There was a long time when I wasn’t really sure whether I was awake or asleep. I knew I was lying down, but I couldn’t open my eyes to check where I was. So for a bit I assumed I was on the floor of that ice room, with eyelids too heavy to open and skin gone too numb to pick up the cold anymore.
I could definitely see light, though. Light that was so warm and thick and saturated that it went right through me, into the back of my head, so the pain there was gone. But in an odd way, pain might have been better, because I couldn’t feel a thing. I could have been freezing to death and wouldn’t have known. I might not have been in the ice room at all, but lying down in the snow that day in Hogsmeade. The whole thing with the Ministry had been a little dream played out when I shut my eyes, and I knew I’d wake up and find I’d been making snow angels all along.
Sometimes I could hear, but it was like being in the deepest bit of the ocean with all the water pressing down on my ears. Only the odd bit of noise got through and none of it made sense. Just connecting words and prepositions and once or twice, my name. And now and again, an odd burning feeling would soak through the numbness and criss-cross my entire body, right to my feet, like I was being bound up in candlelight before being laid to rest again.
I was in the snow, I was sure, but then I was certain it was the ice room again and I had to make sure Scorpius got his inhaler. But, then again, it must have been the planet room because it was dark, but it was too golden for that, and maybe it was the Hufflepuff common room and I’d just dozed off in front of the fire. So I dreamt that I was lying with my hands folded on my chest like I was on a funeral bier. Everyone I’d ever known had lined up to pay their respects and touch their hesitant fingertips to my skin so it would burn in that pattern. At the end of this procession someone bent to kiss my forehead and tell me I was brave, but I didn’t get a good look at their face before they melted away and I became certain I was out in the snow again.
When I did come around, it wasn’t for long enough to work out where I was. ‘Tell her nice things,’ someone said, before the exhaustion caught with me and I ended up dreaming again. I don’t know who I was meant to be telling nice things too, but I thought about them anyway. Things like Willoughby’s fur, and Fauna’s glow-in-the-dark star keyrings, and carrot cake, and the opening bars of Lacewing Lullaby, and pink lipgloss. Fresh ink and parchment, and getting a good mark in History of Magic. Sitting on the banks of the lake with Albus. All these things made me smile, although if I really was asleep or frozen or stuck at the bottom of the ocean I was probably only smiling in my head.
Then I think that warm light was the first thing I noticed when I properly came round. It was the same gold that’d been burning away in my head all that time. I found the strength to open my eyes and saw that rich light in full - and it was so bright I had to squeeze my eyes shut again.
There were a few seconds of the familiar numbness before the pain arrived. On my face, on my neck, across my chest, all along the left of my body. Eyes open again, watering this time, I put a hand to my cheek and felt a stiff fabric there, stuck right against the skin. I tried to claw it away, but a cold hand rested over mine and held it tight. Then my vision adjusted and I saw my mother sitting beside the bed I was in.
‘Hello, Flora,’ she said. Her hand squeezed mine. ‘It’s good to see you awake.’
‘I woke up before,’ I said, thinking of the voice that had made me dream of nice things.
She smiled, the sort of smile I’d kind of got used to lately. It missed her eyes and made her look older. And it hurt to see her look like that, so I twisted my sore neck around to look at the room I was in. Only it wasn’t so much a room as an enclosure, with a white ceiling and white sheets on my bed and cheap white curtains serving as flimsy walls. But it was all lit by dying light; it must have been around sunset. There was no clock to check. I twisted round a bit further and saw I had a white bedside table with a vase of flowers and a glass of water on it. And then bottles of pills and salves that made my stomach turn over.
I asked her how long I’d been asleep, where I was, and tried to sit up, but she gently pushed me back and stroked my hair with her spare hand.
‘Shhh,’ she said. ‘Take it easy.’
This made me want to laugh. Or cry. Or even both. Taking it easy was a bit of a tall order considering I’d just woken up somewhere completely unfamiliar with this burning pain all over me. I gestured for her to pass me the glass of water instead.
‘You’ll have to sit up,’ she said, withholding the glass. So I struggled upright, leaning against the uncomfortable metal bedframe. Before she could pass me the water, I had another go at pulling away the stiff material on my face.
Mum looked like she was about to cry. ‘Don’t, Flora!’ she said, grabbing for my hand again and slopping half the water over my stomach. ‘There’s only a day till they come off.’
I took a sip of the water so I had a bit of time to process what she’d said.
‘They?’ I asked.
There were proper tears welling up in her eyes by now, but she tried her best to smile. Tried really hard, and it looked a bit painful. ‘The bandages, love.’
My stomach turned over again, and I felt a bit scared. ‘Bandages? For what?’
Her lip quivered. ‘What you did was very brave.’
‘Brave?’ I felt tired again, and I was thinking about making snow angels with Albus. ‘That wasn’t brave.’
But then I was too exhausted to continue. I handed her the glass back and sunk down into the bed.
‘That wasn’t brave at all,’ I whispered. ‘But the Shrieking Shack is meant to be haunted.’
She looked surprised. I shook my head at her then closed my eyes again. ‘I’ll tell you later.’
I must have dropped off to sleep after that, because the next time I opened my eyes mum was gone and the light was all blue and cold instead. Instead of dreaming, I’d been remembering. I’d realised that the memory of the snow was just that, and the real memory behind was the one with the ice room and the pain and. And. And.
And failure, surely. When I woke up I started to cry, and a Healer in sky-blue robes got me a glass of water and asked if I was okay. I didn’t really feel like telling her why I was crying, because in some way I didn’t want to hear the reason myself, but I took the water and drank it to calm myself down. Surely I’d failed. That was why mum had been so sad. I was responsible for everything. He’d gone and I hadn’t been able to bring him back.
I tried to sleep again. I thought that I might dream about the snow again and forget what I’d remembered. I reckoned I slept for a couple of hours more, and when I woke up and calmed myself down again I had a chance to sit up and have a look around. There were bandages all around my left wrist and the bottom of my hand, up my arm, on my chest, stuck to my neck and my face. For what, I kept thinking, although I couldn’t bring myself to ask the Healers who came to check up on me and give me painkillers. Bandages for what? What sort of injury needed this suffocating second skin?
Then that night I managed to transport myself to the Great Hall at school, sitting alone opposite one of the windows that looked out onto the forest. Except the window was a giant white screen with people moving about behind it, all blurred and muffled. The house tables were empty but the air buzzed with talk, and I was in my school uniform with that candlelight rope tightening about me again. It got so tight that I couldn’t breathe anymore, but then the skin of bandages fell away like water and I felt like I’d never run out of air as long as I lived.
And in this dream I was wearing a Hufflepuff cardigan that was a bit too big for me. The threads on the crest were loose and the cuffs were wearing thin, and I knew that if I checked the label I’d find the little namestrip his mum had sewn on for him before she died, on a cardigan she’d bought three sizes too big on the assumption he’d grow into it. I knew it was the last piece I had of him, so I wrapped my hands about myself and balled the cuffs into my fists. When I woke up my hands were clutching at empty air.
This time there was no crying or confusion. The Healer brought me water and explained that the bandages had melted off whilst I was sleeping – evidently some new technology, because she looked pretty excited as she described the complex process that made the fibres break down themselves and absorb into my skin as a sort of medicine. Then she told me my father was waiting outside and would be with me in a minute.
When she went outside to fetch him, I had a moment by myself to look at my left hand and see how the skin was split with a livid scar.
The curtains opened. Dad came in, clutching an umbrella with a white-knuckled grip. He took the seat beside my bed that mum had occupied the other day. Then he stared at me. His eyes were glassy.
‘Flora,’ he said, taking my scarred hand in his. ‘My brave lass.’
That made me want to burst into tears again, because there was nothing brave about letting my best friend die. So I didn’t speak.
‘It’s strange being here,’ he said. ‘Round magic folk.’
It was painful to smile. Dad had never really got used to me being a witch. He noticed I was staring at my hands.
‘The bandages came off an hour ago, apparently-’
‘I know, dad.’
‘They said you were very lucky.’
‘I don’t even know what happened to me. I can’t remember,’ I lied, a lump building in my throat.
He coughed and looked down at his shoes. ‘Well, you know me, I hardly ken half of what they’re saying. You were…cursed. Some bloody curse too, by the looks of it. One of the doctors said he’d come round and talk to you about it later. They…’
He trailed off, twisting the umbrella round his hands.
‘I brought your baffies,’ he said suddenly, pulling out a pair of worn slippers from a carrier bag at his feet. ‘I think they want to keep you here for a few weeks. Some home comforts, ken?’
‘Thanks,’ I said.
‘Your mum’s got some proper pyjamas and a few books for you. You’ve got a friend here, too, he was asking after you earlier. He said he was just a few wards down.’
My heart leapt into my throat. ‘Which friend?’
‘Oh…’ he frowned. ‘I didn't know him…black hair, bit scruffy-looking. Talked very posh.’
‘Right,’ I said.
‘I’ve got you some soor plooms,’ he said. ‘Opal Fruits, too. All your favourites.’
He put a few paper bags on the bedside table and I wanted the bedsheets to swallow me up. Somehow all I could think about was whether they’d let me out in time for the funeral.
Dad didn’t get to hang about and talk for long, because a couple of Healers came in through the curtains and asked if I wanted to look in a mirror yet. I definitely didn’t, but knew I had to before long and, besides, I thought it might get me out of the place faster. So the vaguely handsome male Healer smiled and his colleague went off to fetch the mirror itself. Then dad had to shift over when the Healer conjured a chair and came to sit next to me.
‘Now,’ he said. ‘Now…’
Some of my dad’s family start their sentences with a now. It’s a proper eastern Scottish thing, I hear, but this Healer had a really crisp, cut-glass voice, like he was getting ready to read out the news headlines on the radio.
‘You were hit by a rather nasty curse a few days ago. Unfortunately, it’s one of the tougher ones to treat – it’s very uncommon. We haven’t seen it used since the last war. These scars are cursed,’ he took my hand and turned it over so I could look properly – even if I didn’t want to - at the red line that spiralled down from the heel of my hand almost to my elbow. ‘Treatment doesn’t tend to last fairly long. But with the intensive regime of treatments we’re giving you, the cuts should, within a fortnight, be keeping together…’
My dad coughed politely and the Healers turned to look at him. ‘Can’t you give her stitches?’
‘The curse will just melt them. It’s best to apply a salve directly to the wounds and limit movement as much as possible. Besides,’ he turned back to me. ‘You had a fairly nasty concussion when you got here. We’ll have to keep an eye on that. And after what you’ve been through – I think it’s best you stay off school for a wee while.’
I’d gone from wanting to scream to wanting to laugh hysterically. There was no bloody way I wanted to go back to school. I’d made up my mind; I was done with the place. I was done with being a witch already. I almost wanted to flail my arms about and make the cuts open up again just to spite them. I felt like I was past caring; I wanted time by myself to grieve.
‘Now – are you ready for the mirror?’
I kidded myself momentarily that this was another part of the treatment, like some magic mirror in a fairytale that would tell me I was the fairest of them all and send me on my merry way. But that was a daft thought; it was just a little plain mirror in a cheap white frame. The Healer kept it back for a second.
‘Ready?’ he said.
I braced myself for the worst. At least I knew already I wasn’t missing bits of my face or anything. ‘I’m fine,’ I said, and he handed me the mirror.
Okay, it wasn’t the worst, but it wasn’t exactly like looking back at the face I’d had since day dot. It was all a bit weird and different. It looked like a toddler had taken a red felt-tip pen to it. A jittery line ran down the middle of my forehead and sliced my eyebrow in half, before disappearing off towards the side-fringe I’d spent the better part of my teenage years trying to grow out. That was gone, now, as was a decent chunk of my hair that left my ear poking out like a house elf’s. Then a few inches below it there was another red line from the bridge of my nose to my jaw that had twisted my skin and caught the corner of my mouth; my lips were dragged into this half-smile that didn’t match the rest of my face. Then another line on my chin that went down to my neck, and another below that, and as I put the mirror aside and had a proper look at myself I noticed they all followed the same pattern, went the same way, were roughly the same length.
‘Must’ve been a pretty fastidious guy,’ I said, handing the mirror back. They all stared at me. I think they wanted me to burst into tears. I didn’t think I was ready yet. ‘So bloody neat.’
The most boring of thoughts then occurred to me. ‘What about my glasses?’
‘They shattered,’ the Healer said, pressing the mirror back into my hands. ‘The little marks around your eyes…well. We had to remove a fair bit of glass.’
My stomach turned over at the thought.
‘My colleagues a few floors down are working on getting you a new pair made up,’ he said. ‘The frames were perfectly intact, they’re just waiting on the lenses. Took us a while to get your prescription.’
‘The optician’s always awfully busy,’ dad said, trying to be helpful.
‘Okay?’ the Healer said. ‘I’ll pop along a bit later to see how you’re doing and administer the next round of salves.’
I gave him the mirror back and he and the other Healer left with a bright cheerio. Dad shuffled back up to my bedside and sat there, still wringing the brolly between his hands. And even though I was the one in the hospital bed with the bloody cursed wounds, I felt like I had a duty to make him feel more at ease in what was a totally alien place for him. I told him about the stuff I’d been doing at school before the holidays, my friends, even how I’d got a boyfriend. I figured it must have been Albus who’d been asking after me earlier, so I told dad that he wasn’t usually that scruffy.
‘Him?’ dad said, disbelieving. ‘What a handsome lad!’
And somehow that was when it got to me. Not that I’d ever been pretty, or thought of myself as such, and the way I looked wasn’t massively important to me when I knew I could do pretty much naff all about it. I think it was just realising that these weren’t just felt-pen marks that would wash off and be gone and never bother me again. Thinking that these were real scars I’d have for the rest of my life, cursed ones at that, which would probably burn and wake me up in the night. That’d given me this odd almost-smile that didn’t go with any of the rest of me. That it was a constant reminder of the moment I’d gone to feel for Scorpius’ pulse, only to turn around and get slashed to pieces by some man I didn’t even know the name of.
I cried so hard I ended up giving myself a headache. Proper ugly tears, all noisy and messy, that stung the cuts on my face. I thought I might give myself a nosebleed too, but eventually I calmed down enough to wipe my eyes on a blanket and realise all I’d done was make my head pound and my wounds weep along with me. Dad sat there through the whole thing and didn’t say anything. I was kind of glad. I didn’t want anyone to touch me or talk to me, and when the Healers had come back and were done applying more salves and making me swallow more painkillers, I pretended I was exhausted and they all left so I could sleep.
I didn’t sleep in the end. My mind was going over the scars and the last conversation I’d had with Scorpius. I realised that I hadn’t even found out what’d happened to his dad; what if he was dead too? Then I wondered about the scars a bit more. What would I tell people at home? I decided I’d been in a car accident, cribbing from a story I’d seen in the local paper a while back. I rewrote it in my head and substituted a few characters, and suddenly I could picture myself being driven along a dark country lane in the dead of night with Scorpius at the wheel. I wasn’t cursed, I was just in a car accident. My best friend died.
Not that I could sleep, mind. The curtains around my bed were only to give me a bit of privacy. Nearly everyone had them, I'd only seen a couple of people in the ward on the few occasions a Healer had let me get up and go to the loo. So I could hear everything that went on, and all through the night an old lady a few beds down kept crying for her mum. That ship has sailed, I felt like shouting back. I reckon I dropped off when the sun started to rise.
Then late the next morning I woke up and Albus was at the gap in my curtains, fist raised like he meant to knock on some invisible door. He was in pyjamas and slippers like I was, looking a bit sheepish.
I waved him in. I felt like crying again.
‘Hello,’ he said. ‘Long time, no see…how are you doing?’
‘Shit,’ I said, knowing there was no point in lying about how I felt when I had such obvious scars. ‘You?’
‘Getting better,’ he said. ‘You been awake much? I think they had you under for ages.’
‘Only a few times. Mum and dad popped in. Saw some Healers. A nice lady brought me soup yesterday.’
For some reason, this reminded me of how me and Scorpius had had to eat soup for breakfast, and my eyes burned.
‘Did either of them fill you in?’ he said.
‘No,’ I replied, and then I had to put a hand over my face to hide the fact that I’d burst into tears again. Pretty restrained tears – I didn’t want him to see, for some reason – that made my breath all sharp and shaky and meant I couldn’t speak.
‘Hey, it’s alright,’ Albus said, patting me gently on the back with a bandaged hand. ‘It’s okay, I know, it’s tough.’
‘I didn’t want that!’ I choked. ‘I didn’t want – lost him!’
‘Er…’ Albus put his hands on my shoulder. ‘Nobody’s filled you in?’
I couldn’t move or speak anymore. I was trying so hard not to cry that it was making me cry harder.
‘Come on,’ he passed me a tissue from the bedside table. ‘Don’t cry. It’s…well, it’s bad, but not all bad.’
I bit my lip so hard I tasted blood and tried to stop crying. Albus gave me a moment or two before he started speaking again, by which point I was hiccupping.
‘Okay…what’s the last thing you remember?’
‘I…bright light. Healers talking to mum. And…the cold room.’
‘Okay. That’s about the last thing I remember, too. See the curse that got you – look, I’m going to try and explain this as logically as I can,’ he said. ‘I got a little bit of it too, only a tiny bit on my hand – but the blast made me hit my head on the wall…I was out for a couple of minutes. You came round before me but…but. We were lucky – the man chasing us was being chased by Aurors, and they got there right away. We were so lucky-’
‘And…well. We were really lucky. Like, miracle lucky. I mean…Scorpius was dead.’
I ended up bursting into tears again.
‘No, listen!’ he gripped me by the shoulders properly this time. ‘Past tense. Look, I’ll be logical, okay? He was only just alive when we got there, his heart stopped for a full three minutes – but the Aurors…shocked him, I don’t know, I’d come around by then and it was…weird. He jumped up and…there were sparks coming out of him, Flora. Dancing on his skin. I mean, I’ve been to see him and he can give people electric shocks, it’s freaky-’
I think he clocked what’d been going through my head. His whole face changed. I felt his fingertips grip my shoulders tighter.
‘Flora, he’s alive!’
a/n: okay, let's not lie. that was the hardest trio of chapters I've ever had to write. only two left to go!