Francisca Bankole stared at her desk in the corner of her bedroom. Sitting on top of it were eight torn open envelopes with the letters stuffed back inside of them. Four from Susan, three from Ginny, and one from Zach. She hadn’t responded to a single one since the summer holiday began. 

Ever since the end of term when she skipped the feast, she’d done her best to dodge her friends, making sure to avoid sitting with anyone she knew on the Hogwarts Express. Things didn’t change much when she got home, spending much of the summer hidden away in her bedroom. It was best for everyone this way.

From her bedroom, she often heard her mother talking in hushed tones to her Uncle King, who she was also avoiding, in the fireplace. Sometimes she would sneak to the top of the stairs to get a better listen. Normally, she would spend part of her summer with him and wouldn’t need to resort to snooping, but since she wasn’t yet ready to face anyone or write them, she had to get her information about what had been going on since Voldemort’s return somehow. Through her eavesdropping she’d learned that the Order of the Phoenix, a secret society Dumbledore created during the First Wizarding World — that both her parents were once a part of — was active again. Her uncle was one of the leaders, but her mom was not going to be a part of it “this time around.” Francisca could understand why her mother was afraid to fight, but couldn’t help but feel a sense of disappointment. She wanted her mother to turn her fear into passion, to try to get justice for their family, to make the world a place where no one else had to worry about losing loved ones to Voldemort’s reign.

But then she realized she was being a bit of a hypocrite, holed up in her room avoiding everyone out of fear too. Unlike her mother, she knew she would eventually go back out into the world, would do everything she can to prepare herself for the upcoming conflict, whether her mother or uncle wanted her to or not. For now though…she would stay right where she was, in bed unbothered by anyone or anything. Or so she thought.

Knock knock. 

“Honey…would you open up for me please?” Her mother’s voice came from the other side of her bedroom door. She sat quietly, waiting for her to leave as she had done all summer long — including at meal times — but another knock came instead. “Sweetheart, Uncle King is here to see you.”

That alone got her attention. Her uncle hadn’t been by to see her directly at all summer. She had told her mother that she wasn’t up for visitors, but suddenly she wanted nothing more than to see him. Francisca stood up from her bed and walked the length across her large (and messy) room to open the door. There, her mother Adila stood smiling softly at her with her uncle Kingsley. Francisca forced a smile back at the two of them.

“Alright well, I’ll leave you to it then,” Adila said smiling again and giving Kingsley a pointed look before turning to leave the two of them alone.

“How’s it going kid? I haven’t seen much of you lately, I was starting to get a little worried…” Uncle King said, his eyes flicking over to her desk full of letters as he leaned against the doorframe. 

“I’ve been alright. Just been um, preparing for the school year,” she explained. “It’s my O.W.L.s year, lots of homework and studying to do.” She flopped back down onto her bed and stared down at her feet, her black box braids creating a veil over her face.

“Ah, yes. That is a difficult year indeed. It’s good of you to begin preparing early for it.” She could feel him staring intently at her, but she refused to meet his gaze. “But how have you really been? Ginny asks about you whenever I see her, she’s worried and misses you. Talk to me Francisca.” 

Francisca sat in silence, contemplating whether she wanted to talk about what had been bothering her all summer. She knew if she could confide in anyone about the inner turmoil she was feeling, it would be her uncle King. Kingsley stood patiently in the doorway, watching Francisca carefully. 

After thinking about it for a moment, she finally responded. “I know Mum has been telling you about me being holed up in my room all summer and that I haven’t written anyone back. I just…don’t know what to say right now. After what happened last term, I’ve been so out of sync.”

Kinglsey sighed heavily before walking over and brushing Francisca’s braids away from her face. He laid his hands gently on her shoulders. “I know the end of the school year was particularly difficult for you, after Cedric. Things are changing quickly and we are having to prepare for what’s coming — as I’m guessing you’ve heard me discuss with Adila—” Francisca looked up at him, feeling a bit sheepish at the smirk on his face. He turned serious again,  “But I need you to take care of yourself above anything else. That’s what is important to me.”

Francisca stood up to wrap her arms around her uncle’s middle and buried her face in his electric blue robes, breathing in his spicy woody scent. In that moment, she felt all her worries and anxiety melt away and she realized just how much she missed her uncle. All too soon, he pulled her out of the hug and held her face in his hands. 

“You really should consider sending an owl to your friends. I know you miss them as much as they miss you. Remember what I taught you: you are in control of your emotions only. Just because you can feel everyone else’s does not mean you have to bear the burden of them all. Center yourself and filter through which emotions are actually yours, block the rest out.” He gave her one last look before he went off to go find her mother. 

Francisca watched him go, feeling more grounded and relieved to have finally talked to him even if it was brief. She had empathic abilities, making her not only able to read people’s (sometimes even animals’) emotions, but to feel precisely what they were feeling. She’d learned to control her abilities the summer holiday before her third year at Hogwarts with the assistance of her uncle King. He had been trying to help Francisca regulate when she could feel people and when to shut it off since Francisca was eight years old, but it took years for her to learn how to properly do it. 

Her abilities had manifested just after her father and brother were murdered. That was the last time Francisca remembered feeling this isolated and overpowered by emotion. Everyone had thought it was normal at first given the circumstances, until she finally described to her mother the exact emotions Adila was feeling. She’d told her mother how she’d felt different emotions from just about everyone around her since the funeral three and a half months prior. She hadn’t known how to deal with all the overwhelming sadness on top of her own, and the confusion had left her with a sense of drowning. Adila had immediately brought Francisca to Uncle King, figuring he would know more than her given his line of work. Kingsley had been an integral part of her life ever since. 

She tried not to read people’s emotions without their knowledge or consent, both for their privacy and her own peace of mind. But when Cedric was killed at the end of last term, she’d had a hard time blocking out everyone’s heightened emotions. She knew, of course, that she should write her friends back, but she just couldn’t figure out what to say to them. Outside of her family, only her best friends knew about her abilities and how she got them. Even still, she couldn’t figure out how to explain to them what it felt like to shoulder not only the burden of her own emotions, but everyone else’s.

And then there was the issue of her maybe-kind-of-boyfriend, Zacharias Smith, who she hadn’t even spoken to after everything happened last term. She glanced at the letter he’d sent. Would he even want anything to do with her now after she’d ignored his letter from the beginning of summer? She could tell he had just been worried about her, he’d even offered to come out to visit her when she was ready. But she just couldn’t bear to face anyone, let alone him. 

She would normally talk to Ginny and Susan about this type of dilemma, but it had been so far from her mind as she’d tried to balance herself out from the chaos within herself and out in the world, and now with the start of term drawing closer, she was beginning to worry more about what a new year at Hogwarts would bring. Would Zach end up forgiving her or would he shun her? Were her housemates still reeling from Ced’s death like she was or had they moved on already? Were the O.W.L.s going to be as hard as people made it seem or were they just dramatic? She had no idea about any of these things but she would find out soon enough.

Francisca positioned herself at her desk and picked up her favorite quill. She pulled out two sheets of parchment paper and with a heavy sigh, began to write her best friends back…Zach would have to wait for now.

After finally responding to Ginny and Susan and getting their responses, Francisca began to feel a sense of normalcy. Susan, in all her patient Hufflepuff glory, was understanding and kind about Francisca’s lack of communication. She told Francisca that they could just plan to sit together on the Hogwarts Express and catch up then instead of exchanging letters. Ginny — who Francisca had overheard was staying at the headquarters for the group making a stand against Voldemort —  sent her letter with Uncle King. She’d had a bit of a different approach than Susan, deciding to update Francisca on her entire summer within what felt like a never-ending roll of parchment, including the ever-present Harry Potter drama. Normally, Francisca would hear this type of news from Ginny in person when she went to spend part of the summer holiday with the Weasleys, but even with her eavesdropping she was a bit out of the loop. Although she was still feeling quite anxious about going back to school and having to interact with everyone, she did feel reassured knowing neither of her best friends were upset with her for not writing or visiting.

Knock knock. 

“Honey, we need to get to Diagon Alley to get your school supplies, your list just arrived. Plus, there is someone here to see you,” Adila’s voice called from outside of the bedroom door. Before Francisca could even think to respond, the door swung open and Ginny bounded in.

“Hiya Fran,” she said, grinning widely. Ginny’s pure happiness of seeing Francisca made her feel like she had been given a dose of Pepperup Potion. “Asked Kingsley if I could come with him to get you for school supply shopping. Mum already went without the rest of us but she knew how much I’ve wanted to see you so she said it was alright that I go with your family.”

Francisca hopped up and gave Ginny a tight hug. “It’s really great to see you Gin. I had no idea you were coming! I didn’t even know Uncle King was coming. He doesn’t usually come school supply shopping with me and Mum…” Francisca said, side eyeing her mother. She was overjoyed to see her friend but her uncle King joining worried her a bit. Was it truly that unsafe to even go shopping now?

“He thought that it would be…better if he joined us. Just as a precaution. He’s waiting downstairs for us,” Adila said with a forced attempt at airiness.

Francisca shot Ginny a quick look, and she could sense from Ginny that she was not concerned nor surprised by him going to Diagon Alley with them. Ginny mouthed “relax” to Francisca as they all headed down the stairs to the large open foyer, where Kingsley sat in a chair reading the day’s Daily Prophet. He folded up the paper and set it on the chair, asking the ladies if they were ready to head out. 

Ginny, usually fitting right in with her own family, was in stark contrast to Francisca and her family’s golden brown skin tone, but she had been friends with Francisca for years now, so there was no awkwardness or reservations around the family. They all walked over to the brick fireplace in the living room, with Kingsley going through the Floo Network first and Adila going last. When they arrived in Diagon Alley, Ginny and Francisca were watched closely by Kingsley, though he stayed a distance away so they could spend time together.

“He’s always been very protective of me, but this is a new level. Things must really be getting bad…have you heard anything else?” Francisca asked in a hushed voice.

“Well…I probably shouldn’t say but…” Ginny said just as quietly, side glancing at Francisca who stared at Ginny intently. “Okay okay, fine. When Harry got to headquarters the adults allowed him to ask questions about what’s been going on but Mum wouldn’t let me stay. Said I’m ‘too young’,” she rolled her eyes before a mischievous grin spread across her face. “Anyways, Fred and George ended up telling me everything. Apparently there’s some secret weapon Voldemort is trying to find that has all the adults worried because they ended the conversation after that.”

“Hmm. Maybe Uncle King would tell me about it if I asked…” Francisca wondered out loud. She was beginning to regret keeping herself isolated all summer. She wanted to be informed about what was going on so that she could be prepared if something happened again, but with everything she had learned recently, she had a feeling her uncle wouldn’t have told her much even if she had been around. She could try to casually ask him how things were at the Ministry and see if he mentioned anything, but Kingsley knew her too well. He’d be able to tell immediately that she was digging for information.

For the remainder of their time in Diagon Alley, Francisca got her school supplies and ice cream from Florean Fortescue’s before meeting up with Adila so that Ginny and Kingsley, much to Francisca’s disappointment, could go back to headquarters while Francisca went back home with her mother. 

“Is there anything else you still need to get honey?” Adila asked Francisca when they arrived home.

Francisca thought to herself that what she needed was more information from Uncle King, but didn’t dare say this to her mother. “No Mum, I found everything. Just need to pack all my things up and touch up my broom a bit before it’s time to head back to school.”

“Wonderful. That was a surprisingly easier trip than other years…considering,” Adila said with a hint of nervousness in her voice, which was not entirely out of place for her. She’d become a very cautious woman ever since Francisca’s father and brother were killed by a rogue Death Eater, who had recognized Akin as a member of the Order, eight years previously. Adila used to be a very formidable and talented witch within the Order alongside her husband and Kingsley, but after losing half their family, she’d become much more reserved and anxious. Uncle King often remarked that Francisca was much more like how her mother used to be; fierce, unbending, and outspoken. Francisca had a hard time talking to her mother about things, not liking to see her so worried all the time, and knew that if she told her mother half of the things she’d experienced since she’d discovered her abilities, her mother may never sleep again. Francisca understood why her mother had changed so much, but it was still difficult to watch someone who was once so brilliant become so small. She was hoping her mother would find some peace of mind once she went back to school.

Francisca never got the chance to talk with her uncle King after their Diagon Alley trip as he didn’t come back to the house until the day she was leaving for King’s Cross on September 1st. When they arrived at the station, he pulled Francisca off to the side before she boarded the express.

“Francisca…I need for you to lie low this year and make sure you stick with your friends.” Uncle King said, with slight worry in his voice. “I know things have been difficult for you lately but if you remember to lean on your friends for support while you’re away at school, you’ll be okay. Voldemort did the most damage by pulling apart families and friends, isolating them, making them feel they had to turn to his regime.” 

Francisca had never seen her uncle look so human. He was normally a very stoic man, didn’t let anyone in on his emotions, especially her with her empathic abilities. 

“I can’t make any promises…” Francisca started. Kingsley’s gaze turned fierce. “Okay, okay! I’ll keep my head down. And I know I had a rough summer, but I won’t let anything happen between my friends and I. I’ll probably try to gauge everyone’s emotions more often…make sure no one is losing it,” Francisca finished with a soft smile. Her uncle then folded her into a hug before rushing her towards the express before it could take off.

Once she was aboard the train, she walked the corridors looking for Susan. Passing by each compartment, she could feel the low buzz of excitement of returning to school coming off of everyone. She couldn’t help but feel a little excited herself, despite how the last school year had ended, but she was also on high alert now that she knew what was happening outside of Hogwarts’ walls. Her uncle’s words reverberated inside her head. 

Eventually, she found Susan sitting in a compartment alone, reading a Herbology magazine. Francisca knocked on the compartment door before sliding it open.

“Fran! Oh, I’ve missed you so much,” said Susan, jumping up to give Francisca a tight hug. “I wish there was more I could’ve done to be there for you…I was writing to your mum all summer in secret. I had to know that you were okay. I even wrote Ginny once but she hadn’t heard from you either.”

“I know Suz. I’m sorry for not reaching back out sooner. I just needed time to sort out what was going on in my head after last term…” Francisca trailed off, taking a seat across from Susan. “Have you, um, seen anybody else yet?”

Eyeing her suspiciously, Susan shook her head. “Nope, I haven’t seen Zach. I imagine he’s sitting with Justin somewhere. Did you hear Ernie and Hannah were made Prefects this year?”

“I hadn’t, but that’s not surprising,” Francisca said, pausing slightly before continuing to speak. “And I meant anyone from Huf…oh alright, fine. I guess I did mean Zach. I feel bad. He wrote me over the summer and I never responded. I’m still not quite sure what to say to him.”

“Just be honest. You’ve never had a problem with that before. I think he’d understand, considering what happened…he might’ve needed space too. You just have to try.”

Francisca sighed. She knew Susan was right, but why was she still so nervous? She’d known Zach for years — they were Chasers together on the Hufflepuff team, he was one of her first friends at Hogwarts, and they’d been silently crushing on each other for quite some time. And yet, she couldn’t shake the feeling of dread at the thought of talking to him about their budding relationship and how she’d been holding up, let alone trying to explain to him her abilities.

He had asked her to be his girlfriend right after the second task of the Triwizard Tournament and she’d accepted happily, but after Cedric’s death she hadn’t even sought him out to say goodbye for the summer. She had no idea what type of reaction to expect from him because she knew from experience that grief worked in strange ways. She was afraid that he would want nothing to do with her and would leave her, both as a friend and as a boyfriend.

The train ride seemed to fly by as Susan and Francisca chatted away about Susan’s summer. As Susan described the time she got to spend at the Ministry with her Aunt Amelia, Francisca felt another pang of guilt for not being present. She knew Susan understood and was not upset, but it still made her feel like a shotty friend, considering that Susan had also lost much of her family due to Voldemort and Death Eaters in the First Wizarding War.

After some time, their roommates Hannah and Megan made their way to the compartment to catch up before they arrived at the castle. Francisca hardly noticed the carriage ride to the entrance, her mind racing as she thought about how very soon she would be seeing Zach for the first time in months. As she, Susan, Hannah, and Megan made their way into the Great Hall and took their seats at the Hufflepuff table, she desperately tried to avoid making eye contact with anyone for fear of seeing him. To her relief, she didn’t see him before everyone turned expectedly to the first years filing into the Great Hall as the Sorting Hat was placed on the stool in the front. 

As the Sorting Hat began its expected song of welcome, Francisca noticed it was giving a very specific message this year: keep your friends close as there was an imminent threat coming. She instantly thought of the warning Uncle King gave her at the station. It seemed he wasn’t the only one who recognized the importance of keeping bonds strong. 

After the Hat’s song, the Headmaster stood to begin his own messages of welcome to the school but Francisca largely blocked out his voice, stuck in her own mind again as she thought more about the Sorting Hat and her uncle Kingsley’s message. The brief excitement she felt from everyone around her was beginning to dissipate and turn to panic until Professor Dumbledore’s voice was interrupted by a sickly sweet voice she did not recognize. 

Francisca glanced up to see a short woman dressed in all pink moving in front of the table, looking like she was about to give a speech. Francisca began to feel a mildly overwhelming sense of confusion coming from most people within the Hall, a feeling she shared. She attempted to block out the emotions around her by using one of the techniques her uncle taught her — to envision two volume controls, one that was her emotions and the other that was everyone else’s, turning the latter’s volume down in her mind — especially since the woman’s speech did nothing to relieve any of the confusion as she finished. In fact, the only thing Francisca understood was that the woman was from the Ministry and she would be teaching Defense Against the Dark Arts. 

At long last the feast began, but Francisca was having a difficult time fully appreciating the meal in front of her. Deep in her own thoughts, she didn’t participate in the conversation around her until Susan nudged her and nodded her head towards something. Francisca followed her gaze until she found herself locking eyes with Zach. She quickly looked away, back down at her plate of barely touched food, her stomach churning.

This is it Francisca. He’s seen you…you can’t avoid it anymore. Francisca took a deep breath to calm herself down, then stood up and walked over to him, tapping him lightly on the shoulder. “Oy, Smith. Do you think we could, um, talk?” Francisca said, shifting slightly on her feet.

Zach turned around to look back at her, his green-flecked hazel eyes boring into her. He just stared at her for a moment, a smirk playing on his face for a brief second before returning to his usual sullen expression and finally he responded. “Hey Fran, yeah we can talk. You want to head to the common room?”

“Yes, that would be great.” She took a step back so that he could stand up. The two of them made their way out of the Hall while everyone else was working on dessert.

“So…how’s it been going? I haven’t heard from you in awhile,” Zach started cautiously, glancing down at her then quickly looking forward again.

“Oh, um. Yeah, I’ve been alright. Well I’ve been okay, I guess. I, um, had a pretty boring summer really,” she responded, awkwardly swinging her arms by her side, and accidentally brushing his fingers with her own. She quickly stuffed her hands into her robe pockets and snuck a glance at Zach to see if he noticed.

His expression turned intense as he spoke. “Look, Francisca. Let me get straight to the point. If you didn’t want anything to do with me or were having second thoughts about us dating, you could’ve let me know. I wouldn’t have been mad, we could just remain friends, I’m fine with—“

“No, no!” Francisca cut him off, feeling a spurt of panic, “That wasn’t it at all. It had nothing to do with you or us dating.” Francisca could feel he was becoming upset but was trying to reign it in and not show it.

“Then what was it?” Zach’s eyes flashing with hurt as he continued to stare at her.

Francisca sighed and started speaking rapidly, “There was just so much going on at once and I wasn’t able to keep my emotions in check. I really am sorry for not at least coming to say goodbye. It was wrong of me to disappear on you after the final task. You were supposed to be my boyfriend and I should’ve let you know how I was feeling. I just didn’t know how to explain to you what was really going on with me.” 

Zach continued to stare, an uncomfortable moment of silence stretching until she couldn’t take it anymore. “I have empathic abilities!” she blurted out.

She stared down at her feet as they continued on the path towards the basement. Zach still didn’t speak. She could feel her face becoming hot and her eyes were prickling, threatening her with tears, but she fought them back as they finally reached the common room. Not wanting to meet Zach’s eyes, Francisca pulled out her wand and tapped the appropriate barrel in rhythm to the House Founder’s name, Helga Hufflepuff. The door swung open and they stepped inside. The common room was empty, since everyone was still at the feast. The two of them stood in the entrance for a few moments, neither of them speaking or looking at each other. Finally, Zach motioned for them to sit down in a couple of squashy yellow chairs underneath a large plant draping down from the ceiling. 

Francisca chanced a glance at Zach to see him looking down at his lap with his eyes closed. “Francisca, I had no idea. I…I’m not even sure what to say. What exactly does that mean?”

“I can sense people’s emotions and feel them myself. The only other people who know besides my mom and uncle are Ginny and Susan. I don’t tell people because I think it would freak them out,” she bit her lip, “if they knew someone could feel everything they feel, they’d avoid me.”

Francisca explained everything about her abilities to him. He’d known previously about her father and brother, but now she explained the rest, from the funeral, to telling her mother, to her uncle teaching her how to control her powers.

“Wow. That’s pretty amazing that you learned how to control it, I’m sure that wasn’t an easy task.” He met Francisca’s eyes for a moment before dropping his gaze back down to his lap. “I guess I just figured that I would be one of the first people you would come to after what happened…you know Ced and I were pretty close. The whole team got together and you weren’t there. I didn’t want to seek you out because I figured you’d come around when you were ready. But then you never did…and now it makes more sense…” he trailed off.

Francisca stared at Zach’s perfectly brown face, emotion beginning to overwhelm her. “Oh, Zach. There really are no words to describe how deeply sorry I am. I was so wrapped up in my own emotions and trying to make sure I could handle blocking out everyone else’s, when I should’ve been there for you too,” she got up and squatted down in front of him, placing her hands on his knees. He grabbed her hands and held them before finally looking up at her.

“I understand Fran. I knew you’d be having a difficult time like the rest of us. That’s why I wrote you over the summer, to check on you. But then I still didn’t hear back,” he said, tears welling up in his eyes. He took a deep breath before continuing, his voice shaking slightly. “So I just wasn’t sure what to think anymore. I’ve been struggling with really accepting that he’s gone. It doesn’t feel real most of the time.”

Francisca pulled Zach into a hug as a few tears escaped from her eyes and ran down her cheeks. “I promise I won’t ever do that again. I’m here for you. I can control my abilities, that’s not something you have to worry about.”

Zach hugged her back tightly. As they pulled away, people began to pour into the common room from the feast.  Francisca headed back to her seat as a group of other fifth years came over to them, talking animatedly about their summers. Susan walked up to Francisca and gave her shoulder a light squeeze before going to sit down herself.

“Yeah but what do you guys think about what The Daily Prophet is saying about Harry and the Headmaster?” asked Wayne, one of Zach’s roommates.

“I don’t believe a word of it. I don’t care if I’m a Prefect, that Professor Umbridge character seems like trouble,” Hannah said to the group.

“Trouble how?” Zach chimed in.

“Trouble in the sense that it sounded like the Ministry is meddling in Hogwarts curriculum for some reason,” Susan answered. “My aunt works for the Ministry and said that they usually allow the Headmaster to regulate things within Hogwarts without much interference. That seems to be changing.” 

“Hmm. I can’t really see how that’s a bad thing. Not after what happened last year with Ced…” Zach said, clenching his jaw and looking away from the group.

“I suppose that’s fair, but it still seems off to me. They don’t even believe Harry about what happened. They still won’t admit You-Know-Who is back,” Ernie stated.

“What if he’s not back?”

“Hold on. You don’t think Voldemort is back?” Francisca asked in disbelief, ignoring the shuddering and gasping from everyone. Francisca couldn’t understand how anyone could not believe he was back after what happened last year. Especially Zach of all people.

“I didn’t say that,” Zach backtracked, “but none of us really know. We haven’t seen him, have we?”

“Of course not, but still…something happened. Why would anyone make up such a terrible thing?”

“Who knows. I’m not necessarily saying he did, just that we should be wary of what we believe.”

“Well, Dumbledore believes him and that’s enough for me,” Ernie stated defiantly.

And with that, the conversation ended, shifting to people’s course loads for the semester. Francisca didn’t say anything for the remainder of the night. All she could think of was everything she’d learned from Ginny over the summer about what the Order was doing and Harry being attacked by dementors. She knew these things were all connected to Voldemort’s return, but how would other people? Was Zach’s skepticism warranted or was he being foolish? Francisca wasn’t sure how she felt about Zach’s mistrust but she did know that after having just rekindled with him, she didn’t want anything to jeopardize their relationship.

To Be Continued…