Chapter 7 : But Straightens Out Eventually
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Hugo heard lots of stomping going on outside the tent. And that made him grumpy. He'd just been almost eaten by Acromantulas, for Merlin's sake, what, were Scorpius and Professor Neville having a dance party in celebration?
Actually, he thought, that might be kind of fun. He scrambled out of his blankets and rubbed his eyes, sitting up. He thought he'd go join them.
"Bloody hell," he heard Scorpius whisper as he was sticking his head out of the tent. And he saw why.
"What is true?" the centaur asked, standing at the outer edge of the clearing and commanding an answer. Hugo thought that having half a horse for a body was rather an unfair way of garnering obedience and answers.
"Kristophos?" Hugo asked, recognizing the creature after a moment of pondering his presence in their circle of enchantment.
The creature looked around to the tent quickly, his face softening and lines of confusion forming between his brows upon sighting the boy.
"Hugo Weasley," he said, stepping further into the clearing. His flaming red hair rippled down his back, and his beard, equally soft (Hugo giggled: a soft beard!), covered most of his muscular chest and shoulders. He wore no clothing, even in the cold weather, though his pale skin was flushed and his chestnut body rippled mildly.
"How are you, Kris?" Hugo asked, crawling out of the tent and walking across the clearing to shake the giant creature's hand. Up close you could tell, Hugo thought. You could see they weren't human. Their foreheads were too protuberant, their eyes too far apart, their noses too strong, their faces too chiseled. Their breaths came in snorts, and they tossed their necks as if they were more horse than man.
"I fare well, young one." Kristophos let go of Hugo's hand gently, and looked back up to Scorpius and Professor Longbottom, who were both looking stunned, still seated on the logs they had dragged over from the trees. Hugo looked over his shoulder to them as well: Scorpius was giving him a strange look, and poor Professor Neville--he looked ready to faint.
Oh, yes, it was in times like these, Scorpius thought, looking in disbelief at Hugo's inability to see this as a strange situation, that Scorpius wondered how in the world Hugo had managed to make the friends he had with such strange creatures without fatally offending any of them.
Sure, he was a friendly kid, if only perhaps a little too neanderthal-esque to fit into today's society. But that still didn't explain how he managed feats such as these. The centaurs and the Wizards had never, ever gotten along well. At least, that's what his family had taught him. It struck Scorpius that he didn't actually know if the Wizards and centaurs got along, or had ever. His parents were clueless about magical creatures. How had he gone so long believing some of the things they said just to fill a silence with a soothing word, a calm touch, an aura of authority?
But this wasn't the time for getting upset at his parents, no, it was a time for gauging the depth of the trouble they were in. From Hugo's face, unadorned with worry or really, any concern, Scorpius would have judged that it was shallow trouble, for now. Just wait till there were more of them.
"Honestly?" Scorpius whispered to himself. He had only just thought it when three more figures, too tall and broad to be completely human, stepped into the clearing. "Don't tell me centaurs are immune to magic, too."
"They aren't," Longbottom chirped from his side. He didn't seem particularly concerned--more like, interested. Scorpius didn't know if he was just jumpy; nearly escaping death can do that to a person, he guessed, shrugging his shoulders.
"Then how are they coming in? You set up the enchantments, I watched you." Scorpius folded his arms.
"They protect against wizards, muggles, and dark creatures," Longbottom whispered. "Centaurs don't fall into those categories."
Scorpius let out a weak "hmph." He wasn't sure if he trusted Hugo's judgement enough to deem the situation completely safe, just because centaurs weren't dark creatures.
He heard Hugo greet the three others, all of whose faces reflected relief upon finding that they knew one of the three human intruders. Scorpius felt a little better, seeing all of them react that way. But it didn't change the fact that Hugo was likely to be honest with them about their destination; and knowing now that the creatures of the forest were willing to do almost anything to protect the state of the world, he didn't think that the centaurs were particularly smart creatures to cross on the way to do something that would send the state of the world into upheaval.
Scorpius watched Hugo and the centaurs interact, his arms crossed over his chest, feeling tense. He realised after a moment that he was frowning and squinting severely, trying to read their lips. It was pointless; their beards and murmurs didn't produce very legible mouths to read.
He shook his head. Too much time away from normal people—he looked sideways at Professor Longbottom, thinking that well, he's sort of normal—had given him a strange way of looking at things. It was funny how, when you were after something, almost all of you was concerned with anything that was about it. He was worried of the centaurs, not because he thought that they disliked wizards, but because he was worried that they'd be unhappy about Hugo's desire to reach the Quidropopots. Which had also become Scorpius's desire. Which was strange, especially when Scorpius took into account that the wasn't even sure why Hugo wanted to find the plant.
This struck him, as he watched Hugo still, comfortable as he could be with the centaurs, as particularly bothersome. And important. How could he have allowed himself to be so easily swayed by a boy just because he had felt something unnamable and seemingly important? Maybe the spiders were right. Maybe they shouldn't be looking for the fruit. Why did the Acromantulas attack, after all, even when the queen told them herself she knew Hugo was pure of heart? Why did Hugo want it anyways? Why did Scorpius want it?
Was he more like his father than he had been willing to admit? Was he drawn to the power that the fruits could supply to him?
He suddenly had to know. He turned to Professor Longbottom.
"We need to talk to Hugo," he hissed in the professor's direction.
Neville turned, unsurprised, to Scorpius. He had known this was coming; he'd been thinking the same thing. He'd been rather stupid not to have demanded some kind of real explanation of Hugo before. The explanation given to the spider had been unsatisfactory and had nearly cost all three of them their lives.
"I know," he finally said back to the boy, who was glaring in the direction of Hugo's little pow-wow.
"What do you think they're talking about?" Scorpius asked, flickering a blue eye in Neville's direction.
"I'm not sure," Neville replied, thinking it over for a moment. "I would have expected more of a reaction if he'd told them that he was looking for the…you-know-what," he said, and Scorpius nodded. "Perhaps they're just having a conversation."
"Not to be rude, Professor, but don't you think that they'd be wondering what we're doing here?"
Neville nodded. "Yes, I do think they'd think it odd. Maybe Hugo's improvising." He met the boy's eyes. He could tell from the slight look that Scorpius was giving him that they both knew that wouldn't bode well.
They were silent for a moment. Neville thought of various ways that he could approach the subject with Hugo. Well, it's just that we really should take this plant very seriously, Hugo. How do we know that we won't be gripped by desire when we reach it and throw the whole natural system out of order? That wouldn't be fair to the creatures of the forest who have guarded it with their lives for centuries…No, that isn't right. Hugo, we just really need to know why you want this. Or—
"We're going to die," Scorpius groaned. "We are going to die."
Neville looked up and followed his gaze while Scorpius began muttering to himself.
"Stupid hat put me in Gryffindor…oh, hell, we're going to die…I don't want to die, I haven't even learned how to Apparate yet…"
Neville understood the panic. The centaurs walking towards them looked menacing—their sinewy bodies bare even in the cold, their taller-than-average heads unmoving as they plodded through the snow, Hugo at their lead. Heavy eyebrows set closely together at the center of their foreheads as they seemed particularly focused on these unfamiliar visitors.
"Hullo, Professor, Scorpius," Hugo said brightly, gesturing to each of them in turn. "These are my—er—this is Kristophos, and this is Xury. Oh, and this is Delphi, and his sister Pythia."
Neville noticed for the first time that the only covered centaur was indeed female. Striking features, though not exactly what Neville would call beautiful—her lines were too harsh, her gaze too intimidating, her mouth too proud. A fairly accurate representation of the whole of the centaur population.
"Pleasure to meet you," Neville said after a moment; it was not completely new, to be the subject of many eyes (as a Professor one rather got used to that sort of thing), but something about it being the centaur's eyes was rather unsettling.
After a moment, Scorpius spoke up too. "Mine as well."
"They were wondering why we were out here, so I thought it was best if you explained, Professor," Hugo said, and Neville sensed again that palpable panic coming from him that too often accompanied that wide-eyed stare. Neville attempted to calm his features, though he couldn't stop his eyebrows from shooting up on his forehead. After a moment he smiled, hoping that that smoothed some of the lines, and rapidly concocted a story.
"Well, it's rather simple, you see. Hugo and Scorpius were serving a detention with me and I decided to bring them out on the look for a certain plant that has been evading me, since I had the extra help, you know. We've gotten slightly lost, though." Neville shrugged his shoulders apologetically.
One of the centaurs--Neville wasn't sure exactly which one--Delphi, he thought--stepped forward and looked Neville right into the eyes. Neville looked to Hugo for a moment, not understanding the customs of the centaurs. He wasn't quite sure how to accept the stare--a threat, or a gesture of respect? Hugo, however, looked singularly unconcerned, even comfortable. Neville stifled a loud gulp, deciding to look right back.
It was a bad move. Delphi turned on the spot and grabbed Hugo by the throat. The boy's eyes bugged as Delphi marched him to a tree and pinned him to the trunk.
Neville felt a ball of adrenaline roll through his stomach, clenching it unpleasantly. Panic infiltrated his temples, collapsing them into his forehead--he reached up to make sure that his head was still intact and then turned his attention back to Hugo and Delphi, who was staring at Hugo intently.
"Hugo Weasley, what are you doing in the forest? My brothers and sisters have trailed you since your entrance; and the Acromantulas don't attack just anyone. So, I ask again--what are you doing here?"
Lying might have spared them the first time--Neville meant, of course, lying might have spared them the fear of death by Acromantula, which didn't seem a death one would wish to die unless threatened by…oh, he didn't know, perhaps some chronic disease. But it appeared that lying wasn't going to get them out of it this time. Neville felt his heart beating, seeming to nestle directly underneath his skin. It also seemed, problematically, to be sending heat directly to visible places of his face, like his cheeks and forehead. He ducked his head, hoping that none of the centaurs noticed and pinned him to a tree.
Scorpius stood stock still, shocked beyond mobility. The air slipped quickly, dry, into his nostrils, through his lungs, sending icy chills to his tingling fingertips. He didn't know what to do. He didn't know himself why Hugo wanted the plant. He didn't know himself why he wanted to help the kid find it. He didn't know why Professor Longbottom didn't just write them up a years' worth of detention slips and Apparate them back to the outskirts of the forest, and take them back immediately to the safety of the castle.
He waited on tenterhooks, equally eager and nervous to hear what Hugo was about to say.
Hugo opened his mouth, forming a great 'O' before moving into an impossible sort of 'U' shape, and then morphed through the different interpretations of the letter 'M' with astounding speed and absurdity.
This activity, during which nothing actually happened but simultaneously many things appeared to be happening behind Hugo's wide eyes, paused the centaur, who tilted his head to one side, regarding the boy before him with what Scorpius would have labeled as mingled amusement and confusion. As Hugo managed a small "glarbleguck" the creature straightened again and gathered a breath, leaning in close towards Hugo's face, meaning to stare him down. Hugo's eyes followed the centaur's face up to where it hovered menacingly, and before Scorpius had any kind of grip on the situation, Hugo sunk back against the tree and burst into tears.
"I--I don't know," Hugo wailed between racking sobs. His body shook violently and Delphi dropped Hugo's neck quickly, stepping back in a smooth motion, and allowing the boy to slide down the tree and plunk into the snow at its base. Scorpius watched in continued amazement as Hugo rested his arms on his knees and buried his face in the nook of one elbow, in a state of entire abandon.
Not that Hugo had ever been one to conceal what it was he was feeling, or thinking--only he was usually so high of spirits that seeing him out of sorts made one feel rather vulnerable oneself. It was so easy to feel what Hugo felt through his bodily implications of the emotions that stormed his body that Scorpius felt a bit like sobbing himself. Granted, they had been out in the snow with minimal nourishment and social contact for days now, at least three--and Scorpius hadn't properly washed his hair in a while, or shaved, both of which were largely bothersome to him--and on top of that, none of them had slept more than a few hours at a time each night to maintain a constant roulette of surveillance. Then, he supposed, there was the whole we almost died by Acromantula attack thing.
It could have been these things pushing the tears violently towards the front of Scorpius's eyes, seeming to prefer the method of shoving them right through the back of the eyeball (that's where he felt it, a steady sting)--but Scorpius would have sworn his life (which seemed to be in others' hands increasingly as of late) that tears threatened to stain his cheeks because of the absolute terror and confusion and agony and other previously-bottled emotions that were pulsing through the young Weasley's body merely yards from him.
No matter what Scorpius was feeling, the centaurs seemed to be at a loss of knowledge as to handle this situation as well. Scorpius was sure that they would understand the gravity of the potential discovery of a plant that created gods out of men and the longterm damage a well-meaning boy could wreak on the entire world with the power they produced--but he was also sure that they could see as well as he could, and possibly better than he could, the reality of what was sitting before them.
And Scorpius didn't know about the centaurs--although he rather thought, from Kristophos's face, that this particular centaur was in agreement with his thoughts--but he was beginning to wonder himself if a boy like Hugo would even be able to figure out how to use the fruits in a dangerous way.
But of course there was the blind, fumbling, blundering thing. He would be like a giant tot, with a nuclear rattle ticking and whirring high above his head and tearing down buildings, shooting radioactive beams into space.
Scorpius couldn't help but smile at the thought of Hugo in a diaper storming the earth--but what really made him smile was thinking about the radioactive beams, since he'd learned about them from Hugo, who had been practicing for a test in Muggle Studies.
Which brought Scorpius to thinking about Marjorie. Marjie Barrows was a good student, a nice person, and quite obviously the object of Hugo's affections. He knew that the two had talked about the Quidropopot shortly before Hugo had decided to hightail it into the forest--and putting things together, Scorpius put together--finally, for himself--the stupidest motivation that he ever could have imagined for Hugo's journey into death's maw.
For a girl.
The modern day Helen of Troy, if you looked at all of the attempts on their lives recently. (The count came, Scorpius realised, to one.)
Hugo had said that that wasn't it--but....The flimsy motivation of winning the affections of a girl so high above him in the social strata and--but wait. A wave of self-loathing interrupted Scorpius's thoughts, infiltrating them like poison. He felt like spitting violently. He sounded so much like his father.
Scorpius looked up, looked at everyone in the clearing. Anything for a distraction. After much bouncing around, his eyes settled on the lump at the bottom of a tree.
Hugo seemed to be calming down. His body had stopped shaking and he had lifted his head, wiping his nose with his sleeve in his usual unabashed manner. He sniffled noisily and gave a small hiccough before proceeding to flap his mouth open and closed for a few moments.
"I--I just felt like I needed to--to--" Hugo stopped, frowning slightly. He paused for a long moment, appearing to have difficulty in stringing his words together in a coherent manner. Scorpius wasn't sure whether to be impressed by the ostensible effort that Hugo was about to put into an explanation or worried at the amount of time that it was taking him to articulate himself. He settled on a somewhere in between until Hugo actually managed to procure an explanation.
"You know," Hugo said quietly, dropping one hand to the snow and patting it idly as he spoke, "they talk about me. I know that I'm not--I'm not smart, or anything. And not everything they say is bad. Sometimes they're talking about Quidditch--" his eyes lit up at the thought. "Sometimes, though, they say things that make me--want…They say things like I'm different."
The clearing was silent. The air was heavy and dry. A snowflake fell and landed on Scorpius's eyelashes--he didn't notice.
A boy worse with words than the average six-year-old, and he had six in his midst entranced.
"And I know that I'm not like them. But that's not what they mean, is it, because something so obvious is hardly worth mentioning."
Scorpius heard Professor Longbottom give a slight chuckle. Xury shifted on his legs, appearing to settle into a comfortable position. Pythia loosened hold on her crossbow, and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear.
"I have never been sure what it means," Hugo mused, looking up into the air at the small puff of white he produced. "But--well--I mean to say, everyone knows my parents."
It hit Neville like a load of bricks stuck in a second-hand robe and swung down upon him from the pinnacle of the astronomy tower. He felt utterly defeated by the understanding that crashed into him, and lowered himself to the ground, ending ungracefully in a cross-legged position. He saw, from the corner of his eye, Scorpius's head tilt back, a shrug of his shoulders, and heard the older boy sigh deeply. He knew that they both understood why they were here, perhaps more clearly than Hugo himself did (and judging by Hugo's own explanation Neville was almost certain that he understood better than the boy).
Neville wondered at the weight he perceived. He had had the thought himself a hundred times that Hugo was so different than one would have expected the son of two war heroes to be like. And it seemed that although his parents and his family could accept Hugo Weasley for who he had turned out to be, the rest of the world was still expecting him to become something. And Hugo felt that. And it made him feel like he had to prove something.
Neville needed to help Hugo because Neville had once been Hugo.
Scorpius needed to help Hugo because Scorpius was living Hugo's life.
The three of them united by a common thought--one of them after a plant, and the other two seeking to show the one that he's got more than a plant would ever give him.
"Do they ever sleep?"
"Don't be silly," Hugo replied, grinning up at Scorpius, who was looking at him from the corner of one dark-blue eye.
Scorpius kept looking at Hugo. It took him a moment to understand that that had probably been a real question. So that look was just Scorpius waiting for a proper answer.
Hugo attempted to make a mental note of that face. Note: this is what someone looks like when you haven't properly answered them.
He cleared his throat. "Of course they sleep. All animals and people and all that need sleep. Unless, of course, you're a creature who doesn't need sleep." He thought of the Lethifold--surely they didn't slumber. That would be ironic wouldn't it, the one who feasts on the slumbering, slumbering itself. Hah, hah. The thought caused him to chuckle aloud.
Scorpius smiled too, nodding. But his face quickly cleared as outside of the tent another one of them stamped a hoof. "But really. None of them are sleeping, are they?"
"Oh, I'd think that three of them are and one's taking watch," Hugo replied casually. He turned and stared pointedly at Professor Neville, who was snoring slightly and whose mouth was hanging open, issuing forth a streamlet of drool. "Cause it's not like he's on watch or anything."
Scorpius looked up at the shadows dancing on the canvas walls in front of them like some oddly distorted moving picture show. The four centaurs stood outside of the tent, their long bodies disrupting the flickering flow of firelight from the flames in its travel to the tent.
"It's so odd," Scorpius whispered as Neville gave a particularly loud snore. "That they stand."
"Horses do, their knees lock in place so they don't crumple up or anything. Cows do that too."
"That's why you can push them over, then, cause their knees are locked," Scorpius muttered with a gleam in his eye, looking back at Hugo over his shoulder. They were sitting side-by-side in the middle of the tent, unable to sleep just yet.
Hugo laughed. Scorpius was funny. He saw why Rose liked him.
"I guess so," he answered. He hadn't really thought about pushing over sleeping cows much before in his life, although that would be a bright thing to say by way of introduction, Hugo rather thought. Hello, my name is Hugo Weasley, and I like to push over cows while they sleep because their legs lock and they're sleeping.
"Why did they offer to come with us?" Scorpius asked. Hugo thought that maybe Scorpius hadn't been paying attention earlier when the centaurs told them why, so he voiced this concern aloud.
"You're right," Scorpius admitted. "I don't think I was. I was--thinking about something else," he said, looking down at his hands and twirling a small twig in his fingers. "I was just--you know--hoping that since you know them so well, you might know why they'd want to come with us on a trip to a place we're not even sure of, all for a fruit that could threaten the stability of the entire world."
Hugo took a moment to take this in. Threaten the stability of the entire world? He hadn't thought of that. If he admitted it to himself, he hadn't actually given much thought to the Quidropopot other than the idea of finding it. He hadn't taken time to consider what his actions would make happen. He tried to think of what Scorpius meant. How could it threaten the whole world?
Well, if someone evil got a hold of the rubies. Rose said those were powerful. So did Professor Neville, I think. But wait, the flesh is very good. It would be good for healers.
But does that undo the badness that could happen because of the rubies? The healing of exotic diseases versus the collapse of the modern earth…
Hugo was beginning to see more and more what he believed would be the outcome of this trip.
"I don't know," he said at last. "Maybe they just want to make sure that we don't take the fruit back with us." He shrugged.
Scorpius stretched widely and then turned to look at Hugo seriously. "And that's okay with you? If we come all this way for the Quidropopot, and then when we find it, the centaurs don't let us take it back--is that okay?"
Hugo thought about this for a moment. He hadn't told Scorpius of course that he wasn't actually after the Quidropopot after all--and of course he couldn't have because he only himself came to that conclusion very recently--but it still couldn't help but strike Hugo as a bit of a funny question.
"I think it's okay." Hugo sighed, suddenly feeling very sleepy. He leaned back and shrugged off his coat, scrambling into his sleeping bag. He watched Scorpius nod slowly, still looking up at the silhouettes of the centaurs outside.
"You want to know why?" he asked the older boy sleepily, struggling to keep his eyes open.
"Because when we're done, I can still tell Mum and Dad that I found it."
a/n: edited 10 september 2011.
muchos thanks to annie and gina for fangirling this next-gen trio on their way! also gubby for being queen of grammar, ily. sadly i am a mere pauper in the grammatical kingdom.
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