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Ignite by Slide

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Format: Novel
Chapters: 37
Word Count: 194,688
Status: COMPLETED

Rating: Mature
Warnings: Strong violence, Scenes of a mild sexual nature, Substance abuse, Sensitive topic/issue/theme, Spoilers

Genres: Drama, Romance, Action/Adventure
Characters: Draco, Albus, Rose, Scorpius, OC
Pairings: Rose/Scorpius, Harry/Ginny, Ron/Hermione, OC/OC, Other Pairing

First Published: 06/23/2012
Last Chapter: 05/15/2014
Last Updated: 05/15/2014

Summary:


A mysterious illness leaving a handful of uninfected. A school in quarantine, isolated from the outside world. Danger on all sides, striking seemingly at random. And, at the heart of it all, Scorpius Malfoy, the only man to believe this is a part of a wider, dangerous plot.

The first of the Stygian Trilogy.


Chapter 1: Steam Out
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It all happened because of a detention. And that detention happened because of Scorpius Hyperion Malfoy.

Why Scorpius Malfoy happened at all, ever, anywhere in her life, was a question Rose Weasley had asked herself many times before, and would ask herself many times again. It was a point of personal pride for Scorpius that he made her do it at least once a week.

Well, except for during the holidays. But he had better things to concern himself with during the holidays. Also, that could have been considered stalking and her dad was a scary Auror.

But mostly because he had better things to do.

So he was glad when the holidays ended and he didn’t have to worry about a single one of them for another three months. Then his concerns became packing, and how to carry both a heavy trunk and a guitar case, and whether he wanted to bring his Potions books, because he wasn’t sure if he wanted to take Potions at NEWT. He liked Potions. But his father was keen he continue to study it. So that was a mark against it. In the end he brought the books and figured he could think about it later, and was just about regretting it when he trundled onto Platform Nine and Three-Quarters. By then his leg was covered in bruises from the heavy trunk bashing into the back of it.

But that was okay, because he was on his way home.

The route home smelled an awful lot of sweat and stress and engine oil and smoke, and sounded an awful lot like hundreds of parents in bidding frantic farewell to children all-too keen to get away from them. The backing chorus of owls and cats and rats in cages, hooting and yowling, was the finishing touch on the barely-organised disaster that was the half-hour before the Hogwarts Express left for another school year.

Scorpius, for once, ignored everyone around him as he wound his way down the platform, prepared to use his heavy trunk as a battering ram if necessary. A First Year, overawed by the sight of the Hogwarts Express, had to hurl themselves into a pile of luggage to avoid being run over. They had good reflexes. Maybe a future Quidditch player.

Thunk.

His trunk hit another one and swerved out of control. He’d not replaced the misbehaving wheel and it almost crashed into the side of the train before he grabbed it. He uttered a curse that caught him a cold look from several overprotective parents. They, too, were ignored.

‘Stupid or stupider, Malfoy?’

Scorpius wrestled his trunk back under control and looked up - and up - to meet the gaze of the figure whose luggage he’d first hit. ‘What?’’

Hector Flynn rolled his shoulders. Muscles had to make way to let other muscles flex. Behind him stood a gaggle of sixth year boys, lurking at the outskirts of the blossoming confrontation, unlikely to engage unless called upon. But if needed, they would act.

Hufflepuffs hunted in packs.

‘Are you stupid because you can’t steer,’ Flynn said, broad arms folded across his broad chest, ‘or are you stupider because you steered at my trunk?’

Scorpius set down his trunk and straightened. Normally this was enough, but he still had a few inches to go before he could look Flynn in the eye. ‘I’m pretty sure that “stupider” isn’t a word.’

Davies, in the Hufflepuff pack, tried to swallow a guffaw. Flynn gave him a withering look over his shoulder, then glared at Scorpius. ‘You think you’re pretty funny, don’t you, Malfoy.’

This was all too easy. He gave a broad, toothy grin. ‘Five out of five Hufflepuff girls agree.’

Davies stopped laughing. He was still going out with his housemate Rosannah Blake, Scorpius remembered. He thought she was a nice girl. Good sense of humour. Cracking legs. He wondered if Davies had ever seen them. ‘Sod off, Malfoy.’

‘You never did get this “witty repartée” thing down, did you?’ Scorpius cocked his head. ‘No wonder there’s -’

Fortune smiled down to save him from himself as a new shadow loomed, the only one that could rival Hector Flynn’s. A strong hand landed on Scorpius’ shoulder, and if he hadn’t known better he’d have been surprised by the mellow, polite voice. ‘Is there something wrong, Scorp?’

Scorpius didn’t need to turn around to know now was the time to beam at Flynn. ‘Nope. No problem. Just catching up. You know me, Al. I’m sociable.’

‘I know you are.’ Albus Potter looked at the others. ‘Hey, Hector. Had a good summer?’’

Flynn subsided, like most people did when Albus was around. ‘Yeah, Al. Yeah.’ He glared at his boots. ‘You?’

‘Had a great time, thanks.’ Albus gave his usual warm, genuine smile, as if ignorant of the tension. ‘Prague was fantastic. Really interesting; so many people. It’s -’

‘He doesn’t care about Prague, Al,’ Scorpius said gently. Flynn looked stricken; a combination of annoyed at Scorpius for telling on him, relieved that he wouldn’t have to hear about Prague, and worried he’d upset Albus.

‘Oh.’ But, as ever, Albus let it roll off him. ‘I guess we’d best be going. Rose should be here soon, Hector.’

‘Perhaps you’ll have time to discover fire, the wheel, and walking upright,’ Scorpius offered, but Flynn didn’t do more than scowl as Scorpius was steered away by Albus, who dragged along the trunk as if it were empty.

‘What happened?’ asked Albus wearily, once they were out of earshot and trundling along the platform.

‘I accidentally crashed into his trunk.’

‘Accidentally, or “accidentally”?’

‘Accidentally! Do you think I’d start something this early in the year?’ Scorpius waved a dismissive hand. ‘Don’t answer that.’

Albus didn’t, but there was a tilt to his jaw which said he disapproved. His disapproval was not new to Scorpius; nobody’s was. The only difference was that Scorpius actually felt guilty when Albus disapproved, perhaps because he didn’t push the issue. Or perhaps that was just the effect Albus had on everyone.

‘You know if something happened I’d have to help you,’ Albus said with some difficulty. ‘And then I’d get it in the neck from Rose.’

‘Flynn can’t get it in the neck from her because he doesn’t have a neck, muscle-bound freak that he is,’ Scorpius grumbled. ‘Besides, I thought Weasley complaining at you about me was business as usual by now?’

‘That doesn’t mean I like it. But I do have to listen. She’s family.’

Scorpius didn’t answer, because they were reaching Albus’ family by then and talking about antagonising the extended Potter-Weasley clan in front of them seemed unwise. At least it was just Albus’ parents and sister, and Scorpius managed to find one of his most cheerful, friendly grins for them. Normally he wouldn’t have bothered; normally he’d have slunk off somewhere else. But this was for Albus. ‘Hey, Mister Potter, Mrs Potter. Little Potter.’

The only comfort Scorpius could derive from the whole thing was that the Potters - barring Albus, and by now Lily - looked as unsure of how to deal with him as he was with them. They’d barely spoken, as the two friends spent no time together during the holidays, and so fleeting interactions at the station had been the extent of it. And a limited extent it was since Scorpius had for years been trying to hide his father from society at large.

But while Ginny Potter knew how to put on a friendly game face, Harry Potter looked taken aback by his presence, even if he extended a hand to shake. ‘Scorpius.’ He blinked. ‘You’re here on your own?’

‘Oh, yeah.’ Scorpius shrugged as he shook his hand. ‘I came on my own last year; I figured out how to submit the paperwork for a Portkey application and it’s just been easier.

‘I know you were alone last year, I just thought that was a one-off.’ Harry shoved his hands into his pockets, seeming perturbed. He had the same worried, thoughtful sort of face as his son, even if Albus had several inches of height on him and was a good deal broader. Scorpius had wondered where burly Albus got it from, then wondered if the Boy Who Lived could have also been built like a Beater if he hadn’t spent his childhood in a cupboard. That’d stint anyone’s growth.

‘Why do I have to be “Little Potter”?’ Lily complained, putting an end to the awkwardness. ‘I’m in fourth year; this is ridiculous now.’

Scorpius scratched his chin. ‘And Potter Prime has flown the coop. Very well, Little Potter; from this day forth you shall no longer be known as “Little Potter”. Rather, you shall be known as... “Potter”.’ He lifted a dramatic hand.

Lily rolled her eyes. ‘You’re so weird.’

‘I will take “weird” over “lynched”.’ Scorpius clapped Albus on the shoulder. ‘And you only get such a vaunted title because my trusty sidekick here is Al, or Albus, or “that great lug”, or...’

‘I don’t respond to “that great lug”,’ said Albus mildly. ‘And I am not a sidekick.’

Trusty sidekick. But I swear you’ve grown three inches in six weeks; what are you feeding him, Mrs Potter? The house?’ Scorpius poked him in the shoulder.

‘You can stop poking me any time.’ Albus grinned.

‘Make me, you great lug -’

And Albus did, wrapping one bear-like arm around Scorpius’ neck and bending him over in a painless headlock.

‘Sidekick rebellion! Sidekick rebellion!’

‘You can say you’re sorry,’ said Al, pinning Scorpius with no effort despite the flailing.

‘You’ve never made me apologise for anything before, Al; I don’t see why I’ll start now,’ Scorpius pointed out, his world now the blacks and greys of Albus’ clothing. Ginny laughed and he wasn’t sure if he was ingratiating himself or becoming some sort of performing monkey; either, however, was better than the confused, trying-too-hard looks of Harry. ‘You’ll damage the guitar.’

‘Only if you keep struggling.’

‘Oh, it’s a guitar,’ came Ginny’s voice. ‘I did wonder.’

‘Dad hates it; I figured that’d be a great reason to take it up,’ said Scorpius, then realised he’d said too much. The good thing about being in Albus company was that it was easy to say anything without reservation - the problem was when other people were there too.

But he was saved from this revelation by more footsteps approaching and an arch, familiar voice. ‘Are you finally taking him in hand, Al?’

He’d know Rose Weasley’s voice anywhere if he couldn’t see her. With his face still crushed against Albus’ rib cage and all his efforts to free himself proving futile, Scorpius could still find words, and the breath to utter them. ‘He never could, Weasley, but if you’re offering to take me in hand I’m sure we could figure something out.’

Harry made a flustered sound. ‘Al, I’m sure he’s had enough -’’

‘He’ll never learn if you’re a soft touch, Dad,’ said Al amiably, but he let Scorpius go and his friend rose, clawing at his throat. Never one to turn down a scene, he was even more incited to do so if it’d make things awkward for Rose, and he tried to finish the effect with a broad, cheesy grin. Only to realise he’d made a pass at her in front of her parents. His smile faltered. ‘Hi, Mister Weasley, Mrs Weasley. Weasley. Hugo.’

Lily gave her cousin and classmate a dubious glance. ‘How come you get to go by your first name?’

Because it irritates Weasley if I’m nice to her brother, thought Scorpius, but he couldn’t say that.

Rose’s mother looked perturbed. ‘Mrs Weasley is my mother-in-law, please don’t -’

‘Mum, nobody needs to hear your modern subversion of traditional family roles,’ said Rose, and gave Scorpius the kind of look one reserved normally for dirt that didn’t have a place on the bottom of shoes. ‘Malfoy.’

She sounded so disapproving that Scorpius could only summon his brightest and most charming smile, the one with extra teeth. ‘Weasley. You’re looking delightful; a pleasure, as always.’ He turned to Hugo. ‘I saw you made Gryffindor Captain. I’ll see you on the pitch.’

‘I’ll beat you on the pitch,’ said Hugo cheerfully.

‘Potter Prime might have carried off the Cup in his final year, but we got it the year before. You’re going to have one hell of a fight on your hands.’ Scorpius extended a hand. ‘I’ll tell you what - you can win the Cup after Al and I graduate, okay?’’

‘It’s good you remember winning two years ago; you’d better hold on to that memory, as it’s the last you’re ever going to see of victory.’ Hugo didn’t shake the hand, but he did grin, and Rose gave a disapproving toss of the head as her family betrayed her by being civil to Scorpius Malfoy.

‘Quidditch,’ she sniffed.

‘You’d better not let Captain No-Neck hear that, Weasley; you’ll break his heart into tiny black pieces,’ said Scorpius, and fancied he spotted a twitch on Ron Weasley’s lips. He wasn’t surprised that Hector Flynn wasn’t a father’s first choice when it came to his daughter’s boyfriends. ‘He’s around, by the way.’

Rose narrowed her eyes. ‘You haven’t been antagonising him, have you?’

‘Would I do a thing like -’

‘He’s with Davies and the others.’ Albus’ voice went serious. ‘And he was looking to pick a fight, Rose.’

‘Because Malfoy is pure as the driven snow.’

Scorpius flinched as Albus and Rose, different as cousins could possibly be while still friends, faced off against one another. He knew Albus didn’t like Hector Flynn, but he also knew that Rose would just believe Al’s sole motivation was to defend him. Which Rose wouldn’t care about. Antagonising people was one thing. Teasing people was one thing. Driving a wedge in between family members was not on his -

‘Scorpius Malfoy!’

Another angry female voice, though it took him a few seconds to recognise this one, and he forced a smile he knew even as he turned was going to fall flat. ‘Adeline!’

He was greeted not by Adeline Turner, compatriot of Rosannah Blake and Her Cracking Legs, but by a box of Chocolate Hearts hurled in his face. He staggered, caught them, straightened, and now there was an angry Adeline Turner in front of him.

‘Let me guess,’ he said, forlorn and irritable at once. ‘You’re allergic to chocolate?’

I’m not,’ Adeline said, tossing her astonishingly blonde hair and already turning for a dramatic exit, ‘but perhaps you should ask Miranda if she is!’

The gathered congregation of Weasleys, Potters, and a Scorpius looked confused as she left, and even Rose seemed more bewildered than satisfied that Scorpius had been berated. Scorpius scratched his head. ‘I have no idea what Miranda has to do with anything.’

Albus sighed, and flipped open the card on the top of the box of chocolates. ‘From the looks of things,’ he said with a wince, ‘everything. Like always.’

Scorpius’ heart sank as he recognised his own handwriting, recognised the note he’d thoughtlessly scribbled in the card. It was always a good move to try to keep affections fresh over the summer, and he’d figured a box of chocolates sent a few days before term started was just the kind of warm up a girl like Adeline would like. It was unfortunate, then, that he’d written not her name on the card, but his ex-girlfriend’s.

‘Well,’ he said, and yanked off the ribbon. ‘I guess that’s only four out of five Hufflepuffs after all. Chocolate Heart, anyone?’ He extended the box to the assembled.

‘They don’t have anything in them, do they?’ asked Ron, gaze guarded.

‘Do you think I’d offer you one if they did?’ pointed out Scorpius, and Rose gave her father a look of utter betrayal as he grinned and helped himself to a chocolate.

But he wasn’t the last to take one, and within a few seconds Rose was looking irritably up at the large clock hanging over Platform Nine and Three-Quarters. ‘Al, we should probably be heading up to the Prefect’s Carriage.’

‘What? Oh, yeah.’ Albus shoved a handful of chocolate in his mouth, and Scorpius threw Ginny an amused look.

‘This. This is why he’s built like an Abraxan.’

‘You’re the one who’s feeding him right now,’ she pointed out.

‘Get us a compartment, Scorp, won’t you? I won’t be long, I doubt they’ll have anything to tell us we didn’t hear last year.’

‘We don’t know that, Albus!’ exclaimed Rose, but he was too busy bidding his parents a heartfelt goodbye, and then Rose’s parents were dragging her away from her indignation to say their farewells, and Scorpius lingered at the outskirts, fiddling with his trunk to pretend he had something to do other than stand there.

‘Guess we’ll see you in a few months, Mister Potter, Mrs Potter; Mister Weasley, Ms Granger,’ Scorpius said at the end, feeling oddly formal; Rose’s mother beamed at the correct address and both Rose and her father rolled their eyes.

So that was where she got it from.

‘Here, that trunk’s looking a bit heavy, let me help you get it onto the train,’ offered Harry abruptly, and after he gave his son and daughter one last hug and kiss, the group split. Hugo and Lily were keen to set off, chatting excitedly, while Rose and Albus started for the forward carriage. Harry picked up the end of the trunk, and suddenly Scorpius didn’t have so much trouble making it to the train. A war hero made for a better battering ram.

‘I know sixth year can be difficult,’ Harry said awkwardly when they reached the train door. ‘And I’m glad Al is going into it with a good friend. I can’t deny I was a bit worried, when he was Sorted into Slytherin, if he’d be all right. But you two seem to have each others’ backs.’

Scorpius tried to look polite. ‘Yeah, Al’s great. If he needs me, I’m there.’

‘Good.’ Harry made the most of the interruption that was Levitating the trunk up onto the train. ‘And we’re grateful. So if there’s something you need, Scorpius, anything at all, you let me know, okay?’

It was with unguarded suspicion that Scorpius now looked at him. ‘What do you think I’m going to need?’

‘I don’t know.’ Harry looked more earnest. ‘But I know what it’s like to not have family see you off on the train.’

This took Scorpius by surprise, and he had never been more grateful for the interruption of the train’s horn. They both jerked at the sound, and the parents and students around them erupted into the frantic flurry of last-second reminders, farewells, and arrangements. ‘That’s okay, Mister Potter,’ Scorpius said, and now he was grinning again, all charm and easy manners. ‘It works out best for everyone this way.’

Harry looked like he was going to say more, but instead hopped onto the platform. ‘Then I’ll wish you a good year, Scorpius,’ he said, and waved as the train pulled away.

He was gone from sight within seconds, but Scorpius still stared at the door as the train trundled and chugged from the station, wondering what to make of it all. The Potters had not previously treated him with much more than confused politeness; Ginny seemed to be warming to him, but she had always taken him in stride the most easily. James had teased him, but only a little, and Lily melodramatically suffered his presence. This overt gesture from Harry Potter was new and bewildering. But by the time Scorpius decided that this was something he wouldn’t have to worry about for months, if at all, most of the students had swarmed past him, and as he jerked from his reverie he realised he was going to have hell finding an empty compartment.

It would prove, in fact, impossible. Most were full to the brim with laughing groups of reunited friends, but it was another two carriages before Scorpius found anyone he was inclined to give the time of day.

‘Hey, Scorpius!’ It was Timothy Warwick, first - no, now second - year in Slytherin, head sticking out of the compartment he and his friends had claimed.

‘Hey, Tim.’ Scorpius paused in the corridor. ‘How was your summer?’’

‘I trained a whole bunch. Got my Dad to take me out on the moors; we did some great flying!’

‘Is that so? So I’d better see you at the tryouts in a few weeks, huh?’ Scorpius punched him on the arm. ‘Otherwise we’re going to be flying without a Seeker.’

‘You’ll find someone,’ Tim said in a matter-of-fact manner. ‘And that someone’s going to be me.’

‘It might just be. The Captain’s a friend of mine, see.’ Scorpius winked.

‘I can get in on my own merits -’

‘I know, kid, I know. I look forward to seeing it - I’ve got high hopes for you!’ He reached into his trunk. ‘But if you want to ingratiate yourself with the rest of the team, be a good fellow and stick these dungbombs in Hector Flynn’s luggage.’ It wasn’t really bribery. Tim would do it just to be a friend. Indeed, his face lit up at the prospect and, satisfied with a job well done, Scorpius continued the search for a compartment he could sit in without wanting to kill himself.

In the end there was only one choice, and he considered sitting in the corridor on his trunk for the whole journey. But that wouldn’t do - some prefect would eventually tell him off, and he didn’t want to give Rose Weasley that kind of opportunity on a plate - so he rapped on the door. ‘Anyone else sat in here?’

It was a stupid question. Of course nobody else was sat there. Nobody would share a compartment with Methuselah Jones unless they had no other option. Most of the rest of the Slytherins would be sat together, and that meant Miranda. After his run-in with Flynn, he was running low on social currency with other Houses. So it had come to this. Stuck, until saved by Albus, in the company of Hogwarts’ most boring student.

It wasn’t entirely Jones’ fault. He’d been off to a bad start when his parents had named him “Methuselah”, which wasn’t a name you gave a child unless you wanted them to sprout fully formed and aged eighty from their mother’s womb. Perhaps Jones hadn’t fulfilled the physical requirements, but he acted like he was in a rush to catch up with these expectations. He was tall but gangly, and never anything but fastidiously presented. Scorpius liked to present himself well, but that came down to making sure his hair was artfully ruffled and that, if he had to wear a white shirt as uniform, he made sure it was an expensive white shirt which fit well and made him look good. There was a fine line between looking good and being fussy, and Methuselah Jones was far over the ‘fuss’ line and still accelerating.

Dark eyes behind horn-rimmed glasses locked on Scorpius and smoldered with indignation at the distraction from the latest copy of Alchemist’s Monthly. ‘Will you play your awful music?’

‘Will you talk to me about what you’re reading?’

Jones inclined his head. Heart sinking, Scorpius hauled his trunk onto the luggage rack and sadly put his guitar up there beside it. Normally he’d have played a little to make the trip go faster; it usually got someone’s attention and playing at home was more about annoying his father than about relaxing with music. It was the kind of thing he associated with the journey back to Hogwarts, and he would be sad to miss it.

He missed Albus more.

Bereft of his two main forms of distraction, Scorpius sank onto the bench opposite Jones and let his gaze wander to the view beyond the window. He’d seen it a dozen times or more already. There was little new to be seen. ‘I bet you’ve chosen all of your NEWTs already,’ he said, trying to break the silence.

Methuselah Jones lowered his magazine slowly. ‘Charms. Transfiguration. Potions. Herbology. Ancient Runes. Arithmancy.’ He rattled them off in his usual fashion, like he wanted discussion over and done with.

‘No Defence Against the Dark Arts?’

‘Nothing in that course not covered in theory and essentials by Charms and Transfiguration,’ said Jones. ‘Expertise in other forms of magic, mental discipline, and precise wandwork transfers to sufficient strength in conflict should such arise. Sightings of Dark Wizards or Beings at record low anyway.’

‘You got hammered on the practical, huh?’

‘Irrelevant.’ Jones jerked the magazine up. ‘Still top of the year in all OWLs, including Defence.’

That was why he tolerated Jones, Scorpius remembered. He had consistently driven Rose Weasley into second place across the academic tables for the past five years. The only times she’d beaten him were practical tests, especially Defence, and Scorpius had laughed so hard he’d thought he’d rupture something when Albus beat them both in that OWL.

‘You’re not going to be followed in here by girls, are you?’ Jones asked him suspiciously.

‘No. At least, I don’t think so.’ Scorpius blinked. ‘I kind of pissed them all off.’

‘Quite. Saw Adeline Turner. You anticipate further reprisals? If so, suggest you find another compartment.’

‘I came here to get away from that,’ Scorpius said. ‘I think she’s done all she’s going to do.’

‘Does not preclude others,’ muttered Methuselah Jones, and returned to his incredibly dry reading while Scorpius wondered how he could amuse himself for at least an hour in a small compartment in utter silence.

* *


‘I told you there wouldn’t be anything new,’ said Albus as the sixth-year prefects let themselves out of their compartment. They could hear the new Head Boy and Head Girl next door, briefing their seventh-year colleagues on their duties, and he didn’t think it sounded more exciting another time around.

‘We didn’t know that, Al,’ Rose sighed. ‘Besides, what were we going to do? Tell Diarmuid “sorry, this is a waste of time and brain cells” and leg it?’

‘No, that would be rude,’ he said. ‘And not after he gave us Chocolate Frogs.’

‘Yeah.’ Rose looked down at hers, still in its box, and tugged out the card. She made a face. ‘When I was little, it was cool our parents were on these. But now whenever I pull out a card with Mum on it, I just feel judged.’ The card went in the first bin they passed down the corridor. ‘Anyway, it didn’t hurt you to sit through that.’

‘My point was that you didn’t need to be in a fuss to get there in the first place.’

‘I was in a fuss to get away from your odious little friend.’

Albus tensed. ‘Can you not talk about Scorpius like that behind his back?’

‘Why? Al, you know I’d say it to his face -’

‘But then he’s there to defend himself. Otherwise I’ll defend him, and then we’ll row.’

Rose looked at his stubborn expression and sighed. ‘Fine. But if he’s upset Hector then that’s not my problem, and I don’t want you running to me to play peacemaker. It’s not my job to keep Hector in line, and it’s not your job to keep Malfoy from getting himself into trouble.’

‘It is my job to back him up when Flynn’s being belligerent,’ said Albus. ‘And Scorpius has his reasons for not liking him.’

‘Would those reasons be that Hector doesn’t think the world revolves around Scorpius Malfoy?’

Something flashed in Albus’ eyes, but he let out a deep breath. If he could help it, Albus would never say anything in anger. Everything had to be calm, well-measured - which was frustrating for everyone else. ‘I don’t like him, Rose, I really don’t. He’s arrogant and thoughtless and he’s always looking for an opportunity to show off.’

‘That reminds me of someone quite close to you, Al...’

‘I mean it.’ Albus gave the kicked puppy frown she hated. It tended to work. ‘He likes to look good by putting other people down, and he’’s got a nasty temper.’

‘He’s funny, and he’s nice, and he’s uncomplicated, and I can handle him, Al.’ Rose rolled her eyes. ‘When you’re my father, you can lecture me about the people I go out with - but I’ll still ignore you.’

‘You lecture me about the friends I keep.’

‘And you ignore me. But seriously, Al, did you see Malfoy sucking up to our parents?’

‘He offered them chocolate. He was embarrassed at what happened with Adeline and wanted to cover it up. And yes, he was making more jokes than usual, but did it occur to you that he was nervous and wanted to make a good impression? It’s what he does. And w’’ve had this conversation over and over.’

‘We have,’ Rose agreed. ‘But where has he gone? Bellamy and Miranda and all the others were in that last compartment...’

‘He’s still avoiding Miranda. At least in confined spaces. You know, where he can’t dodge or hide.’

Her lip curled. ‘Lucky girl.’ But Albus looked both disappointed and irritated, and Rose sighed, looking up and down the corridor. ‘Matty?’

Most people stopped when Rose Weasley called their name, usually with a sinking sense of guilt, a conviction that they’d done something wrong. Her Gryffindor prefect counterpart, Matthias Doyle, was no exception, and he froze in the carriage door. ‘I didn’t even dock those Hufflepuffs any points!’

‘Have you seen Malfoy? Albus doesn’t know where he is, it’s almost feeding time, and he’s not in his usual nap places.’

‘Did you try calling for him?’ Doyle gave an uneasy smile. It was one thing for Rose to mock her cousin and his friend, but most people were wary of engaging with a family conflict. ‘Sorry. He’s two carriages back, with Jones.’

Methuselah Jones?’ Albus looked disbelieving.

‘Maybe he’s finally cracked,’ Rose said optimistically. 'Or maybe Jones is going to kill him. Come on, Al, you can keep an eye on that carriage and I’m just one down with Hestia and Cheryl.’ They headed down the train. It was early enough that most people were happy to stay in their compartments, catching up on all they’d missed in the summer. Soon they’d wander to find others and then prefects might be needed to keep an eye on things. It was the calm before the storm and they intended to make the most of it.

‘I don’t want to pretend like I don’t appreciate you looking out for me, Al,’ Rose said at last. ‘About Hector, I mean. It’s a shame you only know him through his rows with Malfoy, and Quidditch. He’s not all that bad.’

‘I’ll trust your judgement, Rose.’ Al gave a tight smile and she felt reassured, like making him feel better was the morally right thing to do. It was an infuriating gift of Albus Potter’s that when he smiled, the world smiled with him. ‘I hope he’s more decent than I’ve heard. You deserve someone decent.’

‘Oh, he’s just uncomplicated. I’m hardly going to be able to discuss the finer points of my Transfiguration essay with him, but that’s okay, you know?’ Rose waved a dismissive hand. It was impossible to feel at ease while she thought Albus disapproved; now she might stand a chance at getting through the trip to Hogwarts without an aching, nagging guilt.

‘I don’t. But you seem to, and that’s the important thing,’ said Albus as they reached a compartment and, much to their joint surprise, saw Scorpius Malfoy, bored out of his skull, sat across from Methuselah Jones and his incredibly dull magazines.

‘Though between you and me he’s not half as good a kisser as Matt,’ said Rose with a sudden burst of that old sense of companionable sharing she’d missed - right as Albus opened the door. He stared at her in horror at his mistake.

If Jones heard her, he didn’t let on. But Scorpius was up like a shot, eyes lighting, and he bolted at the door. Albus, mortified, pulled it shut, and Scorpius slammed against the glass.

Rose felt colour rise to her cheeks. ‘Oh, Albus!’

‘I heard that!’ Scorpius hissed. ‘I totally heard -’

‘You heard nothing.’ Rose pointed at him.

‘I’m sorry,’ Albus muttered. ‘I’ll shut him up.’

‘Just - just go.’ She waved her hands in the air.

Albus opened the compartment door to slip in but Scorpius stood there, grin huge, bright blue eyes locked on her, blond hair wild. ‘Don’t worry, Weasley,’ he said in that calm voice which meant he was going to do something horrid at any second. ‘Your secret’s safe with me.’

‘It had better be,’ she said through gritted teeth. ‘If I hear a peep about this from anyone, Malfoy, and I mean anyone -’

‘You can trust me.’ His expression went sombre and she didn’t believe it for a moment. ‘My lips are sealed.’

She knew Albus would keep him in line, especially on something that mattered, so she just hissed, ‘Good!’ and turned on her heel, stalking down the corridor towards where people she liked would be waiting.

‘Oh! Weasley -’

He probably wasn’t going to bellow the revelation down the corridor. He probably wasn’t that cruel, and Albus would probably stop him. He was probably just trying to make her panic, then say something innocent and grin at winding her up.

She didn’t care, because she was ready for it.

‘Shut up, Malfoy.’ Rose turned, but it wasn’t her wand that was in her hand, but the Chocolate Frog she’d pulled from the box, and she threw it at him. It arced through the air, twirling and spinning, to land on Scorpius’ face - and, with a low ribbet, stuck on.

He reeled back, arms waving, to crash into the compartment wall, staggered until he realised just what had landed on him. But the sight and spectacle caught the attention of other compartments, and a ripple of laughter ran through the carriage as Scorpius Malfoy floundered in the face of confectionery - and then, as was his wont, played up to it with more melodramatic flailing.

Wearing a small smile and not looking back, Rose Weasley swept out of the train carriage, her work done.

It was shaping up to be an all right sort of year.


Chapter 2: Heartburn
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‘Catch.’

Albus didn’t even look up from where he was bent over a mountain of paperwork and books, just lifted one giant hand to snatch the Quaffle out of mid-air. ‘Scorp, I’m busy.’

Scorpius hopped from one foot to another in the middle of the Slytherin Common Room. Emerald light filtered down through the lake, shimmering through the water and through the broad window which granted them a magnificent underwater view, and bathed them all in pale greens. This far down the best light came from the fireplace and the sconces along the walls, and so in the shadows the scion of the Malfoy bloodline looked more like a wretched goblin, starved for attention.

Al, I’m bored.’

‘But we’ve got that Transfiguration essay due in tomorrow -’

‘The perfect cure for boredom.’ Scorpius bounded over the back of the sofa to perch on the seat, eyes gleaming as they locked onto his best friend. ‘Certainly enough to put the Hogsmeade festival and the finest of Ministerial parties to shame!’

‘Yes, well.’ Albus dipped his quill in the ink pot. ‘It still needs doing.’

‘When are try-outs?’ Scorpius jigged up and down a little.

‘Next Wednesday.’ Albus looked slightly pained. ‘I told you this. There was a leaflet.’

Scorpius thought back vaguely to a pile of paperwork he’d been handed a couple of days before. He’d assumed it was notes from Potions (he’d ended up taking it after all), and had promptly let it languish at the bottom of his bag, untouched.

There was a reason he was only an average sort of student.

‘But it’s Thursday,’ he keened. ‘We’ve not even been back a week -’

‘And yet, you’re already running out of distractions -’

‘Diarmuid’ll flay me if I play music in here during study hours.’

‘He’ll flay you for throwing a Quaffle around, too.’ Albus reached out to snatch the Quaffle from Scorpius’ hands, as he had just set about tossing it from one end of the sofa to the other, throwing himself forward to catch it, like a bored cat with a cheap toy. ‘Honestly, Scorp, don’t you think you should get schoolwork done while you’re ahead? Before it gets too much?’

Really, Al, that’s such a ridiculous thing to say; why would I -’

‘Because I’d like to do well in my NEWTs and so I’m trying to take it halfway seriously!’

There was something new in Albus’ voice, a new kind of snap that Scorpius hadn’t heard before - at least, not levelled at him - that was entirely irritated and entirely genuine. It shut Scorpius up immediately, but Albus fell silent too, frowning at his parchment, clearly already regretting losing his tongue.

But he didn’t apologise either, and unease settled in Scorpius’ gut. ‘...everything okay, mate?’

Albus had to know how much it hurt Scorpius to ask such a thing directly, sincerely, and had to know how much of a blow it was for him to give a dismissive shrug. ‘I just think there’s a time and a place for goofing around.’

And this isn’t it.

Scorpius was saved from having to do something demeaning to recover his dignity by the door to the common room sliding open and in came Bellamy and Rourke. Bellamy gave them an obligatory wave and then, as was perhaps judicious, just carried on his way into the dorm room, but Rourke detached herself from him and went over to join them.

Selena Rourke was one of Miranda’s best friends. Perhaps she’d not got the memo on the new Standard Operating Procedures which Bellamy and almost the entirety of the rest of Slytherin House sixth years were now following.

It wasn’t as if anyone wanted to hear his side of things. And it wasn’t as if Scorpius wanted to give it. Albus knew, and that was enough.

‘Hey, Scorpius, Albus.’ Selena flipped her blonde hair over one shoulder, and despite himself Scorpius slid sideways on the couch he’d been claiming to leave room for her. ‘You didn’t want to come hang out in the Ravenclaw common room?’

That, at least, Scorpius had heard about. Saxby might have been bit of a self-assured Ravenclaw prick, but he was a sociable Ravenclaw prick, and didn’t like to play politics.

But still, they’d stayed behind.

‘We’re trying to stay ahead before the NEWT coursework becomes truly horrific,’ said Scorpius smoothly.

Selena looked at the coffee table. ‘Then where’s yours?’

‘I’m consulting for Al,’ said Scorpius, and Albus racked up another owed favour by doing him the kindness of not laughing in his face.

‘Oh, well, it wasn’t that good a time, anyway,’ said Selena, sounding like she’d not especially cared about Scorpius’ answer in the first place. ‘Weasley showed up - I mean, seriously, who told her, and so of course Flynn and the Hufflepuffs appeared and they didn’t even bring any Butterbeer, and Weasley threw a fit when she found Saxby’s Firewhiskey and laid into him about his prefectly duty or something equally ridiculous.’

She rolled her eyes and Albus assumed the pained expression that lived on his face almost perpetually when listening to his Slytherin housemates talk ill of his cousin. At first he’d tried to ask them to stop. And every time he did, they looked surprised, apologetic, and indicated they’d never do it again.

Right up until they did it again mere days later. Even the patience of Albus Potter was not infinite, and so he nowadays just gritted his teeth and bore it.

‘And then Weasley left in a huff, along with Hestia Kirke, who was wearing the most awful skirt I have ever seen - seriously, Scorpius, you would have died -’

Scorpius was pretty sure he was going to die anyway.

‘But then, you know what happened?’

‘The Slytherin common room flooded and interrupted this story?’ Scorpius wondered, and as expected, Selena didn’t miss a beat, since she wasn’t actually listening to him.

‘Her precious Flynn, who’d been so steadfast next to her while she ripped a strip off poor Saxby, who went to such efforts to put together a good time for everyone? Stayed behind and drank all of Saxby’s whiskey! Him and the rest of the Hufflepuff team!’

Normally, Scorpius would not have missed out on an opportunity to condemn Hector Flynn, but Selena Rourke managed to retell a story of outrageous injustice in a way which made him want to defend the objects of her criticism.

Only now was he remembering how he’d managed to tolerate her regular company when he’d been seeing Miranda - and it had involved paying a lot of attention to Miranda, and absolutely none to her.

‘That’s just scandalous,’ said Scorpius, glad he didn’t have to put too much effort into sounding convincing.

Isn’t it? But with all of the whiskey gone, and you know how Miranda just can’t put up with someone as odious as Flynn -’

Scorpius fought to not laugh.

‘We decided to just come back.’

He looked at the door suspiciously, and finally Albus lifted his head from his homework to look like he halfway cared about what was going on around him. Scorpius frowned. ‘Then where are they if you and Bellamy -’

‘Oh, they stopped off with Rosannah and Adeline on the way back to the Hufflepuff common room, but I’m sure they’ll be -’

Then Scorpius was on his feet, lunging over the back of the sofa, all flailing limbs and mismatched dignity as he straightened himself and his rumpled shirt. ‘I’m going for a walk,’ he said firmly.

Albus cleared his throat. ‘Scorp, you don’t have to -’

‘I really do.’

‘You’re going to have to be in the same place at the same time eventually.’

‘No, we don’t; avoidance is a perfect plan and this issue will go away by itself.’

When?’

‘When I graduate? When I die? Take your pick.’

‘Scorp -’

But Scorpius was already gone, Selena left in her usual state of genuine bewilderment at the subtleties - in so far as anything around Scorpius Malfoy was subtle - and Albus left with a small pile of Transfiguration notes, drafts, and textbooks he couldn’t abandon.

The steps up out of the common room were dark at this time of evening, but Scorpius had been here for over five years, could find his way through Slytherin House’s domain in his sleep, and so bounced up the stairs two at a time -

Just as the segment of wall swung open and out to show a gaggle of his classmates coming the other way.

All five of them froze in place, though Scorpius took a little longer because he was halfway between steps and had yet to master spontaneous levitation. His landing sounded loud and clattering in the gloomy silence.

It was broken first by Oakes, who had probably only gone with Miranda and the girls because he was likely now chasing Adeline Turner himself. The shorter boy cleared his throat with all the self-importance he didn’t possess, and flapped his hands. ‘Let’s go - you’re blocking the doorway, Malfoy.’

Scorpius bit back a sneer, but moved to the side of the corridor, and they all went past him into the common room.

All except Miranda.

She stood there at the top of the steps, silhouetted against the gloom by the light of the corridor, all raven-haired and dark-eyed beauty that had always been enough to captivate and distract him. And on her face was the look of superior disapproval which had been pasted there for the past three months.

Resentment boiled in his gut alongside discomfort, and he went to hurry up the steps, hoping to push past her and delay a confrontation another day.

‘You didn’t come to the party, Scorp?’ He was almost next to her when she finally spoke, her voice somehow playful and icy at once.

He flinched. ‘Don’t call me “Scorp”.’

She gave a low laugh. ‘What, is only Albus allowed to call you that?’

‘Only people I like are allowed to call me that. What do you want, Miranda?’ It was easier to be cold, easier to be crude. But there was a line, and he wouldn’t let himself wander past it.

‘It was a good party,’ she said, looking him up and down. She had mastered the sort of glance which not only made a man feel like a piece of meat, but a good piece of meat. It was an evaluating, lingering gaze; the kind of gaze that made one feel assessed, categorised, and rated within a flat second, and if she liked what she saw, it could make a man feel good about himself and how he looked.

Scorpius always knew he looked good, from his dragonhide Oxford shoes, to his well-fitting shirt which made the average Hogwarts uniform look like a burlap sack, to his narrow emerald-and-silver tie and artfully mussed hair. As a rule, he didn’t require approval. That he cared if Miranda Travers approved was something else, and was part of what drove him crazy.

But only part.

‘You should have come,’ she continued. ‘How long are you going to keep playing this game?’

‘I don’t know.’ Scorpius squared his shoulders. ‘For how long are you going to play yours?’

She laughed, a soft, tinkling sound he could swear sounded menacing. ‘I don’t know what you mean.’

‘Does it help you sleep better at night, Miranda?’ he challenged, anger flaring at the laugh. ‘Does it appease your guilt to paint me as the villain?’

Her amusement died. ‘Your standing doesn’t seem especially affected -’

She went to leave with a dismissive wave of the hand, and that dismissiveness was enough to spark Scorpius into reaching out, grabbing her above the elbow. ‘It’s not my standing I’m talking about -’

But her expression shifted from smug superiority to shock as he grabbed her, and that shock was enough to jerk him out of his broiling frustration, resentment, and anger -

And then came the guilt, the searing guilt and self-doubt that always gnawed at him when he lost his temper, and Scorpius let go. Miranda pulled back, clearly rattled, and for a few seconds he worked his jaw wordlessly. ‘I...’

Words failed him, as they so rarely did - and, as always when they did, they failed him when they mattered most. So he just turned on his heel and stormed out of the doorway from the common room into the corridor, footsteps ringing out loudly on the stone floors.

‘Scorp? Scorp!’

He had stormed far enough to be several corridors away by then, and had it been anyone else, Scorpius would have kept going. He didn’t know how Albus had known, how Albus had managed to follow and find him - but he wasn’t surprised.

He turned to face his friend, who was trotting along the corridor to catch him up. ‘Don’t you have Transfig work to do?’ he said, bitter.

He regretted it immediately, of course, as he regretted every curt, unfair word ever thrown at Albus, but every time Albus shrugged it off. His first response was an easy, disarming smile, and as he caught up he threw his arm around Scorpius’ shoulder. ‘It can wait. I was bored.’

And like that, nothing seemed so bad anymore. ‘Come on,’ Albus continued. ‘Let’s head out for the pitch, throw some hoops. Nobody’s going to be out there at this time.’

Scorpius gave a wry smile. ‘Won’t rule-breaking set back your NEWT aspirations?’

‘Only if we get caught.’

They’d done this a hundred times before, dodged the prefect patrols they’d memorised, and horribly abused the authority of Albus’ Quidditch captaincy to unlock the door to the Slytherin team equipment lockers down by the changing rooms. Their own brooms were up in their dorm, but finding two spares kept in reserve for emergency or new players who hadn’t yet bought their own wasn’t difficult, nor was finding a Quaffle, and within fifteen minutes they were up in the air, too high in the dark for anyone to see them, putting each other through their paces.

They’d done that a hundred times before, too; since first year, when they’d come to Hogwarts the both of them determined to be the first first-year players on a Quidditch team since Albus’ father. Of course, they hadn’t been, but the training - which had often uncannily resembled mucking around - had paid off for them to both replace departing Chasers the next year.

The rest was history, a history long enough that there were no new tricks between them, no move one could pull which the other wouldn’t instantly and implicitly read. It made them a terror on the pitch, working in perfect unison, reading each other’s intentions and schemes at the briefest glance, but made it hell when they went head-to-head.

‘You shouldn’t let her get to you like that.’

They’d been up there ten minutes before Albus finally spoke, finally broke the silence on any topic other than Quidditch, and that he’d taken that long was a surprise to Scorpius.

He flipped up his broom as Albus hurled the Quaffle at the hoops to kick it away, forcing Albus into a dive to retrieve it, a petty act of vengeance for having even broached the subject at all.

But still, he answered. ‘I’m trying to avoid her,’ he said as Albus returned. ‘I think that’s best for all involved.’

‘It’s not right,’ Albus said hotly. ‘She’s the one who -’

‘But she broke the story before I did, and so it’s her version of events that everyone knows, that everyone trusts.’

Version? Her version is a pack of lies! Not just lies of omission, lies! And they reflect terribly on you!’

‘And the truth reflects pretty terribly on her, but you know what’ll happen if I try to let the world know?’ Scorpius scowled. ‘My word against hers. More rows, not just between us; they’ll suck others in. It’ll be this black hole of picking sides and who believes what, and you know it won’t just stay with the ten of us. It’ll spread to Hufflepuff and Gryffindor for sure, and then Ravenclaw will get stuck in just so they’re not left out, and then my life becomes the hottest topic of Hogwarts gossip.’

Albus made a face. ‘I thought you didn’t mind that.’

‘That depends on what the story is. This issue? Neither story reflects so well on me. So I might as well accept the one which I have. The one in which Scorpius Malfoy is the villain and Miranda Travers is the victim; the one which surprises nobody. Do you think anyone’s opinion of me was changed when they learnt I was so horrid and mistreated and neglected her and screwed around with other girls?’ Scorpius shook his head. ‘Of course it wasn’t. That’s why nobody notices that the girls in question change every time the story’s told, depending on who’s listening, depending on if the audience would check the facts. The story might be a lie, but it’s an easy lie. A lie which upsets nobody’s expectations.’

‘You make it sound like that’s all that matters.’

‘Expectations?’ Scorpius scoffed as he caught the Quaffle. ‘Maybe not all that matter, but they matter a lot. They matter enough. People don’t like having their expectations screwed with; it makes them realise they don’t know as much as they thought they did about their lives. It leaves them unsettled, and when people are unsettled, they turn nasty. No.’ He shook his head. ‘Everyone expects Scorpius Malfoy to be the uncaring, callous heartbreaker, just interested in good times and girls, and who am I to correct them? Especially if there’s a hint of “dashingly handsome rogue” in there, too.’

Albus didn’t smile. ‘Would it be that terrible if people questioned what they thought they knew about you?’

‘Sometimes, Al, I think you’re the only person who questions the opinion of the masses - myself included. But if there’s something I want less than Hogwarts’ approval, it’s Hogwarts’ pity.’ Scorpius flipped the Quaffle back. ‘Besides, if the truth came out, you know you’d have to do fifty rounds with Weasley.’

Albus looked pained at that, and Scorpius felt his one and only pang of guilt on the topic, because he knew it troubled Albus’ honest nature to keep the truth a secret. But it would have troubled him more to break that unspoken pact of secrecy.

It was difficult, Scorpius reflected, being friends with a good man. You kept on tearing them between their various different honour codes, where multiple options were the right thing to do and yet the wrong thing to do at the same time. He knew he’d only won this round because what he wanted was almost always the tie-breaker for Albus, all other factors being even.

At the least, it made Scorpius think harder about whatever he asked of Albus. He didn’t, himself, care much about lying or cheating to get by in life. He did care about making Albus do the same.

Albus took a deep breath. ‘Some day, Scorpius, people are going to realise that you’re a good guy after all.’

‘I want to be there on that day.’ Scorpius flung his broom to the right, and punched the Quaffle away from Albus’ latest, heavily distracted strike. ‘It’ll be really cool to see it rain fire.’


* *


Scorpius hadn’t thought too hard about it when he’d heard nothing about the pack of dungbombs he’d given Tim Warwick. But it turned out his diminutive protégé was prepared to play the long-term game; the next morning, almost a week since the package had been handed over, Hector Flynn came into the Great Hall late for breakfast, clearly freshly showered, but still with a faint, disgusting scent about him - and a sticky bag, which had evidently not been cleaned off properly.

Through the Prefect Underground - Doyle had told Saxby, who’d told Albus - Scorpius had picked up the finer details over breakfast, and had not been at all coy about letting his laugh echo across the Great Hall when Flynn had got up to leave for his first class. He’d timed it well; Flynn had heard him, had visibly bristled, but if he stopped to cause an altercation he’d be no doubt late.

Of course, he was regretting it by the time he was trooping with Albus down towards the dungeons for Potions, and a small tornado of red and anger swirled through the crowd to catch up with him. Not that Rose Weasley would want to walk next to Scorpius Malfoy; no, she went to flank Albus, and hissed across her cousin at him.

‘That was such a petty thing for you to do!’

Scorpius affected a look of artful disinterest. ‘You’re going to have to narrow it down for me, Weasley.’

‘Hector!’

‘Come, now, Weasley - I know that would be a dark, dark deed indeed, but I am not responsible for the existence of Hector Flynn. You’ll have to take that up with his mother.’

‘Guys...’ Albus tried, honest brow furrowed with vexation.

‘You know perfectly well what I’m talking about, Malfoy!’

‘You mean his state of outrageous deshabillé at breakfast?’ Scorpius shrugged. ‘I was nowhere near him at the time. Albus can vouch for me.’

Rose gave Albus a searing look, and he shrugged, not especially apologetic. Scorpius knew that Rose was suspicious of their loyalty, but she’d never accuse Albus of outright lying to cover up his misdeeds. She waved a dismissive hand. ‘I had a look at the bag and the remains; there was definitely a Timed Explosion Charm placed on that box of dungbombs.’

‘Do we have to do this here?’ Albus whimpered.

‘A Timed Explosion Charm? Wow, that’s complicated.’ Scorpius couldn’t help but be impressed.

She wrinkled her nose. ‘We did it three years ago in Charms.’

It’s complicated for a barely-Second Year. Ignoring her, Scorpius looked up at Albus. ‘Did you notice that Warwick’s Quidditch gloves are second-hand, a bit frayed? Remind me to buy him some new ones for his birthday if he makes it onto the team.’

‘Malfoy, I am not talking about Quidditch,’ Rose hissed, all of her brilliance counting for nothing as her anger made her miss the obvious clue he dropped right in her lap. Just as he’d expected.

‘I know, I was talking to Albus...’

‘Do I have to be here for this?’ Albus wondered.

‘Malfoy!’ Rose’s voice hit new and dangerous decibels. A couple of first-years staggered as they passed them - Scorpius wondered if their tender age made them more susceptible to sounds outside of his hearing range. ‘I don’t know what this stupid, childish vendetta that you have going with Hector is, but don’t think that I’ll leave you be just because you’re Al’s friend.’

‘No, I thought you might leave me be because - and I swear to all the Gods of man and wizard that I did not put those dungbombs in his satchel, by the way - Flynn’s a big boy, and I’m sure he can fight his own battles without going running to you for help.’ Scorpius cocked his head. ‘Or did you have to listen to him whine all the way through breakfast?’

Rose hesitated - and so did Scorpius at that, because “doubt” was not a word he had ever been inclined to associate with her. ‘You’re right,’ she said, and he wondered if that date of fire from the skies was closer than he’d thought. ‘You’re not worth my time.’

Albus let out a sigh of relief, but Rose jerked a finger at Scorpius. ‘You’re scum, Malfoy, and even if you’re going to keep on harassing Hector, you are not worth my time, and you are not worth his time. He told me all about what happened between you and Miranda Travers, he told me all about what you did to her, and if you’re capable of that, then of course I shouldn’t expect better of you when it comes to childish pranks.’

Then she flew past them, the tornado now a smouldering storm, and Scorpius actually stopped dead in his tracks as she tore off down towards the dungeons. His heart thudded in his chest, blood pumping no longer from the sheer glee of winding up Rose Weasley, but with raw, unadulterated anger.

Albus paused, squeezing his shoulder. ‘Easy, Scorp,’ he said quietly. ‘She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.’

Scorpius ground his teeth together. ‘How dare he,’ he hissed. ‘How bloody dare she -’

‘She doesn’t know any better,’ Albus pressed again. ‘And, I hate to say it, but this is what comes of not letting people know the truth - they’ll believe a pack of lies.’

It was the wrong thing to say. Scorpius shrugged off Albus’ hand roughly, and yanked up his satchel over his shoulder. ‘C’mon,’ he muttered roughly. ‘We’ll be late to class.’

Chapter 3: The Melting Pot
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Professor Lockett had been the Potions Mistress at Hogwarts for only a year now. She was a small woman in her forties, her short hair perpetually messy and wild as if one of her concoctions had just exploded in her face. This was apparently unlikely; he'd heard Rose talk about how she'd been a high-profile researcher in the field before coming to Hogwarts, though Scorpius wasn't sure if he believed that.

After all, why would a leading researcher come to be an underappreciated teacher?

This question was made all the more pressing by that Professor Lockett was one of those academics who treated students not as the purpose for her profession, but rather as a necessary evil, tribulations to be tolerated until they went away. Hers was an air of long-suffering and rampant disinterest, punctuated by the fact that she had no patience in her teaching to give anything other than the most precise and necessary of instructions.

Scorpius suspected that, had Hogwarts had a different Potions Professor, he might not have taken the subject at NEWT level. Her reluctance to linger on a point maintained his interest in class, and her aloof disapproval of almost anything around her meant she was neither dragged into the games of politics and pawing for a teacher's approval, nor did she pay the hugest amount of attention to what he tried to get away with so long as it didn't disrupt the potions.

Today, he fancied getting away with an awful lot.

He and Albus had paired up on the first day, but with so few of the sixth years taking NEWT-level Potions there was only one class. That meant that they had to share it with Rose Weasley, and she and her partner Matthias Doyle were sat directly in front of them. The class would last several hours.

That was good enough for Scorpius.

Albus noticed him trying to bore holes in the back of Rose's head with his baleful gaze, and as they unpacked their bags he leant down to him. 'Scorp, please. Drop it.' It was part instruction, part plead, and because that was usually enough, because Albus asked so little of Scorpius that he tended to do it readily, Albus must have made the assumption that he wouldn't need to worry about it any more. At least, not right away.

For once, he was seriously, seriously wrong.

The idea of Hector Flynn, at all, doing anything, was angering enough to Scorpius. The idea of Hector Flynn spreading lies about him was a step up, and an insult he wouldn't forget easily. The idea of Hector Flynn having the gall to spread lies about him and Miranda Travers, intentionally and maliciously, was enough to make Scorpius' blood boil, and that Albus said Rose didn't know any better made her no less the target of his ire.

After all, she was supposed to be intelligent, wasn't she? Brilliant little Rose Weasley, the smartest witch in Hogwarts? Wasn't she smart enough to see through Flynn's crude, crude deceptions?

Scorpius knew the truth. She didn't want to see through the lies. And in his anger, that she'd wilfully believe such tall tales about him because it suited her was enough to make him more unforgiving than usual.

'I'll work on a backup batch,' Scorpius had muttered to Albus once they had been set the class's potion by Professor Lockett, an Euphoria Elixir. Since Albus was accustomed to Scorpius mostly chopping things up and making not-so-helpful suggestions of what could be done to 'improve' the potioneering process established for several hundred years, Albus seemed pleased by this prospect. It was likely he thought Scorpius was planning on burning through his frustration by making sure he was busy.

In Albus' defence, this was a common enough pattern of behaviour.

If Scorpius was going to pull this off, then he was going to need to be careful. Hiding what he was doing from Lockett was hard enough; hiding it from Albus, right next to him, was going to be even harder. But all he needed to do, every time he hesitated, was look up at that waterfall of red and hypocrisy sat in front of him, and his resolve was strengthened.

So as Albus read from the book and gave out instructions, Scorpius did what he normally did - prepared the ingredients, chopped and crushed as needed, but did twice as many, and put them in his own, smaller cauldron that bubbled away.

At least, he put some in his own, smaller cauldron. Plenty were palmed, slipped into a pocket in his satchel to be disposed of later. Plenty of them, he didn't need.

They were half an hour in before Professor Lockett wandered past and frowned at the second cauldron on their table. 'Why do you have a cauldron each? Are you trying to mess it up twice?'

'It's the backup batch,' said Scorpius without missing a beat. 'I'm chopping everything, Professor, but I'm also working a step behind Al, so if something goes wrong we can transfer it over.' He prayed silently that Albus wouldn't get it wrong. And, as Lockett nodded with grudging approval, tried his final gambit. 'Can I get some extra peppermint, in that case, from the supply cupboard?'

'I'm only grading you for Potter's, but if you really want to make it harder on yourself by splitting your attention, you can go right ahead.'

It was grudging permission, but it was permission. 'That's okay, Professor. We won't mess it up,' Scorpius promised, and slid from his seat to hurry over to the supply cupboard.

As he passed Rose's desk, he heard Matthias leaning over to her and hissing, 'A backup batch? That's a good idea, shouldn't we be -' But he was elbowed into silence before he could finish implying that Scorpius Malfoy ever had good ideas.

It was fine. A backup batch wasn't his idea.

He had to be quick in the supply cupboard, but fortunately for Scorpius, he was actually pretty good at this bit of Potions. One didn't get by as an average student with Scorpius' incredibly lax work ethic without having some natural talent; where he struggled in Potions was remembering specific procedures, following set, dull instructions. Where he excelled was quickly identifying changes, keeping track of his ingredients, knowing just-so how to cut and prepare them - the kind of fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants talent which made him a good partner to patient, methodical Albus.

It also meant he had a pretty good idea of exactly what was where in the supply cupboard. And, with a furtive glance in the direction of Lockett, who was bent over Saxby and Moore's potion, he grabbed all that he needed.

Fortunately, he was making something simpler than an Euphoria Elixir, something that would take less time, and so within half an hour his potion was bubbling along merrily, exactly how he wanted it to be.

Albus looked over from sprinkling in some frog's brains (apparently the notion of ribbeting was euphoric), and frowned at the colour of Scorpius' potion. 'That doesn't look anything like mine did two steps ago, Scorp. Do you think you... er, did it right?'

He asked it so tentatively, so clearly worried about offending his volatile friend, that Scorpius almost felt guilty. Almost. But not so guilty that he couldn't put a steadfast look of plucky determination on his face and lie through his teeth. 'Yeah, I don't think I chopped that ginger root quite as well for mine as for yours; the juices aren't flowing well enough. You keep on, I think I can salvage it.'

And, not wanting to upset him, Albus returned to his potion and didn't notice when Scorpius pulled out one of the vials he'd taken from the supply cupboard and filled it up, stoppering it carefully.

Job done, it was no small thing to turn the heat up too high, and within moments his 'backup' cauldron was billowing smoke and the concoction was turning black within.

Albus started, but Scorpius flapped at him, pushing him back to the main cauldron and already waving a towel at the smoke - ostensibly away from him, but he took perverse pleasure in wafting some of it at Rose. 'It's okay, Al! You worry about the proper one, I'll - oh, bugger this, I'll just ditch it and we can do yours.'

He thought he noticed a nasty grin from Rose as he went over to the sink with its magically-reinforced drain to safely dispose of the toxic concoction he'd managed to turn his creation into, and if his resolve had been wavering at Albus' frantic, earnest reassurances, it faded with the notion of petty, petty vengeance.

Professor Lockett gave him a withering look of disapproval as he ensured that the gooey, sticky, blackening potion was properly washed away where it couldn't horribly warp, transfigure, or destroy anything. 'How about we save the complicated bits of Advanced Potions for when it's not the first week and we're coasting into the classroom on an E, Malfoy?'

Scorpius hated it when anyone used "we", like that. Scorpius rather hated being condescended, full stop, and Scorpius wasn't in much of a mood to be forgiving.

Chalk up another target. Could he kill two birds with one stone?

'Can I go get some more black beetle legs, Professor?' he asked Lockett before the Potions Professor went back to her desk. 'I think I crushed a bunch getting rid of this.'

A frustrated look flashed across Lockett's eyes. 'All right, all right,' she said in surrender. 'But stop wasting the ingredients.'

'No, Professor. No more backup cauldrons for a while.' He tried his most charming smile, but because he was cooperating, that just came across as suspicious.

At least, it came across as suspicious to Albus, who was looking at his pile of ingredients as Scorpius swaggered to the supply cupboard, and Scorpius guessed he was realising that they didn't need any more black beetle legs. It was too late now, though. Too late for him to not slip the vial he'd concocted behind a box of newts' eyes, too late for him to not swish his wand discreetly over it and mutter a charm, certainly too late once he'd closed the cupboard door behind him and headed back to Albus and his cauldron.

Even if Rose was eyeing him suspiciously herself as he returned, and this time he thought he caught a knowing look in her gaze that had entirely replaced the petty vindictiveness at his being undone minutes beforehand.

All he needed to do now was wait.

'Scorp,' Albus muttered out of the corner of his mouth, distracted as he gamely tried to keep brewing the potion he'd been so far working on with only half of his partner's attention. 'Scorp, we didn't need those beetle legs.'

'I was just being thorough, Al,' said Scorpius, trying to as quickly as possible slice up the rest of the ingredients they needed while at the same time not make any mistakes; he didn't want his friend's marks to suffer because of his little misadventures.

'Scorp.' Albus didn't sound convinced, but he did sound worried, very worried - and not without good reason, because if Scorpius had done something and hidden it from him all this time, then it probably meant it was something Albus would try to stop him from doing. 'What've you done?'

But Rose's suspicion would prove to be a blessing in disguise for Scorpius, for she muttered to Doyle that she was going to resupply them, and headed for the supply cupboard herself, giving him curious glances all the way.

Scorpius was glad, now, that he'd taken a NEWT in Potions. He could never have done this in his OWLs; part of the greater academic challenge was encouraging the students to be responsible for their own supplies, gathering and selecting and counting them, rather than just being given exactly what they needed ahead of time.

Now, all he'd had to do was wait until Rose eventually made a trip to the cupboard.

And now, as she got there, as she opened the door, he ignored Albus and flicked his wand under the desk, muttering the second part of the incantation he'd put over the stopper on the vial behind the newts' eyes.

He'd specifically chosen a spell which would just make the stopper pop, so the potion inside would ooze, out of sight, into the potions supplies. He'd specifically chosen the most harmless and disgusting of the potions supplies, the various animal and insect parts. And he'd specifically chosen a diluted and low-grade Exploding Fluid.

In great amounts it could have blown the entire storage cupboard sky-high. In the amounts Scorpius had used, just as he said the incantation, just as Rose stared suspiciously into the shelves, potion met substance and just gave merely a small eruption.

A small eruption enough to blow out two shelves and cover Gryffindor's finest prefect with not just newts' eyes, but frogs' guts, snakes' skins, and other deeply unpleasant animal remains and potions ingredients. Including Scorpius' favourite, the Doxy eggs.

Yelps of surprise and horror filled the Potions Dungeon as students reeled back in surprise or desperately leapt to protect their precious concoctions, depending on how particular they were feeling or how close to the supply cupboard they were. Only Methuselah Jones, in the back, did nothing more than lift an eyebrow and sigh deeply to himself.

But the greatest sound of all was from Rose, who let up a wail of distress and disgust as the dust settled, the cupboard creaked and threatened to collapse in on itself, and she found herself coated in all kinds of unpleasantries.

And just as Professor Lockett leapt to her feet to hurry over, she turned to the rest of the classroom and caught, before he could hide it, Scorpius' flash of a triumphant smile.

He tried to look just as horrified as everyone else, but it didn't quite work - and he wasn't sure he wanted it to. It was satisfying, immensely satisfying, to have done something like this to her and for her to know it was him. Half of the pleasure of vengeance was the target knowing that this wasn't just a random act, this was retribution.

And then her eyes met his, and flashed, and she whipped out her wand. 'You!'

Scorpius had made all kinds of mental provisions for this scheme. He'd considered what to do if Rose didn't go to the cupboard, if someone else found the vial before he could use it, if he botched the creation, even if Professor Lockett had caught him making the Exploding Fluid.

He had made absolutely no kind of provisions for if Rose, upon his gleaming moment of triumph, tried to kill him stone dead.

She uttered an incantation, one which Scorpius didn't know but made Albus leap to his feet, shouting her name. And then, for a few seconds, as Lockett hurried over to the cupboard, shouting to try to regain control and the rest of the NEWT class remained in utter chaos, nothing happened.

Then Scorpius' nose began to itch. A lot.

It would transpire there was no reason for him to recognise the incantation. It had never been recorded in a single spell-book, because it had been one of those custom little hexes cooked up by a witch of Hogwarts almost twenty-five years ago, and had barely been uttered since. But there was every reason for Rose to know it, and every reason for Albus to recognise it.

It had, after all, been invented by Ginny Potter.

The next ten seconds were the longest of Scorpius' young life as he suffered the effects of the Bat-Bogey Hex, but he did know that he owed Albus yet another debt of undying gratitude as his best friend finally stopped shouting at his cousin for long enough to remember and cast the relevant counter-curse. Afterwards he even bent down to pick up the dishevelled, quivering wreck on the floor that was Scorpius after he had suffered a fate more unpleasant than anyone might have anticipated.

And now Scorpius could see that the supply cupboard had collapsed in on itself, that Rose was in a hell of a state, and that Professor Lockett had turned particularly pale.

'Malfoy! Weasley! Right here, right now!'

For someone so small, she really knew how to shout.

Scorpius didn't even need Albus' help to get to the front; something in Lockett's command was enough to reach into his lizard hindbrain and force his legs to propel him forwards entirely of his own accord, regardless of how bedraggled and attacked he'd been by the Bat-Bogey Hex.

And now he was regretting having assumed Lockett to be a soft touch.

The Potions Professor stood before her desk, hands on her hips, brow furrowed to make her gaze even more steely. Rose was still trying to look like the indignant, wronged party, her head held high, jaw set. The effect was rather ruined by her occasionally dripping newts' eyes out of her hair.

Lockett looked at her first. 'Weasley, I assume you have an explanation for this?'

'Me?' Of course she would be indignant at being accused. 'Malfoy did something to the cupboard, I'm sure of it -'

'Upon what are you basing this theory, Weasley?'

'I saw him,' she said, and Scorpius' gut twirled. 'I saw him go to the supply cupboard with a vial. When he came back, it wasn't there. I was going to investigate, see if he'd put something in there.'

'I never did,' Scorpius thundered, knowing a modicum of outrage was necessary if he was to get out of this with his skin intact. And yet, excessive denial would not do him any good. It was a delicate balancing process.

Rose glowered at him. 'Then what was in that second botched cauldron, Malfoy?'

'It was a backup potion! It was botched! I had a lot on my mind, I did it wrong, I got rid of the lot of it -'

'Or you were just getting rid of the evidence!' Rose whirled around to point an accusing finger at Albus, who looked a mixture of disapproving, stunned, and distressed. 'Al! You were sat next to him all along; you had to know he was brewing something other than this draught!'

Scorpius' breath caught as Rose committed the mortal sin of forcing Albus to choose, publicly and severely, between him and between his family. That had been the unspoken agreement between the Weasley-Potters, one which not even James in his hijinks had broken, and of all the times to break it, a situation involving a teacher was especially unforgivable.

But that didn't necessarily save Scorpius, because the reason why it was such a mortal sin was that, even if he was upset with Rose for putting him in that position, Albus wouldn't necessarily side against her on that principle alone.

And he had to have guessed by now that Scorpius did it.

Lockett looked down the line of desks and seemed to miss all of the subtleties at play as Scorpius gave Rose a look of utter disgust, though she was too busy staring at Albus. 'You were next to Malfoy all this time, Potter. I know you're a student of good record. Can you confirm for me, beyond all doubt, that Malfoy was only brewing a backup batch of your draught?'

Albus' jaw worked wordlessly for a few moments, and though Scorpius felt the condemnation from Lockett in his hesitation, after several seconds he squared his shoulders. 'I'm not answering that, Professor,' he said. 'She's my cousin; he's my best friend.'

Lockett looked bewildered. 'Not answering - I'm going to have to take that as a condemnation of -'

'I'm not saying he did it!' Albus protested. 'You can't just blame him based on that -'

'Oh, for Merlin's sake, look at yourselves, the three of you!' Lockett threw her hands up in the air. 'Whoever did this has wrecked a whole slew of potions ingredients and completely ruined one of the early, integral classes in this Potions NEWT. If a single one of you had any respect for your own academic prospects or those of your peers, you would be eager to put this entire situation to rest right away.'

Rose made a noise of protest. 'I'm the victim -'

'Proper reaction upon being the subject to a petty prank, Weasley, is not to turn around to someone you merely suspect of having done this and hex them in the face.' Lockett glared, and Scorpius realised he'd never seen the Potions Professor legitimately angry before now. 'Detention. Tonight. All three of you. Malfoy, because I'm confident enough you did do this, Weasley, for attacking Malfoy, and Potter, who apparently has the same opinion as a First Year about honesty and still thinks it's called tattling.'

She waved a hand dismissively. 'Now, everyone, try to finish these bloody potions. I will be forgiving to the class in marking these concoctions; Weasley and Malfoy should consider themselves to by default have a grade one mark lower than the lowest mark of anyone in this room.'

Rose's lower lip wobbled. 'May I go and clean up in the Prefect's Bathroom next door first, Professor?'

She allowed it, but the rest of the Potions class was icy and awkward. Albus was clearly furious, and barely said a word to Scorpius as he, eager to make amends as a puppy who'd made a mess on the carpet, desperately tried to prepare their ingredients with the greatest of particular care. When Rose returned she didn't even look at the two of them, but it was Matthias Doyle who suffered the brunt of her ire, getting barely a kind word for the rest of the hour.

And pretty much everyone else was prepared to use what spare moment they had between trying to salvage their potions to glare venomously at Scorpius.

He didn't care much about their disapproval. It wasn't just that it was fleeting - once the initial irritation had worn off, they'd probably be telling stories about how ridiculous Rose had looked in such a state, and how hilarious he'd looked under the effects of the Bat-Bogey Hex, and in a day they'd have something new to worry about.

He was more bothered by Albus' anger.

When the class was dismissed, Al didn't even wait for Scorpius, just threw his paper and quills into his bag and stormed out. Scorpius, like a kicked puppy, slunk about putting everything away, but made sure he wouldn't be the last to leave the classroom. Fortunately, Methuselah Jones had made a beeline for the front desk the moment Lockett had tried to dismiss them, likely keen to argue about having been only given an 'E' in one of their very first potions brewed under exceptional circumstances.

At least this would let Scorpius slink out without suffering Lockett's judgemental eye.

But out in the corridor, Albus hadn't left - one way or another he'd run into Rose, and as the rest of the class were desperate to get far, far away, he had rounded on her, as angry as Scorpius had ever seen him.

'...completely unfair! You know that was a horrid thing to do to me, Rose! Lockett was probably going to blame him anywayand you just dragged me in? For what? To make a point? To punish me for being his friend?'

Rose flipped her hair, not backing down an inch, and Scorpius just lingered in the doorway, knowing he couldn't pass them without being noticed, wishing he was invisible. 'If it's possible to punish you for your friends, Al,' she said, 'then perhaps you should think really hard about your choices in friends.'

'You're sounding like a broken Quidditch result announcement, you know that, Rose?' said Albus in his nastiest tone, which was more like being barked at by a lovely, fluffy, bouncy Golden Retriever. 'And before you throw stones at me, perhaps you should think harder before you believe every stupid word out of Hector Flynn's mouth!'

'What does that have to do with anything?'

'You know full well that he's nothing but an obnoxious windbag! And if you want him for company, then that's entirely up to you, but it becomes my business when it's making you behave so utterly reprehensibly!'

Of course they were related; they were the only two people in Hogwarts who would use the word "reprehensibly" in the middle of a screaming row. But Rose just tossed her head again and went to storm past. 'My behaviour,' she said, 'isn't what needs questioning here. I'll see you later, Al. In detention.'

Actually, she would probably see them in Charms that afternoon, but Scorpius didn't think that correcting her would help. Instead he just hovered around the doorway, and just as one argument died, another was born - this one between Methuselah Jones and Professor Lockett behind him.

Scorpius shuffled into the corridor and shut the door. The sound was very, very loud in the tense silence, as Albus just stood there and glared in the direction where Rose had left. 'I'm sorry I got you in detention,' Scorpius told Albus' ankles quietly.

Albus whirled to face him, and as Scorpius flinched, his friend's anger faded. But what was left in its place was aching, gloomy disappointment.

'I asked you to leave it be,' Albus whispered forlornly. 'I asked you to, because you know she doesn't know any better. Because it's not even her you're angry with, it's Miranda and it's Flynn. But you did it anyway, because, what, you'd have to wait two hours before you could do anything to them?'

Scorpius stared at his own shoes, which were a bit of a mess after the day's catastrophes, and said nothing.

'And even then, you can't have it both ways, Scorpius! You don't get to say that you prefer it if people believe the lies, you can't refuse to try to clear your reputation and then behave like we're still in Third Year when people - shockingly enough - act on this reputation in a way you don't like!' Albus made a noise of frustration and ran his hand through his hair. 'I'm going to get some lunch and then I'm going up to the Quidditch pitch. I'll see you in Charms.'

Then he left, too, his desire to not be around Scorpius for the time being patently, painfully clear, and every one of his footsteps ringing out on the stone floor was like an extra stab of Albus' disappointment in Scorpius' gut as he left him behind, alone.


Chapter 4: Sackcloth and Ashes
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The rest of the day passed with little of significance. Albus had remained quiet, which had been awkward because Scorpius usually dealt with his bad moods by talking a lot, to both distract him and cheer him up. But since he, Scorpius, was the cause of this upset, that had seemed imprudent, and so Charms had been spent in a dour, miserable silence.

News of the Potions class hijinks had spread. He'd received glares from the rest of Rose's friends, Hestia Kirke in particular glowering as if trying to put the evil eye on him. More relaxed Gryffindors, like Hedley and Willoughby, had apparently found the story hilarious and had given him grins and even backslaps over lunch.

After all, even if he did have to suffer Albus' silence, the fury of the newly-showered Rose Weasley, and a detention, Scorpius had to accept that blowing up the potions supply cupboard in the face of their year's most uptight prefect was kind of funny.

He just didn't feel much like laughing about it.

Once in class, Hollis, one of the few Slytherins who hadn't been closing ranks with Miranda, had been prepared to talk, but Scorpius had always considered Peregrine Hollis to be a mind-numbingly boring boy, and being happy and chatty while Albus was still clearly upset seemed rude, like indicating he didn't care.

He did.

Albus had left for the Library almost the moment Charms was over, and Scorpius knew this was about him still wanting some time on his own. His heart just sank further when Bellamy and Abena Tau went with him, the two fiercest adherents of Miranda's rules against associating with him.

If he thought less of Albus, he'd have wondered if he'd done that on purpose. As it was, all he could do was worry if he'd really gone too far this time.

He had a few hours until he needed to report to Professor Lockett's office, and though he sat down in the common room with the Potions book to try to figure out what he'd not been paying attention to in class, the words just washed over him.

In the end he slunk into his dormitory and pulled out his guitar. Normally, Scorpius preferred an audience - entertained classmates, girls who were still impressed by two different chords strummed one after the other, his father snapping at him to stop - but it would do to fill the silence. For once, classical guitar seemed safer, required more concentration, required him to keep his thoughts on the technical skills he neglected in his music - and in everything else about his life.

Oakes and Bellamy had come in part way through, and just to spite them he'd played some modern Muggle songs, loudly, while they'd got changed and Oakes had showered. That was one advantage of being persona non grata with half of Slytherin House right then - quite often, they would ignore him even if it inconvenienced them to do so. And Scorpius was not a man to take these slights with good grace.

When, three hours later, Albus came in with a bag of books to get changed and tell him they had best head down to Professor Lockett's office, Scorpius didn't say anything, just did as he was told. Because he clearly hadn't yet been forgiven.

And he was going to have to behave until that happened.



* *



'I can't believe he did that,' said Hestia Kirke for about the fifteenth time.

'I can. It's Scorpius Malfoy. I totally believe there's nothing he wouldn't do.' Cheryl Hawkins was lounging back on her bed in the Gryffindor sixth year girls' dorm room, still in her Quidditch gear. She smirked. 'Isn't that kind of the appeal?'

'Sorry,' said Rose, not looking up from rummaging through her trunk. 'I don't find rodents appealing. Oh, for goodness sake, Artemis!' The smoky-coated cat, who had helpfully decided to lunge into her open trunk to explore hitherto unknown vistas of things that made mysterious crinkling noises, was unceremoniously dumped on the bed. There she promptly began kneading at the scarf Rose had already dug out.

Hestia was finally distracted from holding court on the Evils of Scorpius Malfoy, a topic she could engage with a vigour that put even Rose herself to shame. The difference was that where Rose ranted, Hestia was more the kind to conclude her diatribe with informative pamphlets. Literally, in the case of when Scorpius had caused a leak in the girls' showers in the Ravenclaw Quidditch changing rooms and the entire female half of the team had emerged after a practice, sopping wet into the warm sun for most of the school to see.

Rose suspected Hestia wouldn't have cared so much if she hadn't been caught in the periphery of the deluge. And according to Albus, Scorpius had taken the pamphlet explaining what a menace to society he was and had it framed. She'd not had the heart to tell Hestia.

'Why exactly are you getting out your winter clothes, Rose?' Hestia wrinkled her nose.

'I'm not getting my winter clothes, but I want something warm. Professor Lockett sent a message telling us to wrap up decently and wear good boots. I bet she's going to drag us down to the Herbology greenhouses or something equally dire.' Finally, Rose found her dragonskin trousers and tossed them onto the bed.

Cheryl eyeballed them enviously. 'So, if you're going to roll around in the mud down there, you have to look like you're ready to join a motorcycle gang?'

'Ha.' Rose picked up the scarf, but instead of putting it away was promptly entangled in a tug-of-war with Artemis, who rather fancied the tassels and thought their being waved around was awfully good fun. 'No, I just refuse to wear something that can be ruined, stained, or ripped. There is absolutely no way I am going to give that odious little rat another opportunity for a petty little strike.'

'He might be over it,' Hestia said dubiously. 'Since he was looking like Al had thoroughly told him off in Charms.'

Rose made a face, and in her distraction Artemis yanked the scarf from her hands and dragged it off the bed to be properly savaged in appropriate privacy. 'Al probably just told him to look penitent until I forgot about it.'

'He's not really a rat, is he...' Cheryl made a half-hearted effort at removing her Quidditch gear. She got as far as her gloves before giving up, flopping back down again. 'He's a bit too... you know, suave for a rat.'

'Sure. Suave. If your standards were staggeringly low to begin with.' Rose gave her a look of disapproval. She knew for a fact all they'd done down at the pitch was a warm-up and assessment of the remaining Quidditch players so Hugo had a better idea of what he was looking for at try-outs next week, and yet Cheryl was acting as if she had just come out of an exhausting game.

'Then who would you say is suave, Rose?' Cheryl lifted her head, voice holding a faint bite. 'Because it's sure as anything not Hector.'

'I don't expect Hector to be suave.' Rose tossed her hair defensively, and pulled on an old t-shirt. 'I expect him to be nice, polite, good company...'

'...silent, so you don't have to think about how bone-crunchingly stupid he is while you're tongue-wrestling in closets when you're supposed to be on patrol -'

'That's not fair!' squeaked Hestia. 'Rose would never neglect her prefect duty!'

Rose, right then, rather fancied dying. Instead she opted for escaping, pulling on a thick jacket and knocking her trunk shut. 'If I don't come back, assume Malfoy finally crossed the line in the mutually assured destruction doctrine and I blew up the Herbology greenhouses. I bequeath my scarf to Artemis, as I think I don't have a choice on that count.'

Hestia looked like a kicked puppy. 'Oh, you said we could go up to the Astronomy Tower tonight -'

'I'm not stopping you,' Rose said. 'But I didn't expect detention tonight, either. I might be back in time, I'm not actually planning on blowing up greenhouses.'

'I think they take your badge off you for that,' mused Cheryl.

'And then you might have to do something, Cher. Wouldn't that be terrible.' Rose stuck her tongue out at her roommate good-naturedly. 'Try to not have too much fun on a Friday night without me.'

'Oh, your slave-driver brother's seen to it that's not going to happen...' groaned Cheryl, at the same time as Hestia squeaked, 'We won't!'

Rose left the dorm room with a sigh. It wasn't that she didn't love her friends and roommates dearly, but sometimes they were a lot to handle. She suspected Hestia had been overdoing it on the tea, or the biscuits, or both, and was a little too hyped up on caffeine and sugar right then.

Matthias was sat in the common room, lounging back with his feet up on a table and a thick book in his hands. It was quiet down there, as they were still at the time of year where it wasn't too dark or too cold outside, and the students knew to make the most of it before bitter winter came. When Matthias took his feet off the table the moment he saw her it looked like it was an instinctive move, and instinctive for him to look a little guilty about it. But, then, "guilty" summarised a good deal of their interactions these days.

He frowned. 'What are you wearing?'

'It's my all-new anti-Malfoy gear.' Rose put a hand on her hip. 'You like it?'

It was, of course, the wrong thing to say when she was in leather trousers. Matthias lifted his book with a grunt, and she saw it was a selection of treatises on the interaction of Christianity and magic in the central middle ages.

Once, she'd have stopped to ask him about it, or maybe even to borrow it. Now, even though she didn't have the time, she knew it wouldn't be sensible. Pretending everything was absolutely fine between them, with no lingering resentment, affection, or certainly anything resembling regrets, would only go so far. Even if it was the expected code of conduct.

'Flynn - Hector - he's outside.' Matthias wrinkled his nose in disapproval at his own stumble. 'Down by the Fat Lady.'

'You didn't let him in?'

'He didn't ask,' said Matthias stubbornly. 'And you know I don't like inviting non-Gryffindors up to the common room.'

'Oh, really, Matthias, people don't care about that anymore -'

'I do,' he said, and looked back at his book. 'Anyway. He's waiting for you. You don't want to be late for your detention.'

He was probably just in a bad mood, she knew, over something which had nothing to do with her. Every day they saw each other, and every day they were friendly, cordial, even enjoyed spending time together, and stuck to the party line that their breakup had been both amiable and mutual. Most days that was the truth.

She didn't fancy it being not one of those days, however, and with a mumble of thanks she slunk to the stairs leading their winding way down and out of Gryffindor Tower.

Indeed, as the Fat Lady swung open to let her out, there was Hector, resplendent in his Quidditch gear. He wore it well, of course - it was new, since he'd grown in the last two years, the leather gleaming and fitting his broad shape nicely.

There were times Rose missed being able to have an intellectual discussion with Matthias. And then there were times she remembered that Hector, scrubbed up or rumpled, could look really good.

He gave the broad, toothy grin that could melt hearts when he saw her, and even if he'd been irritated by having to wait, he didn't show it. His leather cap was shoved under one arm. 'I've got practice,' he said apologetically, 'but I thought I'd come wish you luck for the evening.'

'Luck? You think I'm going to need luck?' She nevertheless crossed the space between them to plant a kiss on his cheek. 'It's just a detention.'

'With Malfoy. So, maybe not luck. Maybe strength?' Hector's smile turned hopeful. 'He's not worth it, you know. Getting angry over. Getting into trouble over.'

'I know,' she sighed. 'But I just - ugh. Why does Al have to have such awful taste? He's rude, he's obnoxious, he's inconsiderate...' She pondered the tautological nature of what she'd just said, and reflected with relief that Hector would neither pick up on the redundancies nor point them out.

'You're preaching to the choir, babe,' he assured her. 'I've got to go, team's got to be in top condition if we're going to trounce your brother this year. I just wanted to swing by to give you a boost. I know it's going to be a boring evening.'

'If we're going down to the greenhouses, "boring" doesn't begin to cover it. But thank you.' She played with a couple of the ties on the front of his uniform padding. 'I know this wasn't on your way.'

Hector smirked. 'And I thought I'd been so subtle about just dropping by...'

She kissed him goodnight, because she did appreciate him swinging by, even if it made her feel a little guilty about Matthias. Then they parted ways, since there was no sensible route to wander in the same direction if she quickly needed to get to Professor Lockett's office and he quickly needed to get down to the Quidditch pitch.

To her frustration, when she finally reached the Potions teacher's office she realised she was very likely the last one there. That was what she got for being distracted by her roommates, her cat, her ex, and her boyfriend. And she'd clearly missed that something had happened, as she stepped in and saw more than just Albus and Scorpius waiting for her.

Professor Lockett wasn't there yet, and her cousin and his best friend were lounging against the office wall doing a good job of pretending nothing was wrong between them. But Rose knew Albus, and knew that the upset she'd seen in him right after Potions hadn't dissipated.

Good. So long as he's still upset with Malfoy, too.

But there were two more figures, figures she recognised instantly, and she quirked an eyebrow with bewilderment. 'What're you doing here?'

Methuselah Jones looked away from where he'd been critically evaluating Professor Lockett's book collection. 'Detention,' he said archly - then, realising this wouldn't suffice, sighed with irritation. 'I got a bad mark today. Only an "E". Patently unfair. Debated it with the Professor. We... disagreed.'

'He called her a hack,' Scorpius provided helpfully.

Jones looked indignant. 'I most certainly did not. I simply queried her aptitude at student management. Not her credentials as a Potions Expert. Those speak for themselves.'

'So you said she was a perfectly capable Potioneer,' said Scorpius, though he sounded amused, 'just a crappy teacher? Your diplomacy astounds, Jones.'

Rose rolled her eyes. 'As does your hypocrisy, Malfoy.'

'I know what diplomacy is. Whether I consider the people around me worthy of it is something else.' He quirked an eyebrow at her. 'What are you wearing?'

It was patently unfair, Rose reflected, that the two men who'd commented on her clothing tonight had been her ex-boyfriend and Scorpius Malfoy. Would it have killed Hector to notice that, actually, she looked pretty good?

Not that looking good had been the goal. But if it was an advantageous side-effect of dressing practically, she would have liked to have reaped greater benefits.

'Something practical, Malfoy,' she said with a sigh. 'Not everyone tries to look like an outrageous dandy all the time.'

'Hey.' Scorpius lifted his hands, and smirked. 'I'm not complaining.'

Albus gave a grunt of irritation, the first sound he'd made since she'd come in. He had barely looked up, just been standing with his arms folded across his chest, brow furrowed. 'Can you two stop it? Just for tonight? I know that sounds like closing the gate after the horse has bolted...'

Rose didn't want to give Scorpius the satisfaction of a formally accepted cease-fire, but she also neither wanted to upset Albus more nor commit herself to an evening of verbal wrestling matches. Her concession to Albus, then, was to look away from the two Slytherin boys and turn to the last figure in the room. 'I didn't think you even did Potions.'

Selena Rourke had been sat on the only chair in the room that wasn't Professor Lockett's, filing her nails with an air of supreme disinterest in the disagreements that swirled around her, as if she was above it all. Rose knew this was a lie; Selena would just come back later, all of her arguments stored up, and bring friends. It was her usual method.

'I don't,' Selena said, as if one of the most complicated and demanding NEWTs offered by Hogwarts was simply beneath her, not unavailable to her. 'I didn't get detention from Professor Lockett. I got it from Diarmuid.'

Rose wrinkled her nose. The Head Boy could technically give out detentions, subject to the approval of the Deputy Headmaster, but this was a rare occurrence and for Diarmuid to dare try in the first week was particularly foolhardy. 'What on Earth did you do to him?'

'It's not what she did to Diarmuid,' said Scorpius, with his ear irritatingly more to the ground than her when it came to misdemeanours in Hogwarts. 'It's what she did to Marie Laroche.'

'I didn't do anything,' Selena said peevishly, working by now on her cuticles. 'I just wondered why she was wearing that top with those earrings, and if it meant she was going to join the circus any time soon.'

Rose found herself unhappily looking to Scorpius for clarification. 'That doesn't sound so bad.' It sounded, at least, par for the course from Selena Rourke.

'It wouldn't be,' Scorpius agreed, 'except that Diarmuid gave Laroche those earrings in the first place.'

'So, because Professor Tully adores Diarmuid, I get given a detention because I dared criticise his frankly terrifying fashion sense, and his girlfriend's failure to properly accessorise,' Selena sniffed derisively. 'And because this is the only detention organised tonight for NEWT students, I get stuck with all of you.'

The "you", Rose noted, seemed more directed at her and Jones, who was still paying more attention to the bookshelf. 'Don't worry,' she sighed. 'You can rest assured the suffering's mutual.'

Scorpius opened his mouth to say something - then he glanced at Albus and subsided, and mercifully the office door swung open to let Professor Lockett in. She was clad in equally hard-wearing gear, including some sturdy gloves and a good coat which Rose thought was, perhaps, a little excessive for early September, even night-time in Scotland in early September.

She quirked an eyebrow at them all. 'So you got my message.'

'Get ready to troop around in the dirty greenhouses,' Rose confirmed gloomily. 'I know we need to replace the lost supplies, Professor, but do we have to -'

'No, you don't have to troop around in the dirty greenhouses,' Professor Lockett confirmed, and Rose sagged with relief.

Selena wrinkled her perfect nose. 'Ugh, so you mean I had to dig up all of my old Herbology gear for nothing -'

'Not for nothing. You'll need it. Just not in the greenhouses.'

Scorpius pinched the bridge of his nose. 'Crap. Saw that one coming.'

Lockett opened a drawer in her desk and pulled out a few rolls of parchment, which she slid into a sturdy leather scroll case attached to her belt. 'Some of the components which Malfoy managed to destroy today -'

'Presumed destroyed, Professor, it's not proven.'

She gave Scorpius a stony glare which immediately silenced him, and Rose wondered if she should take notes. Lockett cleared her throat and continued. '...which Malfoy destroyed today, were the last of my stock. Now, I can order some more, but that will take several days and in the meantime I have students who are going to need this stock for classes. I have absolutely no desire to alter my class plans because of these petty misdemeanours.'

Rose had guessed this much, but she still didn't understand. 'Then, why not the greenhouses?'

Lockett pulled out some more papers and handed a roll to each of the five of the students. 'Here's a list of what we need which I think we can reasonably acquire. If we do not complete the list tonight, I shall certainly be seeing Malfoy and Weasley tomorrow to continue the work. The rest of you will have served your time.'

Scorpius squinted at the paper as he unrolled it. 'Where, exactly, are we going to get half of this stuff?'

Rose made a small noise of disbelief as she read it and put two and two together. 'You must be joking. Professor.'

'What?' Selena looked utterly lost. 'What is all of this?'

'You worked really hard for that "A" in your Potions OWL, didn't you?' Rose sneered.

Scorpius remained equally bewildered. 'Someone going to enlighten me?'

'These components? Only one place to get them. Unless Professor Lockett has a Floo connection or Portkey set up to elsewhere tonight - both highly unlikely,' said Methuselah Jones, sounding more bored than quite as horrified as Rose felt at the prospect looming before them. 'The Forbidden Forest.'


Chapter 5: Like Wildfire
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‘I knew that blowing up the Potions cupboard was likely to have stiff consequences,’ said Scorpius, slinking at the back of the little procession of six people winding their way through the woodlands. ‘I didn’t know horrible death in the Forbidden Forest was one.’

‘Will you stop whining?’ hissed Albus, as irritable as he ever got. ‘You got yourself into this situation, now you’re just going to have to man up and accept it. I have no sympathy for you.’

They had been gone for half an hour now, making their way across the fields, down past the groundskeeper’s hut, and into the outskirts of the woodlands. The skies had been clear, even if the sun had set by then, to keep visibility good - and then they’d made it into the Forbidden Forest, and the lanterns Lockett had passed around became necessary.

‘It’s not going to be dangerous,’ said Rose, a few paces ahead of them, and Scorpius managed to not jump. He’d not realised she was near enough to hear them. ‘You have to go really quite deep to find the nastier creatures these days, and I’m sure Professor Lockett knows what she’s doing.’

Scorpius glowered past Rose to where Professor Lockett, Methuselah Jones and Selena Rourke wandered at the front of the little procession. ‘Getting us killed?’

‘The Forbidden Forest isn’t as dangerous any more as people like to make out,’ said Rose, now not bothering to be quiet, and Scorpius deeply suspected she was just happy to be able to hold court on something she knew about. ‘Not a single centaur or dark creature has been sighted within three miles of Hogwarts grounds in twenty years.’

‘Incorrect,’ piped up Jones, ‘and highly so, considering Professor Firenze, a centaur, was the Divination Professor for ten years.’

Rose wrinkled her nose. ‘You know what I mean, Jones.’

‘It’s not what you said,’ he replied calmly, cool gaze lifted to the sights of the Forbidden Forest looming all around them with his usual air of disinterest. ‘For the Magical Beings Conference in 2002 the centaur delegation passed through Hogwarts.’

Scorpius could tell, from the look on Rose’s face, that she hadn’t known that - and disliked this fact immensely. But she waved a dismissive hand. ‘Of course I was referring to dangerous centaurs, like a marauding herd, not a group passing through.’

‘It’s not what you said,’ Jones repeated.

Selena, walking beside him, gave him a sidelong look. ‘You remembered all that?’

He looked confused by the question. ‘I read it.’

‘But you remembered it. The route the centaurs took. And what year.’ She sounded about as bewildered herself.

‘It was an important conference. The centaurs passing through was historical. And I read it.’

‘Huh.’ Selena fiddled with her hair tie, luxurious blonde hair kept tightly out of the way in an unusual display of practicality. ‘I struggle to remember my class schedule.’

‘You struggle to remember what day it is,’ said Rose bitterly, clearly put-out at having been corrected.

Selena looked over her shoulder with a toss of the head. ‘I’m not the one who was just wrong, Weasley.’

Scorpius knew he couldn’t join in the pile-on against Rose without Albus getting more upset with him, which was the last thing he wanted right then (well, perhaps second-to-last - dying in the Forest was still a concern). But at least he could sit back and enjoy the show as Selena decided to do ten rounds with Rose, with Jones as backup.

Or he could, at least, until Professor Lockett lifted her lantern. ‘Oh, hush, the lot of you. I thought you were meant to be nearly of age?’

‘You teach children, Professor; surely it’s okay for us to act like kids?’ offered Scorpius helpfully.

She harrumphed. ‘I was supposed to be in the Three Broomsticks by now on a Friday night,’ she muttered, and he doubted he was meant to hear that.

You put us in detention.’

‘And you blew up a cupboard. And yet I’m suffering for it.’ She came to a halt, moving her lantern to and fro to make shadows dance unpleasantly between the thick, closely-knit trees. ‘Yes, this is a good spot.’

‘Do you even know where we are?’ asked Scorpius as they all stopped, squinting unhappily at their surroundings. ‘Professor.’ It was probably best to try to be polite.

‘Still within Weasley’s correctly-cited three-mile safety buffer,’ Lockett said, and patted a pocket of her coat. ‘I have a map, Malfoy. I do, in fact, know what I’m doing.’

‘I do not, in fact, know how the hell you can navigate in here.’

She pointed upwards. ‘Stars. It’s not so difficult. And it’s a good, bright, clear night, so it should be ideal for getting those Nocturne Mushrooms. Spread out, but don’t go off on your own, and have a look around for some. Gather them up and get them in the bags, and when the bags are full, make sure you seal them.’

Jones looked offended. ‘We know about the gathering and care of Nocturne Mushrooms, Professor.’

‘I don’t,’ said Selena, and moved next to him, sliding her arm into his. ‘So I’ll stick with you.’

Jones looked nonplussed by this development and Scorpius rolled his eyes. Lockett seemed to reach the same conclusion as him, frowning at the pair, and jerked her head. ‘Then best I stick with the two of you, if you’re not sure how to handle the mushrooms, Rourke.’ She jerked her lantern at the others. ‘You three, stick together. Do not get out of sight of our lanterns. If something goes wrong, shoot up red sparks.’

‘But if we can’t see the lanterns,’ Scorpius pointed out, ‘then how will we see the red sparks?’

‘They’ll be higher, and if you don’t believe me, you’ll just have to not wander off and not get into trouble, then, won’t you, Malfoy. I know this is a difficult concept...’

Scorpius had always thought Professor Lockett to be rather decent, though he’d heard she was crabby when irritated and now was discovering this first-hand. So he stayed silent as she, Jones, and Selena headed off the little path they’d been travelling by, searching through the undergrowth for the tell-tale glint of purple from the Nocturne Mushrooms.

He turned to Albus, who was still looking as sulky as he had since Potions, and Rose, who looked about as thrilled with this development as he was, and sighed. ‘Isn’t this going to be a joy.’

Albus pulled the bag from his belt. ‘Let’s just get on with it.’

‘Easy for you to say,’ Scorpius grumbled. ‘If we don’t get it done tonight, you’re not back out tomorrow.’

‘She won’t take us out for two nights in a row,’ said Rose. ‘She won’t want to go out to the Forest for two nights in a row. She’s done this to make a point - nobody’s going to misbehave in her Potions classes if this is the detention they get.’

‘It could be worse,’ said Albus, leading the way, lantern lifted up high. Thick, tall roots of trees were the best places to look for the mushrooms, but they were, of course, dark - that was the whole appeal - and so they were going to have to check every little nook and cranny in the hope of finding a few of the precious mushrooms sprouted. They were such a pain to find and had such a short shelf life that Scorpius suspected Professor Lockett had put these on the list intentionally.

How?’ Rose said, being terse with Albus when Scorpius didn’t dare to.

‘They could have written to our parents.’

‘That wouldn’t have been as bad,’ said Rose, peering around the trees and watching her footing. By now they were so far off the path that the darkness, and the tree trunks, were like a cocoon of darkness, the beads of light in the distance that were Lockett, Jones, and Selena flickering in and out of sight as they moved between the trees - but still near enough to not be concerning. ‘It’s not like our parents didn’t get put in detention all the time when they were at school. Even Mum had her share.’

‘Yes,’ said Albus delicately, opting for being tall and standing with a lantern held high so Scorpius and Rose had better peripheral lighting while they checked the crevices and gathered the odd mushroom they found. ‘But they got them usually in the course of saving the world.’

‘I’m happier this way round,’ Scorpius muttered to himself.

But the thick trees made for an echoing effect, and the air around them was so dead that his voice carried, and Rose gave a superior little smirk. ‘Oh, really? So next time you misbehave and get away with it, Malfoy, I should just write to your father?’

In the blink of an eye he’d rounded on her, eyes flashing, and in surprise she actually took a step back. ‘Don’t push me, Weasley.’

‘Rose.’ Albus had actually moved to put a hand on Scorpius’ shoulder, tensing, but there was a note of pleading in his voice. ‘Please.’

Rose looked between them, surprised and confused, but she lifted her hands. ‘It was just a joke,’ she muttered.

Scorpius knew it was the closest thing he was going to get to an apology from her, but it was the second time that day she’d incensed him and so he just turned away, shrugging off Albus’ shoulder roughly, head bowing to look for the mushrooms. He could hear Rose shuffling away, too, his outburst having killed all conversation, and for several long seconds there was nothing but the sound of their footsteps and their breathing.

Then he heard the creak of Albus’ lantern and, when he spoke, he sounded faintly worried. ‘Where are the others?’

Scorpius straightened, looking for the path. ‘They were...’ His heart sank. ‘Over there. You know, in that bit of ominous darkness.’

‘I lost track of them while we were -’ Rose frowned. ‘But we didn’t move... did they...?’

Then they heard the hoofbeats. Just a couple, at first, then more and more, coming together like the deep, dull, thudding of rain. Coming towards them.

‘Is that...?’

Albus’ broad face had folded into a worried frown. ‘Centaurs. Lots of them. Coming fast.

Despite it all, Scorpius still couldn’t stop himself from looking accusingly at Rose. ‘How’s that three-mile safe zone working out for you, Weasley?’

Rose had moved to Albus’ side, face pale in the lantern light. ‘Centaurs don’t come this close to Hogwarts - I wonder what they want -’

‘I don’t want to find out,’ said Albus, voice stern. ‘Close the hatches - now.’ His own lantern was immediately dimmed and, falteringly, Scorpius and Rose’s followed shortly afterwards, pitching them all into ominous darkness.

For a moment Scorpius looked around blindly - then he felt Albus’ strong hand on his elbow, yanking him along. He heard Rose give a weak yelp of surprise, too, and then they were running, back in the direction - Scorpius thought, at least - of the path, away from the hoofbeats.

Albus’s eyes must have adapted to the darkness quicker, because he didn’t stumble on any of the roots that Scorpius felt tug at his ankles, just kept powering along, all but dragging his best friend and cousin behind him. Trees loomed around them, branches whipped at arms and faces and whistled overhead, the ground was uneven and the undergrowth thick underfoot, but they hurtled along anyway at as fast a pace as they could all manage. There was the sound of a thud and shattering glass, and Rose swore as he guessed her lantern had been dropped and broken, and they still didn’t stop - and neither did the hoofbeats.

Those got louder and louder, and Scorpius risked a glance over his shoulder when he thought he saw a particularly broad gap in the trees before them. Shapes moved in the gloom behind them, tall, broad figures emerging from the darkness, the hulking form of the merge of man and beast that were the centaurs.

But if they’d been directly in their path before, he didn’t think they were now, and at the next huge tree with high, fat roots, Albus yanked them to a halt. ‘Stay down!’ he hissed, pushing them into the hiding place. ‘And don’t move!’

Scorpius all but dived into cover, chivalry dying as he got there before Rose - but then all three of them were huddled in shelter, Albus still with his hands on their shoulders, the only one who dared risk keeping one eye out from their hiding place to make sure they knew if the danger passed, if they’d been noticed, what was going on...

And Scorpius just kept his head down. Stayed low, as flat as he could, and only a lingering sense of dying, dying pride had him opening his eyes when he realised they were screwed shut tight. But he didn’t want to look at Albus’ stern face when it was impossible to know what he was seeing, didn’t dare take a peek himself, and so his eyes fell on Rose.

She was even paler in the gloom of the Forest, where only the few streaks of starlight breaking through the tree cover could show him her face. Absent were any of her frowns of disapproval, her arched eyebrows of disapproval, or, really, any other sign of what he usually saw on her expression: disapproval, often of him.

Just brown eyes wide with fear, lips thin through tension and panic he could tell she was biting back.

He’d have liked to have thought it was through some lingering recollection of hitherto-abandoned chivalry that he did what he did next - but truth be told, it was for his own reassurance just as much, his own need to find something, anything to tether himself to which wasn’t the knot of dread seizing in his gut.

He grabbed her hand and their eyes locked. And though the fear didn’t drain from her expression, they both had something to focus on which wasn’t possible imminent death at the hands, or hooves, of a herd of marauding centaurs. And as he clutched at her hand for dear life, she squeezed back just as tightly.

Even when the hoofbeats - and for a time, when they were loudest, the indecipherable calls of the herd shouting to one another, sounds Scorpius couldn’t identify as being anything but “agitated” - began to quieten and die down, even when they finally faded away, none of them moved. They stayed huddled in their shelter for long moments, ragged, panicked breathing the only thing breaking the silence.

‘They’re gone,’ whispered Albus at last, though his low voice was like a gunshot in the gloom.

Rose yanked her hand from Scorpius’ as if stung, and finally their locked gazes broke as they both looked up. ‘You’re sure?’

Albus rose slowly, big shoulders tense. He wasn’t much more than a silhouette in the darkness, but Scorpius thought he saw him relax as he looked around, if only a little. ‘There’s no sign of them.’

‘They sounded panicked.’ Rose got to her feet, dusting herself down, movements rather jerky and stiff. ‘I thought I heard them yelling at one another to run.’

‘I couldn’t make anything out.’ Scorpius stayed right where he was, if only because his knees didn’t feel like they were going to let him move any time soon. ‘It was just shouting.’

‘In their own language. You don’t hear it very often.’

‘You studied -’

‘We need to get back to Hogwarts,’ said Albus, cutting off Scorpius’ incredulity. ‘Something’s spooked them, and that’s not good, and we’re not safe out here.’

‘A great plan,’ Scorpius agreed, getting to his feet creakily. ‘I just have two questions. One, what about the others? And two, where the hell are we?’

The three of them finally emerged from the shadow of the great tree that had been their shelter and stood in the gloom of the bent boughs and low-hanging branches and leaves that the Forbidden Forest brought in to wrap around and above them. Scorpius finally realised that Albus had abandoned his lantern when he’d grabbed them both, and Rose’s was broken, so he lifted his own, doused lamp. ‘Shall I...?’

Albus nodded. ‘I think we’re safe.’

‘We’re going to need to see,’ Rose pointed out.

‘Yeah,’ Scorpius muttered as he pulled out his wand. ‘See the herd of rampaging centaurs come to trample us to death.’

But he felt better as the lantern sparked into life at his command, and opened up all the flaps to let its illumination spread to their immediate surroundings. The good news was that the trees looked familiar. The bad news was that the Forbidden Forest all looked the same to Scorpius, and there was no path in sight, so this wasn’t especially helpful.

‘Professor Lockett had the map,’ Rose said forlornly.

‘Then we’ll have to navigate back ourselves,’ said Albus, with all of his usual fierce determination. He straightened. And stopped. ‘I have no idea where we’re going.’

‘We went south out of Hogwarts,’ said Rose, and looked up to squint at the trees. ‘If we could get a good look at the sky... maybe one of us could try to climb a tree and see if they could spot the north star, something to roughly navigate by...?’

Scorpius looked between them. ‘That’ll be me, then,’ he said tartly, knowing bulky Albus wasn’t going to have an easy time climbing, and knowing he’d never hear the end of it if he sent Rose up a tree while he sat calmly on solid ground. ‘But bugger looking for the north star, if we’re only couple of miles away from Hogwarts I should think that if I get a good view I’ll be able to see the school.’

Rose looked a bit abashed, but tilted her nose up haughtily. ‘Fine. If you think you can get high enough.’

Clearly the status quo had wasted no time in reasserting itself between the two of them.

‘I don’t see you volunteering to climb,’ muttered Scorpius, eyeing up the nearest tree and beginning to shrug out of his coat so there wasn’t too much for branches to catch on.

‘Perhaps I should; are you even sure you can find the north star if you can’t see the school?’

‘I did get a decent grade in Astronomy, thank you so much,’ he sneered. ‘I can find Ursa bloody Minor. Are you sure Polaris’ less-than-one-degree inaccuracy for due north is going to be something we can compensate for?’

She scoffed, and mercifully Albus interrupted them, sounding surprised. ‘Or we could just head for the others, over there.’

Scorpius blinked, and they all turned to where Albus was looking to, indeed, see a bead of light in the distance. He sighed. ‘Thank Merlin for that.’

‘Merlin’s got nothing to do with it; Al got us away from those centaurs,’ said Rose, and grabbed Albus himself by the sleeve. Scorpius just got a rough shove at the shoulder to move forward, but he couldn’t say he cared - he was too overcome with relief at the notion that they could find the others and get out of the miserable woodland. Whatever had upset the centaurs could wait.

But this relief would prove short-lived, for as they advanced, the bead of light grew bigger and bigger - and it became obvious that this wasn’t just a speck from a lantern. This was something large, and soon enough they could see the flickering to suggest firelight - and a lot of it.

‘Is something on -’

‘That’s a campfire,’ Scorpius interrupted Rose, and it was his turn to grab both her and Albus and yank them back a few steps, into the shadow of the nearest tall tree.

‘What? What’re you -’

‘Are you both nuts?’ Scorpius hissed at their expressions of joint bewilderment. ‘Centaurs run amok for the first time in I don’t care how long, the other three are Merlin knows where, and someone’s out camping in the Forbidden Forest? We do not just go up and say hello!’

Albus frowned. ‘What if that is the others?’

‘What, right after the stampede of centaurs which they had to have heard from here, they decided to light up a big old fire? Lockett’s not that dumb. And something spooked the centaurs.’

Rose looked in the direction of the dull glow of firelight. ‘It’s not spooked these people.’

‘Did it occur to you, Weasley, that they might be what spooked them?’

Silence fell on them, until Albus drew a deep breath. ‘So what do we do? They might have a perfectly good reason to be out here.’

Nobody goes into the Forbidden Forest for a perfectly good reason,’ growled Scorpius, and peered around the tree. ‘But something’s going on. You two stay here; I’m going to take a look.’

Rose turned on him. ‘You’re what?’

Somebody’s got to find out what’s going on.’

‘But why you?’

‘Because I can run faster than you if it goes wrong,’ said Scorpius, jerking a finger in her direction, ‘and he is not big enough to sneak up on anyone with better eyesight than Professor Flitwick.’ This last was at Albus, who finally looked shamefaced for having cracked a height a sasquatch would be proud of.

Albus shifted his weight. ‘Are you -’

‘Something’s going on out here,’ Scorpius cut him off. ‘We have no idea what spooked the centaurs, no idea where Lockett and the others are, and are we really just going to turn around and head back to Hogwarts ignoring this?’

Albus subsided, looking deeply unhappy, and Rose made a face. ‘Be careful.’

But her voice had dropped and she sounded legitimately, quietly worried, and it was all a little bit too real for Scorpius to happily deal with while his heart was thudding in his chest loud enough for him to hear it.

He smirked. ‘Don’t worry, Weasley. I’ll come back. Every time.’

He was relieved to see her expression give that twitch of disapproval he knew so well, and the familiarity of her dry tone of voice was infinitely welcoming when she responded. ‘I knew my luck was rotten.’

Albus gave him a clap on the shoulder and, thus reassured, Scorpius ducked around the side of the tree and away from them. It wasn’t as if he had particularly more experience of sneaking around other than trying to avoid prefects when stealthing his way along the corridors at nights, but he stood by what he’d said: something was rotten and somebody needed to get to the bottom of it.

It was just logic, rather than nerves, that had him as the one prowling around in the darkness to investigate.

Certainly he’d been right. There was a campfire ahead, a big one, and it was so visible because they were approaching the outskirts of a small clearing in the woodland. Scorpius hunkered down to crawl along the undergrowth, feeling thick and uncomfortable roots underfoot, but it was still enough to keep him as just one more featureless shape in a sea of gloomy featureless shapes.

Then, through the light, in the clearing, he thought he saw movement - people, perhaps, one, two - no, more. People, and the soft sound of voices wafting over in his direction, not talking, far, far too rhythmic for talking.

Chanting. Incanting. Casting.

He froze, putting his shoulder to a tree trunk and hiding in its shadow, wondering if he dared press on. He stood by what he’d said before: nobody had good reason to be in the Forbidden Forest. But was he going to find out anything from looking closer, or was it best to leave, get back to Albus and Rose, head back to Hogwarts, let someone actually halfway responsible deal with it?

While he was still fussing over his options, a smell hit him - and it was enough to almost make him gag. The stench of rotting crept into his nostrils, putrid decomposition crawling down his throat as if the air was permeated with death and decay thick enough to be felt if he reached out his hand. He doubled over, a hand clamping over his mouth to try to fight the stench, to try to fight the roiling in his stomach, and felt his throat open up for a dry heave.

And just as he thought he’d got it over control, just as he thought his body was going to follow his commands instead of be brought low by this all-permeating foulness, he lifted his head to see the light of the campfire growing brighter.

Only it wasn’t flickering orange, now - it was silvery, if silver could be tinged with shadow, and billowing outwards like fire never would, faster than fire ever would, an expanding orb of light rocketing out from the centre of the clearing, over and past the figures and their chanting and through the odour that surrounded him, and right at him.

And the last thing Scorpius remembered from that night was the blinding light and the putrescent stench.



Chapter 6: Afterburn
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There was light, but he couldn't move. His limbs were pinned down tight, too tight, and though he kicked and flailed and struggled he still couldn't get loose -

'Easy! Easy.'

Then he was released, and a gentle hand was at his shoulder, and reality rushed in at the edges. Scorpius looked around sluggishly, and relaxed as he realised he hadn't been constrained, he was just in a bed whose sheets had been tucked in too tightly around him and were now loosened. In the Hogwarts Infirmary, to boot.

Then he realised it was Rose Weasley bent over him, and squinted up at her. He smirked toothily. 'Well, hello sunshine.'

Surprise crossed her face - then disgust, and she pulled back. 'Ugh, you manage to go from unconscious to obnoxious in a flat second -'

'Oh, no, you can't lie, Weasley, you were concerned - your nose did this little crinkle which is entirely different to the crinkle it does when I'm pissing you off, I should know, I pay close attention to these crinkles -'

But he, too, was giving too much away, and he sat up as she pulled back, letting the details of his surroundings sink in. It was daytime, probably around midday from the sunlight streaming in through the windows; a quick glance around showed the Infirmary was quiet, none of the other beds in occupation, Madam Pheasey at her desk at the far end of the ward near the door. He supposed she would come to see him soon, but the tall, broad shape of Professor Stubbs was bent over in conversation with her and they would provide no interruption.

'I'm only here because Al asked me to keep an eye on you,' said Rose, folding her arms across her chest as she stepped away from the bed. 'You're the last one of us to wake up. The others have all been released, and Al went to go see Lily to let her know he's all right.'

Scorpius scrubbed his face with his hands and looked down at himself to see he was still in the same clothes as last night - or, the last night that he remembered - and so was Rose. He felt surprisingly all right - or was it surprising, since he had no idea what had transpired? Either way his head was light but he could concentrate, his muscles ached but nothing beyond what running for his life from centaurs would cause, and as the grogginess faded he couldn't put a finger on why he'd been unconscious in the first place.

Though his mouth did taste a bit gummy, and he swung his legs around to sit at the side of the bed. 'What happened?'

'We don't really know. We woke up here, everyone's fine. They said when we didn't come back last night they sent a search party first thing this morning and found us a couple of miles into the woods, together, passed out. They brought us back here; it's about one o'clock, now...'

'Together?' Scorpius echoed, and frowned. 'We weren't together, or - what's the last thing you remember?'

'That was what we were going to ask you, my boy,' boomed the deep voice of Professor Stubbs, and Scorpius looked up to see the Headmaster approaching the bed, Madam Pheasey fussing in his wake.

'I should check him over, Professor -'

'I'm okay.' Scorpius waved a dismissive hand. 'Really, I feel fine, except I'm a whole world of confused.'

'As are we. Hagrid and the others brought the six of you in this morning. Professor Lockett woke up an hour ago, but we're not entirely sure what happened.'

Scorpius rubbed his temples. 'What did they all say?'

Stubbs stroked his rather magnificent whiskers. 'That you separated a little in the course of the detention - and were separated further by a sudden stampede of centaurs. Professor Lockett, Mister Jones, and Miss Rourke were apparently on their way back to Hogwarts for help when they experienced what they've all described as a flash of bright light emanating from somewhere deeper in the woodlands, and they passed out.'

'That's much what happened to us,' Rose said, as if she'd stated this before. 'Except...' She looked at Scorpius.

'Mister Potter and Miss Weasley said you found what looked like a campfire out in the woodlands,' said Stubbs. 'But they also said you went to take a closer look.'

'I did.' Scorpius frowned as he tried to remember. 'It was a campfire. There were people out there, maybe half a dozen of them? I didn't see much, just... shapes in the dark, silhouettes against the fire. And then that bright, blinding flash of light. It came from them, I think they were chanting or something. I didn't recognise any of it, though.'

Stubbs' expression had gone rather serious, though he didn't stop tugging at his whiskers. 'Chanting. And people.'

'And we weren't together before the flash of light,' said Scorpius anxiously. 'I mean, we were found like that? We weren't. I haven't even seen Professor Lockett and the others since we split up to look for mushrooms. What's going on, Professor?'

'Nothing good,' said the Headmaster. 'Madam Pheasey has examined you all and found nothing wrong.'

'We were unconscious,' said Rose, looking skeptically at the matron.

'It seems likely this flash, or blast, was an expelling of magical energy,' was the cool, calm answer. Madam Pheasey didn't take well to having her skills or diagnoses questioned. 'Sometimes a sudden, overwhelming wave of such magic can overload what a witch or wizard is capable of coping with, and the body shuts down as a defence mechanism. Effectively harmless.'

'So long as you don't bang your head when you fall down,' said Scorpius chirpily, but his smile became fixed as he looked at Stubbs. 'So what're you going to do, Professor?'

Stubbs looked serious, but seemed to realise he was dealing with students, and he forced a smile. 'Everything will be in hand, Mister Malfoy. The Ministry will be sending some officers down today, and Professor Lockett can no doubt direct them to where they need to look -'

'Professor Lockett didn't see that clearing, sir.'

Rose looked at him. 'Malfoy... could you even find the place again? We were a bit lost.' She spoke more gently than usual, and his surprise at her not taking the opportunity to correct him sharply was enough to make him, for once, listen to her.

He hesitated. 'I don't know. But I could try.'

'We'll see,' said Stubbs in the way grown-ups did when they were trying to appease people they viewed as children. 'In the meantime, don't be concerned about it. Everyone's unharmed, and it's probably nothing more than some young 'uns fooling around in the woods at night.'

But his eyes made it clear he didn't believe what he was saying himself, and so instead Scorpius looked at Madam Peasey. 'Are we both good to go?'

'Miss Weasley has been perfectly fine to go even if she's been sat here for the last hour,' said Peasey with a hint of irritation. 'I see no reason to keep you behind. But come back the moment you feel anything even remotely strange.'

Scorpius hopped to his feet as the two adults left, straightening his bedraggled hefty, practical clothing. He quirked an eyebrow at Rose. 'An hour, Weasley? You waited for me for that long?'

'You took longer than anyone else to wake up.' Rose stuck her nose in the air. 'And Albus was worried.'

She turned to go, and he fell into step beside her, smirking. 'Oh, yes. Albus was worried. Come on, admit it, Weasley, you were agonising.'

'Agonising, yes, over whether or not I'd be rid of you for good.'

But he would swear he could see the hint of a smile tugging at the corner of her lips, and he stuck his hands in his pockets as they headed for the doors out of the Infirmary. 'And then your life would be so much less interesting.'

'Try annoying. Think of all I could get done in the peace and quiet without you?'

'I know, things like work, and reading, and wouldn't it all be so terribly boring?'

She actually looked like she was, maybe, going to laugh - and then they stepped out into the corridor and there, waiting by the Infirmary doors with bedraggled hair and bags under his eyes, stood Hector Flynn with the most forlorn face Scorpius had ever seen him wear. He must have stolen it off a particular upset first year.

'Oh, babe, you're out, you must have been in there for ages - your brother said you were okay, but...'

Rose's smile died for a frown of guilt, and Scorpius tried to not gape as he put two and two together. But she went to her boyfriend, who pulled her into a bear hug and Scorpius could only wonder if he knew how to properly use his freakish size and strength to not crush her in the embrace.

'I'm fine! I didn't mean to keep you worrying, I just...'

Then she pulled back, and Scorpius knew she had no excuse for why she'd kept Flynn outside waiting while she'd sat at his, Scorpius', bedside to make sure he would be all right. Even promises to Albus would probably not suffice.

And so Scorpius was unsurprised when Flynn turned his gaze darkly upon him. 'This loser kept you behind?'

Scorpius sighed. 'How the hell, Flynn, could I detain her in the Infirmary, even if I wanted to?'

But the last five words came out with more of a sneer than he meant, and suddenly instead of sniping at Flynn, he'd sniped at Rose - as if he wouldn't ever have wanted her company in the Infirmary, and just as quickly as she'd opened her mouth to forestall Flynn, she snapped it shut again with an expression of distant hurt.

Flynn squared his shoulders. 'I don't know, Malfoy, but I know she wouldn't have even been out there last night if it hadn't been for you.'

'Yes, Flynn. I made her hex me in the face, I made Professor Lockett take us out to the Forbidden Forest, and I totally made the Forbidden Forest become a place of crazy danger overnight. For someone who insults me all the time, Flynn, you have a rather high opinion of my capabilities!'

Flynn snorted. 'Someone's got to.'

Scorpius extended a hand. 'Oh, come now. That's the retort you're going to go with? I'll play fair, Flynn, I'll let you have another go at that one. I'll be a gentleman even if you never are -'

Flynn's eyes flashed, but that was where Rose finally put a hand on his arm, expression going abruptly weary. 'Hector? He's not worth it, and I... think I want to go see Hugo and get some sleep.'

Scorpius looked at her and opened his mouth, but realised that while there were several things he wanted to say - to apologise, to hope she was all right, to express regret if he'd made her uncomfortable while she waited for him in the Infirmary - he knew none of them would go down well in front of Hector, and so would be wholly unhelpful in making her feel better.

'Yeah,' he said instead. 'I'll go see Albus.'

And he left before Flynn could say something else, or before he could say something he'd regret, and without letting his gaze linger on Rose for more than another split second he shoved his hands back in his pocket and turned to slope down the corridor.

He ached. Regardless of any magical waves or whatever Madam Pheasey wanted to say had happened to them, he knew what it was like to exert himself after a wave of adrenaline and fear, and knew he was paying for their mad dash through the woodlands. But it was worth it, if it meant they didn't wind up trampled or murdered by rampaging centaurs.

He'd suffered worse than this.

He found Albus down through the front doors, out at the bottom of the steps. In September they were still granted the occasional flash of summertime, and this Saturday was no exception. The student body knew to take advantage of the good weather as it lasted, and so that was either where Albus had found his sister or the two of them had wandered out there, now sat at the foot of the steps, bathed in sunshine.

They had their backs to him, and Scorpius hesitated as he wandered down the steps. He was anxious about intruding on family time on the best of occasions, and this wasn't it. Did they want more time to themselves after the worry of their going missing the previous night? Was Albus still angry with him after the row the previous day, even if it now felt like a lifetime ago?

Best to wait, he figured, and turned on his heel - just as Lily glanced over her shoulder and spotted him. 'Hey! No running off, Scorpius!'

Scorpius froze, guilty, but Albus turned and got to his feet, and within seconds he'd bounded up the steps between them wearing a great big silly grin and had clapped him on the shoulder. 'You're out!' He hesitated. 'Rose didn't walk out on you, did she?'

'She followed your orders to the letter, don't you worry.' But Scorpius couldn't stop grinning as Albus relaxed. 'Are you okay?'

'Me? Fine! It was you we were worried about, sneaking off like that, not waking up when the rest of us did. Did Stubbs talk to you?'

'Yeah, they're going to talk to the Ministry, have some people check it out. Grown-up stuff. I bet they'll only talk to us if there's anything Lockett can't answer,' Scorpius waved a hand, and they went to perch on the steps down where Albus had been sat and Lily remained, her expression open and curious. 'So I bet it's all around the school.'

'That Crazy Malfoy got the detention attacked by centaurs in the Forbidden Forest?' Lily offered.

Scorpius grinned. 'That's what they're saying? Outstanding.'

'It's not,' said Albus.

'Nobody knows what's going on,' said Lily in a matter-of-fact manner. 'So they'll believe pretty much whatever they're told. That's how the best rumours start.'

'Little Potter has the truth of it.'

She stuck her tongue out at him. 'You said I got to be "Potter" from now on.'

'I know, but isn't just plain "Potter" so dull?' Scorpius scratched his head. 'What about something more exciting, like Omega Potter?'

'Then you're mixing Latin and Greek, if James was Potter Prime.'

Scorpius looked flatly at Albus. 'Your sister reads too many books.'

'Some of us like good exam results,' said Lily.

Scorpius clutched his hand across his heart. 'You wound me, Potter. And I only call you that because "Ultima Potter" sounds a bit sinister.'

'So you are feeling recovered,' said Albus dryly.

Scorpius gave a broad, toothy grin. It seemed that, even if Albus harboured any lingering anger towards him over the Potions incident, he was inclined to put it to one side. Albus wasn't fickle by nature; he doubted he'd go back to being angry with him when he stopped being worried, but even if he did Scorpius was quite happy to lap up the attention like an overly keen labrador.

'How're the others?' he asked instead. 'Jones and Selena were long gone.'

'Lockett's fine,' said Albus. 'And Jones and Selena have gone right back to normal.'

'Her no longer crawling up his arse the moment he's not the only person she's deigned worthy of spending her time with?'

Albus' expression pinched. 'More like him sweeping right off back to the Library the moment he was up and allowed to go as if she'd never existed.'

'Well, I'm sure she'll struggle to recover from the body blow of a catch like Methuselah Jones slipping through her fingers. I'm surprised she was giving him the time of day to begin with.'

'Because you're still persona non grata, which makes me persona non grata by association, and I honestly think she'd die before she tried to ally herself with Rose.'

Scorpius scratched his nose. 'We are using a hell of a lot of Latin here today.'

'But seriously, Scorp.' Albus frowned at him. 'What did you see?'

'In the clearing?' He sighed. 'Nothing much, really. Just what I told Stubbs. There were people out there, a small group of them, and I don't think it was just a bonfire. It was big, really big. If you and the others saw this wave of blinding magical light, I think I saw, I don't know, the start of it?'

'People?' Lily leant forwards. 'What were they doing?'

'Chanting? That's what it sounded like. I couldn't make anything out. Seemed ritualistic, though. But I never took Arithmancy, I wouldn't have a bloody clue what they were up to.'

Albus looked sternly at Lily. 'Don't you go spreading rumours, now. The Headmaster will deal with it.'

'Oh, really, Al, I've got the centaur thing to keep me busy all day. But people expect me to know what's going on - you're my brother and Rose wouldn't tell Hugo anything juicy.'

'I bet Flynn was hanging around the common room for her,' said Scorpius, gaze going distant.

'For her, or for information on her. Like a lost lamb.' But Lily still grinned, even if Scorpius couldn't find it in his heart to be angry at her. She was young enough that a foolish fixation with the fact that Hector Flynn's face was allegedly pleasing to look at could be forgiven. 'He went down like a shot when I told him she'd gone back down after seeing Hugo.'

'We were going to take it in turns to keep an eye on you,' said Albus, and fiddled with his sleeve. 'I think she was a bit worried, you know.'

'I know,' said Scorpius calmly. 'I promise I won't let her know you told me that.'

A pained expression crossed his face. 'That's not -'

'I'm hungry,' said Scorpius on an impulse. 'Is lunch still on? I want lunch.'

Albus looked up as he stood. 'Lunch? Something weird's happened in the Forest and you want lunch?'

'The Headmaster knows. The Ministry knows. They'll probably send your Dad to check everything out and then he'll save the day, and then, there'll be cake.' Scorpius liked cake. 'So I say we go have some tea in the meantime.'

'But...'

'Scorpius sometimes talks sense, Al, you should listen to him when he does.'

'Your support, Potter, is appreciated as always.' He gave her a little mock-bow and she rolled her eyes at him again. 'But she's right. Come on, Al. Let's get some food inside you, or you'll stop growing. You know we couldn't possibly have that.'

Albus grumbled and looked concerned, but he still went along with it, and by the time the two of them were wandering into the Great Hall, Lily having detached herself to go seek her friends out, everything felt like it was normal. It was a bright, sunny Saturday. The whole of the year was stretched out before them - with hard study, yes, but also Quidditch, and the promise of upsetting Hector Flynn even more. And Albus appeared to have, if not forgotten Scorpius' transgression, then at least forgiven him for it.

Perhaps being terrified out of his wits in the Forbidden Forest was considered adequate punishment.

The school was rumbling with the rumours of what had happened that night, and this for once put the two of them firmly back in the centre of positive attention. Even over lunch they found themselves harassed on all quarters. Selena Rourke wasn't considered the most approachable person by other houses, and there was no way either Methuselah Jones or Rose Weasley would farm this opportunity for attention.

But Scorpius was happy to regale one and all who came to them over dinner time with a blow-by-blow account of the evening's hijinks, and the more Albus rolled his eyes, the more heroic he made his friend's saving them from the centaurs sound. It was just as well that lunch ended when it did, else there was a high risk of the story ending up being that Albus had fought off a hundred centaurs with only a broken branch, shirtless.

Even people like Oakes and Bellamy, even Selena herself and Abena Tau, were inclined to listen, because if nothing else Scorpius knew how to tell an entertaining tale and however much Miranda might give them their marching orders, they weren't going to miss a good show.

It was possible, he wondered, just possible, that everything might go back to normal. That this excitement might override old upset. That he could stop having to watch his every word and every move in case it backfired in his face, and Scorpius' heart soared at the prospect.

Then, as lunch ended and the groups filtered out at their own pace, he saw Rose walking out hand in hand with the bulky form of Hector Flynn, and he couldn't help but scowl.

He was still wearing that scowl when he and Albus left the Hall, and still wearing it when he almost walked straight into the tall and usually hard-to-miss figure of Miranda Travers, lurking outside and for once looking rather naked without the support of her entourage of Selena and Abena, pale in the gloom of the hallway with the bright sun outside.

She stepped back as he staggered, and gave a smile that didn't quite reach her eyes. 'Scorpius.'

He froze, good mood almost entirely fizzled out by now. 'Miranda.'

She smiled at Albus, stood warily at Scorpius' side like a big watchdog, and tilted her head. 'Albus.'

Scorpius knew that tone. It was the tone she used when she was politely trying to get Albus to go away so they could talk in private, and usually it was a prelude to bad things. But thwarting her would also be a prelude to bad things, so he glanced at his friend and gave him a wan, reassuring smile.

Albus grimaced. 'I'll just... be over there,' he mumbled, not bothering to come up with an excuse in the midst of this facade, and wandered towards the main doors. He lurked in the open doorway, big frame silhouetted against the sunlight, and Scorpius could only be reassured that if something went down, there would be witnesses.

Not that there weren't plenty, people still passing by the Great Hall in their dozens on their way about their Saturday business, but Scorpius liked the idea that at least one of them would be on his side. He fixed his gaze on Miranda. 'What can I do for you?'

She played with a lock of dark hair in an innocent manner he knew to be entirely deceptive and yet was very distracting. 'Are you all right? I heard from Selena what happened...'

'She's all right, isn't she?'

'Yes, but they said you got nearer to whatever it was.' A frown marred her perfect brow. 'That you went to investigate. That sounds awfully risky, you couldn't have had any idea what was going on -'

'And I still don't,' said Scorpius, suddenly very weary. 'What do you want, Miranda?'

Her eyes flashed with brief indignation, but the mask of control slipped back across her face almost as quickly. 'Can't a girl express concern, Scorpius, really?'

'Sure. But a girl can also have an ulterior motive, and you, Miranda, are all about the ulterior motive.'

The frown came back. 'That's unkind.'

'And yet, true.' He shoved his hands in his pockets. 'Come on, let's not beat about the bush. What is it? Now I'm the centre of attention for another fifteen minutes you can't get away with trying to make me a social pariah? People don't want to listen to you if you're telling them to stay away from the guy with the interesting story, so you've got to change your tune?'

She tilted her jaw defiantly, but looked rather unsteady about herself. 'You must have a rather low opinion of me if you're making that sort of accusation.'

Scorpius' lip curled. 'Gee, now why would I have a low opinion of you? Why would I think you're going to do whatever you think you have to in order to keep everyone's attention, everyone's good opinion, on you, no matter what bullshit you have to spill? Now, if I said something mean, surely you could go run again to your good mate Flynn to weep on his shoulder, I'm sure he'd love it just as much as -'

Looking back, it was hard to tell when everything changed. She'd looked a bit pale, a bit drawn, since the conversation had begun, but he'd thought it was nothing more than a trick of the light. And as they'd continued she'd looked less steady, on her feet and about herself, but he'd just thought it was his words hitting home, finally making an impact where they'd bounced before.

So while the warning signs had been there, he'd ignored them. Ignored each and every one until her eyes lost focus as he spouted his righteous vitriol, the colour drained completely from her face, and before he could finish the crowning point on his accusation, she cut him off.

Not by talking. But, rather, by bending over as her mouth opened for a spray of blood to spatter down on the smooth stone floor, his messy clothes, and, even as he caught her before she collapsed, leave stains across her perfect porcelain skin.


Chapter 7: Fever Pitch
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Miranda hung limp and heavy in his arms, like one of Madam Malkin’s mannequins that had run out of magic. Scorpius had always thought of her as tall, one of the few girls he didn’t have to really crane his neck to kiss, but a lot of it was still composure and presence. Now, pale and with blood spattered down her chin and front, she was unfathomably small to him.

And yet impossibly heavy.

The traffic outside the Great Hall, either keen to ignore an altercation between Scorpius and Miranda or wholly uncaring of the unwinding politics, had skidded to a halt, just as frozen as he was. In that second Scorpius’ eyes went to the door to where Albus stood. ‘Al,’ he croaked. ‘Help me.’

Then Albus was by his side, helping him adjust his grip and lift Miranda properly into his arms. And as the crowds in the corridor broke into a panicked hubbub of uncertainty behind them, without another word the two set off to return to the Infirmary.

‘Madam Pheasey!’ Scorpius called the moment they were inside. ‘We’ve got a, er, emergency, she -’

Then they rounded the corner to see Miranda wasn’t the only unconscious person in there. Madam Pheasey stood in the middle of the two rows of beds, half a dozen students either already in beds or being lifted into them by panicked friends and a couple of teachers. The invalids were all pale, unconscious, and most of them also with blood spattered down their fronts.

When Madam Pheasey looked at the three of them, her eyes shone with dull dread - and not a jot of surprise. ‘Get her into a bed.’

‘Madam Pheasey, what’s -’

She pointed to an empty bed from her left, her tone flat, emotionless, and utterly professional. ‘Do I look like I have time to explain, Mister Malfoy? Get her into a bed. And I’ll see to her just as soon as I’ve seen to everyone else.’

All they could do was as they were told, to move to one of the beds and lay Miranda down awkwardly in it, and Scorpius found himself dithering in uncertainty until Albus was at his side, grabbing him by the elbow and dragging him back over to Madam Pheasey. ‘What can we do to help?’

So then they were fetching and carrying, bringing soothing salves across to the the beds, blood replenishing potions to have on standby, and anything else they could do to as Madam Pheasey went from bed to bed, casting her diagnostic spells, and looking more and more troubled even as she said nothing.

Within ten minutes the majority of those still upright had greatly diminished as another three unconscious students were brought in - Saxby of Ravenclaw amongst them. Madam Pheasey dismissed the able-bodied students who were no use to her - too young, too distressed - and rounded up the rest to help.

After ten minutes, the first of these complained of light-headedness and nausea, and was instructed to sit down.

They grew only paler over the subsequent five minutes until Professor Stubbs appeared.

‘Eleven students, Headmaster,’ said Madam Pheasey as Stubbs walked in, clearly past caring about worrying the children still present. ‘And that’s just over half an hour.’

Thaddeus Stubbs, Headmaster of Hogwarts, normally wore a look of confident disinterest. Nothing seemed to faze him, from hijinks in the corridors to Ministerial meddling; he bore it all with a stout gruffness and bull-headed determination, an air of being so above it all as to be untouchable. He’d even worn that mask mostly successfully that morning, to Scorpius’ eye, when he’d been told about the goings-on down at the Forbidden Forest, which now might as well have been a thousand years ago.

This was the first time Scorpius had seen him worried.

‘What are the symptoms?’ he asked, going to Madam Pheasey and following her like a lost dog as she went from bed to bed.

‘It begins with light-headedness and nausea, which will be followed by the patient feeling cold and beginning to perspire. Shortly after they’re losing consciousness; some are vomiting blood beforehand, though so far not in quantities to make me worried about the blood loss, as a small mercy, and I don’t have a case that’s advanced in symptoms since then.’

‘Is this serious? Is this magical? Is there anything you can do about this?’

‘I don’t know, I don’t know, and I don’t know.’ Madam Pheasey looked up from where she had been bent over Saxby to give the Headmaster a worried look. ‘All I can do is get to work, Headmaster.’

Stubbs tugged at his whiskers. ‘I’m going to get on the Floo to Saint Mungo’s and the Ministry -’

Madam Pheasey started, before anyone could blink she had moved to position herself between Stubbs and the door. ‘With respect, Headmaster, you’re not.’

‘I’m not?’

‘I don’t know what’s going on yet, truly - but this is very likely a contagion, Headmaster, and I have yet to isolate how it’s spreading. Until I can identify that, sharing air along a Floo line, even sending out paper that’s been handled by someone who’s been potentially exposed, all have the risk of taking this illness beyond Hogwarts’ walls. Hogwarts is an isolated place. It should remain so until we know anything more.’

Stubbs’ jaw dropped, and he worked it wordlessly for several seconds, before clearing his throat. ‘I already sent a letter to the Ministry this morning, Madam Pheasey - it’s too late to -’

‘It most certainly is not. If this is serious, we cannot risk spreading this rather rapidly developing illness even further.’

Stubbs folded his arms across his chest. ‘And how am I supposed to tell the outside world that something’s going on at Hogwarts; how am I supposed to tell the outside world that we need help and that we need them, until we know more, to stay away?’

Silence fell upon those still on their feet in the Infirmary, all of whom were staring at the exchange. Even Pheasey didn’t have an answer, though she still wore a look of gimlet determination, clearly not budging.

Then Scorpius found his voice, and inspiration, and cleared his throat. ‘...what about a portrait, Headmaster? There’s a Headmistress Lillyvick in your office, and there’s one in Saint Mungo’s...’

Stubbs turned, looking as if he’d forgotten anyone else was there, and snapped his jaw shut. ‘Good idea, Malfoy.’

Scorpius hurried to fall into step beside him on the way to the door. ‘Headmaster, do you think this has anything to do with what happened out in the Forest?’

‘I don’t know, Malfoy, but now’s not the time to -’

‘I mean, it’s recent, and who knows what the people out there were -’

‘Malfoy!’ Stubbs growled, glaring at him out of the corner of his eye. ‘I don’t know. I don’t have answers. Stop with the wild conjecture, and just make yourself useful. One step at a time.’

Then he swept through the doors, leaving a rather lost Scorpius Malfoy to watch the Headmaster step around the two well-built Quidditch players who came in, dragging a third, familiar shape between them. Under the circumstances, even Scorpius couldn’t drum up satisfaction at the sight of Hector Flynn slumped and barely conscious.

And he certainly couldn’t drum up any satisfaction as he saw Rose following in her boyfriend’s wake, almost as pale as he was.

Scorpius side-stepped the procession of Quidditch players and was at her side quickly, hand coming to her elbow before he could stop himself. ‘You’re not feeling light-headed, nauseous, are you?’ he said, eyes running across her face.

She frowned. ‘I’m fine,’ she said, so hotly he had to believe her. ‘It’s Hector; he fell off his broom, Malfoy...’

Rose stepped past him, going to follow the Hufflepuff Quidditch players as they got their captain to join the ranks lining the beds, and before Scorpius could move after her, apologise, explain, or even help, there were more students coming in through the doors, pushing in between them, some of them being dragged by friends and most of them looking far, far worse than Rose had.

Whatever was happening, it was happening quickly.


* *


It was shortly before what would normally be dinner time that the message went out to all corners of the school for everyone - everyone who could, that was - to make their way to the Great Hall. This was almost six hours since the first student had been admitted to the Infirmary, and in that time, according to Madam Pheasey, a full third of Hogwarts had begun to show symptoms.

The Infirmary was becoming overrun. At first, any sickly student who was still conscious was sent instead to their dorm room to rest; while Madam Pheasey still voiced her concerns about contamination, there was obviously little point in trying to isolate the sick when they came from all Houses, all years. Whatever the illness was, it was in the school now, and all the unafflicted could do was hope.

But within another hour, unconsciousness alone qualifying a student for a bed in the infirmary was pushing matters; someone suggested converting the Great Hall, but the Matron insisted that, too, would likely be overrun at the current rate. All they could do was keep only the illest, the ones who needed close attention, in the Infirmary. Everyone else had to be put up in their dormitories to rest. Teachers and prefects were rounded up to supervise and do what they could to tend to them.

Which, considering Madam Pheasey herself had failed to so much as put a dent in any symptoms yet or develop a sophisticated diagnosis, was very little more than keep an eye on the ill. Scorpius himself had stayed in the Infirmary, refusing to be kicked out by Madam Pheasey even when Albus and Rose had left to conduct their prefect duties. Miranda was amongst those still in the Infirmary, amongst the students where blood loss remained a serious concern, and he couldn’t help but linger.

Still, when the summons came to the Great Hall, Madam Pheasey sent him packing along with every other helper.

Scorpius had never seen so few numbers gathered for any kind of announcement in there, with barely more than half the student body in attendance, others all incapacitated or still remaining at bedsides. Not all prefects had been kept behind, though, as Scorpius could see Albus at the Slytherin table, and went to join him. Neither one of them said a word.

Up at the front, there were several notable faces missing from the staff. Obviously Madam Pheasey remained in the Infirmary. Stubbs was there, as was a pale-faced Lockett and others. Professor Sprout was probably still supervising in Hufflepuff House, but Scorpius knew that Tully’s absence was not because his Head of House was in the dungeons, but he, too, had been taken ill.

Even if this situation had only been going on for six hours, Professor Stubbs looked as if he’d aged about ten years. He stood at the Headmaster’s podium with little of his usual forthright strength, simply waited there with his hands on the plinth and stared at them all until what little mumbling there was grew silent.

‘You must all know what has been going on here.’ He spoke quietly, his voice a rough grumble, but it still echoed across the Hall. ‘Hogwarts has been struck by a terrible affliction we still don’t understand. I shan’t sugar-coat the situation for you: We know very little of what is going on.

‘What we do know is that this illness is striking quick and hard. You all know what symptoms to look out for - do so. Don’t be stubborn, or ignorant. If you see the signs in yourself or in your friends, rest immediately or make them rest. Don’t accept excuses. Don’t make excuses. If it’s bad, get to the Infirmary. Otherwise, get to your dorm rooms and make sure a prefect or a teacher knows. I need everyone to look out for one another, so nobody is left alone, nobody is unattended. After this meeting, everyone is to return to their common rooms, and a teacher will be there to make sure everyone is accounted for.

‘Madam Pheasey is working hard to combat this illness. She has been able to make the afflicted comfortable and keep them stable. Nobody is in any danger of serious harm.’ Stubbs gave a smile which didn’t reach his eyes, and while Scorpius didn’t think the Headmaster was lying, he heard the unspoken “or death” in his word, along with the ominous “yet”.

‘She does believe this is magical in nature; which is good, because Hogwarts has a bit of experience at dealing with magic. She also believes that even those not suffering from this illness have still been exposed to it and so are potential carriers. I have been in communication with the Ministry, and they are fully aware of the situation.’

Stubbs looked down, clearly dreading what he was about to say. ‘By Ministerial edict, Hogwarts is under quarantine. Nobody is to leave the grounds, and no witch or wizard is to approach. Until we better understand the nature of this affliction, we are not to communicate with the outside world by Floo or by letter.’

A hubbub broke out at this, worried and panicked mutterings, especially from the younger students - and with a pang, Scorpius realised that for many of them this was their first week at Hogwarts, ever. For some, it would be their very first exposure to the magical world.

He didn’t envy them.

Stubbs lifted a hand, but they did not quieten; he cleared his throat and took a deep breath. ‘Silence.’

Silence did, indeed, fall, and the wide, terrified eyes of the students of Hogwarts turned on their weary Headmaster, who didn’t look as if he had many answers for them. ‘We still have methods of communicating with the outside world,’ he continued, though this was little comfort. ‘And Madam Pheasey is ensuring the best minds of the wizarding world are furnished with her findings. Every resource the Ministry, every resource magical Britain, has to hand will be focused on bringing this problem to an end. Have no doubt - this shall not last.’

Scorpius did doubt, at least, that Stubbs could know such a thing, but he had to respect that the Headmaster was rather good at making it sound like he certainly believed it.

‘And you are, right now, in one of the best possible places. We may be at risk, but we are in a good position to answer that risk. We have some of the best minds and best resources here to hand or easily contacted. We have the facilities to keep the sick stable and comfortable while we bring this situation to an end. If anything can be done, then it is here, at Hogwarts, where it shall be done.

‘I encourage all of you before me, those still hale and hearty, to be patient, and to be calm. Classes are of course suspended until further notice; I encourage you all to do your part to support Madam Pheasey and the staff in keeping the situation under control.’

Scorpius scowled. ‘In what world does he think we have this “under control”?’ he muttered, and got a sharp elbow in the ribs from Albus for his troubles.

‘Do not fall to panic. Follow the instructions of your teachers and your prefects; they are, now more than ever, here for your continued safety. Do not wander the school alone; stay with a friend, and be mindful of your health and theirs. Nobody is helped by you soldiering on if you feel ill, but refuse to admit it.’

Idly Scorpius wondered if Stubbs was taking his own advice, from how pale and worn he looked.

‘As soon as we know anything, so will you all. But stay safe, stay calm, and we will get through this all. Thank you for your time. Please follow your prefects and assigned teachers back to your common rooms.’

The students began to file out, but they had been in some disarray to start, and as the Houses clumped together at the big doors, Scorpius found himself not next to Albus - who had moved to the front, as one of the few Slytherin prefects on his feet - but with the lofty form of Methuselah Jones by his side.

‘Serious issue, Malfoy,’ Jones hissed down at him, as if he thought this was discreet.

Scorpius blinked up. ‘Yeah, Jones. Plague. I know.’

‘No.’ Jones shook his head. ‘You mistake me. These circumstances. Not random. Deliberate infection. No natural magical illnesses match any of these symptoms -’

‘Do any unnatural magical illnesses match?’

‘No. But could be made. Created. Requires significant investment of magical power - the like of which was witnessed last night in the Forbidden Forest.’

Scorpius winced. On the one hand, he didn’t strictly disagree with Jones’ hypothesis - the timing was really too unfortunate for any other conclusions to be reached, though he appreciated the fact that Hogwarts was too busy reeling and trying to minimise damage to go out and stage an investigation. And Jones was highly-strung enough to leap to all sorts of conclusions, he suspected.

‘Perhaps, but have you gone and told the Headmaster about this?’

‘I have,’ said Jones, bobbing his head. ‘As have you - what you witnessed last night. He expresses something will be done. But they have lives to save. People to care for. Not expeditions to send out to the Forest. And they should.’

Another wince. ‘I really don’t know what I saw last night, Jones.’

‘You could tell me. I could research it, or you could show me the location. We are in the way so long as we are of limited aid to Madam Pheasey or unafflicted. In this, we could contribute. Help.’

Scorpius opened his mouth, even if he didn’t know what he was going to say. He couldn’t disagree with Jones’ logic, nor could he deny that he wanted to do something, and fetching and carrying for Madam Pheasey seemed quite pointless - or at least, something anyone could do. His doubt remained with one instinct howling at him from his bones: Albus would tell him not to.

But before he could respond there was a quick shout from Professor Bagnet, Head of Ravenclaw, from the front of the columns. They had lingered too long outside of the doors from the Great Hall, and most of the students were going their separate ways, being funnelled off to their separate houses.

‘Talk later, Malfoy, Jones. Get with your Houses.’

Scorpius gave Bagnet a nod, and shrugged at Jones. ‘Look, it’s a good idea. But we’re just students. Professor Stubbs has to have a plan.’ He didn’t wait for a response before turning his back on the taller student and heading for his housemates.

He trotted up to the front of the Slytherin column, next to Albus. Linwood had been taken ill and was up in the dorm room; with Miranda, Hollis, and Bellamy also afflicted that had almost halved their year. ‘Stubbs didn’t look well,’ he muttered.

‘He’s got a lot of his mind.’

‘Do you think he’s ill?’

Albus scowled. ‘Of course not.’

‘Why not? This looks like it could happen to anyone. It happened to Tully; he looked a state when he was brought into the Infirmary.’ Scorpius was speaking quickly, even as he tried to keep his voice low so he wouldn’t be overheard by the first and second-years. Nerves made words tumble past his lips, wise or otherwise. ‘What’re we going to do if Madam Pheasey falls ill?’

‘She’s not the only person in the school with healing training -’

‘What do we do when they fall ill?’ Scorpius’ brow furrowed. ‘What do we do if everyone falls ill?’

‘Scorp!’ A few younger Slytherins looked in their direction, startled, and Albus dropped his voice. ‘You’re panicking. Stop it.’

‘Stop it? Gee, Al, I never thought of that tactic before -’

‘It’s not helping. Pull yourself together, mate, we’ve got to stand firm on this one.’

Scorpius kicked at the steps as they went down them. ‘This has to have something to do with last night.’

Albus blinked, as if their foray into the Forbidden Forest had flown completely from his mind. ‘Is that what Jones wanted?’

‘Come on, mate - weird things going on in the Forest, the very next day a mysterious illness strikes Hogwarts? That can’t just be a coincidence.’

‘It might be.’

‘We should talk to Stubbs about it.’

Albus looked at him. ‘Did you tell him everything you saw?’

‘Yeah, but -’

‘Then he knows all you know, and everything Pheasey knows, and anything Hagrid or anyone who went looking for us knows. He’ll have told the Ministry. They’ll be on it. They’re not stupid, Scorpius. They don’t need us for this.’

‘So the one thing I’m trying to be assertive on, they don’t need me for; what they do need me for is to just be a well-behaved, silent, out-of-the-way student.’

‘I know, it sounds really hard for you.’

But Albus gave a wan smile, and Scorpius couldn’t help but smirk back, too. It was a bad joke - but exactly because it wasn’t the time for jokes, it helped.

Scorpius had a feeling they were going to need all the help they could get.


* *


The sun shone down on Hogwarts the next morning, just to be as contrary as possible. Scorpius woke up early to the sound of Oakes coughing and sputtering himself awake, pale as a sheet and slick with sweat, and all he could do was try to feed him one of the potions Madam Pheasey had sent out to each dormitory, something she said could fight the symptoms but which Scorpius suspected just kept the afflicted asleep.

That left just him and Albus as the only unafflicted Slytherin sixth year boys, and there was no sign of Albus. A scribbled note left on his bed explained it, and made Scorpius’ gut twist into knots any boy scout would be proud of.

It just said ‘Lily’s ill. At Infirmary.’ No more explanation was necessary, really.

Scorpius took a shift watching over the ill, two hours without breakfast, wandering between the dormitories. It was more boring than anything else; the sickly were all weary, most of them sleeping from the affliction or Madam Pheasey’s potions. Those who were conscious didn’t make great conversationalists, but he was Scorpius Malfoy, and if nothing else could usually find something to say to make people either smile or roll their eyes at him.

But he knew people enjoyed rolling their eyes at him, and that was what counted. If a student was healthy but not taking on a shift or helping a teacher, right then, there wasn’t much they could do.

Still, Scorpius couldn’t shake Methuselah Jones’ suggestion from the previous night from his thoughts, though going off on his own seemed like a really dumb idea. So he decided to head for the Infirmary when his shift was over - if he couldn’t help down in the dreary Slytherin dungeons, maybe he could help Albus. If only a little.

The last time he’d been in the Infirmary, it had been a mess of fuss and bother and panic, a dozen people on their feet racing from bed to bed at the instructions of Madam Pheasey and all non-stop action. Now there was panic, still - but little action. Every bed was filled up, only two or three prefects were on their feet going between the afflicted and, in the centre of it all, stood a wild-haired Rose Weasley.

She was surrounded by levitating pieces of parchment, all unrolling before her eyes as she flicked her wand to dismiss them, or make notes on them. Several rolled up at her feet when they were done, but others formed themselves into paper planes and shot off, perhaps to just the other side of the Infirmary where they were received by a prefect or simply attached themselves to the foot of a bed, or off, through the doors into the depths of Hogwarts.

Scorpius ducked as one swished overhead, then paused, transfixed by the most frantic display of organisation he’d ever seen. There was no sign of Albus, but also - he noted with a mixture of relief and concern as his eyes swept down the rows of beds - no sign of Lily. Miranda was still there, he couldn’t help but note - but Flynn was not, likely having been discharged to Hufflepuff House.

‘Can I help you, Malfoy?’

Rose’s tone was as cold as ever, and Scorpius winced as he straightened. ‘Not meaning to interrupt, Weasley. You’re looking really busy -’

‘I am - what do you want?’

‘I was looking for Albus. And, you know, Lily. Is she okay?’

‘In so far as one can be “okay” while they’re afflicted - she’s not as bad as we thought.’ Rose’s shoulders slumped, and Scorpius realised she’d been stood ramrod straight. It didn’t look like she’d relaxed one iota in hours. ‘We had her taken back down to Gryffindor House; Al’s with her.’

Scorpius shoved his hands in his pockets. ‘Are you all right?’

‘I’m busy; since Diarmuid fell ill I’ve had to run things here, and I haven’t even had a chance to go and see Hector, and...’ Rose stopped as a paper plane came swishing in. It floundered in the air before Scorpius caught it, and she snatched it from his hand to unrolled it with a flick of the wrist. ‘Oh, bugger.’

‘Bugger?’

Bagnet’s ill; he’s being put up in the Ravenclaw common room, but that’s another teacher...’

Scorpius looked around the Infirmary. ‘Where’s Madam Pheasey?’

Rose jerked her wand towards a curtained section at the far end. ‘Oh, back there, where she’s been since three in the morning when she collapsed. Professor Stubbs was brought in about two hours later, as was Sprout...’

Scorpius’ jaw dropped. ‘The Headmaster’s out. The Matron’s out. The Deputy’s out. All of the Heads of Houses are now out. Who the hell is left from the staff?’

‘I don’t know, Malfoy!’ Her voice went one pitch higher and Rose actually stomped her foot. The few prefects in the room - and they were all fifth years, Scorpius noted, all young and new to the job and suddenly enlisted as authority figures in a school which had just gone to hell in a handbasket - looked nervously in her direction, but didn’t pause in their work.

He suspected they didn’t dare stop. If they stopped, they had to figure out how to start again.

‘I’ve been in here since Diarmuid sent word for me at three in the morning and he didn’t last until eight and I’ve not had a chance to stop; I only know what people tell me and there are fewer and fewer reports coming in from every house and I haven’t even been able to go and see my boyfriend today -’

Scorpius lifted his hands at the onslaught. ‘Okay! Okay, I was just asking -’

‘And I don’t need you, of all people, coming down here and demanding answers and -’

‘Okay! Weasley! Stop! I’m sorry!’

It was the first time he’d ever apologised to her, for anything, and Scorpius was keenly aware that it wasn’t his fault, that it wasn’t actually him she was even angry with. For some reason that made it easier - but she barely seemed to notice, just turned her back on him and went back to her notes.

‘If you want to make yourself useful, Malfoy, find me a teacher who’s still conscious.’

The rest of the prefects were staring at him desperately, clearly bidding him to leave so their leader-by-default could recover her composure and keep on telling them what to do. Because that was what it all boiled down to. Finding someone who could tell them what to do.

He suspected that Rose’s instruction had been rhetorical, but she had a point. If Stubbs had taken ill, along with Madam Pheasey, Tully, and the rest of the Heads of House, Hogwarts was in serious danger of having lost not just its expertise, but anything resembling a chain of command. Someone had to be found, and someone was going to have to make the tough decisions.

Or just hold their hands while everything burned around them.

The corridors were more or less empty; the only people Scorpius passed were on their way between common rooms and the Infirmary, or the few prefects who could be spared for patrols, which he suspected they conducted just so they had something to do which they could pretend helped. With the teachers succumbing and most of the students, too, these were probably also self-appointed duties.

It was bizarre what people would choose to cling to at the end of the world. Scorpius was prepared to make an effort to pitch in, but if he wanted to find something familiar and reassuring in a time of crisis, he didn’t think it would be scheduled patrol duties.

He was going to be much more assertive than that.

Finding a teacher would prove a long and weary process. After he was done checking the private rooms and was left with only a scant handful of candidates who could possibly be on their feet, he figured he’d check the staff room before he went from common room to common room to at least confirm which teachers were out of action.

But checking the teachers’ private rooms took the better part of an hour, and by the time he was done he could count on one hand the teachers who were unaccounted for - and not a single one he’d found so far was even remotely on their feet. He was dreading the staff room; he would need a password to get in, and if a teacher had wandered in and fallen ill there, he wouldn’t know, couldn’t know.

He hoped they wouldn’t be that dumb. But Scorpius had been outwitting teachers for years, and so didn’t consider them to be especially bright.

But he rapped on the door to the staff room anyway, and waited a full minute of silence before he rapped on the door again, this time pressing his ear against the wood while he waited for any indication of life from within.

Not that an unconscious teacher sprawled on a sofa inside was going to make much of a noise.

He was just about to give up, and turned away to pad back down the stairs, when there was a creak of wood from the door, and then it was opened half an inch to show a sliver of a pale face and one worried eye. ‘Malfoy?’

It was Lockett, and Scorpius stared in astonishment. ‘Professor?’

‘What do you want?’

He gaped, working his jaw wordlessly for several long seconds. ‘What do I... Professor, everything’s going to hell out here -’

‘Go find Professor Stubbs.’

‘Professor Stubbs is ill!’ Scorpius waved his hands in the air. ‘So’s Pheasey, Tully, Sprout, Bagnet, Hidgen, and - and just about everyone! I’ve not even seen Hagrid about! Rose Weasley is running the Infirmary and I don’t think there’s a single common room which has better than a prefect running supervision of the sick!’

Professor Lockett hesitated - but then she stepped back to open the door to the staff room. He had worried, for a moment, that her paleness was a sign of illness, but she just looked tired, and seemed steady enough on her feet.

So he couldn’t help but narrow his eyes at her. ‘What were you doing in there?’

She opened and closed her mouth, gesturing to a pile of books on the coffee table in the staff room. ‘I was - I was reading, and...’

Scorpius’ jaw dropped, and tried to not think about the half-empty bottle next to the books. ‘You were hiding!’

Lockett straightened up, finally indignant. ‘I was not -’

‘You were! Everything’s going to shit and you locked yourself up in the staff room where nobody could get to you with a bunch of books and some bloody Firewhiskey!’

‘I was trying to find some sort of solution -’

‘We don’t need a solution right now!’ snapped Scorpius. ‘All right, maybe we do, but you know what we need more? We need someone to take charge. It looks like a good two thirds of Hogwarts are out of action and the only people doing anything are for the most part under age and certainly not qualified!’ He stabbed a finger back down the stairs. ‘You need to get out there, Professor, and go to the Infirmary, to the common rooms, and let them know that the entire staff aren’t out of action and that a bunch of schoolkids aren’t on their own!’

He didn’t know where the indignation came from. Scorpius didn’t do righteous indignation; it took a lot before someone could stoop so low as to affront him, and a good part of him wasn’t angry with Lockett, it agreed with her. Hiding away from the woes of the world was an incredibly tempting prospect, and a small voice in his head suggested he could just hide away in the staff room with her.

Then another voice came, quieter and more bitter and prone to speaking up when it was least appropriate, least helpful. That voice pointed out that she was supposed to be responsible and was refusing to be; that people were counting on her to be the grown up, the responsible one, the caring one, and she wasn’t -

Scorpius clamped his jaw shut to stop himself from saying anything more, but Lockett was just staring at him, abashed and frozen on the spot. So he threw his hands in the air. ‘Fine. You know what? Stay in there. Hide. Let Rose Weasley crown herself the panicking Queen of Hogwarts and I’ll be the court bloody jester and everything can go to hell in a handbasket.’

Without waiting for a reply he turned on his heel, stomping down the stairs. If Lockett said or did anything, he was away too quickly to witness it, and soon Scorpius was striding along the corridors, hands shoved sulkily into his pockets.

He wondered if he should report back to Rose - but the news that the only teacher he’d been able to find had been hiding and refusing to take action (and was possibly drunk) wasn’t news he fancied passing on to anyone, let alone a highly strung Rose Weasley. The truth wouldn’t be doing her any favours under the circumstances, even if she’d find out eventually. She needed good news. They all did.

Or, at least, they needed answers.

Scorpius frowned as he reached the top of a stairway down, hands still shoved in his pockets. He’d been trying to ignore this idea all morning, since he’d got up to find a sickly Oates, since he’d read the message from Albus. It had rattled through his head all night, even pestering him in his sleep, and the revelations of the morning, of a sick Stubbs and Pheasey, weren’t helping it rest.

With a sigh, he turned and headed towards Ravenclaw Tower.

He’d been there before - students cared a lot less about visiting the common rooms of other houses than they reportedly had in his parents’ days at school, when such an idea had been near-sacrilegious. To his knowledge, his father had never stepped foot in a common room which wasn’t Slytherin’s. But one didn’t do so uninvited, and one certainly didn’t do so without an escort. If nothing else, it was a pointless endeavour when three out of the four Houses required passwords for access.

Scorpius would have preferred trying to guess a password, out of the near-infinite options, than contend with the threshold to Ravenclaw Tower.

He’d never paid much attention to the riddles before. That had been for his Ravenclaw associates to deal with, even if they’d taken their time pondering a bit before figuring it out. But they’d always got there in the end. So he’d just occupied himself with talking to anyone else they were with, or whatever distracting thought was passing through his head, and had never stopped to so much as listen to what the door had to say to him.

He frowned at the eagle-shaped door-knocker. ‘Look, you,’ Scorpius growled. ‘I’m not a Ravenclaw. This is an emergency. You’re going to bloody well let me -’

Then the door-knocker shifted before him, as he’d seen it do before, and the gold mouth of the eagle opened. From it emanated that awful monotone he’d always been able to block out, and now he had to concentrate to pay attention.

A cat has three kittens,’ it intoned in a voice so dull Scorpius thought he might fall asleep instantly. ‘Their names are January, February, and March. What is the mother’s name.

Scorpius’ jaw dropped. I don’t fucking know, he wanted to snap, but knew it wouldn’t help, and so just stood there, sputtering for several long seconds - and then even longer as his mind went utterly blank, and when he fought to, at last, find his voice, all he could say was a whispered, strangled, frustrated, ‘What?’

Correct.’ The door-knocker stilled, and then the door swung open, showing him the winding stairs up to Ravenclaw Tower, but Scorpius just stood there, jaw still dropped, staring into space.

Again he sputtered. ‘What?!’ When the door-knocker wasn’t forthcoming, he grabbed it. ‘What does that even mean? Was “what” the answer? How does that make any sense you stupid inanimate piece of crap?’

But then, several long seconds after it had opened, the door began to swing shut again. Scorpius had seen this happen, access only granted for a short period of time and large parties had to dash through the doorway, so he slid in, bewilderment left behind despite the boiling frustration in his gut, and he looked up the stairs to the Ravenclaw common room.

At the top he found a sight not so dissimilar to the desolace he’d left Slytherin common room in. The prefects, or those assertive enough to take something resembling charge, were left helplessly checking the dorms and likely finding themselves with absolutely nothing to do. Everyone else was milling together, and much to Scorpius’ surprise, even the scions of Ravenclaw weren’t distracting themselves by reading, or playing chess, or discussing deep philosophical matters. They were just clumped in the seats in the middle, muttering to one another about nothing in particular.

Except for one of them. He was silent, and he was reading, sat on his own in a corner, as if he didn’t have a care in the world other than how quickly he could make it through his copy of International Cauldron Standards, and Scorpius had to reflect that the world would actually end before he himself would bother reading such a thing.

But it wasn’t so odd that Methuselah Jones might find such a book captivating, or that he’d be able to read it in the middle of a crisis, but it did make him stand out - which was just as well, for he was, indeed, Scorpius’ target.

None of the Ravenclaws gave him much attention, even as a Slytherin in their common room - such oddities were beyond their interest. But Jones didn’t so much as glance at Scorpius, not even when he crossed the common room to sit opposite him, not even when he cleared his throat pointedly. It was only when he reached out to tug down the top of the book that Jones looked up, eyebrow quirked with indignation.

‘Malfoy. You best be -’

‘It’s just a sodding book, Jones, it won’t combust if you don’t read it for five seconds.’ Scorpius scowled and took a deep breath, meeting the other boy’s gaze. ‘You know what you were suggesting last night? About going out there to find that spot in the Forest? I’m in.’

Chapter 8: Hot Pursuit
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The grounds were empty as Scorpius and Methuselah Jones left the school. Clearly nobody had the motivation or nerve to wander outside, even if it was a bright, sunny Sunday where summer was refusing to die off quite yet.

That suited them fine, however, because they had no desire to be waylaid.

'It's going to be hard to find,' said Scorpius as they went down the steps away from the main courtyard. 'It was dark and we did run away from a bunch of centaurs. I didn't exactly keep track of which direction we went in, or anything.'

'Professor Stubbs said we were found on the same path we took into the Forest.' Jones reached into his blazer to pull out a roll of parchment, which he opened with a flick of the wrist. 'We follow that route. Might see signs. Recognise things. Couldn't have been far.'

Scorpius looked over at the parchment, and then at Jones with surprise. 'Where did you get that?'

Jones looked up from the map he held, nonplussed. 'Professor Lockett's office. Unlocked. Knew there was a map there.'

'When?'

'This morning. I anticipated it would be needed. Suspected your reluctance wouldn't last.' He shrugged as if this was the most obvious thing in the world and kept walking on as a stunned Scorpius came to a halt. He hadn't thought Methuselah Jones was capable of anticipating anyone's actions. That would have required him to show emotional understanding and, more integrally, care.

He shook his head and trotted to catch up with Jones' long legs. 'Well. That's handy, I guess. We can see if we can remember where we split off. Also, there'll probably be hoof-prints and other signs of the centaurs. There's only so much of the Forest to search.'

'Indeed. But we must be careful. Centaur movement in region was unprecedented. If the Forest is agitated, could be dangerous.'

Scorpius grimaced. 'Hell, just sitting on my arse in school right now I'm in danger of projectile vomiting blood everywhere and passing out. It's not like anywhere's safe.'

'Quite. Resolution must be found. Explanation. Else all is lost. Won't find answers anywhere else.'

'Anywhere but where?'

Scorpius jumped and cursed himself as a new voice interrupted them. He'd been looking around cautiously as they made their way down the open fields towards the outskirts of the Forest, keeping an eye out for someone from school coming to intercept them, or some threat from a Forest where centaurs had been panicking not two nights ago. He'd thought he was being cautious, attentive.

But he'd not been looking up.

'Hugo!' Scorpius clutched at his chest. 'Merlin, you almost gave me a heart attack, you little bugger!'

Jones seemed entirely unfazed by the interruption, and turned, craning his head upwards. 'Weasley. This is none of your affair.'

Hugo Weasley had been hovering on his broom some ten feet above them, and kicked it down to the ground, hopping off and grabbing the handle. He ran a hand through his windswept red hair, and though he looked rather tired, seemed hale and hearty enough. 'Really? Because it looked like you two were headed into the Forest and were talking about answers.'

Jones paused a beat. 'Answers. For Herbology homework.'

Scorpius' jaw dropped. 'Hell's bells, Jones, you are the worst liar. Who the hell gives a damn about Herbologyhomework at a time like this?' There was another pause where Jones looked surprised at the idea that they didn't still care about Herbology homework, and Scorpius sighed, turning back to Hugo. 'Okay. Yeah. You caught us. We're heading to the Forest.'

'Is this about what happened to you in detention?' Hugo wrinkled his nose, the expression not too dissimilar to his sister's. 'Rose didn't tell me a thing about it. Is it to do with what's going on?'

'I don't know,' Scorpius said honestly. 'It could be. But people like the teachers are too busy dealing with everyone who's ill, so we thought we'd take a look. It's not like we're doing anything helpful otherwise.' He didn't think it was sensible to spread the word that their teachers were, in fact, dealing with absolutely nothing right then.

Jones frowned at Hugo. 'We return the inquiry. What were you doing out here?'

Hugo looked affronted at the implication he was up to no good. 'Flying. I was out at the pitch. It's not like I've got anything else to do right now except for bloody panic, is it? I saw you two down here and figured you were up to no good.' He shouldered his broom. 'So, where are we going?'

Scorpius and Jones exchanged looks. 'We?' Scorpius echoed.

'Yeah. If you're going into the Forest to try to find answers or a cure or something, I'm going with you.'

'Hugo, you're fourteen,' said Scorpius.

'So? You're not of age either, Malfoy. It's not like we've got much of a choice of who's going to pitch in and help right now, and it's not like I can do anything back at school. Besides.' Hugo gave a twist of a smile. 'If you don't let me with you, I'll go tell Rose.'

'You little bugger -'

But Jones merely looked him up and down and shrugged. 'Do so. We will be gone before she can react. We do not answer to her,' he said, and turned on his heel, heading off.

Scorpius blinked as his companion departed, then gave Hugo a shrug. 'Face it. She'll be less pissed at us for going into the Forest than she would be for taking you with us.'

He, too, went to turn, but Hugo darted forwards and grabbed him by the sleeve, expression twisting with anger. 'Oh, what the hell, Malfoy? Where the hell do you and Jones get the right to tell me to sit here and do absolutely nothing?'

Jones didn't stop. 'Our knowledge. Our expedition.'

Scorpius hesitated. 'What do you mean, me and Jones?' There had been a particular bite in Hugo's voice.

'You know what's going on back at Hogwarts? Tell me.' Hugo's face was turning into a mask of fury.

'Of course I do - three quarters of the bloody school are ill -'

'My family are ill. Five of my cousins are ill. Rose and Albus are the only ones still on their feet - I was woken up in the middle of the night by Lily, my cousin, my best friend, sounding like she was going to die or something. You two don't have any brothers or sisters, or cousins, not here at Hogwarts. Who have you got to worry about apart from yourselves?'

Albus, thought Scorpius immediately. But Albus was Hugo's cousin - of course he cared about him too. As did Rose, as did Lily, as did lots of people. Scorpius caring about Albus certainly wasn't anything special, he realised.

He wasn't family.

Jones had stopped, more bewildered than struck by any truth in Hugo's words, but Scorpius' shoulders slumped as he looked at the indignant younger boy, and he jerked a thumb over his shoulder. 'All right,' he mumbled at last. 'Come on. But if we don't find anything, you do not tell your sister I let you come with us. She'll finally do good on that promise to dangle me from my ankles from the Astronomy Tower - she's gone all crazy-eyed this morning.'

'You always make her go crazy-eyed, Malfoy,' said Hugo, but he relaxed, letting him go and even giving a small smile. 'Cool. All right. Where are we going, anyway?'

Jones made a small noise of irritation, but didn't otherwise protest. His eyes landed on Hugo's broomstick. 'That. You will bring it with you?'

'You never know when you'll need a broomstick.'

Jones' brow wrinkled. 'Flying under the treeline is difficult. Heavy manoeuvring, low visibility -'

'Jones, you've not sat on a broom since flying lessons in first year, don't pretend you know how to fly.' Scorpius landed a hand on Hugo's shoulder, and the two Quidditch players grinned toothily. 'The kid knows what he's doing.'


* *



Methuselah Jones didn't want to admit it, but he suspected that they were lost.

It just didn't make any sense. They had taken the exact route Professor Lockett had led them along the night before last. He had consulted the map, the same map she had used, and as far as he could tell they had not deviated from the marked path, nor had they encountered any of the landmarks which would suggest they were further into the Forest than they were supposed to be.

And yet, they were not where they were supposed to be.

'I know it's the Forbidden Forest,' said Scorpius, as if he thought himself terribly amusing to make such an obvious jest, 'but I don't remember this place being this... foreboding. Not even at night.'

Methuselah frowned at the map, not looking up. He had taken the lead, not trusting the notoriously unreliable Scorpius Malfoy or Hugo Weasley, a boy two years his junior, with the responsibility of navigating through untamed wilderness. This had just led to Malfoy wandering in the middle and Weasley trailing at the back, perched on his broomstick a metre above the ground and trundling along, the two of them making inane jokes with one another.

It made it harder to think. If only Malfoy could get on with Hugo Weasley as poorly as he got on with his sister. Then again, that would lead to a barrage of sniping and arguing and raised voices and would likely not help his concentration.

'Merely your imagination, Malfoy,' said Methuselah sharply. 'Woodlands do not change.'

'Really? I could swear we've passed that tree about three times now.'

'Identify for me, Malfoy, the different species of trees we are surrounded by.'

'Uh... what?'

'Precisely. Trees all look the same to you. Ergo, your claim we have passed this tree already is irrelevant.'

'We've been out here for two hours, Jones, and we're no closer to where we were.'

'Really?' Methuselah stopped and turned, jaw tightening. 'Perhaps, then, you should have been more helpful. Perhaps you shouldn't have spent the time conducting an in-depth debate - laden with logical fallacies on both sides - as to the superiority of the Chudley Cannons over the Falmouth Falcons.'

Scorpius straightened indignantly. 'We did not.'

'Yeah,' said Hugo. 'It's not a debate, it's fact.'

Methuselah scoffed as Scorpius wilted, and he turned his back. 'The map is useless,' he decided at last. 'All we can do is follow this trail and endeavour to find Nocturne Mushrooms; then we will know we are in the vicinity of the -'

'You mean, like the ones over there?'

Hugo was pointing into the shadow of the trees to their left, and Methuselah stopped short. Peering in that direction he thought he could, perhaps, see the curve of mushrooms in the gloom. He sighed. 'Good eyes, Weasley.' The grudging compliment tasted bitter.

'You should be a Seeker.' Scorpius grinned and clapped the younger boy in the shoulder.

'Malfoy, keep an eye out for centaur hoofprints.'

'Or, I could...' Hugo pointed towards the treetops. 'Fly up a bit. See what I can see in the area.'

Methuselah worked his jaw with irritation, but Hugo swished off upwards anyway, and Scorpius padded to his side, grinning. 'See? I said he'd be useful.'

'No, you didn't,' Methuselah pointed out. 'You let him come only because your guilt outweighed your abject terror of his sister.'

Scorpius stiffened. 'I am not terrified of Rose Weasley.'

'Around her you are tense. Agitated. Quick to find fault. Eager to engage on any given topic or issue. The strategy is aggressive defence. Keep her at bay so she cannot close the gap.' He looked at Scorpius, whose eyes had narrowed, and shrugged. 'Prey tactics.'

'Prey -'

'You are certainly not the predator.'

'And what the hell would you know about observing people, Jones?'

Methuselah cocked his head. 'People operate no differently to the rest of the world: along strict rules. These might be rules of biology or rules of society.'

Scorpius gave an exasperated smile. 'You really don't get it.'

'No?' He looked at Scorpius. 'You pretend rules do not apply to you but follow them anyway. It's illogical. You behave erratically and then are thwarted when this earns disapproval. You seek, like everyone, approval. From Professors, from Potter, even from Weasley.'

Scorpius snorted. 'I don't need Weasley's approval - I don't need approval -'

'We all require approval. It reinforces that we are behaving as we ought, and achieving as we ought. Approval from teachers, from friends, from family -'

'You are kind of crazy, aren't you?'

But Scorpius looked genuinely agitated now and stepped away. Shoving his hands into his pockets, he craned his neck to try to make out the shape of Hugo, bobbing in and around the low-hanging branches of the tall trees. 'Hugo! See anything?'

Methuselah stayed silent, chewing on Scorpius' words. It wasn't the first time he'd been called crazy, or some synonymous expression. It wasn't even the first time it had happened when he'd tried to help, tried to offer words of wisdom. Most of the time it backfired in his face, his harsh truths difficult for others to hear, and so he stopped going out of his way to offer them.

After a few minutes, Hugo descended, hopping off his broomstick and slinging it over his shoulder. 'I can't really see hoofprints,' he admitted. 'I can't see much, the trees are thick -'

'I said a broomstick would be of no use in woodland such as -'

'But.' Hugo cut Methuselah off. 'There was something. That way. East, right?' He pointed at the treeline to his left. 'I know this is going to sound crazy, but from higher up, it looked darker there.'

'That is deeper to the woodlands, it's -'

'Jones, will you shut up and let the kid tell us what he saw? It might be nothing but we don't have any better ideas or any better leads and your vaunted map is getting us nowhere.' Scorpius shook his head as Methuselah fell silent, and looked at Hugo. 'Carry on, kid.'

Hugo looked a bit indignant at someone a mere two years his senior calling him "kid", but didn't push it. 'That's about it. There was a weird patch through the trees that looked unnaturally dark. Like something was blotting out the sun there. Even more than the sun's already blotted out in the trees here,' he added as Methuselah opened his mouth.

Methuselah paused and closed his mouth - then after a beat of consideration, opened it again reluctantly. 'Investigating would not be a waste of time.'

Scorpius grinned. 'See? You've got to take some risks sometimes.'

'One would hope the only risk here is that we find nothing,' said Methuselah, but he still fell into step beside Scorpius and Hugo as they headed off in the direction Hugo had gestured. Leaving the path meant poor footing, thick undergrowth, treacherous roots, and before long Hugo had hopped back into his broom, zipping ahead and pointing out bad bits without needing to walk.

So going was difficult, and they remained silent, Methuselah keeping his attention on his map, convinced that doing so could keep them from getting lost, could make sure they could find their way back to the path. If they had only taken so many steps, that was only so much ground they'd covered, which would place them roughly here -

He was focused so much on the map that when Scorpius stopped dead, he walked into the back of him, and the two boys stumbled. Hugo swished down to them as they disentangled themselves, and frowned as he saw Scorpius' expression. 'Scorp?'

'I know where we are,' said Scorpius, and even in the gloomy lighting of the Forest he looked paler than usual. 'I was going to climb that tree.'

Methuselah looked between Scorpius and the tree he pointed out, nonplussed. 'A delightful diversion -'

'But then we saw the light. Over there. I think. And I went to check it out, and then... that's the last thing I remember.' Scorpius jerked his head to the left. Deeper into the woodlands, where there was definitely no sign of light, no little glimmer.

Because if there was a patch of darkness that Hugo had spotted earlier, this was it. Thick and black and impenetrable, as if the sun's rays themselves shied away from that place in utter terror. And though this was wholly illogical, the more Methuselah looked at the darkness, the more the skin on the back of his neck crawled.

'We have located it, then,' he said curtly. 'We can return. Study it further. Look for -'

'But we've not learnt anything,' said Hugo with a scowl. 'We can't come this far and just turn back because something looks a bit creepy.'

'In the Forbidden Forest, Weasley, "creepy" can mean death -'

'The kid's right.' Scorpius shook himself and nodded firmly. 'We came to find out what's going on. We don't shy away at the first sign of something being amiss. Man up, Jones.'

'My masculinity is not in question and even if it were that would still be an irrelevance compared to our lives and the truth -'

'We're going to find the truth,' said Scorpius, but he drew his wand anyway. 'Follow me.'

'Follow you -'

But Scorpius was moving anyway, picking his way through the undergrowth into the thicker gloom of the trees, and Methuselah worked his jaw pointlessly for a few long moments before he followed him. They didn't speak for long seconds, just winding through trees and trying to not trip up, Hugo still hovering behind them on his broom, and when Methuselah did speak his voice sounded unnaturally loud and close.

'You said there was a clearing.'

'There was,' said Scorpius with a frown. 'It's dark, okay -'

'Why is it dark,' said Methuselah slowly, 'if there is a clearing ahead, where logically there should be more sunlight -'

He wasn't interrupted - not this time. Nothing happened, nothing was said, which cut off his words. Just a feeling. Something cold and unpleasant trickling down the back of his neck and then winding around, through his throat to choke him and into his belly. His footsteps felt wooden, and even his thoughts, which usually whirled around his head so happy and swift, seemed sluggish.

Then Scorpius stumbled, and as Methuselah reached out to try to catch him - too late - he realised he wasn't alone in feeling this. He grabbed the other boy by the shoulder to try to drag him up, though his own limbs were uncooperative, and Scorpius was wide-eyed, pale, and sweating.

Is this it? The illness? Have we become afflicted - no, no, there was no warning, no onset of symptoms like there should be -

- but don't know what the illness is, don't know what normal is, oh, God, I can't think -

- and the shadows are moving.

'No.' That was a low, mournful whimper, and it came from Scorpius, sinking to the ground, as the darkness before them shifted and shapes came out. Tall, dark, cloaked figures not walking, but drifting, humanoid only in that they had arms and the shape of a head but otherwise totally, utterly alien to them.

Methuselah reeled back, stumbling, as the three Dementors emerged from the gloom before them. The wand in his hand was shaking, the cold in his gut hadn't moved, and for the first time in his life he had absolutely no idea what he was supposed to do.

Riddikulus - no, no, that's Boggarts, Protego? Pointless, you know this, Jones -

Scorpius gave another whimper, curling up in a ball on the ground, and Methuselah almost fell over as he took another step back, inadvertently leaving his classmate between himself and the Dementors.

Run. Run. Run.

But Malfoy's there, can't just abandon him -

Forget Malfoy. Save self. Pointless to both die. Run. Run. Run.

His wand snapped out, almost of its own accord, and his voice wavered and shook as finally, finally, the right words came into his head, clear and bright. 'Expecto Patronum!'

But otherwise his head was completely empty, and he only knew the spell from books, he'd never been taught it in class and never tried to study it in class and he was the boy who perpetually came third in his year at practical spells, what did he know -?

His wand didn't so much as sputter with silver light.

Run.

And just as his legs were about to obey him, just as he was about to turn and bolt and run screaming out of the woodlands, leaving Scorpius Malfoy curled up in a ball on the ground with the three Dementors looming over him, something else moved. The air swished, and then hurtling past him came the red-haired blur of Hugo Weasley and his broom.

He, too, was pale, worn, but had a brightness in his eyes that Scorpius lacked, even as he brought his broom skidding to a halt right in front of the Dementors. Even Scorpius moved at the interruption, writhing weakly, and as Hugo grabbed him by the back of his blazer, he let himself be pulled onto the broom, flopping across it like a sack of potatoes.

Then Hugo whirled the broom around, away from the Dementors, at Methuselah. He grabbed him by the elbow, tugging fiercely, eyes blazing. 'Run.'

This time, Methuselah did as the voice said. Hugo and Scorpius set off on the broomstick, swishing through the trees, slow for being burdened by two of them and Hugo clearly trying to not unseat the unsteady Scorpius. So Methuselah could keep up with them, running in a near-blind panic, scrambling through undergrowth and over logs and past trees and caring for nothing but following the broom in front of him.

He didn't look back.

Somewhere in their panicked flight, the cold sense of unnatural dread faded for an altogether more normal feeling of horror, a horror not enforced by the Dementors as they left them behind in that awful darkness, a horror which did began to fade as Methuselah's limbs and lungs began to burn and sunlight began to twinkle down from the trees.

Then they reached the path, and all three of them collapsed.

Methuselah was on his hands and knees, panting for breath, but he could feel reality rushing back in at the edges, colour, and warmth. No more was it difficult to think - which wasn't entirely reassuring, as that meant he could consider, in intricate and well-studied detail, what they were up against and what it would have done to them.

For once he wished he didn't voraciously read everything he could in the Hogwarts library.

Hugo and Scorpius had collapsed off the broom, slumping to the ground beside him, and Scorpius was beginning to writhe and groan. He sat up gingerly, lifting a hand to his temples, and let off a colourful array of swear words in a voice which began reedy but gained strength as he carried on.

'...the English language is inadequate to my needs,' Scorpius concluded. 'But let me just say, that was a bad fucking idea, Jones.'

Methuselah tried to speak, but found his throat parched and crackling. His voice was raspy when he finally could summon the words. 'Worked,' he said at last. 'We found answers.'

'We found Dementors.' Although Scorpius was pale, although his forehead was still slick with sweat, he looked like he was shaking off the worst of their effects. 'Dementors aren't answers, unless I was doing my OWLs fucking wrong.'

'That place. Darkness. That was where light was. Where ritual was. Now? Dementors.' Methuselah shook his head to clear it. The Forbidden Forest wasn't all that bad, he was forced to conclude - at least, this patch, out where he could see the sky and sun and wasn't being chased by evil, unnatural creatures of horror. 'That means something.'

'Like what?'

'Don't know,' he admitted. 'But something. It's changing. We find out why Dementors were there - we find answers.'

'Right. Great.' Scorpius ran a hand through his hair. 'Do you know where we are?'

'Follow the path to get back. That way.' Methuselah pointed, pretty sure he was right. At worst, he had a fifty/fifty chance. Normally he disliked those odds, but it was turning into that sort of a day.

'Fine. Let's go, let's tell the others, and let's hope we didn't just almost get eaten by Dementors for nothing.' Scorpius turned to the bundle of Hugo next to him, and shook his shoulder. 'Hey, Hugo. Nice flying, now let's go home.'

Methuselah got to his feet, his knees distressingly uncooperative. 'Dementors don't eat people.'

'Eat souls, whatever, I... kid?' Scorpius was crouched over Hugo now, and gently rolling him onto his back. Methuselah had assumed he was just getting his breath back after their mad-cap chase, and couldn't really judge him for it. Hugo Weasley had, after all, been the only one of them to keep their composure and strength through that confrontation with the Dementors, and was probably at least responsible for saving Scorpius.

Since Methuselah was now pretty sure he'd have just bolted and left them both if he'd been given another second.

But Hugo didn't resist as Scorpius rolled him over, and his skin was pale, forehead sweaty, and eyes glassy. He managed to sit up, face ashen under his livid red hair, and was sweating. Somehow, it didn't look quite the same as Scorpius had when bothered by the Dementors, and Methuselah's heart sank into his stomach.

'I don't feel so good,' Hugo slurred.

Then promptly became the second person in as many days to vomit blood all over Scorpius Malfoy's shoes.


Chapter 9: Out of the Frying Pan
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Albus shoved his hands into his pockets as he wandered into the Infirmary to see, to his surprise, only one person left on their feet. ‘...Rose?’

She stood in the middle of the rows of beds, still going through rolls of parchments which shot before her eyes and were deposited into piles - but there were, he noted, no new ones coming in, and fewer overall than there’d been in the middle of the night when students and teachers had still been sending in updates from the dormitories.

Now there were no fresh reports. No updates. No more parchment. And still she was reading the backlog.

‘I’m busy, Al -’

‘I just came from Gryffindor Tower,’ he said, voice a little shaky, and padded over to her. ‘Matthias has taken ill. I just put him to bed.’

It was like someone had put the brakes on her, so suddenly did she let the parchment fall from the air to the floor, so suddenly did she lower her wand. The tension in her face faded, and she brought the back of her hand to her mouth. ‘Matty...’

‘He’s all right,’ said Albus quickly, not knowing what constituted “all right” under these circumstances. ‘He wasn’t too bad, I mean. Just... getting worse. Nauseous. Light-headed. He was a bit stubborn, but I thought it was best he get some rest instead of soldiering on.’

Rose turned away, in the direction of Madam Pheasey’s curtained-off bed, and Albus could see her swatting at her eyes as if he wouldn’t notice. When she turned back she looked pale, her voice watery. ‘Who’s - who’s watching down in Gryffindor Tower?’

Albus winced. ‘Nobody. They’re all - I’ve not done a complete head-count, but nobody was up when I was left, and the beds were pretty full. Look, are you all right, you don’t look so -’

‘I’m not ill,’ she said. ‘But everyone else is, all of the prefects are, Matty was the only one still sending up reports, I’ve not heard anything from Ravenclaw Tower in about two hours, but I can’t - I don’t know if I can leave them alone here -’

Albus looked around the Infirmary. ‘They’re just sleeping.’

‘They are, but there are subtle changes in their symptoms, their temperature, all the time, and I’m trying to - I’m recording it all so we have something to send to Saint Mungo’s as soon as we know what we can and can’t say to the outside world, and how...’ She waved a frantic hand at a quill scribbling on parchment on Madam Pheasey’s desk all by itself.

‘Rose! Rose.’ He crossed the distance to put a hand at her elbow, stop her frenetic gestures. ‘Once the initial symptoms pass, they’re just sleeping. That’s been the case for everyone, maybe they’re hit badly at first but then they just sleep, we can leave them unattended, nobody’s attending on Gryffindor House right now...’ Nobody, he suspected, was looking in on Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, or Slytherin, either, if the state of emptiness of the corridors was anything to go by. ‘Take a deep breath.’

‘And, what, relax?’ She turned, stricken. ‘I can’t relax, somebody needs to keep an eye on things, it’s been hours since I’ve heard from any of the teachers, God knows where Hugo is, I’ve not had a chance to go down and see Hector, and now Matty is ill, and every single second I’m in here and I feel tired, or hungry, or the sun seems a little bit too bright out there I think it’s me coming down with it too, and I can’t afford to -’

For one horrible moment he thought she was going to cry, and despite all of Albus’ calm and considerate nature, he didn’t know what to do about that; he hadn’t seen Rose cry since they were little. Perhaps she would have, too, if the doors to the Infirmary hadn’t slammed open for two figures to stride in, and Albus’ first, unkind thought was that his best friend was the last person to help in this situation.

It just got worse when he saw Scorpius had the unconscious bundle of Hugo Weasley in his arms.

‘We got - he was vomiting blood,’ said Scorpius in a rush, pale and wild-eyed and wild-haired, and the lanky form of Methuselah Jones stepped up beside him and just nodded frantically as if they needed his affirmation.

Rose turned, and Albus wondered if this would all be too much for her - but then she blinked, her gaze sharpened, and with a flick of the wand she sent one of the beds rolling out and over to Scorpius for him to put her brother down on it carefully. ‘When? How long ago?’

‘Er... Twenty minutes? Yeah, about that, we got here as fast as we could,’ said Scorpius, though Rose was clearly only half listening as she grabbed a handful of potions and went to her brother’s side, checking him over with what was already practiced professionalism.

Albus frowned. ‘Where were you that it took twenty minutes to get here?’ He looked them up and down. ‘You’re all covered in mud.’

‘Um,’ said Scorpius, at the same time as Methuselah guilelessly declared, ‘the Forbidden Forest.’

That did get Rose’s attention, her gaze snapping up from her brother, eyes wide and brow furrowed. ‘What? What were you doing in the Forbidden Forest?’ She paused. ‘What were you doing with my little brother in the Forbidden Forest?’

Scorpius flapped his jaw wordlessly, and Methuselah seemed to see fit to help out. ‘Looking for answers,’ he said, though his own gaze was a bit unfocused. ‘We found Dementors.’

Rose’s eyes flashed - Albus could only note, with sinking gloom, that she was looking a lot healthier all of a sudden - and, even though it was Methuselah who’d spoken, she darted around the bed to advance on Scorpius. ‘You went on some mad-cap hunt for imagined answers into the Forbidden Forest, just the three of you, with my brother and you found Dementors?’

‘We didn’t go looking for Dementors!’ said Scorpius, at last finding coherent words. ‘We went looking for that spot out in the woods we found the other night, you know, the place crazy people were doing some sort of ritual and now everything’s going to hell?’

‘The Dementors were there,’ Methuselah supplied helpfully, he, too, backing off in the face of Rose’s fury.

‘And you thought that was still a perfectly fine place to take a fourteen year-old boy?’ Rose shouted, throwing an angry hand at her unconscious brother.

‘Look, he was fine until he got ill, and that was just as we were leaving - he was better than fine, he bloody well saved us -’

‘You needed saving.’ It wasn’t a question, and Rose’s voice was now not loud but low, dangerously low, and Albus found all of a sudden he didn’t know how to deal with this new, unpleasant vista of his cousin’s rage and upset. ‘You went stumbling into something you weren’t at all prepared to deal with, telling nobody where you were, with my little brother. And now you only think it’s just the illness hitting him - as if that wasn’t bad enough.’

Finally Albus stepped forward, lifting his hands. ‘I don’t think now’s the time to throw blame around -’

Rose’s eyes snapped to him, flashing with an anger rarely turned on him - then she wheeled around to return to Hugo’s side. ‘No, no. Now’s the time for you to all leave while I can get back to being the one doing the only passable impression of a responsible adult.’

It occurred to Albus that having a blazing row in the middle of the Infirmary was not the height of mature behaviour in a crisis situation, but he didn’t think pointing that out would help. Scorpius looked stricken, clearly stuck between knowing when to withdraw and being angry or tired enough to be stubborn, and so he stepped forward, grabbing both Scorpius and Methuselah by the elbows.

‘We’ll go,’ he said, steering them both to the door. ‘Let me know how he is, Rose, I’ll be back in a little while.’ But Rose didn’t answer, and Albus wasn’t going to make her as he dragged Scorpius Malfoy and Methuselah Jones out of the Infirmary.

Once in the corridor, once the doors had swung shut between them, Methuselah shook off Albus’ grip and looked at Scorpius. ‘I’ll go write. Record what we saw. Use it for research.’

Scorpius’ lip curled. ‘Yeah, great, Jones, you go write it down. That’ll help,’ he sneered, but Methuselah seemed immune to the irony in his voice, and just gave an eager nod before going to lope off down the corridor, heading either for Ravenclaw Tower or the Library.

Albus turned to Scorpius, brow furrowed. ‘What did you do?’

Scorpius pulled free of his friend’s grasp. ‘Like I said. We went to take a look.’ He scowled, rubbing his temples. ‘That clearing. Only it was dark, like something in there was blocking out the sun. And then there were Dementors and, really, all I can remember is Hugo pulling me into his broom and getting us the hell out of there.’ He gave a rueful look back at the Infirmary. ‘I hope he’s all right.’

‘It really is just the illness?’

‘Mate, he was more fighting fit than either of us. Jones was bloody useless, and I was...’ Scorpius drew a deep, shuddering breath, and shook his head. ‘Well. If I never see those things again in my life, I’ll be happy. Dementors? Within a couple of miles of Hogwarts?’

Nothing going on is normal,’ said Albus glumly. ‘But Rose isn’t wrong, that was pretty dumb to go off there.’

‘And what else were we supposed to do? Tell you, so you could tell us not to go, and then we’d be none the wiser? It’s not like you’re in much of a position to conduct a rescue mission - you two are the only people we’ve even seen since we got back, and we’ve been gone for three hours.’ Scorpius bit his lip. ‘Are we the only people who’ve not come down with this illness?’

Albus hesitated. ‘I don’t know. I’ve not done a headcount -’

Then they both jumped as a voice came booming down the corridors, unnatural and unfamiliar and coming as if from the very walls themselves. It was male, deep, and rather foreboding. ‘Students and staff of Hogwarts,’ it intoned, albeit rather blandly. ‘Any still healthy and walking are summoned to the Great Hall.’

Then silence.

Scorpius swore. ‘What the hell was that?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Albus, drawing a deep breath. ‘But unless that was Jones, I guess there’s someone else out there.’

‘It was the emergency summons.’ They jumped again as the door to the Infirmary swung open, and out stepped a rather wan-faced Rose. ‘I don’t know how you activate it, only the teachers are supposed to know, but it’s not normally needed.’

‘Then let’s hope it’s a teacher,’ said Scorpius, ‘and not someone trying to get whoever’s left standing to finish us off.’

Rose just grunted and headed for the stairs, inclined to follow the summons but obviously not wanting to get into anything resembling conversation with either of them. Albus fell into step beside her and went to put a hand on her shoulder, but she shied away.

‘I’m not being negative,’ said Scorpius, who clearly didn’t cope very well with the stiff silence they walked in. ‘I’m just saying, this isn’t all an accident, someone’s up to something and this might be a trick.’

‘That is being pretty negative,’ Albus pointed out. ‘And it’s much more likely it’s one of the teachers.’ For some reason Scorpius didn’t argue with this, even if he looked unhappy, and the silence remained as they made their way down the stairs and into the Great Hall.

The Infirmary was far enough away from the Hall that anyone coming from the common rooms should have got there first. That made it likely, unless someone was out in the grounds, that they were the last people there, though Albus prayed that they weren’t as he saw only three figures stood at the dais right at the back of the huge chamber.

‘Piss,’ said Scorpius eloquently. ‘I guess that answers that, then.’

Albus couldn’t disagree with him at the staggering coincidence before them. Because if this was it - if they were the last to arrive, if nobody else was coming - then the only six people still unaffected by this mysterious ailment were the three of them, Methuselah Jones, Professor Lockett, and Selena Rourke.

Lockett didn’t look best pleased, but she waved her wand to rearrange the seats at the head table. ‘I’m beginning to worry that you’re right, Malfoy,’ she said, and sat down herself - not, Albus noted, at the headmaster’s seat, even if she was the only member of staff left walking in the entire school.

‘What?’ said Selena.

‘The six of us. The only people out in the Forbidden Forest the night before last. Or, perhaps, the only people not in Hogwarts then who are now.’ Methuselah pulled out a chair, and she sat down in it. Albus managed to not smile as he realised, from the look on Methuselah’s face, that this was a miscommunication rather than a display of chivalry.

‘And there’s something out there,’ said Scorpius firmly, slapping his palm down on the table. ‘I saw something the other night, there were people out there, and you all saw this wave of light. And now there are Dementors out there...’

Lockett frowned. ‘Dementors?’

‘Jones and Malfoy decided to take a field excursion with my little brother to pull them out of the fire,’ intoned Rose, who looked like fatigue was catching up with her. ‘They found Dementors at the site myself, Al, and Malfoy stumbled across the other night.’

‘You mean the site I went to investigate -’

‘One thing at a time.’ Lockett spoke quietly, but the five students all fell silent, looking up the table at her.

She wasn’t a big woman, she wasn’t an imposing woman, and right then she looked about as worn and scared as Albus felt, but she was a teacher, and in times of crisis anyone - especially a group of sixteen year-olds - were still going to be inclined to flock to a figure of authority to tell them what to do.

He just desperately hoped she knew what to tell them to do.

‘We can’t fuss about answering what’s going on out in the Forest until we know what’s going on here, at Hogwarts, and have the situation under control. We have several hundred people infected with what looks to be a highly-contagious magical illness. That will need curing, yes, but in the meantime, they will need caring for, and they will especially need to be kept safe if there is something wrong out in the Forest.’

Albus cleared his throat. ‘What’s the latest from the Ministry?’

‘The latest from the Ministry is that I don’t know the password to Professor Stubbs’ office,’ said Lockett with a touch of irritation. ‘And I have yet to figure out an alternate means of getting in touch with the outside world. Madam Pheasey, before she became infected, determined that this is a magical illness, and that physical contact or sharing air are enough to transmit it. So pieces of paper, opening a Floo directly from somewhere that’s been lived-in by the afflicted, maybe even just sending an owl could all lead to this illness spreading.’

‘What about us?’ said Selena, after a few moments of opening and closing her mouth worriedly. ‘I mean, if we’re not infected, can’t we just leave?’ There was a beat, and she shifted in her chair. ‘I don’t mean abandon people, I just mean physically go and tell them what’s going on. It wouldn’t even be me, it would be you, Professor, or Weasley, or Jones, someone smart...’

‘We’re still assuming that we won’t become infected,’ said Rose.

Scorpius scoffed. ‘Are you actually saying that what happened in the Forest has nothing to do with -’

‘Of course I’m not - though we should consider the possibility that it is something else - I’m saying that just because it’s got something to do with what we witnessed doesn’t mean our health couldn’t be a coincidence! Or maybe we’ll become infected in time! Or -’

‘Impossible to discern the nature of our immunity, if any exists,’ said Methuselah, turning to Selena. ‘Even if we remain uninfected we could easily be carriers, just as letters would be. Or perhaps the illness could be in us even if we are not feeling its ill-effects.’

‘Basically, we’re not leaving,’ sighed Albus.

‘Quite,’ said Lockett. ‘But we do need a way for back-and-forth contact with the Ministry now we’ve lost the paintings. However - I’d be surprised if the Ministry aren’t sitting here wondering the exact same things we are. And communication is something they have a lot more resources to bring to bear on than us. Still, think about it - think about alternative paintings, if any spring to mind, try other ideas.’

‘Chocolate Frog Cards?’ said Selena. ‘I mean, aren’t your parents all over them?’ She looked at Rose and Albus.

‘They’re cheap,’ sighed Rose. ‘And very numerous, and very stupid. It’s best to find ones with good-quality magical oils and paints, and ideally ones done by the same artist. That’s why the Lillyvick was such a good option, she called back the same artist to do her Headmistress’ portrait as the one who’d done hers for Saint Mungo’s - and the headmaster portraits are, um, special.’

‘I didn’t know that,’ mused Scorpius.

‘And here I was thinking you’d have a good idea,’ Rose muttered.

‘Not today.’

Anyway,’ said Lockett. ‘My point is that we have other things to focus on than communication. Or even than finding answers or a cure. We need to make sure everyone in Hogwarts is accounted for and taken care of. Now, the illness doesn’t seem to have particularly unpleasant symptoms after it initially hits - it just seems to keep the patients fatigued and weak - but this is still a few hundred people who are going to need feeding, who are going to need watching, who are going to need taking care of. And there are only six of us.’

‘Shifts?’ Rose wondered unhappily. ‘One in each house, on a rotation?’

‘That doesn’t leave much time for sleep,’ mused Albus.

‘I’m still thinking about it,’ said Lockett. ‘But first things first. Here’s a full class list, house by house. I want Weasley on Gryffindor, Rourke on Slytherin, Jones on Ravenclaw, and Potter on Hufflepuff - I’ve written their password at the top. Make sure that each and every person on those lists is accounted for. If you find someone from a different house in the dormitories, make a note of it, and then come back here and we’ll see if there’s anyone missing, and take it from there. I’ll make sure the staff are accounted for, but then I’ll be going through Madam Pheasey’s notes and the notes and research anyone else made so that when we know how to get in touch with the Ministry, we can give them the most up-to-date and accurate information.’

Albus reached for his roll of parchment, feeling the dour fear settling down upon them all. While now they had a better idea of what was going on instead of the frantic uncertainty of mere hours ago, that was proving to be little comfort. Uncertainty had meant it was possible that it wasn’t actually that bad.

It really, really was. And while they now had things to do, ways of keeping themselves busy, the list of responsibilities with no end in sight was looking to loom on and on.

Lockett shifted her weight. ‘I know this is a lot to take on,’ she said, faltering and clearly not very good with this kind of effort to buoy people up in a crisis. ‘I know that you were supposed to be having a lazy Sunday about now, and thinking about NEWTs and Quidditch and boys and girls. And I know you’re all only sixteen, and that all of a sudden everyone around you is horribly ill and we don’t have any answers.’

She paused, and Albus hoped she would say more, or that would have been perhaps the worst pep-talk ever. But then she cleared her throat and carried on. ‘But the best minds of the Ministry will be on this. They’ll get in touch, they’ll get us an answer. And all we have to do in the meantime is make sure our friends are all right, and take care of them. Okay?’

They all nodded mutely, but it was Rose who found the strength to break the silence, Rose who finally pushed back her chair and got to her feet. ‘I’m going to get up to Gryffindor Tower,’ she said, and looked at Albus. ‘I’ll check in on Lily for you.’

‘Thanks,’ he said, and stood as Selena and Methuselah did, pausing only as Scorpius looked up the long table at Lockett.

‘What about me, Professor?’ he said, looking rather small in his chair, and only now did Albus stop to think about how he’d come face to face with a Dementor that day and by all accounts had not come off too well.

For once, that made him uncertain. Because he knew enough about Dementors from his father to realise that a bad reaction like the one Scorpius had reportedly had didn’t just happen, and he had no idea what darkness his friend’s mind had conjured up.

Lockett hesitated. ‘You can come with me to check on the staff, Malfoy,’ she said.

Her uncertainty was clear enough, and Albus saw Scorpius wilt - then pause, as if something had struck him, and he straightened, giving one of his small, conspiratorial grins. Under the circumstances, Albus wasn’t sure if he should be worried or heartened by the sight of it.

‘No,’ said Scorpius. ‘That’s okay, Professor. I’ll make myself useful. I’ve got an idea.’



* *



When Scorpius Malfoy said “I’ve got an idea”, standard procedure was to duck and cover. That Professor Lockett had just looked suspiciously at him and told him to be on his way was an indication of how absolutely dire everything in the school was becoming.

He was trying to not think about that. Trying to not think about how Tim Warwick had been tossing and turning, sweating and barely conscious when he’d looked in on him that morning. Trying to not think about Albus, desperate in worry over his sister. Trying to not think about Hugo, pale and limp in his arms as he’d half-carried, half-dragged him through the woods, propped on his broom, then up through the school.

Trying to not think about Rose, and the look on her face. It wasn’t her anger at him that lingered, though - it was that haunted look behind the eyes, and alongside it hummed Hugo’s angry accusation outside of the forest.

Who have you got to worry about apart from yourself?

Unhelpfully, he had a long way to walk. Trooping down the stairs into the dark underbelly of Hogwarts, though at least he had to watch his footing, make sure he didn’t trip and kill himself, and that allowed him to concentrate. He’d only been here the once before, on an ill-advised venture he’d never bothered with again, and he knew what to expect. First the chill of the underground, far from the sun, far from the fires.

Then the warmth, comfortable at first but stifling once he stepped into the broad, open chambers of the Hogwarts Kitchens.

This place never slept. Anywhere which had to provide constant food for so many people didn’t have the luxury of shutting down, and even in the grips of a crisis Scorpius suspected that wouldn’t change. More to the point, he suspected nobody had told them to stop.

He was just relieved to see every House Elf bustling around the place was on their feet, hale and hearty. The nearest one stopped when he walked through the door, though, eyeing him suspiciously.

‘Students aren’t supposed to -’

‘I have permission from Professor Lockett.’ The excuse came easily, even though it wasn’t strictly a lie - though it wasn’t strictly the truth, either. Perhaps that was why it sprang off the tongue so comfortably. Scorpius was always better when obfuscating. ‘I need to talk to the foreman.’

The elf’s eyes narrowed, evidently displeased, but with the invoking of a staff member’s name he was clearly not about to disagree. He jerked a hand, turning away, and led Scorpius through the bustle of the warren of the kitchens; the many huge, stone ovens built into the wall, the steps leading down to the cool store rooms for supplies.

And then, at the far end, the little steps up to the foreman’s desk. It was elevated, of course, so everything could be keenly watched, observed. Scorpius knew that he’d have been spotted, knew that he’d been expected - and was ridiculously, inexplicably nervous.

This was a House Elf, for Merlin’s sake. Why was he fussing as if he was about to approach some implacable authority figure?

‘Foreman Harley!’ the elf who’d escorted him squeaked. ‘Got a student for you. Lockett sent him!’

‘I heard ya.’

Foreman Harley had his feet up on his desk. He wore boots, tiny boots fitted perfectly for his little House Elf form. They gleamed. As did the pocketwatch which dangled from a chain, as did the gold-rimmed spectacles that sat on his broad nose. His suit was tailor-made, little tie tightened right up to his neck, the buttons on his fitted waistcoat shining.

He sat up, expression as if this was the most long-suffering challenge of his day, and narrowed his eyes over his spectacles at Scorpius. ‘So. Mistress “I want coffee, not tea, Moroccan blend if you’ve got it” Lockett thinks she can send someone down here to tell us what to do?’

Scorpius hesitated.

It had been twenty years since House Elves had been liberated from their servitude - mostly thanks, he knew, to the exceptional work of the mother of one Rose Weasley. Since then, the laws governing the employment and rights of House Elves had come thick and fast but had been respected to various degrees, by the elves themselves as much as their employers.

His father still kept a House Elf, one whose family had served the Malfoys for an aeon. All laws were followed and upheld. By the creature’s own choice it lived in nothing more than a loincloth, slept under the stairs, and withstood the abuse of Draco Malfoy’s temper whenever anything went remotely amiss. Some things only time could change.

So he wasn’t accustomed to the breed of House Elf who had accepted and embraced the new laws, the new rights. He never had to deal with them - even at Hogwarts they maintained a policy of moving around unseen, though he had no idea how that interacted with the new respect and wages they could command from their employers.

It looked like it wasn’t through humility.

Scorpius lifted his hands. ‘I wasn’t sent by Professor Lockett,’ he amended, voice all smooth politeness. ‘She just gave me permission to come down here. She doesn’t know what’s going on. Like always.’

Although he was still rather resentful of Professor Lockett for hiding in the staff room, his opinion wasn’t actually as low of her as he made it sound. It just seemed like a good idea to play along with this House Elf’s obvious disapproval of the woman in question.

Foreman Harley slumped back. ‘Yeah? Then what did you want, pipsqueak?’

Scorpius was not accustomed to being addressed as “pipsqueak” by someone half his size. He shoved his hands into his pockets. ‘Did lots of people eat the breakfast you sent up this morning?’

‘Nope.’ Harley made a noise of irritation, and waved the House Elf who’d escorted Scorpius over back to work. ‘Wastrels, the lot of you. Don’t know good food when you see it.’

‘And not that many had dinner last night. And almost nobody had lunch, did they.’

Harley tilted his spectacles down an inch. ‘You can cut to the chase any time you like, boy.’

‘Nobody’s told you what’s going on. Up there.’ Scorpius jerked his head up. ‘I bet Professor Stubbs didn’t have the chance before he was taken ill.’

The House Elf’s eyes narrowed. ‘Still not the chase. Don’t make me cut there.’

Scorpius did reel back a bit at that. He knew so little of how to deal with House Elves that it was difficult to gauge how serious the threat of being stabbed was. He straightened. ‘There’s an illness,’ he said at last. ‘Sweeping the school. It’s taken out all but half a dozen people, and Hogwarts as a whole is in quarantine.’

‘Huh.’ Harley scratched his nose. ‘They did say the rooms were awful full this morning.’

‘Students have been sent back to the dormitories to stay there, even when ill. There are too many of them to put in the Infirmary.’ Scorpius looked around, and found a stool which came up to his knee on his side of Harley’s desk. He pulled it up and perched on it, now with the unusual perspective of being able to look the House Elf in the eye. ‘It’s all going to hell.’

Harley drew a deep breath. ‘So you’re saying they’re not going to need dinner tonight.’

Scorpius nodded. ‘That is, in fact, what I’m saying.’

There was a pause. Then Harley reached across his desk for a fat brass bell, which he lifted and rang, over and over, loud enough to make Scorpius clamp his hands over his ears. By the end, Scorpius couldn’t tell if silence had fallen or if he’d just been deafened, but once all activity had ceased, once all House Elves in the kitchens were looking up to their Foreman, Harley spoke.

‘All right, boys and girls! Kitchen staff are done for the day, go put your feet up!’ Harley gave a wide, toothy grin at Scorpius as the House Elves exploded into satisfied hustle and began to bustle their way out of the kitchen.

‘Wait, what - that wasn’t what I meant,’ Scorpius stammered, half-rising. ‘There are sick people -’

‘Oh, yeah.’ Harley reached for a quill. ‘Better send a memo down to housekeeping -’

‘But you have to help.’ Scorpius’ eyes widened. ‘You’re the biggest workforce in Hogwarts, you’re unharmed. Sick people need checking on, caring for, feeding, watering - I don’t know! We’re six people, we can’t do all of that ourselves, we’ll be run ragged!’

‘Sorry, kid,’ said Harley, hopping to his feet. ‘We’re hired to provide catering and cleaning for Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. We ain’t hired to play nursemaid to some poorly first years.’

‘It’s the whole school!’ Scorpius snapped, standing. ‘What do you think you’ll do, leave? You can’t leave, the Ministry have the place under quarantine! You’re just going to sit down here in your rooms and do absolutely nothing?’

‘No, no.’ Harley put his hands in his pockets, every inch the tiny executive, and turned. ‘We’ll do what we always do, kid. We’ll do what we House Elves have lived by since the Liberation.’ He scowled. ‘We’ll do what we’re contracted to do. And nothing more.’


Chapter 10: Cooking on Gas
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It was dark by the time the four students and Professor Lockett had finished going through their roll call and assessment and judged that every person who should have been on school grounds had been accounted for. The student populace of Hogwarts, once they'd realised what was transpiring was very serious indeed, had been committed in making sure friends didn't go off alone. Anyone who had been taken ill had got themselves, or been taken, to the Infirmary or their bed.

The good part of this was that there were no missing people, perhaps lost somewhere and incapacitated. The bad news was that it confirmed what they already suspected: the six of them were the only humans in Hogwarts who had not been afflicted.

And there were an awful lot of people for six of them to take care of.

Professor Lockett had dismissed them, suggesting they get a good night's sleep before they reconvened in the morning, though Rose had absolutely no idea what morning was supposed to bring. The light of day granted no comfort but the truth, and the truth was the least comforting thing Rose could imagine right then.

She'd known she wouldn't be able to sleep, so she didn't bother to head back to Gryffindor Tower. And why, exactly, would she want to sleep there? On her own, surrounded by her sick friends, classmates, and family? It was all right for Albus, he had Scorpius - who hadn't shown up to the Great Hall and was probably dossing off somewhere - and Selena for company, and Methuselah Jones didn't operate like normal people. But she'd be alone. The prospect wasn't encouraging.

So although she had no plan to go anywhere else, when her feet had found themselves sluggish on the way up the stairs, when they'd begun to wander elsewhere, Rose hadn't stopped them. It took ten minutes before she'd realised they were falling into the pattern of her patrol route - not her new one, she'd only done that twice, but the one from last year, the one she'd done several times a week as a neonate prefect, her and Matthias...

Colour rushed to Rose's cheeks as she remembered the time they'd spent on those patrols paying very little attention to anything but each other. Cheryl had been wrong; it hadn't been with Hector that she'd neglected her prefect duties. But those days were long gone now, and though it was for the best, though she and Matthias had been wise to break up before they had ended up completely hating one another, she found herself occasionally, wistfully, missing him.

Perhaps not him, per se. When he did that snorting laugh whenever he was right, she still found it insufferable, and not in an adorable way. When he forgot something she'd asked him to do, or remember, because he got too caught up in whatever was right in front of his nose, she still found it incensing. But there had been a closeness there, a companionship and an understanding which, for all Hector could make her heart race and her head spin with just a charming smile, felt like it had slipped completely from her grasp...

There was a light on in the records office.

Rose's hand came down to her wand, tucked into her pocket. The others had all gone to bed. Professor Lockett had been heading for the dungeons, likely to lock herself away with her potions research to see if she could do anything to help. There was no reason for a light to be on, no reason for anyone to be poking around the records, and as she padded down the corridor she could see the door was ajar.

Pausing just outside, she stopped, listening intently, but all she could hear from inside was the rustling of papers and the opening and closing of the wooden cabinets that lined the walls. Whoever was inside was looking for something.

She hesitated. It made sense that what had befallen Hogwarts was not an accident. It made sense that someone was targeting the school. It made sense to go and get backup rather than she, an underage witch, try to take matters into their own hands.

But that could take time, and if they were gone before she got back...

What would Mum do? Probably have a perfect spell to knock the door open and bind whoever was on the other side up all in one fell swoop, before finalising a treatise on the defensive techniques best employed on Hogwarts grounds. Not very useful.

Rose's lips twitched. What would Dad do?

She waited until the rustling got closer to the door before she acted. Then, in a flash, she was through the door and one hand was at the back of whoever stood by the near cabinet, flattening them face-first against it, the other pressing her wand against the back of their neck.

They gave a rather undignified noise of shock. 'Ow, ow, what the - Weasley?'

Rose scowled. 'Malfoy? What're you doing here?'

'I'm sure I don't have to answer that while you're trying to flatten my nose against Drawer 34D,' was Scorpius' nasal reply. 'Let me go, will you?'

Rose did, only a little abashed. The blood was pounding in her ears, she was rather proud of herself for taking Scorpius by surprise quite so effectively, and besides - her father was unlikely to object to her pinning a Malfoy against the wall.

Then colour again rose to her cheeks as she realised the other interpretation of what she'd just thought. 'I ask again, what were you doing here, Malfoy?'

'Being attacked by a crazy prefect.' Scorpius straightened his ridiculously fussy blazer and shirt, turning to face her. But the effort was for little; his clothes were still rumpled and muddy after the day's affairs, and his hair, normally fastidiously styled, was particularly wild. 'What brought you here?'

'The light was on.'

'And you wanted to kiss the records room goodnight? Or did you just come to berate me again?'

Rose's stomach twisted. The sight of him coming through the Infirmary doors with her brother in his arms was one that would likely stay with her for the rest of her life. 'I'm serious, Malfoy.'

'So am I! I don't remember having to answer to you.'

'I'm a prefect -'

'And that counts for, what, exactly, right now?' Scorpius cocked his head. 'Prefects, teachers, whatever, it doesn't matter.'

'So you thought it was time to divert the great parade that is the life of Scorpius Malfoy through the records office for... for... what...?' Rose looked around haplessly, her insult dying in her confusion. 'What do you want?'

He looked at her for a moment, then sagged at last. 'I'd hoped to get this all sorted myself; everyone else has a job to do -'

'I didn't ask for your self-pity, Malfoy.'

His eyes flashed. 'Fine.' Scorpius folded his arms across his chest. 'I was trying to get the House Elves to help. We can use them to make sure each and every invalid at Hogwarts is cared for - given food and drink, given potions, monitored, everything. While the rest of us try to figure out what the bloody hell we can do.'

Rose stared at him for a moment. Something had landed in her throat, something unpleasant and tart, and it was difficult to speak past it, difficult to push past the bitterness that laced her voice when she finally did open her mouth. 'That's... a really good idea, Malfoy.'

Scorpius grinned as he obviously realised that had hurt to say - but the grin died just as suddenly, and despite herself she noted the room seemed darker for it. 'Except that they won't help,' he said, gesturing haplessly around him. 'The Foreman says they'll only do the job they've been contracted for, and that's to do with cooking and cleaning and little else, certainly not to do with "playing nursemaid".'

She made a noise of exasperation. 'I always told Mum they got really too big for their boots - but why were you here?'

'Looking for a copy of their contracts, or an - I don't know, an employee's handbook. Something defining their rights and responsibilities I could use to persuade them. Or, failing that, something I could use for reference to draw up a new contract, I'm sure the Ministry would agree to have them paid for helping out, but...'

'Have you taken three years of contract law?'

Scorpius looked at her, clearly unsure if this was a gibe. 'Um. No, I must have missed that in the NEWT course options -'

'I mean the House Elves who accepted all the reforms have become pretty fanatical when it comes to adhering to these laws - they've learnt to use them absolutely to their advantage. The clever ones will find any loopholes that exist, closing the ones which hurt them and exploiting the ones which get them what they want. They're like small, unionist goblins or something these days.' Rose's nose crinkled.

Scorpius' gaze had been locked on her as she'd been speaking, and there was a split second when she finished that she just peered back. He shook his head, blinking. 'Um. Well, that's a pain. I imagine the Foreman here at Hogwarts is a clever one.'

'Yes. "Foreman" is just a colloquialism. He's something like General Manager. If you try to pin a contract on him, he will take you for a ride.'

Scorpius cocked his head, a smile playing at his lips - this one more gently amused than wry and sarcastic. 'How do you know all of this?'

Rose sighed. 'My mother did more than just help kill Voldemort, you know. You think I didn't hear every single success and failure, victory and defeat, of the House Elf Rights Movement? The worst of it had passed by the time I was born, but still, it's riveting stuff, I assure you.'

'Of course.' Scorpius shook his head. 'I forgot.'

'You've never lived until you've had dinner at my parents' house listening to my mother witter on about the complexities of incorporating House Elves as government employees...' Her voice trailed off, and she lifted her gaze as something struck her.

Scorpius just grinned obliviously. 'I'll have to try it sometime -'

'That's it!' She got to her feet, snapping her fingers.

'That's - what, dinner at your -'

'No, no - come on!' Despite herself she grabbed him by the sleeve and was off, out the door and down the corridor before Scorpius could summon so much as a bewildered request for elaboration.

'Where're we going?' he asked, stumbling to keep up before he caught his balance and drew level.

'The kitchens. We're going to talk to the Foreman.'

'Um, I don't have any kind of a contract -'

'We won't need one.'

'What do we -'

'You'll see.' In reality, she had absolutely no reason to leave him hanging. But he gave a scowl at her elusive answer, and for once she could enjoy being the one to needlessly irritate, when normally he was the one misbehaving and she was the frustrated one slapping down the law to curb his fun. He didn't seem to know how to cope with the roles reversed.

For her part, it was quite refreshing.

They didn't talk on the way down, unless she counted Scorpius' bitter mumbling to himself about women and their elusive ways, which she tried to not listen to because it kept making her want to laugh at him, and she had no desire for Scorpius Malfoy to suspect she might be laughing with him.

The kitchens were quiet when they got there. Rose couldn't pretend she knew much of the operations in and around Hogwarts, so she didn't know how normal this was - but it was late, past what would have normally been dinner time. All that had been brought up for the few people still on their feet were some rather forlorn sandwiches, half of which had been eaten by Albus before he'd realised that no more were coming. There was clearly little work for the vast majority of the House Elf kitchen crew.

But Foreman Harley was still there, still at his desk, reading a miniaturised version of the Daily Prophet which bore the date of Saturday's edition, likely the most recent he could get his hands on. He lowered the paper and frowned over his gold-rimmed spectacles at them as their footsteps echoed through the kitchen.

'What did you want, lad? You still can't come and go as you please -'

'Foreman Harley, isn't it?' Rose headed over to the desk, plastering on her most polite smile. 'You're the General Manager here of the House Elf staff?'

'Aye...' Harley narrowed his eyes, but he did put his paper down. 'And what did you want, little missy?'

Scorpius poked his head around Rose, quirking an eyebrow at the elf. 'Steady on, now, "little missy" is a bit -'

Condescending. But Rose would be damned if she was going to let Scorpius' sudden and unexpected bout of chivalry turn Harley hostile. Her pride could take some demeaning from a diminutive representative of House Elf middle-management. 'It's Miss Weasley, actually,' she said, and got a glazed-over look in response. It was a common expression she encountered whenever anyone thought they might have to march into the intellectual battle of figuring out the Weasley family tree, which could be more vicious than the Whomping Willow. 'I don't know if you've met my mother, actually - Hermione Granger.'

That did get Harley's attention, and his boots swung off the desk, the little House Elf hopping to his feet. 'I, er - no, not had the pleasure,' he said gruffly, then wiped his hand on his suit jacket and extended it to her. 'Charmed, m'sure.'

Scorpius' jaw had dropped, but Rose ignored it to give another polite smile as she shook Harley's hand. 'My associate here indicates he's brought you up to speed on the situation that's currently striking Hogwarts?'

'He has, Miss Weasley. Terrible affair, it is, truly terrible.' Harley stood straight, trying to puff his little chest out.

'And I understand that your hands are quite tied when it comes to the matter of the House Elf staff adapting their schedules and responsibilities in a time of a crisis like this?'

Harley gave a look of false apology. 'Our contracted responsibilities are pretty clear, Miss Weasley. If you'd like for you and I to sit down and negotiate something else, I bet I can get some tea put on -'

'I'm not in a position to negotiate on behalf of the Ministry or Headmaster Stubbs,' said Rose. 'But I'm not sure that's going to be necessary.'

Harley had been moving for the closest fireplace, a small one where a kettle stood on a nearby table. He stopped at this, looking suspiciously over his shoulder. 'Aye? And why's that?'

'Because Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is the property of the Ministry of Magic, funded by the Ministry of Magic, which means that all employees, teachers and other staff, are Ministry employees and are bound by the same rules and regulations.' Rose clasped her hands behind her back and prayed that her memory wouldn't fail her, pausing while she scrambled for errant facts gathered under tiresome circumstances.

He didn't even try to look polite now, just turned and folded his arms across his chest. 'You can get to the point if you want -'

'So, under the... Emergency Affairs Act of 1873? '74. 1874, any and all Ministry employees whose work and responsibilities have been affected by a Crisis Situation as designated by the Ministry are contractually obligated to aid and follow the orders of the most senior Ministry official present regardless of job description until the crisis is over. For their own safety and to ensure the crisis passes.' Rose paused, and heard Scorpius let out a low whistle from over her shoulder. She didn't look at him.

Harley shifted his weight, looking dubious. 'That's not in our contracts.'

'Your contracts are Hogwarts-specific contracts, but it would have been in the Ministry Employee Handbook you'd have signed a form confirming you've read. It governs all Ministry employees.' Rose tucked an errant strand of hair behind her ear. 'The Ministry have declared the quarantine of Hogwarts, which counts as a crisis situation, and under the circumstances the most senior Ministry official on-site is Professor Lockett.'

The elf paused, working his jaw wordlessly, before he stabbed an accusing finger at her. 'That rule's in place to make sure people, like, get out the building safe and sound. Not to press-gang us into doing whatever bloody Lockett says until this quarantine is lifted!'

'If we want to talk about intent,' said Scorpius, stepping up, and Rose silently hoped he wasn't going to undermine her, 'what about the clauses in the contract for all Hogwarts staff to work towards the "betterment and safety of the school and its students"?' He wore a particularly smug grin, the like of which he usually turned on her, but this time she could appreciate its usefulness as she saw Harley's hostile expression sink.

'A clause too vague to be - piss.' Harley scowled between them both. 'Fine. Fine. I'll have the bleedin' kitchen staff reallocated to follow Lockett's instructions on the care of the sick, an' a few put to one side to make sure them of you bastards who ain't ill are getting fed.'

'Something better than sandwiches filled with leftovers,' said Rose a little tartly.

'If you insist, your highness.' Harley gave a bitter little bow, and Scorpius snorted, his smug grin back to being obnoxious. 'Now get out of here; if we're all back to work then this place is for staff only, and you two ain't staff.'

Her heart soared at the victory. 'Thank you for your cooperation, Foreman,' said Rose with a happy little bounce, but Scorpius was already tugging her back towards the door. She didn't resist, and the two of them near burst from the kitchen. He'd closed the door behind them and they were halfway up the stairs before Scorpius stopped, clapping his hands together and burst out laughing.

'That - was - brilliant!' he howled, turning on her and near-hopping with glee. 'Did you see his face, little bureaucratic bastard? It was like he'd swallowed a lemon! Where the hell did you learn about Ministry employment law?'

She grinned despite herself, suddenly quite abashed at his shamelessly enthusiastic praise. 'Er, my Dad, he had to make a bunch of Ministry employees cooperate on a manhunt. He said one of his keen trainees had read the handbook religiously and caught them out so they had to help him.'

'That's amazing,' Scorpius gushed. 'You completely had him, I couldn't have ever remembered any of that stuff.'

Rose again tucked the errant lock of hair behind her ear. 'I don't know, you remembered that clause in the Hogwarts contract...'

'Yeah, since I read it all of five minutes ago.' He shook his head, still wearing an expression of disbelief. 'That was so cool.'

'Well, it was your idea, really,' she said bashfully. 'Getting the House Elves to help is going to be really useful; I had no idea how we were supposed to keep up with taking care of everyone and now we can focus on coordinating with the Ministry. Though you really didn't have to get so defensive when he called me "little missy".'

Scorpius straightened, hands in his pockets, his smile turning playfully crooked. 'I know you've got a thick skin, Weasley, and I know you don't need me to stand up for you, but he was bloody out of line. I'm the only one who's allowed to piss you off like that.'

Suddenly the stairway seemed narrower, closer, quieter - the sounds of the kitchen below faded away, the light from the next floor up seemed further away, and again that pesky lock of hair bounced out from behind her ear. Rose worked her lips wordlessly for a few seconds, before clutching at the first strand of thought she could find, just to break the silence.

'I know you didn't mean for anything to happen to Hugo...'

Scorpius' expression twisted and she felt guilty for what had not been intended as an admonishment. 'No, I - I'm sorry, you weren't wrong, he just... he wanted to help and I didn't want to stop him and, really, it's just as well I didn't. He was better than Jones or I out there. Braver against the Dementors. I don't know if we'd have made it back without him -'

'I'm still glad you're okay.' Rose swallowed. 'All of you, I mean.'

His grimace faded for another smile, but it wasn't one of his usual smirks - rather, something altogether softer, more tired, more quietly amused. 'Like I said, Weasley,' he said, and his voice seemed lower in the gloomy stairway. 'I'll come back. Every time.'

Then he was lifting a hand, and for one awful second she thought he was reaching for that bloody lock of her hair which was refusing to cooperate, and in a panic she turned away, back to the stairs leading up, and hurried along. 'We'd - we'd better tell Professor Lockett -'

She didn't look back, and it took a moment before she heard Scorpius' footsteps on the stairs behind her, and another before he spoke. 'She's going to be up to her eyeballs in potions by now. It can wait until morning, I'm sure...'

'There's no time like the present and somebody's got to tell her -'

'You don't have to do everything yourself, Weasley.'

Rose hesitated. 'Let's just see if they've put any more food up in the Great Hall yet, I only had a sandwich for dinner and you've not eaten...' Despite herself she let a fussy tone creep into her voice, the sort of tone her grandmother used to devastating effect - the only voice she knew worked even on her own mother.

'I was fine -'

'You're notfine, Malfoy, we can't have people passing out because they've not eaten, we've got enough on our plates already -'

'Or not, as the case may be.'

She cursed herself for snickering at the bad joke, and gave him a reproachful look. 'We have a responsibility.'

'I know,' said Scorpius, drawing abreast of her as they reached the top of the stairs and came into the corridor. 'You keep reminding me. Like it's a small animal that needs feeding I neglect.'

So they made their way back to the Great Hall, where the light from the few lit sconces remained gloomy - but were greeted by the rather splendid sight of half a roast chicken and trimmings, still warm, that the House Elves had already been enterprising enough to have brought up and placed on the high table.

'Oh, good, I'm bloody famished,' said Scorpius despite his earlier protestations, and with no apparent discomfort at seating himself in a teacher's place, he pulled up a chair and helped himself to the chicken.

'Me too - were you going to share that, Malfoy?'

He grudgingly sliced her some of the breast before doing a fine impression, she thought, of her cat as he set about the chicken leg, and she piled up vegetables onto his plate before he could stop her.

'You're a bloody menace, Weasley -'

'Someone has to take care of you; clearly Al doesn't do it properly.'

'Volunteering to take his place?'

Her nose lifted in the air haughtily. 'I prefer to not supplant others.'

But there'd been an edge she couldn't keep out of her voice, and Scorpius was looking at her suspiciously over the chicken leg. Her mind went blank on how to divert him, and when he finished chewing and swallowing she was silently grateful when he said, instead, 'Why were you down in the record office?'

For some reason that question was easier to deal with. 'I didn't fancy going back to Gryffindor Tower alone.'

Scorpius' forehead wrinkled. 'I can understand that. I'd really rather not sleep in the same room as Bellamy, Oakes, and Hollis if they're all ill, it's just weird. And I've even got Al.'

'Yes, I was thinking about making up one of the visitor bedrooms and just staying there. We all should do that, really, we don't want to be in the House Elves' way. And it can't be much fun for Rourke or Jones on their own.'

'If Selena had a problem with it, you bet we'd have heard by now,' he said. 'And I don't think Jones lives on the same planet as anyone else. Besides.' He reached for one of the napkins as he tossed his abandoned chicken bone onto the plate, and wiped his mouth with rather shockingly little decorum for a son of the Malfoy household. 'I doubt we'll be here long.'

Rose hesitated. 'You really think?'

'Come off it. The Ministry, Saint Mungo's, the brightest people in Britain, are all going to be working on it. I'd be surprised if we're still here even in a week's time,' said Scorpius, helping himself to some pumpkin juice and wearing a broad, confident smile which looked entirely unlike his silly grins or the softer smile he'd worn down in that quiet moment in the stairway minutes before.

Which was why she knew he didn't believe a single word he was saying.


Chapter 11: Irons in the Fire
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Scorpius rubbed his eyes as he descended the steps into the Slytherin common room, and peered blearily at Selena Rourke. ‘I cannot believe you’re doing your hair.’

She stood in front of the enchanted glass giving the deep, gloomy view of the lake that cast its emerald sheen across the whole of the room, her hands picking delicately at hairpins. ‘There is absolutely no reason for standards to drop, Scorpius.’

‘The school’s quarantined with an illness incapacitating almost everyone. This is the exact reason for standards to drop. Who the hell is around to see you?’

She gave a superior little snort. ‘It’s no wonder you feel so, Scorpius,’ she cooed, ‘with your hair like that.’

His hands came up reflexively. ‘Wait - what’s wrong with my hair?’

‘See? You do care.’ With a flick she snapped her little hand-mirror shut. ‘You’ve crossed the threshold, my dear, from “rumpled” to “just got out of bed”.’

‘That’d be because I just got out of bed.’ But still Scorpius’s fingers were in his hair, fighting to flatten the worst of the wild golden curls.

‘It’s nine in the morning. Everyone’s normally up by eight.’

‘Again, see how there’s nothing to do,’ said Scorpius with a scowl. ‘Even the House Elves do their work silently. Or, silently enough.’

‘Oh, yes.’ Her face lit up. ‘Did you meet the foreman, Harley? He’s such a dear, doing all this for everyone who’s suffering, and he was kind enough to bring me a cup of tea in bed when I asked. It’s so sweet.’

Considering how abusive Harley had been the night before, all Scorpius could do in response was work his jaw with wordless outrage, but Selena continued, wrinkling her perfect nose. ‘Though I would rather not be sleeping in there. It’s so...’ Her voice trailed off, and she waved a hand vaguely.

‘Creepy as all hell to lie in a dorm with sick people? Distressing to roll over and see Oakes sweating and tossing and turning?’

‘I was going to say distracting; Boyce is so noisy...’

Scorpius closed his mouth. ‘Noisy. She’s infected with a horrendous illness and you’re calling her noisy -’

‘Oh, don’t be like that, Scorpius,’ Selena squeaked indignantly. ‘Of course I’m worried, Miranda and Abena are my best friends, but there’s nothing really I can do about it!’

He frowned, watching her, eyes studying every inch of the smooth skin of her face. ‘That’s why you got up early to fuss about how you look,’ he concluded. ‘So you didn’t have to sit in the dorm-room with them.’

She gave a genteel snort and began examining her nails. ‘As if I’m going to give Weasley the satisfaction of any clue I’m letting this get to me half as much as she’s letting it get to her - did you see her hair yesterday?’

‘She’d been up half the night and working in the Infirmary...’ Selena looked at him as though he’d grown a second head, and the words died in Scorpius’ mouth as he realised he’d actually been defending Rose Weasley. He cleared his throat noisily. ‘Anyway, she had a good idea last night - that maybe we could move into some of the guest rooms on the staff floor so we don’t have to lie in these depressing dorm-rooms...’

Selena tossed her head with the dismissiveness Scorpius recognised as a grudging acceptance this was a good idea. ‘Hmph. Perhaps. If Lockett will let us.’

‘Lockett’s all right.’

‘Professor Lockett doesn’t have a bloody clue what’s going on or what she’s doing. She’s a jumped-up researcher, Scorpius, you know this. She’s wildly unqualified to manage the school, manage us, manage a crisis. She should barely even be a teacher -’

‘But she is,’ said Scorpius, surprising himself with the stern tone in his voice. ‘And she’s got a better clue than any of us. We’re just going to have to live with it, Selena. With her, and with Weasley, and with Jones, until we get through this.’

She sniffed. ‘It doesn’t mean I have to pander to their whims.’

He folded his arms across his chest. ‘Anyway, I thought you liked Jones?’

‘What, because he was my best option for company in the Forest?’

‘Oh, yeah, I forgot,’ said Scorpius sarcastically. ‘Miranda’s marching orders meant you couldn’t talk to me.’ He felt guilty, briefly, as his old, familiar surge of venom towards Miranda mingled with the recollection of her blood on his shoes.

Really, Scorpius. As if I ignored you. I was the only one who didn’t,’ Selena pointed out. ‘Miranda’s my friend but she doesn’t dictate who I do and don’t talk to. We just happen to agree most of the time and did it ever possibly occur to you that I know exactly what she’s like?’

Silence hung in the air between them, taut and uncertain, and Scorpius again searched her expression for clues. But there was very little hint behind Selena’s indignation, and he couldn’t tell if she really didn’t know anything in particular - just broad strokes that nobody, really, was an innocent - or if Selena Rourke was a much better liar, and much smarter and more observant than he’d ever taken her for.

‘I didn’t talk to you in the Forest,’ she said, turning back to her mirror before he could reach a conclusion, ‘because you were sulking, and so was Albus, over whatever silly little spat you boys had. And I know what you’re like and it makes you surly and unpleasant, and Albus untalkative and judgemental. So my options were you two, Weasley, or Methuselah Jones. And if you ask Methuselah Jones to talk about something he wants to talk about, you might be bored beyond belief but at least someone’s talking to you.’

‘You were all clingy,’ Scorpius accused weakly.

Selena went back to arranging her hair. ‘He’s tall.’

The stone doorway to the common room scraping open made them both jump, but it was just Albus, burly form taking the steps two at a time. He was breathing hard, a flash of excitement in his eyes. ‘You’d better come quick,’ he panted, ‘to the Great Hall.’

Scorpius straightened. ‘Breakfast?’

Albus frowned. ‘What? Do you think I get this excited about breakfast, Scorp?’

‘Sometimes. What is it?’

He shook his head. ‘You’d better come see for yourself. Both of you. But I think someone’s trying to make contact.’

Selena made a small noise of protest at the notion of running, but she still scurried along with them as Albus lumbered back up the stairs and Scorpius loped after him. They weren’t far from the Great Hall, but were still the last there, Rose, Jones, and Professor Lockett having likely already been there from a more hospitable hour. They stood in a small cluster in the centre of the Hall, the long tables having been pushed to the walls, and in the middle of them hovered a small, flickering, silvery light.

Scorpius came to a stop next to Rose, squinting. ‘What is it?’

‘Not dark magic,’ said Jones before Rose could speak. ‘Began a few minutes ago. Keeps changing shape. Hints of words making through.’

‘And we’re just, what, hoping it’s good guys?’

‘So far there are no indications, Malfoy, that there are “bad guys”,’ said Lockett with, Scorpius thought, entirely unnecessary optimism as she frowned at the silver spark, her wand in hand. ‘This is likely some sort of effort from the Ministry to communicate.’

‘Besides,’ said Rose, her eyes locked on it with an entranced look on her face, ‘it feels... right.’

‘Feels right? That doesn’t sound very precise, Weasley -’

‘Do you have something useful to contribute, Malfoy, or -’

They all jumped as the spark suddenly expanded, swirling outwards before shifting, changing, and growing before it took a form, a very distinct and precise, albeit ghostly, form, small and hovering in mid-air.

Scorpius coughed. ‘It’s an otter.’

Jones quirked an eyebrow. ‘A patronus.’

Rose’s jaw dropped as she looked at the animal. ‘Mum?’

‘...this should be working. Is it working? Can you hear me?’ Scorpius was faced with the very disconcerting sensation of looking at an otter speak and sound familiar - not just for recognisably talking with the voice and mannerisms of Hermione Granger, but also for just how she reminded him of her daughter.

‘Oh, Mum told me about this, they used patronuses in the war to send messages securely,’ said Rose, her eyes lighting up. ‘It’s only one way and I don’t know to do it back -’

‘I can hear you, dear, I’ve had twenty-five years to perfect this spell in case anything ever happened,’ said the otter with a mixture of her daughter’s superiority and fond, happy reassurance.

‘What,’ said Scorpius dubiously, ‘you perfected a massive variation upon an already ridiculously advanced form of magic just in case?’

Hermione Granger’s patronus regarded him as if the question itself were pointless. ‘Well, yes, of course, Mister Malfoy.’

Scorpius winced. ‘Unless you’re a teacher, “Mister Malfoy” is what my father gets called.’

‘Really.’ The patronus sniffed. ‘I have other names for him. But I digress.’ It twirled in the air, shining with the glowing, silver light, to focus on Rose. ‘You’re well, dear? You’re on your feet. And Hugo...?’

‘He’s ill, Mum,’ said Rose, looking rather small, and Albus stepped up next to her and put a hand on her shoulder. ‘They’re all... stable, but they’re ill, we’re the only ones who’re uninfected, and we don’t know why...’

‘We do sort of know why,’ Scorpius mumbled.

‘We’ll get to that,’ said Hermione’s patronus, before it spun in the air to look at Lockett. ‘Professor. You can confirm that this is, in fact, it? The only people upright?’

‘I’m afraid so,’ said Professor Lockett with a frown. ‘Everyone is accounted for and presently stable, but incapacitated - too weak to be anywhere but in bed, the illness seems to, above all, sap the afflicted’s energy. We have the House Elves keeping them under supervision and caring for them, so far, thanks to your daughter’s efforts.’

Rose coughed demurely. ‘Malfoy helped.’

‘It was my idea!’ Scorpius protested.

‘That’s superb,’ said Hermione’s patronus, clearly caring more about the result than the credit. ‘The Ministry has put together a task force specifically to deal with this problem, which I have assumed command of.’ Scorpius privately wondered if this appointment had been made by the Minister or by herself, if the woman’s reputation was anything to go by. ‘We’ll be responsible for maintaining the quarantine, shipping in supplies where possible and working day and night to find a cure for this.’

‘I assume we have a means for getting in supplies which isn’t owls,’ said Lockett.

‘Some simple transfiguration of crates which we get to the quarantine line. Once they’re on school grounds you can recover them, so be sure to contact us when you have need of anything.’

‘How’re we supposed to get in touch?’ asked Lockett.

‘I will be making contact with you here, every morning, at nine o’ clock sharp. I was only late today because I still had to perfect the process through Hogwarts’ wards,’ said Hermione’s patronus, the otter looking a little defensive. ‘Though we will have to further analyse the illness before we can determine how it’s transmitted, and so if Floo or owls will be safe to use.’

‘So if we need to raise the alarm suddenly, we’re still shit out of luck,’ said Scorpius eloquently.

‘What’s happened to the Lillyvick portrait?’

‘It’s in Professor Stubbs’ office,’ said Lockett with a sigh. ‘And he’s been unconscious for the past day, and nobody knows his password.’

‘We shall have to work on alternatives,’ said Hermione’s patronus. ‘Unless any of you have had any success at conjuring a patronus.’

Methuselah Jones shook his head with rather unnecessary sharpness, but everyone else’s eyes landed on Professor Lockett, who seemed to shrink even smaller at the expectant looks. She coughed into her hand. ‘I’m a potioneer, not an Auror,’ she said defensively.

Rose looked like she might be about to press the point, but Scorpius saw a rather tense knotting of Lockett’s brow, and piped up quickly. ‘But speaking of patronuses, the Forest is still going crazy, Ms Granger.’

The otter cocked its head at him. ‘Define “crazy”, Scorpius?’

It was peculiar for a voice which sounded so much like Rose’s to be calling him by his first name. ‘Well, I - Jones, and me, and - and Hugo - we went out there. There’s got to be a reason it’s the six of us who’re unaffected, and there’s got to be an explanation for that explosion in the Forest the night before this all started. We were out there. That’s a link.’

Hermione’s patronus looked thoughtful. ‘I shall have the Ministry send me the report Professor Stubbs owled over on Saturday morning; I’ve not been examining those links. What did you find in the Forest?’

‘Darkness,’ said Scorpius ominously.

‘And Dementors,’ offered Jones, more helpfully. ‘Several.’

‘As if they were drawn there?’

Jones shook his head quickly. ‘As if they were breeding there.’

Selena made a face. ‘Ew. How do those things breed?’

‘They don’t breed, per se,’ said Hermione’s patronus. ‘In places of great darkness, death, and suffering, they... grow, manifest. Like fungus. But I’m sure we would have noticed such a place in such proximity to Hogwarts.’

‘It was the same place that flash happened - and no, it didn’t look like that Friday night,’ said Scorpius. ‘It’s changed, Ms Granger, and it’s pretty bloody horrible.’

‘These do all sound linked,’ Hermione’s patronus agreed, before turning to Lockett. ‘Professor, have you reached any further conclusions on the nature of the illness? We only have what Professor Stubbs last communicated to us, which were the initial symptoms.’

Lockett reached into her robes and pulled out a rather tidy scroll. ‘I’ve been going through Madam Pheasey’s notes and making some of my own,’ she said, at last sounding like an authoritative voice. ‘Madam Pheasey managed to witness approximately the first twelve hours of infection. The time frame between the first person and the last person to be afflicted displaying symptoms has been no more than twenty-four hours, assuming the six of us to be clean. You know about the light-headedness, nausea, and vomiting of blood. These are followed up by extreme fatigue and weariness, and often a fever, leaving the afflicted uncomfortable and bed-ridden. Some are lapsing into unconsciousness, others we have been trying to keep unconscious for their own comfort if the fevers are particularly virulent. The House Elves are keeping them supervised in case of change, fed, and cared for.’

Then she began to reel her way through the further details of the symptoms, the particulars, and Scorpius tried to not think about it. He’d stopped by the Slytherin second year boys’ room on his way down that morning, looked in on the thin, pale, young face of little Tim Warwick, and had wondered if what he felt looking at him was even a tenth of what Albus or Rose felt looking at Lily or Hugo. Because just that tenth was bad enough.

‘We shall get to work doing our own analysis and going through records,’ said Hermione’s patronus when Lockett was finished. ‘Perhaps we can find some past reference to anything matching this. Certainly this is a magical illness; the only question arises as to if this is something that’s naturally manifested -’

‘It’s not a question,’ Scorpius blurted out, then reddened as all eyes turned on him, not having meant to speak. But indignation rose. ‘It’s not. There were people in the clearing on Friday, I saw them. And now that exact place is a breeding pit for Dementors. Someone intended this, someone planned this. We have to think about more than just reacting; we have to act.’

Scorpius had never seen an otter look dubious before, but now he did - until Albus stepped up and nodded. ‘He’s right,’ he said, and Scorpius felt a rush of gratitude - and yet resentment, that he might not have been listened to without the support of the son of Harry Potter. ‘If someone intended it, they intended it for a reason. Is this an attack on Hogwarts, and if so, why? We have to try to figure this out and anticipate their next move. Are they going to come for us?’

‘We can put security at the perimeter of the quarantine,’ said Hermione’s patronus. ‘And send what messengers we can to contact the centaurs and see what, if anything, they know.’

‘I warn you that at least one of the major herds has been spotted close enough to Hogwarts grounds as to be in the quarantine zone,’ said Lockett. ‘You might not have much luck.’

‘We’ll do what we can. I suggest you make the security of the grounds one of your priorities, along with caring for the afflicted and studying the illness. I know you have a lot of experience with this sort of thing, Professor...’

Lockett looked stricken. ‘I have experience developing potions; my specialisation is in augmentative, not medical -’

‘And yet you developed some of the most major restorative draughts used to cure Dark Magic wounds in the last quarter-century.’

She swallowed. ‘That was a long time ago.’

‘And this is now,’ said Hermione’s patronus sternly. ‘Other than Madam Pheasey herself you are the most qualified Hogwarts Professor to be dealing with this situation. Perhaps more so with your background in research versus her specialisation in immediate care. You know what I’m thinking.’

‘If it’s been inflicted by a magical ritual then potions are only going to be of so much use; I can probably cook up something to combat the symptoms but without undoing the magic of the ritual they’re unlikely to provide an actual cure, and we don’t know anything about the ritual,’ Lockett said, looking thoroughly rattled. ‘That the ritual site has since become a breeding ground for Dementors would indicate that this was thoroughly Dark Magic used, and Dark Magic that’s afflicting the infected...’

Hermione’s patronus cocked its head and gave a ghost of a smile. ‘And there you said you didn’t have the appropriate experience.’

‘My draughts were for wounds, not curses -’

‘You know as well as I do that when it comes to Dark Magic, curing the physical affliction is the easy part. And you never specialised in the easy part of anything.’ The patronus straightened, regarding them all. ‘I will continue to update you on our research and our security; do the same for us in turn and I’m confident that the task force will be able to bring this situation to an end. You’re all, each of you, brave and capable and you should know the thoughts of the whole of the wizarding world are with you.’

Lockett was pale, but she gave a shaky nod. ‘Thank you, Ms Granger.’

‘Now, I don’t suppose I could have the privacy of a word with my daughter and nephew before I let you get back to work?’

Scorpius, Lockett, Selena and Methuselah left the gathering to go to the high table, where breakfast was laid out and which Scorpius and Selena set about without a great deal of enthusiasm. Methuselah had immediately engaged Professor Lockett with queries as to their next plan and the research process, most of which spun wildly over his head.

Scorpius picked at his scrambled eggs, magically kept heated, and although the House Elves were back to producing their usual fine fare for the still-conscious denizens of Hogwarts, he found his appetite to have faded as he looked across the Great Hall towards Albus, Rose, and her mother’s patronus.

Even from this distance he could see the tension in Albus’s shoulders, the waning strength in Rose, even the body language, of all things, of the ghostly otter before them. Then Albus put his arm around Rose in a brief, tight hug, and it was a long time before she pulled away, standing straight again, strong and defiant as he ever saw her to be.

The patronus winked out, and it seemed to take Albus and Rose a long time to walk back up to the high table.

‘...Jones and I were just saying, Weasley,’ said Lockett as they came up, clearly able to read the expressions on their faces suggesting they’d much rather just get down to work. ‘We need to confirm absolutely that the nature of this illness is Dark Magic.’

‘I don’t get,’ said Scorpius, letting his scrambled eggs tumble off his fork, ‘how it could be anything but. I mean, do you get non-evil plagues?’

‘Well, quite, like you get hexes and then you get Dark Magic curses,’ said Selena, and everyone looked at her with sudden surprise. ‘The difference between, say, harmful hexes and full on Dark Magic is actually rather simple: Dark Magic interferes with the natural order of things on a fundamental level, just by the way it works. What?’

Rose closed her dropped jaw. ‘How did you know that?’

Selena sniffed and began scraping butter across toast. ‘Oh, I see. I’m just supposed to be the prettiest one, not the smart one, not next to you and Jones with your high marks, or Albus learning things off his hero-father, or Scorpius being all witty -’

Rose’s expression didn’t change. ‘No, seriously.’

Selena’s brow furrowed. ‘You’re not the only one with family in the MLE Department, Weasley. Four of my ancestors have been in charge of it. Oh, I try to not listen when everything gets dreadfully dull around the dinner table at Christmas and they talk shop, but sometimes things will fall into my head despite themselves.’

‘Despite themselves.’ Rose’s lips twitched.

Anyway,’ said Albus hurriedly, and looked down at Lockett and Methuselah. ‘You can do some spells, right, to try to detect if there’s Dark Magic?’

‘It’s not easy,’ said Lockett, ‘but it’s a start. From there I can begin cooking up some mild doses of the various draughts to combat different kinds of Dark Magic affliction. I wasn’t lying when I said I’m more used to dealing with physical injuries, but your mother’s right, Weasley, Dark Magic is something which afflicts the soul as much as the body.’

‘So you think one of your potions can cure it?’ said Scorpius hopefully.

‘I doubt it’ll be that easy,’ said Lockett. ‘But I developed different potions to deal with different things. If we pick a selection of students and administer these low doses, we can see how that interacts with their symptoms. From there we can narrow down which directions to take.’

‘Testing?’ Rose wrinkled her nose. ‘Is that safe?’

‘No other way to know for sure,’ said Methuselah, who was twirling his fork thoughtfully as if it were a quill in class. ‘Several groups, multiple students subjected to the same dosage. Control group included. Must have as wide an array of test subjects as possible as to confirm the same results occurring for the same reason. Likely best to have a variety of students in each group - age, House, gender -’

‘That doesn’t actually answer my question, Jones,’ said Rose.

‘It’ll be safe,’ said Lockett. ‘Nobody will be subjected to more than one dose, and the doses will be mild; we’re not trying to cure anything out of the gate, we’re trying to see what makes a dent to point us in the right direction. We have the student records for any noted allergies or magical resistances, we’ll bear those in mind. Few people suffer because they’re unnecessarily given a rejuvenative draught.

‘The issue,’ she continued, leaning forward, ‘is going to be the brewing. A lot of these draughts require more esoteric reagents than your standard first year class’s needs. These potions are complicated and they will require time and ingredients. The latter of which we are much reduced on after a certain prank.’

Scorpius made a face. ‘In my defence, I didn’t know the apocalypse was going to come down on our heads.’

‘We’ll overcome it,’ said Lockett with a sigh. ‘Here’s what we’ll do: I’m going to start going through my own records and putting together a priority list of the potions that are most likely to have an effect and are easy to brew. Jones, I want you to hit the Library and start looking for options outside of my old research which might have an impact. Weasley, do a stock-check on all of our ingredients, and put together a priority list on what we don’t have that we need. Run anything by the Herbology greenhouses to see what we can farm from there.’

‘The Forest is still right on our doorstep,’ said Albus, ‘and is still a great resource for harvesting ingredients.’

‘And is possibly highly dangerous right now with the Dementors also on our doorstep. That’s your job, Potter. We don’t have access to the headmaster’s office, which is unfortunately from where most of the security wards of the school are controlled. But you get to be responsible for making sure we are as safe and secure as possible.’

‘Me?’ Albus gaped. ‘You’re the professor -’

‘I’m a potioneer,’ said Lockett. ‘And that’s where I’ll be doing my best work. I assure you I know very little more than you on the subject of Hogwarts’ defences; you’ll have unlimited access to the Library, including the Restricted Section, to find out what you need to.’ She took a deep breath. ‘Someone is going to need to liaise with the House Elves; to make sure they’re reporting to us daily on the condition of the students.’

Scorpius opened and shut his mouth, remembering his less-than-successful run-ins with Foreman Harley, and Selena perked up. ‘I can do that,’ she beamed. ‘Harley is such a dear, I’m sure he’d be happy to talk to me. I’ll also ask if he can spare any Elves to keep the Herbology greenhouses in order if they’re growing anything we need.’

‘Good idea, Rourke,’ said Lockett approvingly, and Scorpius thought his head was going to explode as the teacher got to her feet. ‘I think we all have a lot of work ahead of us -’

‘Wait, wait. What do I do?’ said Scorpius plaintively.

Lockett looked over at him, hesitating, before she said, ‘Work with Potter.’

But it couldn’t have been clearer that all she was actually saying was ‘stay out of the way.’

Chapter 12: False Dawn
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When it all started, Scorpius had begun to count the days of the outbreak. If the Saturday Miranda had vomited on his shoes was Day One, then it wasn’t until Day Three that they had really got the situation remotely under control - “control” being, in this case, a system and anything approaching what would become normalcy.

Normalcy would prove distressingly dull. If there was one thing that could be said for a crisis, Scorpius would have assumed, it was that something was always going on. But without a designated responsibility he was left very much to find and even make his own business, or entertainment.

After having slept in on the designated Day Three he had determined his natural habit of sleeping in for as long as he could get away with wasteful. Normally he might have appreciated the opportunity, but, knowing his fellows were entrenched in actual responsibilities, he was stubbornly committing to not languishing about in a time of trouble.

Selena had wasted no time, once the idea had occurred, in marshalling the services of the House Elves in making the school’s visitors’ rooms ready for use by the five students. Scorpius had tried first, only for Harley to wrinkle his pointed nose and roughly explain how this had “bugger all to do with the crisis situation, and don’t push it, you little gobshite”, clearly inclined to hold a grudge over his and Rose’s manipulation. Selena had seen more success.

By Day Eight, Scorpius had settled into a comfortable pattern. He rose with the sun, harnessing the same keenness he could command if it were an early start for a Quidditch practice regimen for an important game. The guest rooms were small, but they granted privacy, and he’d slept much better there than in the dorm-rooms with all of his friends, boys he’d known for five years, lying around him in various states. Let the House Elves tend to them.

But he showered and dressed, seeing no point in uniform but, despite his mockery of Selena days before, still selecting his clothes with care and accepting - even if he’d never confess to it - that sometimes it felt good to look good. And he’d take whatever he could get in feeling good these days.

It was misleading to say he was the first to rise, but he was always the first to make it to breakfast, and shovelled down bacon and eggs provided by the more obliging House Elves, and a gallon of tea to get himself through the day. Then an extra mug of tea was poured and, knowing where to go even without checking, he took it with him out the door to the Great Hall and to the top of the steps leading down to the courtyard.

Albus stood there, as he had every morning so far, clean and dressed and with his wand extended. He would swish it through a few movements, lips moving inaudibly, and then nod to himself, and Scorpius tried to not interrupt as he set the mug down on the cold stone steps beside him.

Of course, as always, Albus lowered his wand and gave his best friend a crooked grin. ‘Cheers, Scorp.’

‘You could always have breakfast first, you know,’ he said, rubbing his hands together. It was still September, the sun still shone down in the daytime, but for now it lurked behind highlands and trees and though he could see, the air hadn’t shaken off the chill of night.

‘I could,’ said Albus, pausing in his morning routine of checking Hogwarts’ wards remained intact and untouched. ‘But I won’t relax until I know all’s been quiet for the evening. You know me, I like to enjoy my breakfast.’ Still, he clapped Scorpius on the shoulder then bent to pick up the tea, holding it in his free hand as he swished through another spell to check in. ‘All quiet on the west side.’

‘It’s always going to be quiet on the west side, unless something’s come for the Quidditch pitch,’ pointed out Scorpius. ‘It’s east that scares the hell out of me.’ East was the Forbidden Forest.

The instruction by Lockett to maintain the school’s security had been a daunting one, and Scorpius had immediately set about helping Albus, if only in figuring out how to do it. Without access to the Headmaster’s office they’d been forced into the Library, and in the section of the Restricted Section which wasn’t even books, but bound up sheafs of parchment, they’d found a dusty pile marked for the eyes of staff only.

The wards of Hogwarts were ancient and powerful and how to manipulate them was not something one just wrote down and then left lying around. Hermione Granger had promised to dig out her old records on the work that had been done to rebuild them after the War, but so long as they were intact, this was clearly not the top of the priority list.

What they had found was the array of spells used to, at least, ensure the wards were still up and that nothing had tried to breach them, and as Albus ran through the spells, little balls of magical light shimmered into life in front of him, green and reassuring.

‘I’ll leave you to it,’ said Scorpius at last. ‘See you for the patrol.’

Albus just grunted and drank his tea, and Scorpius returned to the Great Hall, returned to the high table and the many plates still adorning it. He stood, poised over the selection of food that had been brought up, and today settled on a buttered muffin and some bacon - because, although he wasn’t really sure what the best choices were, who didn’t like bacon? These were piled onto a plate along with a pot of tea and a mug, and, mindful to not spill anything, he left.

The potions classrooms weren’t especially pleasant at the best of times, and the still, unpleasant silence of the whole school at this hour of the morning was far from such a time. Scorpius couldn’t grasp how anyone could bring themselves to be down here before dawn, and being such on their own was utterly unfathomable to him.

But it was not, evidently, unfathomable to Rose Weasley.

On Day Four, he’d come down to breakfast with Lockett, with Albus, with Selena, and there’d been no sign of either Methuselah or Rose. Lockett had admitted they’d still been in the classroom when she’d gone to bed, and so suspected they’d had a late night. Concerned, Albus and Selena had loaded trays with breakfast and gone up to the rooms.

Suspicious, Scorpius had loaded up a tray and gone right back to the potions classroom.

She was there now, just as she’d been that first day, bent over a stack of parchments, books, and notes. Her hair had gone frizzy, a wild red mane around her head, and her right cheek was streaked with smudged ink she’d likely not realised she’d rubbed across her face.

Rose didn’t look up until he set down the tray in front of her, and her eyes locked greedily onto the mug. ‘Tea?’

He poured. ‘Tea.’ He tried to not roll his eyes as she reached for the mug, and instead settled for looking over her notes. ‘I don’t suppose you’ve unlocked all of our troubles and woes yet?’

‘If you mean a cure, no, Malfoy, of course not, I’d have woken everyone up if that were the case. But I did make some excellent progress.’ A smug smile tugged at her lips, rejuvenated by the power of a mug of hot tea after a sleepless night.

He picked up the nearest book. ‘"Darkest Curses and Malyces". Sounds charming and pretentious - I thought this was an illness?’

‘By definition, if it is an intentional spell of Dark Magic which leads to a physical impairment, it’s a curse,’ Rose reeled off, taking the book from him briskly. ‘The only difference is that this one is contagious, which I suspect is actually a sophisticated variation developed, via ritual, upon an already-existing curse.’

‘Which one?’

She wrinkled her nose. ‘I don’t know,’ Rose admitted. ‘But we’ve been going through some tests and we think we’ve begun to narrow down the kind of curse and contagion it is. Most significantly, we’re rather sure it’s the kind of curse which only affects humans.’

‘Well, obviously,’ said Scorpius, ‘or the owls and the House Elves and everyone’s pets would be ill. And we aren’t that lucky, at least not with your bloody cat.’

‘Artemis is lovely; just because she stole your food -’

‘She’s a miserable breakfast thief and she hates me.’

‘Hm. She likes sausages, she hates you. I think she has impeccable taste.’ Rose tilted her nose in the air.

‘You like sausages best?’ Scorpius frowned. ‘Then I’m glad I brought you bacon today.’

‘And I shall thoroughly enjoy it, Malfoy, just to spite you,’ said Rose, taking up her plate defiantly.

He didn’t have an answer to that, and like all good debaters chose to not remotely show he’d conceded a point and thus changed the subject. ‘So why is it at all useful to know this only affects humans?’

‘Well, we’re going to have to make sure of it first, and Professor Lockett is brewing up a batch of some of her potions and we’ll see what kind of effect that’s going to have, but - it should allow us to send owls back and forth, as they won’t be carriers and just spread the illness.’

Scorpius blinked, impressed. ‘That is good news. Are we sure?’

‘No, which is why we want to do some testing first, and we might even have to test the bloody owls, but it’s a start. Unfortunately it’ll probably still be too risky to use Floo, at least until we know more, and it’ll probably be another week with brewing the potions, though Mum said that the ingredients should be delivered today, so if you and Albus could make sure they get here safe...’

‘What time?’

‘I don’t know, Mum’ll tell us when she checks in.’ Rose suppressed a yawn.

He frowned. ‘You could get some sleep, you know, Weasley. The sky won’t fall in. Lockett keeps hospitable hours.’

‘I work best at night, and anyway, I want to be up to talk to Mum so there’s no point in me going to bed just to wake up in an hour or so.’

‘You want to report in? I can pass on a message.’

Rose hesitated. ‘No, thank you,’ she said, a little primly. ‘I’d just like to talk to my mother.’

The confession was honest, a little too honest for Scorpius’ liking, and he fiddled with the stack of parchments before saying, ‘So how did you figure out about this curse?’

And then she was off, just like he’d counted on, talking about the diagnosis spells they had used and the potions they had already been applying and the results those had seen, but most of the words and technical terms flew thick and thin and over his head.

It was a little peculiar. Scorpius had never thought of himself as stupid, and indeed, most of his teachers had impressed upon him that he could have done very well academically if he actually applied himself. Scorpius, for his part, preferred to apply himself to people and Quidditch and his music, and so sauntered through his academic career on some natural talent and a lot of last-minute rush-jobs. This was well enough for studies which benefited from that talent and a spot of practical improvisation, but it had promised him already a rather average NEWT in Potions if he didn’t keep up on the essential principles learnt early.

He knew Rose was smart, but he’d always put a certain amount of her success down to being swotty. Assumed that if he, too, bothered to apply himself as much, sacrificed as much fun and energy as she did, he could do just as well. It was simply that he chose not to.

Witnessing the work she’d been doing with Professor Lockett, an acknowledged expert in her field, had made it abundantly clear to him that she simply operated on a different playing field to him. And that it had to be rather galling for Rose Weasley to have been gifted with a once-in-a-generation mind - only to be overshadowed at every turn by Methuselah Jones, a once-in-a-century mind.

But it was almost as if she’d read his thoughts, because halfway through talking about the different magical signatures for curses that affected only humans, Rose stopped mid-sentence and said, ‘So are you bringing breakfast to Jones, too?’

He made a face. ‘I would, but last time I did, I couldn’t find him and then when I finally figured out the bloody Ravenclaw Tower riddle to get in to where he was, he didn’t eat it. So bugger him. I made Albus tea, Weasley, don’t worry yourself and take this as any sort of indication I’m stalking you.’

‘It doesn’t prove you’re not. You could be stalking Albus, too.’

‘He’s not my type.’

She rolled her eyes. ‘Oh, I forgot, you prefer them blonde, leggy, and brainless.’

‘Albus is leggy,’ Scorpius argued. ‘But I am shocked you think me so superficial, Weasley. I could have depths.’

She quirked an eyebrow. ‘You could. Do you?’

‘Are you going to take the time to find out?’ Scorpius smirked and folded his arms across his chest. ‘I could be an enigma. I know you love a puzzle.’

Rose was saved from having to answer that by the sound of footsteps at the door, which swung open to allow in a rather grouchy-faced, wild-haired Lockett, who carried a huge, steaming mug. ‘Malfoy, stop disturbing my assistant,’ she said.

‘I brought her breakfast!’ Scorpius said indignantly. ‘And she’s not your assistant!’ He suspected the Potions Professor had been regressing to her old habits as a researcher, and while it was clearly having productive results in the hunt for a cure it wasn’t making her the easiest person to live with.

‘With the crazy hours Weasley keeps, it’s her dinner. You do know a normal sleep pattern’s good for the mind?’ This last was addressed to Rose herself, who stuck her nose in the air.

‘This way someone’s working all hours of the night. I think we’re fine in shifts, Professor.’

‘Isn’t Jones working some sort of shift?’ Scorpius wondered.

‘Jones runs off to the Library, Ravenclaw Tower, or wherever he fancies on any occasion for any reason,’ Lockett sighed. ‘Sometimes he’ll disappear for hours and provide the next piece of the puzzle we’re cracking on, or we won’t see him until dinner and he’s got nothing to show for it, like the day before yesterday.’

‘I’m not sure he’s the most useful person to have on a research team,’ said Rose.

‘He’s brilliant.’ Lockett was clearly talking about Methuselah’s mind rather than issuing outright approval as she took her tea to her chair at the potions worktable. ‘But I’ve seen his ilk before; he couldn’t work with a team to save his life.’

‘Let’s just hope he doesn’t have to work on a team to save everyone else’s lives,’ said Rose.

‘He’s young. He might grow out of it.’

‘I don’t think we really have time for growth.’

Scorpius jerked a thumb at the door. ‘I’m... going to go,’ he said awkwardly. ‘I’ll see you at the morning briefing.’

Even before he was out of earshot they had tumbled into familiar discussion, going over the latest results from the potions tests, enwrapped in debate and analysis of different curses. He was just glad he was leaving it far behind rather than being expected to make sense of it all, let alone join in or contribute.

In a time of crisis, Scorpius had found his most useful contribution was to become the tea boy.

He was just passing the entrance to the Slytherin common room when the stone doorway swung open, and out stepped Selena, the little form of Foreman Harley trotting alongside her, obliging as ever - and now scowling at Scorpius as he was spotted.

Selena herself straightened with a genteel smile. ‘Scorpius. How’re our intrepid team faring?’ It was just like her, he thought, to fail to scrub a hint of arrogant disapproval when talking about the people trying to save them all.

‘Intrepid, sleep-deprived, and crazy. Our chances are excellent,’ Scorpius drawled, then inclined his head to Harley. ‘Foreman, what a delightful morning -’

‘Your chance to bootlick’s been and gone, Little Malfoy; you can bugger off.’

Selena arched an indulgent eyebrow. ‘Mister Harley, please, Scorpius is a well-respected -’

‘Miss Rourke, you know it is a pleasure to work for you,’ said Harley, stiff but not insincere, ‘but the Malfoy name ain’t a well-respected nothing amongst House Elves.’

Scorpius blinked. ‘We still keep Tilley in the house -’

‘Aye, a non-union Elf. Nice try, Malfoy, but you know you’ve been black-listed by every union. No House Elf with a mite of self-respect takes work off your family.’

So it hadn’t just been his natural charisma which had set the Foreman against him quite so vociferously. It came down, as most things inevitably did, to his father. Scorpius shoved his hands in his pockets and sighed. ‘I was just saying good morning.’ He could have protested, but he knew from long experience that railing against reputation - his own, his father’s, his grandfather’s - was nothing but wasteful tacking into the wind. Instead, he looked back at Selena. ‘How’re the Slytherins?’

‘Most remain fast asleep or were due potions to make them sleep; the Elves have been little darlings in bringing those awake enough to read some more books.’

‘You’re a regular Saint Mungo’s Matron.’

‘Buggery, I hope not.’ Selena looked aghast at the thought. ‘I’m not tending to them; that’s the Elves’ job. I’m just here for the register and to confirm all’s well. Oakes had begun to drool something green in his sleep; do you think I’m actually going to mop that up? Have you seen these robes?’

Since Scorpius himself was drawing comfort from a shirt that was comfortable even when buttoned up to his neck, it was the height of hypocrisy to judge Selena Rourke for prizing her immaculately-cut robes in a crisis. Of course, he did it anyway, silently, and carried on. ‘Of course,’ he said. ‘How foolish of me. Is Warwick all right?’

‘Who?’

‘Warwick, Tim Warwick, second year. I was going to check up on him, but if he’s asleep...’

‘Oh, out like a light.’ Selena looked over her badly-scribbled notes. ‘Sleeping more peacefully than most of the second years, according to the elves.’

‘Great. Have you seen Jones?’

‘Methuselah?’ An immaculate eyebrow was arched with an edge of despair. ‘He’s back in Ravenclaw Tower. Apparently they have their own little library there which he likes to work in. But we really must be carrying on, Scorpius, though it’s always delightful to see you.’

‘No, wait -’ He waved at them to stop as they carried on, Harley leading her down the corridor and likely in the direction of the Hufflepuff dorm-rooms, but they didn’t wait, and Scorpius was left scowling at an empty corridor.

He’d hoped to ask them for the answer to the Ravenclaw Tower riddle. Then again, he assumed Harley would have figured it out, and would probably give him the wrong answer out of spite. Or give him the right answer, knowing Scorpius would likely be too suspicious to use it.

Best to test his own mettle. Again. Unpleasantly.

He didn’t hurry his way up the stairs, but sooner than he’d have liked he was stood in front of the hefty oak door that led up to Ravenclaw Tower, and that dastardly knocker was animating, the metal eagle’s head lifting up to face him, its beak opening for that awful, dreary voice to utter:

‘How many months have twenty-eight days.’

Scorpius scowled. ‘That’s easy. One, Feb-’ Then he stopped, and narrowed his eyes at the knocker. ‘Oh, no. No. It’s not that easy. You don’t do riddles, do you, you do trick questions. The answer’s going to be something like “none”, isn’t it, because February sometimes has twenty-nine days. So. There’s my answer. None.’ And he folded his arms across his chest, glaring triumphantly at the door-knocker.

Neither it nor the door itself moved. Not in three seconds, not in five, not in ten, and just as Scorpius was wondering if he’d inadvertently ended up in a staring contest with an inorganic object, the eagle’s beak cracked open again.

‘How many months have twenty-eight days.’

‘This is ridiculous,’ Scorpius snapped. ‘We’re in the middle of a crisis and you will continue to ask your bloody stupid riddles? I don’t even have urgent business with Jones! He might not even be up here! People are getting sicker and sicker and you just can’t bring yourself to let me through? Who the hell cares about the stupid riddle?’

‘How many months -’

‘I don’t have to put up with this shit from the Fat Lady!’ Scorpius was practically hopping on the spot. ‘All of the other houses have just had fixed, unchanging passwords which we all know so we can get in there! You know, in case of a crisis! Like the one we’re in the middle of! Only you, you stupid metal bird, continue to give a crap about ongoing tradition!’

‘How many -’

‘Oh, shut up! I don’t care! Some months have thirty-one, or thirty, or...’ Then clarity hit, sudden and bright for its illumination and sharp for that it was so obvious his cheeks couldn’t help but burn with shamed frustration, and he was only glad nobody was there to witness this second entanglement.

Scorpius folded his arms across his chest. ‘...all of them,’ he mumbled at last, and scowled as the door finally swung open in front of him. ‘You just cook these up to try to make me look stupid, didn’t you?’ The door-knocker remained immobile, but Scorpius could have sworn it was laughing at him as he climbed the stairs up into the Ravenclaw common room.

This time it was devoid of the mass of students he’d seen last time, the infected tucked away in their dorm-rooms to be monitored and cared for by the House Elves, likely supervised by Selena Rourke only at a distance. It was creepy, Scorpius was starting to think, to stand in these common rooms, which just looked like they would if everyone was out for a class or it were a particularly sunny day, as if everything was normal. As if students would come pouring in at any moment to bring fuss and life back to the place.

But they wouldn’t.

A muttering from the far side of the common room, away from the comfortable chairs and the desks, and towards where the stacks of Ravenclaw House’s own small library stood, caught his attention, and Scorpius padded over. ‘Jones?’

He didn’t see any sign of movement, just the muttering which echoed around him, and so as he peered around one bookshelf he almost jumped out of his skin at the footsteps behind him.

‘Malfoy! No interruptions. Too busy.’

Scorpius wheeled around to see Methuselah Jones, a small stack of books in his arms. ‘Jones, I only came up to -’

‘No time to talk. Busy.’ But Methuselah hesitated, then shoved the books into his arms. ‘Carry these.’

‘It’s half past eight, Jones, I -’

‘Doesn’t matter. Been here all night. Brought books down from Main Library. Important developments.’ Methuselah whirled on his heel and went back down into the stacks, and with a sigh, Scorpius followed him.

‘Yeah, look, I heard, Weasley told me about how we can probably use owls -’

‘Owls? Irrelevant. Far bigger matters afoot. Cure may prove pointless.’

Scorpius did stop at this, cocking his head. ‘Pointless?’

‘Moderately so. Curing students is irrelevant if source of curse cannot be found.’ Methuselah didn’t look round, just peered at the shelves with an intense frown.

‘Source?’

‘Indeed. Something - likely ritual performed on Day Zero - lies at root of infection. Contagion from there is inevitable. But subjects if cured will just be infected again. Unless can end source or analyse and duplicate reason for our immunity.’

‘Immunity?’

Methuselah stopped and turned to face Scorpius at last. ‘Is this mockery, Malfoy?’

‘What?’

‘This discussion. Your contribution has been solely repetition. Common form of mockery -’

Scorpius shifted the books under one arm and lifted his free hand. ‘I’m confused, Jones, that’s all. I guess we are immune, but do you know how?’

‘No.’ Methuselah frowned, then took a step closer. ‘If I conducted tests -’

Then suddenly Scorpius remembered why he’d come here and why time was a rather urgent matter. ‘Oh, no, well, maybe, later.’ He took a brisk step back. ‘I just came up to remind you it’s time for the morning briefing with Ms Granger. I thought you might have lost track of time.’

‘Time. Yes.’ Methuselah’s gaze landed on the tall grandfather clock back in the main common room. ‘Not enough. Never enough. Still work to do, must remain here. Inform me if anything of note is reported.’

‘Well, since you asked so nicely...’ Scorpius hesitated. Snark was one thing. Being used as a test subject by Methuselah Jones was not something he wanted to risk by hanging around for any longer than was necessary. So instead he nodded quickly. ‘Yeah. Sure. I’d best head down now if I want to be there on time...’

Methuselah didn’t stop him from going - indeed, seemed to lose interest in his very existence the moment Scorpius put down the pile of books gingerly and walked away from the stacks - but this discussion had taken rather longer than Scorpius had originally hoped, and so he was the last person to make it into the Great Hall, the other four already sat in the chairs they’d pulled up days ago and left in a circle around the spot where Hermione Granger’s patronus regularly manifested.

Albus looked up. ‘No Jones?’

‘He’s hard at work,’ said Scorpius, and spun his finger in a circle around his temple. ‘Talking about how a cure for the curse is going to be pointless.’

Lockett arched an eyebrow. ‘He’s still on that?’

‘He’s not wrong, though, is he?’ wondered Scorpius, pulling up his chair next to Albus. ‘I mean, if something made everyone ill in the first place, is it just going to make everyone ill again even if you guys do manage to cook up a cure?’

‘There’s no telling if whatever cursed everyone is continuing to do so; the curse seems sufficiently contagious entirely by itself once it’s out,’ said Lockett, tilting her head. ‘But also, any ritual to continuously churn out the curse would be tailor-made for the curse itself. So it’s a fine thing to theorise over, but before we figure out both cure and future prevention, we need to properly identify the curse anyway. Which is what Weasley and I are working on.’

Scorpius’ eyes landed on the rather pale Rose. ‘Are you actually going to get some sleep after this, or do we get to see your zombie impression all day?’

She wrinkled her nose. ‘I don’t try to look good for you, Malfoy.’

He opened his mouth to issue a retort, hesitating only because any of his comebacks seemed unnecessarily harsh at that moment - and was saved by the familiar silver shimmer of the air, and the warping and twisting of the appearance of the otter that was Hermione Granger’s patronus.

They’d been through this many times already, and just as before, Scorpius only sat back and let everyone else do the talking. Hermione and Professor Lockett talked shop a little over the research, reporting what both sides had found, but they agreed that the recent discovery was promising. Communicating by letter would make it easier not just for the official correspondence, but also for anxious parents who wanted to hear and send something more personal, and anything which narrowed down their definition and identification of the curse of this illness was valuable.

Selena gave her usual report, and Scorpius couldn’t help but note that it was just like her to have given herself a position of apparent importance, checking up on all of the ill, when in practice she did very little and had the House Elves run around doing it for her. Albus similarly gave the update, but included his reservations that he hadn’t done his full patrol of the perimeter yet.

The otter perked up at this. ‘Oh, good,’ it said. ‘If you’re heading out, I’ll have the crates of potions ingredients dispatched from Hogsmeade at once. You can make for the southern entrance to receive and deliver those, perhaps?’

Albus brightened, always happy to have something productive to do. ‘Thanks, Aunt Hermione,’ he said. ‘If you get them up in an hour, we can do a full sweep and end it on the pickup.’

The rest of the catch-up was nothing which Scorpius cared for - a little bit of an update on the state of things outside of Hogwarts, of how Wizarding Britain had all but creaked to a halt with the catastrophe that had befallen the school. But where Albus, and Rose, and even Selena looked rather fraught when the notion of the outside world worrying about them came up, Scorpius could not bring himself to share in their tension.

It wasn’t as if the outside world would be giving a fig about him.

But he could see the tension in Albus, and heard it in his voice when the patronus finally winked out of existence and his best friend got to his feet, clapping him on the shoulder. ‘Come on, Scorp. We’ll have to be quick if we want to meet up with this delivery.’

‘If it’s the blackwing eyes we’ve been asking for, Professor, we’re likely to be pretty busy -’ Rose began, standing, but everyone save Selena rounded on her at once.

‘Get some sleep, Weasley,’ was Lockett’s curt instruction. ‘There’s nothing I’ll be doing which won’t require hours to brew anyway. If you must be up in the middle of the night, then you’re going to bloody well sleep during the day.’

‘Or you could, you know, keep hospitable hours like everyone else?’ Scorpius suggested lightly.

She made a face. ‘I tried to,’ she said. ‘I just kept waking up with the dawn and there isn’t any food yet ready.’

Scorpius gave a lopsided smile. ‘I’ll tell you what,’ he said. ‘If you sleep at night, when you get up really early I’ll bring you tea and breakfast down the moment it’s ready?’

Of course, he managed to extend such a generous offer sounding more patronising than kind, as was his intention, and he only grinned more broadly as Rose narrowed her eyes. ‘Do try to not fall off your broomstick out there today, Malfoy.’

He beamed. ‘What do I keep telling you, Weasley? I’ll come back, every time.’

But he didn’t wait for a response, just turned on his heel in time to catch Albus rolling his eyes wearily, and the two of them left the Great Hall, heading down towards the Slytherin Quidditch changing rooms. Although there was no need for team colours, the Quidditch padding and goggles made good sense when they weren’t sure what they might see, and sometimes did some fairly low-to-the-ground flying if they had to investigate any particular oddity in and around the boundaries of Hogwarts.

As ever, they started with the east side, flying along the edge of the Forbidden Forest. Normally the trees played tricks with their eyes, rustling and making it seem like something was moving in and amongst them, but today the wind was low, the sun bright, and the air still.

Scorpius knew Albus didn’t really need him to come along on these routine patrols, knew that Albus could quite comfortably fend for himself, but in all honesty going for a fly together was shaping up to be the best part of his day. They could leave the grim and dreary feel of the school behind, the empty corridors and worried frowns and suffering siblings, and be surrounded by nothing but the sky.

On a fine day like this, neither one of them could resist the odd stunt - a sweep unnecessarily close to the Whomping Willow, sudden dives at the ground pulled out of with inches to spare, and as they swept anti-clockwise around the Hogwarts grounds, conducting tight formation flight for fun as they moved south, Scorpius was honestly beginning to believe that everything would, maybe, be all right.

Albus dived lower as they approached the path towards Hogsmeade, the closed and barred gates at the edge of the school grounds in sight. He pointed downwards. ‘There! You see them?’

Scorpius squinted - then he could see them, two stout crates about as tall as he was. They’d been transfigured to have legs and trot merrily along into the quarantine zone of their own accord, but the magic was clearly beginning to fizzle out, and they were slowing down. As the two fliers got closer, they could see one of them had lost a leg entirely, and was being dragged along the pavings by the three others before it came to a stumbling, pathetic halt.

‘There’s got to be a whole lot of stuff in here,’ said Scorpius, pulling up on the ground alongside one of the crates.

‘Potions ingredients. You know what it’s like, mate,’ sighed Albus, looking the crates up and down. ‘They waste all sorts on test batches, botched batches, and the like. But I suppose they waste less than us, and that’s why Professor Lockett’s a professional.’

‘That, and I bet her experiments don’t blow up.’

‘Your experiments don’t blow up, Scorp. You blow things up on purpose.’ But Albus was grinning as he propped his goggles onto his forehead, and drew his wand. ‘Come on. Let’s just levitate one of these each and we can...’

But his voice trailed off and his brow furrowed and, as if he’d heard something, his gaze went east. Scorpius cocked his head in confusion for a moment before he, too, heard it: high-pitched chirps and chants and shouts, quiet for the moment, but numerous and growing in number.

‘What’s...’

Then he saw them. Coming from over the rise, in the direction of the Forbidden Forest, more than twenty of them. Little shapes, smaller even than the House Elves, but with looks of violent malevolence that even Foreman Harley, in all his outrage, couldn’t begin to muster. Their eyes glinted red, their teeth were sharp, and they waved around long wooden poles with vicious metal, curved ends.

‘What the hell are they,’ Scorpius asked flatly, drawing his wand.

Albus didn’t take his eyes from the approaching shapes as he yanked his goggles back down and brandished his own wand. ‘Redcaps,’ he said, voice level and cold. ‘Lots of them.’

And they were headed right for the two of them and their crates.

Chapter 13: Firefight
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Scorpius planted his feet firmly in the ground, poised to kick off on his broom. 'Let's get the hell out of here.'

'No way.'

He looked wildly at Albus, who was staring, grim-faced, at the approaching dozens of swarming Redcaps. 'What? No way what? I don't want to become paint for hats!'

'So you did pay attention in Defence classes.' Albus forced a lopsided grin, then jerked a thumb at the two large crates, bigger than he was tall, sat on the path near them. 'They might prefer us, but if we fly away they'll steal the supplies.'

'Bugger the -'

'No. Not bugger them.' Albus set his jaw. 'Lockett needs these for developing the cure. We can't risk her research being set back. Lives are at stake.'

'Yeah!' Scorpius agreed. 'Ours!'

'Then go.' Albus kicked his broom several feet off the ground, high enough that the little Redcaps, when they crossed the field that still separated them, wouldn't be able to reach him. 'Get back to the castle and bring reinforcements.'

Scorpius looked at the crates. Their legs had collapsed and fallen, and even if they transfigured them new ones, they would still only plod along at a pace barely faster than his walk. It wouldn't be enough to outrun a rampant horde of Redcaps. And Albus was still sat upon his broom, wand in hand, clearly not about to move.

The only option was to fight.

He sighed, and kicked off the ground - but only a few feet, only high enough to join Albus in the air. 'And bring, what?' Scorpius said. 'A drunk potioneer, a strung-out nerd, a sleep-deprived Weasley, and Selena Rourke?'

Albus looked him up and down as it was clear Scorpius wasn't leaving, and a broad grin crossed his face. 'All right,' he said, and extended his clenched hand for a fist-bump. 'Let's do this.'

'And try to not die.'

'That's a good plan. The rest is simple. We stay out of their reach, and keep them away from the crates. Use Stuns and anything that'll knock them back. If we spread out and cause enough carnage quickly, they should realise we're not easy pickings and run. Keep out of reach.'

Scorpius nodded, kicking his broom to bring him to flank the other end of the two crates. 'You needed to tell me that, otherwise I might have wanted to get dragged off my broom by my ankles and get bludgeoned to death by Redcaps.'

'I like to keep you on your toes. Literally,' said Albus with a smirk, and flicked his wand. 'Protego.'

Then they waited. They didn't have long; the Redcaps had been far away enough to give them the chance to plan and consider, but only because they couldn't have possibly got the two large crates away in time. Now, their strategizing ended, the swarm was nearly on top of them.

Scorpius hadn't studied Redcaps since their second year, but even then the Hogwarts curriculum hadn't prepared him for being attacked by over a score of them. He knew they were vicious and dangerous, and hunted humans specifically to colour the hats that named them. Misinformation suggested that if the colour faded, they died; this was untrue, as the low fatality count of humans lost to Redcaps and the comparatively high number of Redcaps alive and well in Scotland implied. But it was certainly a matter of status for a Redcap's hat to be fresh and gleaming.

Scorpius considered it a simple matter of nature if a small, wrinkle-faced, hunched over, hopping-mad humanoid figure needed his blood to survive. That it wanted his blood to look good made him take the entire murderous rage personally. But even he knew that a swarm of Redcaps out of the Forbidden Forest and at them like this was unprecedented.

Albus made the first move, whipping his wand out. The words of the spell were lost to Scorpius in the wind, but the huge buffeting of energy that erupted from the tip and smashed into the first wave of Redcaps spoke for itself. The three went back flying with tiny shouts and squawks of indignation and pain, staggered and stunned.

Then came the rest.

Scorpius didn't trust himself to be able to throw out an attack as devastating as Albus' - but then, Albus had topped their year in Defence Against the Dark Arts OWLs. It was only to be expected. So Scorpius focused his wand on the nearest Redcap, concentrated, and muttered, 'Stupefy.'

It hit the Redcap in the shoulder, and it staggered, sluggish - but kept coming.

Of course. Inherently magical creatures like them enjoyed a certain innate magic that wizards could never aspire to or duplicate. They could perform amazing feats with no wands and, more importantly, had a limited natural protection against spells.

Stuns alone weren't going to do the trick.

First the Redcaps swarmed under him, bringing up their pikestaffs at his dangling ankles, and Scorpius had to yank his broom up higher as he realised he'd underestimated their reach. He threw a second Stun, hoping to finish off the first one he'd struck - but they were a swarming mass under him now, and it just hit an indistinct shape which kept moving.

Stupefy. Petrificus Totalus. Locomotor Mortis. Stop. Bloody. Coming. You. Stupid. Things.

They were getting angry now, at least, as one or two of their numbers submitted to the onslaught of spells from the wizard they couldn't reach, however slow going it was. Scorpius weaved in the air as one hurled a rock, no bigger than his fist, and it struck him in the shoulder - not enough to really hurt, it was still enough to briefly knock him off-balance, and the Redcaps hooted in victory as their cunning little minds clearly set to work, and they scrambled for more rocks.

A glance in Albus' direction suggested he was doing a little better with his pack. Waves of air were coming shooting from his wand, knocking the Redcaps off their feet two at a time, and although it wasn't finishing them off it was certainly leaving them frustrated and, overall, a better-contained threat than Scorpius' were.

Time to get inventive.

Scorpius flicked his wand up to deflect the next rock which came his way, and yanked his broom away, putting the Redcaps between himself and the crate. He hesitated only a moment to watch the next swish of Albus' wand, studied the wrist-flick, before focusing on his own enemies and going to duplicate the effect.

As intended, three of the Redcaps at the front of the pack were sent flying, tumbling over the heads of their comrades - but Scorpius had positioned himself well, and unlike Albus' buffeted Redcaps, who were left sore and battered but with pride and temper bruised more than their bodies as they landed on the ground, these ones had something to hit sooner at a higher speed: the crate. The impacts were solid and crunchy and the three slid to the ground, only one stirring afterwards.

'Not so tough now, are you, you little buggers?' Scorpius crowed as his little pack, now with less than ten remaining, stared at their suddenly-fallen comrades and the crate that they lay next to.

Then they surged for the crate, pikestaffs flashing in the sunlight as they began to batter the blades against the nails and boards protecting the precious cargo inside.

'Hey, wait -!' Scorpius swore loudly as he realised he'd just given them a new target, a target that couldn't defend itself, and his heart sank as he saw Albus' mob getting the same idea. They were supposed to keep the Redcaps away from the crates, and instead he'd just driven them towards them.

They quickly organised, ignoring the blows from Scorpius' spells which made little progress in cutting through their numbers one at a time. One Redcap hopped onto another's shoulders to be higher up on the crate, working away at the nails they could see, trying to physically dismantle the crate rather than waste time bashing against solid planks. Spell after spell only slowed them down, but it didn't stop them, and soon one of the planks had been almost pried off, the little hands of the Redcaps reaching through the gap to grasp inside, fortunately not taking anything - yet.

'Get the hell back!' That was Albus' thunderous voice as he was faced with the same situation, his spells slowing but not stopping them. Down he came like a thunderbolt, wading physically into the midst of the half-dozen or so Redcaps who remained. Still on his broom, he came low enough to grab one stood on its comrades' shoulder by the collar, yanking it back and hurling it to the ground. It landed hard and didn't stir.

The shouts of the Redcaps turned from indignant to furious. One hurled itself up, leaping as high as it could - and its grasping fingers settled around the brush of Albus' broom. The broom veered at the sudden, unexpected weight - then a Redcap was on another's shoulders, hoisted up to grab the broom's handle, and pikestaffs were jabbing at him as the broom was pulled down. Even as Albus threw spell after spell at the mob swarming him, a tiny, powerful hand latched around his ankle and pulled.

'Al!' The cry torn from Scorpius' throat was tinged with terror as Albus was dragged off his broom and immediately disappeared from sight as he hit the ground and was rushed by the Redcaps. The ones on Scorpius' crate abandoned their pursuit, and the ten or so remaining creatures swarmed over Albus.

'Get - the - hell - away - from - him!'Down Scorpius swept, wand flashing as he waded into the midst of the swarm. The first Redcap was smashed in the head by the handle of his broom; the second, he made sure to land on. The third was cracked in the face, and one Stun proved enough to finish it off so long as it was a Stun at close range, right in the head.

He reached out with his free hand as soon as his feet touched solid ground, yanking away Redcap after Redcap even as grasping talons and flashing pikestaffs were waved at him, but he was too close for the polearms to be effective, and he'd moved quickly. A kick sent another Redcap flying, and then his hand settled around something big and warm that definitely wasn't one of the little creatures, and with a strength that could only come from adrenaline he pulled Albus to his feet.

Blood was streaming from Albus' nose and one eye was already in danger of swelling up, but he was alive. Knuckles white as he gripped his wand, blinking muggily against the sunlight, Albus planted his feet firmly beside Scorpius, just in time for them to both realise that they were now on the ground and completely surrounded.

A Redcap lunged up to land on Scorpius' shoulder, and Albus' wand flashed to Stun it, knocking it off as Scorpius yelped. The next thing he knew, Albus had grabbed him and pulled him around, pushing them back to back, and then the air was thick with spells, kicks, and punches thrown at the remaining Redcaps who surrounded and rushed at them.

Scorpius kicked one so hard it went flying, only for a pikestaff to stab at his left forearm with surprising pain, and he yelped, turning his wand on the offending Redcap. The Stun wasn't enough to finish it off, but it did stagger and drop the weapon, and Scorpius brought his wand around for the next -

Who didn't come. There were still Redcaps on their feet but they backed off with their pikestaffs extended, faces twisted into angry snarls.

'Come on, then,' Scorpius taunted, wand pointed at the nearest. 'Is that all you got?'

'Scorp,' panted Albus. 'Don't... encourage them.'

'I'm not. I'm gloating. They're backing off, Al, they've had enough.'

And they were, even the ones who were recovering beginning to scrabble away, and by the time the Redcaps had formed into a line, there were less than ten left, backing away from the two young wizards. They snarled and spat but didn't come closer, and slowly Scorpius and Albus began to relax, turning to face the lot of them.

'You okay, Al?' Scorpius asked, not taking his eyes off the Redcaps.

Air hissed through Albus' teeth as he inhaled deeply. 'One of them cut my leg. I'm okay, it's not deep, but it stings like hell. Head's throbbing. Nose might be broken. Other than that, I'm okay.'

'Other than that.' Scorpius snorted. 'So, fine and dandy, huh? Think you can make a ride back to the Infirmary once these pesky critters have gone and buggered off?' He flashed a grin at the Redcaps. 'Yeah, you'd better run -'

Then the Redcaps stopped. And, from over the rise, popped another red-hatted head. And another. And another.

Albus swore under his breath as, creeping from out behind trees and rocks and hills, came the Redcaps' reinforcements. He reached down for his broom. 'Scorp,' he said, his voice low and serious, 'maybe you were right after all. We should go.'

'But the ingredients -'

'You saw them, Scorp, we can't stop them from getting to the crates fast enough and the only thing they like more than the crates are us. And they will kill us.' Albus met his gaze, green eyes firm and unwavering.

'Which will set back Lockett's research,' said Scorpius. 'Some of the stuff in this ingredients shipment is rare - you were right, Al, we can't just leave all of this.' He looked around wildly, then his gaze swept from Albus' broom to the crate. 'Can you get back on that, fly out of reach, and Transfigure legs on those crates to get them up to the castle?'

'Sure, but the crates won't move fast enough to -'

'Do it. I'm going to buy us some time.' Scorpius squared his shoulders and took a deep breath.

Albus frowned. 'What -'

But then Scorpius was gone, breaking into a run away from the crates and towards the Redcaps, broom in one hand, wand in the other. He shot a Stun in their direction, sending one spinning to the ground, and came to a halt once he was in broad, open ground, waving his hands in the air. 'Hey! Hey! Nice, pretty blood here! Malfoy blood! The best blood to colour your hats! Right here!'

The Redcaps stopped, suspicious, red, beady eyes swivelling away from Albus and towards him.

'Scorp, what the hell do you think you're -'

'Al, trust me, and get those crates up to Lockett.' Scorpius gritted his teeth, then matched the Redcaps' stare and raised his voice. 'Come on! You'll be the pride of the Redcaps with Malfoy blood on your hat. Tell your friends! Bring them along! But first - catch me!'

Then, throwing one last Stun at them for good measure, he broke into a sprint back in the direction the crates had come - down the path towards the Hogwarts gates, away from Albus, and away from the school, the direction he'd be taking those crates. Hooting, hollering, and likely swearing in their harsh, native tongue, the Redcaps took off after him, hopping with rage and excitement at the prospect of a chase - and completely ignoring the crates.

Like he intended.

Scorpius was not the best student at Hogwarts. He wasn't the smartest, and he wasn't the most powerful. His streak of malevolent cunning only took him so far against people who invested more hard work and natural talent into their efforts. Academically he was average, and magically he was nothing special. If there was one place he particularly excelled, it was on the Quidditch pitch - the second-highest scorer in the school the previous year, set to be the highest, he'd hoped, with the infamous James Potter gone.

That had taken work. Training. In everything - on the broom, with the Quaffle, of his reflexes. In general fitness. And one of the easiest ways to keep that up was running practice. It had fallen out of everyday habit over the summer and completely by the wayside with the crisis, but if there was one talent of his he fancied he could bring to bear against Redcaps it wasn't in his spell-flinging, it was in his running.

So he made good ground, led them on a good chase across the greenery, dodging hurled rocks and pikestaffs and occasionally throwing a Stun over his shoulder to keep them good and angry and agitated, and his breath was just beginning to burn in his lungs before he remembered something else he'd read in his Second Year Defence classes.

'Nobody has ever been recorded as successfully outrunning a Redcap.'

They were probably just toying with him. Enjoying the chase, only to close the gap at their leisure and then he'd be pinned down, alone, and entirely at their mercy.

Scorpius put his head down and drew on another burst of speed as he sprinted as fast as he could across the Hogwarts grounds. That's fine, he thought. I still have a broom. If they get too close, if I get too tired, I'll just fly off. I only need to lure them away long enough and far enough for Al to -

Then something hit him in the shoulder; another rock, but he was running so fast and burning so low on energy that it knocked him off balance, and he stumbled. The next thing he knew, tiny hands were wrapping around his lower leg, yanking his feet out from under him, and he hit the ground face-first. His broom went spinning from his grip, and he rolled onto his back desperately, feeling the weight of a Redcap on his foot.

'Stupefy!' he bellowed, yanking the wand down to try to knock away the irritating little creature, which looked about to sink its teeth into his shin, but it saw the wave of his wand and let go, bounding away first.

Which meant that instead of shooting a Redcap, Scorpius shot himself in the foot.

He'd been Stunned before. Defence classes valued their practical courses, and he'd always paired up with Albus. Even though Scorpius could claim to be the second or third-best duellist Slytherin House his year had to offer, there were still leagues between them in aptitude, and he'd got used to losing nine times out of ten.

Typically, he'd never been blasted at such short range, and the sensation wasn't just enough to make his head spin, but numb his limbs. He felt every muscle go slack, his head lolling back, his hand dropping by his side for his wand to roll from his strengthless grip, and shadows began to fall on him as the Recaps approached and blocked out the sun.

If Redcaps kill me because I shot myself, this is going to be so embarrassing.

They seemed as bewildered as him, the half-dozen who came scampering up and filled his blurry vision. Their chittering came garbled to his ears, like he was hearing them through water, even as they leered and peered at him. One poked him in the side with a pikestaff, as if wondering if he was already dead; gentle or not, he couldn't feel more than a pinprick, and he certainly couldn't move.

That's something, at least, he thought dreamily. If I can't feel properly while Stunned, I won't be able to feel them bludgeoning my brains out -

Then sparks were flying through the air, the sparks of spells and light as the sun flashed off their whirling pikestaffs, and with noises of shock and indignation the Redcaps pounced away. He saw one hit by the red sparks of a Stun and fall instantly under its power, saw the rest begin to spit and curse and draw back, and saw motion from the corner of his eyes of a tall figure, from his perspective on the ground - so all that meant was that they were taller than a Redcap - advancing on the small mob and driving them off.

'Malfoy!'

He knew that voice. It wasn't coming from whoever was fighting the Redcaps - they were moving away as they drove the determined creatures, embittered at being denied their prize, away from him. Though with his blurry vision fixed on the peerless blue sky above him, still unable to move his head or look around, the details were swimming from his peripheral vision.

'Malfoy? Malfoy! Scorpius?'

Rose's voice sounded as afraid as he'd ever heard her as her face suddenly swam before him, blocking out the sun. One warm hand came to his neck, the other held the wand he felt gently pressed against his chest. Her eyes were wide, her face pale.

Despite the majority of the effects of the Stun still on him, Scorpius couldn't resist fighting through the numbness to open his mouth and give some sort of witty, infuriating retort.

'Ole oo ah um aak,' was what he actually managed to say as his jaw and lips refused to properly cooperate, his control over his limbs and senses returning only slowly.

But the relief on Rose's face as he moved was almost palpable, and he saw her shoulders sag. 'Oh, God, Malfoy, I thought you were dead when I saw you lying like -' Then she seemed to remember herself, and looked over to her left. 'He's alive, Professor!'

'Superb!' came the less-than enthused voice of Lockett from somewhere in the near-distance, and the sound of flashing spells and cursing Redcaps finally died out. 'What happened?'

Scorpius' tongue felt like it was too big for his mouth, and he tried, and failed, to raise his hands. 'Hit... self...'

'Hit?' Rose wrinkled her nose as Lockett trooped up to her side. 'You - wait, you did this to yourself?'

'They're gone,' said Lockett to Rose, though she didn't let her wand drop, still kept her eyes on their perimeter with keen awareness. Scorpius wouldn't have guessed she'd be quite as effective at driving off Redcaps, but he wouldn't have complained even if he could. 'Cut and run once they realised they'd have a proper fight on their hands.'

Scorpius squinted up at them. 'Mbus?'

Rose frowned. 'What?'

'Albus. Potter's fine, Malfoy, don't worry; Jones is with him right now recovering the rest of the crates, he shot sparks up for reinforcements once he was in sight of the castle.'

'And luckily the Professor and I were talking on the steps -'

'You mean arguing about how you need sleep instead of staying up to wait for the ingredients - and get what ever he's done to himself off him, Weasley, it's just cruel to leave him to shake it off,' sighed Lockett, watching the grounds around them for signs of Redcaps returning even if she'd proclaimed them gone.

'Oh, yes.' Rose lifted her wand, and scrunched up her forehead. 'I can't believe you did this to yourself, Malfoy, and lured off Redcaps like that - what were you thinking, it was completely idiotic and -'

'Mmmfff!'

'Fine, fine!' She sighed at his protest and pointed her wand at his chest. 'Finite Incantatum.'

It wasn’t the most efficient way to remove a Stun – but he hadn’t been able to explain exactly what he’d done to himself, so likely Rose was just being thorough. Still, it worked; the feeling of the dispel working its way into his limbs was magical in more ways than one. It was like he could fly, all of a sudden, as his muscles answered his command, and not only could he move properly but he could breathe properly, talk properly, think properly - and that was when Rose's spell, in the blink of an eye, finished worming its way through his body and worked its way to his brain.

And searing pain ran through his skull as it found something else there to dispell.


Chapter 14: Burning Question
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'What did you see?'

'Ow. Ow. Ow. Stoppit.' Scorpius batted Rose's hand, and the ointment-soaked cloth that stung so as she dabbed at his cuts, away. 'These cuts won't kill me. That stinging might.'

'You great big baby -'

'Hey, I lured away and fought a mob of Redcaps! Doesn't that win me any points, oh almighty Gryffindor?'

'It does from me.' Albus leant across the dinner table from where Methuselah had been tending to his injuries - rather worse than Scorpius' after he'd been tackled off his broom, his split lip swelling - to punch his best friend on the arm. 'That was awesome.'

Jones made a noise of frustration. 'Potter. Don't move.''

'Awesome?' Rose's nose wrinkled. 'He almost died!'

Scorpius smirked. 'And yet, here I am.'

She narrowed her eyes. 'Yes, yes, and that makes me unlucky, and then you grin even more repugnantly, and we do ten rounds like that. But if you want me to stop seeing to those cuts, fine!' She draped the cloth on the edge of the ointment-filled bowl, and stood.

'But... I'm... injured...'

'Your obnoxiousness is more severe than your injuries, Malfoy.' Rose stalked across the aisle in the Great Hall to sit next to where Selena was lounging, more interested in filing her nails than listening. 'But we have to leave that to fester, too, because there's no ointment for it.'

Scorpius picked up the cloth forlornly, then turned pleading eyes on Selena. 'Could you... my cheek...'

Selena raised an imperious eyebrow. 'Do I look like a future applicant to Saint Mungo's?'

He gaped at the unexpected alliance against him as Rose Weasley and Selena Rourke smirked in unison, and turned across the table. 'Jones...'

'Busy. Potter. More severe than you.' Methuselah was applying something that looked more like paste to the yellow and swelling patch around Albus' right eye. 'Severe cuts aptly seen to by Weasley. Remainder purely cosmetic. Possibly scarring or misshapen -'

'Misshapen what?' Scorpius snatched up the small, round mirror that sat on the table. 'I don't want a misshapen anything. Scars are fine, birds dig scars...'

'Then you'd best get to applying the ointment instead of pestering me or bellyaching about how hard it is.' Rose peered at him. 'And what did you see?'

'I told you!' Scorpius pulled off his thick woollen Quidditch sweater. 'Just... flashes. Images. Like someone shoved a malfunctioning Chocolate Frog card in my brain. Except, it was an evil Chocolate Frog card.' Then he stood and began unbuttoning the shirt underneath.

Rose straightened half an inch. 'What are you doing?'

'I got jabbed at by a Redcap right here.' Scorpius paused to tug at a rip in the grey shirt, the edges of it stained red. 'Thank Merlin for Quidditch padding because it hurt - but I don't think it's serious...'

She coloured a little. 'You didn't say -'

'Did you want to dab ointment on my bare chest?' As if to illustrate his point, he shamelessly shrugged out of his shirt and tossed it onto the table. Albus and Jones were impassive, Selena merely quirked an eyebrow before returning to the more pressing matter of her cuticles, but Rose flapped her hands in flustered apology.

'You could've -'

'It's fine. See?' Scorpius looked down at himself. What could have been a serious effort to deny him his kidneys had been off-set by poor aiming and the thick leather of his Quidditch uniform. That had been torn through, but it had absorbed the worst of the jab, and there was just a cut running along the right side of his ribcage, not deep enough to worry him with more than niggling pain.

But it did niggle. He reached for the cloth and ointment.

'Trust you to find an excuse to get your shirt off,' muttered Selena, unimpressed.

'And all it took for me to cavort topless in the Great Hall was getting stabbed! Brilliant!' Scorpius made a face as he dabbed at the cut across his ribs. 'This was a superb plan.'

'I'd like to point out,' said Rose, still a little pink, 'that Albus took a far worse beating than you and he's not complained once.'

'That's because Potter shouldn't move. Isn't that right, Potter?' said Methuselah tensely.

'I'm pretty much his captive here,' Albus agreed. 'And it's no good, Rose. I got beaten up because I stupidly let myself get too close. Scorp got beaten up saving the day.'

'And your precious ingredients,' Scorpius added. 'I'm not seeing some proper gratitude!'

'We're all very grateful, Malfoy. Now can someone help him so he can put his shirt on quicker and we can get down to business?' This was Lockett, coming in through the doors and holding a small, stoppered vial in her hand.

Scorpius smirked at Rose. 'Don't be afraid to get close, Weasley.'

'Oh, for heaven's sake. Jones, I'll swap with you.' She stood, waving her hands at Methuselah, who looked rather put out at the rearrangement but obligingly went to help out Scorpius.

Albus, obviously keen to divert everyone back to business, obligingly rolled up his sleeves so Rose could see to his arm and looked over at Lockett. 'Did you find it, Professor?'

'I found something which might help.' Lockett went to sit down next to Selena, turning the vial over in her hands. 'A Potion of Alleviation.'

Methuselah wrinkled his nose. 'But Malfoy's been Obliviated -'

'And under normal circumstances an Obliviation shouldn't have been affected by a Finite Incantatum,' said Rose. 'So I guess a potion to remove a curse or alleviate its symptoms is as good a starting point as any.'

'If it does nothing,' agreed Lockett, 'then I'll set about brewing an Elixir of Remembrance, but those are complicated and take time; anything to fully undo an Obliviation always is. But I found this in Madam Pheasey's supplies, and it's not as if it's any use for anything else we're doing.'

Scorpius pulled his shirt back on once Methuselah was done. 'So what're we waiting for?' He held out his hand.

Lockett stood to pass over the vial 'You'd better sit down. If this works, it won't be a pleasant experience.'

'So what else is new?' He sat, and Albus moved to perch on the table behind him, despite Rose's mumbled protestations, planting a reassuring hand on his shoulder. He pulled off the stopper. 'So what do I drink to?'

'Let's try answers, Malfoy, hmm?' muttered Rose.

'Good idea!' he proclaimed, then drank. And immediately threw his head back, flat of his hand coming to press quickly against his temple. 'Ow. Ow. Ow!'

Albus' hold on his shoulder tightened. 'You all right, mate?'

'Ow. Wait.' Scorpius blinked. 'Not ow. This is weird. Super weird. But not painful. Kind of like painful, like someone's reached into my brain and ripped it open, but...' Then his expression sank. 'Oh, Merlin.'

Rose moved around the table fussily. 'What did you see?'

'Give him a minute,' said Albus protectively.

'I'm just trying to solve this entire mystery -'

'One minute, Rose, Merlin!'

'Weasley's right. Too much delay already. We must -'

'That's enough.' This was Lockett, who'd sat back down, hands clasped in her lap. She didn't raise her voice but Rose, Albus, and Methuselah all fell silent and everyone's eyes landed on Scorpius, who was bent forwards, rubbing his temples.

'I got caught. On Day Zero, out in the Forest,' he said, after what felt like a lifetime of silence. 'After the big wave of light and magic in the clearing. It was... it knocked me for six, I was on my back, disorientated. And then... then I was grabbed. Some big guy in big robes, I didn't get a proper look at him, but he dragged me over towards the big fire.'

He gritted his teeth, brow furrowing as he concentrated. 'It was dying down, but it looked like it had been big, a huge, roaring bonfire of a thing. The remains of it were still about as big as Albus. There were, what, maybe half a dozen wizards in dark robes? And markings on the floor around the bonfire, all sorts of symbols and...'

Then Rose was pressing parchment and a pencil into his hands. 'Draw them,' she urged. 'Anything you can remember -'

Albus stiffened. 'Rose, really -'

'No, she's right.' Scorpius scowled as he bent over the pencil, sketching away what sigils and markings he could remember, even as he continued. 'I was pretty out of it. I did ask them what they were doing, what was going on... and only one of them answered. He was the only one I got a good look at, but he must have been in charge.

'Tall. Blond. Good-looking, if you like that kind of cheek-bones thing. Pretty young, probably not more than ten years older than us. One of them called him "Thane". I don't know if that was his name or if old Scottish titles are some sort of "in" thing with evil ritualists these days.

'Anyway, he pretty much told me to shut up and not ask questions. That was about when some of the others came in dragging Al and Weasley - you two were unconscious already, they said. They didn't seem surprised by this, that the... the wave... had knocked you out? And this "Thane" guy said they should take a look around the area, see if there are any more. And he asked me if there were...'

Scorpius' frown deepened, and he sat up. 'I told him to... well, I told him to piss off. Then he... ugh.' He brought his hand to the side of his head. 'I think he used Legilimency on me; waved his wand and then it was like something was slicing my head... and he was pissed off. Told the others there were three more, sent some of the wizards off after you guys, but then he knew who Al and Weasley were - knew who their parents were - and he was really freaked.'

Rose cocked her head. 'Freaked?'

He bit his lip. 'I really think he was planning on killing us before he found out who you were. Kept swearing about his foul luck for capturing Harry Potter's son. Said we'd all be more trouble than we were worth and that they might as well ditch us, it wasn't as if we could do anything about "it" anyway. Assuming "it" to be the ritual. And it looked like they were packing up, putting things away, getting ready to leave. But they did say they weren't too far from camp, and something about... keeping an eye on things?'

Albus looked up at Lockett, eyes flashing. 'They might still be in the area.'

'Might,' Lockett said quietly, and looked at Scorpius. 'Go on.'

'It took maybe another ten minutes before some of the others brought you three in. You were all out of it, too. And they argued a bit about what to do, some of them said they should just kill us all, but Thane overruled them. Said that none of us had seen anything but me, and they could just wipe my memories, though one of them said the ritual might make that... tough. Didn't say why.' Scorpius shrugged. 'Then they knocked me out. Next thing I remember is waking up in the Infirmary.'

Albus let out a low whistle. 'That's on the one hand really useful,' he said, 'and at the same time, not.'

'It's very useful,' said Rose, reaching to take the parchment Scorpius had finished scribbling his half-recalled symbols on. 'We have these - it might give us a clue what the ritual was, exactly. And we have a name.'

'Thane,' murmured Lockett. 'It could be a title. I don't recognise it.'

'Ritual interfered with an Obliviation,' Methuselah piped up. 'Specific form of magic. Likely a protective element? Partially shielded Malfoy against the effects. Hence a simple dispelling breaking it down. Normally takes specific spell or specific proof of memories being inaccurate to interfere. Narrows down nature of an aspect of ritual.'

'If this ritual was used to spread the illness,' said Rose thoughtfully, 'it would make sense for there to be a protective aspect? I guess that they didn't want to catch it, after all.'

'And none of us were infected,' Lockett agreed. 'We might have been caught in the same part of the spell that kept those responsible for all of this safe. We're going to have a lot to talk about with your mother tomorrow, Weasley.'

Albus frowned at Scorpius, whose head was bent over, his lips moving. 'Scorp? There something else?'

'Phlegmatic? That's not it.' Scorpius raised his head, looking irritated. 'There's a word they used. To do with the ritual - I don't know if it was the ritual, or the illness, or something else, it's all a bit fuzzy.'

'And the word's "phlegmatic"?' said Rose dubiously.

'That's not it,' he repeated. 'Something else. Phlegen. Phlegeton?'

Methuselah cocked his head. 'Phlegethon.'

Scorpius snapped his fingers. 'That's it.'

'And... that's what, exactly?' Selena looked thoroughly nonplussed.

'Unsure,' said Methuselah. 'Matches no curse, or ritual, or potion, that I know of -'

'It's Ancient Greek,' said Lockett, voice dour, expression rather pinched, tense. 'It means "flaming".'

Albus squinted. 'I don't see what that has to do with anything.'

'It's also the name of a river in Greek mythology. Plato would have us believe it was made of fire.' She ran a hand through her hair, and let out a deep breath. 'It's one of the rivers into Hades, the underworld. The realm of the dead.'

* *

'Rose? Hey, Rose!'

She stopped as Albus' footsteps thudded along the corridor, pausing with one hand on the door to the guest bedroom she'd claimed. Selena had set them up all along one corridor, the five of them. While it was a technical improvement over sharing a room with her sick and unconscious housemates, the isolation, after years spent at Hogwarts where privacy was next to impossible, was sometimes disquieting.

It was why she liked being up at night more than around during the day. Hogwarts corridors being silent at night was nothing new to her; it was the only peace and quiet she'd ever enjoyed, wandering the halls on patrols as a prefect. If she was up and about at night, she could pretend the eerie silence was normal. She could imagine everyone would be up with the dawn.

But right then she'd been up for approaching twenty hours of fairly solid work, and couldn't care less that her room was isolated and depressing. It had a bed in it. So she turned only reluctantly to her cousin, pushing the door to her room open pointedly. 'What is it, Al?'

She felt immediately guilty once he drew close and she got a good look at him. Despite Scorpius' bellyaching, Albus had certainly taken the worse of the beatings. The charms and ointments would do their work to bring down the swelling, see that cut lip knit together quickly and neatly, but for the moment he still looked like he'd been through the wringer.

'Are you... I just...' Albus came to a halt, looking between her and the door, and his shoulders sagged. 'No, never mind. You need some sleep.'

'No, I -' She reached out to grab him by the sleeve as he went to turn away. 'I'm sorry. I am tired, but that's no excuse. Are you okay?'

He gave a twist of a smile as bitter as she'd ever seen from him. 'Now you ask.'

'What?'

Albus shifted his feet, looking ashamed and indignant all at once. 'I came here to make sure you're all right.'

Normally she would have believed him. Normally he wouldn't have been looking at her like that. 'No, what did you mean by that?'

He looked around anxiously, and she tugged him into her room, nudging the door shut behind them. It wasn't as if anyone was liable to come across them, with Scorpius still writing down whatever he could remember of the night of the ritual, and the others returning to their responsibilities. But she still didn't like surprises.

And she was still too unsure where she stood with her cousin to risk having such a conversation out in the open.

Her room was gloomy, Artemis sprawled out across the bed as if she owned the entire thing, and only opened one indignant green eye at the interruption. 'I'm not having a go,' said Albus, and Rose would have assumed this to be a prelude to a particularly rife fit of passive-aggression had it been from anyone else. 'I'm worried about you. Sleeping during the day, working all night, refusing to get some sleep, working yourself to the bone... there are other people here, you know. Lockett's a professional. Methuselah's smart -'

'Methuselah Jones is single-minded and impractical and has been obsessing with this ritual; he's been ignoring what Professor Lockett, the professional, has to say about where we should concentrate. He's wholly unreliable,' she blurted out with more indignation than this really needed. 'And as far as he's concerned this is all one grand academic challenge! He doesn't understand what's at stake!'

Albus made a face. 'I think you're being a little harsh; I know he's weird but we all cope in our different ways -'

'I don't want us to cope, I want us to get through this.' Frustration, burning, boiling frustration that had been festering in her gut for days, came bubbling to the forefront. 'And I don't know if we can unless I put every inch of effort and attention in!'

'I know you're bright, Rose - smarter than me, smarter than most, I know that, but we're sixteen, for Merlin's sake. Do we really think this thing can be beaten by the determination of one sixteen year-old?'

'Our parents weren't much older when they beat Voldemort.' It was a cheap answer, an easy answer, but she knew he would struggle to beat it.

'They didn't have much of a choice -'

'Do we?'

'Yes!' Albus drooped. 'We have one of the world's leading experts on potions with a specialisation in curing Dark Magic curses -'

'She's a drunkard.'

He stopped, expression tensing. 'What?'

'Lockett. I don't know if she's, like, an actual alcoholic, I don't know if she's been like this before this week. But she drinks. A lot. While she's working. I've found where she dumps the Firewhisky bottles.' Rose folded her arms across her chest. 'So do we really want to rely on her?'

Albus hesitated, a myriad of emotions flickering across his face, before he gave a sigh and ran his fingers through his hair. 'Okay. So that's bad. But while she might be drinking to cope, you're still working yourself to exhaustion to cope, and you're not a world-class expert to compensate!'

Rose threw her hands in the air. 'I'm fine!'

'You're not fine! You're keeping crazy hours and you're going to burn out. You'll make mistakes, you'll overlook things, you'll isolate yourself from everyone else and that'll drive you nuts. We could be here for weeks, months; we've got to play the long-term game. You keep on like this, Rose, and we can hardly rely on you.' Albus shoved his hands in his pockets, looking like he hated having to say all of this.

She scowled. 'Better to rely on me than anyone else. Lockett's still an alcoholic, and Jones is still a headcase, and you're still only an average Potions student and better off seeing to the defences anyway, and Rourke's still too busy pretending she's supervising the House Elves, and Malfoy is still useless.'

'Useless -' Albus worked his jaw wordlessly for a few moments. 'He risked his life for potions reagents. Because he knew how important they were for your research, for Lockett's research, because he knows how a delay of even only a few days might prove dire. He almost got himself killed, and all you can say is that he's useless -'

'Really, Albus, is now the time for you to leap to standard-issue blind defence of your best friend -'

'We both almost got killed today and all you can do is insult Scorpius and ignore me!'

And there it was. The crux of the matter, the reason he was so beleaguered and stressed and ashamed of himself for it, and it hit her so hard she might as well have been slapped in the face. Rose took a step back, physically staggered by the accusation and the truth of it, and the look of hurt on Albus' face was like a knife in the gut.

'I... I don't...'

'You did,' Albus said, his voice dropping. Now he sounded more sad than angry, and that was definitely worse because no defensive instinct could rise up to protect her. 'You left Jones to take care of me and went straight to Scorpius and spent the entire time pestering him for information and telling him off for what he did!'

Her hands came up to cover her face, as if she could push back the rising wave of emotion, as if blocking Albus out could make him not there - or, more pressingly, make his accusations untrue.

But they weren't.

'I...' The events of the day rushed up in a wave, of how she'd behaved immediately after the fight - and of what she'd seen of the fight. A lump rose in her throat, and she couldn't get the next words past her lips without almost choking on them. 'I - I - I thought he was dead.'

The words sounded hollow to her own ears, a bizarre and convoluted excuse, but as she lowered her hands she saw Albus' expression crumple with sympathy.

Of course he would hear her out. And that just made the tears stop threatening and become reality, and the words came tumbling out in a jumble as she tried to speak through them. '...when - when we got there, he'd Stunned himself, but I didn't know that, so he was just lying on his back completely still when Lockett drove the Redcaps away from him. He wasn't - he wasn't moving, and I thought... I thought...'

Then, despite all he'd said, despite all of his criticisms and his accusations, Albus had closed the gap between them and wrapped his arms around her, and she gave up on trying to talk or fight the tears. She sobbed into his shoulder, feeling the terror of the day, the tension of the past week she hadn't realised had built up so fiercely, ebb out of her. His embrace was close and warm and comforting, and she didn't think they'd hugged like this since they were eleven years old and on the verge of going to Hogwarts and she'd finally, finally admitted she was terrified of everything between them changing...

The knowledge that it had, that her eleven year-old self had been right to be afraid, only made her sob harder, and yet within moments she pulled back enough to look up at Albus, finding his eyes wet too. 'I'm sorry,' she tried to say, which was a challenge in and of itself, and only made him pull her to him again.

'I know,' Albus sighed, voice thick. 'I'm not angry at you, Rose, I was just worried -'

'You were angry,' she said, voice muffled by sobs and his shoulder. 'You were angry and you were hurt at how I behaved, but you always try to be so understanding and that's not fair on you because sometimes people are just being arses. But you try to understand and then you feel bad for being upset at them.' Her tears were more under control now, and she gulped, looking up at him again. 'I was scared and I was upset and I dealt with it by lashing out at Malfoy and trying to not think about what almost happened to you, and that wasn't fair.'

'I know,' he said again. 'And I know you only reacted that badly because you've been running yourself ragged and you wouldn't normally do that, so I'm not angry.'

He should have been, she felt. She'd been horrid to him because she couldn't have fathomed letting herself feel as scared and upset as she'd wanted to feel, and now that defensive wall had come crashing down she couldn't understand why he was being so nice. Why he wasn't punishing her.

So she settled for avoiding the entire issue by bursting into tears on his shoulder again, and he rubbed her back reassuringly. 'You don't need to go on like this,' Albus said gently. 'It's not good for you. You should try to be awake when everyone else is, working when everyone else is, eating and taking breaks with everyone.' He steered her to the bed for them to both sit down, and Artemis finally roused herself, finally conceding she couldn't sleep with an emotional heart-to-heart being so noisy during her nap-time.

Rose let go of Albus to pull her cat into her arms, and Artemis promptly demonstrated she understood the severity of the situation by shoving her paws into her face as if trying to keep her at bay. Despite herself, she smiled at the cat through her tears. 'Oh, it's only hugs on your terms, is it?'

'Yeah, she's about as evasive when it comes to overt displays as you are,' Albus said wryly, one arm still around her shoulder.

She chuckled, the sound noisy and throaty after all her tears, and looked up at him. 'I'm sorry,' she said again. 'You're right, I've been wound too tightly. It's not fair to you.'

'I want what's best for you,' said Albus, leaning over to kiss the top of her head. 'Not what's fair for me. But I forgive you, Rosie.'

Rosie. He hadn't called her that in five years, and she shut her eyes against the wave of emotions that came with it. 'I'll do what you've suggested,' said Rose slowly. 'I'll try to... work more sensibly, not close myself away, you're right. But there's one thing I'm not doing.'

'Oh?'

'I'm not apologising to Malfoy.'

Albus laughed, rubbing her back, and she couldn't help but smile along with him as Artemis wriggled and made a bid for freedom, as if all this emotional mess was utterly beneath her. 'I didn't ask you to do that,' he reminded her, smile lopsided. 'It'd only be another sign of the apocalypse.'


Chapter 15: Hot and Cold
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Scorpius narrowed his eyes as he wandered into the dungeons the next morning. ‘Do you actually sleep, Weasley, ever?’

Rose looked up, expression flickering as she saw him walk through the door. ‘I did sleep,’ was all she said before returning to the papers strewn across the desk, kept carefully away from the line of bubbling cauldrons that Lockett had set up the day before with all of the delivered reagents.

He frowned at the subdued tone of her voice, padding over to slide his tray onto the desk. ‘What, three hours before going back to night-time work?’

‘More like twelve hours and I only got up an hour ago.’ But there was no bite to her voice, and Rose carefully reached for the mug of tea. ‘Thank you.’

A little disquieted at the absence of a ratty Rose Weasley at half seven in the morning, Scorpius headed for one of the cabinets next to Lockett’s desk and tried to keep his voice down. He wasn’t a man to take the school’s motto seriously at the best of times, but something was either very wrong, in which case he didn’t want to pry, or perfectly fine, in which case he had no desire to rock the boat.

Then Artemis jumped out from behind the cabinet and hissed at him, and he swore, loudly. ‘Piss on you, cat!’

Clearly Rose wasn’t subdued from fatigue, because her wand was in her hand and she was on her feet in an instant, gaze sweeping the room. ‘What? Oh. Artemis. Don’t be horrid.’

To his surprise this was addressed to the cat, not him, as was usually the case when he threw abuse at her pet. Scorpius clapped a hand over his chest, where he could feel his heart racing. ‘She’s trying to kill me.’

‘She likes to hunt, and I think she’s identified you as prey.’ Rose put down her wand and went over to scoop up the smoky-coated cat, who immediately did her best impression of a sedate, angelic figure who never meant anyone any harm, purring away. ‘You react and it amuses her.’

‘I aim to please.’ Scorpius glared at the cat. ‘Shouldn’t you leave her in your room?’

‘She can get out, and anyway, she needs exercise. It’d be cruel and, more importantly, she wouldn’t let me sleep.’ Rose returned to her desk with Artemis, who took one look at the paperwork which was of such interest to her mistress, and wriggled out of her arms to sprawl across it. Else she would not be the centre of the universe, and that would hardly do.

Scorpius grunted as Rose, instead of sweeping the cat away like she would any other distraction, instead cooed over her and took advantage of the interruption to eat the poached egg on toast he’d brought down. ‘How’s the research doing?’

‘I’m catching up with what Professor Lockett started on - that is, putting a bunch of antidotes on to brew. We should be able to apply the first by the end of the day, the rest over the course of the week. I’m particularly interested in batches 2 and 5; if they have an impact, we’re almost certainly looking at a curse which won’t allow animals to become carriers.’

‘So we can use the owls?’ Scorpius flicked through the files in the drawer, not looking up.

‘Perhaps. What are you doing?’

But there was pointed curiosity rather than accusation in her voice, and he glanced over, apprehensive. ‘Er. We have to wait until your mother checks in before we can give her the full report. In the meantime, I’m trying to figure out who this “Thane” guy is.’

‘And the secret’s going to be in Professor Lockett’s research notes?’

‘No, but it might be in some old corners of student files.’ Scorpius lifted a finger. ‘I don’t think he was more than thirty, though it is hard to tell with some wizards. That makes it very likely, unless he’s foreign and speaks excellent English or was educated abroad or at home, that he attended Hogwarts in the last ten to fifteen years. There’s been a lot of staff turnover in that time since old McGonagall retired and Stubbs took over and then most of McGonagall’s generation left too, so it’s possible he wasn’t taught much by the current teachers even if he did attend...’

‘He wouldn’t have been taught by Lockett - she didn’t know the name and she’s only been here a few years,’ said Rose.

‘No, but I’m here anyway and if this guy is involved in a huge ritual and huge curses, he’s probably pretty bright. Bright people take Potions. If Professor Lockett has any of her predecessor’s records, he might be in them. Though I’m not finding anything more than five years old in here.’ Scorpius ran a hand through his hair, unwittingly mussing it. ‘But my next stop is Professor Tully’s office. He’s been here for longer than anyone but Stubbs, Sprout, or Hagrid, and he’s taught Defence all that time. If there’s one class some smart-arse who’s put a horrible curse on everyone is going to have been good at, it’s that - even if he focused more on the “Dark Arts” part. And Tully might have kept his old records.’

‘You might want to try Arithmancy next. A ritual like that is going to have been complicated,’ offered Rose.

‘I would, but Jones is currently tearing the classrooms and libraries apart trying to get to the bottom of the half-arsed ritual symbols I could remember,’ said Scorpius with a grimace.

‘Still. It’s a really good idea.’

Scorpius slid the drawer shut. ‘What’s going on?’

Rose wrinkled her nose. ‘What?’

‘You. You followed advice and slept. You thanked me for bringing you breakfast. You’ve saved me from your bloody cat. And now you’re complimenting me on my ideas. Who are you, and what’ve you done with Rose Weasley?’

‘Am I not allowed to be nice?’

‘To me? No.’ Scorpius folded his arms across his chest. ‘What do you want?’

Me?’ Finally she looked tense. ‘Is it possible, Malfoy, that I’m realising we’re in the middle of a disaster scenario and so, perhaps, we shouldn’t be picking on one another?’

‘You didn’t start before now, so I’m wondering what changed.’

‘You -’ Her gaze hardened, and she looked more like the Rose Weasley he knew. ‘You’ve hardly been a saint in all of this. Don’t act like this doesn’t go both ways.’

‘As I recall, Weasley, you’re the one who’s always got a harsh word for me. Even when I bring you breakfast.’

‘You usually bring it with a side-portion of snide superiority. It puts me off,’ she said, voice lowering. ‘And again you play the victim when it’s not like you don’t insult me -’

‘I do not -’

‘You just did! Just now! I tried to be nice and you’re accusing me of trying to manipulate you!’ she pointed out, indignant. ‘You insult me, you insult my friends, you insult my interests, you insult my boyfriend -’

It had been such a long time, or so it felt, since Hector Flynn had even crossed Scorpius’ mind that the stab of anger in his gut was surprising by how fierce it still was. After all this time. His lip curled. ‘Yeah, well, he deserves it -’

‘Because of Quidditch and because he dares talk back against the great Scorpius Malfoy?’ Rose demanded, as despondent as she was outraged. ‘You are not as horribly maligned as you think you are!’

‘And you’re not half as smart as you think you are!’ he snapped, jabbing an accusing finger in her direction before he turned on his heel and stalked for the door.

His frustration off-set the ache in his legs he still felt from the day before, from the desperate flight from and fighting against the Redcaps. Albus had reported that they had come through the wards set up, but all those wards would do was send a warning up to the Headmaster’s Office and flag up if he specifically checked them. Since they’d been flying about the patrol when the Redcaps had come from the Forest and onto Hogwarts grounds, and since they still couldn’t get into the Headmaster’s Office, this identified a serious hole in their security they weren’t sure how to close.

At least they knew, from the wards, that nothing else had come onto the grounds. Just a marauding band of murderous creatures.

Scorpius’ expression twisted as he remembered the fight, as he remembered the shock and fear from shooting himself in the foot, as he remembered the relief as the Redcaps had been driven away and Rose had got to him...

Rose. She’d been afraid, that much had been clear, but he hadn’t thought about it much at the time in his relief and pain. Now he could look back and see it, and his heart sank as he considered that, perhaps, this was why she’d been a bit nicer to him that morning. Maybe she was genuinely trying to put aside their old enmity in the face of the crisis.

And he’d thrown it in her face. First with suspicion, and then discomfort - he knew where he stood with Rose so long as he was antagonising her. And then he’d let his temper get the better of him when it came to Hector Flynn.

‘Stupid Flynn,’ he muttered as he stormed down the corridor. ‘Stupid Weasley with her stupid taste in stupid men.’

By then he was down at the Defence classrooms, and let out his frustration by kicking the door open. It was loud, and sudden, and clearly more than enough to make anyone inside jump, because there was someone inside, and Professor Lockett dropped the stack of books she’d been gathering from Professor Tully’s shelves.

‘Malfoy!’

He cringed. ‘I - sorry, Professor.’

‘You almost gave me a heart attack.’ Lockett scowled, bending down to retrieve the books.

‘I really am sorry,’ he said, remorse at picking a fight with Rose spilling over. ‘I’m just - it’s only eight o’ clock and it’s already shaping up to be a crappy day.’ He hurried over, hunkering down to help her with the scattered pile.

‘You’re not upsetting my assistant, are you?’

He winced, passing her a book as he stood. ‘Little bit.’

Lockett rolled her eyes. ‘On the one hand, she tends to curse your name for a good hour after you two bicker. On the other hand, she channels all of that energy into her work. I don’t know if I should clip you around the ear or bring you in as an occasional pick-me-up.’

Scorpius gave a wan smile. ‘I aim to serve.’

‘It’s really one of your fortes, I know,’ drawled Lockett, putting the book on the top of the stack. ‘What did you do this time?’

Instinct made him tilt his chin defiantly. ‘What makes you think it was me?’

‘Remember how we got into this mess in the first place?’

Technically, causing a detention trip to the Forbidden Forest is why we’re all hale and hearty instead of bedbound. So, in a roundabout way, I saved us. What brings you down here, anyway, Professor?’

Lockett sighed. ‘Tully’s always made a habit of keeping abreast of cutting-edge research into Dark Magic. I was wondering if he had something useful. I know Ms Granger will get us the best the wizarding world has to offer, but I don’t want to assume we have time to waste.’

‘Cheerful. You’re good at cheerful, Professor, did anyone tell you that?’

She tensed. ‘I’m here to get us through this in one piece, Malfoy, not to hold your hand through it.’

‘Technically, in six pieces. I don’t want to become some creepy gestalt with Jones, thank you so very much.’ Scorpius shrugged, heading over to one of Tully’s filing cabinets, pushed up against the wall. ‘And, you’re right. I mean, we’re just a bunch of sixteen year-old kids being asked to take care of a school of our sick and possibly dying friends, family, and teachers. Why would we need hand-holding?’

Only silence answered his words, and with a small frown, Scorpius didn’t look up as he began rifling through Tully’s files. When Lockett did speak it was in a low, awkward voice. ‘I didn’t want to lie to you.’

He looked up, confused. ‘Lie to us?’

‘About how bad this is.’ Lockett sighed. ‘You’re all young, but you’re not stupid, and I wasn’t much older than you when -’ She looked away, gathering words. ‘This is serious. You know it’s serious, but I know you’re not thinking this through to its fullest extent, which is probably wise. But we could die. All of us; every single person in Hogwarts. If this curse turns more virulent, if this mysterious immunity wears off, if we can’t find a cure and this curse turns fatal, then all of the well-wishing in the wizarding world won’t save us.’

Scorpius swallowed, mouth dry. ‘But -’

‘They won’t send people in to become infected. They might like to think they will, and, sure, they’ll continue to work as hard as they can from the outside, but it’s not as good as having people on the inside. I’ve seen this sort of thing across the world, and when it comes down to it, Britain’s no more enlightened than anywhere else on the globe. The worst things I’ve seen wizards do to one another happened on this island. So they will support us, as best they can, but at the end of the day we are on our own in here, we are the ones who are responsible for all the lives under this roof, and we must do what we can while we still have time.’

Silence sank across the Defence classroom, until Scorpius reached into himself and found that most common of protections, the one which worked against everything: his smirk. ‘Wow, Professor,’ he said, with a cheer he didn’t feel. ‘You were right, you really should just say nothing because you really suck at pep-talks.’

Lockett gave a wry nod. ‘Apparently so. Would you believe I was once good with people?’

‘Not for a second.’

‘But you are.’ She jabbed a finger at him. ‘You make people laugh, or you at least keep people’s minds off the crisis. That’s important. Why do you think I’ve not given you any specific jobs yet? No, I didn’t expect you to be as useful as you were with the House Elves, though that’s a convenient bonus. But I know you, Scorpius. You’ll make a nuisance or a joke of yourself wherever you go, and we need you to do that.’

His brow furrowed. ‘You mean I’m the clown?’

‘I mean Albus finds your company reassuring. Selena finds your jokes funny. And Rose argues with you to blow off steam, and she feels better for it. I’d wager she enjoys it.’

‘And Jones?’

‘Nobody knows what’s going on with Jones. But I’m sure you’ll figure it out. Everyone’s got a part to play, Malfoy. You? You’re my wild card.’ Lockett shifted the books under one arm. ‘I’d best go and make sure you haven’t incited my assistant to heights of murderous rage this time, however.’

‘I thought you just said she enjoys it?’ Though she seemed more legitimately offended this time, Scorpius reflected gloomily.

‘There is such a thing as too much,’ said Lockett, voicing his concerns, and headed for the door. ‘Keep on smiling, Mister Malfoy. Most people can’t even see through it.’

Then she was gone, and Scorpius was left with the very strange sensation of having been reassured and encouraged but also lightly mocked and even, in some ways, put down. Class clown. Your father would be so proud.

That sarcastic thought did put his mind at ease, though, and he returned his attention to Tully’s filing cabinet as Lockett left, flicking through the many different files, racing back through the years of old student records kept by the fastidious Defence teacher.

Wild card. Well, this wild card’s about to blow everything open, Lockett... His fingers found a file, and a slow smirk broadened across his face. Bingo.


* *



‘I’m bored,’ sighed Selena emphatically.

‘Bring me that book,’ said Methuselah as if he hadn’t heard her, not even looking up from where he was drawing on the classroom floor in chalk.

She sighed again, but did so, picking up the thickest tome on top of his pile and delicately picking her way over to him, mindful of not scuffing the markings. ‘Do you want a particular page?’

‘Chapter seventeen. Nahuan symbology.’

She wrinkled her nose as she opened up the thick book, brushing through pages. ‘Nahuan?’

‘Indiginous culture of Mesoamerica -’

Selena bit her lip. ‘And who’re they, Methuselah?’ she asked gently.

He did look up, blinking owlishly behind his thick-rimmed glasses, and looked surprised. He was always doing that when she asked him questions, and at first she’d thought it was arrogant astonishment that she didn’t know what he knew. ‘Aztec. But that is a modern word. Artificial. Not what they would have called themselves.’

That was why she knew he wasn’t looking down at her - he answered questions with the same enthusiasm as did when he blabbered on about anything. She suspected he was actually surprised that she bothered to ask instead of her eyes glazing over or getting irritated, like everyone else did.

‘You think the ritual uses Aztec magic, then?’ she said, putting the book down in front of him, again careful to not block his markings.

‘Possible. Suspect a lack of European origin to this magic. Rituals for mass effect rare in Common Era; most recent examples found in studies into Mesoamerican magical culture. Regrettably, don’t speak Nahuatl. Do you?’

It took her a moment to realise he wasn’t being sarcastic. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever heard Nahuatl.’

‘Nonsense,’ said Methuselah, picking up the book, and she sighed again, anticipating yet another misunderstanding as he failed to grasp that not everyone else was as ridiculously fixated with studies and books as him. ‘Chocolate.’

Selena blinked. ‘I beg your pardon?’ For a moment she wondered if five minutes of conversation had suddenly passed her by unnoticed.

He looked up. ‘Chocolate. Nahuatl word. You’re speaking Nahuatl when you say “chocolate”, “tomato”, “shack”, or “axolotl”.’

‘Which I say all the time.’ She stepped away to return to her chair next to his desk, pressed against the wall so he had more space to scrawl in chalk. ‘Do you have any idea what this does yet?’

‘As suspected,’ said Methuselah, though he had voiced so many suspicions to her she had no idea which one he could be referring to, ‘the remote implementation of a spell. In this case, a curse. On a massive scale.’

‘Can you tell what curse?’

‘No.’ He shook his head, moving to continue with the circle of chalk and the particular markings he was making on the floor, thick book balanced open in one hand. ‘Nature of ritual means spell is irrelevant. Could be applied to any spell.’

‘Including a cure?’

‘Hypothetically.’ He looked up, eyes brightening. ‘Had not considered this. If cure takes form of spell, not potion, could be used to reverse effects. Brilliant.’

Her cheeks coloured a hint. ‘But if this is just how they infected everyone... why are you still researching it? Why are you drawing that?’

‘Could be wrong,’ said Methuselah, though he didn’t sound very convinced by the notion. ‘But ritual contains further components.’

‘Components?’

‘Indeed,’ he said, as if this explained everything. At her look, he nudged his glasses further up his nose. ‘The implementation is continuous. Not one single application; it persists.’

‘So... if anyone was cured...’

‘They would be infected again. Unless immune. Yes. Unless specifically downpowered, this ritual was designed to continue to inflict the curse upon the area.’

‘How do you downpower it?’

‘I don’t know.’ Methuselah scowled. ‘More pressingly, knowledge is irrelevant.’

Selena quirked an eyebrow. ‘I don’t see how downpowering the ritual that’s making everyone sick is irrelevant.’

‘Perhaps not irrelevant. But not the most pressing obstacle.’

‘I know, I know, we have to cure it first.’

‘Yes. But also.’ He looked up. ‘Ritual site is infested with Dementors. Minor obstacle.’

Selena looked at him, searching for a trace of irony she couldn’t find, then covered her face with her hands. ‘Oh, we are so screwed.’

‘Nonsense.’ Methuselah got to his feet, dusting himself down. ‘Knowledge is power. Dementors can be outmanoeuvred. Ritual can be assessed and deactivated. Curse can be identified and cured.’

She drew her hands down her face, peeking at him in between fingers. ‘You really think so?’

‘Absolutely.’

Selena let out a deep breath, then got to her feet, more reassured than she’d expected one single word to make her feel. If nothing else, she had realised one simple fact: Methuselah Jones didn’t lie. Not through any sense of integrity, but the idea genuinely seemed to not occur to him.

‘It’s getting a bit late,’ she said, and watched as his eyes darted to the clock on the wall with surprise. Though he had many talents, keeping track of time was not one of them. ‘And I need to be up early to do the rounds with Harley. You’re not going to be up much longer?’

‘Onto something here,’ said Methuselah, gaze sweeping over the chalk marks. ‘Results. Soon. But shall endeavour to be in bed not long after midnight.’

‘I’ll take it,’ she said, heading over to him.

He looked at her guilelessly as she approached. ‘Your assistance has been most useful. Both to talk to and in bringing things. Thank you. For giving me help.’

‘You’re welcome,’ she said, then stretched up on tiptoes to kiss him on the cheek. ‘And thank you.’

He blinked at her, gormless now as well as guileless, though she couldn’t tell whether her words or her actions confused him more. ‘Why?’

‘For giving me hope.’

Selena was no amateur. She knew the right thing to do after that was leave, quickly enough to show determination, not so quickly it looked like she was fleeing, and she managed to be halfway out the door with her back to him before she let a slow smirk tug at her lips.

Let’s see how he analyses that.

She was in her bedroom not long after. While she knew Methuselah wouldn’t decorate a room to save his life, and that Scorpius and Albus, as boys, probably drew comfort from making their guest rooms tips, and Rose probably didn’t spend enough time in there to add a personal touch, she had taken great pains to make her room hers. She’d had dear Harley bring her trunk up from the Slytherin dormitories and done what she could with her meagre belongings.

Just unpacking had been a start; being able to open up her wardrobe to find all of her clothes hanging up, like they would at home and she rarely had space for them to do at Hogwarts, was comforting. The fire crackled, the room had a warm glow, and all in all Selena regretted that she’d have to be up early to do what pitifully small work she could contribute.

So she was particularly irritated when, just as she’d got into her pyjamas, there was a hammering at the door. She scowled in its direction. ‘Who is it?’

‘It’s Rose,’ came the voice from the other side. ‘I’m sorry to wake you; can you open up?’

With little grace and less speed, Selena put on her large, fluffy dressing gown and oversized fuzzy slippers and sloped to the door, opening it only enough to talk, rather than inviting entrance or conversation. She had little desire for either with Rose Weasley. ‘What is it?’

‘You’re awake,’ said Rose with relief.

‘I don’t speak in my sleep to you, Weasley, of course I’m awake. I was about to do my face and then go to bed, though. What is it?’

Rose’s face twisted. ‘Artemis ate a mouse and threw up on my bed.’

Selena’s expression set. ‘There are no words for how delighted I am you’ve come to tell me this now.’

‘I need some clean bedsheets.’ Rose sighed. ‘But Harley hates me and we’re at a critical juncture of potion brewing and I need a good night’s sleep and -’

‘And you thought I’d ask him for you.’

‘Please.’

Selena rolled her eyes. ‘You’re half right,’ she said, tying her dressing gown more tightly closed. ‘We’re going to ask him.’

‘Why?’

‘Because you’re right in that he hates you - I can’t imagine why - and probably won’t help you if he thinks he has a choice. But if I go with you then maybe you’ll learn how to talk to him and then maybe you won’t need my help in future.’

Rose’s brow furrowed as she fell into step beside the be-slippered Selena. ‘I know how to talk to House Elves.’

‘You patronise them. Just because your Mum was all-important in the rights movement doesn’t make you either the House Elf messiah or expert.’

‘I don’t...’ Rose’s voice trailed off, and Selena gave her a look of suspicion as stubborn Rose Weasley seemed to concede defeat.

‘You patronise a lot of people,’ Selena continued, rather enjoying this opportunity to be both vicious and right. There was maybe something to it. ‘We don’t all have to take it, you know.’

‘I don’t think you do - I mean, I don’t condescend people!’ Rose said indignantly.

‘Doyle. You two break up and then suddenly it’s like he’s supposed to disappear when you don’t want him to be around, but come when you click your fingers. Kirke, there to make you look good, there to shut up when you’re supposed to do the talking -’

Rose scowled. ‘As opposed to your deep and meaningful relationships? Abena, who keeps you around so you can blabber on and she can look cool and superior to everything?’

‘Hawkins, there to make you look fun when I think you’d die if you tried to have half as much fun as she does -’

‘Or Oakes, there to be dumped but you can pretend to still be such good friends when he’s clearly not over you!’

‘That’s rich coming from you considering Doyle - and what about poor Saxby, where you flounced into his party only to ruin everyone’s fun?’

‘He’s a prefect! He’s supposed to set an example, not ply first years with Butterbeer!’ They had stopped now, facing each other in the corridor, voices rising angrily.

‘There were no first years! You just had to put down the boot of authority!’

‘It’s called being responsible, Rourke, not that you’d know anything about that! Your only responsibility is to do exactly what Miranda Travers tells you to do!’

‘And why, exactly, do you care about the wellbeing of Miranda? You hate her!’

Rose scrunched up her nose. ‘What does that have to do with anything? I don’t care!’

‘You seem to care an awful lot how apparently terrible Scorpius was to her!’

The accusation rang out, echoing about the corridors, and Rose stared at her, stunned, bewildered. ‘What on Earth do you mean? Of course I care if he’s horrid -’

‘Why should that affect you?’

‘Because he’s Albus’ friend!’ Rose almost stomped her foot. ‘And Al’s silly about Malfoy and refuses to see when he’s not a good friend!’

‘Or, maybe - and bear with me, I’m about to do something radical, and throw the truth around.’ Selena lifted her hands. ‘I understand that Scorpius is the evil one, the big bad wolf who managed to separate the Albus-sheep from the Weasley-fold, and now he must be hated because Albus is the only Slytherin in your entire weeping willow of a family tree and that brings dishonour to your ginger genes or something.’ She suspected that there was more to it than that, but the way Rose scowled confirmed she wasn’t completely off-track. ‘But that doesn’t mean you have to jump to believe every negative rumour as if it’ll justify it.’

Rose squinted. ‘What do you mean?’

Selena sighed. ‘Who, exactly, do you think that Scorpius cheated on Miranda with?’

There was a pause as Rose opened and closed her mouth, obviously fishing for words. Eventually, she tried, ‘Rosannah Blake?’

‘Nope, Blake was going out with Davies at the time and you bet that one would have gotten out, Abena fancies Davies so she’d do anything to break them up.’ Selena gave a smug smirk as she considered the delightful opportunism of her friends.

‘Moore?’

‘Try again.’

Rose dropped her hands. ‘All right. I don’t know.’

‘Exactly.’ Selena gave a smile that didn’t reach her eyes. ‘Do you know why? Because there was nobody.’

For someone so smart, Selena mused, Rose Weasley could sometimes be very stupid, and this stupidity prevailed as Rose’s forehead knitted. ‘I don’t understand,’ she said at last. ‘Then how come the rumours started?’

‘Because Miranda started them. And Abena and I spread them,’ said Selena, utterly shamelessly. ‘Oh, she thought she was convincing, but we put it together soon enough. Of course, it was too late then, and what were we to do? She’s our friend, it’s not like we’re going to judge her for what she did.’

Rose looked a mixture of confused and horrified. ‘For making that up about Malfoy? Why would she -’ Then, finally, her brain caught up with her - quicker, Selena had to admit, than she’d expected. Certainly quicker than Selena had been, even if she was getting all the evidence in one fell swoop.

‘It was a pre-emptive strike, wasn’t it,’ said Rose. ‘She cheated on Malfoy and then told everyone else that it had been the other way around first. Is that why he didn’t try to deny it? Because once she’d told everyone, it just became a case of his word against hers and then a popularity contest on who got believed?’

Selena shrugged. ‘You’d have to ask Scorpius,’ she said, and the dumbfounded look on Rose’s face was enough to waylay the guilt in her gut. As Miranda, when she woke up, probably wouldn’t thank her for having said this much, and at the end of the day she was still one of Selena’s best friends.

As ever, she preferred to not linger on such thoughts. It never helped. ‘Come on, Weasley.’ Selena reached for the other girl’s arm, actually careful and sympathetic for a moment, feeling a little guilty for having baited her so about her ignorance when she really had little reason to know better. ‘Let’s go get you some more bedsheets.

‘So long as you keep your vomiting cat the hell out of my bedroom.’


* *



Rose slept fitfully that night, but woke, as always, with the dawn. As always, she was down through the Great Hall before breakfast was brought up, and down in the dungeon to get to work where she’d left off the night before, going through Lockett’s notes to apply the ingredients which needed adding as the time to brew the potions went by.

But her heart wasn’t in it. Her mind kept flickering to the conversation - the argument - the night before with Selena, how she’d thrown in her face not just her ignorance about what had happened between Scorpius and Miranda, but how she treated people in general. Normally, she wouldn’t have cared if Selena - who drew strength from putting others down and whose social life was an echo chamber of smug superiority - wanted to cast aspersions on her lifestyle and conduct. It wasn’t as if this was an opinion she valued.

Still, it was the second time in as many days that she’d been criticised for her behaviour, and that would leave anyone shaky.

You had no reason to second-guess the rumours about Malfoy. It’s not as if Al protesting he’s “not that bad” counts, Malfoy could torch half the school and Al would still defend him. And if Al knew he was so innocent, why didn’t he say? Why was he so evasive, expecting you to take his word for it but refusing to give you evidence? You’re his cousin!

Not that this counts for anything, any more...

But this course of bitterness was cut off by the door bursting open, and a quick glance at the clock showed it was eight o'clock, later than usual for Scorpius to arrive on his morning rounds. But arrive he did - a mug of tea in one hand, his hair wild, wearing the same rumpled clothes he’d worn the night before.

She hardly noticed this, standing from her desk. ‘Malfoy -’

‘Weasley!’ His eyes were bright, manic, and he stormed forwards to press the teacup into her hands. ‘Morning!’

‘Look, Malfoy - I know we argued yesterday and I know we always argue, and even though I was trying to be nice and you started it - but anyway, I wanted to apologise.’ It was a lousy apology, she knew - because, really, Rose knew she’d not done anything wrong other than let herself be baited by him.

But it wasn’t really the previous morning she was apologising for.

‘Never mind that now!’ declared Scorpius, clearly not hearing a single word she’d said, and he grabbed her by the wrist. ‘Come with me!’

She was too bemused to stop him from dragging her out of the dungeon and up the stairs, hurrying along the corridor, and they were halfway up the castle before she found her breath in all the confusion. ‘Malfoy! Stop, what’s going on? What do you need me for?’

‘Al’s still doing wards and that’s super-important; Lockett’s not up yet and Selena’s doing the rounds and Methuselah’s still crazy in the face so it’s you or nothing and this is big, Weasley, it’s really big!’ He spoke in a rush, not stopping for air even as he took the steps two at a time.

‘Did you get any sleep?’

‘Of course I did, Weasley, do you take me for a hypocrite as well as a fool? I had a good two hours on top of a book in the back of a library; it was perfectly fine. Drink your tea -’

‘We’re running, Malfoy, I’m trying to not spill it -’

Then he skidded to a halt, and Rose looked confused as she realised they were at the door to Ravenclaw Tower. Scorpius gave another one of his broad grins, even more manic in his utterly exhausted eyes, and rapped sharply on the door.

‘Come on, you bastard,’ he hissed as the door-knocker transformed. ‘Give me your best. I’m ready for you.’

A man has nine children. Half of them are boys. How is this possible?’

Rose wrinkled her nose. Normally she was quite good with the Ravenclaw tower riddles. Normally she wasn’t in the middle of a crisis zone and in the company of a deranged Scorpius Malfoy. ‘An axe?’

‘Ha!’ He gave a loud bark of success. ‘See? Your stupid puzzles are even vexing the brilliant mind of Rose Weasley!’ It took her a moment to realise he was shouting at the eagle-headed doorknob, not her, and Scorpius’ grin only widened. ‘But I’m on to you and your tricks. I know how you work - it’s not about smarts, it’s about being a pedantic-minded git and -’

A man has nine children. Half of -

‘They’re all boys.’ Scorpius let go of her wrist to fold his arms across his chest, and just looked even more smug as the doorknob stilled and the door swung open. He turned his toothy grin on her. ‘I’m on to him.’

‘Malfoy...’ She was beginning to sincerely wonder if he was having some sort of fit. ‘What on Earth is going on?’

‘Come with me.’ He gestured for her to follow before he bounded up the stairs to the Ravenclaw common room, taking them two at a time. She’d been in here several times before - the last had been for the infamous party of Saxby’s that Selena had called her a killjoy over - but never when it was empty, and the sense of isolation was disconcerting enough for her to come to a halt at the top of the stairs.

But Scorpius didn’t stop; he carried straight on, storming across the comfortable sitting area and making for the library, and she reluctantly fell into step behind him. Stack after stack they passed, until finally they weren’t in front of a shelf of proper books, but files and folders and she realised they had come to Ravenclaw House’s collection of student records and achievements.

‘Let’s see...’ Scorpius waved a hand around in a flourish, but she suspected this was more for the sake of theatrics than any real hesitation, and he reached down to pluck one book in particular from the shelf. ‘2009’s records. Ravenclaw House - its sons and daughters, its greatest scions, its finest achievements. Do we have what we want from Quidditch? Of course not, they lost that year. What about Charms Club? Of course not, far too mundane and boring. The prefect records? No, no, that requires trust of authority, and our man doesn’t have that...’

What man?’ asked Rose, finally impatient.

‘Here.’ He stopped at one page and turned the book for her to see. It was a picture of a youth, not much older than her, rather lanky in build with a mop of sandy hair and rather fine cheekbones. He reminded her, she thought, a little of Scorpius himself, right down to the hint of a smug grin that tugged at the corner of his mouth, but she didn’t voice the thought. She didn’t think it would be appropriate.

Because the top of the page bore the words “2009 Duelling Club Champion”, and the bottom of the page bore the name. She didn’t recognise the face - but she knew the name, and she knew the nature of Scorpius’ grin, which was both smug and, around the edges, taut and worried.

Her breath caught. ‘Is this him?’ He just nodded, jaw tensing, and she reached out to take the book, to look at this fifteen year-old picture, and her fingers ran gently over the name written underneath it.

Prometheus Thane.

Chapter 16: Cleansing Flames
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‘Prometheus Thane,’ said Hermione Granger’s patronus, its voice still echoing through the Great Hall, ‘is dead.’

‘Amazing, he’s managed to resurrect himself. Someone go write to Voldemort’s old supporters, they’ll be thrilled.’ Scorpius snapped his fingers, and the smile he gave the patronus when it turned its incorporeal gaze upon him was tight, arrogant. ‘Your research is wrong. I’m right.’

‘There are times I forget you’re a Malfoy. This isn’t one of them.’

Scorpius gave an elaborate bow to hide the twisting in his gut. ‘Thank you.’

‘It wasn’t a compliment.’ The patronus cocked its head half an inch. ‘You’ll need to do better than just saying we’re wrong.’

‘Simple.’ Scorpius opened his hands. ‘I remember what happened that night. I saw him. That’s who he looks like.’

'Though memories were tampered with. Simple dispelling shouldn't work,' said Methuselah, nudging his glasses up his nose. 'Obliviation’s more complicated than that.'

'So there's no guarantee your memories are accurate, Malfoy,' said Hermione's patronus, and there was a colder edge to her voice he couldn't place which he really didn't like. For the first time he was glad he wasn’t talking to her face to face. There was an expression some people got, people who’d known his father, his grandfather, where they looked like they were expecting him to show off the less pleasant traits of the family line. He hated seeing it. ‘The memories could have been falsified, or -’

‘I... don’t think they were. I think Malfoy’s right.’ Everyone stared at Rose for a heartbeat. Then they looked upwards to check the enchanted ceiling of the Great Hall and see if the skies were raining blood yet. She cleared her throat. 'I've not been studying the ritual as intently as Jones, but I looked at it to see if it would give any clues as to the curse -’

‘It doesn’t,’ said Methuselah archly.

‘I know that now. My psychic powers weren’t functioning at the time.’

‘I said it wouldn’t.’

‘I’ve studied this illness more, I might have seen something you’ve missed!’

Scorpius raised his hands. ‘While this is fascinating, can we get back to the part where Weasley was telling everyone I’m right?’

Her glare turned on him, but she continued anyway. ‘My point is that an aspect of the ritual was clearly to protect those performing it, and us via proximity, against the curse, the illness. While it’s difficult to protect against spells like that, it’s even more difficult to protect just against one specific spell and allow all others to pass through unhindered. Magic is magic.’

‘You’re saying that the protection against the illness, that night, might have granted Malfoy some protection against the Obliviation?’ said Lockett, eyes beady, but she looked convinced.

‘I think it’s possible it’s the cause of the Obliviation being weak enough that a simple Finite Incantatum could breach it. It’s difficult to say; a dispelling does nothing to the rest of us, but according to Malfoy’s recollection we were all unconscious, our memories didn’t need tampering with.’ Rose opened her hands, gaze landing on her mother’s patronus, and for a moment the determined look in their eyes matched. ‘I believe his memories are accurate.’

Thank you, Weasley.’ Scorpius beamed.

‘Of course, he might be wrong in identifying the person from those memories,’ Rose finished.

He gave her a look of betrayal. ‘You can’t just be nice, can you, Weasley?’

For a moment he thought she was going to shout at him; then she drew a deep, careful breath. ‘I’m looking at the evidence. Not my feelings,’ she said, and the tone of her voice, sincere and firm, was enough to surprise and confuse him into silence.

‘I don’t think it’s impossible for Scorpius to be right,’ said Hermione’s patronus. ‘I just hope he’s not.’

Lockett lifted a hand to forestall any further indignant comments. ‘What did you find? And what makes Malfoy so sure he's our man?'

'He looks like him, to start with,' drawled Scorpius, as if this were the most obvious thing in the world. ‘And in so far as I can make a guess at his skills and personality, he matches. He was a Ravenclaw, an avid member of the Duelling Club, an outstanding student in Defence, Potions, Arithmancy, and others - he broke your record, Ms Granger, getting a perfect score in all three at OWL and at NEWT level.’

‘If he was so great,’ said Selena, ‘then how come he wasn’t a prefect or Head Boy? I’ve never heard of him.’

‘You make a habit of keeping track of past prefects and Head Boys, Rourke?’ wondered Rose.

‘Miss Rourke is correct,’ said Methuselah, who did have such a habit, just for rainy days. ‘He is neither.’

‘Older members of staff might have heard of him if they were awake,’ said Scorpius. ‘He clashed with many of them regularly. He was arrogant and insubordinate and thought he knew best.’

Albus gave him a fond grin. ‘So, nothing like you?’

‘Nah, mate. His school records are brilliant,’ said Scorpius, with a self-effacing smile. ‘Even his disciplinary record, which is as long as a Weasley’s.’ He frowned, looking at his surroundings. ‘Present company excepted.’

The patronus looked, despite itself, amused. ‘Point made. I have not had access to all of this information, but everything Scorpius had found from the school record matches.’

‘So why’s he supposed to be dead?’ said Scorpius.

‘That is what reports from the Peruvian Ministry have suggested.’ There was a beat as the patronus surveyed them all. ‘The Thane family are very old and were, until eighty years ago, very rich. You won’t have heard of them for two reasons: their fall from grace, and their fondness for international dealings which took them away from British eyes and only intensified when they were disgraced.’

‘Disgraced eighty years ago.' Albus frowned. 'Grindelwald?'

‘Percival Thane, Prometheus’ grandfather, was one of his most avid British supporters, trying to bring his attitudes and sensibilities from the continent. He also gave Grindelwald’s movement a good deal of the family fortune, and so when Grindelwald fell, the Thane wealth and reputation went with him.’

‘So he’s from a line of Dark Magic supporters. That bodes well,’ said Rose, and Scorpius felt another twist in his gut as he looked at the tense expressions of her, Lockett, Selena, and even Albus.

‘The Thanes moved out of Britain; they still had a lot of contacts and influence domestically and abroad, which made people like Percival Thane useful international ambassadors to countries which were still more sympathetic to Dark Magic. The Thanes could keep foreign relations friendly, and they were out of trouble.’

‘They let them keep working for the Ministry?’ said Albus.

Hermione’s patronus gave a rough approximation of a shrug. ‘They hadn’t been charged with any crime. The Thanes stayed abroad, though being a traditionalist, Percival Thane sent his son to attend Hogwarts. This was in the post-war years; Voldemort was gathering strength but this was before the huge surge of popularity in the 1970s. Jericho Thane didn’t seem to show any interest in the movement, and he didn’t return to Britain after he left Hogwarts.’

‘Did he also go into diplomacy?’ asked Rose.

‘Jericho Thane set up an enchantment firm in America, producing high-end magical items. They were rather successful, and even acquired a government contract to produce equipment for the US Department of Magic. It all went wrong in the early 2000s, though, when it was found out they’d been selling equipment to countries against whom the Department and allies, including the British Ministry, were upholding magical embargos.’

Albus quirked an eyebrow. ‘Dark magic-using countries?’

‘Most often, but even some with poor records on Muggle-born and Beasts and Being treatments, like Mongolia. The company was ruined and the Thane fortunes reversed, again. This happened immediately before Prometheus Thane attended Hogwarts.’ Hermione’s patronus looked at Scorpius. ‘Scorpius has covered his school years. Inauspicious and yet successful. He never officially returned to Britain after leaving school, either, but he didn't become an entrepreneur like his father. Prometheus Thane looked like he would become a simple Ministerial aide, and was assigned to the Ambassador to Macedonia, but within two years had abandoned his job and went missing. He would show up a few months later involved with the extremist groups promoting centaur rights in the region.’

Pro-centaur rights?’ Rose looked bewildered.

‘He had been involved in the Ministry’s efforts to make the Macedonians open up a dialogue with the centaurs; the Ambassador thought he was young and idealistic and had been swayed to their side, though even the wizards on the centaurs’ side used extreme and even violent methods to pursue their goals. Within six months the Macedonians had hunted them down, but Thane wasn’t amongst them.

‘A year later he was in Belize, involved in the magical conflict there with Guatemala. This was a war which broke out over trade disputes; there was little which connected it to the cause in Macedonia. When that conflict ended he was briefly arrested by authorities in Egypt for affiliation with a pro-Dark Magic group in Cairo.’

‘Of course he was,’ mused Albus.

‘Except,’ said Hermione’s patronus, ‘that he made a deal, gave them information, and was let go. The assessment of the Egyptians was that he had no idealistic links with the movement, and was nothing more than a wand-for-hire.

‘The rest of his record reads much like that. Where groups or governments would pay for someone with skills, Thane could be hired. He was recorded as being involved in fights, in the development of magical items and even, yes, some custom curse-work. But nothing of this sort of scale. The last time he appeared was working with insurgents in Paraguay three years ago, and he was reported killed in an explosion from an attempt to disrupt a government protection ritual which went awry.’

‘So he fought, a lot, against governments and for Dark Magic causes,’ Albus said.

‘You’re hearing selectively,’ said Rose, much to Scorpius’ surprise. ‘He worked with pro-Centaur rights groups as well - and didn’t the Paraguayan magical government collapse three years ago and it was the insurgency that took over?’

‘The new government is much more popular, domestically and abroad. I think quite a few witches and wizards in Britain would have been called insurgents twenty-five years ago,’ agreed Hermione’s patronus.

‘So instead of a follower of bad causes, he’s a mercenary without a cause. I’m not sure if that’s better,’ said Albus.

‘No, which is why I hope that Scorpius is wrong and that he isn’t who we’re dealing with. He’s not the most dangerous person I can imagine out there, but he is dangerous - he has a lot of contacts and has demonstrated himself to be astonishingly resourceful in extreme circumstances; he’s had the sort of experiences most witches and wizards his age couldn’t dream of. And worse, there’s no telling of his motivations - I see no obvious reason why he would engage in plaguing Hogwarts of his own accord, and if he is working for someone, his allegiances lie, as Albus says, with money. There’s no telling what they want.’

‘Does it... matter?’ Selena blinked as everyone turned to her. ‘I mean, of course it matters to find out who did this, but does it matter to us? He set up the ritual, the school’s been cursed - he’s going to be in Tahiti by now drinking something out of a coconut with a little umbrella in it.’

‘He might still be out there,’ said Albus, tensing. ‘Something sent those Redcaps after us.’

‘Not necessarily.’ Methuselah nudged his glasses up his nose. ‘Ritual uses Dark Magic components. Ritual remains, continuing to spread infection. Ritual has had corrupting influence upon Forbidden Forest. Centaurs were agitated on Day Zero. Likelihood remains that agitation of local magical life is due to continual presence of magic of ritual.’

‘So not only is the ritual continuing to keep sick people sick, it’s continuing to mess up the area? Great.’ Albus sagged.

Hermione’s patronus shifted to look at Lockett. ‘Before Scorpius prompted me for my findings, you said you had good news, Professor.’

Lockett blinked, as if she’d forgotten any such thing - but then she brightened, and Scorpius raised his head. He hadn’t heard anything, not from her and not from Rose when he’d brought down breakfast as usual. Rose, too, looked curious; she clearly hadn’t been included in Lockett’s findings.

‘I do. I’ve still not been able to identify what “Phlegethon” is in a magical sense; it doesn’t match anything in terms of reagents, curses, cures, rituals, or so forth. But I’m pleased to say that the results from the latest batch of remedies have come in, and though the effect on the symptoms of the infected has been minimal there has been an effect.’ She straightened, the first genuine smile in weeks toying about her lips. ‘I am confident in expressing that this curse cannot be transmitted by anything other than humans.’

The patronus looked pleased, but Scorpius merely looked bewildered. ‘How, exactly, does that help us?’

‘We can use owls,’ said Rose, beginning to beam. ‘We can get supplies shipped in quicker, we can initiate communication as fast as an owl can fly to Hogsmeade -’

‘And we can send messages in to you. Thank you, Professor. I’ll need to review your findings so I can present them properly to the Minister, as only he has the power to authorise a change in the quarantine protocol like that, but that should be cleared up with a matter of days, if you’re right.’

Grins spread across the faces of all of them, even Lockett, and Scorpius fought to force his own. It wouldn’t do to look dour, or at least unenthused, when stood in the middle of them like this. They’d ask questions. And for such a curious soul, Scorpius hated questions. He felt perfectly comfortable with this hypocrisy.

They drifted off after that, Lockett set to give Hermione’s patronus an extensive verbal briefing on their findings, as they still couldn’t ship the physical documents out of the castle without the Minister’s say-so. Albus went back to check on the warding, as he’d been doing more regularly since the Redcap incursion, and so, eager to avoid the eyes of the others, Scorpius said something about heading for the Library, which would prove to be an utter lie as his feet carried him out of the Great Hall, onto the grounds, and in the direction of the lake.

Day Fourteen. September was dying all around them, and with it, summer; the trees were turning from the joy of green to the glory of gold, and wistfully he could remember autumn spent kicking up piles of leaves and magically catapulting conkers across the courtyard at Hector Flynn -

No, no, he’d not really cared about Hector Flynn when he’d been younger, had he? A Quidditch rivalry alone didn’t make him a target for torment. Who had it been? Scorpius frowned to himself as he reached the edges of the lake, the sun bright in the clear, late morning sky, its rays reflecting off the water and almost bright enough to blind. It was hard, he considered, having enemies. So many people to keep track of.

‘Al didn’t mean it like that.’

Scorpius blinked as Rose’s voice cut through his reverie and he turned to see her crossing the lawn towards him, Artemis a smoky bundle in her arms, for once appeased. Seeing the outside, getting fussed over, and not having to walk seemed to be the cat’s ideal state of being.

His waved a hand vaguely. ‘Who did I throw conkers at in third year?’

Rose looked a bit taken aback by the question. ‘Me?’

‘Nah, I only kicked leaves at you. And only once, Al told me off so I stopped. There was somebody.’

For some reason she was taking his question halfway seriously, her eyes going to the stretch of water as she stopped next to him. Artemis squirmed in her arms and looked up at him with bright, inviting green eyes. Despite himself, Scorpius reached down to scratch behind her ear - and immediately she latched onto his index finger with sharp teeth.

‘You bastard,’ he hissed, yanking his hand back.

Artemis just went back to curling up against Rose, who ignored the entire interchange as if he hadn’t sworn at her cat and her cat hadn’t decided he was her favourite snack. Eventually she nodded. ‘Saxby. It was Saxby you used to torment.’

‘Oh yeah, he reported me to a prefect for setting off a stink-bomb on the Express and Slytherin started the year with negative points.’ Despite himself, Scorpius grinned. ‘Saxby’s all right. He unclenched.’

‘I think his options were to unclench or have a nervous breakdown.’

‘Poor guy. I mean, it’s got to suck being a smart guy in a House with Methuselah Jones, who casts an academic shadow so long Boggarts probably grow in it, but that’s Jones. He’s probably not even human, it doesn’t really count to be beaten by Jones, he’s just unreal. But he didn’t even have a shot at second place with you around...’

He glanced sideways to see her shift Artemis into a one-handed hold as she brushed that springy, disobedient lock of hair behind her ear, the movement surprisingly bashful. ‘Yes, well,’ Rose said awkwardly. ‘I wasn’t the only one to beat Saxby in tests. Matty always did very well.’

Matty,’ Scorpius echoed with a frown. ‘Why do you call him that, Doyle hates that?’

She tilted her nose up. ‘You’re not the only one, Malfoy, who can do things just to get a rise out of others.’

He fought a grin. ‘Why’d you two break up, anyway? You seemed, you know, pretty good, pretty similar...’

‘Has it occurred to you that having a boyfriend who’s similar might be really, really annoying?’ Rose scratched Artemis’ belly. ‘And nice try, Malfoy, to get me to tell you it’s none of your business and storm off, but you’re not dodging the issue.’

‘What issue?’

‘You didn’t answer me when I got here. Albus really didn’t mean it.’

Scorpius assumed an expression of innocence. ‘Didn’t mean what?’

‘Don’t be like that. He didn’t mean what he implied talking to Mum. About people with parents involved in Dark Magic, like he wasn’t surprised Thane turned out to be a nasty piece of work after his grandfather’s connections. I saw the look on your face.’

‘And here was me thinking I’d do well at poker.’

She swatted him on the arm and he looked at her, surprised. ‘I’m trying to help, you idiot,’ said Rose, but she spoke wryly, not angrily. ‘There’s no way he thinks that sort of thing about you - that because of your father and grandfather, you’re automatically going to go bad. If he did, don’t you think he’d have run a mile that first time on the Hogwarts Express instead of sitting with you?’

Scorpius couldn’t fight the awkward, self-conscious smile that rose to his lips at the memory. He’d been eleven years old and alone on the Hogwarts Express and avoided by any student with parents who’d known to tell their children, “don’t get close to the Malfoys” until, of all people, Harry Potter’s son had introduced himself. Of course, Scorpius had only tolerated him then because he’d known it would piss his father off...

But then his expression turned stiff. ‘I don’t want to be the exception.’

‘You’re not. Al’s a smart guy. He’s just tired, and unsurprisingly he’s keen to paint Thane as a great big evil. It’s always easier, Mum says, for us to think people who’re against us are complete monsters. That way we don’t have to think about the ways we’re like them.’ Rose looked him up and down. ‘Except that’s all you can think about with Thane, isn’t it?’

Scorpius managed to force a scoff. ‘Yes, I think that because we both have complete arseholes for ancestors I’m predestined to become some sort of rogue mercenary wandering the globe. Actually, that sounds pretty cool; sign me up for that, pronto.’ He turned to her, defensive now her words had hit uncomfortably close to home. ‘What do you want, Weasley?’

She met his gaze, unflinching. ‘To try to make you feel better, because you’re obviously upset.’

He gaped. ‘Why?’

‘Because I realised something.’ Now Rose did look a bit more awkward, and drew a deep breath. ‘We’re stuck in this together.’

‘Well noticed -’

‘Stop it, stop being a prat, Malfoy, and listen to me.’ Again, she spoke more wryly than harshly, and relaxed as she rolled her eyes. ‘This is the point. We’re in trouble, we’re in hard times, and they’re not made any easier by you and me going at each other like we’re competing for... for...’

His lips twisted as she flailed for a word. ‘House Cup?’

‘You never cared about the House Cup. I never cared much about the Quidditch Cup. We never did actually compete. But, whatever.’ Rose waved a dismissive hand. ‘It doesn’t help. We’re in this together. We can’t just be at each others’ throats, making enemies of one another because of what we think or... assume the other did.’ She looked briefly bashful, then shoved the hesitation away and pressed on. ‘We have to stick by each other. So consider this a peace offering.’

‘Peace offerings usually involve, you know, offerings. What’ve you got?’

‘I’ve got this cat.’ Rose looked down at Artemis, who purred. ‘My offering is that I won’t give her to you so she can maul your face off?’

Scorpius narrowed his eyes. ‘I will accept your gracious offering. What’s brought this on? The good news?’

‘In case you didn’t notice, Malfoy, I tried to have this conversation three days ago. You just didn’t listen,’ said Rose, tart at last.

‘Oh, no.’ He shook his head, turning to look back across the shining expanse of the lake. ‘That doesn’t sound like me. I always listen to you, Weaselby.’

She didn’t answer, but also turned to the lake, watching the glorious light of dying summer as the sun wrung out the few bright beams it had left for the year. Then she dumped Artemis into his arms and laughed as he yelped when the cat clawed up his shoulder, onto his head, and used it as a springboard to bound into the tree above them.


* *


Two days later Scorpius was stood in his room, changing out of his Quidditch gear after joining Albus on a mercifully-quiet patrol. Since the Redcap attack they’d taken to doing them twice a day, which meant for more fun in getting out flying, but more shredded nerves as every bit of movement they saw around the perimeter was thought to be an attack until they looked twice and realised it was just a deer or squirrel.

So he took longer than he might have done to unwind after each patrol. Took an extra-long shower, even considered trying to get tea sent up if he thought the House Elves wouldn’t send him instead something horrible. As such he was still in his dressing-gown, emerald-green and luxurious enough to make Selena jealous, when there was a hammering at the door and Albus' familiar voice.

'Scorp! Hey, Scorp, open up!'

Albus was still in his Quidditch gear, but wore a beaming smile despite his fatigue when Scorpius let him in, and he stood in the middle of the room. ‘Owls are in. Lockett must have given the go-ahead this morning when we were checking out the north side. They’ve been sent from Hogsmeade; only took them a few hours.’

Something twisted in Scorpius’ gut. ‘...from the Ministry?’

‘From home.’ Albus was still grinning, and now Scorpius saw he brandished a bundle of papers. He pulled one free and the sick feeling deepened in Scorpius’ stomach before he saw, when Albus shoved it into his hands, that it was just a blank piece of parchment. ‘Look!’

‘I’m looking,’ said Scorpius slowly, ‘and yet, I see nothing.’

Then, the ink ebbing up from the paper itself, words spread onto the surface in a tight, cursive script. Mister Padfoot would like to say the impression is mutual.

Scorpius looked at Albus, confused. ‘What is this?’

‘James sent it.’ Albus beamed.

‘He sent magical insulting paper.’ Scorpius quirked an eyebrow. ‘Our salvation is at hand.’

Mister Wormtail would like to point out that you seem to need all the help you can get. Mister Moony adds that even magical insulting paper would likely raise the level of discussion in this crisis.

‘Cute,’ drawled Scorpius to the parchment. ‘What do you think of me burning you?’

Mister Prongs most courteously invites you to shove it.

‘Give it here,’ said Albus at last, and pulled out his wand. ‘This was my Dad’s. My grandfather - Prongs - he made this.’

‘Your grandfather was James Potter,’ Scorpius pointed out. ‘Unless something heinous happened with Lily Potter that I’d really rather not know about.’

‘James Potter is Prongs. Here.’ Albus tapped his wand on the parchment and drew a deep breath. ‘I solemnly swear I am up to no good.’

Scorpius swore as the paper changed. Not because magical paper was anything unusual in his way of life, but as the words scrolled out and then the ink swirled and shifted to present the perfect, to-scale depiction of Hogwarts and the grounds, going on and on as Albus unfolded it further than it had looked like it was capable of folding, it seemed the only appropriate response. ‘The hell is this?’

‘The Marauder’s Map.’ Albus sounded infinitely proud. ‘My grandfather and his friends made it. My uncles Fred and George stole it from the old caretaker’s office, then gave it to my Dad. James nicked it from his desk drawer in his third year - how do you think he managed to give the prefects the run-around like he did? He had this map! It shows everything and everywhere on the school grounds, and better - it shows where everyone is.’

Scorpius peered down at the paper gleefully. ‘This is going to make everything easier. From finding each other to the patrols to...’ He paused and frowned. ‘Well, that’s about it for now, but it’s something!’

‘Isn’t it? I caught James with it once in our fourth year, and I was a bit hurt he didn’t give it to me after he left school,’ said Albus with a small frown. Scorpius looked at him sharply - that sort of confession from Albus was like anyone else admitting they’d been heartbroken by such an oversight. ‘He said he wanted me to earn it, which probably meant he wanted me to jump through hoops. But this was the first letter in. He said he thought we’d need it.’

‘More than he bloody will playing Quidditch, anyway!’ Scorpius agreed. ‘Is that the only letter through?’

‘No, there’s...’ Albus’ voice trailed off, and his shoulders sagged. ‘There were plenty. Mum and Dad wrote to me, Uncle Ron and Aunt Hermione wrote to Rose, there were letters for Selena and Jones...’ He cringed.

Scorpius sighed, and wasn’t sure if the twist in his gut was loosening from relief, or if it was just numbing from disappointment. ‘And nothing for me. Of course not.’

‘What? Of course there is!' Albus looked horrified at the idea, and pulled a sealed letter from his pile of papers, handing it over. ‘There’s just... the one... I mean, letters from abroad would take longer, they could only have written them this morning, too...’

‘From the three pages you’re holding from your mum and dad I think it’s clear they’ve had that bad boy written in advance and just waiting for when it could be sent,’ said Scorpius, turning over the letter, the address in a familiar hand, and cracking open the seal.

Silence fell upon them as Scorpius unfolded the single page of letter inside and read, and Albus shifted his feet awkwardly. The clock on the wall ticked with, Scorpius thought, unnecessary volume, and he could hear the creak of the leather of Albus’ uniform with every uncomfortable fidget he gave.

Then Scorpius gave a flat snort and looked up. ‘Well, that was about as heartwarming and affectionate as I should have expected.’

Albus sagged. ‘Oh, Scorp, I really do think he just doesn’t know how to -’

‘“Scorpius,’ Scorpius began to read. He straightened up, whole body language becoming the kind of arrogant self-control that might be expected of a scion of the House of Malfoy, and his voice became tighter, more aristocratic. ‘“I expect this letter finds you in agreeable health” - expect, note, not hope, and agreeable, not, you know, good. “It was to my satisfaction to learn that you have not been afflicted,” blah blah blah, indications that everyone else is lesser so it doesn’t matter that they’re infected, oh, and now, my favourite bit: “The name of Malfoy is back on household lips with your involvement in this crisis. It would be most disappointing if you brought the family into ill-repute by any mistakes your inattentive nature and lack of dedication could cause.”’

He got no further. When he’d started reading, the anger that had settled in his heart had been cold - that same cold, frozen disappointment and frustration that had marred his relationship with his father for most of his life. But speaking the words out loud, saying them even to Albus, who knew more than most and had likely guessed the rest, was too much, too raw, and Scorpius ripped the letter in half with a noise of anger, scrunching them up.

Into ill-repute!’ he echoed with a bark of bitter laughter. ‘As if you becoming a Death Eater wasn’t a bloody stain on the family honour!’ One balled-up half of the letter was hurled into the fireplace. ‘As if Lucius going off and murdering people for Voldemort didn’t give us a bit of a dodgy reputation!’ The second half followed it in short order, and Scorpius clenched his fists, driving his fingernails into the palms of his hands even when it hurt. 'But you have to hope that I don’t screw this up? One second you make it sound like everyone else can die so long as the Malfoy survives, and the next you make it sound like you’re expecting me to make a national joke of myself!’

Albus was by his side by then, reaching awkwardly to put a hand to his shoulder, but Scorpius shrugged it off angrily, going to storm over to the fireplace and glower at the flames that flickered as they consumed his father’s hateful words.

‘I’m sorry, mate,’ said Albus instead, sounding cowed. ‘Guess I should have saved the good news of the map ‘til last, huh?’

Scorpius scrubbed his face with his hand, tensing his shoulders. ‘No, I - thanks. Thanks for giving me something to laugh at. For bringing me the letter. For listening to me rant.’ Then he turned, and when he did he wore the lopsided smile that was his favourite and most comfortable shield. ‘So my Dad’s an arse. That’s hardly going to make the front page of the Prophet, now, is it?’

‘No, but it’s not cool that he’s still being like this even as we are now. It’s not a time for him to be petty, or to be superior. You’re family -’

‘Not everyone’s family’s like yours, Al.’ Scorpius managed to keep his words light and gave a casual shrug. Albus looked about as unconvinced as was possible, but he didn’t push it, and Scorpius crossed over to pat him on the shoulder. ‘Come on. Let’s go take a look at that map...’



Chapter 17: No Smoke Without Fire
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The worst thing about the crisis was that they got used to it. Or, that was what Scorpius said some time around Week Four, and then amended his comment with, ‘and the loneliness. And the chance of being attacked by a crazy mercenary. And the fear of all our friends and teachers dying. And the angry monsters of the Forbidden Forest roaming around. So, really, it’s not the worst thing at all.’

But it was a thing, and it was unpleasant how the abnormal and tense could become such an intrinsic part of their lives. They all had their jobs, except for Scorpius, whose job was more to run around after everyone else and make sure they had what they needed - but he saw Lockett’s approving eye when he buoyed up Albus, or stopped to listen to Methuselah, or made Selena smile, or teased Rose.

That, of course, didn’t stop. Despite their agreement, he would still come down in the mornings with the pot of tea and plate of breakfast for Hogwarts’ earliest riser, wandering into the dungeons and whistling to himself.

‘I’ve got the answer,’ he told her one day by way of greeting, sliding tea and a bacon roll down the desk towards her. ‘I use my guitar.’

Rose frowned at the wall for a moment, then looked at him. ‘There is not a single problem we’re facing that could help with.’

‘Getting into the Headmaster’s study so we can properly adjust the wards.’ Scorpius stepped back, miming holding his guitar. ‘I read about wizards who imbued magic into sound, so certain notes did certain things. It’s how Toil & Trouble get the light-show at their performances - a magic guitar.’

‘Still not explaining anything.’

‘We get a blasting curse, right? And imbue several of my guitar strings with it. So when I play a chord which has all of them at once, it’ll blast the door to Stubbs’ office right off its hinges.’ He swept his hand across the imaginary guitar, as if an open C could solve all of life’s problems.

Rose looked at him solemnly. ‘That’s a really good idea.’

Scorpius blinked. ‘It is?’

‘Of course not.’ She turned back to her paper. ‘It’s a stupid idea and I think just hearing it has made me stupider.'

'Aw, don't put yourself down like that, Weasley. “Stupider” isn’t a word.'

'Did you want something this morning, Malfoy?' But there was the ghost of a smile playing about her lips, and she brushed that errant lock of hair behind her ear, springy and determined to escape as it was.

‘I’m bored,’ he said, going to perch next to her on the desk. ‘And you’ve made absolutely no progress with the potions.’

She looked affronted at last. ‘That’s not true; Professor Lockett’s going to have some test results in once Rourke and the House Elves finish their rounds and it might show -’

‘That this ingredient is doing something but that one isn’t, and so we’re incrementally closer to finding one thing to go in an eventual cure. But not the whole lot. And Jones is still rabbiting on about this ritual, so the cure might be for nothing -’

‘One step at a time.’ Rose stood, her expression softening. ‘But we’re making progress and it will get done.’

‘It’s been weeks,’ Scorpius sighed. ‘And now we get the Prophet, I see how the outside world’s going nuts. The Minister getting flak for not miraculously solving this, the international communities talking about lending aid but then there are articles saying how France and Spain might try to use this to get Britain to side with them on the trade disputes...’

She lifted a hand. ‘We don’t need to worry about the outside world, Malfoy. We just need to worry about right here -’

‘I am worrying about right here; we still have no idea what Thane, or whoever he’s working for, wants, and I read about the world panicking and people trying to capitalise on the situation and I can’t help but wonder: is this the plan?’ Scorpius’s eyes turned to the ceiling, and his shoulders tensed. ‘Cause uproar and terror and then someone sweeps in to take advantage of it, or someone sweeps in to conveniently save the day, or...’

‘Malfoy.’

‘...or if it’s something more simple, if it’s just someone wanting to see Hogwarts burn, or maybe we’re all lab-rats for some experiment...’

‘Malfoy!’

He didn’t stop at her raising her voice, but he did stop at her hand coming to his shoulder, her touch jerking him back to reality, and Scorpius looked down, blinking muggily, to find Rose Weasley stood rather closer than he’d realised she’d got in her effort to break through to him. She, too, looked surprised, her eyes flickering across his face, before she drew a deep breath. ‘We’re going to get through this.’

He hesitated, but the squirming anxiety in his stomach hadn’t abated. ‘We don’t know that.’

‘We don’t know anything, not for sure,’ said Rose, her hand still on his shoulder. ‘But we have every chance, and a chance is enough if we make it enough. We just can’t give up. We have to knuckle down and fight on, not just for ourselves, but for everyone.'

'So, no pressure?' But he relaxed a shade, bowing his head. 'You're right. People are counting on us. I guess I'm just not used to that.'

'You're better at being relied on than you think you are.’

Then he looked up, all-too aware of her dark eyes on his, of her hand on his shoulder. All-too aware of the calm, utterly convinced tone of voice she used when she was being righteous about something he didn’t quite get - but now she was being righteous about him. All-too aware of the closeness between them, of that springy lock of red hair that had defiantly escaped again to dangle across her face.

On an impulse he reached out for it, and as his fingertips brushed her cheek it was like an electric charge that ran through him and brought everything into sharp, clear focus.

And an awful lot of things began to make an awful lot of sense.

Her lips parted as he brushed the lock of hair behind her ear, and finally hesitation crept into her gaze. ‘Malfoy...’

‘You’re better at making me feel better than you think you are, you know that?’ he mused, but didn’t take his eyes off hers, or pull his hand away.

‘Well, you - you need it.’ She stumbled over her words, more awkward than he’d ever heard her, but she didn’t pull away - nor did she protest when his fingers ran down her cheek to cup her chin, tilting her head up to his, and -

Footsteps outside the door.

Well, of course there are, Scorpius mused to himself bitterly as Rose’s eyes widened and she sprang back, out of arm’s reach, just in time for the door to the classroom to swing open and for Lockett to step in for her morning checkup. The teacher took one look at the two of them then narrowed her eyes suspiciously.

‘What did he do?’ she asked Rose.

Scorpius’ jaw, despite himself, dropped indignantly. ‘What makes you think I did anything?’

'Because Weasley looks flustered and you look smug, so I'd say it's business as usual,' said Lockett, but her usual disinterest had taken over, and she crossed the dungeon to where her papers were, extracting a new stack from under her arm. ‘The test results are in from Rourke.’

Rose blinked, but the spark overtook the guilt in her eyes quickly enough, and she went to join Lockett with, in Scorpius’ opinion, quite unnecessary enthusiasm. ‘Is there anything good?’

‘I’m still checking,’ said Lockett, laying down the papers, and Scorpius sighed as the two of them began to pour over the documents, the test results, the plans, the lists of what they’d done to the lab rats that were also the people they needed to save and he was left standing there, forgotten.

Or, not entirely. Because he could still see the hint of red on Rose’s cheeks that even potions results couldn’t completely remove.

Because my life’s not too complicated, he mused, but nevertheless a twist of a smile tugged at his lips. He shoved his hands in his pockets and headed for the door, whistling to himself. Round two could wait.

‘What’s this?’

He was at the door when Lockett finally spoke, and the tone in her voice - sharp, attentive, rather than with the sleepy, pained disinterest that had been her shield against all of the catastrophes so far - made him stop with his hand on the doorknob.

‘It’s just the results from the Hufflepuff second-years -’

‘But they’re all showing reduced levels of dark magic taint over the last few days.’

‘Nothing outside of the normal fluctuations -’

‘It is when they’ve been on the batch containing Ashwinder skin, which specifically combats certain kinds of taint.’

‘Does this mean that -’

‘It really does...’

Scorpius turned as the two devolved into half-spoken sentences and excited rustling through papers and books. ‘Does this mean anything in english?’

Rose looked up, eyes flashing, and now the hint of colour in her cheeks had gone. ‘This was one of our more hopeful batches,’ she explained as Lockett cracked open one of their thickest books and was flicking through the pages. ‘But it was reliant upon the illness affecting the cursed through the humours, which wasn’t a guarantee and there are only so many ways to find it out...’

‘...and Ashwinder skin is one of the more prevalent ingredients for combatting dark magic taint of the humours, so its success would indicate that this is it,’ said Lockett, not looking up.

Scorpius blinked. ‘Really? So why don’t we just brew up a whole batch of Ashwinder skin juice?’

‘Because it’s not very powerful and is best used to help purge minor afflictions while supplemented by something more powerful; a truly major antidote could be helped by the presence of Ashwinder skin to isolate and identify the dark magic taint,’ said Lockett, scowling at the paper. ‘But this curse is something else; we need something more powerful than Ashwinder skin.’

‘Boa-constrictor skin?’ Scorpius offered.

They ignored him. ‘What about Acromantula skin?’ said Rose. ‘Its protective qualities makes the slivers quite valuable when it comes to dispelling elixirs and antidotes.’

Lockett nodded. ‘That would work,’ she said. ‘And with it - I don’t know if I can make a cure. But if these initial results are anything to go by, we could make a serious dent on the symptoms and that? Not only could it slow possible deterioration, but... it could put us on the path to an antidote.’


* *



‘Are you sure, Professor?’ If an otter could look sceptical, the patronus that was Hermione Granger’s magical avatar was doing its damndest to try. ‘There are all sorts of fluctuations which are simply natural for these kinds of curses.’

‘With respect, Ms Granger, we don’t know what kind of curse this is for sure,’ said Lockett.

Scorpius was used to his Potions Professor tackling everything with the long-suffering air of an academic who thought teaching would be better without children, and thought a crisis striking a whole school was definitely not Quidditch. But now, doing ten rounds with the witch many claimed to be the smartest woman in Britain, she was stood straight, her eyes bright, shoulders square, ardent and defiant.

For the first time, invigorated.

‘Your name “Phlegethon” hasn’t been coming up with any answers amongst the Ministry think-tanks,’ said Hermione, a little snippish. ‘It could be anything or nothing -’

‘I’m not talking about that,’ said Lockett. ‘I’m talking about Acromantula skin. And, again with respect, you might disagree with what these results mean but I’m the one who’s been studying them day after day -’

‘And you have been forwarding all of your results to us; in even greater detail since the owl messages began again,’ said Hermione. ‘We know everything you know, Professor, and from a look at the latest reports, I’m sorry, but the think-tanks consider this to be within normal parameters of change -’

Scorpius’ brow furrowed. ‘Why can’t we just try?’ he wondered, not wanting to wade in, but Lockett’s shoulders had tensed and, for the first time in his memory she looked truly, properly angry.

Hermione’s patronus sagged. ‘Because Acromantula skin is incredibly difficult to get hold of and dedicating the resources to finding it isn’t something to be done lightly.’

Lockett’s lip twisted. ‘It’s difficult because of the intensive regulations over the last twenty years which have shut down most reagent hunters and farmers,’ she said, voice low and irritable. ‘Regulations that you championed, Granger! So if you want to get your hands on it? Go to the black market! I’ll even tell you who to ask.’

Hermione’s patronus glared at her. ‘Yes, you would know, wouldn’t you, Professor? Shall I just ask the MLE for your file, will the contacts be in there?’

‘No.’ Lockett looked, of all things, smug. ‘Because I wasn’t charged with anything, so the MLE had to destroy their records. A new law which you also spearheaded, so I guess I should be thanking you for getting me out of the situation you got me into.’

Rose made a small noise of protest. ‘Is this really something we need to get into?’ she asked, voice tight.

Hermione’s patronus looked at her daughter, and its little shoulders sagged. She turned back to Lockett. ‘I cannot dedicate huge swathes of Ministerial resources to pursuing something this dangerous and difficult without being sure.’

I’m sure.’

‘The think-tanks disagree.’

‘Your think-tanks are made up of Ministry yes-men who told you for years that your regulations wouldn't stifle Potions research and development,’ thundered Lockett. ‘The use of highly dangerous reagents gathered by hunters and farmers of volatile magical creatures is what allowed us to make the significant breakthroughs in curing dark magic ailments which you pointed out I made my name on! As you said, I am an expert on this subject and I say your advisors are wrong!’

The patronus tensed. ‘I happen to agree with them.’

‘Oh, really, does your ‘O’ at NEWT-level Potions tell you this?’ Lockett sneered. ‘I hate to burst your bubble, Granger, but being incredibly smart doesn’t count for anything when you’ve been involved in politics and legislation for the past twenty-five years! I know it would do you a disservice to call you a jack of all trades, master of none, but this is not your specialisation and it is mine!’ She threw her hands into the air. ‘I might not be able to give you the right answer when it comes to what’s best for the children or what’s best for securing Hogwarts or even what’s best for deconstructing a magical ritual, but on this issue I am right, and you know that I’m right, and to hell with the fact that it treads on one of your precious new enlightenment laws!’

They all stood in silence, Rose’s eyes wide as she stared at the floor, Albus and Selena also averting their gaze. Methuselah was watching with dispassionate interest, and Scorpius couldn’t stop looking between Lockett and Hermione as if they were in a tennis game, watching as they spoke, watching their reactions to the other’s angry words.

Finally, eventually, the patronus took a deep breath. ‘You know it will be difficult,’ it said in Hermione Granger’s low, careful voice. ‘I have to be sure before I send agents to Eastern Europe, or maybe even Australia, to gather the reagents.’

‘Eastern Europe,’ said Lockett coolly. ‘The subspecies on the Australasian sub-continent have too many varieties for me to be happy with them.’

‘So, diplomatic negotiations with countries not very happy with us right now,’ Hermione said.

‘Not happy because of all of these regulations affecting their trade,’ agreed Lockett. ‘But, yes. And I’m sure. I know how difficult it is, friends of mine went to prison because of how difficult it is - still waiting on that Geber Prize for the Elixir of Clarity, by the way. But I wouldn’t ask for this lightly.’

Albus frowned. ‘Isn’t there an easier way to resolve this?’ he wondered. ‘I mean, isn’t one of the biggest Acromantula nests in Europe just a few miles into the Forbidden Forest?’

It was astonishing to see Lockett and Hermione suddenly become united after such a fierce argument. ‘Absolutely not!’ the Professor exploded, just as Hermione barked, ‘No!’ equally vociferously.

‘Acromantula are exceedingly dangerous,’ said Lockett, eyes wide. ‘Going after them is the sort of matter which requires expertise, training, and experience; it is not the sort of task for an underage witch or wizard to undertake, or even for a researcher such as myself to attempt!’

Albus shrugged. ‘Dad did it.’

‘By being incredibly lucky,’ Hermione said tensely. ‘If I could get your father and your uncle to talk to you, they would say exactly the same thing as me: that it’s far, far too dangerous.’

Rose stepped up. ‘But they did manage it,’ she argued. ‘And even if it was dangerous, they did it because it was necessary - they did it for you, didn’t they?’

'Even if we consider that it wasn't a ridiculously dangerous thing for a pair of twelve year-olds to do,' said Hermione, ‘the Forbidden Forest has, by all your reports, been considerably more dangerous in the past few weeks than ever before. Marauding Redcaps? Stampeding centaurs? Dementors? You can’t go in there.’

‘I would rather wait until the Ministry can find the reagents,’ Lockett agreed. ‘The infected are stable; I know they’ve deteriorated to the point where none of them are conscious for any particular length of time, but the House Elves are keeping them cared for, and the waiting time is still a more acceptable risk than us dying in the Forest.’

‘We wouldn’t all die,’ offered Selena, ‘because you couldn’t pay me to go out there.’

‘Thank you, as always, for your courageous and sensible contribution, Rourke,’ sighed Lockett. ‘But for once you have the right of it. If the Ministry can produce the Acromantula skins, we can use them for an elixir I am confident will alleviate the symptoms. And the extent of the success might just point us in the right direction for a cure.’

‘Despite my misgivings, I will trust your judgement on this, Professor,’ said Hermione’s patronus reluctantly. ‘And I had best see about it shortly, so I’ll leave you all to your day. But before I go - I wonder if I could borrow Mister Malfoy for a conversation?’

Everyone stared at Scorpius, who blinked. ‘Me?’

‘That’s your name,’ mused Rose, looking a bit put-out, but she stepped back. ‘I’ll see you tomorrow, Mum,’ she said, and with that signal, they all slunk back, heading off their separate ways to their separate works, and leaving Scorpius alone in the Great Hall with the patronus of the mother of the girl he’d tried to kiss just that morning.

For one bizarre moment he thought she knew and was going to admonish him, so awkward did the patronus look, like it was finding this just as difficult as him. ‘I have a favour to ask of you, Mi- Scorpius,’ said Hermione’s patronus.

He opened his hands uncertainly. ‘Sure.’

‘Keep Rose and Albus out of trouble.’

His brow furrowed. ‘That’s really not my specialty,’ he said. ‘I’m more the one who finds the trouble -’

‘I mean with this Acromantula skin business. I know my nephew, and I know my daughter. They both have more than a little of their fathers in them. From dogged determination to streaks of loyalty which go beyond sense and reason.’ The otter tilted its nose in the air, as if it was above the disadvantages of such virtues and never made any misjudgements because of them. ‘Their younger siblings and younger cousins are ill here. They may see going off into the Forest as chance to help. I wouldn’t be surprised if they try.’

Scorpius shoved his hands in his pockets. ‘I don’t know, Al’s pretty sensible and I don’t think Rose broke a rule in her life before I got her landed in detention. I think you underestimate them.’

‘And I think you might be underestimating family bonds, Scorpius.'

He scowled. 'Look, I get it, okay? I get what's at stake. We’re still talking about my friends, my classmates, people I lived with for years, people I played Quidditch with. Hogwarts is more of my home and my family than Malfoy bloody Manor and my father are!’ The admission came, hot and angry and before he realised he was saying it, but once he’d started he couldn’t stop. ‘Al’s like my brother, and I know that’s pretty pathetic when he’s got a brother, but if he was in danger and marching into a nest of Acromantulas could save him, then sure, I’d do that!’

Silence fell across them - silence as Scorpius realised he’d made Hermione’s point for her, and silence as the patronus regarded him, looking surprised at the outburst. Then it gave a vague approximation of a smile. ‘I suppose Harry was right,’ it mused.

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

‘That you do understand why Albus or Rose might do something stupid. And I would like you to keep an eye on them to stop them. For their own good.’

There was a pause as Scorpius chewed on his lip. ‘First, I want to know what’s going on with Lockett.’

‘What do you mean -’

‘Talk about her being arrested? The black market? If there’s something dodgy about the woman responsible for our safety, I’d like to know.’

‘Headmaster Stubbs wouldn’t have hired her if he didn’t think she could do the job.’

‘That’s an evasive answer if ever there was one,’ Scorpius pointed out. ‘Because it doesn’t mean you don’t think Stubbs was wrong.’

The patronus hesitated. ‘I don’t think Stubbs was wrong,’ said Hermione at last. ‘But I don’t think it was his best decision ever. Nathalie Lockett is a world-class potions researcher. I wasn’t exaggerating. After the war she developed the most important salves and potions for easing ailments caused by dark magic, and changed the lives of hundreds of victims of Death Eater attacks. And as the years went on she moved into augmentative potions, which is a rather less-respected field of research and one where galleons, not saving lives, is the most significant motivator.’

‘If money was her motivation, then becoming a teacher was pretty stupid,’ Scorpius observed.

‘It wasn’t her first choice,’ said the patronus tensely. ‘She was a member of the team that developed the Elixir of Clarity, a particularly ingenious development which has become prized in all sorts of lines of work: from academics who wish to sift through a complex issue to curse-breakers who need to solve a problem quickly. But along the way her team was involved in the smuggling of illegally-farmed reagents bought on the black market. They were arrested. Lockett had been only marginally involved in the smuggling and, in exchange for all charges against her being dropped, gave testimony against several of her colleagues. They’re in prison. She went free, finished the work on the Elixir of Clarity, and now holds the bulk of the credit for it internationally. But nobody would hire her for such breaches in ethics and disloyalty to her team, so she had to leave the world of research.’

‘And was hired by Professor Stubbs to work at Hogwarts.’ Scorpius made a face. ‘That’s cold.’

‘You can see, I hope, why I don’t place the highest of trust in her assumption that these reagents are the only way. Other potioneers are more careful before reaching such conclusions, more sure, because they must be. To her, the regulations interrupted her work, rather than saving lives.’

‘I hate to say it, Ms Granger,’ he said. ‘But right now the regulations aren’t helping save lives.’

The patronus straightened with a hint of indignation. ‘I will do all I can to get what you need quickly,’ it said with Hermione’s voice. ‘But now I have answered your question, will you do what I’ve asked?’

Scorpius’ shoulders sagged. ‘Fine. All right. I’ll try saying “no” to Albus. There’s a first time for everything.’

‘Thank you,’ said the patronus. ‘You know it’s the right thing to do.’

He groaned and ran a hand through his hair. ‘Was that all, Ms Granger?’

‘I...’ The patronus hesitated. ‘Your father came into the Ministry the other day to ask for an update.’

‘Really? The Prophet’s lack of news wasn’t enough for him?’

‘He was asking about means of extracting you from Hogwarts.’

Scorpius narrowed his eyes. ‘Just me?’

‘He didn’t specif-’

‘But it’s what he meant, isn’t it.’ Hermione didn’t answer, and Scorpius clenched his fist. ‘You think that’s what I want? To get out of here and leave everyone else behind to put up with all of this? Even if the quarantine and risk of infection didn’t make that impossible?’

‘I didn’t say that -’

‘You were thinking it.’ Scorpius closed his mouth to bite off another angry accusation, and exhaled slowly. ‘At least a bit. I mean, clearly you trust me to try to help Al and Rose, but you wondered a bit, didn’t you? If this was what I wanted, if I’d take any get-out my father tried to politically wrangle for me?’

Hermione’s patronus looked wryly amused. ‘Your father has never been capable of wrangling anything out of or past me.’

‘Yeah, well, that’s why all of his business interests these days are abroad.’ Scorpius straightened and stabbed an accusing finger at her. ‘I’m not leaving anyone behind. I’m not leaving anyone in the lurch. I might not be the smartest, or the strongest, or the most powerful, or even the most charming, but these are my friends and I don’t care what my father would want for me, I’m not leaving.’

‘I’m sure your father only wants what’s best for you -’

‘No, he wants to make sure there’s still an heir, because even a duff Malfoy’s better than no Malfoy at all.’ Scorpius scowled and shoved his hands into his pockets. ‘Don’t judge me by him. I’m not him.’

‘If I thought you were your father, Scorpius,’ said Hermione’s patronus in a calm, mellow voice, ‘I would never have asked you to do something difficult for the sake of your friends. I would have thought it a waste of my breath.’

There was little more to say after that than stilted, formal goodbyes, and he slunk from the Great Hall alone, listless. But the anger that had been ignited in his chest when she’d told him of his father’s request didn’t go away, and after his outburst at Albus over the letter weeks ago, he didn’t want to repeat what his best friend already knew and was surely tired of hearing: Draco Malfoy was a bastard. Normally he might have gone to harass Rose to keep his mind off it, but the near-miss hours beforehand made that seem a poor notion indeed.

Though that was an issue he could deal with later. For now he wanted to be somewhere his anger wouldn’t be a problem.

Without thinking he stormed down to his usual shelter against the world, the Slytherin common room. He was stood in the middle, the green light from the great windows showing the lake underwater spilling across him, by the time he realised where he was, and that he had no business here.

It was like a cemetery. Peaceful and quiet and funereal, and once that thought had lodged in his head, Scorpius couldn’t make it leave again. He’d always thought the common room was morbid, and had seen through the forced smiles of older students telling him it was dignified or even cosy when he’d been a first year.

He’d grown up to be one of those students lying to the younger ones. But that was how it was, wasn't it? The older and allegedly more sensible lying to the younger. Because of the assumption that the younger couldn't handle it, couldn’t be sensible about what was in front of them, and the young resented the thought until they grew up and made all the same choices as their predecessors...

A cough from the direction of the dormitories interrupted his morose philosophising, and Scorpius turned, frowning. Then another, and another, all sounding like just one person, and he broke into a jog on the stairs up, into the Second Years' dormitory.

His heart clenched into a fist when he saw the pale, thin form of Timothy Warwick lying on his bed, wracked with the choking coughs of a reflex action that made his body writhe and blood-flecked spittle fly from his mouth. Semi-conscious, in the sort of delirious, barely-aware state that was the closest any of the afflicted came to awake these days and only for very short periods, he jerked on the bed - and then the sound of coughing changed abruptly to choking.

‘House elves! Elves!’ Scorpius bellowed as he flew across the dorm, to Tim’s side, hauling the boy to sit upright and over, head down, no longer choking on his the blood that again surged up. Lockett had said something about it being a natural and even helpful reaction to a magical curse, an effort of the wizard’s body to purge taint within, but she’d also said that it was a sign of that corruption being virulent.

Scorpius had only paid so much attention to the reports of the ill, but he knew none of them had been coughing up blood in weeks.

‘Easy, Malfoy! Easy! We got him!’ Harley had arrived without Scorpius noticing, along with two of his compatriots, and they were on the bed in an instant, helping him keep Tim upright. ‘Grab that potion!’

Scorpius flapped over to the bedside table as Harley pointed, hand wavering over three different concoctions. ‘Which?’

‘Oh, you inattentive tosspot - the green one! It’ll make it better so he can sleep!’ Harley shouted over the sound of Tim’s coughing and choking. ‘Unstopper it, give it here, I’ll feed it him!’

Scorpius did so, and then stood by the bedside table, watching in utter helplessness as the elves ran through a well-practiced routine of holding up Tim so he could breathe, so he wasn’t going to choke, and so Harley could, with aid of the natural magic which made all of this possible, feed the barely-conscious boy the whole bottle of the potion. Within seconds he was relaxing, slumping, and the elves were getting him back into bed.

‘No, no - get him new sheets, he got blood on these,’ said Harley, brushing down his crumpled little suit which, too, was flecked with blood. He turned to Scorpius and tossed him the empty bottle. ‘Good job you were here, Malfoy,’ he said grudgingly. ‘It’s not good when they get like that.’

‘They haven’t been like that in weeks,’ Scorpius said. ‘Have any of the others been like it?’

Harley shook his head. ‘Nope. S’worrying. We’ll let Lockett know; she’ll know what to do,’ he said, with a firm nod and a confidence that Scorpius, remembering what Hermione Granger had told him only minutes before, couldn’t quite share.

‘Yeah.’ Scorpius frowned, putting the empty potion bottle away and shoving his hands in his pockets. Are they getting worse? ‘Well, I’ll be off.’

Harley gaped as he headed for the door. ‘Isn’t he your friend? Don’t you want to be around when Lockett gets here?’

‘I really don’t,’ said Scorpius, mind racing, and though he knew how cold and callous he had to sound, he couldn’t care less at that point. 'In fact, don't even bother to mention to Lockett that I was here.'

'Why?' Harley's face twisted. 'Someone might know a Malfoy gave a damn about someone for five seconds?'

'Exactly,' said Scorpius, not bothering to sound convincing, though his wry apathy did its own work. ‘And I’ve got places to be. Things to do. Books to read.’

Without waiting for an answer he left quickly, with no desire to give Lockett the impression he’d been anywhere near this situation, knew anything about it. But that wasn’t the only reason for his swift departure. Time was not on his side, and he had urgent business to attend to.

Urgent business in the Library.



Chapter 18: Powderkeg
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Albus was a heavy sleeper. Scorpius had learnt this when they were eleven years old and sharing a dormitory for the first time; come rain or shine, come pounding at the door, nothing under the sun or moon could break his sleep. Or that rumbling of a snore that would put the Hogwarts Express to shame. For years it had plagued him until he’d learnt to sleep through it, and then found himself missing the sound when sleeping anywhere but their dorm-room in Slytherin House. But it had always been a necessary evil at best, a nuisance at worst.

And tonight he was counting on it.

The guest rooms were well-maintained, for Selena had fussily arranged that they be tidied every day by the House Elves. This had included, to Scorpius’ endless relief, keeping the hinges well-oiled. Albus' door didn't so much as creak as he stepped into the gloom that was filled only by the rumble of snoring.

If I were a magic map, he mused in the dark, unable to use his wand for light, where would I be?

That wasn’t the real question, of course. The real question was where would Albus put it. Somewhere secure, where it couldn’t go easily missing, but would be quickly and easily to hand in case of a crisis. Scorpius’ first guess was also the right one, as he thought long and hard, then checked the back pocket of the pair of Albus’ jeans slung across the chair at the foot of the bed.

Scorpius grinned ruefully as he brandished his prize, then looked up at the still form of his best friend. Sorry, mate. But it’s better this way. You’re not as expendable as me. Then, not daring to look back in case his guilt got the better of him, he slipped out the door and back into the corridor.

Hogwarts was silent at one in the morning. If Jones was still up, he’d be off in one of the Arithmancy classrooms, up to his eyeballs in studying the ritual that Scorpius couldn’t swear blind he’d even properly remembered. Everyone else would be in bed at this time, due to rise early and work hard and keep on fussing over useful things to do where his only contribution was to fetch and carry and -

When he turned the corner he walked straight into Rose. The armful of papers she was brandishing went flying and scattering down the corridor, and he gave a curse of irritation and surprise, teetering until she reached out to steady him.

‘Malfoy! What are you doing up at this time of night!’

‘I could say the same thing to you!’ he said, trying to regain both dignity and balance, straightening his clothes.

‘I was just off to bed, I had a late night with...’ Rose narrowed her eyes at him. ‘No. Wait. Let’s stick with me asking first. What are you doing?’

It wasn’t as if she was wrong to be suspicious, he had to concede. He was more-or-less in his Quidditch gear, the thick padded leather devoid of Slytherin colours or his flying cap, but it was the most hard-wearing and sturdy clothing he owned, and absolutely ideal for a stupid expedition out into the Forbidden Forest.

It was also, of course, very suspicious.

‘Midnight snack,’ he said guilelessly.

She stared at him. ‘You’re going out into the Forest, aren’t you.’ Her gaze turned horrified. ‘I’m going to tell Lockett -’

‘You can’t!’ His hand reached out to grab her by the elbow. ‘She’ll stop me.’

‘That’s the idea,’ Rose said. ‘Didn’t you hear her? Hear Mum? It’s stupidly dangerous, and there are Dementors out there!’

‘I know. I saw them.’ Scorpius’ jaw clenched. ‘But you don’t understand. They’re getting worse. Tim Warwick was coughing up blood this morning, the worst symptoms are coming back, and I don’t know if we’re going to have the time to wait around for Acromantula skin to be shipped in from Eastern Europe or whatever.'

Rose pulled her arm free, but her gaze did soften. 'Lockett looked... concerned when the House Elves spoke to her today. She didn't say why. Are you sure?'

‘I was there.’ Scorpius bit his lip. ‘She knows, and she’s done nothing about it.’

‘She knows what she’s doing -’

‘As a potioneer, sure. But as someone to make tough decisions? As someone who might need to stick her neck out to get results? Do you really see that in her?’ Rose hesitated, and Scorpius’s heart leapt into his throat with hope. ‘I’ve seen the Dementors, I know what I’m dealing with. I don’t intend to come anywhere near a live Acromantula; they shed their skin, right? And they leave that skin a distance from their nest. I just need to find where by their nest it is and then take a sample. I don’t need to fight a bloody Acromantula. I’m not completely stupid.’ He tried a lopsided smile.

Rose bit her lip. ‘We should still tell Lockett. Put the idea to her, get her to help -’

‘And if she says no? She wouldn’t dare go out there to fight an Acromantula, and she wouldn’t dare send us out there because she knows there’d be hell to pay if anything happened to any one of us. It’s better to beg forgiveness than ask permission.’

‘Is that the story of your life?’ Rose asked wryly, but her shoulders sagged. ‘I really don’t think she’d sit around and do nothing if this development was serious.’

‘None of us know what’s serious and what isn’t,’ said Scorpius. ‘And what if she wants to play it safe until the last possible moment and the last possible moment is too late?’

She hesitated. ‘All right. But I still can’t believe you’re looking to wander off into the Forbidden Forest on your own. It’s dangerous, and all the more so right now. So you’re planning on avoiding Acromantulas. That doesn’t mean you will. And what about the Redcaps, the centaurs? The Dementors? Can you even cast a patronus?’

Scorpius frowned. ‘I was planning on taking my broom and knowing when to run away. And yes, I know it’s risky. But am I really going to be doing anyone any good by sitting around at Hogwarts doing absolutely nothing?’

‘You’re not doing -’

‘Albus keeps the grounds safe. You and Lockett work on the cure. Jones is working on the ritual. Even bloody Selena is coordinating the House Elves in taking care of the infected. And what do I do?’ He met her gaze, ardent and frustrated.

Rose worked her jaw wordlessly for a long second. ‘Not go off and get yourself killed in the Forbidden Forest?’

‘It’s about time I earned my keep around here, and if that means going off into the woods to risk my life to help find a cure, then so be it. I can do that. I’m no more valuable or important than anyone else here,’ he said bitterly.

‘I didn’t say you were.’ Rose narrowed her eyes at him. ‘Who did?’

‘My...’ But his voice trailed off, and that was one confession too many. He’d already discussed his father too much with a member of the Weasley clan today. ‘It doesn’t matter. I’m going. I might not have a family member at stake here at Hogwarts, but Tim? He’s a good kid. I looked out for him last year. I’m going to look out for him this year.’

He looked her in the eye defiantly, expecting a similar dismissal to the one he’d got off her brother all those weeks ago, what now felt like a lifetime ago. But instead, Rose straightened her shoulders and nodded. ‘All right,’ she said, and he sagged with relief. ‘Just give me five minutes.’

Scorpius stared. ‘Five minutes to what?’

Rose pushed past him, heading for her room, and only cast him a brief glance over the shoulder. ‘What do you think? Come with you, of course.’


* *



‘The Marauder’s Map.’ Rose sounded grudgingly impressed as she looked at the winding scribbles showing them the way down and through the Forbidden Forest through the light of her wand-tip. ‘Mum and Dad told me all the stories about it, but I only saw James with it once. I told him I’d tell Uncle Harry he’d nicked it, but he just laughed and told me to go ahead.' Her cheeks turned a little pink. 'I didn't dare, in the end.'

'Potter Prime was a bit like that, wasn't he?' Scorpius mused, his eyes attentive as they rattled along the path through the thick, forbidding trees of the forest, six feet above the ground on his broomstick. At this slow speed, Rose could perch at the back, one hand holding the map, the other her wand. But on the way down he’d been flying faster, so for safety’s sake she’d had to cling tightly to him.

He tried to not think about it too much. Now wasn’t the time.

‘What do you mean?’

‘King of all he surveyed. Getting away with everything. I could never tell if Albus loved him or resented him.’

He couldn’t see Rose’s expression, but she sounded rather wry when she spoke. ‘I guess you are Al’s best friend after all. Most people wouldn’t know he’s capable of resentment.’ She sighed. ‘When I think it’s not easy to be the daughter of Harry Potter’s best friends, I remember it’s worse to be the child of Harry Potter. James dealt with it by being... James about it. You know what he’s like. Larger than life. Rode his father’s name as high as he could then put his own spin on it. It sounds bad, but James is his own man now, and it’s hard to not ride your parents’ coattails.’

I manage it. Instead, Scorpius said, ‘Al manages it.’

‘No, he doesn’t. He’s more like Uncle Harry than James is.’

Scorpius grinned toothily. ‘You’re saying Harry Potter should have been a Slytherin?’

‘Apparently he almost was.’

Scorpius half-turned on the broom in surprise. ‘What? The Boy Who Lived?’

‘Yes, Uncle Harry told me so, and I think we’re almost there so you might want to drop your voice,’ said Rose in a maddeningly calm voice.

‘Then you might want to put your wand out.’

‘Fine.’

‘Fine.’

They stopped, silent and alone in the dark as the light from Rose’s wand dimmed, and Scorpius stayed put for a long moment as they let their eyes adjust to the gloom. By what little moonlight broke through the trees and shone down around them they could make out the boughs and trunks and what poor pathway there was between them - and, over on their left, off the path and along a greater distance than he was really happy with through undergrowth, a rise.

‘Is that it?’ Scorpius whispered.

Rose nodded, gesturing for him to start in that direction. ‘The Map’s not great this far out,’ she said, folding it up and putting it away. ‘It’s all a bit vague. But this is where the Acromantula nest at least used to be.’

‘I’ll stay as high as I can,’ said Scorpius. ‘Keep an eye out for wherever they might shed their skins.’

‘Why don’t they just shed in their nests?’

‘Apparently it throws off predators this way.’

‘First: what the hell hunts an Acromantula, and second: How the hell do you know that?’

‘I do read, Weasley,’ said Scorpius with a small smirk as their broom swished its way in between the trees towards the rise. Truthfully, he’d only read all this that day, though she didn’t need to know this. ‘But unfortunately I have no idea about the other answer, and I pray we never find out.’

They fell silent as they got closer to the rise, keeping a good fifteen feet off the ground, or more if Scorpius could manage it. Rose’s free hand, her other clutching her wand, wrapped around his waist and she held tight as he moved between the trunks, ducked under the boughs, and then finally up as after the rise came a huge dip in the ground and a small clearing in the trees.

In the pit below he could see movement; the deliberate motion of one leg moving, then another, at once entirely perfect and in synchronisation and at the same time as if each limb had its own arachnid agenda. Scorpius shuddered as he looked down to see the sluggish and disinterested forms of a good dozen Acromantulas as big as dogs milling about the nest. The nest itself was a hole in the ground, going deeper, and he didn’t want to begin to think how many were down there in such a tight, enclosed space.

He shuddered again, and Rose’s arm around him tightened. ‘I didn’t know you were arachnophobic,’ she whispered.

‘I’m not. I have a perfectly rational fear of giant poisonous spiders gathered together in their nest,’ Scorpius murmured back, then broke off his flight to begin a perimeter sweep. If the Acromantulas had noticed them, up high but potentially silhouetted against the moonlight that streamed down more freely into this gap in the trees, they were showing no sign of reaction - for now.

For the most part the Acromantulas were gathered around their nest, though occasionally he would spot one skittering through the undergrowth out of the corner of his eye, and his grip on the handle of the broomstick twitched as if he needed to pull away even if they were a good distance off, and airborne to boot.

‘I wonder if they can jump?’ he said without thinking.

Rose stiffened. ‘I wonder why the hell you put that idea out there?’

He fell silent again, eyes sweeping through the darkness, before Rose touched his shoulder and pointed down to the left. ‘There.’

Scorpius frowned, but as he moved in closer, he could indeed make out the shape of what looked like an Acromantula a good twenty metres away from the main nest, in a dip so deep he could only properly see two legs sticking out from under rock and undergrowth. ‘Is that a skin or just another one?’

‘It’s not moving.’

‘Spiders are pretty good at staying still.’

‘All the ones away from the nest are moving. This one isn’t. Move closer.’

He was already doing so, swinging around to an angle where he might be able to see better under the overhanging - and then when he did he immediately regretted it. Even from this distance he could see the limbs Rose had spotted were just the remains of one spider’s skin - further under the rock there were more, piled up on top of one another, dense and packed and though motionless still enough to make his skin crawl.

Scorpius was no stranger to fear, especially not having come face-to-face with a group of Dementors. But the sensation that started in his belly and crawled up his throat was different - not just fear, but a creeping, insidious, revulsion. ‘This was not my best idea ever.’

‘It was a pretty good one,’ said Rose. ‘You’re going to have to let me down and then head back up.'

He frowned. 'What?'

‘Visibility down there’s going to be awful. I wouldn’t be able to spot an Acromantula coming up until it was on top of me. I definitely wouldn’t be able to tell if the whole nest came over. But if you let me down I can grab a bunch of samples and then if you fly up to about here again you can keep a lookout. If you see an Acromantula coming in, just swoop down and catch me.’

Scorpius worked his jaw wordlessly for a few moments until he found his proper indignation. ‘Why you?’

‘Because I have more experience than you at farming reagents; I have a better idea than you what makes a good sample. You have the better eyes, and you’re the better flier - if I were keeping watch and we needed to make a swift getaway I’d have to pick you up and swap so you could fly.’

His shoulders sagged. ‘You know I told your Mum I’d stop you from going off and doing something stupid like running off into a cave to get Acromantula skin?’

‘Clearly Mum doesn’t know you if she thinks that you’re the person to stop someone doing anything stupid, and if she thinks that I wouldn’t do something because of you.’ As he looked over his shoulder, Rose’s smile was a ghost in the dark, and she looked at him with forced whimsy. ‘Don’t worry, Malfoy. I’ll come back every time.’

So that’s what that feels like.

He let her down a short distance away from the pit of Acromantula skins - he was unable to think of it in any other terms - then rose to the previous position, shoulders tense, keeping a close eye out. While the nest, a good distance away, was his primary concern, he still looked sharply at any sign of movement through the undergrowth, whether it was an Acromantula peacefully going about its business - or a leaf buffeted by the wind.

And the only movement that made him jump was the sight of Rose, far below, waving at him to come down.

She was crouched over one of the skins, so big that it honestly looked to Scorpius like a whole Acromantula. She beckoned him closer as he landed, and reluctantly Scorpius swung his leg over his broom, leaving it hovering and ready for them to depart, and padded over.

‘I just need you to hold this bit down while I sever it... then we’re done,’ Rose muttered.

He made a face, but shook his sleeves over his hand, gripped the end of the leg-skin she was gathering, and yanked it free as her wand ran over the base to sever it. She took it from him as they straightened, stowing it in the bag she’d slung across her shoulder.

‘I have a few samples,’ Rose said, looking pleased with herself. ‘So we’ll not only have enough, we should have a variety. I don’t know why Hogwarts doesn’t allow more farming of Acromantula parts from here, it wasn’t hard at all -’

Then she stopped short, eyes widening and locking over his shoulder, and there was a rustle from behind him. Of course you said that, Scorpius mused as horror rose in his gut, and he spun on the spot -

Just in time to see an Acromantula lunge off the top of the rocky outcropping that shielded them from sight of the nest - but also blocked it from their view - and hurled itself forwards. It was still a good distance away, and for whatever reason didn’t close the gap in one single bound, just dropped to the ground a couple of metres off.

On top of Scorpius’ broomstick, bringing it crashing to the ground.

Rose stared at the Acromantula as it paused, mandibles twitching in the night air, and drew a sharp breath. ‘Oh, bugger.’

Then three more crested the hill where it had first arrived, and Scorpius realised why it hadn’t gone for them: it had been waiting. For reinforcements.

‘Good assessment,’ he agreed, reaching for her elbow. ‘Run.’

But his hand caught nothing but air, because it was her grabbing him by the back of the collar and yanking him away as the two of them turned and broke into a flat sprint. Scorpius saved one last forlorn look over his shoulder for his broomstick, abandoned where it lay on the ground pinned under an Acromantula’s body - and then promptly regretted it as he saw the four gigantic spiders hurtle along after them, joined by a half-dozen more cresting the rise and clambering down in their wake.

‘I know I should have asked this earlier!’ barked Scorpius, bounding over a fallen tree-trunk as they scrambled down the hill, uncaring of whatever direction they were headed in apart from away. ‘But how did your dad and Harry Potter survive this place?’

‘They were rescued!’ panted Rose, ducking under a low-hanging branch that whipped at Scorpius’ hair as he hurtled behind her. ‘By a flying car!’

Scorpius stumbled. ‘Great!’ he cursed, staggering until Rose grabbed his shoulder to right him, barely breaking pace. ‘Don’t suppose you have one of those going spare?’

They were at the bottom of the hill now, gravity and terror and a sudden flight lending them a good lead on the spiders and a strong burst of speed. But Scorpius risked another glance over his shoulder to spot more spiders than he could easily count, and they were gaining on them.

'No,' Rose was panting, desperate. 'No, I forgot to -' Then she screamed, and when Scorpius’ head whipped forward to see a tall figure in a dark robe standing before them, for one horrid second he thought it was a Dementor.

We’re going to fucking die out here.

Then the figure extended a hand and magical light came shooting from the top of a wand, past them and into the throng of Acromantulas that hurtled behind them. There were inhuman shrieks and thuds as the horde was struck by the magical wave, sent flying up into the air, and for long seconds after they landed heavily they swayed or skittered about in a disorientated, angry fashion.

‘It won’t last!’ shouted the figure ahead of them, who reached down into the undergrowth - and pulled up a wooden door set into the ground. ‘Down here! Quickly!’

Without thinking Scorpius shoved Rose up to the figure and the door, which led to a narrow passageway burrowing its way down, the walls sealed with stone. There was already light down there, and in the flickering gloom Scorpius realised that this was not some old ruin - whatever this bolthole was, it was recently made.

It was also very small, taking them less than fifteen feet underground before opening up to a small chamber no bigger than their rooms at Hogwarts, a lantern filled with a magical blue light on the downtrodden dirt floor providing illumination and throwing monstrously long shadows along walls.

But it wasn’t outside, above ground where the Acromantulas roamed, and so right then Scorpius didn’t care.

Or thought he didn’t care, as he flopped to his knees once he was in the chamber, panting for breath, uncaring of the monstrous shadows, uncaring at the sound of the hatch above being shut, uncaring of the footsteps of their unexpected saviour following them down - until his gaze came up to Rose, who was still standing, still clutching her wand, and pointing it in the direction of the steps.

The moment their saviour entered the chamber her lips were moving. ‘Stupe-’

To close the hatch, the robed figure had stowed their wand. Rose had been stood ready, waiting, the words of the spell on the tip of her tongue, and still Scorpius watched as their saviour moved like a blur. One moment he was stood with empty hands facing off against an armed and ready Rose - the next his wand was in his hand, magic flashing from the tip and striking her. She barely had time to let out more than a muted sound of shock and surprise before dropping like a sack of potatoes.

Rose!’ Scorpius sprang to his feet, going for his own wand - then stopped as he found himself staring at that of their ‘saviour’, now pointed straight at his chest. He went cross-eyed peering at the tip that still glowed with magic, then looked up, along the black-clad arms and, finally, into the cowled face which was visible through the flickering light of the magic lamp.

‘I would heartily recommend against it,’ the black-robed man said, his voice lyrical, educated, calm. ‘She’s unharmed. But you both have a curious way of showing gratitude.’

Scorpius’ heart was thudding in his chest loud enough for the sound to fill his ears. His fists clenched and unclenched impotently, but the mixture of fury and terror was enough to make his knees shake, make his breath come more raggedly than their mad race through the undergrowth had, and despite his blinding concern for Rose, lying in the dirt next to him, he couldn’t tear his eyes away from the face before him. ‘You.’

Prometheus Thane narrowed his eyes. He looked much the same as the picture Scorpius had found in the Ravenclaw records except, of course, older. But more than years lined his face; a thin scar lined his chin, and there was a harshness to his features which only experience, rather than mere time, could bring. He’d been handsome as a youth; as a man, he was perhaps no less picturesque, but now with a vicious edge to his bearing.

‘What about me?’ he said.

‘Okay, forget you - what did you do to her?’ Scorpius edged over to Rose.

‘Please. If I wanted you dead or hurt it would have been the easiest thing in the world to do nothing as you were killed and eaten by Acromantula. She’s Stunned. It’s a strong one; it’ll take maybe ten minutes to wear off, and I doubt you’ll be able to revive her.’ Thane’s wand twitched at him. ‘Now, what makes you think you recognise me?’

Scorpius’ breath caught. ‘Your memory charm? Didn’t work so well. You’re more efficient than you know, Thane; you were so good at protecting yourself from magic with that ritual you even protected me.’

‘So you know about the ritual. I see.’ Thane gave a curt nod. ‘No matter. It stopped nothing. And I can’t see how knowing who I am has helped you in any way.’

‘Oh, I don’t know.’ Scorpius forced one of his knowing smirks. ‘It's amazing what you can find out with a little digging. Just one thread can unravel a lot.'

Thane sighed. 'I've seen a man play poker with a bad hand; you’re a boy trying to play poker with no cards, Scorpius. You don’t know anything.’

He cocked his head. ‘You know who I am.’

‘The Daily Prophet knows who you are, it knows that you’re one of the few students still alive and upright at Hogwarts, and process of elimination alone could identify you even if you didn’t have the bearing of your forefathers about you. Not to mention that it is my business to know what is going on at Hogwarts at this exact moment,’ said Thane. ‘To boot, the lady in your company is Rose Weasley, daughter of Ronald Weasley and Hermione Granger, who leads the Ministerial Task Force that seeks to end the Phlegethon affliction. I know exactly who you are.’

Scorpius grinned toothily. ‘And now I know what Phlegethon is.’

Thane rolled his eyes. ‘You just see how much good that does you.’

The forced smile faded at the implied threat, and Scorpius took a careful step towards Rose. When Thane didn’t look about to stop him, he crouched beside her. She was on her side, eyes shut, completely out for the count; without thinking he tried to shift her into at least a less uncomfortable slouch on the floor, and noted that she was breathing normally.

Two months ago he wouldn’t have known how to spot normal breathing at a glance.

‘What are you going to do with us?’

Thane made a distant sound of frustration. 'I didn't kill you before, Scorpius. I didn't leave you to die now - I saved you. What do you think is going to happen?’

‘I don’t know. What were you doing out there?’

Watching you,’ said Thane. As Scorpius didn’t move, he went to sit on the bottom step in the chamber, wand held deceptively casually in his hand. ‘Just like I watched you when you went into the woods and found the Dementors. But then you made it away of your own accord. This time you weren’t so lucky. So I intervened. The Acromantula would have been too dazed by my spell to realise you went down here; they’ll be frenzied in the area for several minutes, but then they’ll settle down and return to their nest. We’re far away from it now that when you leave, so long as you head north, you shouldn’t fall foul of them.’

Scorpius wrinkled his nose. ‘Let me get this straight. You saved us, and you’re not capturing us, you’re going to let us go?’

‘What would you propose I do? Stand by idly and watch two children get killed by Acromantula? Or be even more of a monster and save you only to murder you myself in this miserable hole?’

‘You...’ Scorpius sputtered. ‘You’ve cursed Hogwarts with a horrible illness!’

‘And nobody has died,’ said Thane amiably. ‘So I fail to see where my past record might indicate I would, by action or inaction, murder two defenceless children. At the very least it would make my life considerably more difficult were I to kill a child of the Weasley family and a child of the Malfoy family. Not all crimes are equal, boy.’

Scorpius looked at the bag that was still slung across Rose’s shoulder, the one containing the reagents they’d gathered. ‘We’re...’

‘Gathering Acromantula skin. You think you can use it in a possible cure, or at least to alleviate the symptoms of Phlegethon. I know.’

‘And you’re... not going to stop us? At least take the parts off us?’

Thane gave a ghost of a smile. ‘No.’

‘Why the hell not?’

‘It’s not what I’m here to do.’

Scorpius stared at him for a long moment, but there was nothing in Thane’s face which gave any indication of anything - no smugness, no satisfaction, nothing but a calm professionalism that allowed for cold efficiency and yet reasonable politeness.

‘You’ve cursed Hogwarts, given yourself an immunity to this - to Phlegethon - which has accidentally spilled over to us. Or was it accidental? Did you want some people still in the castle, unaffected?’ Unthinkingly his hand had come down to Rose’s, who remained lying still on the ground, her grip cold and limp. ‘If it’s an attack, it’s an ineffective one. You could be stopping us from bringing possible cure reagents back to the school - unless you know they won't do anything.' Scorpius' brow furrowed as he thought aloud, watching Thane's eyes for any hint of a reaction. 'Or you just don’t care. So what is this? Does it matter that it’s Hogwarts you’re striking? Is this some sort of vengeance against the school? Or... a test-run for the curse, where Hogwarts makes the perfect place to observe how it spreads, to observe how people react to it? Or some elaborate cover-up where you’re only targeting one, or a handful of people, and because people are seeing it as an indiscriminate attack they don’t even suspect a personal motive...?’

Thane’s gaze remained neutral and, desperate, Scorpius pushed on. ‘Or is this a diversion? You want something from Hogwarts and this makes the perfect cover? Or you want something somewhere else in Britain, in the whole world, and right now everyone’s eyes are on the crisis at Hogwarts so your allies can do... do... something under everyone’s noses!’

Still no response from Thane, and dull silence fell upon them until he pulled out a silver pocket-watch, examining it with cold disinterest, and put it away again. ‘The coast should be clear now,’ he said plainly. ‘I’ll leave first, and make absolutely sure. You will wait at least two minutes and then you should head north. You’ll find the path that should take you back to school. Be careful; Dementors are still out there.’

He placed a strange emphasis on the word “careful”, as if he actually did care, but Scorpius just frowned. ‘What’s to stop me from going after you sooner?’

Thane got to his feet and nodded at Rose’s still prone form. ‘Her,’ he said. ‘She’ll still be out a little while longer. More than I need. Or you could follow me on your own and leave her potentially undefended if there are any Acromantula still out there.’

Scorpius ground his teeth impotently as the tall, black-robed figure gave him a brief bow. Despite himself, he couldn’t find a single trace of mockery in the gesture. ‘It has been a pleasure, Mister Malfoy. Good evening,’ said Prometheus Thane, before turning on his heel and trudging up the steps. There was the sound of the hatch being opened, the sound of footsteps crunching through undergrowth, and then nothing but silence.

The moment he was sure the coast was clear, Scorpius scrabbled to Rose’s back pocket, muttering a wry apology, and yanked the Marauder’s Map out. His wand shook as he ran it over the parchment, as he uttered the words to bring the ink to life, and quickly he unfurled it far enough to find them. They were in a far corner, way into where the map marked the boundaries of the Forbidden Forest, and the details were becoming sketchy, vague. Nevertheless he could still see the mark for the Acromantula nest - which they were mercifully far from by now - and the two little dots converged together that bore their names.

Even though Thane had to be nearby still - though he was sure he’d have heard the crack of Disapparition from here - there was absolutely no sign of him on the map.

Scorpius lowered it, shoulders drooping, and sat back down next to Rose, one eye on her, the other eye on the stairs leading back up into the night-time forest. Her breathing was steady, and finally he could see the twitch of her fingertips and eyelids which suggested that Thane had been right, that it was just a heavy Stun she had been affected by, and that she was already beginning to shake it off.

All he had to do was wait.

And then get the hell out of the Forbidden Forest.



Chapter 19: Fire and Ice
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‘I can’t believe he’s hidden from the Marauder’s Map!’ said Rose as they trooped out of the fringes of the Forbidden Forest and reached the foot of the long, night-clad rise back up to the school. Hogwarts stood tall at the top of the hill, the lights shining bright and welcoming, and did more than a little work to chase away shadows both real and imaginary as they laid eyes upon it.

‘I can’t believe I lost my broom,’ Scorpius grumbled.

‘And he’s been watching us! He knew what we were out there for! And he didn’t even care that we were gathering reagents to cure a curse which he’s inflicted on Hogwarts!’

‘It was a good broom! Cleansweep X-Series A. It was Cleansweep’s big come-back! “The sweepiest broom”!’

Rose stopped, turning to face him and stamping her foot. ‘Really, Malfoy, is now the time to be fussing over a broom?’

He flashed her a grin. ‘Way I see it, tonight was a win. We got out with the reagents, some information, and our lives!’

She watched him for a few seconds, the incredulous look on her face visible with the lights of Hogwarts shining down on her. Then she shook her head, lips twitching, and continued along the path up to the school. ‘Does anything ruin your mood?’

‘A plague’s put a dent in it but it means I’ll find the silver lining where I can. You should try it some time, Weasley, optimism. Might suit you.’

She stuck her nose in the air. ‘I’m perfectly optimistic, Malfoy.’

‘You’re not; you’re a realist. Cold, hard realist, with all your silly facts and your logic and your weird, weird making-sense...’

Her gaze found him out of the corner of her eye. ‘You’re really determined to not be rattled by a run-in with our arch-nemesis, aren’t you.’

‘Ooh, arch-nemesis.’ Scorpius grinned. ‘I like that. It’s got panache. And, yes, I am. Because I thought I was going to get eaten by Acromantula, then I thought I was going to get murdered by a lunatic in the woods, and not only would those be rather painful endings, they’d be pretty embarrassing, don’t you think?’

‘I’m trying to not think about it.’

‘Why not? We lived.’ His feet felt surprisingly light as they reached the bottom of the winding steps that would take them up the hillside, past Hagrid’s abandoned hut, and onto the main grounds proper. Normally he hated trooping up there, and it was one of the reasons he didn’t miss Care of Magical Creatures, but right then he thought he could have flown even without a broom.

‘We almost died!’ said Rose.

‘I think of it as “almost died, but didn’t, isn’t that brilliant”? It changes everything.’

‘Everything?’

‘Some stuff. Like perspective. Makes some things seem really silly and irrelevant. And other stuff seem really, super important.’

Rose rolled her eyes as she headed up the steps. ‘Like what?’

On an impulse he reached out to grab the strap of her bag, full of the Acromantula parts they’d gathered - though that unpleasant part was the furthest thing from his mind right then - and pulled her around on the step above to face him, their eyes, for once, level.

‘Like this,’ he said, his grin toothy and broad right until he leant across the space between them and kissed her.

She froze at the touch of his lips, and for a split second he thought he’d horribly, horribly misjudged everything - from her apparent relish at their verbal sparring, to her thawing and peace offerings, to how she hadn’t ripped his arm off for their near-miss that mere morning, which felt like a lifetime ago. Then her lips parted under his and she was grabbing a fistful of his Quidditch uniform, pulling herself closer against him.

When he broke the embrace it was to join her on the step, and the hand that didn’t still have a firm grip on the bag to keep her close came to her chin, gently tilting her face up to him. Her eyes were wide, surprised, but the corner of her lips twisted into a grin she was trying to fight.

‘And what the hell do you think you’re doing, Malfoy?’ Rose whispered. Her mock-serious demeanour was rather ruined by the light dancing in her eyes and how she had to blow that defiant spring of red hair out of her face.

‘Like I said, nearly dying throws the important things into perspective. The things I let myself get all distracted from or nervous about. But you know what? I shouldn’t let myself wait another second. I should have done that this morning. Or by the tree at the lake, or in the corridor to the kitchens, or in that records room. Like you wanted me to.’ His smirk remained, eminently smug and self-assured.

‘I think I wanted to hex you half of those times.’

‘Ever noticed how that urge gets muddled up?’ he mused - then it was her turn to pull him forward, and whatever aggravating words were at the tip of his tongue died when a thoroughly more welcome diversion presented itself.

He let go of the bag for his arm to snake around her waist, holding her against him, his other hand cupping her cheek to keep her face tilted up to his, not tolerating the slightest of gaps between them, even if it meant he had to crane his neck right down to cope with the height difference. Normally Scorpius preferred taller girls, or girls who spent longer fussing over their looks or at least wouldn’t be caught dead in the frumpy, practical gear Rose wore right then, but he couldn’t bring himself to care - not about the crick in his neck, not about the fistful of woolly knitted Weasley sweater in his hand, and not about the Acromantula bits in the bag that dangled from her shoulder.

Then there was a tension to the softness of her lips, and when she finally pulled back her eyes had widened, dark and guilty, and Scorpius felt his gut twist with predictable anticipation. Of course it wouldn't last, of course it was only a matter of time before she came to her senses and remembered Hector bloody Flynn...

‘Mmph - we really should go tell the others what happened.’

Scorpius blinked, his head spinning - from the memory of the kiss that was enough to make his lips still tingle, from the near-death experiences of the night, and from being wrong in a manner that was pleasant but left him wondering when that particular conversation would come up anyway. ‘Do we really...’ His voice trailed off, and Scorpius let go to run a hand through his hair, wild already from the events of the night. ‘Ugh. I guess we really should.’

But they hadn’t pulled apart completely, and Rose had that little crinkle in her nose which usually meant she was thinking particularly hard about something, and he had to admit he liked the notion she was thinking particularly had about him right then. She took an awkward breath, shifting the bag of Acromantula parts. ‘Lockett’s going to need to start brewing with these.’

Scorpius’ hand dropped, thwarted at last, and he took a step back reluctantly. He reached to carry the bag, and she handed it over, gaze bashful despite the frantic embrace of seconds before as their fingers brushed at the exchange. ‘She is,’ he agreed, not taking his eyes off her and rather enjoying the impression she was working to stay focused on what they both knew was the proper priority right then. ‘But she’s also going to need to start killing us when she finds out what happened.’


* *


Despite the fact that she was wearing fluffy bunny slippers, Lockett’s footsteps still rang out loudly as she paced to and fro across the Great Hall in front of Scorpius and Rose.

‘Let me get this straight,’ the Potions Professor said, voice loud and arch enough to make even Albus and Selena, innocent and sat to one side, flinch. Methuselah, for his part, was going through the bag of Acromantula parts with interest, and hadn’t looked up once.

‘After being explicitly told not to go into the Forbidden Forest to look for reagents, you not only went and did specifically that, but you also had a run-in with Prometheus Thane where he incapacitated one of you and you only came back because, simply, he chose to let you go.’

Rose’s eyes were downcast, but she could feel Scorpius, stood next to her, take a deep breath to likely say something witty and entirely inappropriate. ‘That’s pretty much it, Professor,’ she said to cut him off.

‘Let’s not forget that you would have likely been killed by Acromantula had it not been for the intervention of Thane himself,’ said Lockett archly.

Scorpius nodded, and when she glanced up his expression was so solemn she knew it couldn’t be sincere. ‘And I lost my broom.’

Rose could have hit him. This time it was not a muddied feeling.

Lockett glowered at them both, and Rose looked at her boots again as Scorpius fell silent. ‘So we should really consider that it was despite your own stupidity that you made it back here with Acromantula skin, and found out a very little about Thane's intentions and operations - so little that it borders on guess work, really.' She folded her arms across her chest, and Rose risked a glance up to catch her critical eye. 'Are either of you injured?'

They both shook their heads wordlessly, Scorpius appropriately muted by the Potions Professor's cold glare, and silence reigned for long, awkward seconds, the sound broken only by the noise of Selena's fidgeting.

'In that case, I have only one thing to say to you.' Lockett straightened up, beady eyes locking on them both. 'Well done.' Then she gave them the biggest grin they'd ever seen her wear.

Rose's jaw dropped as Scorpius boggled for only a split second before returning the beam. ‘Thank you, Professor!’ he exclaimed.

Lockett looked over her shoulder at Methuselah. ‘Jones, what do you think of the skin?’

He lifted his head from the bag. ‘Excellent samples, Professor. Variety of portions of the exoskeleton. Sufficient quantities of good quality for multiple batches.’

She clapped her hands together. ‘Good, now let’s -’

‘Is that it?’ Rose stared at her.

Lockett raised an eyebrow in bewilderment. ‘Is what it?’

‘Is that... all you’ve got to say?’ Rose gestured wildly. ‘Well done?’

Selena’s hand shot up. ‘I second Weasley’s question.’

Lockett looked between the two girls. ‘Would you rather I clapped them in irons and dangled them over lava?’

‘You have lava somewhere in the castle? Awesome,’ mused Scorpius.

‘I don’t really care if Scorpius and Weasley want to get themselves killed; that’s their choice,’ said Selena disinterestedly. ‘I’m just saying: I got out of bed for this, and I really need eight hours of sleep a night or I get cranky.’

‘As opposed to your usual sunny disposition,’ said Scorpius. ‘We thought everyone should know.’

‘Great, great. We’ve got disgusting magical spider skin and found out Prometheus Thane’s absolutely fine with inflicting a whole school with a curse named after a river into hell, but shooting kids in the face? That would be too far.’ Selena got to her feet, tossing her hands in the air. ‘Wake me if we find something urgent. Not that we’ve got more horrid things to put in horrid potions and that we’ve found out our number one enemy wasn’t hugged enough as a child.’

She left the Great Hall and Scorpius arched an eyebrow. ‘Just think,’ he told the others, ‘this is her on four hours of sleep. Imagine what she’d be like on none.’

Rose looked at Lockett. ‘Are you really not angry, Professor?’

‘Oh, I’m furious.’ Lockett by now was over at the table with Methuselah, examining the samples, and sounded rather disinterested. ‘But you got out in one piece so I’m not about to lose sleep over what could have been. It was stupid as all hell and you could have died and then I’d have got it in the neck, which brings me to the crux of my irritation: tomorrow you get to tell your mother, Weasley, exactly what happened. And if either one of you seek to imply in any way that I'm responsible for not having you leashed so you couldn't do something this bone-headedly stupid, and she tries to blame me? I’ll have Harley stop the House Elves cleaning their own loos and reassign the job to you both.’

Rose lifted a hand to her temples. ‘Oh, God, Mum’s going to do her nut...’

‘You should have thought of that before you decided to risk your lives on an idiotic escapade. But these are some bloody good samples, Weasley; I’d be giving you a term’s worth of O’s for these.’ Lockett turned over a bit of shed exoskeleton, and Rose could feel Scorpius shuddering beside her. ‘I’m going to get down to the dungeons and begin brewing up some test batches immediately.’

‘I’ll come with you,’ said both Rose and Methuselah at once.

Lockett looked between them. ‘That’s a “yes” to Jones, a “no” to you, Weasley. You need sleep, and rest, and to give your report in the morning. We’ll worry about the rest then, including anything you learnt from Thane. But I’ll be happy to consider us even once these batches prove we needed these skins in the first place.’

She smiled again, and Rose couldn’t help but feel awkward at the impression Lockett cared more, right then, about proving her mother wrong than necessarily about brewing something up which could alleviate the suffering of Hogwarts’ afflicted students.

Lockett and Jones left in short order, leaving just the two of them with Albus, who rose awkwardly from his chair and glanced between them. ‘We... should get some sleep,’ he said, shoulders slumped. ‘Aunt Hermione’s going to be livid in the morning.’

‘Don’t remind me,’ sighed Rose, but she nodded, and the three of them trooped out the door and up the stairs, up to the corridor of guest bedrooms, in silence. Albus’ shoulders were tense, his brow furrowed, and though Rose hadn't been sure she wasn't imagining his stiffness, Scorpius was reacting to it too, staying quiet.

But Albus didn't say anything until they were just by the door to Scorpius' room, the first one they came to, and he straightened up. ‘Actually... can I speak to you both?’ He looked up and down the corridor as if Selena might jump out at them, then nodded into Scorpius’ room.

Rose tried to not look around too much as they walked in - but it wasn’t the sudden insight into Scorpius’ personal habits she’d expected it to be. Or, if it was, he was more fastidious than she’d have given him credit for; there was little of mess, save the trunk of Quidditch gear still open but looking like it was normally quite tidy, and the clothes he’d changed out of slung surprisingly neatly across the back of a chair. As a girl with a younger brother, who was thus no stranger to the habits of teenaged boys, she was surprised.

She had little time to consider this, however, as Albus closed the door behind them and turned. His brow remained furrowed, and he opened and closed his hands for long moments of awkward silence, fumbling for words, until finally he managed to stumble out, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’

Scorpius sagged, running a hand through his hair. ‘Honestly, mate... I didn’t mean on telling anyone. I ran into Weasley on the way out, and she threatened to tell Lockett if I didn’t let her come with.’

Rose nodded guiltily. ‘It’s true.’

Her cousin’s eyes landed on her. ‘Then why didn’t you tell me?’

Her chin tilted up a fraction of an inch. ‘Really?’ she said. ‘I thought you’d tell us to not go, and tell Lockett if we tried to go anyway.’

‘I’d have been right to,’ muttered Albus.

‘Mate - are you pissed off with us because we didn’t ask you when you’d have come with us, or are you pissed off with us because we risked our necks doing something stupid?’ Scorpius asked.

‘Can’t it be both?’

‘A little bit, it just kind of hurts your righteous anger if you’re pissed off we thought you’d tell Lockett if you would have,’ was the wry answer.

Albus’ shoulders slumped again, and he kicked at the floor. ‘Just... if something had happened to you guys... I don’t know what I’d have done. I’d rather have stopped you or, if I couldn’t, have at least risked my neck with you both. Then I could have done something.’ His eyes met Scorpius’. ‘And this is the second time you went off and did something stupid and dangerous without me because you thought I’d stop you.’

Rose looked at her feet, suddenly feeling like an intruder as the two boys talked - and not for the first time, not when it came to matters of her cousin and his best friend.

‘In my defence, Al, you’re pretty smart,’ protested Scorpius. ‘You don’t do stupid things.’

‘I made friends with you, didn’t I?’ But Albus was wearing a small smile, and Scorpius grinned with relief, obviously taking this as forgiveness. 'I'm just glad you’re both all right.’

‘So are we,’ said Rose, and she relaxed a little as he turned his smile on her and it widened. ‘It got a bit hairy out there.’

‘Yeah, well. That’s what you get for going after a nest of giant spiders. Did you think it was going to be all fun and games?’ said Albus, voice going teasing.

‘Hey, that was the easy part,’ said Scorpius. ‘The hard part was not being murdered by a criminal mastermind. They don’t prepare you for that in Defence classes.’

‘They probably should.’ Albus looked at Rose. ‘Your Mum’s going to kill you tomorrow.’

‘I know.’ Rose made a face. ‘Though it’s nothing worse than what she used to do at school. And she doesn’t get to use the excuse of “greater good” any more. They were younger than us when they broke into the Ministry and fought Death Eaters!’

‘Parents specialise in hypocrisy,’ offered Scorpius, but his expression went flat the moment she threw him a curious glance, and she remembered his sudden fury the first time they’d been out in the Forbidden Forest when she’d made a comment about his family.

It was turning into an evening of realisations.

‘And you better get some sleep to face it.’ Albus suppressed a yawn. ‘I don’t know how you’re not asleep on your feet, I’m exhausted just hearing what happened to you.’

‘We found ways to keep ourselves awake,’ said Scorpius, and threw Rose a sideways glance that had her looking away abruptly and cursing her father from whom she’d inherited her ease at blushing.

Albus snorted. ‘Risk of death will do that, I guess. But I don’t have it to keep me up, so I’m going to turn in. Good night.’ He opened the door and hesitated there, glancing over his shoulder. When he spoke, he sounded neither as morose nor as tiredly cheerful as before, but rather quietly pleased. ‘I’m glad you two are getting on better,’ he said, and left.

Rose stared at the door until she heard the click of the latch, then whirled to face Scorpius. ‘Oh, Merlin, he knows.’

Scorpius lifted his hands. ‘He doesn’t. No way. His poker face isn’t that good. Take it easy.’

Rose scurried over to the door and put her ear to it. ‘He calmed down way too quickly,’ she said frantically, her mind already hard at work, in her worried and wearied state, in reconstructing the last minutes of the conversation to suit her panicked theory.

‘Did it occur to you it might have been my outstanding grace and charm that put him at ease?’

‘No,’ said Rose, turning around - and then stopping, back to the door, as she found Scorpius had crossed the room and was mere feet away. She swallowed hard, her throat abruptly dry, and despite the ache in her limbs from the sprinting and being Stunned and the long walk back to Hogwarts, her veins were fizzing as if she could do it all over again. ‘Don’t be silly.’

But her voice was hoarse, and he gave one of his over-the-top, lopsided smiles as he took another step forward. ‘Anyway,’ Scorpius murmured, ‘what’s there for him to know about?’

Her heart thudded in her chest enough to drown out all the protests racing through her mind at his proximity. ‘You know damn well what.’

He reached out a hand - and then rested it against the door beside her, leaning in, and she straightened, chin coming up half an inch. She wasn’t sure herself if the motion was defiant or inviting. ‘You might have to refresh my memory.’

Rose’s eyelids fluttered as she drew a deep breath. ‘If you’re trying to goad me, I made the first move once already.’

‘Oh no, Weasley. I know your self-control’s too good for me to get a rise out of you.’ He grinned, and it was a different grin to usual - not the easy smile, or the aggravating smirk that made her want to slap him. It was still obnoxious in a way which was wholly Scorpius, still over the top and eminently confident, but it was aimed directly at her, full of the assumption that he knew exactly what she was thinking and was entirely in control.

And for once, as his ice-blue eyes locked onto hers and the feeling was like an impact slamming her in the chest back against the door, she didn’t feel like proving him wrong just for the principle of it. She did feel like hexing him in the face, but Rose had to reluctantly concede that Scorpius was right: often, that was a pretty confusing feeling.

‘Damn you,’ she murmured, voice hoarse - then she’d grabbed him by the collar of his Quidditch uniform and was pulling his head down to hers, lips needy, touch ardent. Back by the forest she’d still been coming down from the adrenaline of their escape, had still been shocked into a certain numbness from his sudden grab for her, but that was faded now, and for the second time in as many moments she found herself conceding Scorpius Malfoy was right.

She was alive, and she wanted to feel like it. Not terrified for her life in the woods, or stressed while hard at work in the dungeons, or worried sick over her brother and friends. Something good. Invigorating. Him.

He had her pinned between his body and the door now, and she didn’t think she’d be able to stand of her own volition if she tried. One of her hands was buried in his hair, rumpling the wild mop even more if such a thing were possible; the other entangled in the laces at the front of his Quidditch uniform. His kiss was hungry, needy, but not the frantic fumble she’d had with some clumsy teenaged boys; he knew what he was doing, and the brief flash of jealousy and doubt that came with that thought was an unpleasant mix of a cocktail in her stomach.

She almost pulled back - then his hand slipped around to the small of her back to pull her closer, and she became infinitely aware of the thick, cushioned padding of his Quidditch uniform, and suddenly this was a far more pressing consideration. Her fingers fumbled with the laces at the front of his chestpiece, pulling them loose so she could push the uniform off his shoulders and so there was only a thin shirt between her fingertips and his skin -

Then he was pulling back, eyes wide, cheeks flushed. Her fingers fumbled with thin air for a second as he drew away so suddenly the tingling memory of him felt almost real. His chest was heaving, and his breath came ragged enough to make his voice hoarse. ‘Hector...’

Rose slumped against the door, pressing a hand against her temples. ‘I didn’t think it was like that between you two, but I suppose that does explain a lot,’ she managed to drawl. He looked so surprised at her answer - at him raising the serious point and her deflecting it with humour - that she couldn’t fight the relieved giggle she’d been trying to sit on.

Scorpius ran a hand through his hair, as if it needed to be made any messier. ‘I... what?’

‘I’m not an idiot, Malfoy, I have thought about this. I had a whole walk up to the castle where I didn’t want to think too hard about Lockett shouting at me,’ said Rose, amused at him being the flustered one for once. ‘I’ve only ever been realistic about Hector and me and our relationship. We’ve only been together four months, and that’s a pretty generous reckoning when you take into account I barely saw him over summer and then there’s been Phlegethon. It’s not like we’re married and it’s not like I ever saw it lasting and if I’m here with you that makes it clear... whatever happens, I guess it makes it clear that I don’t exactly want him, do I?’

Scorpius stared at her, boggled. ‘But he’s...’

‘Ill, now.’ Rose sighed. ‘And when he wakes up I’ll feel like a jerk for telling him, but he’ll be cured then and this situation will be behind us.’

He dropped his hands, defeated. ‘You got this figured out, don’t you.’

‘Apparently I’m good at that,’ said Rose. ‘But though tonight makes it pretty clear to me Hector and I are over, that doesn't actually tell me anything for sure about... you... and me...’ Now uncertainty did creep into her voice, and she wrung her hands together, for want of something to do with them.

‘I, um.’ Scorpius worked his jaw eloquently. ‘I guess we have to figure that out.’

‘I guess so.’ A smile tugged at the corner of her lips. ‘Just do me a favour? Can you... keep this under your hat for a day or so? I’d like to survive being mauled by Mum and helping Lockett out with the next stage of brewing before working out if anyone, like Al, gets told... anything. If there’s anything to tell them.’

‘Oh. Yeah, sure.’ He bobbed his head, gaze awkward. ‘And, er, sorry for... fussing then. About you and Hector. I should have known you knew what you were doing.’

‘Sometimes? I don’t. And it was sweet.’ Rose stepped in, leaning up to kiss him on the cheek, and gave a weary smile. ‘I should get some sleep.’

‘Same.’ Scorpius managed an uncertain, lopsided smile. ‘Maybe we can, er, talk again tomorrow. You know. Once all the mauling and brewing’s been done.’

‘Of course.’ Rose gave the faintest of nods. ‘I mean, tonight was crazy, with the running for our lives and all, so we don’t want to... you know... jump into things if we’re still a bit with the need for something “life-affirming”... right?’

‘Right.’

‘Right.’ She nodded, and stepped back. ‘I’ll see you in the morning.’

‘Sure.’ His expression was rather morose as she turned to the door, but she was almost into the corridor and closing it behind her before he spoke again. ‘R- Weasley?’

She heard the stumble at her name and hesitated, glancing over her shoulder. ‘Malfoy?’

‘I...’ Then his voice trailed off, and he shoved his hands in his pockets, looking surprisingly small and tired now he wasn’t wearing the thick, padded Quidditch jerkin. ‘I’m not just being a jerk who’ll say in the morning this was a spur of the moment, near-death experience one-off thing,’ he told her left boot.

Rose gave him a smile she hoped he saw as encouraging. ‘I’ll see you in the morning, Malfoy,’ she said, and thought he began to return the grin as she closed the door behind her and headed down the corridor. She was exhausted, her limbs were aching from running and being Stunned, and she couldn’t help but feel a little sick at the thought of confronting her mother the next morning. And yet still Rose had to fight the urge to skip the distance down the corridor, to her room, and into a bed where for once the dreams that awaited her were more pleasant than strained.

Chapter 20: Crash and Burn
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‘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.


Chapter 21: Raked Over the Ashes
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Within days, between the hard work of Lockett, Rose, and Methuselah, the draught to alleviate Phlegethon’s symptoms had been made in bulk enough to rejuvenate a good portion of the school. Although those suffering the most severely still hadn’t recover consciousness - including, frustratingly, Headmaster Thaddeus Stubbs - the diagnostic spells suggested they could rest more easily, breathe more easily.

And the majority had more luck. Although Phlegethon was draining enough on the energy of the afflicted to keep them sleepy and bed-bound, soon most of Hogwarts was healthy enough to at least drift in and out of consciousness. They were weak and weary, and over dinner one night Albus mused that he probably couldn't speak with Lily for more than half an hour or so a day before exhaustion claimed her, but they were awake. Doing better. And even though Phlegethon remained a constant danger, although their work was not done, everyone’s spirits were raised by this small victory.

Everyone’s spirits, that was, save Scorpius’.

Without thinking, the first day after the initial tests had gone so successfully and he’d rowed so bitterly with the two people in the school he had to suppose he cared the most about, he’d fallen into his normal routine. Left Albus a cup of tea while he examined the upkeep of the wards. Brought breakfast down to Rose.

Albus had been decidedly cool. He’d thanked him, drunk his tea, and carried on with what he was doing. But it was different to when they’d fought all those weeks ago over his prank in Potions; this wasn’t frustration and anger simmering below the surface. It was a quiet, burning disappointment. Albus wasn’t going to fight with him, put him down publicly, or do anything but discreetly stay out of his way. And be upset.

It took Scorpius a few days before he realised that this time Albus wouldn’t just snap out of it. To change this, he was supposed to apologise, but by then he felt so low he couldn’t bring himself to. Not just walk up, apropos of nothing, and explain himself. Because he had no explanation.

Rose had been both easier and yet harder to face. She’d looked so surprised and guilty when he’d appeared in the dungeon with her breakfast that he couldn’t be angry with her - and then she’d thanked him, voice wavering, and he’d realised that, actually, he could be angry. It wasn’t that hard when he felt discarded like yesterday’s Prophet.

It felt like too much of a statement to stop what he was doing. So he’d decided to start earlier, earlier even than her, and have breakfast and tea waiting for her by the time she made it down to the dungeons. It was a compromise, one where he didn’t feel like he was being petty, but didn’t have to talk to her politely. Because the alternative was talking to her impolitely, and that hadn’t done him much good in recent weeks.

Selena was even less interested in speaking with him than usual. The only people to not change their behaviour were Lockett and Methuselah; Lockett, for her part, seemed more stressed by their success, taking more late nights, and Scorpius hoped silently they weren’t late nights with firewhiskey like the bottle he’d found her drinking when she’d hid from the world in the staff room.

Methuselah Jones, of course, was just Methuselah Jones, and continued to be oblivious.

It helped that Al, Rose, and Selena had friends and family to see to. He didn’t need to feel so bad about not daring to talk to Albus - after all, he had Lily to speak with again, and all of his cousins, even if the time together was fleeting. It wasn't like he was leaving his best friend alone in these harsh times. And the same for Rose - she and Al had one another, of course, but now she had Hugo and the rest.

And Hector. He knew she still spent time talking with Hector. And with her friends, with Hestia and Cheryl. And Matthias Doyle.

So, really, they didn’t need him at all.

No longer joining Albus on the patrols around the school, going back to bed after Hermione Granger’s morning briefing seemed a luxury he could allow himself. It wasn’t as if he had many other perks to enjoy. On the fourth morning after the rift, he’d paused on his way up to redirect a House Elf to gather some of Lockett’s affairs down in the dungeon at her request, then headed back to his room.

The delay would prove to have some of the most annoying consequences of his life as he got to his door just in time to see Selena stepping out of hers. She frowned at him. ‘Wardrobe change, Scorpius?’

‘Sorry, are you the only one of us who can’t be seen in the same frock twice in one day, Selena?’

She narrowed her eyes. ‘Walther the fourth-year choked on his potion and spat it all over me. You know this. I’m vain enough to not walk around covered in Hufflepuff spew all day. Does that meet with your approval?’ He grunted and pulled the door open, but she wasn’t done. ‘Merlin, are you going back to bed?’

Scorpius faltered. ‘What the hell else am I supposed to do, Selena? Help Jones? I can’t. Help Lockett? She doesn’t need it. Help Rose or Albus? They don’t want me to.’

‘Astonishing they don’t want you around, considering your delightfully tempestuous nature these days,’ she drawled. ‘You could make yourself useful.’

He turned to her angrily, hands on his hips. ‘Really? Because nobody else seems to think I’m useful! Did you have some amazing task I could perform in mind?’

‘I do, actually.’ Selena cocked her head half an inch. ‘Parents have started writing to the students again. Some of those students are now even conscious enough to understand them.’

‘So?’ There had been no letters for him. Not since the first.

So, any of them who are conscious enough to read them still aren’t in a state to go to the owlery and collect them. There are a couple of days’ worth of letters. You could make yourself useful.’

Indignation writhed in him, alive and well despite his low spirits. ‘You mean I could become Hogwarts’ bloody postman.’

‘I mean you could take letters between scared parents and their suffering children. I mean you could read to struggling students so they hear some word of support from their families to lift their spirits. I mean you could even help those afflicted to pen a few words in response and send them out.’ Selena said all of this in a mocking, sing-song voice which didn’t endear the prospect to Scorpius.

‘Why can’t you do that?’

‘Because I’m either working with the House Elves to get their diagnoses done and make sure everyone’s taken their potions, or I’m helping Methuselah go through the Library.’ Selena said the last part with a hint of distaste.

‘House Elves,’ said Scorpius. ‘They can do it.’

‘Oh, be sensible, Scorpius. Harley’s at his wits’ end already playing nursemaids to young witches and wizards; I don’t want to demean him further by asking him to play their scribe and owl.’

‘But you’ll demean me like that?’

She gave a smile which would make Mona Lisa proud, if either of them knew who she was. ‘It’s like you set yourself up for these answers, Scorpius. You want to be useful? This is how you make yourself useful. Or you can sleep for a few hours while everyone else does some work.’ She swept past him, the wave of arrogance enough to knock him silly, and sauntered down the corridor as he sputtered.

‘I braved the Forbidden Forest, you know!’ Scorpius snapped after her. ‘I snuck into an Acromantula’s lair and survived a run-in with a lunatic!’

Selena looked over her shoulder. ‘That is so last week, Scorpius,’ she told him, and left.

Scorpius scowled at the door and considered if he could make an Acromantula 's lair this week's news, perhaps by using it as a suitable place to dump Selena's body. But she had a point. Lockett had just alleviated everyone’s symptoms with her new potion and had perhaps saved lives; she wasn’t taking a break when there was more to do.

That was how he found himself stood up in the owlery, at the tall tower which was rather unforgiving on weary legs, staring at the array of postboxes. Normally the owls would have dropped off the post at breakfast for the students to collect, but as the traditions and habits of Hogwarts had died, everything they’d been bringing which wasn’t for one of the six of them came up here. He’d not realised anyone had been writing at all; a House Elf must have told Selena. And after only a few days of the news going out that students might be able to read and receive word again, there were quite a few letters.

Scorpius sighed at the piles. ‘You know,’ he told the letters irritably, ‘I wish everyone else in Hogwarts had parents who shared my father’s opinions on writing to their children. Send just the one letter, make it short, and be sure to be so obnoxious that there will be absolutely no ongoing correspondence.’

And yet, despite himself, he checked the Slytherin sixth years’ box and checked the perches for any possible sign of a foreign bird, not expecting a great deal. As ever, he found nothing at all. For once this disappointment hit him a whole lot harder than it usually did.

I know he’s probably not even told you what’s going on, Mum; I understand.

Maybe a third of the school had letters, which promised that there would likely be more to come, but that still meant almost a hundred letters to contend with. Scorpius found himself conjuring up bags soon enough, splitting them up by House, and setting them to levitate behind him as he headed down the steps out of the owlery. This wouldn’t take too long; distribution would be swift and then he could get back to doing something he actually wanted to do.

He started with Ravenclaw House, because it was nearest, and promptly regretted his choice once he reached the top of that stairway and saw the implacable metal eagle knocker looking down at him.

Scorpius scowled. ‘All right. Give me your best shot.’

As expected, it shifted. ‘How can you leave a room with two legs and return with six?

He smirked. ‘Easy. Bring a chair.’ The door swung open, and Scorpius’ smile only broadened as he stepped into the shadow of the stairway. 'Honestly, I think you're losing your touch. What happened to the classics? A man with a chicken and a fox and a loaf of bread trying to cross a river? Complicated poems which are all about the letter "r"? You've just been trying to be difficult and contrary with me and it’s got you nowhere.’ He tutted. The knocker remained as silent as expected. ‘Just something to think about.’

Whistling to himself, he took the stairs two at a time, glad at last to have something to think about other than Albus’ disappointed eyes or Rose’s guilty glances. There were students who’d need these letters, though when he went from room to room most of them were still asleep, and he was careful to put the envelopes on the bedside tables in a spot where they’d be noticed when they woke up. No point in leaving them where they weren’t seen.

Still, one of the third-year girls, pale-faced but conscious and sat up to read a book, did smile when he came in. ‘Oh, I was wondering when we’d get letters.’

‘Well, wonder no more.’ Scorpius smirked as he rifled around the sack, and was glad that the House Elves had taken to leaving notes by every student which at least gave their names. ‘It’s your lucky day.’

‘So I see. Thank you,’ she said, taking the letter, and that was all the attention he got as she opened it up and began to read.

Is that it?

Scorpius peered at her for half a moment, but she was done paying attention to him, so he put down the other letter for that room and headed for the door. There had been no joy. No surprise that letters had come through. No more regard for him having brought in the first word from the girl’s family in weeks than she might give a particularly valued family owl.

Of course, for them, it’s not been weeks. They’ve only just woken up and now their parents have written to them. That’s business as usual. They don’t know how serious it is.

Frustration swam through his mind as he distributed the rest of Ravenclaw House’s letters. It wasn’t that he wanted to stop and lecture every conscious student on just how hard it had been to get to the point where they were even capable of reading these letters, let alone how hard it had been to know it was safe to send the bloody things. That would just worry and stress people already suffering.

But, as he put a letter down next to Saxby’s bed, only for his classmate to give a muggy, semi-conscious mumble and claw to snatch the envelope up without even acknowledging him, a little more gratitude would have gone a long way.

He was scowling to himself as he made his way back down into the Ravenclaw common room - and almost walked into Lockett, standing in front of the tall grandfather clock just by the stairs, her gaze detached and thoughtful. They both started, and Scorpius let the bag of Gryffindor post fall to the floor with a curse.

‘Professor, we really need to stop scaring the hell out of one another like this,’ he said, gathering up his bags.

‘Sorry, Malfoy,’ she said, and sounded halfway sincere. ‘I didn't know anyone was in here, it's so much noisier now some of them are awake.' Lockett lifted her gaze towards the dormitories, a tired smile tugging at the lines of her face. 'I come up here to think sometimes.'

‘I was bringing them their post. Someone has to,’ said Scorpius, not sure if he should be apologising. ‘I didn’t realise anyone comes up here apart from Jones. And he doesn’t even use the library any more.’

‘Which is why I come here,’ Lockett said, and eyed the bags. ‘How many?’

‘About a hundred,’ said Scorpius. ‘Ravenclaw was my first stop. Professor...’ His voice trailed off, and she gave him a quizzical look. ‘I don’t want to worry anyone. Or do anything to set back their energy when they should be concentrating on staying healthy, fighting Phlegethon.’ Briefly, his thoughts flashed to Rose giving that exact same excuse for why she couldn’t break up with Hector, and his chest tightened. ‘But most of the students don’t really seem to get what’s going on.’

‘They don’t need to,’ said Lockett. ‘You’re right about how state of mind can play a role in this as much as physical health, especially when it comes to fighting the effects of dark magic. The elixir’s doing more for them than just letting them wake up. Phlegethon seeps into their bodies, keeping every inch of them weakened and twisted by it. Even the ones who’ve not woken up, like the Headmaster, are better off because of the elixir.’

‘I suppose.’ He ran a hand through his hair and judged it prudent to not say, But it’s making them ungrateful little bastards. It also seemed rude to just leave, so he tilted his head at Lockett. ‘You doing all right, Professor?’

‘Why wouldn’t I be?’

‘I don’t...’ He had never run into her up here before, and yet she said it was somewhere she came to so she could think. But normally, by now, Rose would be up to her elbows in something in the dungeons, and he and Albus would be pretending to work by flying even once the perimeter was checked, and Methuselah would be doing his research while Selena fawned over him. Normally, there would be nobody here to interrupt.

And suddenly Scorpius was acutely aware that it was impossible for him to be the loneliest person in Hogwarts so long as Professor Lockett was the only person over the age of seventeen still conscious.

Here you are complaining about not being recognised for what you’ve done, when she’s holding all of our lives in her hands and still gets crap from -

‘Professor, do you mind if I ask you something?’

Lockett sighed and waved a hand at the comfortable armchairs near the fireplace. ‘If you must, Malfoy.’

‘I kind of think I should.’ He fidgeted with the cuffs of his shirt as he went to join her. ‘I’ve not mentioned this to anyone else. It didn’t seem fair, or helpful. Like you say, we have to focus on, well, getting through this. Not panicking about things we can’t change.’

‘I’m going to make a wild guess that you’re panicking about something anyway,’ she said dryly.

‘I spoke with Hermione Granger,’ he said, and saw her gaze turn guarded. ‘She told me... quite a bit.’

‘Did she, now.’

‘About your research. About how you and your team were arrested. About how you...’ Scorpius hesitated.

‘Sold them out? That’s how Granger put it, isn’t it.’ Lockett didn’t wait for him to confirm before making a noise of irritation. ‘The streak of self-righteousness is bloody strong with that family, Malfoy, I’ll tell you. Only interested in half the facts so long as that half fits what they want to see.’

Scorpius thought, bitterly, of Rose’s willingness to believe the rumours that had flown around school about him. ‘I hear you on that one.’

‘Let me guess, she made it sound like I sold out my team to the MLE for smuggling, just so I could reap the rewards of the elixir, only for the whole potions community to turn on me?’ Lockett quirked an eyebrow. ‘I wouldn’t call it a lie. It’s not the whole truth. Still, I wonder why you’re asking.’

‘I’m not going to start something,’ said Scorpius. ‘But you’ll forgive me, Professor, if I’m a bit anxious about who the only teacher in Hogwarts really is. The person who’s pretty much responsible for all our lives.’

‘No pressure.’ Lockett rolled her eyes. ‘And I’d say you’ve made it clear, Malfoy, you’re responsible for your own life. And that was meant to be a compliment.’

‘You’re not good at those,’ he observed. 'But I'm also asking because I'm trying this new thing - it's crazy, really, everyone should do it - where I try to look at the person, not their reputation.'

‘A smart thing for a boy called Malfoy to do,’ Lockett agreed. She sighed, scrubbing her face with her hands. ‘The Elixir of Clarity we were working on wasn’t a money-spinner. We had a lot of backing from various companies which wanted to use it for their own research and development, academic corners believing it could help great thinkers achieve even more, but that wasn’t the reason we were working on it. It wasn’t the reason I was working on it.’

Scorpius frowned. ‘What did it do?’

‘Humans don’t use the entirety of their brain on any kind of conscious level, did you know that? This elixir helped people, for a limited time, use more of their brain to think. It sounded pretty damn dangerous to me for someone to use it for academic purposes; you go all Flowers for Algernon.’ Lockett continued despite Scorpius’ nonplussed expression. ‘But it also helped witches and wizards use parts of their brain which had shut down. Which was what we were interested in. Preliminary tests suggested it was going to be incredibly helpful to people who’d suffered from proximity to Dementors.’

He blinked. ‘Dementors?’

‘Continued exposure to their effects is incredibly crippling to witches and wizards, even without the application of the Dementor’s Kiss,’ said Lockett, her gaze going distant as it locked on the empty fireplace. ‘Most go mad from it eventually. Some, to cope, they just... go away, inside. Their minds flick off somewhere else so they don’t have to put up with what they’re dealing with. And they don’t come back again afterwards.’

‘This Elixir of Clarity - it helped bring them back?’

Lockett nodded awkwardly. ‘A bit. And for some people coming back wasn’t a good thing, and plenty needed help as well as a potion, but it was changing lives. And it still wasn’t perfect, and we still hadn’t refined the process enough to make it easily brewed, something which could be easily distributed, and we needed more reagents even as our funding dried up.’

‘So you smuggled in what you needed.’

‘And we got caught.’ She leant back, eyes going skywards. ‘I didn’t sell my team out for my own sake, Malfoy. Each of us knew what we were getting into. At the stage of development we were in, I was the most integral researcher for the project's success. So we agreed that, no matter what happened, I couldn't go to prison, I couldn't have my credentials revoked, I had to finish the process. They knew what that meant.’

Scorpius frowned. ‘It meant bargaining with the MLE and testifying against your team so you were let off.’

‘So I could finish the work.’ Lockett’s expression closed up. ‘And I did. And the Elixir of Clarity is available in places like Saint Mungo’s to victims of Dementors, and they’re even conducting studies now in its use for helping victims of extended use Cruciatus.’

‘I didn’t know there were so many around,’ he admitted. ‘Not that it doesn’t mean they don’t need help too.’

‘The scars of war. They don’t go away,’ Lockett mused.

He looked at her. ‘What was it, Professor? A family member?’

She looked at him, startled. ‘A family member who what?’

‘Who needed the Elixir or Clarity because of the Dementors.’ He gave an apologetic smile. ‘Sorry. You can tell me to mind my own business. But there’s no way that wasn’t personal.’

She shook her head, and he thought she was going to shut him down. ‘It wasn’t a family member. My family are Muggles, all of them, they’ve steered clear of the magical world.’ Lockett drew a sharp breath. ‘I didn’t need the Elixir of Clarity. But I spent ten months in Azkaban during the war.’

Scorpius hesitated. ‘Why?’

‘Like I said.’ She smiled humorlessly. ‘My family are all Muggles.’

‘So it was people you know who needed the Elixir, or...’

‘No. Nobody I knew. Not before I started my research.’ Lockett shook her head. ‘I was one of the lucky ones. I got out of prison and I got back into the job I’d studied for, and my career took off so quickly it took me away from family, away from friends, and everything was working out so well and so busy that I didn’t think I’d ever need to look back.’ She gave a one-shouldered shrug. ‘So it turns out that meant I was hiding from everything I’d been through, and when I ran into a Dementor while hunting Tibetan antelopes for more exotic bezoars almost ten years later, I had something of a breakdown.’

Scorpius shifted his weight, surprised at the honesty coming from the professor, but he suspected he was one of the first people in a long time with whom she had even begun to discuss her circumstances. ‘And that makes you one of the lucky ones?’

‘I was out of work for three years trying to deal with what I’d been through in Azkaban. It was after that I stopped working on the dark magic cures which had driven my career for so long and fell into working on enhancement elixirs. I didn't care for it as much, and because I lacked that passion I wasn't as good at it, but it was... safer. I didn’t run into anything I couldn’t cope with.’ Lockett snorted. ‘I was in that state of going through the motions for another ten years before I found the team for the Elixir of Clarity. But I am still a respected academic, a recognised expert in my field, with a good career. I still had the renown for Professor Stubbs to approach me after the Clarity debacle for a job here at Hogwarts. Yes. I was one of the lucky ones.’

‘Bloody hell.’ Scorpius sagged in his chair. ‘Does Ms Granger know any of this?’

‘She has enough of the specifics that I’m sure a woman of her intellect could put it all together if she cared to. But she championed these laws which made our smuggling illegal in the first place; she demanded more accountability and oversight for the reagent gathering in a way which drove most of the farming off British shores. Hermione Granger has done a lot of good for this country, and especially a lot of good for Muggle-borns, but that was not her finest moment. And I think you know, from knowing her daughter so well, just how stubborn these women can be.’

Scorpius scowled. ‘Yeah. I got that memo.’ He rolled his shoulders. ‘I’m sorry for... prying, Professor.’

‘I could have told you to mind your own business. I didn’t.’ She inclined her head. ‘If I’d known she’d told you all of that, I’d have cleared some of this up earlier. The last thing I want is for you kids to doubt me.’

‘I think a few of them are a bit more used to the huggy ways of Professor Teague and the others,’ he admitted.

‘I mean doubt my competence. Because I know I might only be an average teacher, but this? Curing Phlegethon?’ Lockett ran a hand through her hair. ‘This is something I’m actually meant to be halfway bloody decent at.’

‘You are.’ Scorpius paused awkwardly. ‘I mean, you know you’re an expert in your field. You don’t need my validation.’

‘No. But your faith... doesn’t hurt.’ She looked over at him, and he could have sworn her entire bearing seemed lighter, less burdened. ‘Thanks. For bringing this to me.’

‘That’s all right, Professor. Like I say. I’m trying to check truth in reputations before I jump at them.’

‘Hoping it might rub off on someone else?’ said Lockett lightly, and then, of all things, she smirked. ‘Like I said, I used to be good with people. I might not take the time to say the right things now but I spot them.’

‘I’m not sure it’s time,’ said Scorpius awkwardly. ‘I take plenty of time and people still call me a jerk.’

‘Yes, but after taking time to consider your options, do you often say anything but what first popped into your head anyway?’ she wondered, standing up. ‘Try it.’

‘It’s not my problem right now.’

‘No, your problem right now is that people think they have a right to judge you. And whether or not they do, nobody likes being judged.’ Lockett turned to him. ‘You seem to think I should do more hand-holding, so here’s my hand-holding for the day: You can let others judge you or not, I really don’t care. The only judgement you have to live by is your own. Just make sure that judgement’s fair.’

Scorpius quirked an eyebrow. ‘Did you get that out of a book somewhere, Professor?’

‘Christmas cracker,’ she said with surprisingly good humour. ‘You’d better get back to those letters, Scorpius.’

It was, he’d realised, the first conversation in days where the other person hadn’t been dripping with disapproval, like Selena, or disinterest, like Methuselah, or disappointment, like Albus. Or guilt, and that lingering judgement stirred up to justify her decisions, like Rose.

Maybe he could stand to put up with some semi-conscious students for a while.

Slytherin House was his next step. The common room was a comfortable haven, familiar and enclosing, and this time he could see how people he cared something about were doing. So he started with his own dormitory, and Oakes was happier to see him than Scorpius could remember, and even happier with the letter. The girls’ dormitory was much the same - Abena even thanked him instead of acting like her delivering him post was him in his rightful place.

And Miranda was still asleep, stuck in the deepest depths of Phlegethon still. Colour was returning to her cheeks, but her dark hair still hung limp around her face and she was still motionless save her breathing.

He didn’t linger longer than he had to.

But the day’s work was, he had to admit, worth it when he walked into the Second Year Boys’ dormitory to see Tim Warwick sat up, awake, and grinning at him. And for the first time in days, the knot in Scorpius’ stomach loosened. ‘Tim, my boy! How’re you feeling?’

‘Hey, Scorp.’ Tim’s smile was tired, but genuine. ‘Like I slept for a year and could sleep some more.’

‘Yeah, you’re not all better yet. Don’t you strain yourself; you concentrate on patching up.’ Scorpius glanced around the dorm to confirm that Tim was the only one of the boys here awake, and padded over to his friend’s bedside. ‘I’ve got something for you. Letter.’

The boy’s face lit up more. ‘Woah, Mum and Dad are rubbish with owls usually...’

‘Yeah, this one’s got Departmental stamp; it’ll have gone through the Ministry. Looks like they helped them out,’ said Scorpius, feeling a sudden surge of gratitude towards Hermione Granger. It was almost certainly her who’d made sure that Muggle parents had the means of getting in touch with their children in this crisis.

Tim took the letter as Scorpius handed it over - then his expression suddenly clouded. ‘Um...’

Scorpius frowned. This was meant to be good news. ‘What’s up?’

‘I - I can’t...’ His voice trailed off, then Tim scowled. ‘Everything’s a bit blurry still.’

Before he knew what he was doing, Scorpius had taken the letter back and was cracking it open. ‘Then don’t you worry, my lad,’ he drawled, trying to bring the smile back. ‘You just kick back and I’ll read it for you.’

Tim relaxed, sagging on the pillows - tired again but, now, relieved. ‘Thanks, Scorp. And... Scorp?’ Their eyes met as Scorpius looked to him, confused. ‘My parents really don’t get much about the wizarding world. I had so much trouble convincing Dad to let me fly over the holidays. I don’t know how much of these official leaflets you say they’re handing out they’re going to get. I want to write back to them.’

Scorpius saw the next question even before it was asked, and gave Tim a warm smile. ‘I’ll read it to you. And then I’ll get some ink and a quill - and I’ll write down whatever you want to tell them back and get it sent.’

The younger boy let out a deep breath, his smile still fatigued. ‘Thanks, Scorp,’ he said quietly. ‘You’re a good guy.’

I’m really not, thought Scorpius, as everyone he’d hurt over the past week flickered through his mind. But as he cracked the letter open and began to read it out to the twelve year-old boy who was ill and suffering and far away from parents who barely understood what was going on, he managed to feel a little bit more like he could believe him.


Chapter 22: Hot Issue
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‘You look tired.’

Rose glanced up from the book she’d been reading at Hugo’s interruption. She knew it was a little childish to be reading out loud to him, even if he was too tired to do it much himself. The list of conversation topics was thin, or at least included issues she didn’t want to get into, and this was the best way she could think of keeping him occupied, happy, and spending time with him. She’d expected bellyaching that he wasn’t five years old any more.

She hadn’t expected her little brother to turn the tables.

‘There’s a lot to be doing,’ she admitted, putting the book down. ‘The elixir isn’t a cure, but it might be a lead to one. I’m trying to help Professor Lockett with that.’

‘Oh, come on,’ said Hugo, sleepy but looking content enough. ‘You’re trying to work yourself into an early grave, aren’t you? To get out of all of this?’

She tensed, but he was grinning, and she couldn’t bring herself to berate him for that. ‘I am working hard,’ she agreed. ‘Which is why I’m taking time off with you up here.’

Hugo’s bed was in the corner of the fourth year Gryffindor boys’ dormitory, which was just as well or she’d have had to put up with all of his classmates. Not that she disliked them or begrudged them the chance to spend some time with someone, anyone, but it was a little bit closer to a Florence Nightingale impression than she was strictly happy with.

‘Didn’t say I didn’t appreciate it,’ said Hugo, with all the emotional inaccessibility of a standoffish boy who was set to become just as standoffish as the men - older boys - she knew.

‘I imagine it’s quiet up here with just you lot all the time.’

‘Well, Malfoy comes up.’

Rose narrowed her eyes. ‘Malfoy?’

‘Yeah - the letters?’ Hugo quirked an eyebrow at her. ‘The rest of the guys don’t have big sisters to bring them the post and the news. Isn’t that his job?’

His job is to stay out of my way, leave me breakfast behind as some sort of creepy generous guilt-trip, and to walk around like a bear with a headache. Scorpius’ bad mood had become an accepted part of Hogwarts over the last week, and the knowledge this was mostly her fault meant she wanted to have as little to do with him as possible. Not just so she didn’t have to deal with him - but she certainly didn’t want to have her guilt thrown in her face.

‘I didn’t realise,’ said Rose, feeling a bit stupid. Of course her parents wouldn’t be the only ones writing now that plenty of Hogwarts students were at least conscious enough to know they’d been written to.

‘Yeah. He comes up with the post, gives it out, reads it to them who aren’t well enough to read it. Even writes a dictated letter back if they’re too tired to do it themselves.’

And that was the day Rose learned Scorpius was going through the fifty-six student dormitories with the post, daily.

She ran into him later, seeking him out for the first time all week. She’d gone through all the common rooms once Hugo had drifted off to sleep, trying to find him, though there had been evidence of his passing when she’d known to look for it. Letters left on nightstands. Sleepy students clutching unfolded sheets of paper. Children resting but looking, for once, content rather than tense.

Process of elimination had her scurrying last of all up the steps to Ravenclaw Tower, and this trip brought the sound of footsteps above rather than just the gloomy silence that she’d found at the Hufflepuff and Slytherin common rooms. And as she rounded the final spiral he was there, stood beside the door, lowering the magically-levitated bag of post.

He jumped as he saw her, tired gaze at first surprised and unpleasantly, openly raw at the sight of her - then his expression twisted into a scowl. ‘Weasley. What do you want?’

Rose opened and closed her mouth. What was she actually coming to say? To ask? Hugo had told her and all she’d thought was that she had to find him - and she’d just spent half an hour tearing around the castle looking for him. Now that she was face to face with him, anything she had to say sounded redundant or cruel.

‘The post,’ she stammered eloquently. ‘I mean. You’re doing it?’

Scorpius narrowed his eyes. ‘Yes,’ he said, extending the word as if she were dim.

‘Why?’

It wasn’t what she meant to say, or imply, and his eyes flashed. ‘Because not everyone’s got a big sister or big brother to look out for them. Because someone has to do it. Because I need to make myself useful. Because I feel like a bit less of an arse -’ He stopped himself, gaze still blazing, before he turned to the ornate doorknocker to Ravenclaw tower, and rapped it.

As it had done many times before, it shifted before her eyes for the beak to open, and the ominous voice to echo out with, ‘What question can you never answer “yes” to?’

‘Is Rose Weasley not an enormous bitch?’ Scorpius smirked cruelly.

She narrowed her eyes. ‘You’re really stretching sentence construction to shoehorn that one in.’

‘Fine. Have I been treated fairly and honestly or have I been completely screwed over and led up the garden path?’

‘You can’t answer an “or” question with “yes”,’ she said flatly.

‘I think I’ve made my case,’ said Scorpius, before turning back to her. ‘Now. Seriously. What did you want? And if you came here to say it makes me sound like a good guy to be doing this for everyone who’s sick, I really, really don’t want to hear it. Not just because it’ll just be you trying to make yourself feel less bad about all of this, but I think I’ve made it pretty damn clear I’m not a good guy.’

She worked her jaw silently, taken aback by his sheer venom, guilt hitting her all over again in a fresh wave. But before she could answer, before she could find something that denied both points, he turned to the door and, in a voice as cold as when he’d first addressed her, gave the knocker its answer.

Are you dead?

The door swung open at his words, and Scorpius simply turned, bags now hovering again to follow him, and disappeared into the stairway up the tower without giving her a chance to say anything.

Not that she had anything more to say.

It was another two days before she had the chance to talk to Albus about it. Not that she didn’t see Albus every day. But they had both been driven away, into their own separate hiding holes of upset and worry and stress, and they’d allowed the recovery of their siblings and cousins to bring reassurance and distraction.

And above all, neither one of them had mentioned Scorpius. Rose had no idea what had happened between them, except that immediately after she and Scorpius had rowed, he and Albus had seemed to no longer be on speaking terms either.

It wasn’t that she didn’t want to help her cousin. But she worried, if she brought the topic up - would he turn the tables on her, ask questions she wasn’t sure how to answer, didn’t know how to answer? And there was always so much to do. Work, research, and in the quiet times, they were with Hugo and Lily and their cousins. She had no desire to bring pain to those quiet moments.

So she didn’t mention it until one morning where they were both leaving the Great Hall after the briefing with her mother, and she drew a shaking breath and didn’t quite look at Albus as she bluntly said, ‘Did you know about Malfoy and the letters?’

Albus’ hesitation told her all she needed to know. That he’d known, and didn’t want to make anything of it. That he was unsure what to say to her about Scorpius. That he was unsure what to feel about Scorpius. But hesitation was still not a response, and he gave a stiff nod. ‘I heard. I think it’s good.’

‘It is,’ she said, because there was nothing to do but agree. But the doors were open now, and though she had no desire to linger on the topic of Scorpius, she couldn’t just slam them shut again. ‘Are - are you all right, Al? I’ve been -’

‘Worried about you,’ he finished, turning to face her as they reached the huge doors onto the grounds. The chill of winter was settling into Hogwarts now, but still the doors were open, the cold wind seeping into the halls and the corridors and the rooms.

It had already seeped into their bones.

Albus gave a lopsided grimace of a smile at her expression. ‘We’re all tense, Rosie -’

She tensed at the familiarity; it felt a mixture of a lie and an echo and she wanted to deal with neither right then. ‘So what? You are, and -’ And I don’t want to talk about Malfoy. And I don’t think you do either.

But this is about more than just Scorpius Malfoy.

‘I never apologised to you myself,’ she said, falteringly. ‘I mean, just myself. For going into the Forest like that. For not telling you. For letting Malfoy nick the Map and for agreeing to keep you out of it. I mean, I said sorry, but he was there and - I mean, I owe you an apology.’

Albus’ gaze flickered over her expression for a moment. His big, honest face had just grown more and more tense in the past few months. Of all of them, he voiced his upset, his tension, his discontent the least, and yet she could see it, every day, wearing him down. Every day he stooped a little more as if the weight on his shoulders was literal. Every day he talked a little more quietly, a little more wearily. Of all of them, she suspected it was Albus who had aged the most, just because he felt it all more keenly than the rest of them.

Rose, for her part, was becoming rather practiced in Not Feeling it.

‘Come on,’ he said with a sigh, pointing out the doors. ‘I need to do a quick grounds-check on foot. The wards were giving me some odd input this morning and I didn’t have time to check it out before the briefing.’

‘Whereabouts?’

‘I’m not sure,’ he said as he led her out the door and onto the grounds, the grass crunching underfoot from the gentle frost. ‘But I think it’s near the Herbology greenhouses.’

They were the outermost part of the castle save Hagrid’s cabin or the Quidditch grounds and facilities, and so Rose tugged her coat tightly around herself and fell into step beside him. Even though he’d changed the course of the conversation, she knew this was an invitation to talk, and so floundered for what else to say other than give her apologies.

‘...nobody thinks any less of you for not going, you know that?’

Albus’ shoulders squared as they wandered down the path winding its way through the grounds. ‘I think less of me.’

‘It was a stupid thing to do -’

‘And you did it anyway. Knowing it was stupid.’

‘I didn’t think you’d do something that stupid.’

‘Like stay behind to fight Redcaps off from some supply crates? Stupid like that?’ He gave her a sharp look. ‘When you say stupid, I hear “risky, but important”. When did I ever give the impression I wouldn’t do these things?’

Rose hesitated. ‘You’re right. I’m sorry. I just - you’ve always been -’

‘The sensible one?’ Albus sounded irritated. ‘Rose, how much does it annoy you when people compare you to Aunt Hermione?’

‘Quite a lot -’

‘Now imagine you had not only the shadow of your parents over you, but the shadow of your brother.’

Rose’s brow furrowed. ‘Everyone loves James -’

Exactly.’

‘I really don’t follow.’

‘Dad, the hero. James, the superstar. There aren’t really many directions I can go without falling under someone’s shadow. And even if I tried to move into studies, I’d end up being overshadowed by you.’

Rose’s frown remained, a mixture of perturbed and confused. ‘But you don’t care about that kind of thing, Al - I mean, I find it annoying that everyone compares me to Mum, but I’m still me, we’re not twelve any more -’

‘You didn’t get Sorted into Slytherin.’

Her breath caught. Never before had he mentioned what had happened, never before had he so much as implied that being Sorted into Slytherin was a problem, had been anything but a -

‘You said that in Slytherin you got to be completely different?’

‘I did. I do.’ Albus scowled. ‘But, I don’t know. Everyone said I was so much like Dad - then I got Sorted into Slytherin and it’s like everyone expected me to become his opposite.’

‘That’s ridiculous.’

‘We were eleven; we thought a lot of stupid things. And I was, I was the oddball Potter. James is like - people say James is like Dad could have been if he hadn’t fought a war, because they reckon James is like my Granddad. I’m... I don’t know.’

‘You’re you, Al.’ Rose stopped on the path, the two of them by now a good distance from the main castle and working their way around the outskirts towards the Herbology greenhouses. She reached to grab his sleeve, pulling him to a halt and around to face her. ‘Do you want to know why I didn’t tell you? Really, why I didn’t tell you?’

Albus’ expression creased. ‘I don’t -’

You don’t know if you dare. It was the most vulnerable she’d ever seen him - and on an impulse Rose stepped forward, pulling him to her for a bear-hug. ‘You silly - you are so silly - and I’m so silly -’ He returned the hug, but there was tension and apprehension there, and she knew it wouldn’t go away until she answered. She pulled back, but didn’t let go, gripping his arm tightly. ‘I didn’t not tell you because I thought you’d stop us. I didn’t tell you because I thought you’d go, and then you’d take responsibility, and then if something happened you’d never forgive yourself -’

‘Would you forgive yourself if something happened?’

‘No, but - Al, it’s like you shoulder the world. You’re a million miles away from being the opposite of your father. You feel everything we all feel, you feel all of the worry here, you try to help everyone and you try to fix everything. But most of all, you do it. I couldn’t let Malfoy go alone, but if something happened to us, I couldn’t leave everyone else here without you! Lockett, Jones, Rourke - really?’

Rose sagged as his expression twisted. ‘It was wrong, and I’m sorry. It sounds so stupid for me to tell you that you were too good for us to bring with us, but that’s kind of the truth. You wouldn’t have done it yourself - you’d have trusted Mum to get the reagents in when we needed them. But if we suggested it, you’d have gone with us.’

‘Because I’m family, and I’m your friend.’

‘And you wouldn’t have done it yourself,’ Rose said, and let go of him to lift her hands in defeat. ‘All right - it was wrong. I’m sorry. But it was all wrong, and of all the wrong choices, I picked the wrongest. Which isn’t really a word.’

She wrinkled her nose, but he gave a small, sincere grin, and she relaxed a smidgeon. ‘I don’t want anyone thinking I’m - not a coward, but too cautious.’

‘We don’t, Al. We think you’re too damn good.’ But she offered him a smile, and he seemed to accept it. ‘You’re my cousin, and I love you. But you know how much safer I feel knowing you’re the one checking up on us? Our guardian angel flying about the grounds?’

Albus drew a deep breath. ‘I don’t want to be useless,’ he admitted. ‘And worse, I don’t want to be left behind by my friends because they think too much of me. That sounds kind of stupid.’

‘Because it is kind of stupid. And I’m sorry.’ Rose hesitated. ‘And... we kind of need to stick together in this.’ She didn’t mean all of them. She meant just him and her.

He gave her another look, a look with understanding but also its own hurt and uncertainty she wasn’t sure she dared touch. Then he was walking again, down the winding path towards the Herbology greenhouses. ‘I know. And I do forgive you, Rose, honestly. And I’m getting over fussing if people think I’m Harry Potter’s more cowardly son -’

Nobody thinks that,’ Rose said, eyes widening. ‘You’re his smarter son.’

Albus looked over at her, surprised at her vehemence, and finally he smiled. It was a small smile, but infinitely genuine, honestly affected. ‘That’s really insulting to Dad,’ he said quietly, the smile curving. ‘But it might be the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me.’

Then the path rounded the corner and they were greeted with the broken windows of the Herbology greenhouses.

Rose stared. ‘What the -’

But Albus had grabbed her by the arm, yanking her into the shadow of the castle walls, his wand in hand. ‘Shh.’ She fell silent, by surprise as much as by instruction, and for several long moment they stood there, hidden, watching and waiting.

Nothing moved. Not within the greenhouses, not around the greenhouses - just the wind as it whistled and howled in the gaps, and after several long seconds Albus waved his wand, muttering to himself. She recognised it as a detection spell, one of the more complicated only the best students had attempted in Defence classes last year.

She’d tried it. Not mastered it. Definitely couldn’t do it with the same ease as Albus, and that familiar pang of jealousy stirred in her as she watched him. She might have been the best student of the year, top of almost all classes, but she still envied him for his capabilities. Book-smarts were one thing, but what Al did was magic of the blood and bone and gut and instincts, and she couldn’t begin to rival him.

Not that this was the only reason she had to envy him...

‘Nothing,’ he murmured, letting her go and pulling away from the wall. ‘Anything that came here isn’t here any more.’ He padded towards the greenhouses and she fell into his wake, only just thinking of reaching for her wand as he led her to the first.

They were wrecked, the lot of them. Barely a single window-pane remained untouched, and inside was chaos. Tables were tipped over, pots smashed, a devastation of almost every plant, every greenhouse, almost everything that could be grown or used, and as they picked sombrely through the rubble, Rose finally voiced what they were both thinking.

‘Do you think this was Thane?’

Albus shook his head. ‘I think this was pixies.’

Pixies?’

‘If you wanted to trash the greenhouses, how would you do it? You’d cast a spell and start to level the whole thing, or set fire to it. You wouldn’t go through each one, tipping each pot over, and leaving some left. A couple of the weirder and valuable plants are fine. Every single one of the Shrivelfig’s been wrecked!’

‘So you think this was chaos for its own sake?’ Rose peered under one of the broken wooden tables at the remains of plants strewn about the floor. There was so little left to salvage she didn’t think it was worth it. And, at the least, they hadn’t needed most of it. What they had needed, the Ministry could provide.

‘If Thane was striking at us, he’d be striking the supply crates, wouldn’t he? Not the greenhouses. No, this was pixies from the Forest. I’d put money on it,’ said Albus with certainty.

‘All right.’ She straightened. ‘Aren’t the wards supposed to keep them out?’

‘They do. Normally.’ Albus sighed. ‘The wards are enough to make it uncomfortable for most denizens of the Forest to come onto the grounds. They’re not strong enough to force them out, because - well, that’s a lot of magic and that makes it harder for the staff to use the Forest. But everyone, everything in the Forest is agitated right now.’

‘Agitated enough to ignore the discomfort of the wards?’

‘It was enough for the Redcaps. And it must be getting worse; this is bolder, this is much closer to the castle. And from outside of the Headmaster’s Office I can’t change the wards, and all I can do to monitor them is to use some spells to try to feel when and where they’ve been disrupted.’

‘But we can’t get into the Headmaster’s Office.’

Albus’ gaze turned rueful. ‘Nope.’

‘If you could - you can control the wards from there? Make them stronger, make it so we have a better overview of all of the castle, so if we’re hit we know when and how and where from?’

He shrugged despondently. ‘Yeah, I reckon so.’

Rose’s gaze swept across the ruined greenhouses, then back up towards the castle. They weren’t immediately close to anything but some classrooms, but just a little way around the wall would be the windows into the Hufflepuff common room and dormitories, granting the students a comfortable, ground-level view of the rolling fields and grounds. The pixies hadn’t got any closer to the castle than the greenhouses, as far as they could tell, but they were getting bolder.

What if they snuck up to the castle? What if they broke in and caused chaos? What if they got into one of the dormitories?

‘Al?’

‘Hm?’

‘I’m really sorry about not inviting you to join us on our stupid escapade into the Forbidden Forest.’

He frowned. ‘Look, Rose, right now really isn’t -’

She looked at him, smiling sweetly, and he faltered in confusion. ‘Would you like to join me in a brand-new stupid escapade?’


* *



‘I’ve got good news and bad news,’ said her mother’s Patronus the next morning, sounding more tired than she had in a long time. Rose’s breath caught. ‘I’ll start with the bad, just to - well, it’s important.’

Lockett arched an eyebrow. ‘Kind of you, Ms Granger.’

‘I know,’ Hermione mused, wry and worried. ‘We should have stumbled across this one sooner. But - well, I made the mistake of not asking the one person who could answer it. I was going through the notes on the ritual that Mister Jones sent to us, and though we’ve not been able to find anything conclusive about that, I happened to be studying them when Harry came to see me yesterday.’

Albus lifted his head. ‘Dad knows something about the ritual?’

‘No,’ said Hermione’s patronus, and drew a deep breath. ‘But he saw where on the map the ritual, and now this spawning ground for Dementors happened.’

Methuselah frowned. ‘Location is middle of forest. No confluence of magical energies. No notable ancient landmarks. No relation to any individual species activity or historical -’

‘It’s where he died.’

Rose boggled at her mother. ‘What?’

‘Or, more accurately, it’s where he survived the Killing Curse for a second time, a process which destroyed a Horcrux of Lord Voldemort. It’s also -’ The patronus looked away at this, its little ottery forehead wrinkling. ‘He doesn’t want this getting out. But this is important. It’s also the area where he abandoned the Resurrection Stone.’

Selena quirked an eyebrow. ‘Wait, the fictional -’

‘I’ll explain later,’ said Rose, waving a hand impatiently. The Deathly Hallows, and their fate, was a story she’d had to wrangle out of her mother after the most ferocious reading of her history and her family’s history. This was not the time to retread old stories. ‘You’re saying that the heart of this ritual, the epicentre of this Dementor-spawning darkness, is where horrendously dark magic happened...’

‘And a possibly dark magic item which in itself has a connection to the afterlife was abandoned and lost, yes.’

Lockett’s eyes bulged. ‘Holy shit -’ She seemed to, briefly, realise she was swearing like a trooper in front of children, but carried on regardless, barely missing a beat. ‘Phlegethon, a river into Hades. This isn’t just some sort of fancy name, some sort of pretentious invocation of hell. This is literal. This curse is literally tapping into powers of death, and the dark magic of spells and powers which use death!’

‘Are you saying Phlegethon is killing them?’ asked Albus, suddenly pale.

‘I don’t know if that’s an inevitability, but this isn’t just an illness which is weakening them. It’ll be tethering them to the world of the dead, inflicting them with dark magic energies intended to cause death. It’s weaker, obviously, or they would all be dead, but that’s the source of the evil, the source of the pain,’ Lockett said, hands waving in the air.

‘And this is why Dementors are spawning there,’ said Hermione. ‘That place must have been seeped in the energy already, but the ritual has tapped into the latent power and in harnessing it...’

‘The whole area. Infused with death magic. And the dark magic of Horcruxes,’ intoned Methuselah sombrely. Then he perked up. ‘Much more insight into the ritual, now.’

‘I know this makes me crazy,’ said Rose, ‘but Jones is right. We shouldn’t fuss over the implications of this, we should use it. This is immensely useful to understanding Phlegethon and the means of infection, no?’

‘It is,’ said Lockett, and looked up at Hermione. ‘I think for a cure we need to start looking at different avenues. Not ways of attacking the dark magic. But ways of infusing the afflicted with life magic. Don’t target it, overwhelm it.’

‘It’s an avenue to pursue. And at least, for now, your elixir means the symptoms are under control,’ agreed Hermione. ‘If that’s all, then, I’ll get to -’

‘What’s the good news?’

The patronus looked at Albus. ‘Sorry?’

‘You said there was good news and bad news,’ said Rose. ‘You gave us the bad news. Some good news could go down really well right now.’

‘Oh, of course.’ The patronus looked at the five of them. ‘Where’s Scorpius?’

Albus cleared his throat. ‘In the dorms, I guess. Doing the letters.’

‘Of course he is - that’s rather what I wanted to mention. I’ll catch up on listening to him later.’

Albus and Rose exchanged bewildered glances - and past Albus she could see Lockett and Selena looking equally nonplussed. Methuselah, for his part, just nodded. ‘Listening?’

Hermione’s patronus stared at them. ‘Have you not - has he not mentioned...?’

Rose frowned. ‘Mentioned what?’

‘The wireless.’

This was Methuselah, and all four of them gaped at him. Rose’s scowl only deepened. ‘Someone really needs to explain this!’

Methuselah looked a mixture of bewildered and completely innocent in a way she found maddening - as if he couldn’t understand why she was quite so frustrated. ‘He has been writing to families for the pupils,’ he said in his calm, quick voice. ‘But day by day more parents were writing. And he had more to write back. It was taking him all day to go from dorm to dorm. So he asked me for help. So I gave him the Ravenclaw House Wireless Transmitter. Adapted it to wider broadcast.’

Rose stared at him. ‘Malfoy’s doing a radio show.’

‘Talking to pupils. Letting them read their letters. Letting them answer their parents on the wireless. Said he didn’t have time to write letters out for every student. This way they get to give word anyway.’

‘The Ministry’s been recording it, too, so parents who don’t hear it can listen. He wrote to me a few days ago to tell me about it - has he honestly not mentioned it to you?’ Her mother’s brow furrowed.

‘No! To none of us!’

Albus beamed. ‘That’s such a cool idea.’

It’s mental, was Rose’s first thought. But she also couldn’t disagree with Albus, with Methuselah’s implied points about how this gave every student at Hogwarts the chance to get a message out to their family when the number of people to care for them were so limited, and above all a chance for the parents to hear their children’s voices directly.

‘It’s really helping everyone,’ said Hermione. ‘I have the luck of speaking to you directly, but this is the first most people have heard from the castle themselves. I just wanted to pass that onto Scorpius directly, how much it’s helping everyone. But I imagine he’s busy right now - so if you could tell him?’

Tell Scorpius Malfoy how much good he’s doing, even though he’s liable to throw it in my face. Sure, Mum. Thanks, Mum.

But being told that is no more than he deserves.

And having it thrown in my face is no less than I deserve.


Chapter 23: Burn Through
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'I know it's possible,' Albus said. 'Mum did it once.'

'All right,' said Rose. 'How?'

The two of them sat cross-legged on the floor of the Library, surrounded by piles of paperwork Albus had gathered over the last few months of his supervision of the school wards. Extensive research had been done into the type of wards which protected the school, not just against magic but also physical threats. They were some of the most remarkable protections in the wizarding world, not just for their resilience but also for their flexibility and subtlety. But it was those nuances which made them less useful under the circumstances; under normal circumstances it suited the castle to not block out the magical denizens of the Forbidden Forest entirely, for that would also block out legitimate migration by Beasts, Beings, and Wizards, but rather to drive them away. For years they simply made it uncomfortable for any who would do harm to approach.

But, so agitated as the Forest had been by Thane's magics, 'discouragement' was no longer sufficient. The rampaging dangers came anyway. It was hypothetically possible, they both knew, to change the wards to physically repel anyone or anything trying to approach the castle, but the means to alter the wards so was within the Headmaster's Office. Worse, they weren't even sure how to do such a thing; many would study Hogwarts' protections for academic fascination, but the school's leaders had not been so witless as to leave the control methods of their great security a matter of the reasonably public record of the school's Library.

'You know,' said Albus after a long moment's consideration. 'I'm not sure.'

'Maybe you should ask her. It sounds topical.'

'It's possible that she sprouted wings and flew up to the window.'

'Good, let's do that.'

'She broke through the window with the mystical hammer of the god Thor, of course.' Albus looked at her sideways.

'A wise plan.'

'So all we really need to do is find the resting place of Mjolnir.'

'Let's get to it.'

Albus sighed. 'Rose.'

'Hm?'

'Are you even listening to me?'

'Of course I am.'

'Only you just agreed to break into the Headmaster's Office using a magic hammer of a thunder god.'

Rose guiltily tore her attention away from the wireless she had been fiddling with while they went through the paperwork. 'I was...' Any excuse, a joke or otherwise, faded as she saw the reproachful look on Albus' face, and she sighed. 'How the hell has he been running a whole radio show without either of us knowing?'

He sighed again. 'Are we going to focus on the break-in?'

'I didn't even know Ravenclaw House had their own wireless transmitter -'

'It's short-range, he'll have had to have adapted it to a wider broadcast.'

Rose stared at him as if he'd grown another head. 'How did you know about that while I didn't, and how the hell did Malfoy manage to adapt a wireless transmitter?’

'While I'll argue he's more competent than you give him credit for, I suspect Jones had a hand in this,' said Albus, rather unhappy he was being prompted to defend Scorpius while it was Rose who had been fixated upon whatever he was up to. 'And the Ravenclaw radio was never a secret.'

'I didn't know about it.'

'That's because Saxby doesn't like you very much,' said Albus before he could stop himself. He was punished immediately with the look of surprised hurt that flashed across Rose's face, and he hurried to amend himself. 'I mean, it's against school rules. It's a sort of underground thing. Saxby was in charge of it; he thought you'd tell.' A more petty man than Albus would have relished at the turnabout of Rose being excluded because people assumed she would work against them. But he was not petty, and so he only felt a surge of sympathy for Rose and her plight.

Even if Saxby had likely been right.

'Yes, well.' Rose brushed a lock of hair behind an ear, obviously trying to disguise her hurt. 'I didn't know Malfoy was using it.'

'Neither did I,' said Albus, trying to read the section of Hogwarts, A History on the Headmaster's Office. Unhelpfully it was giving him very few clues as to how enterprising students might break in.

'I mean, he acts like even more of an arse than normal, skulks around and avoids people, keeps peculiar hours. And then he's doing things like, like this, like writing letters for sick children and still bringing me breakfast! Even though he does leave it for me to find when I get downstairs instead of bringing it to me so sometimes it's cold, and I'm pretty sure he's only doing it to make me feel guilty anyway...'

Truth be told, Albus didn't want to talk about Scorpius. He'd known when the fight had been picked, a week ago now, that Scorpius was hurt, upset, and lashing out. It wasn't the first time it had happened, though normally Albus himself was not the recipient of such ire. Now that he was, after years of defending his best friend, standing by him, and weeks upon weeks of his own hardship and stress, it had been too much. He'd stormed off to cut the row short, wanting to neither continue nor escalate the situation. But when he'd calmed down he'd also reasoned that leaving as he had normally prompted Scorpius to realise he'd gone too far, and apologise.

Not outright, of course. They were still blokes. But Albus had hoped that he'd come down to the front steps the next morning, bring him some tea, punch him on the arm, and then they could carry on like nothing had happened.

Scorpius had not. And Albus had realised this situation was far worse than he'd originally thought. He just had no clue how worse, had no clue how Rose fit into it, and so he had no idea where to start helping even if he wanted to. That he'd been so systematically kept unaware of something that was obviously tormenting his best friend had left him both blind, and unusually bitter. They didn't keep secrets from one another. Except, apparently, Scorpius now did all the time.

'If you manage to get that working and tune into Scorpius' transmission you're only going to irritate yourself with it,' Albus snapped at last. 'And I don't want to sit here and listen to you complaining about him. So are we going to break into Stubbs' office, or what?'

Rose stared at him like he'd grown a second head, and Albus felt a wave of shame sweep over him as the surge of bitterness that had sparked such words ebbed away. He cleared his throat. '...Mum said they went in through the window.'

'Except that won't work any more,' sighed Rose, obviously choosing to join him in focusing on the problem at hand, the one they could fix, instead of the impossible problem of Scorpius Malfoy. 'I remember reading it - when they rebuilt the castle after the war, they made all sorts of things our parents did impossible to again. Which is Mum's fault, really, since she helped redesign the security and specifically made sure things she and Dad and Harry did could never be done again.'

Albus made a noise of frustration. 'Why did they have to fight in a war? Our parents were bloody brilliant and causing havoc around Hogwarts but everything they did is so well recorded nobody can pull it off again!'

'True,' said Rose, 'but if it was just school hijinks they'd gotten away with I bet they wouldn't have let us find out about them at all. I wonder if...'

But Albus wasn't listening. An idea had wormed into his head at her words, a glimmer of possibility, and he reached into his back pocket to yank out the folded paper of the Marauder's Map. 'Their exploits are too well-documented...'

Rose peered at it. '...but a map's adventures are unknown?'

'But my granddad's adventures are unknown.' He unfolded the map and tapped his wand against the parchment, though for once he didn't utter the key phrase to bring the layout of Hogwarts itself up.

'Albus.' She winced. 'That's not - I mean, it's nothing more than a magical recording. It's not a means of talking to them, not really.'

'I know how it works,' said Albus staunchly. 'It's an imprint. An impression of a moment, a thought, a feeling.'

'It doesn't have any memories, it doesn't have any knowledge.'

'But it does,' Albus said slowly, 'have just the tiniest spark of some of the most ingenious students who ever found Hogwarts' secrets.' He prodded the parchment. 'Prongs, c'mon. Wake up.'

'This is ridiculous,' Rose muttered.

Albus ignored her as writing began to sprawl across the surface of the Marauders' Map. Mister Prongs was not sleeping. Mister Prongs was completely paying attention all the time.

Mister Moony is sure this is a complete lie.

Mister Prongs is happy to point out that Mister Prongs slept through three years of Divination classes and still got an 'O', while Mister Moony was too afraid of lunar cycles to pay attention.

Mister Moony considers this an unnecessarily low blow, and -

'Guys, guys.' Albus raised his voice as if the map could hear him. 'I need your help.'

Mister Wormtail wonders if you are particularly slow if you need the help of an enchanted map.

'If you were breaking into the Headmaster's Office,' Albus said slowly. 'How would you do it?'

Mister Moony wouldn't.

Mister Padfoot thinks Mister Moony is a pansy.

Mister Moony points out that Headmaster Dumbledore's enchantments have befuddled Mister Padfoot time and time again. Mister Moony also knows where the line is and would rather not be expelled.

Mister Padfoot suggests Mister Moony might be happier if he lived a little more recklessly.

'Oh, Merlin, this is the most unhelpful piece of paper I have ever seen,' Rose groaned.

Mister Prongs does concede that Dumbledore's enchantments have outwitted the Marauders before, and suggests Albus picks an easier target.

Albus sighed. 'Couldn't you-'

'I don't think you could break in,' Rose interjected suddenly, leaning over.

It was as if the parchment had grown tense in Albus' hands. Mister Padfoot would like to invite the nosy redhead, as he has invited many nosy redheads before, to mind their own business and to not make assumptions about his brilliance.

Mister Prongs points out this brilliance is collective.

Mister Wormtail notes this brilliance has still not answered the question.

Mister Moony has also made note of this and suggests focusing on the problem instead of puffing up like a peacock for a pretty girl.

'Was this supposed to help?' Albus muttered to Rose.

'It's not like you were making progress before,' Rose said haughtily. 'But I think they just bicker and snipe -'

Mister Prongs is quite capable of puffing up for a pretty girl and figuring out an answer. Mister Prongs suggests coming at the problem not sideways, but underneath.

Mister Wormtail suspects this is empty gesturing with no actual plan.

Mister Prongs assures Mister Wormtail his suggestion is entirely literal.

Albus and Rose looked sharply at each other as the Marauders' Map continued its scrawling bickering. 'Underneath,' he breathed.

'We can break through the masonry of the stairway,' said Rose, already reaching for the plans and maps of Hogwarts - design schematics Hermione had sent them which, when it came to official construction of the school, barring its many secret corners and passageways, were more detailed then the Marauders' Map. 'There's just empty space for a whole floor underneath, we can come up inside if we clear one of the flagstones out of the way.'

Albus grinned, but he looked quickly at the Map. 'Thanks, guys!' he said, before putting it away.

Mister Padfoot is entirely smug at Mister Prongs' success and knows that his detractors will live to rue the day they -

From there the plan was quickly devised and promised to be worryingly simple. But their luck had been foul, so very foul for so very long that they were due a dash of hope. Or so Rose allowed herself to dare to believe. But Albus left soon enough to scout out the area and she remained, she said, to go through the reading for the spells they would need.

And the moment he was gone she turned back to the wretched wireless. This time, as she turned the knob on the front this way and that, listened her way through the cantankerous, previously non-functioning device's crackling, she eventually caught a snippet of sound to make her pause.

A guitar chord.

'Oh, bloody hell, Malfoy,' she muttered as if the wireless would carry her voice back through the other way. 'Trust you to use this as an excuse to show off...'

But the words were weak, even to her own ears; her usual habit of finding some fault, some flaw with him, otherwise she might have to admit that he was doing a splendid sort of thing for the suffering students, that it was more thoughtful than anything any of them had even considered.

So, as if she didn't even care, she set about doing the reading she'd promised Albus, going through the spells she knew their ridiculous undertaking would need. And still, she listened.

He'd taken to doing it a House a day, now. With responses coming from students, parents were writing more, more than they even would when school was running, desperate for the reassurance of hearing from their children. No wonder Scorpius had struggled to keep up the burden of writing back for each pupil, no wonder he'd had to change his methods.

It was Ravenclaw today, and less and less did she pay attention to her reading, and more and more did she listen in rapt attention. The guitar was a reasonably new addition, she learned - he'd played it for some friends in Slytherin days ago, and now the conscious students, desperate for distraction, had urged him to play so much he apparently dragged the instrument with him along with the post bags. Then it was the letters.

Intimacy and privacy had to be sacrificed, she realised. If parents wanted their children to be able to respond, they had to be talking about things they were happy for someone to read out, happy to have their child's response given on open airwaves. Some students were healthy enough to just take the letters, with thanks, and write in private, but many of those who were still talked aloud. Being a part of this together stopped the horrors and fears of every student and every parent from being nothing more than a private, isolated hell. It was a hell they shared.

And Scorpius was judicious. He obviously skipped some lines in letters as he read them to students, slurring on words perhaps as he changed course, but keeping anything he deemed too delicate away from public ears. Some letters, he said, the family had asked he skip parts, or the whole thing, and he would just give the parchment over and leave the reader to it. He knew when to sit in silence as they read, he knew when to make some reassuring comment if the student faltered. He knew, above all, when to joke - and when to not.

The whole process took a little over three hours. And when Scorpius gave his farewell to the wireless, the sounds of his footsteps as he walked down the stairs away from Ravenclaw Tower audible, she could easily imagine the suffering students and their worrying families out there feeling that little bit less alone and separated.

Rose cursed softly as she turned off the wireless, reached again for the book she was supposed to be studying, and started reading once she had wiped her eyes.

* *


'This feels a little bit like vandalism,' Albus said unhappily as Rose ran her wand around the edges of the huge stone set into the wall only a few metres down from the bottom of the stairway up to the Headmaster's Office.

'That's because it is. But it's vandalism for a good cause. Pass me a baton.'

Albus extended one of the magical rods they'd found down in the dungeons where Hagrid kept any of his maintenance equipment. Normally a spell would be sufficient for all purposes, but every once in a while magic went haywire, especially in the hands of powerful but untrained children, and the Groundskeeper would have to take measures to keep the castle intact until a full member of staff arrived to rectify the situation.

'This better not bring the entire roof down on me.'

'Al, this is Hogwarts. We're talking about one of the most secure and sophisticated buildings in the country, physically and magically.' Rose flicked her wand and slowly the chunk of masonry began to wriggle itself out of the wall, like a rat squeezing through a tight tunnel.

'And yet you and I are successfully taking chunks out of it to break into the Headmaster's Office. Two underaged wizards.'

'Pretty sure our parents proved that "underaged" doesn't mean what it used to in terms of competence,' said Rose with a tight, satisfied smile. But still, as the stone slab half her height wriggled free, she slammed the metal rod into the gap and thumbed the rune engraved on the side of it. It extended immediately, shooting outwards from both ends to fill and brace the gap the stone slab had left with magical strength. 'There.'

Albus walked up to the gap, peering beyond. There was a good foot of solid stone of wall, but inside, in the space behind the stairway to the Headmaster's office and under the office itself, was just a bare, stone space, no doors or windows.

'Why is this empty?' Rose wondered.

'Specifically for security,' said Albus, who had read everything the Library could give him about Hogwarts' defences. 'It's not meant to be easy to get adjacent to this office. Which is why it bugs me that this was so easy.'

'Optimist,' said Rose dryly. 'We still need to get through the floor.' She scrambled up to the gap, which started at about her waist, and slipped past the bar into the empty, plain chamber.

'Besides,' she continued as she landed and he went to follow, 'didn't you say that most of the protections of the office are about noticing people trying to get in?'

'And in keeping misbehaving students out long enough for a staff member to come alone. But, yes, bells are probably ringing in the staff room by now.'

'Which is no problem to us. If the defences are just meant to slow us down until someone they've alerted can come stop us, so much the better! We're not trying to go unnoticed.' Rose's gaze swept around the chamber, which was really nothing more than a blank space; its floor was the room below's ceiling, its ceiling the office's floor. Its sole purpose was to be nothing.

'I suppose nobody was going to get away with spending half an hour carving away at the masonry under normal circumstances. Not right outside the headmaster's office even in the middle of the night,' Albus said, gaze going upwards. He unravelled the Marauder's Map, found their two dots, and tapped on the parchment with his wand to make it go up a level while still showing them. 'Not that stone,' he said, pointing at one. 'It's right under the steps, it'll be a metre thick at least. That one's under the carpet...' He walked around, footsteps echoing in the gloomy chamber, then finally pointed upwards. 'Here. Should be clear.'

'I didn't think of that,' Rose confessed. 'I'd have just started going... up.'

'Yeah, but I couldn't have done the charm to get the masonry out,' said Albus, and flicked his wand to bring the stepladder they'd left in the corridor in through the gap and over to where he indicated.

'I think,' said Rose with a grin, 'that we call this teamwork.'

Albus gave a tight, but sincere enough smile as she ascended the ladder and got to work on the ceiling paving stone. 'You don't need to sound so surprise.'

'Surprised?'

'Some of us can keep up with you.'

Rose flinched. 'Did I ever say you couldn't?'

'No,' said Albus, trying to pour reassurance into his voice. 'But you're not used to it. No offence meant to Hestia and Cheryl.'

She was already beginning the advanced hex to begin severing the masonry while simultaneously levitating it in place, magic the like of which she'd had to go out of her way to learn - combining effects into one spell - and Albus could hear the awkward note when she said, 'I don't think they're stupid.'

'But they don't care about the same things you do.'

'Neither do you!'

'Just because we can't all be top of the class,' said Albus with a guilty smile, 'doesn't mean we don't work hard.'

'You're top of Defence!' she said with a mixture of indignation and bitterness.

They both knew her grudge on that matter was childish and she'd never made an issue of it, but this was the first time she'd sounded encouraging, and he smiled. 'You think I didn't have to work to get that?'

'...anyway, I'm not top of the other classes,' Rose said, more quietly. 'Jones is.'

'And everyone else thought it was silly that this bugged you, didn't they? Even Aunt Hermione, or at least she told you it was enough that it doesn't matter if she does get it. Your friends said it was.'

'Al, is now really the best time for this?'

He had to concede she had a point. He wasn't entirely sure why he was bringing this up now, this nagging awareness he'd had for a long time - for years, really, but he'd never felt it was his place to say anything about her and her life. He wasn't entirely sure what made it different now; it wasn't as if they had been spending more time together in the past few months than they ever did in the holidays.

Realisation hit him like a blow to the gut swung by burly Hector Flynn. They did spend plenty of time together, normally. But they hadn't spent time together, just the two of them, like they'd been doing for the last week or so, in over five years.

And the words he'd been about to say died on his lips before they could be uttered, and were mercifully swept to the wind as the paving slab above Rose delicately lowered down from the ceiling, to the side, and wafted down towards the floor.

'There,' she said, warning in her voice more than triumph - not of what lay ahead, but to not push the point he'd been making. 'That's it. I'm going up; follow me.'

She wriggled up in the gap, disappearing into the darkness above that was the abandoned Headmaster's office, and he followed soon after. When he first poked his head in he thought it was pitch black, but then he blinked and could see the gentle glow from the globe in the corner of the office, the magical illumination from several of the books on the shelves, and it was enough to see the outline of the furniture. He pulled himself up and through.

'We're looking for a book,' said Albus, peering at the shadowy, indistinct shapes around them. He knew the one that moved next to him was Rose, but couldn't guess more than that. 'It should have all of the incantation phrases in it to control, monitor, and alter the wards.'

'We're not going to find it like this,' Rose sighed, and lifted her wand. 'Lumos!'

Light sputtered from the tip of her wand - and then expanded, little orbs splitting off and shooting around the room to go to every sconce, every lantern, even spark up the fireplace, and soon enough the Headmaster's Office was filled with a warming glow, all of its glories and mysteries there to be seen.

Albus grinned with satisfaction at a job well done - and at his cousin's wandwork. 'I never saw you do a spell like that before.'

'That wasn't me,' she admitted. 'It must be magic in the room to make it easier to -'

Then there was a sound, and it made Albus' blood run cold. It was a deep, rumbling, scraping sound, and for a moment he thought it was enough to make the floor shudder. Then he looked down and realised the floor was shaking entirely of its own accord, because the paving stones they were stood on were growing.

'Al, the gap -'

Rose had reacted quicker, and he saw what she had only when she moved. The gap they'd crawled through was contracting as the paving stones around it expanded to fill the space. Rose had thrown herself across the room to try to get to it - but too late, and by the time she got there she only had space to put a foot in. That, too, got yanked out as she realised she couldn't fit the rest of her through, and there was a dull thunk as the stone blocks of the floor finally thudded together and realigned.

And silence.

Until a whirring sound, and Albus turned, wand in hand, to see a wooden owl sat upon the Headmaster's desk he'd always thought was just an ugly office ornament swivelled around to face them and jerkily opened its oaken wings. 'Students breaking into the office! Students breaking into the office!'

It creaked this like an alarm, as if they didn't need to be told this already, before lowering its wings. 'You have been found and detained. Hold here until a staff member releases you! Any further miscreancy will be noted!'

Then that, too, fell silent and still, leaving the only sound in the room as their shaky breathing in the face of all that had so suddenly happened. Albus lowered his wand, shoulders drooping, as Rose turned around slowly to notice the closed and locked doors, the closed and sealed windows, the floors and walls and ceilings now with absolutely no entrances or exits left.

She drew a deep breath. 'Bugger.'


* *



The letter had been as she'd expected to find it; smeared with coffee, written with a Qwik-Quotes Quill, likely done on the fly between a thousand and one other important jobs. It didn't bother her. It was how all of the notes had been. The important part was, Selena felt, that they came - long or short, insightful and affectionate or merely off-hand comments and reminders that there was an outside world. But every day. A little tether to a life outside of dealing with House Elves and sick schoolmates and the fear of impending death.

But this time her mother's handsome owl hadn't been sat there on her windowsill when she'd come back from the morning rounds with Harley. He had only arrived much later, when she'd spoken to Methuselah, learned he intended to go on what he'd excitedly called an 'adventure' to the Library, and come back to her room to change into something that could cope with getting dusty and worn at the knees.

She didn't change her clothes, Selena reflected wryly, half so much for any other boy. Of course, Methuselah didn't notice - but then, what boy did? Which at least meant that, so long as her goal was practicality over vanity, it wasn't an exercise in complete futility.

The owl had been there this time, though, at about eleven o'clock, and she'd taken the carefully sealed envelope, fed Terpsichore a couple of treats, and cracked it open, reading as she wandered her way back to the school library.

Its condition was as she'd expected. Its contents were not.

Methuselah, of course, was up to his elbows in dusty tomes from the Restricted Section, and she suppressed a shudder to see the books he was piling through merrily - books on the Deathly Hallows, yes, but also on dark magic such as Horcruxes and the like. She knew the logic of this, that now he understood the location was a core component of the ritual he had to identify just how and why this was, but she had to admit she much preferred reading up on Mesoamerican cultures.

He waved a hand at her as she arrived around the corner of the stacks - not in welcoming, of course, but in indication. 'Reference book,' he said in his usual staccato manner. 'Here.'

He didn't say 'please', of course. He never did. But he was somehow not rude in his presumptions, either, and so she found herself grabbing the slim volume and passing it over to him.

'What're you looking for?'

'Still on basics. Dark magic rituals making use of locations steeped in dark magic themselves.'

'And the Resurrection Stone?'

'Technically, as mythical, no reliable academic sources to indicate its uses in ritual purposes.' Methuselah pursed his lips, looking vexed. 'Will have to turn to mythological sources and attempt to separate fiction, fact, and metaphor.'

'Goodness.' But she couldn't help but smile. He made what she took to be huge academic undertakings sound like a minor inconvenience he could get done in a day.

To his credit, he probably could.

He was consulting the reference book and moving to a completely different shelf when she finally twisted her hands together, and began, with uncertainty. 'My mother wrote to me today.'

'Of course.'

'She - what do you mean, of course?' Selena wrinkled her nose. She hadn't mentioned the letters before. There'd been no need to.

'She writes every day.' Methuselah twirled the tip of his quill at her, but didn't look over. 'You always have them. Put them in your left breast pocket.'

She coloured, partly touched by his attentiveness, partly embarrassed because he noticed the most particular of things and it didn't necessarily mean anything, and partly vexed because he'd just admitted that he'd looked at her chest and probably did, damn him, only notice the scrap of paper.

But then, if he didn't, he'd be like all the other boys.

'Yes, well, today's is different,' she said hotly. 'It's worrying me.'

'Why?' he said, and she paused, surprised that he would express such an interest or even possible concern. 'Nothing to be done about beyond Hogwarts. Worrying fruitless. Focus on here and now.'

Selena rolled her eyes. 'It could affect here and now. It could be to do with what's going on.'

Methuselah turned to face her at last. He tilted his head to not just look down at her, but look at her over his horn-rimmed glasses. With their height disparity this meant his chin almost touched his chest. 'Your mother,' he said, 'is the head of the Department of International Magical Cooperation, an acclaimed diplomat and politician. But she has no specialisation in dark magic rituals -'

'Methuselah, more's going on than the ritual,' she reminded him gently. 'We still don't know who made it, or why.'

'Yes, we do. Prometheus Thane, and, if Malfoy's theories are correct, for money.'

'Even if we assume Scorpius Malfoy, master global strategist, is right, that doesn't answer who's hired him.'

Methuselah pulled a volume off a shelf. 'Your mother knows?'

Selena bit her lip. 'She's saying that this isn't the only case of organised dark magic activity in the world. She thinks something's happening on a global scale. There was a Dark Wizard terrorist attack in Cairo last month. And, last week, the le Fey Staff was stolen from Paris. That's a major dark magical artifact.' She said that last as if she'd known what it was before her mother's letter.

He frowned. 'Not heard anything of this in papers or from Ms Granger.'

'Apparently it's not something the Ministry want people to be paying attention to,' Selena sniffed. 'Mother's been telling them, but they think it's got nothing to do with the Hogwarts situation and have been stamping it out. She believes they've been leaning on the press to choke off the same stories.'

'News of global dark magic conspiracy would be concerning,' Methuselah agreed. 'Best to ensure accuracy before seeding widespread panic.'

'Is it sensible to ignore it when it could be at the root of all this? Us saving the school is all very well and good, but there are, well, people behind all of it. They need to be found and stopped.'

Methuselah blinked. 'But they won't be in Cairo.'

She faltered. 'No. They won't.' Selena fiddled with the folded paper. 'But it's bad enough out here knowing there are people out to get us. People we don't even understand. But what if it's -'

'We cannot say if. Or that. We don't know,' said Methuselah, turning to face her. 'Uncertainties abound. Especially on other side of world. Or even other side of Hogwarts gates. Cannot be affected, or influenced, so should not endeavour to.'

Selena flinched. 'It's not as easy as that -'

'So, focus.' He stepped over to where she was leaning against the bookshelf, close, closer than he had stood before, and she could smell the musky scent of books and parchment that hung about him, not unpleasantly. 'Not on outside. On here. On now.'

She swallowed, tilting her head up as he leant forwards.

And plucked a book off the shelf beside her. 'Fitherwick's Treatise on Reusable Ritual Components of Power,' said Methuselah Jones as he pulled back, eyes lighting up with satisfaction.

Selena pinched the bridge of her nose, despairing at them both. 'Yes, Methuselah. The ritual.'

'Something we can affect, correct,' he said, turning to one of the desks, and leaving her - not for the first time - wondering if she knew how to read him better than anyone and could see the hidden depths behind his veneer of completely batshit insane, or if she was delusional.

It didn't particularly matter, not to her everyday behaviour. He was a foot smarter than Rose Weasley, whatever the other girl liked to think. And if anyone stood a chance at deciphering the ritual, taking the time to figure out how it worked and how to do it - a feat without which any cure would be pointless, if she trusted his judgment, and she did - then it was Methuselah Jones.

And she was going to help him however she could. Even if it was just by fetching and carrying. Even if he drove her mental.

She was saved from her own embarrassment at her gaffe by footsteps from the door, and turned guiltily. Methuselah, of course, was cracking open his book, happy as a clam, and she was left oddly alone in the sensation of having been caught in the middle of something in the face of a tense teacher.

'Professor?' Lockett didn't come up to the Library much. She didn't need to - and work in the dungeons was usually more than enough to keep her busy.

Except for when she was boozing it up and the others pretended they hadn't noticed, or that it was all right.

'We have a situation,' said Lockett, looking between them. 'Where's Malfoy?'

'Entertaining the masses and bringing hope and joy to thousands,' Selena deadpanned. 'If he's still on-schedule. Why, what's he done?'

'He's not the situation -'

'That makes a change. We're still researching, Professor, why don't you go find Weasley and Potter to -'

'They're the situation.' Lockett looked irritated at her efforts to wriggle out of being involved. 'I was in the staff room.'

'Getting supplies?' Selena smiled, all innocence. Out of your stash of booze, she finished silently.

'And then the alarms went off. The internal security wardings - someone's broken into the Headmaster's office.'

She seemed more resigned than worried, but Methuselah didn't notice this, shooting upright in a second. 'Incursion? Thane? Right into the heart of -'

'It's students, the wards say so.' Lockett sighed. 'It's Potter and Weasley. They're trapped in there until a staff member comes to get them out.'

'So? Get them out.' Selena shrugged.

'The office is on lockdown. They can't get out however they got in. It takes a password to open up the door, and release them.'

Methuselah nudged his glasses up his nose. 'But. We don't have the password.'

Lockett nodded. 'Why is why they broke in there in the first place.'

'So they're stuck.' Selena looked between them. 'In the one room in Hogwarts we don't have access to. Which has so far repulsed our every single effort to get into - or, now, get out of.'

Methuselah jerked his head. 'The most secure room in the entire castle.'

'Well.' Selena pursed her lips. 'They're a bit buggered, aren't they?'

Chapter 24: House on Fire
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Scorpius hopped from foot to foot. 'You should have told me sooner,' he said, scowling at Lockett as she shredded newt's skin between her fingers into the bubbling cauldron in her workshop.

'So you could come here and pester me?'

'So I could help!' he said, and felt utterly impotent.

'This isn't helping, Scorpius.' Lockett's voice was surprisingly soothing. 'I left you to keep working because you were doing your radio. It's important work. It's good for people outside to hear from the children, and it's good for them to know they're being heard. I didn't take you away from that because there's nothing you can do.'

'Nothing I can do. About my best friend and - and Weasley, stuck in the Headmaster's Office. You suck at reassurance, Professor.'

Her shoulders sagged. 'We're doing everything we can.'

Scorpius folded his arms across his chest. 'I know you're the Potions Professor,' he drawled, 'so this is kind of your thing. But did it occur to you that maybe there's not a potion for everything?'

Lockett's expression tensed. 'The only person who knows the password to the office,' she said, 'is Professor Stubbs himself. Who remains unconscious. If I can come up with a balance of the Relieving Elixir which can awaken him, then we can get them out.'

'Can you cook one up in three days?'

'Three days?'

He tilted his jaw up half an angry inch. 'That's what Jones said. They've got no food or water up there. They can't conjure it, not proper stuff to live off. Three days, he said. That's how long they can last if they're going to be all right afterwards.'

Lockett's expression only flickered. 'It's more of a vague guideline, and with sophisticated healing spells that's not strictly true -'

'We don't have anyone in Hogwarts who can cast sophisticated healing spells!' Scorpius snapped. 'So I don't fancy taking a risk, so that's three days!'

'What do you think I'm doing, Malfoy?' She turned to him, eyes blazing, and at last he heard it. The shake in her voice he'd known all along had to be there, the sound of the burden of being the one responsible for over three hundred lives. The fear. 'I'm trying to fix this!'

'Like you're fixing Phlegethon?'

Her face shifted; it was like he'd hit her. But then one angry finger was pointing at the stairs. 'Get out. I am trying to help Professor Stubbs so we can release them. You are not helping this, Malfoy, I need to concentrate.'

'Or you need to drown yourself in another bottle of Firewhiskey so you don't snap from the pressure?' he snarled, the fear of the moment and tension of the months manifesting itself in that familiar, angry punch against whatever he could reach.

This time she didn't react, just stabbed her finger again at the stairs. 'Out.'

It was one word - one simple, short word - but as he slunk to the exit, defeated and knowing he was in the wrong, he realised he'd never heard anyone sound as furious as Professor Lockett did in that moment.

He stomped down the corridor, up the stairs, hands shoved into his pockets and letting his fear and anger guide the way along the route to the Headmaster's Office. Or, rather, the stairway up, still blocked, still sealed absolutely tightly.

Only now with Methuselah Jones, Selena Rourke, and a whole load of papers sat on the floor in front of it.

His nose wrinkled. 'Oh, what're you two bloody doing?'

Selena lifted a finger to her lips. 'Shh.'

Scorpius crossed his arms. 'No, I won't -'

He barely saw Selena move - but then she was next to him, one hand cruelly grabbing his ear, and she twisted it and pulled him further away from the doorway. 'Will you stop being an obnoxious little troll for ten seconds, Scorpius? Can you do that?'

'Ow, you're pulling -'

'I'll do worse if you don't shut up. But I will explain.' Something glinted in Selena's eyes, and the worry in him abated, just a little bit, as he realised what it was. Sympathy. He slumped and nodded, and she let him go, dropping her voice as she nodded towards Methuselah. 'He's trying to break through the wardings.'

Scorpius wanted to laugh, but stopped himself. 'The wardings. To the Headmaster's Office. The most secure in the castle.'

Selena shrugged. 'He says he can do it,' she said, and spoke with such simple faith that he could only be jealous. He needed a little faith himself. 'Don't ask me how -'

'Two ways of beating wardings.' Methuselah had been sat, cross-legged, on the floor, his wand in his lap. The tip glowed gently. 'Brute force. Very difficult. Requires huge skill. Impossible for one person to do against wards of this kind. Even me.'

From anyone else it would have sounded like bragging. Scorpius knew Methuselah Jones didn't brag, and he felt a smidgen of whatever faith was keeping Selena Rourke relaxed in this crisis. 'What's the second way?'

'Wards are like a locked door. Just as you can break them down, you can unlock them. Requires a key. Or, convincing the ward that you have a key.'

'Can you do that?'

Methuselah's brow furrowed briefly, and he lifted his wand, gaze unseeing, sweeping it across some magical field visible only to him at that moment. 'Yes. Maybe twelve hours.'

'Twelve hours?' Scorpius blinked. 'How come you didn't try this before?'

'Never had the urgency. Or means.' He nodded at the door. 'They broke in. Left a hole in the wardings. Patched itself up, part of the security. But - like a scar. Can use that. Loosened everything. Should make it easier.'

Selena had noticed something in Methuselah's voice that Scorpius hadn't, and he felt her stiffen. 'Should?' Scorpius remembered only then that Methuselah didn't deal in uncertainties like that. For him, it either would, or it wouldn't. Normally.

His brow furrowed again. 'If fundamental principle is correct,' he admitted. 'Insufficient information available to appropriately judge if theory will work. Not without trying.'

She started, looking like her faith had taken a dent. 'You said you could do this.'

'Believe I can. Certainty impossible.' Methuselah actually hesitated, gaze tearing from the invisible magical fields and landing on her. 'Didn't want to worry you.'

This is one hell of a time for him to develop that kind of emotional awareness, thought Scorpius, and scowled. 'There has to be another way. This is two long shots and they've been in there, what, eight hours already?'

‘Eight hours won't kill them,' Selena muttered as Methuselah returned to his work.

'It all adds up. You and I should be doing something.'

'I am doing something. Helping Methuselah.' She gestured at the papers. 'It's quicker if he doesn't have to go fetch parchment, books, food and drink, himself. He spends more time here. It helps him. What're you doing to help, Malfoy?'

'I'm trying to find something!' Scorpius protested, voice still low. 'I don't like sitting around being all useless.'

Selena sighed, again with that awful sympathetic edge. 'You could see how the House Elves are doing on their rounds; I haven't had the last report off Harley -'

'House Elves!' Scorpius snapped his fingers. 'Can they get in?'

She blinked. 'I don't know; wouldn't we have tried that by now?'

'If you say that about every idea, nothing will ever work,' said Scorpius.

'Philosophical of you, Scorpius,' she said with an edge in her voice. 'But if you want to go harass Harley in the kitchens and irritate him right now, be my guest.'

'Sure, Selena. Because if there's a chance he can help us, I'm going to leave him alone because he might be "irritated".'


* *


They had paced the room, checking every inch of it for an exit, or a clue, or something. Normally, the office should have opened up from the inside, but with the wards detecting their break-in, the door remained solid and unmoving. The windows hadn't opened at all. The paving stones had blocked the hole they'd made perfectly. There was no way out.

Nor was there any scribbled clue about how to get out, a password, or some control mechanism to open up the wards from the inside. So they had made themselves busy, optimistic that the others would come to get them. Some time. Eventually.

Albus had found the hefty tome they'd been looking for; the magical book which gave him all the control he wanted over the wardings and protections of the castle and the grounds. Except for this room. Because with their break-in, no commands from inside were being accepted. But still he had settled down to study it, occasionally making a noise of interest as Rose had browsed the book.

But that had been eight hours ago, and, bored, restless, worried, thirsty, and hungry, Albus had begun to wander. Rose watched him from where she sat on the rug on the floor, some of Professor Stubbs' more esoteric books laid out before her, as he prowled the walls like a trapped tiger, glaring at portraits, at display cases, until eventually he stopped by one.

'You think this could help?'

Rose raised an eyebrow. 'Were you thinking of carving down the door?'

Albus shrugged. 'I've got no better ideas.' He thumbed the latch of the display case containing the Sword of Gryffindor. 'I mean, it's damn magical, isn't it?'

'I think everything in this room is "damn magical",' Rose mused, tired and cranky, but Albus didn't reply as he reached up to grab the hilt, tilt the sword off the bracings it hung upon - and then swore loudly as it dropped in his hand as if it weighed a sheer tonne, pinning his fingers to the floor before he snatched them away.

Rose jumped at the shout and the clatter of metal, straightening. 'What - did you just drop the Sword of Gryffindor -'

'You try picking it up!' snapped Albus with unusual irritation. 'It's like it's made of solid - I don't know what, but solid something really heavy!'

She got up, padding over with curiosity. 'Goblin steel,' she mused, 'is supposed to be perfect in balance and weight. Maybe it's part of the security wardings.' She bent down to grasp the hilt and carefully pulled.

And then she was holding in her hand the most beautifully balanced sword she'd ever hefted. Not that Rose had any experience of swords, but this wasn't like a weapon, it wasn't even like a wand, an extension of her being. It was like it was her being. A smile tugged at her lips. 'See?'

Albus eyed it. 'I don't get it,' he said, and reached out again. She shifted her grip to try to slide the hilt into his hand - and then his hand was jerked down, and he swore again as he dropped the sword. 'What the -'

'Fascinating.' Rose tilted her head, curious. 'Get out your wand. Can you levitate it?'

He looked grudging, but lifted his wand and did so, the blade bobbing in the air. With a disgruntled expression, Albus levitated it back in the brackets. 'So much for that idea.'

'I could try to hack the door down,' Rose mused, 'but I don't think we'd get very far with my arms.'

'What's that all about, anyway?' asked Albus, brow furrowed as he glared at the Sword of Gryffindor as if it had personally offended him.

'I never heard about this before, but I suppose it's inevitable when it was last used almost exclusively by a bunch of Gryffindors. I suppose it doesn't want to be wielded by a Slytherin.'

She looked at him, smiling a small, sly smile - and immediately regretted it when she saw the look on his face. Albus had been raised with the stories of their parents, and many of those tales included the feats their fathers had performed with the Sword of Gryffindor. Killing a basilisk. Destroying a horcrux. She knew that Albus was never trying to be his father, but she realised how knowing he never could be like him in one little but heroic way had to sting. Especially when tired and stressed.

'Well,' said Albus, and turned away. 'I'm a Slytherin. We're meant to use our brains, not our brawn.'

The grumble was a self-aware one, poking fun at his House's arrogance as much as her House's reputed preference for thuggery over thought, and he knew it was made sillier by that he was one of the burliest of their year and she was one of the smartest. It was meant to be a distraction, but she'd allowed so many of those to slip through before, and now she was trapped here and who knew when they'd get out?

So she drew a deep breath, and closed the case to the sword. 'Al? Why did you get Sorted into Slytherin?'

There was a long, awkward pause, and she didn't turn around. 'I told you,' said Albus, voice tense. 'Sorting Hat did it.'

'You know your dad always said you could ask for its preference.' She bit her lip. 'Didn't you ask it to put you in Gryffindor?'

He was right; he'd told her before that the Sorting Hat had done it, every time she'd asked. But she'd never asked the second question, not because it hadn't occurred to her, but because she knew Albus wouldn't lie to her and she wasn't sure she wanted to hear the answer.

So she didn't turn as he inhaled sharply and, eventually, said, 'No.'

Rose closed her eyes. 'Because of Scorpius.'

'Because of Scorpius.'

It hurt to hear what she already knew, and she couldn't blink back the tears as she turned. He stood in the centre of the room, bigger and broader than her but suddenly very, very small in the face of her upset and his shameful admission. 'We used to do everything together, Al,' Rose whispered, voice hoarse. 'Thick as thieves. Best of friends. We did everything together, and then we were going to go to Hogwarts together.'

'We did.'

'And then nothing was the same again. The Sorting Hat called Slytherin for Malfoy. And then you were next, and then it took all that long time, and then finally it called Slytherin for you.'

Albus looked forlorn, miserable. 'You could have asked to come with us,' he mumbled guiltily.

'I shouldn't have had to!' This exploded out of her, upset more than angry - over five years' worth of upset escaping in a burst she didn't manage to clamp down on, and the words kept coming. 'We were best friends! Our whole lives! And then you turned your back on me for - for what, a six hour train ride?'

'He -' Albus opened and closed his mouth. 'You still had everyone, in Gryffindor. He had nobody, Rosie. Absolutely nobody. I wasn't turning my back on you, I was being a friend, to the kid who was trying so hard to be cool but was clearly so bloody happy when I sat in the compartment with him, and then the train ride was so fun, but I knew who he was and I saw how alone he was and -'

'And so that made it all right to go to him over me?'

'I didn't really think it through!' Albus admitted, eyes widening. 'He got Sorted, and then it was my choice, and I'd just figured I'd ask for Gryffindor but - he was the first friend I had who wasn't family, and I kind of panicked and asked for Slytherin! It was a split-second decision, Rosie, honestly.'

'But it tore us away forever.'

'It didn't have to!'

'What did you think was going to happen?' Rose snapped, more angry than she needed to be about Sorting at the age of sixteen - but her eleven year-old self had never managed to say all of this, and now her turn had come. 'You didn't think it would change? We wouldn't live together, have class together, see each other unless we went out of our way to see one another -'

'And you didn't!' said Albus, indignant but not accusing. 'You didn't spend any time with me, you stayed away from me, you said - even though on the train you'd been so chatty, too - that you didn't like him, that you hated him, not because he was a Malfoy but for no reason, for no reason at all -'

'Because he took you away from me!'

The words came spilling past her lips without her meaning to let them go at all, and then rang out in the suddenly cavernous office, echoing and impossible to miss or mistake. Rose winced, lifted a hand as if she could catch them and cram them back into hiding, but they were gone, and Albus was straightening up slowly, as if seeing her for the first time.

Or, perhaps, the first time in five years.

Rose let her hand drop uselessly. 'It was you and me, Al. For years. Of course I love James and Lily, and Fred, and all the others. But it was never like it was with us. And it's never been since.'

'You've had friends,' Albus began falteringly.

'Hestia, and Cheryl, and - and I love them, they're great, they really are, but we just don't...' Rose's voice trailed off. She'd wondered, when she was younger, if she simply had a skewed perspective on friendships. The bonds her parents had made were born in war, after all, how could normal school life compare? But then she'd got older and looked around and saw how easy people made it, and realised that while there was nothing wrong with her Gryffindor classmates, she just didn't have much in common with them.

Well, except for Matthias. But he was a whole different issue. Cheryl and Hestia had rolled their eyes at her when she got excited about study, and in turn she'd laughed at Hestia for this bit of gossip, or Cheryl for that bit of sporty obsession, and while their differences had made them stronger, they'd been perhaps a bit too different for one of those deep, resounding bonds.

The kind of bond Albus had with Scorpius.

The kind of bond that had made her hate Scorpius for five years.

Albus looked thoroughly ashamed. 'That's why you never liked him.'

Rose tilted her nose into the air, knowing the truth sounded petty and childish, but saying it anyway. 'I was jealous.'

'You know he didn't pull us apart -'

'No, but being in different Houses did. And that happened all because of Malfoy.'

'That's why you'd never join us if I wanted to spend time with you. That's why you sniped at him all the time. And then it became all-out war, because he pushed back, and then the two of you couldn't possibly be in the same place at the same time without it becoming an argument.' Albus sounded remarkably bitter. 'That didn't really help, did it?'

'Oh, don't act like I'm the bad guy here, Al, he gave as good as he got.'

'Maybe.' Albus paused, wetting his lips, and squinted. 'But then what the hell has been going on between you two?'

The answer wasn't a simple one to begin with, but since she'd just confessed why she hadn't been able to stand Scorpius for five years, the truth sounded even more ridiculous. Rose felt her cheeks colour. 'Um.'

'Right.' Albus folded his arms across his chest, obviously understanding at least a little. 'So you can't stand him, but - that's a bit mental, isn't it?' He hesitated, looking concerned. 'Is that why it went wrong? Hell, Rose, I know everything is a bit crazy now, but messing around with someone you can't stand isn't really...'

His voice trailed off, and a sudden wave of affection burst from her at him. Even though he'd defend Scorpius, even though he'd disagree with any reasons she could give for hating him, here Albus was, still trying to protect her from being hurt by him.

'Maybe,' Rose said in a small voice, 'the crazy situation made me realise he's not such a rotten guy after all.'

Albus sighed, and looked suddenly, inexplicably, frustrated and apprehensive. 'You never listened to me before,' he said, and ran a hand through his hair. 'So what happened?'

Her shoulders slumped. 'Hector.'

Albus scowled, more than he ever had before in his obvious disapproval of Hector Flynn, but for once she felt too downtrodden to defend her boyfriend. Especially since she knew full well he was only her boyfriend until she could stand the guilt of dumping him.

'That's really silly, Rose,' Albus said at last.

She sighed. 'I know. I don't know if I'm just kidding myself, but - he's conscious, he's suffering, how the hell do I tell him that I'm dumping him? And doing that to him for, well, Malfoy, who doesn't exactly have the best track record with girls? It's one thing to mess myself around for that, but to mess Hector around for that when the last thing he really needs is getting his heart broken for nothing is a pretty grade-A bitch thing to -'

'Enough.'

Albus spoke in a low tone, lifting his hands to cut her off - and that was why she stopped, why she hesitated. Because he looked, all of a sudden, incredibly, incredibly tired in a way she'd not seen before. He drew a deep breath. 'There's nothing wrong with Scorpius' track record with girls he actually cares about.'

Rose drew a sharp breath. 'Yes, I've heard Rourke's little conspiracy theory, but -'

'There are two things you need to know,' said Albus, cutting her off again, even though he didn't raise his voice. 'The first thing is that Scorpius didn't cheat on Miranda; he doesn't do that - she cheated on him.'

'Yes, Rourke said -'

'The second thing is that she cheated on him with Hector.'

Rose froze, Albus' words thudding into her like he'd punched her in the gut. She faltered as he stared at her, and he had to be watching her face to make sure she was doing exactly what she was - quick, quick mathematics.

Malfoy and Travers broke up right before the Defence exam. You and Hector got together after the Hufflepuff-Slytherin match. That's one week later, he couldn't...

She'd not been betrayed. But she had been lied to, a lot. And then every time Hector had thrown a sour look at Scorpius, every time Scorpius had lashed out at Hector, and worse, every time she had been unpleasant to Scorpius because of the enmity between them even though it was he, Scorpius, who was the victim, not Hector, flashed through her mind.

Rose lifted a hand to her lips. 'Oh, crap.'

Albus's shoulders had slumped, and he crossed the gap towards her. 'Rosie, I'm sorry, I wanted to tell you, I really did, but Scorpius made me promise not to -'

'Why didn't he want people to know?' said Rose, nose crinkling, bewildered.

'He just wanted it to blow over and go away! Miranda had told everyone he'd cheated, and everyone believed it, so he knew if he started telling the opposite it would turn into a match of "he said, she said", people would pick sides, it'd get unpleasant - easier still to just keep his head down and wait for it to blow over, he said,' Albus explained, obviously not buying it himself.

And easier for Malfoy if people believe he's a little shit, than trying to scramble something reputable for himself. Or, more likely, than everyone thinking he's a victim.

'And Hector...' Her mouth went dry. 'The lying little -'

'I'm not going to ask you to keep this secret,' said Albus in a rush, 'because the world's ending, so bugger this idiotic schoolyard stuff. And you're not wrong to not want to hurt Hector, but frankly, he's a big boy - but more importantly, you need to be happy and level in this, because we're always half a step away from going mental as it is!'

It was the most selfish she'd ever heard Albus, and she knew he'd only gone so far because he was, really, right. She might have been protecting Hector, but what the last couple of weeks had done to her sleep cycle alone was frankly horrific. Rose wasn't sure what snapping felt like, but she was getting a pretty good idea of what being strained felt like.

'Maybe,' was all she said, though, reeling from the news, from what it meant, from all the mistaken assumptions she'd been making for months about Scorpius and his behaviour - and the reminder of why she'd been so quick to think ill of him in the first place.

It was like Albus was reading her thoughts, because his hand came to her arm, touch warm and reassuring. 'I really am sorry, Rosie,' he mumbled. 'If I'd known at the time what I was doing, I wouldn't have - don't think I weighed and measured it and picked this kid I'd just met over you. I really didn't think about it. I just acted.'

Is that why you're like this now? Those five seconds under the Sorting Hat changed the whole course of your life, you know this. And mine, and Scorpius'. Have you dared do something impulsive since?

So she smiled up at him, and though the smile was weak it was sincere as she stepped forward to wrap her arms around his broad shoulders. ‘It’s all right, Al,’ Rose said. ‘I mean - it was a long time ago, and... we were kids. The most important thing is that we’re here now, yeah? Together, going forwards?’

Albus smiled, his hug firm, warm, pleased at the acceptance of his apology. ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘Forwards.’ He gave a crooked grin. ‘And, you know, hopefully... the hell out of here.’


* *


'Harley!'

The tiny edition of the Daily Prophet was lowered to reveal narrowed, irritable House Elf eyes. 'You're not allowed down into the kitchens, Malfoy, this is my -'

Scorpius crossed the distance before Harley's sneered announcement was finished. The House Elf's feet were propped up on his miniature desk, and Scorpius grabbed him by the ankles, pushing him so he was tipped back on his chair. His hands flailed, he tried to kick himself free, but to no avail - he was suddenly at Scorpius' mercy, to be tipped over backwards as the wizard pleased, and all he could say was an objecting, panicked, 'Oi!'

'We are in a crisis,' Scorpius snarled, 'and all you can think about is your bloody territory?'

'Let me down, you overgrown ape!'

'You're like a poor man's goblin! Give you a bit of freedom and some money and then you're just another obnoxious little shit, aren't you!'

'I'm warning you, Malfoy -'

'Or what? You'll sneer at me again? Swan around like you're superior, like we're the villains even if we gave you your precious freedoms?'

Harley was still flailing in some panic, the other House Elves in the kitchen frozen by the scene before them. Lacking their foreman's brusque nature, they didn't rush to interfere. But at Scorpius' words, something flashed in Harley's eyes, despite his position of weakness. 'I forgot I was supposed to be grateful that you stopped treating us like slaves and gave us the barest smidgen of common decency! So kind, your highness!'

Scorpius swore, and pushed. Harley went tipping over backwards, little arms flailing, and hit the ground with a clatter. His chair spilled him out onto the hard stone floor and for a few seconds he just lay there, sprawled out, stunned.

When he did speak, his voice was low, wry, if pained. '...thank you for the reminder on why I hate your kind.'

'I don't have time for this.' Scorpius circled the desk to stand over Harley, anger flashing in his eyes. 'The Headmaster's office.'

Harley blinked. 'What about it?'

'Get me inside! Or get Rose and Albus out, I don't care.'

The House Elf sat up gingerly, and began dusting his rumpled suit off. 'What makes you think I'll do that?'

'Because they're trapped there. Because you can help, so you should.'

Harley's expression stiffened. 'Should I, now.'

'You House Elves can come and go wherever you please in the castle. I don't know why you didn't help us get into the office before, but I don't care, I need you to do it now, to get in there and get them out.'

'Say "please".'

Scorpius straightened. 'What?'

Harley picked himself up off the floor. 'You come down here. You threaten me. You knock me over. Then you demand I do something, and act all outraged as if I'm the arsehole here for not jumping for the opportunity to help you out.'

Scorpius' expression twisted. 'You hate wizards that much? You hate us so much that you won't bloody save two from being trapped, just because of your stupid pride?'

'My pride? How's yours, little Malfoy?' Harley's smile was twisted, cruel. 'All you have to do is say "please". Will you do that for your friends, or is that too demeaning for you?'

There was a pause as Scorpius swallowed, hard. He wanted to pick Harley up and shake him until the answers came out, but realised this approach was getting nowhere. The idea of conceding made him feel sick in his gut. But then he thought of Albus, and Rose, and shame swept over him, shame at how he'd treated them as much as how he'd just behaved for their sake.

He had to get them out. He had to.

Scorpius wetted his dry lips. His voice was a low croak, like the word had to be dragged from him when he spoke, but nevertheless came sincerely. 'Please.'

Harley regarded him for a moment, studied his face as if he could spot any hint of mockery or lie. Then he straightened, seeming satisfied - and turned to amble towards the fire. 'Sorry,' he said. 'Can't help.'

'What?'

'I can't get into the Office.' Harley shrugged as he extended his hands to the fire, rubbing them for warmth. 'House Elves can enter by Headmaster's invitation only. He has to renew it every day. We can't get in.'

'You just made me ask,' Scorpius growled, 'even though you couldn't help? Why?'

Harley gave him a sidelong look, lidded eyes narrowed. 'To teach you a lesson.'

Scorpius snorted angrily. 'I don't have time for this,' he snapped, turning to storm towards the stairs.

'Oi! You don't get to pull that tripe and run, boy!' Harley called out, but Scorpius ignored him, stomping across the kitchens, sending House Elves scattering out of his path -

Then his feet were yanked out from under him, dragged forwards and up in the air, and he went flying over backwards. He hit the ground on his back hard, hard enough to knock the air out of his lungs, and lay on the floor gasping for long seconds. When Harley's pointed face appeared above him he scowled, his voice coming out in a gasp. 'You just used magic on me!'

'You just tipped me out of my chair. Who struck the first blow, Malfoy? No, don't get up.' A small, exquisitely tailored boot was planted on Scorpius' shoulder with surprising force. He could probably push it off, but he was still stunned from his impact, and just lay there.

'Let me make some simple things clear to you. This. Right here. This is why I hate you. Because you act all nice, give us the lip service of politeness, but when your back's to the wall, you go right ahead and treat us like we're second rate. Less-than. Here to answer your whims. If I were a wizard you wouldn't have dreamt of coming down here and abusing me until I did what you want. You might have shouted and snapped, but you wouldn't have attacked me.' Harley crouched down, bringing his nose level with Scorpius'.

'I see what you lot think. I see, at the heart of it, the same disregard, like there always was. And you lot - all of you - you've got the gall to be offended when I don't lick a wizard's boots? When I don't act like they're the best thing since sliced bread for managing to say "please"? For not treating them as saints when they extend to me the same basic courtesies their mother would have given them a thick ear for not showing another wizard when they were little?

'Oh, but you've changed. You've all given us our freedoms. Bollocks. You can't give someone freedom. You can't give 'em rights. You can't give 'em equality. It was always ours, you just trapped it. You don't thank a warden for letting out a man wrongfully imprisoned. We don't thank wizards for not pissing on us quite as much as they used to.'

Scorpius drew a sharp breath now his lungs would let him, and looked indignantly up at Harley. 'You don't need to take you being pissy at all wizards out on me.'

'No, I don't. But you need a lesson, Little Malfoy, more sorely than other wizards. At least they get they're supposed to act polite to us. You've been a little shit since we first met, and you still expect me to think you're different to your family? After this fiasco I ain't rushing to tell the unions to lift the blacklisting on your house. Like father, like son.'

Scorpius snarled, grabbing Harley's boot and pushing - but the House Elf clicked his fingers, and suddenly it was like he weighed as much as Albus, because try as he might, he couldn't push him off. 'Like hell -'

'You was in a crisis, Little Malfoy. Things important to you was in danger. And what did you do? What was the first thing you did? Come treat me like shit. It didn't occur to you to ask. You put you first, what you need, what you want. And it's the same all these damn weeks. Malfoy's got a problem, so Malfoy will be a little shit to everyone in Hogwarts. Forget that others are having a worse time. No, nobody suffers as much as a Malfoy, and he's going to be a petulant child and make sure everyone else sees his terrible woes. You just made one mistake coming down here, Malfoy. 'cos I don't have to put up with it.'

Harley stepped back, removing his boot, and jerked a stubby finger at the stairs. 'Now get out of my kitchen. And don't even think of coming down here without an invitation or I'll have you ironing my shirts just for the pleasure of talkin' to me.'

And all Scorpius could do once he'd picked himself up off the ground, dusted off his blazer, tried to shrug off the stares of the kitchen House Elves, was straighten with what precious little dignity he could muster - and slink towards the stairs.

It was time to do something more productive. Something he'd told himself he'd do a long time ago.




-------------


A/N: Been a long break between chapters, I know! Real Life, doing that Thing It Does. Can't guarantee a return to some of the past speed, though I have a little bit of a buffer left. Hopefully soon I can get RL under control, and finish the Actual Proper Writing I'm wrangling with so I can enjoy Ignite while I deal with the anguish of Editing. I am determined to get this all wrapped up, and get to your reviews, and other such fun stuff, sooo... thanks for hanging in there, guys!

Chapter 25: Break the Ice
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'Do you think they know we're here?'

'For about the twelfth time,' said Albus, not unkindly, 'Yes.'

You mean, "I hope so,” Rose thought ruefully. Otherwise we're completely buggered. But she didn't say that, just went back to pacing in front of the bookshelf that lined a whole curved wall of the office. She'd tried to read. But worry had wormed in her gut and made the words wash over her, and pacing was more peaceful.

She didn't know how Albus could do it. He just sat there, calm and in control, perched on the uncomfortable stone steps. She, when she'd sat, had claimed the chair on their side of the desk. Neither one of them had gone anywhere near the comfortable headmaster's seat on the far side.

It seemed wrong. Presumptuous. Almost cold. Thaddeus Stubbs was suffering, truly, but he was still master of Hogwarts. The old man wasn't dead yet. And even if he wouldn't mind them sitting in his chair, they minded.

'You know what I'm going to do when I get out of here?' Rose said instead.

'Have dinner?'

Her stomach growled. They'd been here for over twelve hours. Maybe more. She'd lost count. 'Yes. But aside from -'

'Have a shower? Some sleep?'

'I was meaning Hogwarts. This whole thing.' Albus looked up, interested now, and she waved a hand. 'This year. Not just school. But, I mean, it's December now? Or almost.' Losing track of time, of the entire crisis rather than just this half a day trapped in the office, was happening more often than she liked. 'Even if we fixed Phlegethon tomorrow, school wouldn't restart immediately. I'd imagine the whole year's a write-off.'

Albus cocked his head. 'We're in a crisis,' he said levelly, 'and you're thinking about the school year?'

'I think they'd spend the next eight months on recovery, rebuilding, and investigation, and start the year afresh. One extra-big class of First Years. They've done it before.'

'Yes,' said Albus. 'After the war.'

'My point,' Rose mused, 'is that this is months of no school, no preparation.'

'And you're planning a holiday?' He sounded dubious.

'Of course! Oh, don't look at me like that, Al. Any little thing keeps the mind hopeful in a crisis. We don't have to be doom and gloom entirely.'

Albus looked like he was going to point out the hypocrisy of her statement, before remaining judiciously silent. He nodded. 'A holiday. Where?'

'You know the tradition. Finish Hogwarts, travel the world for a year. We'll probably be of age by the time this is all over. We can go off and do that.'

Albus looked a little wistful. 'Scorp and I talked of doing the trip. Once NEWTs were finished.'

She tried to smack down the pang of jealousy in her, and forced a more airy tone to her voice. 'See? This time you get it sooner. A means of recovering from the bloody horrible eon of being trapped in school, we could do with a change of scenery -'

Then there was a horrible, discordant shriek and the door blew in. Not just blew in - was blown off its hinges, sent flying away from the doorframe and broke into three chunks of wood which fell clattering onto the flagstones.

And there, in the doorway, standing in the cloud of dust that had erupted upwards from the shattered door, stood Scorpius Malfoy. Holding his guitar.

Rose stared. 'I don't believe it.'

'You said it wouldn't work, Weasley.' Scorpius swaggered in, head held high, as a long-suffering Selena Rourke and a tired-looking Methuselah Jones followed him.

'No, I said it was the dumbest idea I ever heard,' Rose said, so surprised the banter was instinctive.

'Worked, though, didn't it? Just broke into the Headmaster's Office with it!'

'Actually,' said Selena, groaning, 'he blew off the door to the office. Methuselah was the one who broke through the walls to bypass the magical security. All Scorpius has provided is an unnecessarily destructive version of "Alohomora".'

'Don't everyone thank me at once,' said Scorpius, sticking his nose in the air - and then he grinned, and the superiority was gone for an expression of genuine, contented satisfaction. Those were nicer smiles, Rose remembered, than his smug smirks. Sincere. 'Actually, what Jones did was pretty cool. Even if it was just sitting on the floor for twelve hours instead of blowing a door off its hinges with the power of rock.'

'Impressive array of enchantment of multiple different items to combine for a more powerful blasting curse, however, Malfoy,' said Methuselah, looking as if he broke through the most powerful wards in the castle on an everyday basis. 'The wards were less difficult to bypass after the two of you had staged your incursion, however unsuccessful.'

Albus' jaw dropped. 'I spent months reading what I could on the office's security. Those wards are insane. I don't care if the two of us breaking through made it easier, they're insane.'

'Yeah, well. So's he, mate.' Scorpius grinned as he jerked a thumb at Methuselah, looking too proud for there to be any sting.

Rose was staring at the Ravenclaw, and drew a sharp breath. 'Jones,' she said uncertainly, 'just how smart are you?'

Selena raised a superior eyebrow. 'Smarter than you, Weasley, which I suspect is sufficient.'

'Out of the two of us, he's not the one who got himself trapped in an office for the better part of a day. I'll agree this time,' said Rose, too downright pleased to see them to rise to the bait.

'Anyway!' Scorpius unslung his guitar, propping it up against the wall. 'Are you two all right?'

Albus stood up, lifting his hands and unable to not grin broadly. 'We're fine, Scorp.'

'Good,' he declared, and strode over to the two of them. Rose's heart leapt into her throat -

- only for him to grab Albus in a bear hug. 'You great big lug, you see the sort of trouble you get into without me?'

Albus laughed, clapping him on the back. 'What, better for you to get into that trouble with me? But then you wouldn't have had the chance to use the Blasting Guitar! When did you make that thing?'

'I was bored and thought I might need it for a rainy day. I won't object to the chance to make a dramatic entrance.'

Selena cleared her throat from the door. 'I hate to interrupt this touching reunion,' she drawled, quite clearly hating no such thing. 'But we should perhaps tell Professor Lockett you're both free and that we now have access to the Headmaster's Office. And go get some food and sleep.' She addressed this last one to Methuselah.

Rose looked at him too. 'Is this going to stay open? Will we now have unfettered access?'

'Hm?' Methuselah had been studying the office walls, and Rose realised with some surprise that he would have never been in there. He'd never had reason to. He didn't get in enough trouble, enough serious situations, and he wasn't a prefect. 'Oh, of course. So long as we don't close the door.' Not that they could, now.

She nodded. 'Then I,' she said decisively, 'am going to get some food and go to bed, because I still have work down in the dungeons tomorrow.'

'Get stuck in a room for twelve hours, get back to work the next day,' Selena mused. 'Sane, Weasley.'

Rose ignored her and looked to Methuselah. 'Thank you, Jones,' she said. 'Breaking us out is truly impressive. And... thank you, Malfoy. The guitar worked.'

'But more importantly,' said Scorpius, going to retrieve his guitar, 'you two are all right, and I looked really cool.'

She looked at him - at the bounce back in his step, at the glint back in his eye, remembering what Albus had said, how so much of what she'd thought she knew about him was either her own mistaken, prejudiced assumption or a downright lie she'd been so quick to believe.

And was far too aware of everyone else present to say anything about it. 'I'm going to bed, then,' she said. 'You should all do so, too. And... thank you.' She headed for the door, the laughing figures of Albus and Scorpius, who was showing off his enchanted guitar, not far behind her, leaving the office a much quieter place.

Selena hesitated by the doorway and looked over at Methuselah once they were all gone. 'Coming? You've been sat on a hard stone floor for hours.'

'Hm? Oh, no.' He waved a hand at her as he padded over towards the headmaster's huge bookshelf. 'Some of these books. Never seen them before...'

'They'll be there in the morning.' Selena's expression flickered.

'Of course. Nothing will happen in meantime,' Methuselah agreed calmly. And took one down off the shelf anyway. 'Ambrosius' Ley-Lines. In the original Latin.'

He opened the book and Selena sighed, shoulders slumping for half a heartbeat before she drew a deep breath and assumed a more assured, controlled - disinterested - expression. 'Well, I'll see you in the morning, Jones,' she said, and turned on her heel to clatter down the stairs out of the office.

Leaving Methuselah Jones at the centre of his handiwork, one of the most impressive feats of magic performed by a Hogwarts student and, as was typical of him, with very little flashing lights or obvious results.

And, as was typical of him, now left completely alone.


* *



'When on earth did you make this?' Albus asked, jaw dropped as he turned the guitar over in his hands. Lightly, very lightly he touched one of the strings, just enough for the softest of sounds, and the response was like a gentle breeze in his face, ruffling the papers on the desk in the corner of Scorpius' room.

Scorpius tried to not grin at his friend's satisfaction, despite the ache in his shoulders. 'The last few weeks,' he said. 'It's just the strings, my spare strings. I've not been playing the magical blasting guitar on Radio Hogwarts. I don't think that'd do the ill kids much good.'

His friend looked up from where he was sat on the hard-backed chair at the table. 'That's a really cool thing you're doing, you know. The radio.'

He waved a dismissive hand. 'I had help. Jones, of all people. I ran across him in the Ravenclaw common room when I was trying to get all the letters written and he started yammering about how the spoken word is something like the fourth-fastest form of communication after... what was it? Thought, light, and magic. Then mentioned the radio. Then started talking about some sort of light-show, but I got him back on the topic of the radio.' Scorpius scratched the back of his head. 'Didn't matter that I'd been a right arse to him, he just dug it right out...'

Albus winced. 'Hey, I'm sorry I wasn't around for you while you've been doing all this -'

'No! No. That wasn't what I meant,' Scorpius said quickly, aghast at the implication. 'Not saying you're an arse for not helping me. I'm saying I'm an arse who had no reason to be... helped.' Silence hung between them, long and heavy, like Artemis sleeping on their faces in the middle of the night. Scorpius shifted his feet. 'M'sorry, mate.'

Albus stood. 'No, no, I'm sorry.'

'For what?' Scorpius' brow furrowed.

'You've been going through stuff. You weren't happy. I should have helped.'

'All right.' Scorpius shoved his hands in his pockets. 'I forgive you for not having the patience of a bloody saint and putting up with me even when I was being an arse.'

Albus' lips twitched, rueful. 'You okay?'

'Me? I'm not the one who was locked in an office for an age.'

'Hours. I'll live. I don't mean today. I mean with everything.'

Scorpius shrugged. 'Why shouldn't it be?'

'I mean you and Rose.'

The old upset stirred in him, the disappointment and frustration and lingering sense of betrayal. 'There's no me and Rose, is there,' he muttered, looking away. 'You spent so much time with her, you should know that.'

'I suspect,' said Albus, 'I don't know her as well as I thought I did.'

Scorpius lifted his hands. 'It's all right, mate. Look - I'm fine, if you want to talk, we'll talk in the morning.'

'It is morning.'

'Then when you've slept. It's been a long day.'

'And tomorrow's going to be long. I'll be back in the office changing the wards.' Albus suppressed a yawn. 'Come up and help me?'

'Yeah. After the briefing.' Although he was relieved, unfathomably relieed that they were talking again, his morning routine had become something of a comfort and he wasn't about to drop it yet.

Albus left the room, leaving Scorpius on his own with the fire crackling, low by now, the guitar left propped up against the table. He'd set to work on it soon after the row, then again in proper earnest after he'd started doing the letters, needing something to keep him busy when he was on his own. Tired of people around him all day, and yet needing more than his own thoughts for company.

It wasn't that impressive a piece of magic. Certainly not when compared to Methuselah's lowering of the wards, which had been astonishing but not very impressive to watch. He'd just sat in front of the door for hours on end, muttering to himself. But blowing a door off its hinges with a magic guitar, even though it was a feat a simple Alohomora could accomplish...

Enchanting spells into objects, when they were just the one spell he could do with his wand with his eyes shut, wasn't that complicated. It was just time-consuming, the sort of time-consuming where one might as well use their wand to cast in the first place. What he'd done was more of a victory of style over substance.

Which suited him perfectly, really.

Scorpius sighed and shrugged out of his blazer, going to dress for bed. It had been a long day, though much easier for him than others. And though he was talking with Albus, though he'd apologised to Albus, though things seemed better, he couldn't shake an edge of discontent.

Half an hour of chatting and some mumbled forgiveness didn't fix everything. Wounds didn't heal overnight. And there was still the matter of Rose. No, not all was well, by any means.

He slept. And when he was awoken arguments with friends suddenly couldn't have been any less important.

The ticking clock on his bedside table said it was four in the morning, but the figure of Harley poking him in the ribs was saying, 'Malfoy! Get up! Now!'

He jerked awake, a House Elf's nose in his face enough to stir anyone to consciousness, and gathered his wits - scattered about the room in his sleep - to try to find some retort. But there was no scathing edge in Harley's voice, just a dark edge speaking plainly that this was no retaliation for his invasin of the kitchen. This was all business.

'What?'

'The Prof wants you. Now. You decent? Get decent.'

Scorpius stumbled out of bed and found nothing more than his loaders on the floor in the two seconds he had before the House Elf grabbed him by the wrist. 'Lockett? What's going on?'

'It's serious,' snapped Harley, then the world twisted.

He'd Apparated before. Side-along had happened several times, and his father had insisted he have some tuition over the summer holidays of his own, describing the meagre few hours' training Hogwarts provided as inadequate. Scorpius suspected he just didn't want the indignity of his son failing the exam the first time around. But while normally Apparition had him snapping and twirling through the world, when dragged by Harley it was more like side-stepping into thin air and emerging the other side.

'How...?' he gasped as he emerged in a gloomy room cast in a dim, emerald light. 'You're not supposed to be able to do-' Then he realised where he was, and a House Elf Apparating on Hogwarts grounds was no longer his biggest concern.

He knew the gloomy green lighting. This was a Slytherin dormitory. The second year boys' dormitory, to be precise, except all of the beds had been cleared out save one. Tim Warwick's. The curtains had been thrown back around the four-poster, and surrounding him was a gaggle of House Elves. By his bedside table, upon which was a small pot over a bunsen that was beginning to bubble, stood the frantic form of Lockett.

Scorpius' mouth went dry. 'Oh, hell.'

'Foreman can go where he needs to go, Malfoy,' Harley said, voice serious as he pushed him towards the bed. 'And you're needed here.'

Lockett turned, a vial of green liquid in her hand. The lights of the bunsen and the sconces cast dark shadows across her face, and her hair was wild and spiky, bags under her eyes. 'Scorpius, get here.' Her voice was bland, mechanical, and impossible to disobey.

He didn't remember commanding his legs to move, but then he blinked and was by the bed. The sheets had been yanked off Tim's bed, leaving his surprisingly small, pale form just clad in sweat-sodden pyjamas. He was shaking.

'What's going on?' Scorpius tried to say.

'Feed him this,' Lockett said instead, dipping a spoon into her bubbling pot and pressing it into his hand, 'and talk to him.'

'Talk to-'

'Do it!' Finally an edge crept into her voice and it was one of hysteria.

'Okay! Okay!' The moment Scorpius realised he hadn't picked up his wand, Harley was pressing it into his hand. He leant over Tim and brought the spoon to his mouth, muttering the incantation which would trick the boy's body in the simple, gentle way to make him swallow, to make the liquid go down properly, to stop him from choking. This wasn't an easy charm. But it had become second nature by now, and he didn't even think about it.

'Hey, kiddo.' His voice sounded hollow and alien even to his own ears. 'I saw yesterday's post; there's a letter for you in it. Sorry I didn't get it to you, I was pretty... caught up. I'll tell you the whole thing, I promise, the letter and the amazing adventure. But in the morning, all right? The Prof's going to make you...' But he sounded unnatural, unconvincing, and Scorpius hesitated. 'What the hell am I supposed to say?'

The air cracked around them as two more House Elves bounced into reality and the room. 'Professor! Scarab wings and shredded lotus leaves here for you!' Harley barked, taking packages off them and bustling to Lockett.

She didn't so much as thank them, just yanked the jars opened and nudged amounts into the small, bubbling pot. Scorpius had seen her do this before; toss ingredients into a potion with seemingly wild abandon and disregard, when in truth she knew exactly how much to put in, when, and with more precision than the finest scales or more accurate recipe. He'd seen it when she'd made the alleviating elixir, but now she was barely watching what she was doing.

'Phlegethon is fighting back. Gold spoon,' she said without missing a beat, and a House Elf selected one of several spoons and knives laid out on a table they'd dragged over, putting it in her hand. She stirred twice, counter-clockwise. 'I might have been - wrong.'

Scorpius tensed. 'Wrong?'

'I thought the elixir was alleviating the necromantic energy in the afflicted without being able to uproot the core,' said Lockett. 'It might have just been driving it out of parts of the body and pooling it in others. The white vial, the morning dew, now!' Another House Elf holding a rack of vials bustled out of the crowd to appear at her side and Lockett plucked up one seemingly at random. No more than a drop went into her concoction, which now glowed a gentle silver.

'So they appear to get better,' said Lockett, dipping in the gold spoon for another single stir. 'Because parts of their body are cleansed of the disease. But where Phlegethon's been pooling it's been doing - damage. Harm. On a serious basis. I was wrong.' Her voice shook as she confessed this again.

'But what's happening to Tim?' Scorpius demanded desperately.

Lockett stared at her concoction for a heartbeat, then turned to Harley. 'There's a chest in my office,' she said, and from around her neck she yanked out a key on a length of chain, which she broke in her haste to give to the House Elf. 'Marked with a symbol of the sun and chained down. Bring me the whole chest.'

Harley actually bowed before he disappeared.

Scorpius' mouth went dry. 'What's happening to Tim?' he repeated.

Lockett turned to him, shoulders stiff. 'Phlegethon pooled in his heart. He's dying.'

'Dying -'

'The House Elf on night shift found he was having another attack and woke me. I've been trying everything; flushing potions, rejuvenating elixirs, charms to give him the strength to fight it back, but it's no good. I just can't diminish Phlegethon.'

'So what are you doing? Why did you bring me here?'

'Because I need your help! Because of all the people who can wake up, you're the one he's closest to!'

'Shouldn't you be getting Jones or Rose -'

'Rose will follow my instructions to the letter and do a damn fine job, and Jones will take his time and theorise and ponder and come up with something brilliant, but I don't need a second pair of hands and I don't have time. What I need from you, they can't give. Talk to him, Scorpius!' Lockett jabbed a finger at Tim, lying there drenched in sweat.

'What do I say? Why?'

'Because there are forms of magic I cannot quantify or define and they are the only thing I think can save the boy. Magic of the heart and gut which can tether him here and give him the will to fight off the necromancy.'

Scorpius' jaw dropped. 'You're telling me to say some nice words and hope he gets better?'

'Of course not.' The firelight cast jagged shadows across Lockett's face. 'I'd never trust anything so wishy-washy. Which is why I need to give it a helping hand. But I need you. Give me your hand.'

He obliged without thinking, then there was a sharp pain at the tip of his forefinger. 'Ow!' Scorpius stared at the needle she'd produced as if from nowhere, and was now dangling over her pot. 'The hell are you doing?'

'Don't give me that look. It's one drop, I'm not feeding him a chalice of your blood. But blood's life, and a wizard's blood is magic, and your blood, Mister Malfoy, is more magical than anyone awake's. Heritage might not mean much for raw talent but no amount of egalitarian mumbo-jumbo is going to deny the sheer power of pure blood.'

The pinprick of blood she'd drawn dripped into her small pot, and silvery steam came pouring up. Lockett barely missed a beat. 'I don't need you to believe. But you're a component in this spell that can save the young man's life. Tell me about him.'

'What -'

'If you can't talk to him, talk about him!'

Scorpius hesitated - then a choke escaped Tim Warwick's dry lips, and the House Elves began to flap around him as if keeping him cool and comfortable could fight a dark ritual of blackest magic. 'He's - he's a good kid. He's bright, he's funny. He's Muggle-born and I think it's cool, he knows all their music and he finds everything amazing and he was going to be my new Seeker!'

'That package, there!' Lockett snapped at a House Elf as the steam rising from the little cauldron faded, and what she was handed over was no bigger than an envelope. As Scorpius watched she unfolded it and shook no more of the dark powder on than she would if seasoning her dinner.

'What is that?'

'Phoenix ash,' Lockett said as if a thousand galleon-an-ounce reagent was no more consequential than eye of newt, and Scorpius would always remember that this, of all times, was the moment he realised how dire the situation was. Not the look on Lockett's face or the state of Tim, but the fact that she was pouring a once-in-a-lifetime ingredient into this potion.

When a life hung in the balance, nobody cared about the cost.

'He stuck dung-bombs in Flynn's bag, just 'cos I asked him to,' Scorpius blurted out. 'His dad let him go flying over the summer even though he panicked all the time.' Oh, Merlin, his parents - 'It might be sad and pathetic because he's got friends and family who matter to him a whole lot more than I do, but he's like the little brother I never -'

Harley appeared with a crack and a twist in the air, carrying an oaken chest almost as big as he was. The lid had a stylised sun carved and burnt into the wood, and Lockett was yanking the lid open almost before the House Elf had put it down.

'What is that?' Scorpius asked as he saw the row upon row of cylinders maybe a foot long slotted into the chest, each with their own symbols of suns and moons carved upon them. Lockett ignored him, tossing them to one side, ignoring what might have once been a careful system until she pulled out one.

'Some potions can only be made at certain times of the year,' she said, and crossed over to the tiny cauldron sat on Tim's bedside table, so small and inconsequential it was hard to believe it was being used for the most tremendous potion-work Scorpius had ever witnessed. 'It's to do with lots of things - alignment of stars, presence of other celestial bodies, sometimes the location, weather, the air -'

'Yeah, but what's in it?'

Lockett held the cylinder over the potion and drew a deep breath. 'Sunlight at dawn from Mount Olympus on Midsummer's Day.' Then she cracked the cylinder open and for half a heartbeat the room was filled with bright, blazing light. When it faded he could see that inside the cylinder was lined with mirrors, endlessly reflecting mirrors.

And the potion's shimmer was golden.

'We're ready,' she said, and dipped in the gold spoon. 'Here - Scorpius, come here.' The first word had been uttered harshly, but she faltered and visibly forced herself to relax, softening her voice.

Scorpius had found himself standing closer and closer to the throng of the half-dozen House Elves, dressed in good shoes and silk pyjamas and feeling quite foolish and useless, but his legs obeyed the command and he slunk to her side.

To his surprise, Lockett grabbed his hand. 'This is a long shot,' she said, and sharp green eyes met his, suddenly gentler, more reassuring. 'I called you here because you've got the best chance of helping - your friendship, your closeness - but this is a long shot, you hear me? If this doesn't work, it's not because you didn't try enough or didn't care enough.'

Again his lips were dry, his tongue feeling like it was plastered to the roof of his mouth like it was suddenly made of sandpaper. He wanted to ask more questions, felt doubt surge up within him along with the bile, but all he could do was give a mute, numb nod.

'Come on.' She didn't let go of his hand and was holding it tight, so tight this couldn't be part of the magic and couldn't be just for his own benefit, and at about the same time Scorpius realised his knees were shaking he saw her bring the gold spoon towards Tim and saw that she was, too.

Harley clambered up on the bed to crouch next to the boy. Tim's face was pale as chalk, his hair plastered down on his forehead through sweat, and his small form - he was so, so small, Scorpius couldn't help but notice - was wracked with occasional spasms. With a gentleness he was surprised the House Elf possessed, Harley ran a finger down Tim's throat, and he stilled slowly.

'It's now or never,' he said, voice gruffer than usual. 'He's fading, fast.'

Lockett drew a shaking breath. Scorpius was standing as to block the light from the fireplace from falling on her face, so it was just the flickering from the sconces that found her now - and with it they found every wrinkle, every crease on her ageing face. 'Well,' she murmured. 'I guess it's time to find out if I'm a genius after all.'

And she slipped the gold spoon and its shimmering golden liquid into Tim Warwick's mouth.


Chapter 26: Rising Heat
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A/N: Okay, so, when I try to commit to getting this done when I have free time, I fail. When I have a super-busy job, somehow I make time to write fic. It's a nice distraction. Sorry this is taking forever. I shan't make promises other than "I will try to finish this story". It's still fun and I still love it.



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It wasn't the state the dungeon was in that told Rose something was wrong. It wasn't the way ingredients pots had been knocked over, or how Lockett's pile of books and papers had been swept off the desk. It wasn't how the Professor's neat little case of specific, valuable potioneering tools was gone, though all of these facts concerned her.

It was that there was no plate of breakfast waiting for her, no mug of tea gently steaming to let her know that Scorpius had managed to put it in place and then slip away. It had always been there. Even when he'd been at his most hurt, furious, and withdrawn, he'd still left her breakfast in the morning. Sure, it had partly been a passive-aggressive swipe, a gesture of kindness to make her feel guilty, but it had always been there. Come rain or shine.

He knew she was going to be down here this morning, even if she'd only had about six hours' sleep. She'd said the night before. So what had happened to him?

And, for that matter, what had happened to Lockett and her equipment?

The school was empty as she hurried back through the corridors. Albus, Selena and Methuselah had all proven themselves more sensible than her and remained in bed, getting the sleep they deserved. It could have made the school seem even more like it had been abandoned to the ghosts, but she was used to that in the early mornings.

But something was very wrong.

A House Elf came out of the corridor that led to the Hufflepuff Common Room as she approached the Great Hall, and the little creature squeaked with surprise at the sight of her. Rose paused, eyes narrowing. They weren't usually that jumpy.

'Good morning?'

The House Elf gave another unhappy squeak. Rose found herself missing Harley for one brief moment; he, at least, would not be startled first thing in the morning. Just unpleasant. 'Good mornings to Miss Weasley!'

Rose eyeballed the creature for a moment more as it just stared, wide-eyed, saying nothing, and she sighed. 'Do you know where Mister Malfoy is?' It felt very peculiar to call him that, but in truth she wasn't sure how she was supposed to refer to him right then.

'Oh!' The House Elf brightened up as if he knew the answer - then his expression fell with clouds of guilt. 'Mister Malfoy left the building early this morning. Mister Malfoy is out in the grounds. Mister Malfoy was brought tea, but threw the cup at Bodger.'

She had no idea if Bodger was this particular elf or another one completely. But tea-throwing was not one of Scorpius' usual habits. 'Where in the grounds?'

'At the Quidditch pitch.' Possibly-Bodger gave another noise of upset when she turned on her heel and started for the front doors. 'Mister Malfoy said he wanted to be left alone!'

Something was definitely wrong.

It had snowed in the night. The sky above was dark still, sun barely casting a pale promise in the east, though the snowflakes in the air were no bigger than fingerprints and upon the ground lay only a thin powder. She strode in the chill across to the Quidditch grounds, swaddling herself in her cloak. The stands stood tall and shadowy and so vast that one person could be swallowed whole by them in the gloom. But she could guess where to go.

She spotted Scorpius the moment she made it to the top of the Slytherin stand, sat on the front row. His shoulders were hunched, his head bowed, and her eyes widened when she realised that not only was his breath misting in the cold air, but he wore only a blazer and shirt and he was shivering.

'You're going to freeze out here!' Rose couldn't stop herself from sounding scolding as she hurried over, unslinging her own cloak and throwing it around his shoulders without thinking.

He jumped, and only then did she see how pale he was, how heavy the bags under his eyes sat. 'R- W- what're you -'

Rose knelt in front of him and pulled the cloak tighter around his shoulders. 'In all these weeks,' she murmured, 'you've never failed to leave me a cup of tea in the morning.'

'M'sorry,' Scorpius said, voice thick from the cold.

'Don't be sorry.' She was beginning to feel the chill herself and slid her hands inside the cloak to find his. They were like ice, but at her touch his fingers wrapped around hers in an iron, desperate grip. 'What happened?'

Scorpius closed his eyes, head bowing, and when he opened his mouth to answer all that came out first was a small, strangled sound. She moved to sit next to him on the bench, pulling the cloak over them both, and wrapped her arm around his shoulder. He leaned in, slumping like a puppet whose strings had been cut, and turned his head to bury his face in her shoulder.

'Tim's dead,' came his muffled, anguished voice. 'This thing's lethal and Tim's dead and Lockett and I couldn't do anything in the end but watch...'

Then he wept, open and shameless, and a detached part of Rose's mind, the part that wasn't holding him close and mumbling soothing nonsense, noted that the first day of snow had come with a blade of cruel ice in everyone's gut.


* *


'I see.' Hermione Granger's patronus looked as sombre as an otter could. 'I'll go and speak with his parents right away.'

Albus nodded, the words he'd just uttered leaving the taste of ash in his mouth. 'Thank you. They should be told in person.'

'There's no "should" about any of this.' Hermione sighed. 'Where's Professor Lockett?'

The sombre silence that had fallen upon the five students gathered for the morning briefing reasserted itself, never fully defeated. Albus looked at the others. Scorpius was still pale and worn, silent throughout the entire briefing. Rose had been halting in explaining to her mother what little she'd been told by Scorpius and later Harley about what had happened to Tim Warwick, but otherwise stayed by his side, anxious and hovering. Selena was sat quiet and red-eyed next to a Methuselah who had so far only frowned at the explanation and stayed quiet, lips occasionally moving as he thought.

It was Rose who went to answer first, and being Rose she tried to use the truth. 'We don't -'

'She's sleeping,' Albus interrupted. 'Or, trying to get some rest. We didn't want to disturb her. Scorpius and Harley told us everything we needed to know.'

Hermione's patronus looked tense for a moment before it nodded. 'Of course. She should get some rest after all of this. I'll speak with her soon; she should forward her notes onto us. It sounds... cold, but the more we know...' She hesitated. 'I assume we're stopping administrating the Alleviating Elixir?'

Albus nodded. 'On the possibility the Professor's initial guess was correct, it seems safer to stop for now. Everyone was doing sort of all right before it.'

'Is it safer?' Rose wrung her hands together. 'What if the Alleviating Elixir's keeping them better, it was just too late for Tim?'

'Impossible to say,' Methuselah said, jerked from his reverie. 'Not enough evidence. Should continue administrating elixir to some and not to others and assess progress -'

'And what if that kills the ones we're wrong about? These are people, not test subjects -'

'Enough.' Albus lifted a hand and Rose fell silent, but he gave his aunt an imploring look.

Hermione sighed. 'Nobody's wrong,' she said. 'The best thing to be done... is to take a look at Tim's body. I know that sounds gruesome but there are spells to be done on the body, even tests to be done on the blood, which might help isolate what happened to him.'

Albus nodded. 'I'll go down when we're -'

'I'll go.' Scorpius lifted his head, blinking like he'd just woken up. 'I know the spells. We've all learned them, haven't we. I'll take a look at him.'

Rose pursed her lips. 'Do you want me to -'

'I'll be fine.' His voice was flat, not harsh, but it was enough to make Rose look as cowed as if he'd snapped.

'I'm so sorry you all have to still be here through this,' Hermione said. 'It's been discussed at the Ministry and we could, if necessary, find somewhere else for you to relocate to. It would still have to be under quarantine but you wouldn't have to be here -'

'We're not going anywhere.' Everyone's head, even Scorpius', whipped around to look at Selena. Despite her red eyes she was still the picture of perfect, immaculate beauty, face and hair done up even more fastidiously than ever, clothes artfully picked. Albus had unkindly wondered what was running through her mind until he saw the waver of her lip as she rose, and realised that it wasn't a lack of caring which had her fussing over vanity - quite the opposite. It was something to focus on, the one thing in all of this chaos she could focus on.

'Tim Warwick's dead,' she continued, 'and this isn't going to get any better. Everyone at this school needs someone to try to help, needs us. We can't just leave it to the House Elves. And the Professor.' This last came with a glance at Albus that held a hint of accusation, and he dropped his gaze. 'We're staying until this is over.'

Mumbles of assent passed everyone else's lips, even Scorpius' and Methuselah's, and along with the sympathy and anguish in the gaze of his aunt's patronus, Albus thought he could see a glimmer of pride as she nodded.

'That's your choice,' Hermione confirmed. 'Know that the thoughts of all Wizarding Britain, maybe even the whole of the Wizarding World by now, are with you. You might feel alone but we will do everything we can, even at a distance, to help and support you. You are not alone.'

Although Albus knew she meant it, it was hard to believe so, but he smiled and nodded his way through the farewells until, finally, the patronus blinked out of existence.

Silence reasserted itself in the Great Hall, broken only when Selena turned to Albus, hand on her hip. 'Why, exactly, did you lie to her about Lockett?'

'I didn't lie - I mean, she probably is resting,' Albus said with a wince.

'Probably. Maybe. We don't know that for sure. She could be anywhere.'

'She could be in her room.'

'And until she unlocks the door or answers, we won't know!'

'Look, she's been through a lot -'

'And we haven't?' Selena's nose wrinkled. 'Just because she's an adult and a teacher doesn't make her this sacred cow! Just a regular cow! And right now she's supposed to be the only responsible person in the school and she's not being!'

Albus could see the arguments for Lockett needing some time alone but Selena's points did not elude him. Worse, he could tell she was fuelled more by upset and fear than true accusation, and the last thing the five of them needed was to fall apart. He lifted his hands. 'All right. All right. I'll go down and find her, okay? I'll take Harley, I'll ask him to let me in if she doesn't, I'll check up on her.'

Selena folded her arms across her chest and only then did he see her lower lip wobble. 'Well, good.'

Scorpius wobbled to his feet. 'I'm going to go see Tim.'

'Where is he?' Albus asked.

'The House Elves took him to the dungeons. The lowest parts. It's cool and dry down there. He'll... be all right.' Scorpius' expression wavered. 'I'll be quick.'

He wouldn't want to linger down there longer than necessary, Albus knew, watching his friend as he fairly ran out of the Great Hall. Rose's gaze went with him, and Albus wanted to go to his cousin, reassure her, but he didn't have the words right then. It all felt useless.

So he would focus on the one use he could serve, and do what he'd said. 'I'm going to find Lockett.'


* *


Harley had been dubious and unenthused when Albus asked for his help to find Lockett, but once they'd checked the staff room and her bedroom, Harley unlocking the way for him, concern had set in for them both when they'd found nothing. The dungeons had been swept once again, and Albus had been just considering getting his broom to check the grounds before Harley pointed out that she sometimes spent time up in Ravenclaw Tower.

It felt right. Albus had taken the steps two at a time and easily handled the door-knocker's riddle (the one about the man who makes it not needing it, the macabre answer a coffin - a classic that had Albus suspecting the knocker was running low on inspiration) to let himself in.

And when he entered the common room he was disappointed, but not surprised at the sight which greeted him. 'Professor?'

Professor Lockett was asleep in one of the armchairs before the fireplace in the Ravenclaw common room. At her feet was an empty bottle of firewhisky. She didn't react.

Anger tugged at Albus' gut, and he brought both hands slamming together for a loud clap. 'Professor!'

She jumped at that, jerking into consciousness and kicking the bottle over. It clattered noisily and she looked at him, squinting. 'Potter?' Her voice was thick, slurred.

His jaw dropped. 'What the hell do you think you're doing?'

'Trying to sleep?'

'You're drunk!'

'Hungover.' Lockett bent over, rubbing her temples. 'Quiet.'

Albus sputtered. 'Tim Warwick's dead, Phlegethon's lethal, we have no idea what to do next - do you really think this is time to drink?'

She picked up the bottle. 'Sounds like the perfect time to drink.'

He stabbed a furious finger at the stairs. 'There are four students down there. Kids. One of them watched a friend die, none of them are used to anything like this. They are terrified, frantic, they don't know what to do, and you're hiding up here instead of being with them?'

Something in Lockett's eye flashed. 'What am I supposed to do?'

'Something! Anything! Talk to them!'

The bottle came flying out of Lockett's hand to smash against the wall next to the fireplace. Despite himself, despite that the bottle had been going nowhere near him, Albus flinched.

'What the hell am I supposed to say?' Lockett shouted, rising to her feet. 'He's dead and I'm sorry, but not a thing I could do could stop it? I'm sorry, but I think it might have been my potion that killed him? A potion which, by the way, Weasley and Malfoy almost killed themselves trying to get reagents for? How is that going to help anyone? How is it going to help anyone for me to go down there and tell them I don't know what to do?' There was a dangerously hysterical, panicked, grieving edge to her voice at that last, anger fading for fear.

Albus wavered a moment, but held his ground. 'Other people are getting on with it Professor. Scorpius, right now, is going to check over Tim's body to find out for sure what happened, so we know for sure what killed him. If we're getting on with it, getting back to work, why can't you?'

'Because it's not your responsibility!' It was as if her legs had been taken out from under her with this admission and, as quickly as she'd risen, Lockett sank back onto the armchair, crumpling to bury her face in her hands.

His question hadn't meant to be a challenge, but a genuine reassurance. Life goes on. Albus didn't have the answers and he wasn't even sure what happened next, but if he was certain of one thing it was that they couldn't afford to stop, to stall, to land flat on their faces.

Or they wouldn't rise again.

'You're just kids,' Lockett mumbled through closed hands. 'You get stuck in, and we wouldn't be this far without you, but at the end of the day you're doing a stellar job just by keeping your heads in all this. I'm a professor. A teacher. A grown-up. An expert in her field. You probably couldn't have a better candidate to be the one-and-only adult here in Hogwarts. All of this - every single thing that happens inside the quarantine - lands at my door, and nobody elses.

'And I just watched a kid under my care could die. To you, he was a classmate, a friend. To me?' She drew her hands slowly down her pale, worn face. 'He was my responsibility, and I failed him. I thought I was done watching kids die. No. Be murdered.' A long silence met her words as Albus fumbled to find his own, and failed. Eventually she drew a shaky breath and continued.

'The first person I knew who was murdered died all of six months after V- You Know Who's return was public, in my last year at Hogwarts.' She'd faltered on the name and for a moment continued to stumble on words. 'She was a Muggle-born girl my age, and she was going out with my boyfriend's best friend. He had a good, Pureblood mother of a good lineage. She didn't. And so Death Eaters killed her.' Lockett closed her eyes. 'I didn't even know her that well, but I can still remember the last time I saw her, at a party a couple of days before she died. Energetic. Happy. Alive.'

Finally she looked at Albus. 'It changes everything, doesn't it? We're not safe. We've known we've not been safe for months, but it's only now that we understand it. Understand that any one of us could be taken away at any moment, even ourselves, and understand that we are powerless to stop it.'

Albus drew a deep, uncertain breath. 'We're not powerless until we give up.'

Lockett's lips twitched. 'That's a lovely rhetoric but it's just empty words. We are powerless against this. I did everything - everything to save Tim. I tried things I hadn't dared try before. I can't afford to experiment with phoenix ash; literally, there isn't enough in the world to experiment. Nor with captured sunlight. But I gave it my best shot because it was do or die, and... it turned out to be die.'

He stepped over. 'Under pressure, at the eleventh hour, you still had a card up your sleeve, Professor. And you believed in it enough to try it. That's not powerless. Try again - take that idea, perfect it!'

'That was my best go! I'd been considering that cure for an age, I just didn't try it because I wasn't confident in it and couldn't waste the shot and since it didn't work I have no better ideas.' Lockett looked up at him. 'Don't you understand? That was my best shot. That was everything I had to throw against Phlegethon, and Phlegethon won.'

Albus opened his mouth - and then shut it again as frustration surged within him. 'Fine. All right. You want to give up? You want to go back to hiding away and drinking to make this go away? Sure. But I'm not giving up, and I'm not letting the others give up, either. With or without you.'

He turned on his heel, storming back the way he'd come, but Lockett wasn't done yet, her voice carrying across the common room. 'Be careful of being a hero, Potter,' she said, voice hoarse. 'They do a great job of getting the people around them killed.'


* *


The room of the dungeons where Tim Warwick's body had been laid out was dark, dry, and cold. Colder at this time of year, but Scorpius just stood there in his shirt, sleeves rolled up, breath misting in front of him. Rose had scolded him all the way back to the castle about him trying to give himself pneumonia, but he didn't feel it. Hadn't felt anything, really, since he'd been dragged into the bedroom by Harley except for a distant numbness.

Even the brief flash of warmth from when he'd let himself let go, let Rose hold him as he sobbed, was fading from memory. That would not happen again; she'd made that perfectly clear in the past and she'd just felt sorry for him. It could not be a habit, could not be something he'd rely on. It would only end.

Like everything.

Pushing his hair out of his face, Scorpius tried to not look at the body laid out on the stone slab in the empty chamber, and pulled out his wand. The spells to examine the body, feel the flow of life - or lack thereof now - within him were simple enough, diagnoses he'd done over and over for the living and which were only slightly different for the dead. He didn't even need to concentrate on the results; his wand would remember what it had found, and could regurgitate answers for Methuselah later.

But when he was done he knew he'd need blood, and then he had to look at the body.

Tim had never been a big kid. Slight of build and fast; that was why he was going to make a great Seeker, Scorpius had thought. Now he looked even smaller, certainly not twelve - no, he was thirteen, God, his birthday had been weeks ago, while he'd been unconscious. It had been in one of the letters.

Thirteen. Dead at thirteen.

He dropped his wand. 'What the hell!' This was shouted - no, screamed, his throat raw - at the wall, at the darkness, at nothing. At everything. 'Him? You take him? Of all of us, of every person in this school, it would kill you to take, I don't know -' Scorpius stopped, unable in that moment to think of anyone he'd stand to see die. There was nobody. But he would have rather suffered the loss of any of the infected before he'd suffer the loss of Tim.

He sagged, hands bracing against the slab the body lay on, and the grief surged up again, twisting his gut and choking in his throat. 'I'm sorry, Tim. I'm so, so sorry. I tried, I really did - the Acromantula skin - it was to save you, you know...'

Then the sobs cut off his voice and it was a struggle to stay upright as he stood over the small, pale body of Phlegethon's first victim. Of his friend.

'You were - I mean -' He stopped, chest heaving, voice wavering, and tried again. Tim's body swam before his vision, cloudy through the unshed tears, and he slammed his eyes shut as the illusion let him believe, for a moment, that this wasn't real. He would not con himself. The shattering of hope would be too much.

'Al being my friend is - great. But he's Al. He sees the best in everyone, no wonder he could see even the best in me. But you? You're just - you were - oh, Merlin...' He choked as the past tense rose up before him, a looming reminder that they would never again talk Quidditch, never again plot to stuff Hector Flynn's bags with dungbombs.

'...you were just a kid. But you still thought I was cool, didn't you. Don't know why.' Scorpius rubbed furiously at his eyes, vision still blurred. 'Nobody else does. Al doesn't count. They tolerate me. Even when Rose was snogging my face off, she still thought I was a bit of a pillock. But you were just a decent, friendly kid who didn't think I'm useless.'

He stared at the far wall, the darkness before him shimmering through the tears. 'My father's called me useless for as long as I can remember. A waste. A layabout. A disappointment to the family name. Not good at school. Not interested in business. Not a proper, proud young gentleman of the Malfoy line. Only good at Quidditch. I hate him.'

It was the first time he'd said it out loud, the first time he'd dared to until now. Until he was stood alone in the dark with the body of a friend. 'I hate him, I hate him, and he drove my mother away and now she's on the other side of the world just to get away from him, but he won't even let me go to her...'

Three years. Three years since his mother had left and his parents had separated and that, still, he had told nobody - not even Albus.

He drew a deep, shuddering breath. 'I'm sorry, kid,' Scorpius groaned. 'This isn't on you. I'm just - shit, this isn't fair, there's no way this is fair, and I'm just going mental talking to myself in the dark, alone - I'm alone, because you're dead -' Finally he blinked away the tears and looked down at Tim.

And Tim's open eyes looked up at him.

Then Tim opened his mouth.

Scorpius swore and threw himself backwards, but tripped and sprawled onto his back. For a second he wondered if he'd been imagining things.

Then Tim sat up.

'The hell!' For the briefest of moments Scorpius had imagined that they'd been wrong, that Tim hadn't been dead after all, that there'd been a mistake or he'd just been dreaming and the boy was all right, was getting back up again, that the nightmare was over.

But no living thing moved like that, in such a jerky, unnatural way.

Not for the first time, Scorpius was glad his best friend was Albus Potter. Not for his unending supportiveness, steadfast loyalty, good nature and sense of humour, not this time. But for the fact that he was the top student in Defence Against the Dark Arts, and sometimes Scorpius got to crib his notes. So he knew exactly what was in front of him.

Inferius.

He snatched for his wand and pointed, but it might as well have been sparks he shot from the tip as he yelled 'Stupefy' by instinct. The magic hit Tim - the Inferius - but it just kept going, rolling off the slab and landing on the floor with a sickening crunch of flesh hitting stone.

'Ssssssssssss...'

The hiss escaping its open mouth was enough to make Scorpius' blood run cold. 'Tim? Oh, please...' But there was no pleading with an Inferius. He knew this. And he knew, deep down, what he had to do.

'I'm sorry.' He took a deep breath, and grabbed his wand with both hands to stop it from shaking. 'Incendio.'

The effect was instant. Flames engulfed the Inferius - it was easier, already, to think about the body in those terms - and the entity that had once been Tim Warwick tried to clamber upright, tottered - and then fell and continued to burn. It had been like setting fire to paper.

Scorpius lowered his wand and crab-walked away from the body, chest heaving, breath holding a shuddery edge of hysteria. He couldn't tear his eyes away from the smouldering mass, already going out, which was by now mercifully unrecognisable. He scurried to the door and grabbed the handle to haul himself to his feet, legs shaking so badly he was surprised he didn't fall again.

Then he opened the door and ran.


* *


'We're going to stop all applications of the Alleviating Elixir,' said Albus. The five students were sat in the staff room, after Methuselah of all people had pointed out it wasn't being occupied any more and meetings like this were what it was there for. Without Lockett, without a morning briefing with Hermione to bring them together, meeting in the huge Great Hall, felt far too grand and formal.

They needed something cosier. Closer. More reassuring.

'Could be a mistake,' said Methuselah. 'Big mistake.'

Albus stoked the fire crackling and warming them. 'Maybe,' he said. 'But Scorpius' spells didn't disprove Professor Lockett's hypothesis that it made Phlegethon worse for Tim, did they?'

'That the theory has not been disproven does not prove it.'

'I agree,' Albus said, 'but we're not taking that chance. We'll keep an eye on everyone, by ourselves and with the House Elves, and make any future decisions when we know more. So you might want to say goodbye to any of the people who've woken up. Chances are the fatigue will take them again.'

He looked to Selena and Rose most of all. They were the ones with friends and family to look on, along with himself. Methuselah had yet to pay a visit to a single sleeping student, and as for Scorpius...

With Tim gone, there was nobody he'd visited of his own accord.

Scorpius was sat in one of the overstuffed armchairs, head in his hands. 'This is unreal,' he groaned.

'Feeling any better, mate?' Albus winced.

'I'm not feeling. Is that better? It's like I'm in a nightmare I can't wake up from.' Albus knew it was a testament to how drained Scorpius was that he would even speak so candidly. 'He was just - he was all still and cold one moment, and then the next...'

He shuddered, and Albus crossed the room to place a hand on his friend's shoulder. Scorpius calmed, looking up at him and giving him a wan, grateful look. Never before had Albus seen him so rattled, so scared, let alone so willing to openly be lost and openly be thankful.

Methuselah nudged his glasses up his nose. 'There is some good of this. We know more.'

Scorpius' gaze snapped around. 'Good? Good? A boy is dead, Jones, I don't see the good in this!'

Methuselah looked confused. 'It is only sensible that we look at what we can gain. That Phlegethon transforms the victims into Inferi in the final stages is useful -'

'Useful?' Scorpius launched himself upright, shaking off Albus' hand. 'Are you actually a robot, Jones? Don't you understand what's happened? He was thirteen and you're saying this is good?' Albus put his hand back on Scorpius' shoulder, genuinely worried he was going to do something rash, though Methuselah still sat there, agog.

Then Selena rose to her feet, eyes flashing. 'Stop it, Malfoy, you know that's not what he means! You know he's just saying that now we know more, and we'd be fools to not try and use it!'

'I watched him die!' Scorpius roared, and Albus grabbed a fistful of his blazer. 'And then I watched him get back up again! I had to fucking set fire to him! Don't you tell me what -'

Then Rose was next to Albus, placing a hand on Scorpius' shoulder. 'Nobody - nobody - is saying this doesn't matter, of course Tim mattered, but maybe from what you found out we can figure out how to make sure this doesn't happen to someone else, Scorpius!'

Scorpius yanked himself out of Albus' grip and rounded on her, and the brief hope Albus had had that she might have been the one to diffuse the situation died. 'Don't you "Scorpius" me,' Scorpius snarled. 'I don't need you going soft on me only to throw it right back in my face when you remember you're supposed to hate me! Shouldn't you be saying goodbye to your precious Flynn?'

Rose stepped back like she'd been slapped, and Albus drew a deep breath. 'Enough!' he barked, loud enough to cut Scorpius off. They all stopped and stared at him, surprised, unused to him raising his voice. Even the furious Scorpius looked startled.

Albus lifted his hands. 'We're on our own for a bit. No Professor Lockett. So this is what we're going to do. No Alleviating Elixir. Watch every single student. Selena, you continue coordinating the House Elves. Methuselah, I know you've been working on that ritual and you keep it up, but I want you to back up Rose - who's the most familiar of us with Lockett's possible cures. You're both going to go over the diagnosis spell results Scorpius got off Tim.'

Scorpius glowered at the blazing fire. 'And I go back to being useless?'

'Not at all,' Albus said. 'We now have access to the Headmaster's Office. That means we have control over all of the wards in and around Hogwarts. You and me are on security full-time.' In truth, the wards made securing Hogwarts an easier job, and one he could probably do himself. But Albus wasn't about to admit to that.

Selena still looked rattled, upset by the day's revelations and Scorpius' outburst. 'No Lockett - so who put you in charge, Potter?'

Rose pursed her lips, voice going sardonic. 'Rourke, try to not be a bloody idiot all your -'

'Not helpful, Rose,' Albus said calmly, and turned to Selena. 'I put me in charge. Is that a problem?'

To his surprise her lips twitched, and she tossed her hands in the air. 'And the son becomes the father,' she drawled.

'Something like that. Or more like, someone's got to do it. We have to try. You miss one hundred per cent of shots you don't take.' Albus drew a deep breath. 'You all know what you've got to do. And the friends, the family who're still awake won't be for much longer.' He looked at Rose. 'Can you tell Lily I'll be there soon?'

She nodded, and they filtered out of the staff room. But when Scorpius turned to go, Albus planted a hand on his shoulder. 'Hold on, mate.' Scorpius frowned but didn't shake him off, and Albus waited until they were alone before continuing. 'C'mere.'

The surprise from his best friend was almost palpable when Albus turned him and pulled him into a bear hug. But after a moment of tense uncertainty, Scorpius was grabbing a fistful of Albus' jacket, face buried in his shoulder. 'You're all right, mate,' Albus murmured, shutting his eyes.

'I'm not,' came back Scorpius' muffled voice. 'M'really not.'

And despite his bravado, despite his act of taking control, Albus knew that after the day they'd just had, none of them were all right - perhaps would never be all right again.


Chapter 27: Down in Flames
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The Hufflepuff dormitories were warm, comfortable, cosy, and utterly treacherous. Rose felt anything but at ease as she shut the door behind her, the click sounding too loud even as she tried to be quiet. But the boys didn't stir, and she held her breath. Maybe she would be lucky. Maybe they were all asleep, and without the Alleviating Elixir would likely remain so.

Then Hector shifted under the sheets and his eyelids flickered open for his gaze to find her across the room. '...hey.'

'You're awake.' I was hoping to be a coward a little while longer. Rose wrung her hands together as she slipped across the room. The others remained, mercifully, asleep.

'Yeah. Feel terrible,' he groaned. 'Was I asleep when they gave the potion?'

Her breath caught. 'We're not giving out the potion any more,' she said, each word like lead in her throat. She stopped by the bed and resisted the urge to reach for his hand, born not out of wanting to but the comfort of habit. 'We're trying other things.'

She might have been a cold-hearted bitch but she wasn't about to tell him the truth and scare him. The conversation was going to be bad enough already.

His brow furrowed, and she hated him for it. Hated him for how weak he looked, how vulnerable he looked. Since Albus had told her the truth, hurt and anger had fizzed in her gut alongside a sense of betrayal - not by his actions, but by his character. She'd never thought him perfect but had argued with his detractors for months, especially Scorpius, believing him to be at worst thoughtless, but overall decent. Now she'd run out of excuses for him, and she hated that she'd had to make them for so long. It would have been so much simpler if she could hate him, too.

Instead he looked like this, and her heart could only swell with sympathy that made it hurt more.

'You think they'll work?' he croaked.

'I do.'

'Course they will. You're on the case.'

The knife twisted deeper, and she drew a sharp breath. 'Hector...'

His weak smile died. 'That's not a good "Hector".'

She bit her lip. 'It's not.'

For a moment fear flashed in his eyes - then realisation took its place as somehow he saw this was personal, not medical. 'Are you kidding me, Rose? Now?'

'I'm sorry -'

'You couldn't just smother me with a pillow?' Dark eyes were wide on his pale face, indignant.

'Would you rather I lied to you?' She wrung her hands together. 'Told you this when you got better?'

'I'd rather you didn't tell me this now. Were you waiting for the worst possible time for a breakup, or something?'

Indignation flashed in her at the prospect this was a preferred situation for her. 'I know about you and Miranda,' she blurted out.

Something surly tugged at Hector's tired face. 'Malfoy decided to play the victim when nobody's around to tell him he's wrong?'

'Malfoy didn't tell me, Albus did.'

'Potter believes everything Malfoy says, which don't speak so well of Potter -'

'Are you saying it's not true?' Silence fell at last, silence where Hector hesitated and she knew he was weighing up whether to lie. That made it an answer in and of itself, and Rose drew a deep breath. 'I'm sorry, Hector.'

'If you were,' he said, voice sluggish as he sagged back on his pillow, 'you wouldn't have done this.'

'I really -'

'If you're not giving me the potion again then I'm going to slip right back into a magical coma within, what, the hour? I don't fancy spending maybe the last minutes I have being awake for a while arguing this. Or, really, looking at you.' His voice was drained, exhausted, and that made his reproach even worse as Hector Flynn slumped onto his back and stared at the canopy over his bed.

Something twisted in Rose's gut, and she didn't know if she wanted to shout at him or burst into tears. A part of her considered it was a mercy, then, that she could take his words as a dismissal and a farewell. That she wouldn't have to summon some meagre parting words and that to stand up, turn, and go without looking back did not, at least, add to the guilt. She wondered if it was because she was beyond any further guilt. And then she remembered she was doing this for his actions, not hers, and wondered why she felt guilty.

And then she remembered Scorpius, and analysing why she felt terrible became an exercise in futility.

'I don't know if I should be impressed,' a voice drawled from her right as she climbed the stairs into the Hufflepuff Common Room, 'or give you a hug.'

Rose's head snapped around and her eyes narrowed. 'Rourke. You were listening?'

Selena lounged back on her seat. She had picked a ridiculous armchair, overstuffed and shapeless, the sort of chair which made it impossible for anyone to look poised. Sprawled back on soft cushions as she was, it rather ruined the effect as she examined her fingernails. 'It wasn't my idea. I have better things to care about than you kicking Flynn while he's down. No, Albus sent me.'

'Albus -?'

'It must have occurred to you by now that, just as he knew the truth via Scorpius, I knew the truth via Miranda? So he asked me to make sure that you're all right.'

'Why do you care?' Rose folded her arms across her chest.

'Believe it or not, Weasley, I thought you knew until our little chat a few weeks back. I thought your dear cousin had told you the truth and that you'd decided you didn't care that Flynn's a bit of a shit.'

'So why didn't you say anything?'

'Because it wasn't my secret.' Selena shrugged. 'When Miranda started putting the stories about, I expected Scorpius to give as good as he got. When he didn't, I assumed he wanted the whole thing to blow over. Or that, maybe, behind his impersonation of the world's most smug Golden Retriever, he was actually so hurt by what Miranda did that he didn't want to open himself up to the scrutiny. So what, really, was I supposed to do?'

Rose's nose wrinkled. 'And this is your best friend who did this.'

'I love Miranda, but I wouldn't trust her near a boy I actually liked. Of course, she's not the first girl to mess around with a guy she only moderately cares for in some desperate bid for approval or affection, some rampant need to fill an aching hole of loneliness - oh, wait, you'd know that, wouldn't you.' Selena wagged a finger at her.

Rose wasn't sure if she was talking about her relationship with Hector or the fling with Scorpius and hated that there were two candidates in her life for something so pathetic. So instead she put her hands on her hips. 'This is supposed to make me feel better?'

'I’m reminding you that Hector Flynn, underneath those biceps to die for - and my God if you haven't had his shirt off yet then I don't know why you bothered going out with him in the first place - is actually a bit of a cock. So, yes.'

Her gaze sank. 'He is.'

'For what it's worth,' Selena ventured, gaze sobering, 'I think you did the right thing.'

Rose's voice sank to a mumble. 'He can't even look at me.'

'He can't -' Selena got to her feet. 'You should be the one who can't look at him! He's the one who helped Miranda cheat on Scorpius then helped spread the lies about it!'

'Except he didn't cheat on me. And yet, while he's been unconscious, I've been snogging Scorpius.' Rose wasn't sure why she made this confession. It was like her moral high ground had been a house of cards and Selena was enough extra weight up there to bring the whole thing toppling down.

Selena sighed. 'I thought you were going to say something that stupid. You really are a desperate little cookie, aren't you, Weasley?'

Indignation stirred. 'Desperate?'

'Don't take it badly. We all are.' Selena crossed the distance and, in an act which surprised Rose so much she was too stunned to run, opened her arms to pull the other girl into a hug. 'We're in a very messy situation and sometimes being a bitch is a really useful survival mechanism.'

Rose stood there, stiff and awkward. 'I didn't kiss Scorpius to be a bitch.'

'No, you did it because you're scared? Lonely? Like we all are? And that he can sometimes be funny and charming and isn't all that bad looking was a plus? And then you found yourself feeling worse about that because you'd have to break up with your boyfriend who's possibly dying, then you found out your boyfriend's actually a bit of a shitbag so you didn't have much choice but to break up with him before he slips back into a magical coma he may never wake from, so you're feeling a lot like a bitch?'

'Is this supposed to make me feel better?'

Selena pulled back to hold her at arms' length. 'Feeling better,' she said sagely, 'doesn't include hiding from the truth. You know you and Flynn weren't right and were never going to be right. You know you two would have ended without Phlegethon. You know there's no good option here, to hurt him while he's down or to lie to yourself and hurt him later, or to lie to him and make yourself miserable with guilt until all this is over. I'm not going to pretend there's no such thing as a good lie, but there wasn't one in this situation. To be selfish, we're the ones who're still awake. We need to stay sane. Hector's just going to sleep. By the time he wakes up and can process this, it'll all be over.'

Rose looked away, lips pursing. She could summon no good argument to Selena's words, so when she eventually spoke, she said, 'Why did Albus send you and not come himself?'

It came out worse than she meant it, but Selena's lips curled. 'Your gratitude for my words of wisdom,' she drawled, 'is staggering.' Then she patted Rose's arm. 'He's with Scorpius.'

Rose sagged. 'I should talk to him.'

'Maybe not yet. You know what we're going to do?' Selena squeezed her arms, then let her go. 'We're going to go downstairs and have some tea.'


* *




'It's not that I don't appreciate this,' said Scorpius, hands shoved in his pockets as he stood in the middle of the Headmaster's Office. 'It's just pretty clear you don't need me.'

Albus placed his hands on Stubbs' desk, peering at the magically constructed, translucent visual of the school the security orb was projecting in the air in front of him. He didn't so much as look at Scorpius at his complaint. 'Of course I do.'

'You don't.' Scorpius scowled. 'Look at you, you can control all the wards from here, keep surveillance of the castle up from here. You don't even need patrols any more, with breaking in here you've got everything. I don't get the wards. What am I supposed to do?'

Albus straightened and blew out his cheeks in that way he did when he was pondering something. Scorpius suspected the subject matter was what lie would be best told to soothe his feelings. He also suspected there were none.

Tim had been dead a week, and he felt like he was losing his mind. Professor Lockett hadn't emerged from her room, calling on the House Elves for all her needs - which included, Scorpius suspected even though Harley wouldn't tell him for sure, regular alcohol. Rose had resumed her research down in the dungeons, but Scorpius was avoiding the place entirely now and had no idea how that was progressing. Considering they'd had to scrap weeks of research with the devastating side-effects of the Alleviating Elixir, and no longer had a world-class potioneer to hand but a mere NEWT-level student, he suspected progress was poor. Selena still marshaled the House Elves with her usual efficiency but, he had noticed, a good degree more sluggishness now the children and teachers of Hogwarts remained unconscious. And he hadn't seen Jones in days.

The lethargy of hopelessness was setting in, and it would take more than some stirring words from Albus to make them all feel better. A boy was dead. Phlegethon could kill. And they were even further away from an answer than they'd been before.

It sounded, to Scorpius' ears, the perfect time to panic.

Albus ran a hand through his hair. 'Keep me company. Help keep me sane while we do this.'

A sneer tugged at Scorpius' lip. 'Shall I do a dance to amuse you?'

Albus' expression stiffened. 'I'm serious, Scorp.'

'So am I.' Scorpius pranced to the side, kicking his legs out in what would have been the beginning of some half-recalled steps from dance lessons his mother had once forced upon him, had Albus not interrupted.

'Stop it. Just stop - stop it.'

He did so, glaring. 'I won't be patronised and I won't be your distraction.'

'I said company!' Albus said, voice desperate. 'It's going to be long hours up here making sure we're safe -'

'Safe?' The word tore from Scorpius' throat, mocking. 'Of course we're not safe, didn't you notice?'

Albus bristled. 'You know what I mean.'

'You mean safe from incursions by magical creatures or Prometheus Thane's dark wizard hirelings - until Phlegethon kills us. Super safe, Al. Top marks.' Scorpius gave a mocking clap.

His friend's lips thinned. 'Don't do this, Scorp. Don't pick fights with me because you're feeling bad.'

'"Bad"?' Scorpius' eyebrows went into his hairline. 'There are a thousand ways to describe how I'm feeling now. "Bad" isn't even tenth on the list. You feel bad when you knock over someone's drink. We are way beyond "bad". We can't even see "bad".'

'I'm just trying to do something. Anything's better than giving up.'

'Not really. Pointless things just make us tired and cranky. Maybe we should have accepted your aunt on her offer to get us in quarantine somewhere else.'

Albus' eyes flashed as he looked up. 'Lily's still here,' he said, voice going tense. 'And my cousins. You can run if you like, but I'm staying.' It was the wrong thing to say, and Albus looked like he knew it the moment the words were out of his mouth.

'Yeah, because anything other than beating my head against a brick wall is cowardice. Right. Super. I'll see you later, Al.' Scorpius pivoted on his heel and stormed for the door that was perpetually propped open, deaf to Albus' calls for him to come back, to his apologies. It wasn't just anger and pain which made him kept going - he knew that, if he stayed, he'd probably just make things worse, pick another fight, get himself angry. Because anger was so much easier to deal with.

At the bottom of the steps he almost ran into Rose.

The papers she'd been holding went flying from her hand to scatter across the corridor, falling down about them like giant snowflakes. He didn't stop, not even at her noise of surprise, not even as she tottered and almost fell, not even as she bent to gather the lost bundle of paperwork. Not even when she called out his name.

So he was a good way down the corridor when she finally called out, 'I broke up with Hector.'

He did stop at that - then something cold twisted in his gut. 'Great,' he said, not looking over his shoulder. 'Now go back in time and do that a month ago.'

'I know what happened between you and Miranda.'

'So does half the school.'

'What really happened.'

Scorpius hesitated again, but finally he turned to face her, eyes flashing. 'You think,' he said, voice low and angry, 'that right now I give a damn about some stupid lie some stupid girl told about me so the world didn't know she was the bad guy?'

'I'm really sorry,' Rose said, expression crumpling. 'About Tim. About what I did to you. About how I've treated you.' She took a step forward, but even though the space between them was still huge, he stepped back sharply.

'Saying "sorry" doesn't make it okay,' Scorpius snapped. 'It doesn't make what happened to Tim okay, it doesn't make what you did go away. I'm not forgiving you just so you can feel better.'

She cringed, but nodded. 'Okay, but - don't drive everyone away. We can't do this alone, you can't spend the whole time here angry even with Albus -'

'Who said I'm angry with Albus -'

'I just heard you two shouting from down here!' Rose's gaze went pleading. 'You can be angry at me, but you know he's going to look out for you all he can, that's all he's ever done.' The anger was starting to fizz away from Scorpius' gut and he wavered, feeling the pool of pain underneath, like deep waters with drowning undercurrents underneath a surface layer of oil. If the anger burned away, he might drown. Rose seemed to see this, because she pushed on, voice quiet. 'I know this is going to sound weird,' she said, 'but I miss you. I miss your jokes. I miss your smiles. I miss you making my days that little bit less dark.'

'Smiles aren't so easy these days,' said Scorpius, throat rasping.

'They're not supposed to be. They don't have to be. But you withdrew from everyone before, and now things are worse I don't want to see you hurting yourself like that again, Scorpius.'

He flinched. 'Don't - don't call me that. Things aren't going to go back to how they were before, with the bickering and bantering and me winding you up and - it's just not, this is too real, and I'm way too angry with you - but more, I've got so many things to deal with right now that I really don't feel like also tackling you!'

Then there was movement at the foot of the steps up to the Headmaster's office, and Scorpius flinched again as he saw Albus standing there, gaze cautious. Rose looked between them, biting her lower lip, before she nodded. 'Then be angry with me,' she told him quietly. 'Merlin knows I deserve it. Which means I'm going to go. And, Al? He really is sorry.'

He almost wanted to shout at her for speaking for him, but the sombre look on Albus' face made him fall silent. 'I know,' said Albus.

Rose slunk off down the corridor, leaving just the two of them there in a silence which hung heavy on Scorpius' shoulders. He frowned at Albus' left boot. 'She doesn't talk for me,' he muttered. 'But I am sorry.'

'Mate, we're neither one of us perfect, least of all now, but of all the things we have to be sorry for, it's not how we're feeling right now.' Albus crossed the gap to clasp his shoulder. 'You take your time. But I'm right here, and I'm not going to let you do this on your own.'

Scorpius let out a long, shuddering breath, and tried to fight the quaver in his chest. Going to pieces wouldn't help. He knew. He'd tried. Finally, when he trusted his voice, he nodded, and looked Albus in the eye. 'Show me how to use these wards, then.'


* *




'I'm not angry,' said Rose. 'I'm upset, yes. But this is my own fault.'

Albus frowned at his cousin across the workbench in the dungeons, covered with files upon files of her and Lockett's notes from their potions research of the last two months. He drew a slow breath. 'I didn't know you'd broken up with Hector.'

'Right before his last dose of the draught wore off. He's not woken up since.' She moved a file mechanically from one stack to the next. 'I had to, Al. After what I knew.'

'Maybe, but that doesn't mean you don't feel rotten about it.'

'I think feeling rotten's more or less the default around here now, don't you?'

'It shouldn't be. And yet here we are. Sweeping off to our private corners, our ones and our twos. Suffering alone and in quiet pairs. It's not good for us.'

'What in this situation could possibly be good for us?'

'Are you even finding anything in your research?' Albus looked dubiously at the stacks of paper. 'I'm not meaning that as a dig. But seriously.'

Rose pursed her lips. 'I will. All of this time and work on the Alleviating Elixir, it can't have been for nothing. This much time spent tackling Phlegethon, I refuse to believe we know nothing. I just don't know what we know, yet.'

'You don't have to keep busy just for the sake of being busy,' said Albus.

'It's that or go mental about how much we're screwed and how horrible a person I am, Al, I'm perfectly open to other suggestions,' said Rose in a fast, formal tone of voice which made it clear just how much her control was wavering.

He moved to the stool beside her, reaching for her arm. 'You don't need to feel bad about Hector. I should feel bad, I should have told you sooner.'

'I don't feel bad about Hector.' Rose hesitated. 'I feel like an idiot for defending him, and an idiot for thinking he was better than he is, and a bitch for dumping a guy right before he slipped back into a coma. And I'm on kind of shaky moral high ground to judge him by considering we were still together when I kissed Scorpius, who can't even bear to be around me.' She paused again. 'Okay, I feel pretty bad. Which is why I'm working.'

'Scorpius will come around,' Albus said, hoping he was right.

'Maybe he will, maybe he won't. I don't know what I think about him, other than that he's right to be pissed at me. I just need to take my licks for a while, Al. For his sake, and for my own.'

'That doesn't mean you hide in the gloomy dungeons as penance, Rose.' He squinted about the dark, dank chambers that had been his cousin's lair for so long.

'I spent hours down here when I wasn't being an enormous bitch.' She shrugged. 'Find me something better to do, something more productive to do. The way I see it, Mum's task force and the people outside Hogwarts are our best hope now. But I'm going to do this because I have to do something, and this might, just might, show up something useful.' Then she turned back to her files and Albus knew the conversation was over. Brow furrowed, he sighed and stood, heading for the steps up out of the dungeon.

In some ways, Rose's words and manner worried him more than Scorpius had. Scorpius was hurt, grieving - his reaction was normal, or as normal as could be under these circumstances. Albus had written to his parents asking for help, and been reassured he was doing the right thing for his friend by being a supportive, patient presence through Scorpius' good days and his bad.

Though he'd give anything for his best friend to make jokes again, proper jokes.

But Rose... Rose was somewhere different. Rose was just a few steps further down the same path Selena was on, the same path Scorpius would get to once he was done reeling in pain, the same path Albus knew he could see ahead of him. It would claim them all, save perhaps Methuselah Jones, whose mind Albus was never going to try to figure out. Desperation and helplessness would be enough to make them drown.

They needed hope. They needed purpose.

Albus was still mulling this over as he climbed the stairs to the Headmaster's Office, where he had been spending more and more of his time as of late. The wards did not need all that much maintaining, but he could spend a lot of time familiarising himself with them, with the magics he could do with them, with the security of the castle. It was better than nothing.

But it was not enough.

He almost jumped out of his skin to find someone else already in the office when he stepped through the door, stood in front of one of Professor Stubbs' over-stuffed bookcases. 'Jones! Bloody hell, what're you doing here?'

Methuselah Jones had barely been seen out of the library for the past ten days, but he seemed confused by Albus' surprise as he turned to the door. 'Reading,' he said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.

Albus exhaled carefully to slow his thudding heart, and walked over to the desk. 'Reading what?'

'Death of Warwick - tragedy - informative.' Methuselah frowned at the bookcase. 'Confirms necromancy as true source of Phlegethon. Seemed likely with manipulation of dark magic. Now is certainly death magic.'

'Does this mean anything?'

'Implications for further symptoms, developments, are countless.'

'Any useful ones?' Albus asked, trying to sound kind and not impatient.

Methuselah pursed his lips. 'Not yet. Scoured books in Library. Now consulting resources of Professor Stubbs. Incredibly rare collection. Professor not, however, an expert in necromancy. Served as Defence teacher for many years but, above all, talented Arithmetician, weaponsmith, enchanter.'

Albus sighed and sank into Stubbs' chair. It was too late at night for him to fuss over respect for Thaddeus Stubbs. And he'd spent too much time in the Headmaster's sanctum for the place to remain sacred. 'You think the ritual's still at the heart of this?'

'Implications of necromantic ritual sourced at a site of notable death and dark magic are impossible to ignore,' said Methuselah, running a long finger down the spine of a book. 'Rituals only as powerful as the power put into them. Multiple wizards can combine energies but ritual is most effective on a site of power. Death of horcrux of Voldemort residing within your father empowers ritual. Ritual projects and empowers plague. Continues to infect.' He sighed. 'Nothing, in practice, we did not already know. Just strengthens connections. Theories.'

A long silence met his words, one where both boys knew and thought how theories wouldn't save the day. Then Methuselah offered, tentatively - or as tentatively as he said anything, 'Death of Warwick does offer suggestion for resolution of ritual.'

'Resolution?'

'Confirmation of necromancy. One spell exists which reliably cleanses necromantic presence from an area. Though is more commonly used to combat Dementors.'

'A Patronus?' Albus hated how conversations with Methuselah mostly consisted of him talking and everyone else asking questions constantly just so they could keep up. Contributing was impossible.

'Indeed. But...' Methuselah hesitated. 'Impossible to simply drop giant Patronus upon affected area some hundred metres in radius afflicted with constant presence of Dementors.' He shrugged. 'Without practical implications, is nothing but a theory. Besides. Cleansing of ritual does not cure those afflicted. Phlegethon remains. Require both cure and cleansing.'

Albus leaned back in his chair. 'Have you had any luck assessing our immunity?'

Methuselah shook his head. 'Without some assessment of origination of protective charms, work proves impossible. And immunity is not whole. We remain carriers.'

'I know. Which makes us stuck here.' Then Albus frowned at the orb controlling the security wards. 'Hang on.'

Methuselah froze, a book half-drawn from the shelf. He looked stricken. 'Wandering from this precise location will not minimise spread of -'

'Not that.' Albus stood, eyes lighting up, and he reached for the bell at the far end of the desk, ringing it once. Methuselah peered curiously until the air between them twisted and, with a crack, Harley emerged out of nothing, straightening his little bow-tie.

'You rang?'

'Harley. Thank you.' Albus gave a broad, toothy grin. 'If you could, please, gather the other three and get them up here. I have something to discuss.'

'Malfoy and Ms Rourke are asleep,' said Harley. 'It's past midnight.'

'I know,' said Albus. 'But trust me. This is worth waking them for.'

When all five students were gathered in the Headmaster's Office some fifteen minutes later, Scorpius and Selena looked like Albus had best have a very good justification for having them dragged from their beds in the middle of the night. Rose had got up first, only to have Methuselah give her a vague shrug of uncertainty, and Albus had sat back in his chair and assured her all would be clear soon enough.

Selena quirked an eyebrow as she stepped through the doorway, last to arrive, and saw Albus in Professor Stubbs' seat. 'Huh,' she mused. 'Some visual.'

'It's a comfy chair,' said Albus, sitting up. 'Thanks for getting here so fast. I've had an idea, which means we have a plan.'

Selena folded her arms across her chest. 'I have an idea and everyone dismisses it. Albus has an idea and suddenly it's a plan for all of us?'

'When did you ever have an idea, Rourke?' asked Rose - though Albus noted her voice missed a lot of its usual bite.

'I don't know, Weasley, maybe if you weren't turning into the Thing In the Dungeon you'd be around more to notice it.' Selena, equally, gave a sweet smile which, while making her words sarcastic, lacked the routine vitriol.

He'd worry about that later, Albus decided, and lifted his hands. 'This is a good one,' he said. 'We can't leave the area because we're carrying Phlegethon, right? Even if we're immune, the plague's still residing in our bodies, it's just not doing anything, or spreading.'

'We do know all of this, mate,' said Scorpius, rubbing his eyes. He looked pale, and Albus felt a stab of guilt. He knew he'd not been sleeping well and did, at last, regret waking him if he'd been having success tonight.

'I know. But this means that if we're carriers, so are Thane and his people.' Albus gave a triumphant smile. And met just vague looks as the others didn't make the connections he had. He sighed. 'They have to have their own cure!'

Selena's nose wrinkled. 'I don't get it.'

'We know they're still in the area,' said Albus, trying to be patient despite his excitement. 'Rose and Scorpius found Thane, and why put in the immunity if it wasn't for them? They could have set the ritual to a timed activation and left. Instead, they're sticking around, probably to monitor the situation. Which means that unless they want to become walking carriers of Phlegethon too, spreading it wherever they go, they have to have access to a cure!'

Rose's eyes lit up. 'It'd be a stupidly long shot for them to wait for us or the Ministry to produce a cure.'

'And they wouldn't be guaranteed to get their hands on it anyway,' said Scorpius, colour returning to his cheeks. 'And it'd be mental to turn themselves into plague-carriers.'

'Logical safety precaution before intentionally unleashing a plague would include some means of curing or containing it,' Methuselah agreed. 'Though premise presumes logic on the part of those intending to unleash plague.'

'We don't know much about the people we're dealing with,' said Scorpius, 'but we do know Thane's a wand-for-hire. He's not an idealist. Why would a mercenary sign up for exposing himself to an illness when there's no available cure?'

'A lot of money,' said Selena. 'And the likelihood that the entirety of wizarding Britain would, eventually, cook up something?'

'I think it's likely they've got something.' Albus kept his voice firm. 'I think it's a likelihood worth acting on. Does anyone disagree?'

Everyone looked at Selena. 'I don't disagree,' she protested. 'I was just pointing out the possibility they're mental. Anyway, what do you mean, "acting on". Acting on how?'

Albus twisted the orb to bring the facsimile of Hogwarts grounds to life. 'I can expand the detection wards around Hogwarts from here to pick up any and all movement within about five miles of where the grounds technically end. Between that and the Marauder's Map, if Thane and his men are still monitoring the school and the area, if they're passing through, I can detect them.'

'Great,' drawled Selena. 'We can know where the wildly experience mercenaries are.'

'So we're going to train,' said Albus firmly, and stood. 'We're going to monitor their movements. Map them, figure them out. Find a way, if possible, to isolate one of them. Prepare an ambush on our terms playing to our strengths. Train for it. And then capture one of Thane's men, maybe Thane himself, and question them. Even if they don't know anything about a cure, they maybe know something valuable.'

He saw Scorpius grin for the first time in days, saw Rose's eyes light up, saw Methuselah give a slow nod. So, of course, it fell to Selena to toss her hands in the air. 'Again: mercenaries. We've just passed our OWLs.'

Albus nodded at Rose. 'Our parents fought off Death Eaters in the Ministry by the time they were our age -'

'You're not your parents!' she snapped. 'And didn't, like, people die in the battles they fought?'

A long silence met her words as they echoed about the suddenly rather small-seeming office. It was Scorpius who spoke at last, drawing a slow breath. 'Someone's already died, Selena.'

Her shoulders sagged. 'I know. But let's not get so desperate to act we do something stupid. Let's not go chasing legacies and wind up dead.'

Albus frowned. 'I am not doing this to be like my father -'

'Good,' said Selena, 'because you're not. We all know the stories. We all know what your parents went through.' Her gaze flickered from Albus to Rose, voice somehow both accusing and yet gentle. 'Fought Voldemort, Basilisks, Dementors, Death Eaters, over and over by the time they were our age. You're not your parents. You grew up normal. And normal people don't chase after mercenaries!'

'There is nothing about this,' said Albus, voice firm, 'which is normal. I know it's risky. That's why I'm not going to do anything without weeks of planning, of preparing. When we act, we will do everything to throw the odds in our favour.' He straightened, eyes narrowing. 'I'm doing this. I'm sick of standing around and waiting for a cure that's not coming. Lockett's given up - I haven't. This is happening. The only question is if you're in.'

There was barely a heartbeat's worth of silence before Scorpius spoke. 'You bloody know I'm in, mate.'

Rose nodded. 'We can work out the plan’s when, where, how, all in advance. We've got every chance. And it beats staring at Lockett's research notes.'

'High risk of danger and death,' said Methuselah, but he, too, nodded. 'Would like, very much indeed, to speak with someone involved in Phlegethon or at least ritual. Could prove enlightening.'

Then they all looked at Selena, who rolled her eyes. 'Why,' she asked archly, 'do I get treated like the evil bitch because, unlike children of heroes, I didn't throw myself on my sword at the first opportunity?'

'Nonsense,' said Methuselah. 'Observations and points were logical. Only sense will see us through, and organisation. Extensive research indicates bloodlines only of marginal use in magical potency. Let alone heroism.'

'I hope you're wrong on that one,' mused Selena. 'Because it would be useful. But don't be silly, of course I can't not-help. I just want us to all be clear on what we're talking about. What we're signing up to do.'

Albus nodded, giving a slow smile. 'Trust me,' he said. 'I'm taking this seriously. Which is why they're not going to know what's hit them.'


Chapter 28: Out of the Kitchen
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Chapter 28: Out of the Kitchen


Firewhisky, Scorpius thought absently, was aptly-named. It burned on the way down. There was nothing more deep about his thoughts than that. He'd have been lying if he claimed he'd never drunk it before turning seventeen -

- wait, when had he turned seventeen?

The surprise of this almost made him trip up the stairs. They'd just come into December, winter marching onto Hogwarts, heralded by the howling, biting winds that whistled about the soaring towers. Which meant it had been a few weeks since his seventeenth birthday, since he'd come of age, and the entire escapade had come and gone without ceremony or fanfare.

He couldn't blame anyone for not noticing it. Not only had it come when he was deep in the depths of his isolation, talking to nobody, but he'd forgotten it himself. It just hadn't seemed relevant. There had been no message from his father, but that much was to be expected. If anything distracted Draco Malfoy from his family, then he could forget their very existence. Sometimes poor figures in the finances section of the Daily Prophet was enough to incur his bad mood. And sometimes this suited father and son down to the ground.

But there had still been nothing from abroad -

Stop it. She'd write if she could. She's a long way away.

Scorpius bit his tongue and focused on the corridor ahead. He, too, could be distracted from his family. And nothing distracted him better than a show. Even if he was the star. Especially if he was the star.

When he reached the door he wanted, he sank onto his haunches in front of it and, from that crouched position, rapped sharply on the wood. Then he waited.

It was perhaps a minute before he heard Lockett's muffled voice on the other side. 'Who is it?'

Scorpius inhaled deeply, and put on a high-pitched, squeaky voice. 'Professor Lockett! Sticksy is here with your supplies!' He had no idea, truth be told, if there even was a House Elf called Sticksy. But he was pretty sure Lockett wouldn't know, either.

Footsteps answered his call and he grinned with satisfaction. He was still grinning when the door opened in front of him and he found himself staring at Professor Lockett's knees. He raised his head.

She looked a state. Her hair was wild, bags hung under her eyes, her face was pale and drawn. Her clothes were a crumpled mess, likely whatever she'd had lying around. Scorpius reasoned they were rather lucky the House Elves were seeing to laundry, or this could have been a desperate situation by now. And she looked deeply, sorely unimpressed.

His grin took on an air of apology. But not completely. 'The funny thing about this,' he said, 'is that I'm not the one of us who looks the most silly.'

Her expression folded, and Scorpius had to ram his foot in the doorway to stop her from slamming it shut on him. Not for the first time did he thank his exquisite sense of fashion which demanded his Oxford shoes be made with perfect style - and sturdiness. 'Malfoy, go away.' Lockett's voice was rasping as she squinted at him through the narrow gap in the doorway.

'So you can continue to keep yourself in an alcohol-induced stupor? Great plan, Professor. Worthy of Dumbledore himself.' Scorpius rose. 'I'll do you a deal. Let me in, let me talk, and you get this bottle of Firewhisky.'

'I don't want to talk to you.'

'Do you want the whisky?' He waggled the bottle.

Her eyes narrowed - but she stepped back, swinging the door open. 'Make it quick.'

'Why, do you have a terribly important liquid luncheon to get to?' He swaggered in, but kept the whisky bottle cradled in his right arm, not easy for her to snatch at. He didn't know if she'd try to be that furtive, but didn't want to risk losing his one and only gambling chip before he'd said his piece.

If Lockett's appearance had already claimed the descriptor 'a mess', then her room looked like a bomb had gone off in it. Clothes were strewn about the floor, the bed was a tip, the curtains drawn. The air had a musty smell, and not only was the far desk covered in stacks of paper, but the walls, too, sheafs of parchment pinned to flat surfaces with magic. He couldn't even begin to understand the lists and symbols strewn across them.

She didn't answer his question, so he went to the window, pulled the curtains open, and was greeted with a view of the blizzard that blazed beyond the walls. 'You really need to get out of here.'

'And do what?' Her green eyes watched him warily.

'Get back to work.'

She gave a humourless laugh. 'I've had this conversation with Potter already.'

Scorpius turned. 'I'm not Albus.'

'No. You think you can be more persuasive than him?'

His smile died. 'I think I'm the only person in the school who has the slightest idea how you're feeling right now.'

She flinched at that, and turned to her stacks of paper on the desk. 'The slightest. You didn't kill him.'

'Way I see it, you didn't either. Phlegethon did. Prometheus Thane, anyone he's working for, did it. It's them I'm gunning for, not you.' He ran a hand through his hair. 'But you think we can do this alone?'

'I think you don't need me to do this.'

'Don't need you to find a cure?'

'It's not going to happen!' Lockett turned, scowling. 'Not from here. Maybe if I had a lab and a fully-qualified team. Weasley and Jones, they're bright kids, but they're half-trained and inexperienced and between them I have maybe one lab assistant. There's at least a twenty-four hour delay on any resources I need. And you think Granger's going to send any to me now, with the report Potter will have given her?'

'Ms Granger isn't going to blame you for Warwick's death.'

'She might blame me for hiding away in here.'

'She doesn't know that.' Scorpius frowned. 'We didn't tell her. Albus didn't tell her.'

Lockett stopped, jaw dropping. 'Why?'

He shrugged. 'Al? Al likes to think the best of people. Give everyone a chance. He reckons you'll snap out of this on your own. Can't say I agree with him.'

'So why haven't you told them?'

'Because I reckon you can get past this. Because I reckon you need help. And I'm here because you're probably the only person in this school, awake or asleep, who's more messed up than I am.'

'And you think talking's going to make that better?'

'I think it'll do more than another bottle of Firewhisky.' Scorpius frowned. 'Where do the House Elves even get this from?'

'Stubbs keeps a supply in. For the teachers. The odd drink of an evening. Special occasions. It's not a lot, but that's "not a lot" for upwards of twenty staff for a year. Now it's mine.' Her expression twisted into a mockery of a pleased smirk.

'So you can drink it on your own?'

'Funnily enough, I like being on my own. There's nothing wrong with me being on my own. Why does everyone assume that if someone's on their own, something's wrong?'

'I don't,' said Scorpius. 'I assume when someone's drinking on their own, something's wrong.' He sighed. 'I don't - I can understand the desire to crawl into a hole and not come back out.'

'So why haven't you?'

Scorpius hesitated at that. 'Because Al dragged me out, kicking and screaming, and wouldn't take "no" for an answer.'

Lockett's lips twitched. 'You're going to drag me out?'

'I was going to go with "encouraging nudging".' He looked away. 'I realised the alternative would give me a lot of time to think on what had happened. And the last thing I want to do is think about it.'

'You think, if I went back to work, I wouldn't be thinking about Tim Warwick?' Lockett's eyebrows went up. 'If I went back to work, it would be my job to think about Tim Warwick. How he died. What went wrong with the Alleviating Draught. What this tells us about Phlegethon. What do you think about at work, Scorpius?'

Her voice had taken on a gentler tone, and he flinched. 'Wards.'

'Sounds like good work. Busy. Distracting.' She closed her eyes. 'I'm sorry.'

Scorpius looked away sharply as he felt something in his chest quaver. He hadn't come here to falter. 'I don't blame you,' he said, and his voice betrayed him by croaking.

'It was my draught that -'

'And I got the spider skins, does that make me to blame too?' He closed his eyes. 'You did everything to save him. I saw him die, yeah. But I saw you fight, Professor. I bet loads of people would have given up before you did. People shouldn't be saying, "that Lockett, she didn't do enough", they should be thankful that Tim had someone like you there 'cos you gave him half a chance, which is half a chance more than I reckon anyone else would have got him.'

When he opened his eyes, Lockett was ashen-faced. When she drew a deep breath, it quavered, and he thought she had her. 'Thank you for stopping by, Scorpius.'

Frustration coiled in his gut. 'And the unspoken words after that are, "now give me my drink"?'

She tensed. 'When you're not some sixteen year-old kid who's been in a pinch for all of three months, then you get to judge me, okay?'

Scorpius scowled, stalking over to her desk. He slammed the bottle down on it, then turned for the door. 'Seventeen,' he muttered on his way. 'I was seventeen in November.'

Lockett didn't say anything, looking stricken, but he was past caring by then, the boiling anger and pain back to churning in his gut. He slammed the door shut behind him and, out in the corridor, with the cool draught creeping through from outside, felt a little better. A little more himself.

He didn't stop. Lockett hadn't been wrong; working with Albus on the wards meant he didn't have to think about Tim, didn't have to think about what had happened to him. He was clawing away from that black pit. So he was going to make damn sure he'd banished it to the shadows before he went and talked to anyone else in the accursed castle.


* *


'The sixth floor west wing. Home of Hogwarts' biggest losers: the Duelling Club.' Scorpius folded his arms across his chest.

'Don't knock it,' said Albus. The huge room had padded mats on the floor, big windows in the ceiling rather than in the walls to minimise the damage from spells gone astray, and a dozen training dummies lined up near the centre. It was to these that Albus was walking, checking each one for its stability and magical resistance. 'Three out of the top five practical results for Defence OWLs were members of the Duelling Club.'

'And the two who weren't - and coincidentally were first and second - are in this room.' Scorpius nodded to Albus and then jerked a thumb at Rose, not quite looking at her.

Selena peered at Methuselah. 'I didn't know you were in the Duelling Club.'

A pained expression tugged at his face. 'I am not.' He straightened his already impeccably presentable robes. 'I was, ah. Sixth in the year at the practical.'

'Only you would make being in the top quarter of our year in anything sound bad,' Scorpius mused. 'You were still top of the year in everything else.'

'But not at a fast wand. Wits on which spell to use when against what opponent. On these matters we listen to Potter.' Methuselah jerked his head forwards to Albus.

Albus finished his checking of the last dummy to his satisfaction before he turned to the other four. 'Right. We've all got our OWLs in Defence. Which means we all have a decent array of spells under our belts. A decent grasp of protection magic, how to maintain it and break through it. And how to react to a changing combat situation. So, with two notable exceptions, I'm not here to get us to do anything new. I'm here to get us to practice what we know. Perfect it. Know how to do it together.'

Selena stuck her hand up. 'What're the two exceptions?'

'One's a spell. The other's a technique.' Albus drew a deep breath. 'I want us to learn how to do a little non-verbal casting.'

'Oh,' said Scorpius. 'Something easy.'

Rose quirked an eyebrow. 'And the spell?'

Albus winced. 'A Patronus.'

'Oh,' said Scorpius in the same tone. 'Something even easier.'

'This is serious,' said Albus. 'I'm asking us to go up against trained mercenaries -'

'Which I would like to remind everyone is still mental,' said Selena.

'- and so we have to take this seriously.'

Scorpius squinted. 'So why the Patronus?'

'There are a lot of Dementors coming from ground zero of that ritual,' said Albus. 'I don't want us making forays into the Forest without being ready to deal with them. They almost got the better of you two when you ran into them.' He nodded at Scorpius and Methuselah.

'If it hadn't been for Hugo,' said Scorpius unhappily, 'I think they would have done.'

'There's another reason. Jones?'

Methuselah nudged his glasses up his nose. 'Mere postulation at present. Purely theoretical. Preparatory regime unnecessary based on such vague hypothesising -'

'Jones thinks it might be possible to cleanse the ritual using Patronuses.' Albus paused. 'Patroni? Patrona?'

'Many misconceptions about pluralisation. Technically it is Patronus, like fish and sheep. Often misused even by well-educated wizards,' said Methuselah without missing a beat. 'But at present we are A) Unsure if the theory is correct, and B) In no position to enact such a theory anyway.'

'If it turns out it's correct and then we need to act on it,' said Rose, 'that'll be a bit late to learn such advanced magic from scratch.'

'And, for now,' said Albus, 'we start with practice. We've not been working as hard on this sort of thing since, really, before the summer. So I'm going to start us simple: the dummies have been enchanted with mid-difficulty protection spells. We're going to try to break through them in three spells or less.'

Obligingly, though with some grumbles from Selena, they all lined up before their respective dummies.

'Now, remember,' said Albus, 'breaking through with one powerful spell is not automatically more valuable than breaking through with several. One spell might be blocked, or missed, or parried; a swift array of piercing spells in quick succession can sometimes achieve what brute force can't. Find your forte. Perfect it, then buoy up your weakness. First person to ten broken shields wins.'

'What do we win?' asked Scorpius.

Albus hesitated. 'Satisfaction.'

'Oh, good,' said Scorpius. 'Because you know what I said to myself this morning? I said, "Scorp-" I'm "Scorp" when I talk in my head, being best friends with myself and all that - I said, "Scorp, we're in a crisis. We've got no cure, we've got mad mercenaries at our door, we're five kids on our own, and this morning Harley implied we're running low on chocolate biscuits. You know what would really improve our lives? Satisfaction".'

Albus just stared at him. Scorpius made a face and lifted his wand. 'So... it's just as well you put this exercise together,' he mumbled sheepishly.

His best friend gave a firm nod and lifted his wand. 'You can start when ready.'

There was no real competition for who won. Albus emerged head and shoulders ahead of anyone else. Knowing he himself was competing with Selena to not come last, Scorpius chanced a glance down the row of them once Albus shattered his tenth shield. Methuselah was showing no obvious signs of strain save a tellingly clenched jaw and white knuckles, while Rose -

His lips twitched as he saw the furrowed of concentration on Rose's brow. She was really going to town. Of course; Methuselah had thwarted her over and over in class, and this sort of wandwork was, so far as Scorpius was aware, his only weakness, the only subject where she'd bested him. Even if Matthias Doyle, Garrett Saxby, and Sophia Moore had also thwarted him in the practical at OWL level, Rose was obviously determined to keep this small victory.

'Ten,' she proclaimed triumphantly, a split second before Methuselah himself lifted his wand and gave a satisfied, 'Ten.' He scowled, and she smiled, and Scorpius had to wipe his smirk off his own face and focus on his dummy.

For that distraction, he came last.

This pattern continued for most of the session. They practised breaking a shield while the dummy flung Stuns back, they practised their own defences, they trained against each other. Albus was always head-and-shoulders above the rest of them. As the magics got more frenetic - less theoretical and slow, more instinct and wits - Rose only widened the gap between her and Methuselah. Scorpius - a more safe fourth when he wasn't distracted - even began to gain ground on him.

It felt good, he reflected, as Albus knocked him on his rump for the fourth time and, laughing apologetically, helped him back up again. It felt good to practice for what felt like practise's sake. It felt good to work together, encourage and compete and good-naturedly mock. It felt, for the first time since the crisis had begun, like they were just getting ready for class, and if they walked out into the corridors they would be full of life and sounds and the bustling run-up to Christmas.

Of course, this was not the case. And the fall to mundane Earth was all the harder when they emerged back into Hogwarts, the day's work done. But it had been a pleasant way to escape for an afternoon.

'You've got quicker,' Albus told him as they made their aching way up the stairs to the Headmaster's Office.

'All that flying. And still not as fast as you.'

'Maybe not. But you almost had me that time - those sparks you shot out instead of a real spell? If I hadn't realised at the last second what you'd said, I would have sworn it was a Stun.'

'That I didn't say "Stupefy" was a bit of a giveaway, yes,' Scorpius drawled. After the day's work, after Albus driving them like a slave-master, he figured it was his turn in Stubbs' seat, and slouched around the headmaster's desk to slump into the chair.

'Practice that,' said Albus, shoving his hands in his pockets.

'Pretty sparks?' Scorpius raised an eyebrow. 'I panicked. That was all.'

'And when we're casting non-verbally, sparks will look like the real thing, are quicker and easier for you to cast, and can be an amazing feint. And you're good at illusions, you always have been. I don't know why you didn't practice them more.'

'Toys for charlatans and tricksters,' Scorpius muttered.

'What?'

'Nothing.' He scowled. 'Maybe. If non-verbal casting goes anywhere.'

Albus gave a small smile. 'Give it a week.'

It took more like two.

Albus was the first one to cast a spell non-verbally. Of course. But Rose was the first to break a shield with a non-verbal spell, and not for one moment did Scorpius think Albus begrudged her the achievement. One moment she'd been squinting at the dummy, trying to throw something at it wordlessly other than sparks - the next, a Stun was erupting from the tip of her wand and the magical barrier inches away from the dummy's surface crackled and shattered.

Silence met the victory - then Rose was throwing her hands in the air with a whoop of glee, and Selena bounded over to join in the cheering. Even Methuselah looked bitterly, grudgingly impressed. Scorpius shoved his hands in his pockets, wearing a quiet smirk, and when her gaze landed on him he gave an exaggerated shrug.

'Don't fib, Weasley. I know you were imagining it was my face.' It was the first joke he'd made at her in weeks, and she beamed more broadly at that than the successful spell.

'I think, with that victory,' said Albus, himself pleased as anything, 'we'll take a break from non-verbal and start with Patronuses.'

'Patronus,' said Methuselah helpfully.

'It's because I was getting good at something,' said Scorpius, whose achievements with non-verbal casting to date could be ranked by how brightly coloured the harmless sparks were. 'He's got to put me down, you see, or else I'll overshadow him.'

'I've never cast a Patronus,' admitted Albus. 'So I'm running entirely off textbooks and some letters off Dad. But he cast one when he was thirteen.'

Selena stuck up her hand. 'We're still not Harry Potter.'

Rose quirked an eyebrow. 'Is it me, or do you only stick your hand up when you want to ask a snide question?'

'Yes. If it's a helpful question I don't wait for permission.'

She wrinkled her nose. 'I can't fault your logic and that's making me kind of crazy.'

'The most important thing about casting Patronuses -'

'Patronus,' said Methuselah.

'- is a happy memory,' said Albus, desperately trying to ignore the assaults on his plans and his grammar. 'The magic comes from the words, of course, "Expecto Patronum", but it is a spell more reliant upon emotional strength than perhaps any other. You have to find a happy memory and cling to it. Use it to cast.'

'Does it have to be, like, super happy?' asked Selena.

'How're we quantifying "super" happy?' Rose wondered.

'Maybe it's a chart,' said Scorpius. 'Super happy. Ordinary happy. Shitty happy.'

'What's shitty happy?' asked Rose.

'It's like when you get really happy because something horrid's happened to someone else.'

'I think that's my super happy,' mused Selena.

Albus glared. 'You will not necessarily succeed first time at casting your Patronuses -'

'Patronus,' said Methuselah again. Everyone looked at him. He shrugged. 'Like "sheep" or "fish",' he repeated.

'Yeah,' said Scorpius, 'except I'm not casting fish. Or casting sheep. I mean, would that work?'

'Are you proposing we defeat Dementors with livestock?' Rose quirked an eyebrow.

'No, no. Of course not.' He shook his head. 'We're defeating the ritual with livestock.'

‘You know what?’ said Albus, mock-glaring. ‘You can all sod right off.’

They laughed as he made an exaggerated point of turning away in a huff, clearly not sincere, but Rose called out an apology and he laughed too, before they got to work. Secretly, Scorpius was glad they'd horsed around like that coming up to the practice. This was complicated, advanced magic, and he was never going to pretend to be the most powerful wizard around. He wasn't expecting much success.

Which was just as well, because he didn't get any. Neither did anyone else, not fully.

By the end of the two hour practice session, Albus had managed to produce a meagre ray of white light from the tip of his wand and Rose had seen a few spurts.

The next day, Albus' ray was bigger, Rose's was a much more impressive beam of light, and Selena and Scorpius were getting sparks.

By the fourth day, Albus had produced a fully corporeal Patronus, only for a split second, such a short moment that none of them were sure what it was other than something with four legs. That success invigorated the others, to the extent that Rose, Selena, and Scorpius were all beginning to see something take form by the end of that session.

While Methuselah Jones still stood on the far side of the room, having moved away from the jubilation which he claimed was noisy enough to disrupt his concentration, muttering to himself and producing exactly nothing from the tip of his wand.

As the cheer from Albus' success settled down, he urged the other three to get back to practice before he padded across the training room to the other boy. 'You're clenching,' he said. 'You have to relax; this is an emotional spell, and while discipline's a part of it, you've got to let it flow.'

'Perfectly relaxed,' said Methuselah in a clipped voice. 'Magic flows, Potter. My success rate speaks for itself.'

'It's complicated magic,' said Albus soothingly. 'You don't have to get it first time -'

'Try three hundred and forty-seventh.' Methuselah swished his wand and muttered. 'Three hundred and forty-eighth.'

'Perhaps you should try a different memory.'

'My memory is quite adequate -'

'Maybe it's not, if it's not producing the result. You don't look very pleased by it.'

Methuselah whipped his wand up, head snapping around for his dark-eyed gaze to land on Albus, glowering at him over his spectacles. 'My memory,' he said, 'is fine. My technique is fine. This is simply unsophisticated magic.'

'Ancient magics like this can be a bit more gut instinct, blood and bone, yes,' said Albus, 'but that doesn't make them unhelpful. We're going to have to crack this if we want to get the ritual -'

'Which you wouldn't know about,' snapped Methuselah, 'without me. My findings. My research. My understanding of magic and ritual while you pranced on a broom. Spare me your condescension, Potter.'

Albus drew back, everyone in the room falling silent and staring. Nobody could remember Methuselah Jones ever raising his voice before, ever showing such outright frustration before. He didn't say another word, just shoved his wand away and pushed past Albus to stalk out of the training room, slamming the door shut behind him.

Scorpius' eyebrows raised to his hairline. 'Someone doesn't like not being the best at something,' he said in a sing-song voice.

Selena glared at him. 'Oh, bugger off, Scorpius, he's had you beaten on everything else.'

'And yet, you don't see me getting my knickers in a twist about it.'

'No, just about anything and everything else that -'

'Okay!' That was Albus, raising his hands and his voice to cut off this argument before it became any more fervent. 'I think we'll leave it there for the night. We've done really well, guys, we'll pick it up tomorrow because I don't want to lose momentum on this.' He sighed, rubbing his chin. 'I'd best go talk to Jones.'

'No,' said Selena, tucking away her wand. 'I'll do it.'

'Does he listen to you?' wondered Rose.

'Today Scorpius managed to be a moderately civil human being,' was her answer as she headed out the door. 'So, frankly, I reckon anything's possible.'



A/N: So. It looks like I'm back on this wagon. It's crazy, I spent a few months without work and got no fic written (I did work on actual sloping towards publication, but that's news for a different time). Now I have a job of 10-hour days and 12-day fortnights and what do I do in the free time I get? Write fic! The good news is I have a bit of a buffer already and I'm hoping to get Ignite done in under 40 chapters (I am halfway through Chapter 31). There is no bad news!

Thanks to everyone who's continued to follow the story during my awful absence!


Chapter 29: New Flames
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Chapter 29: New Flames


He'd gone up to the Ravenclaw Tower. Harley had told her, and so she was dreading going looking for him. Not just for what she'd find when she got there, though Selena could hardly pretend she knew what was going to happen when she'd hunted down Methuselah Jones throwing a tantrum, but if nothing else, she was finally going to have to confront the infernal eagle.

Selena Rourke wasn't stupid. Sometimes she liked to act as if she was, because if people knew you were smart, they'd ask for things. Expect things. But she wasn't stupid. One thing she was not, however, was academically minded, or particularly enthralled by the idea of testing her brain for fun. School did that enough. She could read for pleasure, think about people, talk about people, make plans and scheme away.

But she had no idea why anyone could ever find a riddle entertaining.

She stared at the eagle-headed doorknocker when she got to the top of the stairs. It stared back. Then its mouth, cast in solid metal, moved like it was natural for it to do so, and its dreary voice came. 'I have holes in my top -'

'Oh, no!' Selena stomped her foot. 'This is ridiculous! There's a crisis going on! I'm not a Ravenclaw! You know that! You've let lots of non-Ravenclaws past. You let non-Ravenclaws pass even under normal circumstances, only they're staff members and House Elves! Why are you still persisting with this stupid access ritual!'

Silence met her as the doorknocker stared at her. Then it opened its mouth again. '...in my bottom, in my sides, and yet -'

'No! I'm not doing it!' She folded her arms across her chest. 'You're just out to get whatever little power-kick you can out of this, aren't you? You're an irrelevant doorknocker, you used to get dozens of kids coming by every day to deal with your stupid questions and now you no longer feel valid. Well, get over it! Lots of people don't feel valid any more, some of them real! If the Fat Lady can get over it, so can you!'

She jabbed a furious finger at the door. 'I know you let in Methuselah not long ago, I know he's up there, and he's one of your best. Your best Ravenclaw, ever, and right now I want to go up there and help him! If you cared about the people who actually give a damn about your stupid riddles, you'll let me past because he's really upset right now!'

Another pause. Then: 'I will finish my riddle.'

'You can finish it.' Selena stuck her nose in the air. 'But I shan't answer it. This is a silly security measure, it's not even a security measure because it doesn't just limit Ravenclaws, and right now I refuse to play your silly game in your silly, desperate bid for validity, so you can finish the riddle but I won't -'

'...and yet I still hold water. What am I?'

Selena blinked. 'Ooh, I know this one, you're a sponge!'

'Correct,' said the doorknocker, and before she realised she'd just gone back on her word and cooperated, the doorway swung open to show her the final stairway up to Ravenclaw tower. 'Was there not satisfaction at that?' it asked. 'Is your journey not more fulfilling for testing your thoughts on the way, and succeeding, than if the way had been cleared?'

'No, because then I'd be having the conversation with Methuselah and I wouldn't care,' she sneered before sweeping past the door and up the stairs.

It was dark outside and the wind was howling past Ravenclaw Tower like a ferocious, unanswered wolf. The fireplace was dim, most of the sconces were out, and looking about the shadowy depths was like peering into an abyss. It was, however, easy to tell which way Methuselah had gone, because the flickering flames of the sconces didn't only give illumination - they marked his path.

He was in the stacks, and as she wound her way through the towering bookcases of Ravenclaw's own small library, wryly she had to concede to herself that she'd spent too much time here and in the main library. She knew them both too well. Knew what was where, or at least out of that pertinent to Methuselah's interest. She probably couldn't find a single book on, say, the Goblin Rebellion. She could practically recite off by heart the titles of the books on necromancy owned by Hogwarts. It was a peculiar piece of trivia to have in one's head.

She wasn't surprised when she found him in one of the stacks furthest the back, near the windows beyond which night still raged against the walls. It was back here they'd come so many times, usually to just gather books and then be on their way. It didn't do, Methuselah had said, for a non-Ravenclaw to linger in the Ravenclaw library. She had just smiled and indulged him.

He was sat now in an alcove of the window, head bowed over a book, the nearest sconce casting shadows across his sharp features. She couldn't recognise the book, but she could tell he wasn't reading it anyway, merely staring at the pages, dark eyes unblinking. He hadn't noticed her.

When she gave a genteel clear of the throat his head jerked up and he blinked owlishly at her. 'Miss Rourke.'

'Why do you call me that?' She padded over to the cushioned bench running the length of the alcove he was sat upon. 'I call you "Methuselah".'

He grimaced. 'Apologies. Habit. And -' He cut himself off, shaking his head.

'And yet everyone else is Potter, or Weasley, or Malfoy.'

'Wanted to be polite. Respectful.' He stared at his book as she sat down. 'Curious. Infusions of necromantic energy in living bodies can result in repositories of dark magic pooling unpredictably -'

'You told me this,' she said gently. 'Yesterday.'

'Was merely reaffirming vital research -'

'Are you okay?' She put her hand on his forearm.

Methuselah stared at it like it was another limb sprouted from him. She did not pull back. 'Countless hours spent researching disease and studying ritual and it all proves pointless if waving a wand does not produce instant results. Months of hard work and then disparaged in minutes -'

'Nobody disparaged you, Methuselah, it's hard magic -'

'Which everyone else succeeded at. Statistically and based upon a pattern of my own performance, should have cast Patronus twelve minutes quicker than Malfoy. But still struggling. Makes little -'

'It’s not a big deal if you’re not best in Defence -’

Methuselah grimaced. 'Overcame difficulty in Defence OWL to still achieve highest grade overall -'

'But this.' She squeezed his arm. 'I don't think anyone in there thinks less of you. We all worked hard, we know it's tough. And everyone knows you've come up with this solution for the ritual -'

'Possible solution.'

'Everyone knows you broke through Stubbs' wards to get into the Headmaster's Office - that was incredible.'

He wrinkled his nose. 'Worked for ten hours to crack through wards. Then Malfoy brought ridiculous guitar to knock down a door.'

Selena paused. She hadn't thought about it like that, hadn't considered Scorpius to be stealing Methuselah's thunder. Partly, she understood that Scorpius had wanted to make a contribution. Partly, she hadn't realised that Methuselah even cared about receiving acclaim for his achievements, and she realised how ridiculous that was the moment she thought it.

'You're not used to not being the best at something, are you,' she murmured.

'No.' His brow furrowed. 'Overlooked. Disregarded. Avoided. Treated as odd. Never knowing what to say. Nobody interested in it anyway. Except in studies. Always the best there.' Methuselah thinned his lips. 'Almost always.'

'I was impressed when you knocked down those wards,' she murmured. 'And I'm still impressed by you. Today doesn't matter. You're still the smartest person I know.'

Her expression fell when he flinched at that, looking down. When he spoke, his voice was a little tight. 'You have been - very kind, Miss Rourke.'

'You know you can call me "Selena". Everyone else does. Even Weasley, sometimes.' She tried a small smile.

His shoulders hunched in slightly. 'Didn't want to presume,' he muttered.

Is he actually insecure about this? Realisation was like a slap in the face, enough to almost make her gasp. The one admission was like he'd knocked over a wall of presumptions, the walls put up around him, and as Selena gazed at his forlorn figure it was as if she was seeing him for the first time. Her hand slid down to his, and he stared at it, dumbfounded.

'You're not just the smartest person I know,' she murmured. 'You're also the first person to treat me like I'm not stupid. The first person to really value my opinion. The first person to bother to look at me as more than a pretty face.'

He looked up at her now, eyes flashing with surprise. 'You're not stupid,' he said shortly. 'You know lots of things. Things I don't. Things others don't. People. Reasons, behaviour. It's important. Right now. Tense times. Personalities clashing. Understanding them necessary to survive. Far, far smarter than me.'

She bit her lip at the wave of heat which crossed her cheeks. 'That's the nicest thing anyone's ever said to me.'

Methuselah didn't say anything, looking too awkward to summon more words. When she squeezed his hand gently his head inclined to look down at their entwined fingers, and that was when she leaned forwards and up, tilting her face to his -

He straightened with a jerk, and Selena wondered if she could hurl herself out of the window. Her eyes slammed shut, mortified, frozen in place half-outstretched to him.

'I - I'm sorry,' he stumbled, voice the most frantic and wrought she'd heard it.

She opened her eyes, biting her lip. 'No, I... misunderstood.' Already she could feel herself clamping down on the errant strand of hope, already she was reassessing, recalculating what she'd just seen - of course she'd been wrong, of course he wouldn't -

'No.' Methuselah's lips thinned, and when she opened her eyes he looked utterly crestfallen. 'Anticipated - second thing in as many hours I'd be terrible at.'

'What?' Her eyelids fluttered. 'Kissing me?'

He cleared his throat. 'Never have - any girl - before -'

'That really doesn't bother me -'

'...expect you've kissed lots of boys. Lots.'

Selena turned her gaze skywards, lips pursing at the comment, and waited. After a heartbeat, his eyes widened. 'There it is,' she murmured.

'No! I -' Methuselah cringed. 'Simply meant - comparatively - would be a disappointment -'

She stood and he winced, obviously expecting her to be storming off. But she didn't let go of his hand, tugging him to his feet. 'Come on,' she murmured, and led him away from the alcove towards one of the shadowy stacks of the bookcases. He followed, looking bewildered, and remained mutely cooperative when she reached one of the stepladders helping students reach the higher shelves with ease.

Selena turned to him. 'Close your eyes.'

He did so, and she let a small smile tug at her lips before she moved to the first step of the ladder, for the first time putting the two of them on an equal height. Gingerly she reached out as he stayed stock still, tense, apprehensive, and his face twitched as she pulled off his glasses, putting them down on the shelf next to them.

She'd never seen him without his glasses before. They were thick, horn-rimmed, always a dominant feature of his face. Without them he looked softer, more vulnerable - still the same face, the same high cheekbones, straight nose. But less austere, detached. Younger. For a heartbeat she regretted his eyes were shut so she could, for once, see them not through the lenses.

Her fingertips ran down his cheek, thumb stopping at his chin before she leaned forwards, letting their noses just gently graze. He smelled crisp, of his peppermint shampoo and his forever freshly-cleaned clothes, of his unique, but not unpleasant musty smell from the day's exertions. She felt, rather than heard his breath catch at their closeness, and fought back a smile before she leaned forwards and brushed her lips against his.

And, after a heartbeat, he wasn't hesitant any more.


* *


'You kissed him!' Rose fairly shrieked as she fell over sideways on the sofa in the staff room, clutching a bottle of Butterbeer.

'I did.' Selena tilted her nose up haughtily, but couldn't stop her smirk.

'Let me get this straight.' Rose sat up, rubbing her eyes. 'You kissed Methuselah Jones.'

'Don't sound like that. You kissed Scorpius Malfoy.' Selena broke into a laugh as Rose smacked her with the nearest cushion. 'At least Methuselah's polite!'

'Polite. Polite! The world of words at your fingertips and you go with "polite".' Rose snickered into her Butterbeer.

The two of them had been there for an hour. Their spot of tea together after Rose had broken up with Hector had not proven a lone incident, helped by Albus spending more time with Scorpius and Methuselah remaining, well, Methuselah. And despite it all, Rose found herself actually enjoying Selena's company. It had been too long since she could sit down and just talk like a girl, with another girl. And though it had been less long, it had been still too long since she'd relaxed. Even around Albus after her row with Scorpius, everything had felt tense, like the world was still waiting to leap out with its troubles. Not to mention her lingering resentment at him. Once that had been resolved, she'd had the breakup with Hector, which had brought all new guilt.

Tea with Selena was different. No judging. No stress. No worries about the crises around them. The talk was inane and pointless and, for both of them, that was absolutely perfect. Rose wasn't sure Selena wasn't still an air-headed gossip, but there were worse things to be right then.

So when Selena had, a scant few hours after their last practice, shown up not demanding tea but brandishing a few bottles of Butterbeer, she'd realised it was an emergency. The two of them had thus withdrawn to their hiding place: the staff room, the one place with comfortable chairs, a blazing fire, and no horrendous memories tugging at the edges. The boys, with their preferences in the libraries and the Headmaster's Office, were also unlikely to come this way.

'It’s the right word,' Selena protested. 'When I pulled back, he said "thank you".'

The two of them burst into giggles again.

'That is polite,' Rose agreed. 'What was it like?'

Selena went bright red, but her grin stretched from ear to ear. 'What can I say? He's a very good student.'

When the latest round of giggles subsided, Rose put down her Butterbeer for fear of spilling it. 'I never would have thought. You and Jones. Anyone and Jones.'

'I know.' Selena hugged the cushion. 'But he's sweet. And you know he's not trying to be sweet, he's just being the way he is, but he comes out with nice things and you know he's speaking the truth. And he's tall.' Her eyes lit up. 'And I like the way he talks. Low and fast. Clipped. Like this.'

Rose laughed at the mimic. 'I'm glad,' she said sincerely. 'Merlin knows we could do with some cheering up around here.'

Selena pursed her lips. 'Of course,' she mused, 'when this is over, there'll need to be some changes. His wardrobe. His hair.'

There was a pause. Then Rose burst out with relieved laughter. 'You're kidding.'

'Of course I am! I like him the way he is.' Selena gave her a sideways look. 'But enough about me. What about you?'

'Me?'

'Yeah. You know Scorpius keeps looking at you during these training sessions.'

Rose sighed. 'I do. And it's the most time we've spent together in the same room in what feels like months. And, of course, I only notice he's looking at me because I keep looking at him...'

'Are you about ready to throw yourself at his feet for forgiveness?'

'I tried that. Didn't get me very far. And it's not like I don't deserve to be in the dog-house, considering how I treated him...'

'That's one way of looking at it. The other is that he could, you know.' Selena shrugged. 'Get over it.'

'Get over it? I jerked him around -'

'Who kissed who?'

Rose stopped. 'What?'

Selena leaned forwards. 'First time you kissed. Who made the move?'

Rose pursed her lips. 'He did.'

'Knowing you were with Hector.'

'Er. Yes.'

'And he still made the move.'

'Yes.'

'And then threw a strop because you didn't want to dump a guy in a coma.'

'Technically I didn't want to dump a guy just out of a coma -'

'But he was perfectly fine with you two carrying on while Hector was in the coma, and so not yet dumped?'

'One could say Hector had been dumped in absentia,' Rose mused.

'Less Latin. This is girl-talk, we don't do Latin in girl-talk. Or guy-talk. Or any kind of regular talk.'

'I mean I dumped him, he just wasn't around to be dumped. Except, when he was, I chickened out.'

'You didn't want to hurt a guy who's suffering.'

'Except when I found out he'd helped Miranda cheat on Scorpius, that made it okay to hurt him?'

Selena shrugged. 'I don't think any of this is okay - but that's okay. I think it was more okay to dump him because you realised he was an ass than it was okay to dump him because you decided you wanted to snog Scorpius. Even if he wasn't doing okay.'

'The word "okay" is losing all meaning for me.'

'Point is, there was no good thing to do. Dump Hector and hurt him while he's suffering? Don't dump him and carry on with Scorpius behind his back? Don't dump him and shoot Scorpius down? I don't know what you should have done.' Selena paused. 'That said, I'm impressed you picked Secret Option D: Dump Hector, shoot Scorpius down, and be miserable. That might have been the worst option of all.'

Rose scowled. 'Thanks.'

'Don't mention it.' Selena sighed, leaning back on the sofa. 'My point, though, was that Scorpius knew what he was getting himself into when he kissed you. He knew you were with Hector.'

Rose tensed. 'Do you think he did it to get back at him?'

Selena's eyes goggled. 'No. No! Stop that! Bad thought!' She smacked her with a cushion.

'I'm just saying -'

'You're just trying to think up the worst possible option.' Selena shook her head. 'I'm not saying Malfoy can't sometimes be a bit of a shit. But if he wanted to get back at Hector, or Miranda, all he needed to do was tell the whole school the truth. Besides.' She scratched her nose. 'You saw him after you pre-dumped him. He was like a bear with a headache.'

Rose sagged, and reached for her Butterbeer. 'I suppose. I just don't know what to do.'

'First things first. What do you want to do?'

'What?'

'Scorpius.' Selena shifted on the sofa to face her. 'You still want to snog him senseless?'

Rose made a face. 'Teeny bit.'

'And is that all?'

'I'm not about to give you an in-depth run-down of any fantasies I may or may not have -'

'Oh, Merlin, not what I meant. I meant, you just want to snog him? Have a fling, enjoy his golden bushy-headed enthusiasm and charm, and then toss him to one side? I know you've got that in you, Weasley. Everyone was surprised when you started to go out with Hector after you and Doyle broke up.'

Rose rubbed her temples. 'I wanted something... uncomplicated after Matt. Look how well that worked out!' She sighed. 'I don't know what I want from Scorpius. We have so little in common -'

'Why'd you break up with Doyle?'

Rose blinked at the change of pace. 'What?'

'Doyle.' Selena sipped her drink. 'You two had loads in common. You still broke up. Why?'

'He - I -' Rose sagged. 'He's a sweet guy. And I do miss him. But it was... too much. Too much fuss. Too much over-analysing. Too much competition. Everything had to be, like, big, you know? He didn't know how to switch off.' She sighed. 'I guess I don't, either. With Hector, I could switch off. And that was the problem, too, because with him we were never on.'

'Mentally?' Selena smirked. 'Physically?'

Another swat from a cushion. 'Mentally. Going out with Matt was like going out with an endless Rubix Cube. Going out with Hector was like eating at an endless string of ice-cream parlours. Both can be fun in their different ways at first but you get frustrated or just plain sick.'

'So what's Malfoy in this? A different flavour of ice-cream for a change of pace, or some... sort of... other... puzzle.' Selena furrowed her brow as the metaphor got away from her.

'I don't know. And is now a good time to find out? Even if he forgave me - everything's so crazy...'

'Look at it this way,' said Selena. 'It can't get worse.'

Rose looked at her. 'Don't say that.'

'I know.' Selena sighed. 'It can always get worse.'

There was a pause. Rose picked at the label on her bottle. 'You don't sound like you're talking about boys.'

'There are things happening outside of Hogwarts, Rose.' Selena scowled at the window. 'Things the papers aren't saying. The letters aren't saying. Your mum isn't saying.'

'What?'

'My mum writes to me. Tells me what's going on in the country. Did you know that in the last two months the number of cases of Dark Magic crimes has quadrupled?'

'Quadrupled?'

'And that's just in Britain. Mum reckon's something's happening internationally. New cults of dark magic springing up. Worldwide. Unrelated, but all within the last six months? Items of dark magic being stolen. Bad things are happening.'

'You think it has something to do with Phlegethon?'

'I don't know. Neither does she. But, suddenly all this happens? At the same time as the biggest outbreak of dark magic in the country in twenty-five years?' Selena sighed. 'So, the way I see it? I'm not sure this is going to stop even if we end Phlegethon. I think more's coming.

'So we'd better make the most of the good things while we can.'


* *


'It's not festive,' said Scorpius as he walked the corridor. 'It's creepy.'

'It's Christmas, Malfoy,' sneered Harley. 'What do you want to do, treat this place even more like a morgue?'

'What, exactly, are we supposed to be celebrating?' He pointed at the silver-and-gold decorations hanging from walls, the tinsel adorning the nearest suit of armour, the portrait of Aleister Crowley's cat resplendent in a Father Christmas hat. It did not look happy about this.

'If you need this time of year explained to you after this long -'

'I mean it's weird.'

Harley made a face at him. 'I came to tell you about the blizzard. Not for you to bitch at me because you don't like the season of good cheer.'

Scorpius goggled at him. 'You're a House Elf.'

'We can like good cheer! Do you want a damn humbug?' Harley straightened his tie. 'Where're you going, anyway?'

'Post tower. See if anything's -'

'You can't go up there,' Harley blurted.

'Why not?'

'We're - doing work. Painting. You'd make a mess.'

'Painting the owlery? Before a blizzard?'

'It dries the paint.'

Scorpius stared at Harley. The little creature stared right back, not batting an eyelid. He snorted. 'You humbugged me. I'm going up there. And I'm going to kick things and make a mess.'

He strode off before Harley could get through more than a sputter of protest. He wasn't sure he believed the House Elf, but suspected Harley was just trying to divert his day. It sounded like the kind of petty move he was capable of. So he left him far behind as he went up a couple flights of stairs, down two stretches of corridor, and reached the steps leading up to the owlery just as Methuselah Jones came down them.

'Evening, Jones,' he said in a cheery enough way - just as Methuselah put out an arm to stop him.

'Malfoy. Can't go up there.'

Scorpius squinted at him. 'But you just came down.'

'Yes.' Methuselah paused. 'You can't.'

He scowled. 'Is this about Harley's painting?'

Another pause. 'Most certainly.'

The squint deepened. 'You're a lousy liar, Jones. What's going on?'

'Nothing.' Methuselah was silent for a heartbeat. 'Was looking for you.'

'Uh-huh. We'll talk. In a bit.' Scorpius patted him on the arm and went to move past him, but he only reached the bottom step before Methuselah spoke.

'Wanted a conversation. Important. About girls.' Methuselah sounded positively panicked by now.

Scorpius turned slowly, head cocked. 'You,' he said.

'Indeed.'

'Wanted a conversation.'

'Want.'

'About girls.'

'Quite.'

Scorpius scratched his nose. '...actually "girls" plural, or just the one?'

'Wanted advice. Miss Rourke. You know girls. Some girls. Not lots.' Methuselah actually gave a nervous grin as he amended his implication, nodding urgently.

There was another long silence as Scorpius tried to figure out how to deal with this. In the end, all he could do was give a numb, 'All right. Let's talk.'

'Capital. This way.' Methuselah grabbed him by the elbow and positively frog-marched him down the corridor away from the owlery.

'What's wrong with there -'

'Too many people. Could be overheard.'

'What people? House Elves?'

'...yes.' Methuselah didn't stop until they had reached the next stairway along, pulling him down to the stone landing before he seemed satisfied. Then he turned to Scorpius and nudged his glasses up his nose. 'Though. Perhaps isn't urgent.'

'Oh, no.' Scorpius folded his arms across his chest. 'You started this, Jones, no wriggling out now. So, you've got a thing for Rourke, eh? I don't know, you could do better.'

Methuselah scowled. 'She is pretty and intelligent.'

'She's...' Scorpius mulled over that one. And decided to not comment. 'I didn't know she was your type.'

'She has been kind to me. Patient with me. Helped me with my work. Listened to me. Provided a good platform for bouncing ideas.'

'Really?'

'Indeed. She has a crisp, clear way of thinking. I can circle a topic for hours. Get caught up in minutiae. She cuts to the heart quickly. Unfettered thought process. Invaluable.'

'Well.' Scorpius peered at him for a moment. On the one hand, it actually seemed as if Methuselah was looking beyond Selena Rourke's shiny hair and had found something shiny underneath. On the other hand, encouraging him to chase after one of Hogwarts' most notorious flirts sounded like setting the guy up for a fall. 'Do you think now's the best time to think about a girl?'

'You have. You. Weasley. Furtive fumbling. Bickering. All disruptive.'

'Thank you.' Scorpius sighed. 'Have you, I don't know. Told her?'

'In a manner of speaking.'

'In a manner of speaking?'

'Thanked her for her help. Noted her beauty. Her thoughtfulness.'

'And what did she say?'

'She kissed me.'

Scorpius' reaction was, unbeknownst to him, not too dissimilar to what Rose's had been. He almost fell over. 'She - Rourke kissed you.'

'Yes.'

'Okay. Methuselah Jones' love life is more successful than mine.' Scorpius eyeballed a window contemplatively. 'This isn't a big deal.'

'Twice. And then sixteen further occasions since then, last Friday.'

'I see.' Scorpius rumpled his hair. 'You know what, Jones? I'm not sure you need me. You seem to be doing fine by yourself.'

Methuselah grimaced. 'Except -'

'Yes?'

'Initiative. All on her. Am not a complete fool. Am aware relationship requires equal contributions. Give as well as take. And certain dated conceptions which can linger in some young women - especially pure-blooded young women - would dictate it is the role of the male to be more dominant.'

'You're going to have to change your vocabulary if we're going to have this conversation without me spooning out my eyeball at the thought of you dominating Selena,' Scorpius mused.

'The pursuit.' Methuselah nodded ardently. 'Assertion. Women will be bored if they must chase all the time. Eventually, distraction strikes. Or vice-versa. Why give perpetually when you are not given?'

'I'm not disagreeing.'

'Good. Theory is sound. Require aid with the practical.'

Scorpius squinted. 'I am not giving you tips on the practical with Selena Rourke.'

Methuselah looked crestfallen. 'Best candidate to ask. Only other male Potter. Notoriously girl-shy. Perpetually single. Oddly so.'

'He worries girls will be after him for his name.'

'Indeed. Skewed perspective on courtship. Teach me, Malfoy.'

Scorpius turned his gaze skywards. 'For starters,' he sighed, 'don't call it "courtship". You sound like you fell out of the 19th century.'

'Will note this.' Methuselah actually reached for a pocket for paper and a pencil. Scorpius boggled but didn't have the heart to stop him.

'Secondly, you're not wrong. Girls like to be chased. Feel valued. Wanted. It doesn't have to be overt. Little things can do the trick. Little things can be better.'

'Better?'

'It makes it seem effortless. Sure, the occasional big display can really hit home, but what you want to do is make it seem like it's just natural for you to do something for her, say something to her. But not so effortless it looks lazy.'

'Hm. Delicate.'

'Selena's a typical girl. Typical girls like stuff. Find out what chocolates she likes, and get some for her. Not every day, but not for a specific reason. Ask her about her day, her friends, and pretend like you care.'

'Her life is varied and interesting -'

'Yeah, that'll get old, fast.' Scorpius waved a dismissive hand. 'If you're upset, talk to her. She'll be no help and provide little to no practical solution, but she'll feel like she helped just by listening. Have you only kissed?'

'Um. Yes.'

'Okay, we'll consider anything else Advanced Courses for now and I am going to need some Firewhisky before I even consider giving you tips in that department.' Scorpius rumpled his hair. 'Oh, and above all, if you two have an argument, apologise first.'

Methuselah quirked an eyebrow and scribbled something. 'I see.'

'Hm?'

'What?'

'You had a... tone.'

Methuselah folded the paper. 'Yourself. Weasley. You did not apologise.'

Scorpius flinched. 'What makes you think that?'

'Did you?'

'I didn't have to. She was the one who screwed me around.' He scowled.

'I see.'

'She did.'

Methuselah nodded and tucked the paper away. 'Perhaps. Nevertheless. Evidence all suggests. Compromise. Give and take. Essential. There are no absolutes in magic. Certainly no absolutes in people.' He gave Scorpius a smile which looked forced and unusual on his face. 'Regardless. My thanks, Malfoy. Information has been helpful.'

He turned to go without another word, long legs taking him down the stairs, moving like a man with purpose. Scorpius scowled after him, mulling over his words, until finally he called out, 'Jones!' Methuselah stopped and just turned, cocking his head. 'Tulips,' Scorpius said.

'Come again?'

Scorpius padded down a few steps. 'Selena likes tulips. Brightly coloured ones. You don't need many. They're her favourite flower.' He tapped his nose. 'That's the last bit of advice. Pay attention. You never know when the little things will come in handy.'

Or see how the big things, he mused as Methuselah nodded his thanks and carried on his way, can be so obvious and yet so difficult at the same time.

Chapter 30: On an Open Fire
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Chapter 30: On an Open Fire


It was Christmas Day and Scorpius still hadn't burned his father's present.

That was if he'd even sent one. Scorpius had been checking the post owls regularly and nothing had arrived. Not from his father, not from anyone, to him or any of the others. It was a little peculiar, but if his father wasn't sending anything and his mother was doing who-knew-what, who-knew-where, who else was he to expect attention from?

That he'd seen no signs of the others getting anything coming in was odd, admittedly. But then, the five if them had collectively, wordlessly accepted they were not going to make a big deal out of Christmas Day. There had been no plans. Nothing arranged. They would do their work that day, and move on to the next. Maybe the others had had the foresight to tell friends and families to not bother. That they'd celebrate together later. When they were out.

He'd told his father no such thing, and so had expected at least a letter when he'd risen, bright and early, to intercept the post on Christmas morning. Instead he'd found a dark, silent owlery, completely empty. Scorpius had been prepared for many things. For anger, for upset, for disappointment. For his father to do or say something completely thoughtless and disregarding. Or intentionally hurtful. All of these were expected.

There being absolutely nothing sent a stab through him he hadn't anticipated.

Can't you just tell me I'm useless once more, Dad? One more time, it's Christmas. The bitter thought filled him as he stomped his way back down the stairs, into the corridor, and -

Almost walked flat into Albus. Considering there was so much of him to walk into, this was fairly easy, and Scorpius bounced off hard enough to knock the bitter thoughts out of his head.

'Great brick wall impression, mate!' he said as he reeled, and Albus put out a strong hand to steady him. 'Very life-like.'

'I suppose that's why you felt compelled to run right into me.' Albus grinned. 'Sorry. Couldn't resist. What were you up to?'

'Same thing as you. Checking up on the post. There's nothing there.'

Albus peered up the steps gloomily. 'Oh, well. Probably for the best.'

'You told your family to send nothing?'

'Hm? Oh, yes. It seemed best. Christmas would feel off today.' Albus jerked a thumb over his shoulder. 'Still. Let's go for a fly, huh?'

Scorpius looked to the window. 'It's barely dawn.'

'So it will be dawn when we're in the air. Come on, the blizzard stopped, it's all snowy and still out there, so let's bundle up and make the most of it.'

It was hard to argue with that logic. Harder still to argue with the temptation of a broom flight at dawn across the grounds after the previous day's heavy snowfall. The school and the hills around were cast in white, pristine, untouched, as if someone had tipped a giant bag of cotton-wool from horizon to horizon. Their footsteps crunched as they blemished the snow outside the front doors, and their breath misted in front of them soon enough at the exertion of an exhilarating flight.

The only thing he had to miss was his broom. He was flying one of the Slytherin team backup brooms, but it was an old, cantankerous contraption, not as swift and smooth as his old X-Series, broken and abandoned in an Acromantula's nest. But by now that had almost become the fun of it - anticipating what the blasted ancient backup broom would do next. Almost.

They were high above the east side of the grounds, the Forbidden Forest stretching out in white beyond them, before Scorpius finally drew his broom to a sharp halt and grinned. 'That makes it worth it.'

Albus pulled up, propping his goggles on his forehead. 'The view?'

'Well, sure, if you go for perfect winter wonderlands that're almost out of a Christmas card.' Scorpius smirked. 'But if Thane and his cronies are out there, I bet they're having a miserable time in this weather.'

That got a deep, belly laugh from Albus, and when he subsided he wore a lopsided smirk. 'They're out there.’

'You're sure?'

'They've been passing through the outer detection wards on the east side sporadically. I don't know if there's a pattern yet, but if there is and I find it, I'll watch the areas on the Marauder's Map. Then we don't just get to watch their full movements, we get names.'

'We do.' Scorpius hesitated. 'Though Thane couldn't be picked up by the Map.'

'I know.' Albus rolled a shoulder. 'We'll cross that bridge when we come to it.'

'Does the Map pick up the ritual site?'

'It doesn't reach that far. Why?'

Scorpius shrugged. 'I was just wondering. If there's movement down there, we'll want to see it.'

'I guess. I'm worrying about one thing at a time, though. Well, mostly.' Albus jerked his head for them to carry on their flight, now at a less break-neck pace, drifting across the tree-tops at a leisurely, relaxed rate. 'Training's going better.'

'Especially Patronus training.'

'Yeah. Jones can actually cast something now. It's like there was a breakthrough.'

'Or a new good memory.' Scorpius smirked when Albus glanced over his shoulder at him. 'Selena!'

'You're kidding.'

'Nope. He even asked me for advice.'

'Oh dear. What did you say?'

'Hey! I was nice!'

'Nice, I don't question. Accurate...' Albus grinned.

Scorpius leaned over his broom to put on an extra burst of speed, drawing level with the tail of Albus', and reached out to give the bristles a short, playful tug. Albus gave a shout of laughter, veering wildly to keep control and get out of Scorpius' reach. 'I know what I'm doing!'

'Great!' Albus shouted back. 'So put it into practice!'

Scorpius pulled his broom up to a halt. 'What's that supposed to mean?'

'You know what I mean.' Albus stopped himself a few metres away, spinning to face him. 'You're my best mate, but Merlin, you go dozy as anything when it comes to girls.'

'It's not like girls are top of my worry list right now.'

'Except for Rose.'

Scorpius winced. So she told you, huh? 'Except for Rose...'

Albus looked suddenly apologetic. 'I told her about Hector and Miranda. I'm sorry.'

'You're not that sorry.' Scorpius waved a dismissive hand. 'It was lousy of me to ask you to keep it a secret from her.'

'I think she needed to know.' Albus drifted closer. 'I know times are tough, though. I know we're all a bit stressed and flighty and that means we're sometimes going to do stupid things even if it's against our better judgement...'

His words were like knives twisting Scorpius' gut. 'She said that?'

'What?' Albus squinted. 'I meant you. I didn't even know you liked her.'

Scorpius sighed, looking away. 'Neither did I.'

'Are you still angry with her?'

He shrugged. 'I don't know. I'm angry with a lot of things right now. She's just kind of slotted in under the header of "the world". Definitely angry with that.'

Albus winced. 'I'm sorry, mate. Didn't mean to stir things up. I'm just trying to help.'

‘I know.’ Scorpius shrugged. ‘Of all the mental things to happen over the last few months, though, she’s definitely the most mental.’

‘I didn’t see it coming. I didn’t think she was your type. Was it, you know. At all serious?’

Scorpius hid his expression from Albus by tugging his scarf tighter around his mouth. ‘I wasn’t just screwing around, Al. I know you’d dangle me by my ankles off this broom if I’d been just looking for a laugh, or to get back at Hector, especially in a crisis. It’s not that.’

‘I don’t think you’re that much of an arse.’

‘She just… I don’t know.’ Scorpius sighed. ‘She at least takes me seriously? And she doesn’t just fall over herself laughing at my jokes, but she does laugh. It’s just harder to make her laugh. I like that. It makes it worth more. She’s not…’ His voice trailed off, and he glowered at the horizon as his thoughts were reluctant to form themselves into anything solid. ‘She doesn’t treat me like I’m nothing more than a bit of fun.’

Albus sat on his broom, fiddling with the strap on his goggles with that awkward air he assumed whenever Scorpius started discussing girls. Eventually he seemed to realise that was all that was coming, and cleared his throat. ‘Are you going to talk to her?’

Scorpius made a face. ‘Every time I think I should I just remember her making me feel awful. It’s like a - a big thing I really can’t get over. I look at her, I see her smile, I think “okay, well, maybe”, and then - it’s like a stab in the gut. I get she was in a rotten situation. But she still put Hector’s feelings before mine. Still treated me like I was going to stand around and wait for her. And what, now she’s finally realised Hector’s a jackass I should be, I don’t know, grateful?’ Despite his words he spoke quietly, honestly, trying to keep out the bitterness. The last thing he wanted was a fight with Albus, and he wasn’t really angry any more anyway. Just hurt.

'I guess that's a "no",' Albus mused.

'I would say that once this situation's over maybe I'll get five minutes to set my head straight,' said Scorpius. 'But once this situation's over neither one of us has any reason to so much as look at the other again, do we?' His friend looked pained and Scorpius sighed, rubbing his gloved hands together. 'Let's head back. It's been hours.'

Albus didn't argue, and the two streaked their way across the skies of Hogwarts at speeds which would have any watching teacher positively shriek with panic and disapproval, envisioning two young scions of ancient lines splattering themselves across ancient masonry. But they made it back to the castle without incident, spirits lighter for the morning flight despite these dark times, and as they wound their way back to their rooms, Albus gave Scorpius a companionable punch on the arm.

'Stop down in the Great Hall for lunch?'

'I thought we weren't doing anything for Christmas?'

'We're not. But I think Harley is resenting having to run me up food to the headmaster's office. And it's easier to forget the day if we have ham sandwiches like nothing's wrong.'

'If we're having sandwiches for Christmas lunch something's very wrong,' Scorpius pointed out.

'Well, yeah. But today's not Christmas. Remember?' And with a toothy grin Albus headed for his room as if the matter was settled.

Scorpius supposed it was. If Albus had decided on something, which he rarely did without the agreement or at least acceptance of others, it became rather difficult to argue with him. Not just for his stubborn nature, when he got going, but simply, nobody wanted to disappoint Albus Potter. And for his part, he'd done that enough to not want to do so again.

So he showered. Scrubbed up like the day was nothing unusual, which of course meant a certain amount of making sure he was clean, crisp, presentable. Selena Rourke didn't have a monopoly on using looking good as a defensive coping mechanism. And, just to be sure, really sure, he swung up to the owlery just before lunchtime to confirm nothing was there.

Only the echoes of a House Elf too shy to show its face as it scurried into a shadowy corner greeted him, along with the quiet, sleepy hoots of the owls trying to get some rest. He gave them a mock-scowl. 'Don't know why you're so tired,' he told the birds. 'You've been here for days.'

Unsurprisingly they didn't answer and so, trying to remove the knife of worry worming its way through his gut, Scorpius descended the stairs and made his way through the corridors, decked with decorations in a way which made it awfully difficult to ignore what time of year it was, to the Great Hall.

To find it full.

Not of people, but of lights, of tables, of decorations. Of sounds and music. Of cheer, and of presents stacked up across the head table. Around which the other four students were sat, wearing the biggest grins Scorpius had ever seen on their faces.

Well, Methuselah Jones wore a smirk, but it was still the biggest smile Scorpius had ever seen from him.

Albus roared with laughter at the stunned look on his face, and bounded to his feet. 'Don't look like that!' he called across the hall, waving for him to come over. 'You really thought we were going to do nothing?'

'I- I thought - yes!' Scorpius' mouth worked helplessly as he stumbled across the huge hall to where his friends were sat. 'I didn't see anything coming in by owl!'

'That would be because we were sneaky and made sure we got everything out before you spotted it,' said Selena, and leaned over to Rose for the two girls to clink their tankards of butterbeer together in smug celebration.

Scorpius rounded on Methuselah, who wore a paper hat at a jaunty angle. 'You - you were distracting me.'

'Traditional diversionary tactic. Most effective. Works best if subject is buttered up by being told only they can help with matter at hand. Ego blinds suspicion.'

Scorpius narrowed his eyes at him, before his gaze swept around to Albus. 'Why did you keep this from me? Not that I'm complaining at the surprise. But you four all knew. Why does this surprise me?'

Albus looked a bit sheepish. 'Well. Ah. That one's best explained by Rose. It was her idea.' He gestured over.

Rose stood, brushing down the ridiculously oversized Weasley jumper she wore, same as Albus. Scorpius suspected their existence was a Christmas obligation which no cursed plague dragged from the depths of hell could expunge. 'We forgot your birthday,' she said by way of starting.

Scorpius winced. 'Not really. I was being a jackass. Didn't expect everything to stop for -'

'But you're seventeen and we all let it pass us by. I didn't know and Albus was caught up in things and you were moody - we didn't know if you'd...' Rose stopped herself, seeming to know the justifications were no good. 'I didn't know until Lockett told me.'

'Lockett?'

'She said you corrected her on your age a few weeks ago. I'd gone up to ask her opinion on some papers and she didn't seem to care about the research but she pointed out your birthday went unnoticed. So I thought we should do something about it. So...' Rose's voice trailed off and she gestured to one end of the table, upon which the presents were heaped highest.

Scorpius looked bewildered. 'That's my pile?'

'I told Mum,' Rose admitted. 'And she told - well. I think she let slip to people when your birthday had been. And so all this.'

'I really don't follow.'

'They've been sent by people's parents, mate,' said Albus gently. 'Half of Britain splashed out because giving us trinkets is about all they can do to help. But the lion's share of attention fell on you. Seeing as it was your seventeenth. But most of all, seeing as how you did the letters. And the radio show.'

'That was only for a few weeks -'

'But it was a few weeks where scared families heard directly from their children. You don't know - apparently none of us have any idea - how much that made a difference. How much hope it gave people.' Rose wrung her hands together. 'So people wanted to do something. For all of us in general but really, Scorpius, for you in particular. To say thank you.'

Scorpius worked his jaw gormlessly as he boggled at the pile. 'But I - I just talked to people, all of you did the work, with the potions and the ritual and the wards and the House Elves!'

'I think people liked the sob story of your seventeenth going unnoticed,' said Selena. 'Also, I'm really hungry, so if you could get over the inferiority complex and just enjoy being celebrated for once, then you'll feel a lot better and I'll have some turkey.'

Rose flapped a hand at her then turned to Scorpius. 'People just wanted to say thank you.'

He peered at her. 'Because you told them.'

Her lips thinned. 'I didn't think it was fair.'

Albus stepped up next to Scorpius and clapped him on the shoulder. 'Sit down and enjoy it, mate. With everything horrid that's been going on, I reckon we can do with one decent day of just having a good time.'

'Don't look a gift horse in the mouth,' Selena agreed. 'Also, still hungry.'

'Then let's eat,' said Scorpius. 'And I'll pick at the presents. I don't want you all staring at me while I get through this.' He hesitated, looking from what he'd realised was his pile to the other four, smaller ones. 'I didn't get any of you anything. I thought we weren't making a fuss this year.'

'Don't worry, Malfoy,' said Selena. 'Your humour is a gift which keeps on giving.' She smirked at him and he had to laugh, and then they all sat down for what was positively the strangest Christmas dinner Scorpius had ever had.

And the best.

Parents and families had been generous. Everyone had a bit of something, but most of what Scorpius’ were the kind of generic gifts which would have suited most seventeen year-olds. He didn't think he'd be running out of ties, or cuff-links, or other such knick-knacks in his lifetime at this rate. But it was the notes he found himself valuing and putting to one side; even if the tags were from people he'd never met in his life whose children he couldn't even remember, each and every one had at least the words "thank you" inside. He couldn't bring himself to put them in a pile of refuse to be removed.

He was bewildered to find one which was simply tagged, "N.L.", not putting two and two together until he'd tugged off the wrapping paper to find himself holding the familiar sight of a worn, old Quaffle.

Albus looked over. 'Who's that from?'

Scorpius turned it over in his hands before it clicked. 'Professor Lockett,' he said in a dull, stunned voice.

Selena arched an eyebrow. 'Wow. She makes an effort. It's like she learned you like Quidditch and this was what she thought you'd desperately want.'

'This isn't just a Quaffle. I know what this is.' Scorpius' jaw dropped. 'This is the Quaffle from the 2004 European Cup final between Puddlemere United and the Heidelberg Harriers.’

'That's a bit obscure,' Selena mused.

'It's only meant to be the greatest game played in the last century!' Scorpius exploded. 'It went on for three days until Puddlemere’s Harper got the Snitch! They shattered a Bludger! Oliver Wood broke his left arm and kept playing for another three hours without telling anyone before someone noticed and he was substituted!'

'How can you tell where it's from?' said Rose.

'Because it's been signed by both teams - it should have gone to the Man of the Match, how on Earth did Lockett get her hands on this?' Scorpius turned the worn Quaffle over, fingers tracing the names of Quidditch legends. 'This is priceless - literally, nobody would sell this.'

'Well, we knew there were all those rumours about Lockett having ties to the black market,' Selena mused. 'It's just a ball.'

'It's unique!' But, aware he couldn't goggle at the Quaffle all day, Scorpius put it reverently to one side and carried on going through the gifts.

He realised that Albus and Rose had carefully organised the pile to leave the more personal at the bottom by the time he came across a six foot-long, narrow, wrapped package, and spotted the tag saying it was from the Weasleys and the Potters. He narrowed his eyes. 'This better not be what I think it is,' he warned.

'Guess you'd better just open it,' said Albus with a smirk.

Heart in his mouth, Scorpius did. And swore when he saw what was inside. 'Are you all crazy? I can't accept this.'

'Apparently, you can,' mused Rose. 'When Dad heard you'd lost your last broom to an Acromantula pit he went spare.'

'Almost lose his daughter, get congratulated. Actually lose a broom, disaster,' said Selena.

'It's the new Nimbus Starfall model,' said Albus, leaning over excitedly.

'I can see that,' said Scorpius, voice numb. He traced his fingertips across the broom model's name, stylishly engraved along the handle. 'It's the newest broom. The one that's not out yet.'

'It's out for you when Mum gets in touch with the manufacturers and explains the situation,' said Albus, beaming. 'They were only too happy to help.'

'This - this is -' Scorpius stood suddenly, cheeks hot. 'This is insane. I can't accept all of this, it's ridiculous. And what about all of you, you're -'

'Suffering, yes. But firstly, it's your name people will have heard, your name on the radio, the letters,' said Selena. 'Secondly, you look like you could do with a break. Thirdly, we've been perfectly well taken care of.' She lifted an envelope aloft. 'A full wardrobe from Madam Malkin's, paid for up-front. When this is over, Weasley and me are going shopping.' She beamed.

'Mum and Dad - and I'm sure Uncle Harry and Aunt Ginny, too - just wanted to say thank you, Malfoy,' said Rose earnestly. 'Though Hugo's probably going to spit teeth when he wakes up and finds out, you'll have a better broom than him.'

But she was giving him a look he didn't like, a knowing, piercing one, like pieces were falling into place. So he forced a cheery smile, sat down, and was relieved when Albus pushed the next present into his hands, something soft and squishy, and this time he was too rattled to check the tag before he pulled off the paper. Before he knew it, then, he was holding in his hands something voluminous, green, and knitted.

He didn't know if he wanted to cheer or vomit when he realised what it was. 'A jumper?'

'Gran insisted,' said Albus happily. 'Go on, put it on.'

Scorpius did so, and felt a fraud. 'Well, that's about it, then,' he said, and realised that all of the presents were gone, but left under the pile was a small bundle of letters. The one at the top was sealed with wax, addressed to him in a familiar hand with green ink. Recognising any thick letter from his father, he was immediately grateful for the jumper as he grabbed the bundle and shoved it under his top, out of sight of the others - out of mind. He thought he spotted Albus glance over suspiciously, but diverted this by leaning over. 'So. We eat?'

Selena waved a sprout impaled on her fork. 'Way ahead of you, Malfoy.'

Dinner passed in something of a haze. It looked like the House Elves had out-done themselves thanks to, she said proudly, a little buttering up of Harley by Selena. Glazed turkey, pigs wrapped in blankets, potatoes - creamily mashed and crunchily roasted - there was no little luxury that had been passed on, the feast all the more sumptuous that it had been cooked for four, not produced for hundreds of children.

And it all tasted like ash in Scorpius' mouth. His definition of ‘best’ Christmas was certainly skewed.

He made a show of enjoying it. Laughed at Albus' jokes and then, when his friend was giving him curious looks, poked fun at Selena to make it look more normal. Bantered with an unwitting Methuselah who didn't get the banter, talked exuberantly about the things he'd do with his broom once they were out, once the weather was better. And didn't once look at Rose, because he could feel her piercing gaze upon him, stabbing straight through his mask, and knew that if he looked at her it would implode entirely.

It was only hours later, when they were all groaning from good food and enjoying this brief respite from the strife they were trapped in, that Scorpius dared stretch and feign a yawn. 'I'm going to have a nap,' he said. 'All of this good food's downright exhausting.'

Albus grinned and nodded. His worried, suspicious air had faded, and Scorpius felt a new stab of guilt at this. When had he become so adept at lying to his best friend? When had he needed to practice? But he knew the answer, of course. He'd always had to lie, sometimes with more success than others, when it came to the subject of his father. It was just the only way to survive.

So he left without fuss, keeping the bundle of letters pinned by his side under the jumper with his elbow, and tried to not run out of the Hall. It was a fight he lost by the time he made it to the stairs, out of sight of anyone but his own demons, and he fair sprinted up the steps, down the corridor, around the corners and winding passageways until he made it to his bedroom, and he slammed the door shut behind him.

His heart was pounding in his chest, breathing ragged, sweat breaking out across his brow, all as if he'd run a marathon instead of for a few scant minutes. He pulled out the pile of letters and threw them down on the bed before yanking off the jumper, the Weasley jumper, and that, too, was tossed away to the far side of the room.

Then, despite all of his instincts telling him to not bother, he picked up the first letter on the pile, slid into a bundle on the floor by the foot of his bed, and cracked it open to read what his father had to say to him on Christmas Day.

He didn't know how long he was there. Didn't know how long he spent reading the words, staring at them, letting them burn into his mind along with everything else Draco Malfoy had ever said to him. But he did know that by the time he was tossing it sheet by sheet into the roaring flames he'd stoked up in the fireplace, someone was knocking on the door to his bedroom.

At first he ignored it, staring at the flames as they made the paper curl, blacken, disappear. Then the knocking became a hammering, too insistent for him to ignore, and there was a shouting from the other side of the door. 'Scorpius? Come on, I know you're in there, Harley told me.'

It was Rose, and his expression twisted. 'I'm napping,' he called out sharply.

There was a long pause. 'You're very vocal when you nap.'

He got to his feet, scowling still, and stalked over to the door to yank it open. 'That was a clue,' he told her bewildered, worried face. 'It was subtle, so it might have flown over your head. The message, in case you didn't get the message, seeing as my entirely transparent lie was discreet, was that I wanted to be left alone.'

Rose drew a deep breath, and again he hated her as her eyes roved over every inch of his face, intent, evaluating, before she said, 'You shouldn't be left alone.'

'Aren't I the best judge of that? And why not?'

'Because the more gifts you were given, the more you looked like you wanted to kill yourself and that's not normal.' She exhaled slowly. 'I was worried.'

'Worried about what?'

'Worried about how you're feeling -'

'I'm feeling terrible - see, this girl screwed me around to save the feelings of her jackass of a boyfriend, and -'

'Scorpius...'

'...and suddenly the wizarding world wants to treat me as some sort of patron saint of poorly children even though I've done nothing, nothing deserving adulation and definitely nothing more important than all of you have done, even though I'm a useless, selfish fool -'

Rose's brow furrowed. 'Nobody thinks that.'

'My father does!' The words spilt out before he could stop them, hurt and indignant, and his expression sank the moment he realised what he'd said. Scorpius gestured wildly, as if he could grab the sentence and stuff it back behind the sofa, but to no avail. 'I mean. He thinks that - sometimes, like - it's not a big deal -'

But there was no fib he could tell to sound nonchalant, to make this not sound horrific, and so the energy sagged from him as he saw the look of pity on her face. He didn't resist as she planted a hand on his chest and pushed him back into his room, the door closing behind them, and then he was unpleasantly reminded of how things had gone the last time she'd been in his bedroom.

'What makes you think,' said Rose once they were in the gloom together, the only light coming from the crackling fire, 'that your father believes this?'

Wordlessly he pulled away from her to pluck up the last of the pages from his father's letter, the one he'd not yet burned, and wordlessly he handed it over to her. An hour before, a minute before, doing so would have been the most impossible thing in the world to imagine, but it was too late now. The pity had set in, and all he could do was rush through this to the time she walked out in disgust.

Rose took the page and read quickly, eyes flickering over the immaculately-penned words - and her jaw dropped. 'This is insane.'

'No,' said Scorpius, shoving his hands in his pockets and turning to the fire. 'That's Draco Malfoy.'

'"You are to stop your childish showing off for the wizarding world and pathetic pursuit of the acclaim which comes from the approval of the Potter clan -"' Rose cut herself off, jaw working silently as she goggled. 'That's - that's -'

'Not the first time he's said that. A radio show, apparently, was beneath a Malfoy.' He peered about the room. Suddenly he understood Lockett's fondness for drink. 'He also wants me to take up the Ministry on their offer for a quarantined re-homing somewhere other than Hogwarts. Just me, you understand. He doesn't really care if the rest of you leave.'

She again had to pick up her jaw. 'And this is all he gives you on Christmas Day? A letter of abuse?'

'Better than abuse in person; this really is the best Christmas ever.' He shrugged, glowering at the flickering flames of the fireplace. 'And, no, it's not all. There's a holiday in Italy in the summer waiting me. Contingent on my accepting the Ministry offer, of course. Anything else is being selfish. Selfish to my family, selfish to our lineage - see, I'm more important than other kids, because they're not sole scions of an ancient line -'

'Stop it!' She'd crossed the space in between them only to stop inches away, hands half-raised, hovering uncertainly. 'Selfish - you are the furthest thing in the world from selfish, from self-aggrandising, not when it really matters -'

He rounded on her, expression creasing. 'Why did you do this today? Al said it was your idea to make the fuss of it - why?'

She flinched. 'Because I thought you needed reminding that people appreciate and care about you. Not just Al. Not just me. The whole of Britain, Scorpius. You gave them hope -'

'Which is gone, now, they can't talk to any of us and people have died -' It was easier, he remembered, to say "people" rather than name Tim; it made it seem more distant, more like something that had happened on the news than something that had happened right in front of him. Twice.

'You still did it.' Rose kept his gaze, ardent, intent. 'You did that for them and so people wanted to do something for you.'

'Don't you mean you did something to try to get back into my good books?'

'Maybe I did want to make up for things.' Her eyes flashed. 'Is that so bad?'

He waved a dismissive hand. 'It doesn't make things okay overnight -'

'I don't expect them to be okay overnight. But maybe just tonight. And you clearly needed it.' She hesitated as he glared - then pushed on. 'If people giving you presents is enough to set you to have a breakdown in your room, if you're getting letters from your father saying things most of us only hear from our worst inner demons, if you're so incapable of recognising just how much you've done for all those people, parents and students and families, then yes, clearly I did need to do this!' Her voice echoed in the small bedroom as it rose, her indignation firing her up despite the hesitation, and for the first time in weeks he saw that spark in her eye again, the spark she hadn't dared let loose when talking to him in case it drove him off.

And, blinded by it, he turned away, turned to the fire which could never burn away his father's words even if it burned away the paper they'd been written on. When he spoke, his voice was harsh, hoarse. 'I just feel like such a fraud.'

She only let her fingertips brush against his knuckles. That was it, that was all she dared do, with how volatile everything - he - had been over the last few weeks. But the feeling was still a warmth which started with a tingle on his skin and continued to flow on through him, softening the and the hardness that had set in him - how long ago? Since Tim died? No, sooner than that, much sooner than that -

He rounded back on her, anger finally stirred. 'So why aren't you gone yet?' he demanded. 'Is that it, is there just one more cruelty to deliver? Well done, you've seen me at my lowest, you saw me when Tim died, you saw me be a pissy bastard for the last two months, you've seen what my father, who knows me best, really thinks of me - this is about the time you've got your excuse, your reason, you can take one look at me and say "see you" and be out the door with no guilt...'

Like Mum was.

Rose looked startled. 'Albus never did that.'

'Al doesn't see as much as he thinks he does,' said Scorpius bitterly, angry not with his friend but himself for how much he'd hidden over the years, so desperate as he had been to make sure Albus didn't see the whole of him in case it drove him off. There had been plans, and walls, and carefully-executed distractions and problems and dramas, all to keep Albus at bay.

And then Rose had somehow burst right through them.

'He didn't see today, did he,' said Scorpius, fire fading from him. 'I put on the mask, I told the jokes, and he didn't see.'

She drew a deep breath. 'I did.'

'Yes, but I've also done a fine job of treating you like hell, haven't I? Why are you even here, Rose, I just about set you broken glass to walk over as penance for daring to not want to kick Flynn while he was down, and I...' He hesitated, running a hand through his hair to rumple it. 'You were supposed to go.'

Her eyes narrowed. 'Was that the point?'

'What?'

'I hurt you, so you drive me away and keep on driving, just to make absolutely sure I stay gone?' The light of realisation was sparking in her eyes, along with a certain dose of indignation.

He exhaled slowly. 'Not intentionally.'

'But unintentionally?' Her gaze flickered over his face, and before he knew it she'd lifted her hand, fingertips grazing along his cheekbone. He tried to not flinch. 'I'm getting there's a lot going on in here even you're not sure about...'

Scorpius suddenly felt his lips go dry. 'Rose...' Did you ever call her that to her face before? He wasn't sure.

Her fingers curled back, though she didn't pull her hand away, gaze self-conscious. 'I'm sorry.'

'No, I -' Despite himself he found his hand going to her wrist, stopping her from moving back. 'I'm just a mess right now -'

'Who isn't?' But her voice was wry. 'I'm sorry. I didn't mean to complicate things.'

'You didn't.' He sighed, closing his eyes. 'I did treat you like hell. I'm sorry. I know it wasn't easy with Hector. I know you've been struggling with Hugo ill. I know it's been tough for people who aren't me, and I didn't cut you enough slack.'

'I think I gave as good as I got on that point. And yet, I'm still here.' Her lips twitched. 'And I'll come back every time.'

He cocked his head. 'Why?'

'Because even with Phlegethon running amok you can still make my day brighter.' Rose offered a hesitant smile. 'And yet, we're both - this is messy and complicated - and I don't want to fight with you any more.'

'I don't want to fight either.' He was still holding her by the wrist, he realised, and sheepishly he let her go. 'I don't - we don't - I still - you -' Words failed him, and he scowled at his own, unusual ineloquence. 'If I kiss you it just gets complicated again.'

'Maybe not right away.' She drew her hand back slowly. 'But. Probably.'

He wanted to, and the feeling was unusual to Scorpius. Not wanting to kiss a girl - that feeling he knew well, and knew the best way to deal with it was acting on it. Not heartache, either, with that he was well-familiar. But this was an unusual mixture of the two, like there was a bruise on the part of him that wanted to kiss her which made the feeling no less sincere but certainly painful.

So he shoved his hands in his pockets and assumed the smug, teasing smile he knew and could control. 'I've never wanted to savour for later kissing a girl before, Weasley. You should feel special.'

Something flickered in her gaze - then the arch, dry look returned, though her eyes sparkled. 'You know how to make a girl feel wanted, Malfoy.'

'I do want to.' Already he'd sobered and he sighed. 'Look at us. This sounds halfway mature.' He extended his hand wryly. 'Friends again?'

She quirked an eyebrow. 'I'm not sure you could say we were friends before.'

'Oh.' He dropped his hand, mock-forlorn. Then his eyes glittered and he raised it again, smirk returning. 'Awkwardly flirting-and-fighting again?'

She laughed, and the sound loosened something in his gut, eased one of the bruises on him, and the desire to kiss her rose again, even if he knew the feeling would be right now like sticking his hand in the fire. A nice fire. But a burning one nevertheless.

'You really are a good guy, Scorpius.' And he realised just how much he'd burn when she stepped forwards and his gut clenched with both excitement and a sudden, blinding panic - she would hurt him again, this would go wrong again, he wasn't yet sure how to relax without bringing with it all the pain he'd bunched up and was still dealing with. But instead all she did was press her lips gently against his cheek, and when she pulled back she wore a hesitant smile.

'You should come with me. The others are down in the staff room. We're just listening to the wireless, reading, hanging out...' Her gaze flickered to the rest of the room, and she didn't need to elaborate.

Better than lurking in here.

Finally, the prospect of facing the others didn't fill him with dread and guilt. 'All right.' He stepped back, then glanced around the room. 'Just let me get my jumper.'

She positively beamed as he retrieved the knitted green jumper and pulled it on, and he couldn't stop from grinning too, and it was almost, almost enough to make the sick feeling in his gut go away. And it was no failure of hers that it couldn't disperse entirely, because this was closer to being clear-headed than he'd felt in months. Or, perhaps, years.

So when she took his hand and started for the door he let her lead him out, out of the dark, gloomy room with its burning letters and into the corridor bedecked with the joys of Christmas and bathed with light.


Chapter 31: Cold as Ice
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Chapter 31: Cold as Ice



'So we have our target.' Albus tapped his wand against the translucent, three-dimensional image of the whole school produced by the security orb set into the headmaster's desk that controlled Hogwarts' protection wards. 'Over the past few weeks I've been monitoring human movement at the outskirts of the grounds and I'm confident I've now established a pattern.'

Rose scribbled something down on her notes. 'So they are still out there.'

Albus looked at the grim faces of his four classmates and seemed to decide there was no reason to lie. 'They are,' he said. 'And watching us. They have a regular patrol pattern which normally keeps them near the Forest. But it looks to me as if their intention is to come within sight of the castle at multiple points, and from the south-east it's not possible to get in sight of the castle without breaking into open ground.'

Scorpius raised an eyebrow. 'The Quidditch pitch?'

'They break cover near there, yes.' Albus moved his wand to the representation of the stands on his map. 'From the time they spend there I suspect they're casting some form of spell, probably a surveillance charm. Which would be why they come so close; the wards would repel such a charm from the outside, but I haven't yet set the wards up to completely block human access, just monitor it. So they can come inside, cast their spells, and be on their way.'

'Do they not care that we can tell they're there?' said Selena.

'They might not know,' said Rose. 'We only recently got full control of the wards. Previously all Al could do was monitor them and that was mostly for non-human interference. And we didn't know they were doing this until we actively checked.'

'It's true that I've still been coming to grips with Hogwarts' full security measures,' said Albus. 'But I've definitely found them now.'

'So,' said Methuselah. 'Alter wards. Block them out.'

'That won't help us capture one.'

Selena's gaze pinched. 'Are we still on that?'

'It's very possible,' said Albus, a little hotly. 'They come on their own, I've identified one's routine quite precisely, and with proper planning I'm sure that we can pull it off. Our training's got better... except for maybe the Patronuses...'

'Patronus.'

Albus finally scowled. 'My books call them Patronuses, Jones.'

'Your books are wrong. Common misconception. Simply because masses repeat inaccuracy does not reduce the inaccuracy -'

Rose's nose wrinkled. 'I thought the Latin would make it Patroni, actually -'

Methuselah waved a dismissive hand. 'Wizarding terminology and spells derived from off-shoot of Latin heavily influenced by Middle English -'

'Okay, so.' Scorpius clapped his hands together. 'The plan? Let's not forget we all committed to this.'

'Yes, how could we forget such madness,' muttered Selena.

'Oh. Yeah.' Albus ran a hand through his hair, then perched on the edge of the desk. 'It's a good plan. They won't see it coming.'

By the time he was done explaining, nobody had any complaints to raise. Rose looked thoughtful, Selena wore a dubious expression, but neither one of them spoke. Scorpius was the first to break the silence, giving a firm nod. 'Sounds good to me,' he said. 'When do we go?'

'Next week,' said Albus. 'I want the weather to calm down a little bit. It might work to our advantage, but... might work to his. I do have one job in the meantime. Thanks to the Marauder's Map I now have our target's name: Elijah Downing. Find out all you can about him.'

'Without, I assume, asking my mother,' said Rose.

Albus winced. 'That might get a little bit too close to what we're doing, and you know she'll do her nut, Rose.'

'I know. I don't disagree with keeping it under our hats,' said Rose. 'I was just checking if you wanted me to lie.'

'We'll stick with Hogwarts records for now.' Albus nodded, and tapped the orb with his wand to dismiss the facsimile of the school from the air in front of them. 'If that's all, then we can get back to what we were doing.'

Scorpius lingered as the other three left, watching Albus sift through the notes he'd taken, the scribbled diagrams for planning and tactics which were as intricate as any he'd put together for a Quidditch match or training session. So he made absolutely sure the footsteps of the others had echoed down the stairs and were fallen to silence before finally he spoke. 'You sure this is a good idea, mate?'

Albus made a face. 'I'd rather not get doubt from you, too, Scorp -'

'I'm not doubting so much as checking. You look like you're carrying the whole world.'

'Someone has to get through this.'

'I'm not objecting to you giving orders and making plans. I am objecting to you assuming responsibility for the lot of us. We're going along with this because it's a fine chance and it makes sense. That doesn't make this your fault if it all goes wrong.'

Albus fidgeted with his wand. 'It will,' he said, 'because it's my idea we're going along with. If it goes wrong it'll be my fault, because without me pushing this we wouldn't have done it.'

'No, we'd just sit around doing nothing and improving nothing.' Scorpius stood. 'I don't like to plan for failure, I just want to make sure you know this is something we all understand and accept.'

Albus gave a smile that didn't quite reach his eyes. 'I do get that, Scorp. But thanks for looking out for me.'

'It's my job.' Scorpius returned the smile, trying to hide his worry. 'Especially considering you didn't originally plan on doing this.'

'What?'

'The ambush and capture. You had no intention of us going toe-to-toe with a mercenary at first. You just put the idea out there to give us hope, to give us something to work towards.'

Albus narrowed his eyes at him. 'You're a canny bugger, mate, you know that?' He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. 'What can I say? Training's gone well. Really well. And I have, actually, managed to get a trace on them. I didn't think I would. It doesn't sound so mental any more.'

'It does,' said Scorpius, 'but that's okay, the best plans do.'

'I wouldn't even think about it if it weren't odds of five-to-one.'

'I know.' He nodded. 'I didn't tell you to berate you, Al. I told you to show that I know this isn't what you had in mind originally, but I'm still behind it, 'cos I trust you.'

Albus nodded, lips thinning. 'All right, mate. Thanks.' He hesitated, twisting his wand in his hands. 'You've seemed better the last few weeks. Since Christmas.'

'I've felt better.' Scorpius shoved his hands in his pockets.

'Arguing with Rose less.'

'We... made peace.'

'Fully?'

'By which you mean, "are we going out on the sly and just haven't told you yet".' Scorpius shook his head. 'No.'

Albus hesitated. 'This isn't going to be a thing, is it?'

'You mean, more than there's already been a thing -'

'I knew where I stood with the last one.'

Scorpius sighed and looked to the window. 'No,' he said again at length. 'I'm not sure what this is, but it shouldn't be a problem. We're just - would you believe that I like her, Al? And right now I am stressed and tired and yeah, maybe she does make me feel better but I don't - things are -' He stopped again as words failed him, scowling. 'I like her. So I want to be careful. And right now I don't feel careful. I feel like a broken Bludger that might shoot off in any direction. And that is getting better. But not yet.'

Albus's expression had fallen as he watched him talk, before he finally gave a slow nod. 'Even aside from everything that's gone on, Miranda really did screw you up, didn't she, mate.'

Scorpius forced a casual, one-shouldered shrug. 'That's different -'

'But you did really like her, fair threw yourself at her when you'd figured that out even halfway, and struggled a hell of a lot to get over her.'

Another shrug. 'We're just sixth years, mate. These aren't going to be the loves of our lives.'

'That doesn't mean they can't hurt.' Albus nodded. 'All right. You just take it easy, though, mate, and you know where to find me?'

'Always.'

But Scorpius extracted himself as quickly as he could, leaving the office and his friend's unhelpfully accurate questions, and hurried his way along the corridors and stairways on a route which he had trodden every day for the fortnight since Christmas. It was familiar by now, which was why he could walk the route almost with his eyes shut, and why he had little to no enthusiasm when he made it to the corridor he wanted, the door he wanted, and hammered on the wood expecting no response.

'Professor? It's your daily bugging from Malfoy.' He didn't stop knocking even as he called. She wouldn't answer. She hadn't yet. And still, each day he was going to come until one or both of them cracked, and he wasn't breaking yet. 'You can open up any time and I won't hold it over your head that you ignored me for so long. I'll be gracious.'

There was still nothing, and still he hammered on the door for a good few moments more - though the only motion from the rest of the corridor came from a couple rooms down as Harley let himself out of Professor Sprout's room, and eyeballed him dubiously.

'Still at it, Malfoy?'

'Still and until I get my way.' Scorpius glanced from Harley to the room of Professor Sprout, and hoped it had just been a regular checkup. He felt sorry for Sprout; she had only been supposed to be out of retirement for the one calendar year, filling in for Professor Longbottom, and was supposed to be gone from Hogwarts now the new year had come. Instead she was plagued and bound to the school.

'Until you get your way. Sounds like the sort of thing to make you stroppy, yes.'

'You could, you know. Open the door for me.'

'I could.' Harley shoved small hands in the small pockets of the small but exquisitely-tailored suit jacket. 'Or I could stab myself in the eye with my letter-opener. That's also a thing that could happen.'

'Oh. Good. So glad we had this talk, Harley. Your concern for the staff -'

'Professor Lockett left instructions as to how she was to be handled; me letting in nosey students isn't on that list.'

'Except she's shutting herself away -'

'I'm here to do a job, Malfoy. I do the job. I'm taking care of sick kids and staff and otherwise I'm conducting my duties as directed by the ranking Ministry official, whom you took great pleasure in reminding me all those months ago is Professor Lockett.'

'Even if she's -'

'Even if she's in there polka-dancing with a Niffler, it's not my place to judge or take action or let you countermand her orders.'

Scorpius scowled at the House Elf's implacable face. 'Albus said you let him into the -'

'Staff room, yes. Under unusual circumstances, with legitimate reason for concern. Since then the Professor's made it quite clear I'm not to do that again.' Harley folded his arms across his chest. 'I'm a professional. I do my job. And if I bent the rules, it wouldn't be for you, Malfoy.'

Although Harley making digs against him was not unusual, for some reason his final emphasis, like he'd been personally wronged twisted Scorpius' gut more than it normally did, and he turned sharply. 'Will you stop taking things out on me because of my name -'

'I don't, I take them out on you 'cos of your manner -'

'Which you took offence to in the first place because of my name.'

Harley cocked his head. 'First: when you originally came down to the kitchen, I didn't know who you were. I had the pleasure of that discovery later. Second: boo hoo, is the rich kid sick of getting the disadvantages instead of just the perks of reputation?'

'I don't need you to remind me of how much of an arse my father is, Harley,' Scorpius spat. 'I get the reminders myself on full-sized posters bathed in neon lights. I get that he treats House Elves, including the one we employ, like crap, like objects, because he treats everyone like an object whose sole purpose is to cater to his every whim, and like we should be grateful for the mere opportunity - including me, his son! So don't assume that I have a happy time of things, or that I'm ignorant, or that I subscribe to his own form of abusive narcissism!'

His words echoed down the corridor, and though Harley's expression didn't change very much, his eyes did widen a fraction. Scorpius realised, chest heaving with frustration, that this was the first time he'd ever overtly stated to the House Elf just how much he did dislike his father. Every previous argument had been met with bickering and defensiveness on both sides.

It took Harley a moment to reply. When he did so his voice was lower, more measured, cautious. 'And when you inevitably inherit everything your father has,' he said. 'The wealth. The leadership of the family name. His business interests, seats on various boards, all that influence. What do you actually intend to do, if you hate so much what he does with them?'

It was such a simple, obvious question that it took Scorpius aback entirely, and he worked his jaw wordlessly for long moments before stammering, 'I - I hadn't really figured on much beyond "not be like him".'

Harley considered this for a moment, hands back in his pockets. At length he nodded, pulled his small pocketwatch from his waistcoat, checked it, put it away again, before finally he began to amble down the corridor. 'Then on that day, Scorpius,' he said, voice still low and mellow, 'the day when you're your own man, not your father's son, I imagine you and I will be due another conversation.'

Scorpius gaped at him as he passed, but couldn't summon either the words to make him stop, or even the concept of what he'd say if he did. He stood in bewildered silence for a moment, watching the little House Elf trot off, before finally he turned back to the door that had been his original goal.

Just in time to see the narrow gap it had been opened by, less than half an inch, disappear as the door was slammed shut again and whoever was peeping through the space disappeared.

He swore, and kicked it. 'Professor! This is ridiculous! You can't hide in here forever!'

'I can,' came the muttered reply of Professor Lockett. 'Leave me alone, Malfoy.'

'I got your present,' he said, and felt stupid for saying it, even though this was why he'd bothered even trying to talk to her again in the first place. But there was no further reply, only silence from the Potion Mistress' chambers and so, for what felt like the hundredth time by now Scorpius sighed, shoved his hands in his pockets, and sloped back off down the corridor to leave her be with her loneliness and demons.



* *




In late January the snow wasn't going anywhere. Rose had fussed at their footprints all the way down until Methuselah had rolled his eyes, swished his wand, and swept fresh flakes onto their trail to leave it as if they had never come. But Scorpius was more bothered by the cold.

They couldn't be too close to where Albus had told them Downing would be. They were none of them experts in concealment, and the disadvantage of Downing being out in the open was that there was precious little cover in the immediate area. So they were huddled up inside one of the Quidditch stands, looking down at the long stretch of field between them and the Forbidden Forest, the area they were expecting him to arrive.

Even though they were in shelter, wooden boards provided only so much respite against the chill. Scorpius rubbed his hands together before tugging his coat further around his shoulders, and resisted the urge to stamp his feet. It would be too noisy.

Rose ceased her peering through the gaps in the wooden boards to look over to the next stairway tower up to the stands, the one in which Selena and Methuselah waited. 'They had better be paying attention.'

'As opposed to what. Snogging?'

'Pretty much.'

'Selena can't get Jones to stop paying attention to his reading long enough to give her a good seeing-to. I doubt a life-or-death situation is what'll have them tongue-wrestling.'

'She has some success.' Rose tossed her hair. 'More than she lets on to you, anyway -'

'I know they're a thing -'

'A pretty regular thing. I was just hoping life-or-death situations didn't encourage them.'

Scorpius suppressed a shiver. It wasn't all cold. 'How do you know, anyway? When did you two get chummy?'

'After I dumped Hector. We started having tea together. It's nice. We can talk girl things for once.'

Girl talk. The most dangerous thing on the planet. Scorpius did shiver this time. 'Methuselah Jones is going out with Selena Rourke. Forget Phlegethon. Forget even me and you. If you'd told me everything that was going to happen this year back in August, that is the one I would have called the most unlikely.'

'I think it's sweet.'

'He's got all the personality of a chalkboard. A plain one.'

'That's unfair, I think they're good for each other.' Rose wrinkled her nose and peered through the gap in the boards again, though this time looked down the hill. 'Though I realise I was berating them for paying too much attention to each other and not enough to being on lookout. While we weren't paying enough attention to being on lookout because we were too busy gossipping about them.'

'We've still got ten minutes.' Scorpius checked his wristwatch. 'Well. Seven.'

She looked at him, surprised. 'You don't have your pocketwatch?'

'Dad. Arsehole. Remember?'

'I know, but -' She cut herself off and shook her head. 'We should watch.'

So they did. Scorpius tried to not shiver, then wondered if he should be gallant and give his coat to Rose if it was so bitterly cold. That sounded like both something he was supposed to do, and a pretty crappy deal. He glanced at her. She looked more snug than him. His nose wrinkled, and he went back to watching.

It couldn't have been more than ten minutes, but in the still silence of wintery Hogwarts, it felt like an hour or more before finally there was a rustling from down towards the tree-line. Rose put a hand on his arm, as if he hadn't noticed, but he just gave a short nod and the two remained silent, barely daring to breathe. Another minute passed from first rustle until a figure finally, cautiously picked their way out into the open expanse of the slope up towards the Quidditch stand. They were nothing but a silhouette from here, a tall shape working their way along the snowy fields up the hill at them.

They stopped at about where Scorpius guessed they would, based off Albus' diagrams, halfway up the field. Not right up by the Quidditch stand, but finally far up the hill enough that they could get a good sight of the school beyond, and anyone looking down from the castle itself would likely find it impossible to see them against the dark shapes of the forest behind. It had to be Downing. He was a short man in a grubby overcoat, but stocky and broad-shouldered, dark hair shoulder-length and greasy, face unshaven. Further details were too hard to make out from this distance, and so Scorpius settled for continuing to wait uneasily as Downing lifted his wand and set to work.

Long moment passed. Scorpius inhaled a hissing breath through his teeth. 'C'mon, Al.'

Rose's hand touched his elbow again. 'He knows what he's doing.'

'I just wish he knew it sooner.' And just as he'd said that, everything went wrong.

If the plan had gone right, the four of them didn't need to be there at all. Albus could have handled it on his own, with just one spell. But they were sensible enough to know that it could go very wrong indeed, and if it did, then Albus would likely need backup. Which was why they were here.

They couldn't see Albus. Nobody could. That was, Scorpius supposed, the virtue of an Invisibility Cloak, the one Albus' father had gifted to him at Christmas, saying his need at Hogwarts was greater than Harry Potter's need as an Auror. So it was just from a patch of thin air some metres above Downing's head that the red sparks of a Stun flew, aimed right at the man. It was a perfect aim at Downing's back. There was no chance it would be anticipated or dodged.

So Scorpius' heart almost stopped when Albus' Stun splashed off an invisible magical barrier a foot away from Downing's back.

Rose swore. 'A perpetually-maintained Shield Spell? That's complica-'

'Fight first, admire later, Al's in trouble,' Scorpius hissed, and bolted for the doorway.

They were too far away to use spells, at least with reliability or aim. That was the virtue of Downing's position - it left him exposed but he would easily see anyone coming in time to beat a hasty getaway. If evasion was his plan over fighting, then it made more sense than cowering in cover, where an interception could lead to a fight in a confined space.

So they themselves were going to have to run across open ground to get to him.

It was a mixed blessing, then, that Downing's attention was on Albus first. He whirled around even as the Stun splashed off his Shield and already he was casting. Not a targeted blow, for the line of magic between Downing and Albus' wand was faded, but already the mercenary had anticipated he was dealing with an unseen foe - and how best to tackle this. Scorpius didn't know what the spell was that erupted from Downing's wand as he swept it across, but it came with what looked like a harsh gust of wind that caught Albus mid-air, Invisibility Cloak or no. The sweeping force was enough to knock him and his broom out of the sky, and Downing's success was signified with an eruption of snow bursting upwards around his invisible form at the impact.

The impact which was also enough to knock the cloak from his shoulders and leave him exposed and dazed on the ground.

Swearing, and not entirely aware of if he was even being followed by Rose, let alone the other two, Scorpius jerked his wand out, a Stun at the tip of his tongue. It rocketed across the field even as he sprinted to be close enough to do something, anything - but from this distance his aim was off, and the sparks splashed past Downing and Albus alike harmlessly.

But it did alert Downing to the foursome racing down the open hill at him.

Downing kicked Albus' wand out of his hand, Albus too stunned from his crash to resist, before whirling to face the slope. Magic sparked at the tip of his wand - and just as Scorpius tried to remember how to cast a Shield Spell for the first time in earnest, he heard Methuselah shout. Not a shield charm. But something else, something Scorpius recognised as vaguely like the spell he had used to sweep away their footprints. Snow was, indeed, disrupted - but instead of being swept away, a huge patch about four metres in diameter was swept up, winds from Methuselah’s wand whipping it into a roiling mass of ice and snow, before it was flung at Downing and Albus. The two of them disappeared in the whipping, miniature blizzard Methuselah had summoned, lost in the swirl of white and wind, and Scorpius had to mentally congratulate the other boy. It would block all of them, even Albus, from Downing's sight while they closed the distance.

Then the small blizzard, the cloud of frenzied snow and ice, burst outward, growing bigger, bigger, until Scorpius found himself sprinting into it. Frozen wind stung his cheeks, and he had to throw his arm in front of his face to not be blinded, staggering against the sudden resistance - but not stopping.

He was lucky he saw Downing's next spell, an arc of vicious red light, come bursting out of the blizzard surrounding them all. But he had no chance of casting a Shield and so threw himself forwards and to the side, hitting the snowy ground hard. The spell whizzed overhead and Scorpius rolled, pulling himself upright, glad he'd practised such for emergency crash landings off a broom - and carried onward. He couldn't see a thing, just white, and had to carry forwards and pray it was in the same direction as Downing.

As suddenly as he'd been blinded, he saw them. Two huge shadows in the blizzard surrounded by erupting sparks and lights as Albus and Downing threw curse and shield at one another. But Albus was losing ground, and as Scorpius pushed himself faster, Downing thudded a Stun into his gut which sent Albus collapsing onto the snow.

Instinct drove Scorpius on, not to cast a spell - but to hurl himself bodily at Downing, driving his shoulder in the mercenary's side. Downing folded around him with a grunt, and the two of them fell, landing hard on the ground.

And Scorpius realised he had no idea what to do next.

Before he knew it, Downing had planted his elbow in his chest hard enough to leave him gasping for breath - and then he was flipped onto his back, any remaining wind long gone from his lungs. Scorpius flailed desperately to bring his wand up, but then a strong hand swatted his arm to the side and that alone was enough to kill his concentration.

Downing rose to his feet like he'd been barely staggered, his wand whipping down to level in Scorpius' face. There was a moment where all Scorpius could do was blink as he felt his mind go blank, a low, dull panic swelling in his gut. This wasn't the first time he'd come face-to-face with true danger. Evading the centaurs, investigating the ritual site twice, escaping Acromantulas and entangling with Prometheus Thane - they had all been dangerous. But the danger hadn't been imminent, or he'd been under some sort of effect or, most commonly, there'd been something he could do about the danger. Even running. Right then he was helpless, fully-aware of what was happening, and about to get a spell to the face off a trained and dangerous mercenary. Suddenly Scorpius realised that cowardice wasn't about choice, it was about some base instinct in blood and bone overwhelming any of the mind's lofty ideals about bravery and screaming at the body to survive.

Magic sparked at the tip of Downing's wand - and then he stiffened and fell over as a pair of Stuns thudded into his back.

Scorpius just slumped, letting himself collapse on the snow, gasping for breath not just at the blows he'd taken, but the shaking, horrified awareness running through him at just how close he'd come to, if not death, then probably nothing remotely pleasant. Only distantly was he aware of Methuselah and Selena scrambling up to him to make sure he was all right and Downing was staying on the ground; only distantly was he aware of Albus' voice confirming he, too, was in one piece, only distantly did he register Methuselah incanting a spell and the blizzard dying around them.

Something nagged at him, though, and he wasn't sure what. He sat up.

'He's down, I've got him secure - make that bloody snow stop it, Jones,' said Albus, sounding unusually terse. He was hunkered over Downing, already getting him magically bound and gagged.

'You could say thank you,' said Selena archly as Methuselah concentrated and waved his wand to make sure the last of the buffeting breezes and snowflakes stopped. 'For both the snow stopping you getting blasted and us two, you know, actually being the ones to take him down.'

Albus sighed, though didn't take his hands off the Stunned mercenary. 'You're right. Thank you.' He glanced at Scorpius. 'You all right, mate?'

'Battered. I'm fine, though.' Another niggle, but Scorpius was stood before he glanced at them - Albus securing Downing, Methuselah finishing off his incantation, Selena giving him a scrutinising look - and realised what it was. 'Where's...'

Rose.

The moment he looked around, the moment he could think through the adrenaline and panic that was ruling all of them, narrowing all of their vision to just their immediate surroundings - the moment the blinkers were raised, he saw her. And it was like his blood had frozen colder than the snows around him.

He ran. Back the way he'd come, back up the hill. Back up to where she'd fallen, hit by the spell that had been aimed at him, the one he'd dodged out of the way of. The one which had hit her in the gut but hadn't stunned her.

The one which had left her a crumpled, unmoving bundle in the snow and a slowly growing pool of her own blood.

----------------


A/N: So! As ever, kind words to all the readers who've stuck with this story, especially through its little hiatus. Thus it is only right I reward you all with the good news: Ignite is finished. It is 37 chapters. There is still plenty of go here until the end, but it will only need uploading, and not writing!

Thus it's non-stop from here to the end, folks!


Chapter 32: Hot Blooded


'How did he see my spell coming -'

'Just hold on, okay, if you hold on you'll be -'

'Why didn't we see her? Why didn't we see her?'

'It's not possible, he shouldn't have been able to -'

'Stop!' Methuselah Jones almost never raised his voice. That he did, if only for one word, was enough to stun the other three into silence. He pointed to the door to the Infirmary. 'Malfoy. Potter. Out. Now.'

Scorpius was hovering next to where he'd laid Rose down on the first bed they'd got to, and his jaw dropped. 'Like hell I'm going -'

'Need to work. Dittany, healing salves, bandages, clotting solutions. Selena knows where they are. You two do not.'

Scorpius straightened. 'I'm not going anywhere.'

Albus stepped up beside him and planted a hand on his shoulder. 'Scorp, we should let them work.'

'She's -'

'In good hands. Come on.' But there was something very tense about Albus' voice, more tense than Scorpius had ever heard it before, and it was clear there'd be no tolerance for anything less than his complete cooperation. Nevertheless, Scorpius had to be nearly dragged from the Infirmary, Methuselah and Selena already swinging into frantic action around the prone form of Rose.

She was so pale. So, so pale.

Albus slammed the doors to the Infirmary shut once they were out and stood for a moment facing them, his back to Scorpius. Then his shoulders squared and when he turned, his gaze was thunderous. 'We're going to talk to Downing.'

This time, Scorpius had to hurry to keep up as Albus stormed down the corridor, headed for the stairs. 'Where did Harley take him?' Scorpius asked. The House Elves had been called the moment they'd made it back to the castle grounds, taking the bundled form of Downing off their hands while they focused on Rose. Scorpius was trying to not look down at himself, at the padded Quidditch gear under his coat, because he knew it would be stained with blood. Her blood.

What was it with him and getting other people's blood all over himself?

'The dungeons,' Albus said, fists clenched. 'Jones might be right, he can do more for Rose than either of us, but we can get what we went out for in the first place, why she risked herself in the first place.'

Scorpius nodded, jaw setting. 'This bastard better know something. And if he does, he'd better talk.'

'He will,' Albus promised. 'Oh, he will.'

The two of them marched down the corridors and stairways in a stiff silence. Scorpius tried to focus on his breathing, on walking straight, on whatever awaited them ahead with Downing. Not on how small and frail Rose had felt in his arms as he'd carried her up to the castle while Albus fairly dragged Downing, how light she'd been, how shallow her breath.

Nobody else is dying. And yet that was out of his hands. Downing, perhaps, was not.

Harley was outside the dungeon chamber he'd picked, the door locked and solidly bolted. He stood straight, tall for a House Elf, arms folded across his chest as he waited, and his gaze for once was serious as he looked down the corridor at their approach. 'How is she?'

'Jones is taking care of her,' said Albus.

Harley nodded. 'Should we alert the Professor?'

'There's no potion to fix this,' sneered Scorpius, 'and she's probably drunk.'

'Rose is in good hands,' said Albus, and turned to the door. 'How's he been?'

'Silent. That'd be on account of how he's gagged,' said Harley, jerking his head. 'Trussed up on a chair. Doesn't seem perturbed. Yet.'

Albus' expression twisted. 'He will be.'

Harley faltered. 'What're you planning on doing?'

'Talking to him. Do you have a problem with that, after what he did to Rose?'

The House Elf bristled. 'That girl is Hermione Granger's daughter. Don't you imply I don't care.' It was the most overt admission, Scorpius realised, he'd ever heard Harley make that he valued a human, any human's wellbeing for any reason but absent-minded pragmatism. The shot of concern running through Harley's voice, the voice of this House Elf who had been so dismissive at the care-taking of the magical children of Hogwarts, was genuine.

'Then don't get in my way,' said Albus, and Scorpius felt a chill run down his spine. Albus opened the door and they all stepped into the dungeon.

These rooms were old. They dated back to the first construction of Hogwarts, not as a school but as a castle, where such rooms had been invaluable for storage. The storage had not always been of goods. Over time, any prisons had been converted for the castle's more general use, though greater sophistication on the part of magical storage meant real space was less necessary, and so over the centuries the rooms had fallen completely out of disuse. It was telling that Harley had picked what looked like the gloomiest, dankest chamber he could find in the whole castle to throw Downing into.

The chair had been conjured up from elsewhere, and was the only furniture in the room. Downing was tied to it, bound ankle and wrist and elbow and knee to the legs, the armrest, bound to the back. A filthy rag had been shoved in his mouth as a gag, the man trussed up beyond all struggling, muffled beyond all speaking. And yet he did not move. He was alive and awake, for certain; dark eyes glinted in their direction as they walked into the gloomy chamber, but his expression remained set. His were sharp, pointed features, his face narrow, but despite his desperate situation there was nothing in his gaze which implied anything other than perfect control.

He was tied up and at their mercy but, closing the door behind him, Scorpius couldn't help but feel like the teenager facing off against a hardened mercenary that he was.

If Albus felt at all the same, he didn't show it as he strode up to Downing and yanked the gag from his mouth. 'We know who you are,' he said, voice low and flat. 'We know your name's Elijah Downing, we know you work for Prometheus Thane. We know what Phlegethon is and we know you helped unleash it on Hogwarts. You are here and at our mercy. Nobody is getting into or out of this castle without our say-so. As such, getting into or our of this cell is completely out of the question. So, tell me: why have your people all been watching Hogwarts still?'

Elijah Downing sat there, dark eyes locked on Albus, and didn't say a word.

Albus' expression twitched. 'It will go a lot easier if you talk. Or you can wait this out from inside a cell guarded by Aurors.'

And nothing.

A still silence filled the room as Albus straightened and folded his arms across his chest. If he was getting half as flustered as Scorpius felt, he was doing a good job of hiding it. 'I know who you are. You attended Hogwarts fifteen years ago. Your parents were two Muggle-borns. And then you disappeared off the map shortly after graduating. The only other record of you came up four years ago when your name was connected with dark potion trafficking in Hong Kong.' They had Selena's mother to thank for that last tidbit. Selena had taken the path of it being better to beg forgiveness than ask permission and this factoid of Downing's life had been found. All else she'd said was that her mother wasn't going to ask too many questions. Scorpius anticipated cat-fights up and down the Ministry between Selena's mother and Rose's mother if this ever came out.

But even as Albus spoke, Downing kept his cold, unblinking gaze fixed on him and didn't say a word.

This isn't going to work. The thought was like ice down Scorpius' spine. This man's a professional, we're a pair of kids and a House Elf...

In a blur Albus lunged forwards and grabbed Downing by the front of his jacket, shoving him back to balance on the back legs of his chair. Then he planted his fist in the man's nose. 'Do you think I'm fucking around?' Albus hollered, face red, voice deafening as it echoed about the small chamber. Blood was already streaming from Downing's mangled face, the man's head rocking back hard. 'You near enough cleaved my cousin in half; do you think I'm just going to let you play silent?'

'Al!' Scorpius bounded forwards to grab Albus by his right arm, yanking him back and away from Downing. For a moment he didn't budge, too big, too solid, too angry, but then he staggered away and Downing's chair crashed back onto all four legs, the mercenary's head lolling forwards with a spray of blood.

It took Scorpius a moment to realise Albus hadn't given up, but, rather, Harley had lunged for his other side to help drag him back, and with the strength born of magic they began to haul him to the door.

'Potter! Stand down!' Harley yelled, and Albus did subside, if only enough to let himself be bundled back into the corridor. Scorpius slammed the door shut behind them, but thought he caught a glimpse, as he looked into the room, of Downing smiling a bloodied smile.

He knows exactly how little a threat we are.

Albus rounded on them the moment Scorpius turned back, and he found himself almost backing up against the door. 'Why did you stop me?' he barked. 'That just undermined any credibility -'

Then Harley had stepped up, dark eyes blazing, and jabbed a finger into Albus' midriff. 'You don't have a clue what you're doing, Potter; don't talk about an interrogator's credibility like it's something you understand, like it's what mattered in there!' Despite that he was less than half Albus' height, somehow his presence had been enough to let him interrupt.

But not to stop Albus. 'I have to get answers out of him and if he's just going to stare at me with those angry eyes -'

'Then you should know you are completely out of your depth with this!' Harley said. 'This is something real. This is a mercenary. Stop playing action hero Auror, you are not your father - and even if you were, your father wouldn't be brutalising a helpless prisoner!'

'I punched him in the face -'

'And if he didn't talk, then what were you going to do?'

Albus scowled. 'I knew what I was doing -'

Scorpius stepped forwards, lifting his hands. 'You lost control, mate, I've never seen you like that before -'

'Yes, I had to change the plan a bit!' Albus shouted, pointing a finger at the door. 'The plan changed when he slashed up Rose!'

'What was the plan, Potter?' Harley folded his arms across his chest. 'You had this scheme on how to capture one of Thane's people. What was your plan, originally, once you had him in your hands?' Albus hesitated, and the House Elf's gaze darkened. 'You didn't have a plan -'

'I have a plan now,' Albus growled.

'No. No, you don't,' said Harley. 'Because this is not some sort of thug off the streets, this is a mercenary hired for a job which has killed a child and put hundreds of people in mortal peril. He is not going to fold because you punched him in the face -'

'Then I'll do what I have to until he does fold -'

Harley lunged up in the air. His boots braced on Albus' waist, both hands grabbing the front of his jumper, and the entire thing would have looked comical were the situation not so serious, were Harley's expression not so thunderously grave. 'Never, ever, ever, not in my school, not against someone who can't defend themselves, not ever, Potter, you hear -'

Then there was a flash of magic and both of them were falling back. Albus had drawn his wand without Scorpius noticing and sent Harley flying into the opposite wall. In reflex, Harley had kicked and Albus went staggering, hitting the door, then the two of them were scrambling to gather themselves, Harley lifting a hand, Albus brandishing his wand -

'Protego!' That was Scorpius, and his Shield shimmered in the air between them as twin spells splashed off it. 'Stop! Both of you, this isn't helping!'

'We've got to get answers out of him, Scorp, explanations - and why do you care after what he did to Rose?'

'Because she wouldn't want it to go like this!' The words tore themselves past his lips before he even thought them, and once he had, he knew they were right.

Albus' expression twisted. 'Downing should have thought of that,' he snarled, 'before he almost cut her in half.' He moved to the door, watching them both. Scorpius just eyed Harley in case the House Elf was going to make another move but Harley bent over, looking winded. So Albus strode into the dungeon and slammed the door shut after him.

Harley straightened. His ears had drooped back, and he made a fuss of adjusting his shirt, his tie. His nose twitched. 'He's just locked the door magically and warded it against entry and noise.' He sounded, at last, exhausted.

'I thought you were going to go for him again,' said Scorpius.

'I didn't want to hurt him. But I will if I have to.' Harley's lips thinned. 'The boy's in trouble. He won't listen to you?'

'You just heard me try -'

'I know, I just... hoped.' Harley gave up and loosened his tie. 'If you don't think you can talk him down then I am going to bash through those wardings and put a stop to this. That kind of anger's no good for the boy. Doing that kind of thing's bad enough for him. But above all, it's wrong.'

Scorpius shivered. 'Downing wouldn't think twice about doing the same thing to us.'

Harley looked at him. 'Right and wrong aren't a case of how bad they are or how angry you are.'

'Some people deserve bad things.'

'Maybe. But this isn't about giving Downing what he deserves, this is about getting what we want and not caring what has to be done to get it. To boot, who the hell are we to decide what that man deserves? Two kids and a House Elf?' Harley jabbed a finger at the door. 'He might have come after the people in my castle, but I will kick down that door and drag Potter out here unconscious if I have to -'

'No.' Scorpius lifted a hand, something glinting in his eyes. 'I have a much, much better idea. It just...'

His voice trailed off, and Harley cocked his head. 'It just...?'

'Relies on me being persuasive.'

Despite the grim situation, Harley rolled his eyes as he shoved his little hands in his pockets. 'Oh, good,' the House Elf drawled. 'Something comforting.'


* *


Selena had brought Methuselah everything he needed, stayed as long as he was giving her instructions as he weaved his spells, poured his potions across Rose's wounds, muttered to himself about dark magic being harder to heal immediately. And then when he'd asked for space she'd gone to Madam Pheasey's desk and waited.

Thirty minutes later there was no more noise from Rose's bed, and only then, when silence had reigned for long moments, did she dare peep over in that direction. All was still. Methuselah stood at the foot of the bed, brow furrowed, hands hanging by his side, palms and fingers and the rolled-up sleeves of his shirt still stained with blood. But he’d stopped working.

Heart in her throat, Selena padded over. Rose was now a bundle on the mattress, hair wild, skin pale, abdomen neatly bound with a bandage, and between that and the shallow rise and fall of her chest, Selena dared relax a little. Her hand slipped into Methuselah's, not caring of the blood, and his fingertips twitched a reassuring response at the touch, his only sign that he'd realised she was there. 'Is she going to be all right?' Selena croaked.

'Hard to say.' Methuselah's voice was hoarse. 'Applied all I know. Stopped bleeding. Applied regenerative salves and blood rejuvenating draughts. All depends on nature of dark magic. On if healing solutions will be enough. If not, bleeding doesn't stop.'

Selena's gaze landed on the bandages. 'Those look clean.'

'Surface bleeding easily contended with. Magical spells easily applied. Internal bleeding the concern.'

'And if that doesn't stop?'

'She dies.'

Silence reigned for long moments more, before Methuselah drew another, sharp breath. 'I'm not the best at this.' He jerked his head forwards. 'This. Healing.'

'You're more than good enough.'

He gave her a wry, sideways glance. 'Not qualified to make that assessment.'

She met his gaze, eyes wide, scared, but honest. 'I believe in you.'

His lips twisted sadly, and he looked back to Rose's body to assess, to observe, to wait, and all he said was simply, 'Faith doesn't heal.'


* *


Albus stared at Downing for over ten minutes of silence before he finally stepped forwards. And that's when the man spoke.

'Look, boy. You're the Potter son, ain't you?' His voice was rough, uncultured, and by all expectations at odds with the supreme confidence with which he spoke - just as that confidence was at odds with how thoroughly trussed up he was. 'Must be a bright lad -'

'Don't patronise me.'

Downing paused, dark eyes assessing. 'All right,' he said at last. 'I'll put it blunt, then. There ain't no way my mates ain't gonna come get me out of 'ere. There ain't no way you're gonna be makin' me talk. I spent time in a Mongolian prison. Hogwarts is almost literal'y a fuckin' picnic in comparison, you get what I'm sayin'?'

'You know about Phlegethon. Your people have to have a cure, you've risked being exposed. That's all I want,' said Albus. 'You can go once I have it.'

'Except, you're bluffin'. You ain't got no intentions of lettin' me go. You want me to sing an' then you want me in a cell.' Downing blew out his cheeks as he exhaled. Blood was encrusting down the front of his face from where his nose had streamed. 'That ain't bargainin'.'

'The way I see it,' said Albus, 'you're not in much of a position to bargain.'

Downing leaned forwards a little. 'All I got to do is wait. You got time, Potter? Do the kids?'

Albus was across the cell in a heartbeat, planting his foot on the corner of Downing's chair and kicking it over backwards, sending him to the floor with a crash. As Downing hit the stones, stunned, Albus brandished his wand in his face.

'You think I won't hurt you? You've harmed this school, endangered my family, my little sister, almost killed my cousin! You think I won't?' he thundered, face red.

'Then why ain't you done it yet? You ain't got the stones -'

It wasn't a strictly conscious spell that Albus cast. He knew his wand was moving and let it, knew a spell was rising to the forefront of his mind and let it. The bone-breaking hex thudded into Downing's right elbow with a sickening crunch and, despite his bravado, the man gave a yell of pain.

Which, after the first few, shocked seconds, he turned into a bark of laughter. 'Thank you for the clean break!' he howled. 'It'll mend up right better than my left knee did after Peru!'

Then Albus wasn't conscious of what he was doing. 'If you think this is funny,' he hissed, wand snapping down -

And the door came bursting inward off its hinges.

Both Downing and Albus looked over in surprise through the ferocious dust kicked up to see the diminutive figure of Foreman Harley stood in the doorway, brushing off his hands.

'I'll have to fix that, later,' he said, sauntering in, and straightened his jacket. 'Nobody will say, "Thank you, Harley, for breaking through ancient oak and some truly powerful magical wardings". They won't say, "Thank you, Harley, for stopping an injustice in action without laying a finger or spell on a person". They'll say, "Harley, go get the hammer".'

Albus' expression tensed. 'Harley, we talked about this -'

And then Professor Lockett walked in. 'Harley, go get the hammer.'

Albus looked down at himself. At his wand, at Downing, whose breathing, despite his bravado, had gone ragged through the pain of his broken arm. He straightened slowly. 'Professor. What're you -'

'Scorpius and Harley fetched me,' she said, and Scorpius popped his head self-consciously around the doorway. 'Once they explained the situation, I had to act.' She looked not much less of a state than ever before. Her heavy over-robe had clearly been thrown on in a hurry, hair still wild, face still smudged, eyes still tired. But nevertheless she was looking at him with a gaze which would brook no insubordination.

He felt it anyway. 'Now you come in to act -?'

'We'll discuss me,' said Lockett, sweeping past him and over to Downing, 'and even you, later. For the moment, we have this reprobate to deal with.'

'Oh, it's the potions teacher,' said Downing, rolling his eyes. 'I'm bloody quakin'.'

'I don't intend to scare you. Get him upright, Potter,' said Lockett, and Albus moved to do so despite himself, hauling Downing's chair back onto its four legs. Behind him, Harley and Scorpius had slunk to places on either side of the doorway, both looking tired, subdued. 'You really should have come spoken to me sooner,' she continued, almost absentmindedly, as she fished about the pouches at her belts. 'I know I might have been locked in my room but there are some problems for which potions are very good.'

Albus grimaced. 'I'm not sure a potion will fix this -'

'Because your aunt has done such an excellent job of limiting what can and can't be used. The restrictions on this little gem have been positively ridiculous.' Triumphantly, Lockett pulled a narrow vial from a pouch. 'Even your father can't use this without so much paperwork and burden of proof that it's barely even worth it. Once upon a time, this was even used on schoolchildren, if you can imagine that. But no.' She sighed. 'That'd invade our privacy.'

Downing looked sick.

'What is it?' Albus asked reluctantly.

'Simple. Veritaserum. One dose of this and he will be compelled to tell the truth.' Lockett gave a thin, superior smile. 'Its usage is very uncommon. Its brewing barely less rare. If it'll appease your sense of "Do what needs to be done", Potter, know that it's not legal for me to possess this, much less brew it.' She looked at Downing. 'Now, this will get briefly unpleasant, because he's not going to want to drink this. Does this meet with your approval, Mister Harley?'

Harley seemed to swell at the address, though his gaze was troubled. 'I'm trusting you, Professor.'

'This will be no more than discomfiting and if I ask questions which do not meet your approval, I invite you to report this entire incident to Hermione Granger. I assure you, she'll both listen to you and have my guts for garters. Now.' Lockett looked at Albus, and her voice actually went gentle. 'I would be grateful if you could hold him still.'

It wasn't as bad as Albus was afraid it would be. Pinning Downing's head and shoulders saw the man squirm - but then Lockett swished her wand and he went slack, as patients did when they used the charms to feed them their potions when unconscious, and then she was tipping the vial down his throat.

'Bottoms up,' she mused with dark humour, before pulling back and putting her elixir away. 'Let's give him a moment.'

They stood in silence for a moment as Downing regained his senses, blinking owlishly, but it was Scorpius who broke the silence. 'Can't he get around this just by not answering? If he stays silent he's not lying.'

'If it were a dosage prepared by a lesser potioneer, yes,' said Lockett without pride. 'Thankfully, I am not a lesser potioneer. He’ll tell us what he absolutely believes to be the truth.'

And Downing's expression creased with fury. 'They're gonna come here,' he growled. 'An' they're gonna rip you apart.'

Lockett nodded. 'Jolly good. How many are there?'

'Six. Including me.'

'And Thane is your leader?'

'Yes.'

'Where are you camped?'

'We move around the Forest. They'll have changed to another camp by now. I wouldn't be able to find it.'

'Why are you remaining in the area?'

Downing's expression twisted, like he knew he didn't want to answer but was doing it anyway. 'To monitor Hogwarts and the progression of Phlegethon,' he reeled off mechanically. 'To observe your communications, progress against Phlegethon, an' the virus' development.'

'Why?'

Downing shrugged. 'We were told to.'

'Wonderful,' Lockett drawled. 'We get some answers and they're from a lackey. Let's go back. What is your profession?'

Downing smiled a distant, malicious smile. 'Problem solver.'

'How positively quaint. Why are you doing this?'

'I was paid to.'

'By whom?'

'Prometheus Thane.'

'Why is he doing this?'

'He was paid to.'

'Do you know who by?' Downing shook his head, and Lockett sighed. 'It's almost as if they're professionally compartmentalising their information,' she said dryly. 'Did you know Thane before this job?'

'Crossed his path in Peru. He approached me in May. Said he had a job for me if I was interested. Required high-end ritual magic, professional wandmanship, an' discipline an' patience.'

'Did you know you were committing to spending months camping out in the Forbidden Forest?'

'Yes.' Downing grimaced. 'We're very well-paid.'

'The other four. Who are they?'

Downing reeled off four names that Scorpius scribbled down quickly, and concluded with, 'other professionals in the trade. I knew some before. Didn't know others. They all knew Thane.'

'But he is doing this on someone's marching orders. What do you know about them?'

'That they're paying -'

Lockett sighed. 'Bloody potions, always have to be so specific. What do you suspect?'

Downing was silent for a moment, and Albus looked to Lockett with some concern. But she looked only calm, patient. When Downing spoke, his voice was tense, unsteady. 'Dark magic practitioner. Get impression - multiple people. Group hired Thane. Thane doesn't like them much. Thane doesn't like the job much. Thane's a professional. This operation - can't be -' He cut himself off, hissing with tension.

'What's wrong?' said Scorpius.

'I'm asking him to give us conjecture while he is compelled to tell the truth,' said Lockett, lips thinning. 'It's awkward. He doubts some of what he's saying, or he thinks multiple possibilities. He'll get there, he just needs to sift it through in his own mind.'

'This op, it ain't the be all an' end all. It's part of something,' said Downing, voice thin and reedy. 'Maybe it's an experiment, or it's a first strike, or it's a message. It's part of the whole. Not the whole itself.' He drew a ragged breath. 'These people - rich. Cold. They didn't care 'bout the dead child.'

Scorpius had gone very still. 'Did you?' he spat.

'Business is business, don't fling a virus at a child if you ain't gonna take the risk, so I told Thane, so he punched me,' Downing said, sounding like he was remembering more than responding. 'Wasn't supposed to happen, though, that weren't the plan, deaths so soon, wasn't expected.'

Lockett lifted a hand to Scorpius. 'What is Phlegethon?'

He sniffed. 'Magical virus designed to infuse wizarding body with corrupting necromantic energy an’ erode not just flesh and bone but the soul. Grossly incapacitatin’ and, at present, slow-acting.'

'How were the lot of you supposed to get cured of Phlegethon, seeing as you all, while immune, are effectively carriers?'

Downing blinked. 'Thane said we'd be cured once the job's done. No point in us being cured before then.'

'So it was something out of your hands, which would be dealt with by Thane or his employers.' Downing nodded and Lockett sighed. 'How is Phlegethon empowered?'

'It requires a sustainable source of necromantic energy to trigger initial infection.'

'Such as the ritual site?'

'Location of death of Harry Potter and destruction of Horcrux within him of Lord Voldemort,' Downing reeled off. 'Ritual harnessed latent necromantic energies in the location an’ utilised them to empower Phlegethon and project infection across immediate area of Hogwarts.'

Albus drew a hissing breath through his teeth. 'Jones was right.'

'Scorpius, pencil and paper.' Lockett snapped her fingers, and Scorpius hurried over to comply. She hunkered down in front of Downing. 'Did you conduct the ritual?'

He gave a jerky nod. 'Thane hired me partly for that. Also for wandwork.'

'Explain and describe it to me.'

He did. Most of it went over Albus' head, but not over Lockett's, and she sketched and scribbled as he ran through the different levels of enchantment, binding, and projection of the ritual which had been let loose at what they had come to think of as Ground Zero. The entire process of explanation took the better part of fifteen minutes, and when Lockett was done, she only looked troubled.

'One last series of questions,' she said. 'Do you know where the Resurrection Stone is?'

Downing lifted his head. 'Thane has it.'

'Was it a component part in the development of Phlegethon?'

His brow furrowed. 'He said it was.'

'You don't fully believe him?' Downing shook his head. 'Does he still have it?'

'Yes. I suspect -' He flinched. 'Some goal of his own. Not sure what.'

'Very good.' Lockett looked over her shoulder. 'I think we're done here. Leave him, he'll doze this off.'

Harley grimaced. 'I'll fix his nose and arm and then the door.'

She waved a dismissive hand and turned for the corridor, Albus and Scorpius following in her footsteps. She took them a good way away from the chamber with its open door before she eventually stopped, and when she did turn to face them he was struck by how utterly exhausted she looked. But there was a spark in her eye. 'He didn't tell us much new,' she said, 'but he did confirm some things I suspected, and he has given me an excellent idea.

'I know what Phlegethon is. And I know how to cure it.'


 



'Phlegethon,' she said, 'is a necromantic virus. It is very likely artificially constructed, perhaps developed off a natural affliction which might affect those living in proximity to a site of great necromantic power. It is fuelled by this latent necromantic power and infuses those humans nearby with such dark magics, afflicting their flesh and their souls.


'This, we all know. But I now know what the end point of Phlegethon is. We've all seen it. Despite how it takes months, especially without outside interference, I imagine this process could be sped up with an amplification of the necromantic power, and the consequences would be dire. Because Phlegethon is turning everyone it afflicts into an Inferius.'


Scorpius winced. 'We know this -'


'Do not misunderstand me,' said Lockett levelly. 'Of course we know it will turn those it kills into Inferi. But I'm not talking about after they're dead. What is happening to everyone in Hogwarts but us, right now, is the very slow transformation of the living into an Inferius. The magical alterations to their body and soul are what would happen to the Inferi. We did not recognise this because such a transformation normally happens after death. This transformation while they are alive is an incredibly slow process, though as I said, it could be sped-up. And the process will kill them, of course, before they rise again as Inferi.'


Methuselah pursed his lips. 'Do not see purpose,' he said. 'People can be slaughtered and raised on a massive scale more quickly. Examples abound through history of armies of Inferi raised in such a way. Why combine the process in one slow-acting plague?'


'It's possible that the prolonged infusion of necromantic energies before the final transformation will render the afflicted more powerful once they become Inferi,' said Lockett. 'But this is entering conjecture. That is what I know for a fact.'


Selena arched an eyebrow. 'Did you find these facts at the bottom of a bottle?'


Lockett straightened. 'I have been working,' she said, voice tense. 'I have continued my research all this time. I have been studying what happened to Timothy Warwick and I have been comparing the swift process he underwent to the slower processes afflicting the other infected since then.'


Methuselah frowned. 'Did not tell us? Could have lent aid -'


Lockett waved a dismissive hand. 'Those are my conclusions and I'm sure I'm right,' she said. 'And this means I have a very good idea of how we can cure Phlegethon. The bad news is what it takes.'


Albus had been sat on a chair in the corner for the entire briefing, not saying a word. Only now did he lift his pale face to look across the room at them. 'The Resurrection Stone. That's why you were asking Downing about it.'


Methuselah's frown only deepened. 'Resurrection Stone works against the dead,' he said slowly. 'And then the recovery, by legend, is incomplete, a pale shadow of the returned person -'


'Because the soul cannot be recovered. That is the great obstacle to magical resurrection. That is why it is always some haunting, horrendous process. The soul has crossed over, and the soul will not return,' said Lockett, voice briefly distant. 'But the Resurrection Stone, by all accounts, did restore the bodies of the dead.'


Scorpius blinked. 'They're being transformed into Inferi, the walking dead,' he said, surprised at himself for making the connection. 'So long as their souls haven't crossed over, you're saying that the Resurrection Stone could restore their bodies without any... side-effects?'


'Got it in one, Malfoy,' said Lockett and, despite everything, he beamed. 'So this is how we cure Phlegethon.'


'Two obstacles,' said Methuselah. 'Neither minor. First: the ritual continues to infect the area. As stated, curing Phlegethon will only lead to reinfection. Second, and more importantly: We do not have the Resurrection Stone.'


'Overcoming those obstacles is... a work in progress.' Lockett picked up some papers from the desk and passed them to Methuselah. 'This is everything Elijah Downing, who participated in the crafting of the ritual, knows about it. Including its full and genuine layout.'


Something sparked in Methuselah's gaze and he snatched at the papers. 'A full layout could allow me to devise how to - yes, Professor, this could be excellent -'


'And the Stone?' said Selena, looking upset at cutting off Methuselah's exuberance with cold reality.


'That one I'm working on.' Lockett's lips thinned. 'I've had the House Elves put up a sign near where you captured Downing. It's a message. I'm telling Thane I want a meeting where we can make a swap for Downing. If he agrees, there and then I'll tell him it's for the Stone. Downing says he keeps it on him.'


Scorpius frowned. 'Do you think they'll do that? I mean, if the Stone's a cure -'


'I suspect the Stone played a part in the conversion ritual. It is still intrinsically tied to the realm of the dead, and so using it to strengthen the gap between both worlds and allow a greater flow of necromantic energy would be logical. I'm not sure they know it's a cure.'


'What makes you think that?'


'If the Resurrection Stone was intended to be used as a cure, I imagine Thane would either do a better job of hiding it from his people or he'd outright tell them. Downing spoke as if he expected his employers to be the ones who'd bestow the cure. No, I think him keeping the Stone's for something else.'


Albus frowned. 'Like what?'


Lockett hesitated, drawing a sharp breath. 'Future infections.' She lifted her hands. 'I'm not saying Thane will hand it over. I'm saying he can be brought to a meeting and not only would I like to meet this man, I believe I can negotiate and then I'm not above double-crossing him.'


'Because surely he won't have also thought of that,' Selena pointed out.


'He might not even reply to this message and then we have to change our plans. But this is what we're doing.' Lockett looked at them all, and the fierceness in her gaze faded. 'I have... not been here the last few weeks. But now I have a plan and we are going to fix this.'


A brief silence met her words before Scorpius cleared his throat. 'I think it's a good idea, Professor,' he said, and that was all it took to have the others murmuring their assent. Even if they didn't believe, they would go along with it. If nothing else, their attempts to do this by themselves hadn't done them much good.


Lockett nodded, at least satisfied with this, and looked to Methuselah. 'How's Weasley?'


'Resting. Prognosis is - unclear.' His expression pinched. 'Still awaiting if her body will, with magical aids applied, reject the dark magic infused in her wound. Overnight will tell the tale.'


'You'll keep an eye on her?'


'Indeed.'


There was a pause as Lockett rubbed her eyes. 'For the love of God, I don't want to have to tell Hermione Granger in the morning that her daughter's dead.'


The cold snake that had taken residence in Scorpius' gut since he'd seen Rose flat out in the snow coiled tighter. 'Can we see her?' he asked Methuselah.


'See? Yes. Talk to? No.'


Lockett nodded. 'All right. Get some sleep, and take shifts if you're watching Weasley, nobody's staying up all night when Christ knows what response we'll get from Thane. I'll tell you all if something happens.'


That was their dismissal, and the first one of them to go was Albus, fairly tearing himself out of his chair and to the door. Scorpius hesitated, gaze going between his best friend's disappearing at and Lockett - and then his choice was clear. He lifted a hand to the Professor and moving after him.


'Al? Al!'


Albus was around the next corner and halfway down the nearest corridor before he stopped, fists clenched, big shoulders hunched. He had his back to Scorpius but even though he'd come to a halt, he didn't turn. 'Stupid... stupid!'


'It's not the best plan I ever heard,' said Scorpius, apprehensive. 'But it stands a -'


'I mean me! How arrogant was I?' He turned sharply, eyes blazing. 'Five kids against a mercenary, you all warned me -'


'I didn't. I thought it was a good plan.'


'And now Rose is -'


'Downing did that! Not you! And before you carry on, we've just learnt of a possible curefrom Downing, more information about the ritual from Downing!'


'Yeah, because of Lockett! Not because I... God...' Albus scrubbed his face with his hand.


'You didn't do anything,' said Scorpius in a low, firm voice. 'You punched him, big deal. You knocked him over. You didn't do anything more.'


'Only because you three stopped me.'


Scorpius goggled. 'Why do you think I did it, Al? Why do you think I went to Lockett? Not because I cared about Downing's bloody health! If he got eaten by a Dementor I'd fetch the bloody popcorn!' He jerked a finger in his chest with that irrational combination of frustration and concern. 'I did it because I knew you'd hate yourself when you came down from your anger.'


Albus scowled. 'Pretty much hate myself now.'


'Congratulations, Al, we've discovered you have a flaw. "Gets angry when loved ones have been hurt". Get in the queue for hell, but be ready for a long wait 'cos some people have got express tickets. So you lost it, so you're not perfect. Nobody thinks less of you.'


'I think less of me.'


'Well, I don't.' Scorpius folded his arms across his chest. 'It's still thanks to you we got Downing. So we have all this information from him. And furthermore, we were circling the drain before you suggested this plan. You gave us something to focus on, work towards. So you made some mistakes. So you're only human.'


'This was a bit more than a mistake -'


'But nothing went wrong. You know why?' Scorpius punched him on the arm. 'Because we're all in this together. We all make mistakes, we're all screwing up here and there, and the important thing is that we got each other's backs. You got us most of the way with Downing. Don't think of it as you failing at the end. Think of it as us taking up the baton for the last stretch.'


Albus drew back, expression crumpling. It seemed like the words had hit home but they were nevertheless pummelling, weakening him. 'I just can't help but think my dad would be so disappointed in me.'


'If your dad felt anything like how we feel when he was off killing Voldemort, I think he's going to understand. Besides. We don't need to tell him. We don't need to tell anyone -'


'That's dodging my responsibility -'


'Like you let Lockett dodge responsibility for hiding away when you covered for her to your aunt?'


Albus winced. 'That was different, she'd been through a lot and I didn't think any good would come of reporting her, I thought she deserved a chance to sort it out...' His voice trailed off, then his expression darkened with mock-aggravation as he heard his own argument. 'You're a manipulative sod, Malfoy.'


Scorpius gave a wan smile. 'Sometimes I use my powers for good. But I don't want to see you hurting yourself on this. Are you going to be all right?'


Albus sagged, rubbing his eyes. 'Yeah. Yeah. I'm going to get some sleep, I think, and I'll do a shift on looking in on Rosie. Are you going down there?'


'That was my next stop. Jones looks dead on his feet and I think Selena's bullying him into going to bed. So I'll wake you in a few hours?' Scorpius had no intention of doing any such thing, but he was prepared to fib to Albus' face if it meant his friend might actually get a full night's sleep.


Besides. Scorpius knew he himself wouldn't be able to sleep even if he tried. So he left Albus down in that corridor, despite his worries and misgivings, trusting that his words had hit home adequately and that his friend would perhaps, finally, be able to get some rest. And then wound his way through the school to head for the Infirmary.


Anyone who'd been resting in there after the outbreak had been moved to their own beds. It had just been easier, especially with most people stable enough to not need more regular attention and observation than what the House Elves could give. So the big room was dimly-lit, the sconces on the wall casting warm shades of fire across the walls, shadows looming across every corner.


Selena was still there, stood at the foot of the one occupied bed in the room. She was hugging herself, shoulders taut, and obviously hadn't noticed him as he padded in through the door, so focused was she on watching Rose.


Rose, who was a pale bundle under blankets now, her breathing shallow, hair a mess spread out across the pillow. Despite the colour faded from her face she looked quiet and peaceful, as if simply in a deep sleep, though the illusion was not enough to fool the man who'd carried her back to Hogwarts with her blood on his hands.


He stepped quietly up to Selena. 'How is she?'


Selena jumped, then grimaced as she steadied herself. 'Oh, Scorp... she's resting, like Methuselah said. He wants her to sleep, so he's given her a potion to make sure she does. It's all about how much she -'