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When I finally ducked up to the dormitory, I rushed to my trunk and unlocked it, throwing the lid open. I rattled around for a minute before I unearthed a small glass vial that was usually used for potions. I scraped some of the black soot-like gunk into it, corking the container before depositing it into my trunk once more. Then I cleaned myself as best as I could with a quick spell, pulled off the tattered remains of my Halloween costume, and dressed in something much more appropriate.

I couldn’t figure it out – honest to God, I couldn’t. What was that thing that chased me through the Hogwarts grounds? It wasn’t a natural creature, born from its mother; it was something else entirely, fashioned for some dark and unseen purpose.

However, as imploring as the mystery was, there was a part of me that was very much aware of the fact that I had duties to uphold as a member of the Gryffindor house and a friend of Annalie Moore.  

I marched out of the dormitory, still shivering slightly after my sprint from the monster. Slowly, I made my way down the floors, searching for the infirmary and my two missing friends. When I finally appeared at the large double doors, I slipped inside and looked around.

Rows of beds, half-covered with curtains that provided some privacy. A long wall of windows stretched across the space, all of them black with lack of moonlight. I crossed my arms over my chest, clinging to myself as I slowly paced between the gurneys.

I didn’t like hospitals, even this little, pint-sized one. Even the open room around me smelled of sickness and death, of injury and blood, in spite of the acrid bleach that was obviously used to clean up difficult spills. But I pushed past the feeling of distaste and searched for a pair of feet extending out of the curtain, wrapped in blankets and whatnot.

I found Annalie sitting alone, curled up in the bed at the far end of the room. Her injured leg was in a black brace while her other was tucked in beside it, the sheets covering her thighs and stomach. She stared off into the distance, watching the unmoving black outside of the castle with half-closed eyes.


 “Hey Anne,” I said gently as I approached.

She blinked and looked at me, a wide smile growing on her plump lips. “Elaina!” she exclaimed, beginning to push herself upright. “Hello!”

“No, don’t move.” I reached out and touched her shoulder, carefully applying enough pressure so that she couldn’t struggle upright. “I don’t want you to wear yourself out.”

“Yeah.” She beamed at me, settling back into her pillows as she asked, “So how are you?”

“I was just about to ask you the same thing. Is your foot all right?”

Annalie nodded. “It was just a sprain, like you said. Madame Holloway gave me a tonic to heal it, but it’s not going to be better until around one o’clock so it’s still kind of sore.”

“Are you going to stay the night, then?”

“I might. It depends on whether or not I’m awake when one comes around."


I glanced around and suddenly noticed the absence of Annalie’s crutch. “Where’s Rhyad?”

“I asked him to go get me a book from the common room to pass the time.”

“So we’re alone?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

I sat down on one of the hard-backed chairs that waited beside the beds, leaning forward so I could rest my elbows on my knees. “Then how long have you liked Oak?”

Annalie gasped and blushed violently, her pale skin making it look like a four-year-old attacked her with a pink marker. “How did you know?” she breathed.

I smiled. “You aren’t exactly discrete about it.”

“Oh God.” She covered her face with her hands, her shoulders sagging dejectedly. “Oh God.”

“Don’t worry,” I said quickly. “I’m sure he doesn’t know himself.”

“But you just said it was obvious!”

“To me. An outsider. Someone who is fresh to these relationships, who can look at things and see them for what they are without prior knowledge blocking my vision.”

“But if you know, surely he must as well! Oak isn’t as oblivious as most people are.”

“You’re good at covering it, though.” I smiled and shook my head. “I didn’t notice until just a few hours ago. You’re so nice to everyone that it’s hard to see preferential treatment.”

For some reason, that seemed to make her even sadder, and a frown rose to chase away my grin. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “I thought you didn’t want him to know.”

“I don’t – really. But… sometimes I think it would be easier if he did know, because then I wouldn’t have to keep lying to him.”

“Even if it ruined your friendship?”

Annalie bit her lip, staring down at her covers. “I don’t think it would. Oak isn’t like that. He… he would accept it, even if he didn’t have the same feelings as I did. He wouldn’t be as open with me and he wouldn’t confide in me as much, but he would still talk to me and be my friend.”

A surprisingly strong stab of pain arched through my chest, making me stiffen and tighten my grip on my elbows. My new friends were all so close to each other – they loved each other so much, in both platonic and romantic ways, that it made me feel completely and totally alienated from the rest of them.

I immediately reproached myself, my mind whispering to my foolish heart that I wasn’t here to make friends; I was here for a job, and my father loved me more than they could ever care about each other. But I had never experienced anything like Hogwarts before. It was confusing my hormones into thinking that I belonged there, which was absolutely untrue.

But then Annalie was looking at me for some kind of response and I had to force myself back into the present conversation. “If that’s the case,” I said slowly, “maybe you should tell him. Maybe he should know where you stand.”

“No, I could never!” she exclaimed. After a pause, however, she giggled. “I can just imagine his face if I did, though!”

“Whose face if you did what?” A voice asked, making both of us turn around.

P.J. stood in the entrance of the Hospital Wing, her arms crossed and her bumblebee costume wrinkled. I stiffened as she walked inside, her glower so hot on my face that it was almost substantial.

“Hi P.J.” Annalie said while I nodded in greeting. “How are you?”

She shrugged. “All right. Thing got a little boring after Miss Newbie left, so we decided to come back. The others will be here after they change.” I frowned heavily as she placed her bag of candy on the foot of Annalie’s bed. “I thought some sweets might make you better.”

“That’s kind of you,” Annalie replied with a smile, flipping open the sack and pulling out a piece of chocolate. “It was a good haul, I take it?”

“Yes, didn’t she tell you?” P.J. glared at me accusingly.

“No. Where is your candy, Elaina?” Annalie asked me, her head cocking to the side.

Oh, I just lost it while running for my life from a freaky smoke beast. No worries, though – I didn’t die. I think it’s all in the forest, if you want to go find it.

“I gave it away,” I said.

“To who?” P.J. cried indignantly.

“There was a first year girl who was sitting outside when I got here; she was crying because someone had taken all of hers. I gave her mine because there was no way I could eat it all and she seemed to need comfort food more than I did.”

Annalie smiled broadly and said, “Oh Ella, that was so thoughtful!”

P.J.’s eyes narrowed and she leaned back, rocking on her heals. “Yes. How thoughtful.”

“Is there a problem?” I asked, allowing my eyebrows to arch spectacularly.

“Yes, there is.”

“Pray tell, dear P.J.”

She bristled at my sarcastic ‘dear’, her frown wrinkling the corners of her mouth. “My problem is the fact that a reserved, private person like you would give the product of a night’s trick-or-treating to a sobbing girl on the doorstep. My problem is the little dark-haired child who came here with a shady story about her sick mother and a bunch of scars all over her body. My problem is you coming to steal my friends from me!”

Anger made a rushing noise in my ears that blocked out the voice of common sense. “You know,” I snapped, “you need to realize something, quickly, and that is how absolutely stupid you are.”

“Excuse me!” she gasped, an angered flush filling her face.

“If I were here to steal your friends, then I would have done it in a much more spectacular way. Besides, it’s not just you I would be stealing them from – if I were to take Annalie, for instance. I would be taking her from Rhyad and Oak and James. Any of them would be taken from all the others, and to say I was just pilfering them all from just you would be the stupidest accusation on the face of the planet.”

“And why would it be so bloody idiotic?” she spat at me, taking a step forward with clenched fists.

“What could you have possibly done to me to inspire my anger, my need to take your friends?”

I didn’t wait to listen to her response, turning heel and marching out of the wing.

 

When the morning came, it found me walking slowly through the greenhouses that squatted beside the castle. I didn’t particularly enjoy my Herbology class, which consisted mostly of things that I already knew, but the hothouse was loaded with potentially helpful plants that would really be oh-so easy to steal.

I walked through the pools of sunlight, a faint sheen of sweat threatening to appear on my flesh. My fingertips trailed in the dirt on the counters and tables, leaving a line behind me as I moved. The smell of damp dirt, lingering manure and life hung over everything, allowing me to breathe easier than I had been able to since last night after my mad sprint from the Smoky Beast of Doom.

Somewhere in the distance, a bird chirped, its light song an embodiment of daylight. I paused to examine a small, purple blossom, looking at its roots to see if it was what I was searching for.

“I apologize if it sounds like I’m making assumptions, but you don’t strike me as the type to garden in her spare time.”

I blinked and glanced up, smiling gently at Oak Wood as he quietly closed the greenhouse door behind him. “Hey stranger,” I said in response.

“I was just up in the infirmary to check on Anne, but she’s not there.” He shrugged. “I guess she got released.”

“Yeah, last night. It didn’t take too long to fix her ankle.”

“That’s good.” He walked until he stood beside me, his large fingers taking a small vine and wrapping it around the pot from which it had strayed. There was a slight silence between us, but it wasn’t uncomfortable; it was a companionable hush, the kind you have when you are thinking of the next topic to breach.

“Can I ask you a kind of personal question? Oak said, moving a flowerpot ever so slightly so that it would get even more sunlight.

“If I get to ask on in return.”

He grinned and nodded before leaning against the far counter, palms against the marble, the groggy sun creeping through a vent and bathing him in a celestial luminescence. “Who is your best friend here?”

I paused and bit my lip, thinking. “Depends – do you mean who I’m most like, who I like most, or who I’ve spent the most time with?”

“All three, I suppose.”

“Well…” I began slowly. “I’m most like P.J., I think.”

Oak snorted loudly, making me have the need to defend my statement. “I am! She’s smart, quick, and owns an extremely violent temper.”

“If there is only one truth in the world, Elaina,” he said with a gentle smile, “it is that you are nothing like Miss Pissy and Jagged.”

I couldn’t resist grin that crept onto my lips then, my feet carrying me away from the table and to his counter. I hopped up next to the sink, my legs swinging in the air as I looked at the brunette beside me. “I’m a lot like Rhyad, too, but I don’t know him well enough to consider him my best friend, and P.J. hates me so she’s out of the running as well. I’ve spent the most time with you, but Annalie’s a close second.”

“And James? What of him?”

I stared at my knees, tracing the outline of a hole on my knee. Beneath the fabric was a barely visible scar, a blotchy thing from when a Canadian Thrump took a chunk out of my leg; it had been two weeks before my muscles had healed enough to let me jog.

“I feel like I know James the most,” I said carefully. “We’ve talked a lot, sometimes serious and sometimes joking. I mean, that’s what best friends do, right?”

“So… James is?”

“Well, no,” I burst quickly, realizing that the fact might hurt Oak’s feelings. “We’ve just… I mean, it’s not like…”

He laughed and patted my leg, shaking his head. “It’s fine if he is,” he soothed. “He’s my best friend too – everyone’s, actually. That boy knows more secrets than the nasty gossip mongers could even dream of, and he’s kept them all.”

“That’s a good quality.”

“He’s a good person.”

We sat in silence for a minute before he looked at me and smiled. “So what was your question?” he asked.

“I’m kind of new here…” I began, but his laugh cut me off.

“Kind of? Honey, nothing is fresher than you.”

I crossed my arms and huffed, turning my face from him. “Fine then, if you want to be like that, I won’t ask my question.”

Oak laughed and reached out, taking my hand. “Come on Ella, just spill it. You know I was kidding."

I gave him a withering glare so he would know he wasn’t off the hook yet before I said, “What’s P.J.’s deal, exactly? She’s so angry all the time.”

His smirk was much too large for my liking, but he leaned back and said, “P.J., the one you are so much like.” I rolled my eyes while he ignored me. “She’s not exactly rich, but you know that. Well, the rest of us have never had as much need as she has at times, so she can get really defensive about a lot of things.” He sighed heavily before adding, “And she’s in love with James.”

I was relatively sure that if I had been drinking something I would have sprayed it all over the room. “What?” I gasped, turning on him.

“Yeah, and she’s going to kill me if she finds out that you know.”

I held up my hands and winced. “Slow down there, tiger. Does P.J. know James knows?”

“No. And it’s not just James who knows; our entire group does. But as far as P.J. is aware, I’m the only one who holds her secret.”

“But… how did that work out?”

Oak sighed and rubbed his palms on his jeans, gnawing on the inside of his cheek. “Have you ever gotten so drunk that you couldn’t remember anything? Not like your name, but what had happened that night?”

I nodded, remembering my first drunken experience very clearly.

“Yeah, well, that’s sort of what happened to P.J. There was this party at the beginning of last summer, one that we all went to. Everyone drank, but she drank a lot. Normally she wasn’t like that, but I guess it was a bad homecoming or something… But anyway, when it got later we all decided to make sure she got home all right. Well, Rhyad and Annalie split pretty soon after that, and I was going to stay at James’s place because my dad would commit mass homicide if I went home with booze on my breath. We were just debating whether we should bring P.J. along and let her get sobered up in the Potter’s guest bedroom when she began trying to hit on James pretty bad.”

I groaned, sensing that his story was going downhill very quickly.

“Then she went past just the batting eyelashes and pouting lips. She like, I don’t know, lunged at him and tried to kiss him. She even used her clever little fingers to undo a couple buttons on his shirt before he managed to restrain her. She began crying and moaned over and over again that she loved him, that she always has and always will, and James panicked. He told me to take her back to her house and bolted.

“When I finally got her sorted out and returned to his place, he was lying on his bed, staring at the ceiling. He looked at me and said that he couldn’t face her again, not after that, not until she came to her senses and fell in love with someone else. The next day, though, he had sort of gotten better – he decided instead that he would do everything in his power to make it clear that he didn’t return her… affections.”

“And she didn’t remember a thing?”

“No. We told the others, of course, just so they could help us with our little schemes. James started dating more girls and being a lot more obvious about it. Before, well, he had never been in need of a date, but then he hadn’t sat on park benches kissing those girls. I approached P.J. and told her that I alone knew, so naturally I became her one confident. If anything, James’s new interests in the female anatomy encouraged her – I believe she said something along the lines of, ‘Well, this just makes it more of a challenge for me, right?’.”

“But, didn’t you guys just pass it off as drunkenness?” I asked. “Before she began spilling her guts to you, I mean.”

Oak shrugged. “We would have. But I would have been the more natural choice for drunken seduction.”

“Why is that, other than your blinding attractiveness?”

He didn’t even smirk at my joke. “Because I was the one holding her so she didn’t fall flat on her face.”

My mind, always filled with churning gears, forced me to ask, “So is that why James has been all over me, why P.J. really hates my guts? Not because I’m stealing her friends, but her potential boyfriend?”

Oak nodded. “Yeah, it’s kind of James’s fault.”

“Well, we’ll have to do something about that. I do not need P.J. out for my blood."

“Yeah. I’ll talk to her about it.”

I smiled gratefully at him. “Thank you.”

We fell into a silence, during which I suppose my face fell a little bit as I thought. I guess I had believed James’s actions to be genuine interest, not him being bent on getting P.J.’s adoration elsewhere. Oak must have been watching me and sensed this, because abruptly he began to speak.

“I’m sure James genuinely likes you, though!” Oak said hurriedly, his face briefly mortified. “Hell, everyone really likes you. I’ve almost jumped you a couple of times myself.”

“Excuse me!” I said, leaning away from him.

Apparently, he took this as defensiveness, not pure embarrassment, so some little voice in his mind told him to keep talking. “Well, I have. Every guy in Hogwarts probably has. You’re rather sexy, you know?”

“Oak…” I began warningly, my face and neck growing painfully heated.

“And you can handle yourself, not like most of the dingbats that hang around here, and you get this look in your eyes sometimes that is kind of brooding but is really one hundred percent boner-causing-”

Whatever he was planning on telling me about me next was cut off as I reached into a bag of potting soil (enriched with pure dragon dung!) and shoved a clump down his shirt. He gasped and pulled away, but not before I smacked it as hard as I could, causing it to become caked between his shoulders. “What the bloody hell did you do that for!” he practically screamed, trying to pull his shirt away from his back.

“One, because you were making a damn fool of yourself, and two, because you wouldn’t shut up.”

“How was I making a fool of myself?”

“Because you kept talking.”

He reached to the floor and scooped up a handful of the mulch that our Herbology professor so coveted, throwing it directly into my face. “That makes it one reason, then, love.”

I inhaled a clump of leaves and choked, somehow managing to say, “You’re going to pay for that.”

“Oh really? What are you going to do – throw shit down my shirt? Cause I hate to disappoint you, but that’s already happened today…”

I dropped from the counter and smiled as sweetly as I could through a layer of muck. “Do you know what’s worse than poop?” I asked.

“What’s that?”

Wet poop.”

I reached out and snatched the hose from the counter, turning it on and shooting it directly at Oak. The cold spray hit him head-on, making him stumble back and land on his bum. He used his new spot on the ground to clamber beneath the tables, reaching the other side before I could completely douse him.

I turned off the water and waited in silence, watching for the slightest bit of movement. When I saw it, it was far too late, and I was treated with a wave of frigid water right to the chest. I practically screamed and ducked down, trying to avoid Oak’s attack while launching my own.

Our water war to end all water wars continued for some time, both of us giving the plants a drink that they didn’t need and making the ground so slick with mud that we could barely walk. It was ended, quite unexpectedly, with the arrival of a new friend.

“Have you two gone completely bonkers?” Connor asked from his vantage point in the doorway.

Oak had spent too much time in the battle field and thought my buddy was a threat to his survival. He aimed his hose nozzle at Connor and was about to fire when I leaped from my hiding place beneath some snapdragons that were trying to strangle me, rushing down the aisles and practically tackling him back into the safety of the other greenhouse. I slammed the door just as a spray of water rushed across it, making a sound that was almost like rain.

It took me a few seconds to stop laughing as hard as I was to give Connor an explanation. He was a good sport, however, and held on to my disgusting elbow as I took a breather, even giggling along for a while.

“I am so sorry.” I finally said, clutching my chest. “I didn’t mean for you to get caught in that.”

“What exactly was that, if I can ask?” He smiled down at me, watching the water drip from my face.

It took me a while to explain, editing the fact that the conversation beforehand had been about me causing some… excitement among the male population. As we talked, we walked from greenhouse to greenhouse, steadily increasing the distance between me and the mess behind us. When I finally finished, Connor admitted that it was a bloody good time and that we should probably initiate something similar to the battle, only during our Herbology class to make it more interesting.

By the time we had planned out the entire fight that, apparently, was to take place very soon, we reached the front of the first greenhouse where, I assumed, our time together would end. Connor, however, had other plans, and asked me out of the blue, “Do you want to grab some breakfast?”

“But it’s past the time that they serve, isn’t it?”

He smiled at me in an odd way, the kind of grin that made me warm even though I was freezing in my muddied, watery state. “Not if you know where to go,” he said slowly.

I opened my mouth to reply when a voice, usually quiet but now loud to make itself heard, called, “Miss Riley!”

I turned around and sighed slightly, seeing Headmaster Longbottom marching across the slowly thawing grass to meet us. He did a double take at my appearance, but I guess after a few years things cease to amaze you about your students.

“Hello Headmaster,” I said, Connor echoing beside me.

He blinked at Connor and greeted him before turning to me once more. “Miss Riley, I am sorry if I am interrupting,” I could tell he really was, “but I must speak to you about something of great importance. If Mr. O’Brian wouldn’t mind, would a conversation in private be acceptable.”

Somehow, I managed to resist the urge to sigh again. I smiled at Connor and said, “Well, I guess another time would be best.”

“Tomorrow, maybe?” he probed hopefully.

I couldn’t turn down his round, puppy-dog eyes and the way he seemed to rise a little bit in eagerness. “Yeah, of course. Come find me and it’s a date.”

‘Date’ was probably not the word I should have used. He seemed to float above the ground as he left me and my Headmaster to talk, such happiness in his step that I was surprised he didn’t sail to the moon.

“Bugger,” I whispered, hanging my head. Could I not get a break?

“Um, Miss Riley?” Headmaster Longbottom probed. “Perhaps we should start walking? It’s a ways to go.”

“To your office?” I asked, my eyebrows knotting together.

“No, to the mess that horrid beast made last night.”

This time, I had to exhale as the headmaster took off his cloak and wrapped it around my cold form, leading the way down the path to the place where I had first caught sight of the reason for me being at Hogwarts.

Love you too, creature.
 

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