The extravagant pendulum swinging the length from the ceiling to the floor was rather distracting, although she supposed that was its purpose. If this didn’t put a stressor on the amount of time they had to complete their last exam, she didn’t know what would be.
More than twenty minutes had passed and her third fill-in answer remained half completed. She was tired and although she realized that completing her Transfiguration exam would guarantee her freedom, it wasn’t enough to push her through.
And perhaps she didn’t want it to be. Freedom meant fear. What would happen now? With her knowledge of what Draco had told her months previous, knowing his secrets had encased her in anxiety and the feeling that she could trust no one.
She couldn’t possibly have burdened anyone else with her knowledge, not even Hermione, and was left struggling to figure out how to protect her family. They had remained hidden well, the Ministry had taken good care of that, but how long would it be before their defenses wore out?
Besides the fact, even if there was no plan to harm her family, there was a war coming. The anxiety of the students graduating with the Boy Who Lived was nearly suffocating her. She didn’t know if that fear would dissipate once they were able to disperse out into the real world or not. But England wasn’t that big and they were bound to see one another again. How many reunions would it take before they all snapped?
She was haunted by the thoughts that Harry would be turned against in the peak of the war, sure that his own classmates would push him to the front lines to save their own families. She was pulled from her thoughts when she heard clicking heels slowly making its way down her row of desks.
Snapping herself out of her trance, she pushed her attention onto the paper, pressing her hands into her temples, pretending that she was intently focusing, when it couldn’t be further from the truth.
McGonagall passed her without a second thought and Ashley huffed a sigh of relief. She couldn’t focus, she didn’t want to. She wanted to be free but the chains of Hogwarts kept her safe.
Was she the only one that was terrified?
Surely she couldn’t be, but the students who were furiously scribbling at their tests, hurrying to flip over pages to continue plugging on, seemed like they couldn’t give a second thought to life after their examinations. Or were they just acting too?
With Harry still upset at her, what did that mean for the future of the four’s friendship? Surely seeing them was unavoidable, as Ron was related to her by marriage, but was the result of his anger going to be that they never saw each other unless absolutely necessary? She had lost in how important she was to Hermione and Ron. She could never come close to all the things the three of them had done together, not that she necessarily wanted to go through the trials and tribulations they had to get there.
And although there was a small flicker of hope of the chance to make new friends, to start afresh with others at the Healing Academy, it turned out to not be enough. She didn’t want new friends, she wanted the three of them. And if she had to pretend to love Harry in order to maintain that, then maybe it wasn’t for the best anyways.
There had been nights, although rare, that she tried to trick herself into thinking that she could love Harry, just for the sake of making everyone else happy. It had become a temptation of living an easy life. It’s what everyone had expected at this point anyway. With Draco out of the picture, naturally Ashley had leaned on Harry and a love should’ve stemmed out of it. But that’s exactly what didn’t happen.
Draco had merely become a numbing thought, no longer causing the immediate pain she once experienced months earlier, but not necessarily becoming any painless either. The realization that they were not meeting for a long time had finally sunk into her system and that if they ever did meet again, he would have become a person she no longer wanted nor could be with. Images of his sunken face concealed in dark fabrics of hoods flooded her mind, donning the iron masks of Death Eaters, his grey eyes hollow from the consummation of Dark Magic. It was a hard pill to swallow and felt as if someone had forced her to swallow it, preventing her from regurgitation the truth.
She felt too petty to doom herself unmarriageable. Any thought of it that crossed her mind only plagued her of the inevitable annoyed looks and comments that had never been made, but would surely be spat if she announced it. She was too afraid to voice the fear, too afraid that no one would understand how truly terrified she was to not have that blond haired boy beside her. He had been plucked too early from her grasp and she still felt her theoretical hand extended, waiting for life to place him there once more.
Unfortunately, Hermione was right: he had played his part in her life.
But there was something, in the back of her mind, that challenged her to miss him more every day. That maybe if she missed hard enough, he would come back.
Images of her life after school had faded. The lines were blurry and she couldn’t see where she was supposed to go.
It would be so easy for everyone to carry on so carelessly. She knew that not everyone had a definite idea of where they were going, but she couldn’t imagine them being as lost as she.
Her thoughts were shifted as she focused back on the pendulum: gold and making a deep swooshing noise and it rocked back and forth. Her time was winding down, but she couldn’t make herself focus on her test.
The more time she spent there, the less time she had.
The less time she could spend there, was only making the growing years more terrifying.
Shivers spiraled down her spine, a result of the feeling of being watched.
A need to look over her shoulder pulled her and when she did, Harry’s wandering eyes met hers. She stared at him, searching his green orbs for any sign of hostility. The anger she had seen the night previous was absent. Now, curiosity seemed to fill them. Was he just as afraid as she? Or was he not even worrying about that at all, but thinking about how angry he was with her?
She was torn between giving him time to come around and admitting unavoidable defeat.
When they had attended their last Potions class, Ashley had tried desperately to catch his eye long enough to find an appropriate time to try and talk to him. It had been difficult, both with Harry’s anger and with Snape’s strict no-talk policy, especially with Gryffindors, that she had cost her house a total of twenty points in attempts that weren’t as sneaky as she thought. It had been her last chance at snagging the Calming Draught and she blew it completely. She was so focused on trying to squeeze in a word with Harry that she had missed an ingredient altogether and the potion vaporized out of her cauldron. The one chance she had to succeed had been wasted on trying to win someone over a decision that he had known was coming for months.
Taking a deep breath, she found her peacock quill finally starting to make words, although, when she read them back to herself, she couldn’t focus enough to decide whether or not they made any sense. Thoughts of worry, terror, loneliness and anxiety attacked her mind, but at least she was writing. At least she was making progress.
She struggled to push through her test and managed to scribble down a few last sentences as a great gonging sound boomed throughout the Great Hall, sending her and many other students nearly jumping out of their seat. The surprise sent her quill scrawling with the jolt of her hand, making large slash marks next to her last word. She had no time to change it as McGonagall waved her wands and the tests flew towards her and landed neatly in a large heap on a desk besides her.
“Congratulations on finishing your last examinations. Your test results will be owled to all of you by mid-July. I wish you all luck in your future endeavors.” McGonagall announced, giving a simple nod of the head. “The final feast will commence at six o’clock.”
The scraping of chairs and the shuffling of test notes being crammed back into backs filled the Great Hall. The pendulum slowed to a standstill, its presence ever looming and terrible as it alluded to the fact that their time would stop at the castle after tonight. Ashley wasn’t able to tear her eyes from it until she felt a gentle hand on her shoulder.
She turned to see Hermione, giving her a small smile as she asked, “Want to go to the lake?”
“Alright,” Ashley sighed in relief, glad to rid herself of the image of the embodied time bomb in the large pendulum. “Let’s go.”
It was always an odd feeling, the end of the school year and the feeling of being utterly lost without hours of studying and doing homework found her once again. But this time, she was completely done. There would no longer be late night cram sessions with Hermione, or trying to sneak in last minute notes between periods.
She was free of school.
And now, she had been thrown into the terrors of the real world.
Like she promised herself, she remained tight-lipped about her plethora of worries, putting on a brave face as Hermione’s mindless chatter faded in and out of her conscious, the soft thuds of their heels padding against the grass followed their footsteps.
After several more minutes, a lull had found its way into the conversation. She knew Hermione was observing her in her worried state and was struggling to conceal the dark thoughts that clouded her mind, forcing her to silently suffer.
“He’ll come around, you know.” Hermione offered kindly.
Ashley furrowed her eyebrow as she turned to her, “What?”
“Harry, I mean,” Hermione clarified, “Ron and him have gotten into bad arguments over the years and they always made up. Harry isn’t one to cast off others so easily.”
“I don’t think Ron exactly rejected being his girlfriend, Hermione.” Ashley retorted.
Hermione grimaced, unsure of what else she could offer. “Even still, Harry isn’t like that.”
Ashley followed Hermione’s gaze back towards the castle.
“We’re officially old.” Ashley joked.
Hermione gave a small laugh.
“How did you think you did on the Transfiguration test?” Ashley asked her.
“We’ll see,” Hermione answered, “But I expect a good outcome.”
“I hope so,” Ashley teased, “because you’re not going to be able to argue with McGonagall on your grade, now that it’s summer.”
“Oh, hush.” Hermione nudged her playfully, “I saw that you were thinking rather hard. How do you think you did?”
“Well, the questions were rather thought provoking,” Ashley lied, “I wanted to make sure I answered them as thoroughly as possible.”
Hermione didn’t buy her answer, tilting her head as she gave her a knowing look.
“What?” Ashley asked, “Okay, okay, I could’ve studied a little harder.”
“We’re going to be okay, Ash.” Hermione told her.
Ashley was rather caught off guard by her statement, but didn’t argue with her. Hermione had grown to know her too well for her to be able to lie out of the situation any further.
“C’mon,” Hermione nudged her, “Let’s go eat.”
The excitement from the minority of seventh years created such a strong buzz of energy, one couldn’t help but by jittery and excited from the electricity, whether seventh year or no. Ashley couldn’t deny the hippogriffs beating in her stomach as she entered the Great Hall, knowing that this would be her last time, all of their last times, that they would dine there.
Hermione lead her to seats across from Harry and Ron, the former unable to look at Ashley while the latter offered her a beaming smile and a nod of the head. Ashley felt somewhat less awkward that Ron was trying to be neutral as well.
“Welcome, welcome,” Dumbledore greeted them, his long arms outstretched as he rose from his grand chair, “and a final greeting to all of the seventh years. I would like to take a moment to express my deepest farewell and extended my luck to each and every one of you as you go forth from this institution and pursue whatever life may lead you.
“I will stop the sentiments there, for I know all of you are waiting for the crowning of the House and Quidditch Cup, especially our senior students, who may have the privilege of declaring their House the winner on their last feast.”
He had the seventh years shifting in their seats now, hanging on his every word. Hermione, who could care less about Quidditch, held her breath in anticipation at the announcement of the House Cup winner.
“First, the Quidditch Cup winner.” Dumbledore announced, “I would like to thank all of the players for putting on such an entertaining season this year. I will dearly miss the presence of the seventh years in future matches.”
He was painstakingly dragging it out and the sounds of impatient mutters spread across all four houses.
“I would like to congratulate…Slytherin!”
Angry roars from the Gryffindor table resonated loudly in the hall, sending a rather scolding look from McGonagall. It was obvious she wasn’t pleased, but was even less so by the reaction from her house that poorly reflected her so. Snape had no trouble expressing his satisfaction, as a smug smirk curled at his mouth.
With a wave of Dumbledore’s hands, the blank banners above ran green and silver, the snake silently hissing as its red mouth slithered in and out of its mouth. Ron gave a rather loud objection, saying that the whole thing had been rigged, declaring that somehow Snape had confounded the Headmaster into granting Slytherin the winner. After several scoldings from Hermione, Ron finally shut up.
Dumbledore raised his hands in silence, although the Hall was still loud with objections and hisses.
“And now, for the House Cup…” Dumbledore announced loudly, the volume of his voice lost in the talk.
“We still have a chance,” Hermione breathed, “this is better than the Quidditch Cup anyways.”
Harry and Ron threw her a look. Ashley smiled in their shocked reactions. Harry looked at her quickly, breaking his gaze, although she could’ve sworn a small smile hinted at the corner of his mouth.
“I would like to congratulate the students of…Gryffindor!”
“Yes!” Hermione squealed, standing quickly in her seat as she clapped excitedly. Soon after, many Gryffindors joined her in their standing ovation of their achievement. Ashley watched, bewildered, as the banners faded from green to a deep scarlet, the lion overtaking the serpent. The lion clawed at them, giving a terrible roar that echoed throughout the hall, sending their golden goblets and silverware rattling. Although Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff looked rather put out, they eventually allowed themselves polite applause, knowing that they would’ve rather had their sister-house win over Slytherin.
If the excited charge upon entering the Hall wasn’t animating enough, it was nothing compared to the sheer joy and jubilation coursing through the students at the Gryffindor table.
Dumbledore chuckled at their swing in emotion. Raising his hands once more, he boomed, “Let’s eat!”
Gasps and cries of amazement filled the hall as food and drink appeared, all adding to the mounting excitement. The feast was rather grand and up-scale, resulting in exotic desserts and grand cuts of meats, fresh vegetables and sparkling ciders.
Ron didn’t hesitate to grab two helpings of everything within arm’s reach, shoving food into his mouth with one hand as he continued to dish himself with the other. Hermione and Harry were pickier in their selections, taking smaller samples of each dish.
Ashley was still rather bewildered at the excitement of it all, her gaze locking on the banners of their house. They flapped in a silent breeze, scarlet and gold catching the flickering candlelight floating in the star speckled sky. The lion had quieted, but clawed and paced in the confinements of each banner, watching down on its victorious students eagerly.
Ashley found herself eating, although she didn’t necessarily know what. She had taken samples of everything, just as Hermione had, but was more entranced by the feasting students. She looked to the first years, their little faces beaming at the fact that they had finally moved up, they were no longer the main source for teasing or being picked on. They were finally advancing in the world. The sixth years were jubilant, already talking of their last feast that would take place a year from now, the countdown already beginning.
And then she looked to her fellow classmates, perhaps the most excited, as they discussed plans for the summer and beyond. Many had already gotten accepted to institutes for further education, some were waiting on submitted applications, and some had no idea entirely. There were a few who decided that they would take some time to travel abroad, while others decided that they would work at their previous jobs and see where it would take them from there.
But there was one student who wasn’t indulging in such small talk.
Ashley couldn’t help but look up to his empty seat. What would he do if he were here? Would he throw her a smirk, taking a break from discussing something with another student to look at her, to check in on what she was doing? Would he have another heated argument as he tried to fight off Pansy for the last time? Or would he simply sit there, eating his dinner silently, waiting to sneak off with Ashley in the castle one last time?
She didn’t know and supposed it didn’t matter at the moment, because he wasn’t there and all the wishing in the world wasn’t going to change that.
With this realization, she tore her eyes from the Slytherin table back to her plate and dug into the food that was becoming cold.
It was easy, losing herself in the mindless conversation she had been eavesdropping on in the last several minutes, her fears slipping in every few minutes, but quickly pushed out as another seventh year asked her what her plans were for the summer. Promises of keeping in touch and owling everyday were thrown about, even though they all knew they would be forgotten, as they did every summer until they saw one another the following year.
But this was different, they weren’t coming back. What promises were broken would remain just that: broken, until perhaps by chance, they would run into each other in the real world, where the same promises would be renewed and quickly forgotten once again.
With bellies full, students were slowly starting to trickle out, making their way back to their dormitories to pack. With the thinning number of companions to talk to, the draw of the empty seat was once again toying with Ashley’s mind.
Where was he?
Was he okay?
Was he going to come and find her when she left?
Or would she never see him again?
The students chatter was starting to stress her, sending her mind quickly throbbing with a headache. Suddenly, she felt claustrophobic and the food that filled her stomach was sending her innards flopping all over, threatening to spill out.
“Ashley?” Hermione asked, turning her attention from a conversation with Ron and Seamus.
“It was something I ate, I think.” Ashley dismissed, throwing her napkin atop her plate and scooting out of the bench, “I’m going to step outside for a minute.”
Ashley rose quickly, hurrying out of the hall, her shoes echoing her dismissal. She had to get out. The lions were clawing in objection as she looked at them nervously, their entertainment factor quickly lost in the fear that she had limited hours before she was no longer in the castle.
She waved off Padma and Patil that called for her to join them in a game of Exploding Snap in a table set up in the corner, surrounded by a couple of other girls from Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw. Ashley awkwardly waved to Hannah and Grace, the two girls who she had spoken to in the library after her detention.
“I’m just going outside, I’ll be back.” She lied, hurrying past them towards the Entrance Hall. The last thing she wanted to do was playing a game that involved exploding cards, a feeling that just might her snap herself.
When the large doors came into her line of sight, her quick gait became a hurried jog as she threw herself against the large doors, throwing her weight against them to shove them open.
She needed air or she was going to faint.
When she stepped outside into the courtyard, it was all she could do to not topple over.