tell. We were in the same (sinking) boat.
And that split-second of wordless sisterhood, that strong and silent bond between us—that, above all, was the reason why Dominique Weasley and I were friends.
Also: the fact that all the boys in our lives were batshit psychotic and impossible to understand.
Slinging a skinny arm around me, Dom pulled me close. She smelled like her usual coconut shampoo. “Look at us.” She nodded to our reflection in the mirror, grinning fondly. “We’re just a couple of hot mamasitas, aren’t we? Ayyyyyy!”
With that, my best friend did a sort of crude shimmying move that managed to knock over a nearby lamp, send red ruffles flying everywhere, and successfully scar me for life.
And tender best friend moment officially ruined.
“GIRLS! AIDAN AND JAMES ARE ‘ERE! ZEY ARE WAITING FOR YOU!” Suddenly, Fleur’s silvery voice trilled through the house, slicing through the festivities. The shimmying/blatant butchery of Hispanic culture stopped, and Dom whipped around towards me, wide-eyed. “Shit.”
I grabbed her firmly by the shoulders, boring my gaze into hers. “We can do this.”
“—Remember: no hitting—”
“Avoid talking to important people if you can help it—“
“Oh god. I’m panicking.”
“Me too! I’ve never been on a date before!” Which is kind of sad, if you think about it. I’ve snogged a boy in a broom cupboard, but I’ve never had one pay for my dinner. “What am I supposed to do when I see him? This is going to be the first time since...that night.”
“Just...Er, complement him! Tell him he looks nice, or whatever. It’s the polite thing to do!”
“I’m not going to complement him! That’s the last thing his ego needs!”
“GIRLS! ‘URRY UP!”
“Okay, okay. Just try not to injure yourself or anyone around you, and you’ll be fine!”
Clutching my hand a little too hard, Dom dragged me out the bedroom and down the gleaming, mahogany staircase of her house, me trying not to hyperventilate the whole while. As we descended, I could see the warm glow of lights from below and hear a dissonant tinge of voices getting louder and louder.
When we reached the last step, I was shaking. I had no idea why, and I hated myself for it, but I couldn’t stop, knowing that Potter was in the next room, that I was five seconds from coming face to face with what I’d done and said that fateful night.
I could hear his voice, pick it out from the cacophony of laughter and chatting. It was deep and smooth, just a little rough around the edges. “No worries, Aunt Fleur... it was just a Quidditch accident. Got blindsided by a Bludger. Happens.” Talking about my birthday present to him, no doubt.
Dom shot me one last nervous look. “You ready for this?” she breathed, and before I could answer, we were rounding the corner into the brightly lit foyer by the door.
And all of a sudden, the talking stopped.
Fleur, who had been fussing over Potter like a flitting bird, turned and gasped. “Oh, Dominique! Agatha! You look beautiful!” She swooped towards us, kissing our cheeks frantically and making a few last-minute remarks (“Dominique, are you sure zat red is your colour?”) about our dresses, but I barely noticed.
Because Potter was staring at me, and in the millisecond it took for us to lock gazes, all the breath had swooped out of my lungs.
He was wearing a simple black and white suit—obviously not by choice. I could tell that was mostly Ginny’s doing—and I wasn’t a fan of the way it showed off his broad shoulders a little too well, crisp black lines that were tight in all the right places. In contrast to the fancy attire, however, he hadn’t even bothered to brush his hair—it was as tousled as always and slightly damp from the snow outside. His eyes held that same paradox of light against shadow—the vivid greens and incensed golds, flaring against the dark annoyance simmering quite obviously in his gaze.
All traces of my punch were gone—his face had been left unmarred, the only proof it had even happened being five angry stitches bruised above his left eyebrow.
I stood there, feeling exposed and vulnerable, as he gave me the customary once-over, flicking up and down my body with a gaze brimming with hostility. Something flickered in his eyes...Something almost bloodthirsty. He had a grudge to settle, and he was hungry for a fight. His jaw was clenched, mouth twisted into a scowl.
...Which I happily returned, all the while deciding if I should set my glare to laser or dagger mode.
“Well isn’t this fun!” Aidan chirped brightly, sauntering between us. His smile was wide, but his eyes were alert and cautious. “You two. On a date.”
“It’s not a date,” we tore our gazes away to snap automatically at Aidan, with perfect, in unison timing. Then we returned to our menacing-glare-off.
Aidan cocked his head to the side. “Good,” he said flatly, making his disapproval perfectly clear, and then he went off to find Dom.
I didn’t even blink at this. Instead, I took a step forward.
As did Potter.
So I stepped even closer. And so did he.
We kept up this little tango until we were standing in the middle of the room, face to face, no distractions except for the slowly fading noise around us. Dom, Fleur, and Aidan all seemed to smudge together into the background as they chatted inanely on among themselves. Right now, it was just us and our dancing words and Potter’s heady, intense gaze.
It was like we were circling each other, judging the opponent, neither of us willing to make the first move. Silence clogged the air between us, heavy and pulsing.
What had Dom said to do? Complement him?
Well, that I shall do.
“You look slightly less awful than usual,” I began with cavity-inducing sweetness. Potter’s scowl unfurled into a condescending smirk.
“Wish I could say the same,” came the nasty reply.
I grinned at this. We were falling back into the same routine. Snarking and sparking just like old times - it was almost comforting, to fire back and forth at each other, insults like spitting bullets. Gone were the kisses, those fleeting moments of tenderness, of vulnerability, of I-don’t-know-what that we’d shared. It was back to hate. Solid, burning, easy hate.
“You don’t like the dress?” I simpered, words dripping out my mouth with ease. “I picked it out just for you.”
“It kind of clashes with your superiority complex - don’t you think?”
“Shame. I wanted us to match. Me in a purple dress, you with a purple bruise,” I cocked my head, a dark smile spreading across my face. “Speaking of, how’s your nose?”
“How’s yours? I’m sure it’s been busy, what with you sticking it in other peoples' businesses and everything.” He gave a sarcastic breath of laughter, tugging his tie loose with deft fingers. Obviously, Potter didn’t feel the need to keep up the formalities with me. We were finally getting down to business, hashing it out. Good. It was about time I got my hands dirty again.
“Why don’t you learn some dignity, Bennett?’
“Why don’t you learn how to duck? I’m sure you’d be in a lot less pain right now if you had.”
“Sorry I’m not a master at avoiding things like you. Speaking of, remember that time you went to visit Aidan in the hospital? Oh yeah. Neither do I.”
My eyes shrunk into narrowed slits. That had been a low blow. I could see the triumph shining in his eyes, that smug gleam that said he thought he had me, that he was enjoying watching me squirm.
My comeback was on the tip of my tongue, and for a moment, I wavered. It was terrible. A truly, truly terrible thing to say. The kind that gave us Slytherins a bad name, despicable and unabashedly rotten.
But I was angry. Angry that he had used me like that, and that now he was too busy hurling insults in my face to even offer one measly, little ‘sorry.’ Well, he could go on trampling over me like this, battering me down every chance he got. But hell if I was going to let him think that I would take it lying down.
Besides, I was a Slytherin. It was kind of my job to play dirty.
“Maybe I would have visited if you’d shown me around first. From what I hear, you know a lot about hospitals.”
The words were out of my mouth before I could second-guess them. I was breathing fast, heat flushing up my bare neck and pooling in my cheeks.
For a second, Potter stiffened, looking completely, utterly terrifying. Something about him just...darkened. His shoulders clenched as he tensed, obviously trying to restrain himself from doing something. That, combined with the glaring stitches across his skin...Well, he looked positively dangerous. Capable of anything.
“Go to hell,” he snarled quietly, and it was strange—I’d never heard him talk like that, get so angry, before... Except for that one time when he'd threatened Cooper on my behalf.
Funny how things change.
I lifted my chin, feeling a strange sense of satisfaction spreading through me. “I’m here with you, aren’t I? Shouldn’t that be enough?” And even though I tried to stay calm, triumphant—I wasn’t as good as Potter. A little of the fury broke through, flaring up inside me, making my mouth clench and my eyes spark.
“James?” A foreign voice sliced through before Potter could reply, and we both snapped back into reality, turning to see that, sometime in between all our arguing and insults, everyone had left the foyer.
The lights were off. I hadn’t even realized. Only Aidan stood, lingering by the doorway, staring anxiously between us. Behind him, the door was thrown wide open and I could see flurries of fat, wet snow, shivering and dancing in the dark sky. “Aggy? We’re...Uh, we’re going now.”
“One second,” I said, trying to keep my voice smooth and even.
“We don’t have a second,” Aidan replied tersely.
And then, apparently having lost his mind, Potter took off his suit jacket. “Alright. Here, Bennett—before we go, take my coat. We wouldn’t want you to be cold, would we?” His voice was loud and innocent and sounded scarily sincere, his face devoid of any hit of the anger from two seconds ago. He looked like the good-natured, brotherly Gryffindor, offering help to a maiden in need.
Potter swung his jacket over my shoulders. I stood there, feeling the cool material drift around my naked shoulders, motionless. Aidan, with a final, satisfied nod, left the room and disappeared into the snowy night.
And then, with a startled squeak from me, Potter yanked the jacket forward, pulling me into him so that, in two seconds flat, we were nose to nose. His fingers were clenched tightly around the lapel. The two of us were so close, I was practically going cross-eyed. Him and his unavoidable gaze, spitting hazel sparks, were all I could see. There was a tiny, space of air trembling in between our lips, making my heart thunder in my chest. We were too close. Far too close.
He dropped his forehead against mine, scanning me with those bright and heavy and ice-hot eyes, expression scarily calm. It was just us, too intimate, breathing together, silence in our ears. Me, wrapped in his jacket that was too big, him pulling me in a hold that was too tight. Our position would seem almost romantic to an outsiders’ eye, and I didn’t understand. A minute ago, I had given him the lowest, most despicable insult I could think of, and now we were millimeters apart and he was looking me in the eye and I didn’t know what we were doing, if he was going to kiss me or throttle my lights out.
But he did neither. Instead, he spoke, very flatly, very calmly, the left corner of his lips hitched in a bitter smirk:
“Keep feeling sorry for yourself, Bennett. Because no one else’s going to.”
And then he let me go. I went stumbling back at the same time he turned on his heel and strode out of the room, out the door, and into the cold.
...Leaving me standing in the middle of a dark and empty room, wearing a too-big coat, confused and alone.
The first and only thing I thought when we walked into the Ministry’s Primary Ballroom was that it would be a great place for sock-sliding.
The floor was shiny, slick marble—prime surface for zooming across the room at perfect speed in a pair of your favorite woollies. For a moment, as I took in the giant, arched ceiling and the 20-piece orchestra sitting in the corner, I had the insane mental image of Eros Humdudgeon, the newly-reelected minister, slipping across the floor in a pair of tube-socks Risky Business style.
There is something seriously wrong with me.
The atmosphere was...delicate. There was no other word for it. Tinkling fine china. Silvery laughs. A melodious tune being whined out on a violin. In the middle of the hall, couples were waltzing back and forth, gown skirts caressing the marble gently. It was so elegant, so refined.
Potter stood stiffly next to me by the doorway, eyebrows tugging upwards as he surveyed the room with obvious skepticism. He looked like he’d rather be listening to a banshee opera than standing here, next to me. The feeling was quite mutual.
Aidan and Dom—all awkwardness apparently gone—had swept off giddily to the dance-floor. For a while, I watched them twirl around in graceful circles, Dom insisting on leading every time. Good God.
“I hope you realize that I hate every single thing about this,” I begun, for a lack of anything to say. I knew I was being immature, but I couldn’t help it. I just wanted to get a reaction out of him.
Potter barely acknowledged me, face stony as he looked out into the hall. “Good.”
“I honestly can’t decide what I loathe more,” I spat back, cocking a hip. We were probably going to be spending the rest of the night like this (God knows we weren’t about to dance), so I might as well get comfortable. “You or this situation.”
“Great,” he deadpanned, stare bored. The twinkling chandelier light painted his face, tracing his tousled hair with gold. I gazed at one particular cowlick that was sticking up in the back, and for some reason, the fact that it wouldn’t lie flat, that he was actually pulling off the just-rolled-out-of-bed look right now, while if I’d try to do that I’d just look like a homeless person...Well, it pissed me off even more.
“I think I’m getting a rash right now. My body is literally rejecting the very idea of this.”
It was bothering me that he wouldn’t pay me attention. I pressed on, prodding him further. “You make me want to vomit.”
“I’m going to stab you with my dinner fork.”
“Will you stop it already?”
I rounded on him, face alight with frustration. We locked eyes, the two of us glowering in identical irritation, and our glare lasted maybe a few seconds too long to be normal. In an almost synchronized motion, we whipped back around, turning away from each other at the exact same time.
The music played on. Somewhere, in the background, a group of people erupted in laughter.
Silence. Anger pulsed between us, palpable, hot. A minute or two of some more furious-watching-of-the-dancers, and then I spoke again:
“So, how are we going to do this?” I asked with scathing, mock chipperness; I’d never been much for the whole ‘stand there like an idiot’ thing. Might as well get this over with. “Do they announce our names so that you can escort me in? Or is there supposed to be some grand musical cue and then a spotlight?” I paused, cocking my head thoughtfully. “How ‘bout a confetti cannon? Dang it—I hope they aren’t expecting us to do a routine, I left my tap shoes at home...”
I went silent as Potter shot me an aggravated glance from the corner of his eye. His mouth was twisted into a dark scowl. “It works like this: you don’t talk for the rest of the night, and I won’t pitch myself out the window. Got it?”
“Well, you’re just wrist-slittingly fun to be around tonight, aren’t you?”
He scoffed. “Tell me: does it physically hurt to be this annoying?”
“Such bitterness isn’t healthy for the soul.”
“Lucky for you, since you don’t have one.”
He was practically exuding hostility, his jaw set angrily—a fact that was only making me madder. He had no right to be annoyed with me! Not after what he did, at least!
I mean, granted, I had punched him in the face.
But still. I’d been provoked! Plus, he should be thankful I hadn’t gone for where his brain actually was (i.e. the unmentionables area).
The two of us tensed as, breaking through a group of sophisticated-looking adults, Ginny Potter made a beeline towards us. Her hair was twisted into an elegant chignon, and she was wearing a beautiful nude, silk dress scattered with sparkling diamonds that I was about 80% sure were real. Her cheeks were flushed. She looked absolutely exuberant.
Well, at least someone here was having fun.
“There you two are! I’ve been looking all over—oh, come now, cheer up. You’d think we were at a funeral, the way you’re both moping about. Agatha, you look lovely. James, you really couldn’t do anything about your hair?”
“What’s wrong with my hair?” Potter held out his hands defensively, pouting in mock sulkiness. “Isn’t it your job to love me just the way I am, mother dearest?”
Ginny’s lips twitched upwards. “Fine, you’re off the hook this time. But you are going to behave tonight, so help me God—”
“God? It’s James, mum, though your confusion is understandable.”
“—And absolutely no mouthing back to Ministry officials. You hear me?”
“It’s not my fault they’re stupid.”
Ginny turned to me. Her eyes were warm but intense. I couldn’t get over how beautiful she was. “See what I have to put up with everyday? If only his father was here—then maybe my children would actually listen to me.”
I slyly flitted my gaze towards Potter. At the mention of his dad, he immediately seemed to...withdraw. Become distant and uninterested. One of his eyebrows was quirked coolly, but that was the only giveaway. Other than that, his face was blank.
God. I hated him for how completely, excruciatingly hard to understand he was. Why couldn’t he just be honest, for once? It wasn’t that hard to lay out your emotions on the table—trust me, I would know. I did it all the time without even meaning to.
“Ladies and Gentleman,” a sudden voice boomed through the room. Immediately, all the hoity-toity people with their glittering laughs and glasses of champagne froze. Everyone turned to a man towards the front of the room in a tuxedo and—I kid you not—a monocle.
“Jesus,” I muttered to myself more than anything. “Didn’t those go extinct along with the dinosaurs?”
Surprisingly, Potter snorted in agreement. Ginny quickly shushed us, turning her rapt attention the fancy-pants Monopoly Man.
“Presenting: the Excellency Himself, the Minister of Magic.... Eros Humdudgeon.”
Immediately, applause rippled through the crowd and people began jostling around to make way, forming a clear, decisive path. I watched, feeling almost separated from my body, as Eros Humdudgeon—a man I had heard countless times on the radio, see on the WizTelly, read about in history books—stepped towards the front of the room. He was shorter in person. His hair was graying on the sides, but he had the same square, stout face, the same politician’s smile.
“Hello,” he greeted. Just like that. As if it were just another day, completely casual. Sup? I half expected him to break into free-style rap. This one goes out to all the fallen homies, yo!
Instead, in a clear, simple voice, he went on: “Friends and associates, today we are gathered to celebrate a joyous holiday and show our gratitude for all that we are blessed with...”
I started to fade into La La Land as the Minister droned on. I watched Aidan and Dom as they stood in the middle of the dance-floor, apparently listening in rapt attention. I wasn’t fooled though. Both their eyes were glazed over with boredom. I also spotted Freddy and Evelyn, who was wearing an emerald green dress, standing by the corner, so close to each other that I almost felt like I was intruding on something intimate. His arm was wrapped carelessly around her waist, idle fingers playing with the ruffles on her skirt.
Then I looked at Potter, and almost jumped out of my skin.
Because he had been looking at me. No, staring. Unabashedly. Like I was the only person in the room. His burning gaze lingered on my bare shoulders before slowly traveling up to meet my eyes. I felt something hot pool inside my cheeks.
Before I could do or say anything, however, he turned away, just like that. As if nothing had happened, he steadied his gaze on the Minister, seeming completely interested in what the man had to say. Bastard.
But after only ten seconds, he leaned over towards me—not taking his eyes off Humdudgeon—and murmured smoothly, “Shouldn’t you be listening to the Minister instead of staring at me?”
There was almost a note of...amusement in his voice. He was enjoying this, the prat. That much was obvious.
“I—I—!“ I stammered, blustering. “You were staring at me!”
A smirk lilted at his lips. His eyes were shining wickedly as he watched Humdudgeon. “You wish.”
“I don’t think so. See, I’m too busy being a good citizen and actually listening to our Minister. You, on the other hand...”
I gaped for a moment, and then snapped around, gaze darting over to see if Ginny had heard. She was watching the Minister as well, nodding her head vigorously to whatever he was saying, but I couldn’t be sure.
“...What’s even more exciting,” he was saying, with the utmost seriousness, “Is the new, precious artifact we have on display for tonight.” He gave a curt nod to the orchestra, and a drum roll began. Fancy-pants Monopoly Man strode towards the Minister, carrying something covered in a shiny red sheet. A sense of anticipation seemed to swell in the air, all the energy in the room tensing together.
“May I present: the Sword of Godric Gryffindor!”
And then the sheet was whipped off, revealing exactly what he’d said.
I don’t know what I’d been expecting, as if they had been lying to us and the only thing under the sheet was a rusty toaster oven, or something, but there it was: the sword. In all its gleaming, ruby-studded glory. A collective gasp rumbled through the room.
“Holy Shiznit,” I breathed, gaze glued to Minister as, with a simple flick of his wand, he conjured a sparkling wisp of silver light that eventually solidified into a glass case. The sword slid inside, and then together, the case and the sword floated into the air, high above our heads so everyone was craning their necks to see it.
“This relic was donated by the Longbottom family, and we are incredibly grateful for their generosity.” The Minister’s lips stretched into a thoughtful smile. “Now, enough of my talking. This is a time to celebrate! Happy Christmas to everyone!”
On that note, red and gold ribbons unfurled themselves seemingly from nowhere, twining together around columns and across walls. The orchestra broke out into a cheery carol as people resumed chatting and dancing—though a little more animated this time.
...And Ginny rounded on Potter and I with her hands planted on her hips, a very expectant look gleaming in her eye.
We stared at her blankly.
“Mrs. Potter?” I prompted, just to be polite.
She smiled. “Well? Why don’t you two dance?”
No way, José.
There was a snowball’s chance in dragon fire that I was going to dance with James Sirius Potter. Not only would that mean I’d have to boil my skin afterwards (he would be touching me! Holding me!), but it also meant I’d have to be within close proximity of his face—and we all knew that that was when bad things tended to happen.
“I’d much rather stay here—“
“Thanks but no thanks, Mum—“
“—I have two left feet—“
“Don’t really feel like putting myself through that—“
“Nonsense!” Ginny sliced through our overlapping excuses, smiling between us. “I dragged you both out here, now you might as well enjoy yourselves.”
“That would be the last thing we’d do—“
“—Really, Mrs. Potter, I’d much rather prefer to stay here and, er, stand—“
“I don’t care! Not another word!” She chirped, and with the same conspiratorial grin as usual, she grabbed Potter by the tie and me by my wrist and frog-marched us to the dance-floor. “Now, I am going to leave you two alone, and you better have danced at least three full songs before I come back. Have fun!”
And I could swear, just before she walked away, she threw a wink in my direction.
I hate my life.
There was a moment of pounding awkwardness as we stood there, other lavish couples sweeping around us. I didn’t know where to look, so instead I dedicated my energy to inspecting the floor.
“Um,” I began. My brain was lagging behind on what had just happened. Potter stood in front of me, rigidly straight and so obviously unenthused.
The orchestra music, as if on cue, seemed to dip into a gentler melody—it swayed softly, almost sadly, as we stood there, unmoving. Knowing there was nothing else to be done, I rose my eyes to meet Potter’s.
Our surroundings seemed to slow as we looked at each other, realizing what came next.
“I guess we should...”
Stiffly, Potter held out his hand.
I took it. And then—in a smooth but strangely gentle motion—Potter pulled me close to him. My heartbeat was thudding in my chest as he slid an arm around my waist, and I placed my other hand on his shoulder. Every move was foreign, carried out with the utmost delicacy. This was holding your breath, not daring to make a sound. Potter was treating me like I was something fragile, liable to break with any sudden movement.
We started to sway, and it was almost scary, how easy it was to fall into step with him. Potter was a good dancer, sure of himself, and for once I let him take the lead. I didn’t know if it was the dimmed lights, or the pining, sorrowful music, but all of a sudden we slipped into a rhythm. Everything else just disappeared until it was him and I, together, alone.
His eyes were roving across my face, expression unreadable. I watched him watch me. He was restrained—eyes somber, melted gold, swirling with browns and greens and ambers—taking in my every moment. I stared at the stitches above his eyebrow.
The world around us was fading. I don’t know how, but we were slowly getting closer. By the end of the first song, I was pressed wholly against Potter as we swayed around the room, his hand firm and reassuring on my back. By the end of the second, we were so close to each other our foreheads were almost touching. By the third, my head was resting on his shoulder.
My breathing had slowed. Something sad and quiet was welling up inside me. The hall was slowly darkening until the only illumination was the strand of softly glimmering Christmas lights strung intricately around the ballroom. They blurred and gleamed together, glazing everything in soft light.
I thought about Nora, about all that Potter had been through with her. About him now, holding me reluctantly close, his unreadable face inches from mine. And all the anger I’d kept simmering inside me for the past few days seemed to slowly fade into sadness.
“We’re never going to be on the same page, are we?” I murmured softly, just now realizing this. For a moment, I wasn’t sure if he heard me. But then I felt him nod, his cheek brushing against my hair.
“No, probably not.”
“Why is that?” And I really wanted to know. How could it be that one moment, we were so comfortable with each other—like we’d done this a thousand times before—and the next, we couldn’t stand to be in the same room? I didn’t understand—we were so right and so wrong at the same time.
Potter was silent, holding me as we swayed gently together, him guiding me with firm, easy steps. I wondered what he was thinking.
“Maybe it’s because you make things so difficult,” he finally remarked. It was casual, flippant—like he was throwing out a commonly-known fact. As if we’d both previously agreed on this.
I jerked back, eyes flashing wide open, incensed. For a moment, we stopped dancing completely, his arm still wrapped around my waist, our hands clasped together. He was watching me, stare bold and utterly unapologetic.
“Excuse me? I make things difficult?” I hissed quietly, trying to keep my voice down.
He stepped forward and I moved with him, but this time—quicker. Gone was the tenderness, the care and caution. Now the tempo was kicked up a notch. It was about competition, about out-maneuvering your opponent and seeing who would trip up first.
“You heard me, Bennett.”
“I’m not the one keeping secrets and insisting on acting like a prattish moron!”
“You punched me,” Potter snapped. Without warning, he spun me away and I went twirling vigorously out, before he jerked me back into his arms. I tried to keep up and not stumble, unfazed.
We resumed dancing like nothing happened, and I rolled my eyes, shrugging dismissively. “Why don’t you stop making such a big deal of it?”
“Why don’t you stop breaking my nose?”
“Why don’t you stop deserving it?”
We were both seething. Potter’s grip on my hand was tight and bone-crushing. My nails were digging into his shoulder, my teeth gritted. My dress was blooming out as we teared across the floor together, our movements almost violent.
“You’re a real arsehole, you know that?” I grunted as he dipped me lower than I thought possible, not supporting me at all. My grip on him tightened as I tried not to fall. “First you get mad at me, even though you were the one who used me—”
“For fuck’s sake, Bennett, why do you keep on making everything about you?” Potter yanked me back up to standing, and we danced on, him twirling and pulling and spinning me everywhere with fluent expertise. I was starting to get dizzy, but hell if I was going to let him know that.
“Because,” I paused, my skirt flaring out as I whirled around in another nauseating circle. The moment I was back in his arms, I was talking again. “This is about what you did to me, and I’m tired of you pretending like it’s not. You messed up. Just admit it.”
“You know what, Bennett?,” Potter bit out through a clenched jaw, shaking his head derisively. “You come up with all these bullshit accusations just so you have an excuse to be mad at me and feel superior for once—”
“They’re not accusations if they’re true!” I had to contain myself from yelling. Anger was boiling over inside me, and my blood was bubbling. Potter scoffed, looking away in aggravation before swiveling his livid gaze back on me again. His eyes bored into mine, alight with fury and determination.
“I’m going to say this once and only once, Bennett: I didn't use you. Now will you bloody get over yourself already?”
I laughed, high-pitched with hysteria. “Oh really?”
“Yes, really,” Potter suddenly pressed forward, and I had to catch myself from stumbling. Together, we danced furiously across the marble in wide, swooping circles, passing a bewildered Dom and Aidan. We were stepping lightly, fast but precise.
“You truly expect me to believe that?”
“No, because you’re a stupid chit. But it’s true.”
My nostrils flared. I half-expected steam to billow out my ears. “How dare you—”
“Nora and I,” Again, the way he said her name made my chest tighten. “Were together for one and a half years. I don’t think three stupid, accidental mistakes are going to make me magically forget about her.”
By mistakes, I was assuming he meant our kisses. My cheeks flamed up, blooming cherry red. Was he insulting my abilities? I’ll have him know I’m an excellent snogger! I wear chapstick! My lips are supple.
I stayed silent, glaring murderously up at Potter. Tendrils of red curls were clinging to my face. We were both breathing heavily, and Potter’s cheeks were glowing a faint pink. It was nice to finally see some sort of reaction from him, for once.
“Believe me, Bennett,” he growled quietly, and I immediately scoffed before he could even finish the sentence. Believe him? He was already asking too much of me. “I’ve tried the whole rebound thing before. And it doesn’t work.”
For a moment, my brow collapsed into a bewildered frown. Rebound thing? What was that supposed to mean? Had he hooked up with someone else—someone else who wasn’t me—after Nora?
“What?” I snapped out, angry that he was confusing me.
Potter exhaled loudly, obviously unwilling to explain. But after a second glare from me, he surrendered. “After Nora and I first...broke up, for lack of better word, I was at a party where Aidan and Fred convinced me to... be with this girl who was throwing herself at me. It was a drunken mistake, and it didn’t help. All it did was just made everything worse,” He stared off stoically above my head, guarded remorse in his eyes. “So if you think I’d do the same thing again—especially with you, of all people—then you’re sodding crazier than I thought.”
My heart was thudding my chest. We fell silent, dancing in quiet, awkward tension. I mechanically followed Potter’s steps, mind whirring. I didn’t understand. Be with? Especially with me...of all people?
I took a deep breath. Potter was looking at me, apprehensive but expectant. He knew I would have questions.
So I gave him one. “What do you mean by 'be with?'”
Potter looked away, drawing back, closing off. “Does it matter?”
I darkened. “Yes.”
“Why do you even care?”
“Just tell me, Potter!”
“Maybe I don’t want to.”
“I’m going to find out anyway!”
Potter swiveled his curiously vivid gaze back on me. “Fine,” he snapped angrily. “We slept together, alright?”
Something inside me seemed to crack like a rubber band. Without even wanting to, I could just imagine Potter with this girl, his touch, her sighs, tangled together, him gazing at her with those black-gold eyes, dark with something unmentionable, her fingers tangled in his hair just like mine had been...
I blinked, clearing my head. My chest was clenching. I felt sick, like everything inside me was wound into a tight, shuddering ball. I didn’t know why, but I had the sudden urge to hit something. “What about Nora?” Call it morbid curiosity, but I wanted to—had to—know. “Did you sleep with her, too?”
“Did you or didn’t you?”
“Just tell the truth.”
“You don’t want me to.”
“Yes, I do.”
“Fine,” Potter looked away, huffing out a breath of air and blowing a few dark locks of hair out his eyes. “Yeah, I did. But we stopped when things got bad.”
“How chivalrous of you.” My words were dripping acid. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, him with that dark, urgent gleam in his eye, fingers skimming, fire and need and want...
It was making me sick.
“I don’t see why you care,” he spat caustically. “Besides, it’s not like you have a right to know.”
And that did it. My steps grinded to a halt. I yanked my hand away from Potter’s shoulder as if I’d been burned, jerking backwards. “I need to go.”
“Bennett—” He reached out to me. I turned away.
“Don’t,” I began, voice shaking. “Touch me.”
“Why are you freaking out?” Frustration sliced through his voice, and he shoved an aggravated hand in his hair. People were starting to stare.
I snapped. Whipping back around, I wheeled on him with engaged, bright eyes. “What am I then, huh, Potter? If Nora’s your one true love and that party girl’s your rebound shag, then—What. Am. I?”
He stared gravely at me, lips parted, eyes searing and intense. There was a beat of silence that seemed to cut right through me. I hated myself for it, but I couldn’t look away. He had me trapped in his gaze.
“You’re Bennett,” he replied, seriously, quietly. “And you don’t belong to me. You’re not my anything because you’re not mine.”
My eyes were stinging. I didn’t know what specific kinds, but emotions were swirling up inside me, out of control, impossible to reign in.
“Damn right I’m not.” I spat, and then I turned to walk away.
...That was when something—or somethings, rather—strange happened.
In a sudden clap of noise, the lights went out. The music stopped.
There was a single, bated second of silence. I'd never heard such a silence before. It seemed to echo, ripple through us. It told me—warned
me—that something was about to happen. I turned back to Potter as all the anger in my body seemed to fade away, replaced with, strangely enough, fear
And the room started to shudder. Tumultuously, terrifyingly—glassware clanged together, smashing as they rolled to the floor. Tables were being knocked over, chairs on their backs or in splinters on the floor. There was a roaring, rushing noise that seemed to rear its head back, clouding our ears with white, deafening, like we were in the middle of a wind tunnel. The hem of my dress was billowing out in an invisible breeze, my hair coming loose from its updo.
My eyes caught sight of Godrics’ sword floating above us in its case, and I gasped. Because swirling like a snake around it was something putrid green and inherently, instinctively, frightening.
The Dark Mark.
Potter had noticed it too. He was staring up at it, face cast in that strange, green light, dark hair flapping in the wind. He didn’t waver, he didn’t shake. He simply stared, purposefully, determinedly, like he knew exactly what was happening and what to do.
“Bennett,” he said flatly, not a hint of panic in his voice. “Get down.”
The floor was trembling all over the place, and my legs were shaking. “What? No!” I yelled stubbornly over the noise. Was he really trying to order me around after the argument we'd just had?
“Get down now, Bennett,” Potter's voice, however, told me that this wasn't just about the argument anymore. This was something bigger, something that mattered. It scared me, because I'd never heard him sound so serious in my life.
“Just tell me what’s going on!”
“GET DOWN!” And then there was a giant 'boom!' that seemed to explode through the hall, and Potter threw himself at me, pushing me to the floor, landing painfully on top of me as I collided with the golden marble.
People were screaming. There were flashing lights going off everywhere above us, where our heads had previously been—spells, that blinded and blazed in the overwhelming darkness. Glass from the breaking chandeliers was raining down, pelting us with sharp shards. The Ballroom was under attack, I dully realized. Aidan and Dom and Freddy and everyone I loved were here, in this room, and it was under attack.
“Potter,” I wheezed frantically, barely able to breathe with his weight on top of me. It was too dark to see anything. There were just hazy shapes and running shadowed figures, more screaming, more yelling. “What’s happening?”
But he wasn’t answering my question, too busy struggling on top of me as he took off his suit jacket for the second time that night. What
“Potter!” I yelped, trying to scramble away. Noise clashed and trembled in the air above me, and it was all just a dizzying, disorienting blur of lights and screams and bangs. Everything was happening so fast; I couldn't process it. I had no idea what was going on. All I knew was that I was scared. “What are you doing? What’s going on? WHAT—WHY ARE YOU UNDRESSING YOURSELF?”
“Cover your face,” he directed calmly, eyes narrowed and focused with concentration. He held the jacket above our heads. There was another loud pop and then a barely audible tinkling as more glass rained down. And then I screamed, startled, as something big and blocky, roughly the size of a breadbox, fell on top of us. It caught Potter on the shoulder—more screaming from me—and he flinched reflexively, but didn’t let go of the jacket.
He was, I dimly realized, protecting us. No, protecting me. That was the reason for the jacket, why he was lying on top of me... He was taking the worst of it. For my sake.
“Potter,” I began hysterically, incoherently. I was confused, but there was something urgent tugging inside of me. I knew what we had to do. There was only one thing on my mind. “Aidan...We have to find Aidan...”
Potter nodded. And then he was getting up, dragging an unhelpfully shrieking me with him, lifting the arm that was holding the jacket over our heads. We half-crouched, half-ran across the room, ducking shooting spells and falling objects. The booms and clatters shook the ground, and at one point I stumbled, almost falling, but Potter simply hauled me back up again, pulling me with him.
It seemed like an eternity of running before he yanked me behind a large, round table that was on its side, its legs facing a nearby wall. It looked out into the chaos, its table top a kind of shield from it all.
“Here,” he pushed me down behind it, out of harm, and threw the jacket carelessly aside. Then he crouched next to me, grabbing my shoulders and urgently turning me to look him in the eye. “Stay. Here.”
Speechless, I watched as he stood up and took out his wand from his pocket, me dimly realizing that he was going to leave me here—to go off and find the others, I presumed.
“What—NO!” I yelped, grabbing him by the shirtsleeves and pulling him back towards me. “Potter—James,” I began desperately. Another echoing boom shook the room. More debris rained over our heads. “Don’t leave me here!”
“I have to. You’ll be fine,” Potter’s face was emotionless, merciless. He was going, whether I liked it or not. He crouched down again, grabbing my face and forcing me to look at him again, as if he were a parent and I was a scared, helpless child (which was basically true), and he had to tell me something very important. “It’s all probably going to stop in a minute. You’ll be fine. Don’t go anywhere.”
But I knew he was wrong. The booms and bangs were getting louder. The ceiling was practically on fire with spell light, different colored beams shooting in every direction. Smoke whirled in the air. People were screaming hoarsely, almost animalistically.
I was shaking. Potter’s face in front of me was glowing silver in the spell-light. He looked fierce, with his shirtsleeves pushed back, his hand clutching his wand, determined. And the thought of being alone, unprotected, in the middle of all this chaos was terrifying. Why had I left my wand at Dom's? I was such an idiot.
“Stay with me,” Never before had I cast away so much of my pride for one person, begged so pathetically for something.
“Bennett, I can’t—”
“I need you here. With me,” my voice was trembling. I felt so helpless, so stupid. “I’m scared.”
“I have to be out there, Bennett. I have to go help.”
“Then take me with you—just don’t leave me alone!” I pleaded, refusing to let go of his shirt as he tried to stand up.
“No,” he firmly peeled off my hands, definite. “It’s too dangerous.”
I was breathing heavily, and I knew I was faced with no choice. I stared at his face, at the angry stitches above his eyebrow—had I caused those just 48 hours ago? It seemed like a whole different lifetime. His jaw was set, eyes glinting resolutely. Silver starbursts of light from the spells glanced off his face, and I realized the one thing I had to do—the only chance I had—to get him to stay.
I leaned forward on my knees, heart pounding furiously in my ears. Grabbing Potter’s tie and squeezing my eyes shut, I yanked him forward and his lips went crashing down on mine.
There was a frozen second when Potter did nothing, stoic and unresponsive as a board. Spell light flashed behind my closed eyelids. The ground shook underneath us.
And then, Potter dropped his wand to the floor as all the tension in his shoulders slipped away. With a muffled, defeated groan, he shoved his hands into my hair, cupping my face, and kissed me back harder than I’d ever been kissed before.
I wound my fingers around his neck and into his soft hair, leaning back on the floor just behind the table until he was on top of me, my dress hiked up around my legs, him between them, the lines of his body outlined in the glowing silver behind us. It was all him, just him—he was everything, and there was nothing else. Above us, spell light clashed together and bursted over our heads like exploding stars, like fireworks. A rough, calloused hand skimmed up my thigh, and waves of shivers flicked down the length of my spine. I moaned, pulling him closer. A strange fever crept up my body as our kiss turned urgent. His mouth was searing and hot on mine, our bodies pressed so tightly together it was hard to discern where I ended and he began.
But I knew I could only distract him so long. Already, he was pulling back, and as much as I grappled at him, he was coming back to his senses.
“Mmmph—Bennett,” he murmured against my mouth, pushing me gently away. He leaned back on his knees, and I did the same, trying to pull him back in. “Stop.”
Panic choked me tight. I grabbed his hands tight, looking him dead in the eye. “Potter. I am begging you.”
“I’m sorry." Somehow, our foreheads had ended up pressed together. And for a second, something flickered in his gaze—something that told me he was tempted to stay here, kissing, twined together. Then his eyes fluttered shut, a faint crease digging between his brows as he seemed to gather all his willpower, as he restrained himself.
I stared up at him. This was my last chance—if this didn’t work, nothing would.
Those hazel eyes flashed open again. “I’ll come back for you,” he murmured. "Promise."
And then stood up, grabbed his wand off the floor, and was striding off into the chaos, into the literal war waging on behind our shield.
I could do nothing but sit on my knees, blinking desperately, and watch him disappear into the darkness.
He vanished within seconds.