Valiant In Her Own Way

For Moog. A boarding school story featuring queer princesses, fairytale creatures, and a ghost or two.

Excerpt from berrywoodschool.ac.uk:

Berry Wood is as old as storytelling itself. When the first fairytale characters stepped off the page, they needed nothing much beyond a bed and a forest or a lake or a mountain to frolick in. But then they started to have children and those children needed a school and so The Berry Wood Academy for the Children of Fantastical Beings was formed.

But time went on and fairytale mothers and fathers started to want their children to mix with non-magical persons. So the gates of Berry Wood were opened to Ordinary boys and girls in 2014, and now our students mix together in perfect, unified harmony.

 

“That girl is dreadful,” Lillie Ash said, looking across the dining hall to where Nancy Green was sitting, surrounded by a group of worshipful first years.

First years should not be worshiping Nancy Green. Nancy Green was not a good role model.

“Because she’s an Ordinary?” Jake asked, leaning back in his chair and looking past Lillie so that he could see Nancy too. Lillie wanted to rock her chair onto his foot to make him stop looking, but potentially that would be a little hypocritical.

Lillie turned and glared at him, raising an eyebrow. She’d spent a lot of time learning how to do that in the mirror and now she used it whenever possible.

Slowly, Jake blushed. With his blue skin, that meant that he went an alarming shade of dark purple. “All right,” he muttered, “not because she’s an Ordinary.” He slunk down in his chair, wide shoulders hunching in toward his dinner tray.

Opposite them, Cam laughed, his shimmery black wings fluttering. “It’s because Lillie thinks Nancy is a bad influence,” he said.

“It’s because Nancy is a bad influence,” Lillie said. She stood up and picked up her empty tray. “Are you coming?”

Jake wrinkled his pointed nose. “To duelling club?” he asked. “Nah.”

Cam rose out of his seat and up into the air, gliding across the table and coming to a stop at Jake’s elbow. Lillie wished he wouldn’t do that; there was no rule against flying in the dining hall, but she still thought that it was just showing off.

“But you love duelling club,” he said. He stuck out his bottom lip. “Don’t you?”

Jake tipped his head back, looking up at him. A couple of flakes of fairy dust fell from the frosted tips of Cam’s hair and landed on Jake’s nose. Jake sneezed.

“I used to love duelling club,” Jake said, “but now it’s just Lillie and Nancy bickering and trying to one-up each other all the time so.” He shrugged. “I think I’ll do some homework, instead.”

“We don’t bicker!” Lillie said. She folded her arms and raised her chin. “At least I don’t.” Nancy did. Nancy was incredibly immature. Maybe that was why the first years loved her.

“Huh,” said Cam, looking from Lillie to Jake and back. “Do you know what, my warlock friend, I think you may be right. You’re on your own tonight, Lillie.”

He blew her a fairy dust sprinkled kiss, but she was too annoyed to pretend to catch it or do any of the others things she knew would make him smile. Instead, she huffed and turned on her rose-patterned heel, marching off toward duelling club by herself.

Duelling club was run by Ms Woods, who school legend said was a descendant of Robin Hood himself. They weren’t allowed to use any of the classrooms and the flying club had taken over the gym, so they met in the school’s old, seldom-used theatre twice a week.

When Lillie and Jake and Cam had first joined the club, nobody had actually used to duel all that much, it was more a place to lie around on the stage, talking about their days and occasionally waving swords or wands in the air.

Then Nancy had joined. She’d joined the school and the club, bringing with her fancy Ordinary ideas from her Ordinary school about how clubs were supposed to be run.

Lillie had wanted to kick her straight back out of the club – and the school – but Ms Woods had jumped at the chance and now they spent at least sixty percent of duel club actually duelling.

It was exhausting.

Not exhausting enough to stop Lillie going, of course. She wasn’t going to let Nancy win.

It was tempting to skulk into the theatre, throw herself down into a seat and have a good sulk, but Lillie was the highest ranked member of the fairytale aristocracy currently attending the school, which meant she had a reputation to maintain.

Instead, she made sure that her long, blue dress was neat, her blonde plaits were tidy, and the small, tasteful gold crown earrings she was wearing were both facing the right way. Once she was sure she had the look befitting a princess, she pushed open the door.

Nancy hadn’t arrived yet.

Lillie’s shoulders tried to slump, but she told them firmly that poise was important in a young woman, and made sure to keep her head high as she swished down the aisle to the stage, where most of the club was already waiting.

“Shall we get started?” Lillie asked, stopping in the middle of the chattering group and raising her eyebrow.

“Not everyone’s here yet, Lillie,” Ms Woods said mildly. Lillie often worried that Ms Woods didn’t like her, but she couldn’t think why that would be; teachers usually found Lillie delightful.

“Oh, Cam and Jake aren’t coming,” Lillie said airily. “And I’m sure there’s no one else who – ”

The big double doors behind the stage crashed open and Nancy came racing through. She was arm-in-arm with her best friend, Frost, the two of them laughing together even as they hurried.

Like always, Nancy was the most noticeable person in the room by dint of not being all that noticeable. She had curly dark hair that tumbled down her back and insisted on wearing Ordinary clothes, no matter how many times she was introduced to decent, fairytale outfits.

“You’re late,” Lillie said, folding her arms under her breasts. Sometimes Jake’s eyes bulged when she did that, but it had no effect at all on Nancy.

Well, it made her scowl, but that wasn’t as satisfying as it should be.

“To our optional, fun, evening activity?” Nancy asked. That was another thing that was annoying about her: her voice. She had a city accent. Not a woodland accent or a river accent or even an enchanted castle accent like Lillie’s own. She came from a place called London and apparently that was why her voice sounded like that.

Infuriating.

“You’re keeping everyone else waiting and that’s rude,” Lillie said. She wished that someone would back her up, but they were either watching her and Nancy with bored acceptance or they’d gone back to their conversations.

“We’re sorry,” Frost said softly, which did make Lillie feel a little bad. She liked Frost; it wasn’t their fault they’d picked Nancy as a best friend.

Actually, come to think of it, that was their fault. Lillie still liked them, though.

“No, we’re not,” Nancy said. She gave a gentle push toward the edge of the stage to Frost, who scampered over and sat down out of the way.

Nancy bowed exaggeratedly to Lillie. “Well, princess? Want to get down to business?”

It took Lillie a moment to realise what Nancy meant. Stupid, what else could she mean? Then, “No, I don’t think so,” she said, “I wouldn’t want to embarrass you.”

The corner of Nancy’s lip curled up as though she was amused. “I promise not to be embarrassed. Come on.”

Lillie glanced around. Everyone was paying a little more attention now. “Fine,” she said. “Fine. Swords?”

“Hmm,” said Nancy. “Daggers, I think.”

Lillie stopped for a second. Daggers meant close contact. “Daggers,” she agreed, stalking across to the weapons chest in the corner.

“No magic, Lillie, remember,” said Ms Woods, as Lillie turned back, a short, wooden dagger in each hand. She threw one to Nancy, who caught it deftly. Lillie wasn’t impressed.

“Of course not,” Lillie muttered, squaring up to Nancy.

“Of course not,” Nancy echoed, still with that infuriating smirk.

“All right,” said Ms Woods. “First contact wins. And go!”

Lillie stepped forward. Nancy didn’t move. Lillie had watched her duel many times over the last year and she knew exactly what Nancy was doing. She always waited for her opponent to come to her, and every time the other members of the club fell for it.

Well, not Lillie.

She widened her stance, planted her feet, and tipped her head at Nancy. “Well?” she asked.

Nancy grinned. It was a wide and delighted smile as though Lillie had genuinely done something that pleased her. “Well,” she agreed. She tossed her dagger from one hand to the other, once, twice, until Lillie couldn’t help watching it.

Then she darted forward, dagger in her non-dominant hand, bringing it up toward Lillie’s ribs.

Lillie managed to parry against her, but only just. “Cheating,” she said, taking a half step backwards to regain her balance.

“Strategy,” Nancy said. She tossed her dark curls out of her face and pushed her dagger up against Lillie’s.

Lillie didn’t give her any space, tightened her grip and her arm until Nancy was leaning all her weight on their crossed daggers. Then she relaxed her hold, letting her muscles go loose and Nancy stumbled forward, colliding with Lillie and sending them both backwards toward the nearest wall.

“Careful, girls,” Ms Woods said, softly, but neither of them spared her a glance.

“Also cheating,” Nancy said, sounding pleased.

“Also strategy,” Lillie countered.

Nancy had righted herself so that they were no longer touching, but they were still very close together. She was slightly taller than Lillie and that plus the way Lillie was having to bend backwards to accommodate her, meant that Nancy was more or less arched around her, like a towering parenthesis.

Lillie brought her dagger up toward Nancy’s side. She almost made contact, but Nancy got there just in time, knocking Lillie’s hand away and making another jab of her own. She was very good. Lillie wished that she wasn’t. It would be much easier to dismiss her, if she wasn’t so competent at so many of the things that Lillie respected.

“You know,” Nancy said, conversationally, gaze darting this way and that while she clearly tried to regroup. “If this was real fight, now’s the moment when you’d dazzle me with your magic.”

Lillie swallowed. “No magic allowed,” she reminded her. “Otherwise I would. Of course.”

“Oh, of course,” Nancy laughed, dagger bouncing off Lillie’s again and then again. “Of course you would. And I would be dazzled, I’m sure. Maybe we could do that next time? I’m sure Ms Woods wouldn’t mind, if we both agreed to it.”

“Do you ever stop talking?” Lilie asked. She knocked Nancy’s dagger aside with more force than was necessary and watched Nancy wince as the blow jolted up her arm.

“What do you say?” Nancy asked, ignoring the question. “You and me, magic versus non-magic?” She licked her top lip where a couple of beads of sweat were starting to gather. “It’d be fun.”

Lillie grew tired of being on the defensive. Nancy might be good but Lillie was better, she knew that she was. She half turned as though she was going to duck to the left, waited until Nancy, thinking it was a feint moved to protect her own left, then thrust her dagger forward.

The blunt, wooden tip made clear contact in the centre of Nancy’s sternum, just above the place where her chest was starting to rise and fall with exertion.

“First contact,” Lillie said, while everyone around them dutifully clapped.

Nancy looked down at the dagger point, the tiny dent it made in her skin. “Well done,” she said, nodding. “So, what about it, princess? Going to show me your magic?”

Everyone was listening, waiting for Lillie to be goaded into agreeing. “No,” she said, ignoring the flash of disappointment in Nancy’s green eyes. “Thank you for the fight.”

After duelling club finished, Lillie stayed behind to held Ms Woods tidy up, the way she always did. By the time she got out, most of the rest of the club had drifted away, but she could see the tail end of Frost’s long white tunic, just poking around the corner of the door.

Thinking they were standing around talking to Nancy, Lillie prepared to go the other way, except she caught sight of Cam’s familiar wings at the last second. He was talking to Frost very quietly, his usual bounce restrained.

Frost was very shy and very quiet. They hadn’t hadn’t seemed to have any friends, before Nancy transferred to the school.

Lillie wouldn’t have thought they’d enjoy talking to someone as boisterous as Cam, but they did seem to be enjoying themself, laughing softly at whatever he was saying.

“Cam!” Lillie said, waving at him. She only realised that she might be interrupting when Frost stepped back a little, putting some space between themself and Cam. Lillie thought about apologising, but she wasn’t very good at that, so instead she just went with it. “What are you doing here?”

“Came to pick you up,” Cam said, with a quick look at Frost and a very small smile, which implied that hadn’t been his only reason. “And instead I bumped into the lovely Frost, which is always lovely. I hear you and Nancy had your first duel. Was it everything a young girl dreams of?”

“It was… passable,” Lillie allowed, partly because Frost was here, listening, but mostly because it was true. “Nancy is good at duelling. It’s just a pity she can’t be so impressive everywhere else.” Lillie’s tolerance could only last so long. She patted Cam on the arm, nodded to Frost and started to walk away. “Well? Are you coming?”

Cam sighed. He said something to Frost, which made them nod and smile and then swept after Lillie.

“You could try being friendlier,” he admonished. “Amazing things happen, when you have friends.”

“I have friends,” Lillie told him firmly.

“Nancy could be your friend,” Cam pressed. “You basically like exactly the same things.”

“No, thank you,” Lillie said with a shudder and refused to say anything more about it.

***

Lillie was not in a good mood, when she threw herself down onto her bed that night. Her room was a big space up in the attic, so at least it was quiet here.

“Sigh,” she said to her ceiling, which could sometimes be persuaded to sympathise with her.

The ceiling stayed dark and shadowy in the moonlight.

Sigh,” she said again, a bit more pointedly.

After a moment, her spare blanket drifted up from the bottom of the bed and wrapped around her shoulders. It tucked itself in, a warm, comforting press against her arms and back.

“Better,” Lillie mumbled sleepily and drifted off.

She’d been asleep just long enough to relax when something banged hard against her bedroom window.

Sitting up with a start, Lillie stumbled out of bed. She was still half asleep, and the room lurched and spun around her until she caught hold of the curtains and pulled them apart.

There was nothing to see, not even a mark on the window. Assuming that a bird or maybe a pixie out after hours had collided with it, Lillie turned back to bed.

Bang! This time it was louder and right by her head, making her jump and clutch the curtain she was still holding.

Spinning around, Lillie came face to face with a huge, white-glowing skull. Its eyes were full of red fire, which writhed like snakes and its tongue lolled, black and twisted, from the space where its mouth should have been.

Lillie gasped.

She stumbled backwards, tripped over the hem of her nightdress, and landed on her bottom with a jolt.

The impact knocked her teeth together and made her eyes close instinctively.

When she opened them again, the skull was gone. The window was just a window again: nothing but clear night sky and small, twinkling stars.

Lillie pressed her hand to her pounding heart. The tip of her tongue tasted of metal, where she’d bitten in, and the back of her throat was sore from her cut-off scream.

Cautiously pulling herself to her feet by the edge of the windowsill, Lillie peered out. There was definitely nothing there, but she couldn’t have dreamt it? Could she? Her pulse was jumping so hard that she could feel it in her temples and the base of her skull. Surely it had been real?

Lillie yawned. It felt odd that she could be tired after something like that, but she was suddenly exhausted. Still confused, she pulled the curtain closed with a decisive snap and stumbled her way back to bed.

Her knees were wobbly. She crawled into bed and curled up into a tight comma, pulling her blankets over her head and screwing her eyes shut.

“It wasn’t real,” she told her heart, trying to calm it. “It wasn’t.”

Something creaked outside her cocoon of bed covers.

“No,” Lillie told it firmly and refused to look.

***

Lillie was exhausted the next day.

She snapped at Jake over breakfast and stomped her way through the school corridors, making several first years and at least one teacher jump out of her way.

“Lillie,” said Mrs Rose, the geography teacher. “Are we keeping you up?”

“No, ma’am!” Lillie said, straightening her shoulders immediately, snapping out of her slump. Her cheeks burned. She hoped no one was looking at her. She never got called out in class; this was so embarrassing.

“Good, good,” said Mrs Rose. “In that case, you can tell me what’s special about the southern entrance to the Troll kingdom.”

“I… I, yes.” Lillie blinked hard. She knew the answer. Of course she did. It was a ludicrously easy question. She wished she was back in bed.

Mrs Rose shook her head at her. “Stay behind after class, please.” She looked around, dismissing Lillie for now.

Lillie wished she could disappear. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Cam frowning at her from the desk beside hers, but she didn’t look his way. She didn’t want to tell him that she’d scared herself with a silly dream.

“Nancy,” said Mrs Rose, adding insult to injury. “Can you tell me?”

“Oh, uh.” Nancy had been leaning back in her chair, staring out the window. Lillie didn’t need to look at her to know that; Nancy spent every lesson like that. “Yeah. The south entrance to the Troll kingdom can only be accessed via the forbidden woods.”

“Very well done,” said Mrs Rose. “Cameron, what can you tell me about the forbidden woods?”

Lillie glared down at her desk. She’d known the answer to that question. How had Nancy known it? She was an Ordinary, she’d grown up without even knowing the Troll kingdom existed.

“Are you all right?” someone asked her, as she let herself out of the classroom after speaking to Mrs Rose.

Mrs Rose had been nice, worried because Lillie wasn’t usually distracted, but Lillie was still miserable.

She looked up, expecting to find Cam waiting for her. Instead, it was Nancy. She was leaning back against the wall, one booted foot scuffing the paintwork.

“What are you doing?” Lillie snapped. Some part of her was pleased that Nancy was there; at least this was a legitimate target for her exhausted rage.

“Asking you a question,” Nancy said. She pushed black curls out of her eyes and smirked at Lillie.

“I’ve got to get to maths,” said Lillie, trying to walk around her without looking at her annoying face or the infuriating way her skirt insisted on riding up her thighs.

“Oh, hey, me too,” Nancy said, falling into step with her. “So tell me, are you planning to get in trouble in maths too or is this a ‘once a year’ sort of thing?”

Lillie tripped over her own feet. Nancy’s hand shot out and steadied her, which was honestly just the last straw. “Mind your own damn business!” Lillie snapped, stopping short and rounding on her. “Just. Just. Just leave me alone!”

“Woah?” said Nancy, holding up her hands. “I don’t even think I said anything all that bad that time?”

She hadn’t, not really. Except she had. She’d seen Lillie get in trouble and she was always there, always trying to score points and take away the things that were Lillie’s, like her status in the school and her friends and –

To her horror, Lillie realised that she was so angry her eyes were stinging. There was no way she was going to cry in front of Nancy. She wasn’t letting Nancy have that too.

“Excuse me and goodbye,” Lillie said with great dignity and stormed off.

Unfortunately, she could only storm as far as maths and then she had to sit two desks away from Nancy for the next two hours. At least she managed to pay attention to the teacher, this time.

***

That night, the banging on her windowpane started before Lillie had even fallen asleep.

Lillie was so tired and had had such a rotten day that she very much wanted to stick her head under her pillow and refuse to investigate.

However, she needed to know that it wasn’t real, that whatever she’d seen yesterday had been an exaggeration or a dream or a glamour. If she didn’t, she wasn’t sure she’d ever sleep properly again.

Reluctantly, Lillie pushed back her duvet and got out of bed. She was braced this time, ready to see a grinning horror looming at her through her window, but there wasn’t anything there.

She leant forward, looking up and down and around, but she there were no skulls today. All there was was the constant, repetitive tapping.

It sounded like fingertips, like someone knocking to be allowed in and it made the hairs stand up on the back of Lillie’s neck.

A wave of cold swept over her and she shuddered, wrapping her arms around herself.

“You can’t come in,” she said, just in case it was a vampire. Her mother had taught her how to deal with vampires from a very young age, but there hadn’t been a lot of call to use her skills in the safety of their enchanted castle.

Lillie wished she was back there now. She wished her mother and father were here, or her grandmother, who had once saved the entire magical world.

The tapping didn’t stop. If anything, it got more insistent.

“No,” Lillie said, stepping back from the window. She knew she should stand her ground, but she was frightened. She hated being frightened. “No, please go away.”

The tapping escalated with a loud flurry of knocking, over and over until Lillie had to clap her hands over her ears to deaden the sound.

Then just like that, it stopped.

Lillie held her breath.

It didn’t come back.

After ten minutes of standing shivering on her bedroom floor, staring at the window as it slowly fogged up from her breathing, Lillie crawled back into bed.

***

She didn’t sleep much that night either. She finally fell asleep around four, hit snooze on her alarm when it went off at six, and dragged herself down to breakfast at the last possible minute.

“Are you all right?” Cam asked, fluttering around her worriedly. “You missed sunrise archery. You never miss archery! You insisted on going that time you broke your arm and tried to fire the bow with your teeth, remember?”

“You don’t fire a bow,” was all Lillie could think to say. She sniffed the air, sagging sideways toward Jake. “Is that coffee? Can I have some?”

“You hate coffee,” Jake said, blinking at her. He looked sleepy, dark blue bags under his light blue eyes, but just like someone who hadn’t woken up properly yet. He didn’t look like someone who was now lacking two nights’ sleep. Lucky him.

“Coffee?” Lillie said. She looked over at the drinks station, where students were milling around, pouring themselves tea and coffee and juice. Maybe if she tried really, really hard, she could make some coffee come to her.

“What are you doing?” Cam asked, laughing softly, when he saw her lift her arm. “No magic in the dining hall. Remember the Great Food Fight of 2013?”

“I… wasn’t,” Lillie said, lowering her hand. She wasn’t sure what she’d been doing. She was so tired that for a second, she’d forgotten.

“Tell you what,” Cam said. “I’m going to get you coffee and then you’re going to tell me what’s wrong. Hmm?”

Lillie opened her mouth to say nothing’s wrong but what came out was a small and plaintive, “Coffee?”

Cam shot her another worried glance then hopped up and out of his chair. “Coffee,” he said. His wings bounced and perked up the way they always did when he was pleased about something. “Coffee, coffee, coming up.”

He hurried over to the drinks station, with both more enthusiasm than Lillie thought she could stand this morning and even more than he usually showed. Then she noticed that Frost had also come down for breakfast – Nancy in tow, of course – and understood.

Jake chuckled. “Hope you weren’t in a rush for that coffee.”

Lillie watched Cam sidle up to Frost and murmur something in their ear. Frost laughed, a tiny tinkling sound like icicles falling into snow.

It should have been a pretty sound but it reminded Lillie too much of last night, the fingers tapping on her windowpane to be allowed in.

She slapped her hands on the table, pushing herself to her feet. “I’ll get it myself,” she decided, and marched over to the drinks station.

Cam’s wings were curved toward Frost, the tips quivering a little nervously. Nancy was leaning back against the coffee machine, watching them with a tiny smile on her face, which Lillie couldn’t look at.

“Excuse me,” Lillie said, trying to shoulder past Nancy to get to the coffee.

“Oh, hey, I’m getting it,” Cam said to her, without really looking away from Frost. Frost was turned toward him, silver-painted fingertips just brushing his wrist. It was another thing that made Lillie angry although she couldn’t say why.

“You’re not showing any signs of getting anything except laid,” Lillie snapped.

Nancy’s eyebrows shot up. Frost dropped their fingers from Cam’s skin. Cam frowned, looking hurt.

“Please let me get to the coffee,” Lillie said. Maybe if she stuck her face far enough inside it, she’d stop upsetting everyone.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” Nancy asked, still not moving away. “Do you have to go around being awful to absolutely everyone?”

I’m tired, Nancy thought and, I’m sorry, but she wasn’t going to apologise to Nancy and she wasn’t going to admit to any weaknesses in front of her, either.

“Only the people who deserve it,” she said. She meant Nancy. She obviously only meant Nancy, but out of the corner of her eye, she saw Frost pull into themself. Their edges began to fade the way they did when they wanted to blend into their surroundings and become invisible.

Nancy put her hands on her hips. For the first time ever, she actually looked angry with Lillie. Lillie was always wishing she’d stop smirking, but now she had, Lillie found she didn’t really like it.

“Why do you always have to act like you’re better than everyone else?” Nancy asked. “Princess.” The way she said it sounded nasty; Lillie only then realised it had been an endearment before.

“Because I am,” said Lillie, who didn’t seem able to stop talking. “My grandmother saved the world from the most powerful evil wizard the world has ever seen. My mother broke a centuries-old enchantment to save my father, who by the way, is a prince. And you’re… what are you? You’re just a human.”

“Yup,” said Nancy. “Just a human. Just a regular old human. No magic on me at all. But wait. Wait, Princess Lillie the Great and Powerful, where’s your magic?”

Lillie felt herself go cold. “What?” she asked. Beside her, Cam had stiffened a little, but Lillie couldn’t think about that now. She noticed that the canteen had gone quiet. Everyone was listening to this.

Nancy cocked her head. “Your magic,” she repeated. “Your grandmother’s this, your mother’s that but what are you? What can you do?”

“Turn you into a damn toad,” Lillie snapped.

Nancy spread her hands. “Go on then, show me.”

Lillie took a deep breath in. Everyone was looking at her.

“You can’t, can you?” Nancy said, her smile turning sharp and mean. “Can you do anything? Can you – ” She looked around “ – Can you make yourself coffee with your magic? Surely you don’t need me to move for something as simple as that.”

Lillie hated her. She hated her so much. Bad enough that Nancy somehow knew that she couldn’t;, stupidly, Lillie had thought she’d never do this to her, show her up in front of everyone like this.

“Lil,” Cam said softly.

“Oh, you be quiet too!” Lillie spun around and glared at him. “This is your fault. Flirting with people so far beneath you that – ”

Frost faded out of sight.

Nancy slapped her own forehead, swearing under her breath. “What’s wrong with you?” she demanded of Lillie.

Lillie wished she knew. “Cam comes from a long line of fairy godparents. His aunt was Cinderella’s fairy godmother, she – ”

“Please stop talking,” Cam said, sounding miserable. He folded his arms around his chest and then his wings around his arms. “Just go and sit down. Please.”

“No,” said Lillie. “I’ve got to prove Nancy wrong first.” She didn’t know how she was going to do that, but she was committed now. She raised her hand and snapped her fingers with all the certainty she could muster, copying her mother’s professional, confident click.

Nothing happened.

Nancy folded her arms. “I’m waiting,” she said.

Lillie’s heart was pounding. It was getting difficult to hear over the buzzing in her ears. She hoped it was coming from inside her head rather than from all the students who were watching her.

She clicked her fingers again.

There was a row of mugs behind Nancy’s head. They didn’t so much as twitch.

Oh please please please, Lillie thought. If her magic was ever going to come in, couldn’t it pick right now?

“Coffee!” she said, light and trilling and coercive, the easy way her grandmother called her magic to her.

One of the mugs wobbled on the shelf. Lillie held her breath, staring at it. Very, very slowly, it lifted itself up and floated toward the drinks urns below.

The mug headed over to the tea urn first but that was fine, that would be fine, Lillie wouldn’t quibble. Then it swerved backwards at the last moment and slotted itself under the coffee urn instead.

Coffee filled the mug, then milk, then a dash of sugar, before finally a spoon lifted up and stirred it all together.

Nancy was staring now too. So was Cam.

No one was staring as hard as Lillie was.

She held out her hand reflexively, when the coffee mug sailed towards her. It slotted into her waiting palm and she realised that this was real, this had really happened.

She nearly dropped it.

“There,” she said softly to the mug. She looked up at Nancy, tipping her chin up. “There. Happy now?”

“I have no idea,” Nancy said faintly. Then she blinked and turned away abruptly. “Well done, you won. Now I have to go and coax my friend out of the ether. Have a good day.”

Lillie watched her storm off, her fingers turning white-knuckled around the handle of her mug. This should be her moment of triumph. She didn’t feel very triumphant. Mostly she felt freezing cold.

“Are you happy now?” Cam asked from beside her.

“Yes,” said Lillie, because what else could she say.

Cam nodded. “Good,” he said softly. “That’s good. That’s great for you.”

Lillie turned to him, frowning. All of him seemed to be drooping. “Wait, what’s wrong?”

Cam gave her a look as though the answer should have been obvious. “You said I was too good for Frost,” he said, the words bursting out as though they’d been waiting. “I’ve been asking them out for four years and you’ve ruined it. So I’m really glad you’re happy.”

He pulled his wings back and shot up into the air, flying straight over the heads of some late-arriving students and out through the doors.

Lillie stared after him. Cam never flew properly indoors; he didn’t like to make people jump.

“But I’m not happy,” she said, but he was already gone.

***

Lillie went to bed early that night. No one who mattered was talking to her and she was so tired she couldn’t lift her head, so she thought she might as well.

She managed two hours of uninterrupted sleep, before the loudest crash yet had her bolting upright in bed.

Her window was smashed, the curtain ripped in half, and a hideous, gargolyish face was looming inside the room. It was worse than the skull. It was worse than anything she’d ever seen. It was twisted and deformed like the innermost part of a dream, and it was screaming, over and over, shrill and unearthly.

Lillie threw herself out of bed, slipped on something wet on the floor and went down hard, hands landing on shards of broken glass.

The gargoyle was even more hideous from up close, the screaming unbearable. It was going to get her. It was going to touch her and drag her out of the window and –

Stifling a sob, Lillie scrambled to her feet and bolted for the door. She wrenched it open and went tumbling, barefoot out into the corridor.

Hardly anyone slept up on this floor. She’d been given one of the best rooms as soon as she reached the lower sixth and usually she was pleased about that, but right now, she was terrified and she had no one to turn to.

“Help!” she yelled, abandoning dignity and running full pelt down the corridor

A door at the end flew open and someone stepped out. Lillie crashed straight into her and would have fallen, if not for strong, certain hands grabbing her upper arms and keeping her on her feet.

“Lillie?” the person demanded and oh god, of course, of course it was Nancy. “Shit, sweetheart, what’s wrong?”

Lillie tried to wrench away from her, but Nancy was holding her too tightly. “N-nothing,” Lillie panted. She was breathing so hard, she thought her lungs might be going to explode.

Nancy arched her eyebrows. There was moonlight shining in through the skylights and even if there weren’t, Lillie would have known she’d be making that expression. “Right, of course, you always run through the school screaming for help in the middle of the night.”

“Maybe I do,” Lillie tried, but it was no good, she couldn’t stop shivering, her teeth chattering together.

Nancy’s grip changed from something designed to keep her upright to something more soothing. Confusing, but soothing. “Lillie,” she said, “come on. Tell me what happened. Did someone is… is there someone in your room, or?”

Humiliatingly, Lillie felt tears rise up in her throat and sting at her eyes. She gulped hard, trying to push them back down.

“My hands hurt,” she realised, that one vague thought pushing its way to the surface. She felt as if she might be going to float away.

“Your hands?” Nancy asked, looking down. She swore and let go of Lillie to pick up her hands and hold them up to the light. “You’re all cut up. Did you break something?”

Lillie shook her head. Her hands didn’t look too bad to her, just scrapes along her palms, but they were stinging badly.

“Okay,” Nancy said, still very patient and calm and not at all Nancy-like. “Let’s get you back to your room and – ”

“No!” Lillie said, horror and panic making her knees feel as if they might give out. “No, I can’t. I can’t. I, please, please don’t make me go back in there.”

Nancy caught her shoulders and gave her a little shake. “Is there someone in there?” she asked. “Should I be getting a teacher? Or the police?”

“What’s a police?” Lillie asked, frowning.

Nancy sighed. “Never mind. Look, what if we go back to your room together and I go in first and if there’s anyone in there who shouldn’t be, I kick ‘em in the balls and we leg it?”

Lillie giggled wetly, but shook her head. “It’s a ghost,” she whispered. “I think I’m being haunted.”

Nancy went still for a moment then, “Huh,” she said. “I take it that’s not normal even in this crazy world?”

“No,” said Lillie, “no. Not this kind of haunting. This is… this is a bad ghost, a demon. It’s come to punish me and – ” She burst into tears. She didn’t mean to, but one minute she was standing there worried she might cry and the next she was sobbing.

“Oh, fuck,” Nancy said and put her arms around her.

Lillie clung to… whatever Nancy was wearing. It seemed to be a long version of the stupid t-shirts she wore during the day and she didn’t have a bra on underneath. Those were Lillie’s two thoughts as she was pulled in against Nancy’s chest and then she was too busy crying all over Nancy’s collarbones to take in anything else.

“Shh,” Nancy murmured, stroking her back. “Shh, princess, it’s okay.”

“It’s awful, it was awful,” Lillie sobbed. “I don’t want to go to the hell dimension. I didn’t mean to lie, I just, I just – ”

“Oookay,” Nancy said. “One, stop holding on so tight, you’ve got glass in your hands. Two, no one’s taking you to any dimensions you don’t want to go to, I promise. Three, what did you lie about?”

Lillie gasped wetly into the fabric of Nancy’s top. “I don’t have magic,” she whispered. “I let everyone think I do, but I don’t, I’m a fraud and – ”

Nancy squeezed her tighter. “I know,” she said. “Hush, I know, it’s okay.”

“You know?” Lillie asked. She’d thought Nancy might suspect, but Nancy sounded certain, not shocked at all.

Nancy rested her chin on the top of Lillie’s head. “I’ve always known,” she said. “What I don’t know is how you moved that mug earlier.”

Lillie laugh-sobbed. “Me neither,” she admitted.

Nancy pulled back. “Okay,” she said and lifted her hands, rubbing her thumbs under Lillie’s eyes to wipe away her tears. “Okay, princess, we’re going to check out this demon and if it even so much looks at you funny, I’m going to punch it on the nose. Cool?”

“Not cool,” Lillie said, but she sniffed and straightened her shoulders and tried to be at least a little bit as brave as she wanted to be.

Nancy tucked her hand through Lillie’s arm and led her down the corridor, talking as she went about something called a ghostbuster and something else called ectoplasm.

“You don’t make any sense,” Lillie said, as they both came to a stop outside her door.

“Actually I’m really cool,” Nancy sighed. She pushed open the door, which must have swung shut after Lillie fled and stepped into the room.

Lillie held her breath for half a second then had to follow her in. Whatever was inside, it would be better to see it than to imagine it.

There was nothing there. No demons, no fiery eyes or lolling tongues, not even any screaming. Thank goodness the glass was still all over the floor or Lillie might have thought she’d dreamt it.

She sat down on the bed, while Nancy went over to check the window.

“Are demons made of chicken wire in this world?” Nancy asked, picking at something stuck to a jagged edge of broken glass.

“Hmm?” Lillie asked.

Nancy looked back at her, smiled slightly and shook her head. “Never mind. Well, okay, I might have an idea, but I’m not sure yet.”

“About the demon?” Lillie asked suspiciously. “What do you know about demons?”

“Not a lot,” said Nancy, “but maybe just enough for this.” She leant forward and peered out of the window, frowning down at something on the ground. “Anyway!” she said, once she’d straightened and turned back to Lillie. “No demons are going to get you tonight. Let’s sort out your hands then go back to sleep.”

Lillie looked around the room. “I think maybe I’ll sleep in with Cam tonight…” She trailed off. She couldn’t sleep with Cam, Cam was mad at her. And she couldn’t sleep with Jake, because her breasts made him nervous.

Nancy looked at her long and hard. Then she patted her on the shoulder. “Come and sleep in with me,” she said. “Just don’t snore.”

“I don’t snore!” Lillie protested. “And, and really?”

Nancy just looked at her. “Princess, it’s the middle of the night; we don’t have time for manners. Just come and sleep with me.” Her pale cheeks went dark enough to be noticeable even in moonlight. Lillie wondered why. Maybe she’d left her room in a mess or something.

“All right,” Lillie agreed, nodding. “I accept.”

“Brill,” Nancy said flatly.

Nancy’s room was one floor down from Lillie’s, which actually begged the question what she’d been doing up here at all, especially in the middle of the night.

“Oh, that,” she said, as she followed Lillie down the short, winding flight of stairs. “Frost’s sleeping in the woods tonight, but they asked me to go up and make sure they hadn’t left their straighteners on.”

Lillie stopped half way through the door that led through to Nancy’s floor. “Oh no, Frost,” she said. She wanted to clap a hand to her mouth, but remembered the glass in her palm just in time. Instead, she turned and looked up at Nancy. “Did I upset them very much?”

“A bit,” Nancy said, mouth tightening. “Mostly because I think they thought you liked them. God knows why, you don’t like anyone who doesn’t have a triple barrel name and at least seven castles.”

“That’s not true!” Lillie said loudly, then remembered other people were sleeping. “That’s not true,” she repeated in a whisper. “I like Frost.” She could have added I like you, but just because Nancy was being nice to her right now, there was no reason to go flinging around declarations she couldn’t take back.

“Hmm,” said Nancy, and nudged her aside so she could open her door. Lillie’s door key was a carefully crafted piece of wood, which she wore on a silver chair tucked under her clothes. Nancy’s appeared to be made of metal and she dropped it into onto the floor as the door was open.

“I do,” Lillie said. Since they were inside again, she let her volume rise. “Frost is sweet and kind and I have no idea what they’re doing being friends with you, since you’re horrible, honestly.”

Nancy snorted a laugh. “Oh, that’s better,” she said. “I thought that demon had scared you off for good.”

Lillie huffed. “I don’t know what you mean,” she said. “You are horrible. You’re letting your best friend sleep alone in the woods and – Oh.” She trailed off, realising why that wasn’t a logical point.

“Yeah,” said Nancy, grinning at her. “My best friend who’s a wood nymph.” She pointed to the tiny bathroom that sat off to one corner of her bedroom, so Lillie went in and leant against the washbasin.

“That’s beside the point,” Lillie sniffed. “They’re still out there all alone.”

“The woods to the east are their third cousins twice removed or something,” Nancy said, pulling out a small, dark bottle and unscrewing the top. “Also, Cam went after them.”

“Into the woods?!” Lillie demanded, starting to straighten up.

Nancy pushed her back down. “Yes. Into the woods. Your tiny fluttery fairy was very insistent about it. I think he’s going to declare his love or some such rot.”

“Oh,” Lillie said. She started to smile. “Oh, thank goodness.”

Nancy frowned at her. “Really?” she asked. “I didn’t think you approved.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Lillie said. “Cam’s been in love with them for years; of course I want him to be happy even if – Oh no, does that mean we’re going to have to be friends?”

Nancy didn’t answer her, just unscrewed the lid of the bottle she was holding. “Hold out your hands,” she said.

Obediently, Lillie did. Nancy poured some kind of green, bitter smelling liquid into Lillie’s cuts. It hurt so much that Lillie had to yelp.

“Yes, princess,” Nancy said, watching her with the beginnings of one of her annoying smirks. “I’m afraid it will mean we going to have to be friends.”

“What was that?” Lillie asked, cradling her hands together protectively. “Some kind of potion.”

“Disinfectant,” Nancy said. “You buy it in a shop. Seriously, it’s a wonder the whole magical kingdom doesn’t have gangrene. Give me your hands back.”

“No!” said Lillie.

Nancy held out her own hands insistently. “I’m going to pick glass out of your skin. It’s very Grimm. I thought you’d approve.”

“It’s not that grim,” Lillie said, but let Nancy take her hands anyway.

It turned out that having glass plucked out of your palms at past midnight was a fairly rotten experience. Nancy made it as least awful as she could though, holding Lillie’s hands with care and telling her stupid jokes that made her laugh, when she wanted to cry out.

Once she was done, Nancy insisted on putting more of the horrible disinfectant on Lillie’s hands. Then she started looking around for something called a plaster.

“What’s wrong with a bandage?” Lillie asked, watching her push up onto her tiptoes then lean down to look under the sink.

“This will be funnier,” Nancy said. “If… I can… Aha!” She straightened up, a small, white box in her hand. She pulled out a few strips of pink elastic looking things, pulled the backing paper off one and smoothed it over one of Lillie’s cuts. She followed that up with another. Then a third and one on the other hand.

Lillie blinked down at them. A plaster was apparently a pink sticky bandage, which carried a drawing of a blonde girl in a bright pink dress with a small, sparkly crown on top of her head.

“Pretty princess plasters,” Nancy said, biting her lip to try and hide a smile. “For the pretty princess.”

Lillie turned her hands over. “Are these a joke?” she asked, confused.

Nancy patted her shoulder. “No, they’re just for kids. And also big kids. I don’t know, I saw them in Boots when I went home last summer and they made me laugh.”

Lillie started to smile, still turning her hands back and forth. “I don’t look like that,” she said.

“Nah, you’ve got much better – ” Nancy started to say then cut herself off, blushing again.

“Better what?” Lillie asked curiously.

Nancy’s eyes went wide. “… crown!” she said. “You have a much better crown.” Somehow Lillie suspected that hadn’t been what she’d started out to say. For a start, Nancy had never seen her crown.

***

Lillie woke up warm and comfortable and above all well-rested. She stretched and yawned then curled back into the nest of blankets that surrounded her.

Sunlight splashed onto her eyelids, warming her face.

Lillie’s eyes opened. Her bed didn’t face the sun. It wasn’t this comfortable, either. Where on earth was she?

She looked around the room, taking in the weird glossy paintings on the walls and the odd Ordinary clothes scattered on the floor. Nancy’s room, of course.

Except, there was no Nancy.

She’d insisted that Lillie had to take the bed last night, and had grabbed a blanket and a pillow to make herself a bed on the floor. Lillie had wanted to invite her to share the bed, had kept nearly saying it, but in the end, she’d fallen asleep before she could.

There was something much more embarrassing about waking up alone in someone else’s room than there was about falling asleep with them there. Lillie climbed out of bed, unbent the kinks from her spine and looked around for her shoes.

Which was when she remembered that she hadn’t worn any during her terrified flight from her bedroom last night and she hadn’t put any on when she went back.

There were people talking and laughing in the corridor outside Nancy’s door. There weren’t enough people on Lillie’s floor to congregate like that, but she’d seen them do it near Cam and Jake’s rooms.

Lillie couldn’t go out there in her nightdress and bare feet. That just wasn’t the reputation she was trying to cultivate.

Well, Nancy had dragged her down here and then abandoned her, so the least she could do would be to lend Lillie some clothes.

Lillie was half way through changing into one of Nancy’s horrible, patterned tops, when the door swung open.

Nancy stopped still.

She stared at Lillie wordlessly.

“Oh my god, sorry,” she said and fled from the room.

“Nancy?” Lillie called, pulling the top the rest of the way down, so that her midriff was no longer exposed. Nancy clearly found it very offensive.

Nancy peered around the doorframe. Apparently finding Lillie in a now-acceptable state of dress, she straightened up and came inside.

“That’s my t-shirt,” she said. “My Gudetama t-shirt. Also, are those my jeans?”

Lillie looked down at the form-fitting black trousers she was wearing. “Well they’re hardly mine,” she said, sniffing.

“You look, um.” Nancy blinked. Then she blinked again. “Anyway, I’ve got something to show you. You ready?”

“Is it breakfast?” Lillie asked hopefully, not that she expected Nancy to have brought her any. That was the sort of things friends did for each other and they weren’t friends.

“We can get some after,” said Nancy, rather than get it yourself, which was what Lillie had been expecting her to say. “Come on. Quick.”

“Where are we going?” Lillie asked, but she followed Nancy out of the room anyway. They had to step over several people who were enjoying their Saturday by lounging around in the corridor. A few of them gave Lillie strange looks but Lillie pretended not to see.

Nancy led the way up the stairs and along the corridor back to Lillie’s room.

“Did you tell someone about the window?” Lillie asked suspiciously. She been hoping to bribe one of their classmates who actually did have magic to have a go at fixing it. Breaks window at midnight was not something she wanted on her academic record.

“Nope,” said Nancy. “Stop guessing. You never will.”

She gave Lillie a light push toward her own door, which Lillie reached out to unlock, only to find it was already open. She looked over her shoulder at Nancy, but Nancy waved her forward encouragingly.

Inside Lillie’s bedroom, she found three first years, one girl and two boys, standing in the middle of the room and looking a combination of terrified and contrite.

“Um,” Lillie said to Nancy, who had stepped up beside her.

“Princess,” said Nancy, “meet Joy, Kris, and Grayson, otherwise known as your demons.”

“What?” Lillie asked, then she remembered that princesses don’t say what. “Pardon?”

Nancy grinned at her, badly hiding a laugh, before she made her expression turn serious again. “These little horrors,” she said, pointing at the children, “decided to use their free time making Hallowe’en masks and then to make them extra scary they used strobe lights and radios from the Ordinary world.”

“But,” said Lillie. She stared at the children. Could they possibly have made the horrors that had haunted her all week. “Why?”

“We wanted to make it proper scary,” said one of the boys.

“They don’t have Hallowe’en here, so we wanted to make it good,” said the other one.

“We do have Hallowe’en, we just don’t celebrate it like it’s a funfair,” Lillie said. “But what I actually meant was why did you aim all your pranks at me?”

She knew she wasn’t popular with the younger years like Nancy was, but surely they didn’t hate her that much.

Nancy bumped her arm against Lillie’s, casual enough that it could have been an accident, except that Nancy never touched her accidentally. Or at all.

“Well, I mean, you’re you,” said the girl child. She looked at Lillie, blushed and looked away.

“What she means is that you’re the most powerful person in the whole school,” said the other boy in a rush. “Your family is the bravest! If you were scared, we’d know we were doing something right.”

“But that’s horrible,” Lillie said. “That’s really…” She trailed off. She couldn’t say that’s so mean, not if she wanted to maintain her upper-hand and her six year age difference.

“It was a shit trick,” Nancy said for her. “Scaring people isn’t cool; it just makes you bullies.”

The children shuffled their feet. “Sorry, Nancy,” they said together. The taller boy looked as though he was going to cry.

“Don’t apologise to me, apologise to the princess,” Nancy said, pointing at Lillie.

“Sorry, Lillie,” they all chorused.

Lillie didn’t really know what to say. She was beginning to feel incredibly embarrassed that these tiny humans had terrified her so much she’d had to flee from her bedroom. She’d cried on Nancy. Oh no.

She opened her mouth to shout at them. She knew how to be cutting; she could reduce them all to sobbing wrecks if she wanted to. “It’s all right,” she sighed. “Don’t do it again.”

Nancy stared at her. The children stared at her. Apparently everyone expected her to be a spoiled monster.

“Oh, do go away,” Lillie snapped.

The children fled. Nancy didn’t. Shockingly.

Lillie sat down hard on the bed. “Goodness,” she sighed, covering her face with her hands. After a minute of silence, she looked over the tops of her fingers at Nancy.

Nancy had a hand over her mouth, very, very clearly trying to smother laughter.

“It’s not funny!” Lillie said. “It’s… it’s… those horrible little monsters.”

Nancy burst out laughing. “I’m sorry,” she said, before Lillie could even glare. “I’m sorry. I know you were really scared, I’m not laughing about that, but god, those brats are a delight.”

“They’re a menace,” Lillie said, but she found that she was laughing too, giggles escaping her throat without her permission.

Nancy sat down next to her on the bed. “Delightful menaces,” she agreed, nodding. “Oh, princess, fuck, you should have seen their faces when I cornered them this morning.”

Lillie turned her head and looked at her. “Thank you,” she said, sincerely.

Nancy blinked. “Oh, uh, you’re… welcome?”

“I… was scared,” Lillie admitted, making herself carry on even though gratitude and admitting weaknesses were the two things she found the most difficult. “Thank you for comforting me last night and for reassuring me this morning.”

It seemed to take Nancy a moment to find her voice. She blinked slowly at Lillie. Her eyes were a really startling shade of green, like grass after a fresh fall of rain; Lillie had never noticed that before.

“Lillie,” she said, very softly, so softly that Lillie felt herself swaying closer, so that she could hear her properly. “Lillie.”

“Yes?” Lillie asked.

She was close enough now that Nancy’s face was just out of focus.

“I,” Nancy started. Then her eyes went wide and she jolted backwards. Lillie almost fell over, which was ridiculous, since she hadn’t been leaning on Nancy. “What the hell is that?”

Lillie looked where Nancy was pointing. The window was fixing itself.

“Um,” Lillie said. She found that she was clutching Nancy’s arm, but that seemed like a good idea, so she didn’t let go.

The largest pieces of glass were rising one by one from the floor and carefully fusing back together inside the window frame. Each one hesitated before it settled, as though it wasn’t quite sure where to go, but then it steamed up as though cold air was being blown on it and it stuck to its neighbour, creating a spider-web pattern where there used to be smooth glass.

“What the hell?” Nancy asked. “Is that you?”

“How could it be me?” Lillie demanded. “Do I seem like I have magical glassier powers?!”

“Who knows with you, princess?” Nancy stood up.

“Don’t go near it,” Lillie said, reaching for her, but Nancy stepped away from her.

“This is fascinating,” she said. “Very worth investigating.” She peered down at the remaining glass shards on the floor. Lillie expected them to fly up toward her face and was prepared to pull her out of the way, but they didn’t move.

“Well?” Lillie asked, cautiously. She realised that she was quivering in a metaphorical corner like a damsel rather than the hero she was destined to be, so she got up and stood next to Nancy.

She wasn’t scared. She knew what the demon was now – or rather what it wasn’t – so there was no reason to be scared.

She put her hand in Nancy’s.

Nancy turned, raised an eyebrow at her, but squeezed her fingers reassuringly.

“All right, what’s going on then?” Nancy demanded to the air between the broken glass and the windowpane.

The glass tinkled a little, as though it were nervous.

“Um, Lillie, I don’t want to worry you, but I think I can see a face?” Nancy said.

“Why would that worry me?” Lillie asked, clutching Nancy’s hand hard.

“Hey, there,” Nancy said, in the sort of voice someone might speak to a small werecat. “Is someone there?”

The air by the window was definitely shimmering.

“Hello?” Lillie asked.

The shimmering started to coalesce. First a narrow, pale face melted into view, eyes wide, then short blond hair, narrow shoulders, a grey jacket and grey trousers and grey shoes.

“Oh,” said the boy, who’d been revealed. He looked down at himself and smiled. Then he waved at Lillie and Nancy. “Hello!”

“What a fucking day,” Nancy muttered to herself.

“I, um.” Lillie blinked then blinked again. “Who are you?”

“Reggie!” said the boy. “And you’re Lillie. And you’re that horrible girl, Nancy Green.” He grinned brightly. The more he spoke and the more he smiled, the more colour leached into his face and even into his clothes. His shirt wasn’t grey; it was pale yellow and his jacket was a rather natty green.

“Oh I am, am I?” Nancy asked.

Reggie shrugged. “That’s what she calls you. I don’t think she means it though.”

“Excuse me,” Lillie said loudly. “But who are you, why are you in my room, and why are you mending my window?” She didn’t ask how he was mending her window; she wasn’t sure she was ready to learn about ghost magic, yet.

“Oh, I, um. I sort of live here?” Reggie said, shuffling his feet. Well, sort of shuffling them. It turned out that they didn’t quite reach the floor.

“Did you live here before?” Nancy asked kindly. “When you were… um. Alive?”

Reggie’s eyes lit up and he opened his mouth as if he was going to agree that that was exactly what had happened. Then he slumped. “No,” he said. “No, I live down the road in the old church.” His chest puffed out a little. “I come from a long line of haunters. My family have been haunting this village for five hundred years.”

“Wow,” Nancy said, looking at Lillie. “Kid’s got a pedigree. You like that.”

“Shut up,” Lillie muttered.

“But, but you knew I was here!” Reggie said, looking at Lillie. “Didn’t you?”

“Me? No,” said Lillie. “Why on earth would I… Oh.” She thought about all the times she’d complained to the room about feeling cold and how her duvet had just appeared over her. “You’ve been fetching me things?”

“Yes!” Reggie said. “I’ve been helping.”

Nancy frowned at Lillie. “And you didn’t think that was weird?” she asked.

“No,” Lillie muttered, realising belatedly that she should have done. “I just thought the room liked me.”

“Oh, it does,” Reggie said earnestly.

“Does it?” Lillie asked, looking around. She wasn’t sure how she felt about an anthropomorphic room.

“No, silly, room’s don’t have feelings,” Reggie said and giggled.

Lillie narrowed her eyes at him.

Reggie giggled some more, but had the grace to hide it behind his hand.

When Lillie glanced at Nancy, she found she was grinning too. Lillie huffed at her, but she did not look suitably apologetic.

“Hang on,” Nancy said, raising a hand, finger pointed at Reggie as if she’d just had a thought. “Yesterday, when Lillie tried to use magic to make herself a cup of coffee, did you do that, too?”

“Yes!” Reggie said, bouncing on his toes. “Yes! That was harder, but I did it. I helped.”

Lillie thought that she should feel sad at this final proof that she definitely had no magic. In fact, she just felt relieved. At least now she could stop hoping. “But why?” she asked.

“Well,” said Reggie. “Well, we’re friends, aren’t we?”

“Are we?” Lillie asked, surprised. Reggie’s face fell. Nancy elbowed her pointedly. “I mean, we are! Of course! Um. Why are you here?”

Reggie sighed. It was a sigh full of woe and longing. “I wanted to come to school here but they don’t take ghosts, so I’ve just been haunting around, listening in to the lessons. They’re so interesting.”

“Ghosts go to school?” Nancy asked.

Reggie pouted. “We could,” he said. “If anyone would let us.”

Nancy still looked baffled “Are there many career paths for you beyond ‘haunt that thing over there’?” It was Lillie’s turn to elbow her; it didn’t seem fair that all of Reggie’s choices should be made for him, just because of what he was.

“I know,” Reggie said sadly. “That’s what Dad said.”

“Ghosts have dads?” asked Nancy, who finally seemed to have found something she was flummoxed by.

“Ghosts are people too!” Reggie said hotly. “Just noncorporeal ones! That doesn’t mean… I want to go to school and I want to go to this school.” He pouted some more.

“Then you will,” Lillie heard someone say. Belatedly, she realised it was her.

They both turned to her, Ordinary girl and ghost boy, eyebrows raised in identical question marks.

“I’ll make it work,” Lillie promised.

***

“Mrs Bryar?” Lillie called, zipping down the corridor behind their head mistress, who was probably on her way to the grand hall to give afternoon assembly. Weekends were technically free time at Berry Wood, but Mrs Bryar liked to gather them in on a Saturday, as though she was afraid of what they’d get up to otherwise.

“Can’t it wait, Lillie?” Mrs Bryar asked, without pausing.

Lillie lept over a second year in a single bound. “It’s really important,” she said. “Really, really…”

Mrs Bryar stopped, one hand on the door to the hall. She looked Lillie up and down and gave her a very small smile. “No, I won’t ban Nancy Green from duelling club. I won’t make the flying club give up their meeting room. And yes, yes you do have to go into the woods occasionally. Now, come along, it’s time for assembly.”

She swept through the door, leaving Lillie standing in the hall, feeling a little bit stunned.

“Lillie?” Jake asked, appearing at her side and raising a dark blue eyebrow at her. “You know you’re supposed to go inside, right?”

“Am I really that terrible?” Lillie asked, rounding on him. “Mrs Bryar seems to think I’m terrible.”

Jake frowned. “I’m sure she doesn’t?” he said, with a wide-eyed helpless look around as though hoping someone else would arrive to save him from this conversation.

Lillie grabbed his arm and marched him into the hall. “Never mind,” she said. “Come on, we’re going inside. Wait, where’s Cam?”

“I’m not sure,” Jake said, looking shifty.

“Jake?” Lillie said, leaning forward so she could look at him closely. “Don’t fib to me.”

“This is why Mrs Bryar thinks you’re terrible,” Jake muttered. “Cam’s still pissed at you, but I’m not supposed to tell you that.”

Lillie curled her hand into a fist, only realising that she was imagining that Nancy’s hand was still in hers after she’d done it. It was still horribly comforting.

Assembly was never very interesting. Lillie always tried to look as if she was paying attention anyway, just to set a good example to the younger years. Today, she wasn’t trying, too busy looking around the hall.

She spotted Nancy first, sitting on top of a table a the edge of the room, her long legs dangling. There was a space next to her that would usually have been filled by Frost, but looking around, Lillie found that they were sitting in front of Nancy instead, tucked in next to Cam.

“Cute,” said Jake and dropped down into a chair near the middle of the room.

Lillie stayed standing, too keyed up to sit. At least she was, until Jake took a firm hold on the end of her borrowed top and yanked her down.

“Hey,” Lillie protested, smoothing out the fabric, where he’d wrinkled it.

“You need to relax,” Jake told her. “You’re making me tired.”

Lillie wrinkled her nose. He didn’t say it crossly like Nancy would, but like it was actually the truth. “Sorry,” she said, and tried to sit still.

She wasn’t very good at it.

She bounced her leg, while the rest of the school filled up the remaining chairs and tapped her fingers on her knee, while Mrs Bryar read out general announcements and updates.

There was always a section at the end of assembly, where the teachers asked if any of the students had any important news to share. Lillie had used this time to announce bake sales and fundraisers and talent shows before.

Today, her hand shot up before Mr Bramble, the deputy head, had finished asking.

“Lillie? Do you have an announcement?” asked Mr Bramble, looking down at his notes in confusion. Lillie usually liked to prime the teachers in advance so that they could support her announcements.

Lillie got to her feet. Beside her, Jake sunk deeper into his chair.

“Actually, I have a question,” Lillie said. “Sir. I tried to ask Mrs Bryar earlier but she was busy and it is terribly important.”

Mrs Bryar looked somewhat longsuffering. Lillie was going to have to bake her some muffins later. Lillie made surprisingly excellent muffins.

“I was just wondering,” Lillie said, keeping her head up and her voice clear, “why we don’t let ghosts join the school?”

There was a startled silence and then a buzz of conversation that echoed around the hall.

Mr Bramble looked a little nonplussed, but Mrs Bryar actually chuckled. “Excuse me?” she asked.

“It’s just that… well.” Lillie started to lose her nerve a little, but out of the corner of her eye, she could see Nancy watching her, and that helped. Annoyingly, it really helped. “Well, we let in warlocks and fairies and nymphs and seelies and there was that boy a couple of years ago who was half-dragon, so why don’t we let in ghosts?”

A few of her fellow students looked bored, but a lot of people were listening. They didn’t look as though they were going to rise up to agree with her, but at least they weren’t laughing.

“But Lillie,” said Mr Bramble, “ghosts don’t have magic.”

“So?” Lillie asked, frowning. Deep down inside she was aware that she was being awfully rude to a teacher, but something seemed to have happened to her, standing in this hall with everyone’s eyes on her, and she found she didn’t care. “Neither do the Ordinaries, and we let them in.”

“That’s not quite the same,” Mrs Bryar said calmly, while Mr Bramble harrumphed.

“It is,” Lillie said. “I, um, I mean, sorry, but I think it is. The Ordinaries don’t have magic and, and neither… and neither do I, but we’re still allowed to come here.”

The noise levels in the hall shot up. Lillie wasn’t sure if it was just her ears that were ringing. She looked up at Nancy, who was leaning forward as though she was about to slide down off the desk.

When she caught Lillie’s eye, she beamed at her and stuck both thumbs up into the air.

“Nonsense,” said Mr Bramble, the loudest voice in a very loud room. “Next you’ll be wanting us to admit vampires or werewolves.”

“I, um.” Lillie thought about it. “Well, why not?”

Mrs Bryar tipped her head, watching her closely. “Why not indeed?” she said. “Lillie, do you know of a ghost who’d like to join?”

“Yes!” Lillie said. She should have thought of this. It would have made much more sense to have asked Reggie to come down with her, but that would have involved planning this in advance. She definitely hadn’t planned this in advance.

“Over here,” Nancy called, waving a lazy hand in the air.

Everyone looked over at her – Lillie included; Lillie first – as the empty space beside her was slowly, and then not so slowly, filled by a grinning Reggie.

“Here’s a ghost for you,” Nancy said.

Reggie waved.

There was a certain degree of uproar after that. Mr Bramble staggered away, mopping his brow with a handkerchief, while Mrs Bryar hurried over to talk to Reggie.

Lillie sat down in her seat, her knees suddenly feeling a little weak.

What had she done? She’d just outed herself as having no magic in front of the entire school. She couldn’t breathe.

Jake put a hand on her shoulder and pushed her forward a bit. “Breathe,” he advised helpfully.

“No, I’ve just ruined my life,” Lillie told him, putting her head between her knees, anyway.

There was a skitter of feet around them, which Lillie imagined was people coming along to mock her, until the edge of one sparkly wing brushed her cheek.

She sat up quickly, then climbed all the way to her feet.

Cam was there, hand in hand with Frost. Nancy was hanging back slightly behind them, but she waved to Lillie, anyway.

“Hi,” Lillie said breathlessly. She cleared her throat. “Frost, I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you yesterday or – ” She paused. She never spoke all helterskelter like this. She should have stopped and thought about her apology properly. But Cam was nodding approvingly and Frost was listening so she ploughed on. “I don’t think Cam’s too good for you. Of course I don’t. I think you’re lovely. I mean, I know we don’t know each other very well, but I’d like to and. Gosh. Sorry, you don’t like this much noise, do you?”

She put a hand against her mouth, miming silence.

Frost giggled, briefly shaking back their long fall of platinum hair, so Lillie could see their face properly. Their silver eyes were unearthly, but oddly striking up close. “It’s all right,” they said in their soft voice. “That was nice noise.”

“Oh, thank goodness,” Lillie said, beyond relieved to know that she hadn’t messed up one thing today, at least.

Frost blushed, a startling splash of colour in their ice-white cheeks. “I liked what you said about everyone being welcome here, too. I thought that was very brave.” They went back behind their hair as though voicing an opinion was too much for them, and Lillie saw Cam squeeze their hand reassuringly.

“Oh,” Lillie said faintly. She looked at Frost then at Cam and then at Jake. “I was hoping we could all be friends again but I guess… I guess maybe you won’t want to be friends anyway, now I don’t have any magic. Now you know I don’t have any magic, that is.”

Cam looked at Jake. Jake looked back. “We already knew,” Cam told Lillie.

“What?” Lillie asked, shaking her head. “No you didn’t. How?”

“We’ve known you five years and you never did any magic?” Jake said, like that should have been obvious.

“But,” Lillie said helplessly.

“We just assumed you didn’t want to talk about it,” said Jake, while Cam nodded. Nancy looked a little like she wanted to explode into laughter but was womanfully refraining.

“So you do… you do still want to be friends?” Lillie looked at Cam in particular, because she knew she’d messed up there. “And you’ll forgive me?”

Cam sighed, long and heartfelt. “Twit,” he said and hugged her, wings wrapping around her in a shower of glittery confetti which for once she didn’t object to.

Lillie laughed a little tearfully and squeezed him back.

“I’m not hugging,” Jake said immediately, as soon as Lillie and Cam had released each other. He held out his fist to her though and she bumped her knuckles against his, the way some of the Ordinary children did together.

There was a sudden rush of cold air and then Reggie appeared in between them, half of his left leg cutting through Lillie’s and his right foot inside Cam’s.

“She’s going to let me stay!” Reggie said. “If my dad says yes. I’ll get my own room! I mean, yours was very nice, Princess Lillie, but you do snore a lot.”

“No, I don’t!” Lillie said. “Do I?”

That was apparently the last straw for poor Nancy, who started to laugh so hard she had to sit down.

Jake, meanwhile, was looking Reggie up and down. “You look like you’d enjoy duelling,” he decided.

“Oh yes,” Reggie said. “I definitely would!”

Jake nodded. “Cool,” he said, approvingly.

“Cool!” agreed Reggie and bounced so hard he disappeared a couple of inches through the floor before righting himself. He kept beaming the whole time.

***

“Knock knock,” Nancy said, later that evening. She pushed open Lillie’s bedroom door.

Lillie looked up from the floor, where she’d been clearing up the last few splinters of glass. Reggie had repaired her window so that it was solid and whole, but full of splintered cracks that let in light.

She supposed she could ask the school to fix it properly, but actually she loved it like this.

“Hi,” Lillie said, straightening up and wiping her hands on her dress. She’d sent Nancy’s borrowed clothes down to be laundered, but she wished she’d kept them on. She’d felt brave, while she was wearing them.

Nancy folded her arms across her chest. Then she unfolded them and swung them at her sides. She looked uncharacteristically uncertain.

“That was really nice,” she said. “What you did downstairs.”

Lillie shook her head.  “It was stupid,” she said. She was going to have to write to her parents to tell them what she’d done, but that could wait until tomorrow.

“No,” said Nancy firmly. “It was really brave. I wasn’t expecting it.” She looked confused that Lillie had done something she didn’t expect.

Nancy sat down on the bed, so Lillie walked over to sit beside her. This need to be close to Nancy wasn’t new, she realised. It was just that in the last day or so, she’d started to feel the pull without the accompanying annoyance.

“Maybe I’ve been wrong about you, princess,” Nancy said. She turned a little so her knees were almost brushing Lillie’s. Lillie turned the rest of the way so they touched.

“You haven’t been,” Lillie told her.

Nancy laughed softly. “You don’t even know what I was going to say I’d been wrong about.”

“See?” Lillie said. “I’m annoying. You haven’t been wrong about me.” She didn’t know what she was doing, except that the idea of Nancy tolerating her now, just because she’d done one stupid, selfless thing was almost worse than the idea of Nancy never tolerating her.

Nancy sighed very, very loudly. “Look,” she said. “If you don’t want me to ask you out, you could just say.”

Slowly, Lillie looked up until she was meeting Nancy’s eyes. “Wait, wait, what?” she asked.

“Seriously?” Nancy asked. “You didn’t get that that was where I was going with this?”

“No!” Lillie said. “Why on earth would I…” She stopped herself. “You were saying?”

“You’re so annoying,” Nancy said. It sounded fond. “Look, do you want to go out sometime? With me. On a date. We could go to – ”

“Yes,” Lillie interrupted. A lot of the frustrated, angry feelings she’d had about Nancy were starting to make a lot more sense.

“I wasn’t finished,” Nancy said. “What if you were quiet, just for one second, even?”

“Do you really want me to be quiet?” Lillie asked, suddenly bold, feeling filled with light.

Nancy closed her eyes for a moment. When she opened them, they were shining. “No… no, I want you to talk all the time and annoy me all the time, it’s the worst.”

She really was incredibly pretty. Her eyes were dancing and her mouth was quirked up in a permanent smirk. There didn’t seem to be any other option for Lillie other than to lean forward and gently cover Nancy’s teasing lips with her own.

From over by the window, a quiet voice said, “Yay!”

“Reggie,” Lillie said, warningly, and threw a pillow in his direction.

Then she went right back to kissing Nancy.

/The End/

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