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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 facetiously, “Now which one’s the gas pedal again?”
2. Don’t be surprised when nobody laughs at this fantastically witty joke of yours, and instead there's just awkward silence as everyone 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 brand of Schadenfreude (“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 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 must 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're illegally driving. Don't think about the fact that he must have been slipped Wizard Wheeze’s love potion by some Date-Rape-Happy Hufflepuff girl, and instead try to 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 commandeer the car radio. It’s not worth it. Resist the urge to falcon-punch him in the face when he snottily informs you that your music taste is crap. Above all, do not descend into a heated debate with him about whether or not Arcade Fire was 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 blatantly against the law and loudly screaming ‘THIS IS LEGAL!’ as you do so cancel each other out. They don’t.
7. Don’t let Brother’s Pratty Best Friend get to you with his snarky comments about your driving (“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!") He’s just being annoying or, as Dom 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 take notice and definitely tease you mercilessly for it.
9. ‘YOLO’ is not a valid excuse to run a red light.
10. And most importantly, do not 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 "FUCK YEAH TOKYO DRIFT!" and "NASCAR 2020!" and you’re pretty sure your life is flashing before your eyes — none of it matter. 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 anything.
“Oi, Bennett, watch the elbow! You're bumping him against the doorway!”
“Well, lift the legs a little higher!"
"The shoulder! The shoulder!"
"Sorry! You keep getting in the bloody way!"
“Oh, like this is all my fault?!"
"You're the one who took Aidan to a rager and allowed him to get stupid drunk — so yeah, it kind of is!"
"Wow, okay, guess I missed the part where I became your brother's official babysitter — "
“Just shut up and carry him, you irresponsible prat."
“The door, Bennett! Get the door!”
“Oof — ow — okay, got it.“
“Alright. Now we're going to set him down on the count of three. One, two — ”
“Nicely done, Miss America. Nicely sodding done.”
Potter’s scathing tone wasn’t anything different from what I normally had to endure, but for some reason, I found myself unable to take it anymore. I'd had enough.
Maybe it was the fact that my nerves had been rubbed raw after having to drive three rowdy, teenaged boys in a vehicle that was so shabby, the Flintstones car could have beaten us home. Maybe it was the fact that I had just accidentally dropped my unconscious brother on the face and had probably given him a concussion or head trauma or a skull fracture (you know, all the 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 or his constant personal jihad against my self-esteem.
Whatever the reason, I was done. Enough was enough.
“Is it within your physical capabilities to stop being such a jerk for once? Like, can you take two seconds out of your asshole existence to actually be helpful, please? Or would the effort alone cause the foundations of your very existence to disintegrate?” My voice was a hiss edging onto outright hysteria. I folded my arms brusquely across my chest, mostly to keep myself from waving them around like a crazy person, and leaned towards Potter with a gaze fueled by pure hate.
"And so it begins," Freddy muttered from the doorway, where he was watching all this unfold with a dismayed expression on his face.
Potter held out his hands in defense, mouth curving upwards in an ironic brand of amusement. “Why don't you calm down, Bennett," he said wryly, mockingly. "Before you injure somebody else?"
That patronizing tone — ugh. Just ugh.
Unable to respond, I bent down and helped Freddy drag Aidan onto the bed, fuming all the while, trying to ignore Potter’s eyes on the back of my neck. Stupid prat wasn’t even going to bother to help.
It was always like this. Whatever angle I took, whatever tactic I tried, Potter remained the same. Unsympathetic and unforgiving, always ready to kick back and watch me flounder with that same, satisfied smirk on his face. Even after all we’d been through, there was that unmistakable itch of hate between us. He couldn’t stand me, I couldn’t stand him. No amount of heat-of-the-moment snogging would change that.
“You know, this whole mess wouldn’t be happening right now if you’d just taken proper care of Aidan. If you'd paid attention instead of flirting with bimbos the whole night, or whatever it is you do,” I muttered darkly, and even though I hated myself for it, I couldn’t help the bitter jealousy twanging in my tone.
And Potter obviously picked up on it. Amber eyes darkening with sly understanding, the prat folded his arms across his broad chest and cocked a brow. “Excuse me for having a good time, Bennett. Though I wouldn't expect you to understand — 'good time' probably isn't a concept you're familiar with."
“Here we go,” Freddy muttered under his breath, but he was ignored by both of us.
I could already feel that familiar charge building between Potter and I, those dangerous sparks of intensity that danced and jumped inside our white-hot words. We were growing louder, angrier — and like a chemical reaction already underway, nothing could stop the explosion from reaching its inevitable conclusion.
“I— You — " I began, flustered at the accusation. "I know how to have a good time!"
“And I'm supposed to take your word for it? You, the only person in the 21st century still wearing a bandana?” The jeer in Potter’s tone made me want to scream. “Yeah, okay.”
“There’s nothing wrong with bandanas!”
“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 on self-conscious instinct. Potter’s eyes flickered with triumph, and I felt fury wrap itself tighter around my chest. Who was he to make me feel bad about my Nutella Hair™? Stupid prat.
“This whole night would have gone a lot smoother if I’d just driven home with Ryan instead," I grumbled. It was a low blow, but one that I knew would work — Potter's Gryffindor wouldn’t be able to resist the bait.
Sure enough, eyes flashing with volatility, Potter snapped back. “Yes, everything would be so much easier if Mr. Prince Charming could just 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.”
“Hidden agendas? He's not a super-villain, Potter. He's not going to kidnap me and tie me onto the town railroad tracks. You’re being ridiculous.”
“No, ridiculous is turning into a quivering pile of jelly every time Fisher so much as flashes his teeth at you.” Potter straightened stiffly and gave me an acidic once-over, the disdainful superiority in his gaze obvious. I felt my face flush.
“I do not!” And, in my defense, Ryan had very nice teeth.
(Potter had nice teeth as well, but you wouldn’t know it because he had a monthly quota of about two smiles. And you could forget about laughing. In the rare occasion that James Potter actually, genuinely laughed, the world came to a stop. CNN usually covered it.)
“Yeah, okay Bennett. We've all seen how you act around him. You get all... doe-eyed and trembly.” Potter’s voice was emphatic with disgust, his face twisted into a thoroughly grossed-out expression. “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!”
"How am I making it your business?"
"You just bloody are!"
“Hey, uh, you guys look like you're in the middle of something,” Freddy began tentatively from the doorway, which he had slowly been inching towards, like a scared animal, throughout the duration of this argument. “So I’m just gonna leave — “
“Stay,” Potter and I snapped in perfect unison, briefly whipping away from each other to glare at Fred. He whimpered.
I wheeled back to Potter, eyes narrowing into wrathful slits.
“You think that just because your last name’s Potter, you have some sort of get-out-of-jail-free pass, don't you?” I was being unfair — we all knew that Potter hated the special treatment he received 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. “You get to whittle your life away partying and drinking with no regard for others — “
Potter barked out a harsh laugh. His eyes, too, were flashing, his chest rising up and down rapidly like mine. “At least I have a life to whittle away. All you ever do is mope about and lecture people.”
“Then why bother with me, Potter?” I countered shrilly, throwing my hands in the air in frustration. “If I’m such a stick in the mud, why am I still here?”
Potter cocked his head to the side, hazel eyes tapering into slits. For a moment, it looked as if he were actually giving thought to the question. Then, left eyebrow arched, gaze laden with contempt, he snarled back: “I think everyone’s been asking themselves that very question, Bennett. Nobody wants you here. Just leave.”
Freddy sucked in a breath. I reared back, blanching, and the ensuing silence was earth-shattering.
My face was flushing hot with emotion — anger, embarrassment, hurt — and I knew I couldn’t stay 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 said flatly, anger lowered to a simmering, barely-suppressed level. “Maybe I will. I don't need to tolerate this.”
And with that, I strode past Potter and, almost from a detached point of view, felt myself walk numbly towards the door. My heartbeat thudded dully in my ears. Something about our arguing this time had felt different, more intense. There had been actual scorn in Potter's words, and I had felt actual hurt in response.
The prat didn’t even flinch as I walked past. He just stared resolutely ahead, gaze hardened and vexed, jaw tightly clenched.
The last thing I heard before I left the room and rounded into the hallway was Fred turning to Potter, his voice low with mingled awe and fear. "Shit, dude. I mean, I know you guys fight a lot, but... shit, dude.”
Well put, Freddy. 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 the cool, serene purple of dusk, and there was nothing but the peaceful hum of the dishwasher and the blue-white glow of the fridge to keep me company. It was soothing in an almost ethereal way.
Though I automatically feel at peace in any place with food. So.
Still in a half-daze, I rifled through the Potters' cabinets and grabbed a packet of Rejuvenating Tablets, making a mental note to give some 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 stop spinning. It was on a constant track, chugging over and over again on the mental treadmill of Potter’s words. As much as I wanted it all to just stop, I simply couldn't get him out of my head.
Before, I always used to suspect that Potter was like some sort of douchey, human version of a Cadbury egg. Hard on the outside but with a soft, sentimental middle — a sentimental middle that made him do nice things, such as pick me up off bathroom floors and get into fistfights on my behalf. Maybe he only acted like a jerk because he didn’t want to reveal that deep inside, he actually cared.
But I knew the truth now — Potter wasn’t some delicious, chocolaty Easter 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 on the surface, constantly battling 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 teenage hormones as well. No wonder things were so messy between us.
“Bennett.” Speak of the devil.
I turned around and shut off the water, which had been running the whole time without me noticing, making my glass overflow into the sink (yay for windy internal monologues!).
There stood Potter, leaning his side lazily against the doorframe, one agitated hand raked through his tousled hair and the other stuffed in his pocket. Somehow, I had known he'd come down here.
My eyes fluttered shut for a millisecond. Looking at him was physically hard. “What?”
Potter hesitated, pressing his lips together into a hard, reluctant line. It was obvious Freddy had sent him down to apologise, and it was obvious he did not want to in the slightest.
When he spoke, his voice was more hesitant than usual. “I’m not sorry, you know. About what I said.”
“No one’s asking you to be,” I replied curtly. The words came out colder than I meant them to. Great, already we were off to a good start.
“I just — you have no idea what it’s like. To be around you," Potter ventured carefully, his gaze heady and intense and imploring me to understand. But I wouldn't allow that to tempt me into forgiveness. He'd gone too far this time. He didn't deserve the satisfaction of a clear conscience.
“Actually, I think I do,” I shot back, bristling. What did he mean I had no idea "what it was like?" Who was he to talk to me like I was a kind of problem? A disease? I wasn’t some sodding bad habit he had to kick. I was a person.
“No, see, the thing is you don’t — “ He gritted out, stepping forward.
“You don’t get to say what I do and do not feel, Potter!” My voice hitched upwards an octave as frustration wormed its way into my chest. I slammed the glass on the counter behind me, ignoring the ensuing crack, and wheeled on him with furious eyes. 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 — all the while knowing I’m some sort of shameful secret of yours?”
“Again with the guilt! You have a special talent for making me feel like 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 brim.
“Please. Like anything I ever said could affect you.” My voice was low with bitterness, but I was speaking the truth. Mr. High and Mighty, with his position about a thousand social 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. “You're completely clueless — “ he began, voice low.
I almost laughed. “Yes, please, by all means, go ahead and patronize me! We both 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 Potter's response. “Right. Because everything that’s happened between us so far has been 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 as he drew back, expression flat and resigned like he thought I’d never understand. His guard was back up, that moment of weakness gone forever. “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 then leave you alone like you want.” I grabbed the glass and began to walk away, trying to resist the urge to shoot back 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 on his heel. He looked like he was trying to suppress a groan. “You shouldn't give Aidan a Rejuvenating Tablet, Bennett,” 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 me like the motion alone would somehow prove me right.
Potter's voice was heavy with weariness, the antagonism of our previous argument faded into tired surrender. “I’ve done this more times than you, Bennett.”
Irritation prickled up my spine. I still had some fight left in me and, for that matter, more sarcasm to dole out. “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, refusing to meet my caustic tone. “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 as he shoved his hands in his pockets, leaning calmly back on his heels. He looked 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 decision, you’re always conveniently around the corner.”
“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.
Potter shrugged in a clear 'suit-yourself' manner. Obviously, the point no longer mattered to him anymore. "When he wakes up with a killer hangover tomorrow, I’ll be sure to have him thank you.”
“Whatever.” I hated how he could make me feel like this, like I was losing even after I’d won. Without another backwards glance, I left the kitchen, packet of tablets clutched firmly in hand.
My anger completely dissolved, 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, having generously 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 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 so alone right now.
God, what was with me and these angsty thoughts? I needed some chocolate, ASAP. An IV bag of Hershey's straight to the veins — the situation called for it.
“Howdy,” I greeted, and Fred perked up instantly.
“Food?” He asked, eyes filled with puppy dog hope.
“No, sorry. 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 clammy forehead. 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 thirteen-year-old after her first beer.” Fred shook his head fondly. “They never learn, do they?”
Despite the humor in his voice, Freddy looked close to collapsing. He was leaning against the wall, making a clear effort to keep his eyelids from drooping. 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 inside 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 terribly tempting. Aidan would be alright with Fred by his side, wouldn't he? Yeah. Besides, there wasn't much left for me to do except check on him in the morning. 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's king-sized bed. The lush comforter. The squishy pillows. The cool sheets —
Yeah, I needed to go to bed.
“Alright,” I agreed uneasily. Fred gave a lazy salute from where he was sitting, and I took that as my cue. Swiveling around without another word, I left the room.
The minute I crawled under the covers of the Potters' king-sized bed, sleep gripped me instantly.
“Good morning, sweetheart! Rise and shine!”
I screwed my eyes tightly shut, rolling over in silent protest to the strangely familiar voice trying to rouse me from sleep. There were two very wrong things about the current situation. One: the fact that someone apparently had a death wish and was trying to wake me up on a fucking school holiday morning. And two: the usage of the word ‘sweetheart.’
Because nobody ever called me sweetheart. Nobody I knew was that devastatingly stupid.
Except one person.
Debbie. My stepmum.
But no — Debbie couldn’t be here right now, could she? I mean, unless my old theory about her moon-lighting as the Grim Reaper turned out to be true and she was secretly omniscient, there was no way she'd have known I'd be living here over the break.
“Sweetheart! You better wake up! Put on your happy face and get ready to take on the morning!”
Oh god. There was only one adult in my life who still talked like she was in first grade. That voice definitely belonged to Debbie. And I would know, seeing as I'd had to put up with it ever since she married my father when Aidan and I were seven. The very tone was enough to have my armhair standing on end.
My brother and I had hated Debbie from the first time she took away our cookies and gave us bags of baby carrots instead. Because of her crazy, controlling nature, we had bestowed upon her the affectionate nickname 'Debbie the Dictator.' She had two kids from a previous marriage: Awful and Crazy (Austin and Casey) who were both at the lovely age in which the world looks like a giant chew toy. (Do not believe their cute angelic faces. They’re both evil. I have the bitemarks to prove it.) Together with my father, the lot of them were just the perfect (dis)functional family.
"Sweetheart! Wakey wakey! We don't want to waste the day away, now do we?"
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 before me, wearing her usual get-up of all pink clothing, butter blonde hair and a botox-ed smile that made her face look like it was about to break. Oh, and let us not forget the crazy eyes. How I had missed those crazy eyes. The way they made my skin break out in goosebumps... The horror movie soundtrack I would hear in my head everytime I looked into them... Good memories with those crazy eyes.
Debbie was peering into my face, getting way too close for comfort, and I briefly wondered if she could smell my morning breath. Not that it mattered. Her sense of smell had probably been damaged permanently by all the needles she'd stuck into her face, pumping botox and beauty potions and the blood of virgins to keep her young.
She was wearing some cotton candy-colored furry vest, and in my bleary, half-asleep state, all I could think was that she resembled 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 stepmother 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, Debbie gave an annoyingly loud 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!”
"Good for Ginny. Ten points to Gryffindor," I grunted into my pillow. This could not be happening. I was dreaming. “Now please go away."
Debbie tutted. “Not until you get up, Agatha. We have a lot of work to do, and the sun won't shine all day!”
I turned around to level my stepmum with one of my classic, did-you-just-suffer-a-giant-braincell-massacre stares.
“Deborah," I bit out. "The sun does shine all day. 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," she prattled on, pointy pink talons fanning out to smooth down my bedspread. "There's no time for arguing with me on this — we have a lot to do. I pulled some strings at my old PR firm and managed to arrange a local press conference for you. Isn't that exciting? 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 like Voldemort calling Hitler a bully. “And you have no idea how many newspapers and talk shows want to get a hold of this!” With that, Debbie 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 hand away and rubbed furiously at my face, wincing in pain. Jesus. Did Debbie glue knives onto her fingers every morning? “Well I'm sorry, but I can't go. I have to look after Aidan this morning. He...uh, hasn't been feeling well." I smirked, grateful that I had a good-to-go excuse to stay home. Thank Merlin for hangovers and creepy Hufflepuff fan-girls.
Debbie smiled, baring all her teeth in a saccharine manner that was, quite honestly, terrifying. "Oh, that's not necessary, Agatha. I spoke to Ginny and she said 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! Even your father thinks so!"
I stared at my stepmum, open-mouthed, brain frantically scrambling for a rebuttal. "Why isn’t dad here then, if this is so important?”
“He’s busy working.” 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!”
My unenthusiastic gaze followed Debbie’s grand, sweeping 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 matching Chihuahua. Furry vest included.
Oh hell no.
This was going to be a long day.
Press conferences suck.
You're battered with useless, nonsensical questions. All the reporters have their fingers super-glued to the shutter buttons on their cameras. There are constantly flashes going off at random, blinding intervals and making you squawk unattractively in the middle of your sentence.
And there is no dramatic gasping whatsoever. You know how in the movies, whenever the athletes and politicians reveal something scandalous, the whole room breaks out into a collective dramatic gasp? Yeah, when I admitted that I’d almost been hit by the Killing Curse at the Ministry, all I got was the sound of scribbling and some bored nodding.
I swear, forcing me to go to this conference was the worst thing Debbie has ever done to me. And we're talking about the women who once tried to pluck my eyebrows while I was sleeping.
I fidgeted at the long table where I sat facing the herd of reporters in front of me, conscious of Debbie’s death grip on my arm. Ow. Those nails should be considered weapons. They were a hazard — Debbie probably had to take them off everytime she tried to tie her shoes or go through a security line at an airport.
Life must be hard for Debbie. I should remember to have some sympathy.
Or, you know, not.
“Ms. Bennett, how were you feeling during the incident at the Ministry?” I glanced up to see a snide man in a toupee staring intently at me, his quill poised over notebook. My stomach twisted unpleasantly. “Were you scared? Frightened?”
I grimaced. Was this guy for real? Oh, yeah, I just absolutely adored high-speed chases through government buildings. They were a favorite pastime of mine, actually, along with watching paint dry and repeatedly banging my shin against coffee tables.
Debbie seemed to have caught the look on my face, however, because her grip on my elbow tightened and I suddenly felt all blood circulation in my arm freeze.
“No sarcasm,” she hissed maliciously into my ear.
"I’m losing feeling in my hand,” I shot back, giving an imperceptible jerk to shake off her talons. My fingers were turning purple. The doctors would probably have to amputate.
Regardless, I relented and, sighing, swallowed the snark that had been bubbling up my throat.
“I was very frightened at the time, but now I’m just thankful to be alive,” I droned in a flat voice, just like how Debbie and I had practiced in the car. From where she sat primly next to me, my stepmother simpered in approval.
The reporters all nodded furiously, looking like they’d just received the word of God as they scribbled frantically away. I stifled an eye-roll and steeled myself for the next question.
“Ms. Bennett, it has come to the public’s attention that you are now staying with the Potters. What's it like to be around one of the wizarding world’s most famous families?”
As I stared into the camera lenses and the empty eyes of reporters, my mind went blank. I suddenly became very aware of the bored-looking TV guy across the room, manning a camera that would film this entire interview and send it to every Wiz-Telly in Britain. Anything I said would be recorded, distributed, and persevered in the annals of time forever.
Even though I knew now would probably be the best time to express my never-ending, gushing gratitude for the kind souls 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.
I decided to elaborate. “I mean, the pillows are...erm, squishy.”
Squishy? Squishy? I was currently giving what would be one of the most televised press conferences of the year, and the only adjective I could come up with was the word SQUISHY?
It was official. My brain had rebelled against me.
Debbie looked positively stricken. If there was one good thing coming out of this, at least I was getting the opportunity to raise her blood pressure a couple notches.
“Agatha, does it scare you to know that the culprits from the Ministry have escaped, and now may be out to find you?” A reporter from Witch Weekly called out, eyes gleaming with something ravenous and mean. 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 and stumbling damsel in distress.
Well, might as well give the people what they wanted, eh? “I am a little scared by one of the men. He was... intimidating.”
How so? Um, try the fact that he had been trying to kill me at the time? Or that he probably could have crushed me with his pinkie finger? He had been 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 decided to go Ice Age on this bitch. Perfect.
Unsurprisingly, this elected chuckles and some confused murmuring from a couple of the reporters. I was being completely serious, however. This Death Eater — Barnes, I believed he was called — had been scary. I remember lying on the ground and seeing his hairy ankle, and that tattoo of two diamonds etched on his skin. I'd tried to tell the Aurors about the tattoo, but they’d just brushed me off and reassured me that everything would be fine. 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.
My hysteria died quickly, however, when I looked around and saw that everyone was staring at me with wide, perplexed eyes. Debbie seemed to be going into the first stages of cardiac arrest. I cleared my throat.
“Erm, no. I don’t have a boyfriend.” Gee, and I always wondered why.
The reporter smirked. “But surely such a charming trendsetter like you must have someone?” Trendsetter? 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 currently suffering from a mental lapse. Then I glanced at Debbie, who looked like she'd probably be in need of medical attention any moment now. Then I looked at all the paparazzi clustered in front of me, gathered here under the pretense of asking 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 as we pulled into the driveway of the Potter household. Not even attempting to dignify her hysteria with a response, I leaped out of the car the second the engine cut and slammed the door firmly shut behind me.
Debbie followed suit, jabbing the lock button on her car keys with a fearfully pointy nail and marching around the car towards me.
I did my best to ignore her, too relieved to be home to even bother with any kind of stepmotherly disapproval, but her righteous indignation still grated on my nerves.
I mean, I’d survived the conference without having a mental breakdown. Twice, I'd contemplated jumping on the table and tearing out my hair 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 had point-blank refused the furry vest.
It was a skimpy and short thing, and my knees were knocking in the frigid January weather. Earlier on, Debbie had offered me a matching coat, but I'd declined to put it on before we left. Call it pride or self-inflicted punishment or whatever you'd like, but I didn't want to accept any more of her hand-outs.
"Your father and I worked very hard to organize that press conference so you could come across as likeable for a change, and you've ruined it all!" Debbie cried shrilly, gesticulating wildly so that her hair became a fanning mass of curls behind her. Her whining was comparable to a tragic Italian opera, if you replaced all the tenors in an Italian opera with chipmunks on helium. I just wanted it to end.
“Guess I’m just not a very likeable person then! My bad!” I snarled, swishing around towards the door. “See you later, Deborah.”
I started walking, ignoring Deborah's calls for me to wait as I marched up the stone path to the Potters' front door. I was being petty, I knew, but I couldn’t resist. The anger had taken over again, shortening my breath, clawing under my skin. I couldn't look at Debbie without feeling the need to scream.
“You wait here, young lady! I am not finished with you!”
I stopped my stomping, breath coming out in agitated clouds in front of me, and tried my best to reign in my irritation.
“I'm not a child, Deborah,” I growled to the empty air in front of me, forcing the calm into my voice. I refused to turn around. “And I’m not your responsibility.”
Debbie gave a sharp huff 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 was enough! Nobody touched my Nutella Hair™! I whipped around, chest heaving, and tried to grapple for the right words but ultimately failed to find them. All I wanted right now was for her to just leave me alone.
Debbie smiled a sickly sweet smile. “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 the gleam of triumph in her eyes, or even the fact that I'd just suffered a two-hour long televised Inquisition. No, it was the word sweetheart. I just... I couldn’t stand it anymore. 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, forming the 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, after a long and arduous struggle with botox, had finally managed to achieve expression for once. It would have been hilarious if I wasn’t so angry.
“I don’t want you here!" I was shrieking vehemently. "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 reared back, stilettos scuttling across the frozen ground, overly-glossed lips drooping into a surprised ‘o’ shape. “Agatha, I was only trying to help — “
“HELP?” I gave a laugh that came across as slightly unhinged. My skin was fluttering with goosebumps on account of the January cold, but I still felt strangely hot. “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 starting to sparkle with tears, but I couldn’t take back my words. In the deep recesses of my brain, I fleetingly wondered if screaming at my stepmum in the middle of James Potter's front lawn fell under the category of ‘mature.'
Then again, I was finally sticking up for myself. These thoughts had been festering inside me for the past eight years, making each interaction with my father and Debbie increasingly difficult. I had allowed my stepmum to condescend her way through my life — lecture after lecture about how I wasn’t lady-like enough, how my mother was a bad influence and my brother a troublemaker — never uttering a single word. I had always taken her berating without complaint.
But not now.
Now it was finally out in the open, that which my 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 did 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 had 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, after getting married so young, he and my mum could no longer relate to one another. They had changed too much, my mum's free spirit, new-age personality unable to comprehend the newfound 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 had wanted all along in Deborah, and that was that.
Nobody had breathed a word about it, not at any of the family reunions, special occasions, work promotion parties or backyard barbecues. And now here I was, standing in the snow in a ridiculous blue dress, shouting it out loud for the world to hear.
For a long moment, neither of us spoke. My breath shivered silver in front of me, my skin glazed orange in the bloated setting sun. The sky above was a coagulation of colours, pink and purple blotches that glowed in the icy light of winter. Behind me, my dark shadow stretched out unnaturally long. The silence was thunderous.
Debbie had her hand over her mouth. She was crying.
“I’m sorry,” I finally said, quietly, as I stared at her crumpled face. She was very petite, I realized. Pretty, too, if it weren't for all the blonde dye and gooey make-up. “I know you were trying to help, and that you want to be a part of my life, but... I just can’t be around you. It’s too much of a betrayal to my family. My mum.”
I suddenly found myself incapable of meeting Debbie's eyes. Her pitiful expression, her defeated posture — it was all too much. I felt the pressing, urgent need to leave, to turn around without another word.
Head spinning, I made to go and set off for the house.
...And that was when I spotted James Potter standing inside the open doorway of the Potter mansion. He was carrying a stack of mail, which he must have come outside to get, but he wasn't looking at the envelopes. He was looking at me, faint surprise visible in the features of his obnoxiously handsome face. He had heard the whole thing.
The last thing I wanted to do right now was interact with Potter, of all people, especially given our intense argument last night. But there was no where else to go. Stuck between him and Debbie, I started walking towards the house.
Keeping my eyes trained steadily on the ground, I trudged up the pathway without another word and clambered up the frontstep. I directed my gaze anywhere but at Potter as I pushed past him and into the warm darkness of the house.
Ugh — how was it that he always managed to catch me at my lowest points? Did he have a bloody radar or something?
Please don't come in, please don't come in, please don't come in, a voice inside my head was furiously chanting. But of course, Potter followed me inside, giving a stiff, somewhat-awkward wave to Deborah before he swung the door shut behind us.
Though to be fair, what else could he have done? Stay outside and have a nice little chat with my stepmum? Invite her in for tea? No thanks.
I winced at the sound of the door slam, my face pinkening quite noticeably. I could feel Potter's eyes boring curiously into the back of my head. I refused to turn around, not knowing what Potter could possibly be thinking after such a display of emotion on my part.
"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 neutrally, words light and innocent. I was turned around so I couldn't see his expression, but my shoulders stiffened all the same.
“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.
"I didn't say anything," Potter replied simply as he began to, annoyingly enough, follow me up. His knowing, barely-restrained air of 'I-told-you-so' was so infuriating. I could already feel him judging me, and by the time we reached the landing where both our rooms were, I was close to exploding.
I finally snapped when we reached my bedroom door, wheeling on Potter in the hallway with eyes burning in harsh exasperation. “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 backwards, allowing me to push him, silent and unusually passive. I knew that he could easily hold his ground against me. Usually, one of my shoves wasn't enough to make him budge an inch. But now...
“What?” I bit out finally, stepping so close to Potter that we were almost nose to nose. I was gettin' all up in his grill and he was just looking at me coolly, eyes scanning my face. Untouchable. Unshakeable.
I stepped forward, seething. I needed to show Potter that I wasn’t scared. Not of Debbie, not of the Ministry attacks, and 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 gold — 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 for a second, he hooked a finger around a strand of my hair and twisted 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 giving way to surprise. “I liked it better red.”
“Liked it?” My voice was reedy with hysteria as I grappled to regain control. This wasn’t how the game was supposed to be played. Potter was messing everything up, refusing to follow the script, refusing to get mad. “Since when have you ever liked anything about me?”
Silence. Again. Just those eyes, searing into my skin, making me feel so naked.
“Since when do you care?” I added, but the words didn’t come out as aggressive as I meant them to. My voice crawled out of my throat in a dry, barely audible whisper.
Potter was close enough to hear, though, close enough to read the words in my eyes. “I don’t.”
It made me mad how in control of the situation he was. He was so unnaturally calm and unflappable. I wanted to get under his skin and make him feel uncomfortable. I wanted 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 shudder with crystalline sharpness. The situation felt oddly reminiscent of that night in the Astronomy Tower, when Potter had cornered me and made me feel so helpless. Now I would flip the tables on him.
“Kiss me,” I demanded matter-of-factly, unable to tear my gaze away. “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 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 couple heartbeats He'd treat me like any other dispensable 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, apparently unsurprised by this request, his eyes narrowed and dark and inscrutable 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.
After what seemed like an eternity of silence, I finally scoffed and pulled away, breaking that familiar spell between us. It was over. The game was over, and I had won.
“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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