Disclaimer: Anything you recognise is owned by J.K. Rowling, except for: Gucci Gang (Lil Pump; Warner Bros Records); Milkshake (Kelis; Star Trek and Arista Records); Mr. Brightside (The Killers; Island); The Merchant of Venice, William Shakespeare.
“Alright, alright!” Milo yelled. “Order!”
Aakash Dayton banged a large gavel from the podium adjacent to Milo’s, and the room fell silent.
“Welcome to the first Ravenclaw Trivia Night of the year!” Milo shouted, and the crowd immediately erupted into cheers. “Now, the rules are the same as always: Fifth Years and up only, no more than five to a team, only one wand, no textbooks, and no Extendable Ears - yes, I’m looking at you, Harkins.”
Francesco Harkens grinned sheepishly, stuffing what looked like the aforementioned item back into the front pocket of his jeans.
“Once we have completely finished asking the question and have given you the allotted amount of time, you can show us your answers on the Erase-Parchment,” Milo continued. “If it is correct, your team will receive the designated amount of points and an optional (but highly encouraged) shot of Firewhiskey for each member.”
“Firewhiskey?” Scorpius repeated warily. “We’re going to be fucked-”
“That’s the point!” Mia squealed, without taking her eyes off of the front of the room.
“And, now,” Milo grinned evilly from his podium, which bore large cursive letters reading Master of Ceremonies. “The moment you’ve all been waiting for...CATEGORIES!”
I cheered along with the rest of the crowd, while Mia pounded her fist on the table and Flynn looked vaguely constipated.
“The categories for today are...Quidditch Myths and Mishaps, Guess that Muggle Song, Past Defense Against the Dark Arts Teachers, Care of Rare Magical Plants - that one’s for you, Patrick - and, everyone’s favourite - Goblin Wars Nobody Gives a Shit About!”
“FUCK yeah!” I heard Kato loudly exclaim from behind us.
“Ravenclaw is fucking mad,” Albus shook his head in a mix between bemusement and horror.
“As we always go from left to right in teams...Without further ado, the Beaters are up first!”
“We’ll take Quidditch Myths!” Beck called. Her team consisted of Kato, who was wearing a ridiculous hat with a flapping raven on it; Moose, who from the looks of it had started drinking much earlier; and Ilana Darlington, another Seventh Year and one of Beck’s closest friends.
“Myth or mishap?” Milo began dramatically, and everyone leaned forward in anticipation. “In the 1939 Quidditch World Cup preliminaries, an Algerian Chaser had his foot accidentally amputated by an unforeseen telephone wire. Ten seconds, starting now.”
“Definitely myth,” Flynn scoffed, just as Al pronounced, “Completely a mishap.”
“No, no, it’s true,” I insisted, scribbling rather illegibly on our board. “Moose used it as an example once of why we shouldn’t let our feet dangle.”
“I don’t understand how you play Quidditch, Nellie, so much can go wrong,” Mia fretted, and Scorpius sniggered and called her a mum just as there was a little ding.
“Time’s up!” Aakash Dayton announced. He was a year-below but looked more like Third Year, with his scrawny frame and bowl-shaped haircut that was reminiscent of the 90’s in the worst possible way. “Show your boards!”
I raised ours triumphantly in the air, and within seconds five shots of Firewhiskey had materialised on our table. We took them all at once, banging them back down onto the wooden surface in unison, and even though it burned my throat I couldn’t help but grin a little.
“All right, the Ravencools are up next!” Milo exclaimed, and at that team name Flynn looked so disgusted I had to punch him so that he wouldn’t call attention to himself.
“Past DADA teachers, please,” the Fifth Year leading the Ravencools said confidently. Kato yelled, “Fuck yeah!” again.
“This is a multi-answer response,” Milo began, pausing for effect before continuing. “Your team will earn 10 points for each correct answer; three correct will earn you the shots. The question is..list all Defense Against the Dark Arts teachers who were either a Death Eater or host to one....go!”
“Okay,” I said, as Mia began to write furiously, Severus Snape, Carrow, “who else?”
“You are so lucky to have me on your team right now,” Albus grinned. “Quirrell, Mad-Eye Moody-”
“Mad-Eye Moody?” Flynn hissed. “There’s no way he was-”
“Death Eater on Polyjuice potion,” Al supplied, and Flynn looked mildly impressed.
“Who else?” Scorpius snapped.
“Voldemort?” Mia guessed.
“Voldemort wasn’t a teacher, d’you think he could’ve controlled a class looking like Mr. Albino Snakenose?” Flynn scoffed.
“Well, do you know any more, or are you just going to insult my suggestions-”
“It was a suggestion in dire need of insulting-”
“Will you two just stop bickering?” asked Al tiredly.
“Time’s up!” yelled Milo, and Mia grabbed the board away from Flynn and held it up, pouting slightly even after we had taken our newly conjured round of shots. I exchanged a long glance with Albus and Scorpius, the kind of look that just so clearly articulated the resigned fatigue aspect of being friends with Mia and Flynn.
“Now,” Milo cried over the hum of the crowd, and I snapped back into attention. “Guess that Muggle Song!”
“First and foremost, you should all be grateful I’m Muggleborn and that I have an excellent taste in music,” said Mia haughtily.
“Wasn’t your most listened song last year that song that says “Gucci Gang” over fifty times?” Scorpius asked drily.
“It’s catchy, okay?” defended Mia, as Milo relinquished the honor of reading the question to a rather over-eager Aakash.
“In a highly-acclaimed Muggle song by pop-artist Kelis, the lyrics go: my blank brings all the boys to the yard,” Aakash announced, stumbling slightly over the last bit of the sentence. “The blank is the title of the song - go!”
Mia squealed, turning to me excitedly. “Ohmigod, this is like the easiest question - Nellie, do you know it?”
“Why would I know it?” I asked, a bit panickedly.
Mia tutted, disappointed, grabbing the marker from where it sat by Albus. “You clearly still have a long way to go on your Muggle culture education,”
“Mia, your Muggle culture education consisted almost exclusively of which Kardashian is or isn’t pregnant.”
“Valuable information!” she insisted, as she scribbled the answer onto the board. “C’mon, Nellie, think!”
“I told you, I don’t know!”
“You’ve heard this one before!”
“I really don’t think I have!”
“Times up!” Milo called, and Mia held up the answer over our heads, sending me a slightly exasperated look as she did.
“It was Milkshakes,” she pronounced. “Obviously.”
“Oh, so obviously,” said Scorpius, while Al added, “I mean, of course it was.”
“Wait,” Flynn held up his hand. “Her milkshakes bring boys to her house?”
“Yard,” corrected Mia. “Milkshakes is an innuendo.”
“Actually, it’s a euphemism,” I said, and I recieved insults from all sides as I downed my Firewhiskey, gasping slightly at the way the amber liquid seemed to physically sear my throat.
“It’s our turn to pick next,” coughed Albus, making a face as he set down his shot glass.
“I got this,” said Mia smugly, and as Milo addressed us, she chose Guess that Muggle Song once again, which she obviously nailed (“Are you all deprived? You guys have seriously never heard of Mr. Brightside?!”).
It continued on this way for awhile - hours, maybe, but after we had gotten nine questions right and had taken just as many shots each, it didn’t really matter how late it was or how long it had been. I think time lost its importance after Flynn thought that the earth was only two thousand and twenty three years old and the rest of us died laughing; or maybe it was when Mia fell off of her seat reaching for another drink and we howled - either way, we were free from the constraints of time and space and stress and it was absolutely perfect. My chest felt like it was bursting, my lungs expanding, and with every breath my smile grew wider, because I was alive, and the air was clean and I loved my friends and I couldn’t think of a time where I had been happier. It wasn’t just ecstasy but a peace, a thrilling kind of calm where everything seemed in the right place, and I allowed myself to bask in this moment of pure joy and elation for as long as it lasted.
But gravity was a strict ruler of the universe, and what comes up must come down. That night, after we had stayed talking in the Common Room for hours once the game had ended and I was finally back in my own four-poster bed, now mostly more tired than intoxicated, I had a strange dream.
The only way I know how to characterise it is as the visual equivalent of having something on the tip of your tongue. Every thing, every feeling in the dream was incredibly close, nearly tangible, so almost reachable - but only that: almost. There was no plot, no characters or dialogue or otherwise; instead, it was more a flurry of colours and sounds and instincts than an actual dream. Nevertheless, elements of it lingered in my subconscious throughout the night as sort of a constant source of discomfort, but when I awoke I had such a ferocious headache that all thoughts about the dream were rendered unimportant in comparison.
“You’re just hungover,” Mia pressed. In an unusual bout of selflessness, she had brought me some dry toast and pumpkin juice from the kitchens, but I still didn’t feel appetised enough to touch it.
“I really don’t think so,” I said, chewing the side of my lip like I always did when I was thinking about something intently. “It feels like what I had on the Hogwarts Express-”
“Where you were hungover,” Mia insisted gently, but still I shook my head, and then stopped, wincing at the increase in pain that came with the slight movement.
“I can’t describe it, but it feels like something...I don’t know. More than a hangover.” I scowled, frustrated that I couldn’t seem to convey the significance of it.
Mia frowned slightly, putting her hand to my forehead in a rather tender, motherly gesture before she stole a piece of my toast. “Well, I hope you feel better,” she said finally, going for the pumpkin juice as well. “Are you still going to the dinner?”
The dinner. Slughorn’s first unofficial event of the year: an intimate dessert party that only certain members of his club were privy to. I groaned at the mere thought of it.
“You don’t have to go,” said Mia, much too encouragingly. “You can stay in with me and rest. I’ll paint your nails, even.”
“I have to,” I told her, even though relaxing in the comforts of the dormitory sounded much too tempting. “I don’t think Al would forgive me if I didn’t. Besides, you know what happens when I skip.”
My Grandmother had once heard word that I had not been frequenting Slughorn’s events - passed on to her by the likes of Calliope Yaxley, no doubt - and the ensuing conversation was nothing short of terrifying. But that was only when I was a Third Year, and I shuddered at the thought of what such a talking to would look like now.
Mia tutted; a sound of mingled sympathy and disappointment. “Well, then,” she said, sliding off her bed and standing up, “you should take something for your headache before we go meet everyone for tea.”
“You look like death,” was Flynn’s compassionate welcome as Mia and I sat down at the Slytherin House table about an hour later. “Like, really terrible.”
“Oh, like you look absolutely fantastic,” I snapped, laying my arms down on the table so that I could rest my head on top of them like a pillow.
“Well, I feel fantastic,” said Flynn, heartily. “It’s called a high tolerance, Burke. Look it up.”
“I’m not even hungover,” I told him rather crossly, although the words were muffled into my sleeve. “I just have a migraine.”
“Another one?” Scorpius prodded me slightly. “You okay?”
“I’ll be fine,” I glanced up at him, and he flashed me a quick smile. Last night after the trivia, I could sort of remember the conversation we’d had while draped over the Ravenclaw couches. His potential dishonesty about his personal life had been gnawing at the edges of my thoughts for days, and so finally, with alcohol running through my veins and the excitement of the night coursing through me, I’d rounded up the courage to ask him if there was anything he was hiding from me. No, of course not, he had said, and he’d had the tact to look confused. Is something wrong? And I told him no, that I was just wondering why we hadn’t been spending more time together, and in response he’d hugged me and promised to make more of an effort this term. And in that moment, as we returned back to the conversation, where Milo had just recited the entire Mermish alphabet backwards and Flynn was trying to balance himself on top of one of the speaking podiums, I had believed him - or at least, I’d really really wanted to. But now that I thought back to it, there had been this look in his eyes that made me doubt his earnesty. His face had never wavered from the perfect picture of perplexion, but his eyes - they had been intent, full of alarm. Of fear.
“Are you still going to the Slug Club dinner?” Milo asked me, spraying crumbs all over the table. He was wearing a vintage canary yellow Martin Miggs: the Mad Muggle t-shirt that sort of slumped over his lanky figure, and I briefly wondered if he’d owned it for the past six years without ever having to go a size up.
“Mmmfh,” I grunted at him in affirmation, settling back into the crook of my elbow so that I could still see a rather tilted view of everything around me.
“Why do you even put up with that rubbish? Flynn asked, coming across rather brashly as he normally did. “If I were you, I’d tell Slughorn to fuck off and never look back.”
‘Oh, like you would ever be invited to one in the first place,” Mia scorned, but it wasn’t her usual banter; the way she spoke had a rather vindictive undertone, and in response Flynn immediately grew sour. “And, even if you did, you’re not Gryffindor enough to ever tell someone as powerful as Slughorn to shove it.”
“Well, you’re not in the club, either,” Flynn retorted, his ears slowly turning a rather alarming shade of red as his expression grew cruel. “And if you were, what would you talk to Slughorn about? Who wore it better in Witch Weekly?”
“Oh, and I’m sure you’d have so many riveting things to say,” Mia shot back. “Would you tell the story of the time you got rejected by every girl in our year? That’s happened about ten thousand times, hasn’t it-”
“But, I mean, I bet you’d find your way in somehow,” continued Flynn loudly over Mia’s insult. “After all, you’ve dated - no, sorry, shagged almost every guy in there.”
“Whoa,” Albus interjected over Mia’s gasp, his eyebrows raised high into the hairline of his messy black hair.
“Both of you - chill,” Scorpius ordered, putting out his hand like a stop sign.
“He started it-”
“No, she did-”
“What is the matter with you two?” I interjected, lifting my head up slightly. “You’ve been arguing...nonstop...” but as I said it, my mind flashed back so vividly to my dream the night before that I almost gasped. Words hadn’t been spoken in the dream, exactly, but somehow everything else was the same: the feeling of the cold wood against my cheek, the slight tautness of the tension in the air, the indescribable aura that seemed to wrap itself around the edges of my vision, pushing and pulling and pulsing around the bodies of everyone and everything present.
“What?” Al asked, shaking me slightly. “Nellie?”
“Sorry,” I muttered quickly, and as suddenly as the strange sort of déja vu had come it was gone. I blinked mulishly, and then again. “Just the headache.”
Scorpius frowned at me, clearly concerned. “You really don’t have to go-”
“I really do,” I met his gaze, and as I stared at him slightly tortured he nodded once with understanding.
“We should get ready, then. Can you two please apologise to each other?” asked Albus as he stood up from the table, and Mia and I mirrored him. “Or at least not kill one another tonight?”
“I’ll do my best,” Mia sighed dramatically, ever the martyr as she flounced away after Albus. I shot one last wry look to Flynn, who was still resolutely scowling, waved at Scorpius, and then followed them out of the Great Hall.
“Well, you look great,” said Mia wistfully. Although she had frequented many of Slughorn’s parties as either my guest or Al’s, she had always wanted the chance to come to one of these types of dinners.
“You’ll have way more fun than I will tonight,” I told her, hoping to refocus her away from dwelling in her own misery, a passtime she often pursued. “Aren’t you all going to some Hufflepuff thing?”
“Yeah, but it isn’t the same without you and Albus,” Mia pouted, her infamous look that could make men and women alike fall at her feet and succumb to her bidding.
“You’ll do without,” I swatted her slightly. “Besides, we might be done in time to join you.”
“Oh, I hope so!” Mia immediately brightened, clapping her hands together. Her quick mood changes were often startling to those who didn’t know her well, and yet her temperament was the quality that gravitated most people towards her. Her smile after a frown was like a rainbow after a hurricane, and I often found myself wishing that I had the abilities to dazzle like she so naturally did.
“Nellie, wow,” Willow MacMillan squealed, as she entered the dormitory. “You look fantastic!”
“You think?” I asked her, fingering the hem of my dress. It was a little black number, the kind that followed the slight curve of my body all the way down to the start of my waist, where it flared out slightly. I’d paired the dress with black high heels that I was only slightly wobbly on and a simple diamond necklace that dipped low towards the exact middle of my bosom. The waves that normally appeared in my hair were straightened out thanks to Mia’s impeccable wand work, and I’d even gone as far as to swipe on a smudge of smoky eyeshadow above my mascara.
“Oh, definitely,” said Willow, warmly. “You look so sophisticated - is it a Slug Party?”
I grimaced good-naturedly. “Yeah, it is.”
“Well, have fun!” Willow beamed, running a hand through her almost white blonde hair. “Meanwhile, I’ll be stuck here doing that Charm’s proof I’ve put off.”
“Ugh, I haven’t even started it,” Mia moaned, flopping back into her bed. “It just seems like such a tomorrow problem, you know?”
“You’ve said that the past three yesterdays,” I said, headed towards the door, and Willow snickered from her bed.
“Oh, go overdose on some caviar,” Mia said flippantly in farewell, and I waved at the pair of them before leaving the dormitory to join Albus, who had been waiting for me by the Ravenclaw eagle knocker like both the gentleman and good friend that he was.
“Hey, have you thought any more about what I told you about Katria?” I asked him after a few minutes of silence. Might as well be my usual blunt self instead of that giggling idiot I was the last time I’d brought up the subject.
“Yeah, a bit,” Al frowned slightly. “I’m still confused - is she being nicer to you lot, or something?”
And here was the epitome of my moral dilemma. I couldn’t sprout straight up lies about Katria Stevens’ apparent redeeming qualities when there were really none, especially since I still didn’t have a shred of evidence that Scorpius actually did have a girlfriend. So I’d have to think of something that seemed plausible but still vague enough to convince him of her character.
“She’s acting like she wants to be,” I finally came out with. “She told me how nice she thinks you are. I think she just needs someone to let her. To show her that there are better ways to act.”
And if before when I brought up Katria I had gotten into his head, right now I had just gone for the kill. For Albus, just as many other nice men, had a touch of a saviour complex. He was inherently good, so by default he wanted others to be too, and if someone wasn’t they automatically became a project of sorts - and I’d just given him the biggest fixer-upper of all.
“She mentioned me? Wow,” said Al. He always kind of blushed when he thought about pretty girls - even more so when he had to talk to them - and as I could see that telltale pink I felt a strange mixture of both guilt and victory.
“Hey!” Rose Weasley shouted from a bit down the corridor. “Nellie, oh thank God you came; I don’t think I can get through this alone.”
“Alone?” asked Al slightly indignantly as we reached her, but Rose merely waved off his tone and stepped closer towards me.
“You look great,” I told her, and it was true. Rose’s hair was curled slightly at the ends, splashing as an accent against her navy blue cocktail dress and nude heels, and even though I was still taller than her the way she held herself so confidently seemed to eradicate any existing height difference.
“Me? What about you!” she squealed. She was a bit like Mia in how every one of her syllables seemed to fill with such passion, but that was about as far as the similarities went, since Mia, as much as I adored her, was just naturally more extra.
“We all look very nice,” Albus broke in. “Shall we go in, now?”
“You’re eager,” remarked Rose, as we conquered the last few metres to the entrance of the supper.
“I’d just rather not have to make a dramatic entrance like last time,” he shot back, and Rose scowled in response.
“You know that wasn’t my fault! I couldn’t find my barrette!”
“Oh, yeah,” said Albus as he wrenched open the door and stepped aside so we could move past him inside. “Because a single hair clip can make you thirty minutes late.”
As Rose came up with an assuredly sharp reply, I entered the vast chamber in which most Slug Club events aside from the annual Christmas party were held. The room, Slughorn’s “office,” was dimly lit with dark velvet curtains covering what I assumed were blank spaces of the ornately decorated wallpaper, creating an ambience that was not unlike that of a speakeasy, or a debonair cigar club. It was an undeniably elegant location, and I could sort of understand the appeal of being invited to dine in such an exclusive area of the castle.
Thankfully, the round mahogany table that guests were already seated around was only half filled, and Rose and I quickly found our spots next to one another at the far side of the table, while Albus was placed in a more favourable seat next to Professor Slughorn himself.
Calliope Yaxley was a few chairs down from me, and it was almost strange seeing her without Lyra and Seph flanking her on either side. But she held her position regally: her black hair was in a mercilessly tight chignon and her lipstick was a deep red, contrasting sharply to her alabaster skin and matching the polish on her manicured nails impeccably. When she saw me she gave me a slight nod of approval, and I knew I could trust her to send good word on my behavior back to the Pureblood community.
Catherine McDonough was also here, as was Dominique Weasley and, almost surprisingly, Phillip McSwain, Hogwarts’ resident black market dealer. But perhaps the biggest shock came from the raven haired boy wearing a dark suit with a slim tie across the table from Rose and I. Aside from the traditional Hogwarts Express meals, I couldn’t recall seeing him anywhere near any of the other Slug Club events. Even Albus did a little bit of a double take when he took his place next to his brother, who was already drinking what appeared to be a goblet full of mulled mead and looking every bit the part he was supposed to.
“Rose!” someone called, and as we both turned around the person squealed. “And Nellie!”
“Diana!” Rose and I both exclaimed, me much more unenthusiastically, as the dark-haired girl who had just caught our attention stopped in front of us.
Diana Jenkins was rich - not blood status, Pureblood wealthy, but new money loaded. Her grandfather (a former pupil of Slughorn’s, of course) invented some Quidditch technology that was used in all of the Firebolt series, and had his own line of men’s hair styling products (I still didn’t really understand how the two were related). Diana herself was nothing special; aside from her well-off family, her only other notability around Hogwarts was her tendency to talk herself out of a room.
“How are you?” I asked, and Diana plowed into her usual spiel - classes are killing me, God, I miss summer - while Rose nodded politely along, pretending to be engaged in the conversation since she was too nice to roll her eyes discreetly like I did.
“Oh!” Diana exclaimed suddenly, and I snapped into attention. “I almost forgot - well, you two know I hate to gossip,” she lowered her voice, and it was so classically Diana that I almost laughed out loud. Because Diana was gossip, if gossip could take shape in a person - she wore bright red lipstick and used lots of hand gestures and never stopped talking, even if no one was truly listening anymore.
“But?” posed Rose. She may have been nice, but she wasn’t so pious that she didn’t want to hear about the latest news around school.
“But,” Diana continued excitedly, “I’ve heard that William Davies and Ana Clearwater are splitting!”
“You’re kidding?” my mouth dropped open. Davies and Ana had been together since before my brother Adam had graduated. It had become such an expected thing that I couldn’t see either of them without the other; it was like trying to imagine bread without butter; tea without biscuits; Moose without Quidditch.
“I’m not,” Diana insisted, as Rose and I exchanged scandalised looks. “Rhea Admin confirmed it!”
“But, they’re like, the couple,” Rose marveled. “I can’t believe this.”
“I know, I was absolutely floored when I heard - oh, look, I think they’re starting the hors d’œuvres, I’d better find my seat. Chat later? Yes? Yes? Good. Ta ta!” Diana called, and as she walked away I slumped into the back of my chair, exhausted with the sheer effort of interacting with her.
“God, that girl,” I muttered, and Rose merely smiled vacantly in response just as Slughorn clinked his dessert spoon against his glass of wine.
“Welcome, welcome!” Professor Slughorn chorused, and every small side conversation quieted at once as he took his seat. “I’m so delighted all of you could join me for dinner tonight."
His beady, watery eyes flickered around the table, allowing time to rest on each and every one of us. His strategic future success stories; his handpicked loyal disciples. It took all I had to keep my smile plastered onto my face.
“Some of our friends couldn’t make it,” continued Slughorn. “The entire Slytherin Quidditch team can’t just skip their practice, now, can they?” But from the way he said it sort of sounded like he had wanted the team to pick his little dinner over their allotted practice time, or rather expected them to.
“Now, I happen to know that many of you are very connected to the Quidditch world - ah, like Mr. McSwain!” and here, Slughorn swiveled to face Phillip, his expression almost hungry with eager. “I’m sure you’ve all heard of Danny McSwain - legendary Tornadoes Keeper and a former pupil of mine!”
Everyone around the table gave little murmurs and nods of recognition, except for Phillip, who continued eating his mini quiche uninterrupted.
“Tell me - what’s it like having such an influential man as an Uncle?”
“Yeah, er, I dunno,” Phillip grunted, tossing his shaggy hair out of his eyes with a flick of his head and setting down his fork. “It’s ‘aight, I guess.”
“But it must be so fascinating to watch him play at such an extraordinary level!” Slughorn pressed, clearly impatient to discover whether or not Phillip possessed his uncle’s interests.
“I mean, I don’t really follow Quidditch, so…” Phillip shrugged casually, refocusing back on his quiche, and Slughorn gave him a rather frigid smile before turning away.
“Well, I for one greatly admire your uncle, Phillip. We use his techniques regularly,” James Potter spoke up, his voice unusually earnest, and it was so obviously designed to suck up to Slughorn that I nearly gagged. Based on the sour expression that crossed Al’s face, he felt the same way.
“Well you would, James, m’boy, as Captain of the Gryffindor team!” Professor Slughorn exclaimed gleefully, and just like that, his chagrin at Phillip’s disappointing lack of knowledge about Quidditch had disappeared. “Now, James, how’s the beginning of your season going?”
“Spectacularly, sir,” Potter replied immediately, and then locked his light eyes with mine only too purposefully. “We’re on track to win our first match next Saturday.”
And here, even though I had to dig my nails into my palm to remind myself not to retaliate or hint at Moose’s strategy, I merely regarded him coolly until he turned away back to Slughorn.
“Well, with Quidditch skills like your mother’s you certainly won’t have to worry!” cried Professor Slughorn, oblivious to the insult. “I daresay if you work hard and put your mind to it you’ll be Britain’s next big star!”
“Thank you, Professor,” Potter inclined his head at the compliment, and I didn’t think he could act more cavalier or exhibit a more smug expression until he said: “But who needs any work when you have natural-born talent?”
Slughorn boomed out a surprised laugh; the sound of it echoed slightly throughout the room. “Who indeed!”
“You can’t be serious.” It took me a moment to register that it had been my voice to cut through the conversation and ring clearly throughout the chamber, but it had been, and all at once every single eye was on mine.
“About what?” James Potter finally asked, regarding me with his signature indifference.
“Everything,” I answered. “Forgive me, Professor, but in real life, you can’t have a true talent if you’re not willing to work hard.”
“Some people are just born with natural gifts,” Potter said coolly, before Slughorn could respond.
“Even if you’re born with abilities, they don’t mean anything unless you work to cultivate them,” I replied, my words rather clipped.
“On the contrary,” Potter said airily. “There comes a point where no amount of work will change the means that someone is brought into. You should know all about that, shouldn’t you?” he smirked, and I knew he was once again referring to my blood status.
“Certainly no more than you.” My eyes flashed, and now he was just as unsmiling as I was. That turbulent electricity that crackled between us at the Quidditch Pitch had returned at full strength, and as I could feel it as a palpable force in the air I just knew that Potter felt it, too, even if he was somehow able to remain more impassive than I was.
“People are tied to their assets just as much as they are to their hair color or bone structure,” said Potter, in a manner that somehow managed to seem both harsh and patronising. “Are you really suggesting that a little bit of concentration would change all of that?”
“Obviously not,” I retorted. “I’m suggesting that you could be the world’s best Quidditch player, but if you’re never handed a Quaffle your talent would be utterly wasted.”
“And, I wonder - who gets handed the Quaffles?” Potter leaned forward, and I unconsciously did the same. “Who gets those equal opportunities?”
“My point is that there are unequal opportunities-“
“But have you benefited from that, Burke? Have you been given more than a fair chance to cultivate any talents you may have?””
“You speak an infinite deal of nothing.” I fumed, straight from The Merchant of Venice, but no one seemed to catch my quote.
“And you speak as though you’ve never once left your little cloud nine and touched down to reality."
We glowered at one another unbreakingly, and as I silently bristled in my seat and he much more calmly in his, the worst part about the whole thing wasn’t the fact that there were fifteen other people in the room displaying varying levels of shock and interest, or even that I had drawn so much attention to myself in the first place; it was that Potter was right. I was right too, completely so, but James Potter had grains of truth in what he said, and if Albus or Scorpius or anyone else had brought it up I would have probably agreed with them. I did get better chances than others because of where I was born - and that was the argument I had been trying to weild in the first place before he somehow stole it away and turned it against me.
The hostility in the atmosphere was about as conspicuous as the exaggerated tick of the florid grandfather clock in the corner or the loudly silent lack of silverware clattering - that is, until Potter turned away from me and faced Slughorn, his expression suddenly returned to its usual vacantly civil presentation.
“Excuse us, Professor,” said Potter smoothly. “Burke here is just a bit infatuated with me.”
I nearly choked on the sip of water I had just chosen to take, and a few seats down Diana Jenkins whipped her head back and forth between Potter and I as if she were watching a muggle tennis match, her eyes wide with intrigue.
“She’s had this schoolgirl crush on me for ages,” Potter continued. “Bit embarrassing for both of us, really, so I’m sorry if it interrupted our evening.”
“Nonsense, nonsense, James, m’boy!” Slughorn cried. “I love when conversations get a bit spruced up!”
“He’s joking,” I said urgently, but my reputation had already been mangled to the point of no recovery, and Al shot me an empathetic glance before sending a rather uncharacteristic glare towards his brother.
“Well, do you know, Ms. Burke, who you remind me of?” said Slughorn to me, eagerly, and the mood of the dinner settled back down to its traditional level as Slughorn began one of his long-winded stories. “Hermione Granger - yes, your mother, Rose! I remember, she was always so fiery and quick to her wit; she was in this little club, too, yes…”
It had taken nearly two hours more for the party to come to a close. I had spent the remainder of the evening silently stewing to myself, doing the bare minimum and only contributing to the conversation when Slughorn addressed me directly. Now, members were milling around the exit, the most eager of the bunch jostling for a chance to speak to Slughorn one on one, and I rather hoped to escape to the corridor quickly to avoid interacting with anyone else.
“That was so fucking long,” said Albus tiredly, as we managed to slip out the door unseen. Out in the dungeons, noises seemed to echo a bit, and since the door to Slughorn’s office was still open the hallway wasn’t as much of an oasis as I thought it would be.
“Then, let’s get out of here,” I said, pulling on Al’s hand slightly to make him walk faster. I’d managed to go the entire night without having to hold a conversation with people like Calliope Yaxley, and I wasn’t about to sacrifice that success now.
“I told Rose I’d wait for her,” Albus gently peeled me off of him.
“She’s a big girl; she can find her way back-”
“You don’t have to run, like this, you know,” said Albus, rather bitterly. “I’m pretty sure my brother was, like, the first guest to leave.”
“That’s not who I’m trying to-” I began, but then halted as a girl my height stopped directly in front of me. Ironically, in my haste to depart I had run into the Queen of Hearts herself.
“Nellie,” Calliope Yaxley smiled coldly, placing one of her deep red nails on my arm, and my shoulders immediately stiffened so that I was standing up straighter. “So good to see you.”
“And you,” I emphasised with the usual old-money intonations. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Albus back up slightly, understanding that this would be a conversation just between the two of us. “That was an interesting meal, wouldn’t you agree?”
I didn’t actually want to make small talk; I just desperately wanted to make sure that she didn’t believe Potter’s ridiculous fabrication to Slughorn - and I was pretty sure she didn’t, but something inside me still needed that little bit of validation so I could sleep soundly at night.
“As was I. I found it to be a bit too political for my tastes.” Calliope articulated, her dark eyes drilling into mine, and I knew exactly what she meant by that statement.
“My thoughts precisely.” I said, in that stiff rhetoric she always preferred to speak in, and Albus glanced from me to her, rather bewildered.
Calliope nodded, and she seemed appeased. “Well, I do hope to see you around the Slytherin Common Room more frequently this term.”
“Of course,” I agreed, but even I could see right through the act I was trying to sell.
“Bye, now,” Calliope called over her shoulder, but then she paused, turning back to face us. “Oh, and Albus?”
“Yes, Calliope?” Al replied, just as formally. I noticed he straightened up as well.
“Do convey to your brother how dangerous it is to attempt to publicly humiliate someone like Nellie.” she simpered, and the significance of it was not lost on Al as he gave her a quick nod. For someone like Nellie meant Purebloods with power, and Al knew just as well as I did that an attack on one of us could be perceived as an assault on all.
“Well, that was a disaster,” I muttered, as Calliope disappeared around the corner towards the Slytherin Common Room.
“Are you okay?” Albus asked me, but before I could respond Rose rushed up, her mouth already moving a mile a minute.
“Nellie, I am so sorry for James’s attitude; I really don’t know what got into him, he was being-”
“A prat,” Albus interrupted, and Rose glared exasperatedly at him.
“I was going to say insufferable,” she huffed, then turned back to me. “But, yes. He is both of those things.”
“It’s fine,” I said, even though it was really very Not Fine At All. “We’ll shut him up in Quidditch next Saturday anyways.”
“I hope you do,” said Rose warmly, even though she was a Gryffindor. “He needs his ego deflated a bit.”
“A lot,” muttered Al. He was clearly still upset about the whole ordeal, but when I glanced at him questioningly he merely gave me an infinitesimal shake of his head.
“Anyways, see you in TransFig on Monday?” asked Rose, and after I nodded and said my goodbyes all three of us parted ways.
I’d always sort of appreciated the way Hogwarts looked at night. While most of the castle was lit by everburning torches that threw looming shadows across the walls, the dungeons tended to be much darker, and I liked that, perhaps because I’d never been afraid of the dark. In fact, as a child I refused to use a nightlight because I loved the thick ambiguity that darkness brought, and I suppose it was always a bit of a comforting thing for me, when I knew that nothing could see me. Never mind that I couldn’t see anything either - all I really cared about was that I was enfolded by the darkness, safe and undetectable.
But here, as I walked through the scarcely lit dungeons all alone, I just couldn’t find it in me to enjoy it. I was still stewing over the way Potter had managed to both eradicate my credibility and embarrass the pants off of me with only a few lines, and I kept playing that game in my head where I imagined better comebacks and then pretended to deliver them perfectly until a noise brought me back into reality.
It was like my unconscious prayers had been answered. Because ambling along down at the end of the corridor was my redeeming chance in the form of James Potter. I don’t really know why he was going towards the West staircase, since it was in the opposite direction from the Gryffindor Common room, but he was there, all alone and somehow managing to saunter in the most infuriating way possible, and without thinking I stalked up to him and shoved the back of his shoulder, hard.
“What the fucking hell was that?” I hissed without prelude as he turned around.
But James Potter only smiled lazily back at me, as if he had expected me to find him all along. “What was what, sweetheart?”
“Don’t call me sweetheart, you demeaning arsehole - why did you say something so false and utterly humiliating like that in front of Slughorn? Are you mad?”
“Well, I was right, wasn’t I?” said Potter innocently. “You do fancy me.”
“You are incorrigible!” I growled in a voice very unlike my own.
“Ooh, big word,” he taunted, his smirk widening to almost unseen lengths. “Ouch.”
I shook my head in absolute disbelief at his room-stifling arrogance, and then pushed past him, since I clearly wasn't going to get any sort of point across without him twisting my words.
“What I’d like to know is why you say bad things about me without provocation,” Potter called from behind me, just as casually and noncommittally as before, and I whipped around to face him once more.
“Without provocation?” I asked disbelievingly. “Your personality is enough provocation! God, I hate talking to you-”
“Do you?” Potter asked, and when I didn’t respond, he continued. “Okay then - what is it? What is it that riles you up so much? What exactly do you hate?” His voice was low and taunting, but controlled - too controlled for the topic at hand. And yet, I could feel it - the uncontrollable poisonous desire to cause hurt that bubbled up inside me. It started deep in my stomach and permeated my veins and spread its bittersweet flavour out over my tongue, sending my heart into a frenzy with the anticipation of wounding his ego in exactly the right place so that it would sting for days on end.
I could feel it, but even as I was aware of myself, I realised that Potter wanted exactly what I did. He was enjoying every second of this argument, taking immense pleasure in goading me, and we were similar in that way, James Potter and I; we fought for the adrenaline and the bloodlust and the rush of the hunt, not for the power that accompanied it. It was the same reason Potter hadn’t simply kicked us off of the Quidditch Pitch two days ago; everything he did was about the competition and the trigger happy arguments that ensued, not necessarily the unequivocal victory over the opponent.
And so, although I understood that responding to James Potter would give him the immediate upper hand, I took the bait regardless. The battle high was too hard to resist; the reward was seemingly greater than the risk - and besides, I’d never been one to reign in my emotions, anyways.
A deep breath in. And then - “Your ego is so large that you’re practically choking on it! I mean, it’s pathetic, really, how much you crave attention and unconditional positive regard, and I wonder - does it stem from how famous your family is? I saw how you were on the train when Slughorn asked if you wanted to be like your parents. Tell me, Potter, how inferior do you really feel compared to them? Compared to anyone?”
It was a low blow. I knew that. Albus had struggled with the expectations that came with his surname for years, and here I was, exploiting it for my own selfish reasons. And Potter seemed to feel that way too, as his light eyes pierced into mine intensely, but then the muscles pinching his face into something fierce relaxed and he laughed.
“I’ve figured you out,” said Potter. He had regained the casual control he’d managed to wield earlier, but somehow it sounded more deadly than ever before. “So don’t think you can try this act on me. Don’t think you can try to analyse me and expect me to run away with my tail between my legs.”
“And, why not?” I shot back, but even I could hear the desperate edge to it. “I was right, wasn’t I? You have an inferiority complex.”
“Maybe I do,” Potter shrugged off the notion easily, as if I had just told him it might rain tonight instead of accusing him of having a personality disorder. “But who doesn’t? You, however, have much more serious problems.” A step forward, his eyes brightening with their fierce intensity. “There’s something off about you, Burke, and I see right through you and your little act. You’ll argue anything and everything from the security of your soapbox, and I’m sure it’s all very noble and great. But get this,” he advanced forward again, cold eyes glinting, head lowered, teeth bared with the prospect of his kill. “Once you step off of it, once you stop pretending to be something you’re not - you are nothing, Burke. Nothing. Because you’ll always be a Pureblood, and you will never be a good person, no matter how hard you try to convince everyone otherwise.”
After what I’d said to him, I deserved it, I knew that, but I truly did not expect him to be able to sense my insecurities as well as he did, much less for him to say something that actually stung so much. He had equated my blood status with my morals like so many others had, but this time he had made it overtly personal, and now I was nothing but his prey caught in a corner - no more defenses, no more clever ploys, nowhere left to run.
“I’m not pretending to be anything - I’m not a bad person,” I told him, as my breath caught in my throat as his truth burned my ego. “I’m not, and I don’t care if you don’t believe me.”
“Oh, you do care,” said Potter. “You care so much more than you want to. But, you know. Whatever helps you sleep at night, sweetheart.”
And with that, he shot me one final knowing look - an expression of unequivocal victory - and set out down the corridor, hands swinging in his pockets, leaving me standing in the empty hallway in my cocktail dress and stilettos: a fly, stuck in the carefully woven web it had flown through just to spite the spider.
Author’s note: Whew. Well, please please please let me know what you thought of this chapter, since it marks sort of a beginning in the story, in a way. Also, I’m interested to see if anyone has caught some of the little Easter eggs that will be pivotal to the story later! The next chapter is rather short and to the point, but the one after is probably one of the longer ones. And then after that, everything really takes off. Hope you enjoy!
Track This Story: Feed
Write a Review
JOIN HARRY POTTER FANFICTION
Get access to every new feature the moment it comes out.Register Today!