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Chapter 22 : Cleaner, More Brilliant
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ISOBEL met Laurel in the village square at half twelve. The late June air was warm and fragrant.
It took a few owls between parents, and many negotiations, but the adults quickly conceded that their children's plans made sense. No one should spend too much time alone--especially not Tristan. Isobel produced her wand, and held it out in the road.
“Lumos,” she whispered, after scanning the area for muggles.
The violently purple triple Decker bus appeared with a loud bang before haphazardly swinging open its doors. Rucksacks in place, Isobel and Laurel clambered onto the Knight Bus.
“Lambeth, London by way of Muir of Ord, please,” Isobel instructed, dropping a handful of sickles into the till.
“By way of Muir of Ord,” the owlish old driver muttered, annoyed, before shifting into gear. Scottland was hardly on the wa.
Isobel and Laurel stumbled up the stairs, holding tightly to the rails, while the bus careened through the West Country, scattering cattle in its wake. There were a few other underage or elderly witches and wizards sliding around the uppermost level of the Knight Bus. Isobel fixed her gaze on the rapidly shifting scenery. Bang. Manchester. Bang. Liverpool. Bang. Another anonymous countryside.
They screeched to a stop two hours later in the tiny Scottish village. Isobel watched through the window as Emily nearly toppled over at the shock of it. Emily's house wasn't connected to the Floo Network, and living in a purely muggle area, she couldn’t hail the coach herself without setting off the Trace. The only remaining option for the teenagers was picking her up via Knight Bus in the closest town to her family's home.
Emily waved off her parents and joined her friends. Laurel retched twice before they arrived in London.
LAUREL woke up late the next day, roused by the sound of her mates laughing in the garden. She stared for a minute from her camp bed at the strange device on Eddie’s desk. She’d never seen a computer before.
They’d spent the previous evening watching ‘Television,’ which was equally new to Laurel. The programme had featured a man in a long scarf, who was very much like a wizard, traveling around in a ‘telephone’ box that was bigger on the inside. Emily tried to explain that, to muggles, the premise was all very strange and whimsical.
Laurel joined the others, who were smoking in Tristan’s garden. Mary had imposed a rule during their visits: none of the girls were to take advantage of her leniency to disobey their own parents’ rules. But the Bryce’s were at work, so they figured they could smoke so long as Mary and Eddie didn’t know about it.
Later they went shopping in Camden for better muggle clothes, which was complicated. In the wizarding world, robes were either high quality or low quality, and you could choose which colors you liked. But in the muggle world, there seemed to be an infinite number of options. There was even a wider range of colors in the muggle world. Dizzying patterns, and fierce shades, and garments hewn from strange, unnatural feeling materials. Apparently, when non-magic people dressed themselves, it signified what sort of person they were, or, at least, the sort of person they wanted to be.
"Thing is," Tristan cautioned. "Technically, if you just decide you want to look like a certain sub-culture, and just buy those clothes, you're called a 'poseur.' It's supposed to happen organically, because you're participating in the movement."
"You get a free pass, though," Emily smiled, and Tristan agreed.
Isobel gave up and decided to be ‘goth,’ because it was practically the same as dressing like a normal witch. Laurel spent a lot longer, and asked a lot of questions. She’d never before been given such a straightforward opportunity to decide who she was.
After a lot of discussion, Laurel opted to be ‘grunge,’ because it was the most comfortable, the most inexpensive, and the easiest to maintain. She left Oxfam with a brand new wardrobe for the equivalent of a Galleon.
“What sort of person are you?” Laurel asked Emily while trying on her new clothes at Tristan's house.
“Well,” Emily considered for a second. “I suppose I was kind of a hippie before, because of my parents. And then I sort of wanted to be punk in our fourth year for a bit, because Tristan was. But then he went more New Wave. But I was only little when I started at Hogwarts, and someone’s style is something that changes slowly over time. It’s hard to do that when you’re always wearing Hogwarts uniforms.”
Laurel marveled. How could fashion mean so much about a person, yet change so rapidly? She wondered, had she ever thought to express herself by how she dressed, what she would have looked like over the years.
ISOBEL was halfway through a basket of chips, laughing along with her mates in the corner of a muggle pub. Isobel still counted calories--read the labels on food packaging and considered their implications. She couldn't help it. The habit was carved deep, since Isobel had been taught to do so from a young age by her parents. But, she no longer gave in to these impulses. She knew how fatty was the oil that the chips had been fried in, and how the potato starch turned to sugar in her body--but her basket was half empty anyway.
“Just fake it ‘til you make it,” Laurel had suggested a few weeks back. “I’m still a hex head in my mind, but I don’t act on those feelings. And I promise, eventually, after going through the motions, even that addicted part of you will fade.”
Isobel had been surprised by the psychological similarities between eating disorders and addiction. Anorexia was, in a way, just an addiction to starvation.
“When you skip means, or use a Charm, you feed the beast,” Laurel had explained. “When you refuse to do what it says, you starve it. And eventually, it’ll die.”
At first, Isobel had hated the way her parents had told her how she looked ‘healthy’--she’d felt like they really meant that she looked fat. And in the worst depths of her problem, when she’d been force-fed at the kitchen table and threatened with St. Mungo’s, she’d honestly believed that everyone around her was involved in some conspiracy to make her overweight. She'd known, objectively, what was the minimum healthy weight for someone her stature, but she'd felt that she was somehow an exception. Sure, skipping meals was dangerous, unless you were Isobel. It had felt, to her, like people just didn't think she deserved to be thin.
Looking back, Isobel could recognize how crazy she’d been; how her mind and body had been functioning improperly. It was shocking to her how, in those days, her paranoia had felt real.
Most surprising was that the more weight she gained, the better Isobel felt about herself. At her smallest, she’d felt huge. The realization that she’d genuinely hallucinated it was terrifying. These days, when Isobel looked in the mirror, she felt pleased. She’d strip down to bra and knickers, and turn around to admire how her own bum bulged from the lace, or appreciate the deep canyon of cleavage on her front (her breasts had been stunningly quick to return). She still felt frustrated by how her fleshy belly rolled over when she sat down or bent over, but she no longer obsessed over it.
I see you, Isobel would tell the beast. I hear what you are telling me, but I just don't care anymore. The more she thought it, the more true it started to feel.
“Just let yourself be vain. If you look in the mirror and like something you see, hold on to that,” Laurel had instructed. “I know I’m sexy. I get spots, and my hips spill over my jeans a bit if they’re too tight, but I’m bloody gorgeous. One day, we’ll all get old and wrinkly and saggy, and we’ll want to smack our younger selves for not appreciating what we had.”
Once Summer began, Isobel really began to feel like she was spending time with her best mate again. It had been over a year that Laurel hadn't been herself. First it had been the Charms, then the recovery from St. Mungo’s, but now she was back. Isobel had almost forgotten how wise Laurel could be, in her own gruff and unapologetic way.
Isobel still wondered, though, if that neurotic, diseased part of her mind would ever truly die, just as she wasn’t sure that Laurel’s desire to Charm would ever really go away. But, like Laurel had said, you can be however you want in your mind--it’s what you do that actually matters.
A young woman stumbled in through the pub door: green hair, leather jacket, laddered stockings, and combat boots. Now that Isobel had been meticulously educated on muggle fashion subcultures, she could recognize that Nymphadora Tonks was a ‘punk rocker.’
“Wotcher, Em,” Tonks gasped after Emily lunged at her, squeezing her tight in an aggressive embrace. “Glad to see you too!”
Tonks hugged the other witches in turn, and playfully mussed up Tristan’s hair. Isobel tried not to grin, remembering the massive crush he'd had on Tonks during their third year.
“You still seeing Charlie Weasley, then?” Laurel asked once Tonks had sat down with her pint.
“Chuck?” Tonks coughed on a sip of lager. “No, Charlie and I were never proper dating, just mates. I knew I wanted to do the Auror training, and he’s off in Romania now. We never got ‘serious’ or whatever. Still just friends, share a few owls. He’s raising a dragon now, actually! It was born in captivity. Only ten weeks old, so Charlie’s taking care of it until it’s old enough to bring to Norway and introduce into a preserve. Refuses to tell me where he got it from, though, except that it was illegally hatched.”
Tonks took another sip from her pint, and Isobel considered the timeline.
“What kind of egg is it?” Isobel had asked.
“Dragon,” Hagrid had said.
Isobel smiled to herself. Luckily, she'd always been good at keeping secrets.
TRISTAN started every summer excited for the holidays, and returned to school every fall disappointed. His anticipation always outstripped reality, and he never ended up having as much fun as he intended. It was, he thought, because his muggle acquaintances took it all for granted. They weren’t as enthusiastic about seizing the city.
But this year, Tristan had his real friends: two witches and a country girl. They were curious, and excited, and luckily, Tristan didn’t mind when they acted bizarrely in front of shop owners or bartenders.
Isobel and Laurel didn’t like everything Tristan had to show them, though. They tried watching Evil Dead II during their second visit, but the girls had been appalled by the simulated violence and gore—no matter how unrealistic. Even Emily kept covering her face, so Tristan stopped the tape after only twenty minutes. Too soon for satire, he reminded himself.
What the witches really enjoyed, Tristan discovered, was the cinema. They had a hard time paying attention while watching videos in his living room, and tended to talk over the films. But they were amazed by the giant screens and assortment of snacks at cinemas. All of them--even Emily--found coca-cola repulsive, but Isobel and Laurel enjoyed popcorn with a passion.
“They draw it all?” Isobel asked, shocked. They had just seen Ferngully: The Last Rainforest. “How do they make the drawings move without magic?” Isobel and Laurel had never seen animation before.
Emily started explaining what she knew about frames, and Tristan retrieved his moleskine notebook from his rucksack. In the right hand corner of every page, he drew a circle of increasing size. Once Emily concluded her lecture, Tristan flipped through the notebook, revealing the illusion of the circle seeming to grow.
Isobel clapped her hands over her mouth, delighted, and Laurel spluttered over a plume of spliff smoke she was trying to hold in. It was nearly midnight, and the four mates were loitering in the park by Tristan’s, as they’d done every night, before returning to his house.
“So it’s like that, but more complicated,” Tristan concluded, after he demonstrated his flipbook a few more times.
“And so they do every individual picture, with all the colors and everything?” Isobel confirmed, stunned by the magnitude of such a project.
“Blimey,” agreed Laurel.
EMILY was sitting out front of her house on the second week of July, waiting for her friends to arrive on the Knight Bus. They’d each gotten Summer jobs to finance regular trips to visit one another, and to placate their parents.
Emily took employment at the neighboring village assisting at the primary school, and rode her bicycle the three miles to Muir of Ord Tuesdays through Thursdays. Isobel got a stipended internship at the Ministry in the Department of International Magical Cooperation, which she said was mostly reorganizing files and fetching tea for the pompous department head.
Laurel washed dishes at Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour in Diagon Alley, and commuted via Floo Powder. Her mum had been disappointed at first that she wasn’t doing a prestigious internship like Isobel, but as it turned out, Mr. Fortescue had a lot of connections.
Tristan wasn’t under as much pressure to start working as the others--his parents were glad for him to be spending time with his maters--but he got a job carrying crates and mopping up at a pub near his house anyway.
The Knight Bus arrived, practically deafening Emily as it did, and her three mates ambled out, slightly green in the face. They’d had to compromise with their parents that the four teenagers would spend alternating weekends in either Scotland, or Godric’s Hollow. The adults feared that too much time unsupervised would “get them into trouble.”
This was a typical parent mistake.
London was massive, with an infinite number of things to do. On their weekends with Tristan they would go to the cinema, or see a gig, or explore any number of shops. Godric’s Hollow and the Highlands were deathly dull in comparison. At least at Emily’s they could wander down into the glen and be as loud as they wanted. They never went to Laurel or Isobel’s home in the West Country.
When they weren’t in London, they drank a lot.
This weekend they'd chosen to go camping. They lumbered north for a mile through a pink haze of Rhodedendron before finding a suitable place to set up their tents. Isobel and Laurel had had some practice living without magic at this point, so Emily and Tristan decided it was time they tried living without technology. They brought an exceptional amount of alcohol to ease the transition.
“Merlin’s dirty pants, how did people ever live like this?” Laurel huffed, trying to start a fire with only a lighter. Once she got it going, they roasted sausages and potatoes, and sang muggle campfire songs.
Isobel had been stunned by the amount of water they’d had to carry for only one night, and expressed concern that ancient muggles could easily have dehydrated and died. Tristan explained that not dehydrating and dying still was, indeed, a major muggle concern in many parts of the world.
It wasn’t perfect, but it was close. Tristan still grew moody and withdrawn at times, and Emily knew he resented how they made excuses to check up on him if he’d been shut up in his room alone for too long. But she also saw him flourishing in their company. All in all, the good times were better than they’d ever been, and the bad times were further between.
THEIR O.W.L. results finally arrived in the second week of July. It was Sunday, and Isobel was roused at dawn by Emily’s rooster. Emily’s sleeping bag was empty.
That bloody shack! Isobel thought to herself, guessing correctly that Emily had crept out in the night to join Tristan. That’s why she let us have her bed, Isobel realized, before rolling back into sleep beside Laurel.
Isobel was only mostly correct in her assumptions. Emily had been sneaking off to climb into Tristan’s bed on their weekends together, but not a lot happened between them. Or a lot happened, depending on how you looked at it.
When Emily thought about it hard, she decided that wanting to be ‘more than just friends’ really just meant ‘wanting to shag.’ She’d gone to bed with several boys, but it was never as intimate as what she had now with Tristan.
Emily had been excited when they’d started kissing the weekend before, and was glad to keep it at that for now.
They were hunched over their breakfasts of Weetabix later that afternoon when four owls swooped through the open window above the sink and landed gracelessly on the kitchen table.
Laurel straightened her posture, sharing tense glances with each of her friends in turn. The moment of truth had arrived. After several weeks trying not to think about it, the rising sixth-years would finally have to discover exactly how they had fared. Not a single one of them thought they'd performed quite as well as they could have.
Isobel tore open her envelope first. One quick scan told her that she hadn’t failed anything. She closed her eyes and exhaled in relief.
“Two Outstanding,” she announced. “In Defense and Charms. E’s in everything else, except History, which was ‘Acceptable.’”
Her friends cheered and clapped her on the back while she blushed.
“So you can continue with everything if you want,” Emily assured. “History only requires an A to take next term.”
Emily opened her results second, and found a few more O’s, but also that she’d failed Care of Magical Creatures with a grade of ‘Poor.’
“Come on then,” Isobel prodded.
“‘Outstanding’ in Potions, Herbology and Charms,” Emily read, to applause. “‘Exceeds Expectations’ in Transfig, Astronomy, and History. ‘Acceptable’ for Defense and Divination—as good as I could have hoped… And I won’t be going on with Magical Creatures.”
Tristan shook Emily’s shoulder in assurance, and Isobel insisted she’d done great. Laurel unfolded her parchment next. Overall, she was relieved.
“Well I failed Defense and Potions—P’s in both,” she said, getting the worst of it over with first. “But two O’s! Runes and Charms—of course,” she added wryly. “E’s in Transfig, Herbology. ‘Acceptable’ in Astronomy, Arithmancy and History.”
Tristan hadn’t been looking forward to his own results, and wished that his friends hadn’t all read theirs out loud. Within his envelope was not one, but two, slips of parchment. He read his grades first:
“So, apparently T’s do exist,” he informed the table at large as he scanned down the list of marks. “Just the one, though, in Magical Creatures. But I also got a ‘Dreadful’ in Astronomy, as well as P's in Potions and Defense. O in Muggle Studies and Charms, E in Herbology and Transfiguration.”
Tristan sighed. All in all, it wasn’t too bad. He’d managed to fail four out of nine classes, but his good marks were quite good. To his additional surprise, History of Magic was simply listed as ‘Incomplete.’ The second piece of parchment included instructions about how he could sit the exam again the following term, but he would need to receive an E or higher to go on with the subject in his seventh year.
“And didn’t Snape pre-accept you as an N.E.W.T. student?” Emily reminded him.
“But I did poorly on the O.W.L.—P for Poor, see?” Tristan brandished his exam results. “I won’t be prepared for advanced potion making.”
“Oh at least take it so I can have you there,” Emily begged. “So many of us will be splitting up as it is.”
And with that, the two Ravenclaws, the Hufflepuff and the Slytherin discussed their upcoming year at Hogwarts. Anxiety soon gave way to reluctant excitement—tempered by their unspoken, but mutual, hope that the next year would be better than the last. By the time the sun was set, they finally began to feel like year five at Hogwarts was over. Having survived it, their experiences crystallized, and became memories; cleaner and more brilliant than what had actually been.
End Note: Neither Ferngully nor Doctor Who are my own inventions.
A/N: I genuinely don't know what to say, finishing this project. I had no idea what people would make of this strange little story, it's just something I'd had in my head for so long! Getting nominated for Dobby's and all has left me quite speechless!
I pray you found this ending satisfying. I think it's true in its way, and there's something hopeful about that. So what if the 'Good Old Days' were messier than we like to remember? It's all just stories in the end, so they might as well be good ones.
Special thanks to Marauderfan, Crestwood, CambAngst, and Emmacweasley for consistently leaving such encouraging and analytical reviews. I really don't have the words to describe how much it means to me!
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