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Chapter 2 : The Hex Head Express
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ISOBEL listened while her parents repeated a thousand-and-one reminders for the upcoming term. As with every year, they’d arrived at King’s Cross station an hour before noon, but she was still among the last left on the platform.
“And don’t spend too much time cooped up in the library,” her mum said. “Be sure to keep your grades up but try to get some fresh air and exercise in when you can.”
“Right, yes.” Isobel nodded at the contradictory advice.
Her mother began smoothing her hair, dark and course and so different from her mum’s own blonde curls. They barely even looked related. Mrs. Doge-Mostafa had a complicated sort of face, all curves and hollows and dimples. Isobel looked almost formless in contrast.
While she wasn’t rosy like her mother, she was paler than her father and older sister—but pale in a way that suggested she ought not be. Sometimes she liked her swollen-looking lips, but they required lipstick in order to offer some distinction. Without it, Isobel thought she best resembled a bowl of custard that had been left out overnight and developed a skin.
“—And you could always still get it next year, habibi.”
Isobel snapped out of her daze to realize that her father had been talking. While she hadn’t heard a word of it, she knew what he was on about. No prefect badge had arrived over the summer and her parents hadn’t stopped complaining since. (But you were top of your year and you’ve always made the top five! Your sister was named prefect AND Head Girl!) She’d even had to stop her mum from owling Hogwarts to say that there must have been some sort of mistake.
“I still don’t know what Flitwitck was thinking,” her dad went on. “You’re the obvious choice for Ravenclaw prefect, and it’ll be harder to make Head Girl without two full years of leadership experience.”
Isobel just shrugged and repressed a smirk. With the company she kept, she’d never make prefect.
“Oh that’s the whistle!” her mum noted unnecessarily as they all flinched at the piercing sound. More hugs gave way to more reminders until Isobel had to wrestle herself away lest she miss the train entirely.
A familiar chaos had come alive aboard the Hogwarts Express. Frenzied students loitered in the passage, darted between doors, or shouted out for friends they hadn’t seen all summer. And the prefects were well outnumbered. It was almost funny to see them try in vain to usher the student body into order, but the hectic thoroughfare was difficult to manage. Isobel began to sweat as she hauled her trunk through carriage after carriage, peering into compartment windows. She’d made it almost to the very back before spotting Emily and Laurel.
Of course they’d be in the back, she thought. It was obvious from the animated way Laurel was talking that she’d had a charm already. It was barely even noon. Emily must have done it for her, which annoyed Isobel, but then Laurel did tend to insist and grew surly if refused. Isobel closed her eyes and promised to keep from becoming too aggravated. Her patience with Laurel had begun to wear thin over the summer.
Pushing the door open with her trunk she was met with an enthusiastic welcome. “Izzy!” the others roared, pouncing to hug her despite Isobel being barely through the door. They nearly fell over in their affection, trading hugs, kissing cheeks, and ruffling hair. Laurel’s excitement was wholly unnecessary; they’d seen each other only the night before.
“Morning Sunshine!" Isobel ruffled Em's hair before rounding on Laurel. "And someone’s cheerful early.” She tried to keep the sting of judgement out of her voice as she said it.
“Last day of summer, yeah?" Laurel justified. "Gang’s all back together—well, nearly. Calls for a celebration!”
Isobel heaved her trunk onto the luggage rack before collapsing into the seat by the window. In the state she was in, Laurel wouldn’t care about the view. She was too busy telling some anecdote from her summer anyway.
Laurel could be pretty when she tried, but she never did. What had been a cute bob in their second year had long since grown out to an awkward length. Rather than cut it or style it, she just tugged it back into a hasty bun which exaggerated her garlic-clove nose and the thinness of her lips. Dishwater-blonde strands had a habit of falling loose, and it was hard not to notice how lank and greasy she kept them these days.
Taking cues from Emily on how to arrange her face, Isobel pulled off a passing impression of someone who actually gave a damn about the Muggles of Manchester. Not that it mattered if she hadn’t listened to a word of it. Laurel soon dissolved into so much laughter that the story ended prematurely and she never even made it to the punchline. Emily just offered a polite chuckle but Laurel had yet to register the awkwardness.
Exactly on cue, Tristan clambered through the door towing his trunk behind him.
“Tristan!” the three witches chorused, but Isobel was quick to note that he looked pale and exhausted. The headphones around his neck were still playing the Velvet Underground (Isobel recognized them from his attempts to ‘educate’ her), and it was one of their moodier tracks.
Hugs given and his trunk stowed, he collapsed into the seat beside Emily. There was nothing out of the ordinary about Tristan being forlorn, yet it appeared somehow amplified. He would always get uncharacteristically excited before holidays, explaining to them all about the Muggle nightclubs and cinemas in London and the music magazines he would be catching up on, but he always returned to school melancholy and deflated. This time, Isobel thought, his feelings seemed to manifest physically, in his pallor and the dark circles ringing his eyes.
“Morning sunshine.” He nudged Emily, who smiled and hugged her knees tighter to her chest. She’d turned her back against the window in order to face him.
“We missed you at Diagon Alley!” Laurel bounced in her seat. “We saw your mum, and she said you were sick!”
“Yeah sorry,” he mumbled, “I was sick.”
Laurel pushed past the awkward moment into a blow-by-blow account of their day shopping as the Hogwarts Express finally grumbled to life. The only real interesting point to her story was that Tom the barkeeper had finally served them at the 'Cauldron. Tristan listened patiently and feigned interest (Isobel assumed) until Laurel was done.
“So, I don’t mean to be an arse, but…” He lifted one ear-phone, “last chance, you know.”
“Here, take the window then.” Emily jumped up so he could scoot into her seat. Tristan thanked her before replacing his headphones and resting his forehead against the glass.
Definitely moodier than usual, Isobel thought before Laurel began dominating the conversation once more.
It was some time before the lunch trolley came by their compartment. Everyone ordered off it save Isobel. It was all crap food anyway, and she much preferred the brown rice and vegetables her mum had packed.
Tristan let his headphones rest around his neck during lunch (even though he still had one ear to the music they issued) and Laurel’s charm had worn off enough that she was letting the others get a word in edgewise.
As they had nothing on for the rest of the day except the journey and the feast, Isobel figured they might as well have the best time possible. Tristan at least seemed like he could do with a bit more to improve his mood.
“How ‘bout we cheer this place up a bit, then?” Isobel suggested to a resounding chorus of ‘yes’s’ and ‘please’s.’ Clearly they’d all been waiting for her to say something.
“I’ll take Laurel’s.” Tristan raised his hand to smattered laughter. Laurel had already Cheered once that day (at least), so she was likely to overdo her spell.
That was the good thing about him, Isobel thought. Even though he tended to brood, he was self-aware enough to make jokes about himself. It made it less awkward, anyway.
“Let me do Laurel, then,” Isobel said, and everyone—even Laurel—laughed. “So Em, you’re doing me, and Tristan, you do Emily?”
“Yeah." He winked. I’ll do you, Em.”
Isobel knew he was compensating for his sullenness but she wished he’d consider his innuendos (and their recipients) nonetheless. Laurel brought down the flimsy blind over their compartment window, eager to get started.
“Ok, count of three,” Isobel instructed and each of them raised their wands; Laurel’s pointed at Tristan, Tristan’s at Emily, Emily’s at Isobel, and Isobel’s at Laurel. “One. Two. Three—”
“Hilaris!” They cast their spells in unison and Isobel felt awash with warmth, skin tingling as though she’d only just become aware of her edges. Feeling a giggle bubbling up in her throat she looked around at the others. All around her wide grins stretched lips. It wasn’t long until their belligerent joy came frothing to the surface.
And then, a toad hopped right into Emily’s lap.
“See look, I love the ‘happy intense look!’ This is what I meant!” Isobel was roused by Laurel’s voice, and realized she’d been spacing out completely.
“Happy intense look?” she asked, suddenly aware, but not bothered, that the other three were giggling at her. She’d long since stopped caring about directing the dynamic of the group and let her own mind retreat.
The sun was setting and the wee chandelier above them jingled merrily as the train rocked and jolted. Everyone looked so lovely as they laughed and joked, gesticulating wildly in the rosy light. She almost felt as though she'd extended past her own body, like some part of her reached up and against them even if her boundary of flesh remained apart.
“Yeah,” Laurel went on. “It’s like that Intense Look you get when you’re thinking about stuff, but all dopey-like and blissful.”
Isobel felt her head loll to one side as she smiled. “Well that’s nice.”
The others just laughed harder.
“What were you thinking about, then?” Tristan asked. “Non-Western Magical Theory? Because I know it’s usually Non-Western Magical Theory.”
“I was thinking about…” She tried to remember but couldn’t; she’d just been looking at Emily’s hair. It fell in a mix of waves and tight ringlets like some Muggle storybook picture of a wood nymph. Isobel had wanted to try pulling on one because she felt certain it would bounce. Reaching forward across the compartment she took a light coil between her fingers and gave it a tug. It bounced just exactly as she had predicted and she giggled, delighted. “I was thinking how pretty Em’s hair is.”
Everyone laughed and ‘awww’d’ and Emily leant out nearly to the point of falling down to plant a wet kiss on Isobel’s forehead. This show of affection inspired a bout of hugging and ‘I love you guys’’ amongst the group.
Then the door burst open and they all froze with a gasp.
“Well, well, well,” A critical voice called. “Unfettered hugging, curtain rolled down, take a look at these Hex Heads.”
“Weasleyyyyyyyyys!” the fifth-years cried at the sight of the ginger twins striding into their comparment.
“Yes this does appear to be a cheerful bunch,” agreed George, settling down on the purple brocade beside Laurel.
The Weasley twins were only just starting their third year, but Isobel and her friends much preferred their company to their elder brother, who was their own age.
“Did Master Percival make prefect, then?” Emily asked
“Oh yes,” Fred sighed. “And over the summer his head tragically over-inflated and burst.”
“We assumed that’s why you lot were celebrating,” George chimed in.
“Is this not the wake?” Fred asked.
His brother waved an agitated hand before going on. “In all seriousness though, we have much more interesting news than the new Gryffindor prefect. Guess who’s on the train?”
The fifth years only blinked and Isobel couldn’t even imagine how to begin guessing an answer.
“HARRY POTTER!” the twins yelled when their audience failed to answer.
Tristan looked stunned. “Really?”
Even as Cheered as she was, Isobel was surprised that Tristan was even interested. He didn’t usually care at all about wizarding celebrities. Then again, he did have a lot of feelings about the war, which she attributed to his muggle obsession.
“Huh… Yeah I guess he would be ‘round eleven now.” Laurel shrugged. “I still always picture him as a baby.”
They all agreed. For as long as Isobel could remember, Baby Harry had been such an important symbol. And since nothing new had been written about him in ten years, she’d somehow forgotten that he was capable of aging.
“What does he look like? Did you see him?” Emily asked.
“Our mother helped the bleeding thing onto the platform,” George gloated. “He didn’t have a clue which way was up before we showed him.”
Fred nodded emphatically. “He’s a ratty looking bugger. Clothes look like charity shop rejects, hair’s all askew. And I’m a Weasley!”
“Has he been in an orphanage?” Tristan asked. “I just always assumed he’d been adopted.”
“Dunno the details, but we can find out. Little chap has befriended our youngest brother,” Fred explained. “Ickle Ronny.”
“Newest Weasley to the Hogwarts family,” added George.
“Probable embarrassment to the House of Gryffindor,” concluded Fred.
As the sun came down and the Hogwarts Express pushed north through the countryside the six students discussed the famous Harry Potter until nothing new could be said. The oil lamps in the compartment flickered to life around the time they passed Aberdeen, and the Weasley Twins soon got annexed by most of their Quidditch team (the lot of whom seemed fanatically consumed by the question of filling some position left vacant by one of the twins’ elder brothers, Chuck).
Isobel and her friends found sport rather idiotic, and enjoyed private jokes about the fervor of their fellow students (with the exception of the twins, who, the group had decided, could play Quidditch ‘without being complete twats about it.’)
The fifth years realized they were approaching Hogsmeade once the music warbling from Tristan’s earphones grew crunchy with static.
“About that time then,” he sighed, turning off the device and coiling the headphone wire round it.
It was difficult to dislodge their trunks and dig for their uniforms in such a confined space. Laurel cursed a good deal while trying to disentangle the sleeves of her robes. They appeared to have been packed in a hurry without being folded and the mildewy smell implied that they hadn't even been fully dry. Tristan soon bowed out to change in the loo and Isobel heard him stumbling down the narrow passage as the train jerked.
“So did Tristan mention anything to either of you about his holiday?” Emily asked, stripping down to her bra and knickers without making any attempt to cover herself or turn away. She’d always been the least modest when changing, and Isobel imagined she probably shocked the Hufflepuff girls in her dorm by wandering around naked or something like that. Then again, Hufflepuffs.
But of course Emily wouldn’t be bothered to hide her body. Waiflike and dainty, she had a perfectly flat stomach and narrow little thighs. Isobel pulled her own nylons up to her bra before taking off her shirt in an attempt to smooth the lines of her hips before saying that, no, she hadn’t had any owls from Tristan about his summer. Emily bit her lip with the stress of keeping a secret until she looked like a mouse.
“You’ve been talking?” Laurel asked and Isobel wished she wouldn’t sound so surprised.
“Well… We had a few owls... It’s really bad,” Emily whispered before catching them up.
The line of boys and the otherwise self-conscious waiting for the toilets was sure to be long, but the girls dropped their voices to furtive whispers just in case he suddenly returned. Isobel’s gut sank to hear the story.
“Was it his first time?” Laurel asked as she struggled to yank off her too-small jeans.
“That’s what it seems like.” Emily shrugged. “And I can’t think of anyone else that it could have been.”
“Nor can I,” Isobel agreed. “That’s really awful.”
“I know.” Emily shook her head. “But let’s change the subject, can’t we. He doesn’t need to come back and catch us all talking about him like this.”
Isobel quietly agreed and appreciated Emily’s consideration. Hufflepuffs, she thought again fondly. Of course Tristan would talk with her—Emily was by-and-large the most compassionate of the bunch. And while no one would ever guess just by looking at her, she was also the most sexually experienced.
The compartment door opened with a bang and Isobel and her friends froze. A wee first year with an unruly brunette mane stood framed in the doorway, eyes bulging as large and round as galleons. The young girl blushed scarlet, clearly embarrassed to have walked in on three half-dressed fifth-years.
“Sorry—Toad?” the little witch spluttered. Isobel and her mates had completely forgotten about the toad's sudden appearance some hours earlier—the screaming, the laughing, and Tristan haphazardly ushering the unexpected amphibian out of their compartment.
The girl scampered off just as quickly as she had come before the others even had time to register what exactly she’d wanted from them.
By the time Tristan returned, Isobel and the others had successfully changed the subject away from Sophie-the-muggle-girl's memory modification and were fully engrossed in a discussion of Penelope Clearwater’s many crimes against humanity.
“You on about that bouncy Ravenclaw again?” He dropped back into the seat beside Emily.
“You may judge us for being shallow—” Isobel began.
“—But you don’t have to share a room with her!” Laurel shouted around a mouthful of brutalized chocolate frog.
“Oh yeah.” He gave Emily a nudge. “So what’s your excuse?”
“Nothing specific,” she chirped. “I just think she’s a bitch.”
The compartment exploded into laughter once more. Emily was so rarely mean that it was always something of a treat.
Distant yellow lights blurred behind the frosty glass as the train pushed ever closer to the castle. Isobel felt the cold and wet under the pad of her finger as she traced a spiral in the fog.
“Oh by the way, how much hash did you bring?" Tristan broke the silence. "The twins were asking."
“Oh no, we've corrupted them!” Emily cried. Her genuine concern showed even as she tried to play it off as a joke.
“It’s for their dad.” He waved a hand. “They smoked with him over the summer and apparently he really rated it. According to them he likes to spark one out in his workroom and polish his battery collection.”
Tristan and Emily laughed quite hard at this while Isobel and Laurel offered a polite chuckle. Isobel supposed it was a joke you had to grow up around muggles to really get.
“Well, I can always get more. My brother grows it, so I can send him an owl if ever we run low.”
“Is that safe?” Isobel raised a brow, pulling her attention away from the dark countryside passing outside the windows.
Emily shrugged. “He does the ‘potions ingredients’ trick. Filch can’t tell the difference.”
“Besides,” Laurel said “Outside of us, it’s only the Hufflepuffs who smoke spliff.”
“That’s how we got our name!” Emily cried, bouncing in her seat. “You know Fred and George swear they saw some weed plants out in Sprout’s restricted greenhouse. Then again, they were high when they broke in, so take it with a grain of salt.”
“I believe it.” Laurel nodded.
Emily beamed. “Let no one say that Hufflepuff House has no ancient and noble traditions.”
“Hufflepuff: rolling fat spliffs over a thousand years.” Tristan smirked.
The four were silent for a moment, occasionally giggling at the memory of some long overplayed Hufflepuff joke (‘Huff le Puff,’ and ‘Hufflepuff puff pass’ being the most amusing to date). Rattling wheels against the tracks seemed so much louder when no one was talking. The urge to introduce some new topic tugged at Isobel before she noticed Emily’s lips part with a thought.
“I can’t believe Tonks won’t be back this year,” Emily offered. “What’ll Hogwarts be like without her?”
The others murmured in assent but Isobel knew Tonks’ graduation left the biggest void for Emily. They’d been in the same House and Tonks was something of an idol to the younger Hufflepuff. All of them would miss her, though. A few years above them, Tonks and her crew had been the only other group like their own at Hogwarts. They hadn't divided neatly along house lines and had provided the model for Isobel, Laurel, Emily and Tristan.
“I guess that makes us the new reigning druggies and Hex Heads at Hogwarts.” Laurel chuckled.
Tristan stared out the window as though deep in thought. “I really think," he began. "If Slytherins weren’t so categorically opposed to Mug-Drugs, they would bloody love cocaine.”
Emily found the idea hilarious but Isobel didn’t recognize the reference. Glancing over at Laurel she found that her fellow pureblood appeared equally bewildered.
Tristan and Emily spent a few fumbling minutes trying to explain, talking over one another and waving their hands as though that might help. Most of the context they tried to offer was just as foreign, and Isobel squinted as she tried to make it all out.
“So, like an Alacratus charm?” she summarized, confused. “But those aren’t all that strong.”
“The important thing,” Emily said. “Is that in the Muggle world, it’s very sort of posh and elite. Kind of like a status thing.”
“Ohhhhhh,” Isobel laughed as the joke finally clicked.
Enjoying this new game, she and her mates then spent the next quarter hour debating which Hogwarts House corresponding to which substance. Eventually they all agreed that Hufflepuff was Ganja (as had long been established), Ravenclaw was Speed (for studying), Slytherin was Cocaine, and Gryffindor was Whiskey.
Soon after she felt the Hogwarts Express shuddering to a stop and heard the sound of a thousand students burst to life inside the train.
1. According the Rowling, there are “about a thousand” students at Hogwarts. That seems impossible, as there would have to be about 35 students per House per year—and Harry's year averaged only about 10 students per House at most. BUT, Rowling's word is LAW, so 1000 it is.
2. The chapter text is a lyric from the song "She's So High" by Blur.
3. “Habibi” is an Arabic term of endearment. It’s very casual, and in this context basically translates to “sweetie/darling/etc.”
4. On the Isobel Faceclaim: ugh. So I really didn’t want to white-wash my own characters, but it’s surprisingly difficult to find a faceclaim for a teenage character of mixed English/Egyptian Arab ancestry who fits all the criteria and has enough moody/interesting photos. Also, I really wanted Isobel's faceclaim to be somewhat unnecessarily beautiful, while definitely not falling into the 'thin' category (ALSO HARD). So I went with the logic that Kat Dennings is Jewish and Israel is in the Levant and that’s sort of near-ish??? IF YOU HAVE SUGGESTIONS, I WILL GIVE YOU SO MANY OF MY FIRST-BORNS.
Anyway, I hope you liked the chapter! The bit about the adventures of Trevor the Toad was really funny in my head so I hope that came off!
Thank you to everyone who reviewed and gave feedback for improving this chapter. A lot of what I changed here was specifically because of super on-point reader feedback (like including a bit about Isobel's family here).
And infinite appreciation also goes to Aphoride and Pixileanin for taking the time to so thoroughly beta. (Definitely check out Pix’s story, Rabbit Heart if you haven’t already. It’s one of the most perfect fics I’ve ever read).
[And as of this writing, I still haven’t had a final beta to slap me for dyslexia, so DEF let me know if you see any issues. Whenever I try to fix one thing I end up creating like ten more typos, because editing best resembles attempting to decapitate a hydra.]
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