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how I learned to stop worrying and start at the beginning

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When Veronica was young, her parents had taken books away from her by the dozens, telling her to live in the real world, not the made-up one. Veronica had pointed out this was hypocritical since her parents read books. She was right, of course, but she knew this hadn't been the right thing to say as soon as her mother's lips turned into a thin line and her father's eyes turned into thunderclouds. There were plenty of things to keep Veronica busy instead of books, her parents said. Practical things. These seemed mostly to Veronica to be ballet things. Classes, and practicing, and putting on performances, and going to performances to watch other people, mostly grown-ups. None of this seemed any more real than the stodgy business management books her mother read or the creepy true crime books her father read, but Veronica, at six, kept her thoughts to herself and played along at home, saving books for days when she was in a fight with her group of friends at school. Veronica spent a fair number of recesses curled up in a corner of the library until she finished or got bored or felt like pretending to make up and play nice.

When Veronica was in high school she had been introduced to the eccentric only daughter of a powerful man her mother and father were trying to play. Her parents called it getting to know the neighbours, but Veronica, at sixteen, was savvy enough to know that watching grown-ups perform pretty much was the real world. Esther agreed. Esther was wearing a mauve blouse that wasn't doing her complexion any favours and glasses she'd probably nicked from Veronica's grandmother who lived in Ohio and was halfway to dead. She was the most beautiful person Veronica had ever seen, and not just because she was the only other person in the room under the age of thirty.

Esther took hold of Veronica's arm and whisked her away from the party her father was hosting, down a long corridor and up two flights of stairs, into a room Veronica first thought was a library. Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves lined one wall and the wingback chair next to the door was piled high with more books. Then Veronica noticed the wardrobe and the vanity and the bed and hung back, suddenly shy.

'Wow, you have a lot of books,' she said, just to say something.

'Is that a problem?' asked Esther. She locked the door behind them and tucked the key and its long purple ribbon under her blouse.

'A lot of books is the opposite of a problem,' answered Veronica.

'A solution, then,' said Esther, moving some books so she could flop dramatically onto the unmade bed. 'God. I hate parties. 'But I love books. Obviously. Maybe we could trade sometime.'

'Oh,' said Veronica. 'I don't have any books. Anymore, I mean,' she added when she saw the look on Esther's face.

Esther took off her glasses and stared at Veronica, and put her glasses back on and stared at Veronica some more.

Veronica crossed her arms. 'Look, my mother wanted to make a show of beneficence.'

'Beneficence??' said Esther. 'Wow.' She swung her legs over the side of the bed and sat up. 'Wait. Not even Harry Potter?'

//

It took Veronica three tries to finish the first book, but she persisted until she started caring about witches and wizards and potions in spite of herself. And the books gave her and Esther something to talk about all the times they were thrown together over the next months. 'Because my parents are selling a family,' Veronica explained, 'not just a business opportunity.' Esther grimaced like she understood. They led wildly different lives in the real world; Esther’s a solitary one and Veronica’s full of what Esther called 'mean girl escapades.' Her soft voice would be free from judgement but her eyebrows would draw together under her enormous glasses, and Veronica found it was more enjoyable to talk about Harry and Ron and Hermione than about herself, really.

Veronica and Esther were friends right up until Esther and her mother and father disappeared suddenly the night before the big Midsummer's Eve bash at Veronica's. It came out that Esther's parents weren't just missing: they were fugitives. They were apprehended, sans Esther, over the Labor Day long weekend. The following Easter, sordid details from the trial were plastered all over social media. Esther was rarely mentioned and Veronica suspected she'd turned her parents in and entered the witness protection program. It would explain several of the more cryptic things Esther had said in the months leading up to her disappearance, and besides, Veronica had other reasons to suspect she had made it through to the other side as surely as Harry had made it through whatever weird shit was going on for like, half of the seventh book.

'—Wait,' said Betty. She sat opposite Veronica in a booth at Pop's, jacket slung over her uniform. They'd decided to get milkshakes after practice, because Veronica was living in the 1950s. 'How does Veronica Lodge, New York City society maven, know the first thing about Harry Potter?'  

'Betty Cooper,' said Veronica. 'Harry Potter is a pop culture phenomenon.'

'Yeah, ten years ago,' said Betty.

'Excuse you, Harry Potter is timeless,' said Veronica.

'So—your pact with yourself to be a better version of yourself started with a kids' series from like, twenty years ago?'

Veronica took a deep breath. 'I decided to embrace my inner Slytherin,' she announced. 'Er, again.'

Veronica glanced across the table. Betty's eyes had widened slightly, but she stayed where she was, sipping her milkshake, and Veronica took this as license to continue.

'I'd read the books; I knew Slytherin was the worst house, and I wanted Esther to like me. She was in Gryffindor. There was no way she could have been friends with a Slytherin, but Veronica Lodge, dyed-in-the-plaid-wool-skirt Ravenclaw, was a go. I wish I could say that pretending not to be in Slytherin was the most Slytherin thing I'd ever done, but as per our earlier conversation—'

'—I'd know it wasn't true,' Betty said, smiling wryly.

Veronica settled deeper into the booth and scraped at the ice cream at the bottom of her glass.

'So I was going through my stuff, deciding what to put in storage and what to ship here – I wasn't going to let like, my mom do it,' she said. 'Anyway, I found Esther's copy of Prisoner of Azkaban. Inside was a piece of paper I'd been using to keep track of the houses – I guess from when I was sorting people? I'd already decided Riverdale Veronica was going to be better than NYC Veronica,  but I hadn't worked out the details until I realised the road to Riverdale was going to be the road to Slytherin.'   

'Are you trying to say you didn't emerge fully Slytherin from your father's head?' asked Betty, grinning.

'I appreciate a good classical reference as much as the next person, Betty. But that would make more sense if I were actually Ravenclaw.'

Betty rolled her eyes. 'Okay, okay, go on.'

'When I was doing all that soul-searching after my father was arrested, I realized that pretending to be something I wasn't—I mean, that was never going to work; look at Esther. It must have been so obvious from everything I said about my life that I was Slytherin, but Esther never said a word. If she kept being Gryffindor after her parents kidnapped her—'

'—I don't think it's kidnapping if it's your own parents,' objected Betty.

'Okay, maybe. My point is, she would've had to do something brave and stupid and that probably wouldn't've ended well. So she stopped pretending to be Gryffindor for herself and starting being Hufflepuff for other people. And for herself, too, I bet; I think she actually is Hufflepuff? And she took her Hufflepuff loyalty to the extreme? She turned in her own parents because she cared about everyone's lives, not just theirs or hers.'

Betty pushed their empty glasses to the edge of the table. 'What evidence do we have that that actually happened?'

'Every July I get a postcard in the mail from some random town in middle America,' said Veronica. She stood up. 'I'm not going to stop being like, ambitious and cunning. But I am going to embrace my resourcefulness and creativity. I'm reinventing myself as the person other people deserve me to be. The person I deserve to be.'

'I think that's cool,' said Betty. 'So what house am I?' she asked, swinging her purse over her shoulder.

Veronica was pretty sure 'whatever house you want' was too corny to say to a pretty girl you'd known for five minutes, even if you had already shared your first kiss.

She swept them out of the diner and into the night. 'I'll get back to you about that,' she said.

Betty grinned.

THE END