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Chapter 43 : Gold
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“I cannot believe you, Bennett."
"I don't see what the problem is here."
"The problem? You told your dad I was staying with you guys! Without even asking me first!"
"Oh just calm down, will you?"
"Are there any other decisions you’ll be making for me that I should be aware of? My future profession, maybe? How many kids I’ll be having? Perhaps a sex change tossed in there somewhere?"
I rolled my eyes, stomping forward with my hands shoved into my pockets and my boots smacking furiously against the concrete. It was chilly out, but with Potter and his arsenal of snark trailing behind me, I was finding myself very, very warm. The prat still hadn’t gotten over me announcing to Debbie and Dad that he was staying with us, and had now decided to give me a lifetime of shit for it that I, funnily enough, was not in the mood for.
“How many times do I have to say it? I’m sorry,” I whipped around, hair rippling in the wind, cheeks glowing with heat. “I cracked under the pressure; I wasn’t thinking and I made a mistake. Sorry for being human, though that’s probably a concept you’re not familiar with.”
“Yeah, save your apologies for when your dad tries to kill me in my sleep,” Potter retorted, eyebrows raised derisively. “He’s a jolly fellow, isn’t he? Reminds me of a kindly old Santa Claus — or, you know, Hitler.”
Maybe it was Potter’s ‘bad boy, good looks’ persona, or the fact that my dad’s first encounter with him involved the two of us in a very close, suspicious embrace — but my dad was not about to join the I Heart James fan club anytime soon. Like father, like daughter I guess.
I folded my arms across my chest, pursing my lips in a knowing fashion. “Well actually, Hitler has been described as historically being very warm to his friends and fam — okay, you know what, that’s besides the point.” I snapped as Potter shot me an unamused look. "Can you just drop it? We have shit to do.”
After about twenty minutes of hushed, frantic whispering in the kitchen, Dad and Debbie had finally agreed to let Potter stay. Conditions: he would sleep on the couch, help with the dish washing, and at no times could the two of us be in my bedroom together with the door closed — no ifs, ands or buts.
“Why not, Dad?” I had demanded. “Because you think we’d just have raging sex all the time? Don’t worry about that — Potter’s my meth dealer. I don’t like to mix business with pleasure.”
This had caused my dad to turn bright red and Potter to launch into a five minute coughing fit.
So worth it.
Anyways, now that Potter was staying, I didn’t want to waste any more time. In light of… er, recent developments (ie. me being branded as criminal by my government), I was more eager than ever to get my hands on those files. And with Debbie’s explicit permission, I had dragged Potter out of the house the very next day.
Which explained why we were now making our way to the Ministry, snapping at each other just like old times. Gone was the tender moment we had shared in the hallway. It was back to bickering, flinging angry words at each other, dirty glares and snippy remarks.
Dad had of course tried to come with — he hadn’t reacted well to the news about me being a wanted felon, surprisingly enough — but I’d managed to convince him to stay home.
I was going to be fine. I was in disguise, after all — with the help of Debbie’s wand, I now had a long sheet of platinum blonde hair, and my nose had been magically molded into a perfect ski-slope instead of its usual button shape. Throw in some of Debbie’s pink, formfitting clothes, and there was no recognizing me.
I’d also told my dad that Potter would be enough protection. Something which, after taking a glance at Potter’s broad, Quidditch-playing frame, he seemed to grudgingly agree with. Reluctantly, he let us go.
After all, we were only looking for a couple files. We’d be in and out in ten minutes. An easy job.
Or it was supposed to be, at least.
“Besides,” I declared snootily as I turned away from a glowering Potter, unable to let the argument go. As always, I had to have the last word. “It’s not my fault my dad doesn’t like you.”
“You told him I was a bloody drug dealer!”
“Yes — a delightfully witty joke that had sadly been wasted on an unappreciative audience,” I said nonchalantly. “Oh, there it is!”
Voice peaking in excitement, I threw out my arm to gesture towards the red phone booth across the street. It was one of the many secret entrances to the Ministry, and I remembered coming to this phone booth with my dad when I was younger during Bring Your Child to Work day. I could still recall my tiny hand clasped in his, bouncing in excitement at the prospect of seeing what Daddy’s work was really like.
Paying no heed to the cars bustling down the street, I crossed the road in swift, brisk strides. Potter, muttering a dark, “Jesus Christ,” followed suit.
I swung open the creaky door, marching into the cramped space, and wasted no time in grabbing the phone and punching a certain combination of buttons. “Okay, so Debbie said the office with the files is on the third floor,” I threw over my shoulder. “We should get there as soon as possible. The less people we talk to, the better. I don’t want to risk anything and — oh.”
I sucked in an accidental breath, eyes widening, as I turned around and almost headbutted Potter in the process. He was a lot closer than I'd expected, standing behind me with his eyebrows raised and looking none-too-happy to have his broad shoulders and towering height crammed into such a tiny space.
“Hi,” I said, startled. My nose was almost brushing his chest, and that was when I realized that phone booths were typically made for one person, not two.
Potter stared blankly at me for a moment — and then his eyes took on a sudden spark of understanding as he seemed to realize my discomfort, the beginnings of a smirk tugging at his lips.
“Something wrong?” His tone was dark, hoarse, rough around the edges.
"Nope," I tried to answer brightly, but my traitorous voice chose that exact moment to crack. Audibly.
“You sure? You look a little... nervous, Bennett.” This must be payback for the drug dealer comment.
“I — I’m not. This is a great time, actually. Really glad we could share in this experience together — ”
“Yeah. You have some hair in your face. Do you mind?” Oh, this was definitely payback for the drug dealer comment.
I stood as still as possible, trying not to blink or flinch or even breathe as, in one of those typical, cheesy-romcom-movie moves, Potter gently brushed a golden lock of hair out of my face.
Well played, James Potter. Well played.
This was going to be a long day.
“I don’t get it! She said they would be here and — oh will you just get off your arse for ten seconds?"
James Potter shrugged from where he was sitting behind Debbie’s desk, feet propped up lazily on the shiny mahogany. Ever since our bickering on the way to the Ministry, Potter had decided to take this as an opportunity to be as unhelpful as possible. While I was floundering in a swamp of files and papers, he was watching happily by the sidelines with a smirk on his face.
“This isn't my problem, Bennett,” he taunted, rolling a quill casually between two fingers.
“Sure it isn’t,” I straightened, kicking yet another drawer shut in Debbie’s metal filing cabinet. Useless. “But it will become your problem when I throat-punch you for being an unhelpful little shit.”
“Feisty,” Potter quipped cheekily, a stupid, obnoxious little dimple poking into his cheek. “Haven’t you learned it’s not smart, talking back to a drug-dealer? We can get violent."
I took in one look at Potter’s position — his dark, arrogant gaze, the quirked eyebrow, the hands behind the head — and gritted my teeth.
“I will murder you, Potter.”
“Careful now, Bennett, you don’t want to be making threats like that...”
“I will murder you and dance in the blood.”
“You’re already a felon — “
“My bare hands. Using my bare hands.”
“ — wouldn’t want something else on your record…”
“OKAY, ENOUGH,” I hollered, slashing through the air with my hands. Frustration was burbling in my bloodstream and making it hard to breathe. James Potter really knew exactly where to dig to make me bristle and squirm. “I don’t care what you do. Just sit and — and see if you can tolerate ten minutes of not being annoying without spontaneously combusting!”
Potter grinned, swiveling in his chair and looking like he was getting great amusement out of this. The prat. “Whatever you say, Bennett.”
I huffed exasperatedly, wheeling back around to the filing cabinet. So. Many. Papers.
Time to try drawer number three. I slid it open, thumbing through the mishmash of receipts and documents, grumbling in frustration. It was all just a jumble of black letters skittering across pages and official stamps gleaming with ink, but nothing on Nott in sight.
And then I saw a familiar name.
“Wait a minute — “ Brow collapsing into a frown, I pulled out a file with the word ‘STANFORD’ embossed in emerald ink on the side. Stanfrod, as in Evelyn Stanford. Flipping open the folder, I quickly skimmed its contents with reading skills that could have only been honed by years of practice and a very lonely childhood.
It took a moment for me to make sense of all the numbered charts and five-syllable-Ministry-wording, but when I got the message, my eyebrows quirked upwards in shock.
“It says here that Evelyn’s family is in serious debt. You know — big, pureblood Slytherin clan. Chose the wrong side during The War and now they're basically bankrupt. But.... Guess who's been keeping them afloat with loans and stuff?" I didn't wait for Potter's answer, my brow furrowed as I barreled on. "Cooper's family. The Stanfords owe them a shit ton of money."
Potter dropped his feet from the top of the desk and leaned forward, acutely interested all of a sudden. The mischief in his eyes faded as he frowned thoughtfully, the quill twirling around his thumb. “Interesting. Does it say how much?”
“Nope. They’re both pureblood families though. Obviously old money, high society stuff. The debt could just be a matter of honor. You don’t think — ?”
“ — it somehow has to do with Evelyn’s getting back together with Cooper?”
“It would make sense…” My voice trailed off — was it too much to hope that Evelyn actually had sane motives behind her fraternizing with the enemy (and by ‘enemy’ I mean 'bat-wielding psychopath')? I didn’t want to jump to conclusions, but it actually seemed plausible...
“Freddy’s mentioned Evelyn’s family once or twice," Potter said, head cocked thoughtfully. "Says that she always talks about what a piece of work her mum is. One of those pushy socialites, always entering her in pureblood pageants and shit. I wouldn’t be surprised if she was the merry matchmaker behind Evelyn and Cooper's reunion.”
I swallowed, snapping the file shut and cramming it back into the drawer. I felt guilty for looking, for taking a peek at such a secret scrap of information like one of those crazy girls who goes snooping through her ex-boyfriends’ mail. “Let’s just focus on the task at hand,” I said quietly, kneeling on the ground as I eased the last drawer open.
I was flicking through the papers, chewing on my lip in concentration, when suddenly I saw it. “Oh, Yahtzee!” I exclaimed triumphantly, pulling out a considerably bulky file with the letters ‘NOTT’ etched in fading ink.
I spread the folder's contents out on the floor, sifting through photos, newspaper clippings, and past job applications. There was so much stuff. Nott’s questionable ties with the Death Eater movement. The case of Nott’s missing wife. His prestigious awards for his work in the DADA field. It was all here. Nott’s past sprawled out on the beige carpet in front of me.
I shuffled through it, not finding anything of remarkable interest. Just dead ends and faded pictures. No diamond-patterned tattoos, no recent suspicious activity. I sighed. “I think this might be a bust…”
Potter’s eyebrows tilted upwards. Setting down the quill he'd been fidgeting with, he stood from the chair and ambled over to the cabinet, where he started sliding drawers open and shut. Oh, so now the prat waned to help.
“Hey," Potter said after a moment of digging. "Headmistress Vespertine has a record.”
I looked up to see him pulling out a file labeled ‘VESPERTINE.’ He kneeled down besides me, spreadings its documents on the floor.
“Wow, she’s got a lot of stuff on her,” I murmured, peeking over Potter’s shoulders.
“I forgot she ran for Minister of Magic a while back,” Potter added, plucking an article out of the puddle of paper.
“Yeah, she lost against Humdudgeon.” Our current Minister had beaten out Headmistress Vespertine for the position, and now her defeat was kind of a running joke at Hogwarts — the woman wanted to be the ruler of a country, but had to settle for a school instead. Explained why she acted like such a freaking dictator all the time.
“She was involved with some pretty radical groups when she was younger, actually.” Potter flicked through some washed-out photos of a younger Vespertine, snapshots of her holding signs at protest demonstrations, dark hair flapping in the wind and mouth stretched open in a silent cry.
“Strange,” I remarked, casting a flippant glance at the picture before returning back to Nott’s file.
“Yeah. Kind of a narcissist too. She was the leader of one of these groups, named it after herself and everything. The Vespertine Vanguard for Vendetta and Victory — VVVV for short. The woman had a thing for alliteration.”
I dropped Nott’s file, tucking blonde behind my ear as I scanned the newspaper clipping that Potter was holding. “Four ‘V’s…”
Potter suddenly stiffened, face dawning with a funny look of realization. The article fluttered to the ground as he glanced up, hazel eyes wide and indicating that his brain was probably going about a million miles per minute. “Wait a second.” He leaped up, grabbing a paper and quill off the desk. “This might be a little out there…” He knelt down beside me, smoothing out the paper on the carpet. “But if you draw four ‘V’s like this, it kind of form a diamond pattern.”
He scratched two ‘V’s in the center of the paper, and then wrote the other two, upside-down on top of them.
As the drawing took shape, the room suddenly seemed to plummet in temperature.
Heartbeat thudding, I traced Potter's lines with a finger. There was a faint screeching in my ears, a chill clinging to my spine — it was like everything was falling into place.
“And you know what…” I began, words picking up speed as the clues in my mind seemed to shift together. I returned to Nott’s file. “It says here that Nott goes to the Ministry of Education's Annual DADA Conference right at this time of the year — I’d brushed it aside because I was so sure he was guilty, but maybe he is actually at this thing... Which would mean an alibi. Which wouldmean he's innocent. Maybe Vespertine’s the one we should be looking out for.”
“Or they could be in it together,” Potter pointed out.
I shook my head frantically. “No, I really think it’s just Vespertine. Nott’s one of the most brilliant academic minds of his generation — he’s wouldn’t have left that paper just lying around like that, a piece of evidence for anyone to find. Vespertine must have planted it in his office. She’s the one. She took the Sword — I…I know it. I feel it.” And, suddenly, I did. The certainty was tight and instinctive, a physical thing weighing against the lining of my stomach like a smooth stone. The more I thought about it, the more all the evidence seemed to confirm the possibility. Vespertine was our culprit.
“But why steal the Sword from your own school? And then not go anywhere? Vespertine’s still at Hogwarts, exactly where everyone expects her to be,” Potter countered as he thumbed through the photos. “Doesn’t make sense.”
“Don’t you get it?” I burst, unable to control myself. “Vespertine’s been waiting for this week — she knows Nott is going to be away from school. Plus he’s an old Slytherin, a pureblood, and he’s got a suspicious past. He’s the perfect scapegoat. That’s why she hired him.”
Potter froze, gaze sharp and calculating as he mulled this over. “You think she's been planning this? What would she want with the Sword?”
“The Sword isn’t what she wants. The Sword’s just bait. What she wants is... is revenge.” Goosebumps were crawling up my skin as I locked eyes with Potter, my voice dropping to a hushed whisper as the truth seemed to unravel itself more and more before me. “She wants Humdudgeon gone.”
“With the Sword missing, Humdudgeon’s going to have to make a public statement about it sooner or later.” Potter looked away, still frowning thoughtfully.
“And that’s when she’ll strike.” I said with finality. “If Humdudgeon’s done for, Vespertine’s next in line for the position on Minister because she was the only other candidate nominated. She was planning this all along...”
Potter raised his eyes to mine. “Until you ruined everything. You botched the first time she tried to take the Sword at the Ministry. Those other guys there — the ones dressed as Death Eaters — they were probably old members of her group,” he added.
“But I just made it easier for her. I landed the Sword in Hogwarts, and then later I gave her someone to pin the theft on. Me. And now… Now she’s after me as well. She’s one of most cunning witches of our time, respected by everyone in high society, an old leader of several radical conspiracy groups, highly trained in the Dark Arts and And she’s after me.”
Potter stayed silent, watching me with careful, subdued eyes. For once, I did not like the fact that he wasn’t speaking. It meant something bad. It meant he thought I was in for it.
I snatched one of the old photographs, sweeping my gaze over the glossy image, trying to soak in every single detail.
“Bingo.” My voice was a croaked whisper as I jabbed the photo with my trembling pointer finger. There Vespertine stood, looking a little younger, thrusting a sign into the air at some protest, her face a furious scowl. It was barely visible, but you could see a tiny black tattoo etched into her wrist. The two diamonds. It all suddenly crashed down on me.
This was a very, very scary woman. And she most likely wanted me dead.
“Excuse me,” I squeaked primly. And then I barged out of the office, clackered down the hallway in Debbie’s borrowed heels, pushed myself into the bathroom next door… And threw up in the nearest sink.
Fuck. My. Life.
"Bennett, what are you doing?”
“Learning how to salsa. What does it look like I’m doing?”
“Er, raiding your father’s liquor cabinet?” Potter retorted warily, ruffling the back of his hair with a hand. We were standing in the living room, back at my dad's house, and bickering like usual — well, rather Potter was standing, and I was on my knees, rooting through my father’s whiskey collection like some kind of deranged, alcoholic racoon.
“Ding ding ding! We have a winner, folks!” I snarled with mock chirpiness. Potter arched an eyebrow, looking like there was a retort, mean and sarcastic, on the tip of his tongue. He must have thought better of it though, because he stayed silent and just watched me with careful gold eyes.
I snatched a bottle of Jack out of the cabinet and stood up with a frantic brusqueness that was half determination, half fear. Potter stepped backwards, looking almost alarmed by my mania — and when Mr. Cool As a Cucumber himself is alarmed, that's when you know it's bad.
“Well, it’s been a real laugh, finding out I’m about to die and everything," I snapped. "But if you don't mind, my liver has a date with Mr. Daniels over here, and I gotta go."
With that, I shouldered roughly past Potter and out the backdoor. It was snowing outside — the frigid wind rasped in my ear, fat flurries of white smearing my vision. It was really coming down hard. Just as well — the greenhouse, my destination of choice, was now swallowed by white. It would be impossible for Debbie or my dad to look in and see me.
As I started barging through the snow, however, I quickly realized that I wasn’t alone.
“Bennett! Bennett, wait — “
Potter caught up with me in no time, grabbing my arm with a warm hand. I quickly shook him off. He didn’t touch me again, but still he followed, keeping up easily thanks to his height and stupidly long strides.
“Don't you know how to take a hint?” I stopped in my tracks to hiss at him, eyes sapphire slits. “Actually, forget I asked. I’m sure you know how, you just choose not to because you’re a giant doofus.”
Potter blanched. "Did you seriously just call me a... doofus?” he repeated dumbfoundedly.
“Yeah! So what?”
"Nothing. It's just... doofus? Out of all the possible insults, that's what you're going with?"
First he refuses to leave me alone, now he was making fun of my vocabulary! Ugh, the prat was insufferable. “What, you’ve never been called a doofus before?”
“Can’t say that I have,” Potter replied calmly, but the corners of his lips were twitching, his eyes sparking with obvious amusement.
"That surprises me,” I said primly, with as much dignity as I could muster. Then I promptly wheeled around on my heel and started walking as fast as my legs could carry me to the greenhouse. My hair, back to its normal colour and appearance, fanned in a red swish behind me. Potter followed. Grr. “Seriously though, can you just leave?”
“I’m not going to leave you alone like this.” While a normal person would say such a thing in a tone of caring and compassion, Potter said it as if he were talking to a particularly slow child.
I had to stifle a scream. "Just sod off, will you?"
We reached the greenhouse, and I angrily shoved the creaky door open with my shoulder. Inside, the air was heavy with the smell of vegetation and earth and freshness. Colorful flowers drooped, their petals like melting jewels. The magical plants cooed and sighed around us. Some spat out showers of golden sparks, others had halos of pulsing lights around their bulbs.
Debbie had done a beautiful job with her greenhouse. It was like a patch of summer in the middle of this blizzard. Looking through the glass walls, you couldn’t see anything outside except for a whir of white snow. There were strands of white-gold Christmas lights draped across the glass panels, giving the atmosphere a cozy haze, and the overall effect made it seem like the greenhouse was some edifice of another world, isolated from reality.
It was the perfect spot. Except for the fact that Potter was still here.
I conjured a quilt, letting it float to the ground, and then plopped down on it. Cradling the bottle, I stared at the amber contents sloshing inside. Might as well get comfortable. I was here for the night.
“Why are you trying to follow me, Potter?” I grumbled, my eyes trained on the bottle label and my voice reedy with aggravation.
“Why are you trying to binge-drink?” Potter volleyed back without missing a beat, hands in his pocket, at ease as always.
“I — I — Because I’m distressed,” I finally sputtered, whipping my enraged gaze to him. The prick really had the nerve to be questioning me right now? I’d just about reached my breaking point. I could feel fury snaking around my windpipe, clogging my lungs like smog. “I just uncovered a masterplot detailing the assassination of our Minister — if you recall, you were there too, jackass — and there’s nothing I can do about it because I’m a national criminal, and no one will believe I’m telling the truth even if I screamed it at them while drowning in a kiddie pool of Veritaserum.”
Instead of his usual, expected expression of scorn, Potter was looking at me strangely, like I was a particularly hard puzzle he had to figure out. "Be that as it may, Bennett, drinking isn’t the solution."
“No it's not,” I said, twisting off the black cap to the whiskey. “The solution is to forget everything that's happened in the past twenty-four hours. Drinking helps me get there.”
I was raising the bottle to my lips when Potter sliced in again, his voice firmer this time. “Bennett, you’re not a drinker. You weigh like twenty kilos — one sip of Butterbeer and you hit the floor.”
“Whatever,” was my only response. I pressed the glass to my mouth, feeling its coolness seep into my bottom lip, trying not to wrinkle my nose at the smell. “You and Aidan and Freddy solve your problems with alcohol all the time. So you know what? I’d like to give it a try. I’d like to get ‘black out wasted,’ or whatever you guys call it, for one time. If you can’t handle it, then feel free to leav — Oi!”
My voice had veered dangerously close to a whine just then, because without a shred of hesitation, Potter had bent down and grabbed the bottle right out of my hands.
There was a wry smile twisting at Potter’s mouth as he looked at the bottle, reading its label with raised eyebrows. He looked like he had some inside joke no one knew about, a secret I couldn’t be let in on. “Can’t handle it?” Potter’s eyebrows raised in amusement. “That's cute, Bennett.” And then, sardonic hazel eyes locked on mine, Potter raised the bottle to his lips and drank.
My eyes were the size of Quaffles by the time Potter was finished. He’d polished off about a quarter of the bottle in one go. I knew the boy could hold his alcohol, but damn.
“Wow,” I said, the anger dissipating and replaced with awe. “You drank a lot.”
“Yeah, well,” Potter grimaced, handing me the bottle. “Practice makes perfect.”
I knew Jack Daniels and James Potter were two men that I should not be currently associating with, but I couldn't bring myself to care. I was so screwed right now, I almost welcomed the bad decision-making that were surely to come out of this. Potter Drama would be better than People Trying to Kill Me Drama by far.
I pressed the bottle to my lips and took a swig. The taste wasn’t unbearable, I was surprised to find, and I liked the way the liquor sloshed in my stomach — warm, heavy.
Potter and I stared each other down; his eyes darkened as I took another sip.
“I guess it does,” I said. And with that, I drank some more.
“…So then I told her that Freddy was in the process of becoming a rabbi, had taken an oath of celibacy, and wasn’t interested.”
I burst into laughter — great belly laughs that shook my whole body with giddiness. “You’re horrible,” I slurred cheerfully as the world tilted in a surge of light and dizziness.
Potter laughed as well, and the sound was so nice, I wanted to hear it again. “I really didn’t want this girl to get Freddy’s number. She was annoying as hell.”
“You’re horrible,” I said, fully aware that I’d already said this but finding myself unable to care. “What if Fred had actually wanted to see this girl?”
“What if Fred had actually wanted to become a rabbi?” Potter countered, eyes dancing gold.
I laughed harder. “The last time I talked to Freddy about religion, he told me that his body was a temple and that I was free to worship there if I liked.” Potter chuckled, a slow, easy sound. “I politely declined.”
Half a bottle of whiskey later, and Potter and I were both feeling a lot friendlier and a little tipsier. Okay, maybe more than a little. Once I'd resigned myself to the fact that Potter was here to stay, I 'dactually began to grudgingly... enjoy his company. Now we were currently lying on our backs on the quilt I had conjured, laughing and exchanging stories (exchanges that were, surprisingly enough, not infused with anger or hostility). Next to us was the bottle and my WizPod, which was leaking a soft swirl of music into the background.
I'd decided to try and think positive for once — enjoy this night while it lasted, because Merlin knew it could very well be my last given what I'd just learned about Vespertine. Strangely enough, Potter was contributing to my good mood. He was actually cheering up.
Though to be fair, its much easier to see the glass as half-full when that glass is in fact a bottle, and that bottle is filled with alcohol.
The greenhouse had turned into a giant merry-go-round for me, a swirl of golden lights and flickering shadows. If I strained hard enough, I could hear the hush of snow falling against the glass walls of the greenhouse. The sun had set, and now the dark sky quivered, inky soft, above us.
At first, this alcohol thing had made Potter and I very competitive. We were both back to our old habits of trying to beat the other, and we each dedicated ourselves to trying to outdrink the other person. But after a while (and a couple more shots), the night had devolved into an Honesty Hour of sorts, with the two of us lying on our backs and sharing little stories, shameful confessions.
And despite myself, I was having fun.
I laughed, and the world seemed to dip and blur around me. “Okay, okay, my turn — I have one,” I announced, taking another swig. The whiskey was beginning to lose its sharp taste. I didn’t know if this was a bad or good sign. “I have an irrational fear of… wait for it,” I gave a dramatic pause. “Airplane bathrooms.”
Potter almost died laughing. He guffawed loudly, the sound echoing off the glass walls. Normally, him laughing at me like that would have made me infinitely angry. But for some reason, now I didn’t mind. Potter had a nice laugh, and it kind of gave me a rush knowing I'd been the reason behind it.
“What!” I exclaimed incredulously as if I were offended by Potter's amusement, but I was smiling as well. “They’re just so loud! I feel like they’re going to…Suck me in.”
Potter only laughed harder at this. I shook my head, still grinning stupidly, and shoved the bottle in his hands. “Okay, your turn. Secret for a secret.”
Potter swung the bottle to his lips. “Alright, let’s see… Well, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen every episode of The Wiggles. Lillia is obsessed with them and whenever I babysit her, it’s the only thing she’ll watch.”
I gaped at Potter. “No.”
“Yes.” He nodded solemnly. “I know all the words to the Fruit Salad Song.”
I grabbed the bottle from Potter, arching a challenging eyebrow. “I have something better.”
The left corner of Potter’s lips hitched upwards, his eyes sparking with intrigue. We were now only inches apart, our necks craned so that we were facing each other. My eyes roved all over, taking in every detail — the curve of his mouth, the line of his jaw, the way the Christmas lights washed his skin with gold. “Go.” Potter’s murmur was accompanied by a slow, burning smile that made my toes curl.
“I didn’t know how to ride a bike until I was thirteen. Thirteen.”
“When I was six, I broke one of Nana’s favorite vases and blamed it on Hugo.”
“In Fourth Year, I spat in Evelyn’s hairbrush right before I knew shed use it.”
“I was the one who hexed off Nathan Holloway’s eyebrows. Did it after he dumped Rose.”
“I once had a sex dream about The Bloody Baron.”
“I hate treacle tarts. Can’t stand them. Don’t see what the hype is about.”
“I can't — physically can't — write a Transfiguration essay without eating a chocolate bar first.”
“I once ditched a girl on a date after I found out she had bad taste in music — she told me her favorite artist was 50 Centaur.”
I snorted. “I don’t care how many times Dom will make me watch it, I hate The Notebook.”
“I like The Notebook,” Potter joked. We both broke out into chuckles.
When the laughter faded, I turned my head to look at Potter again. His eyes were a dark, toasted amber, glinting with alcohol and amusement. They were watching me carefully, waiting for my next move.
“I think I have trust issues because of my dad,” I admitted softly, and I knew that I shouldn’t be saying this, that this was a secret of an entirely different kind, and I would regret revealing something so personal in the morning. But I didn’t care. The words were already dripping out of my mouth, thick and soft like honey.
Potter scanned my face, the familiar line etched in between his furrowed eyebrows. “Yeah? How so?”
I shrugged. “He just left Aidan and I when we were really young and…Well, he’s a hard guy to connect with. Doesn’t open up easily. And I think I’m becoming like that — like him.” I paused, a horrible thought suddenly occurring to me. “If I’m not already.”
Potter shook his head slowly, mouth a flat line. “You couldn’t, Bennett. You care too much.”
“I don't know.” My voice was small.
There was a silence. I turned away, snatching the bottle off the ground and sitting up. Potter struggled to sit as well, eyes trained carefully on me.
“Potter,” I said faintly, feeling something lodge in my throat as I tried to nudge the next few words out. “What happened between you and Nora?”
For a moment, I thought he wouldn’t answer me. A slew of unidentifiable emotions flickered over Potter’s face — he wasn’t as good now that he was drunk, getting sloppy, letting his normally impenetrable guard down — and I waited, holding my breath, until he spoke.
“It was just… difficult. Things would be good for while, then they’d be bad, then they’d get good again, then they’d be worse.” He shook his head, clasping his hands together and staring at his fingers. “I did everything trying to be enough for her. Then I realized that I never could. There wasn’t anyone who could. That summer was the last straw — I drove her to the hospital and she cried the whole way. She told me she’d never speak to me again, that she couldn’t believe I’d do this to her.” He shrugged, looking up and squinting at me through shards of hazel. “Sometimes I wonder if I did the right thing, but It is what it is. I still care about her a lot, though I don’t have feelings for her anymore. We were a big part of each other’s lives, yeah, but now we kind of have to move on.”
I stared at Potter the whole while he talked, watching every muscle movement of his jaw, every blink of an eyelash. When he was finished, I responded truthfully: “I’m sorry I gave you so much crap about her.”
Potter turned to look at me, his mouth pulled into something that was almost a smile. The color of his eyes had turned into a harsh gold, and I could tell that a part of him still blamed himself for whatever happened. “It’s okay. I’m sorry I gave you so much crap about… Well, about you and me.”
I didn’t know what Potter meant by this ambiguous ‘you and me,’ but I was too taken aback by his sudden flash of honesty to ask him to clarify. My stomach was suddenly feeling unnaturally warm. Potter sat cross-legged and calm, staring at the almost-empty whiskey bottle in his hands. The glass glinted as he rolled its neck left and right, left and right, between the flat expanses of his palms.
"And have you moved on?" The words came out in a croak. "From Nora, I mean?"
Potter quickly set down the bottle and glanced up to meet my stare full-on, the golden light of the greenhouse casting feathery shadows beneath his eyelashes. "Yeah," he said, voice coated with something smoky and serious. "Yeah, I have."
My heartbeat quickened as his words sunk in. Blue locked on hazel, we stared at each other for a moment — a long and unbearable moment that dragged on, slow and languorous, drenched in the kind of nebulous half-light you find at the bottom of swimming pools and in the filtery, dying hours of a sunset. In this glinting world of shadow and gold, all sound and air had been sucked away, and we were left, breathless, with the invisible thing that shivered between us.
"What are you looking at?" I softly asked.
"Nothing. I just... I just want to know you're thinking right now," Potter murmured. His features were pooled with dark, his lips parted ever so slightly. He was treading carefully, parsing out his words, but his bright eyes betrayed an investment in this interaction. An investment that I hadn't known could exist in the otherwise surly mire of apathy and derision that was James Potter's personality.
I wanted to see more of it.
And so I felt myself surrendering. "I always want to know what you're thinking," I responded with unusual honesty, the truth coaxed from my tongue by the liquor and Potter's frank gaze. I had meant to go for a blithe, casual tone that would mitigate the vulnerability in my words, but the air between us weighed down so heavily, I couldn't fake it.
My voice slid from amusement into seriousness. "I can never tell."
Potter remained silent, eyes bright and thoughtful, and I scanned his face with squinty eyes.
Things were getting hazy. Movements had become clunky and unfamiliar long ago, and my tongue and teeth and lips were struggling to remember the proper shapes that made a sound. Through the greenhouse glass, I could see that the snow outside had glazed everything in white, and the effect was like being in some strange, disorienting netherworld where all dimension had been stripped away.
I felt detached from reality, like whatever tethered me to the present was now sliced in two. There was an openness to Potter's expression that I'd never seen before, and for some reason I took this as a sign of encouragement to start babbling.
"You're just so cryptic all the time, Potter," I burst. "I can never tell what you mean, exactly, what you really mean, and when I finally think I'm making sense of it, you go ahead and say things like, like you and me. You and me? I don't even know what to make of that!"
"Bennett," Potter sighed, but I cut him off. This was five years of frustration being purged right here, and hell if I was going to let Potter interrupt my catharsis. These next few seconds would probably save me thousands in future psychotherapy bills.
"At first it seems like you might actually care about me, you know?" I prattled on. "Like care not in a brother's best friend kind of way, but in a real way. A possibly romantic way. So then I start thinking that maybe I care about you too, in a not best friend's sister kind of way, if you know what I mean — ?"
"I don't think I do — " Potter frowned, looking vaguely confused.
But I was already blundering ahead with my rant. "But then reality kicks in and the whole thing feels impossible. You're you and I'm me, and it just can't work. Won't work."
"Bennett — " Potter began once more, but I cut him off.
"We can barely be in the same room together, after all!" I exclaimed, feeling my emotions rising to the surface. "You're so maddeningly stubborn and, I guess I kind of am too, and — and I — I don't know — "
"Bennett," Potter interjected calmly, one last time, and I looked up to see that we were now almost nose to nose. His eyes were swimming with gold as they sharply studied my face, expression careful and guarded and almost wary. I could count the freckles on his nose.
My stomach clenched, and all of a sudden I just had this feeling — it started in the bones of my legs and worked its way up to my skittering heart — that something was about to happen.
"Yeah?" I breathed.
"Shut up," Potter said simply, and then his lips were on mine.
I stiffened, surprised but not altogether opposed to this sudden change in proximity. Something inside me had known this was the inevitable outcome of the night, that this was the inevitable outcome period, and I didn't bother to wonder any longer at Potter's thoughts or motives or reasoning. I just responded to the kiss, relishing the feel of his mouth against mine.
Potter reached across to cup my face before — deepening the kiss — he plunged that same hand further into my hair, where the feel of his warm touch made every nerve-end in the back of my neck tingle. I could feel our kiss everywhere, throughout the entirety of my body, and before I knew it we were on the ground, Potter lying in between my legs, his mouth hot on mine. He tasted sweet with liquor and it made my head spin, made my core shudder with something stronger than simple desire.
It wasn’t a gentle kiss — it was slow and burning and barely on this side of desperate. I dragged my hands down Potters shirt, slipping underneath the fabric to feel skin underneath, and a low sound dislodged itself from somewhere in the back of his throat as he pressed me harder to the quilt. This was the first time I’d ever seen him like this — not in complete control, not working under the usual clear, measured directives of his mind, but rather something else, something instinctive and wanting.
Potter’s tongue skated the inside of my lip, his fingers winding into the tangles of my hair, and I arched against him in response. It was like we were in this haze — this heady fervor where everything just felt so urgent. We weren’t thinking, drenched in heat, feelings heightened. Potter was dotting kisses up my neck, teeth tugging at my ear lobe before returning to my lips to muffle my sigh. We were both breathing raggedly. Somehow, my shirt was coming off, and then he was kissing a path from my collarbone down to my chest, fingers undoing the button to my jeans, my skin unbearably scorching. I was aware that this was going far — farther than we’d gone before — but I couldn’t bring myself to care. There was a hollow feeling at the back of my throat, an emptiness that trembled through my bloodstream, and I wanted him. Simple as that. I needed him to be as close as possible for that emptiness to go away.
We were both delirious, hot skin and frantic touches. I pulled Potter back up by the collar of his shirt (which, soon enough, was also coming off), and his lips hastily found mine again, hands shoving through my hair. I yanked him towards me so that every inch of us was touching, so that we were close enough I could barely breath.
Potter nudged my head to the side as his mouth found the sensitive patch of skin underneath my ear. “Want you,” he murmured feverishly, like it was a physical ache, and I’d never known the true effect two words could have until now. My skin burned at the way his voice sounded — drunk, hoarse, hungry.
“Okay,” I breathed. “Okay.” And then the rest of our clothes were coming off, and I couldn’t even stop to think because suddenly it was happening and we were moving together, breathing together, him groaning my name into the crook of my neck.
It was overwhelmingly intimate, too intimate to even kiss — instead, we just looked at each other, noses grazing, his breath becoming my breath. I could see very shard of green in Potter’s eyes, notice the faint freckles that sprinkled the bridge of his nose. He watched me watch him as we moved, and before I could stop myself, I was reaching up to graze his collarbone with my thumb, mesmerized.
The strings of lights around the greenhouse were blurring into warm, dazed smudges. Outside, I could see nothing but white — the snowstorm pressing itself insistently against the glass. It all swam in a dizzying swirl of sparkling white and gold. I could almost hear the whispered rustle of the snow falling, but maybe it was just my imagination. All I knew was that we were in the center of a raging blizzard, and yet I felt utterly safe.
It was careful. It was gentle and slow and good. It was his skin on mine, my chest brimming so full it hurt, We took our time — craving touches and hushed whispers. Potter kept on asking if I was okay, and I kept on nodding because that was all I could do.
And I was okay. More than okay. I trusted him, I realized. No matter how confusing my feelings became for him, no matter what the two of us went through — I knew one thing for certain:
I would always trust James Potter.
With my life. With anything.
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