Life after the Christmas holidays was so different that, six months previously, I wouldn’t have recognised this
version of my little Hufflepuff trifecta even if it had danced a Highland fling in front of my face. When you’re young and stupid, you tend to think you’re invincible, and you tend to believe people when they tell you you’re going to be best friends forever. But friendships really aren’t invincible, and even the strongest bonds can crack under the most trivial of pressures. It’s just a question of where said pressure is applied.
So if you’d taken me at the end of fifth year – back when I was oh so naïve and had just sat my O.W.Ls – gripped me by the shoulders, shaken me a bit, and said: Flora, in six months or so, you’re going to have a boyfriend, Fauna will be your best friend and you’ll never even want to make eye contact with Scorpius anymore because he is dead to you
– I would have thought you were barmy. I think I was so used to being frigid and immature that I’d never have dreamt in a million years that a boy would look at me and actually think I was alright. And I’d never have dreamt in a million years that Fauna would suddenly be my absolute best friend. And I’d never have dreamt in a million, billion, squillion
years that I’d somehow hate Scorpius.
All I had left of my little trifecta was the glow-in-the-dark star keyring that Fauna had got from her Astronomy trip. I noticed she was the only one who’d kept hers on her bag. Mine was in my muggle purse, mingling with fifty pence pieces and my house keys at the bottom of my trunk. I didn’t want to be reminded of it, but I never wanted to throw it away. Fauna, ever the budding astrologer, always looking for romantic symbolism about her, had gone on for ages one night about how beautifully meaningful
the bloody keyrings were. How stars last for ages, how they glow powerfully in the dark and bring light to the universe, how pretty they look twinkling in the sky, how people wish on them. And while it was cute that she’d put so much thought into it, a new-found cynical part of me wanted to say get a grip. For starters, they’re plastic. Also, stars are just burning balls of gas and, duh, they die too. Nice to know you think our friendship is like a giant, gassy fireball.
Okay, I appreciated how sweet Fauna was being and how she was probably trying really hard to keep us all together, but she failed miserably, because everything was different after the holidays. Because, when I saw Fauna and Scorpius together for the first time since teatime in the Great Hall, her smile somehow looked brighter and he looked a bit taller, as if he’d only just found out how to stand up straight. Because they both said hello to me and then the conversation took a nosedive straight into the carpet and there was nothing, nothing
interesting that any of us could think to talk about. And when you can’t talk to your best friends, you know something’s probably gone wrong.
It was weird to go back to the common room and see them sharing one of the armchairs we usually had one each of. It was weird to see them laughing about some private joke together or even – god forbid – kissing
. I’d never even considered this might have happened one day, because, as far as I was concerned, they were just my friends. Besides, I
was the one who’d introduced them to each other. I realised too late that I’d come to see Scorpius as mine
– you know, my best friend, my confidante, my reliable source for copying homework off, my back-up plan for when I was a crazy cat lady and needed someone to marry.
Okay, Fauna had always been a good friend to him, nicer than most people were, didn’t even call him a loser when he wasn’t looking or anything, never gossiped about his family, even though I know people bugged her to tell them if his dad was really as horrible as the old newspapers made out, if the stuff they’d heard about his mum was true. But I couldn’t really understand how, after six years of laughing at him behind her hand, she’d suddenly decided she fancied him.
They always say you’re mean to the people you fancy, though. And, besides, like both she and Albus had said to me, you barely notice someone for years, and then one day you wake up and realise they’ve been under your nose all along.
I think I was just really mad that Scorpius had decided to kiss me when he knew I had a boyfriend, and then
went on to ask Fauna out a week or so later. I didn’t even realise he was capable of such barefaced spite. He was too…Scorpius
But I guess I had to face him sooner or later. We had Ancient Runes together the first Friday after term started; the only subject we both took that Fauna didn’t. Usually, it was a fun lesson, a bit of a doss, seeing as both of us were alright at Runes and could get through without paying much attention.
This time it wasn’t so much of a doss. He’d arrived early – I guessed Fauna had dropped him off, because I hadn’t seen her since I’d left the dormitory – but by the time I turned up it was still five minutes until the lesson started. He was in his usual seat by the back, my seat empty beside him. For a split second, I seriously considered going to sit next to Georgina, but told myself that I wasn't that
desperate and went to sit in my normal place.
He looked up when I sat down and gave me an uncertain little nod of recognition. A notebook, open on the desk in front of him, was covered with doodling and scribbles. As soon as I reached into my bag for my textbooks he went back to scribbling on it again. And I’m not even kidding, he wasn’t drawing or writing or anything, just scribbling on the corner of the page and turning it black with ink.
‘Afternoon,’ I said, and it was hard to keep myself from sounding so frosty.
‘Hi,’ he said, and his voice was barely audible. The whole corner of the page was black by this point, and all I could think about was how inconsiderate that was, because he’d probably be staining the pages below with ink too. Somehow, it annoyed me more than anything and, before, I would have elbowed him or ordered him to stop, but I couldn’t think of a single way to say it that wouldn’t make me sound angry or awkward.
We didn’t talk any more before the lesson started. Given that it was the first week back, it was pretty easy stuff; cast runes and read them, translate into English. Try to put them into a sentence. So once Professor Caulfield had finished talking and told us all to get on with it, I lifted a handful of tiles from the pot on our desk and set out five in a pattern on the table before us.
Scorpius shut his notebook (which bugged me even more, because I noticed that the ink was still wet) and stared down at the runes.
‘Betrayal,’ he said.
Somehow, my mind had taken this as a direct comment on the twisted state of our friendship. Maybe I was getting paranoid. But Scorpius just gave me a weird look and nodded at the runes.
‘The middle one stands for betrayal,’ he said.
The little cynical version of myself that was now living in my head went oh, I wonder if the other runes stand for Flora, Fauna, Scorpius, and Albus.
I kind of had to keep reminding myself that I’d once been a really innocent, optimistic person.
‘And the others?’ I said, trying to keep my face impassive.
‘Um…misunderstanding,’ he said. ‘Er…changes for the better, I think. Not sure…defence. And, um, mysteries.’
We lapsed into silence.
‘Well,’ he said. ‘We should probably put them into a sentence.’
Another pause. I felt heat rising in my face.
‘Well, the betrayal could be a mystery,’ I said. ‘And…the defence could lead to changes for the better?’
‘What about the misunderstanding?’ he said.
‘What about it?’
Pause, again. I took a moment to wonder whether our conversation was continuing down the path marked ‘runes’ or zooming off into uncharted territory.
‘You forgot about it,’ he said, frowning. ‘That’s all.’
‘Yeah, I don’t know how to work it in,’ I said. ‘You do it.’
‘Fine,’ he shrugged.
The rest of the lesson passed in stilted, awkward conversation. I didn’t really have any idea what to say to him and, even if I did, I just couldn’t get the words out, and ended up half-saying things, stuttering over stuff. It was like we didn’t know each other, like he was some stranger I was intimidated by. And it was mega weird being shy
in front of him.
It wasn’t just me being like that, though. It was him too. And that was an even weirder thought and a really
weird feeling to be sitting there, stammering at each other and never finishing our sentences, freaked out by the sight of each other.
I was pretty glad when the bell rang and we could both leave. I just couldn’t shake the thought of how he’d been scribbling in his notebook and how the pages before and after would have been ruined. Somehow, it bugged me.
Outside the classroom, I didn’t know what to say to him. He stood there, backpack hanging off one shoulder, folder clutched to his chest, and the blankest look on his face.
‘Um, tonight, me and Fauna were going to go to the Astronomy tower and, um, stargaze for a bit, you know how she’s got this nifty slip from one of the prefects and…yeah…’ he trailed off. ‘Er, we wondered if you’d like to come with us.’
I raised my eyebrows at him. ‘Um...what?’
‘Wondered if, uh…if you wanted to come with us.’
Awkward silence. Again. I wondered how many we’d have to go through before I cracked.
‘I don’t…er, I don’t want to be a third wheel…’
‘You wouldn’t be!’ he said. ‘Just…’
‘I don’t think so,’ I said. ‘I don’t think it would be…right.’
We stood there, just looking
at each other, invisible to the other students passing by us on the way to lessons.
‘Sorry…are you ever going to want to hang out with us again?’ he said.
Of course the answer was yes, but I really didn’t feel like I could say that. I shrugged.
‘Are we ever going to…t-to…’
‘I don’t want to talk about it,’ I said.
He looked visibly deflated. ‘Flora, I…’
I’d already started to back off, knowing I’d be late for Charms. ‘You just, sorry, you…just kind of fucked everything up,’ I said.
I rarely ever swore, and Scorpius actually flinched like I’d hit him in the face or something.
‘Okay,’ was all he said.
I felt really bad. ‘Um, bye,’ I said. ‘See you.’
‘Yeah,’ I barely caught his voice. ‘See you.’
I walked to Charms in a foul mood, half-regretting what I’d said to Scorpius, half-satisfied that he’d actually deserved it. It was the way he’d looked so dejected, and the fact that, even though it had only been a few days, I already really missed him. I actually felt like I had tears welling up in my eyes.
But everything got a bit better a floor above the Charms department; Albus must have seen me from the other end of the corridor, because he came racing out of nowhere, threw his arm around my shoulder, and nearly made me jump a foot into the air.
‘Flora!’ he said, releasing me so we could walk side-by-side. ‘We’ve got Charms next, right?’
I nodded. I didn’t know whether I could speak or not without sounding too emotional.
‘Are you alright?’ he said. ‘God, you look really miserable…’
‘I’m fine!’ I insisted, sounding a bit on the verge of hysterical. ‘Totally fine! Peachy keen!’
Albus wasn’t having any of it. ‘Sure? Your face is tripping you…’
,’ I said, but he put his arm back around my shoulder and held me close as we walked. It did make it kind of awkward to walk, but I liked being able to put my head on his shoulder and let my hair fall over my face. It made me feel normal again, or as close to normal as I could get.
Despite having hung back to talk to Scorpius, we got to Charms early. Most of the class had already lined up, so we took our places at the back of the queue, Albus still half-hugging me. I would never have admitted it to anyone out of shyness, but I actually really wanted to kiss him, right there in the corridor, for cheering me up so much…except I’m not really sure snogging in the corridors in broad daylight is the done thing and I could see Tabitha standing a few spaces up I the queue. I really didn’t want to be gossiped about.
‘Are you free this evening?’ Albus murmured.
I had a sudden, vivid image of sitting up at the Astronomy Tower with Fauna and Scorpius, wrapped up against the cold, staring up at the sky. It kind of looked a bit too good to be true.
‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘Why?’
‘Found something we could do together,’ he said. ‘If you’re up for it.’
‘Ah,’ he raised his eyebrows at me. ‘That’s a secret.’
I’d imagined that he might take me to his common room, or even to sit in one of those secret little alcoves you found dotted around the corridors. So I was a bit surprised when, after I met Albus in the Entrance Hall at seven, he took me up to the fourth floor. To a plain, nondescript door, to be more specific. I wouldn’t have noticed it if he hadn’t stopped.
‘Um, what’s this?’ I said.
‘Wait and see,’ Albus grinned.
He turned to the door, cleared his throat, and said ‘peach melba’ in a clear, crisp voice. The door unlocked and swung open – Albus turned to grin at me, and I had to fight to stop my jaw falling unattractively open in surprise.
‘The prefect’s bathroom!’ he said cheerily. ‘Okay, more like a swimming pool, but-’
‘You have your own bathroom?’
‘Well, I have to share it with the other prefects-’
‘No, I mean…the prefects have their own bathroom?’
‘Swimming pool, really,’ he corrected me. ‘But, yeah, we have our own bathroom.’
‘Mega,’ I said, breathless.
‘Mega,’ he nodded.
mega. On toast.’
‘Indeed,’ he said. ‘Thought we could go for a swim!’
A tiny knot of worry tightened in my stomach. ‘Albus, I don’t, like, have a swimming costume or anything…’
‘Me neither!’ he said brightly.
‘Er…you don’t…’ my mind raced. ‘You don’t…expect me to be, um, starkers
or anything, do you-’
He burst out laughing. ‘No, not unless you want to be.’
‘I know, I know…I usually swim in my boxers because, well, no matter how thorough you’ve been about booking it and no matter how well you’ve locked the door, people will inevitably come charging in. Anyway…’
I followed him inside and pushed the door shut behind me. Okay, the place was clearly supposed
to be a bathroom – there were fluffy white towels heaped by the door, soap dishes and cakes of pinkish soap perched on the windowsills, even a rubber duck lying abandoned by the edge of the pool. Alright, I say pool, and it was certainly the size of one, but I haven’t seen many pools with taps. I mean, a lot
of taps. And a plug in the middle.
It was all very Hogwarts
too. I mean, how many bathrooms have moving paintings in them? But directly opposite the door, there was a vast, bright painting of a beautiful mermaid perched on a lonely rock in the sea. She gave an impish little giggle at the sight of us and then dived into the water.
weird,’ I said. ‘You prefects certainly kept it quiet.’
‘Ah, but if we let it out that we had our own bathroom, everybody
would want one. Beats the dorm showers anyway. Here,’ he passed me one of the fluffy white towels. ‘I’ll fill it up…’
‘Albus…’ I said warily, as he hurried over to sit cross-legged at the side of the pool and turn at least fifteen of the taps on. ‘Al, it’s…’
‘Hmm?’ he turned to look at me and, wow, I must have looked a fool. Standing there in my robes, bottlecap glasses on, towel clutched to my chest, a luminous, burning blush on my face.
‘Albus, I don’t really…er…I mean, I don’t really stand about in my underwear all that often.’
If I was the Japanese knotweed of awkward, then that was my roots digging themselves several feet deeper. I was cripplingly, criminally shy and, frankly, I wasn’t all that keen on the idea of whipping off my clothes in front of Albus, even if it was for a swim. Okay, I guess I’m pretty skinny for someone who lives off sugar and crisps, but I don’t exactly possess what you might call a figure. I actually know for a fact that I have the body of a twelve year old boy, because I’d needed white shirts for a summer job before I went back to Hogwarts, and I’d got them cheap from the schoolwear aisle of my local supermarket, boys ages eleven to twelve. They didn’t even cost me a fiver and they were a perfect fit but, well, it was a bit depressing.
I didn’t really want to let Albus know that he was going out with an ironing board with sticks for limbs. I didn’t even own nice underwear because I’d pretty much resigned myself to the fact that I was going to be a crazy cat lady for the rest of my life and that no-one
would ever get to see me without my tragic jumpers on.
Alright, back to the point in hand.
‘I won’t look until you’re in the water,’ Albus said. ‘I promise. I mean, you can stay in your robes if you want, just that it gets a bit steamy in here. Wow, that sounds wrong,’ he added. ‘I meant…’
‘No, I’ll come in the water,’ I said quickly.
Well, self-esteem issues or not, how many chances do you really get to swim in an enormous bath?
‘Just…yeah,’ I added. ‘No looking.’
I attempted a nervous smile. He grinned back and then, without any sort of warning, pulled his jumper off. I turned away and pretended to be looking in my bag for something, terrified I’d say something daft about how I thought he was cute, how girls like Tabitha and Georgina would totally want to be in my place right now. Plus I figured it’d be pretty disrespectful to gawp at him when he’d just promised not to look at me.
Besides, I couldn’t get the blush out of my face. I mean, if you didn’t know the sort of folk me and Albus were, it would have looked plenty dodgy; a teenage boy and girl, alone, stripping off in a room with steamed-up windows, in a school
It doesn’t sound right however you try to phrase it.
Okay, it did feel a little
suspect to me. I trusted Albus to the hilt, though, and, well, he was my boyfriend. It wasn’t like it was a crime for him to see me in my knickers.
I heard a splash from behind and guessed he’d got in. ‘Definitely not looking?’ I called out.
‘Positive,’ he said. ‘I’ve got my hands over my eyes.’
I glanced round to check. He was telling the truth, and he looked a bit funny, submerged up to his neck in the water, blindfolding himself with both hands. So, trembling a little, I kicked off my shoes, tugged off my jumper, unzipped my skirt, and tried to ignore how my limbs felt like coat hangers in a paper maché shell of skin. My underwear, boringly black as per usual, made me look even paler than I was. The tights were a bit of a struggle, but eventually I pulled them off and stood there, hugging my cold, goosebumped arms to my chest, shivering.
I chanced another peek at Albus and he definitely wasn’t looking. So I took a deep breath, willed my unsteady legs to walk me to the edge of the bath, and – ignoring the ladder – leapt in.
: this chapter was surprisingly hard to write (although the next chapter was harder). so, you know, if it all reads a bit clunky, I mostly wrote this on a comedown after the stressfest of my history exam and I was a bit too delirious at the thought of never having to write about the cold war again to type properly. hope you liked it regardless! (p.s, for all you floral shippers out there...you're well in the lead, and Jess the Enthusiast is the captain of your ship. full speed ahead?)