Coming back to school had been such a relief that Paola had almost cried the first night back in her dorm. All summer, Dad had swerved between completely absent, uncharacteristically grumpy, and apologetically over-attentive (until whatever bit of business was making him grumpy concluded, and he went back to his usual awkward-at-best self). Paola had coped by hiding in her room, helping in Aunt Sara's infirmary or reading in Aunt Tima's office; going on hikes and day trips with them sans Dad; and writing to her friends at school. And once, notably, just walking away from Dad while he was in mid-grump. Which helped a lot with the grumpiness but not with the apologetically over-attentive part.
Paola made bad sketches of the birds and other animals she saw on excursions and sent them with better written descriptions to Maggie, in the hopes that they'd make, in the hopes they'd make her animal-loving friend and favorite Magizoo partner smile. Maggie wrote back with her best guesses at identification, which Paola wrote up into a list in a journal she'd bought from her favorite souk, with a green leather cover tooled with trellised vines framing a quarter moon. Paola wrote to Rhia. She wrote to Rhia a lot, which she considered only fair after so much time listening to Rhia rant. And Rhia wrote back. Paola had even received an email from Nando, which Paola had very carefully answered after rereading it three times and feeling no less mind-boggled than she had when she first read it. (Which to be fair, was how she frequently felt around Nando in person.) And Nando wrote back. She'd ended up using more of her embassy-limited internet access on those emails than she had for homework her last year at the American Cooperative School, and was almost a proficient typist by the time summer ended. (Nando was very proud.)
All the correspondence did help Paola feel less lonely, but it still wasn't the same as seeing her friends in person, which was part of why she was so happy to be back in school. (The rest of it was that she'd run out of books in Tunis, and also that her dad was now half a continent, an entire ocean, and two-thirds of another continent away. Paola felt guilty about this, but her guilt was leavened by how overwhelmingly good being at school felt.)
Second year so far was proving to have more work than first year, to Paola's unsurprise, but more interesting work. Paola once again found herself reading ahead in Spellwork and Astronomy for her own interest, reading ahead in Cultural Studies for her own survival, and reading ahead in Magizoo to have something to discuss with Maggie. She continued to work conscientiously in Potions to reduce the risk of explosions from herself or pranks from Professor Rob, and gave herself permission to doodle through History after a terrifying assignment that made her realize Nando made more sense than Professor Boot. (At least her drawing ability was improving.)
She took her meals with her friends and petted the librarian's cats whenever she was in the library, which was often, and invited Rhia to come stargazing with her. (She still didn't trust Nando with her telescope.) Paola continued to dodge the overly-friendly Madeleine, who maybe seemed like she wanted to talk to Paola about something. Maybe. Paola wasn't sticking around for long enough to find out.
Maybe this year she'd join a club. After she figured out which club was good for people who weren't athletic or dramatic or particularly sociable, and after she finished this compare-and-contrast Cultural Studies essay.
Paola had been able to write part of her essay from personal experience, about Tunisian cuisine and cooking, both Muggle and magical, but it felt strange to have to do research on the country that claimed her as a citizen. She'd been wondering if she should pick a specific regional cuisine (and should she try to find a region of the United States that was similar to Tunisia in climate, for a closer comparison? Demography might be better, considering Tunisia and the United States both had colonialist histories, albeit very different ones and from different sides of that whole issue.) when she realized was about to be late for lunch.
Cramming her notes and her draft into her bag, she scurried to the Diner, which was very crowded. Paola stood anxiously on her tiptoes trying to find both an open seat (preferably not near Madeleine) and an unattended bottle of hot sauce (not necessarily in the same place). The extra inch or so of height she'd gained over the past few months didn't help as much as she'd hoped, and Paola gave up and began wandering through the Diner.
She finally found an empty seat in a fairly quiet back corner, with a strange concoction (or possibly a sandwich) on the plate. Strange, sharp-smelling toast, some sort of thinly sliced beef, melted cheese, vinegary cabbage, and some sort of tomatoey sauce smeared on the toast were what Paola discovered when she investigated with her fork. It smelled good, in a weird sort of way, if not at all spicy. While at school, Paola always found herself missing her spicy Tunisian food and dimly, the spicier Indonesian food from her childhood.
"What is this?" Paola asked her tablemate. "I've never had this sort of sandwich before. Can I put hot sauce on it? Should I? And can I use it for my Cultural Studies essay, for research?"
Mentions of Rhia, Maggie, Nando, and Madeleine approved by their respective authors.
Also the sandwich is a reuben sandwich, for anyone replying