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Clash by shenanigan
Chapter 42 : Snap
 
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 59


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My name is Agatha Bennett.

And until now, I have been the poster-child for Angsty Teenage Girls everywhere.

Which, it turns out, is not that hard of a job. Being an Angsty Teenage Girl, I mean. There are a couple skills you have to refine (public crying, angry door-slamming, Ben & Jerry’s speed-eating), but once you have those down, you’re easily one of us. Congrats, you've officially joined the club — here’s your complementary t-shirt and box of tissues. Welcome to life. It’s a bitch, and now so are you.

I was used to the angsty teenage lifestyle — expecting disappointment, experiencing disappointment, being a disappointment. It was all part of the job.

But then the last few weeks happened, and things started to change. My life started to change. And after the chaos from the Ministry, the Cooper Prank and the ensuing nuclear fall-out of my friend group, I'd realized that I had no choice but to finally take control of my surroundings if I ever hoped to resolve any of this. It was time I acted like the vertebrate I was and made use of my backbone. And with everything that had been happening, somewhere between murderous DADA professor and expulsion-happy Headmistress, I’d kind of stopped having room for angst.

I needed to find answers.

And we all know that when you need answers, there's only one place to go:

The past.

—*—

I found Nott’s classroom just like how I left it: dark, dusty, and so eerie you could feel the creepiness like a breath on the back of your neck.

The display case was still there, covered in its black silk and stashed inconspicuously in the corner. But it might as well have had neon signs and a line of burlesque dancers can-caning in front of it, for it was all I saw. The case — and the knowledge that the Sword was inside — drew my immediate attention the minute I walked into the room. I was hyperaware of it standing always in the corner of my vision, its presence a tingle on my skin.

It was the reason I'd come back to this room, after all. Somehow, I had this innate feeling that it was absolutely critical I see the Sword one last time before I left the castle. Maybe it would help me on my quest. After all, I had no leads, no clues, no idea where I should be going. Before I set off, I needed to lay my eyes on the Sword and remind myself of why I was leaving and maybe, just maybe, dredge up some forgotten memory or idea that could tell me where to go.

I realized that willingly entering the classroom/evil lair of the man who possibly wanted to kill me wasn’t top on the list of smartest things ever, but I couldn’t resist the prospect. There was this instinct pulsing inside me, drawing me closer and closer to that case and the Sword inside.

I took a deep breath, striding towards the case with quick, sure steps. In the movies, there was always a build-up to these things. You know, the slow-motion montage with suspenseful music mounting and mounting in the background, a dramatic close-up of the heroine’s face as she reaches out to whisk off the cover…

But I didn't have the patience for that. So instead I just walked over and plucked the cover off. Simple as that. Easy, breezy, Cover Girl.

But then I looked inside.

The space where a priceless, centuries-old sword should have been was empty, nothing in its spot. Nada. Zip. Just molecules of air, a speck or two of dust, and my horrified reflection staring back at me in the glass, telling me there was something very, very wrong.

The Sword was gone.

Which could only mean that a) someone had either slipped very strong hallucinogens into my breakfast this morning and I had imagined everything up to this point, or b) someone had stolen the Sword.

Which could only mean that a) I was screwed, or b) I was screwed.

My stomach had twisted itself into a tight knot of dread. In spite of the shock of it all, reality was starting to become very clear to me — sharpening and hardening with crystalline realization, with utter certainty. I actually felt stupid for not having seen this coming. The Sword being stolen? Really? It was such a predictable turn of events, it wasn’t so much a turn as a kind of half-hearted curve of events.

I was mad at myself for not anticipating this — I should have known, should have been more prepared. The signs were all there: Nott's office was empty. His desk completely stripped clean, dust hugging the chair.

The answer was obvious: he had made a break for it.

I couldn't know when, I couldn't know how, but Nott had left Hogwarts. Snuck off into the murk of the night, escaped to Merlin-knows-where.

He was gone.

And with him, the Sword.

—*—

You know that Uh-Oh Moment you have when you see a spider in your room? And you leave to find something to kill it with, but by the time you return it's already gone and you can't find it anywhere?

Yeah, that's kind of like what I was experiencing right now. Except instead of a spider, it's a fifty-year-old professor who is twice my size and extremely skilled in the Dark Arts.

Nott had disappeared. Fucking disappeared. And now I had no way of knowing where he was, what he was doing or what he was planning. Just like that spider, he could be either miles away or hiding under my bed and I'd never know.

I'd been perfectly fine living in the same school as Nott. After all, there was a kind of a safety in knowing where your enemy was at all times. Plus it was a little hard to be scared of a guy when you saw him eating breakfast every morning with scrambled egg dangling off his beard.

What I wasn't okay with, however, was my killer disappearing into the darkness, without a trace and never to be seen again, in the middle of the goddamn night. I mean, come on. He was a freaking DADA professor and I was an unathletic teenage girl. It was already a pretty uneven fight without him adding the whole "element of surprise" shtick — was leaving really necessary?

Ridiculously enough, part of me actually felt kind of offended that Nott had fled Hogwarts. Almost like I'd just been stood up on a very weird, murder-y date. Even my killer didn't want to hang out with me — go figure.

Nott could be anywhere right now. Biding his time, gathering his strength, watching my every move (shudder). And here I was, prancing about like a moron, a sitting duck in what was supposed to be the safest school in history.

Yeah, safest school my arse. This place once had a giant snake in its basement — sorry if I wasn't exactly lulled into a sense of comfort here.

Well, that just sealed the deal. I couldn't stay. I couldn't wait around for Nott to get bored of this cat-and-mouse game and decide to turn it into a cat-and-cat-food game. I had wanted answers and now, I had one. It was time I did something.

The Sword had disappeared.

Nott had disappeared.

It was my turn now.

—*—

I knew the way to my dad’s house like the back of my hand. Which is to say not very well at all because, come on, who liked staring at the back of hands all day? That saying must have been thought up by someone with a very dull social life.

So it was no surprise that it took me two rides on the Knight Bus, an assortment of different maps, and the help of three very courteous hobos to find 1118 Crescent Drive, the home of a Mr. and Mrs. Adam Bennett.

Surprisingly, getting out of Hogwarts had been the easy part. You’d think security would be tighter there what with all the, you know, young school-children practicing magic inside, but nope. I simply just walked down the Entrance Hall steps and out the front door. Deuces, Hogwarts.

The next step was easy as well. Once I'd reached Hogsmeade, all I had to do was stick out my wand and in two minutes, the Knight Bus — or as I liked to call it, Dante’s Seventh Circle of Hell: The Mobile Edition — was screeching to a precarious halt in front of me.

The ride itself, however, was a different story.

First off, the patrons of the Knight Bus weren't exactly a classy crowd. Picture a Venn diagram, if you will, with one circle labeled ‘Friendly Neighborhood Sex Offender’ and the other ‘Facial Hair’ — the overlap, the people who fall into both categories… That’s the Knight Bus.

Another problem was that I had honest-to-god no idea where I was going. All I had was an address. 1118 Crescent Drive — and even that I was iffy about. Was it Drive or Avenue? Was there only one eight or two? Finding Nemo did a better job of drilling an address into me than my own father. Snaps for parenting.

After the two most uncomfortable hours of my life (I mean, the man next to me was reading a book with the title 'Calming the Rage: A Guide to Managing Your Severe Anger Problems' — come on), I finally ended up getting off at Sundale Parks Neighborhood. A rainbow of green lawns, white smiles, and orange skin.

From there, I found the house in five minutes. Even if I had been unsure about it before, I just had to take one glance and know for certain. There was a cutesy mailbox outside, with pastel robins painted on its front. Lace curtains in the window. A pink welcome mat. Debbie seemed to have designed the house with a theme in mind: Frills and Fuss — Or, the Sad Demise of Adam Bennett’s Masculinity. A monstrosity of girliness, all the house needed was a sign at the front proclaiming, “Welcome! Man-cards confiscated at the door!”

I gazed shrewdly at the house, sizing up its ivory siding, brick chimney, and the grey stone path that wound its way to the mahogany front-door. Shoulders hunched in the cold, I steeled my resolve and hastily began trudging up to front step. Now came the hardest part — actually seeing my family.

I grabbed the ornate brass knocker. Hesitated. Realized that I literally had nowhere else to go except back to the Knight Bus and its jolly band of parole violators.

Then I knocked.

It was a long time before he answered. For a fleeting, panicked second, I thought that maybe they weren’t even home — maybe Debbie and Adam and the kids were at the grocery store, maybe they were in fucking Bath on vacation and this whole ‘teenaged runaway’ thing had been for nothing. But then I heard it: the sound of footsteps, sure and steady and getting louder with every second.

Before I could ready myself, the door was swinging open and I was coming face to face with a very tired, very annoyed-looking man.

My father.

He had Aidan’s eyes and height, but my demeanor — the skeptical eyebrows, the flat, unimpressed mouth. On me, this look was actually excusable because I could pass it off as part of the whole 'sassy schoolgirl' thing. On him, however, the overall effect came off as a little ‘irritated immigration officer having a bad day.’

My dad and I had always been alike. While I used to argue and bicker with my mum, never truly able to meet her airy spirit with my grounded one, my dad and I understood each other. We were two peas in a very cynical pod. Aidan — capricious, emotional Aidan — would rage against our father, hurl words, throw fists. Not me though. My relationship with my dad was far too complicated for simple, easy hostility.

I had spent the entire bus ride here rehearsing what I was going to say, how I would explain the situation and my sudden appearance at my father's house. But after meeting my eyes with his — with Aidan’s eyes, really — my brain was suddenly squeegeed clean.

Meanwhile, the first thing Adam Bennett could think of upon seeing his daughter on his doorstep was: “Hey, you dyed your hair. Uh, you did dye it, right? It’s brown now. And it used to be red. So. Yeah. Wow. Looks good.”

I tried to smile at the compliment, but my face felt strained and hardened, unable to shift into any of the correct positions. My stomach had shrunk into a tiny, shriveled knot of emotion, and suddenly, it was all too much — Nott being after me, the missing Sword, the homeless man who had tried to sniff my hair on the Knight Bus — I just couldn’t take it anymore.

“Hey, dad,” I said weakly.

And then, standing out in the open, in the cold, on the doorstep of the most beautiful street I’d probably ever been on — I promptly burst into tears.

Angsty Teenage Girls Club, this one’s for you.

—*—

Five minutes later and I was sitting at my dad’s kitchen table, sniffling over a very hastily-brewed cup of tea and staring at a pink cat-shaped clock on the wall — one of Debbie's excellent decor choices, no doubt. Hunched over the table, I watched the clock's garish, plastic tail swing from side to side while my dad leaned against the counter, seemingly at a loss for words.

He was in Ministry Official Mode — his back straightened intimidatingly, arms folded, authoritative scowl in place. This was the position he assumed whenever he was grilling clients at work or about to take someone down at a board meeting.

I knew that, behind that poker face, there were a hundred questions waiting for me, for my answers, and the idea of just coming clean and telling my father about everything — Nott, the paper, the missing Sword — was so tempting. I could just unload my problems on him, then sit back and watch as he found the solution — I mean, wasn't that why parents were invented in the first place?

At the same time, however, I knew telling the truth would have disastrous consequences. For my “safety,” Dad would probably insist on shipping me back off to Hogwarts or, Godric forbid, some other school. Beauxbatons, most likely — a buzzword he and Debbie had been continuously threatening me with over the past few years. Then the Aurors would have to be called in — cue more questioning, more bureaucracy, more bullshit. It'd be game over.

No. I knew this sounded crazy, but if I wanted the Sword business handled correctly, if I truly wanted answers regarding Nott and his motives, I couldn’t go through the Ministry or the Aurors. They were too busy, too important, to care about a girl and an accidental mishap at a Christmas Ball. Sure, they might listen to what I had to say, nodding sympathetically and doing that ‘mhmm’ thing with their mouths that adults did around teenagers to show how cool and understanding they were, but that would be it. They wouldn't take me seriously, they wouldn't even allow for the possibility that I might have something to contribute.

Which left only one other option: myself. And keeping my fat mouth shut.

“So," my dad began awkwardly, clearing his throat and jerking me out of my reverie. “An explanation would be helpful.”

I sniffled, knowing that my face was probably bright red and very, very puffy at the moment, and sighed heavily. “Yeah.”

There was a silence. My dad leaned forward, rubbing his stubble with his hand in a familiar motion straight out of my childhood. “This wouldn’t have anything to do with you single-handedly bringing down the Ministry last month, would it?”

Yes. “No.” I shook my head at just the right speed — not too adamant for the lie to be obvious, but not slow enough that it showed a gap in confidence. I was in Slytherin, after all, and while I might not have had the ambition and cunning and other qualities attributed to my House, I could still lie well. Damn well. And if I knew the person, I could lie better.

“It’s not that, Daddy," I said quietly, still watching Debbie's clock ticking on the wall. "It’s something else. I just don't want to talk about it right now, okay?"

There was a pause.

“You’re not pregnant, are you?”

I couldn’t help it — that one actually took me by surprise. “What?! No, of course not! I — Jesus Christ, Dad — “

“Okay, okay, just checking,” he responded mildly, holding his hands up in defense. “I had to ask. After all, your mother and I've always considered that, what with the two of you, we might one day have a teenage pregnancy on our hands. But I just thought it'd be Aidan with the problem, not you."

My father had said all of this with the utmost ease, talking about the possibility of Aidan knocking up a girl the same way he might talk about the possibility of rain on a Sunday afternoon.

"Are you serious, Dad?" I cried, severely affronted. “Some trusting parents you two are. What — is there also a Baby Daddy fund in Aidan's name at Gringotts? Did you guys take bets on which one of us gets arrested first as well?"

My dad went oddly silent, face contorting into a guilty expression. My mouth dropped open.

Dad!”

“What?! You shouldn’t be mad, poppet! I bet it would be Aidan!”

I scoffed, astonished. This whole conversation had taken an unbelievable turn. I could never be pregnant! That would require me having sex with a boy, and that would require a boy to show romantic interest in me.

...Wow. You know it’s a sad day when your dad has more confidence in your sex appeal than you do.

“So what’s the problem?” My dad finally prompted in an obvious attempt at a subject change. “Do you need money? Is that it?”

I sniffled again, going from offended shock to pathetic vulnerability in record time. I'd had this lie down ever since I boarded the Knight Bus, and now it was time to deliver — but not before I broke out The Look. Half quivering pout, half puppy eyes, The Look was fool-proof — I mean, it’d even been tested out on Potter before, with a 90 percent success rate.

“It’s my friend Fred, Dad," I said, injecting as much emotion into the rehearsed speech as possible. "He was expelled from Hogwarts earlier this month for something that wasn’t his fault and it’s so unfair. I thought I would come visit you because, seeing as how you work in the Ministry, you'd be able to reach out to contacts in the Magical Education department and see if there was anything that could be done to help him and, you know, try to circumvent the policy behind his punishment.”

My dad listened to all this in silence, his head cocked thoughtfully to the side, eyes betraying neither sympathy nor refusal as he mulled over my words. After what seemed like a long moment of deliberation, he straightened and wearily sighed, rubbing a hand over his tired face. "Ignoring the fact that you're supposed to be in school right now, Agatha, and not frolicking across the country — you know that Hogwarts is an autonomous body independent of the Ministry. We can't overrule any of Headmistress Veserptine's decisions. There’s nothing I can do in terms of policy change.”

I deflated, disappointed.

“But — “ he began cautiously, and I perked back up. “I suppose you might be able to access some old files regarding previous Hogwarts expulsions and their limitations at the Ministry. Maybe you can dig up a loophole or referendum to whatever policy got him expelled.”

Yes — a step in the right direction! And this was precisely why I’d chosen to go to my dad’s house. Well, that and the fact that I didn't have anywhere else, seeing as Mum was on vacation with my stepfather.
Still. My father's place was perfect. Dad didn't have the most attentive of parenting styles, and so he conveniently had no idea about the current going-ons of my life. Whereas my mum might have seen straight through my lie, my father was so clueless that he was ready to accept anything I said. The easy access to Ministry files was a great plus. If I could look through some of the Ministry's documents, maybe dig up dirt on Not and form a plan from there — I could start finding some answers.

“Brilliant, dad. Sounds great. When can I see the files?"

At this, my dad gave a very small, funny smile. “Well, that's the thing, poppet. The files on Hogwarts aren't under my jurisdiction. That's Debbie's authority. You'll have to ask her about it when she comes home for supper.”

...Bollocks.

—*—

“No. Absolutely not.”

“But Debbie, you don’t understand — “

“No. Uh-uh.” Debbie gave a shake of her ridiculous blonde up-do, giant lips pursed in an angry Botox pillow. Seriously. That woman used so much lip plumper, her mouth could serve as a flotation device in times of emergency. “Those files are — are — confidential, and we can’t have a minor snooping through them!”

“Oh, yes, because I’m sure the history of academic policy at Hogwarts is such a juicy read,” I snapped back, words drenched in sarcasm. I knew being sassy wouldn’t help my case, but I couldn’t stop myself. The woman was just so irritating, and she was only refusing my request out of spite over the argument we'd had during winter break. “Come on, Debbie! No one else is going to read them but me!”

Debbie set down her dinner fork, primly straightening it so it was in line with her porcelain plate. “I can’t allow it, it’s — oh, Austin, don’t do that with the mashed potatoes — “ She turned to my brilliant eight-year-old stepbrother, who was apparently unaware of where on his face his mouth was located, and had now smeared dinner all over himself.

Debbie sighed, refusing to look at me as she furiously wiped at Austin’s chin with a napkin. Genius, the kid was not. “As I was saying,” she began again. “I can’t allow it. It’s a liability, especially for a young adult like you. And since you’ve already proven how mature you are with what you pulled at that press conference… Nuh-uh. Not happening.”

It was all I could do to keep myself from sticking the edge of my knife into Debbie's antique mahogany dinner table. “You’re being so unfair," I gritted out. "I — my friend — needs this —"

“Whatever your friend did probably warranted an expulsion,” Debbie said snottily, daintily dabbing the corner of her mouth with a napkin. “Teenagers these days just don't know how to live with the consequences of their actions."

“Oh come on, we both know that’s utter bullshit!"

Debbie gasped, scandalized. “Language!”

“Dad!”

“Adam!”

We both swiveled to face the head of the table, where my father was currently seated with his face pulled into a blatant ‘kill me now’ expression. “I have no part in this," he declared simply as he reached for the green beans.

Debbie seemed to take this as a point for Team Stepmonster. She hummed in haughty agreement, cocking her head in a supposedly sympathetic manner. “Even if he won’t say it, your father thinks I'm right, Agatha. Perhaps you should just… return to Hogwarts. You’re probably missing class, aren’t you?”

“Oh, so you’re kicking me out now? If you guys don't want me here, just say so, I understand,” I said bluntly, eyebrows quirked with condescension. It was a dirty tactic — everyone in this family knew that Debbie and my father never invited Aidan or I over to their house as often as they should, and manipulating that guilt wasn't very nice of me. But it was the only card I had left to play.

Sure enough — Debbie blinked awkwardly and my dad coughed, taking a sudden interest in his meatloaf. In the background, Austin hummed quietly as he smeared more potatoes onto his face.

“It’s not that, Agatha —“ Debbie finally began.

“Right, so you’re just making me leave. Against my will." I locked my searing gaze with Debbie’s sharp one, an unspoken challenge rumbling inside my words. Debbie’s authority may have come from her being the owner of this house, but — well, her husband was my dad. Blood was thicker than property ownership, and whatnot.

Debbie’s lip had started quiver. She was now faced with the choice of losing control or coming off as the bad guy, and evidently, neither option seemed very appealing to her.

I gave a crisp smile. “It's fine if you want me to leave — I won't be offended. I mean, I wouldn’t want to overstay my welcome of, what, two hours?”

After a pause of agonizing silence, I set down my fork and slowly stood, tossing my napkin onto my plate. “Alright, alright. I can take a hint. Thanks for dinner, you guys. It was a real treat. Adam.” I cocked my head at my dad, who flinched, and flicked my hand in a mock salute. “Good seeing you."

I had just turned towards the door when Debbie surrendered, suddenly blurting out: “Three days. At the maximum. You can have the guest bedroom.”

I smiled — exactly how I’d planned, suckers. You've just been Slytherined.

Wheeling around on my heel, I tilted my head thoughtfully as I pretended to mull over the offer. “Five days. I have business to take care of here.”

Debbie’s facial expression seemed to visibly clench. “Four days.”

“Five.”

“Three.”

“A week."

Debbie yelped — literally yelped, as if the words had jumped out from behind her and given her a scare. “A week?! No — no, absolutely not. Five days.”

I looked to my dad, trying not to betray how pleasantly surprised I was with the way our negotiation had unfolded. “Adam? Is this okay with you?”

Dad rubbed his stubble, silent for a moment. He seemed to be pondering the situation, sifting through it with the due diligence of a Ministry official. Finally: “It’s okay with me if it’s okay with you two.”

I gave a Colgate-commercial-worthy smile. Celebratory trumpets were playing in my head, and it was all I could do to keep myself from jumping on the table and doing a victory dance across Debbie's meatloaf.

“Perfect!” I gushed before anyone could change their mind. “If you need me, I’ll be in my new bedroom.” And with a perky smile, I flounced out of the room and bounded up the stairs two at a time, triumph sweet on my tongue.

I had skipped school, neglected my responsibilities as a prefect and dragged myself through one hell of a Knight Bus journey — only to sit through the most uncomfortable dinner of my life.

But the look on Debbie’s face had just made it all worth it.

—*—

“So you’re mooching off your dad, now?”

“It’s not mooching, Freddy.” I rolled my eyes at the cheery bloke next to me, voice breathy with exasperation. “It’s more of a trade off. He gives me a place to stay, and in return, I give him... Uh, I give him — ”

“Migraines?”

“— a lifetime supply of daughterly love,” I finished, sticking my tongue out. Freddy chuckled good-naturedly, drumming his fingers on the steering-wheel, and lifted his foot off the brake so that our car inched forward.

“Doesn't change the fact that you're living with your dad and stepmum right now. Kind of lame,” Fred pointed out, mouth slung into an easy grin.

I leveled him with a frostbitten glare. “Says the teenage boy driving his mum’s minivan.”

Freddy winced. “Well played.”

It was the day after I’d ambushed dad and practically forced him to house me in what could only be described as a reverse-hostage situation. Since our tense dinner table negotiation, Debbie’s files had been declared officially off-limits for now, as she had yet to decide on the best way to let me see them. Until then, I had nothing to do. Debbie, of course, had attempted to rope me into babysitting Austin and his nine-year-old sister Casey in the meantime, but that idea had as much of an appealing ring to it as the words Spring Break 2020: Guantanamo Bay.

So I decided that the least I could do while I waited was see an old friend.

Fortunately, Freddy, fresh back home from his expulsion, was able to weasel himself out of his mum-mandated house arrest to have lunch with me for a day. Unfortunately, Freddy was stuck with the family minivan, a clunker of a car that was also the world's only form of drivable contraception. Needless to say, his man-pride was a-hurtin.’

I propped my boots on the dashboard, staring out the foggy windshield as we inched towards downtown London, swaddled in smoky traffic. “How’s Evelyn?”

Freddy gave a bark of laughter, eyes fixed on the road as his expression seemed to visibly tighten. “You’d know better than me. We haven't spoken since Hogwarts. I heard she got back together with Cooper, which is bullshit."

“I'm sorry, Fred. If it's any consolation, she’s not speaking to me either,” I said, mouth wrung into a sympathetic line. “Or maybe I’m not speaking to her — not too sure about the details, really. Too many broken friendships to keep track of." I cocked my head to the side. "I should really start keeping a log…”

Freddy, out of the corner of his eye, shot me a glare very reminiscent of parental disappointment. It was evident that he'd been left unimpressed with my good-humored attempt at making light of the situation. “Yeah, about that, Aggy — remind me again: what was the one thing I told you to do before I left?”

I resisted the urge to groan. Here we go again… “Make sure everyone in our group stuck together.”

Fred nodded imperiously. “Right. And what did you then proceed to do?”

“Yell at all my friends and then leave the country,” I replied simply, innocently. After an awkward pause, I added: “Isn’t that what everyone does when they get upset?”

Fred rolled his eyes. “Fleeing Scotland to go to your estranged father’s place in London wasn’t exactly part of the game plan, Aggs."

“I’m sorry, okay?" I blurted out, voice suddenly hitching up an octave in distress. "It was all turning to shit, nobody wanted to talk to each other, and — and — have you ever forced Dom Weasley into doing something she doesn't want to do?” I shook my head vehemently. “No you haven't, because it’s literally impossible.”

Now that I couldn’t joke about it, my frustration with the current state of events was slowly starting to burble over. If Fred wanted me to be serious, then fine, I could give him serious.

Fred gave a wan smile. “Aggy—“

“No, do not Aggy me.” I ranted throatily, voice hoarse with dangerous fury. I was getting carried away, I knew that, but it just felt so good to finally vent the feelings that had been clumped inside my chest, weighing me down for the past week. “You weren’t there, Fred. You didn’t see how bad everything got — Aidan was off partying, Dom was with her stupid boyfriend, Evelyn was MIA, and Potter — Potter was acting like we’d all never existed.”

I took a deep, shuddering breath, launching back into my tirade. “Before you left, you asked me to make sure everyone stayed friends. You thought I could keep us all together, like some kind of hard-duty friendship superglue, or something. Well I’m sorry, but you overestimated me. Turns out, I'm just the shitty type of purple glue that can't keep anything together, like the kind kindergarteners use in arts and crafts class — you know, those little pictures you make out of dried macaroni? Except now it's all falling apart, and the kindergarteners are crying and there’s macaroni everywhere — ”

“Aggy, I think you’re getting a little carried away with this metaphor," Fred sliced in quickly. He eased up on the brakes, and we nudged forward in traffic. “Look, I know that I basically asked the impossible from you, telling you to keep everyone together like that. But I had to.” Fred huffed out a breath, gripping the steering wheel. “There’s a group dynamic — don’t give me that look, Aggs, you know it’s true — and in order for any of us to even function like normal human beings, we need each other. We need the group."

“Are you about to make a cheesy friendship speech?” I groaned out, slumping in my seat. “Because if you are, let me know when you finish so I can start slow-clapping — "

“Har har,” Freddy said sardonically, squinting at me in irritation. “As I was saying — we have a group dynamic. Because of our individual personalities, everyone has a specific, unique role that they have to play in the group. Like actors in an ensemble cast. In fact, say we were in a movie — a spy thriller for example. We would each have characters only we could play.”

I opened my mouth to interrupt, not looking forward to hearing about the newest brain-baby Fred’s twisted mind had birthed, but he prattled on.

“James, for example, would definitely be the jaded ex-cop stereotype. You know — the kind with a dark past who never takes off his sunglasses and always has rugged five-o-clock shadow." Fred's tone had drifted into dreamy territory as he evidently got carried away with his idea. "He’d be the best agent on the team, but he'd always get flack for the controversial violent strategies he employs in his interrogations."

"Fred — " I interrupted, but he wasn't even listening to me as he prattled on.

"I would be the sassy sidekick who supplied comic relief with a catchphrase like, "Hell no, I did not sign up for this!" Dom would be the snappy, bodacious female agent who always wore leather and seduced all the bad guys into confession. Aidan would be the eager-to-please rookie with a heart of gold and boyish good looks. And you, Agatha — ”

“Would have turned off this movie a long time ago because it sucks?”

You would be the tech-savvy nerd-girl who supplies all the gadgets and sits in a big van with lots of buttons and TV screens while she talks to everyone when they go on stings.”

“Seriously? Wait, so first I’m glue and now I’m a spy?! This is too much metaphor-hopping for me.”

“Yup! And you know what, Aggy? Without you, everyone else in the movie would be a failure. Because even though you have a pretty sucky job sitting in that van, all the other spies need you to complete their missions. Plus Agent Potter needs you to heal his broken heart and help him get over his dead wife, but that’s a whole other subplot…"

I groaned.

"As I was saying," Freddy said pointedly. "The show can’t go on without you. Even though it doesn’t seem like it, Aggy, they need you.” Fred’s voice suddenly turned soft, his eyes melting into a compassionate green. “We need you. Potter may be the calm and cool one, Aidan may be the outspoken leader, Dom the feisty spitfire. But you… You’re where the heart is. You’re the real leader, and you have been all along.”

I stared, stunned, at my friend/recurring pain in the arse of five years. I hated to say it, but the kid had made a couple of fair points, shockingly enough. And I, Agatha Bennett — the girl who could never be rendered speechless — had no idea how to respond. At least not with the proper emotion and care that his speech deserved.

All I could say was:

“Wow. You really spent a creepy amount of time thinking this through, didn’t you?”

Fred nodded, looking sheepish as his caramel skin started to pinken. “I’ve had a lot of free time lately since leaving Hogwarts. I’ve watched every season of Project Runway… Twice.”

I laughed, cheering up slightly against my will. Fred Weasley was a piece of work. “Kid, you need to get out some more. Let’s grab lunch at the nearest restaurant. Bill’s on me.”

“Sounds good, Aggs,” Fred beamed back, shifting the car into the right lane. “Oh, and remind me later to ask you about the latest developments in your — “ he lowered his voice into a sleazy tone, waggling his thick eyebrows. “Love-hate relationship.”

I gave Fred a look that plainly said, ‘Don’t push it,' and he just responded with his usual charming flash of the pearly-whites. “I don’t have a love-hate relationship, Freddy.”

“Sure you do,” Fred chirped, pulling over the car. “If somehow in the future they found a way to bottle sexual tension and use it as an energy source, you’d be a billionaire taking daily money baths.” He paused. “With the help of your cyborg bathing servant, of course — this is the future, after all.”

I rolled my eyes for what must have been the bajillionith time today. Being around Freddy was really a workout for my irises. “Potter and I’s relationship isn’t so much love-hate as hate-hate, okay?”

Fred stopped the car and shifted the gear to park, gaze sliding slyly to me. His lips were quirked in a small, devastating little smirk that I knew meant I'd already lost the argument. “Who said anything about Potter? I never even mentioned him. You were the one who brought up his name, Aggy.”

Oh.

Bollocks.

—*—

The next couple days at Crescent Drive passed by quickly, blurring into an eventual routine. Dad was always at work and Debbie, surprisingly, managed to keep out of my way whenever we were both home alone. She spent most of her free time looking after the kids or obsessively tending her greenhouse, which was thankfully in the backyard and far, far away from my bedroom. I didn't know why — maybe my press conference meltdown had scared her — but shockingly enough, she had done a good job of staying out of my hair.

Speaking of hair, I had finally, er, undyed it. With a couple of quick charms, I'd reversed the Witch Weekly transformation and was now back to my original red colour. While I was sure this meant having to put up with a lot more ginger jokes from Freddy, I was still happy to have my usual curlicues of gleaming crimson. I'd gotten sick of the brown. My Nutella Hair™ had been a way for me to convince myself that I’d changed, grown up and matured, when, in reality, I’d still been the same person —just in brunette edition.

No matter what I did to my appearance, I'd always be the same Aggy. I would always do screwed up, dramatic things. I would always get sneak-attacked by bouts of clumsiness and unpleasant life surprises. Potter and I would always fight and bicker and confuse each other. That’s just how it was.

And it was time I accepted that.

If my life were a movie, my days at Crescent Drive would be the part with the montage of me doing everyday things while a slow indie rock song played in the background: me drying dishes, me reading by the fire, me watching the snow fall and staring out the window with a wistful expression.

I did it all. I did it all with an overdone melodrama that would have made the Angsty Teenage Girls Club proud. Though I knew I should be out in the real world, tracking down Nott and getting to the bottom of my…er, predicament, it was just so nice to have a time-out from reality. A five-second breather in which, even if it was only for a little bit, no one was out to kill me and I could be like any other normal teenage girl in London.

And I was perfectly content with what was shaping up be a possible future as an eccentric recluse living in her father’s guest bedroom — until I came back from the grocery store one day and saw The Daily Prophet’s entire press team crammed onto my dad’s front lawn.

Yeah. Montage over. Buckle your seatbelts, folks. This plane is slowly making its descent into reality once again. Thank you for flying with Aggy Airlines. Our motto? We get you from Point A to Point B—where Point A is pathological denial and Point B is your old DADA professor trying to kill you!

We're in for a bumpy landing.

—*—

Despite the fact that it was late January and therefore about as cold as the darkest depths of Evelyn Stanford’s heart, and despite the fact that I was a lazy-bum who liked to stay about as active as your average sloth, I had developed the habit of walking to the supermarket to pick up Debbie's groceries when she needed them. And, though I hated to admit it, the ten-minute walk from Wally’s Convenience Store back to my dad’s house was pretty pleasant.

Sundale Parks — just like its cliché name suggested — was a wonderland of perfect houses and perfect families. Ancient trees drooped with sparkling snow; houses were doused in the glittery rain of their Christmas lights. The winding paths and perfectly trimmed bushes were frosted with white. It was truly beautiful.

Arms laden with grocery bags (contents: the ingredients for tonight’s dinner, Debbie-approved frozen yogurt for the kids, and a non-Debbie-approved carton of cupcakes for yours truly), I trudged down the path, breath bursting in front of me and headphones blasting music from my trusty WizPod.

I was looking forward to tonight. Relaxing by the fire, drinking some hot chai... Maybe I’d even let Casey do my hair like she’d been begging to. That would definitely fill my Good Deed Quota for the month. At this point, it couldn't hurt to rack up a few extra karmic brownie points.

I trudged along, beginning to ponder all the different ways in which letting a nine-year-old play hairstylist could go wrong, when I spotted the house.

...And promptly stopped in my tracks.

Because my father's front yard was swarmed with people. People who were carrying microphones and cameras.

This could not be good.

From my limited experience with matters like this one, I could tell it was the press outside my dad's house. I could see it from the clunky cameras they carried, the hungry expressions on their faces and the way they pushed insistently to the front.

And — oh Merlin — standing in the doorway, looking absolutely terrified, was Debbie.

Instinctively, I knew that the press people on my lawn were bad news — no pun intended (okay, fine, pun very much intended and relished). They seemed like your typical scummy paparazzi — thirsty for a juicy story, willing to go to whatever lengths to get it. Given what had happened at the Potters' home over the holidays, I knew that if they caught sight of me, I’d be done for.

Heart thudding, I quickly dashed behind a neighbors fence that stood just a couple feet away from the nearest news crew. My hands scrambled to turn off my WizPod as I leaned forward, straining to hear the commotion.

There were clamoring voices, the whirs and snaps of cameras, everyone hollering for Debbie’s attention. Amid the tangle of noise, I could pluck out a few key questions.

“Mrs. Bennett, do you have any comments to offer? Anything you would want the public to know about your step-daughter?”

“What do you think about these recent developments?”

“Where do you think the Sword is?!”

“Is your step-daughter really as guilty as the Auror Department is making her out to be?”

“Where could she be now? Where is The Girl Who Stole the Sword?”

Wait, hold up. I must've had been playing my WizPod a little too loud and gone temporarily deaf, because I could have sworn that instead of saved, that newsman had just said stole.

“How do you think she did it?” The reporter prattled on inconsiderately, unaware that his words had just sent me wheeling. “Hogwarts is known for having the tightest security in the world — " Apparently not, if you can just walk out the front door, “— so how do you think your step-daughter, Agatha Bennett, stole the Sword of Gryffindor?”

Wait. What?!

The grocery bags dropped from my hands as the news reporter’s words hit me in one collective gut-punch. Confusion flickered inside of me, quickly to be replaced by panic. How could they think Iwas the one who stole the Sword?! How could they think the Sword had been stolen in the first place?

And then. And then.

It dawned on me.

I had left Hogwarts — fell off the map, really — right after Nott had disappeared with the Sword. Of course no one was going to blame the esteemed professor for the precious artifact’s disappearance.

No. All fingers were pointed to the emotionally-unstable teenage girl.

Me.

Oh Merlin.

That’s it. I was a criminal. It was finally hitting me — I was being wrongly accused of stealing the Sword of Gryffindor. Not only was I now famous, but I was famous for committing a crime. Which meant I was totally, completely, utterly screwed. Oh Merlin, oh Merlin — commence freak-out — I was so screwed!

Do you know how hard it is to get a good job when you have a criminal record?! Let alone a criminal record that’s PLASTERED ALL OVER THE NEWSPAPERS?! OH MY GOD, I WAS GOING TO HAVE TO GET A JOB AS A FRY COOK AT MCDONALD'S. OH MY GOD, WAIT NO — I’M A NATIONAL FELON! I’M NOT GOING TO GET TO WORK AT A MCDONALD'S LIKE A NORMAL LOSER…I’LL HAVE TO WORK AT A MCDONALD'S IN PRISON, SERVING CHICKEN NUGGETS TO CONVICTS.

Wait, do they even have McDonald's in prison?!

WHY AM I EVEN THINKING ABOUT THIS. Merlin, I was so unequipped for the hard-knock life of a prison inmate. I didn't know anything about having bitches or using shanks to stab people in the showers. Where can one even buy a shank? It’s not like you can just pick up a shank at your local Wal-Mart. Wait — can you? DOES WAL-MART SELL SHANKS?!

I think I’m going to pass out.

“Mrs. Bennett,” one of the reporters called out, jolting me back to the present. For a terrifying moment, I thought I was the one being spoken to, but then I saw Deborah jerk her head up, looking just as startled as I felt, and I realized the question had been directed to her. Wobbly on her stilettos, she wheeled on the reporter with wide, scary eyes, her blonde up-do trembling on her head like a frightened animal.

“Mrs. Bennett,” the reporter simpered, thrusting her microphone into Debbie’s shocked face. “Do you know where Agatha Bennett’s current whereabouts are? Everyone in the country is looking for this girl, and surely, as her step-mother you must know something…”

This was it. This was the moment when Debbie gave me away, when she handed me to reporters and the Aurors like a late Christmas present. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if she covered me in wrapping paper and a bow first, if she just thrust open the door and said, ‘Why, sure! In fact I’ll show you straight to her bedroom!’

This was the moment when Debbie got her revenge. Revenge that, in all fairness, she kind of deserved.

“Um,” Debbie said faintly, sounding very young and very scared. She shifted in her pink fluffy robe, scanning the bloodthirsty faces before her, and I crouched lower behind the fence. I was ready to make a break for it the minute I saw an opportunity. I didn’t know where I would go, but I definitely couldn’t stay here.

Then, something in Debbie seemed to snap. She straightened, face going from shocked to annoyed in a matter of milliseconds. Immediately, the vulnerability was gone, and Debbie was all self-righteous snippiness and prim hand gestures.

“First of all, Agatha Bennett doesn’t have the intelligence to steal something as heavily protected as the Sword. You’re giving her too much credit,” Debbie harrumphed with dignity, crossing her arms over her chest. “Secondly, I have no idea where she is, her not being welcome at this house. Third of all, I — I want you all off my lawn before I call the police because this is an invasion of privacy. I mean it! Leave before I sue you all for harassment!”

I couldn’t believe my ears. As the news reporters began to scatter, I shook my head, mouth gaping open, incredulity swelling inside me like a wave. Debbie had just saved my arse! She had just lied for me! Granted, she’d insulted my intelligence and acted like a major bitch in the process, but still!

As much as I wanted to continue pondering what was definitely one of the first few signs of the apocalypse, I knew I had to move before some lucky cameraman stumbled across the scared ginger girl hiding in the bushes. Every muscle in my body was quivering with leftover fear. Silently, I darted around my dad's house — hidden from view by the fence — until I reached the backdoor. Using the grocery bags as a kind of battering ram, I burst inside, panting, eyes wild, certain I looked absolutely crazy.

Click. I startled, caught off guard by the faint noise of the front door snapping shut across the hall. I looked up just in time to lock gazes with Debbie, who had re-entered the house from the opposite side.

For a moment, we simply stared at each other.

I stumbled back warily, fully expecting my stepmother to explode in an epic meltdown of questions and shrill.

Instead, tiny fists clenched by her side, my stepmum — the champion for ladylike behavior, Miss Manners herself — exclaimed, “Well, what the hell are you doing? Close the goddamn door! Do you want them to catch you?”

It was the first time I’d ever heard Debbie swear. I was so surprised, I had to make the conscious decision to actually shut my mouth before turning around and giving the backdoor a firm shove.

My stepmother stalked forward and grabbed me with her manicured talons-oops-I-mean-nails. Then, without another word, she frog-marched me to the kitchen.

When it doubt, boil it out — every respectable housewife’s motto. I plopped down at the wooden table as Debbie wordlessly busied herself with putting a kettle for tea on the stove. Her shoulders were rigid with tension, her movements hasty and sharp. I watched her fidget with the tea bags, unable to form any words.

Finally, back facing me, Debbie spoke up: “You’re not here because of the supposed ‘expelled friend,’ are you? That was all a cover story, right?”

I didn’t think now would be a good time to explain that Freddy did indeed exist and that his situation was all-too-real, so I stayed silent.

Debbie slammed a mug on the table, splashing some hot water inside of it. “You can look at the files.”

I almost choked on my own spit. “What?”

My stepmum finally turned to face me, her eyes watery and bloodshot, her forehead crinkled with something similar to anxiety. “The files you asked for — if you still want them, they’re yours. I’ll take you to the Ministry tomorrow, though we'll have to charm up a disguise for you..."

"A disguise?" I squeaked, too astounded to say anything else.

"So no one knows who you are. But don't worry about that," she responded, all brusque and business-like. "I'll take care of your appearance."

Finally, it seemed like Debbie might get what she had wanted all along —the opportunity to dress me. I almost laughed at the irony. “Why are you doing this for me?”

“Because, Agatha, it’s obvious that you’re in trouble right now. I don’t know what you’ve done, or how you’ve done it…” Debbie said, throaty with emotion. “But you need help.”

There was a blink of silence. I was too overwhelmed to respond, so I grabbed the tea mug, scraping it across the table to stare into its swirly depths.

“You’re not going to ask if I did it? If I stole it or not?” I whispered to the mug, and my voice was so quiet, I didn’t think she could hear me.

Debbie wrung her hands together, blonde hair glinting in the kitchen light. “I—" She began, but was cut off by the doorbell ringing. She deflated. Saved by the bell — quite literally. “It’s probably more reporters, I’ll take care of them.”

As Debbie hurriedly bustled out of the kitchen, I slumped in my chair, gaze boring into my tea mug. How had so much changed in the past ten minutes? For all intents and purposes, I was a criminal now. There was no going back to Hogwarts, no walking out in public. I couldn’t even risk a simple stroll to the grocery market anymore — Merlin, it had been a miracle that I hadn’t been picked up by anyone on my way back from Wally’s...

What was my Dad going to say when he inevitably saw my name in the papers under the label of thief? What about my mum? Aidan? Dom? Who would want to believe me? Especially when I wasn’t back at school, there to tell my own side of the story?

Fuck.

I had gone from feeling utterly safe in this house to utterly alone.

“No, absolutely not!" From the kitchen, I could hear Debbie's voice ringing down the hallway, insistent and slightly hysterical. "I don’t care how you know her, young man, you can’t come in — "

“Look, Mrs. Bennett, I know she’s here and I’m not leaving until I can talk to her — “

I perked up, instantly on edge at the tones floating in from the front of the house. There were two very strange things about this new development — one was Debbie going all protective Mama Bear over me, and two was the familiarity of the second voice — deep, lilting, a drawl with an edge of stubbornness that promised to bite if you didn’t comply. It could only belong to one person —

But. No. It couldn’t be.

Nevertheless, without any sort of direction from my mind, my body was jerking me up from my chair and I was stumbling out of the kitchen, into hushed darkness of the hallway.

Potter was standing at the front-door, right before my very eyes, a hand shoved into his messy hair. My brain soaked in the sight of him, reveling in each irrelevant detail. The snow dusted on the top of his hair. The navy hoodie he was wearing, the clenched agitation in his jaw. His eyes were an angry, vibrant hazel.

Debbie had shoved herself in between him and the rest of the hallway, acting as a living pink barrier of some sort. She obviously didn’t want him near me, and I obviously couldn’t give a shit. Stepping out from behind her, I drew in a sharp, shaky intake of breath, and alerted everyone to my presence.

When Potter saw me, his lips parted open. In typical fashion, he shoved his hands into his pockets, rocking onto his heels as if my sheer presence alone had forced him backwards. His face was uncharacteristically expressive — eyebrows furrowed, eyes uncannily bright and almost relieved-looking.

My heartbeat was sputtering at machine-gun-pace. I couldn’t tear my gaze away.

“Bennett,” he said, and the word came from somewhere low and deep in the back of his throat. He jerked forward and then — seeming to think better of it — restrained himself, falling back once more.

I didn’t speak. Couldn’t speak.

“Bennett,” he said again, carefully this time. And then James Sirius Potter, Mr. Cool and Collected himself, was rambling: “Bennett, you’re here — you’re actually here. I mean, I knew you would be because Freddy told me, but — I just didn’t — Fuck. You’re probably pissed I came by, but I saw what the paper was saying about you and — and I just wanted to make sure you were okay. I’ll leave if you want me to, but — I just want you to know that… that I believe you. Whatever you have to say about the sword, whether you did it or not… I believe you, Bennett —“

Normally, I would have reveled in listening to the Golden Boy himself babble on like an idiot. But I didn’t give him the chance, because in three long strides I was pushing past Debbie, crossing the distance to Potter and throwing my arms around his neck.

I wasn't sure what Potter had expected, but it definitely wasn't me hurling myself into his arms teen-romance-novel-style. Shoulders stiffening in surprise, he stumbled backwards at the 110 pounds of emotional girl in his arms and about half that weight of red curls in his face.

Too distraught to speak, I pressed my forehead into the warm crook of Potter's neck, sucking in a long, shuddery breath. The sound rasped through the air between us, ragged and horrible, and this seemed to shake Potter out of his daze. Tension melting from his shoulders, he wrapped one arm firmly around my waist and reached up with the other hand to smooth the back of my hair.

"Bennett," Potter began, voice low, but went silent when I fiercely shook my head, face rubbing into the navy cotton of his hoodie. Common sense had already failed me, and next to go were words. I couldn't explain or speak. All I had left, it seemed, was the pit of emotion inside my center, weighing against my stomach lining and making tears sprout into the corners of my eyes.

Amidst my personal muddle of confusion and shock and emotional rioting, I faintly realized how strange of a position this was. Here Potter and I were, standing in the dark hallway of my dad's house, my step-mother watching, for Merlin's sake — and we were hugging. Potter and I had never hugged, not in the five years we'd known each other. We had fought and kissed, gone to the most volatile extremes, but we'd never had something as simple and intimate as a hug.

My body was lurching with great, shaking belly-sobs. Potter murmured something that sounded, vaguely, like "I'm sorry," in my ear, though I didn't know if he was apologizing for our recent argument or my shitty situation or both. Eyes fluttering shut, I couldn't reply. I felt like the solid warmth of Potter's arms around me were the only thing keeping me from floating off this earth. Reality had begun to sink in — my ruin, Potter's presence — and now I was crying, Potter's shirt collar suffering the damp consequences.

Debbie took one long look at us, nodding awkwardly, and mumbled something about brewing me more tea before hurrying off to the kitchen. This only made me cry harder. I'd been declared a national bloody criminal today, and all of a sudden, everyone I hated was being nice to me? Nothing made sense; the world had twisted itself inside-out, it seemed, and I had been left discarded among the wasted debris.

"Oh god, Potter," I said, voice muffled and watery and sounding as if it'd been ripped from the very back of my throat. "What am I going to do? Oh god."

I was sobbing now, frantically gasping for air in between the quakes that wracked body. My attempts at gathering oxygen, however, were probably hindered by the fact that my face was practically soldered into the crook of Potter's neck. I could see nothing but a patch of warm skin and blue cotton, and this suited me fine. For all intents and purposes, the outside world did not exist.

"Oh god," I kept mumbling over and over again, and Potter would just quietly pull me closer and smooth the back of my hair. Wordlessly, he pressed a kiss to my hairline, and this only made me cry harder.

I don't know how long we stayed like that, me curled into him, his lips on my forehead, but it was enough for my body to go from shaking to quivering, and then stop altogether. I'd cried myself out, it seemed, and now I was left with a rawness in my throat and a trembling in my hands. Swiping at the tears with the floppy sleeves of my sweater, I pulled away, unable to look at Potter. I could tell he was staring at me, his eyes tracing the lines of my face, a crease etched between in his eyebrows.

“What am I going to do?” I whispered, despondent, at the floor.

For the first time, James Potter did not have the answer. He shook his head slowly, expression guarded. “I don’t know, Bennett," he said simply. "I’m sorry. I don’t know.”

My eyes flashed to his face and, nose to nose, we stared at each other — watery blue locked on subdued hazel. We were standing so close, I suddenly realized, and for a split second, it seemed as if something was on the brink of happening—

“What the bleeding hell is going on? Deborah, our front lawn is completely trashed! And they're writing in the papers about Agatha? Can someone please explain to me — Oh, hello.”

Potter and I leaped apart, identical guilty expressions tugging at our faces, at the sight of my dad blinking at us in the open front doorway.

“Dad, hi!” I chirped, shivering at the fresh draft of wintery air coming through the house. I pressed my hand to my mouth, hoping the wool of my sweater sleeve would hide the telltale signs of swollen eyes and a stuffy nose.

My father took in the sight of me, obviously bewildered, obviously clueless as what to say. “Hello.”

I glanced at Potter for help, but he just raised his eyebrows at me in an expectant manner. Guess this one was on me then. “Have you met Pott — er, James? He’s Aidan’s friend. And mine. Kind of. Yeah. He's here for a visit.

"A visit," my dad repeated, looking between me and Potter as his blue eyes turned crisp and serious. He straightened to full intimidating height. If my father felt any reservations for having walked into the very palpable tension between Potter and I, he didn't show it. He was suddenly all brusque business and Ministry officialdom.

“Pleased to meet you, Jack.”

“It’s James,“ I piped up helpfully.

I was promptly ignored. “Right. So what brings you here to Sundale Parks, John?”

“Well," Potter began uncertainly, rubbing the back of his neck.

“I see. Eloquently put, Jeremiah. Your arrival wouldn’t have anything to do with my daughter's name in the papers, would it?”

“Dad! All will be explained!" I cried exasperatedly in a poor attempt at pacification. "Just take a seat, okay?”

My dad wheeled his sharpened gaze on me. “Damn right it will be explained. Now is this Jamal staying with us for dinner?”

“Er, well, not really.” I sucked in a deep breath, struggling to figure out how best to phrase my next few words tactfully, in a manner that wouldn't bring on a meltdown of paternal anxiety.

Screw it.

"Dad," I said. "James will actually be staying with us for the next three days.”

“What?!” Dad said.

What?!" Potter said.

This was going to be fun.


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