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Chapter 8: Promptly Meandering
It had been a night and day since the centaurs had taken up the role of the little troupe's security. Seeming to understand something that Scorpius didn't quite, they had offered their services to Hugo, asking to accompany him to the frozen lake where the Quidropopot cultivated.
Of course, Hugo was friends with them, so he probably didn't find their presence grating as Scorpius did--but he was keenly aware that Professor Longbottom and Scorpius still wanted to get him to explain some things. Scorpius rather thought that Hugo knew he wasn't above cornering him and threatening him mercilessly.
But that was four, five, six--however many it had been--days' worth of sleep deprivation and travel weariness thinking for him. Scorpius really was very tired, he thought, as he laid on his back in his sleeping bag listening to Professor Longbottom and Hugo trying to get the small burner to work. And he was beginning to wonder about too many things to go without being cranky for a bit.
"Hugo Weasley," he heard a deep male voice (that certainly wasn't Professor Longbottom's) boom. "We must go to gather food and drink. We will return at high noon, and at that time I recommend that we make haste towards the lake."
"Okay, Xury," Hugo said. It sounded like he was talking with his mouth full. Scorpius leapt up and ran out of the tent, forgetting that he was barefoot. He hit the snow with a yelp and darted back inside, pulling socks and trainers on impatiently.
When he finally scrambled out of the tent, hair flopping into his face messily, it looked like the centaurs had departed and Professor Longbottom was just unpacking some bread to toast on the fire. It was blue fire, something Scorpius had become accustomed to seeing.
It was a shame that there weren’t practical life-without-magic classes at Hogwarts, because if he, Hugo, and Professor Longbottom had been stranded without their wands--well, they’d be dead, because the Acromantulas would have eaten them, but pretending like that didn’t happen--they’d likely die by freezing to death. None of them had thought to bring matches and they couldn’t manage a comic-book wielding of a magnifying glass and crumpled paper, either.
Scorpius took a moment to clear his head when he realised that he was attempting to imagine what it would feel like to freeze solid, breathing in the crisp air deeply.
“Morning,” Hugo hummed, and again, it sounded like his mouth was full of something, his lips forming the letters around some huge impediment.
“Morning,” Scorpius replied, stepping closer to the fire and pulling his hands out of his pockets to warm them over the tiny blue flames. Professor Longbottom skewered some bread with a twig he’d been regularly using for this purpose and held it out over the fire.
He was getting good at lacing the pieces onto the twig, Scorpius noted with a hint of satisfaction. He was currently toasting five at once.
“Hugo,” Scorpius said, unable to distract himself any longer, “what’s in your mouth?”
“Snow,” Hugo said, looking up at him with his wide stare. His green eyes questioned the older boy innocently. “I’m eating it.”
“Snow is water,” Scorpius happened to mention.
“No, snow is snow.”
“But snow is frozen water.”
“Frozen water is snow.”
“So you’re eating water.”
“I’m eating snow.”
“You’re eating frozen water.”
“I’m drinking solid water.”
“Ha, haaaaaaa!” Hugo said, pointing a finger up at Scorpius’s face, looking gleeful. He then scampered off to a fresh patch of snow a small distance away and began forming it into small sculptures. Scorpius had noticed that there didn’t seem to be any drool spotting Hugo’s chin--in fact, Scorpius hadn’t noticed the regular glisten for a while now.
“Do you think that saliva freezes like water?” Scorpius mumbled under his breath to Professor Longbottom, who looked back with an indulgent eye and smiled.
“I don’t know, but I know why you’re asking,” Neville said, feeling an odd sort of glow in his chest at the thought of never having to look down at a workbench spotted with mysterious liquid and wonder whether or not it had come from Hugo Weasley again.
“I feel proud,” Scorpius mused, with a strange look on his face. Neville guessed that he was feeling confusion, like Neville himself was feeling, at deriving so much happiness out of the fact that Hugo had stopped drooling. Neville thought that it marked, in a small, beginning way, Hugo’s transition into semi-adulthood--of course, it was true that not everyone was built to fit into societal preconceptions and expectations, and certainly Hugo was one of those people, so Neville didn’t know if he ever really would become what someone would call an adult--but perhaps the path to maturity--wait, no. That wasn’t the right word either.
(But in a way, Neville thought, Hugo was already more mature than his peers. After all, one does spend a great deal of one’s post-pubescent life looking at oneself through other people’s eyes. It’s easier to understand who one is that way, because a funny thing about people is that they lose no time in making up their minds about who other people are...but have the hardest time understanding themselves. Poor Hugo was really in a rut then, wasn’t he, since he didn’t even turn to others to tell him who he was--he was left to his own, slightly-daft devices to understand himself at an age at which most children were still looking to others to make those decisions for them.)
At any rate, Hugo was changing. He didn’t seem to be losing any of his more charming qualities--so Neville temporarily labeled the transition as growing up. Perhaps it was a sort of fact that most kids went through what Hugo was experiencing a year or two earlier--they couldn’t retain such innocence and unawareness of self as Hugo could into his young adult life--but it was something that, from what Neville understood of what Hugo had said last night to the centaurs, Hugo wanted.
Neville had watched Hugo carefully as he interacted with the centaurs--he seemed to forget that while the centaurs seemed to have slightly-psychic abilities and could understand Hugo’s motives based off of his ambiguous, slightly shoddy explanation, Neville and Scorpius, who were only human, and not psychic, needed a more tangible explanation so that they could understand his motives.
There was a small part of Neville that fully embraced the knowledge that since he didn’t know Hugo’s real intentions, the boy could actually be seeking it for nefarious application. It looked a little suspicious from one point of view that Hugo had never been able to tell anyone exactly why he wanted the plant. The closest they had gotten to a real explanation was when he was forced to say something to the Acromantulas, and that explanation could easily be boiled down to “I don’t know.”
It had happened to Neville several times that it suddenly seemed like it was the most important thing to understand Hugo’s motivations, but he had been able to shrug it off those other times, telling himself all kinds of things...things like, it doesn’t matter, he’s just a kid, he probably doesn’t even realise how powerful they are...
But Neville had been finding out too much too quickly that he had been underestimating Hugo--there wasn’t anything that he could tell himself at the moment that would satiate his desire to just have some tangible, able-to-be-understood, cold, hard facts. Only it was the funny thing about facts, wasn’t it, that people told themselves the facts were cold and hard and unchangeable and objective when really, really facts were soft and warm, and were a safety blanket--retreat to facts, which can’t forsake you--and were so easily changeable.
Plato would argue with him, of course, but Neville wasn’t speaking of facts facts, the things that actually were the perfect idea and form, but facts as the human mind conceptualised the term. And facts to the human mind, while are unchangeable and pure, actually change all the time. Neville thought of all the changes in medicine--things people had been sure were deadly, incurable diseases that people had, in fact, years later, cured. The fact that a werewolf would never be able to manage its symptoms on the full moon--changed with the invention of Wolfsbane potion. The fact that Herbology is a boring and useless subject--changed, as soon as Professor Longbottom took charge of the instruction.
So Plato could just can it, and listen to Neville Longbottom for once. Because Herbology is damned interesting.
“I know what you mean,” Neville said after a long pause. “It’s a step towards...wherever Hugo really is headed. And nice for us.” He turned to see Scorpius nodding with a slight smile on his face.
They paused, neither of them wanting to say it.
“We should talk to him,” Scorpius finally sighed. Neville nodded in agreement.
“Yes,” he said. “We should. We really do need to know why he wants the plant.”
“Yeah,” Scorpius said, putting his hands on his hips. “It’s hard to imagine...you know, that he’d want it for anything--anything evil.”
“It is,” Neville said, “but the Acromantulas did almost eat us for dinner.”
Scorpius chuckled. He found that when Professor Longbottom put it that way, this phrase was much more humourous than when anyone--he didn’t know, maybe his age said it. But it was more than just a phrase, it was true. They would have served as a particularly lanky main course.
Hugo stood up and Scorpius felt nervous as he came nearer, knowing that he was going to have to ask him to explain himself. It wasn’t as though he couldn’t demand things of people--knowing Rose for long enough was enough to teach anyone how to get what they wanted through intimidation tactics. She often pracitsed it on small children out of bed at night. He always wondered how someone who could be so sweet could also be so scheming at times.
He had been wondering increasingly lately how someone so seemingly dim could actually be pretty sharp.
“Hi, Scorpius!” Hugo said with an air about him as though he was greeting a long lost friend. Scorpius was about to say hello in return, but Hugo had thrown his skinny arms around Scorpius’s shoulders and muffled any sound in his coat. Scorpius was taken aback at the hug, but awkwardly patted Hugo’s back.
“You know,” Scorpius said, a tinge of his old worry coloring his voice. “We did already see each other this morning.”
“I know,” Hugo said, and there was that familiar look of his. It was a look that Scorpius could only take to mean, Silly Scorpius, of course I know that, don’t be silly.
“Hugo,” Professor Longbottom said. Scorpius gulped nervously. He didn’t know why he was feeling so strange. It wasn’t like they were asking him this for the first time. They’d asked in their roundabout ways several times, actually. Yes, that was true. And if that was true then Hugo wasn’t going to completely degenerate into a puddle of tears when they asked him to explain. They just wanted him to resay what he had already said, in different words. That was all! That wasn’t too much to ask. That wasn’t any reason to get nervous.
“Hi, Professor Neville!” Hugo said, launching himself at the Professor. Longbottom looked over the boy’s shoulder at Scorpius, looking like he would appeal for help if he thought it would do any good. There was also slight amusement there, between his brows, in the slackness of the upper lip--but there was a tension to the temples, and Scorpius understood, now, what their approach would be.
Seriousness, but only faintly shrouding amusement.
Why were they amused at something that had caused them to risk their lives?
Oh, Merlin. They were crazy people.
“Hugo,” Longbottom tried again, trying to put a crease into his lower brow. Scorpius thought he was doing well. He planted his feet wide apart and folded his arms, trying to frown. Longbottom cleared his throat slightly--it said, too much, Scorpius. So he unfolded his brow slightly and put his feet closer together. While Hugo was looking back and forth between the two of them, Longbottom nodded slightly. Scorpius felt better. Okay, I look the part. That’s got to get me halfway there, right?
“Yes?” Hugo asked, his voice timorous.
“Hugo, Scorpius and I--” Scorpius waited on tenterhooks as Longbottom seemed to struggle with something about the construction of this introduction, and started again. “Look, Hugo, we don’t want to put any unnecessary pressure on you, but we really just want you to explain why you’re out in the forest looking for the Quidropopot.”
Hugo was silent for a moment; Scorpius’s hands balled into fists inside his pockets as he waited for him to show some sign of what was going to happen. Either way, Scorpius knew, this would change things. As soon as they found out why Hugo was here, they’d know why they were there, too--Neville, and himself.
“I mean, you told the spiders--”
Hugo didn’t look like he meant to be rude, interrupting, so Scorpius’s surprise remained untinged by annoyance.
“When you told the Acromantulas that you weren’t really interested in the Quidropopot at all, it was...confusing.”
“Oh,” Hugo said. “But it isn’t about the plant.”
Scorpius’s eyebrows shot up before he could conceal his surprise; his eyes flickered over to Professor Longbottom and saw that the Professor also donned a look that said he was mildly impressed. Scorpius understood why. To say that it wasn’t about the plant suggested, as Scorpius had hoped, that Hugo did understand why he was here.
Something that he hadn’t been able to admit before, which implied itself that Hugo had actually been doing some introspection. It was impressive from a boy who little over half of a week ago had been drooling prodigiously and launching himself head-first out of the portrait hole.
“It’s more about...that I can do something, anything. Marjie didn’t even think I knew what cartoons were. Well, no, actually, she just assumed I did, only I forgot for a minute and then I got a suit that I never got to wear, by the way.”
“Hugo. Can you just tell us--”
“Sorry,” he said, looking sheepish and pushing a little mound of snow over one of his shoes. “It’s just--” And you could see, Scorpius thought, Hugo’s emotions pushing forward to the surface. He was usually, besides when he was bursting into tears, someone so enigmatic--and Scorpius didn’t even mean that in the best way--that seeing the edge of something directly beneath the skin was captivating. It made you listen. It made you wonder.
Scorpius thought it must have been the thing that had brought him and Longbottom all this way--whatever was beneath the drool, the stares, the seeming helplessness.
“It’s just people think they know who I should be because everyone knows my parents.” It was apparent to Scorpius that this had been what Hugo had been trying to say all along. The boy’s shoulders drooped with relief and his whole body seemed to radiate the loss of a cumbersome burden. “They see Rose and know that she’s smart and funny and she even looks like a Weasley. She has the freckles and everything.”
Scorpius tried to hide his smile. In the midst of a turning point, Hugo maintained his endearing, air-headed charm--the freckles, oh yes, that’s what marks a Weasley.
“And then they see me. And they think they know who I am because they know everyone else in my family. I see them all the time disappointed that I’m not good at classes or knitting like Mum, that I’m not really funny like Dad or Rose, and what’s weird is that everyone knows I’m a Weasley even though I don’t look like one. I’m so close to--not being what they think I am. Only I don’t know who I am and they do. So I thought, if I can just find out that one thing that I think about myself is true, then I’ll know more than everyone.”
A moment of silence pervaded the clearing, seeming to echo, sucking the air out from between them. A moment of stillness, in which no snow fell, no branch shifted, and no one seemed to breathe. And then--
“What did you want to prove by finding the plant, Hugo?”
It was Longbottom. He had a strange look on his face--Scorpius could only imagine in abstract form what it might have been from, since he didn’t quite understand yet what he was feeling himself.
“I thought--well, I thought that I can do something when I mean to.”
Scorpius tilted his head, trying to understand the statement as sure as he could be as Hugo had intended it to sound.
“You know,” he said, his voice splitting into the air like boulders shifting against each other. “That’s not something that everyone can say.”
“My parents can,” Hugo said, first looking proud, then confused. “And I want that to be my Weasley trait.”
“You have something else your parents have, Hugo,” Longbottom said, taking his hands out of his pockets and counting off on his fingers. “First, you’re kind-hearted, like your mum. Second, you really are funny, like Ron. Third, you’re full of potential, like both of your parents.” He paused, and looked at Hugo. Scorpius saw that he was grinning widely. A little glow trickled out from his chest and laced his veins. “I could go on,” Longbottom said, shoving his hands back in his pockets, “but I think you get the point.”
“You’ve forgotten one, Professor,” Scorpius muttered after a moment of blinding thought, and he felt as though lenses had been put down over his eyes. Everything was different in light of what had just occurred to him. “Maybe the most important. Maybe the one most people in this world would give most of what they have for. Something special.”
He stopped, jarred by the look on Hugo’s face--little remained of the dim, airy, daft boy. Cluelessness it seemed had been replaced by a sharp eye and ear for whatever was about to come out of Scorpius’s mouth, so he chose his words carefully, constructing a simple statement that he couldn’t deliver wrongly.
“It’s called ‘adventure.’”
“We should move quickly,” Xury huffed, walking quietly back into camp. Hugo looked up from where he sat, straddling a large wad of canvas as Professor Neville tried to wrangle the tent back into its bag.
“Why?” Hugo stood and the tent popped back open. He saw Professor Neville shrug his shoulders before whipping out his wand and shrinking it as it stood, shoving it into his pocket.
“We have seen that we have been followed,” Xury said with a flick of his long tail, looking otherwise unbothered. Hugo wondered if he ever got cold without anything on like a coat.
“What does that mean, exactly?” Hugo saw that Professor Neville’s forehead was creased by a frown and the rest of his face had gone oddly slack. It was sort of like Mum when she told him she was trying not to lose her temper.
“We have been followed,” Xury repeated. Hugo knew that Professor Neville wasn’t going to like that answer. It was the same one he already had, which wasn’t enough.
But Professor Longbottom shook his head, gathered up the rest of their things, and shrugged in Hugo’s direction. “Okay, let’s move.”
Scorpius popped up from behind a mound of snow and scrambled to his feet.
“What were you doing?” Hugo asked interestedly. Scorpius’s face was very wet and a little pink.
“I was trying to rinse out my hair. With the snow. I melted it but it was still too cold.” Scorpius shook his head. “What do you think they mean, we’re being followed?”
Hugo liked the conspiratorial tone that Scorpius used when he asked the question. “I don’t know,” Hugo whispered back, feeling like giggling.
“He didn’t look worried,” Scorpius muttered, pulling out his wand, it seemed, just in case.
“But you can hardly ever tell what a centaur is feeling from what he looks like,” Hugo said, surprised that Scorpius didn’t know this. Then again, he hadn’t really spent too much time with them. Hugo had to remember things like that more often, he decided.
“So Xury could actually be very worried.” Scorpius said it, rather than asked, but Hugo nodded anyways. “Great.”
“Usually I think they’d tell us if it was like, an Acromantula following us, or something else that wanted to eat us,” Hugo nodded. He saw Scorpius watching him, but when he turned to see if he was going to say anything, he didn’t, only looked at him with a strange expression on his face. It looked like his eyes were trying very hard to stay looking at him, and that sort of reminded Hugo of when Rose was trying not to roll her eyes. He thought about what he had said and thought that maybe he could have said something more assuring.
“I mean, I’m sure it’s nothing dangerous, they just want to get to the lake before sundown.” Scorpius smiled at Hugo after a moment, so Hugo decided he didn’t need to try again. Which was good, because he wasn’t sure that he could have thought of another way to say it.
They crunched through snow for what Hugo thought must have been hours. The woods were silent besides the sound of their breathing, their footsteps, their occasional murmurs.
The fact that they were being followed weighed heavily on Neville’s mind as they left tracks in the snow. For a moment, he considered taking out his wand and steaming away their footprints, but Delphi, who was walking beside him, crossbow bouncing comfortably between his hands, had told him not to bother. After initial surprise at the fact that Neville hadn’t voiced anything aloud and Delphi had still understood his thoughts, he asked the centaur, having to crane his neck a little, why. They were making enough noise as it was, Delphi said, and the things which followed them would not need footprints as evidence of their presence.
A desperate brand of anger rose in Neville’s throat and he struggled to keep it inside. Centaurs, he knew, while most often on the side of good, were also extremely enigmatic creatures. He knew that it was a little unfair to hold them to the logical standards of human beings, because their methods of operation and conceptualization were obviously extremely different, but in moments of survival...this could be life or death...it seemed that he felt some necessity that the centaurs did not share.
So he remained quiet, trusting that their weapons would be enough against whatever attacks might come.
But, he thought, about an hour later, as the sun was setting, and they were coming close to another clearing, a bigger one, a more important one--there had been no attacks, and although his muscles were sore and he was tired and dirty and cold, he was alive. Hugo and Scorpius were alive. And they were almost at the end of a journey that would satisfy Hugo’s need to understand himself better.
It was funny, and he chuckled a bit, drawing a strange look from Pythia, that everything about that young Weasley had to be so different than others. Neville remembered when he was young, so wasn’t a stranger, completely, to teenage emotions, but he knew from living with them in close quarters that nintety-nine percent of them didn’t need to do something as elaborate as run away and find a rare, dangerous plant. And probably most of those who needed to do something wouldn’t have had the opportunity to get as much help with it as Hugo had. He was lucky, too, Neville couldn’t help thinking.
Scorpius was scratching a bit of frost from one of the buttons on his coat when a strong arm in front of him suddenly barred his way, and he ran into it before he could stop himself. He looked up to see that it was Pythia, the female centaur, and she was holding them back from the rest of the group. Scorpius folded his arms under the pretense of casualness, but his right hand clasped around his wand, ready to pull it out of his inside coat pocket if necessity demanded.
“You are the youngest Malfoy,” she said, addressing him, baring her sharp jawline. Scorpius thought about it for a moment--that was true. He nodded, and began walking as Pythia did, staying beside her.
“I thought it best to warn you,” she began, her voice terse yet soft, “that although I do know Hugo and believe him to be pure of heart, the plant that he seeks is dangerous beyond his gentle understanding.”
Scorpius nodded. He’d known all along, of course, the Quidropopot was dangerous, but even if he had forgotten at one point or another, there was nothing like a run in with a family of Acromantulas to put the fear of its influence back into one. Still, he was curious to hear what Pythia was about to say.
“And if, upon sight of it, Hugo Weasley is unable to contain the baser elements of his human nature and becomes entangled in greed--the slightest bit at all we will sense--we have a moral duty to protect the state of the world and its affairs. We will not allow the peril of the world for the sake of one young boy’s life.”
With that she left him, speeding her footsteps even as Scorpius found that with the impact of her words he was forced to slow. The area on his chest where her arm had made harsh contact pulsated uncomfortably, and he felt the air from his lungs, very late, exit his chest. He breathed deeply through his nose, trying to steady himself. He knew as well as anyone that Hugo wasn’t after the plant for power.
But it could have all been a story, Scorpius thought wildly, his head reeling. Hugo is smarter than we all realise, he could have--
But the others ahead had stopped. Scorpius ran a few paces to see what was wrong, his heart beating loudly in his ears.
A collective sigh was the first thing that he heard, but was soon blotted out, because nothing could distract from what lay before them. Between the trees, sparse by the sandy shores, Scorpius could see the glassy, aquamarine surface of a frozen lake, a purple mountainside framing its farthest shore.
“Are we here?” he heard Hugo ask. One of the centaurs emitted a rumbling laugh.
Professor Longbottom said, “We are here.”
a/n: edited 10 september 2011. on a roll this early morn!
shout out to those select few who made their way into my cheerleading committee!
also shout out to my uni profs, whose lecturing materials seem to make their way into my writings :)