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another great ci by ailhsa@tda!

IMPORTANT: Hello, my loves. So, CH8 is finally here and I just wanted to give you a heads-up about some stuff ahead just in case: there is an explicit discussion about negative self-image, racism and eating disorders ahead. If this triggers you in any way or form, please do not risk it.

Thank you.

EIGHT: Damsels of Dormitory 2.6A

"When one pauses to consider it, it is clear that there is one question that resonates throughout our entire universe and that love is the sole answer to it. This is why my dearest wish is to find the dashing young lad who holds the other half of my heart in his strong and capable hands, so that I may finally find peace.

"Love is the sweetest song there is, a gentle lullaby that rocks one to sleep on a stormy night. It is the kiss of a summer's day, the caress of the warm wind, the sun's embrace. To love is to hold the answer to the world in one's hand, to finally have a purpose. O, to finally have a purpose! If only my one true love would wander my way, a firm grip on his wand and - fucking hell, that's suggestive as fuck."

Sunday was usually a calm day.

Nova and the girls usually liked to take the opportunity to sleep in, not rousing from their beds until it was close to midday - even if breakfast was over by then, they lived near the kitchens so they were perfectly fine in that respect. Always, they spent the day in their laziest pieces of clothing. She more or less fell between the two extremes that were Dahlia Darzi and Cassidy Greengrass in this respect, favouring hugely oversized jumpers and no trousers unless she was stepping out of the dormitory (Cassidy's idea of lazy was usually some knitwear and jeans, all designer of course, while Dahlia wore band t-shirts and shorts with a stain or ten in very visible places). Sunday was a day for lounging and then doing homework or revision to keep her grades up.

This Sunday, however, was going to be much different.

Because this Sunday, they had a Plan. A Plan to solve the pretty little situation on their hands.

Naturally, the four girls aware of this Plan were somewhat nervous as they waited for it to unfold. To remedy this, Dahlia had snatched up the book on Nala's bedside table and was reading it out loud in a variety of stupid voices.

"This book is so dumb," she declared, flipping it over to peer at the cover. "Ugh. FiFi LaFolle. No wonder."

"It's a romance novel," Alice said with a roll of her eyes. She was still in her teddy bear onesie. "Why would you, out of all people, pick up a romance novel that Nala's reading?"

"Yeah, any mention of romance makes you breaks out in hives," Reagan agreed.

Dahlia promptly screeched like a vampire exposed to the sun, as if that was what breaking out in hives looked like. Then, assuming a normal expression, she said, "Yeah, because teenage notions of romance are fucking dumb. Like this book. I've seen love, okay? My parents are in love and just by watching them, I know that love is not 'the caress of the warm wind.' What a load of bullshit."

"It's called being poetic," Nova informed her distractedly, staring hard at the door over her scrapbook.

"It's called sounding like a wanker. This entire passage is fucking ridiculous. Like how is love the sole answer to everything? Does that mean I would've gotten Os in all of my OWLs if I had written 'love' as an answer to everything? And why the fuck would finding some guy finally give you purpose? You see, this is what I hate about dating. Everyone makes out like having a boyfriend or girlfriend is this life or death situation, like it defines you. But it really doesn't. There's this dumb as fuck mentality that your partner gives you a purpose when what should really be the case is that you have a purpose and your partner just - enhances it or just makes you even happier. It's so damn unhealthy otherwise."

Nova looked at her in pleasant surprise. Though the statement had been delivered as sweetly as everything that Dahlia spouted, she had actually made sense for once. Her views on love and romance were unconventional to say the least, but her words did hold some truth to them.

And the sort of behaviour she had pinned as unhealthy? Well, it summarised Nala perfectly.

"Well, well," Reagan murmured, impressed. "Who knew you felt so strongly about this, Dahlia? Have you been a secret romantic this entire time?"

In response, she flipped her the finger.

"I just can't handle bullshit like this book."

"You should be the one to write books then," Alice laughed. She rolled onto her back, sweeping her hands through the air as she spoke. "I can just about see it now: Dahlia Darzi takes the world by storm with her revolutionary romance novels. She has a soft soul and a sharp tongue."

"And a wand she used to murder her best friend."

A smile spread across her face, one that could melt even the iciest of hearts and convince angels to casually rip off their wings. "You love me."

"Love to murder you."

"What's all this talk about murder?" Cassidy asked breezily as she swept into the room.

It was a testament to how much she had let herself go recently that she was actually close to Nova on the scale of laziness on this day. Her unbrushed hair was secured into a messy bun by her wand and there was not even a hint of makeup on her lovely face. Her body swam in the hoodie and joggers she had dug out from the darkest crevices of her wardrobe while sweat glistened along her hairline, betraying that she had been out for yet another jog.

"Dahlia wants to murder Alice," Reagan explained.

Cass nodded understandingly. Pulling her hair out of the bun, she smiled. "Say no more. I don't know why I didn't guess it sooner. Right, I'm going to have a much needed shower before I knock out anyone else with the smell of my sweat. I swear down on Helga's honour, I rendered that one first year by the common room door unconscious."

Laughing at the joke, Nova kept her eyes trained on the other girl until she disappeared into the bathroom. She waited for the sound of the steady stream of shower water before she shot up, snatched Cassidy's wand from where she had tossed it onto the bed and dropped it into the top drawer of her bedside table. With a quick turn of her wrist, the wand was off limits to anyone who didn't have the key.

Which Nova promptly shoved into her bra.

Yes, she had worn one on Sunday just for the Plan.

"Phase One done," she said, a little unnecessarily since the others had seen it happen in front of their eyes. "Alright, now we just need to somehow get Nala to the dormitory before Cassidy finishes with her shower."

Dahlia, Reagan and Alice nodded to show they understood and all abandoned their activities in favour of moving towards Nova. Now was not the time to waste away the minutes by criticising Fifi LaFolle's perspective on romance, it was the time for action. The problem was that they had no clue where the fuck Nala was.

"This is a joke," Reagan sighed as they realised this, flopping back onto the bed. "I just wish there was, like, some map of Hogwarts that magically told us where everyone was whenever we wanted it to. Our lives would be 96% easier."

Dahlia snorted. "This coming from one of the most antisocial girls in our year."

"Pot calling the cauldron black."

Before they could launch into an argument, Nova quelled them with a look.

They then turned their efforts to a discussion on how to get Nala into the dormitory without raising her suspicions. Much to her chagrin, they had somehow managed to create a plan under the assumption that she would already be in the dormitory, thinking that she would've taken her sweet time to get ready since Cass would be out on a run. But here, they had erred.

Tired of running around in circles, Nova finally sighed, "Alice, can you just - please just check the common room for her? Bring her in saying that you need help with some homework or something."

Alice nodded thoughtfully and rose to shuffle out of the door. Still clad in her teddy bear onesie, she took the title of Hufflepuff's sweetheart to another level. Raising her hand in a salute, she left them with a half-joking, "Mission accepted, sir!"

And then it was just a matter of waiting.

Reagan said, "You know they're going to kill us, right?" into the anxious silence three minutes later.


"I haven't even written a will."


Dahlia shrugged. "It's not like you have anything to your name."

"Actually, I happen to have a little self-respect which is more than I can say for you."

"But did you ever really have the damn thing?"

Reagan merely responded with a dignified silence. After a heartbeat, Nova replied on her behalf with: "Oh, Dahlia. Do remember your lessons. Inhale and feel great, exhale and release the hate."

"Oh, damn the both of you to hell, you wankers."

With a laugh, Reagan held a hand to her heart, a crude attempt at innocence. "Us? Why, we're just two poor souls trying to make it big in this world. All we want is to find a dashing young lad so that we can finally find some peace in this tortured existence-" An impromptu pillow to the face cut her off.

Smiling despite the undercurrent of worry travelling through her nerves, Nova took the pillow and placed it in her lap, holding it against her stomach comfortingly. Then, catching the hungry look Dahlia cast at the other pillow on her bed, she slotted that one behind her back.

"We really should've thought this part through," she commented when the door showed no sign of opening.

Cassidy's shower would be over soon. It would take her an additional five minutes to complete her after-wash routine and then they would need to kickstart the rest of the plan whether or not Nala was here.

"I guess taking over the world is no longer in the books then," said Reagan.

"Taking over the world's overrated anyway," she said absently, still staring hard at the doorway, as if she meant to magic Alice and Nala into being through sheer force of will. "You have to interact with so many people and people tend to be irrelevant."

"Ah, the life of an introvert," said Dahlia in a tone which suggested she had uttered some philosophical world-changing words.

In the corner of her eye, Nova noticed Reagan suck in a breath as if she was about to add a comment and turned to catch it - but then the door was flung open and she was startled into a jump. Alice appeared in the gap it exposed, breathless. She smiled for the purpose of the dark-skinned Hufflepuff behind her, attempting to be the poster child of normal, but she must not have been very convincing because Nala suddenly eyed them all suspiciously.

"Is... something going on here?"

They exchanged a glance. And then...


"Locomotor mortis!"

An instant later, Nala's wand flew out of her pocket and her legs snapped together. She screamed, arms flailing back as she came crashing down.


Nova turned to Reagan, crying, "What the - Reagan, you were supposed to cushion her fall!"

"I'm sorry, I panicked and forgot!"

"You forgot? How can you forget that?!"

Meanwhile, Nala was rolling around on the floor like a fish out of water. "Oh my days, what the hell is WRONG with you guys? Since when do you go around jinxing your friends?"

Alice wasted no time in kicking the door shut while the rest of them rushed forward, both trying to help their fallen comrade and apprehend her.

"Sorry about this, Nala, but we wouldn't be doing this unless it was completely necessary."

"You told me you needed help on your Divination homework! I even left my chocolate fondue for you! I was being a kind, loving and thoughtful friend and you floored me!"

Alice paused in the middle of attempting to straddle her in order to keep her still. "Technically, Dahlia floored you. I'm just an accomplice. An accessory."

Dahlia popped her head into Nala's view with a little wave. "Guilty as charged. But I have no regrets about it seeing as you need to fucking get over yourself and start making up with Cassidy."

Nala furiously wriggled out of her grasp. "Never! I refuse!"

"Good lord, she's dramatic," Reagan muttered.

Groaning in frustration, Nova unceremoniously pushed them all away and pulled Nala to her feet. Before the other girl could attempt to hop her way to the safety of the common room, however, Nova grabbed her wrist, hooked a handcuff around it and then slung the other end around the nearest bedpost in so quick a succession of movements that she threw herself off-guard.

Nala gaped at her. "How on... What even - are you guys taking drugs or something? Holy mother of Merlin, I am feeling so attacked right now. No, I feel violated-"

"Oh my God, Nala, shut up."

"First, you kidnap me-"

"- Actually, I just lied to get you here so you'd have your guard down-"

"Then, you practically knock me out-"

"- It was the Leg-Locking Jinx, what-"

"And now I'm being tied up. I am a hostage, this is a hostage situation and-"

"What the fuck is going on here?"

Everyone froze, their words dying in their throats. And then in unison, the five girls slowly turned to face Cassidy Greengrass, who stood stark naked but for the towel wrapped tightly around her body, and stared at them in complete shock.

There was no time to think.

"...Get her!" Nova exclaimed and, with a battle cry worthy of Leonidas I, Reagan obeyed her best friend's command, launching into a rugby tackle.

Cassidy screamed as she came crashing down. "Alright, what the fuck is wrong with you, you wild animal - I haven't even got my damn clothes on!"

"Sorry about this," she panted, clumsily pinning Cassidy's struggling wrist into a handcuff and then attaching the other half to the nearest bedpost. "Oops, you accidentally flashed me, let me just pull that back up and..."

"Oh, for the love of Merlin, get off me," she snapped, batting her away. Huffing in frustration, she glared at the rest of them. "Do any of you care to tell me why the fuck I'm in bloody handcuffs?"

Reagan slumped onto the ground next to her with an exhausted smirk. "It's not our fault you're so kinky."

Her eyes narrowed into slits. "These aren't the handcuffs I own, you idiot."

"But you admit you do have handcuffs?"

"I'll strangle you with them tonight if you don't answer me."

At this point, Nova knew it was her turn to assume control of the chaos that had erupted in their dormitory in the past few frenzied minutes. After all, she had been the one to construct this plan, knowing that they were well overdue a heart to heart with everyone. She was the one who had borrowed the Weasley Wizard Wheezes handcuff prototypes off Al during their last flying lesson (she had chosen not to ask him why he happened to own some) and had been the one to convince the others to go along with the idea.

Of course, she had pictured this to have gone considerably smoother.

Settling in the gap between the beds that Cassidy and Nala were attached to, she raised her chin and unapologetically said, "I told everyone to do this. Both you and Nala were refusing to stay in the same room unless it was time to sleep, even though you desperately need to talk about what happened - and properly too - so I realised that we had to make you. So here we are."

Cassidy and Nala stared at her.

And then the first scoffed. "I'm not talking to anyone."

Something in Nala seemed to resolve at those words. Turning away from their direction, she said in a shaky but determined voice, "Neither am I. For once, I'm going to put myself first."

Her words snapped Cassidy's already thin self-control. "What the hell does that mean? When has our friendship ever been a case of you constantly putting me first and me never doing the same for you?"

"I thought you weren't speaking to me," Nala hissed in an uncharacteristically vicious voice.

"I'm not!"

"Oh really? Because it sounds like you're speaking to me!"

"For the fucking love of God," Dahlia cried, interrupting them. Pressing her hands frustratedly to her face, she continued, "Are you two fucking five? You're nearly seventeen years old and you're using that fucking argument?"

Well, this was going swimmingly.

Nova sighed, casting an inspecting eye over the carnage of their game plan. So often they had sat cross-legged in a circle, usually surrounding a veritable feast of food, and had exchanged their darkest thoughts, their deepest desires, their greatest fears and insecurities. So many times had they bonded over their late night conversations, further strengthening their remarkably strong friendship in this way.

The scene before her eyes was a cheap mockery of that. Yes, they were loosely assembled in a circle, but right now, there was nothing but Nova's duvet on the floor where there once would've been food (it had fallen once the girls had violently jumped up to tackle Nala), and nothing holding two of them there but handcuffs that could only open on her own command. Nala and Cass were best friends and they were refusing to look at each other.

Now she knew exactly how Alice had felt the other day in the library.

To have two of her closest friends ripped apart by a fucking boy of all things terrified her. She had always assumed they were all above that because at the end of the day, they were the girls of Dormitory 2.6A and their friendship was invincible.

An irrational hatred for all things male erupted in her chest, then.

It felt like all boys did was ruin things without thinking. Josh Finch-Fletchley had done it back in first year when he had recoiled from the very loud and public reading of Nova's diary entries, a courtesy lovingly extended by her former friends and roommates. Sam Walker, a boy in their year and house, had also done the same when he had responded with a puzzled "Who?" upon Cassidy casually asking him what he thought about Reagan three years ago.

And Xanthe fucking Greengrass was doing it now.

"Don't you see what you're doing?" she cut into Nala and Cassidy's squabble. "Why can't you guys understand that your friendship is worth more than this? You're best friends and you're reducing that to nothing all over some stupid guy."

"He's my boyfriend," Nala said defensively, "and we love each other."

"Xanthe doesn't love anyone but himself," Cass sneered.

"He's your cousin, Cassidy. You know he's not what all of the rumours say about him."

She groaned in exasperation. Her free hand rose to pull at her hair in agitation. "Exactly. Xanthe is my cousin. I know him inside out and I know that he likes - no, no, he loves to play with people's feelings. I might love him because he's a brother to me, but I'm not foolish enough to think he's a good person. It's why I forbade him from going after any of my friends all the way back in second year."

"Well, that wasn't your decision to make."

"Yes, it was! And you - you're just - falling into his trap. I bet he's all the way in the Slytherin common room, laughing it up because he's pulled one over on you - and on me."

At last, Nala twisted back around to look at Cassidy properly, even though she was determinedly looking away, only this time her eyes glistened with tears and she seemed to be pleading. "How can you not understand this, Cass? How can any of you not understand this? I'm not like you guys! Some of you might aim to be members of the Wizengamot or want to travel the world or - or become the next Queen, I don't know - but I just want to find someone and settle down. I'd be more than happy to leave a job early to start a family with someone I love. And I genuinely believe that there's a chance, even if it's tiny, that Xanthe is that for me."

"We know you want that, Nala - it's okay to want a domestic life," Alice said, "but Xanthe isn't the person for this. Any guy that you have to abandon your best friend for is not worth having."

"But he didn't have me 'abandon' her. That was all Cassidy's decision! Look, my point is that I've always wanted to fall in love with someone and I know that it's not something some of you agree with-"

"If you're talking about me," Dahlia cut in, "you should know that my views are just my views. Obviously, I don't expect the rest of you to not see a point in relationships. Just because I don't feel that enthusiastic about it doesn't mean I'm forcing the rest of you to agree with me. Anything I do say about it is just a joke."

"I know that. I do, I really do. But it still stands that you guys think I'm stupid for believing in something like this so strongly. And the thing is - when you want it the way I do, it bloody well hurts to be the best friend of Cassidy Greengrass."

Most of the anger had seeped away from the girl in question. Turning to get a better look at Nala, she asked, "But why - how does that have anything to do with me? Or with Xanthe?"

"Because you're Cassidy Greengrass!" Nala cried, throwing her unbound hand into the air to emphasise her point. She curled it into a fist. "Every boy in this bloody castle knows your name. They know you and they want you and they'll do anything to get you. And you never want all of them properly, you just want to have a good time.

"Whereas I - I would be so good to anyone if I was given the chance. I have so much to give... But no one notices me. And most of the time, I can live with that because I don't want to be a bad friend - but it's still hard knowing that they won't ever care. Because at the end of the day, I'm not Cass Greengrass. I'm just another girl, unimportant and unnoticeable and - unworthy."

Immediately, there were outbursts of disagreement, but Nala only had ears for Cass'.

Sighing, she said with the utmost sincerity, "You're not - you're not any of those things, Nala. Look, the only reason - and I mean that this is the only reason - that any of those boys are interested in me is because they see me as easy. And yes, I suppose I can be classed as easy. My interactions with boys are completely selfish on both ends. Neither of us are ever interested in an actual relationship. We just want a snog or some sex. And the boys that come to me know that; they also know that you want much more. And that's the only reason they don't pay attention to you, Nala. It's not a slight on you, nothing to do with how you look or your personality - it's just because I'm easy."

A pregnant pause succeeded her speech. No one, including Nova, knew quite what to say. The word 'easy' seemed like a degrading insult, one that they should disagree with, but Cass owned it in the same way she had once owned any slight about her weight.

Nala had obviously followed the same train of thought because when she spoke, all she said was: "So you see why I'm with Xanthe, then. Because despite what you all think, he does want more than just sex. Maybe he's not in it for the long run, maybe he's not after marriage and that's okay because most guys aren't-" Abruptly, Nova recalled her first proper conversation with Al, months ago in History of Magic when he had mentioned that Scorpius Malfoy intended to eventually marry Rose Weasley. "-but he knows that he loves me and that he wants a relationship."

This time around, Cass' rebuttal was much softer. "I know that you genuinely believe that, but Xanthe isn't interested in relationships and never has been. It's why he's convinced you to keep whatever you have together a secret, love."

"Actually, I was the one who suggested that we should keep quiet about it so that no one could gossip about all of us. I know how much some of you hate being talked about, so I didn't want you to be associated with any relationship drama. Especially since everyone knows who Xanthe is."

It was amazing, Nova thought, how everything seemed to work out in Xanthe's favour, but was 'suggested' by Nala. In the lovestruck girl's eyes, it was for her benefit, but it also conveniently left him able to meet up with other girls if he so wished.

But even that thought seemed too dangerous, too accusatory to entertain. They couldn't just pin something on him without a hint of proof. And though they could suspect all they liked, they didn't have any tangible evidence that Xanthe was continuing his former pursuits whilst he was with Nala.

"Nala," Nova said hesitantly, "are you sure you're not... blinded by how much you like him to see the truth?"

She shook her head earnestly. "I'm not, I'm really not. You should see the way he's with me, guys. He's a good person, he honestly is. And he makes me feel so happy and so beautiful all of the time."

Looking at her face, seeing the genuine joy radiating from it, sank her heart like a stone.

Because she seemed so joyful just talking about being with him, so utterly at peace - it was as if the Nala they had always known had been a little incomplete all along until now, now that she was with someone she appeared to truly love. She had been in relationships before, quick and brief affairs, and though she had been happy, none of that compared to the light in her eyes in this moment.

It began to dawn on Nova that maybe, just maybe, the girls were wrong about Xanthe. A glance around the circle revealed that the rest of them were also slowly coming to this conclusion too, if their uncomfortable expressions suggested anything.

Nala continued speaking, encouraged by their lack of an argument. "He's actually really sweet. He gives me flowers out of the blue and writes to me if he hasn't been able to properly speak to me that day. And he compliments me all of the time. The first time I kissed him, I actually felt comfortable in my own skin. You know how I'm kinda self-conscious about it. But he chased all of those doubts away. When we kissed, he told me - he told me that I was pretty for a black girl and I knew then that I am noticeable. I am worthy." She beamed at them.

Nova's blossoming respect for Xanthe instantly erupted into nothing.

"I'm going to kill him," Cassidy finally whispered after a tense silence.

The smile dropped. "Wh-what?"

"I'm going to fucking kill him. Nova, let me out of these bloody handcuffs. Right now. I need to see my cousin."

Nala scrambled forward, alarmed. "Did you not just hear anything that I said? He - he's not a bad person. He's good to me, he-"

"Not bad? Not ba-"

They were all struggling to maintain control. As Cass broke off into angry, incoherent mutters, Dahlia lifted her clasped hands to her lips and crushed her fingers against each other.

"Listen, Nala... I know that you have self esteem issues about your skin, okay, and that - well, it's not a good thing, but it's understandable. And it's something we need to work on, but this isn't the way - this isn't... Look, when someone say that you're pretty for a black girl, you don't get into a relationship with them. You fucking punch them in the face."

"But - it was a compliment - he said I was pretty?"

"Nala, it was not a compliment," Nova said and the others voiced their agreement.

Dahlia leaned forward to stare her dead in the eyes. "Nala, listen to me. You and me? We both have colour in our skin - you're black and I'm Asian - but that should not be a limitation on our appearance. You can't be 'pretty for a black girl', you can only be pretty. There is no 'for a black girl' business. That shit is racist as fuck and it's fucking ignorant. Xanthe does not deserve so much as a fucking look for that comment. He deserves to buried in the goddamn ground."

She was frozen in her confusion. Lips parted, she breathed, "But I thought he was just making me feel good."

"That shit shouldn't make you feel good. Your skin colour should not factor into how good you look! It doesn't influence it at all. Xanthe wasn't complimenting you!"

Alice put a calming hand on her back, restraining the worst of her anger. Then, she said softly, "Nala, you deserve to be with a guy who looks at you like he's never seen anything more beautiful. Someone who treats you like he never thought he'd be lucky enough to have you fall in love with him. You deserve to be with someone who doesn't define beauty by skin colour or think that it has any effect on beauty.

"On Helga's honour, I promise you that you're genuinely one of the most beautiful people I've seen. I know you don't believe it and I know you're self-conscious about how dark you are, but if anything, all it does is make you even more beautiful. And the right guy will see that. The fact that you're black wouldn't even be worth a comment because it just makes you who you are.

"What Xanthe said shows that he's not someone you want to be in a relationship with, sweetheart, whether or not he honestly wants it. Because someone who respects you would never, never have complimented you like that. They would've told you that you're beautiful... not that you're 'pretty for a black girl'."

Nala's eyes swivelled around the group, drinking in their grim faces, and the reality of the situation finally hit her. Her entire face crumpled in one heartwrenching second, the euphoria of being in love crashing and burning in the dust. Stifling a cry, she lifted her palms to her eyes, as if to press the tears spilling over the edges back into her body.
Wordlessly, Nova twisted around to tap open their handcuffs, murmuring the password Al had shared with her ("James Sirius' manbun looks like a bloody bin bag") and then moved back to allow Cass to envelop their friend in a hug.

Nala pressed her face into Cass' shoulder. "I'm so stupid," she sobbed. "I can't believe I - ugh, I must be such a joke to him!"

"It's not your fault." She stroked her dark corkscrew curls. "None of it's your fault at all."

"Yes, it is. You told me to stay away from him and I didn't listen. I thought I knew him better and I just made an absolute fool of myself." She lifted her face up to wipe away her tears. "It's just that - he seemed so sincere about it. The way he'd treat me whenever no one was around was so... gentlemanly."

"He's a good liar. But that doesn't mean he's going to get away with this. My dear cousin has messed with the wrong group of friends."

"Yeah," Reagan chimed in with a small smile. "Haven't you seen what happens to our enemies? Sooner or later, they get their comeuppance. Like Psycho Sophie and the beautiful frogs she practically vomited into Cheating Callum's mouth."

Nala grimaced before she attempted a weak smile. She said to Cass, "I've been meaning to congratulate you on that. What spell did you use for it? I've never seen something like that before."

Cass looked at her strangely. "What do you mean? I wasn't there when it happened."

"Oh. I thought it was you seeing as how Psycho Sophie landed you all in detention after Slytherin's victory party."

Nova made no attempt to chip in, her cheeks growing warm. For reasons quite unknown to her, she had never confessed it was on her request that Psycho Sophie was the talk of the school, that the true masterminds behind it all had been Al and his friends. Perhaps it was because there was something oddly personal to his willingness to go out of his way to do such a thing or perhaps it was because a small part of her recalled how badly the shame of being humiliated in front of everyone could eat one up inside.

Or perhaps it was also because a much larger part of her hadn't given a damn about how embarrassed Psycho Sophie must've been. She had only felt a deep satisfaction.

So no, Nova had no inclination to admit to her crimes. Instead, she prepared herself to enter a much more serious discussion, the one she had truly been dreading all along.

"Speaking of the Slytherin victory party," she began in a much louder tone than she had intended in her anxiety. When her friends jerked in shock, she lowered her voice to a normal level and continued, "Xanthe isn't the only reason we tied the two of you up today. The other reason is about what Psycho Sophie said that day and the effect it's had on you, Cass."

As soon as she finished speaking, Nova noticed the colour drain out of the Greengrass' face - and then saw her paste on a perfectly neutral expression.

Suddenly, it struck her how perfect Cass was at acting and how natural she managed to be. Though it was Nova who had earned notoriety for her shockingly straight resting bitch face, she was not even in the same league as the other girl when it came to facades.

That said something.

"I'm sorry, I don't know what effect you're talking about, if I'm honest."

The resultant silence in the room was heavy with expectation. A sombre atmosphere permeated the air as everyone looked at her, taking care not to take on any interrogating demeanours - all except for Nala, of course, who simply seemed lost. No one wanted to take the plunge into the icy waters of the unknown, to be the one to topple the sextet over the edge of the cliff they currently tottered on.

Until Nova did.

"You're not eating, Cassidy," she said softly.

To her credit, she clung onto her act faithfully. With nothing more than a raised eyebrow, she asked, "What do you mean? I know I've missed a couple of meals here and there, but that's only because I'm revising."

"It's not a couple of meals here and there. We both know it's much more than that."

As the silent seconds dragged on, panic seemed to settle on Cassidy. Her voice slowly rising in pitch, she drew in on herself, demanding, "Look, I don't know what you think you're getting at here. All that's been going on is that I've realised I need to put more time into studying for our NEWTs. I mean, you can't get all Os from wishful thinking - you have to work for it and so sometimes I decide to postpone a meal. That doesn't mean I don't eat. I always eat at the kitchens afterwards."

Alice slid into the conversation and shook her head gently. "Sweetheart, I've spoken to the house elves. You haven't been to the kitchens anywhere nearly as regularly as that."

It was as if Nova was watching a repeat of Nala's realisation. She could see the emotions flit across Cassidy's face as she sprinted through them: anger, then fear, then defeat. When the last one engulfed her, her mask cracked into millions of shards and she hid her true face away in her hands.

"None of you understand," she whispered through her fingers at last. "It's not... I can't control it. It's not something I can help."

"So speak to us about it," Nova murmured, hand outstretched to touch her forearm. "Let us be the ones to help."

Tears arose, colouring her chocolate irises a dark mocha, and she trapped them with her eyelids. Her head moved in a small shake of her head. "You can't. You can't take away the voices of everyone in this stupid castle or the voices in my head, the ones that tell me I'm too fat. You can't drown them out. Believe me, I've tried."

In an uncharacteristically loving gesture, Nova grabbed her hand and squeezed it. "It's going to take some time. We know that. But we're your best friends, Cass, and we're willing to put in every damn second we need to. Until you realise that you're worth so much more than this, we're not going to rest, okay?"

"Of course, we won't," Reagan said.

"We're here for you, Cass."

"And if anyone ever tries to fucking insult you ever again, I will shove their wands up their arses so hard that their ancestors will feel it in their fucking graves."

A weak laugh tumbled out of her lips. "Can it be classed as an insult if it's true?"

"It's not true, Cassidy," Nova said sharply. "You're not fat. And even if you were, why on earth would that matter? You're Cass Greengrass. You're the most beautiful and most sought after girl in this entire school. Anyone that hides behind spiteful little insults like that is just fucking jealous."

"It's like what all of you said about my skin colour. None of these things are limitations on our appearances, they're just another part of us. The people who love us don't care about it."

"I care about it!" she cried, her spine snapping straight in her frustration. She snatched her hand away. "At first, I didn't because I felt the same way that you did - if guys still wanted to snog me, then clearly it wasn't a problem. How could it be a problem? But too many people have pointed it out for it to not hurt - Psycho Sophie, Nike Baddock, even my own fucking mother for Merlin's sake! And I can't ignore it anymore! I've tried so hard to move past it, to see myself as above all the comments, but it's not working. So I began to exercise more and I started to skip meals - but even that, I can't properly do. I'll go ages without eating and then I'll attack the kitchens like a goddamn pig and then thro-"

She faltered.

Nova reached for her hand again. "We're going to help you, Cass. Alright? One step at a time."

"How? How can you do it if I can't even help myself? Logically, I know that I'm overreacting, but when it comes down to it, I can't - logic doesn't matter in the end. I just-" Her voice thinned in exhaustion. Gazing frustratedly at her friend through blurred eyes, she concluded distressfully, "I just want to be skinny enough. Can't I - have that? That's all I'm asking for, Nova."

"I know that," she said, "but this isn't the way to do it."

"So what am I supposed to do? I just don't know anymore."

Dahlia cleared her throat. Much more serious than usual, she suggested, "Talk to Reed about it. He's the Head of Hufflepuff and he might defer you to a student counsellor or some shi- or something like that."

"And what the hell can a student counsellor tell me that you guys can't?"

"Actual medical advice?"

Judging from Cassidy's expression, it was clear to see that she highly doubted that. Rather than argue against the point, however, she settled for a reluctant nod. "I'll consider it."

Before anyone could object to the not-quite promise, Nova quickly threw out, "That's all we're asking for, Cass. We'll take this one step at a time at a pace you're comfortable in, yeah?"

She smiled tremulously. "With that attitude, you might as well be my counsellor. I don't - I really don't see how it will help. It's not like I'm crazy or anything. I just..."

"Need help," concluded Reagan softly when she trailed off. "That's all a student counsellor does, Cass: help. Talking to one doesn't mean you're crazy."

"That's not going to stop other people from treating me like I am."

"Fuck other people," she said firmly.

"I've tried that! It... you guys live in this castle too. You know how hard it can be when everyone's watching your every move, like they're just waiting for you to slip up. When people hear that I'm - like this - they'll eat it up. They'll love it."

"So we won't let it get out," Nala said with a small shrug, as if it was as simple as that. They all knew that it really wasn't, not in a place like Hogwarts where even the walls had eyes and ears. Hearing it put in such terms painted such a tantalisingly manageable picture, however, that they were all swayed by it. "The counsellor will have to keep it a secret because of confidentiality and none of us are planning to run our mouths anytime soon. Who else knows about it?"

"Scorpius Malfoy," answered Nova promptly. "Seeing as how you're his favourite cousin, I doubt he's going to spill either."

"So there you go. I hereby call the Girl Code into effect and declare that no one will tell people outside of this dormitory about what's happening without Cass' permission. If anyone does, the rest of us will rip off their head."

And then Nala banged the floor with a fist to mimic a judge passing a sentence.

Cassidy surveyed the group with a face full of raw emotion: disbelief, relief and a tiny bit of fear, but all of that was eclipsed by the sheer overwhelming love on her features. She bit her lip to stop the tears that still threatened to spill and laughed a broken laugh. All of the sadness and joy in the world was in that laugh and it hurt Nova's heart to hear it.

"I am so sorry for everything I did," she told Nala, voice shaking with emotion. "I shouldn't have overreacted like that at all. I knew why I did it - I did it because of all this. I was going through hell and I wanted you to leave me alone as well as notice that something was wrong. But you were never there and when I saw why. . ."

"You snapped."

"Yeah, I snapped. I just felt so betrayed that the reason you didn't notice what I was going through was because you were so wrapped up in - Xanthe. And you were lying about it too, sneaking off to meet him when you told us you were writing a letter to your family or going to the library. But regardless of all that, I still shouldn't have spoken to you the way that I did. I acted like a complete bitch and I'm sorry."

Nala shrugged and slung an arm around her waist. "Me too. I shouldn't have lied to you and I should've been here for you-"

"You couldn't have known."

"I would've accepted that excuse - if it wasn't for the fact that Nova realised what was going on. She's been spending so much time with Al yet she still noticed. But I lied to you, broke my promises about... about him and completely ignored my role as a best friend. So if anything, it's me who should be apologising."

Neither of the girls tried to argue their points after that, instead settling for small smiles.

In truth, both of them had hurt each other in horrible ways, completely unnecessary ways, but there was no use dwelling on that anymore. Now that they had the whole picture rather than the fragments of brush strokes they had blindly fixated on, there was nothing left but to acknowledge their part, accept the blame and to focus on moving on. In a matter of hours, they had gone from refusing to look at each other to planning a recovery together.

"Have I ever told you how much I love you guys?" Cassidy finally said, directing her words to all of them. "Because I never thought it was possible for one person to even be capable of what I feel for you guys."

Reagan smiled and repeated, "Fuck everyone else."

The rest of them echoed it, a firm confirmation that rose into a chant of loyalty - and then they were all throwing themselves forward, piling on top of each other in a tangle of limbs and hugs, some of them crying a little while others laughed. No one cared that they were probably going to end up with bruises, or that half of them weren't fond of contact, or that Cassidy still didn't have clothes on.

All that mattered was them.

Fuck everyone else.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Whoa. So a lot happened in this chapter as you can see. This was the climax of the entire fic, what I was working towards the entire time. I've tried my best to portray the issues mentioned in this chapter both realistically and... responsibly (is that the word for it?) What I mean is that I don't want to demean anything here - e.g. the negative self-image both Nala and Cass have, the first with her skin colour and the second with her weight, and Cass' eating disorder - but I also wanted to keep the nitty grittiness of how teenagers would approach it, teenagers who aren't used to confronting these sort of problems.

If you have any problems/suggestions for improvements, I would be more than glad to hear them in a review.

(There are two more chapters after this one, the last one being sort of epilogue-y?)


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