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Kelley meets Tobin on the train.

The car is full-ish, all girls, giggling and nudging each other with their elbows like they're best friends already. Kelley has a brief moment of panic- like she's missed out on some orientation, or something they're born with as kids with magic parents let them bond faster- before she swallows it down and pushes open the door.

"Hi. One more?"

For a long moment it's like they aren't going to answer her. They all just sort of blink at her and look around, as if trying to figure out whether or not she can see that there's no room for her. Then, blessedly, just when she thinks her ears are going to burst into flames out of embarrassment, one of the girls scoots so that she's pressed up against the window, and the girl on her other side takes the hint and moves a little so that there's just enough room for Kelley to squeeze between them.

They can't sit without touching, but Kelley's so relieved she doesn't mind.

"Thank you," she says, and the girl at the window grins.

"Always room for one more, right?"

The window girl, Kelley learns, is Tobin. She has a smile that's too big for her face, but in a good way, like her happiness just springs out and infects everyone around her. Her hair is messy but she doesn't seem to care, and Kelley likes her for that immediately. The other girls have all gone back to chattering.

"Are you nervous?"

"About the sorting?"

Tobin shrugs, breaking eye contact. "Yeah, but also just. You know. School."

"I like school," Kelley answers, but carefully- she doesn't want to seem like she likes school too much. Tobin seems as if she's going to say something, but it takes her a minute. Kelley looks out the window because looking at Tobin try to decide whether to talk to her is awkward, and it feels like the bus ride to summer camp, except much, much more important.

Also, the robes make things different.

"I've never gone to school. My mom homeschooled us, me and my sisters and my brother."

Kelley isn't sure what to say, and the first thing that comes out of her mouth addresses the part of the sentence that, miraculously, makes the conversation less uncomfortable. She thinks that might be the first time in her life that's ever happened, with someone shy. Shy kids have never liked her very much.

"I have a sister and a brother, too. My sister's older and my brother's younger."

"It's the same for me. What house do you want?"

"I don't even care," Kelley gushes, before she can catch herself, "I'm just glad to be here."

"Me, too."

--

Kelley has an owl because Erin had insisted a cat wasn't "witchy" enough. Tobin tells her most kids don't have cats, anyway, because they're harder to take care of, and they're just getting their things from the train when a girl walks by with the prettiest kitten Kelley's ever seen outside of a picture book. The girl sees her looking and stops, smiling a little uncertainly but smiling all the same. Kelley smiles back.

"You can pet her if you want."

Doesn't even introduce herself, just offers to let Kelley pet the cat. Kelley takes up the offer, wriggling her fingers inside the slats of the crate, and the kitten rubs against her fingertips. Tobin wrinkles her nose.

They don't get to introduce themselves before they're herded towards some rowboats that don't seem to have anyone to row them. Their luggage is taken from them, and they're jostled around, and Tobin ends up sort of breaking off with two of the girls she'd been sitting with on the train. Kelley feels profoundly alone in that moment- watching Tobin walk away from her- but she doesn't have a lot of time to dwell on it, because someone's shouting over the chatter, "Four per boat", and she's trying to catch up to them when she sees the girl with the kitten looking just as alone as she feels.

WIthout a look back at Tobin's boat, Kelley joins her.

There are two other kids in the boat, one who looks half-asleep, his hair sticking up on one side of his head, and his friend who keeps wiping his nose on his robes and avoids looking at Kelley at all costs.

She turns back to the girl sitting next to her. The boat starts rowing itself.

She must look shocked, because her boatmate laughs a little, and Kelley starts to wish she'd followed Tobin.

"It's weird if you don't know about it, probably," she says, and Kelley chews her lip.

"Are you a muggleborn?"

The voice comes from behind her, and Kelley jolts a little, turning to look at the semi-conscious boy who's speaking. It takes her a second to realize he's speaking to her, and she only realizes it when she narrows her eyes and figures out where he's looking.

"What?"

"That's the only way you wouldn't know. Everything's magic here."

He says it in a way that is clearly intended to make her feel inadequate, and Kelley isn't sure how to answer him. The other girl frowns and looks him up and down.

"Go back to sleep," she says in a clipped tone that reminds Kelley of someone's mother, "I liked you better snoring."

To Kelley, she says, "I'm Alex."

-

She catches up with Tobin again once they’re being herded inside. Everything is huge and Kelley is too busy looking around to do much but cling to the back of Alex’s robe and follow her- she doesn’t want to take the chance and end up alone again. Tobin bumps into her from behind and grins, rocking up on her toes when they stop. They’re not in the front of the group, and Kelley is small for her age, so she can’t see at all. She assumes they’re at a door to something.

“The great hall,” Tobin says, like she knows Kelley needs the answer, and Kelley’s mostly just relieved that she didn’t have to ask. Alex turns a little at the sound of someone’s voice, and seems to suddenly notice that Kelley has one hand fisted into the back of her robes.

Kelley lets go. Alex grabs her hand as if they’ve known each other forever and it’s entirely normal that Kelley kind of wants her support and Kelley breathes an intense sigh of relief when she asks Tobin, weakly, “the sorting?”

“Yeah.”

-

Alex doesn’t let go of Kelley’s hand until she absolutely has to. She’s not sure why she took it in the first place, except that it seemed silly for Kelley to follow her around by the back of her robe. When she does let go, though, the three of them are still close together. She doesn’t know the third girl’s name but she’s too scared to ask- and too busy looking for her sisters at the Gryffindor table.

Jeri finds her first and waves hugely, which, Alex knows, is mostly to embarrass her. She smiles but she doesn’t wave, and Jen joins in until it’s impossible for Alex not to be the center of that half of the table’s attention. She waves.

As soon as the headmaster appears, the students’ tables fall absolutely silent. The first-years follow suit, but Alex has to fight back a wave of panic. Kelley looks sick. Mostly Alex is convinced she won’t be brave enough or strong enough or commanding enough to get put in Gryffindor, and although she personally doesn’t care where she ends up- as long as it’s not Slytherin- she can already imagine being the only person in her family not to wear red and gold. She can already too easily imagine being the odd one out.

It makes it worse that everyone is so sure she’ll just follow suit.

Her stomach churns while the ceremony starts, and her eyes stay fixed on the hat so intently that she doesn’t realize she’s jiggling her knee until Kelley grabs her hand again and squeezes it, just for a second. Alex looks at her and Kelley blushes, retracting her hand with a whispered ‘sorry’. Offering comfort isn’t anything that Alex thinks Kelley ought to be sorry for, so even with the nerves dancing around inside her chest she smiles a little. In the few moments before Kelley smiles back, Alex hopes they’re sorted into the same house.

The girl on Kelley’s other side gets called up first out of the three of them. “Tobin Heath”- she almost trips and falls on her way up, but she smiles winningly even as she blushes, and the upperclassmen clap for her- they already like her, most of them, and Alex wishes she could say she wasn’t a little jealous.

Tobin’s nervous just like any of the rest of them, though. Alex can see it in her face when the hat gets placed on her head- a moment of panic and discomfort, but only barely a moment before the hat bellows out “Hufflepuff”with no hesitation. Her new house cheers and she stumbles off the platform to join them, grinning ear to ear.

When they call her name, Alex is very, very careful not to look at her sisters. She’s also very, very careful not to trip going up- because she’s sure she’d fall and embarrass herself- and closes her eyes the moment the hat is on her head. For some reason she thinks first of Kelley sitting alone and feels a pang of sympathy. It’s hard enough being prepared for this- she can’t imagine how impossibly terrifying it has to be to come in not knowing a thing. Not knowing what you want.

“What you want, eh?”

Alex swallows but doesn’t answer. The hat tends to do this, tends to play game with people, and her family has always told her just to keep her mouth shut. That thought makes the hat laugh at her and she’s sure she’s made a fool of herself without meaning to.

“It’s Gryffindor you want. You’re a Morgan. But- but you’re worried you won’t fit in.”

Alex shakes her head. She does it slowly and as subtly as possible so that nobody will notice and keeps her eyes tightly shut so that she doesn’t open them and see the faces of her sisters staring back at her.

“You’re afraid you won’t be as good as they are. You want to succeed, but what you really want is to belong.”

The line about success makes Alex think for a heartbeat that she’s about to be sorted into Slytherin, and her heart drops.

“A Slytherin?”

It laughs again. That last sentence was absolutely loud enough for everyone in the hall to hear. Alex starts planning where she’ll hide during Christmas to avoid her parents’ shame.

“Hardly. Gryffindor!”

The relief is so strong that it makes her lightheaded. She doesn’t realize she’s smiling until she sits squished between Jeri and Jen and someone’s ruffling her hair. Neither of them says a word to her about the hat’s remarks, which just makes her more relieved, which only lasts until they’re shushed and the next few names are called.

Alex finds Kelley in the thinning crowd and flashes her a thumbs up.

-

Kelley figures that the girls Alex is sitting between have to be her sisters- they look just like her, only older and blonder. The thumbs up doesn’t distract her from what she knows is coming, though, and all she has left to do is hope she ends up with Alex or with Tobin- with someone she knows. Not that it makes a difference really, because her mother told her again and again that the people she met on the first day would almost certainly not be the people she ended up friends with, but she likes them, and it’s scary to think of being alone again.

Alone like she is when her name is called.

She feels completely numb from her forehead down. That’s what she notices- it’s strange, because her scalp is prickling but she can’t feel the rest of her body except for her heart. When she sits on the stool her feet barely touch the ground, and she hates it, hates that she probably looks like a little kid, because she’s not.

“Oh, this one’s feisty. This one’s alive.”

Kelley wrinkles her nose. She focuses hard on the red and gold and the black and yellow, wondering if she can lean the hat one way. The idea of not being in control at all scares her; the hat deliberates for another heartbeat before it sends her on her way: “Slytherin!”

Kelley is looking for a free seat when two girls reach out and pull her in, making sure she’s snugly caught between them. For a second, blinking rapidly and trying to figure out if she’s still breathing, Kelley thinks they might be twins. One of them- the one on her left- jabs her with an elbow and laughs good-naturedly.

“Close your mouth, kid. You’ll drool.”

Kelley clamps her mouth shut. The sorting continues, but Kelley isn’t paying attention, she’s looking at the people around her. One of them clearly is blonder than the other, and their faces aren’t the same. The one to her left is all sharp angles and rapid movement; she’s shredding a piece of paper while she watches, absently tearing it into little strips with nimble fingers. The other is sitting still and watching intently, but Kelley can’t get a good look at her face, so she gives up and looks at the table setting, since she’s not tall enough to see over anyone’s head to the hat.

She listens, though, and she claps when another Slytherin gets called to them but the boy doesn’t sit anywhere near them, really. She can see him from where she is, and he looks absolutely tiny next to the kids that make room for him. Kelley hopes she doesn’t look like that, but she knows that she does. She wishes she had a sibling or something- someone to help her look a little less lost.

She remembers Alex, then, and the girls she sat with, and then she remembers that Alex got sorted into Gryffindor, and her stomach drops so quickly that she thinks it’s going to drop out of her body entirely.

-

Jeri and Jen keep track of Alex for as long as possible before Alex can finally get free of them. Doing that is only really possible in her room- the one she shares with three other girls- which requires them all to introduce each other. Jen’s a prefect. Alex knows right away that the girls in her room won’t want to be friends with her just because of that, and she’d be lying if she said it didn’t make her a little bit bitter. She just wants friends.

Dealing with Jeri and Jen is easier than dealing with them, so she gives up and goes back into the common room as soon as introductions are done, and Brooklyn follows her, attached to the only thing she actually knows. To Alex’s surprise and relief, she doesn’t recognize anyone in the common room at all, so she feels okay sitting down in one of the chairs and waiting for Brooklyn to jump up onto her lap.

There are two other girls in the room, older girls, probably third or fourth years. One of them has a book open and her dark hair pulled back into a sleek ponytail that Alex envies; the other wears her hair down and her robe sleeves pushed up awkwardly and is holding a rat that she lets clamber from hand to hand and up her arms. She sees Alex watching and looks up to grin, and Alex tries to smile back but she’s sure it doesn’t come out a smile at all.

“You’re supposed to get a black cat,” the older girl says, startling her partner out of her studies, “you’re a witch.”

Alex blinks and Brooklyn rubs against her hand. The dark-haired girl with the book elbows the one who spoke and says, “Don’t listen to her, she’s just teasing you. I’m Ali, this is Ashlyn.”

Ashlyn slips the rat into the pocket of her robe and Alex watches the bulge move a little, somewhere between concerned and grossed out.

“What’s your name?”

“Brooklyn,” Alex stammers, “she has six toes.”

“No,” Ali smiles, “your name.”

Alex blushes violently and Ashlyn slides off the couch onto her knees, shuffling over to the chair and extending her hand to pet Brooklyn, who’s mostly just excited to get more attention, totally unaware of her owner sinking into the arms of the chair in hopes she might disappear.

“Alex,” she answers finally, “Morgan.”

“Morgan! Oh man, I knew you looked familiar. Are you a teacher’s pet, too?”

Ali kicks at Ashlyn, who now has Brooklyn rubbing all over her fingers. Alex blushes further than she thought possible, absolutely horrifyingly aware of her frizzy flyaways and stick-thin arms and knobbly knees. These girls are who she wants to be. She doesn’t want to be Jen or Jeri, she wants to be interesting, and funny, and pretty.

“Ignore her. Tomorrow morning if you need any help finding your classes come find us at breakfast, okay?”

“Okay,” Alex says, but she’s paralyzed, and doesn’t notice when Ashlyn turns with a different kind of smile to Ali before they leave.

-

Kelley is immediately terrified.

About halfway to what she hopes is Transfiguration, she’s in the middle of going up a staircase when it moves. She’s seen them move, and she’d read that they would, but she didn’t realize they could move while you were on them, and she almost drops all her books and tumbles down the stairs. The only thing that stops her from falling is someone behind her.

It’s one of the boys from the boat- the sleepy one, not the sniffling one- and he immediately moves away from her, switching his books to his other arm. He’s a Ravenclaw now, with a too-long tie.

“Lost, mudblood?”

It’s just a word.

It shouldn’t hold any weight. She knows that, she understands that words only hurt if you let them, but it means so much and she doesn’t know why. It hurts in the middle of her chest and she can feel the tears coming before she has a chance to answer him.

“No,” she insists, fighting them back with a mix of anger and horror, “I’m not lost. I’m going to Transfiguration.”

And by some miracle she isn’tas lost as she thinks she is. He doesn’t laugh at her, or tell her she’s in the wrong place, he just wrinkles his nose like she smells of muggles and whisks right by her. He goes left and she goes right, and she’s one of the first people in the room besides the professor when the tears start to leak. She picks one of the tables near the front (but not in the front) and to the right, against the wall, where she sinks down and angrily swipes at her eyes, hoping nobody will notice her.

But someone notices her.

She hears the chair next to her pull out and sits on her hands, blinking furiously, but she doesn’t look because she doesn’t want whoever it is to see red and puffy eyes. She’s already at a disadvantage being born with non-magical parents. She doesn’t need her classmates to think she’s a crybaby on top of it.

“Hi,” Alex says, “how was your first night?”

Kelley startles and looks at her, and Alex immediately leans forward, concern written all over her face.

“Oh my God, are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” Kelley says, but her voice cracks. She looks around and sees two Gryffindors sitting together on the other side of the room, but thinks better of mentioning it to Alex. It had been Kelley’s assumption that, once they’d been sorted like this, in rival houses, Alex would stop talking to her. And at the moment she’s too grateful to question it.

“Are you sure? It’s totally normal to be homesick or whatever. Jeri cried every night for like two months when she was a first year. Jen teases her about it all the time.”

“I’m not homesick,” Kelley replies, but she can’t keep herself from smiling, “but I can’t tell you here, okay?”

“Okay,” Alex says, incredibly seriously, “let’s eat together.”

-

And they eat together.

Tobin runs into them on the way in, and joins them, and Alex likes her right away. She’s every bit a Hufflepuff, all soft-spoken but funny and smart but not flashy like a Ravenclaw might be, and her laugh is goofy, but that just makes it more fun to laugh with her. By the time Kelley gets around to telling them, they’ve spent twenty minutes laughing over their plates, and Alex doesn’t feel the seriousness she felt before, when Kelley had so clearly been crying.

At least, she doesn’t feel it until Kelley goes very quiet and Tobin leans in from the other side of the table.

“This boy, from our boat? You know the one,” Kelley says to Alex, but loudly enough for Tobin to hear, “he ran into me on the stairs on the way to Transfiguration and he- well, he called me a, you know. A mudblood.”

Kelley makes a face like the word tastes bad, maybe as bad as it sounds. She gulps down some water, and across from her, Tobin is picking at what’s left of her food. Alex’s stomach hurts.

“Maybe he likes you,” Tobin suggests, but it’s very quiet and it doesn’t land like the joke it’s supposed to be.

“I don’t think he likes me.”

“He’s just,” Alex starts, but isn’t quite sure how to word it for a moment, “he’s a pureblood, probably. Which is totally stupid, you know? It’s this really old-fashioned thing, to say stuff like people without magic parents aren’t as good. And it’s not true, obviously, because so many really famous, really great witches and wizards didn’t have wizarding parents. It doesn’t make any difference.”

Kelley nods, but she doesn’t answer. Tobin puts down her fork and waits, like Alex does, for Kelley to say something.

“Are you guys purebloods?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Alex insists. Kelley doesn’t look at her, but at Tobin, who squirms a little before answering, guiltily, “Yeah.”

Kelley turns to Alex next, and Alex decides she’s not going to answer. They stare down for a second before Kelley looks at her hands and says, “You know, if you weren’t, you’d just tell me you weren’t,” and Alex sighs.

“You should tell someone. Bullying’s not allowed.”

“Maybe. If it happens again.”

-

It does happen again, though, and Kelley doesn’t tell anyone. As far as she’s concerned telling on him isn’t going to get her anywhere, and getting somewhere is the whole point. The entire point.

They find time to be together, the three of them, whenever possible. Whenever they’re separated into their houses, it seems to Kelley like Tobin’s the only one who’s any good at making friends. She’s always with someone, always smiling; Kelley figures she’s like glue for people, whether it’s her and Alex or the two Hufflepuff girls she sits between.

It’s not strange to see kids of different houses together. It’s just that there are politics, ones that are more complicated than anything they learn in classes. For instance, Kelley notices that the Slytherin kids spend plenty of time with Ravenclaws, but not as much time with Hufflepuffs, and only sort of tolerate Gryffindors. Hufflepuffs will spend time with anyone, but the Gryffindors seem to like them best. Ravenclaws don’t particularly seem like they enjoy spending time with anyone from another house, with some exceptions. In any case it’s obvious to Kelley that she stands out.

Nobody says anything to her about it, though. Maybe it’s just that the kinds of Slytherins who would generally bully her about having friends in Gryffindor and Hufflepuff are too busy bullying her for having muggle parents. It doesn’t even occur to her that Alex or Tobin might be getting harassed for hanging out with her until she sees it.

She sees Alex on the quad waiting for her, but she doesn’t see the others at first. Not until she hears them.

“Hey, kid, do you hang out with Slytherins because you can’t make real friends?”

Kelley freezes. Alex doesn’t look away from her, but the look on her face changes into something kind of desperate, like she’s begging Kelley to keep coming. She can’t, though. The older girls are watching them, waiting for Alex to answer. There’s barely half a second before a pair of them, broken off from the rest, moves in.

“Why don’t you pick on someone your own size?”

The one who says it is blonde, but she’s probably at least a third-year. Her friend hangs behind a little, and Kelley realizes that she recognizes them from the Gryffindor quidditch team. The girl who spoke originally scoffs.

“Like who?”

“Like, maybe, for instance, someone whose sisters aren’t prefects? Or possibly not our starting seeker?”

“Whatever,” is the only response she gets, but they don’t stick around to bother Alex anymore, and Kelley finds that she can move again.

“Thank you,” Alex says, and the blonde girl shrugs. “That’s such a stupid outdated thing, anyway. Not hanging out with Slytherins.” To Kelley she says, "I'm Ashlyn," then smiles and disappears again, her dark-haired friend close at her side. Kelley's a little in shock.

"They're protective of me," Alex says, sheepishly. "Better them than my sisters, though."

-

She learns from the almost-twins, Lori and Megan, that quidditch is The Thing To Do. They’re both on the team, so she doesn’t have anyone to sit with the first game other than her roommates, who are definitely less excited than she is, and get bored explaining to her what’s going on- but Kelley’s transfixed. The first game is always Slytherin and Gryffindor, they tell her- it’s the biggest rivalry in the school, and maybe if she didn’t hang out with a Gryffindor and a Hufflepuff all the time she’d know it.

Kelley doesn’t care. It takes her two minutes to find Alex, hovering up high only feet from the other Seeker, searching frantically for the snitch. She wants to root for Alex, but she wants her own team to win- it’s funny, though, that Alex is probably six or seven years younger than the other Seeker, a senior boy twice her size. It’d be even funnier if she beat him.

“She’s the only first-year on a team at all.”

Next to Kelley, Tricia rolls her eyes.

“She’s a Morgan. She’s only out there cause of who her sisters are. Neither of them are all that good.”

“Just watch,” Kelley promises, “she’s so fast.”

Megan and Lori are a crazy tag-team, ridiculously fun to watch and hard to keep up with. As good as the Gryffindor Keeper is, he’s not good enough to keep them from scoring thirty points. Each time Kelley’s the first out of her seat to cheer, but her eyes wander to the Seekers anyway. She can almost imagine being one of them, going breakneck speed with the fate of her team resting on her shoulders. It doesn’t scare her. It excites her.

For a moment it looks like something’s wrong, that’s how quickly Alex jerks to one side, but then Kelley realizes it’s because she’s caught sight of the snitch. It all happens so quickly, the two of them taking off after something nobody else can really see, and Alex is ahead of him most of the way there until he bumps into her and she careens off course.

He catches the thing like it’s easy and the stands around Kelley go wild. She stands up with them, but she’s distracted in the middle of her cheering by Alex, who’s just recovered and hovers a few feet away, looking equal parts shocked and dejected, and a hundred percent the first-year rookie she is.

-

Kelley and Tobin are waiting for her outside the locker tents, and Alex’s first thought is to question how they found their way down there before she bursts into tears.

She drops her broom, but Tobin picks it up, and Kelley hugs her, which makes the embarrassment of uncontrollably crying a little easier to bear.

“Sorry,” she snuffles into Kelley’s shoulder, and Tobin awkwardly touches her back.

“He had to play dirty to beat you, you realize that?”

Alex shakes her head, but Tobin backs Kelley up, now that it’s been said: “She’s right, Alex. He couldn’t have beaten you to the snitch if he hadn’t knocked you out of the way. It was totally unfair, it’s not your fault he’s so much bigger. If he had played fair you would have gotten there first. You’re faster than him.”

“You’re faster than anybody,” Kelley says, and she sounds so sure of herself that it makes Alex laugh. She pulls away and wipes her nose on her sleeve, and Tobin hands her the broom with a smile. Abby appears, rounding the corner, and Alex’s stomach churns all over again.

Kelley and Tobin knows who she is- she’s not just the Gryffindor coach, she’s the flying instructor- and they scatter with guilty looks at Alex, like they know they ought to go but don’t want to. Alex doesn’t have time to say anything to them before Abby’s upon her, and she’s so guilty that she can’t even make eye contact.

“Hey,” Abby says, and Alex mumbles something, clutching her broom. “What? What’s wrong? You played so well!”

“I lost. I- I should have gotten it.”

Abby crouches to her level. It reminds Alex how small she is and makes her look up from her feet, mostly because she wants Abby to stand up again. Eye contact is clearly what she wants, though it doesn’t make her stand at all, just makes her go very serious. Alex remembers that her eyes are red, and gets embarrassed all over again.

“You did everything right. For your first game out there in front of everyone, you did incredibly, your technique was good, you were on fire, and if he hadn’t been twice your size he would have lost out to you. You were faster than him.”

Alex swallows, still stubborn, even if Abby scares her a little.

“But I lost.”

“Because you’re- what, eleven, maybe twelve?- and he’s eighteen. You weigh 90 pounds wet and he’s pushing 200. Don’t be so hard on yourself this early, alright? I’d tell you if you needed to do something different.”

“I don’t have to do anything different?”

Abby laughs and shakes her head a little, but Alex doesn’t feel laughed at. There’s something about Abby that makes her feel comfortable even though she’s a coach, something about her bigness and her smile, how she smiles with her whole body.

“We’ll work on making it a little harder to knock you right over. In the meantime, eat a lot of protein.”

-

Alex improves and Kelley starts hanging around Lori and Megan, trying to pick up anything she can, learn anything she can about quidditch and how to play it. She was athletic back at home, and she misses moving around, misses being part of a team. And watching Alex is fun, but it’s more fun to help her practice, which she and Tobin do all the time. Tobin’s so good, so agile, that Alex repeatedly tells her Hufflepuff would be crazy not to let her on the team next year. Nobody ever says much to Kelley about how she flies, but she figures if she can keep up with Alex and Tobin, she must be decent. She wants to play.

When she tells Lori, she does it in a rare moment that Megan’s not around, figuring Lori will be less likely to laugh at her that way. Lori doesn’t laugh at her, though. She just says that she’ll show Kelley the ropes, and that she thinks Kelley might make a good seeker.

“You’re small,” she says by explanation, “too small now, maybe, but you won’t be forever, and the small, smart girls are the best seekers around.”

“Like Alex,” Kelley blurts, and then Lori laughs.

“Sure.”

-

They all send each other letters over Christmas. Tobin draws on them, little artful scribbles that almost bring her goofy laugh to life on the page. Alex sends them little toffees in the envelopes that make them fold awkwardly, and Kelley writes on brightly colored paper that she steals out of her sister’s bag and blames on Jerry and tells both Tobin and Alex about her escapade.

It’s nice to be home, but Alex misses school. Mostly she misses being around people other than her family, because it’s not as if she misses Jeri and Jen- they’re there with her- and her parents write her so often that they might as well be there, too. She gets tired very quickly of being asked about school from all her relatives. Mostly she gets tired of being asked about quidditch, as if it’s the only interesting thing about her. She wants to talk about transfiguration, or how bad she is at potions, or anything else, but it always comes back to quidditch, and how she’s such a little star, Gryffindor’s up-start first-year seeker.

Kelley and Tobin treat her like a person.

When they get back to school, everything starts to go ridiculously fast. The spring season is much more competitive, everyone scrambling for points for the House Cup, doing all their homework and answering questions and playing dirty as possible during games without incurring points against them. Alex is afraid she won’t be able to keep up, and Kelley is a bundle of nervous energy all the time, but Tobin keeps them sane. Somehow she does just fine in all her classes without having nervous breakdowns over anything, and on nights where practice is so hard that Alex is sore and hungry after hours, Tobin sneaks her up some food from the kitchen, even if it means she risks getting in trouble.

Kelley helps Alex with potions in return for help with transfiguration, and Kelley goes to every quidditch game Alex plays even if Slytherin isn’t playing and there’s stuff she should be doing instead, and somehow they make it to the end of the year just fine.

-

The night before the last day, they risk getting in trouble to spend the night in the library together. It’s not too difficult, really, as long as they’re quiet and find a remote corner when it’s time to lock up. Tobin’s smuggled some pastries, and Kelley has some candies, and they build a little fort out of the old sofas’ cushions and plan to stay up until opening.

“You should come visit for my birthday,” Alex says to them, and Kelley nods vigorously. Tobin shrugs a little.

“I think my parents are sending me off to America for the summer. To spend time with my aunt on her horse farm or something.”

Alex pokes Tobin with a foot and says, “Well, Kelley, then. How far’s it from Ireland to Wales?”

“Just across the water,” Kelley answers, “probably closer than Durham, right?”

Tobin sticks out her tongue. “Anywhere’s closer than Durham.”

“Middle of bloody nowhere,” Kelley agrees, and Alex bursts into giggles, in time for Tobin to shush them both and threaten to keep all the pastries to herself. Alex has grown a little bit, the most out of the three of them, but other than that they all look about the same. It’s crazy to Kelley to think that they met less than a year ago- it feels like they’ve been friends forever- and she realizes then that she’ll have to go the whole summer, or most of it, without them. She’s not sure how to feel about it other than sad. She had friends at home, but all they know is that she went to boarding school- they won’t understand her the way she is now, steeped in magic, having come to love a world they can’t be part of. She’s shared so much with Tobin and Alex- so many firsts already- that she can’t imagine having other best friends.

“I’ll bet you guys a chocolate frog that Gryffindor wins tomorrow,” Alex boasts. Tobin wrinkles her nose and Kelley outright laughs.

“Nobody really cares about the House Cup anyway,” Tobin insists.

“Nobody in your house,” Alex replies, stealing another pastry from the pocket of Tobin’s robe and avoiding the halfhearted slap of retribution, “because your house never comes close to winning it.”

“Shut it.”

“No,” Kelley interrupts, “I think it’s just that they’re less competitive than we are. And anyway, I’ll take that bet. We won more games, we’ll win.”

“It’s not based just on the games,” Tobin points out, but it’s clear she’s not going to take sides. She never does. If she did they probably would break off into pairs too much to stay close.

“More Gryffindors get in trouble than Slytherins,” Kelley points out, and Alex pushes at Kelley’s knee with one bare foot.

“That’s ‘cause Slytherins are suckups.”

Kelley launches herself at Alex, knocking her back into the cushions prepared to tickle mercilessly. The fort collapses in on them when Alex squeals and flails, and Tobin falls all over herself trying to collect the candy and shush them all at once, but it’s too late. Alex isn’t quiet at all when she’s being tickled, and Kelley isn’t stopping, so the caretaker finds them under a pile of pillows, a mess of limbs and flushed faces and food they shouldn’t have- especially not in the library.

They’re lucky to get off with a warning. Kelley almost wishes they’d gotten in trouble.

-

The first year, Gryffindor wins the Cup, and on the train back to London, Kelley buys Alex the chocolate frog she’s owed.

Alex takes the collectible card but gives Kelley the chocolate.

-

The first year, Kelley visits Alex in Wales, and it’s not as scary as she thinks it’s going to be. She’s only there for three days, over Alex’s birthday, but Alex’s parents like her, and her sisters are friendly, and the weather is nice.

Before she leaves, Alex makes her promise that she’ll come next year, and Kelley swears it over their linked pinkies.

-

Somehow, Kelley doesn’t realize who the Slytherin coach is until she gets back on the train in August. She’s practiced all summer, whenever she can, and she feels ready, until Alex says something about impressing Professor Solo, and Kelley’s jaw drops.

Tobin laughs immediately. To her right, Lauren- one of the two Hufflepuff girls Tobin’s close with- leans forward.

“Did you forget? She’s the only Head of House that’s also a coach!”

“And,” Tobin continues, grinning ear to ear, “the youngest Head of House ever.”

“I know,” Kelley mumbles, but they’re dead set on embarrassing her, now. Alex gets in on it, nudging Kelley with an elbow to show it’s all in good fun.

“She could have gone pro. Her and Abby were the best players Hogwarts ever saw.”

“So what you’re saying,” Kelley grumps, “is that I’m not going to get on the team.”

“What we’re saying is, good luck.”

-

This year is Jen’s last year and Jeri’s fifth, Ashlyn’s fourth and Ali’s fifth, and it’s the first year that Alex starts to learn the politics of the team.

First of all, Ashlyn is the new Keeper, and she’s better than the boy they had before. It seems to Alex that nobody is surprised by this, least of all Abby, who had played Ashlyn as a Beater the year before. Somehow everyone knew Ashlyn was better, but they still played Derrick, like it didn’t make a difference, even though it obviously would have. She doesn’t ask because she’s afraid to, but it’s clear that seniority means something.

Except in her position.

Two other people try out for Seeker but neither of them are close to as fast as she is. They don’t add any first-years, so she’s still the youngest. Jen, as the oldest Beater, gets named as captain. Ali might as well be her vice captain, because she’s basically second in command. They’re the only girls on the team, and the boys yield all decisions to them- the ones Abby doesn’t make- without question.

But nobody talks to Alex. They don’t ignore her, and of course Ali and Jen look out for her, in terms of bludgers, but she’s the only one on the team other than Ashlyn who’s alone.

It had been too exciting to seem lonely last year.

-

The first thing Hope does is instruct them not to call her Professor Solo.

“It’s not a matter of familiarity,” she explains, “and in school you call me Professor or I’ll dock us ten points without questioning it. But on the field? ‘Hope’ is faster.”

Kelley thinks it’s silly, but she doesn’t say anything about it. Hope’s not as scary as everyone thinks she is, she’s just very, very serious about winning, and Kelley herself is still so in shock at being there at tryouts that she isn’t questioning much. There’s a first-year there that everyone assumes is going to be awful, and she’s the only other person trying out for Seeker, so Kelley feels alright about it.

Until they get on their brooms.

Even on a school broom, the first-year girl is faster than her. She’s inhumanely fast- not as fast as Alex is, but close. Lori stops what she’s doing to watch, and Megan pulls up beside her, and Kelley eventually gives up trying to keep up and watches, too. It’s already clear that she can’t compete.

By the time the snitch is in the other girl’s hand, Kelley’s ready to get off a broom forever. She’s so embarrassed that she doesn’t notice Hope motioning to her until Lori nudges her in mid-air.

“Obviously,” Hope says, once Kelley’s on the ground, “I can’t put you in as Seeker when we have that at our disposal.”

Kelley thinks she might cry. Maybe Hope is as scary as everyone says- she’s certainly being kind of mean at the moment, and it’s annoying as much as it is mortifying.

“Obviously,” she agrees, trying to keep her voice level.

But, you’re too good to cut. You think you’d mind trying out being a Beater for a few minutes?”

Kelley looks behind her, expecting Hope to be addressing someone else- but there’s nobody there, and she turns back, bewildered, clutching her broom in both hands.

“Miss?”

“Do I have to repeat that?”

The relief is visceral, warming Kelley from her toes to her stomach. That’s the moment she knows she likes Hope- the moment she’s given a second chance.

“No, miss. I’ve got it.”

-

She gets it.

The first-year Seeker is Sydney, and despite everything, Kelley can’t help but like her. She’s got the kind of quick humor that makes her mesh with the team right away, and as the two new kids to the team, they get lumped together when the rest of the team initiates them in the locker rooms. It’s not much, and it’s not bad- just polishing the team’s brooms- but they bond over it, especially because Syd seems so much older than she is. The team all eat dinner together that night, so Kelley doesn’t see Tobin or Alex, but somehow she knows they’ve all made it. She knows before Alex finds her the next morning at the table where they usually meet and jumps on her, hugging and squealing.

“I saw you eat with them, I saw you made it! Only now we have to race for the same snitch, but it’s okay, we’ll make it work.”

Kelley laughs, prying Alex’s vice-like grip from around her ribs.

“I didn’t get it.”

“You-?”

“I got on the team, I’m a Beater, but I’m not the Seeker.”

Alex pulls away, furrowing her brows, and Kelley notices that her hair is darker now than it was over her birthday visit. She’s taller, too- not much, but she is- and Kelley pushes onto her toes just a little, wondering what it would be like for her to be taller. It feels like there might be more questions coming, but Tobin finds them before anything else is said.

She’s ridiculously tan. A summer in America has left her downright golden, to the point that her hair could almost be considered blonde, if Kelley thinks about it hard enough. She feels pale and short. They all start to talk at once, and then all stop at once, and laugh at themselves before Tobin takes it upon herself to start, tapping her fingers against the table.

“I made the team, as a Chaser. I’m the youngest of them, though, so I probably won’t play much.”

Alex grins, chewing her lips.

“I’m back where I was, but I wanna hear details,” she insists, directed mostly at Kelley, who digs into her eggs and raises an eyebrow, “like how you ended up as a Beater.”

Kelley motions for them to wait, as she’s still (very purposefully) chewing, but Tobin frowns, leaning onto her elbows.

“Aren’t the Beaters supposed to be, y’know...big? Like, they’re usually the oldest boys.”

From where she’s sitting, when she looks up and across the Great Hall, Kelley can see Hope eating with the other professors. She takes as long as she thinks she can before she answers them, but she doesn’t look at them right away.

“Professor Solo said I was too good to cut from the team, but I’m not fast enough to be a Seeker.”

“Yes you are,” Alex insists, but Kelley shakes her head.

“You haven’t seen Syd. She’s ridiculous, I was never gonna keep up with her.”

For a moment nobody says anything. There’s just the sound of their silverware until Tobin says, defiantly, “Alright, assuming that’s true, why’d she make you a Beater and not a Chaser? If you’re fast, but not fast enough?”

Kelley shrugs.

“Hope says she thinks I’ll be good at it.”

“You’re gonna die,” Tobin laughs, and Alex adds, “especially if you call her Hope, ever.”

-

The first game gets closer and closer and Alex gets more and more anxious about it every day.

They're ready, they're good, but she feels a surge of nervousness every time she thinks about playing against Kelley (and eventually Tobin), something she can't talk to anyone about. Definitely not Jen, who can't know that she's nervous, and not Kelley or Tobin, since they're part of the problem- the only person Alex could tell is Abby, and she doesn't want to bother their coach when there's so much else for her to worry about.

Abby figures it out anyway.

Alex stays after the last practice the night before, the snitch in her hand, with Jen’s permission to go a while longer on her own. It doesn’t feel right to go after the snitch on her own, though, because she knows she can catch it if nobody’s there to stop her. It’s the competition that makes things difficult for her. It’s the knowledge that speed isn’t enough, and that her speed makes her a target, that’s going to keep her up all night.

Abby stays behind, too. Alex sees her but doesn’t say anything to her. It makes her a little more motivated to know her coach is watching her, but also nervous, because Abby is Abby, because Abby is a legend. Alex just wants to be good enough. She lets loose the snitch, which hovers in front of her until she gets up onto her broom and then takes off, and she lets it go for a moment before she follows.

As she’s been taught, she trains her eyes not on the body of the snitch but on the wavering betrayal of its wingbeats. It’s easier to predict where it’s going to move that way, from the angle of the wings. Abby’s only said it a hundred times. Alex is so focused on anticipating every move the snitch makes that it surprises her when a shadow over takes her, and she looks up, distracted, just long enough for Abby to dive and snatch the snitch from right out in front of her, plucked between her thumb and forefinger like it’s child’s play.

“Don’t get so focused on the snitch that you lose contact with your surroundings,” Abby says, once they’re on the ground again. She’s smiling, though, as the snitch winds down in her palm. Alex scrunches up her nose.

“I wouldn’t have been surprised by you in a game situation.”

“Always practice in a game situation.”

They face off for a moment, with Alex waiting for Abby’s tough-coach facade to break, and then Abby grins, handing the slumbering snitch over with a flourish. Alex is always very comfortable in moments like this, one on one, even one on one with someone for whom the term ‘legend’ isn’t far of a stretch. Her idol, really, is more than just the best Seeker Gryffindor has ever seen- she’s also a human being, and Alex is so comforted by that fact that it reminds her of home sometimes. Not of her mom, just of the safety and comfort of being home, of not having to pretend to have her entire life together.

Abby clearly gets it, but that’s not a surprise, either. Alex cups the snitch in her palms like a baby bird, and Abby grabs her by the shoulders, shaking gently.

“Listen to me. Quidditch isn’t everything.”

Alex wrinkles her nose again.

“I’m serious, okay? I know that sounds silly coming from me, especially, you know, at this point in your life. Because right now Quidditch feels like everything, right? I mean, it feels like your whole life. And you probably, I mean at least I hope you probably do your homework and go to classes, but all day what you’re really thinking about is Quidditch, and I can promise you that as long as you let it be your everything, you’re never going to be happy with it.”

“That’s depressing,” Alex replies, but she’s listening and she knows that Abby knows it.

“I’m telling you the truth. You can’t let it take over everything you do. Go to class, do your work, make time for your friends, and then play the game. Whether or not you’re the best Seeker out on the field on a given day has more to do with how much sleep you got the night before and what kind of breakfast you ate than the way the wind is blowing or how fast you are. Those things are important, but they’re not under your control. Take care of yourself first, don’t make yourself sick over this, and absolutely do not let this sport make you into a competitive brat like it has the ability to do.”

Abby waits until Alex nods at her, then hugs her, and in that moment they aren’t coach and player any longer, if they were ever just that before. Alex remembers then that Abby’s only twenty-one, only four years older than Jen, and it’s more like having another sister. It’s not exactly that, either, but whatever Abby is to her she’s thankful for it, and when she wakes up the next morning the first thing she thinks to herself is ‘Quidditch isn’t everything’.

 

-

Kelley can tell right away that she’s making an impression during her first game.

The bludger is twenty five and a half centimeters in diameter. It weighs more than Kelley does, and in order to get it to go anywhere she has to come at it going faster than it’s coming at her, or it’ll break her arm, her bat, and someone else’s face. As such, she doesn’t start the game. When she subs in, and Rodger comes out- Rodger, who is almost two meters tall- she can hear half of the school laughing at her. Before play resumes she catches sight of Hope watching her, arms crossed, and the icy look on her face doesn’t say anything less than ‘prove them wrong’.

She doesn’t concern herself much with Alex; they’re playing two very different games. Slytherin is down by ten points, and Kelley knows, with the amount of time they have left- or don’t have- that all she can do is flank Lori and keep the bludgers from interfering with their attempts to score. She knows the rules, knows she can’t direct it at the Gryffindor Keeper- at Ashlyn- unless the Quaffle is in position to score- but she also knows that’s her best chance at distracting Ashlyn long enough to let Lori score.

So she does something incredibly, recklessly stupid.

She hasn’t hit a bludger yet, hasn’t had to, but she goes out of her way to find one and follow it. Instead of following Lori, she follows the bludger the way Alex and Syd are following the snitch, like she means to catch it, which of course she doesn’t. Not exactly.

She doesn’t follow it directly behind, she leaves enough space so that when it takes the path behind the goalposts to come at Lori- who has the Quaffle- head on, she can come at it from an angle and hit it with all her strength. She does it be holding the bat between her hands horizontally, balancing on her broom like they practiced, and diving.

She’s not really on her broom. Her broom is held between her legs by the speed of her fall, and all of her weight is thrown at the bludger, which heads for Ashlyn at almost the exact moment that Lori enters scoring range. Kelley regains control of her own broom actual milliseconds before she would have hit Ashlyn, who has to think fast to avoid the Bludger coming her way. By dodging it she leaves the goalposts open and Megan scores without even having to try all that hard.

Kelley, breathless, rights herself just in time to see the goal happen and the Slytherin stands losing it. The players themselves can’t stop to celebrate, but Kelley can see that Megan’s impressed, and when she spares a glance at Hope she gets gestured at to pay attention but catches the smallest hint of a smile on her coach’s face.

-

Slytherin is up 40-30 when Alex catches the snitch.

That’s sort of the theme of the year. There are games, of course, where Alex
catch the snitch, but she catches more than she doesn’t catch. Syd only catches the snitch before Alex once. Syd’s in second, though, in terms of the Seekers, and the larger, older boys who are Hufflepuff’s and Ravenclaw’s clearly feel cheated about it.

For the second year in a row, Slytherin and Gryffindor are neck and neck for the Cup, and for the second year, Kelley and Alex make a bet over which one will win; this time Tobin tells Kelley straight up that she’s making a mistake but Slytherin wins, just barely, and Alex buys her the chocolate.

-

The second summer is a little different. Tobin invites them to come visit her in Durham, even though she reminds them that it’s boring and they don’t have to come. It seems like she might be embarrassed about it, which just makes Alex want to go even more, because they’re best friends and Tobin shouldn’t have to be embarrassed about anything. They go in June, a month before Alex’s thirteenth birthday and a month after Tobin’s fourteenth.

Kelley meets Alex in Wales and they take the seven hour train ride to Durham together, watching as the relative civilization of Wales gets busier, until they stop over in Manchester and realize it’s the most interesting part of the trip. From there to Leeds it gets progressively more boring outside, especially because it’s raining and they only see the city from afar before the train goes underground; they can’t talk about magic things because there’re Muggles all around them and they’re so tired that Kelley ends up dozing off on Alex’s shoulder. Alex wakes her up again near York, because it’s pretty and the sun is just peeking through the clouds, and out loud Kelley wonders if this is what Tobin meant by ‘boring’.

Durham is, more or less, just fields.

“I wonder if they have horses,” Alex says, and Kelley wrinkles her nose.

“Just ‘cause they live out here doesn’t mean they have farm animals.”

“Horses aren’t farm animals,” Alex corrects, vehemently enough that Kelley laughs at her.

“I feel like Tobin probably would have mentioned it if she had her own pony.”

“Not ponies,” Alex huffs, realizing Kelley’s poking fun at her, “horses.”

-

It turns out that Tobin’s family does have horses. They have quite a lot, actually- a lot of land, and a big stone house, and plenty of animals. Just in the front are three horses, all different shades of brown with muddy hooves and glossy coats, and when they come up the driveway a dog greets them before Tobin does.

“Is there a reason you didn’t tell us you were Durham royalty?”

Kelley asks it with humor in her voice, but she’s also kind of serious and Alex knows that Tobin can see it. It is kind of a shock; not that Tobin had ever said her family was poor or anything, but this isn’t what either of them expected. Tobin scuffs her sneaker into the dirt, reaching for Alex’s bag.

“It’s not a big deal,” she answers, and then, as if it’s an afterthought, “I didn’t want to sound like a snob.”

She spends the rest of the walk to the house telling Shep- which Alex thinks is a silly name for a shepherd- to ‘leave it’ and ‘get down’ and occasionally to ‘chill’, while he barks and runs circles around them. At the front door Kelley stops Tobin with a hand on her arm and asks, very seriously, if they have any ponies.

Tobin tells her no.

“We have horses, though.”

-

Kelley experiences her first instance of true jealousy ever that visit.

Tobin’s little brother, Jeffrey, is going to be a first-year at Hogwarts in the fall. As such, he follows the three of them around whenever he has the opportunity to- which is often- and almost immediately takes a particular liking to Alex. Not that that’s surprising, really, because Alex is the prettiest of all three of them for sure. Kelley will readily admit that. Alex’s hair is always nice, and she always smells good, and her teeth are white and very straight, and she’s nice to Jeff, which is probably part of the problem. At least, that’s what Tobin tells her.

“If you could just be a little mean to him for two seconds, he’d cry and get over it and leave us alone.”

Alex, whose horse is between Kelley and Tobin’s, blushes a little and tucks her chin to her chest, playing with the horse’s mane instead of paying attention to either of them.

“I don’t want to be mean to him.”

Kelley gets a rush of something, something kind of hot and angry that makes the back of her neck prickle. Tobin looks forward at the field, like there’s a path to navigate even though there isn’t yet.

“Do you like him?”

Tobin fake-gags. Alex looks up sharply at Kelley, who feels guilty immediately but still wants to know the answer.

“He’s eleven!”

“So what? Do you?” Tobin chimes in with the question now, absolutely horrified at the prospect.

“No! It’s just- it’s- you know, a boy’s never liked me before.”

They fall very quiet. Kelley focuses hard on counting every step her horse is taking. They have to go slowly, because only Tobin actually knows how to ride, but Kelley’s tempted to kick her horse and get ahead of them, away from her embarrassing outburst and whatever weird thing she’s feeling thinking about Alex blushing over some dumb boy.

Eventually, Tobin comes to her rescue.

“He still eats his own boogers.”

-

Kelley can’t make it to Alex’s that summer for her birthday, and by the time the three of them are together on the train once more things have already started to change.

For one thing, Alex is hitting her growth spurt. Her legs hurt all the time, like she can feel the bones growing, and the rest of her body is changing in ways that would probably freak her out if she didn’t have older sisters to convince her everything was normal. Tobin’s growing too, a little. Kelley has not grown. She looks a little different, just a little older maybe, but she’s not any taller or at least not noticeably so, and Alex knows that Kelleyand Tobin have noticed how different she looks from two months ago.

“This is so unfair,” Kelley says, when she finally addresses it, “both of you are going to get boobs before I do.”

“You can have mine,” Tobin offers, stretching her legs out.

-

To all of their surprise, Kelley is actually the first one to grow a pair. She doesn’t notice until the fall formal, because third year is difficult, and Quidditch is difficult, but when they all gather together to get ready and Kelley tries to fit into the same dress she wore the year before, she finds that it pulls over her chest a little and doesn’t quite zipper. Tobin tries, with Alex holding the halves together at the back, but it only gets to about two inches below the neck of the dress before it won’t zipper anymore.

“That’s not going to happen,” Alex says gently, watching over Kelley’s shoulder while she looks at herself in the mirror. It’s almost comical how Kelley’s face goes from confusion to elation in almost no time at all.

“We’re going to have to pull the boys off of you,” Alex jokes, and Tobin wrinkles her nose, straightening her own dress.

“I don’t care about the boys,” Kelley answers, “over Christmas I’m going to buy so many clothes I’ll replace my whole wardrobe.”

The boys seem to catch on pretty quickly that Kelley’s more interested in hanging out with Tobin and Alex than dancing with them, but they don’t disappear. Alex is surprised by the number of them that ask her to dance and she says yes to every one of them, because after she says yes to the first she feels bad saying no to someone else. Tobin and Kelley make fun of her a bit from a few yards away, waltzing together like a couple to tease her, but it doesn’t get serious until Jeff finds her and asks her to dance.

He’s the only one outside of their year with the guts to do it. All his friends stand behind him, in a pack near the punch bowl, and laugh at him like they’re sure he’s going to make a fool of himself. Alex can feel Kelley and Tobin watching her and knows without a shred of doubt that she’s supposed to say no to him and humiliate him in front of all his friends, Hufflepuff or otherwise.

She doesn’t have the heart to.

“Tobin’s gonna be so mad at me,” he says. Alex is trying to focus on staying out of his way so he won’t step on her; he’s not any kind of dancer and he’s either too distracted or too nervous to actually do the steps right. It takes her a minute to answer him, but when she looks up to do it she can see Tobin and Kelley watching her.

“There’re lots of other girls,” she tells him, “in your year, or, you know. Not me.”

“Oh. Okay.”

-

“He looks miserable. Thank you for finally dumping him.”

“I didn’t dump him! We weren’t dating, I couldn’t have dumped him!”

“You definitely dumped him.”

-

At the end of November, Alex goes to practice to find that Abby’s not there. It’s been strange enough without Jen- missing Abby feels too wrong. Alex knows it’s not just her that feels that way, because the team is abuzz, everyone talking amonst each other, with her standing at the edge of the group, like always. Their captain, Callum, is trying to settle them, but nobody listens to him until he shouts.

“Where’s Abby?”

Ashlyn speaks for all of them, so she’s the only one that does, although there are murmurs behind her. Callum- a seventh-year Beater that Jeri’s had a crush on forever- answers first with a heavy sigh.

“Is that it? Do you think you’d all be the last to know if something happened? She’s on leave for three weeks. Til exams.”

Alex switches her broom to her other hand so that she can lean on it a little, looking around to see if that’s made anyone else feel better. It certainly hasn’t made her feel any better, but she likes to think of Abby as her friend, not just her coach. Nobody looks very comforted.

“Is she sick?”

“No. I can’t tell you why she’s gone, alright? She told me not to. But it’s not bad. She’s fine.”

Ali pops up from behind Ashlyn, who moves a bit so she can be seen.

“Are you coaching, then?”

It’s probably not a joke, not coming from Ali, but everyone laughs; Ali colors a bit but Alex is pretty sure she’s the only one who notices Ashlyn’s hand in the middle of Ali’s back. Callum doesn’t have time to answer before one of the Chasers notices someone else coming across the field, and it all goes to hell again.

-

Most of them know Carli’s name. Other than Abby, she’s one of the biggest names in Gyrffindor Quidditch history- bigger, really, since she plays for England’s national team and the Manchester club team. The thing is, she’s also kind of awkward, and she’s not Abby, and Alex can see half the team zone out as soon as she starts to speak. To compensate, Alex listens twice as hard.

“I know you guys are focused on Slytherin. I remember that, I get that. But your next match is against Hufflepuff, and underestimating them is dangerous. Especially right now. Their Chasers are all very fast and very technical.”

“And small,” Callum points out, “or young, or both.”

“That’s only relevant if you’re going to try and knock them off their brooms, which I know you aren’t planning to do.”

It’s a reprimand and it’s very much so not the sort of thing that Abby would say. She absolutely doesn’t condone unfairly physical play, but it’s part of the game, and she’d never speak to them like that- like kids. Callum is clearly trying to hide his distaste, but it doesn’t matter- Alex almost thinks she can see Carli start to panic and feels bad for her. If she’s lost the team, it’s not just their play that will suffer.

“So what do we do?”

Alex speaks before she decides to, and the entire team turns to look at her. Half of them, at least, look like they wish she had kept her mouth shut. Carli just sort of looks thankful.

“I’m glad you asked. Are you guys ready to work?”

-

They dubiously let her coach them through the Hufflepuff game. When her strategy and her coaching pays off in a 50-20 victory, and Alex manages to catch the snitch by anticipating just a half a second faster than the Hufflepuff seeker, they’re all entirely willing to let Carli pilot them through the rest of the term.

-

The last week of school before Christmas is their week of finals, which is actually almost a good thing- there are no classes, just tests, which leaves them with more free time, which means that there’s a trip to Hogsmeade that Tobin and Alex and Kelley sign up for together.

Once they’re there, Tobin only stays with them for a bit before peeling off with her Hufflepuff friends, leaving Alex and Kelley to their own devices. They wander around for a while in the snow, from Zonko’s to Honeydukes, trying to pick out stores that they want to go into. Eventually Kelley’s curiosity gets the best of her and she grabs Alex’s robe and tugs her towards the signs that lead to the Shrieking Shack. Alex almost falls, and Kelley helps her stay upright even though she’s laughing about it.

“It’s haunted,” Alex says, “that’s why it shrieks, it’s not even that interesting.”

“Have you been before?”

Alex, as if she can sense that Kelley feels betrayed, rushes to correct her.

“No! But that’s what Jen told me.”

“Listen,” Kelley says, dropping Alex’s robe and taking her hand instead, ignoring the little tingles that go up her arm when she does, “maybe for you, haunted shacks are a normal thing. But where I come from they’re not, and I think it’s really cool, so be a good sport for five minutes, okay?”

She thinks Alex might drop her hand, since they’re a little old to be holding them, but she doesn’t, just sticks their joined hands in her coat pocket. Kelley continues to ignore the weirdness in her chest and stomach- it’s probably just her excitement over a haunted house, anyway.

It is kind of boring. They’re standing at the fence, staring at it, for at least three silent minutes before Kelley hears a voice she recognizes and she and Alex turn in tandem to see Miss Wambach walking towards them. Walking towards them with her arm around someone else.

-

They look like a couple. They have to be a couple. The way Abby has her hand on the opposite hip of the smaller woman she’s walking with, the way that woman has an arm around Abby’s waist, the way Abby’s looking at her while she talks- Alex suddenly feels uncomfortable and out of place and disappointed.

Abby looks up and notices her with a big smile.

“I thought you were on vacation,” Alex says, but she doesn’t mean for it to come out like an accusation. If Abby hears it that way, she doesn’t acknowledge it.

“On leave, actually. Kind of vacation,” she concedes, and looks down at the other woman again, “I got married.”

There’s so much about that sentence that Alex can’t compute. She just stands there dumbfounded, with Kelley’s hand in hers, and both of their hands in her pocket, and tries to understand it. Abby left the team, the school, to get married. Abby is married. Abby is married to a woman. Every single second of feeling like Abby was her friend feels like a lie now, now that there’s such a huge reminder of how far apart they are, and it’s not the years as much as it is everything else, like the fact that Alex hasn’t even taken her OWLS yet and Abby is married.

She doesn’t realize she’s being rude until Kelley says, with a chipper grin, “Congratulations!”, and she’s reminded that she ought to do the same. She murmurs it.

“This is Sarah,” Abby says, and the smiley brunette on her arm leaves her side to shake their hands, like they’re adults and not students.

-

Kelley can’t stop thinking about it. Not in a weird way, but mostly she can’t stop noticing how sulky Alex is after, like she’s offended or upset by it.

“I liked Sarah,” Kelley says, when they recount the story to Tobin, who only seems mildly surprised, and only because Abby’s pretty young, “she was very pretty. Don’t you think, Alex?”

“I guess,” Alex replies, popping another Fizzing Whizzbee into her mouth.

“Does it bother you that they’re both girls or something?”

Alex reddens, and Kelley realizes it isn’t a good idea to prod, but Tobin doesn’t say anything, and Alex is quick to answer.

“Of course not.”

“Alright,” Kelley spews, like she can’t possibly control it, “is it ‘cause she’s a muggle, then?”

The three of them fall completely silent. Kelley tries her best not to look like the answer matters much to her, even though it does. Finally, Alex looks up, brows furrowed.

“Kelley, no. I don’t care about that, okay? I don’t think there’s anything wrong with two girls getting married. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with- with a witch marrying a muggle. I just missed Abby while she wasn’t here coaching and I guess a lot of us kind of thought she might have gotten a national team call up and taken it this time.”

The relief Kelley feels almost knocks her out of her chair. She tries to temper it by grabbing one of the every flavor beans out of her box, but it’s asparagus flavored and all it does is make her wince at the taste.

“Well,” Tobin says, after an awkward silence, “I mean, it’s better this way, kind of, that she didn’t? Because now she’ll still be your coach. It’s not like her being married is gonna make her coach differently.”

“I guess,” Alex agrees, but she doesn’t sound convinced.

-

Tobin is right, of course. Abby comes back the next term pretty much the same as she was before, just a little happier, maybe, and with a ring on. Alex tries not to think about it, but the gossip mill is ridiculous, and it’s impossible not to hear something about it for the first week of the new term.

She’s in the common room when she finally decides to avoid listening anymore and heads up a level, where there’s a study nook that hardly anyone ever uses because of the draft.

She stops in the staircase because she thinks she might hear a voice, but after a second she stops hearing anything other than the gaggle of girls in the common room and goes the rest of the way up the stairs. In the threshold she freezes, because it turns out the study nook is not empty at all.

Ali is laid out on her back on one of the couches. Ashlyn is on top of her, or sitting on her, or something, and it almost looks like they might be wrestling over a pen or a piece of paper except- except that they’re kissing.

Alex squeaks in surprise and almost tumbles back down the stairs in her rush.

They find her in her room a few minutes later, where she’s sitting alone, trying to study. She feels like she’s been caught doing something bad, so she looks up, sees them, and goes right back to not reading the book in her lap, tapping her pencil against the page nervously until they sit on either side of her.

“Sorry,” Ali says, and Alex flinches a little, startled by her voice.

“Yeah,” Ashlyn echoes, “sorry you walked in on us making out.”

“Ash-”

“It’s okay,” Alex chokes out, the tapping intensifying with each second, “It’s fine.”

It is, too- it’s not like it’s a surprise or anything- but it’s also kind of strange. Before very recently she hadn’t really thought about girls being together the way a boy and a girl might be. It’s something she’s always sort of known about but not something she’d ever run into before, and she didn’t realize how much of it was around her, and it’s not that it makes her uncomfortable, just that she’s surprised. Surprised that the girls who like other girls aren’t more obviously different, they’re just...girls.

She stops thinking about it over the summer.

-

Ravenclaw wins the House Cup that year. The three of them each buy a chocolate frog and pass them to the right, so that Tobin gets Alex’s, Alex gets Kelley’s, and Kelley gets Tobin’s.

That summer, Kelley can’t visit but she writes Tobin and Alex letters. Alex visits Tobin’s, though, and Kelley feels left out until she gets a letter from the two of them about how they miss her, and Jeff has a girlfriend or says he does to make them leave him alone, and things aren’t the same without the third part of their trio.

Alex sends her a birthday present later, a little wooden toy horse and a matching toy pony. They have ‘horse’ and ‘pony’ written on their bellies, and the note says, “to help you figure out which ones are which”.

-

Their fourth year, the three of them have Care of Magical Creatures together. The professor is nice and smiley and asks them just to call her ‘Amy’ instead of Professor. That’s the class where Alex meets Bowen.

She’s never had a crush on a boy before. The closest she’s ever gotten was Jeff, who she definitely did not have a crush on- she just felt sorry for him. Bowen is a Ravenclaw, aloof and unapproachable, but she can’t help thinking he’s cute.

“Just go talk to him,” Tobin says, once she figures out why Alex isn’t paying any attention.

Kelley grumbles and nudges both of them.

“I’m trying to pay attention.”

“Then go to the front of the group.”

“I don’t want to talk to him,” Alex whispers, “I just want to look at him.”

He’s standing far enough away that he can’t hear them, but she can see him properly, can watch him while he watches Amy and pushes his bangs out of his eyes.

“He looks like he hasn’t showered in a week,” Kelley observes, and Alex frowns.

-

The only one of them willing to do anything about Alex’s situation with Bowen is Kelley.

She does it for two reasons: one because she wants Alex to be happy, and two because she really, really needs Alex to shut up about him for five seconds. She finds him in the hallway between History of Magic and Potions, and tugs him aside by the arm of his robe. He looks at her like he might be a little grossed out. Mostly surprised.

“Listen,” she says, “Alex Morgan is my best friend. You know her? The Gryffindor Seeker, really pretty, really good at Quidditch? We’re in your Care of Magical Creatures class.”

He blinks at her through his shaggy bangs and she wants to take a scissor to them.

“She really likes you. She thinks you’re really cute. Can you do me, her, and you a huge favor and ask her to the spring formal?”

-

Bowen asks her to the spring formal, and Alex suddenly, overwhelmingly realizes that Kelley was right all along. He’s cute from far away, but up close he smells kind of funny, and his hair isn’t shiny because it’s clean, it’s shiny because it’s greasy. He doesn’t seem to be able to talk about anything other than his grades, and he’s an awkward dancer whose hold makes her feel like he thinks she’s going to snap in half if he so much as properly touches her.

At the end of the night he tries to kiss her, and she fakes a coughing fit.

-

Tobin falls off her broom that spring.

It’s bad, and it’s scary, and it’s in a game against Kelley and the Slytherins. The Hufflepuff Beaters aren’t doing their jobs right, as far as Kelley can tell- at least not the way she’s been trained to do it- and that’s how it happens that Tobin, following Lauren, who has the Quaffle, gets knocked right out of the sky.

The Bludger hits her in the side, which is worse than if it had hit her broom. She’s lucky she’s not too far off the ground when it happens; lucky that she manages to hold on to her broom long enough to fall a bit with it instead of alone, but when she hits the ground it’s obvious that it’s bad. The game keeps going for a few seconds, and the Bludger comes at Kelley but she doesn’t hit it toward another player, she just hits it as far away as she can and flies down to Tobin.

She gets there before any adults do. Tobin’s very pale and very quiet and very still.

“Hey buddy,” Kelley says, kneeling, “that was scary.”

“Ouch,” Tobin agrees, trying to smile.

“I’m gonna beat up your Beaters with my bat after the game, okay?”

The smile finally makes it.

“Okay.”

-

It’s a bunch of broken ribs and a broken ankle from how she fell. Alex and Kelley bring Tobin some Fudge Flies and hot cocoa when they’re allowed to visit her in the infirmary, where her bones are on the mend. The first thing she asks them is who won the game, and Kelley screws up her face when she has to answer.

“This season sucks,” Tobin observes, sitting up against her pillows a little.

“There’s still time to turn it around.”

Kelley’s being too nice about it, which isn’t really what Tobin needs. Her reaction says everything, and her reaction is to say nothing at all, just to pull a face like she knows Kelley is being too nice about it. Alex knows exactly what to say, which surprises her probably more than it surprises either of them.

“Quidditch isn’t everything.”

-

Slytherin almost wins the cup that year but Gryffindor takes it again, and, as always, even though Qudditch isn’t the only factor, Kelley can feel the urgency starting to build.

-

There seems to be a thing with Alex and peoples’ brothers. Kelley discovers this, regrettably, when Alex visits her for her birthday over that fourth summer. Jerry is in no way magical, and he’s fourteen- a year younger than her, almost- and has always been a little freaked out by the whole witch thing. Apparently that part only applies to witches that are his sister. Alex has stopped growing for a bit, so she’s only about an inch taller than him, and he’s not half as shy about his crush as Jeff was. Kelley wants to deck him.

“You have to be the prettiest girl at the school, right?”

Alex is very nice about it when she doesn’t answer him but he keeps trying, urged on by her little blush- which of course Kelley also notices, when she’s not spending time glaring at Jerry.

“I mean, nobody told me witches were supposed to be pretty.”

Kelley clears her throat. They’re outside, or she’d tell him to get lost.

“Kelley’s very pretty,” Alex replies, finally, and Kelley feels weirdly proud of that, even if it wasn’t her that said it, and it’s only meant to get him to leave her alone.

“Gross,” Jerry says, but he drops it. For a while.

-

It’s the first time that Alex actually notices Kelley being jealous. She doesn’t like Jerry. She actually thinks that in the grand scheme of things she liked Jeff better, not because Jerry’s a bad person but because he’s not as cute. She doesn’t notice very much of what he does to try and get her attention except for Kelley’s reaction to it, and she starts to almost compete with him, like everything he does that he thinks is impressive, she can outdo. She’s only there for three days, but on the last night Jerry tries to jump off the roof of the house onto the trampoline and breaks his leg.

Only he gets in trouble, but Kelley can’t keep her mouth shut about how stupid he is until her mom has taken him to the hospital, and even then, when they’re getting ready to go to sleep, she brings it up.

“Can you believe he wanted to impress you that badly?”

Alex pauses with her toothbrush halfway to her mouth, and Kelley seems to hear her own words just in time to fix them.

“I mean- not that you’re not worth impressing, or whatever. Just that it was so-”

“-stupid,” Alex finishes, going back to brushing, “you said that already.”

Neither of them talks the rest of the time they’re getting ready for bed, brushing their teeth and washing their faces in complete silence. When they’ve crawled into bed and they’re lying only inches apart, Kelley finally says what she’s been trying to say the whole time.

“You deserve a lot better than my hairy, smelly, troll of a little brother, Al.”

-

Sydney comes back her fourth year- their fifth- much bigger, and much faster. The first game of the season, Alex is completely caught by surprise. It’s not that Sydney is faster than her, just that she’s surprised and not ready for her competition to be so close. Syd’s not even small enough to push around anymore, even if that were something Alex might do. And Syd gets the snitch first.

It’s not a big deal, in the scheme of things- it’s just one game- and she knows that, but she feels empty and useless after the game. She feels past her prime. She’s heard people say it before, plenty of times, that she’s the best Seeker in any House, that if she keeps doing as well as she’s been doing she’ll break Abby’s record and go down in history. It’s never weighed on her as much as it does now, after losing to Sydney, like maybe she wasn’t hearing it properly until there was a chance it might not be true.

It’s the first time since her very first game that she cries right after.

Kelley must know, because she’s waiting outside the tent, this time without Tobin. For a second Alex thinks about turning back around, but instead to goes to Kelley and lets the crying happen, because it’s going to, and because if she tries to stop it then it’ll only hurt more. Kelley lets her cry, and doesn’t say a word, just rubs her back like she understands.

-

“This class is so stupid.”

Tobin hisses it through her teeth, and Kelley laughs under her breath while Alex shushes both of them. Neither of them pay her much mind, though, and Kelley leans over Tobin’s shoulder to see her textbook.

“Which chapter are you on? Are you behind?”

“Of course. I can’t- I can’t even read a whole chapter of this without falling asleep.”

Alex shushes them again, and Tobin shushes her back, which makes Kelley laugh, which makes Tobin laugh, which just makes Alex glower down at her book. After a moment Kelley caves and leans over the table, tapping at Alex’s book until she looks up.

“What’s your deal?”

“This year is so important.”

Nobody speaks for a moment. When Tobin finally does, Alex cuts her off, like she knows what’s about to be asked.

“I- we have the OWLs this year. And I’m losing my edge with Quidditch so if I lose my academic edge too I, don’t think I’ll be any good at anything after school.”

Kelley reaches over the book and grabs Alex’s hands; Tobin closes her book, keeping her page with a quill.

“You are not losing your edge with Quidditch. That’s crazy. You’re the best Seeker around. Has Abby said something to you?”

Alex drops her head onto their hands, and Kelley can feel her sigh, but she doesn’t answer. There doesn’t seem to be much to say anymore, but Tobin picks up the slack, shifting so that she can sit cross-legged on the library chair.

“It’s good that you have competition now, you know? It’s just gonna make you better. It’s an excuse to. Like, if Sydney never even got close to catching up with you, wouldn’t life be really boring?”

It’s not something Kelley’s ever really thought of before, but Tobin’s right. It’s better that interesting things happen, that challenging things happen, even if that’s scary- if only good things ever happened she wouldn’t be able to enjoy anything. Being accepted at Hogwarts, and making friends there, was a triumph at least half because it was a struggle. Something else occurs to her then, with Alex’s forehead resting against the back of her hands.

“Do you need a partner for some extra practice?”

-

"How is this supposed to work?"

Alex shrugs a little, tossing the paperweight Kelley's way. Kelley catches it easily but is clearly suspicious; she has to use the hand holding the glass to push her flyaways behind one ear.

"Just throw it, I guess."

"That's stupid, this is way heavier than a snitch. It's going to fall faster and it's not going to fly, it's just gonna go straight down."

"So?"

Kelley sighs.

"So I'm not going to throw it and watch you dive right at the ground."

"I can handle it."

Kelley grins suddenly and jarringly, and Alex frowns a split second before Kelley bumps her with her own broom.

"I know that, buddy. What I'm trying to say is that throwing this thing isn't going to be unpredictable enough for you. It's going to be too easy."

What she ends up doing is enchanting the paperweight, which essentially means she has to guide it wherever she wants it to go (which of course means that Alex ends up just chasing her instead of the paperweight). Kelley is fast, but Alex- or rather, Alex's broom- is faster, and even though it's not as if she can fly circles around Kelley, she manages to cut her off and stop her short. Kelley bobs in the air, and Alex reaches out to steady her, clutching at the fabric of her robe at her bicep just as Kelley reaches and grabs her forearm.

Kelley's fingers are cold and small and tight on Alex's arm, sliding down to her wrist. Alex looks down for a second, not at the ground but at where Kelley's touching her, and when she looks up, the way Kelley's looking at her makes it difficult for her to balance.

Kelley pulls that wrist and leans forward, and Alex meets her halfway, clumsily. Their lips only meet for a second before the angle pushes their brooms apart, and then they're struggling to stay connected at all, grasping at each others' fingertips.

"I think I dropped the paperweight," Kelley says, taking her hand back and looking down at the ground, where, presumably, Alex's keepsake is lost (possibly forever). Alex looks away, too, clearing her throat and trying desperately to keep from turning too red. She's not entirely sure what happened or why it did, but her lips are still tingling, so she knows that she didn't make it up. Kelley went in to kiss her, and she went in, too. Without even thinking about it. Like she'd been enchanted.

"That's okay."

Maybe she has.

(Maybe she's okay with it.)

-

It’s been three weeks, five days, and something like seven hours since they kissed, but Kelley’s not really counting.

It’s not like she thinks about it often. It’s certainly not as if every night before she goes to sleep she closes her eyes and replays it, down to the wind and the way Alex’s hair blew in her face. Nothing’s changed between them, so she doesn’t think about it. She wouldn’t dwell on it, she’s smarter than that.

Half of her honestly believes it. Half of her honestly believes she can go on day to day and just be fine. A kiss is just a kiss. Plenty of girls her age have kissed someone once and never thought about it again. She’s not sure why she did it, except that she’d been thinking how neither of them had had their first kiss yet and to her- it seemed as if there was nobody better to share it with than Alex.

And that’s not strange, really. To want to share something like that with her best friend. It doesn’t mean she wants to kiss Alex again.

The other half of her knows better.

-

Alex tries not to think about it too much. Kelley never kisses her again, and it stops being so interesting after a few days (or at least that’s what she tells herself). Kelley is still very easily her best friend, and it’s easy to pretend that the kiss didn’t happen at all, most of the time. It’s only during the extra practice sessions that she can’t make it go away, only when they’re on their brooms and really close together. When she thinks that Kelley might kiss her again, it’s never like she’s scared of it, but she doesn’t really know what to think about the fact that it occurs to her that it might happen again. She decides she doesn’t have the extra time or energy to waste trying to figure out whether or not she wants Kelley to kiss her again.

The extra practice makes all the difference. Gyrffindor’s next match is against Ravenclaw, and their Seeker is a fourth-year boy who she’s never bothered to worry about before. She’s beaten him, but only by a close margin- this time, now that she’s giving him more credit, and now that she has hours of extra practice under her belt, she beats him by more. She stays above him and slightly behind him most of the way, just edging up his tail, and when she sees he’s close to the snitch, she dives- like Kelley does when she’s going after a Bludger, even now- and snatches it right out from in front of him. When she rights herself, the Snitch in one hand, it’s to the roars of the crowd and the sound of her name.

“Alex Morgan catches the Snitch!”

It’s not something she’ll ever get tired of hearing.

-

It’s been so long since Kelley’s been teased by anyone other than her close friends that when it happens again her immediate reaction is to clam up. Alex is doing so much better, like whatever was choking her up is completely gone; Kelley finds that the extra practice helps her, too, and knows that Hope is noticing it. But Hope’s not the only one.

Lori and Megan sandwich her at the end of practice one day, flying close so that they’re sort of bumping into her on either side. She doesn’t feel attacked right away, though, just confused, until Megan speaks.

“Freckles, you’re bumping up your game. You’re looking pretty fierce.”

It doesn’t quite sound like a compliment.

“Thank you?”

“I just kinda wish,” Lori tacks on, “that you’d asked one of us if you needed extra help, you know? Cause we’re your teammates. And we don’t really need Gryffindor’s star Seeker getting any better. See what I mean?”

Now it feels like an attack. Kelley drops a few feet, and they follow her when she lands.

“Alex is my best friend,” she says, like that makes it better, even though she understands what they’re saying and can almost agree with it, “it’s not like that. I’m not giving her team secrets or anything.”

They drop it, but that’s almost worse than if they had kept bugging her about it. She feels guilty for the rest of the night, and it doesn’t help that when she closes her eyes that night, what she sees is the Kiss.

-

“We can’t practice together anymore.”

Somehow it seems kind of awkward for Kelley to bring it up in front of Tobin, and that’s the first thing that Alex thinks about. Tobin looks a little shellshocked, like she’s pretty sure she shouldn’t be hearing what she’s overhearing, but Kelley’s set on it, working her jaw.

“Why?”

She knows why, though, before Kelley says it.

“Cause it’s like fraternizing with the enemy or something. You know what I mean? It’s kind of weird.”

“I don’t think it’s weird,” Alex shoots back, but she can’t work out why she’s so hurt over it. Tobin puts a finger to her lips, indicating that the caretaker’s walking towards them, and for a few minutes they’re forcedly silent. Alex tries to focus on her Potions homework, but she can hear Tobin’s frantic scribbling and actual silence from Kelley, and when she looks up she’s almost not surprised that Kelley’s just watching her. Things feel wrong.

As soon as the caretaker is out of earshot again, Kelley leans over the table to whisper.

“It’s not personal, Al. It’s just not right.”

-

Tobin ends up practicing with Alex, and the Hufflepuffs apparently don’t give her too much trouble about it. Kelley wonders how that could be, since the whole thing with Hufflepuffs is how loyal they’re supposed to be, but she doesn’t ask. She can tell that Alex’s feelings are hurt, but she’s afraid that if she talks about it again she’s just going to make it worse, and she also knows that telling Alex it wasn’t her idea to stop won’t make anything any better.

Alex leaves for Christmas without saying goodbye.

-

She’s practicing in the snow of her own back yard when she sees the postman coming.

They don’t get regular mail often, because they don’t have to. She jumps off her broom though, drops it and half buries it in the snow and prays he didn’t see her. He doesn’t seem to, or at least it doesn’t seem to matter to him if he does, because he just drops the letter in her mailbox and leaves. She waits untils she can’t see him anymore before she digs up her broom, fingers frozen, and goes to find out what all the fuss is.

It’s a letter from Kelley.

-

She gets a letter back and all of a sudden everything is fine again.

-

Studying for OWLs takes precedence over Quidditch for about the first week that they’re back, and then Quidditch takes over their lives all over again. It’s Ashlyn’s last year and Ali’s already gone, and Ashlyn wants nothing more than to win. Quite frankly, Alex doesn’t, either, and it’s infectious, how much Ashlyn’s pushing for it. She’s captain, finally, and she’s the best captain they’ve had since Jen, and it’s like a switch turns on at the beginning of the second term that turns them all into heroes.

They go through the term undefeated. Alex doesn’t sleep much, because- unlike Ashlyn, who doesn’t seem to care much about her NEWTs- she refuses to let Quidditch mess with her grades. She promised Abby that years ago and she’s not going to give up on it now. Kelley and Tobin are on the other side of the spectrum- it’s not that they’re bad at Quidditch all of a sudden, just that they’re not going as hard towards it as she is, and she can tell that they think she’s kind of crazy. Possessed, maybe. And maybe she is. But she doesn’t care.

“I don’t understand how you manage to stay awake long enough to study after practices like that,” Tobin says, one night when she sneaks Alex up the apples she asked for. Alex takes all three, and bites into one before she answers, holding each of the other two in one hand.

“Lots of caffeine in these,” she says, “and lots of hot showers at six in the morning.”

“You’re incredible.”

-

Nobody even gets close.

Gryffindor ends the term undefeated. Alex makes high marks on all of her OWLs except Herbology, which she says she doesn’t really mind that much. Kelley does fine, too, and so does Tobin, but nobody can quite figure out how Alex accomplished what she did that year, and on the train back she tells them, quietly, that if she goes downhill from here, that’ll be alright with her.

-

The trip to Wales is eight hours, give or take. There’s buses to take, and a ferry, and Kelley sits on the topmost level even though it’s cold, just so that she can watch the land coming at her and imagine that Alex is waiting for her to be there. She rests her chin on her forearms and wishes the water were a prettier color, even as the wind makes her eyes tear up.

Alex will be sixteen in two days. Kelley has her present wrapped in paper and wrapped in a sweater in the bottom of her backpack, and she’s still not sure whether she should give it or pretend she forgot it.

Alex is there waiting just like she has been every summer that Kelley’s visited. Kelley waves, picking Alex out on the shore when they pull in, and Alex laughs at her because the wind has blown her hair into a lion’s mane. Kelley can’t hear it, but she can see it, the way the laugh rocks Alex back on her heels a little. She’s impatient going down the stairs; the major drawback of sitting up top is that she has to wait for everyone else to leave, but she’s nice about it even when the pale, lumbering tourists seem to forget that they have feet.

She drops her bags a few yards early and launches herself at Alex. Alex- who has undergone a growth spurt in the month and a half since they last saw each other, and who’s tall enough now that Kelley fits just into her neck.

“You’re going to break my ribs,” Alex laughs, hugging back.

“I’ll fix them.”

--

The night before Alex’s birthday, they decide they’re going to stay up as late as they can make it. Five minutes before midnight Kelley digs into her backpack and hands Alex her present. She unwraps it carefully- she’s one of those people that tries to keep the paper from tearing, which drives Kelley nuts- and when she lifts it up to catch the light, Kelley gets nervous.

“It, um. The picture doesn’t move.”

Alex smiles and Kelley feels wobbly. The picture is of the two of them, in Cardiff Bay. It was right before Kelley left to go home, probably the day before, if she remembers right. Their feet are in the water (it had been cold and slimy but they had done it anyway, for the sake of photography), and Alex is leaning back on her hands. She’s laughing at Kelley- both of them are in profile- and Kelley is talking.

“It’s my favorite picture of us,” Kelley admits, concerned at Alex’s silence. She doesn’t get anything verbal, but Alex puts the frame aside to hug her. The hug is awkward because of the way they’re sitting, cross-legged on the floor, but Alex means business- she squeezes before she lets go.

“You’re sixteen now. Feel any different?”

Alex laughs.

“No. My legs hurt.”

“If you get any taller I’m going to hex you.”

--

Technically Kelley could sleep on the couch, but she never does, and even now that Alex takes up more space than she used to they manage alright, shifting under the covers. It’s almost four by the time they give up, with matching droopy eyelids and sloppy smiles.

As is always the case they don’t fall asleep right away. They start about something that makes them giggle, something arbitrary and meaningless and not all that funny anyway, and then the sound of their own stifled laughter makes them laugh harder, until their sides are cramping and Alex is tearing up and Kelley is muffling her giggles in a pillow.

“Remember,” she says, out of breath and half-heard, “when Tobin got caught sneaking food from the kitchen and she had to wash dishes by hand for a week?”

Alex squeals as quietly as possible. It’s hilarious imagining Tobin up to her wrists in sudsy water trying to wash plates for the first time in her life, with no magic at all, just soap and a rag. Hilarious especially because she had been sneaking food to them. The question starts low in Alex’s stomach and bubbles up into her chest and out of her mouth before she thinks about it, and she’s laughing when she says it: “Remember when I kissed you?”

Kelley stops laughing so quickly that Alex, in her delirium, is afraid she might have died.

“No, I kissed you.”

She’s not laughing. She’s not even kidding; Alex can see the furrow of her brow in the darkness.

“Is that how you remember it?”

“Is that not how you remember it?”

“I remember, um…” Alex shifts, hiding her face in the covers as if Kelley could possibly know she’s blushing, “...that it was my first kiss.”

“Ours, yeah. I mean, mine too.”

They fall asleep without saying another word, Alex curled into herself and Kelley sprawled onto her side, watching.

-

They wake up at a quarter after ten and the first thing that Alex can think to do when Kelley looks at her is kiss her.

She misses Kelley’s mouth a little. Kelley doesn’t mind. She laughs, apparently out of surprise, and Alex reddens but she doesn’t apologize. Instead she holds her ground as much as she can while embarrassed like she is, prepared for Kelley to reject her but just as prepared for something else, something better. In the end that’s what comes. Kelley’s laugh dies out and she gets serious in the split second before she leans in and kisses Alex back.

There’s no missing this time. Kelley gets Alex square on the lips. They stay like that for a moment, neither of them willing to or sure that they should move, until Alex does, scooting a little closer, moving her lips against Kelley’s. Their first kiss was unexpected and awkward, their second was at best a peck, but this is what they’ve been trying for all along, and it’s… “awesome,” Kelley breathes, when they part, and it’s Alex’s turn to laugh.

Kelley has to leave that evening, but the upside is that they spend a lot of the day kissing. The more they do it the better they get at it, and the better they get at it, the more they want to do it. They find that the most comfortable way to do it is with Kelley sort of sitting in Alex’s lap, since Kelley is smaller. It occurs to Alex just before Kelley leaves that maybe they should talk about it, but then she thinks that might make Kelley not want to kiss her, so she doesn’t bring it up. When Kelley’s gone, and she’s alone again, she decides that they’re just practicing. She tells herself there’s not a word for whatever kind of relationship they have, and then she tells herself that it doesn’t matter.

-

The scouts start coming for them their sixth year.

They’ve always sort of been on the periphery. They start coming in the fall, because they start trying to sign players by the spring. There have been years where they weren’t too serious about it, but last year they had been all over- all over Megan, and all over Ashlyn- and this year, even if there aren’t any seventh years that they’re looking at too seriously, they’re back. Kelley knows who they’re looking at. Alex doesn’t really seem to notice it.

It’s more difficult to find time and space for the two of them to be alone together at school, so for the first two weeks back, Kelley deals with thinking about kissing Alex, knowing that she could and Alex would kiss her back, but not being able to do it. It’s worse than just thinking about kissing her. It’s like purgatory. Especially because she feels like they’re in competition again, in a way that they haven’t since their second year, since Kelley tried out to be a Seeker. With the scouts here, and with their eyes trained on Alex, Kelley feels like she has something to prove.

Slytherin scores the most points in the first match, but Alex catches the snitch, and nobody’s really surprised. Sydney can beat anyone but Alex, and even though it’s not as if she’s stopped trying, in a way it’s almost like she’s accepted that she’s not going to be faster. When Alex loses she doesn’t lose because someone’s faster than her, she loses because someone knocks her out of the way- which isn’t too easy to do anymore- or because they trick her, or out of dumb luck. After the game, the teams are wandering around on the field exchanging mumbles of ‘good game’- some of them even meaning it- when Kelley pulls Alex out of the crowd by her hand. She drops it once they’re aside, but Alex doesn’t seem to mind, anyway.

She’s incredibly kissable like this, happy and windblown, but somehow Kelley restrains herself. There are more important things than kissing Alex Morgan, anyway, even if it often doesn’t feel like it.

“There’re scouts here,” she says, and Alex startles, looking around like she genuinely didn’t know, “for you. You should go talk to them.”

“I don’t think they’re here for me,” Alex says, and Kelley laughs.

“I’m serious! I’m not the only person on the pitch they could be scouting for. There’s you, and Tobin, and Lauren, even. And Ashlyn and Ali are here. I was gonna go talk to them.”

“Well, go for it. They’re just gonna say the same thing I said.”

Alex goes silent for a second, then drops her eyes, like she’s shy all of a sudden. Kelley ducks so she can look up into the face Alex is trying to hide from her, and it is shy, and it’s cute, and Kelley reaches for Alex’s hand again to squeeze it before anyone sees.

“What?”

“Will you go with me? To talk to them?”

“Ashlyn and Ali?”

“And the scouts.”

In answer all Kelley does is poke Alex with her bat towards where people are waiting to see them. Ashlyn and Ali have come down onto the pitch to say hi to everyone, the way alumni do sometimes- both are playing for club teams now, so they’re examples of the best case scenario. They remember Kelley, but it’s Alex who gets picked up and swung around and asked how she is. As Kelley predicted, they shoo Alex toward the scouts, and Kelley doesn’t go with her, although she doesn’t seem to notice or mind. Watching Alex talk to them is more nerve-wracking than Kelley expects it to be. Ashlyn distracts her.

“So how long has it been?”

“Hm?”

Kelley snaps back to attention. Ashlyn seems serious, but Ali is smirking a little, tucked up under Ashlyn’s arm like it’s impossible to physically separate them.

“How long have you guys been, like, together?”

Kelley tries not to let her expression betray her, but Ali’s grin just gets wider when she furrows her brows and says, honestly, “We’re not together.”

“Come on. The way you guys look at each other? All the casual touching?”

“She’s my best friend,” Kelley explains, maybe a little bit defensively.

“Yeah, well,” Ashlyn laughs and looks to Ali, who looks up at her, and the whole thing is so sweet that Kelley can feel it in her teeth like she could get cavities from it. She doesn’t dispute it any further, just shifts her weight from one hip to the other and glances back over at Alex, who’s engaged, and smiling, in conversation with one of the scouts. Further across the pitch another has grabbed Tobin.

“There’s a study nook on top of the Gryffindor common room that’s almost always empty, if you can find a way in there. And you can always check out a study room in the library as long as you actually do some work so that the caretaker doesn’t get suspicious.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Places to, you know. Be alone. With Alex.”

Kelley blushes, and Ali bursts into laughter, just in time for someone to grab Kelley’s elbow. She turns expecting Alex, but it’s the scout, with Alex beaming over his shoulder, and suddenly there really are more important things than kissing Alex Morgan.

But only by a small margin.

-

It’s a little surreal.

Alex can remember the last time she was in this study nook, and she can remember the last time she saw this couch, but now she gets it. They actually do spend about ten minutes studying before Kelley puts down her homework and reaches over to pluck the quill right out of Alex’s hand. It’s a question, really, and Alex answers it by knocking her book onto the ground and pulling Kelley to her by the tie.

Kelley’s lips are soft and pliant and Alex didn’t realize she could miss kissing so much. She’s not sure whether it’s the kissing she missed or just being this close to Kelley, but she has both of them now, so she focuses on that instead, keeping one of her hands fisted around Kelley’s tie and the other on the back of Kelley’s neck. Kelley’s hands are on either side of her face, but sitting the way they are makes the angle weird, so that their backs and hips hurt from twisting. This is where Alex starts to understand why she walked in on Ali and Ashlyn years ago in the position they were in, and it’s pretty clear that Kelley’s not going to do it- or doesn’t know to- so she takes it upon herself to reposition them.

She pulls away and Kelley comes after her, which works out alright because Alex just sort of wriggles until she can lie back against the cushions. Kelley gets the hint and grins, like Alex is some kind of genius, settling with her knees on either side of Alex’s hips. That makes her skirt ride up a little over her tights and Alex has to focus especially hard on Kelley’s face not to get a rush from the idea, which makes her guilty, really, until they’re kissing again. She can hear the people talking in the common room under her, and there’s no door, so she should be terrified of someone walking in on them, but Kelley’s kissing her so she doesn’t care about anything else.

Something that turns out to be really difficult, now that the position isn’t, is breathing. Eventually they have to pull apart, but Kelley only goes far enough to breathe a little, so close that their noses are still just barely touching.

“I wanna play for the same club as you,” Alex blurts, “after school.”

Kelley, who’s been holding herself up with one arm and resting her free hand by the collar of Alex’s shirt, lifts her head a little more at the non sequitur.

“I don’t want to be separated just because we graduate,” Alex explains, blushing, and Kelley smiles, “okay?”

“Okay. We’ll play together then. You and me and Tobin.”

It’s not really what Alex meant, but she agrees by leaning up to kiss Kelley again, trying to ignore the tiny part of her that wants to say, “just us.”

-

Tobin probably got it before they did. This becomes abundantly clear as time goes on and Kelley and Alex continue to make excuses to be alone together without her. Not that they don’t like Tobin, because they do, and she is their best friend, just that they’re pretty sure Tobin isn’t interested in watching them make out.

It’s not just the kissing, though, otherwise they might not be that obvious.

In the library they’ve always sat across from each other. Alex spreads her work out, so at a four-person table she gets an entire half, and Kelley sits across from her, with Tobin at her side. Midway through November of that year, she and Alex knock feet under the table by accident, and then it stops being an accident. Kelley grins to herself, keeping her eyes on her Ancient Runes book, and kicks at Alex’s foot again, just a little. This time Alex kicks back. Kelley waits a few seconds, like maybe she’s stopping, and then goes again, and it just escalates, with both of them smiling stupidly down at their textbooks and kicking under the table and trying not to laugh out loud until Tobin very purposefully clears her throat and they stop.

-

Over Christmas, when Kelley’s mother asks if she has a boyfriend, she says she doesn’t need one. Jerry laughs at her, but Erin looks at her and says, sincerely, “good for you.”

-

They skip the spring formal that year, the three of them, and camp out in the library the way they tried to do on the last night of their first year. This time they’re more careful and more successful, and when Kelley falls asleep half against Alex, and Alex discreetly moves a little to wind her arm around Kelley’s waist, Tobin looks at her, smiles, but says nothing. Alex loves her for it.

-

Bizarrely, the stress of final exams just makes Kelley crave physical contact more. After about the first two months of being back, they hadn’t been kissing that much. They didn’t really need to. They’re best friends who happen to kiss every once in a while, not people who kiss each other a lot who happen to be friends. They still spend plenty of time with Tobin or with other people, and they can still easily spend time alone together without kissing, although maybe it’s true that they touch a little more, but it’s never more than their knees pressed together under a table.

The stress just makes Kelley so antsy. It’s been a good year for them, in terms of Quidditch, so she’s not too stressed on that front, but exams are getting harder, and whenever she sits down to try and study she just wants to give up. None of them have heard anything official from scouts yet (and probably won’t until over the summer), so it’s not like the exams are unimportant, it’s just that suddenly Kelley can’t focus unless she’s been kissed that day.

Alex doesn’t seem to have a similar problem, because Kelley has to beg her to take a study break and walk down to the Quidditch pitch with her. The study nook is usually taken around exams, but the locker room tents aren’t, and they’re not like muggle locker rooms- since they’re tents they don’t smell bad, because they air after every game. They’re just a little musty, maybe, but then so is the study nook.

There’s nowhere to lie down or sit except the benches, which are pretty uncomfortable, so Kelley ends up sort of pushing Alex against the one solid wall to kiss her properly. It’s always different when they’re standing, because even though Kelley did eventually hit her growth spurt, she’s still almost ten centimeters shorter. She has to get up on her tiptoes to kiss Alex properly, and Alex reaches down to put her hands on Kelley’s hips. Kelley’s hands, from where they rest on Alex’s waist, slide up, aiming for her shoulders, but she misjudges and her right hand covers Alex’s breast over layers of clothes.

Alex’s breath hitches.

It’s the best sound Kelley’s ever heard in her life and it does something funny to her stomach that she tries to ignore but can’t. She’s burning all of a sudden, from her toes to her ears, and she drops down onto her heels and sticks her hands in the pockets of her robe. Alex lets go of her, blinking rapidly like she’s confused and not sure what happened, but her eyes look different now, kind of hazy, and her voice is all breath when she speaks.

“Kel?”

“I’m gonna- I should really be studying.”

“Oh,” Alex says, but it’s more of a sigh, and Kelley gets a jolt from it, “yeah. I mean, yeah, me too.”

So they leave. And they don’t talk about it.

-

They don’t kiss again for the rest of the year. Sometimes when Alex is about to fall asleep she closes her eyes and could swear she can feel Kelley’s hands sliding up her sides again. She tries to be patient, because she’s not sure what happened except that she liked it, and she knows that Kelley’s just as freaked out and inexperienced as her, but something definitely changes. Later that week, when they’re eating together -her and Kelley and Tobin and Sydney- and Alex reminds Kelley she has homework, Kelley blushes when she says, “right, thanks.” Whenever Alex sees Kelley walking with a group of Slytherins and tugs her by the robe to say hi, Kelley can barely make eye contact. Alex figures it’s up to her to do something to fix it.

-

“Jesus, are they always that bad?”

“Sometimes worse. One time they were playing footsie under the table in the library and thought I didn’t notice.”

“I don’t envy you.”

“They’re the best friends anyone could have. Even if they’re terrible at being sneaky.”

-

Kelley is plagued by that little hitch in Alex’s breath. When it’s quiet and she’s half-awake in the mornings she can hear it, if she focuses, and every time she thinks she won’t and then she does again and wishes she hadn’t tried. She wants to hear it again. She wants to hear only the sound of Alex’s breath hitching. She has too many exams to think about it as much as she does.

On the last day, after her last exam, Alex is waiting for her outside. Kelley flushes immediately, but Alex seems determined to hug her, so she lets it happen. When the hug is over, Alex doesn’t pull away completely. She leaves her hands on Kelley’s elbows and just leans back enough to make proper eye contact, which leaves them still very close together, which leaves Kelley still blushing like an idiot.

“How’d it go?”

“Okay. The short answer was weird. How was the Potions conflict?”

“Really short. Kinda worried about how fast I finished.”

“I’m sure you’ll do fine,” Kelley says, but by now she’s trying impossibly hard not to look at Alex’s lips.

Alex kisses her on the forehead. She wraps her arms around Kelley’s back again and kisses Kelley’s forehead and then rests her lips against the crown of Kelley’s head, and Kelley, relieved for no reason that she can actually put into words, holds Alex by the elbows and breathes for a second, eyes closed. When Alex lets her go it’s no longer difficult to make eye contact.

-

From then on it’s like a ticking time-bomb. On the train back, Kelley and Tobin talk club teams and scouting and statistics, but the whole time, Kelley’s pressed up against Alex’s side, from her knee to her shoulder. Eventually Alex gets up the guts to reach for Kelley’s hand, but she only gets Kelley’s pinkie with her own. It’s kind of nice. She leaves it that way, and she even engages a little in conversation for a while, and Tobin, as always, doesn’t bug them about it.

-

Kelley doesn’t go to Alex’s for her birthday that year, because her aunt is getting married and she’s not allowed to miss it, but all that means is that Alex comes back to visit the O’Hara clan in Ireland. Kelley tells Jerry up front that if he does something as stupid as he did the last time Alex was over, she’s going to hex him. Even if it gets her expelled. Her overprotection has to make him a little suspicious, but her parents don’t notice anything, and all that means is that Kelley and Alex get left alone to do whatever they want for three days.

The first day they don’t do much of anything. They wander around town and take stupid, touristy pictures, then find a field nearby where horses aren’t being kept and practice passing a football back and forth. Alex has never done it before, even though Kelley’s tried to explain it to her, but she’s not awful at it after a while. She’s still really fast, even on the ground, and suddenly Kelley gets an idea of what they can do on Alex’s last day there.

She scoops up the ball in her arms and Alex stands there staring at her for a moment before she realizes that they’re not playing anymore.

“Would you wanna see a game?”

-

Derry’s only an hour from where Kelley lives, but it feels like they’re going on an adventure. Kelley leads Alex around by the hand, through a crowd of mostly men in funny colored jerseys holding drinks that don’t smell like Butterbeer. When they find seats, Kelley starts explaining again how football works.

“It’s not that different from Quidditch, see? You’ve got the keepers, the only thing is that there’s only one big goal instead of a bunch of small ones. There’s no Bludger though. The people that are closest to their own goal but aren’t in the goal are the defenders; that’s what I play over the summer. The people in the middle are midfielders and the people up closest to the opponents goal are forwards, who are a bit like Chasers, only they’re not the only people who can score. Each goal is only worth one point, but scoring goals is the only way to win.”

Alex watches the men running from end to end of the field. The strategies they’re using make sense to her, and a lot of them are recognizable- the way they’re passing, for example, or how the keepers act- but there’s one thing that keeps confusing her.

“When the ball’s in the air and they use their heads, why aren’t they just catching it with their arms?”

Kelley laughs a little, and for a moment Alex feels stupid, until there’s a freckly little hand on her knee, and then she feels alright again.

“It’s football because they have to use their feet.”

-

The last night Alex stays over is the first time they kiss properly since the locker tent incident. This time, in the safety of her own home, Kelley makes the choice all on her own. With one hand she holds herself up over Alex, and the other slides along Alex's stomach, over her t shirt. Alex's breath hitches again, and Kelley feels the warmth rush down her spine, but instead of running away she leaves her hand where it is, her lips just centimeters from Alex's. Alex reaches for her hand and places it higher, just over her breast again, blushing the entire time. They're awkward about it, but they both know what they want, and as long as Alex is taking some control of it Kelley feels alright.

They spend what feels like an hour just touching over clothes, learning each other's bodies and concentrating too hard for kisses until they wind down, and then there's forehead kisses and cheek kisses and eyelid kisses and they fall asleep all tangled up in each other, Alex resting against Kelley's chest.

-

Tobin gets signed first.

It must have happened sometime over the summer, but she tells them on the train. After all the hellos, and after they’ve settled into their coach, with Alex’s back up against the window and her legs in Kelley’s lap, Tobin digs in her shoulder bag and holds up a robe.

What they see first is her name, HEATH and the number 17, but the color is pretty much unmistakable. The only team with robes that light blue are the Appleby Arrows, and Alex squeals, launching herself at Tobin. Tobin’s laughing, and Kelley takes the robe from her so that she can hug Alex back- but also to turn it around.

“Appleby Arrows,” she reads, thumbing the shoulders, which are padded better than their school robes.

“Reserves,” Tobin corrects, “I had to choose between them and Chudley reserves but it wasn’t hard. Appleby’s closer to home.”

“I’ve got Falmouth or Wimborne,” Kelley says, and Alex peels herself off of Tobin to plop back in her own seat. She doesn’t say anything right away, because she wants to know what Kelley’s preference is before she does. Kelley looks right at her, though, like she’s waiting, and when Alex refuses to speak she just shrugs.

“Alex? You’ve probably got your pick, right?”

“I- I guess. Kenmare wants me but I don’t want to move to Ireland, I don’t think. Wigtown but I don’t wanna fly around with a meat cleaver on my chest. Chudley but I don’t look good in orange.”

“Is that it?”

It’s Kelley that asks, almost like she’s a little disappointed; Alex lets the smile creep onto her face before she answers, “Let us win, but if we cannot win, let us break a few heads.”

“Falmouth,” Kelley laughs, the relief all over her face, and right there in the coach Alex leans over to kiss her on the cheek.

-

They sign with Falmouth two weeks into seventh year, on the same day. Erin gets excited when Kelley sends her a letter about it and declares that she’s going to buy all the merchandise she can get her hands on. Kelley doesn’t bother to remind her how hard that’ll be, since it’s not a muggle sport; she just lets Erin have it. It’s nice that someone other than her parents are excited about it.

Almost immediately after they sign officially, the Triwizard Tournament gets announced, and their whole equilibrium gets thrown off.

Studying is easier now that there isn’t as much at stake, but the three of them still sit together, like they always have. Now, though, they’re anticipating more people, new people who aren’t eleven-year-olds. Alex brings it up over breakfast three days before the others start to arrive: “Have you ever noticed that we only know Hogwarts kids? Like, there’s no way for any of us to know any of the people who’re coming. It’s like being new all over again.”

-

The Durmstrang kids arrive first.

Their robes are loud and they carry themselves like they own the ground that they walk on, and Kelley right away doesn’t like most of the ones she sees. There are two girls who smile and shake hands with people, though, and a boy behind them who’s taller and thinner than the others, and blonder, with dimples. He makes eye contact with them and says hello, and Tobin’s sudden blush does not go unnoticed.

“He was cute,” Kelley observes, and Tobin tucks her hair behind her ears, flustered. Alex laughs and nudges her, wiggling her eyebrows, but Tobin just murmurs at them to stop it. They’re supposed to be paying some attention, anyway; the Beauxbatons kids are next. Their robes are prettier, but Kelley’s sort of glad that Hogwarts’ are black.

“Eternal glory sounds pretty good,” Kelley jokes, once the announcements have been made, and Tobin’s so busy staring into the distance that Kelley has to kick her under the table to get her attention.

“Huh?”

“Are you gonna put your name in?”

Tobin furrows her brows, resting her elbows on the table.

“No way.”

“Are you gonna go say hi to that cute boy, at least?”

She blushes; next to Kelley Alex dissolves into giggles. She says she won’t, but it’s obvious to all of them that she will. And when she does, when she actually gets up the guts to walk across the hall and introduce herself, Alex clings to Kelley’s arm, stifling giggles in her shoulder. The whole thing is very awkward to watch, but it’s adorable, and Kelley can sort of see the boy’s reactions, but she gets the best idea when Tobin turns back around with a dumb grin on her face.

“His name’s Aleksi,” she tells them, when she sits back down, “and he wants me to show him around after dinner.”

“Show him around,” Kelley howls, and Alex claps a hand over her mouth.

-

With Tobin not around for the evening, Kelley and Alex spend it practicing- first Quidditch, the Charms, and then fitting their bodies together in the relative warmth and absolute quiet of the greenhouse. This time Alex gets her hand under Kelley’s sweater, her cold fingers pressing against Kelley’s hips, and they both gasp a little at it, but neither of them runs. They laugh instead

-
The Cup is tempting, every time they pass it. That’s the point, of course, but still, it taunts them, appearing in their thoughts in the middle of classes, or the middle of the night. Kelley’s the one of the three of them who’s the most intrigued by it, whose eyes linger the longest.

“You should put your name in,” Alex says, when she catches Kelley look again as they walk. Kelley shrugs, pretending like she wasn’t looking at all.

“Only if you do.”

“I don’t really want to. I mean, I don’t really even care that much about it, and anyway you’d be the perfect Champion.”

Kelley wrinkles her nose, taking her hands out of her pockets and bumping Alex with her shoulder.

“You’d be just as good.”

The compliment makes Alex smile, but she doesn’t believe it. To her, Kelley embodies Hogwarts- she’s dedicated and determined and brave. Alex never feels brave, but mostly she’s starting to become aware of how selfish she is- she’s reminded of it every time she gets a twinge remembering that she shares Kelley’s company with Tobin so often. She’s selfish enough to want Kelley all to herself sometimes, but at least she’s aware enough to notice it. Even if Kelley doesn’t seem to.

“I’d chicken out,” she replies, and Kelley doesn’t laugh even though it’s meant to be a joke. Instead she gets in front of Alex, stopping her cold, and frowns, all freckles and dark brows.

“Please put your name in with me. You don’t have to if you really don’t want to, but I’d- it’d mean a lot to me. If you did.”

Alex says she’ll think about it. She knows there’s no thinking to do.

-

It’s kind of anticlimactic when they finally get there. Tobin goes with them as moral support; Kelley’s jittery and to her Alex just looks politely bored. Kelley takes Alex’s hand (cool and dry where hers has begun to shake and sweat) and lifts the slip of paper with her other.

“Count of three,” Tobin says, to Alex’s left.

“One,” and Kelley closes her eyes.

“Two,” and Alex squeezes her hand.

“Three,” and she opens her eyes at the moment she lets the slip go, into the flames where it disappears along with Alex’s. And that’s it.

-

Pulling off all-nighters is much easier now that they’re of the age that the caretaker doesn’t really question them. It helps that Lauren’s Head Girl and can get Tobin into the library (with Alex and Kelley) anytime, and they take advantage- sometimes they even study. Mostly they sit and talk, though, finding the most comfortable chairs or couches and curling up together. Tobin flops onto her back on the ground and rests her feet on Alex’s lap. Alex’s left knee is pressed against Kelley’s, and she’s doodling in the margins of her Herbology homework, savoring the scratch of quill against parchment. Again and again she doodles her Falmouth robes, A. MORGAN on the back ( C. MORGAN now belonging to a full team Beater) and the falcon on the front.

“So,” Kelley says, passing Tobin a chocolate toad, “tell us about Aleksi. Did he put his name in?”

“I didn’t ask him,” Tobin says, nibbling one of the toad’s arms, “he’s very quiet.”

“He’s very quiet, or your lips are usually not engaged in /talking/ to him?”

Tobin picks a foot up off of Alex’s lap, dislodging her parchment, and halfheartedly kicks at Kelley, who just pushes the foot away and laughs.

“He hasn’t kissed me yet.”

“So then why don’t /you/ kiss /him/?”

“Cause I’ll be bad at it, probably.”

Alex finally joins the conversation, maybe a little bit too thoughtfully- “Nobody’s naturally bad at kissing. I mean, it’s weird at first, I guess, but the more you do it the better it is. So you should probably get the weird part over with now.”

Tobin sits up a little, propping up on her elbows, and looks from Alex to Kelley and back again.

“Gross,” she deliberates, but she’s grinning when she says it, and when Kelley tackles her to the ground she’s expecting it, even though Alex has to pry them apart and remind them to behave themselves. Despite herself, and despite everything, Alex starts to hope that Kelley /won’t/ get picked from the goblet. Things are just right how they are now, just comfortable, and the last thing she wants for their last year is to lose this balance.

-

Nobody wants to sit down when the time comes to. By the time everyone who needs to be seated is seated, Kelley’s antsy, Alex is yawning, and Tobin’s making faces at Aleksi, whose dimples are apparently more interesting than the task at hand. The headmaster quiets them, and Alex leans a little into Kelley’s side, but she’s so focused on the goblet that she doesn’t acknowledge it.

“This is the moment I know all of you have been waiting for, and as such I won’t delay.”

The blue flame swells and flickers, and then turns a blood red amidst the gasps of the students gathered to watch. A slip of paper bursts forth from it, which the headmaster catches and flattens in his palm. He takes his time and Kelley leans forward, impatient, trying to remember the size and shape of her own slip.

“The Durmstrang champion- Elande Bjurstrom.”

A girl at least twenty centimeters taller than Alex takes her place by the goblet, cheered on by her classmates and the rest of the hall. Alex nudges Kelley, who, in her nervousness, has forgotten to clap, and she only gets one clap in before everyone’s stopped.

“The Beaxubatons champion- Luc Baudin.”

The boy who gets up to join the Durmstrang girl is much shorter than her, and handsome, and the girls are absolutely cheering the loudest. Kelley clenches her fists against her thighs so hard that she can feel her own fingernails digging into her palms.

“The Hogwarts champion- Alex Morgan.”

-

Alex can’t get up until Tobin nudges her In the ribs. When she stands she feels wobbly and unsteady, like a figure in a dream. She takes the slip of paper and her place between the other champions, the blood pounding in her ears so loudly that she can hardly hear the cheering. She looks up, searching for Kelley, expecting disappointment or hurt, but finds her smiling, bright-eyed, clapping.

“How?”

She mouths it over the noise, and Kelley just shrugs and fist-pumps.

-

“How can I prepare for a test where I don’t even know what the subject is?”

Alex flips through her Charms notes, flushed and frustrated. Kelley peers over her shoulder; Syd’s got Brooklyn in her lap, and Tobin is just watching, legs tucked up under her on the plush chair.

“There’s got to be some way to get a clue or something,” Syd says, twirling the cat’s tail around her fingers. Alex wrinkles her nose, and Kelley reaches over her shoulder to flip back a few pages.

“How? If I’m gonna win, I wanna do it without cheating.”

Tobin makes an appreciative noise but Syd just raises her eyebrows.

“You’ll be the only one,” Kelley observes, resting a hand on Alex’s shoulder, “I mean, I get it, you’re a Gryffindor, you’re a goody two-shoes,” Alex twists to frown at her and Syd giggles, “but you’ll start off at a disadvantage if you don’t at least try to get information out of someone. The other two are already. Hounding teachers, sneaking around.”

“I wanna beat them fairly,” Alex insists, nearly whining.

“It’s not fair if they know more than you, is it?”

Alex sighs, staring down at her parchment. Kelley waits, dragging her hand from Alex’s shoulder to her neck, fingertips dancing over the sensitive spot under her ear, then behind to play with the hair at the back of her head. After a moment, Alex looks over at Tobin, who shrugs, and quietly affirms, “They’re right.”

Coming from Tobin, it’s all the permission that Alex needs.

-

She finds Luc walking to the Owlery.

It’s an accident, really, but she sees him heading up, and- well, she doesn’t have her own owl, or any reason to use any of Hogwarts’ owls, but- her instinct tells her to go after him. When she catches up to him, he turns to her, and the way he smiles makes her feel kind of targeted. Not in a scary way, just that he’s looking at her very closely, and he’s very handsome, and standing pretty near her.

“Hi,” she says, once they’ve stopped. He leans against the wall behind him and continues to just stare at her- from her shoes to the top of her head- for so long that she wonders whether or not he might be mute.

“Bonjour,” he answers, with an exaggerated- or what sounds like an exaggerated- accent.

“Are you, um- do you know anything about the first task?”

It’s stupid and she knows that as soon as she says it. There must be some roundabout way to ask, some way to ask him without him realizing it’s what she’s doing. Probably she’s supposed to try and charm him into it or blurt it out, but she’s not good at manipulation or anything like that, so she just stands there with her ears turning red and waits for him to decide to speak again. His dark eyebrows raise a few inches, but once again he takes his sweet time before he speaks to her.

“If I did, why would I tell you?”

He’s right, and she’s an idiot. She thinks about leaving right then, but she remembers Kelley’s hand on her shoulder and in her hair, and how badly Kelley really wanted to be in her position, and how the whole point of winning this stupid Cup is /for Kelley/, so she stays. And something comes to her, albeit awkwardly.

“Because it would be the honorable thing to do.”

Luc laughs.

“Honorable,” he agrees, but he lets the word hang in the air between them. Alex stalls for a moment before she lurches forward and touches his lapel, smoothing it down, making sure she’s in his space. He smells strongly of something foreign and almost flowery. She thinks she might be able to choke on his cologne as easily as she feels like choking over his personality.

“You seem like an honorable man.”

The words taste like bile, and she has to physically /try/ to keep from screwing up her face, but he seems to believe her. It’s probably because she leaves her hand on his chest. He looks down at her and she stares at the space between his eyebrows and eventually he says, “Oh?”, and Alex realizes she’s won something, somehow.

-

“It’s dragons. The first task is dragons.”

Alex mutters it into Kelley’s ear, tugging her by the sleeve of her robe away from Syd and someone else she doesn’t know.

“What?”

Kelley practically yelps and Alex covers her mouth with one hand.

“It’s dragons. We have to steal an egg from a nesting dragon.”

“How did you-”

“Luc told me.”

Alex is clipped about it, like she doesn’t want to really answer, and it makes Kelley nervous. She waits a second for elaboration and then crosses her arms, which makes Alex look away, which means she definitely doesn’t want to talk about it.

“Why? Why would he tell you?”

Alex shrugs, but Kelley reaches to turn her head with one hand, forcing eye contact and somehow not that surprised by the guilt she sees all over Alex’s face.

“Because he thinks I have a crush on him.”

Kelley’s heart sinks. She drops her hand, but Alex grabs it and holds it in between them. They’re both going to be late to class but it’s not as if that’s a new phenomenon; they’re seventh-years with plans already cemented. There’s no rush.

“Do you?”

“No! Of course not. Of course not. Look, how I know isn’t important. I have to steal an egg from a dragon. How in Merlin’s name-”

Kelley squeezes her hand violently enough that Alex falls silent, looking around guiltily as if to be sure nobody heard her diatribe. For a moment they just stand there like that, breathing, Kelley letting Alex take a moment to relax, and then Kelley says, quietly, “Listen- I have an idea.”

-

The idea is risky. Kelley says that she doesn’t know for sure what the two other Champions’ plans will be, but that she figures they’ll try to sneak around. Nobody’s really gutsy enough to try and fight a dragon- that’s the sort of stuff you’d only read in fairy tales. Naturally, it’s exactly the plan she projects.

“Sneaking around isn’t going to work with every dragon,” she says, thumbing through one of four books she’s gotten from the library, “some of them will find you by smell, some by heat, some by color- there’s just no way to know which skill you’ll need and you don’t have time to perfect all of them. You need something that’s going to work on any dragon you might get thrown into the ring with.”

Alex feels like she might pass out.

“You have to fight it. You know? Not fight it to kill it, just fight it long enough to get the egg.”

“How would I fight and get the egg at the same time?”

Kelley shrugs, leaning her elbows on the book when she looks up.

“How do you fly a broom and try to catch a Snitch at the same time?”

It takes them hours, but they finally come up with something. The charm isn’t one that Alex is particularly good at, but it’s one that she knows, one that she’s been taught. Kelley writes down all the information that’s important, like the incantation- ‘avis’- and the motions she needs to make. She makes Alex practice out of one of the library windows, and at first all she can conjure are feathers. Kelley watches for a while before she shakes her head and says, “you’re not playing with your cat, you’re fighting a dragon. By now you’d be a burnt-up crisp.”

Alex drops her wand, horrified, and Kelley comes up behind her to hug her around the waist.

“I really, really need you to come out of this with all of your pieces intact, Al. I like all of your pieces. Can you try and at least imagine that something with teeth the size of your arm is trying to attack you? The object here is to distract it.”

This time, with Kelley’s arm around her, Alex’s wand produces birds- great, tropical, multicolored birds that disappear into the distance in clusters, and she gasps, delighted, rewarded by Kelley’s lips against the shell of her ear and a rush of relief so strong that she has to close her eyes.

 

-

Kelley does her best to be surprised by the task when it comes. It’s not difficult- the dragons are enormous, and terrifying even sleeping like they are when the stands fill.

Her predictions are right.

Elande doesn’t even cast anything at first, just finds a rock to hide behind and runs whenever she’s exposed. The dragon she’s up against is venomous, and it’s not trying to fry her as much as it is trying to bite at her. It takes her twenty minutes to get close enough to the egg to cast her charm-
- and pull the egg toward her; even then she has to run again to avoid- narrowly- getting speared by a tooth or eaten alive.

Luc is better at sneaking, but he makes it easier on himself by casting
and practically gluing his dragon’s feet to the ground. That doesn’t stop the fire, though, which makes it difficult for him to get at the egg until he casts
and runs for- apparently- his life amidst a screen of smoke that just barely gets him through unscathed, if his robes are a bit charred.

When Alex comes out into the ring, Kelley’s heart leaps into her throat. She looks incredibly tiny, and scared, and suddenly the idea of Alex fighting a dragon seems a lot like a death sentence.

The dragon, enormous and black and watching its target with eyes so purple Kelley swears that they could be fake, doesn’t make a move until Alex lifts her want. The first move it makes is to encase her in flame.

Kelley gasps, clutching the wood of the seat in front of her; for the few seconds that the fire lasts she imagines that Alex is being burned alive, until the fire clears and Alex isn’t there at all. The next time she appears the dragon doesn’t seem to know where she’s coming from either, and she clambers onto a rock and casts her charm, and Kelley holds her breath until she sees it- a flock of falcons, gray falcons like Falmouth’s mascot, that crowd around the dragon’s face and peck at its eyes and distract it entirely from Alex, who’s stumbling down toward the golden egg as quickly as possible.

She has it in her hands five minutes before Luc did and fifteen before Elande.

-

Luc, unsurprisingly, asks Alex to the Yule Ball. Now that she doesn’t particularly need his help, she has no qualms about telling him “no thank you,” which ends with him looking annoyed and her feeling vaguely guilty but figuring that she’ll go with Kelley anyway and maybe then he’ll get the hint. That’s why she’s completely struck by surprise when Kelley joins her and Tobin at dinner and tells them, as cheerfully as Alex has ever seen her say anything, “Cormac’s taking me to the Yule Ball.”

Cormac. Cormac as in the awkward Ravenclaw in their Potions class who’s sat behind them all year and hardly said a word to either of them. Tobin looks at Alex, but Alex just refuses to look up from her plate, still trying to understand the situation, and trying her best to hide her disappointment from Kelley- who clearly didn’t have the same train of thought.

“Aleksi is taking me,” Tobin says, and Kelley grins. Alex knows she’s supposed to react, so she makes herself smile and bump Tobin’s shoulder and act like everything’s fine, but inside she knows she won’t be able to look at Kelley, and she knows she won’t be able to go to the dance and see her dancing with someone else. She won’t be able to handle seeing someone else’s arms around Kelley and Kelley’s eyes on someone else for a whole night, and she knows very well that makes her selfish, but she can’t make herself care.

She doesn’t pick out a dress until one of the third-year girls in the common room, Morgan, guilts her into it.

“Did you not get asked?”

Alex frowns; Brooklyn crawls up to rest against her chest.

“Not by the person who I wanted to ask me,” she admits, and Morgan huffs.

“So you’re just not gonna go? That’s not the way to make them wish they’d asked you, you know. If you put on a really pretty dress and do yourself up all nice and then go, they’ll wish they’d taken you. You’re a Champion! Everyone wants to be you or be with you. You’ve gotta go, Alex. Please? Can I help you pick out the dress?”

-

Alex curls Tobin’s hair because Tobin asks her to; Kelley stands in the bathroom with them and tries to do her eyeliner evenly, focusing so hard that she doesn’t even really notice how good either of them look until she gets down off of her stepstool and Tobin is standing there, in a dark blue dress with her hair in loose curls all down to her middle back. Alex is looking at her from a few feet away, making sure the curls are even, and over Tobin’s shoulder she catches Kelley’s eye. It’s barely a heartbeat before she looks away, but Kelley chalks it up to focus and doesn’t much notice.

Aleksi and Tobin make the cutest couple. He towers over her a bit, but the way he looks at her is so sweet, and the way she looks at him is even sweeter. Kelley figures it’s karma for having had to deal with the shenanigans Tobin’s had to deal with for years now, from footsie under the table to badly-concealed flirting at the dinner table. Cormac’s tie doesn’t match her dress, but she doesn’t really mind, and he’s an awkward dancer but not a bad one, and she’s thoroughly enjoying her night until she takes a punch break and finds Tobin and Aleksi standing off to the side together- alone, without Alex.

They’re laughing together, joking about how they both have two left feet and the possibility of Tobin waking up with bruised toes. Kelley gets some punch, not because she’s thirsty but because she doesn’t want to interrupt, and Cormac follows her like he has absolutely nothing to do and nobody else to talk to.

“Where’s Alex?”

She interjects it at the soonest possible moment, but the look she gets from Tobin makes her think that maybe she shouldn’t have asked.

“She’s outside in the garden.”

-

It was a cruel twist of fate that Cormac happened to be handsome, in a goofy kind of way. Goofy made him a good match for Kelley, and Alex had watched them for a while before his hand on Kelley’s hip had started to make her nauseous with jealousy. She hadn’t even bothered to think up an excuse for Tobin. Tobin knew. Everyone knew. Everyone but Kelley.

In the garden it’s easier to breathe. Alex feels like her dress is too long and too fancy and she peels off her silk gloves so that she feels less like a princess left on the dance floor, and tries to decide what to do with the golden egg. When she’d tried to give it back, the headmasters had told her to keep it, but no matter how she tried to open it, it seemed shut for good. She’s mid-thought when something touches her elbow and she jumps, spinning and turning to see Kelley at a time when she’s too distracted to cover up her vulnerability.

So she lets the disappointment show. She lets herself stand there and be hurt, and cold, and overdressed and alone, and she lets Kelley see all of it, and she’s almost even angry before Kelley touches her cheek and asks her if she’s not having a good time.

“I’ve been asked to dance ten times,” Alex answers, noticing the quiver in her own voice, “but I said no to all of them.”

Kelley doesn’t answer, just tilts her head a little. Her hair is up in a pretty bun, with some loose little curls that Alex wants to catch between a thumb and a forefinger and tuck behind her ear. A day before she might have.

“I said no to all of them because the person I wanted to be dancing with didn’t ask me to dance,” she continues slowly, taking a deep breath so that her voice stays level, “because the person I wanted to dance with was dancing with someone else. With a date. With her date.”

Alex sees it in Kelley’s face when she finally gets it. She drops her hand back to her side and stands there dumbfounded for a moment, opening and closing her mouth a few times like a fish out of water as she starts and stops a sentence. As if he’s been summoned by his mention, Cormac appears in the entrance to the garden, holding a glass of punch, his tie askew.

Kelley turns to look at him, and he balks a little bit.

“Sorry, is this a, uh, a bad time?”

Kelley is supposed to say no and go off with him, to let him whisk her off her feet onto the dance floor again. That’s what Alex expects, but what Kelley really does is look away from him, right back at Alex, and make her choice very clear.

“Yeah. It is.”

-

With him gone it occurs to Kelley to touch Alex again. When she reaches for Alex's hand, Alex intertwined their fingers and squeezes. In the moonlight she looks unreal, like a goddess. Kelley wishes she had the guts to say so.

"I didn't want to be in competition with him," Alex murmurs, "because I can't beat him. I'm not- I can't be that. I can't be some smart handsome boy you can introduce to your parents to impress them."

"You always win," Kelley blurts, stepping a little closer, "you win every time, Alex. There's no competition, ever."

Alex dips her head until their foreheads touch, and Kelley closes her eyes.

"I didn't realize you wanted me to ask you," she admits, "I didn't realize you wanted us to be- like that."

Alex laughs but doesn't answer. Kelley's thumb brushes over her wrist and her knuckles.

"I can't figure out how to open the egg."

-

It's Kelley's idea to submerge it in water.

"Just a hunch," she says, dunking it in the full sink. The egg opens, Kelley lifts it out of the water, and then it screams until it closes up again. It does the same thing when Alex tries, and then Kelley suggests putting her head underwater and Alex refuses to on the grounds of just having washed her hair. With a huff, Kelley does it herself, soaking the front of her robes.

Alex towels her off after, but she freezes when Kelley tells her, "you're going to lose something you'll sorely miss."

-

On the day of the task, it's immediately made clear that they have to be prepared to swim. For what amount of time, Alex isn't sure; Elande doesn't seem worried about it but Alex casts a bubble-head charm just in case. The lake is murky, and for a while Alex thinks they might just have to swim across it, until she remembers Kelley's- or the egg's- warning and realizes there must be something at the bottom. At the end of the line she can see that Luc has gills, somehow, and a fish's jaw. It's grotesque, so she looks away, and doesn't look back.

As nervous as she had been to face the dragon, at least she had had an idea, then, some kind of plan and knowledge of what to expect. Crouching at the edge of the lake with her head encased in a bubble, her hands start to get clammy, and it feels like her insides are shaking.

What could possibly be waiting for them in that water?

-

It's colder than she expects it to be. She needs a moment to acclimate, and when she looks to her left she sees Elande transforming into a dolphin, and realizes that she'll fall behind if she doesn't push forward, even though the water is so cold that her lungs seize up.

She's so focused on the cold that she misses a mermaid's spear by maybe an inch.

They're everywhere, all around her, and she's casting spells as fast as she can but still trying to kick down; somewhere in the frenzy she catches sight of fish-headed Luc dodging blow after blow and realizes that he can't cast any spells or charms without human lips.

She diverts toward him, for reasons she can't even justify to herself, and helps him reorient himself before she kicks on again. By now, whenever she brandishes her wand, the mermaids shrink away from her, hissing, and retreat to the bottom.

What's waiting there takes Alex's breath away.

She early drops her wand but instead starts swimming frantically, clawing at the water in an attempt to get closer to where Kelley is tied up, eyes closed in an eerie way that makes Alex sure she's dead or dying.

It takes her three times to cast Deprimo so that the rush of air from her wand cuts through the ties holding Kelley down, and she can't control it, so the other two victims are untied, too. Luc is beside in in seconds with his arm around his prize, a boy who looks like a miniature version of him, but Elande's dolphin form can't do the same.

For a moment the three of them make eye contact with each other, and then Luc is gone, bursting toward the surface, and Alex knows that she can choose to try and beat him or help Elande save her victim.

It doesn't take much thinking about.

Alex tugs Kelly under her arm and holds her there, somehow, panting, managing to find the ties on the lake floor and loop one around Elande's slippery neck. She ties both ends around the boy's wrists and makes sure he's relatively secure on her back. Kelley looks paler by the second, and Alex suddenly realizes that helping Elande might mean Kelley's death, which almost cripples her right then and there when she hefts Kelley onto her back. She expects Elande to go and leave her for last, but instead the dolphin waits and nods at her Togo first.

She's in front the whole way up, with Elande pushing a little to help her momentum when her arms start to tire from holding Kelley up. They break the surface at the same time.

Kelley is too pale and small and quiet when Alex gets her onto the dock, and not breathing, and Alex panics, popping her bubble and struggling to remember the spell that she needs. She starts pumping against Kelley's chest first before she realizes that her wand is gone, lost somewhere at the bottom of the lake, and she sobs "Anapneo!" with such force and meaning that it works without a wand to help it.

Kelley coughs up a fountain of water and Alex rolls her onto her side, hands shaking. She doesn’t even realize she’s still speaking, or crying, until there are adults around them, and a wool blanket over her shoulders that she immediately puts on Kelley’s. Kelley is conscious now, just barely, supported by Alex’s arms and the hands of people around her when she sits up; Alex, exhaustion finally hitting her all at once, can do nothing more than pull Kelley close and cling to her, muffling her sobs against Kelley’s dripping hair.

-

“I don’t want to do the final task.”

Kelley sips from her mug for a few more seconds before addressing Alex, who sits at the foot of her infirmary bed, hands in her lap.

“You have to. You have to win.”

“No. I’m done. They- I thought you were gonna die.”

Kelley puts down the mug and reaches for Alex, who dutifully crawls the length of the bed to lie beside her, head on Kelley’s chest, Kelley’s hand smoothing through her hair.

“They wouldn’t have let me die, you know.”

“It doesn’t matter. I was terrified. I love you.”

It comes out all in a rush against the blanket, but Kelley hears it just fine, and she breaks into a smile so big that it makes her face hurt. She kisses the top of Alex’s head once, twice for emphasis, and answers.

“I love you, too. And you’re gonna win this thing, alright? There’s only one more. They can’t use me again, that would be tacky.”

“I hate this,” Alex laughs, but this one Kelley knows isn’t true.

-

They’re told the night before that the final task is a maze. It seems easy compared to the other two, but Alex figures that comparing anything to fighting a dragon or almost losing Kelley is silly, anyway. Kelley tells her beforehand that the fact it doesn’t sound physically difficult doesn’t mean she should take it easy.

“It’ll be a mental game this time,” she says, “those are harder to win. You have to remind yourself that it’s a game, you know? Like Quidditch. It’s just a game. Nothing bad can actually happen, except for you losing.”

“I’m not worried about it,” she says, but when she leaves that night she leaves with a lingering kiss.

-

The maze is dark, and all three of them start in different positions. Alex wonders how anyone could be watching, but people are still gathered to watch, so she knows she has no excuse to slack off. She has to win- at least for Kelley’s sake. She has to win for Gryffindor, and for Hogwarts, and for herself.

The first thing she does is to summon her broom.

It’s dark, so she almost doesn’t see it coming, but she catches it at the last second and takes off on it, figuring that’ll give her a head start. At the first two splits, she goes right, expecting to eventually encounter the outer right edge of the maze and from the corner work her way in to the center.

That only works for about ten minutes before everything goes pitch black.

Casting “Lumos” only lets her see a few feet in front of her, which means she’s going slowly now, defeating the purpose of her broom, and she starts to feel despair shifting in her stomach when she realizes that her plan may have cost her valuable time. She starts heading back the way she came, tearing leaves from the hedges to leave behind her as a trail, but as soon as she does a gust of wind comes through that wobbles her on her broom and blows away her markers.

She starts to feel as if she’ll never get out. It doesn’t get any lighter, but she starts hearing muttering that makes her want to turn back around. Kelley had told her they’d be playing a mind game, so for a moment she hops off of her broom and thinks.

Turning around and running from the muttering is what they want her to do. Doing what they want her to do won’t get her the Cup- otherwise the maze would be an easy, straight line, in the middle of the day. Taking a step into the darkness where she can hear voices she doesn’t recognize is terrifying, and it makes her heart jump in her chest and her palms tingle, but she does it. She walks towards the muttering, and eventually, when she realizes that she’s going straight, she gets on her broom again and goes faster. The muttering becomes murmuring, the murmuring becomes talking, becomes shouting, becomes yelling, becomes screaming, until Alex is sure she’s going to be deaf, and not so sure she should have gone towards the noises in the first place, and by the time she bursts out into the open in the center of the maze she’s gasping and tumbles off of her broom into a heap.

Luc is already there. He’s stopped because she startled him, his hand just lifted to the cup, and Alex scrambles to her feet but doesn’t make a move towards it. For a moment the way he’s looking at her makes her think that he’s going to wait for her, that, like Elande, he’ll wait so that they can come out tied, but then his eyes darken into pity and he lifts his hand and the Cup is his.

Just like that.

Alex sits back down beside her broom as the maze starts to dissipate around them, her mind completely blank of anything other than Kelley’s voice telling her over and over again, “It’s just a game.”

-

“I’m sorry.”

Kelley startles when Alex appears beside her. The milling crowd has died down now, and people are looking at Alex, but nobody’s really saying anything to her. They’re either too busy talking to each other or not sure what to say to someone who’s just lost the Triwizard Cup. And here’s Alex apologizing to her.

“For what?”

Kelley tugs on Alex’s robe to bring her closer and Alex doesn’t resist, but she looks exhausted and disappointed.

“For not winning it. I know you really wanted me to. And I know you- you really wanted to be in it. I’m sorry I got picked instead of you, and I’m sorry I couldn’t win it for you.”

Kelley laughs. It’s the most inappropriate reaction in the world, but it’s what she does- she just laughs, curling her arms around Alex’s waist and hugging her as close as possible.

“You don’t get it, do you? You’re the prize. Every time.”