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Disclaimer: If you get queasy easily, I recommend simply skimming paragraphs 11-19, as they deal with some things that might upset you.

And Back Again

The body that fell against Hugo’s body was not Scorpius’s. It was something cold and limp, sprinkled with glimmers of life. Hugo reached automatically to grab it into his arms, a question speeding through his mind that could not form itself into words, and held the slumped body against his chest protectively, staring with a hardness between his brows at the battle between the nymphs and the centaurs. The centaurs were doing their best to hold the nymphs back--Professor Neville was conferring quickly with Pythia, white as a sheet.

Two seconds passed, and Professor Neville was back at Hugo’s side, muttering something quickly and taking Scorpius’s body into his own arms.

It was when Hugo saw the older boy’s neck hanging limply over the edge of Neville’s arm that a bubble of rage rose through his chest and an angry snarl ripped from his throat, obscuring thought. He plunged his hand into his coat and drew his wand, spells bursting from the end at an alarming speed. He heard Neville shout something to him, but did not understand the words. Hugo lunged towards the swarm of nymphs, who appeared to be little more than wind caught in leaves and flowers in their rage, their staffs seeming to glow with their rage. His wand blasted holes through their forms, but they quickly repaired the damages, even as more spells shot through their immortal bodies.

Hugo felt suddenly a strong arm around his waist, restraining him, and there was a long last flurry of activity ringing in Hugo’s ears--angry shouts, the twang of the crossbows, Pythia’s pleas, and Neville’s useless instructions--before he felt himself sucked into a nothing, everything about him compressed and nonexistent.

With a definitive crack! Neville appeared in the snow bordering the Forbidden Forest, facing towards the great stone castle as the steam of his breath mingled with his sight and he sagged under the dead weight of Scorpius Malfoy. Hugo burst free from Neville’s grasp as though he did not realize that Neville had apparated them to safety, brandishing his wand desperately. When the boy seemed to notice that there was no one to attack here, Neville had already made headway towards the castle.

Neville saw Hugo run to his side, tears plastering his face--there was a jerk in Neville’s heart as he saw the innocent pain there--and he wrapped his arms around Scorpius’s legs, sharing the weight. Surprising for the boy’s lack of coordination, but they moved more quickly this way, and although Neville was tempted to call for help--to give way to the shout of anguish tearing at his throat, he kept his lips pressed firmly together, knowing that no one could see them--no one besides the nurse.

Their reappearance at Hogwarts had to remain a secret. When Scorpius was healed--Neville’s throat felt dry--they would stage an entrance, one less desperate, one that could pass as a casual reentry to the school grounds after chasing down a silly student. Yes, that is what would have to be done.

Somehow--because that is a woman’s way, he thought, especially the way of a woman who has dedicated her life to healing--Madame Pomfrey met them at the castle steps, her lips pressed together, lined with worry, and her face pale. Neville felt Hugo go a bit slack with relief as he saw the ancient healer at the threshold of the castle; while Madame Pomfrey offered her services there was always hope, Neville knew, and he thought Hugo probably knew that, too.

“We can’t be seen,” Neville gasped desperately, feeling horrible for being so selfish when--when.

“Most of the students and all of the staff are taking the day in Hogsmeade,” Madame Pomfrey replied quickly. “The younger ones are likely huddled around their common room fires. No one will see.”

She clucked quietly and turned silently to guide them in through the great Oak doors and towards the infirmary. Neville slipped slightly on the marble floors; his shoes had tracked snow inside. Scorpius’s faint and wavering breath floated against the skin of his cheek, with longer pauses between them. Neville’s mind went slightly fuzzy. He couldn’t help but think suddenly that this boy’s family was a large part of the reason that he had had to, during the darkest period of his life, bury some of his own friends and family. His great Aunt the one who had put his parents in their state, deprived them of a life filled with sanity, deprived him of a happy childhood. His arms shook with rage for a moment, and then they were crossing into the infirmary and the reality of their current situation crashed down upon Neville.

His knees shook. He tried to push away memories but it wasn’t easy to forget, not when you had a past like Neville had--like Madame Pomfrey had, like almost every adult wizard in Britain had. He shook his head rapidly as he and Hugo placed Scorpius down on a bed, Madame Pomfrey leaning down over him immediately and inspecting his bloodstained coat.

“You apparated.” It was not a question. Neville nodded silently, wanting to sigh but finding himself unable.

“There was no time to bring him back another way. We were deep in the Forest--I knew there would be more blood loss this way, but it was quickest, and--”

“It’s alright, Neville, don’t worry yourself. I believe that the wound is deep and the dagger may have punctured a lung--extremely painful, and in addition to extreme blood loss, is why he’s fainted. I’ll ask you both to step back. I must retrieve a blood-replenishing potion.”

Neville and Hugo leapt backwards as Madame Pomfrey moved quickly into her office and came back with a flask and a vial clasped firmly in one hand, while her wand was drawn in another. Neville began pacing, trying to block his hearing as he heard Madame Pomfrey extract the dagger and Scorpius’s breath shortened drastically.

“It was smart of you,” Madame Pomfrey said as she waved her wand rapidly and a white light shot out of it into Scorpius’s chest, “not to extract the dagger. His lungs would have filled more quickly. It acted like a sort of stopper, which is curious as it itself is the thing that caused the wound,” she muttered and went silent as she began to peel the soaked clothes off of Scorpius’s chest. He looked very pale and very scrawny without a coat or a jumper on. Neville looked away, retreating to the wall where Hugo was seated dumbly in a plastic chair. They watched in silence.

Madame Pomfrey, despite her age, was still able to move very nimbly, and her fingers worked with the spells she weaved, seeming to knit the severed flesh back together from the inside out. When she had finished wiping and vanished the mess, she wiped her hands on her apron and popped the cork off of the vial of blood-replenishing potion. She poured a rather large amount of it into the flask and, having propped Scorpius up on a few pillows, poured it into his mouth. It was strange, Neville thought, how people could still swallow even when they were unconscious.

Madame Pomfrey seemed to be finished and satisfied with her work. She then turned and walked over to where Neville and Hugo sat, with a strange and curious look in her eyes. “I thought I would tell you, Professor Longbottom,” she began with a pointed look at Hugo, which suggested to Neville that she wouldn’t have been so formal just then if they hadn’t been in the presence of a student, “that you were very lucky. Even though Apparition forced more blood loss, you barely--barely made it here in time. Scorpius seems to have you and Mr Weasley to thank for his life.” Her eyes said that she wished to know why that was, but was not in a position to ask. She had probably learned better, Neville thought as relief swept through him and made him weak.

Hugo toppled out of the chair next to him in a dead faint and landed on his face on the ground. Madame Pomfrey rolled her eyes before clucking gently and levitating Hugo into a hospital bed.

It was several hours later that Neville was awoken by a loud noise that sounded like the doors of the infirmary blasting open, and Madame Pomfrey’s ensuing protests--but as soon as Neville saw that it was the centaur party, Pythia at the lead, looking a bit wildly around the room, he stood up and explained quickly that the centaurs had helped them out in the forest and were checking back in. With a suspicious and reproachful glare Madame Pomfrey gave a small curtsy to the centaurs and shuffled off into her office. He felt slightly guilty as he did so, but Neville pulled out his wand and cast a Muffliato in Madame Pomfrey’s direction.

They needed to talk, and she could not be allowed to hear their conversation.

Pythia was standing at Hugo’s bedside, and Hugo was grinning up at her, glancing over at Scorpius--who was sleeping peacefully--every few moments. Neville guessed that he was explaining what had happened to him.

Delphi and Xury stepped towards Neville, the others crowding around Hugo’s bed. Before Neville could ask what he wanted to, Xury launched into an explanation.

“There were no casualties,” he began, and Neville thought, how very uncharacteristically to-the-point. “The nymphs were outraged that the boys had taken a fruit from the tree of the Quidropopot, and battled us for longer than was necessary. We were able to deflect their blows--” and that was when Neville remembered that their staffs had seemed vaguely familiar to him, like he recognized them.

“What are those staffs they have?” he interrupted accidentally, then apologized. The centaur did not appear to be offended, and answered after a brief pause. “They are called thyrsus.”

And Neville remembered. In a N.E.W.T. preparation class during Rose Weasley and Scorpius Malfoy’s sixth year, he had asked each student to prepare a lecture about how any famous or magical artifact had gained its powers from plants--the thyrsus, the tool of the ancient Greek Maenads, followers of Bacchus, was the subject of Rose’s lecture, as they were covered in ivy and other vines.

That shed some light on the situation. Although Rose had never thought to mention that you could pull the top off--covered with a pinecone--and whip out a spear. He thought he ought to mention that to her sometime--just as soon as he had figured out how to bring it up casually.

“And when the nymphs finally--paused--” He said it and Neville knew that it had been by force. He chose not to inquire further. “--Long enough to hear the story, they were not sympathetic to a human boy’s journey to spiritual revelation, but we told them of the box and its method of stripping objects of their magical powers.” Xury cleared his throat lightly. “They are still displeased that human kind has discovered the existence of the lake and the plant, however, and have promised us that they will guard it with much more vigilance.” Xury stamped a foot on the hard tiles of the infirmary’s flooring and clopped over to the side of the room, where he was out of the way, and went on looking out of the window with a dreamy look on his face. Neville stared after him in slight awe for a moment, and then shook his head, knowing even as he did so that he would not be able to clear it so easily.

To his surprise, Delphi remained standing in his proximity. Neville turned to face him, hoping that this would not show disrespect. He was never sure about other creatures--with plants, it was easier. There were only three plants Neville knew of that demanded respect, and the others had no care of it at all. But you were never sure, not about creatures, and especially not about centaurs.

“I thought to warn you of the box my sister gave to the Weasley boy,” he said in a low, gravelly voice. Neville stiffened and felt a helplessness wash over him. Not something else! No! “It does, as we’ve told you, strip magical artifacts of their powers permanently. Anything will fit into it, as well. You’ll want to make sure that nobody falls into it, nor their wands. It--” he paused, his eyes shifting towards the open door of Madame Pomfrey’s office.

“It’s alright, I’ve muffliatoed her,” Neville said with a shrug. This wasn’t a time for grace, after all. Delphi’s light eyes flashed for a moment with confusion, his forehead clearing, and then he continued, his voice in a low whisper despite Neville’s shameless confession.

“It is not one of the most orthodox methods that the Misuse of Muggle Artifacts Office has for solving their problems. It seems to be newly released from the Department of Mysteries, and even centaurs understand how precise their testing methods are.” When his speech was compete, Delphi dipped his head lightly and began to walk away, but Neville reached out quickly and said “Wait!” A thought had occurred to him, rather glaring.

“How did you get back so quickly?” he asked when Delphi turned back to him, one eyebrow quirked.

Delphi imparted a rare smile--a lip hinged and lifted briefly, a flash of amusement ran through his light eyes, and a dimple wavered in his cheek for a moment--and then it was all business. Grave, with a glance at Scorpius’s bed.

“It took you longer to reach the lake because you were wandering. We live in the forest--we understand its layout. We can read the stars. We have several advantages over humans when it comes to navigation. And four legs aid greatly with speed. It took four hours, nothing more, to return to the castle’s perimeters after the nymphs had retreated.”

It was a strangely satisfactory report. If centaurs were oftener directly to the point, Neville would have asked--but can you really run all that way in four hours? Do you ever get tired? How far is it, exactly, from here to the lake?--but they were too often ambivalent that this direct response created enough gratitude and awe in Neville to drown out the questions. Delphi retreated to Xury’s side, although Neville still wished to ask him how he’d obtained the box in the first place. He shook his head again, turning to Hugo. Maybe it was better not to know.

Hugo looked up to see Professor Neville watching him interestedly, and he gave the professor a small wave to show him that he was okay. He didn’t understand why he’d fainted earlier, but Madame Pomfrey had taken care of him all right. He was also very happy that Scorpius had not been dead, because he had never been sure. It was really a shame that Professor Neville had told Hugo that no one could know that Scorpius almost died, because it would probably be a fun story to tell at the Burrow at Christmas, when they were all huddled around the fire or playing Snapdragons. Still, he was glad that Scorpius was alive and was willing to keep his mouth shut if it meant that they didn’t have to get into deep trouble this way.

Hugo turned at the sound of some grumbling from Scorpius’s bed on his right side. He knew Scorpius muttered in his sleep from those few nights in the same tent, but this sounded like waking up grumbling. Hugo felt something rather warm seep through his chest and arms and make them numb for a second before the feeling lifted, and Scorpius sat up suddenly, propped on his elbows, and looked around through strings of blond hair interrupting his brows.

“Well,” he said, blinking longly and staring up at the faces looking down at him anxiously, “that was an adventure, wasn’t it?”

Scorpius reached out a hand and laid it disbelievingly on the bright golden hide of the small animal beside him. Out of all the possible stories that Headmaster Flitwick could have told the congregation of students and worried staff to explain the trio’s sudden and inexplicable disappearance, it would have to involve baby unicorns, wouldn’t it? It couldn’t have been anything remotely sane or believable--that simply wasn’t Flitwick’s style.

He couldn’t believe it had only been yesterday, laying on that hospital bed, that he had been inches from death, naïve to even the existence of unicorns in the Forbidden Forest. That no one had ever realized they had returned--that they had been able to sneak out into the edge of the forest, to the same spot they had appeared yesterday, without anyone noticing. Scorpius had been rather miffed that they hadn’t allowed him to at least shave or have a proper wash--But it has to look realistic! Hugo had said, a desperation sparked with the joy at pulling one over on the entire Hogwarts population. Given that stare, Scorpius couldn’t protest.

He and Hugo and Professor Longbottom were huddled behind some low shrubbery at the edge of the Forbidden Forest, in the same spot, it seemed, that Longbottom had apparated them back. Scorpius could see vague spots of something dark mingling with the dirty snow, but tried not to think about where they had come from, a chill creeping up his spine. He wasn’t sure if he still understood how close he had come to completely--to--you know.

“When are they coming?” Hugo whispered again, sounding faintly annoyed this time. Scorpius didn’t blame him even though he’d asked a few times already--it was difficult to ignore the snow, which was turning his calves numb as he sat on them on the ground, leaning against the bush.

“In about--” Longbottom paused to check his wristwatch, pushing back the sleeve of his robe. “Three minutes.”

Hugo looked grumpy and patted a baby unicorn’s mane impatiently. It made small snuffing noises into Hugo’s leg, searching for food.

It hadn’t been easy, but it certainly hadn’t taken five days--which was, Madame Pomfrey and Headmaster Flitwick had notified them, how long it had taken to get to the lake and back--although there had been a little bit of cheating on the return trip with Apparition and all. They’d trooped through the Forest looking for unicorns--baby ones.

Apparently, when Longbottom, Hugo, and Scorpius had all disappeared suddenly, Flitwick had fed the students a grand feast to bring them all to the Great Hall at once and then announced that Luna Scamander--one of Longbottom’s greatest mates, apparently--had enlisted their help to find a lost pack of baby unicorns in the Forbidden Forest; who had been separated from their mother unicorns since the snow is white and mother unicorns are also pure white.

Scorpius had clapped his hand to his forehead in embarrassment for the little crazy man when he had delivered the story, looking a bit sheepish, but Flitwick had reassured him that that particular detail had been effective on the younger girls, who were practically all swooning at the news.

“They can’t honestly all be that stupid,” Scorpius had drawled, his head reeling with discomfort. Hugo had elbowed him lightly in the neck, as he was slumped very far down in his chair. “Sorry,” he added, rubbing his chest which, despite being completely healed, was still sore.

“There were some complications with Miss Weasley and Miss Barrows,” Flitwick had admitted, wringing his hands, showing the first sign of agitation Scorpius had ever seen about the old man. “Miss Weasley refused the idea that any member of the party would have left without letting her know, and Miss Barrows refused to believe that Mr Weasley would not have bragged to her about the opportunity.” Flitwick had laughed then, apparently pleased with his own imagination. “But I told them that it had been sudden, and Professor Longbottom had just been walking the two back to the common room, as they had gotten lost in the dark castle--” at which Scorpius made a noise of protest and Hugo nodded his head concedingly. “--When Mrs Scamander had approached them and explained her situation, and they left immediately, without time to notify anyone, or send a message with an owl.”

Flitwick had folded his hands then, overtly pleased. Scorpius had scowled slightly, still too sore about the lungs to say anything like “that’s absolutely ridiculous! I would never get lost in the castle, it’s not even dark at night!” or “you little foolish man! How are we going to find baby unicorns now?” That last one, admittedly, might have gotten him in a bit of trouble, but he’d already gotten away with one insult.

Luna Scamander herself had appeared at the school grounds about an hour after Flitwick’s private meeting with the trio, offering to help them locate some baby unicorns in the Forbidden Forest, as she knew where they lived. It had taken them a few hours, well into the next morning--since they had arrived back at the castle in the early evening--to tramp through the forest after Luna to the unicorn’s pastures, which were warm and dry and well-lit by moonlight (Scorpius had thought to himself how strange it was that the Forest could be so thick with snow in its larger area and then patches could appear as tropical locales, or dry marshes as this.)

He didn’t know how she had managed it, but somehow Luna had convinced the mother unicorns that the babies would be returned safely after a few hours, and had lured the little ones--pure gold, they were pure gold (and although Scorpius had heard about them, they were much more brilliant in person than what you imagined)--away with sugar cubes to the edge of the forest, where they were all four crouched now with five little unicorns kneeling in the snow beside them, perfectly content. Scorpius thought to himself that if any of the students could have seen how easily they left their mothers at the sight of the lumps of sugar none of them would believe Flitwick’s story and all would be lost--but none of them had seen, and they were about to be deceived in one of the craziest ways that Scorpius could have ever believed.

He turned his head at the sound of the general buzz of a large group of people crunching through snow and chattering lightly, heading down from the castle and towards the edge of the forest. He saw Hugo give a large wave--and Scorpius pushed the kid's head down impatiently--to Hagrid, who was peering at them excitedly through one of the windows of his small wooden hut. Scorpius knew that as Care of Magical Creatures professor he was probably very excited to see the baby unicorns, but he wouldn’t blow their cover--not now, not after everything. It wouldn’t have seemed so real if someone caught them waiting to pop out of the bushes like a show troupe.

“They’re coming!” Hugo whispered excitedly into Scorpius’s ear, and Scorpius nodded, refusing the urge to reach up and wipe the side of his face--although the slight smattering was much, much better than the drool that used to pool on his chin, it was still unpleasant and very silly. Scorpius felt like laughing.

“Everyone get into position!” Luna Scamander reminded them in her sing-song soprano. Scorpius wondered what his mother would have thought of Luna--they would probably not get along.

Scorpius propped himself up on the balls of his feet and Hugo did the same beside him. They had to look like they were coming out of the Forest triumphantly, but very tired, after days and days of searching. It would be hard to look grimy since Madame Pomfrey had demanded that he wipe his face free of blood (and some dirt had come with it), as well as Hugo and Longbottom, and they had all had to change their coats because of the stains that would say too much about what had actually happened.

But rolling around in the dirty snow had done a little bit of damage--he was sure that no one would be too suspicious, besides maybe Rose--his heart lifted considerably at the thought of seeing her again, but sunk at the thought of how angry she would be after the elation of seeing them safe. She wouldn’t exactly care that Flitwick had said there was no time for communication--she would still be angry. At him and Hugo.

He gulped as he saw Luna give a nod to Longbottom--they both looked like they were enjoying themselves, playing their parts--and they all stood up, goading the unicorns to stand with the sugar lumps, and began walking scraggily out of the Forest and out into the cleaner snow at the edge of the grounds. Scorpius hoped no one was watching Hugo too closely--he was clearly enjoying walking like a sleep-deprived person, but in truth he looked more like a mummy, with his arms held out in front of him and his knees refusing to bend.

A wave of young girls headed down the small slope directly before them, a high-pitched murmur transmitting from the group that sounded very fan-girly to Scorpius. Like at Quidditch matches. He saw a head of bushy bright red hair at the top of the hill and raised his hand to wave to Rose, who looked from this distance like she was trying very hard not to frown. She waved back energetically and grabbed the hand of Marjorie Barrows, and both of them headed down towards Scorpius, Hugo, Longbottom, Luna and the baby unicorns.

The younger students had already reached the unicorns, apparently prepared, as they were offering them small carrots, apples, and sugar lumps out of their cape pockets--the babies looked distinctly unworried, although Scorpius supposed they could write that off on the safety they felt with Luna Scamander, a professional naturalist.

Scorpius saw Flitwick and the rest of the staff--including, he realized with a jolt, the old librarian, who rarely poked her beak-like face outside of the QR section--peaking the hill and following the two-hundred or so students of Hogwarts towards where he, Hugo, Longbottom, and Luna stood. He remembered again the way that Flitwick had told them he knew they were coming--

“You see, I told them that once back in range of the Hogwarts grounds, Mrs Scamander was able to send me a Patronus--” this had confused Scorpius, because he did not know that Patronuses were messengers, like owls. “And she asked for food for the babies. What a better way to greet the heroes--” And Scorpius had not been able to refrain from rolling his eyes this time, “--and their unicorns than with a school-wide congregation? It would also save me the trouble of making another speech. I am always very rudely interrupted during my speeches,” he added, making a pouting face. Scorpius had tried not to lose his eyebrows in his hair, but failed.

He saw the crowd cheering, ranging all houses and ages, some with carrots or apples or lumps of sugar in their hands, and felt a pride swell in his chest at having accompanied Hugo on his journey--although none of the students understood what was happening, not really--and turned to see Hugo smiling brightly, no sign of drool or winks anywhere about him. He saw all the Professors looking relieved, some clapping modestly, some openly cheering with their arms waving in the air. Hagrid, who had bounded out of his cabin to join the festivities, was doing a sort of jig which shook the earth below their feet.

“Heya, Weasley!”

“‘Atta boy, Malfoy.”

“Yeah Professor, that’s cool!”

The wave of shouts and compliments threatened to overwhelm Scorpius, and that made him think of Hugo, who would be less accustomed to the attention than him, even though when they won Quidditch matches he did get to ride on people’s shoulders more often than others. Maybe due to the fact that he weighed about as much as the average second-year. But Hugo looked as though he were enjoying the attention, and Scorpius thought, well, maybe this is like winning a Quidditch match to him. He certainly did come out with something that he didn’t have before.

Scorpius looked up at the sight of a strange look--almost green--on Hugo’s face, only to see Rose prodding Marjorie Barrows deeply in the side with her elbow, smiling in a self-satisfied way. He watched in complete surprise as Marjorie extracted a scroll from her inner pocket with a look of slight reserve on her face (that was probably because Rosie was forcing her into whatever she was doing, Scorpius thought) and unrolled it, holding it over her head.

It said, in large print, “Hugo, will you go to the Yule Ball with me?”

a/n: edited 16 october 2011

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