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I’m a bitch, was all I could think as the Hogwarts Express powered out of Kings’ Cross station, the windows half-obscured by steam. I’m a lying, cheating bitch, and not a soul knows.

I’d ended up in a compartment with Albus on the way back to school. His friends, who were surprisingly okay with the idea of me being his girlfriend, didn’t seem to care when I said I was really too tired, too worn out by spending Christmas with my family to talk much. Even if it was all a big, fat lie. Apart from two days with my Dad, I’d spent most of Christmas shut up in my room whilst my Mum was off at work, reading, doodling, cracking on with holiday homework, willing the rain to stop because I missed the snow and frost up North, and generally just moping around. I’d met up with Albus twice, after his Dad had pulled a few strings at work to get the modest terraced house I lived in connected to the Floo Network. We’d spent one bitterly cold afternoon in Diagon Alley and the other at his house, where we’d had tea and leftover Christmas cake with his mum and listened to that final Weird Sisters record, the one I’d got him for Christmas, in his room.

He confessed that he hadn’t really known what to get me, but the gift of writing inks in every colour of the rainbow was really appreciated, as was the card he’d made me out of a photo of Myron Wagtail with a ludicrous Santa hat perched on his head that’d come straight out of the pages of a nineties edition of New Magical Express. And, Myron Wagtail being Myron Wagtail and all, it was pretty amusing to see, out of the corner of my eye, how his photograph winked and struck poses at the camera whilst I kissed Albus. You know, it was like he was trying to send me some festive motivational message to cheer me up, especially after how I’d been feeling.

But Christmas had really just been as eventful as ever. I mean, that is to say, not really eventful at all. The thing about having divorced parents like mine, especially when your mum and dad are from totally different social classes, is the way the two sides of the family hate each other, how you can’t see your mum’s side of the family without someone getting drunk and bad-mouthing your working class Glaswegian dad and vice versa. So I try to avoid family engagements for that reason because, well, it’s not like I’m brave enough to stand up and say, hey, I’m fifty percent of that man’s DNA and he is my father, so stop saying unkind things about him, etcetera etcetera. Plus the fact that both my parents haven’t actually told anyone in the family that I’m actually a witch; I don’t even want to know where they think I vanish off to for most of the year. And I guessed from the way they talk to me that they think I’m, well, not all there.

Anyway, yeah. It had been a wet, miserable winter, and January looked to be even worse, not that I was especially looking forward to going back to school in the first place. Fauna had sent me a ton of letters over the break, a selection box of my favourite Honeydukes sweets, and at least five invitations to meet up or go to her house. I wrote back every time and sent her the gift box of Miss Magic eye makeup I’d bought her in Diagon Alley, but I made up excuses to get out of every invitation, pretending I had family things, colds, even that I had to look after my next-door neighbour’s cat. Truth was that she’d mentioned Scorpius would be there too and, even though he’d been my best friend since I was eleven, I couldn’t stand the thought of seeing him.

I’d had enough time to unravel the kiss since it’d happened. I’d never wanted to think about it but it was bloody hard not to. I couldn’t stop thinking about how horrible the whole miserable mess was. Boys are like buses, honestly, because you hang around for ages waiting for one to turn up and then two come along at once.

It wasn’t like I hated Scorpius or anything, because I knew I was just as guilty as he was. I just couldn’t, for the life of me, bring myself to see him or even write to him. Well, what if he wanted to talk about it? What if he tried to kiss me again? Okay, I got the feeling he wouldn’t do the latter because, well, I’m guessing the kiss had been pretty spur-of-the-moment in the first place and he wasn’t exactly brave enough to try anything like that again. Or stupid. But I was terrified of seeing him, because I knew I’d have to acknowledge that we’d crossed some stupid boundary and couldn’t be best friends anymore because we were best friends who’d snogged. Some kind of no man’s land between friendship and, you know, going out. I didn’t even send him a Christmas card and it was like he didn’t exist anymore.

The thing was I hadn’t actually seen him much at all since that last, panicky little glimpse I’d got of him before I ran away, and I couldn’t help but wonder if that was making everything worse. Me and Fauna had come down to breakfast late on the Saturday to find that he’d already been and gone. Someone said he’d gone to the Owlery, but when we went up there it was deserted, and neither of us were really hungry enough to go down to lunch and see if he was there instead. He was AWOL in the afternoon too, and didn’t turn up for dinner. He still wasn’t back in the common room by the time I went up to bed early at half eight and Fauna went out with the slip she’d nabbed from one of the Ravenclaw prefects to see if she could find him.

‘Sulking in the library,’ she said, when she finally got back half an hour later. ‘Didn’t even realise it was curfew. Seems really down. D’you know anything about it?’

I said something vague about how he was always sullen and introspective at Christmas for reasons we didn’t like to discuss behind his back. She nodded.

‘Oh, well,’ she said. ‘Better leave him be.’

And I didn’t even see him on the train journey home. Lucy and Fauna roped me into a game of exploding snap before we went to hang out with Agnes for the rest of the journey, and he was so busy being bookwormish and quiet in the corner that I might not have noticed him even if I’d wanted to. And I didn’t want to notice him, because that meant reliving the uncomfortable memory of knowing what it was like to kiss him.

I’d only been Albus’ girlfriend for a month but, in that time, I’d managed to kiss another boy and keep it secret – which, you know, made me a cheat and a liar. I mean, wow, I’ve always been good at screwing things up, but this was taking it to a new level. This made me dishonest, the sort of girl Tabitha and Georgina liked to bitch about in the dormitory when the lights were out. And, you know, it made me feel completely crap. I wondered if Albus would pick up on this, but he didn’t, and was happy to let me sit with my head on his shoulder as the train rattled up the country. The moment we heard the trolley outside, he pulled me to my feet and out into the corridor, even held my hand as we walked down the train. I didn’t think to check for Scorpius and Fauna in the compartments we passed.

‘What’ll it be, dears?’ said Agnes, obviously knowing us both as the two students who appreciated her presence on the train most. I asked for two sugar quills and a pack of Droobles’ gum; Albus got a chocolate frog and two cups of tea, remembering that I took mine with two sugars.

‘Dear me, Flora, you’re looking very down in the dumps,’ Agnes said, filling two little cups from the urn on her trolley.

‘Huh? Oh. Um. Just worried about schoolwork, that’s all,’ I said.

‘You shouldn’t worry,’ she winked at me. ‘It’ll give you crow’s feet. Besides, you’ve got this handsome young gentleman to look after you-’

I couldn’t help but erupt into giggles. Albus did a little mock bow. ‘You’re too kind,’ he said.

‘Keep hold of him,’ Agnes nudged me. ‘Ain’t a lot of boys around like that.’

Albus burst out laughing and I felt myself going bright red. ‘Don’t worry,’ I mumbled. ‘I won’t be letting go any time soon.’

Albus took the two cups of tea. ‘Thanks, Agnes,’ he said. ‘And thanks for the tea too.’

She trundled off with her trolley further down the train, and me and Albus made our way back to our compartment near the front. Thing is, we’re not supposed to take hot drinks into the compartments in case we spill them all over the upholstery, so we had to stand about in the corridor instead, propping ourselves up against the facing walls, cradling the tea in our hands to warm them.

‘Sugar quill?’ I offered. Albus took one and stowed it in his pocket for later, then tried to open the chocolate frog one-handed without dropping his tea. Laughing, I held it for him while he dealt with the frog, and then held the wizard card up to the light.

‘Helga Hufflepuff,’ he said. ‘I’ve got two of her already…’

‘I haven’t got any. She’s the rarest of the founders in the collection.’

‘Underappreciated, more like,’ Albus said. ‘You have it. You’re a Hufflepuff.’

He swapped the card for his cup of tea. I skim-read it as he drank. ‘Loyal? Hardworking?’ I said. ‘Doesn’t sound like me.’

‘Sounds a lot like you,’ Albus said, and all I could think was, oh, if only you knew. ‘The Gryffindor cards all say brave, bold, and…well…I am nothing like that.’

‘Yes you are,’ I frowned. ‘You were brave enough to save me from the Slytherins. And bold enough to kiss me after.’

‘True,’ he grinned.

We fell silent for a moment as we drank.

‘Something’s been on my mind all Christmas,’ I said, dredging up the other thought that had been bothering me since the last day of term. ‘All the…all the stuff you said about the way society is. And, I mean, I don’t get the papers, so I can’t follow it. But…I was thinking about it and talking to my dad, and he said, well…he said it sounded like when there used to be support for far-right groups in the past.’

‘Far right?’ Albus said.

‘You know,’ I dithered, realising how woeful my knowledge of both muggle and magical politics was. ‘Extremists. The sort of people who think Britain should be white, totally, English, whatever.’

‘Oh, I get you,’ he said. ‘Yeah, it’s a lot like that. Mostly it’s talk about how the Purebloods are all, well, the supposed original magic lot, how muggle-borns apparently…contaminate that. Oh, Flora, don’t worry,’ he said, obviously noticing, like Agnes had, the worry on my face. ‘Every sane person knows it’s complete bull.’

‘It’s just…’ I said. ‘I wondered if…if it really was just talk or whether I should actually freak out.’

It took Albus a while to respond before, heavily, he said: ‘There was a particularly horrible incident in Diagon Alley before Christmas. You know…some papers said it was a mugging and, well, others disagreed. But it’s mostly just hot air. You shouldn’t worry,’ he said. ‘Hogwarts is the safest place you can possibly be. That’s what my Dad always says.’

‘So…it’s just…magicism,’ I said.

‘Basically,’ he nodded. ‘Yeah. And they try to cover it up by saying it’s because of the economy,’ he rolled his eyes. ‘Because they want to protect jobs for those of magical blood or something, but it’s all bollocks.’

‘It’s funny,’ I said. ‘Because I never got the impression that Purebloods were exactly all that much better at magic, you know? Okay, I’m terrible, but Fauna and Scorpius are both Pureblood and they’re not much cop at magic either.’

It was weird saying Scorpius’ name in front of Albus – after the whole kiss thing, it somehow seemed like a dirty word. But Albus didn’t pick up on it.

‘Yup,’ he said. ‘And that’s why you shouldn’t worry. Never believe anybody who says they’re better than you because of where they’re from, because they’re really not.’

My face split into a wide smile which actually felt kind of painful. ‘Wise, Albus. Really profound.’

He did another little mock bow. ‘I do try.’

And I really appreciated everything he’d said because, well, out of all the people I’d known, Albus was probably best at having his head screwed on the right way. Okay, it seems overly formal to say things like he had a decent moral code and good manners, etcetera, but it’s true. He was unbelievably grown-up for a sixteen year old boy when most boys in our school, even well into seventh year, were still obsessed with trying to snog every girl within a mile radius and making crass jokes. Alright, all barring Scorpius, but he was kind of immature in his own introverted, cripplingly shy way, because sometimes I was convinced he’d prefer to live in one of the books he read than hang about in the real world. And, well, Albus was incredibly mature compared to a silly twerp like me.

Thing is, despite everything he’d said, it was hard to keep smiling and not worry. I mean, the freaky guilt of kissing Scorpius was one thing, but it was really troubling to think that, somewhere, a bunch of people I didn’t even know might want to beat me up because my parents were both muggles.

It was reassuring to have him with me all the way up to school, even in the horseless-but-supposedly-horse-drawn carriage I usually shared with Scorpius and Fauna. His friends chatted on and on about the holiday homework they’d forgotten to do, the Transfiguration project they’d have to start that week, whether they had a chance of getting the Quidditch cup that year. And, meanwhile, I sat in the corner with Willoughby on my lap and Albus at my side, trying to send a telepathic message to Fauna to apologise for abandoning her for two weeks straight.

But as much as I’d avoided them over the holidays, there was no use avoiding Scorpius and Fauna at teatime. I’d gone up to the dormitory late to dump my stuff, so they’d already gone down to the Great Hall and I missed them. I changed back into my uniform and robes – frankly, I hadn’t wanted to change in a compartment full of Albus’ friends who I barely knew – and made my way up the single flight of stairs to the Great Hall at seven. And, you know, Helga Hufflepuff was probably the most sensible of all the Founders for putting our common room so close to the kitchens. She knew what students really want.

It was somehow comforting to see Scorpius and Fauna at our usual spot on the table. They were both on the same side, muttering conspiratorially to each other about something. They both looked pretty worried, but I decided not to think about it too much because, well, both Agnes and Albus had pointed out that I had the face of a wet January morning and a spectacular set of crows’ feet in the making. So I took the seat opposite them, attempted my brightest, most cheerful smile, tried not to look at Scorpius, and poured myself a goblet of pumpkin juice.

‘Hello, Flora,’ Fauna said, and her voice was a little taut, like she was expecting me to do something. ‘Merry belated Christmas.’

‘Merry belated Christmas to you too,’ I said. ‘Was it a good one?’

An irresistible smile cracked the tension in her face. ‘Oh, perfectly adequate,’ she said.

She asked me how my Christmas had been, and so I spent the next five minutes blabbering on about the most inane, stupid things, telling her this silly anecdote about my dad getting me a jumper that was about three sizes too big for Christmas, but how it was mega, mega, mega because obviously baggy jumpers were cool and, anyway, it gave us a laugh. And I told them about meeting Albus, about how I’d missed the snow, how I was excited to go out and see if the lake was still frozen.

‘It’s thawed,’ Scorpius said, and I realised I’d forgotten to look from the windows of the carriages, because, well, I didn’t even care anymore.

‘It’ll snow again,’ Fauna shrugged. ‘You know, Scotland in January.’

We didn’t get much time to talk more, because the food appeared a moment later and, anyway, Lucy shuffled up the table to ask Fauna if she’d like to come back to Ravenclaw tower because, apparently, the prefects had been very much enamoured with her board games skills. Then the talk turned to what Lucy had done for Christmas, what they’d be focusing on at Astronomy club that term, etcetera, etcetera; I tuned out.

And the only other thing Scorpius said to me in the whole forty-five minutes we were sat there was ‘could you pass the salt, please?’

It somehow seemed fitting. I wanted to hand it over with some sort of pithy comment like, yeah, go on, let’s rub it in the wounds of our friendship but, well, some things are just too precocious for teatime.

The conversation wasn’t so stilted back in the dorm, thankfully. Tabitha, Georgina and Lucy decided to hang about in the common room until late – we didn’t have lessons for another couple of days – whereas, as per usual, me and Fauna decided to tuck in early. And it was like we were fourteen again; we both perched on my four-poster in our pyjamas with the curtains drawn around, our own private little den to gossip in. I could have sworn she was about to tell me what it was like to kiss Dermot Finnegan all over again.

‘You were very quiet at dinner,’ she said. ‘You alright?’

‘Fine,’ I said. ‘Tired, that’s all.’

‘Me too,’ she said. ‘It’s been a crazy Christmas.’

‘What’d you get up to?’ I said.

‘Oh, we went to see my aunt,’ she smiled. ‘She laughed when I told her you were going out with Harry Potter’s son.’

‘My mum laughed at the idea of me having a boyfriend.’

‘Well,’ she laughed. ‘It’s a bit…not like you.’

‘Still not used to it myself… what else did you get up to?’

‘Um…I met up with Scorpius a lot,’ she said. ‘We missed you. But…’

‘I was mega busy,’ I said, automatically. ‘Couldn’t have made it even if, like, I could time-travel.’

‘Yeah,’ she laughed again, although she seemed a bit more nervous this time. ‘Well…kind of worked out, though, you know?’

There was a tiny shift in the mood. ‘Er…’

‘Well,’ she went bright red. ‘He asked me if I’d be his girlfriend. And I said yes.’

It was like having freezing water thrown at my face.

‘Kind of like what you said about you and Albus,’ she smiled. ‘You never suspect them. And then you realise they’ve been under your nose all along.’

a/n: if you want to hate me for all the plot twists I've been throwing in your faces, the review box is just below this note...jk. I'm enjoying your shippy reviews very much, and Albus is definitely in the lead. team florp, you are struggling. although I don't blame you.
should probably add that New Magical Express is a play on the british music magazine New Musical Express. also, I blitzed this chapter in one go literally listening to 'whistle for the choir' by the fratellis on repeat, so, you know, dredge it up and give it a whirl, it's a toe-tappingly good tune. and thank you for reading ♥

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