Chapter 36 : Point-blank
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TOP TEN THINGS NOT TO DO WHEN YOU ILLEGALLY DRIVE YOUR UNCONSCIOUS BROTHER AND ALL HIS PRATTY FRIENDS HOME:
1. Don’t begin the drive by asking humorously, “Now, which one’s the gas pedal again?”
2. Don’t be surprised when nobody laughs at this extremely witty joke, and instead you’re just met with awkward silence as everyone in the car coughs and double-checks their seatbelts.
3. Don’t ignore your brother’s pratty best friend when he starts giving you instructions. Despite his Driver’s Ed Sadism (“Oh hey, Bennett, braking might be something you want to do right now. If you want to stay alive, that is. You know, only if that’s something you’re interested in”), he is right. All the time. And even though he’s making this harder than it needs to be (seriously, does he have to sit next to you like that – pressing himself against the car door with his hand shoved in his hair and his jaw all clenched? And does he have to inhale so sharply whenever you brake a little quick?), you have to stay focused. The last thing you need is to crash into a lamppost and give him the opportunity to gloat all over the place.
4. Don’t worry too much about your brother, even if he is lying, face down and unconscious, in the backseat of the car you are illegally driving. Try to ignore the fact that he’s probably been slipped Wizard Wheeze’s love potion by some Date-Rape-Happy, Hufflepuff fangirl, and instead concentrate on the road ahead of you. Besides, Fred’s keeping him company. Well, not so much ‘keeping him company’ as ‘taking his limp hand and making him slap himself repeatedly in the face,’ but still. It’s good enough.
5. Don’t get into a bickerfest with your brother’s pratty best friend over who gets to be commander of the radio. It’s not worth it. Resist the urge to falcon punch him in the face when he snottily informs you that your music is crap. And above all, try not to descend into a heated debate with him about whether or not Arcade Fire is a sell-out band. You guys will never agree, and you’ll just be annoyed for the rest of the night.
6. Don’t think that making a turn that’s blatantly against the law and loudly screaming ‘THIS IS LEGAL!’ as you do so cancel each other out. Because they don’t.
7. Don’t let Brother’s Pratty Best Friend get to you with his snarky comments about your driving (“It’s a shame I didn’t get to say goodbye to mum before I got inside this deathtrap.” “I wonder if they’ll be able to identify us when they pull our bodies from the wreckage? Hopefully, the horrible accident we get into won’t disfigure us too badly.” “Next time you stop, could you please do it a little closer to that semi-truck? That’s be great, thanks.”) He’s just being annoying, or, as Dominique would say, ‘a h8r.’ Ignore him.
8. Don’t start humming along when that catchy Selena GomWiz song comes on the radio. Everyone else in the car will definitely notice and tease you mercilessly for it.
9. Don’t use ‘YOLO’ as an excuse for when you run a red light.
10. Don’t freak out. Even when the car’s going too fast and you’re skidding on ice and Freddy Weasley is in the background yelling incomprehensible things like ‘WOO! FUCK YEAH! FASTER!’ and ‘NASCAR 2019!’ and you’re pretty sure that’s your life flashing before your eyes – it doesn’t matter. Just stay calm. Potter will most likely grab the wheel and save you all from impending death anyways. Until then, try to keep yourself from peeing your pants in terror. You’ve handled Dominique Weasley PMS-ing. You can handle this.
“Oi, Bennett, watch the elbow!”
“I’m trying, you prat! Jesus, he’s heavy.”
“Oh, and it's my fault we have to carry your unconscious brother inside?”
“Well, Potter, maybe if you didn’t make it your personal mission to get in the way all the time—“
“Guys, come on! Can’t the two of you just get along for a second?”
“Shut up, Freds."
“Seriously. No one asked you.”
“Humph. Looks like someone has their grumpy pants on today.”
“The door, Bennett! Get the door!”
“Oof—ow—okay, got it.“
“Alright. We’re going to put Aidan on the bed on the count of three. One... two...”
“Nicely done, Miss America. Nicely sodding done.”
Potter’s scathing tone wasn’t anything different than what I usually had to endure from him (at least this time he wasn’t smirking), but for some reason, at that moment, I had had enough. Maybe it was the fact that my nerves were rubbed raw after having to drive three rowdy, teenaged boys in a vehicle that was so shabby, the Flinstones’ car could have beaten us home. Or maybe it was because I had just accidentally dropped my unconscious brother on the face, probably giving him a concussion in the process (or a head trauma or a skull fracture—you know. All those things post-coma patients love and adore). Or maybe it was the simple fact that I was at my breaking point with Potter—I couldn’t stand any more of him and his confusing ways and his constant jihad against my self-esteem. Whatever it was, I was done. Enough was enough.
“Is it physically possible for you to stop being such a jerk all the time? Like, can you take two seconds out of your asshole existence to just be helpful, for a change?” My voice was a hiss dripping with acid, but it was better than outright hysteria. I folded my arms harshly across my chest, leaning towards Potter with a gaze fuelled purely by hate.
In response, he held out his hands in mocking defense, an amused smirk flitting across his face (and I knew it wouldn’t take him long to break out The Potter Smirk. What’s it been, like .04 seconds? That’s a new record).
“Chill out, Bennett. Your spazzy ways have already cost us Aidan. We wouldn’t want anymore injuries here, now would we?”
That patronizing tone—ugh. Just ugh. I couldn’t respond. I was too angry. Instead, I bent down to help Freddy drag Aidan onto his bed, fuming inside, trying to ignore Potter’s eyes on the back of my neck. Stupid prat wasn’t even going to bother to help.
It was like whatever angle I took, whatever method I tried, Potter would always be the same. Unsympathetic and unforgiving, always ready to kick back and watch me flail and flounder with that same, satisfied smirk on his face. Even after all we’ve gone through, there was that unmistakable itch of hate between us. He couldn’t stand me, I couldn’t stand him. No amount of snogging or dancing could change that.
“You know, this whole mess wouldn’t have happened if you’d been taking care of Aidan instead of flirting with bimbos the whole night,” I muttered darkly, and even though I hated myself for it, I couldn’t help the twinge of bitter jealousy in my tone.
And Potter obviously picked up on it. His eyebrows shot towards his hairline as he crossed his arms. The smirk widened. “Sorry we can’t all be Cat-Ladies-In-Training like you. ‘Scuse me for having a good time—a concept you’re probably unfamiliar with, am I correct?”
“Here we go again,” Freddy muttered under his breath, but he was ignored. I could already feel that familiar charge building between Potter and I, those dangerous sparks that danced and jumped inside our white-hot words. We were both growing louder, angrier, more intense - and like a chemical reaction that was already underway, nothing could stop us from exploding.
I couldn’t shake the pesky voice in the back of my head, whispering that Potter hadn’t denied the flirting thing, and anger charged through my body all over again. “I—You—I am not a cat lady!”
“Says the only person in the twenty-first century who still wears bandanas.” The arrogance in Potter’s face made me want to scream. “Yeah, okay.”
“There’s nothing wrong with bandanas!”
“Yeah, maybe if you’re Rosie the Riveter. What are you hiding under there anyways?”
Before I could stop myself, my hand was flying up to my head self-consciously. Potter’s eyes flickered with triumph, and I felt fury curl itself around my chest. Who was he to make me feel bad about my Nutella Hair™? Stupid prat.
“You know what? This whole night would have been a lot easier if I’d gone home with Ryan instead!” It was a low blow, and one that I knew would work. The Gryffindor pride in Potter wouldn’t be able to resist the bait.
Sure enough, eyes flickering with anger, Potter snapped back. “Yes, everything would be so much easier if Mr. Prince Charming could swoop in with his free lollies and foot massages to save the day, wouldn’t it?”
"Oh my God, what is your problem with Ryan? He’s a good guy!”
“Blokes like him have their own agendas, Bennett.”
“Agendas? Like what? Is he going to steal me away and tie me onto some railroad tracks before twirling his black moustache and skipping off? You’re ridiculous.”
“No, ridiculous is turning into a quivering pile of jelly every time Fisher flashes his teeth at you.” Potter straightened, looking me over with unmistakable contempt in his gaze. I felt my face flush with shame.
“I do not!” And, in my defense, Ryan has very nice teeth. (Potter has nice teeth as well, but you wouldn’t know it because he has a monthly limit of two smiles. And you can forget about laughing. In the rare occasion that James Potter actually, genuinely laughs, it’s a big deal. CNN usually does a cover story about it.)
“Yeah, okay Bennett. You get all... doe-eyed and trembly,” Potter’s voice was emphatic with disgust. “You’re like the human sequel to Bambi.”
“Just shut up, will you?”
“Why should I?”
“Because it’s none of your business what I think of Ryan!”
“You’re making it my business!”
“Um, guys?” Freddy began tentatively from the door, which he had slowly been inching towards, like a scared animal, for the duration of this entire argument. “You look like you’re in the middle of something, so I’m just gonna leave—“
“Stay.” Potter and I briefly whipped away from each other to snap at the exact same time. Freddy whimpered, looking very close to wetting himself.
I turned back to Potter. “You think that just because your last name’s Potter, you have some sort of get out of jail free pass.” I was being unfair. We all knew that Potter hated getting special treatment because of his family - but I couldn’t help myself. All the pent up anger and confusion were taking form in some serious word vomit. I mean, one minute he’s telling me he never wants to see my face again, the next we’re dancing, and then now we’re arguing? Uncool. Anger churning with this thought, I continued my rant: “You get to whittle your life away partying and drinking, with no regard for others—“
Potter gave a bark of laughter. His eyes, too, were flashing with anger, his chest rising up and down rapidly like mine. “At least I have a life.”
“Yeah, a life where the most substance you ever get is from partying and girls!”
“Girls who, at the very least, know how to have fun - unlike you!”
“Then why bother me with me, Potter?” I countered shrilly, throwing my hands in the air. “If I’m such a stick in the mud, why am I still here?”
Potter cocked his head for a second, as if he were actually giving thought to the question. And then, left eyebrow quirked, gaze loaded with superiority, he snarled, “I think everyone’s been asking themselves that very question, Bennett. Nobody wants you. Just leave.”
Freddy sucked in a breath. I blanched, drawing back. The silence was earth-shattering.
My face was flushed with emotion—anger, embarrassment, I don’t know what—and I couldn’t stand it any longer. I had to leave. I had to get out of this room where the walls were too close and the silence too loud. I had to get away from Freddy’s wary gaze, Potter’s sharp words.
“You know what?” I hissed finally, eyes squinted with hostility. I refused to show any weakness of emotion. Just anger, pure anger, charging through my blood. “Maybe I will!”
With that, I brushed past Potter as I felt myself walk, numbly, towards the door, heartbeat thudding dully in my ears. The prat didn’t even flinch. He just stared ahead, gaze hardened and empty, jaw clenched.
The last thing I heard before I left the room and rounded into the hallway was Fred turning to Potter, voice low, and whispering, “Shit, dude. I mean, I know you guys fight a lot, but... shit, dude.”
Well put, Fred. Couldn’t have said it better myself.
The kitchen was a good place to be at a time like this. The windows were glazed with darkness, and there was nothing but the hum of the dishwasher and the blue-white glow of the fridge. It was soothing in an almost ethereal way.
Though put me in any place with food and I automatically feel at peace. So.
Dazedly, I grabbed a packet of Rejuvenating Tablets from the cabinet to give to Aidan later. Next, I found a glass in the cupboard and began to fill it with water from the tap, trying to make as little noise as possible in case Ginny or Lily were awake.
My mind couldn’t seem to stop. It was on a constant track, chugging over and over again on a mental treadmill as Potter’s words flitted through my head.
Before, I would always wonder if maybe Potter was like some sort of douchebag version of a Cadbury egg, those candies with the hard chocolate covering and creamy center filling. You know, an asshole on the outside, but with a sweet, gooey middle once you dug deep—a gooey middle that made him do nice things like pick me up off bathroom floors and get into fistfights on my behalf. Maybe he was just a jerk to me because he didn’t want to reveal that deep inside, he actually cared.
But I knew the truth now—Potter wasn’t some chocolately Easter season snack. Those two parts of him—the snarky, sarcastic one that absolutely despised me, and the nicer, serious one that couldn’t help but steal glances and snog me against walls—they lived side by side, both there on the surface, constantly fighting with each other. Like me, Potter had issues. And like me, he was experiencing that clash inside himself of hatred and compassion, pride and attraction. It was all there, plus a convenient supply of hormones as well. No wonder things were so messy between us.
“Bennett.” Speak of the devil.
I turned around, shutting off the water (which had been running the whole time without me noticing, causing my glass to overflow everywhere—yay for windy internal monologues!), and braced myself.
There was Potter, leaning his side lazily against the doorframe, a hand in his tousled hair, the other stuffed in his pocket.
My eyes fluttered shut for a millisecond. Looking at him was physically hard. “What?”
Potter hesitated, pressing his lips together in a thin, reluctant line. It was obvious Freddy had sent him down to apologise, and he did not look happy about it.
Finally, he said, voice more hesitant than usual: “I’m not sorry, you know. About what I said.”
“No one’s telling you to be,” I said shortly. It came out colder than I meant it to. Great, already off to a good start.
“I just—you have no idea what it’s like. To be around you.” He pushed himself off the doorframe, growing agitated. And for the first time that night, I could see the liquor from the club, burning bright and naked in his golden eyes.
“Actually, I think I do,” I shot back, bristling. Who was he to talk about me like I was some sort of... problem? A disease? I wasn’t a sodding case of alcoholism. I was a person.
“No, see, the thing is you don’t—“ He stepped forward, gaze forceful.
“You don’t get to say what I do and do not feel, Potter!” My voice hitched up an octave as frustration wormed its way through my chest. I slammed the glass on the counter behind me, ignoring the ensuing cracking sound. I had to make him listen to me, make him see. “Do you know what it’s like to watch you at parties when you’re with other girls, with Aidan and Fred—and all the while I know I’m some kind of shameful secret to you?”
“Again with the guilt! It’s like you have a special talent for making me feel like complete shit, you know that?” Potter spat out. He threw his hands up as his voice rose to match mine in volume. His hair unruly, eyes blazing—for the first time, I was seeing Potter with his guard completely down, his emotions spilling over the edge.
“Please. Like anything I say could affect you.” My voice was low with bitterness, but it was all true. Mr. High and Mighty, who was about a thousand leagues above me, couldn’t possibly care what his bestfriend’s pesky sister thought of him. I’d learned that by now.
Potter scoffed, looking away as anger flicked across his features. He lowered his voice. “You're so ignorant—“
I almost laughed. “Yes, please, by all means, go and patronize me! We all know that’s what you’re good at! Just act like I haven’t been through anything these past months thanks to you! Like it’s all just been a bloody walk in the park!”
“And you think it’s been easy for me? Especially when you’re everywhere I go - in my house, in my head, batting those sodding blue eyes of yours—“
I was too angry to even register the eyes comment. “Right. Because everything that’s happened between us so far is my fault. Grow up, Potter. I’m trying to! Why don’t you take a turn?”
“There you go again, putting words in my mouth! Another one of your charming talents.” Potter shook his head, like he was giving up, like I’d never understand. His guard was back, that moment of weakness gone. “Forget it.”
“If only!” I snarled back. “Now if you excuse me, I’m going to give Aidan this water, force-feed him a Rejuvenating Tablet, and I’ll leave you alone like you want.” I grabbed the glass and began to walk away, trying to resist the urge for one last snarky comment. I was done with this constant bickering, this back-and-forth. It wasn't worth it anymore.
I was just stomping past him when Potter slowly, almost unwillingly, spun around. He looked like he was trying to suppress a groan. “You can’t give him a Rejuvenating Tablet,” he called out tiredly. “It won’t react well with the alcohol and whatever else he’s got in his system.”
“That’s not true.” I whipped around defiantly, almost petulantly, and waved the packet in front of his face, as if this would somehow prove it.
He only scoffed. “I’ve done this more times than you, Bennett.”
Irritation prickled up my spine. “Right. So the fact that you have experience getting drunk a lot somehow makes you more qualified? I don’t follow.”
“No,” Potter said slowly, like he was speaking to a child. “I’m just saying - I’ve looked after Aidan like this before. Many times.”
“So have I,” I informed him with a nose worth of snottiness. Potter’s eyebrows shot up. He calmly shoved his hands in his pockets, leaning back on his heels and looking as if he were actually curious as to what I had to say. “And you know what? I’m not sure I like that whenever Aidan gets drunk or makes a bad choice, you’re always right around the corner. Real convenient, Potter.”
“Right,” Potter countered smoothly, darkly. “Can we just skip the part where you accuse me of corrupting Aidan’s soul for the billionth time? I’ve got it memorized by heart by now.”
“Fine, but I’m giving Aidan the tablet. I know what I’m doing, Potter.” I was setting my foot down; he wasn’t going to win. Not this time.
“Fine. But when he wakes up with a killer hangover tomorrow, I’ll be sure to remind him to thank you.”
“Whatever.” I hated how Potter could make me feel like this, like I was still losing even after I’d won. Without another backwards glance, I left the kitchen, the packet of tablets clutched firmly in hand.
My anger completely disintegrated, however, when I walked back into Aidan’s room to see him sprawled—face down, a tiny lake of drool on his pillow—across the bed.
Freddy, after having kindly taken off Aidan’s shoes and jacket for him, was now slumped on the floor with his head in his hands, curlicues of crazy dark hair spiraling out between his fingers. He looked exhausted, just like the rest of us. Briefly, crazily, I wondered if he was thinking about Evelyn. If he missed her at all. If he wished she was here so he wouldn't feel alone right now.
God, what is with me and these angsty thoughts? I need some chocolate, ASAP. Better yet, someone get me an IV bag of Nutella. Straight to the veins—that ought to do the trick.
“Howdy,” I greeted, and Fred perked up instantly.
“Food?” He asked, eyes filled with puppy dog hope. Well, nice to see you too, Fredward.
“No. Just some water and tablets for Aidan,” I set them on the bedside table and leaned over, gingerly pressing a hand to my brother’s forehead. It was clammy with sweat. Aidan really didn’t look great, but at the very least, Fred had the courtesy to skip the drawn-on sharpie moustache this time.” How’s he doing?”
“Passed out like a middle schooler after her first beer.” Fred shook his head fondly. “They never learn, do they?”
No. They really didn’t. I knew this for a fact, because last year, we’d been in a very similar situation.
The summer before fifth-year, you see, Fred, Aidan and Dom had all decided to take a little voyage to the Land of Drunk Idiocy, aka the infamous Techno Concert. Yup, you heard me. A Techno Concert—the birthplace of future hangovers and all embarrassing Wizbook photos, where the population consists of girls with voices like chihuahuas, and boys who compete with each other over who can be the biggest toolbag (hint: it’s always the one wearing the neon sunglasses indoors. Always). Yup. It sounds like a bad idea already, doesn’t it?
Anyway, the three of them decided to go to this concert one night in July. Potter, funnily enough, didn’t want to go. At the time, I’d thought it was weird of him, but I guess now he must have been hanging out with Nora.
I was fond of my dignity and wanted to keep it intact, so I opted to stay home as well. The night was going smoothly, until I got a frantic phone call from Freddy.
“Aggy, you’ve gotta help us. It’s Dom. She’s not drunk but she can’t walk and oh god, I don’t know what happened, she’s like...zombified. And not in the cool, brain-eating way. In the scary, forgetting-how-to-breathe kind of way.”
Turns out, Dom had been roofied. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. Roofied? That’s the kind of thing you hear about from your annoying, paranoid aunt who smells like mothballs and has a weird face mole and always warns you about the daughter of so-and-so, a distant relative/neighbor/dentist, who fell into a bad crowd and trusted the wrong person. It’s not anything that could actually, possibly happen to you. Just another horror story people tell to scare their children. You’re smarter than that - or that's what you tell yourself, anyway.
But when I got to the club, Dom—one of the most cunning, clever girls I knew—was the colour of paper. She was pale white, shaking from head to toe, the scariest ghost I’d ever seen. She couldn’t move. And not in the same way I can’t move from my bed on a Monday morning. No. I mean she literally, physically couldn’t move.
We had to get out of the club, but it was jam-packed, and we were far from the exit. Luckily for us, we had devised a system.
Fred tossed Dom over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes, Aidan followed behind him, and I walked in front of them both, flailing my arms around in an insane, epileptic manner bordering on fangirl-esque. Yes. That night, I was a fangirl. I waved my limbs around like crazy as if Oliver Wood was waiting for me at the exit, shirtless and carrying a heart-shaped box of chocolates. I pushed anyone in sight to make room for Freddy, effectively parting the sea of concert-goers. Just think of me as a ginger, spazzier version of Moses.
I remember being halfway there when Freddy stopped in his tracks, paling almost as white as Dom.
I turned around. “What?”
“Aggy,” Fred mumbled dazedly, fear clouding his stricken face. “Do you recognize that song?”
I strained to hear the first few thumps of the tune. I could distantly recognize it. Some old, classic techno song that was still popular to this day—always played on radio stations or in clubs. It was like the anthem of every partygoer, every drunk idiot, every bro and hoe in the history of bad decision-making.
I frowned. “What about it?”
“They’re playing Levels, Aggy. Levels by Avicii.” Fred whipped around to share a knowing look with a panicked Aidan. I’d never seen two teenaged boy so scared while not in the presence of an angry Professor McGonagall. It was weird.
“Meaning...?” I’d prompted.
“Meaning we have about—“ Freddy mimed checking a watch with the hand that wasn’t keeping Dom on his shoulder. “Five seconds until the chorus drops and the whole club goes batshit.”
And just like that, the three of us began sprinting through the club, Dominique over Fred’s shoulder the whole time, as the synths of the music got ominously louder and louder. It was quite similar to the scene in the movies where the team of heroes runs, slow-motion, to escape the fiery explosion behind them. Except not as badass. And with more drunk people.
Needless to say, after that night, I was quite content with thinking that that had been my one and only techno concert experience. Little had I known that today, I’d be having a serious case of déjà vu.
I looked over at Freddy, who was leaning his head against the wall. His eyes were drooping shut. Every once and a while he would nod off and then jolt awake, falling back asleep once he realized that there was no food in the near the vicinity. Poor sod.
“Maybe we should all go to bed,” I suggested gently. Fred looked up, squinting bewilderedly.
“Nah, I’m okay.” Of course the Gryffindor side of him would want to stay by Aidan the whole night. Fred was loyal to a fault. “But you should sleep, Aggs. You look like you need it.”
The offer was so tempting. And Aidan would be alright with Fred by his side, right? Right. I’d spent so much of my life worrying and doting on my brother. Maybe tonight, just tonight, I could take a break. Even from here, I could feel the tempting pull of the Potters’ guestroom, king-sized bed. The lush comforter. The squishy pillows. The—
Okay. That was it. I was going to bed.
“Alright,” I said uneasily. Fred gave a lazy salute from where he was sitting, and I took that as my cue. I swiveled around and, without another word, left the room.
The minute I crawled under the covers of the Potters' king-sized guest bed, sleep gripped me instantly.
“Good morning, sweetheart! Rise and shine!”
Oh god no.
There are two very bad things about this situation right now: one, the fact that someone apparently has a bloody death wish and is waking me up on a fucking school holiday morning when there is no imminent tornado/house fire/male model shirtless competition nearby, and two, the usage of the word ‘sweetheart.’
Because nobody calls me sweetheart. Nobody is that devastatingly stupid.
Except one person...
But no. Debbie couldn’t be here. I mean, how would she know where I live?
Unless... My old theory about her secretly being the Grim Reaper is true, and after flying here on a cloud of black smoke/herd of bats/vortex of despair, she’s now going to send me to the afterlife and collect my soul. Gasp! Shock! Horror!
Well, jokes on her, because I don’t have a soul. Ha ha! That ought to show you. Take that, Debbie!
Debbie, if you’re wondering, is my stepmonster. She married my father when Aidan and I were seven, and we’ve hated her from the very first time she took away our cookies. Because of her crazy, controlling nature, we affectionately call her Debbie the Dictator. She has two kids from a previous marriage: Awful and Crazy (Austin and Casey) who are both toddlers and at the lovely age where the world is a giant chew toy designed specifically for their teeth. Don’t believe their cute, angelic faces. They’re both evil. I have the bitemarks to prove it. And they always, always have food on their faces. Even after they shower. I don’t know how it happens. It’s one of the Eight Wonders of the World.
Anyway, it couldn’t possibly be Debbie, right? I mean, she’s horrible, but how would she know I was staying at the Potters? It’s not like she had some crystal orb in her evil lair that, whenever she whispered my name, showed me at my exact location... I mean, that was just paranoid. Right? RIGHT?
“Sweetheart! You better wake up! Put on your happy face and get ready to take on the morning!”
Oh god. I only know one adult who talks like she’s still in first grade. This is definitely Debbie.
Slowly, painstakingly, I cracked open one eyelid. For a moment, I was blinded by sun.
And then, I was blinded by pink.
Because Debbie the Dictator was indeed standing right in front of me, wearing her usual get-up of all pink clothes, butter blonde hair and a botox-ed smile that made it look like her face was about to break—complete with the crazy eyes and everything. Oh, how I missed those crazy eyes. The way they used to make the hair on my neck stand up, the horror movie soundtrack that would always play in my head whenever I looked into them... Good times, good times.
She was peering right into my face, getting way too close for comfort, and I wondered if she could smell my morning breath. Not that she seemed to care. Either way, her sense of smell has probably been damaged by all the needles that've been stuck into her face, pumping botox and beauty potions and the blood of virgins to keep her young (okay, so that last one was a joke. Maybe). She was wearing some cotton-candy-colored, furry vest, and in my bleary, half-asleep mind, all I could think was that she looked like she’d been swallowed by some creature from a Dr. Seuss novel.
I looked my stepmum right in the crazy eye, and said, flatly, blankly: “Ew.”
Then I rolled around and went back to sleep.
“Now, Agatha, is that really how you’re going to greet your stepmum after she’s come all this way to see you? My, I practically had to break down the front door to get to you! Mrs. Potter is—“ At this, she gave a great sniff of displeasure. Ugh. “Not very welcoming. I’d expect a better hostess from the wife of the Chosen One. Honestly! She tried to lock me out before I could even explain who I was!”
That’s because she probably thought you were a werewolf that stumbled through a pink-dye factory on its way to ravage her home and kill her family. Of course she locked you out.
Good for Ginny, actually. Ten points to Gryffindor.
“Deborah,” I moaned tiredly in my pillow. This could not be happening. I was dreaming. “Please leave.”
She tutted. “Now, Agatha, you’re going to have to get up. We have a lot to do, and the sun’s not going to shine all day!”
I turned around and leveled her with one of my classic, did-you-just-suffer-a-braincell-massacre stares. “That’s possibly one of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard, Deborah. The sun does shine all day, actually. That’s kind of the point of the term day.”
Debbie just laughed like I made the funniest joke ever.
Merlin help us. “Now Agatha, your father sent me here to pick you up. See, I pulled some strings at my old PR firm and landed you a press conference. You’re in desperate need of some good media representation after what that awful Rita Skeeter woman wrote about you.” At this, I stifled a sarcastic laugh. Debbie calling Skeeter awful was kind of the same as Voldemort calling Hitler mean. “I mean, you have no idea how many newspapers and talk shows want to get a hold of this!” She reached over and, with her pointy talon-nails, pinched my cheek. I kid you not. Pinched my cheek. “You are The Girl Who Saved the Sword, after all!”
I swatted her away and rubbed my face, wincing in pain. Jesus. Did Debbie glue knives onto her fingers every morning? “Well I'm very sorry, but I can't go. I have to look after Aidan this morning. He's...uh, not feeling well." I smirked, grateful that I had a good-to-go excuse. Thank Merlin for creepy Hufflepuff fangirls.
Debbie smiled, baring all her teeth. "Oh, that's not necessary, Agatha. I spoke to Ginny and she said that Aidan's still sleeping and is not to be disturbed. You can check up on him when we get back, though! How does that sound? To be honest, this press conference is just too important to miss!"
I stared at my stepmum, open-mouthed, brain frantically fumbling for a rebuttal. "Why isn’t dad here then, if this is so important?”
“He’s busy.” Of course. “But don’t worry your pretty little head. I’m going to look after you and take care of everything! I've even set out an outfit for you!”
At this, my unenthusiastic gaze followed Debbie’s gesture to the armoire across the room, where my stepmum, horror of horrors, had hung an exact replica of the outfit she was wearing. Like she was a celebrity and I was her purse dog, and we were both supposed to match and just have a jolly good time frolicking around on the red carpet. Furry vest included.
Oh hell no.
This was going to be a long day.
Here’s something that I’ve learned:
Press conferences suck.
First of all, the reporters are all middle-aged, dweeby men who look like they secretly prance around their basements with plastic light sabers to the Star Wars soundtrack whenever they're home alone (which was probably always). Plus, all the paparazzi have their fingers practically super-glued to the shutter button on their cameras. It's annoying as butt.
It’s like, relax, buddy. I highly doubt you need another picture of me. And hate to break it to you, but this face isn’t going to get any better. If I look demonic in the other sixty photos, I’ll probably be the same in this one as well.
Not to mention there is no dramatic gasping. You know how, in the films, whenever the athletes and politicians reveal something scandalous, the whole room breaks out into a collective, shocked gasp? Yeah, when I admitted that I’d almost been hit by the Killing Curse that night at the Ministry, all I got was awkward silence and some scribbling.
I sat, fidgeting, at the long table that had me facing the herd of reporters, conscious of Debbie’s death grip on my arm from where she was next to me. Ow. Those nails could be considered as weapons, honestly. They're a hazard. I wonder if Debbie has to get them confiscated whenever she goes through the security line at airports.
Hmm. I’ll file that question away for later. It’ll come in handy next time she starts lecturing me and I want to shut her up.
“Ms. Bennett, how were you feeling during the incident at the Ministry?” Some snivelly man in a toupee asked, quill poised over notebook. “Scared? Frightened?”
I flinched, feeling my patience wearing thin. Was this guy for real? Oh, yeah, I love high-speed chases through government buildings. It’s kind of a past time of mine, along with watching paint dry and purposefully stubbing my toes against coffee tables.
Debbie seemed to have caught the look on my face, because her grip on my elbow tightened, cutting off my blood circulation even further.
“No sarcasm,” she hissed maliciously into my ear.
“I’m losing feeling in my arm,” I shot back, giving an imperceptible jerk to shake off her talons. She refused to let go. My fingers were turning purple. The doctors would have to amputate.
I sighed, giving in, and swallowed the snark that was bubbling up my throat. “Yes, I was very frightened at the time, but now I’m just thankful to be alive,” I droned in a flat voice. Debbie nodded in approval but on the inside, I felt cheap, dirty, like I’d compromised myself. I mean, as a Slytherin, I automatically possessed fantastic bullshitting skills, as was evidenced by the string of O marks I always received on my Potions essays. I could bullshit anyone under the table. But I was supposed to use my BS skills for good, not evil. And anything involving Debbie was inherently evil. Sigh.
With great bullshitting skills comes great responsibility.
The reporters all nodded furiously, looking like they’d just received a message from God as they scribbled frantically away. I stifled an eyeroll and geared myself for the next question.
“Ms. Bennett, it has come to the public’s attention that you are now staying with the Potters. What is it like to be around one of the wizardring world’s most famous families?”
As I stared into the camera lenses and empty eyes of the reporters, my mind went blank. I was suddenly very aware of the TV guy across the room, manning a camera that would film this entire thing and send it to every Wiz-Telly in Britain. Ruh-roh.
Even though I knew that now would probably be a good time to express my never-ending gratitude and gush on and on about the people who had taken me in, I couldn’t form the words.
Instead, I just said dazedly, my voice faint even to my own ears: “Their guest bed is very nice.”
I was met with a sea of blank stares. Shit.
I decided to elaborate. “I mean, the pillows are...erm, squishy.”
Squishy? SQUISHY? I’m giving what will be one of the most televised press conferences of the year, and the only adjective I can come up with is SQUISHY?
It’s official. My brain has revolted against me.
Debbie looked positively murderous. Oops. Well if there’s one good thing that’s coming out of this, I'm getting the opportunity to raise her blood pressure up a couple notches.
“Agatha, are you scared by the fact that the Death Eaters from the Ministry have escaped, and now may be out to find you?” A reporter from Witch Weekly stood up, eyes gleaming with hunger. It was obvious she wanted the dirt on The Girl Who Saved the Sword, any fact or tidbit that could help her paint me as some weak, stumbling damsel in distress.
Well, might as well give the people what they want, eh? “I am a little scared by one of the Death Eaters. He was...intimidating.”
How so? Um, try the fact that he wanted to kill me? Or that he probably could have crushed me with his pinkie finger? He was huge, brutal, colossal, giant—the descriptions were endless!
“He looked like a woolly mammoth,” I blurted out suddenly. Yeah. The descriptions were endless, and I'd decided to go Ice Age on this bitch. Perfect.
Unsurprisingly, this elected a chuckle from a couple of the reporters. But I was being completely serious. This Death Eater—Barnes, I believed he was called—had been scary. I remember lying on the ground and seeing his hairy ankle, and the tattoo of two diamonds etched on his skin. It hadn’t registered that night, but I remembered the tattoo now. Even though I’d tried to tell the Aurors, they’d brushed me off, reassuring me that everything was fine and they were doing all they could to identify and capture the perpetrators.
“Ms. Bennett,” the same reporter called out, dragging my attention back to the present. “Witch Weekly wants to know—do you have a boyfriend?”
I guess the appropriate answer to this question would have been something along the lines of, “Not currently, no,” instead of what I did:
...Which was burst out laughing.
When I looked around and saw that everyone was staring at me with confusion on their faces, and that Debbie seemed close to lunging across the table, smashing all the cameras in and tackling the TV man to the floor, my hysteria quickly died.
“Erm, no. I don’t have a boyfriend, actually.” Gee, and I always wonder why.
The reporter smirked. “But surely such a charming, trendsetting girl as you must have someone?” Trendsetting? The last trend I set was when I spread chickenpox to my entire kindergarten class. “What about the rumors involving you and a certain James Potter?”
What? Rumors? I stared at the reporter, wondering if she was mental. I looked at Debbie, who seemed to be in the midst of a stroke. Then I looked at all the paparazzi clustered in front of me, gathered here to ask me about the day I saved the Ministry, when in reality all they wanted to know was whether or not I had a current snog at the moment.
Screw it all.
“I’d rather date a woolly mammoth,” I said.
“I can’t believe you’d say such a thing!” Debbie shrieked the minute we were done side-apparating to the Potter household. I jumped away from her, too glad to be done with the press conference to bother with her disapproval. I’d survived without having a mental breakdown. Twice, I'd contemplated jumping on the table and tearing off my pants in a fit of sheer boredom, and twice, I'd restrained myself. Wasn’t that enough?
“Yeah, well, I can’t believe I’m wearing a gigantic cupcake! But I’m dealing with it, aren’t I?” I snapped, gesturing to the powder blue dress Debbie had made me put on after I point-blank rejected the werewolf vest. It was skimpy, and my shoulders and knees were freezing in the January weather, but I’d refused to put on the coat Debbie had offered me. I guess it was some sort of self-punishment on my part, for putting up with this whole thing.
“Your father and I worked very hard to get that press conference for you so that you could come across as likeable for a change, and look what you did!”
“Guess I’m just not a very likeable person then! My bad!” I snarled. Debbie’s shrieking was like a never-ending chipmunk opera. On helium. It was bloody getting on my nerves. “See you later, Deborah.”
I swished around, preparing myself to march up to the stone path to the Potter Mansion and ignoring Deborah’s calls behind me. I knew I was being petulant, but I couldn’t help myself. The anger was taking over again, shortening my breath, clawing under my skin.
“You wait here, young lady! I am not finished with you!”
I skidded to a halt, breath coming out in short, agitated clouds in front of me. My teeth were grinding together furiously. Why, Merlin? Why me?
“I am not a child, Deborah,” I said slowly, refusing to turn around. I stifled a shiver as the January wind reared its frigid, ugly head, making my skin flood with goosebumps. “And I’m not your responsibility.”
She gave a sharp noise of disbelief. “Please, Agatha. Dying your hair brown and covering up that hideous ginger colour, while a nice lifestyle choice, does not make you an adult.”
That’s it! Nobody touches my Nutella Hair™! I whipped around, chest heaving, trying to grapple for the right words to eloquently form my argument. But I couldn’t find them. All I just wanted was for her to leave me alone.
Debbie smiled a sickly, smug smile. “Now how about you keep your mouth shut from now on, and let the grown-ups do the work. Okay, sweetheart?”
It wasn’t the condescension in her tone, or even the gleam of triumph in her eyes. No, it was the word sweetheart. I just... I couldn’t stand it. I exploded.
“Why don’t you go FUCK OFF, DEBBIE?” It was so, so, so satisfying to say that word. To feel my teeth etch into my lip and make that wonderful F sound, and then the delicious pop of the CK at the end. And the scandalized look on Deborah’s face was even better. Her features had overcome all the botox, and she actually managed to have an expression for once. It would have been hilarious, if I wasn’t so angry. “I don’t want you here! Aidan doesn’t want you here! No matter how hard you try to wiggle your way into our lives, we will never like you.”
Debbie stepped back, almost tripping over herself (frozen ground + killer stilettos = not a good match), overly-glossed lips forming a surprised ‘o.’ “Agatha, I was only trying to help—“
“HELP?” I gave a laugh that came across as slightly unhinged. “Like how you helped me when you split my mum and dad up eight years ago? By all means, go ahead! I think there might be a little more of my family left for you to trample all over!”
Debbie’s eyes were sparkling, but I couldn’t make myself take back the words. In the back of my head, I wondered if this fell under the category of ‘mature' - screaming at your step mum in the middle of James Potter’s front lawn.
Then again, I was finally sticking up for myself. These thoughts had been festering inside of me for the past eight years. I’d let Debbie condescend her way through my life—lecture after lecture about how I wasn’t lady-like enough, how my mother was a bad influence on me and my brother—never uttering a single word to her face. I would always lie down and take it.
But not now.
Now, it was finally out in the open—what my whole family had known and accepted for years.
Debbie had been the cause of my parents’ divorce. There was no denying it. I knew it. Aidan knew it. My mum knew it. And, judging by the guilt on Debbie’s trembling face, she knew it too.
It had all started when my father applied for a new job at the Ministry. Debbie had been his boss, believe it or not, and we all watched as he grew more and more distant, as his work gulped him down hungrily each day. It wasn’t that he and Debbie were having some sordid affair behind our backs. It was just that my mum’s free spirit, new-age personality couldn’t compete, couldn’t understand this newly-found life of a ministry worker. The gaps of understanding inside our family widened. Aidan and I were too young to relate to my dad, and my mother just simply couldn’t. Eventually, one day, my father found what he wanted all along in Deborah, and that was that.
Nobody had breathed a word about it. My mum was even polite to Deborah in public, as if she hadn’t spent weeks crying herself to sleep after my dad left her. As if she hadn’t cursed Debbie's name over and over again, in front of me and Aidan.
It’s funny, what adults will do to cover up the truth.
Now, here I was, standing in the snow in a ridiculous blue dress, my breath streaks of silver trembling in the air. The sky above us was a vast mess of pink and purple wisps, glowing threads of colour tangled together. My skin was covered in the orange glaze of the bloated sun, my dark shadow stretched out behind me. The silence was thunderous.
Debbie had her hand over her mouth. She was crying.
“I’m sorry,” I finally said, quietly, staring at her crumpled face. She was very petite, I realized. Pretty, too, if it hadn’t been for all the blonde dye and gooey make-up and fake tanning. “I know you were trying to help, and that you want to be a part of my life, but I don’t think you can. I don’t hate you. I just can’t be around you. It’s too much of a betrayal to my family. My mum.”
I couldn't be around Debbie anymore - her pitiful eyes, her defeated posture. Head spinning, I turned around once again, ready to set off for the house.
That’s when I spotted James Potter, standing inside the open doorway. The mail, which he must have come outside to get, was dangling in his hands. He’d most likely heard the whole thing. He looked surprised and—dare I say it—a little impressed.
Without another word to Debbie, I stormed up the pathway and looked anywhere but at Potter as I pushed past him, into the warm darkness of the house. How was it that he always managed to catch me at my lowest points? Did he have a radar or something? Fack it all. And yes, I did just say fack.
Please leave me alone, please, please, please, I chanted furiously in my head. But of course, Potter followed me inside. But to be fair, what else was he supposed to do? Wave hello to Debbie and invite her in for tea? No thanks.
I winced as Potter shut the door behind us with an echoing click, my face pinkening quite noticibly. I refused to turn around. I could feel Potter's eyes, burning curiously on the back of my head.
"Where's Aidan?" I mumbled to the wall.
"Freddy took him to breakfast," Potter answered easily, not a hint of anything beyond light conversation in his tone.
“So that was quite the show,” Potter began in that typical way of his, words always carefully tip-toeing the line between sarcasm and sincerity.
There it was. I knew it wouldn't be long before he'd bring it up. “Don't. Just don't, okay? I’m not in the mood for another argument,” I replied tiredly, starting to walk up the mahogany staircase. Annoyingly, Potter insisted on following, silent and all-too-knowing behind me. Ugh.
As we trudged up the staircase and down the hallway, I decided that I wouldn't grant Potter the satisfaction of letting him know he was bugging me. This decision lasted until I got to the door of my room and I finally snapped, whipping around in the hallway, eyes burning. “Do you mind?” I cried louder than normal. “I’d like to be alone.”
He just stared at me, one eyebrow quirked, expression cryptic.
“What is your problem, Potter? Don’t you know what alone means?” I shoved him away, and because that felt so good, I shoved him again for good measure.
Potter just stumbled back, allowing me to push him, silent and unusually passive. And just like that, the frustration inside me boiled over. I knew that, normally, he could easily hold his ground against me. Usually, one of my shoves wouldn’t be enough to make him budge an inch. But now...
“What?” I bit out finally, stepping so close to Potter, we were almost nose to nose. I was getting all up in his grill and he was just looking at me, coolly, eyes scanning my face. Untouchable. Unshakeable.
I needed to show Potter that I wasn’t scared. Not of Debbie. Not of the Death Eaters. Certainly not of him.
“Just say something, won’t you? Stop gaping at me like a stupid...stupid thing!” Again, I pushed him, and again, he stumbled backwards.
I wanted him to stop staring at me like that! It was freaking me out. Those eyes of his—endless pools of dark—they made me feel like he could see everything. My thoughts, my bones, me, me, me. I stepped closer, body tensed, ready to tell him to bugger off...
And that was when Potter did something I was totally unprepared for. Eyes not leaving my face once, he hooked a finger around a strand of my hair, twisting it gently.
“You dyed it,” he murmured softly. He stepped forward, and this time it was my turn to stumble, the anger on my face slipping away. “I liked it better red.”
“Liked it?” My voice was reedy with hysteria as I grappled for control again. This wasn’t how the game was supposed to be played. Potter was messing everything up. “Since when have you ever liked anything about me?”
Silence. Again. Just those eyes, burning my skin, making me feel so naked.
“Since when do you care?” I added, but it didn’t come out as aggressive as I meant it to. Instead, it crawled out of my dry throat as a barely audible whisper.
Potter was close enough to hear, though, close enough to read the words in my eyes. “I don’t.” There. At least he could say something right.
It made me mad how in control of the situation he was, how unflappable and calm he could remain. I wanted to get under his skin. To make him feel uncomfortable. To make him experience what I was feeling right now.
I raised my eyes to his. “Prove it, then. Prove you don’t care.”
I leaned closer, feeling the challenge pumping through my veins, the adrenaline making everything seem crystal sharp. The situation felt odly reminiscent of that night at the Astronomy Tower, when Potter had cornered me, made me feel helpless. Now, it was my turn to flip the tables on him.
“Kiss me,” I breathed, unable to look away as his eyes zinged me to the core. “If you really don’t care, then you’ll have no problem doing it. Kiss me.”
I couldn't believe what I was saying, that I was asking this so bluntly, so blatantly. But at the same time... it all made sense. If Potter really looked at me as an afterthought, as a nothing, then he'd be able to snog and throw me away in the span of a heartbeat. He'd treat me like any other dispensible girl that's thrown herself at James Potter's infamous feet, and we'd all go home happy. The end.
Potter, however, just continued to stare at me, unsurprised by this request, eyes dead and endless as ever. I knew there were a million thoughts flitting through that calculating mind of his, and that I would never get to know a single one of them.
He didn’t move. I didn’t breathe.
Already, I could feel my body drawing closer to his, the familiar desire to press his skin against mine. I couldn’t understand how I could want something I hated so much. It didn’t make any sense.
But I was past the point of no return already. What did it matter?
After what seemed like an eternity of silence, I finally scoffed, pulling away, breaking that familiar spell between us. It was over. The game was over, and I had won for the second time this week.
“I knew you couldn’t do it,” I declared triumphantly. "You’re a coward, James Potter. You don't show it, but you are. Always have been, always will—bbmmmffff.”
My last word was cut short as Potter swiftly stepped forward, shoved his hand into the back of my hair, and silenced my lips with his own.
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