|SIYE Time:20:19 on 23rd March 2018|
Category: Post-Hogwarts, Post-DH/PM
Genres: Action/Adventure, Angst, Drama, General, Humor, Romance
Warnings: Extreme Language
Summary: Annabel has had a bad day. She tries to deal with it as best she can.
The last thing she needs is to meet someone else who has hurt her, someone who she hasn't seen in many years. Or is it?
Do people really change. Has James Sirius Potter finally grown up?
Note added by admin: while the H/G portion of this tale is secondary and comes later, the story is a fine addition to the Northumbrian post-canon, and is welcome at SIYE.
Hitcount: Story Total: 15913; Chapter Total: 1291
Awards: View Trophy Room
Lily was mid-stride when Henry shouted. Twisting, she planted both feet firmly on the ground. The youngest of the Potters was set firm and facing us almost before Rose had registered my brother’s words. Staring in astonishment at us, Lily gave us a smile that propelled me and–I was certain–Henry back to First School.
‘It really is Annie,’ she bellowed delightedly. ‘And Hennery-Pennery, too! What are you doing here, Hennery?’
Lily and I had been so close! As she scampered towards us, the youngest of the Potters seemed to have grown up into a combination of all of my best memories of both her and her mother. She wasn’t tall, and her flame-red hair was long and flowing. Her open and friendly smile was the final touch that transformed her into a bespectacled version of Ginny Potter.
Rose, nowhere near as quick to react as Lily, strode after her cousin wearing an entirely different expression. Pale-faced and worried, she was staring at my brother in shock and disbelief. From her expression, she might have just seen a ghost.
‘One of our teachers is a ghost,’ James whispered.
Startled, I looked up at him. Was he reading my mind? It seemed unlikely, as he wasn’t even looking at me. The answer I gave myself was even more of a surprise to me. Trying to figure out why I would believe that eye contact was needed for mind reading, I took a long look at James. He was concentrating on the two young women approaching us, and it seemed that he hadn’t actually spoken. I needed to be certain.
‘What did you just say?’ I asked.
‘Me?’ He stared into my face, looking for confirmation. I nodded. ‘I said, “they’re going to kill him”,’ he reminded me. ‘This’ll be good! Although Rosie looks strangely worried.’
I wasn’t interested in Rosie, because Lily was confronting my brother. ‘Hennery Pennery,’ she said seriously, folding her arms and taking up a decent approximation of her mother’s scolding stance. ‘If you ever call me Lily-loo again, I will constantly call you Hennery Pennery.’
‘It’s a deal!’ he declared, holding out a hand for her to shake. Her joyous laughter echoed down the street, infecting both James and I. Even Rose gave a brief smile. I beamed when, ignoring the hand of friendship Henry had extended, Lily hugged him.
Upon releasing him, she turned to Rose and demanded, ‘Why didn’t you tell me Hen was going to be here, too?’ and then closed on me.
Grabbing me by the waist, Lily pulled me into a surprisingly powerful hug. I threw my arms around her and responded in kind. I’d always been taller than Lily, but I was in flats, and she was in three-inch heels, so we were almost eye to eye when we embraced.
‘Good to see you, Lily,’ I told her. ‘You’re looking great.’
‘It’s good to see you too, Annie,’ she replied. ‘You look great, too!’ She lowered her voice, and mischievously added, ‘Although, to be honest, I’m not sure about the hair!’
‘It’s a work in progress,’ I admitted, laughing. I hadn’t realised how much I’d missed her forthright comments. Squeezing her as tightly as I could, and pressing my cheek against hers in an attempt to conceal my tears of joy, I whispered, ‘It really is great to see you, Lily.’
‘I’ve missed you,’ admitted Lily softly. We didn’t fully release each other; I couldn’t bring myself to physically part from her. Instead, grinning like Cheshire cats, we held each other’s shoulders and continued our examination. I felt a warm glow spread through my body.
Removing one hand, I ran it through my curls. ‘My ex-boyfriend liked it short, straight, and very blonde,’ I explained. ‘Another few weeks and it’ll be long enough to be trimmed and restyled.’
‘For the idiot?’ she asked, nodding at her brother.
‘Hey!’ James protested. ‘I resemble that remark.’ Henry, of course, laughed at James’ terrible joke.
‘No, for me,’ I told Lily firmly, staring into her smiling face.
‘Why are you here, Henry?’ Unlike Lily, Rose’s first words to my brother were a demand.
Lily opened her eyes wide, pulled her chin back, and gave us her “Rosie’s off on one again” grimace. Although I hadn’t seen it in years, I recognised it and laughed. Poor Rosie had never been a natural rule-breaker, and she’d usually been the last to agree to whatever hare-brained scheme we’d cooked up.
‘Nice to see you, too, Rosie-posie,’ Henry said. Moving quickly, he grabbed her around the waist, hugged her, and lifted her off her feet. She squealed in panic. ‘Good to see you haven’t changed,’ he told her as he dropped her back to earth.
‘Why…’ Rose began her demand again.
‘Let’s go inside,’ I suggested, indicating the restaurant.
‘Good idea,’ said James.
I took his outstretched hand and, with tingling fingers, led them towards the restaurant. When we reached the entrance, James released me and pushed the door open. Holding it, he ushered us all inside. I went first, and walked over to the lectern. Both Rose and Lily had linked with my brother. Lily was smiling and joking. Although Rose was a little more relaxed, she was now wearing the pinch-lipped expression I’d always associated with her being certain that one or more of us–and it was usually James and Henry–was about to do something she knew the parents wouldn’t approve of.
‘We’ve a table booked, for seven,’ I told the hostess, a woman in a green polo shirt and black trousers.
The woman pulled her pad from the pocket of her apron and swiped it into action. ‘Seven? What’s the name?’ she asked, looking a little worried.
I was trying to guess–Weasley or Potter–when Rose provided the answer.
‘Weasley,’ she told the waiter. ‘But the table was booked for six, not seven. That won’t be a problem, will it? I didn’t know he was going to be here.’
When she indicated my beefy big brother, he stuck out his bottom lip and made it quiver. Rubbing his eyes with his fists, Henry then pretended to cry. ‘Rosie-posy doesn’t love Hennery.’ Giving a dramatic sob, he threw back his head and covered his eyes with his forearm. ‘She booked a table for a gang get-together but she didn’t invite me!’
‘There, there, poor, sad, and sorrowful Henry.’ I reached over to give my brother’s back a conciliatory rub, but static electricity arced between us before I could touch him. We both flinched, and I felt cold sweat trickle down my chest.
Henry gasped and lowered his arm. ‘Sorrowful! It shouldn’t be me!’ he exclaimed seriously. ‘We’re supposed to sing the song all together, or in order of our ages. Jamie should be the…’ He took a deep breath and sang, ‘One…’ He got no further. James began to sing at the same moment Henry did.
‘One’s for sorrow.’ It was almost as if James couldn’t help himself. He stared at me, and I could see the astonishment on his face.
‘Two’s for joy,’ Henry joined in tunefully. My brother seemed to be cheerfully unaware of the sudden change in the atmosphere.
‘Three’s… for a girl,’ added Rose. She was flat and a little embarrassed to find herself singing in a restaurant. Rose had always been nervous about singing, but the edge of worry in her voice was unusual. It was almost as if she was trying not to utter the words. I prepared myself to fill in, but I didn’t have to.
‘Four’s for a boy,’ Al called across from the doorway. He’d arrived just in time for his line.
He was in jeans, a check shirt, and a casual jacket, and he was striding purposefully towards me. Apart from the fact that he wasn’t wearing spectacles, Al was remarkably similar in appearance to his dad. Like Rose, he was decidedly flat. I’d forgotten that he couldn’t sing a note.
‘Five’s for silver,’ I sang, getting my words out just in time. Albus Severus Potter embraced me. It was a gentle squeeze, nevertheless it took my breath away. I felt a little lightheaded.
‘Six for gold,’ Lily, like Al, was no singer; she never had been. Making no attempt to keep to the tune, she simply spoke the words.
As she spoke, Al kissed my cheek, released me, and stared up in astonishment at Henry.
‘Seven’s…’ As Henry gave Al a bear hug, Hugo–who’d followed Al through the door–sang that first word rather tunefully. As I stared at the smart-suited young man who was the baby of our group, he seemed to realise the seriousness of the situation. ‘For a secret, never told.’ His final words, while tuneful, were a warning to us all. Hugo’s reserved and polite handshake sent a tingle up my arm. Everyone fell silent. As Henry knocked Hugo’s hand aside and hugged him, the rest of us stared at each other.
Intimidated by the sudden silence, Hen and Hugo parted. As we stood at the bar, waiting to be seated, it seemed that no one dared speak. Fortunately, a familiar voice broke the silence.
‘Hi, Anna; hello, James,’ Corrine said. ‘Hello, everyone else. I’m Corrine, and I’ll be your waitress this afternoon. What just happened? I hope you don’t mind me asking, but that was an odd greeting, and I’m an expert on odd greetings.’
‘Hi,’ I said. ‘Everyone, this is my friend, Corrine. I didn’t think you’d be working here today. If I’d known, I’d have warned you that James and me…’
‘James and I,’ she said.
‘No, not James and you, James and me,’ I told her, grinning.
‘Corinne is completely correct,’ said Henry pompously. ‘It’s James and I! You always get that wrong, Annabel.’
She stared up at him. ‘You’re Anna’s brother, aren’t you?’ she asked. ‘I can tell.’
‘So full of artless jealousy is guilt, it spills itself in fearing to be spilt,’ he admitted.
Corinne snorted in disbelief. ‘She told us you worked in a garage,’ exclaimed Corinne. ‘But that was Shakespeare, wasn’t it?’
‘Sorry, I thought you were the literature student!’ Henry apologised.
‘I am,’ Corinne admitted.
‘And I work in a garage, yet you’re not certain about my quote! Don’t you know your Hamlet?’ Is it illegal for car mechanics to read Shakespeare?’
‘It’s been a while since I read Hamlet,’ Corrine admitted with a laugh. Turning to me she said, ‘You said he was nothing like you. Liar!’
Before I could reply, James slid his arm around my waist, completely putting me off my stride. Taking advantage of my confusion, he performed the introductions. ‘Corrine,’ he said. ‘Allow me to present: my brother, Al; my sister, Lily; cousins Rosie and Hugo; and you’ve already figured out who this wisest and most noble of men is.’
‘Dat’s me, dat is!’ said Henry goofily. Corrine sniggered.
I wanted to be annoyed, but I found it impossible. Surrounded by my childhood friends, I was floating in a calm pool of joy. I didn’t want to find the strength to throw harsh words into those still and pleasant waters. Rosie was finally smiling, her anxiety dispelled by the magic of our reunion.
‘Lead on, Corinne,’ James suggested.
‘Afore sweet sis vents her spleen,’ Henry added.
‘I’m going to need caffeine,’ Lily added.
‘Does this place have decent cuisine?’ Al asked.
‘If I remember this game right, there are rules we can’t contravene,’ Rosie added smugly.
‘Rosie!’ James was impressed. ‘Any advance on a three-syllable rhyme?’
‘I’m starving,’ said Hugo. ‘I hope that the portions are elephantine!’
‘Woah, big word little Hugo!’ Henry told him. ‘He’s the baby of the group,’ he added by way of explanation to Corinne, who–while still laughing–was trying to get us seated.
‘Yes, and I’m a bit disappointed that I haven’t outgrown you, Hen,’ Hugo said. ‘My dad was bigger than yours.’
‘Taller, certainly,’ Rose corrected her brother.
‘Whatever,’ Hugo shrugged.
James led me around the table. I found myself flanked by James and Henry and facing Lily. Lily was flanked by Hugo and Al. Rosie was left to take the seat that had been hastily added to the end of the table, Al to her left, Henry to her right.
‘Would you like drinks?’ Corinne asked us.
‘Spiced ginger punch for me,’ I said. Henry and James tracked my choice down on the drinks menu.
‘Alcohol free? I’ll have the same,’ James said.
‘And me,’ added Henry.
The others chorused their agreement, and Corinne departed to fill the order. The moment she left, everyone tried to talk at once.
‘Okay, Rosie?’ was Hugo’s query.
Henry started with, ‘You working, Hugo?’
Al tried, ‘How did you know we’d be here, Hen?’
‘Did you plan this, James?’ Rose sounded suspicious.
‘You’re not mad at me, are you sis?’ James addressed Lily.
‘Can’t you do better than James?’ Lily asked me.
‘How are you, Al?’ I asked.
The initial round of questions was followed by nervous laughter, and our enquiries all remained unanswered. Once again, everyone was worried. As no one else was prepared to speak, I rapped the table with my knuckles and asked the only question that really mattered, ‘When’s the last time we were all together? Hugo, you first!’
‘Easy,’ he grinned. ‘It was… No… It was…’ He put his thumb in his mouth and began to gnaw on the nail. ‘I have no idea,’ he admitted. ‘I was sure it was your eleventh birthday party, but it wasn’t.’
‘Lily?’ I asked.
‘It was definitely just after your eleventh birthday, Annie,’ she said. ‘Easter! That meeting where we all told Al that we were the Drakestone Seven, not the Drakestone Eight, so Scorpius couldn’t join the gang.’
‘I was almost fourteen when that happened, Lily,’ said Al. ‘Annie can’t have been eleven.’
‘Scorpius!’ said Henry. ‘That weedy little kid with the weird name. I’d forgotten about him. You still mates with him, Al?’
‘Yes,’ Al glared at Rose as he spoke. She refused to meet his eyes.
‘That’s ridiculous,’ said Lily. ‘I can remember that meeting. We can’t all have forgotten…’
‘We can,’ said Al grimly, his green eyes flashing.
‘Shit! D’you really think we’ve all been…’ Hugo’s query tailed off.
‘Dad wouldn’t let that happen,’ Lily protested.
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘So, none of us can remember. I have no fucking clue why not, but you know, don’t you, Al? And so do you, Hugo!’ I pointed an accusatory finger at each of them in turn.
‘I suspect…’ Al began. He sighed. ‘I can’t tell you, Annie.’
‘Fucking hell!’ I threw up my hands in frustration.
‘You can, Al,’ Henry and James spoke together. ‘Yeah!’ they congratulated each other on their agreement by fist-bumping in front of me. I was convinced I saw sparks pass between their fists. ‘We call a meeting!’ they added, still speaking in unison.
‘Agreed,’ I said, slapping my hand down on the table.
James’ hand landed on mine, and Henry’s descended on his.
‘Drakestone Seven,’ said Lily, smacking her hand down on Henry’s with some force.
‘Seven,’ Al agreed, adding his hand to the pile.
‘Seven,’ there was a tremor in Rose’s voice as she leant over and placed her hand on top of Al’s.
‘Last again!’ Hugo complained as his hand joined the others. ‘Seven! But we can’t just have a meeting, James, we have to read the rules first, remember?’
‘The rules!’ we all nodded, happy to be in total agreement with each other.
‘Can anyone actually remember the rules?’ Hugo asked as we withdrew our hands.
While we were pondering this most difficult of questions, Corinne arrived with the drinks. ‘Are you ready to order?’ she asked.
‘No,’ we all admitted.
‘We could share starters,’ I suggested. ‘When I come here with my other friends, we get six starters between the seven of us. Two dadinhos, two empanadas, and two nachos.’
‘It’s a long time since we all ate here, Anna,’ Corinne reminded me.
I nodded sadly. ‘My fault, I know.’
‘Sounds good to me,’ said James.
‘Yeah,’ added Henry.
The others acquiesced, too, and by the time Corinne had tapped her order into the pad, I’d decided on my main course. ‘Vegetable enchiladas, please,’ I told her with a smile.
‘Predictable as ever,’ Corinne told me, shaking her head.
‘James?’ she asked.
James gave his order, and the others followed in turn. We waited for her to leave before resuming the conversation.
‘We need the rules,’ Rose said. ‘You know that! We can’t have a meeting without them.’
We looked at each other, trying to decide what to do. Every one of us knew that Rose was correct, but so far as I could tell, not one of us knew how or why we knew that.
‘D’you think they’ll still be there?’ Al asked.
‘Definitely,’ said Lily.
‘Should I go and get them?’ Hugo asked. ‘It’ll only take…’ His voice waned to nothing under his sister’s withering glare.
‘Five hours,’ said Henry. ‘Two-and-a-half there, and the same back! Off you go, Hugo. I can guarantee that your food will be gone when you get back, and so will we.’
‘We all need to go,’ said James. ‘We’re the Drakestone Seven! We have to meet at the stone. Besides, that’s where the box is!’
‘Yes!’ I was ridiculously excited by his suggestion.
‘Leave Sheffield? I’ve just got here,’ Henry protested.
I was surprised by my brother’s betrayal; he’d been backing me up ever since the others had arrived. When I turned to berate him, I knew why he was arguing.
‘If we set off straight after we’ve eaten, we can probably be at the stone by four, Hen,’ I assured him. ‘Even if we’re up at the stone until after dark, you can still come back here and kip on our sofa tonight. You don’t have to miss your date with Vicki.’
My timing was terrible, I was just finishing when Corinne arrived with the first of our starters.
‘Date with Vicki!’ she exclaimed. Everyone stared at my brother.
‘Ha!’ Corinne exclaimed. ‘I knew it! The breathless way she said “I’ve met him” at our last curry night was a dead giveaway. You’d better not do anything to hurt our Vicki, Henry! Do you want me to misquote Congreve to you?’
‘O fie, Miss, you must not kiss and tell,’ Henry told her.
‘That wasn’t the Congreve quote I was talking about, and you know it,’ said Corinne, laughing.
‘Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned,’ Henry began. He waited expectantly, and Corinne added the next line.
‘Nor Hell a fury like a woman scorned.’
‘Vicki? Fury?’ James asked.
I shook my head. ‘Hen will be dealing with me, Corinne, and Alex,’ I said.
‘And the guys,’ Corinne added.
‘You’re on your own there, mate,’ James told my brother with feeling.
‘Are you seriously suggesting that we drive, by road, all the way to Drakeshaugh?’ Lily asked.
‘How else would we get there?’ I asked.
‘That’s where the rules are, Lily,’ said Rose firmly as she helped herself to some nachos. ‘Bloody hell,’ she added, mid-chew. ‘Watch that jalapeno, it’s hot!’ She took a gulp of spiced ginger punch.’
Henry shook his head. ‘My car will be charged by now, but it won’t make it home and back to Sheffield tonight, unless I charge it at Drakeshaugh. I don’t suppose…’
‘There isn’t a charger there,’ James told him. ‘And you won’t all fit on Tiger.’ He looked across at his brother and gave him a meaningful look. ‘But you drove here in one of the office pool cars, didn’t you, Al?’
For an instant I thought Al was going to say no, but he didn’t.
‘Oh, yes,’ he nodded. ‘We did, didn’t we, Hugo?’
Hugo, who was wolfing down empanadas as if he hadn’t eaten in weeks, looked momentarily startled, but then nodded.
‘That’s settled, then,’ said Rose firmly. ‘We eat, Al drives us to Drakeshaugh, we have a meeting, and then we drive back here.’
‘I’ll take the Tiger,’ James said.
‘The car’s a seven-seater, isn’t it?’ Rose asked.
‘Yes, but…’ Al began.
‘I think we should all stick together,’ said Rose firmly.
‘Oi, leave some of them starters for the rest of us, Hugo,’ Henry protested.
‘Sorry, but I’m…’
‘Starving!’ we all told him, taking the opportunity to grab some of the starters before he ate everything.
‘He hasn’t changed, has he?’ I asked Lily.
‘Nope,’ she shook her head. ‘Are you okay about a trip to the Drakestone, Annie?’
‘I’m looking forward to it,’ I assured her. ‘I’ve been dreaming about the stone for weeks.’
‘Me, too,’ admitted James.
Around the table, heads nodded, and silence fell once again. We all pondered the circumstances in which we found ourselves. Trapped in a mysterious muddle of misremembered memories, I somehow knew that a meeting was the only way forwards. As I looked around, I was certain that everyone was having the same thoughts. Everyone nodded, and we all started to smile again.
Lily stared across the table at me, a thoughtful expression on her face. ‘Is he the best you can do?’ she asked, glancing dismissively at her brother.
James sighed, while my brother pretended to choke on his nachos.
‘My thoughts exactly,’ Henry agreed.
‘He’s a vast improvement on my ex,’ I said.
‘That’s true,’ said Henry consolingly. ‘But “better than my ex” is a bar set so low that not even an ant could get under it.’
‘And that’s the level of praise I get from my bestest friend inna world,’ said James.
Henry chuckled. ‘Honesty is the best policy.’
‘You don’t even have a girlfriend, Henry,’ I said.
‘True, but I’m working on it,’ he reminded me cheerfully. Looking around the table at the others, he asked, ‘What about you lot, seeing anyone?’
‘Al spends his time in the arms of the pulchritudinous Violet L Moon,’ said James.
‘Pulchritudinous!’ Henry exclaimed. ‘What a lovely word, I’d love to use it myself. Unfortunately, my workmates insist that I eschew ostentatious and obfuscatory sesquipedalian circumlocution.’
‘What the hell are you talking about?’ Lily asked, confused.
‘He can’t…’ Rose began.
‘He mustn’t…’ James began. They both stopped mid-sentence. Grinning, James indicated that Rose should continue.
‘Henry used big words to tell us that his workmates don’t like him to use big words,’ Rose explained.
The conversation veered off at a tangent, and we were still reminiscing about my dad’s jokey mangling of the language when our main courses arrived. By the time the meal ended, we’d barely talked about ourselves, although we’d caught up on our parent’s lives.
Mr Potter was still working for the Home Office, doing whatever national security work he’d always been doing, and both Al and Hugo were working for him. Mrs Potter was writing a newspaper column for a small local paper, but when I asked for the paper’s website, neither the Potters nor the Weasleys could remember what it was. Al told me that the paper was called The West Country Prophet, but my internet search couldn’t find it. While I searched, the conversation moved on to the Weasleys.
Uncle Ron, like Uncle Harry, was still in the same job, and we reminisced about the remarkable fireworks his company produced. Aunt Hermione, Rose told us, had moved from her civil service job into politics. Worried that she–and by default Rose and Hugo–might not agree with my socialist ideals, and embarrassed by the awkward answers I’d received about Aunt Ginny’s job, I steered well clear of asking any questions. Nothing causes argument and conflict among friends more quickly than politics. It seemed that no one else wanted to pursue that topic, so we moved on to my parents.
‘Dad’s well,’ I said in answer to a question from Lily.
‘Apart from high blood pressure,’ Henry added. ‘He’s got to see the doctor again next week. Mum thinks they’ll be putting him on tablets.’
‘They haven’t told me about that!’ I exclaimed.
‘It’s nothing to worry about,’ Henry assured me. Turning to the others, he added, ‘He’s the leading partner in the firm. Scotland and Tate, Chartered Surveyors is now Scotland, Tate and Charlton. Walter Scotland retired five years ago, and Jeremy Tate is semi-retired. Dad’s top man. As for Mum, she won a silver medal in April!’
‘For what?’ James asked him. He turned to me. ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ I shrugged.
‘National Lifesaving Championships, fifty metre manikin carry with fins, in the ladies age fifty to fifty-nine class,’ said Henry proudly.
‘Good for her,’ James said. ‘You didn’t tell me that your Mum’s back in competitive swimming, Annie.’
‘Lifesaving, not proper swimming,’ I said.
‘Not proper swimming!’ my brother protested. ‘Twenty-five metre sprint, dive down three metres, pick up a more-than-forty-kilo manikin from the bottom of the pool, and carry it the rest of the way to the end of the pool! She was brilliant. You really should’ve been there to see her, Anna.’
‘I suppose,’ I agreed reluctantly. On the weekend of the competition, I’d been meeting Simon’s parents for the first (and now certainly last) time.
‘Mum doesn’t have a proper job, but she gives smallpipe lessons at home, and she performs at folk clubs and shows,’ I told James. I had to tell him something, before my brother got the credit for saying that, too. ‘It doesn’t make much money, but it keeps her busy.’
‘And happy,’ Henry added. ‘And that’s the main thing, isn’t it?’ Everyone agreed.
By then we’d finished our lunch. James asked for the bill the moment Corinne arrived to clear the table. Rose asked Al if he was sure he could fit everyone into his car. From his expression, it seemed as if he’d forgotten all about the plan.
While we were discussing how to pay the bill, Al left some cash on the table and nipped off to the loo. We’d paid, and Henry was loudly wondering whether Al had flushed himself “doon the netty”. When Al finally returned, he was very apologetic.
‘You took your time,’ Henry observed. ‘What were you doing in there?’
‘I had to go to London to collect the car,’ Al told him with a smile. ‘Everyone ready?’
‘As euphemisms go, that’s terrible,’ Henry told him. ‘It doesn’t even make sense! What were you really doing? Growing a record-breaking poocumber?’
‘Ew!’ said Rose. Lily and I shook our heads in disdain, but the guys all laughed.
Al’s car, a Land Rover Discovery, was surprisingly roomy; all seven of us fitted inside with ease. Hugo took the seat alongside Al. James and Henry took the two back seats. I climbed in behind Hugo, with Lily in the middle and Rose sitting behind Al.
As we drove north, the conversation finally returned to our love lives. Al, Rose, and Lily all agreed that the biggest mistake James had ever made was ditching his first-ever girlfriend, Rani, for Samantha Lowe. I learned that, unlike Rani–whom both Rose and Lily had liked–the girl they called Lowe by name and low by nature had been very willing, and everyone had seen the photographs. I got a complete list, too: Rani, Samantha, Jilly, Dawn, and Kristen.
I managed to divert Henry from giving James a complete list of my ex-boyfriends by simply squeaking “Sky” every time he tried. The rest of the gang had to make do with Henry and I comparing notes on Simon and Sky. In the end, my brother and I came to the conclusion that there really wasn’t much between my two-timing ex and his. I reached backwards, he took my hand, and we squeezed sympathy at each other.
When the conversation turned to Al’s girlfriend, the girl I would now always think of as “the pulchritudinous Violet L Moon”, Hugo dropped Al in it.
‘He carries her photo in his wallet,’ Hugo told us.
‘Let’s see her,’ Henry demanded.
‘The holiday photos are in the glovebox, Hugo,’ Al said. ‘I collected them this morning. Dig them out, and they can take a look at Flossie, too.’
‘Flossie?’ I asked.
‘You still get prints?’ Henry added in disbelief. ‘Nobody gets prints! My entire life is on my phone.’
Hugo reached into the glovebox, pulled out the packet, and tapped it twice before opening it. Rifling through the images, he pulled one out and passed it over his shoulder to me. ‘We went to St Tropez over the summer,’ he said. ‘And, no, I’m not going to let you see the topless shots, James. An American couple took this one for us. Flossie–my girlfriend–is on the left, Vi’s on the right.’
The smiling round-faced blonde girl on the left was not slim. She wasn’t overweight, but there was a lot of her, something the bikini she wore made obvious. Next to her, Hugo–still stick-thin despite his ridiculous appetite–showed off his freckled torso and skinny legs. He had an arm over Flossie’s shoulder, and he looked happy. Next to him, Al–who was surprisingly well-muscled and very well-tanned–looked happy, too. The girl at his side was as brown as a berry and very pretty. Shoulder-length brown hair framed a heart-shaped face.
‘They both look very nice,’ I said, passing the photograph back to my brother.
‘Huh,’ Lily snorted dismissively. ‘Vi’s still at school. He won’t see her for weeks. Cradle-snatcher!’
‘She’s already eighteen!’ Al protested.
‘She’s only five days younger than Flossie,’ Hugo added. ‘And Flossie left school this summer.’
‘Yeah, Vi is three years younger than me, big deal,’ Al snapped. ‘That’s not much! What is your problem with Vi, sis? It’s not her age, it can’t be! How old is your latest bloke?’
‘James is…’ I began, in an attempt to diffuse the tension. Unfortunately, I couldn’t calculate our age difference quickly enough.
‘James is two-and-a-half years older than you, Annie,’ supplied Rose, when I hesitated. ‘And Andrew Jones is more than three years older than James, so he’s six years older than Lily.’
For a worrying few seconds I thought Lily would explode, but I reached out to her, and she calmed down. ‘Andy is at least twenty years more mature than you lot,’ Lily said, winking at me. ‘Which is a huge change from Craig.’
‘What about Lukas, or Dai?’ Rose asked.
‘I don’t talk about Lukas, and Dai’s forgotten!’ said Lily. ‘Dai! Bloody hell, Rosie, I was just sixteen. We don’t all waste four years of our lives with the useless boy who asked us out when we were sixteen.’ Lily was still angry about something.
‘Scorpius is not useless,’ Al interjected angrily. ‘Rose broke his heart!’
‘Stop the car!’ Rose demanded. ‘I want to get out. I’m not talking about Scorp.’
‘Sorry, Rosie,’ said Lily. She’d calmed down as quickly as she’d exploded. There was an uneasy silence. ‘And I’m sorry about what I said about Violet, too, Al,’ she added quietly. The silence returned. ‘Al!’ The second time she said her brother’s name, it was a demand.
‘I’m sorry too, Rosie. I won’t mention him again.’ Al’s apology was sullen, but it was enough to ease the tension.
Lily leaned in towards me. I put my arm around her shoulder, and she slipped hers behind my back. We hugged.
‘So,’ I said. ‘You probably know more about my latest bloke than I do, what can you tell me?’
‘No, say nothing. I’ll pay whatever you ask, Lils!’ James’ begged, making everyone laugh.
‘None of you have met Andy,’ said Lily. After giving me a final squeeze, she freed herself and opened her shoulder bag. ‘This is him, and his son, Cameron.’
Rose craned her neck to see. And both James and Henry leaned forwards, too. Andy was a good-looking man. He was clean-shaven, his hair was short, and his skin was the rich colour of dark chocolate. The little boy in his arms was definitely mixed race, and his white-toothed smile was even wider than his father’s. When we stopped for a toilet break, at Washington Services, we’d learned a lot about the tragic life of Lily’s new man, an accountant who did work for the hockey team she played for.
Within minutes of leaving the service station, we passed the rusty old Angel. As we headed into the valley and towards the Tyne, I started to sing. I simply couldn’t stop myself. I started with “The Water of Tyne”, and both James and Henry joined in.
The remainder of the journey turned into a request show and, as we headed up the dale, James and I were–at his request–singing “The Laidly Worm of Spindleston Heugh”. I was surprised to discover that he knew the tune, and almost all of the words.
‘All folks believe within the shire
This story to be true,
And they all run to Spindleston,
The cave and trough to view.’
We finished the song as we reached the outskirts of Harbottle, and everyone fell silent. The atmosphere inside the car crackled with tension. The hairs on the back of my neck prickled, and it seemed that every one of us knew that something important was about to happen.
We remained silent when Al pulled the car onto the track up to Drakeshaugh. Hugo got out, opened the gate, and Al drove through. We didn’t speak when he got back in, or when we drove into the gravel yard of the Potter’s old home. It wasn’t until we disembarked that anyone said anything.
‘Who owns this place now?’ Henry asked.
‘Mum and Dad,’ James said. ‘They never sold it. They still visit, occasionally.’
‘But they don’t call in on my Mum and Dad,’ Henry said sadly.
James shook his head.
‘Look at us,’ I observed. Rose’s skirt was ankle length, Hugo wore a suit and his shoes were built for fashion, not practicality. And Lily…
‘It’s more than a mile to the stone, Lily.’ I stared at her feet as I spoke. ‘It won’t be easy in those heels.’
‘Or in those pointy-toed things, Hugo,’ Henry added.
‘True,’ Lily admitted.
Hugo muttered something under his breath, opened the back of the car, and pulled out two pairs of rather tatty old trainers. ‘Problem solved,’ he told us.
As he and Lily changed shoes, I turned my attention to Rose. ‘Will you be okay in that skirt?’ I asked.
‘Fine,’ she told me, although she didn’t sound certain. ‘Let’s go.’
Abandoning the car at Drakeshaugh, we set off up the track. The walk was shorter than I remembered, and in little more than fifteen minutes we were climbing the rock-strewn rise towards the stone. James and I were hand in hand, the others in a close-grouped clump behind us. None of us had spoken a word on the journey, and the pressure I felt was becoming physical. As we closed on the stone, I yawned and grimaced in a desperate attempt to make my ears pop. Noticing that James had a finger in his ear, I turned to see how everyone else was faring. They were all gurning or shaking their heads.
Reaching the stone, I stroked it’s rough, vertical surface and immediately felt better. James leant against the angular corner of the stone, smiled at me, and began examining its base. I joined in the search.
‘That’s it. Lils!’ James indicated a narrow gap below the stone, right where Lily stood.
Lily needed no further instructions. Kneeling down, she thrust her arm into the narrow gap. Heedless of the fact that her obviously expensive boots and leather jacket was getting scuffed and muddy, she reached, elbow deep, into the hole. ‘Got it,’ she announced happily, pulling out the Tupperware box.
She was about to open it, but James stopped her. ‘Up top,’ he ordered, pointing to the top of the stone.
James led us around to the other side of the stone, to the sloping and slightly creviced side we’d always climbed up. Hugo went first, scrambling up the stone, heedless of the damage he was doing to his smart trousers. Lily was next, and I followed. Rose pulled the hem of the back of her skirt up between her legs and tucked it into her waistband, turning it into a sort of sampot. Soon, we were all on top of the stone. We stood in silence for a moment, simply admiring the view. We were home.
‘Ready?’ James asked.
‘Ready,’ we all told him. We sat in a circle atop our perch, watching Lily open the box. There was no hiss or spark when she pulled off the lid; it wasn’t a treasure chest, simply a small Tupperware box. The seal was good, and the rules remained dry. Lily carefully lifted them out and handed the grubby and yellowing sheet of paper to James, he carefully unfolded it. That was when we all felt the magic.
‘The rules,’ James began. ‘One, the name of the club is the Drakestone Seven.’ He emphasised both words. ‘Two, the club is for having fun and adventures.’ He passed the paper to Henry.
‘Three, the club is private, and every member swears in blood to keep it secret,’ said Henry, before passing the paper to Rose.
‘Four, and the club is for learning stuff, too,’ Rose reminded us.
‘Five, and for exploring and keeping people safe,’ Al began to speak the words he’d dictated to Rose all those years ago even before he’d taken the paper from her. He barely glanced at it, simply handing it on to me. We’d passed the tipping point, and whatever enchantment we’d been under was broken.
‘Six, and there’s a club song that we all have to sing, Magpie.’ As I spoke the rule I’d insisted upon, I recalled how hard Henry, Al, and Rose had tried to persuade me to make a different rule, and how stubborn I’d been, even then. I could hear my argument in my head. “There’s seven of us, and it’s a secret club, and seven’s for a secret never told, and I’m seven, and I like singing!”
I gave the paper to Lily. She didn’t need it.
‘Seven, and every member promises to be kind to animals.’ As she handed the paper to Hugo, I remembered the long discussion we’d had at that point. Hugo had been unable to think of another rule to add. Henry made a suggestion; Hugo could simply take the main rule, the one we’d all agreed on before Rose had started writing.
‘Eight,’ he told us seriously. ‘And every member of the Drakestone Seven signed below swears to keep the rules and to be true to each other whatever happens, forever.’
‘At least we’ve already sung the song,’ said Al in relief. I stuck my tongue out at him, and Lily giggled.
Rose examined the paper, we’d all signed it, and our bloody thumbprints were next to our names. ‘We made a blood oath,’ she said quietly.
‘Does that mean what I think it means?’ asked Lily fearfully.
‘It’s an unbreakable vow,’ said Hugo.
‘Oh, shit!’ said James.
I had no idea why they were so worried, but I was certain of one thing. ‘We need to sing the song again,’ I said. ‘All together, like we used to.’
‘! Go To Top ‘!