‘I’m not angry,’ said Hermione Granger’s patronus. ‘I’m disappointed.’
Rose didn’t fight the urge to roll her eyes. ‘Were you disappointed, Mum, when you broke into the Ministry of Magic riding Thestrals? Or going on the run from the government to hunt down chunks of a Dark Lord’s soul to kill him?’
‘I was of age when I went on the run from the government -’
‘One: I’m of age in four months. I’m not going to have any sudden revelations of maturity in that time.’ Rose folded her arms across her chest, only faintly aware of the five others in the Great Hall shrinking away from the Great Battle of the Weasley Women. ‘Two: Lord Voldemort didn’t ask for your birthday before he tried to murder you; Prometheus Thane did not ask for my birthday before he afflicted the entire school with this, this - Phlegethon!'
The otter narrowed its eyes at her for a moment before turning, and its gaze found Lockett. 'Professor,' it said slowly, deliberately. 'I thought we were in agreement that there would be no action taken to find the reagents?'
Lockett looked indignant, but Rose spoke up first. ‘Professor Lockett didn’t tell us to go there - we went ourselves.’
‘Then you should have kept a better eye out, Professor -’
‘Would you call Professor McGonagall inept, Mum, for not keeping you and Dad and Harry in line?’
The patronus stopped again, its eyes going skywards. ‘You know, other parents don’t have every little misdemeanour from their childhood as public knowledge,’ it mused, but the complaint sounded like it was directed more at the universe in general than at them in particular. ‘Yes, I did all those things when I was your age, Rose, but we almost died a hundred times over, and -’
Again Hermione’s patronus stopped - but not because Rose cut her off, or indeed because anyone in the Great Hall did. The patronus looked to its left, but there was nobody there, and as they watched its expression screwed up with irritation. ‘Look, I know,’ it said in response to absolutely nobody. ‘But you’d be just as outraged if Al -’
Then nothing, and the otter actually folded its arms across its chest, looking like it was listening. ‘It’s not the same - no, really, it’s not, I - fine. Fine! Now go away!’ A moment’s pause, then the patronus turned back to them, irritated and defeated. ‘Rose, your father and uncle would like to congratulate you on your success last night,’ said Hermione’s patronus peevishly. ‘Apparently they also like undermining my parental authority in a time of crisis.’ Another glare at nobody in particular.
Rose’s shoulders relaxed, and she closed her eyes for half a heartbeat. ‘Tell them thanks,’ she said quietly.
‘I will.’ The patronus’ stance softened. ‘We’re all very proud of you.’ It looked around. ‘Of you both. Of you for getting out in one piece despite yourself, and of Albus for being sensible, a trait he got from God-knows-where.’
Albus looked up, gaze a little morose. ‘I feel I should have done more.’
‘Absolutely not!’ exclaimed mother and daughter at once, and Hermione’s patronus inclined its head. ‘You can’t feel like that, Albus,’ she said.
‘Really,’ agreed Rose. ‘If you’d come with - well, it nearly went wrong and when it did you couldn’t have saved us. You’d have just been eaten or killed along with us. I’m not pretending it was smart.’
‘It most absolutely was not,’ said her mother’s patronus. ‘But we can go around in circles on the topic all day. Professor Lockett, where are we with the reagents and the potions?'
'Brewing,' said Lockett. 'But I think I can have the first batch put together by the end of the day. I've got a few possible candidates in mind and if they respond positively, we can try applying it further. I’m not expecting a cure but if pupils are getting worse, I think this could really help them.’
‘Excellent. And what about this information about Thane?’
Rose hesitated, then looked at Scorpius. She’d been trying to not meet his gaze throughout her argument with her mother, in case she somehow lost her nerve - or, more likely, her train of thought. He looked a little tired and withdrawn, and she wondered if he’d slept well - then felt even more guilty because she, for her part, certainly had. ‘You were the one who spoke with him, Malfoy.’
Scorpius gave an awkward shrug, and the patronus turned towards him. ‘Not much more to say,’ he said. ‘He didn’t stop us from bringing those parts back. I don’t know if he wants us to try or knows it won’t do anything.’
‘No, and I don’t want to get drawn into conjecture. We’ll know soon if the Acromantula skin does anything, and whichever result might give us more insight into Thane’s motivations. But we do know that he’s still out in the Forbidden Forest and that he’s watching Hogwarts - watching you.’ Hermione’s voice was serious. ‘And last time he was out there, he wasn’t alone. If he’s out in such a hostile area for such a long period of time, I sincerely doubt his team have left. But hopefully the wards should stop them if they try to enter the grounds magically.’
Albus made a face. ‘That’s not very comforting when they can just walk in,’ he pointed out. ‘But it’s better than nothing. And if they were going to come onto the grounds... they’d have done it by now, surely?’
‘Likely,’ agreed Hermione, then looked across at them all. ‘If that was all... then I’ll let you get back to work. You must tell me the moment you know anything about the results of the potions. And - all right, all right!’ The otter glared off to its side for a moment, before turning towards Scorpius. ‘One last thing. Harry Potter would like to commend you, Scorpius, for last night, and my husband would like to thank you for helping keep Acromantulas away from our daughter.’
Rose scoffed despite herself. ‘He was more afraid of the bloody things than me!’
‘I think in my husband’s eyes that makes him a wise man,’ drawled Hermione. ‘And despite how this is more or less the opposite of what I asked of you yesterday, Scorpius, I must add my thanks as well. I think this is one occasion where I can stand to be wrong.’
Scorpius was staring at his feet, looking as awkward and abashed as Rose thought he would if he’d just had a strip torn off him, but he gave a firm nod. ‘Right. Yes. Thank you, Ms Granger,’ he said.
‘I will speak with you tomorrow,’ said Hermione’s patronus, straightening up. ‘Let me know as soon as you know anything. Goodbye.’
Then the patronus winked out of existence, and Rose let out a breath she hadn’t realised she’d been holding. Despite the deep and rather pleasant sleep, there had been a tension at the back of her mind she’d not been aware of, a tension she suspected had taken root the moment she’d agreed to go on Scorpius’ madcap endeavour: a sinking awareness that at some point she was going to have to explain this to her mother.
Now it was over, and it was like a weight being lifted off her shoulders. She turned to Lockett. 'So what now, Professor?'
'The first batch should be done brewing in a couple of hours,' said Lockett. 'We select a few pupils to give it to, monitor their progress, and take it from there.’
‘What do you think this is going to do,’ wondered Selena, ‘if it’s not a cure?’
‘Alleviate the symptoms. Make them more comfortable. It will, I suspect, render them conscious and actually coherent, if only for a little while; Phlegethon is still a very draining curse, designed to leave them fatigued, but this should combat that,’ said Lockett.
Albus’s eyes brightened. ‘You mean some of them will wake up?’
‘I hope so,’ said Lockett. ‘Now, I’ve been going through the pupil records and I have half a dozen I’d like to try giving the elixir once it’s ready. They run the spectrum from being most likely to respond well to least likely to have any response at all; they will need monitoring. I’ll expect you all to do your part in keeping an eye on them.’
Then she reeled off a list of names, the first five nobody from their year, from across all of the houses, but Rose stopped when Lockett got to the last one, ‘and Hector Flynn.’
Rose looked up. ‘Hector?’
‘He’s likely to respond well. He’s fit and healthy and from a magical lineage; overall this has left him in a good shape to combat a curse like Phlegethon. If he doesn’t take well to this elixir, I don’t know who will.’ Lockett looked at her curiously, then her shoulders drooped. ‘Oh, come now, Weasley, I thought I was getting to give you good news for a change?’
‘Oh. No, no, it is good news.’ Rose bit her lip, not doing a good job of sounding convincing.
If Lockett noticed, she didn’t seem to care. ‘Good. You can keep an eye on his progress yourself,’ she said, as if doing her a great favour. ‘I’ll distribute the rest as best I can. But in the meantime I really must keep an eye on the brewing downstairs...’
Then she headed out the room, leaving the five students stood there, Albus still a little disheartened, Selena still rather disinterested, Methuselah looking like his attention was a million miles away, and her and Scorpius. Her, trying to not let the sudden whirlwind racing in her mind bring all of her thoughts and doubts to the front where anyone could see them, and Scorpius - looking at her like he was trying to find a sign of even a single one of them.
She left without another word. She didn’t have the stomach right then to listen to Selena’s wittering on, or even Methuselah’s thoughts on the potion, which normally would have interested her since she’d been nowhere near the brewing of this particular batch. Or in reassuring Albus that he wasn’t a failure in the eyes of their family for not risking his neck in a stupidly dangerous venture.
Or in facing Scorpius.
The password into Hufflepuff House was the same as it had been since the day of Phlegethon’s strike, Rhombus - something about equality and strength, Hector had said, but he’d sounded pretty disinterested and she’d known from past experience that asking him about any of the meaning behind it wasn’t likely to get very far.
That was fine. She’d never gone to him for intellectual stimulation.
Hufflepuff House was made like a warren, with rounded doorways, curved ceilings, and a preference for circular rooms. It made everything comfortable and homely, lacking the detached coolness of Slytherin’s common room, the arch dignity of Ravenclaw’s, or the splendour of Gryffindor’s. House pride meant she had to think of it as rather undistinguished, but she couldn’t deny that it was the most welcoming of all of the common rooms.
And it was the most startling when empty. But this wasn’t the first time Rose had been down here, so she hurried through the common room proper and over to the steps which led down to the boys’ dormitories. She’d only ever been down here since Phlegethon’s strike, otherwise not a student to flaunt the rules which forbade her presence in these rooms, but she still knew which door to take to get to the sixth year boys’ dorm.
All five of the beds were full, of course; not a single member of Hufflepuff House had escaped the illness. They were all in there, Davies and the others. And him. Hector.
Guilt churning in her stomach, Rose crossed the room to his bed and picked up the notes fastidiously left on his bedside table by the House Elves who’d been keeping an eye on him. He’d succumbed to the near-comatose state that was a developed stage of Phlegethon later than most of the others. Young, healthy, and fit, that was what Lockett had said. It left him in the best condition to fight off the curse.
But not good enough. And now he was in just as much danger as the rest.
‘Just because Thane wouldn’t kill us,’ Rose mused, pulling up the stool next to the bed, ‘doesn’t mean Phlegethon won’t. Maybe he’s wrong. Or he’s a rampant hypocrite and lunatic. I don’t know.’
Unsurprisingly, Hector didn’t answer. He looked pale, brow prickled with sweat from being bundled up and the body changes of the curse, his brown hair plastered against his forehead in a manner he’d wholly disapprove of if he were awake enough to tend to his appearance.
What is it about you and men who fuss more about their looks than you do, Rose?
The admonishment came in her mother’s voice, which wasn’t particularly what Rose wanted to hear right then. So she blocked it out by focusing on the papers describing Hector’s state, content enough to sit there and wait and absolutely not think until Lockett came by with the potion.
It was another two hours before she did, in the company of one of Harley’s staff. The process was simple enough; Lockett gave her a chart, complete with helpful tick-boxes and places for her to note down Hector’s improvement - or, if it came to it, degeneration. They fed him, with the help of magic so he wouldn’t choke on the potion, and left.
Lockett would be down in the dungeon, waiting for the answers so she had all the information in one place when she made her judgement as to the experiment’s success. The others - human and House Elf - would be supervising the rest of the candidates, scattered across Houses and dormitories. So down here it was just her and Hector.
And waiting. Even if she wasn’t sure what she was waiting for, hoping for.
She didn’t have to wait long. Colour was returning to his cheeks within fifteen minutes, and his breathing became deeper, easier. Although the potion wouldn’t be powerful enough to completely flush the presence of the curse that would have taken root deep inside him, it was supposed to be able to fight the symptoms and any damage done so far. It looked like it was working.
Rose was scribbling away at Lockett’s chart when she heard his breathing change - it caught for a heartbeat and she looked up, only for Hector to clear his throat.
And open his eyes.
He blinked muggily, gaze wandering around the room for a few seconds, but as realisation crossed his face he didn’t look surprised. He had been drifting in and out of consciousness for a few days after falling ill, and he’d been aware of where he was, and what was happening.
In broad terms, at least.
‘Hey, babe.’ Hector’s voice was thick and gravelly, but it was him, and he managed a languid, tired smile as their eyes met. ‘You look tired.’
‘I look - what about you, you’re awake, how do you feel...?’ Anything complicated had flown from her mind and Rose stood, reaching over to grab his hand.
‘Rotten. Like I just played all our year’s matches back to back, and it took three days for the Seeker to get the snitch and we still lost. I think those were my nightmares, actually, Malfoy kept scoring and it was bloody awful...’
He was trying to joke, she knew, even if his grin was weary and weak and even if his words thudded into her gut as hard as accusations would. She tightened her grip on his hand before letting go to grab the chart.
‘We don’t - we haven’t found a cure for what’s happening yet,’ Rose admitted, looking at what Lockett had written rather than meet his gaze. ‘We’ve just given you a potion to try to alleviate the symptoms; it’s an early test but you’re responding well, really well, so we should hope everyone else in the school can get a little better...’
‘Everyone else?’ Hector’s broad brow furrowed. ‘Who else is down - wait, who else is awake?’
‘A few of us,’ said Rose, lying with the reassuring tone of her voice if not her exact words. He probably would think a few meant dozens, not less than half a dozen. ‘We’re doing all right. The part to focus on is you, and how you’re feeling - I know it's a pain but can I run through these questions for you? Just so we know how the potion's working, if it's good to give it to everyone...'
'So I'm the test bunny? I knew you'd volunteer me for experiments soon as you got the chance,' he joked, and again her stomach contracted unpleasantly.
But he answered simply and honestly, and she ran through a few of the diagnostic spells that had become almost second nature since the first strike of Phlegethon, and his gaze remained calm, reassuring. That done, she folded up the chart and charmed it to become one of the quick-flying paper airplanes to take her findings down to Lockett in the dungeons.
‘You should get some rest,’ said Rose once the airplane winged off out of the dormitory.
‘Sounds like I’ve been resting a while - what’s been going on? Are you okay? You really do look tired, babe - great, as always, but tired...’
He tried to sit up and she stepped in, pressing a hand to his forehead to push him back down gently. ‘I’m - I’m fine, Hector, really.’
I want to break up with you so I can snog Scorpius Malfoy senseless, even though I sometimes can’t stand to be in the same room as him.
It had been one thing to feel that desire when Hector had been unconscious, too lost to the weakening of Phlegethon for her to even try to have this conversation. But now he was here, awake, his dark eyes watching her with undisguised concern.
You suck, Weasley.
‘I’m tired, and I’ve been working hard, but I - I’m just really glad to see you’re doing better.’ It wasn’t a lie; it might have been for Hugo and Lily and her other cousins that she stayed awake at night worrying, but her friends, and Hector, had been close seconds on that long, long list of woes which no amount of concentration or distraction could banish.
Except for -
‘The Ministry are sending us help, Professor Lockett’s brewing up some amazing potions, and we will find a cure, I promise you,’ she finished.
‘I know,’ said Hector simply. ‘I trust you, Rose, I know you’ll do fine. I feel more reassured by you being on the case than I do by Lockett being on the case.’
That’s because you slept through OWL-level Potions and never did like her enough to realise that, for all her flaws - and they are many - she’s a downright genius, was the treacherous thought that crossed Rose’s mind.
But she didn’t say that, either, and suddenly found she couldn’t say anything at all with him looking up at her, his smile lopsided, gaze trusting. So she leant down and kissed him on the forehead gently, and felt him relax under her touch. ‘You really should get some rest.’
He looked like he was going to protest, but the potion was still in its earliest stages of working and even that short conversation had been some exertion, and before long Hector’s eyes had drooped shut and he was back to sleeping peacefully, his breathing deep. Rose stood over him for a long time, watching the rise and fall of his chest, watching the colour back into her cheeks, and it was a good ten minutes before she wiped her eyes and made further notes to send off to Lockett.
Then she left, winding her way out of the Hufflepuff common room, back into the corridors of the school - and towards the doors, out into the grounds, storming across the courtyard and across the lawn and towards the lake, over towards that leaning tree whose leaves dipped into the surface and sent ripples scattering across the water in the breeze, where she'd gone to find Scorpius after he’d been racked with doubts.
So she shouldn’t have been surprised, really, when she heard footsteps crunching along the grass towards her within fifteen minutes.
It was cold as October died and she was regretting having come out without a jacket, but she still shrank away when she felt Scorpius try to drape his coat across her shoulders. ‘No - don’t.’
She didn’t look at him, but she could feel him stiffening. ‘Are we going with the icicle look today? Is that what’s in?’
‘Don’t joke.’ Rose grabbed that errant lock of hair and determinedly tucked it into her hair tie as she turned to face him. His voice had been dull, empty, and there was an apprehensive look in her eyes which made it clear he had a pretty good idea what was going on.
That didn’t make talking any easier.
‘Is Flynn all right?’ asked Scorpius, again in that horribly flat voice.
‘He’s taken to the potion splendidly,’ said Rose, hoarse. ‘He woke up. He was talking. Doing rather well. If anyone else responds half so well to the potion then we’re really onto something here. If some of them were getting as bad as the reports say Tim Warwick was, we might have just saved lives with that Acromantula skin.’
‘Great.’ But he looked as unenthused as possible as he shoved his hands in his pockets. ‘Let me guess, just one look at his sweaty, pale, sickly self and it was enough to turn your head?’
She made a face. ‘Don’t be like that - he’s ill, what was I supposed to say?’
‘Is the truth really beyond everyone these days?’
Rose snorted. ‘That’s incredibly rich of you,’ she said, and he stopped, looking surprised - but not indignant, and she turned to him. ‘He was pleased to see me. Relieved. Again, what do you suggest I do? Say, “hello, Hector, glad you’re feeling better - oh, by the way, you’re dumped”?’
‘I thought that was the plan?’ said Scorpius.
‘When he was cured, not when he’s still trying to fight off an curse that’s sapping every inch of energy he’s got like a leech!’ snapped Rose. ‘Honestly, Malfoy, do you really think I’m enough of an outrageous bitch to put something like this out there when it could actually affect his recovery?’
His gaze was flat, accusing. ‘You were enough of an outrageous bitch to kiss me even though he’s under the impression you two are together.’
‘As I recall, you kissed me, knowing I was with him. Don’t play the innocent, Malfoy, it doesn’t suit you,’ she muttered. ‘And I didn’t have a choice last night, I couldn’t tell him.’
A flash of anger crossed his face at last. ‘And now you can!’
‘I can’t! Or, if you want to nitpick, I won’t.’ Rose drew a deep, careful breath. ‘And I’m not going to lie to him, either.’
He scowled. ‘Why not? It’s only Flynn.’
‘Oh, you are such a child sometimes!’ she snapped, throwing her hands in the air. ‘I won’t, because he deserves better than that - because anyone deserves better than being lied to and led on, or worse, suffering because of my self-indulgence when he’s already suffering! And you know that, even if you’re falling for this stupid schoolboy rivalry you’ve got going on. Why do you hate him so much anyway?'
Scorpius looked away, glowering across the lake, and for once he didn't look like the showman, with all of his flair and his jokes or even his charm. He looked like a grown man, and with a jolt she knew what he looked like, from the old photographs and records that occasionally surfaced when one was the daughter of war heroes and Ministry officials.
He looked like his father’s son, his grandfather’s grandson. He looked like a Malfoy. Cold, detached, and above the pettiness of lesser mortals.
‘Like you put it,’ he said, his voice sounding as if it was coming from far away, and he didn’t look at her. ‘It’s a schoolboy rivalry. And I wouldn’t want you to compromise your principles for some sort of schoolgirl crush. Merlin knows you need to have something going for you.’
Knowing he was trying to hurt her didn’t make the words have no impact, and it was enough to stun her into silence long enough for Scorpius to turn on his heel and storm back along the grass towards the castle, his long coat swishing in his wake and the cold autumn breeze that ran along the fields and along the lake.
‘Scorpius -’ But she only managed to find her voice, find his name for the first time on her lips once he was a good distance away, and the breeze carried that away too. And by then she didn’t know what she’d even say, so instead of raising her voice, or going after him, Rose turned away, back to the endless stretch of the great lake. She wrapped her arms around herself against the chill of the autumn air and the chill of her own choices and deeds, and didn’t move from where she stood, cold and alone.
Because she knew she’d feel like that for a good while longer anyway.
Stupid. Scorpius slammed the stairway door shut behind him enough to echo all the way down the corridor, and stormed down the hall, coat collar upturned, brow twisted into a venomous scowl. ‘Stupid, stupid, stupid,’ he hissed out loud.
Then the door to the Arithmancy classroom on that floor swung open, and Scorpius' heart sank as Methuselah stuck his head out, brow furrowed. 'Crisis, Malfoy?' he said in his usual clipped voice.
Like you wouldn’t believe. ‘No. No crisis. World’s ending just as much as it ever was,’ said Scorpius, but the words came out in a rush of frustration and bitterness that made them borderline-sarcastic.
Methuselah nudged his glasses up his nose, dark eyes turning disinterested as he saw nothing obviously wrong. Except for Scorpius’ upset, but he suspected the Ravenclaw hadn’t so much as noticed this. ‘Good,’ he said, and went to pull back inside.
Scorpius stopped, hands still shoved in his pockets. ‘Back to your pointless work?’
‘Pointless?’ Methuselah paused.
‘Mm. This ritual. Trying to figure out what it might mean based on the half-baked recollections of a half-wit.’
Methuselah’s expression didn’t change. ‘I would deem you a two-thirds wit, maybe, Malfoy.’ He wasn’t angry. He wasn’t sniping. He was neither outraged by Scorpius’ criticism, nor anything but earnest in his rebuttal.
And Scorpius’ desire to pick a fight only grew. ‘Sorry we can’t all bow at the altar of your -’
‘Oh, for heaven’s sake.’ The door to the classroom was pulled further open to show Selena standing there, gaze thunderous. ‘Would you just bugger off, Malfoy, and take your bitter sulking with you?’
He planted his hands on his hips. ‘Interrupting the world’s nerdiest snog-session, was I?’
Methuselah blinked. ‘We were analysing the amplification qualities of the possible materials used to make the ritual’s markings -’
‘A laugh a minute.’ Scorpius turned to Selena. ‘Why do you hang around when you know you’re absolutely no help to him in this?’ he snarled. ‘You didn’t even take OWL-level Arithmancy, your marks are average at best, and you’re just slowing him down by forcing him to stop to explain even basic fundamental principles to you over and over. Using very small words.’
Selena just arched an eyebrow, but he was in full swing now, and turned to Methuselah. ‘And I hate to burst your bubble, Jones, but she’s not after you for your brains, she’s only after you because you give her the time of day when everyone else knows she’s insipid and vacuous, and the moment everyone else has awoken she’ll discard you and kick you to the curb, and that little blossoming feeling your robot brain might be telling you is called “love” will be so much mess on the carpet.’
The words tumbled from him as black and inky as he felt inside, bitter and petty and venomous as he lashed out at the two conscious people in Hogwarts he’d had the least to do with over the last few weeks. But each sentence felt like the horrible tension that made him sick to his stomach was loosening; like each time he lashed out made him a little bit freer from the chains of self-doubt and failure that Rose’s words and dismissal had wrapped around him tight enough to choke.
And Methuselah Jones just looked nonplussed, and Selena Rourke’s arched eyebrow didn’t move. ‘Did I stutter, Malfoy?’ she said, voice calm, as if he’d not so much as answered her instruction to leave. ‘Shoo.’
Then she waved a dismissive hand, took Methuselah by the arm to draw him back inside the classroom, and shut the door behind them, leaving Scorpius stood alone, furious, and thwarted in the corridor.
He clenched his jaw enough to make his teeth ache and his fists enough to drive his nails into the palm of his hand, but just turned on his heel to continue stalking his way down the hall. Those two hadn’t been his intended targets, anyway. He’d just run into them and couldn’t stand to either make small-talk, or walk on as if nothing had happened.
Because something had happened, and his utter helplessness made it feel like something wanted to come bursting out of his chest in impotent rage.
He found Albus up in the Library, where he’d thought he’d be, poring over the various documents they’d gathered together which outlined the uses of the wards around the school. With the dark creatures of the Forbidden Forest furious enough to waylay them whenever they pleased and an enemy on the loose who could hide himself from all manner of methods of detection, it seemed a pointless gesture, and one Scorpius had no time for.
But Albus looked up as he heard his footsteps, and immediately his honest face opened up with concern. For some reason this just twisted worse in Scorpius’ gut; he didn’t want Albus’ pity, he wanted...
...what did he want?
‘Scorp, what’s happened?’
Scorpius stood there for a moment, his fists still clenched, heart still pounding in his chest with anger, and he worked his jaw wordlessly as he fought for where to even begin with the explanation, with working out what he wanted to say, let alone how to say it. ‘I... Rose... we...’ The words came to his mind, but as they bubbled up in his throat they were enough to choke him, and Scorpius turned to the side, expression contorting. ‘Shit!’
He kicked the nearest bookcase, hard - hard enough to send pain lancing up his foot, and he swore again, reaching down to grab his toe. He hopped and leant against the offending bookcase, feeling no less angry, just now more in pain and embarrassed.
‘Woah, take it easy.’ Albus moved over to steer him onto a chair, brow furrowed. ‘You two didn’t fight again, did you?’
Scorpius threw him a glower, and Albus pulled back, surprised. ‘Don’t give me that,’ he growled. ‘You had suspicions last night, you’re not a sodding idiot.’
Albus’ expression fell. ‘I’m not psychic, either,’ he said with a hint of reproach. ‘I can only make guesses on what’s going on between you two. Since you’ve not told me anything.’
They had been friends for too long for Scorpius to not hear the note of hurt in Albus’ voice. The problem wasn’t that he didn’t care, however. The problem was that something small and nasty inside Scorpius drew a petty relish from someone else feeling even remotely as bad as he felt. ‘I figured you’d tell me I’m an idiot, and when it all went wrong I figured you’d tell me you told me so.’
Something tightened in Albus’ face, and he drew a careful breath. ‘Scorp, we’re friends, right?’
‘So they say.’
Albus ignored the dismissiveness. ‘So how come you’ve fallen into the habit of not only making assumptions on what I’ll say and do before it happens - but actively keeping me out of things that affect you because you assume I’m going to work against you?’
Scorpius rolled his eyes. ‘You’re not still hurt about last night, are you?’
There was the briefest flash in Albus’ eyes. ‘You snuck into my room and stole the map rather than even try to talk to me about what you had planned - and yet you were happy to trust Rose over me?’
‘I thought you said you were just glad we’re all right?’ wondered Scorpius aloud - but he didn’t keep the scathing, provocative tone from his voice.
‘Let’s not even get into how you went off into the Forest with Jones and Hugo without telling me for pretty similar reasons, and now you're saying something's been going on between you and Rose you couldn't bring yourself to tell me about before because you thought I'd, what, judge you?'
'I thought you'd call me stupid.’
Albus folded his arms across his chest, jaw tensing. ‘When have I ever called you that? You know I never think that!’
‘Then maybe you’re pretty dumb too - because I am rather stupid,’ mused Scorpius, and something softened in Albus’ face - so he pressed on. ‘No, you’re right. You’re absolutely right,’ he said, and Albus relaxed even more. ‘I totally did all of those things because I thought you’d judge me and disapprove.’
The soft, sympathetic edge faded. ‘I’ve never done that, either!’ exclaimed Albus.
‘Except for when I got us into detention in the first place...’
‘You can’t defend that, Scorp - there is a difference between you taking crazy risks for important things and you attacking Rose because you were feeling slighted!’ Albus planted his hands on his hips. ‘If you’d woken me last night, I would have come with you. You need to know that.’
‘Is that the truth?’ Scorpius straightened, feeling the throbbing in his right foot. It just made his blossoming anger, born of Rose and Hector but demanding to be unleashed at anything, all the greater. And right now his best target was his best friend. ‘Or is it just what you’re telling yourself is the truth since you realised daddy’s disappointed because his son’s not playing hero?’
Albus’ gaze clouded over, and the look in his eyes was enough to make Scorpius suddenly go cold.
‘The time where you could get away with being a petulant child because Rose has hurt you, but I’d forgive you because we’re friends and I know you don’t mean it,’ said Albus, his voice quiet, tense, and distant, ‘was about a second before you said that.’
‘So I guess even Albus Potter reaches a point where someone doesn’t deserve decency because they’ve been mean enough -’
‘I have never, ever minimised how your family make you feel.’
Scorpius snorted, a haughty noise he didn’t quite feel. ‘Our situations are hardly comparable.’
‘No. Of course not.’ Albus dropped his hands, shoulders slumping. ‘I forgot. Nobody’s suffering is ever as bad as Scorpius Malfoy’s. Nobody is ever as badly affected by things as him. Everything, always, is about him.’
The cold tension in Scorpius’ gut, the fear that had intertwined with his anger, tightened. ‘Is that what you really feel, hm?’
‘You acted as if what happened with Miranda wouldn’t affect me, and yet I went along with your stupid silence anyway. Even if it made everyone look at me differently for standing by you, treat me differently. Even if it made yet another issue for me to fight with Rose over.’
‘I didn’t think it would be a great loss.’
‘And now you’re, what, lashing out at me because you’re hurt and upset - and because you’ve run out of people to fight with, so I complete the set?’ Albus’ eyes narrowed. ‘You’re not the only person who’s tired and stressed by the situation we’re in, so I don’t see why you get to be more outrageously unpleasant about it than anyone else.’
‘Nobody else here has faced off against Dementors and Redcaps and Acromantulas and Prometheus Thane,’ Scorpius spat.
Albus looked down, expression crumpling, and he let out a deep breath. 'I have tried,' he said, 'to stand by you even when everyone else told me it was a bad idea, that you were no good. Sometimes it’s been because I’ve known better than them, but by Merlin, Scorp, you don’t make it easy, do you? And the rest of the time it’s been pure faith, faith that you are better than people say you are.’
‘And how’s that faith doing for you now?’ demanded Scorpius petulantly.
‘Faltering,’ said Albus, and the admission - though he’d known it was coming, though he’d provoked this, was like a final punch in Scorpius’ gut as his best friend straightened his shoulders and picked up the books he’d been reading through. ‘I won’t stick around to be your punching back, Scorp. I’ll see you later. Much later.’
And then he, too, left, leaving Scorpius on his own in the eerie silence of the library, where not even the rustle of papers or the complaints of the librarian could provide the illusion that, maybe, around the corner or behind the next stack, business as usual was proceeding in Hogwarts.
This one was his own fault, he knew. He’d wanted a fight. Sought a fight. Picked one and found one. But already the gleam of petty, childish satisfaction at making Albus feel half as upset as Scorpius himself felt had dissipated for raw, aching guilt, disappointment and, eternally at the centre, loneliness.
With a scowl he turned, kicked the bookcase again, hurt his foot again, and knocked enough volumes off the shelves as they rocked to commit him for the next half-hour to picking up the books and putting them back in his place.
Maybe this is one task you can manage to not screw up, Malfoy.
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