The Quibbler's text was a bit faded but still legible as the train rattler and shook beneath me.
"I can't believe your mum is still churning out that old washrag. Why didn't she give it up after old Xeno snuffed it?"
I turned a page pointedly and flipped the magazine upside down to read the latest rune chart, ignoring Vivian's brashly unrefined comment about my mother's profession.
She tossed her copy of Witch Weekly onto the empty seat beside her and narrowed her icy pupils in my direction. "You're fourteen," she scoffed. "Stop meddling around with horoscopes and nargles and Blubbering Whistle-dodgers and grow up!"
I skimmed to the end of a lengthy article describing the significant lack of interest in a now nearly extinct breed of Crumple-horned Snorkack, but nevertheless corrected her false remark. "It's called a Blibbering Humdinger, Vivian."
"Whatever, Rory," she snapped and returned to a story about the lead singer of the Weird Sisters getting married (which was thoroughly uninteresting, if you ask me).
The compartment door slid open, and the back of a dark head appeared. Vivian rolled her eyes in disgust.
"Jackson, what the hell is all that?"
The boy turned, his arms heaped with sweets from the trolley. "What? Mum forgot to pack me a sandwich. Unlike someone I know, I actually allow myself to ingest more than one hundred calories per day."
He grinned and plopped down beside me, tossing several Chocolate Frogs into my lap.
His sister glowered at him but failed to come up with a witty counterattack. Jackson licked his index finger and swiped a tally mark through the air.
I slipped him a hidden smile behind my newly unwrapped card of Morgana.
Vivian dug around in her bag and whipped out a diet granola bar, munching away at it and glaring daggers at Jackson. He simply began to read over my shoulder.
"What does that mean?" he asked, pointing to another rune chart.
Vivian groaned. "If I have to listen to one more bloody conversation about Mimbulus Mimble-what's-it, I'm going to rip out your hair follicles."
I handed The Quibbler to him. "It's not too hard to figure out."
His sister snorted. "Says the girl raised on Gurdyroots and fresh-water Plimpies."
To avoid answering, I bit the head off of my second Frog.
When she left to find the bathroom, Jackson threw the magazine aside and turned to me with an apologetic look. "Rory, I–"
"Forget it, Jackson."
"No, Rory, listen! I… I know that Vivian is a vile, rotten bitch. I'm so incredibly sorry that you have to put up with her like this."
A small grin spread across my face. "No matter what she says, I'm glad that we're friends."
Vivian's sharp profile appeared outside the compartment window, and we both ducked to seem busy– as if we had not treasured the precious moments of her absence.
The Great Hall still surprised me, regardless of the fact that I'd attended Hogwarts for three previous years.
"It's not that impressive," Vivian grumbled. "It's just a stupid, bewitched ceiling. Big deal." She clanged her silverware together noisily.
I had purposely taken the seat opposite Jackson, so I would be exempt from her brooding during the feast. He winked at me and jerked his head toward the entrance hall, where a line of petrified first-years stood shaking behind Professor Flitwick.
The hall fell into a hush as the little Charms master led the frightened new students to the front, where they formed a protective mass as though shielding themselves from the stares of the older kids.
I could only see the top of Flitwick's hat, but his squeaky voice permeated the room as he began his long list of names.
Jackson leaned across the table. "How many first-years do you reckon she'll send to the Hospital Wing in the first month?" he muttered, referring to his sister.
I chuckled softly. "Want to place a bet? If at least ten aren't there by the end of September, I'll pay you ten galleons."
We shook on it and settled back to watch the remainder of the Sorting.
Flitwick was already nearing the bottom of the gigantic scroll. "Potter, Lily!"
There was a pause, but no quivering eleven-year-old stepped forward to try on the hat.
"Potter, Lily!" he shrieked even louder.
Flitwick wheeled around, gazing at Headmistress McGonagall for help. She merely shrugged, and he continued.
"That's odd," Jackson mouthed to me.
Another pause… another no-show.
Murmurs swept across the enormous wave of students but were quelled as McGonagall rose to her feet.
"Well," she began. "Welcome to a new year at Hogwarts. I know that you are all tired from your journey, so enjoy your dinner." With a small smile, she sat back down, and the dishes immediately stuffed themselves with food.
"I wonder where those two first-years are," Jackson said as he piled potatoes atop his healthy portion of roast beef.
Ladling stew onto my plate, I shrugged. "Maybe they got lost. The station is always gets insanely crowded."
Next to me, Vivian craned her neck to look over at the Gryffindor table. "Oh, God damn it!"
Jackson raised his eyebrows. "What now? Did they put too much salt on your– oh, wait. I forgot that you don't eat anything."
Vivian threw him a scathing glance and whined, "He's not here! Why the hell isn't he over there eating with Trevor?"
She turned to me with such exasperation that I thought her eyeballs would fall out onto her scarcely touched plate of celery sticks. "James, of course, you twit!"
James Potter. I should have known.
Jackson rolled his eyes. "Please. The only thing that boy is good for is whacking a Bludger."
His sister aimed a celery stalk at him, which he ducked. "As if you could do any better, Jackson Corey!"
He chewed his broccoli obnoxiously until she poked at the ragged lettuce before her and mused (as if he and I weren't there), "Why isn't he here?"
Jackson "accidentally" knocked the butter dish all over her plate as he reached for the rolls.
"You imbecile!" she screamed, loudly enough that half of our table fell silent and stared. She leapt to her feet and stormed off into the entrance hall, her curses incoherent.
There was an awkward moment, but then Jackson and I burst out laughing. For a long while, we couldn't even glance at each other without going into complete hysterics.
"Maybe a hag from the Three Broomsticks?"
The armchair was a comfort after the long (and painful) train ride. Jackson propped himself up on his elbows where he sprawled on the rug in front of the fire.
"That doesn't seem likely," he said. "Rosmerta usually keeps them on a pretty short leash when the train arrives."
The common room was deserted. Vivian had locked the door to our dormitory, so Jackson decided to wait with me until she went to bed. We had spent the past few hours discussing the missing students, which included not only James and the two first-years, but Rose Weasley and Albus Potter as well.
There was a lull in the conversation, but then he asked, "Do you reckon she's asleep yet?"
"Probably. She's been up here since the feast."
He scrambled up and took a seat on the couch. "Why do you do this to yourself, Rory? She screams and yells and whines, and you just take it like it's no big deal."
I stared into the flickering flames, deliberately refusing to catch his eye. "She's your sister. What am I supposed to do?"
He snorted. "It's not as though she and I are a package deal."
I didn't know how to respond to this, so I just nodded and said goodnight.
The tightly spiraling staircase led to the room I shared with Vivian, Sandra Donovan, Michelle Anderson, and Deirdre Collins at the top of the tower. After undressing and snuggling under the covers, I lay awake for a long time, dreading the morning, which (without a doubt) would be filled with the other girls' taunts.
Arithmancy, my first lesson the next day, proved both stressful and lonely. (Jackson had opted for Divination.) I sat by myself near the back, silently taking down every word Professor Vector spoke. The class had dwindled since the previous year; only four of the relatively dim-witted people had stayed on, throwing out useless comments to the revulsion of the rest of us. To my disgust, Helena Johnson was still there, admiring her nails, braiding her hair, and not paying the slightest bit of attention. She let out a violent wail, however, when Professor Vector ran her fingernails down the chalkboard and glared around at the class.
"Miss Johnson, I do not care if you fail Arithmancy, but you will not sit there and ignore me when I am teaching! Do we understand each other?"
Helena mumbled something unintelligible.
"Good. And you, Mr. Ferris– I suggest that you stop ogling Miss Johnson if you do not wish to attend detention tonight."
I smirked to myself, making a mental note to tell Jackson about Professor Vector's spectacular vocabulary.
Something rough collided with my temple, and I flinched. Unfolding the crumpled piece of paper, I saw that the sender's handwriting was marvelously juvenile. (They dotted their "I's" with little hearts.)
What are you grinning at, Plimpie?
It wasn't a term of endearment. This person clearly had no taste whatsoever in both insults and soup.
The corridor was packed as I wormed my way downstairs to meet Jackson for lunch. A sharp jab to my shoulder made me whip around.
"Oh, sorry," Helena Johnson sneered, not sounding sorry at all.
I turned away, but she grabbed the strap on my bag and held me back.
"What were you so smug about in Vector's class, eh?"
Her challenging air seemed to require a response.
"Well… you were rather obnoxious."
Helena glowered, dishing out an all-too-familiar, Vivian-ish vibe. "Are you calling me a slut?"
"I'm not calling you anything."
"You're a whore!" The childish attack fell on deaf ears. Seeing that she had not made much of an impression, she smacked my face with her palm and yelled, "Pathetic, ugly loser!"
I wrenched free of her grip and raised my eyebrows. "Your mother was a hamster, and your father smelled of elderberries."
Helena was still scratching her head as I walked into the Great Hall to eat.
"You okay? You're awfully quiet."
Damn. I could never fool him.
"Hmm?" I glanced up from my plate of leafy greens to see Jackson's worried eyes staring at me. "Yeah, I'm fine."
"Really?" His eyebrows shot up as if he did not believe a word of it.
"Jackson, what could possibly happen on the first day that would depress me?"
He shrugged. "I dunno. It's just that I saw your little tussle with Helena Johnson before lunch this morning."
I froze, my fork suspended in midair. "What 'tussle'?" I asked as casually as I could.
Jackson laughed out loud and accidentally sprayed mashed potatoes all over the second year sitting three seats down. "Oh, come off it! You always sucked at lying, Rory. I can't believe you're actually trying to cover this up."
"Okay, she hit me in the face. So what?"
His expression dropped to an anxious frown. "She did?"
"I have a battle scar if you'd like proof."
He eyed the small bruise on my left cheekbone. "Shouldn't you be more concerned?"
"About what? She's just being extremely hormonal because her pookie didn't come back this year."
"Just because James is gone–"
"–It doesn't give her the right to go around smacking people," I finished his well-rehearsed line for him.
"Don't look at me like that!" Jackson slammed his spoon down on the table so hard that the saltshaker toppled to its doom. "I'm just… I'm worried about you, all right? You're really… vulnerable."
"What's that supposed to mean?" I poked my wand distractedly at the bits of shattered glass and tiny heaps of salt crystals, causing them to repair themselves.
Jackson trapped my fingers between the hard, wooden table and his own fingers. "It means that you take a lot of hits. Has a day gone by when you haven't been whacked, shouted at, or both?"
I pulled away, picking up my cutlery and jamming an overlarge cucumber slice into my mouth to avoid giving him the satisfaction of being right…again.
He didn't say anything but continued chewing his steak and kidney pie.
"Am I a whore?"
The question slipped out so suddenly that I barely had time to register that it was I who voiced it.
He blinked. "Where the hell is this coming from?"
I couldn’t meet his eyes. "Well…I dunno. I hear it so much that I–"
"From Vivian? Are you joking? She's trying to level the playing field."
"No, not from Vivian. Helena–"
"Oh, Helena Johnson told you that. Kindly remember that you're talking about the girl who got her first shag when she was twelve."
Despite my uncertainty, I grinned. "Thanks."
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