Mandy glanced at the student beside her, and suppressed a heartfelt sigh. She didn't know him, not really, as they weren't in the same House nor in the same circle of friends, but they were both taking Care of Magical Creatures as an elective this year, and she'd already wondered a few times why he'd chosen the class. He didn't seem terribly interested in the subject and had a disgruntled air about him that grated. It was Mandy's favourite subject, Grubbly-Plank was her favourite teacher too, and Zacharias Smith's lack of appreciation rubbed her quite the wrong way.
He was staring in affront down his pretty, upturned nose at the ugly bite at the joint of his thumb, from which blood was trickling down to his wrist. Sighing again, she leaned across. "It's a bowtruckle," she said, "and you handled it without offering woodlice." Letting her criticism hang implied in the air, she eyed his hand and got out her wand. "It's not that bad. I can fix it."
"It's not that bad?" He took a step back, holding his hand to his chest as he glared suspiciously at her wand. "Get that thing away from me. I'm taking this to Pomfrey after the lesson. Believe me, I know. It's my hand. It's fucking bad."
"Shh!" she hissed, eyes widening at him. Swearing like that in class, and when Professor Grubbly-Plank was within earshot, although fortunately she seemed preoccupied at the moment. Mandy bit her lip, vexed. "Can't you try to be a bit ... nicer?" she blurted.
"What? What did I say that wasn't nice?" It took a couple of seconds to realize he was goading her, his eyes sparking with a sudden, amused interest.
"You said -- never mind." She was tight-lipped now. "You don't have to take that to Madam Pomfrey. Don't be such a, a wimp. I know a perfectly good healing charm." She waved her wand determinedly -- she was good at charms, and knew what she was doing. The skin of his hand knitted as she muttered the incantation, and she gave him a raised eyebrow before turning back to her own bowtruckle, her own notes, putting her wand aside.
"Hell." She could see him studying his hand, out of the corner of her eye. And then heard a gruff, reluctant, "Thanks. Woodlice are gross, though."
Mandy bowed her head over her notes, pretending not to have heard.
He stopped her on the way out of the Great Hall after dinner. "Hey."
She glanced up, biting her lip when she saw who it was. "Hello." She was already on her way again, but he moved to stand in front of her.
"I don't think you heard me, yesterday. I said thanks. I refuse to believe a nice person like you would ignore my sincere gratitude on purpose," he said, and managed to say 'nice' as though it were an insult. Mandy scowled at him.
"You're welcome," she said, and started to walk towards the library.
"I don't think we've ever actually been introduced. Zacharias Smith." He reached out a hand as they walked and, instinctively well-mannered, she had to stop and put her books under her arm to be able to shake it.
"I know," she said, nodding. Most people knew, didn't they? People who made a sport of being an arrogant, ornery prat generally got their name spread around. "Mandy Brocklehurst."
"Not sure I got that," he said, frowning. "Bocklehurst?"
"Brock-le-hurst," she repeated with emphasis.
"That's what I said."
"You did not. You said Bocklehurst."
"It wasn't that? Uh ... Procklehurst?" he tried. His expression could best be described as an amiable sneer.
Her eyes grew round. "You... you're making fun of me." She drew a deep breath, eyes flashing at him. "Just because it must pain your arrogant arse to be saddled with the most common surname in Britain--"
"Hey! That's not a very nice thing to say to someone making a friendly overture ... trying to learn a fellow student's name." His eyebrows knitted together thoughtfully. "Without much success."
Speechless, she clutched her books to her chest, watching him out of the corner of her eye as she inched past him -- and caught sight of a flash of a grin, just as she passed.
"See you later, Bocklehurst," he called after her.
It was the last days before the summer holidays, and everything was chaos. Dumbledore was dead. Mandy couldn't believe it, anymore than anyone else. The whole balance of the world seemed to have shifted, as if the globe was wobbling on its axis and struggling to right itself in the trembling haze of summer light.
She stood with Terry by the lake, hugging him around the waist, his arm around her shoulders, when he came over to them. Zacharias Smith, the prat. "Could I have a word?" he asked her. Further up the hill, a man waited for him, and Mandy guessed from the familiarity of the haughty, handsome features and the blond hair that it must be Smith's father.
Terry gave her a questioning glance. He seemed friendly enough towards Zacharias, but of course Terry got on with everyone. Same as she did. Generally. With a very few exceptions.
Uncertainly, she let this particular exception lead her a few steps away.
"My father's come to take me home." He shrugged and it was the first time she'd seen him looking uncomfortable. "Don't have much of a say in the matter. I would have preferred to be here for the funeral."
Mandy wasn't sure what to do with this information, but she felt some resistance in her mellow, simply from the unexpectedness of him choosing her to say this to. "I ... I'm sorry. My parents wouldn't let me be here either, but then my granddad offered to travel up to Hogsmeade to be here until the funeral was over, so I was allowed to stay."
"It's all a bloody mess, isn't it?" The hand shoving the long blond hair away from his forehead seemed nervous, but then he looked straight at her. "So, Terry Boot's your boyfriend."
"What?" She smiled with surprise. "No ... he's a friend."
"Oh, I thought from the way you were hugging him..." He eyed her curiously. "I'm going away, and I'm your friend. Do I get one of those?"
"What?" she said again, blushing brightly. "A hug? You ... you're not my friend! I hardly know you!"
He shrugged, some indefinable emotion passing over his gaze for a moment. His father called his name, and Zacharias put his hand in his pocket and drew out a piece of paper that he quietly handed her. Mandy looked at it, in mounting disbelief. It was his address.
He was already halfway up the hill. "Wait!" She caught up with him, and stared at him, at a loss. Then she hastily found a piece of paper and a filled quill in her bag, scratching down her address on a note. "If you ... happen to be--" she trailed off.
"Yeah." His eyes crinkled in a wary smile. "Thanks."
She blinked. "You're welcome."
The start of the holidays was a depressing sequence of rain, rain and even more rain. Mandy spent days lying on her bed up in her attic room, reading through all her favourite children's books and the serialized romances in dozens of old issues of Witch Weekly.
On the first Monday of July, something tapped at her window. Thinking it would be Moeko, her new hawk owl that her grandfather had brought her from a trip to Orkney, she got up and walked across the room to let it in.
Outside the window, however, someone hovered on a broom, someone with blond hair plastered to his face by the rain. Mandy's jaw dropped. With shaky hands, she opened the window.
"Come flying with me?" The amiable sneer was getting familiar, and she realized that she'd started to see the amiable part of it better than the sneer.
She shook her head, so surprised. "Are ... are you mental? This is no weather for flying."
"You must be kidding me. These are perfect flying conditions." Raindrops trailed down his grinning face as he glanced down to the ground far below. "Look, it's working."
Mandy bit back bubbling laughter. She took a deep breath. "If you fly downstairs and ring the bell and ask for me like a proper well-mannered person, I might consider it."
He tilted his chin up, looking at her under his lashes, along that perfect nose. "You want proper manners, Bocklehurst? I'll show you manners."
A minute later, the doorbell rang. Her mother opened the front door. "Yes?" From the top of the stairs, Mandy could hear a note of concerned sympathy. Zacharias had looked nothing less than drenched.
"Good afternoon, ma'am. You must be Mandy's mother? My name is Zacharias Smith, I'm in Mandy's year at Hogwarts." His voice was warm, charming even.
"Oh, please do come in from the rain! Goodness, you poor dear, have you flown far?" Her mother did indeed sound completely charmed. "Yes, I'm her mother. Emily Brocklehurst." Peering down, Mandy saw the two shake hands, Zacharias giving a light bow.
"I started from west Wiltshire this morning. It's a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Brocklehurst."
"The pleasure is all mine. I'm so glad you've come to see Mandy; she does tend to spend too much time reading or with her grandfather, and I sometimes worry--" Her mother broke off as Mandy deliberately stomped hard on a step. "Mandy, are you upstairs?" she called.
Slowly, she walked down the stairs. Her mother beamed at her as she came into sight, and when she was down in the hall put an arm around her shoulders and squeezed her close in embarrassingly obvious excitement. "There's a very nice young man here who has flown through two counties in the rain to come and see you, dear."
Zacharias was subjected to multiple drying charms by Mandy's mother, accepting this with a good-natured patience that Mandy hadn't expected, and after that they walked upstairs and sat in her attic room, on either end of her bed, and experimentally lobbed insults at each other for a while.
"Through two counties in the rain, huh?" she said with a cautious grin. "All the people around Wiltshire and bordering counties know to avoid you already, of course. So you had to fly into the next county to find someone willing to let you inside."
"Actually," he said, lounging lazily against the pillows lining the wall, "I decided to take pity. Not on you, but on your poor old grandfather, stuck with his socially awkward grandchild all through the summer." He paused a beat. "And on your mother, who worries."
"My mother worries about everything, up to and including whether the sun will rise in the morning," Mandy said tartly. "She also worries for the welfare of pitiful, bedraggled strays. As demonstrated."
"She's a delightful woman," he said. "Charming and hospitable. You take after your father's side, perhaps?"
Her mouth twitching, she stretched out a leg and gave him a kick on the shin with her bare toes. "Bloody right I do. And I could still open that window and toss you down on your arse in the rain, Zacharias."
He'd caught her foot and was holding on to it firmly with a surprised yet calculating expression, as though wondering what use he might be able to find for it. "Zach," he said, in a surprisingly peaceable tone, and her eyebrow climbed.
"Mmm, all right then ... Hufflepuff boy."
"All right then, Zach," he corrected her. "What about you, what are you really? An Amanda?" At her immediate grimace, he grinned and tickled her toes with his thumb. "Amanda Procklehurst."
She seized her foot back with a choked squeak and tossed a pillow at him -- hard -- and he grinned wider and leaned down on the floor to pick it up. "Violence is the intellect's concession of defeat, Ravenclaw girl." He paused and instead picked up the issue of Witch Weekly that lay on the floor by the bed, open to a page that showed an illustration of a young woman of ample, heaving bosom under the moon, and a title in a tall, swirling purple font. "Bewitching Moonlight ... chapter twenty-six," he quoted, smirking. "Never mind, Brocklehurst. I can tell your intellect has already conceded defeat."
Mandy had more pillows. She threw three of them at his face in quick succession, wearing a grin that showed lots of teeth. He might call it defeat if he liked, it still looked like victory to her. "I just read it to, um, help me fall asleep at night," she lied nonchalantly.
Her mother knocked on the door, waiting a few telltale seconds, and as though caught at something illicit they both scooted to either end of the bed, grinning at each other like conspirators.
"Tea, scones and biscuits," said Mandy's mother, with a searching gaze on her daughter as she levitated the tray to the low table Mandy used as a nightstand, and Mandy inwardly lamented how her withheld giggles probably looked like guilty blushes.
After tea, scones and biscuits, they did go out flying, between two rain showers, the latter of which caught up with them mid-flight. Both of them Chasers, they flew loops and rings around each other, their wet hair whipping in the wind gales. Zach was a show-off, which fact came as no great surprise to Mandy, having observed him on the Hogwarts Quidditch pitch on many an occasion. She was more careful, always more careful. Sometimes it gave her the advantage, sometimes it left her half a mile behind. Eventually they tired of the competition and just flew side by side, wide slow circles in the air above the river and the woods and the house.
"So," she said. "Are you going back to Hogwarts in the autumn? I hear there are some that won't be returning, the way things are."
He gave a rather morose shrug, then leaned back on the broom to catch raindrops on his face, his hands behind his back gripping the broom, casually supporting him.
"Show-off," she muttered, and he grinned without opening his eyes.
"Are too. And I don't know whether I'll be returning to Hogwarts. My parents haven't made up their collective mind. I sure as hell hope so, I'll go spare if I have to stay at home. So in the hope they'll elect to be rid of me, I've been cultivating a subtly insufferable persona throughout the holidays."
"I'm sure that was difficult for you, Smith," she said in tones of dulcet sympathy. "Especially the 'subtly' part."
However, the gaze she threw him was not unkind, and, eyes still closed, Zach seemed to know this. His mouth curved up to a grin. "Nice one, Brocklehurst. What about you? Are your folks letting you go back?"
"Sure," she said, frowning. "I think so. They were worried but I can't imagine they would like to see my schooling interrupted except in the most dire circumstances."
"They are fairly dire," he suggested.
"Yeah, could still be worse, though." She shrugged. "If it comes to the worst and I can't go back, I'll start work on the study I'm planning to do after school. I've been talking to Grubbly-Plank about it already."
"A study?" He sat up straight on the broom again and threw her an intrigued glance. "About what?"
"A study of the frequency of kneazle and cat interbreeding based on observations of mutated tails among the kneazle population on the Isle of Man," she said proudly.
Zach laughed so hard he nearly fell off his broom. Mandy sat stiffly, face burning, and tried to smile, and as he swung himself up to sit astride the broom again, he seemed to realize the degree to which he'd put his foot in it. "Wait ... damn. I'm sorry. That was ... serious? That's what you're going to do?"
"Professor Grubbly-Plank said it was a promising subject," she said, averting her face, picking on a non-existent splinter on her broom. Suddenly feeling horribly disheartened, she dipped her broom's head and fell fast, fast, gliding out into a shallow arc near the ground, eventually stopping and dismounting. Grubbly-Plank had also said it needed a few adjustments. And she had smiled a lot, but Mandy had thought that was because she really liked her idea. What if her professor had just been trying not to laugh the way Zach had?
Quietly, he landed beside her. "Wait. That was a good idea. I just hadn't expected it. Seriously. Don't be mad."
"I'm not mad."
"Well, maybe you should be. I had no reason to laugh." He dismounted too and walked over to her, hovering uncertainly a few steps away as she picked with furious concentration at her broom. They were standing in the slowly dripping shadow of a great oak. "Are you all right?"
"Of course I'm all right. There's a splinter on my broom."
"I shouldn't have laughed," he said seriously, taking yet a step closer. "I haven't got the faintest clue what I want to do after school, myself. Except that I do not want to take over my father's business. Great, huh? Elimination of one." There was that familiar sneer in his voice again, but a note of cool defiance too which made her look at him sharply, distracted from her own wounded pride.
"Well ... elimination of one is a start." She gave him a careful smile.
He raised a hand and gently ran it down the smooth, polished wood of her broom. "There's no splinter here. You sure it didn't get stuck in your bum? You certainly took off in a hurry." Before she'd even processed what he'd said he'd walked behind her as though to have a look, and she whipped around, laughter bursting out of her.
"You ... are ... How on earth did you end up among the meek and mild of Hogwarts, Smith? The Sorting Hat must have been drunk!"
"Loyal friend," he explained with apparent absent-mindedness, giving up trying to lean around to look at her bum and looking up at her with a grin. "So, you're not mad, right? It's a good subject for a study."
"Really?" she asked, gripped by uncertainty again.
"Really. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. I love it." He reached out for his broom which hovered beside him. "Anyway ... I need to be on my way. Got to fly through two counties in the rain to get home," he reminded her.
"You'll catch a cold," she said, concern for him rising in her out of nowhere. Or ... somewhere, rather -- some sort of affectionate pang in her stomach.
"The hell I will. You're such a girl, Brocklehurst. Fly home and soak up the next thrilling installment of Bewitching Moonlight." He winked at her, mounting his broom. He hovered there for a few seconds glancing at her, and it was as though he was wondering about something, his stance revealing an uncertainty his cocky words must have attempted to cover, before he gently, reluctantly kicked off.
"Wait!" Breathless, Mandy broke into a run after him. He'd already stopped and turned halfway about on the broom to face her, anticipation tense in his eyes, over his mouth.
"What?" His hand was brushing the rain-wet hair from his face, and she stared at him, at a loss. She wasn't sure exactly what. Except...
Do I get one of those?
Revelation startled her into a grin, as she stepped closer and laid her arms around his neck, pressing her cheek emphatically to his. "Summer's so boring anyway, even you could hardly make it any worse. Come again, Smith, yeah? It's only two counties."
For long, silent seconds, he didn't seem to be breathing at all. Then, with a touch so gentle that the sensation seemed to materialize out of thin air, she felt his hands alight gingerly on her waist, just that, and there was a smile in his voice when he muttered gruffly, close to her ear. "Uhm. Sure ... I may take pity on you again. Or on your granddad, rather. Out of the goodness of my heart. It's only two counties."
They both sniggered, and then she let go and he let go in the same instant, as if warily alert to her reactions. Taking a step back, she watched him lazily kick off from the ground, tossing her a snotty smirk along his shoulder before he leaned forward and shot like a rocket up into the sky, blond hair streaming.
"Show-off!" she yelled after him, and burst out giggling between her fingers when he gave her a perfect loop in response, shouting something back that got lost on the wind.
Mandy watched him until he was just a little speck on the dimming evening sky, a speck that finally disappeared somewhere over Dorset, and then, smiling widely, she mounted her own broom and took off towards home, towards supper and her mum's sly questions and more serialized romance in the dusty, old editions of Witch Weekly.