Hugo hunched down low, breathing heavily under the hood of his winter cloak. He looked down again at the map in his hands, extinguished his wand, and headed into the night.
Neville Longbottom waited hesitantly outside of the entrance to the spiral staircase. He rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet, biting his lip. He loathed to think of the look on Filius's face when he confessed, in agitation, Hugo's absence from Gryffindor Tower.
But he cringed with even more fervor at the thought of confessing in further agitation his incredible moment of weakness that led Hugo to wander off into the night—that it was doubtlessly his fault, that he led the boy to positively believing there was some chance he was going to find an ancient and most-likely mythological plant in the deep and dark of the forest. Neville shook his head, shuddering, and taking a deep breath, walked up to the stone gargoyles and muttered, "Wizard Baruffio."
They regarded him stonily. Without warning one of them stood up on its hind legs and nodded, folding its paws on its belly and looking down sadly. "May he rest in peace," it said, and then gestured to the door, which slowly slid open, and Neville, trying to look somber, stepped through it and onto the rotating spiral staircase, which took him up to a great oak door.
He stood nervously, raising his hand to knock. He hesitated, grimacing, and then rapped his fingers decisively on the wood. Flitwick bade him enter, and he pushed open the door with minor difficulty and found himself facing an interesting scene—Rose Weasley and Scorpius Malfoy sitting opposite Flitwick, who was nearly too short for his chair and could hardly be seen over the top of his large oak desk. Rose and Scorpius looked mildly concerned; Neville figured that Rose was reporting after her Head Girl duties, and Scorpius was merely accompanying her, as he usually did on her rounds. With a glance in Neville's direction, Fliwick sighed and, placing the palms of his hands on the desk in front of him, he pushed himself up to their eye level.
"Thank you for the report; I'll talk to Professor Longbottom now, you may retire to your dormitories." He nodded, they nodded back (Neville hardly contained his own nod), and they rose to leave the room. As they passed him, Rose grinned brightly, chirping a "hello, Professor!" into his ear, and Scorpius offered him a respectful, closed-lipped smile. He nodded at both of them, not able to paint a smile onto his face, but they didn't seem to notice his growing horror—he supposed that it mounted inside of him but hadn't reached a level of realisation on his face.
As the door closed behind him, Neville walked quickly to Flitwick's desk, looking down at the headmaster and placing his hands flat on the surface between them, leaning forward earnestly.
"Flitwick, I have to—"
"Sit down, Neville," Flitwick said cheerily, gesturing to the seats that Rose and Scorpius had only just vacated. Neville, taken-aback at Flitwick's upbeat tone, sat down, dazed. He had only assumed that Rose had noted Hugo's absence and had reported it to Flitwick, he didn't actually know for sure...so perhaps it shouldn't have come as such a surprise to him that Flitwick didn't seem to be particularly bothered by that piece of information…But to be cheerful? Even if it was a trouble-maker like Hugo Weasley.
Rose must not have told him.
"Thank you, sir," he managed to spew after a few moments of suspicion. He looked at Flitwick out of one eye, regarding him carefully. He was beaming, his hands folded across his belly contentedly. Neville assured himself that Flitwick didn't, in fact, have knowledge of Hugo's absence. He pressed his eyes closed, took a deep breath, and spoke in a voice perhaps an octave or so higher than his casual tone:
"Sir, I have to let you know that Hugo Weasley's gone missing."
"Oh, yes, I know, Rose—his sister, you know—has just told me that in her sweep of Gryffindor tower he was nowhere to be seen." Flitwick chuckled to himself.
Neville frowned, confused and slightly suspicious. He looked at Flitwick for a long second before the headmaster seemed to realise that his tone didn't seem to coincide with the information he had just reported. "Oh, oh. Not to fear! this happens occasionally and he always makes it back relatively unscathed. We just wait till morning, figuring he's stealing food down at the kitchens." Filius nodded in a way that he must have considered to be reassuring.
"And…that's okay with you? That he's stealing food from the kitchens?" Neville asked slowly, just for the sake of clarification.
"Come on, Neville, you must know that students are constantly stealing from the house elves who live to serve them! If we made a special effort to catch one of them at it, we'd have to make a special effort to catch all of them."
Though I admire your logic, sir, as it appears quite sound, isn't that the point? To catch all criminals?
Neville waited for a moment, thinking that if he did, Flitwick might come to realise that what he had just presented in the form of a difficulty was actually the ultimate solution to most social problems—but he supposed not, sagging down in his chair, as Flitwick's staunchly bright exterior failed to waiver. He shook his head, remembering why he came.
"But—listen, Flitwick, I don't think he's just down at the kitchens tonight even if that's where he is all the other nights he goes missing. I think he's out in the Forbidden Forest looking for the Quidropopot." Neville grimaced, shrinking back in his seat.
"You mean the legendary plant whose fruit produces a ruby that contains highly magical properties and whose flesh will cure most exotic diseases?" Flitwick asked, displaying a much more extensive knowledge on the plant than Neville had expected. Surprised, Neville nodded, unable to speak.
Flitwick paused, tilting his head, and his smile faded slightly to become a distantly thoughtful expression. Neville became slightly annoyed with the tenacity of Flitwick's jocularity, which wouldn't give up even in the face of the imminent death of a student.
Flitwick spoke. "Why would Hugo go looking for a plant that he's probably never heard of?"
Neville frowned. "I'm not sure why he wants it, but I know that he's heard of it. He came to me a few days—about a week—ago and asked me what I knew about it, so I told him, suspecting nothing—" Neville cringed at the fib, and corrected himself. "Well, suspecting very little of his desire to actually find one. I mean, if he had actually read about it himself he would know that it's never been found in what is believed to be its ripened form and that the actual fruit is only accounted for in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics…" Neville shook his head, trying to come back around to his point. "Anyways, I think this girl he likes was interested in it and he thought that it would be really…cool…to find it and give the ruby to her, even though in the wrong hands that stone could work unimaginable evil—"
"It turned some wizards into gods, didn't it?" Flitwick interjected, and Neville nodded enthusiastically.
"Exactly. So it's a bad idea to find it. But this morning, Hugo asked me for a map of the Forbidden Forest. I assume that he knew that as the Herbology professor I was apt to have mapped it, labeling the plant life. I can't explain to you why I gave it to him, but it was only after I had lent it to him that I was thinking about it, and I realised that I had labeled an area near the heart of the forest where I thought that in the wintertime it could be icy enough for a fruit to fully develop." Neville finished abruptly, wringing his hands.
"So you believe that Hugo went off to find this fruit to give its gem to a girl he fancies?" Flitwick asked, and Neville nodded, slightly annoyed that after all that explanation, Flitwick had only retained that much information—motivation is a minor point of interest, practically useless. Why don't you retain the fact that I am the one who told him where the plant could be found? And that I think he's probably out in the middle of the Forest by himself in the middle of the night?
"Well, in that case, you best go find him," Flitwick said suddenly after a momentary lull. Neville nodded, getting up, not sure if that was his dismissal or if he would be dealt his punishment in another moment. Flitwick stared at him blankly for a few moments before bursting out into a particularly bright smile, waving him on his way.
Shaking his head, Neville turned and left the office, sighing deeply.
Scorpius didn't know what it was that made him say goodnight to Rose early and send her on her own back to Gryffindor tower; but despite the quizzical glance she shot back over her shoulder as she walked away, Scorpius remained where he was, shivering slightly in the drafty Entrance Hall. He watched Rose mount the main staircase into the heart of the castle, which shifted as soon as she had set foot on the fourth step. He saw, even from this distance, that she lifted her face towards the heavens and rolled her eyes.
"If it lands you on the third floor, take the shortcut through the tapestry of Cliodne's birds!" Scorpius shouted at her slowly-dissolving form, and he saw her wave to signal that she'd heard him. He shook his head, half-appreciative of and half-annoyed at the castle's mischievous antics.
After a few moments of wondering where Rose had ended up, Scorpius leaned back against the wall and looked to his right, watching the door that was the entrance to Flitwick's office. He supposed that in part the strained and nervous look on Professor Longbottom's face kept him anxious—naturally, to quell his disquiet, Scorpius would want to wait to make sure it was nothing serious. It's extremely natural, Scorpius reassured himself. After all, he and Professor Longbottom were on good terms, and occasionally held interesting conversations outside of class. It wouldn't seem too strange or out-of-the-ordinary that he was waiting to see what caused such a mildly panicked expression on a casual acquaintance's face.
But he couldn't help but wonder if it had something to do with Hugo. Scorpius didn't like to admit it, as he didn't like to assign the uncouth characteristic of impotence to any of Rose's kin, but he worried about Hugo. A boy with a seemingly unnatural ability to play and strategise in Quidditch but who lacked any self-knowledge or social adaptability outside of the pitch.
Perhaps his mind was set up for the cavemen days, Scorpius mused, where the outside tackle of a wooly mammoth alone and more than anything would ensure survival. And unfortunate Hugo, born in the wrong epoch, was unarmoured against the derisive world of postpubescent drama and culture, satisfied where the average fifteen-year-old would die of horror to be, living in a world of spit puddles and gawky, wink-peppered stares. Yes, Scorpius worried for Hugo.
He'd watched him since he was young, always wondering at the huge personality gap between him and his sister. Scorpius had seen what he believed few others acknowledged in Hugo's life: a steady decline into a state of dweebiness. At the age of eleven, entering Hogwarts, Hugo seemed every bit an equal to his peers as the next chap, but finding that his luck in studies was severely restricted to three, and only three, subjects (Muggle Studies, Quidditch, and Care of Magical Creatures, none of which were core classes), he descended into the social trap of the role of "class clown" and, finding himself particularly more useful in cracking jokes and making faces behind the teachers' backs than he was at holding a cauldron steady in the concoction of a Sleeping Draught, Hugo definitively proposed himself to society as the clueless git with the wide green eyes and curly hair who could on occasion say something that would make one chuckle. On occasion being the operative phrase, and the implicit "mostly staring and drooling" being perhaps his largest downfall besides his complete lack of self-awareness.
At that moment the oak door sprang open and Professor Longbottom shuffled out, looking dazed and mildly concerned. That edge of panic still hung about his form; his eyes, although glazed over, were plastered wide open; his shoulders slumped as if suppressed by the burden of a terribly heavy weight; his feet dragged with all the pathetic grunge of a hobo. Scorpius felt a pang of pity and quickly approached the professor, abandoning caution and immediately adopting a role of responsibility in the delivery of Professor Longbottom to his office.
"Professor Longbottom?" Scorpius asked, touching him softly on the shoulder. Longbottom turned around quickly, eyes suddenly alert and clear.
"Oh, hello, Scorpius," he said quickly, regaining clarity. "You see, I've made a terrible mistake, I've got to go after him—"
"Who, Hugo?" Scorpius asked, wondering for a fraction of a second whether or not it was coincidence that he had only just been worrying about Hugo himself. "He's probably just down at the kitchens, nicking pies." Longbottom shook his head. "But I guess that doesn't have anything to do with you, does it? Why do you think you have something to do with Hugo's nightly escapades?"
"Not every one," Longbottom qualified, shaking his head. "Merlin, no. Just tonight. I lent to him a map that I'd drawn up of the Forest—" he paused, dropping his head.
"The Forbidden Forest?" Scorpius asked. He felt an irregular heartbeat.
"Yes. It was--strange, I somehow couldn't refuse him. I thought for just a moment, 'Oh, Neville, this is a bad idea,' but I somehow talked myself into having to give him the map. He promised to return it. You know, that was the first time I've ever heard Hugo promise to do something, like he was planning ahead. I guess I was sort of impressed." He shrugged. Scorpius mirrored the movement. From Hugo, a promise was sort of impressive. Scorpius didn't know he could think that far ahead. "He was so lucid, there was such a clarity to his gaze that I handed it over, fully expecting some sane use for it, like perhaps he wanted to harvest some more cabbage for the flobberworms…"
They met each others' gaze.
"That's too practical," they said at the same time, and both began to walk towards the entrance hall with a particularly forceful gait.
"It's strange," Scorpius mused, "that just about the time I thought I was going mental, someone else went and said that they'd felt obligated by Hugo as well. He has these looks: you don't notice the drool or the bloody constant winking, and you just want to do what he asks. Or you want to answer his question. Like you know you should…"
"But it's more than that," Longbottom qualified. "It's like you know you're supposed to."
"By whose rules?" they both asked. Scorpius looked out of the corner of his eye. Professor Longbottom was looking back.
"I get the feeling that something strange is going on here," Longbottom said, and they continued in their march out to the Forest.
"Hugo, where are you?"
"You can't just go wandering into the night, you little twit!"
"Hugo Weasley, as a professor of this institution I insist that you come here this instant!"
Through all of the leaves crushing under their shoes, Neville thought that he heard a rustle in the nearby brush. He raised his eyebrows: he didn't think that one would work.
He motioned to Scorpius to stop, and they fell still, pointing their wands into the vegetation. It was moving. Neville became nervous as no head emerged, no dastardly mop of curly brown hair, no winking, wide eyes, no flared nostrils, no stupid expression, no spit-laden chin. He gulped loudly, exchanging looks with Scorpius, who now, noting the worry on Neville's face, adopted a slightly green hue. As the movement became more violent, the bush shaking and seeming to rattle, Neville heard snarls and rasps emitting from between the leaves.
That's not Hugo.
But, well…is it?
He gripped his wand in both hands, recalling a repertoire of attack spells in case some element of the situation required active participation in defending himself. He had never been particularly adept at Defense Against the Dark Arts or Charms, but as a teacher, he needed to be able to protect his students: as Scorpius (who probably knew more ways to defend himself than Neville did) was with him, he needed to step up.
"Hello?" he whispered cautiously.
A snarling ball of fur erupted from the foliage, launching itself onto Neville's head. It scratched and kicked painfully.
Neville felt his muscles stiffen slowly, so that he gradually lost all range of motion. Meanwhile, the attacking fluff continued to wreak havoc on his face.
"Oh, no, sorry, Professor," Scorpius exclaimed apologetically, "I meant to hit the cat, not you. Er… Petrificus totalus!"
Neville fell backwards onto the ground. He still couldn't move.
"Really?" Scorpius said after a moment in a tone of disbelief. Neville heard him sigh, and begin to walk in circles, presumably either thinking of another, relatively harmless spell or enjoying Neville's discomfort.
It worked. Neville felt the cool air on his smarting face (a hiss in the distance) and would have breathed in or even smiled appreciatively had he control over his movements.
"Hugo!" he heard Scorpius cry, and accompanying relief Neville suddenly felt a strange and unexpected gurgle in his chest: surprise?
"Rennervate," Hugo said, pointing his wand at Neville's rigid body. Neville felt a great warmth and sprang to his feet, dusting himself off.
"Ah, I'm so glad you came," Neville said, remembering himself after a moment. He stared at Scorpius; he was gaping at Hugo in a spell of unconfined disbelief. Neville understood through some sort of intuition, he supposed, that the surprise he had felt inexplicably just before had arisen on the occasion of it being Hugo who had ejected the cat from his head, and not Scorpius.
"How did you think of 'expelliarmus'?" Neville asked, curious.
Hugo looked at the forest floor, muttering something. He kicked some underbrush around, over his shoe. He lost his balance clearing it off, and sat on the ground, looking tired.
"What's that?" Neville asked relentlessly, sitting down too. His face was pulsating, full, he was sure, of small cuts and countless diseases from the filthy feline's claws. He, at the same time, felt just the tiniest bit of humility in Hugo's presence: it had, after all, only been a cat.
Scorpius sat down too.
"I do pay attention in class," he said, drawing runes in the dirt with a twig.
"And what, you fail them on purpose?" Scorpius asked softly. Neville could tell that it was a genuine question, coming from a concerned, older-brother figure.
Hugo pursed his lips and tilted his head, tracing the runes.
"Come back to the castle with us," Scorpius said after a while.
"It's too late for that." Hugo stared seriously at Neville and Scorpius, his large eyes bouncing between their faces. "That train has sailed."
Neville waited. A flicker of realisation. That's all it would take. Just remind me, Neville pleaded internally, that you're an actual, real, verifiable human being who interacts in culture.
The thought suddenly occurred to him in the stunned silence that he'd never had indication that that was true. He rolled his eyes and reached out to Hugo, who had either an attitude that contradicted his words or was unable to understand what a hand on the shoulder meant in this situation.
"I'm not going back with you," Hugo said in an extraordinary display of the power of prediction. "I really have to find that plant, professor. You understand?"
Neville's immediate reaction was shock: of course I don't, silly boy! But when he looked at Hugo's face, which through the slightly stupid expression retained a quality of solid determination, he had a second, different reaction that said, yes, yes. But his conscious mind couldn't pin the reason. Why did he understand?
He didn't know how to answer. He wondered what Hermione and Ron would say if they knew that he was consciously not acting in a protecting manner: Hermione, unless she could somehow grasp the larger situation that Neville sensed with a sense closer to intuition than he thought he had ever trusted, would probably be aghast, and Ron—Ron would crack some joke about it and, slapping him on the back, offer to buy him a butterbeer at the Three Broomsticks.
Although under normal circumstances he would have thought it rather awkward, Neville tried to look into Hugo's face, his eyes, catch some glimmer of understanding that would shed light onto his situation. He watched and watched. Hugo seemed strangely unperturbed: that, more than anything, more than the drool or the twitches, stuck with Neville's stomach muscle. Although he looked for something more concrete, something that he could draw in the dirt, that was it. That was the significant thing. Hugo seemed, for one lucid moment in his life, to be unwavering in his decision. Had he undertaken something worthy of such certainty?
Neville supposed that in a strange way, he had. He had had his own days of chasing after something, he thought. Of course, finding a legendary plant was very different than looking to join the Great War—but Neville related to wanting to do something important. And he could only suppose that in Hugo's small, seemingly-menial world, finding a plant that may or may not exist would be classified as important.
He suddenly wondered what it would be like to be his own son—to have grown up hearing stories of immense importance, of defeating a reign of terror, only to be birthed upon entering school into a world of trivialities and fabricated drama with no real danger of death, no threat to the whole of humanity in such an immediate and concrete form as a Voldemort. He might, Neville imagined, become tired of the comparative banality of social life at Hogwarts when his parents and his parents' closest friends had all been a part of something so significant in their time. That might explain Hugo's disinterest in interacting with his peers, so few of whom were as closely linked to the exciting past as he was himself, having parents like his.
But what, Neville wondered, could have caused the apathy where subjects were concerned couldn't be anything other than the happenchance inheritance of that bit of his father.
Sighing, and very slowly, Neville nodded his head.
Scorpius didn't find that very hard to believe. He assumed that Professor Longbottom had come to same conclusion that he had himself. He had really felt that final piece fall into place upon seeing Hugo so sure about something for once. Of course, to Hugo, this was something exciting, something real. Something that transcended, in a crazy way, everything that his peers were doing, however their endeavours were more favoured.
Scorpius knew Hugo; he had always sensed that he had great potential, he just hadn't any real hope that Hugo knew something of it, or anything of it. Hearing him declare that he actually did pay attention in class had shocked him—especially when followed by such a botching of a common phrase. But Scorpius, looking at Hugo's profile as he traced and traced the runes (he didn't know Hugo knew runes!) on the forest floor, had the sudden presence of mind to wonder, for the very first time, if Hugo's ostensible stupidity was an act.
He doubted that it was; at least, that it was entirely. He was, of course, the son of Ron Weasley, who wasn't exactly famous for his sharpness—but then again, he was Hermione's son as well, and she was famous for her intellect. He found after some contemplation that he didn't know what to decide, but some little part of him expected that after this point, Hugo would define himself.
"I thought you would," Hugo said after a while, breaking the long stillness. "I could tell that you aren't like the other adults." Hugo looked at Neville's eyes. "I always could tell."
He's hinting at the ability to predicate characteristics, Neville thought, and hinting that he's had this ability all along. He felt as if he were looking in on the conversation of strangers.
Scorpius felt himself frown. That didn't fit in with the Hugo he knew.
"So…what now?" Scorpius asked, looking from Hugo to Neville. He wasn't sure who to listen to anymore.
Professor Longbottom looked to Hugo.
"We find the Quidropopot," Hugo declared firmly, getting up and dropping his twig on the ground. He turned, pulled on the hood of his cloak and set off, reading the hand-drawn map.
Scorpius followed him. He felt confused. He felt like this wasn't really his life. I'm part of a big play, he thought. A puppet in maybe a sixteenth-century adaptation of Dr. Faustus.
Neville got up, brushed himself off, and feeling slightly dazed, began to follow the two boys. Something pulled his vision downwards, and he looked very intently at the runes that Hugo had traced into the dirt.
I am smart.
A feeling. He couldn't label it, he didn't know what it was, and he wasn't sure he'd felt it for a very long time. But whatever it was, it was the reason…for everything he was about to do.
a/n: edited 27 august 2011. DOOM TO THE LARGE PARAGRAPHS, YO.