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The Trouble with Laurel

TRISTAN was taking notes on Professor McGonagall’s lecture without really thinking what he was doing. The endless repetition of every day had become anesthetic, and all that was left for Tristan to do was actual work. Where before he felt like he was struggling to withhold a silent scream, he now felt nothing. The trouble with Laurel had taken the fun out of having fun, not that there was much time for it anymore anyway. Worse still, Emily and Isobel’s preoccupation with Laurel’s well being made their time all together tense. Isobel measured every move Laurel made and every word she spoke as if she were trying to read some clue written in them. Tristan was just relieved that Laurel was relatively ok, and wanted to leave it at that.

Even Care of Magical Creatures, which usually broke up the monotony, was uncharacteristically dull. They were huddled under umbrellas in the forest trying to study thestrals, which was difficult, since most of the students couldn’t see them. Tristan guided Emily’s hand to pat the neck of the beast. It must be a strange sensation, he thought. Feeling the thestral’s leathery skin emerge from nothing, watching your own hand fall down on its invisible body—but this passing curiosity wasn’t sufficient to combat his hollowness.

Tristan had felt since Christmas like he was nearing the end of a long fought war with himself, and both sides were losing.

Double charms with Ravenclaw was equally tedious, and Tristan wished he still had the fire to just storm out, as he had after Laurel’s hex-out. Instead, he practiced wand motions and memorized spells for the three-hour lesson without disrupting the class. Tristan wondered, half-heartedly, how it could be that learning magic didn’t interest him, before losing interest in that thought as well.

He packed his books and wandered to the greenhouses in a daze, where he met Oliver Wood. The spark of friendliness that had been ignited at Tristan’s birthday party had long since cooled to a lukewarm acquaintance. They traded ‘alright’s’ as Tristan lumbered over to a table some rows down. He worked with his back to the sunset.

Tristan was at the back of a loose line of Slytherins and Gryffindors twisting a path back to the castle doors when he saw Laurel. The sight of her waiting was so familiar, and he shook himself from the idea that she was some ghost of months past. She was shivering just beyond the greenhouses, one arm pulled tight across her breast, the other bringing a fag up to her lips, eyes darted uncomfortably across the grounds.

“Laurel?” he said, with the same caution one might use approaching some dangerous creature.

“I need you to give me one,” she said, without preamble.


“If you don’t do it,” she said, producing her wand. “You know I’ll just do it myself.”

* * *

Tristan and Emily were working alone in the corridor. Isobel had gone to bring food to Laurel in the dormitories, since she hadn’t joined them at supper. Tristan was nauseous.

“Why so quiet?” asked Emily, and Tristan merely shrugged.

Isobel returned some minutes later, and appeared to be carrying something rather large behind her back.

“So I was hoping to have this finished by Christmas, but it was a little longer going than I thought,” she said. Tristan straightened his back; he’d completely forgot that Isobel was working on something for him. Crashing waves of guilt overwhelmed him—it was the first time he’d felt anything aside from numb in weeks, and all it had taken was betrayal. From behind her back, Isobel produced what appeared to be his old smashed stereo, haphazardly reconstructed.

“It’s all crumpled looking, but it works,” she beamed.

“You rebuilt this?” Tristan asked in awe.

“Uh huh,” Isobel chirped. “Emily gave me some muggle books, and explained a lot about batteries and things.”

“Tell him the best part!” Emily urged.

“Oh yeah, it’s all held together with magic now. I used charms to get it to work again, so it’s more magic than technology,” Isobel explained happily. “It works in the castle!”

Tristan wanted to either cry or die. It was too much. Instead of doing either, he threw his arms around Isobel and hugged her for a long time.

“Now be careful with it,” Isobel eked out, patting Tristan on the back. “I’m sure it’s breaking about a dozen laws, and qualifies as a major misuse of a muggle artifact.”

That night, Tristan fished the tape of Nevermind out of his trunk, closed the hangings around his four-poster, and plugged his headphone jack into his newly improved stereo. Laying back, he felt a rush. He’d never before listened to music in his dormitory.

For the first time, the Slytherin lair didn’t seem entirely terrible. The eery green glow from the lake perfectly suited Tristan’s mood. While Kurt Cobain shouted, Tristan began a letter to Emily confessing himself, but abandoned it in seconds.

I’m worst at what I do best, and for this gift I feel blessed
Our little group has always been, and always will until the end.

The lyrics blared from Tristan's headphones, and he marveled again at how Nirvana always managed to write his feelings, as if Kurt were speaking across an ocean of time directly to him.

* * *

Laurel’s birthday was the following Saturday. She insisted that she didn’t want a big do, so as requested, the four of them just hung ‘round Cadogan’s Corridor like they used to do before her trouble began, and O.W.L. preparation kept them so busy. Emily made sure to provide whiskey and lemonade, and at Isobel’s suggestion, a few bottles of butterbeer. Butterbeer and whiskey, as it turned out, mixed together fantastically.

The Weasley twins stopped by for a spliff after Quidditch practice and gave Laurel their presents: trophies nicked off various professors. They handed her what looked like one of Trelawney’s shawls, a hairpin they claimed was McGonagall’s, and a sinister looking bottle that had come from Snape’s office. Tristan didn’t know what they expected Laurel to do with these things, but she was delighted.

“Be careful with that last one,” Fred warned.

“We reckon it could be poison,” agreed George.

Emily gave Laurel a muggle craft book with supplies for weaving bracelets, for reasons Tristan didn’t understand, and a pack of multicolored hair-bands, for reasons that were obvious. Isobel gave Laurel some makeup and a special type of lotion that she said was from France. Tristan’s gift was a tape of Standing on a Beach by the Cure, which Laurel instantly unwrapped and popped into Tristan’s stereo.

“Why is this bloke singing about killing Arabs?” Isobel asked, a little hotly, after the first chorus of the first track.

“The lyrics are from a book,” Tristan explained. “Camus.”

“So it was Cam-oo what had problems with our friend here?” joked Fred. “Glad we cleared that up.”

Tristan started trying to explain about the novel, The Stranger, to nobody’s interest, before giving up and simply mumbling about it being “a muggle classic.” Fred and George said their goodbyes before the B-side.

They succeeded in getting well pissed by eight o’clock, and it started to feel like old times again. Tristan found it difficult to lose himself in the moment, and instead began wondering if their ‘good old days’ were already behind them. Classes, eat, corridor, sleep. It had become his mantra--like a song stuck in his head. A distillation of what remained of his life in four words. He fixed himself another drink, trying to coax himself into enjoying their last hour together before curfew.

Emily, who’d been drinking the butterbeer-whiskey concoction with enthusiasm, shot suddenly to her feet, and stumbled down the corridor to the nearest toilet. From the sound of it, she didn’t make it.

“Shit,” mumbled Isobel, getting up to chase after Emily.

Isobel popped her head back around the corner, told them she’d help Emily down to the Hufflepuff Basement, and asked them if they could clear the mess.

“Just leave the lemonade bottles in the hall,” she explained. “The house elves will pick them up later.”

House elves! Thought Tristan, that’s how they’d been sneaking food and drinks between meals.

After Isobel carried Emily away, Tristan leaned back against the stone wall, closing his eyes against the corridor, which had begun to spin. He felt Laurel shift in closer beside him and rest her head on his shoulder.

“I’m sorry about Thursday,” she offered quietly. “I know it was a shite spot to put you in. Thanks for not telling.”

“You haven’t started it up again, have you?” Tristan asked without opening his eyes. “The self-spelling?”

“No,” Laurel said firmly. “That was just… a bit of a rough patch. It won’t happen again.”

“Good,” Tristan said.

“Sometimes I feel,” Laurel began thoughtfully. “Like people like me better when I’m hexed.”

“That’s the charms making you think that,” Tristan promised. “We much prefer you as you are.”

“Really?” she asked.

“Yeah,” he said, opening his eyes. He turned his head toward her, and her face was very close to his.

I’m so ugly, but that’s ok, ‘cause so are you—we broke our mirrors.

It had been a long time since Tristan and Laurel had snogged. It had only happened before when they were hexed out of their minds--intoxicated bodies, Tristan had found, seemed to develop a kind of magnetism. The furthest they’d ever gone before was behind the mirror at his birthday party, when they'd been blasted off an admixture of spliff, alcohol, and too many charms. Now, with only alcohol and weed fogging their senses, it seemed much more real.

Tristan knew he was making a mistake. He knew that by kissing Laurel like this he was letting everyone down, including Laurel. She didn’t like him in that way, that wasn’t why she was interested, and he knew it wouldn’t make her feel good about herself if they continued. Emily did like Tristan in that way, but he knew if he snogged her, it would only expose her to all the bad inside him. It hurt Isobel too, who cared so much about the friends’ dynamic, and messed up all of her work keeping them afloat.

But it was easy to start kissing, and hard to stop. He knew he and Laurel were both spent every moment battling against all the little things, the little mistakes they could make, and that they were both finally exhausted enough to surrender.

Eventually there came a point, lying on the flagstone scorched by the ends of hundreds of cigarettes, where Tristan found himself on the precipice of a dark unknown. But his will wasn’t good, so they jumped.

* * *

Their next Hogsmeade weekend was different from any Tristan had had. Now that he could listen to his music whenever he fancied, thanks to Isobel, he actually joined the other three in the village. Out of habit, they still stopped at the same spot north of the shrieking shack first to spark a spliff, and then set off to spend the day meandering along the High Street.

Tristan found it difficult to enjoy the day with his friends; he couldn’t help but feel antsy and paranoid. Laurel was behaving mostly normally, but Tristan was acutely aware that her behavior with him had changed subtly.

She was at once more distant—a clear attempt to maintain a casual air—but also a bit warmer. She spoke more softly around him, and smiled gently whenever he spoke. Isobel, in turn, was in no-stops Isobel mode. As the constant observer and custodian of their group, she was manic in her dictation of the day’s activities. What’s more, she was openly cold to Tristan.

Laurel’s soft smiling was countered beat for beat by Isobel’s narrow-eyed glares.

She told her, Tristan concluded. Of course Laurel had told her. Tristan kicked himself.

Worst of all was Emily’s complete obliviousness to the silent bubbling of discord between her friends. The guilt this inspired in Tristan was all consuming, and abetted by Isobel’s harsh attitude.

It wasn’t turning out to be a particularly fun day. There was a consistent drizzle throughout the morning which had left the four of them damp haired and chilly. The Three Broomsticks was full to bursting with Hogwarts students escaping the wet exterior of the village, and Tristan and his friends were unable to find a private table. Butterbeer didn’t hold much interest for Tristan when it was unaccompanied by whiskey, so he and his friends turned out of the pub and back onto the cold, gray street.

“I’ve got to call it,” said Isobel irritably. “This is a bust. Shall we just head back to the castle?”

The other three grunted in assent, and they made the muddy hike back to the Hogwarts grounds. They arrived in time for a late lunch to find the Great Hall scarcely occupied. Isobel didn’t join them, choosing instead to change out of her damp and muddy robes. She said goodbye, offering Tristan only a cold glance, and turned up the stairs leading to Ravenclaw Tower.

“At least bring some food up with you,” begged Emily.

“Nah,” Isobel called over her shoulder. “I’m still full from breakfast.”

Tristan gaped at the absurdity of her statement—she’d only managed a few pieces of fruit and several black coffees that morning. He wasn’t totally clueless to the fact that Isobel had been slowly shriveling under her robes. Tristan shamefully remembered how her, once marvelous, breasts used to bulge from beneath her Hogwarts uniform. Now, her robes hung lank from her shoulders. These days, her already deep-set eyes glared out of skeletal sockets and her cheeks were so sunken that the bones were sharp, and imminently visible. Then again, Tristan had no idea how he could possibly confront the issue, and decided to leave it to one of the girls instead. He took a droopy sandwich off of the gold platter nearest him—they’d been sitting out since noon.

“You should take something up for Isobel,” Emily timidly suggested to Laurel.

“Huh?” replied Laurel, looking up from her plate. “She can get something later if she wants, she knows your trick now.”

“Take something up,” Tristan insisted. “Really.”

“Ok, ok,” sighed Laurel, conspicuously put upon. She grabbed a few sandwiches at random and wrapped them in a napkin. “Bye,” she said, irate, as she got up from the Hufflepuff table.

Tristan found himself alone with Emily, caught between the conflicting desires either to tell her everything, or take his transgressions to the grave.

“Well apart from being oblivious to what’s happening with her friends, she does seem to be doing better,” Emily said thoughtfully, referring to Laurel.

“I think I’ll go change as well,” Tristan said, unceremoniously taking his leave of Emily. He was still hungry, but abandoned his half-sandwich rather than spend another unbearable moment with the witch he should have snogged.

“Ok, bye,” called back Emily, put out.

Tristan head to the stairs leading down to the dungeons, but was intercepted by Professor Sprout.

“Mr. Bryce,” she called, a little out of breath after climbing the stairs from the Hufflepuff basement. “I’ve been meaning to speak to you. Would you please come with me to my office?”

“Er—” Tristan said, wondering if he could just say ‘no.’ Before he had a chance to reply, Professor Sprout practically frog-marched him away from the Entrance Hall. Now he really did want to change out of his damp robes and sodden socks.

POMONA deposited her files onto her desk while the young wizard, unsure of himself, took a seat.

“There you go,” she said, summoning the brightest expression she could. “Shall I put on some tea?” she asked, settling in behind her desk.

Tristan made a noncommittal noise, and Pomona tapped her kettle with her wand.

She had finally gotten the reluctant student into her office, not out of his own volition, to be sure, but it was a slight victory nonetheless. It wouldn’t have been unlike him to simply refuse, or to swear at her and storm off. His attitude in classes had gotten better, Pomona had heard from his other professors, but at the expense of becoming withdrawn and sullen.

“Well I have to say,” she began, having decided to open on a positive note. “I’m very happy to see your taking a more active interest in your studies.”

Tristan looked bewildered. Clearly, Pomona had been correct assuming that the change in him was more the result of his just giving up, rather than genuine interest. Even Charity Burbage, Tristan’s favorite professor, had confessed that Tristan’s fire, which had been a positive force in her class, seemed to have gone out.

“That said,” Pomona continued as she busied herself with their teas. “You’ve been through an awful lot this year—not the least of it being the unfortunate incident with Miss Braithewaite.” Tristan’s eyes shot up at her suspiciously.

“What’s she said?” Tristan demanded.

“My sessions with Miss Braithewaite are confidential,” Pomona responded mildly, but her suspicions were confirmed.

Even if Laurel had been self-spelling near the end of it, she must have started off using recreational magic with others. Laurel, Tristan, Emily, and Isobel—what an odd little gang they were. Hogwarts had had students like them from time to time. Most recently it had been Miss Tonks and her crew, though none of them had ever actually been caught in any major drug use. Then again, these cliques that formed over the years were generally more alike than they were different: talented, to be sure, as well as deeply subversive. Too often, their natural sense of rebellion resulted in going too far and crossing some line, and rampant rule breaking was a common theme for these students. In fact, Pomona reflected, it was in much the same way that the first Death Eaters had emerged. Not that Tristan and his friends resembled those dark wizards in any way that mattered.

“I’d like to give you the opportunity,” Pomona went on. “To enjoy that same confidentiality. You are at a very difficult age, which is made worse by the stress of your upcoming exams. There is no reason you should go through this experience alone.”

“I’m not,” Tristan replied defensively. “I've got friends.”

“Yes, of course you do, and by no means did I intend to imply otherwise. But sometimes it can be helpful to speak to someone who isn’t also dealing with these same issues themselves,” Pomona offered.

“Ok,” said Tristan, defiant.

It wasn’t an agreement, it was a challenge. Give me your best shot, he seemed to say.

“You don’t get on well with the others in your House, is that correct?” Pomona asked, and Tristan conspicuously rolled his eyes.

“Would you?” he shot back.

“I can’t say,” Pomona responded. “Why is it, do you think, that you prefer the company of those outside your House. Feel free to tell the truth, there are no wrong answers here.” Tristan exhaled, signaling that he wanted very badly to rant about this precise issue.

“Well that’s the thing, isn’t it?” he began. “This Sorting nonsense. I don’t understand why the school thinks it ought to divide the students up based on some bollocks criteria, and then create these artificial rivalries between them. Based on Quidditch. It’s just some daft sport. And we put this mangy old hat on our heads when we’re eleven, and bam, we’re told that’s who we are, like we can never change. And the categories themselves are a joke. Hogwarts thinks you can only be either a teachers pet; a self-righteous loud mouth; a racist psychopath; or quite a nice person—but too bad—you’re a bit dim.”

“You know,” Pomona replied, amused, once she was sure Tristan had concluded his rant. “Professor Dumbledore would agree with you on that point.” Tristan offered a surprised expression as a response. “We’ve often discussed it; that perhaps we Sort too young at Hogwarts.”

“But why Sort at all?” Tristan demanded, refusing to give up any ground.

“I suppose some might say,” Pomona mused. “That Sorting does have its utilities. That students might benefit from a close alliance with like-minded individuals.”

“Yeah, the Slytherins and I are real like minded,” Tristan huffed, and brazenly produced a pouch of rolling tobacco from his school bag.

“I’m sure you know you can’t smoke in here,” Pomona said gently.

“I’m not smoking, am I? Just rolling one,” he shot back.

Pomona acquiesced, but sighed in disapproval. It was interesting, she thought, how cigarette smoking and drink or drugs were so often intertwined. Many older wizards liked their pipes very much indeed, but cigarettes, a muggle invention, occupied a separate social realm within the magic community.

Pomona had heard from an American witch that it was more common among Wizards on the other side of the Atlantic. As a newer country, their magical community had many more parallels with their muggle neighbors. While European magical education was exclusively available as either boarding or home schooling, the United States offered a number of day schools, and young witches and wizards would commute. As a result, drug use and recreational magic was more widespread in America, as students had considerably more unsupervised free time. At Hogwarts, so much was shared with Professors, and individual privacy was less available. Pomona weighed the pro’s and con’s of each of these cultures, but came out unsure of which was preferable, all things considered.

The traditional wisdom in Britain, if not elsewhere, was that recreational magic and self-spelling were the sole domain of those witches and wizards living on the edges of mainstream magical society. Families that had, for generations, home-schooled their children and passed down heirloom wands made of questionable materials. This class of rural people, many pure-bloods representing ancient lineages, were seen as backwards by the majority—their blood status hardly a redemption even in the eyes of the most ancestry-obsessed Slytherin. These individuals lived their lives with two-fingers up to the Ministry, resentful of the Statute of Secrecy, and carrying on without the slightest respect for magical law—or so many people imagined. Yes, a vocal minority of any group is quite enough to define their community to an outsider; Pomona had seen this many times before. While most of these families were respectable enough, the few that fit the stereotypes were enough to maintain a confirmation bias.

Pomona had been lost in thought, but Tristan didn’t seem to mind. He finished rolling a fag, then started on another one, keen to fill the time on his own terms.

“Your mother,” she began, convinced that the word barely told the whole story. “Has written me. She’s concerned, after what happened with Laurel, that you may be using recreational magic.”

“I’m not,” Tristan lied, deadpan, seemingly unconcerned about whether or not he sounded convincing.

“I told her that I have seen no evidence of such behavior,” Pomona informed him. “Having said that, it is clearly something that has affected you, if only in the form of Laurel’s addiction. I’d like to remind you, everything you say here is confidential.”

“Well, not everything, right?” Tristan shot back rhetorically, and met her gaze.

“No," Pomona agreed. "There are two exceptions."

Clearly, Tristan had had counseling before.

TRISTAN was walking around the perimeter of the lake smoking one of the fags he’d rolled in Sprout’s office. Dumpy old bat, he thought to himself. It was twice now that a professor had insisted on talking to him about his feelings, and twice that they had failed miserably. Talking about things, Tristan concluded, even mentioning them, just brought them closer to the surface. It was much better, he thought, to push them down, somewhere where they couldn’t be so loud.

Tristan sat down heavily at the rocky bank of the lake and ran one hand through his hair. Some of his wrath was bubbling closer to the surface, and he blamed Professor Sprout. He was furious with Laurel for being unable to hold her pain inside and acting on it, and for inviting him to act as well. He was furious at Isobel for her self-imposed managerial role—and worse, for failing, and having problems of her own. He hated Emily’s constant and unwavering sweetness and compassion, which only made her friends appear worse in contrast. Most of all, Tristan hated himself.

Little horrors from his first six years had been unleashed after his conversation with the potions master. A dark room without windows, a wooden playpen that represented the extent and boundaries of his entire world. Darkness, hoods, voices, names.

“Bones, Abbot, Longbottom, Potter..." Snape had said, and the stale air of his dungeon office was cold.
"The war left many orphans..." 

The sky was getting darker around Tristan as he sat on the shore of the lake. His cigarette had long since gone out, and he’d been painfully clenching his fist around a rock without realizing it.

He cast the stone into the lake, let out an animal yell, and felt around for another one. Tristan’s memories felt like a contamination of his psyche. He felt polluted, like the lingering touch of evil would never be washed clean.

Lighting another fag, Tristan thought about Emily. Emily, who’d lead a charmed life. A muggle born, whose childhood had been spent blissfully ignorant to the wizarding war. Tristan wondered what possible source of pain she could ever have had—outside of himself, that is.

Tristan thought of Emily, and for two reasons, he pulled up the sleeve of his robe, and put out his cigarette on the back of his forearm.

End Notes:

1. The lyrics Tristan listens to in his dorm are from “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana.

2. The words “I’m so ugly, but that’s OK cause so are you” are still from “Lithium.” The phrase "his will wasn't good" are loosely adapted from the same song.

3. The song “Killing an Arab” is by the Cure; it’s based on the existentialist novel, The Stranger, by Camus.

4. The CI text is, once more, from "Tristan" by Patrick Wolf.


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