Constance Hartford wasn’t certain of a lot of things in her life. Like, she wasn’t sure if she really liked nickname Connie, but she knew she didn’t want people calling her Constance. And although she was a sixth year, she still wasn’t sure what she wanted to do once she graduated school, although she was pretty good at potions. Usually. In fact, as she sat in Potions class contemplating her frothy mixture of Sleeping Draught (which was not supposed to be frothing), there were only two things in her life that she felt entirely certain of at this moment:
- That David Washington (who sat in front of her) had really nice hair,
2. That she might just down this entire cauldron of Sleeping Draught if she wasn’t selected for the study abroad trip to Hogwarts.
When Dean Church had announced the new experimental study abroad program, it was all anybody talked about for days and days. Even York – whose interests seemed to normally be limited to Quidditch, Carolina, comic books, more Quidditch, and Carolina. But Connie had been wary. Why go and study essentially the same stuff in some alternate location? Was it some sort of test?
She’d voiced these concerns to David, and he had predictably tilted his head at her in confusion. (If there was one thing for which David could be counted on, it was predictability.) “It’s not a test,” he said. “It’s an opportunity. It’s a chance to experience another culture and to be educated by some of the greatest witches and wizards of our age. It’s –”
“Wash,” she’d interrupted then, using the nickname most students referred to him by. “You’re quoting directly from the pamphlet.”
David had flushed a little then and replied defensively, “Well, it’s true. You should apply. I bet you’d get in, I mean, you’re really smart, probably one of the smartest people here, so...” He seemed to realize his words a half-step after he said them, and blinked, then proceeded to avoid eye contact.
Connie had followed suit. “I have class now,” she mumbled, and walked past him down the hall.
She’d filled out an application for the program that afternoon.
It had been a whole two and a half months since then and now here she was, staring at the back of David’s head as her potion came to ruin, waiting anxiously for classes to just be over already. At some point today Dean Church would make the announcement. Eight students would be chosen to go to Hogwarts, arriving by specially-authorized portkey at the start of term in two days. Connie had read the pamphlet over and over until she knew it by heart, just as well as David probably did. Only she wasn’t dumb enough to go around quoting it to people.
“Hey,” said somebody behind Connie. She ignored them, until they jabbed her in the shoulder.
“What?” she snapped, turning around to find one of the Dakota twins, South, glowering at her. The twins were actually named Brittany and Benjamin Dakota, but York had decided to induct them into the nickname club, and thus they became South and North Dakota. Nobody really found it as funny as York did, but South took to it pretty quick – she was tired of sharing a ‘B’ name anyway, Connie heard her say once – and North was too laidback to care. (Currently, as though to prove this, he was lounging in the back of the room with York, discussing whether or not the Fitchburg Finches had any chance against Puddlemere United in the World Cup this year.)
South rolled her eyes. “Nothing. Just, you might wanna try looking at your potion instead of Wash?”
Connie flushed and looked at the frothy mess of a Sleeping Draught now overspilling the sides of the cauldron. She pointed her wand at it and said, irritably, “Reducio.” The potion obediently subsided, shrinking down to a single drop.
“Might’ve overdone it,” observed South.
“Mind your own business,” snapped Connie.
South glared and opened her mouth to respond, but she was interrupted by the loud click that indicated the use of an intercommunications spell. Everyone, including Connie, froze at attention as Dean Church’s calm, Southern drawl seemed to emanate from the walls.
“Good afternoon. Although I’m sure you are all irrevocably engrossed in your classes –” There were a few muffled laughs. “-- I’m afraid that they must be briefly interrupted. All students are to report immediately to the auditorium for the results of the study abroad selection process.”
A sudden outbreak of whispers and murmurs filled the room and the Dean cleared his throat with a loud ahem, almost as though he knew.
“I repeat,” he said calmly, “all students are to report immediately to the auditorium. That is all.”
For a moment the room was silent. David and Connie exchanged wide-eyed glances, though Connie was sure that they were both nervous for utterly different reasons – he because he might be chosen, and she because she might not.
Suddenly York leapt to his feet, his chair screeching across the linoleum behind him. “C’mon, guys!” he said. “The Dean said immediately!” And he bolted from the room, followed by North, who jogged a little slower and shook his head in that long-suffering-friend sort of way.
“You just wanna see if you can beat Carolina there,” he called.
“She’s like all the way on the other side of the building!” York called back. “This is a golden opportunity!”
The rest of the class moved out into the hallway a little bit slower, though no quieter. South was talking loudly to one of the many goth-ish, punk-ish girls who comprised her group of friends. Something about how great it would be to get away from America for a while, since Europe was where people had real style. David was chattering nervously to Connie about how come to think of it, he wasn’t sure if he had filled out the application correctly after all and what if he’d forgotten to capitalize the first letter of his middle name, and did she think they would reject him just for that?
“No, Wash,” she said absentmindedly as they turned the corner into the main hall, which was far more crowded. “I seriously doubt it.” Four words she had repeated to him countless times before.
“Okay,” said Wash uncertainly, and then he was quelled to silence by the noise of the crowd shoving its way toward the auditorium doors.
The Contemporary School of Freelance Magic – more commonly referred to by students as Freelance – was not a huge school. But it wasn’t exactly tiny, either, and the noise level in the hallway now was enough to give Connie a headache as she jostled her way into line. She could see a blaze of bright red hair at the front of the line, though no sign of York. She turned around to tell David but he wasn’t there, and for some reason this gave her a momentary flutter of panic before he pushed his way through South’s punk-goth-group to find her.
“Jeez, this place is insane,” he complained. His hair was slightly ruffled. (But still. Really nice.)
“I thought you got trampled,” Connie told him. And then she just looked at him and he looked back with a small smile and for some reason her heart started to pick up speed. And for a strange, impulsive moment, she wanted to tell him something else, too. Something like Don’t you dare go to Hogwarts without me or at the very least, Don’t you dare go to Hogwarts and hook up with some stupid British skank.
But then the line began to move forward into the auditorium, and David snapped to attention, and the moment passed, and as they headed inside Connie decided to do a very serious consultation of her sanity in the near future.
The auditorium was dimly lit except for the stage, which was brightened by rows of ornate, floating lanterns. And in the center of it all stood Dean Church, observing them from the podium with his arms crossed behind his back as they filed in and found seats.
Carolina, York, and North were up in the front row. South was toward the back with her goth-punk-whatever friends. In the very back row sat Allison Dallas and Leonard.
Leonard was another sixth year, whom everyone avoided for four reasons: One, that he seemed to be in possession of a permanent and intense scowl. Two, that he would argue passionately with just about anybody – not necessarily with any provocation. Three, that he also happened to be the Dean’s son. And last but not least, reason number four: he was dating Allison Dallas, a girl who, on her first day at Freelance, had gained the reputation of being a prodigious and indiscriminate hexer.
Connie hesitated, then followed David as he caught sight of Maine toward one of the middle rows and went cheerfully over to sit beside him. Connie didn’t have a problem with Maine, per se, but it was a little bit confusing to her as to why David considered him a best friend when first of all he hardly ever talked and second of all nobody had ever been able to find out his first name. She sat down nonetheless, and as the rest of the scattered students found seats, a hush came over the auditorium.
“Once again, good afternoon. Before we proceed,” Dean Church said, his voice magically magnified, “I would like to thank all of you for applying for this prestigious opportunity. However, as you know, only eight students will be selected. This is an experimental program, and so we must select students of great diligence, talent, and character. Students worthy of representing the Contemporary School of Freelance Magic and its principles.” The Dean paused, then smiled in a way that made Connie feel inexplicably nervous. “Without further ado, I will announce the names of our eight study abroad candidates. Students whose names have been called, please come up onto the stage.”
“What is this, a game show?” Connie whispered. Maine let out a grunt of laughter, but David just said, “Shh.”
The Dean, now reading from some parchment, cleared his throat. “Benjamin Dakota,” he said.
Connie couldn’t help smiling a little as York let out a joyous, “Yeah, man!” and all but shoved North in the direction of the stage. North walked up the steps, standing tall and smiling a bit awkwardly as the Dean went on talking.
There was a burst of cheering from South’s punk-goth group as she extricated herself from them and marched purposefully up to take her place beside her brother, tossing her angular bangs out of her dark-lined eyes.
“Why her?” Connie hissed, and David just answered, “Shh,” again. He was practically quivering beside her. She rolled her eyes.
“Allison Dallas,” said the Dean.
Allison stood, ignoring Leonard as he tried to tell her something – whether it was congratulations or an insult, Connie couldn’t tell. She strode steadily to the stage, as though she’d been expecting this and was bored with the whole thing. Connie opened her mouth to make a comment to that effect, but then the Dean said the next name on his list.
She froze. David turned to grin at her, then appeared concerned when she just stared blankly at him.
“Constance Hartford,” repeated the Dean, his eyes scanning the auditorium.
“Go on, Connie,” whispered David, and he gave her a nudge. She stood and walked mechanically up to the stage. North smiled at her as she walked past him, South scowled, and Allison didn’t even bother to glance over when Connie stood next to her.
“Sigmund Maine,” the Dean went on, and Connie was just barely able to register the fact that Maine’s first name was –
“Sigmund?!” said York incredulously (and loudly) from the audience. (Connie distinctly saw Carolina put her face in her hands in exasperation.) “Seriously? Siggy, dude, you’ve been holding out on us!” he called to Maine, who made a sort of grunt-growl noise at him and took his place next to Connie, stone-faced. “Oh come on, man, don’t give me that,” replied York. “I mean, Sigmund – Sigmund! Just think of the nickname possibilities!”
“That is sufficient, Mr. York,” the Dean drawled in his warning voice.
“Sorry man,” said York, and promptly received an elbow jab from Carolina. “I mean, sir. Sorry sir.”
The Dean ignored him and kept reading. “David Washington.”
Connie watched as David walked up the aisle with his shoulders set. She tried to catch his eye as he went to stand next to Maine, but his gaze was fixed straight ahead.
“Carolina Wright,” said the Dean. No surprise there, and evidently not to Carolina either. Short but somehow commanding, Carolina walked up onto the stage with the same focus and determination she always had, her red ponytail flashing in the lantern light. She paused only to glance suspiciously at Allison Dallas, who ignored her pointedly.
“And finally,” the Dean said, “our last student…James York.”
Grinning, York all but swaggered up to stand beside Carolina, and Connie couldn’t exactly see what he was doing on that end of the line but she clearly heard Carolina whisper-snarl, “Knock it off, you idiot.”
Dean Church looked at them with a small, satisfied smile. “Congratulations,” he told them gravely. “You are poised to become the first study abroad group from the Contemporary School of Freelance Magic. You should all be very proud.”
But even though she was excited, even though she had wanted this, somehow Connie didn’t feel proud just then. Mostly she felt scared, and already far away from home.
“Before you leave the stage, please take an envelope,” the Dean went on. “Each envelope contains a portkey clearance form, a supplies checklist, and a welcome letter from the Hogwarts Headmistress. Your portkeys will depart from the school in two days. I wish you all the best of luck.”
He turned toward the school at large again. “It would only be good manners,” he suggested, “to have a round of applause for your fellow students.”
And Connie felt the warmth of the floating lanterns at her back as she listened to the sudden rush of hundreds of hands clapping, and looked wonderingly out upon a sea of envious faces.
Okay, so maybe she did feel just a little proud after all.