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Clash by shenanigan
Chapter 40 : Sugarcoat
 
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 72


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Ever been stuck in a broom cupboard?

It's not fun.

Ever been stuck in a broom cupboard with four other people who all hate each other?

It’s extra not fun.

In fact, it's like the opposite of fun. It’s unfun. Which sounds like funyuns. Which is ironic, because funyuns are delicious and tasty and this situation is not.

Aidan, Potter, Dom, Fred and I had hastily left the party to gather in one of Hogwarts’s many cupboards and host an emergency family meeting of sorts. While the locale wasn't ideal, it was at least a place far away from the curious eyes of the school's gossips.

And, to be honest, we couldn't afford to be picky at this point. Given what we were all facing right now, the time had arrived to hash things out. We needed to set our differences aside, put our heads together and try to come up with a solution to this a major disaster. Also, Freddy had a lot of explaining to do.

I mean, honestly, who did that? Who in their right mind would just walk into a room and make that kind of dramatic declaration — without any preface or sugarcoating whatsoever, without warning, without even a measley ‘I have some bad news’ or ‘Oh hey, guys, you might want to sit down for this, because I’m about to punch you in the face with the fist of truth?

Seriously. I sincerely hoped that Fred would never be obligated to break the news of a death in the future, because chances are he’d just be like, "Hey, could you pass the salt? Oh, by the way, your uncle’s dead.”

To make matters worse, Dominique had launched into the freak out to end all freak outs. Granted, her ranting paroxysms were understandable — she had just heard that her cousin had been expelled after all. I sympathised with Dom, and even Potter to an extent. But more hysterics were the last thing we needed right now.

“How COULD YOU, Freddy? Do you know what’s going to happen when people start finding out about this? Your mum is going to kill you! And then Nana Molly’s going to kill your mum for killing you! And then your dad's going to kill Nana Molly, and then there's going to be mass Weasley murder-spree and everyone will kill everyone, and it'll all be your fault, you... you Nana-murderer!”

Introducing: Dom Weasley and the art of supporting a loved one.

Take notes, kids.

Freddy, not even glancing at Dom to show he'd heard her, plunked himself down on a random upside-down mop bucket and — covering his face with his hands — began to make a very peculiar noise. It could only be described as a cross between a kettle whistle and an angry cat, and it was commonly known among our group as the Fred Weasley Distress Call.

We had only heard this call two times in the past, in which other very dire circumstances had caused Fred to spiral into a breakdown: July of 2014, when the Chudley Canon’s Seeker lost the snitch during the Quidditch Cup, and another time two years later, when Freddy found out that Honeydukes was discontinuing their line of bacon-flavoured chocolate.

Both times, the sound had been just as disturbing.

“Dominique, stop it.” Potter seemed only mildly annoyed that Dom had rendered Fred into nothing more than a human smoke alarm. He crouched down, snapping his fingers in front of the bloke's face, voice calm and authoritative. “Fred, you need to focus. Come on, Fred, you need to — damnit, Dom, you’ve broken him!”

“Nice going,” Aidan sneered unhelpfully from behind us, scorn in every syllable.

“No one asked for your opinion!” Dom snapped back shrilly, and I grimaced at the realization that the hostility between these two obviously still hadn't dissipated. We had come together to fix this mess, but it looked like we were all about to descend into bickermania instead.

And sure enough: “I have the right to say what I want, Dom!”

“Not when it’s something stupid and unhelpful! You’re making this crisis worse!”

“Um, you’re the one who told Freddy that his grandmother was going to die because of him!”

“Oh just shut it, will you?”

“Good comeback. Did you think of that one all by yourself?!”

As Dom and Aidan continued to hurl unpleasantries at each other, I whipped around to face Potter, my eyebrows drawn together with desperation. He was still bent over Freddy, looking at his cousin with a combination of concern and wariness tugging at his expression.

“Potter!” I blurted out helplessly.

“What?” Potter straightened slowly and turned to me. He raked a frustrated hand through his hair, mouth quirked in a way that suggested he'd given up on the situation.

“Do something!” I hissed tersely, gesturing to Dom and Aidan. I was one foot-stomp away from sounding like a petulant child.

“Could you specify what, exactly, you want me to do?” Potter said snarkily, and my face darkened dangerously. How could the prat be acting so blasé about this whole thing? Our entire friend group was at each other's throats, and literally every bad possible thing that could be happening, was happing. Expulsions. Drunken fights. Secret relationships.

This situation sucked. It sucked so bad, in fact, all the suckage seemed to be acting like a suckage magnet, attracting more suckage to the point where we were in danger of all the suckage growing too dense and collapsing into itself in a suckage black hole.

And Potter was doing nothing.

“How are you being so calm about this?!” I basically shrieked, my mood veering from panic into anger. Potter was faffing about like an idiot when, meanwhile, we'd lost all control, Fred was no longer legally allowed to attend school, and Aidan and Dom were doing a fantastic impression of a National Geographic special I once saw about angry hyenas and territory fights.

“Potter, you have four seconds to fix this,” I growled, teeth gritted with forced patience. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I recognized that it might be a smidge unfair of me to dump the responsibility on him, but he was much more of a leader than I. Calm, cool, composed — if anyone could find a solution to this, it would be Potter.

But he only shrugged, posture weary. “Just let them fight, Bennett — they’ll tire out eventually.”

“Are you kidding me?" I spat, incensed. "Humans will have colonized Mars by that time!”

Dom and Aidan were now nose to nose and shouting incomprehensibly at each other. Meanwhile, Freddy seemed to have lapsed into a catatonic state, sitting still on his bucket with his face in his hands, taking no notice of the lovers’ quarrel ranging on behind him. And through all of this, Potter was silent, his gaze mingling resignation and skepticism.

“That’s it — I can't take any more of this!” My brother suddenly exclaimed, and I turned from Potter to face him, surprised. For once, there had been raw emotion throbbing in Aidan's voice. It was hoarse and strident and hurt, and that was what made all of us, even Dom, take notice.

Aidan sucked in a shaky breath, his face paling, and let his arms fall to his sides. "I can't , Dom," he said softly, the tone a remarkable change from his earlier scorn. He sounded wounded — vulnerable, almost. "All this fighting and lying is exhausting. We're on, we're off, then we're on again! Its an emotional rollercoaster with you and — and it's not healthy. I'm not going to put either of us through these stupid games anymore. I'm sorry but I can't be around you. I don't think we should see each other or — or speak to each other again."

"What — " Dom began, tone a combination of shock and faltering anger.

But my brother simply shook his head, and there was such ferocity in the movement that she snapped her mouth shut.

"Aidan," I blurted, unable to comprehend what had just happened. Was my brother really severing all his ties with Dom? Just like that? The two had always been a fan of dramatic, sweeping proclamations — the number of times they had each vowed to never see each other again was exceeded only by the number of times they eventually repented and came back together — but Aidan had sounded deadly, deadly serious this time.

"Save it, Agatha." Aidan was looking anywhere but at me. His voice seemed to come from very, very far away. "I've made my decision. This is what's best."

And then, without acknowledging the shocked silence in the room, he crossed the cupboard in two sweeping steps and swung open the door.

He was gone in a flash, turning around the corner and letting the door slam in our ears.

Mouth agape, I snapped my gaze to a shell-shocked Dom. She was standing, staring at some spot in the wall in front of her, face betraying her inability to process any of what had happened. Aidan's words, the fresh empty space in the room — none of us understood it.

The anger had long faded from Dom's face, her wintergreen eyes round and blinking with something suspiciously like vulnerability.

And then — she gasped out loud, chest heaving in a strangled sob that made Potter wince — and without another word, she opened the door and strode out at well.

And just like that, Potter, Fred and I stood by and witnessed everything — all the history and memories — between those two crumble into nothing. Inonly a matter of ten minutes and a few choice words. Just like that.

There was silence pounding in the broom cupboard. I suddenly realized that I had my mouth ajar like an idiot.

Fred, still hunched over on his bucket, had not reacted in the slightest to any part of this fiasco. His face was in his hands, his eyebrows scrunched in a way that made me want to smooth my thumb over his forehead. He was evidently enmeshed in his own private word, too oblivious to pay attention to what was going on around him. It was probably for the best.

It was like a law of the universe that, whenever the level of unhappiness in a room got too high, someone like Freddy just automatically had to shut down. It was a sort of defense mechanism. A personality like his just couldn't exist in the same dimension as all that anger and hurt.

“Well.” Potter finally broke the deadly silence. There were no traces of emotion or shock in his gaze — just flat reality. “I should probably go follow Aidan. You know, make sure he doesn’t try and wander off the roof of the Astronomy Tower or anything.”

I stared at him, knowing full well that my expression looked like that of a helpless puppy. “You’re leaving me?” I croaked, hating myself for the pleading tone in my voice. “With this mess?”

Our eyes flitted to Fred’s sad, slouched figure. He still wasn’t moving.

“What about Freddy?” I whispered, fear shadowing my voice.

“What about Aidan? What about Dom?” Potter countered, one pointed eyebrow raised. “They’re just as emotionally compromised as he is right now. And just as prone to doing something stupid.”

I paused, remembering the time in Fourth Year when Aidan, after a particularly bad fight with Dom, tried to adopt a Blast-Ended Skrewt as his pet. Four people ended up hospitalized with third degree burns.

I swallowed hard, rubbing my hands slowly down my face. As much as I hated to admit it, Potter wasn’t entirely wrong. Dom and Aidan were so wrapped up in their own problems, they’d be of no help with the Freddy issue. In fact, the best we could hope from them right now was that they didn't act out and somehow land in Vespertine’s office. If we managed to get through the day with only one expulsion, I'd consider it a success.

“Potter?” My voice sounded strangely meek, even to my own ears. I couldn’t bring myself to lift my face to meet his gaze, so instead I dedicated my attention to staring at the glittering flecks of dust drifting through the drowsy air.

"Yeah?" He turned to face me head-on. There was no snark in his face, no condescension. He actually looked mildly interested in what I had to say.

“Why are we friends with crazy people?” I asked, matter-of-fact. It was a genuine question, and I glanced up to search Potter’s indecipherable face for an answer.

He just shrugged. “None of the normal ones will hang out with us."

I casted a glance over my shoulder at Freddy — still no sign of life. His head was in his hands, his mind somewhere far away, somewhere unreachable.

It was finally starting to hit me, how spectacularly and rapidly everything had just collapsed. Aidan was gone. Dom was gone. Evelyn was gone. Freddy was going. It was kind of impressive, how epically we had managed to destroy ourselves in so short a time. In just one quick day, our metaphorically cookie of friendship had metaphorically crumbled.

Potter cleared his throat. He was leaning his side against the doorframe, arms crossed, looking vaguely uncomfortable. He had obviously sensed my internal anguish and, rubbing the back of his neck, made a half-hearted effort to alleviate it.

“You couldn’t have done anything, you know,” Potter said lowly, ever the practical one. His bright eyes refused to betray any hint of feeling, any indication of what he might be thinking. “Everything would have played out like this anyway.”

“Not if you’d just helped in the first place," I grumbled, unable to help myself. I was at my breaking point right now. “How can you be so calm? Do you not care at all?”

Frustration flickered across Potter’s face. For a moment, it seemed like he would open his mouth to say something condescending, to entangle us in another argument. But then I guess he thought better of it as he snapped his mouth shut and turned away. Just as well — our ‘Designated Bickering Couple’ role in the group had been usurped by Dom and Aidan.

Oh Merlin.

Aidan and Dom were the new Potter and me.

Bloody hell.

I bit down on my lip, feeling like the minute the ridiculousness of this situation wore off, I would burst into tears. “Just go, Potter. I’ll take care of Freddy.”

Potter must have noticed the tremble in my voice, though, because he seemed to stiffen a little, the annoyance gone from his face.

“I’ll stay,” he offered not unkindly, and I couldn’t tell if the gesture was serious or not. “Aidan and Dom can take care of themselves. Worse comes to worse they commit a few acts of arson, possibly a murder or two. They’ll be fine.”

Despite his words, there was no derision in Potter's tone. His eyes were soft as he stepped forward, shrugging casually, offer sincere. He was willing to help, I realized. Help me — the one who always had to clean up after everyone else, the one who was usually stuck on damage-control as her friends thrashed through life without any worry for consequences.

But this time, I wasn’t alone.

I stepped forward too, my breath hitching. Then, in a movement that under no circumstances had been previously approved by my brain, I placed my hand on Potter’s arm.

His eyes immediately flicked down to the spot where I'd touched him, gaze turning serious. Slowly, wordlessly he looked up to meet my gaze. For a moment, it seemed as if we were the only ones in this cramped room, and I couldn’t help but think about the last time Potter and I were in a broom cupboard together, after the ill-fated RoR party when Potter had fought Cooper for me. How intimate that moment had been. How closer we were now.

Chewing on the inside of my cheek, I spoke quietly: “What’s going to happen, Potter? What are we going to do after all of this?”

He blinked and, taking notice of the chips of jade green in Potter's eyes, I felt myself flush in a sudden surge of heady heat. Already I was feeling dizzy from just our sheer proximity alone. James Potter was like half-boy, half-cocaine. He had a physical effect on me, and when I got too near, I couldn’t be responsible for what I did or said under his influence.

“We keep going,” Potter said simply. “And we’ll be alright.”

“I have two friends out there who are close to qualifying for suicide-watch, and one friend in here who’s being as responsive as a particularly shy carrot,” I responded fiercely, shaking my head as I snapped myself back into clarity. I dropped my hand. “We’re not going to be okay, Potter.”

“Look, Bennett, the last thing we need is for you to freak out too.” Potter rationalized carefully, taking an step back as he shoved his hands into his pockets. “Just sit tight while I go look for Dom and Aidan, okay?”

He glanced at my face to gauge my expression, waiting cautiously for an answer. After weighing the pros and cons of having Potter abandon me (Pro: we would no longer be crammed together in dangerously close proximity in a tight space. Con: we would no longer be crammed together in dangerously close proximity in a tight space), I nodded.

“Okay,” I said. "Just come back soon."

After the door was safely shut behind Potter's retreating form, I collapsed onto one of the many overturned buckets littering the cupboard, my head swimming in delirium. I was in Fifth Year, for god’s sakes. The OWLs year, one of the toughest academic periods of my life, and yet my friends were still managing to stress me out more than my schoolwork.

“You’ve got to keep them together, Aggs.”

I jolted at the sound of Fred’s voice, my heart almost leaping out of my chest in surprise. He’d been quiet for so long, I’d forgotten he was in the cupboard in the first place.

"What was that, Fred?" I scooted forward, my bucket scraping against the stone floor.

Fred was still crouched over, his elbows on his knees, but his face was turned towards me and his gaze was determined.

"Fred?” I repeated softly, daring to brush my fingers against his shoulder. It was an instinctive, protective motion, one that I didn’t even have to think about.

“You’ve got to keep them together,” Fred repeated slowly, enunciating each syllable with unusual seriousness. “When I leave, you have to make sure our group stays intact. Otherwise, none of us will have any hope of getting through this year alive.”

“Okay,” I drew out the word, giving a nervous huff of laughter. “That sounds a little extreme. I don't think it's quite a matter of life or death, Fred."

Fred shook his head with vigor, suddenly reaching out to grab onto my chin. I stiffened at his firm grip. “I’m serious, Agatha. You’re going to have to be the glue that holds it all together.”

I stared at him for a minute, my resolve wavering, debating whether or not to indulge in his dramatics. And then shaking my head, my voice trembling ever so slightly, I mumbled: “But I don't know how.”

Fred, exasperated, dropped the hand holding my chin. “Look, Aggy, I know you’re basically the Group Mum already, and that's an exhausting gig, but they’re going to need you now more than ever. Promise me you’ll take care of them. Aidan, Dom, James — everyone.”

“Freddy...” I began.

“Promise.”

I sighed. “Fine.”

“Not good enough." Fred shot me an admonishing glare. "You have to say it out loud. With conviction.”

My gaze flattened. “Really? Do you also want me to pinky-swear too? Sign a contract in my own blood?”

“Aggy."

Fine," I snapped. "I solemnly swear I will not let our friends kill, maim and/or injure each other while you are gone. Satisfied?”

Apparently so. Fred smiled grimly, turned away and, effectively signaling that the conversation was over, assumed his previous Mope Position.

There was silence, and I waited a gracious five minutes before asking the question that’d been picking at the back of the brain ever since Freddy had given his fateful announcement. Dread seemed to coat the lining of my stomach, and I was almost afraid of the answer, but I had to ask anyway.

“Fred...” I began hesitantly, quietly. “Are they — are they going to break your wand?” It was a Hogwarts custom, one that’d been outdated and defamed for years, but it was still in effect to this very day. I just couldn’t bring myself to think of Freddy without a wand — without magic.

He exhaled slowly, dropping his head. “No. No, I’m not officially expelled. Vespertine called it an ‘indefinite suspension,’ which just means I’m suspended forever, basically, but — ”

“ — it’s essentially the same thing,” I finished for him, partly so I could hear myself say it, and partly so he didn't have to. “Freddy, I am so, so sorry. It’s not fair what they did to you. It was a harmless prank! Vespertine must be off her rocker — I can try talking to her, if you want. I don’t have much influence but I’m a prefect and — ”

“No.” Fred swiped his hand over his face, rubbing fiercely at his eyes. “I’m not gonna let you fight my battles, Aggs.” Gryffindor Alert. “Besides, I need the time to think. Figure out a way to fix what I screwed up with Evelyn..." He trailed off into a breathless laugh, shaking his head. “Fuck.”

I leant forward, chocolate strands of hair swinging through the air, a frown creasing my brow. I hated seeing him like this. “What happened between you guys? You were so happy a couple days ago.”

Fred’s lips folded into an invisible line. “I don’t know,” he grunted. “She found out about the Cooper Prank, and now she doesn't ever want to talk to me. She's been avoiding me like hell.” His mouth twisted wryly. “Guess I just made the job a whole lot easier for her.”

“Don’t talk like that, Freds.” I was being uncannily firm, my words weighted with actual confidence, with passion. “We’re going to get you back here. Vespertine won't get away with this. Someone will appeal — your parents, a professor — someone’s going to make it right.“

Fred stared at me for a long, unbearable moment, eyes wide with anguish. I glared back, expecting him to put up a fight, my next few words dangling on the tip of my tongue.

“Okay,” Freddy whispered, trust shining in his face, and I deflated. In that moment, I could see just how scared he truly was. Despite the Class Clown title and the happy-go-lucky attitude and the fact that he was a sodding teenage boy who was supposed to stay strong, deep down, Freddy was scared out of his wits. So was I, for that matter. “I just hope it’s soon because I leave tomorrow morning, Aggy. And I don’t think I’m ready.”

“I know,” I whispered back, and the air seemed to shiver with the truth of it all. “None of us are.”

—*—

Freddy left quietly, without any sort of commotion whatsoever, at six in the morning the next day. We stood outside with him, huddled together as his carriage waited patiently by the gates.

“Maybe a suspension’s not too bad,” Dom offered in a dull, deadened attempt at cheeriness, shivering in her coat. “On the bright-side, you’ll get to watch a lot of TV.”

Fred threw his cousin a withering look which, unfortunately, only seemed to encourage her. Dom’s habit of rambling whenever she was in uncomfortable emotional situations could be endearing... But only in times when no one was around to hear her or, you know, she was surrounded by deaf people. Other than that, it was just awful.

Example: “Didn’t your dad get expelled as well? Good on you for carrying out the family tradition!”

“Dom,” Potter warned, at the same time Aidan sneeringly mumbled, “Nice one.” I turned to give my brother a cautionary look, but he was too busy kicking the snowy ground to notice that a glare had attempted to penetrate his Teenaged Angsty Bubble of Teenage Angst.

Dom, meanwhile, was ignoring everybody else as she prattled on nervously. “I mean, do you see Harry fucking Potter graduating and getting a Hogwarts’ degree? Hells no! That’s because he’s Harry fucking Potter and education is wack, yo!”

“Dom?”

“Yes?”

“Please shut up,” I said quickly.

“Thank you," she squeaked, and instantly devoted her attention to inspecting her shoe.

I turned back to Fred. He looked so strange, standing there in his hunter green peacoat with his trunk on the ground, snowflakes drifting onto his broad shoulders.

“I guess this is it,” he said uneasily, breath puffing out in shivering clouds.

“It’s not goodbye, Freds,” I said softly, trying to keep the sadness out of my voice. “It’s just... a hiatus. A BRB.”

“Yeah." Potter nodded and then quickly glanced at me, as if surprised I’d said something worth agreeing to. “We’re going to get you back here.”

“Seriously, mate, someone will have to realize that a school full of children can't be run by a crazy lady like Vespertine," Aidan said lightly, pulling himself from his moodiness to fix Fred with a smile of full confidence. "Then they’ll give her the boot and repeal all her crazy lady decisions. You’ll see. It’ll all be fine.”

“And if not, there are always jobs at McDonald’s that pay, like, super well once you get to a managerial level.” Dom, unfortunately, still hadn’t given up on her glass-is-half-full shtick.

Freddy grimaced. See, this was why Slytherins couldn't be optimists. We just ended up creeping people out and making them feel vaguely depressed.

“Must you do that, Dom?” Aidan blurted out, exasperation and anger mingling in his voice. For the past hour, he’d been steadily ignoring Dom with all the dedication of an Olympian athlete, but I guess this one brilliant example of foot-in-mouth was too much to let slide.

“Do what? Console my cousin and friend? I happen to be a great comforter!” Dom jerked back, affronted, before looking around at the rest of us for backup. We all quickly averted our eyes.

Aidan scoffed. “If by great you mean really bad, then you’d be only somewhat right because you’re actually horrendous."

“How dare you!”

“I should probably go," Fred said drily. "Before this turns into an argument."

He twisted his mouth into a semblance of a smile, then looked up at the snowy castle sprawled out in front of us. There was a tinge of hope in his gaze — and I knew precisely why. It was for the same reason why he kept on stalling, why he was taking as much time as possible to get inside that carriage.

“Freddy,” I said gently, pity swelling in my chest. “I don’t think Evelyn's going to show.”

Fred locked gazes with me, seeming to deflate a bit. “Yeah,” he nodded reluctantly. “Yeah. I guess not. She's never been much for goodbyes anyways.”

“Hey, mate, it’s not a goodbye, remember?” Potter said bracingly, clapping his hand on Fred’s shoulder. They hugged — and there was none of that stupid macho stuff with the overly-exaggerated back-patting and awkward, spring-away-as-fast-as-possible-after thing. It was just a simple hug, cousin to cousin, friend to friend.

Then it was my turn.

I basically charged into Freddy’s arms, my cheek squishing against his chest. I knew I always complained about how annoying the stupid goober was, but still. I was going to miss the fool. It was weird not knowing when I would see him next — I half-expected him to be in DADA after lunch with me, sitting in his usual spot by my right, tattoo-ing my arm with doodles of Dom as a monkey.

“Promise me you’ll stay in touch, yeah?” I pulled away, staring seriously into Fred’s light eyes. The words were thick and heavy in my throat. “We can use Dom’s charmed coins, you can Wizbook me, send letters, whatever. Just don’t forget to check in once in a while so I know you’re okay. And — and stay safe. And keep warm. And, uh, eat your vegetables.”.

Fred chuckled a bit, wrinkling his nose, and it was nice to see genuine happiness on his face again. “Sure, mum. And remember what I told you, alright? Do your best.”

I gave him an awkward salute and then slowly turned around, beginning to trudge back up the path to the castle, not bothering to wait for the others' goodbyes. I spared one last glance behind my shoulder before quietly slipping through the front doors into the stuffy warmth of the castle. I didn’t want to watch Dom and Aidan say goodbye to Fred, all the while steadily ignoring each other. I didn’t want to watch Freddy climb into that carriage and disappear from us.

Inside the castle it was warm and quiet. Floating candles bobbed merrily through the air, and a ghost or a painting was humming a Christmas carol somewhere nearby. I began trekking up the Grand Staircase, already looking forward to the scalding hot bath I'd take in the Prefect's bathroom, when, suddenly, I heard footsteps behind me.

“Not staying for the farewell fireworks?” Potter’s sardonic voice was so distinct, I would have recognized it in a crowd of a hundred.

My spine stiffened and, slowly, I turned around.

“I didn’t want to see him go,” I said truthfully, no trace of sarcasm or snark to be found.

Potter nodded like he understood, his hands stuffed into his pockets. From his position at the bottom of the stairs, he looked uncannily serious as he squinted up at me. “You alright?”

I decided not to answer. What an impossible question, after all. I mean, physically I was fine. Mentally, I’d say (most) therapists would declare me in good condition. Compared to serial killers and people who think crocs are a legitimate fashion choice, I was psychologically in tip-top shape.

But I didn’t feel alright. I felt like... like the rug had been pulled out from under me. My Fifth Year was not unfolding how I had expected it to, and there was no way I could have foreseen any of this. After all, life didn’t give you a contract to sign with all the bad, icky stuff laid out for you in the fine print. And I understood that, finally. Neurotic as I was (I mean, I color-coded my socks. The only way you could get more OCD than that was if you made a genetic hybrid of Monica from Friends and Madame Pince), I had accepted the fact that I couldn't just expect life to follow my plans.

But at the same time, here I was, a wizarding celebrity, my friend group of five years in ruins, the boy who had thwacked my brother into a coma still free to walk my school. How was I supposed to have ever prepared myself for that?

“If you could do this year over...” All of a sudden, I was speaking without realizing it, letting the question crumble from my tongue. My eyes snapped up to meet Potter’s curious hazel ones. “Would you change anything?”

He looked slightly taken aback by my random musing, scanning my face to see if I was serious or not. Then — and I don’t know why — he gave in.

“Probably,” he shrugged. “I would fix the Quidditch Match that caused the coma. I would change every single thing about that night at the Ministry. And I would stop Aidan from ever thinking those trashy romance novels he secretly reads are okay.”

I gave a breathless chuckle at the last one, and Potter laughed along as well, ruffling the back of his hair almost sheepishly. It was a strange moment of kinship, of understanding.

We drifted into silence, and then:

“What about us, Potter?” I cocked my chin, resuming my pensive, slow tone from before. I didn’t know where I had found the guts to ask such a thing — maybe it was the adrenaline zipping through me, maybe I was finally out of my inner stock of Fucks to Give — but the words were out of my mouth before I could think twice.

Potter betrayed no sign of surprise at my boldness except for a cool quirk of the eyebrow. “Is this a trick question?”

“No.” I stared at him, knowing he was never going to give me a straight, non-cryptic answer. "You know what’s weird, though? At the end of the day, out of all the shit that went down this year, you were one of the most normal things to happen to me.”

Potter’s face was unreadable. The left corner of his mouth lilted upwards ever so slightly. “Same here.”

“Funny, isn't it." My words came out as a statement, flat and dry and tinged with bitterness. Potter didn't acknowledge the comment and instead took a step back, hands still nonchalantly in his pockets, face turning serious.

"Bennett," he began slowly, as if what he was about to say would be very difficult and unpleasant to get out. "We actually need to talk about us. About — " he gestured vaguely between us. "This."

I involuntarily bit into my bottom lip, feeling a strange ache start to pound duly in my chest. I knew what Potter was hinting at. In fact, I believe a part of me had, deep down, always been expecting this — it'd been only a matter of time, really.

"Bennett — " Potter began, but I cut him off.

"You think we should stop, don't you?" I said it like it was a known fact, something that we had both previously established. For some reason, I felt utterly calm as I stared down at Potter. "Stop this — well, whatever you want to call what's going on between us."

Potter blinked, eyes bright and alarmed, and I allowed myself a brief moment of satisfaction. After all, it wasn’t every day that Surprise interrupted the normal slideshow of Scorn, Derision and Apathy that was James Potter’s face, and I almost relished being the one to put it there. “I — What? How — ”

“How’d I know?” I responded easily, smile wry. “Call it a hunch, a guess, a Trelawney moment — I just had the feeling that you've been wanting to break things off. Maybe the time has come."

After all, Potter and I and our thing — whatever you wanted to label it — wasn't sustainable. I would have to be delusional to truly believe that such dysfunction would last through the year.

I wasn’t sure when, exactly, Potter had resolved to end things. My guess was after Aidan announced he knew about us snogging — the look of guilt on Potter's face had been impressive, and one that I hadn't been able to get out of my head since.

And because everything with that boy was a sodding power struggle, I had decided to broach the topic first, to beat him to the punch. As if my pride would escape a little less dented if I were the one to bring up the topic.

At first, I hadn't known what to say — "We should break up, and by break up, I mean stop making out at random and inappropriate moments in time," didn't seem fitting. But standing on this staircase with silence clinging to my skin, I knew the moment to speak had arrived, and the words came to me very easily.

Potter was looking at me long and hard, his eyes two chips of hardened amber. He glanced away and then quickly looked back again, seeming like he wasn't quite sure who I was.

“It’s just,” he began again, and the situation was so awkward, so so awkward, because here he was, trying to break up with me, and there I was, acknowledging it. “We shouldn't be allowing this to go on, Bennett, not when everything's happening with Aidan and Dom and Fred — especially Aidan. I don't think it'd be right for us to continue... Well, whatever this is."

“I know," I cleared my throat and quickly flicked my eyes to the ground. If it felt like my chest was uncommonly tight, then that was probably a sign there was something weird in the air. Allergens. In the middle of February. Yeah. “I know that. You’re right.” The words seemed to stick to the inside of my throat. Getting them out was like scraping gum off a sidewalk.

This was all just my luck, really. I mean, who else got dumped by someone they weren't even dating? I feel like that required talent, almost — Agatha Bennett: Reaching New Levels of Loserdom One Horrible Life Experience At a Time.

"It's just — " Potter stepped forward, getting obviously agitated, and then seemed to think better of it. He relaxed, shoulders easing back, and jutted his chin out in a manner that was almost stubborn. "It's the right thing to do, Bennett," he finished quietly.

"Right. Totally." I nodded blankly. "No, I — I get it."

“Okay." Potter shrugged, all too casually. There was guilt on his face even though we both knew, rationally, that it shouldn't be there, and this somehow made everything that much more awful. "It just wouldn't be okay, you know, to keep going on like this. It wouldn’t be fair to Aidan. And besides, it's not like we have actual feelings for each other. If we did, the situation would be totally different."

“I have feelings for you,” I blurted out suddenly. Oh, Jesus. Why had I just said that? Why? The words were slipping from my mouth without any prior approval from my brain, and immediately my whole body seemed to go into a paralysis,, an overwhelming chorus of 'Oh shit oh shit oh shit' sounding in my head like an alarm.

Potter quickly looked up at me, shock splashed across his face. There was a heart-stopping second of pause. “What?” he said dumbly, eyebrows scrunching together, eyes squinting with disbelief and even — if I was reading him right — a bit of dread.

“I do have feelings for you,” I repeated slowly, and it was weird how smooth I could sound when, on the inside, my brain seemed to have gone into lockdown. “Granted, they’re mainly homicidal in nature, but..."

Potter’s mouth flattened into a scowl, and the familiar-looking annoyance on his face was a welcome relief. “That’s not what I meant, Bennett. I meant if we liked each other. Do you like me?” His voice was dry and the teensiest bit mocking, and finally, finally, there was a Potter I could recognize. Not the strange carbon copy from before, who had looked just like him but had been too cautious, too nice, tip-toeing around me with slow, uncertain words and painful guilt in his expression. Yes. I much preferred normal Potter. Normal Potter was easy to understand.

“No, I don't," I responded easily — too easily. It shouldn’t have been that easy, to just end things like that.

“Well. Then we’re in the clear.” Stepping backwards, Potter spread his arms in a sardonic gesture, making me marvel at how blasé he could be. As if this conversation was just another chore that he could now scratch off his to-do list. “Congrats to us.”

“Indeed,” I chimed airily, and the queasiness inside my stomach was completely, definitely, absolutely unrelated to the fact that Potter was throwing away all we had gone through in the past three months without batting an eye. “So what now? Back to the usual rotation of arguing-hatred-insults, arguing-hatred-insults?”

Potter didn't respond, shaking his head slightly as he stared at the floor, and it was obvious he saw through my carefree tone. All of a sudden, I found myself hating him, hating him so much it made my heart throb, made me want to slap him just for existing and for ever thinking it was okay to put his mouth on my mouth and his skin on my skin and then turn around and ask for it to never happen again.

I mean, it wasn't like I enjoyed hooking up with him. Or wanted to continue, for that matter. But it was still just... unfair that he could go around and make all these executive decisions for the two of us without asking first.

Potter glanced at me one more time. "I should go, Bennett. See you around. I'm — I'm glad we talked." As he turned to go, it felt like his molten gaze was lingering on me just a little too long to be normal. But then he was walking away and I chalked that strange moment up to my overactive imagination.

“See you, Potter,” was all that I could say. The words were so hollow, I could have stored my entire life's belongings in them.

And with that, I watched James Potter walk away from me for the last time in our confusing and twisted, gray-area-dwelling, will-they-or-won’t-they quasi-relationship.

—*—

You know how there's always that one part in the movie in which the plot climaxes and something catastrophic happens — like an accident or a falling-out, or everything just generally going to shit? And then all the characters appear really downtrodden like they've hit rock-bottom? But, after a couple of sad-scene montages, there's that rallying moment in which the friends all band together again and fight back to figure out an ingenious way to solve all their problems?

Yeah. That moment never happened.

After Freddy left, in fact, we kind of experienced the opposite. If possible, things seemed to get even worse, as if Fred's departure had been a signal for all our lives to embark on a slow, painful deterioration. It was like hitting rock bottom, but then finding out that rock bottom was just a drywood floor that you had to break through to reach a new rock bottom, and you just kept falling in this never-ending succession of rock bottoms.

It sucked.

The first to go was Dom. Now that her relationship with Xander was Wizbook official — and every other kind of official — she was spending more time with the Neanderthal than ever. She’d sit at his table, sneak out to the Ravenclaw dorms, even watch his Quidditch practices. They were always with each other. It was as if she had a permanent, frat-boy-shaped shadow, and it got to the point where the only time I’d ever see her consisted of an awkward wave in the hallway, or the silent five minutes in the dorm while we sleepily got ready for class.

Deep down, I knew Dom was avoiding me and even deeper down, I knew it was because I reminded her of Aidan. Whereas before I might have tried to fight this unpleasant turn of events, now I did my best to ignore it all. I turned to schoolwork, clinging to the hope that, with space and time, Dom would heal and things could go back to normal.

Meanwhile, Potter — torn between his cousin and his bestfriend — settled for seeing neither. Rather, he disappeared into other cliques — mostly the Quidditch team or other family members. Potter was a popular guy, after all, and he actually had friends outside our main group. I’d see him around with Rose Weasley or Albus or even Kevin (who, judging by the way he always nervously scurried away whenever we saw each other, still hadn’t gotten over me drunkenly cursing him out at the RoR party. Oops).

This by no means meant that I was keeping track of Potter, by the way. I just... Noticed these things. Out of the corner of my eye, I'd spot him in the corridor or on the way to the Great Hall. Or I'd see him walking to the Greenhouses amidst the throngs of other students. Or see him out the window when I was daydreaming in class and he was out flying during Quidditch practice. Potter was a conspicuous guy, after all. You could practically feel his arrogance suffocate you from ten feet away.

And then there was Aidan. Aidan, over the course of a few short weeks and some pretty ill-fated decision-making, had turned into a grandmother's worse nightmare — which was basically a different way of saying my worst nightmare. While Dom was off with Xander braiding daisy chains and naming their future children, and Potter was doing god-knows-what (probably involving Quidditch. And Kevin)... Aidan was partying.

There was a group of seventh-years at Hogwarts, notorious purely for how mysterious they were. They only seemed to come out night — for the longest time, I hadn’t known half of them actually went to the same school as me — and on the slim chance that you saw them during the day and they hadn’t, I don’t know, spontaneously combusted into flames from being caught in the sun, they were always clustered in a hangover-huddle, nursing pots of coffee and glaring dully at everyone else.

While these seventh-years represented every possible meaning of the word ‘cool,’ with the black sunglasses and total apathy to match, no one dared to go near them. They were known for being hardcore, for doing stuff that wasn’t just illegal but “like, oh my god, illegal illegal” — as Hufflepuff gossip guru, Missy Donovan, once so eloquently explained. I’m talking drugs. Not just doing them, but selling them, buying them, whatever. They made our RoR bashes look like harmless birthday parties at a Chuck E Cheese. This group frequented the seediest bars and clubs — and you could recognize them by the glazed eyes and slightly sinister smirks always present on their faces.

And while I desperately wanted to stop Aidan from hanging out with this group already, given they were such terrible influences, it was kind of hard to persuade someone to do something when they refused to acknowledge your existence.

Yup, Aidan was officially giving me the classic Bennett Cold Shoulder. He still hadn't gotten over the alleged 'betrayal' of me telling him about Xandanique (Hogwarts’s unfortunate nickname for the Dom and Xander power couple). Hence, I hadn’t seen or heard from my brother since we all said goodbye to Freddy.

There was a horrible, bitter little part of me (the same part that returned ugly Christmas gifts for store credit and secretly laughed at first-years falling in the hallway) that resented Aidan. I found it unbelievable — stupid, even — that he was so determined to hate me for something Dom did. The minute I started thinking such thoughts, however, I stopped myself. After all, there wasn't room for 'burning resentment' in my busy schedule of prefect duties and not having friends.

And then, right when I thought we had finally hit the ultimate rock bottom — things got worse. By a lot.

Here’s how:

—*—

“ARE YOU FUCKING MENTAL?”

I jerked up from my Astrology homework — which was sprawled in a jumble of textbooks and confusion across my bed — and almost tumbled over in surprise at the sudden noise in the dormitory. Recently, what with Evelyn hating Dom and Dom hating me and me hating life, our dorm had been dwelling in a perpetual state of awkward silence, the girls about as chatty as particularly standoffish sarcophagi. Hearing an actual sound in the dorm (other than the quiet whimpering of all our friendships dying slow, painful deaths, that is) was something completely foreign.

For that matter, so was the sight of Evelyn Stanford storming into the room, blonde hair flying in a swish of golden silk, followed by a murderous-looking Dom Weasley who was quite obviously shaking with rage.

“HOW COULD YOU? HOW COULD YOU DO THIS TO HIM?” Dom bellowed, eyes a molten green, chest heaving with each rapid, panting breaths. She looked positively terrifying, her expression enough to turn Medusa herself to stone.

Evelyn abruptly whipped around, looking just as incensed. Her face was glowing pink, pretty features screwed up in indignant rage. The two girls faced each other, the electricity of their combined glares enough to give a static shock to the entire population of Britain. The sight was like watching a stand-off between Godzilla and a Hungarian Horntail. And it was terrifying.

“Stay the hell out of this, Weasley.” Evelyn’s voice was a low, guttural warning. Anyone else would have immediately obeyed and fallen back for fear of getting disemboweled, but not Dom Weasley.

No, Dom instead gave a hysterical, somewhat unhinged shriek of laughter that was, honestly, more terrifying than anger. "Thanks for asking nicely, Stanford, but I refuse to 'stay out of this!'"

Evelyn rolled her eyes, lips twisted into a belligerent sneer. “And may I be so bold as to ask why, your highness?"

“Because fuck you, you abhorrent bitch! That’s why!”

At this point, I was becoming severely confused. Sitting on my bed with my mouth agape, I stared at the two girls and mentally debated whether or not I should start looking for something to use as a shield just in case objects (or people) started flying.

“You have no right to come around here acting so righteous, Weasley! You don’t even know me!” Evelyn was getting so intense, she looked one sassy finger snap away from asking someone to hold her earrings and lunging at Dom.

Dom scoffed, not intimidated. “This isn't about me! This about you and what you bloody did!"

“Er, what exactly did she do?” I asked meekly from my stronghold on the bed. I was, of course, happily ignored.

“Oh, don't act like you haven't been dying for a new reason to think you're above me, Weasley." The scorn dripping off Evelyn’s words would have made Potter proud. “Here you bloody go! A new mental picture to stick in your Superiority Complex Scrapbook! Now piss off!"

Dom’s tiny fists were clenched as she glared up at Evelyn, chest still heaving momentously. “I can’t believe you could even think of defending yourself right now, Stanford. We both know you have no excuse. There is nothing you can say that absolves you of what you did!”

“What did she do?!” I asked again, this time with more urgency, but the two girls didn’t so much as look at me. That’s funny — I wasn’t aware there’d been a Silencio charm cast on me today.

Evelyn’s nose was scrunched in disgust. “I don’t need to justify my actions to anyone, especially not you! I’m not ashamed of what I did!”

“You know, Stanford, it’s a bloody miracle how you can just walk around and function like that without a braincell in your head. You're a fucking medical marvel, that's what you are."

“WILL SOMEONE PLEASE TELL ME WHAT IS GOING ON?!” I couldn’t help it — I exploded. The frustration had been stewing inside me, turning me into a PMS-ing volcano, building and building until I spewed lava and bitchiness everywhere.

Evelyn and Dom whipped around to face me, nostrils flared, looking eerily similar to a pair of angry cats.

...And here's the part where I immediately regret ever speaking.

Dom cocked her head in mock thought, turning to face Evelyn with her eyes flashing in vicious triumph. “Yeah, that’s a good idea, actually," she seethed, and I gulped, knowing that what was coming next could not be good. “Why don’t you tell her, Stanford? Why don’t you tell Aggy what you've just done to her? To her brother?”

All feeling inside my body seemed to drain away as I slammed my Astronomy book shut, struggling to sit up straight. “What’s Aidan got to do with this?”

Evelyn was strangely silent. Her mint eyes were downcast and glassy, her lips pursed tightly.

There was a nasty smile on Dom’s face, and her voice was hoarse when she spoke again. “Dearest Evelyn is back together with her ex. The man of the hour: Fallon Cooper.”

There was a silence — the loudest silence I had ever experienced — as the idea drifted through me, leaving me in an almost-daze. Evelyn. Evelyn Stanford, Freddy’s girlfriend, my roommate and sort-of friend, was dating the boy who almost killed my brother.

“Why.” The word came out flat. It wasn’t a question. It was a demand for explanation, for apology.

Evelyn’s eyes flicked upwards to meet mine, and for once, the anger was gone from her expression. She almost looked sorry. “You don’t understand, Agatha," she said calmly, evenly, with the same untouchable dignity I always associated with her. "You don’t understand what I’ve been through, what Fallon’s been through."

Hearing her say his first name made me feel queasy.

Briefly, I thought of that fateful day in which I'd bumped into Evelyn at the school counselor’s office. You don't understand what I've been through. Maybe she was right. I had no idea the full extent of Evelyn's life, what kind of personal issues she may be working through that might involve Cooper.

I crossed my legs, chewing on the inside of my cheek. Strangely enough, the revelation didn’t seem like a betrayal. It felt almost like... Like a joke. The idea was too ridiculous to even be taken seriously.

“You do realize that if you keep dating him, you can never speak to me again, right?” I stated calmly. There wasn’t malice in my words — just straight truth, and Evelyn flushed in response.

“I know," she said.

“And there’s nothing I can do to change your mind?” Might as well try.

“No. Nothing.” Evelyn’s was so quiet, she was almost mouthing the words. Her gaze, subdued and dim, had trained itself on the floor.

“Okay then.” With that, I clambered off my bed and started shoving books into my backpack, which I then hastily hurled over my shoulder. My movements were clumsy and quick, my hands trembling. I didn’t know where I was going, I just knew that I needed out, that I needed to remove myself from wherever Evelyn Stanford was present. This dorm was so thick with guilt and negativity, we were practically swimming in it. “I have to go."

Dom, however, apparently didn’t approve of my (not so) dramatic exit. She looked blankly between Evelyn and I, mouth shaped into an incredulous 'o.'

“Wait — that’s it?” She demanded loudly, stepping forward. “No yelling? No cursing? Not even a bitch-slap or two?”

“Sorry to disappoint,” I said sardonically, bitter smile curling my mouth, as I turned to face my best friend full-on for the first time in a while.

Dom gave a huff of astonishment, boring her eyes into mine. “You do realize what she did, right?”

“Yes, I do,” I said softly, more than a little fed up. “Seeing as I’m a mature adult with standard mental faculties and a knack for observation. You seem to possess both as well, though I am a little unsure about the adult part.”

The comment wasn’t supposed to come out as mean as it did, and I wasn’t supposed to enjoy the shocked hurt that flickered across Dom’s face. But, well. It kind of was, and I kind of did.

So there’s that.

Dom stepped aside, blinking, indignant. “I can’t believe you care so little.”

“And I can’t believe you care so much," I burst without warning. "Seeing as you’re the one who dumped my brother for a glorified frat boy. You do realize he’s just one hot dog eating contest away from a life of trailer park alcoholism, yeah?” Maybe it was hypocritical of me to say such a thing when, days ago, I’d given Xandanique my blessing. But hey, I was an angry teenaged girl. Hypocritical was kind of my thing.

I didn’t wait for a response. I just gave the two girls a lingering look, and then my feet were taking me out the door and away from the drama, from the screaming, from the self-righteousness. It was all too, too much. Since when had we become The Real Housemates of Hogwarts?! And why was this development okay with everyone else but me?

I let the door slam soundly shut behind me.

“What a bloody joke.” I could hear Dom mutter behind it, and for the first time in a while, I think we were all in agreement.


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