It was a double sided question. Albus looked up at his father and sucked in a deep breath. He wasn’t sure how to answer, and definitely wasn’t sure how his dad wanted him to answer. It was just a question, and Albus had answered the very same question thousands of times with ease, but this time it was different. Albus could see the worry engrained in the wrinkled lines on Harry’s face. He could feel the tension hanging between them, like a tightly drawn cord that was just about to break. Albus hated seeing his dad this way, it was unnatural. Harry never worried, ever. It was like after defeating Voldemort, all the pain in his life magically disappeared. He was happy always. Harry was the cool dad, the calm dad, the dad that didn’t freak out even when James failed two of his OWLS. Frowns were rare for Harry. And yet, here he was, frowning down at his son, who didn’t know what else to do except smile back.
“I’m fine, dad,” Albus lied. “Peachy.”
Harry’s frown disappeared instantly and he clapped a hand down on Albus’s shoulder. Albus winced under the pressure. He had a small, thin, build, and resembled a thirteen year old girl more than he did a seventeen year old young man. Albus gently placed his hand over his dad’s for reassurance, and the two grinned at each other like a bunch of idiots.
“I’m glad to hear you’re okay, son,” Harry remarked. He squinted at the large clock on the platform. Age had made his eyes weary. Harry looked back down at Albus, who was fidgeting with Mila’s cage, pulling the lock away and slamming it down onto the cage every few seconds or so. Mila, a large Eagle owl, glared at him with red eyes. She was not impressed. “Sssh,” Albus told her. “Behave, or I’ll starve you to death.” He poked a finger through the cage to stroke her, and Mila, obviously perturbed by the thread, nipped him with her beak.
“Ow!” Albus cried. He yanked his finger back and began to suck on it, as tiny beaded drops of blood began to form on its surface. Harry laughed at the scene and stuck his own finger through the cage. Mila relented and allowed Harry to pet her in long, gentle, strokes. Albus glared at her out of the corner of his eye. So that’s how this is going to be, he thought. Harry reached for Albus all of a sudden and gave him a tight, tight, hug. Albus, who weighed little more than 130 pounds, was practically lifted off the ground. Onlookers at the platform stared. Albus tried to free himself, but his father wasn’t having it, and suddenly, Albus felt a rush of appreciation for his father. Attention, people staring, those things had no affect on him. It was probably because of all his exposure as a kid. He was the great Harry Potter after all, and he had probably learned how to deal with the fame somehow. Albus felt a rush of shame when he started to think about his dad’s past. It loomed over him, like a dark shadow. Albus would never live up to his father’s legend.
“Would you guys hurry the hell up?”
Harry and Albus turned. The rest of the family was swarming towards them. Rose, already dressed in her Hogwarts uniform, was gleaming about as much as the Head Girl badge on her chest. Shortly behind were Ginny and James, followed by Uncle Ron, Aunt Hermione, and their kids. Harry finally obliged and dropped Albus to the ground, who rubbed his arm in attempt to get rid of the soreness. Their family approached them like a mass of elephants. Albus stared at the ground, embarrassed. He always wanted a smaller family. Smaller families seemed to operate normally. They had normal dinners where people sat down and normally ate normal food. That would never be the case for the Potters and the Weasleys, because some kind of food was always thrown and something was always burned, usually by Aunt Hermione, who was quite skilled at magic but quite a failure at cooking.
James reached Albus first. He stooped down to bring himself to his younger brother’s level (James was a full head taller than Albus). James reached out and tweaked Albus’s nose, and Albus glared at him. “Aren’t you a little cutie,” James cooed. “Ickle Albus is going off for his last year at Hogwarts! Are you excited? Got your whitey tightys in a bunch?” James was insufferable, as usual. Ever since graduating Hogwarts, he held his graduation like a trophy over his head. Nevermind the fact that he almost had to stay back a year. Suddenly, James was big and important, even if he was jobless and therefore still living with their parents. It’s not like he was such a great brother before graduating, but after the fact he was insufferable. He was quick to bully his younger brother and draw him into fights, which would end with James being scolded by Ginny and Albus sporting a nosebleed and a black eye.
“The train’s already here,” Ginny told Harry. She looped her arm through her husband’s and gave him a quick peck on the cheek. “They need to get on, it’s going to leave soon, and I don’t want to have to take care of these trouble makers for another year.” She reached out and gave Albus a quick hug, much unlike Harry’s. Ginny was a lot more respectful of Albus’s pride than Harry. Albus kissed her softly on the cheek and began to walk towards the train. There wasn’t a need to say goodbye to his dad and have another scene again.
Rose followed quickly behind him, and as soon as they were on the train she disappeared for the prefect compartment. And once again, Albus was all alone. It was a feeling he should have gotten used to by now, but he couldn’t. Searching for a compartment just made him feel even worse. They were all crowded, filled with students comparing summers and giggling girls who sat in their boyfriend’s lap. Albus had only had a girlfriend once, and it was one of James leftovers, who had assumed that Albus was as handsome and charming as his brother. Obviously, she was disappointed. She dumped him after two weeks of dating him. The relationship only lasted that long because the girl had a standing bet with James about dating him. Twenty five galleons. After the fourteenth day, she had a friend tell him they were over, and she skittered off to James to collect her prize.
Albus finally settled on the fourth compartment. It was mostly empty, or at least, the front was. He didn’t bother to check the back. As long as he could have two seats to himself, he was fine. Sitting alone had become a tradition ever since Rose became a prefect, early on in her fifth year. Loneliness was an old enemy that Albus knew since he was little. He turned and stared out the window. Harry was waving at him with a smile on his face, but there were crinkles of worry around the corners of his eyes and Albus knew that his father wasn’t confident about him. Who would be? Albus wasn’t confident about himself either, he hated himself. He hated the way he resembled his dad in appearance but not in personality. He hated that he had no natural charm, no appeal, nothing at all. He would die even to have half of Rose’s brains, so he could at least have something to be proud of. But there was nothing to be proud of. The jagged scars on his wrist were only a painful reminder of that.
“Oh, baby,” someone moaned. Albus jolted out of his thoughts and stared at the ground. Of course this was his luck. He was fated to be the perpetual loser that sat all by himself while a few seats back, horny teenagers engaged in acts of sex, or well, as close as they could get to actual sex. Albus tried to think of something, anything else. It was hard, though. Even his suicidal thoughts, which were almost always there, eating away at him, were gone. Albus was a teenage boy, and he couldn’t help but listen in and imagine what was going on back there. He didn’t want to look because then that would just be suspicious, but his neck was itching to turn and take a short glance back.
“Mmm,” the girl repeated. They were speaking in soft murmurs, and then the noise died away completely. Albus blushed when he thought about the reason why. “Ohh!” the girl gasped again, and he could hear her heavy panting from where he was sitting, at the very front of the compartment. “Baby, I love you,” she cried. She definitely wasn’t bothering to murmur now.
Albus was wondering why they were doing this on the train. He knew these things happened, but the train was only just starting to pull out of the station, and whatever was happening back there was probably being witnessed by all of Platform 9 and ¾ . It’s none of your business, Albus told himself. None of your business. None of your business. He repeated the mantra in his head, but the more he repeated it, the more he felt like going back there. If they were going to go at it the whole time, he wanted to know so he could move. He didn’t need people jacking around in there, only reminding him more of what a total loser he was.
“You’re so amazing,” the girl drawled. “I want to be with you forever.” This statement was followed by some sloppy slurping sounds and banging against the seats and the windows. Enough was enough, Albus decided. He stood up; fists clenched, palms sweating, and faced the couple. Or, what he thought was a couple. Several girls were situated in a few of the seats at back, and they all gravitated towards one boy. He was handsome, there was no doubt about that. He had a sharp, angular jar and muscled arms. His pale blonde hair was slicked back, and everything about his body was well muscled and extremely sculpted.
Albus felt embarrassed for his own scraggly arms and knobby knees. He felt even more embarrassed when one of the girls (presumably the one that had been speaking) continued to kiss the boy. It was kind of hard to see his face, because her hair fell in smooth waves over both of them, hiding their identities. The boy’s arms were all over her. His hands rubbed slow circles on her back, and then moved to the front of her body, where they gently cupped her breasts. Albus looked away. He felt ashamed on their behalf, but it was clear that they didn’t feel anything at all. Even the other girls didn’t notice. They just started rather wistfully at the couple, probably imagining themselves in the girl’s place. It was all rather disgusting, and Albus was quick to interrupt.
“Uhm, excuse me,” he said quietly. No one took any notice of him. He cleared his throat loudly. “Excuse me!”
They all stopped and turned to stare at him. Albus recognized the boy in a jolt and disgust seeped into his chest. It was none other than notorious Slytherin Scorpius Malfoy, the charming, flirty, boy who was probably more well known than Peeves, who everyone had had an uncomfortable experience with at one point or another. Albus wasn’t sure why, but he disliked Scorpius. It wasn’t that he was carrying over his father’s grudge for Draco Malfoy. No, that was James’s territory, and his older brother had made destroying Scorpius’s life a top priority during his time at Hogwarts.
Albus didn’t care that Scorpius’s dad was a Death Eater, or anything like that. He knew that his dad had forgiven the Malfoys, and he knew that they weren’t all that bad. But Scorpius had everything that Albus had ever wanted. Fame. Fortune. Acceptance. That last word was the greatest, and Albus had longed for it his entire life. He didn’t feel accepted anywhere. He was always sticking out from one place or another. His dad tried to engage him in Quidditch, and trained him so hard, but it was obvious that brooms hated him. Rose had tried to tutor him, until when practicing a spell, he set all of her school books on fire, and that was the end of that. Scorpius was charming and intelligent (even though he didn’t often show the latter).
“Can I help you?” Scorpius asked. Albus blushed as he realized that he had dozed off into space, and therefore, had just been staring at Scorpius. Scorpius ran a hand through his fine hair, and that action alone was enough to make all the other girls beside themselves with joy. Albus stared at his feet. “Uhm, would you mind, uhm, stopping? It’s kind of not the place to do this,” he said softly. He felt brave when he had stood up to tell them off, but now that he was actually doing it all of the little courage he had seemed to be leaking out of him. “Or not,” Albus quickly added. “You don’t have to stop on my account. Don’t mind me. Ignore me. I’m not here. Carry on!” he squeaked, and he clapped a hand over his mouth, horrified at how his last few sentences had come out.
Scorpius raised a perfect eyebrow. “You want us to stop, or what?”
Albus, who had already started to head back up, turned around, confused. “W-what?” he gasped. He was thinking of all the horrible things that Scorpius could do to him. Along with the rumors of him being a total playboy and sleeping with half the sixth years when he was only a third year (probably true), Scorpius was also known to have a terrible, biting mean streak. Someone said that he once used the Cruciatus Curse in class (probably not true). The mean rumor really seemed to have no base except for Scorpius’s roots as the son of a Death Eater, but Albus was afraid nonetheless.
“I said, you want us to stop, or what?” Scorpius asked. He sat up in his seat, moving away from the pretty brunette he had been kissing. She pouted and tried to turn his head back towards her with her perfectly manicured fingers, but Scorpius just pulled away and glared at her. “Back off, Leslie. We talked about this. I’m not your boyfriend, we’re just screwing around, so let me talk to this kid, okay?” Albus was dumbfounded. Scorpius, the Scorpius of Hogwarts legend wanted to talk to him? Even better yet, he was dismissing a girl for him? Every student at Hogwarts knew that Scorpius had a problem with staying away from women yet here he was, pushing away a girl, a rather attractive one at that. The girl just glared at Albus and left the compartment in a huff, flanked by the group of girls that apparently had come in with her. They were all alone.
“Look, kid, aren’t you like, a Potter or something?” Scorpius asked, as he began to button up his shirt. Albus nodded meekly and Scorpius sighed in exasperation. “Then act like it. Your brother spent all his time at Hogwarts trying to make me miserable and he always meant it, so you’ve got to mean what you say. You have a reputation, you know. Whether you deserve it or not, that’s not anyone’s problem, but your own. You’ve got to live up to expectations, man.” Scorpius beckoned Albus to his seat with one finger, and Albus meekly slid in next to him.
It felt weird and empowering sitting next to someone like Scorpius. Scorpius was a somebody, and Albus was a nobody, and when a nobody is around a somebody things happen in a way that no one can control or even expect. Albus studied Scorpius’s profile out of the corner of his eye, not wanting to seem rude for staring. Scorpius was much, much bulkier than him. He was a head taller and muscular, and his face was fleshed out while Albus still looked like a delicate little girl. Albus could see Draco in him. He had only seen the two together once, when he waiting for the Hogwarts Express for the very first time. Draco had the same hair and the same eyes, but Scorpius was more handsome, in a way. For one thing, he was not pale. Apparently he had spent the summer in some exotic location because his bronzed skin made Albus feel like a ghost. Suddenly, Albus wanted to leave. He was starting to see why he disliked Scorpius all over again, and he didn’t want to shrink back again into his shell of emptiness.
“What’s wrong with you?” Scorpius asked. “You’re so quiet. I don’t normally just sit with anybody, you know. You might as well make the best out of the opportunity.” Apparently, another difference between Scorpius and Albus was Scorpius’s inflated ego. Albus didn’t think any good of himself. He didn’t exert the powerful, sunny confidence that Scorpius had. Albus grew up hating himself from the very start for being so different. He tried not to. Even as a kid, before hating yourself is really an option, he felt distant, cold, unattached. When he grew into a young man, it was even worse. When you’re a teenager, you feel like you have to be someone. You get the sense that you have to be important, that you have to belong, that you have to be just this great, awe striking person, and Albus didn’t feel that. He first started thinking about death when he was thirteen, and with each passing year it became more and more serious.
“Do you hate me?” Albus asked quietly. He wasn’t expecting to ask it, it just came out, and apparently Scorpius wasn’t excepting it either. Albus could see the confusion written all over his face and he cursed himself inside his head. Why did he always have to mess things up like this? For one moment in time, someone was actually recognizing him as a fellow human being. If he could take advantage of this moment, he could be great. But it was starting to sink in that he would always screw things up, and that Scorpius was only one of the many things he would screw up in his lifetime.
“Why would you even think that?” Scorpius asked. Then his eyes lit up. “Oh, is it because of who our dads are?” Albus nodded, mostly because he didn’t have any other reason for his sudden outburst. Scorpius shook his head. “I don’t care who your dad is, or who my dad is. It’s all in the past. This bullshit about me being a Death Eater, and this bullshit about you being some great hero like your dad, it’s not true, okay? And we don’t have to be our dads. I just like talking to people, that’s all. You’re interesting. People think the Potters are supposed to be heroes, but you're human, you know? A guy's gotta respect that.”
You’re interesting. You’re interesting. You’re interesting. The words replayed in Albus’s mind over and over and over. He never got compliments, ever. Or at least, he couldn’t remember the last time he got a good one. Harry would often compliment him on his abilities as Seeker, but they both knew it was a bold-faced lie. Rose congratulated him, if not a little bitterly, when he got an answer right in class before she did. Those compliments, they weren’t real. They weren’t genuine. But this was. He could tell that Scorpius wasn’t the guy who said things he didn’t mean, and for once, Albus got this feeling like he mattered to someone. And to matter to someone as powerful as Scorpius Malfoy, well, wasn’t that something?
Suddenly, the compartment door burst open and a bunch of guys trooped inside. They were all Slytherins and they were all really loud. They swaggered in like they owned the place, grinning at each other with the cheeky insolence that only teenage boys have. They trooped all the way to the back of the compartment, where they stared at Albus. Albus’s face burned and he cursed himself again for thinking that he mattered. Of course he didn’t matter to Scorpius, Scorpius already had friends, Slytherins who had plenty of money and influential fathers. Slytherins who had as much charm as Scorpius, people who didn’t let themselves be stomped all over like a doormat. Like Albus.
Albus quickly got out of the seat and made his way towards the front of the compartment. He was in such a hurry that he didn’t notice his shoes were untied, and he unceremoniously tripped in the aisle. The boys all burst out in laughter. Albus couldn’t tell if Scorpius was laughing or not, and he hated himself for caring. He could feel tears starting to prick at the back of his eyes.
“How cruel of you!”
At first, Albus was amazed, because he thought that Scorpius was coming to his defense. Then he realized that the voice belonged to someone female, someone red headed. That someone was his cousin, Rose, and Albus was mortified that another people of importance had witnessed his fall. Rose tried to help him up but Albus shook her off. He didn’t want to be helped by a girl. It would make things even worse, but apparently, they were already laughing about it. Albus got up and slid himself into his seat, and forced himself to stare at his knees. Rose, meanwhile, was not quite done with the boys and swooped in upon them with a ferocity known only to be held by Aunt Hermione. Eyes blazing, she crossed her arms and stared down at them like a mother, staring at a kid with his hands caught in the cookie jar.
“You’re monsters, all of you,” Rose spat. “You’re cruel and vicious, you know that? Just because your parents work at the Ministry doesn’t give you the right to be mean to people like that. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of you guys untied his shoes with magic.” There was a brief silence, and Albus realized that someone had indeed pull a prank on him. The fact that he fell because someone wanted him to made him want to die. Rose continued on in her tirade. “I hope you all know that I will report this to a professor and your house will certainly lose points, before the year’s even started!” Albus rolled his eyes. Didn’t she realize that these guys were the kind that didn’t care about house points? Rose marched away in a huff and beckoned Albus up from his seat. “Come on Al, we’re going. Leave these idiots alone to themselves, we’re almost at Hogwarts anyway and you should get changed.
As the door swung shut behind them, someone called out. “Nice ass, Rose!” Albus felt a stab of pain as he realized that it was Scorpius. Scorpius, who had actually complimented him. Scorpius, who didn’t even bother to stand up for him when his friends were picking on him. Scorpius, who Albus hated yet carried such a great admiration and respect for. Albus realized that Scorpius was just like the rest of them. He was just like all the other bullies that Albus had faced in his life, and that he would continue to face. He was wrong for thinking that Scorpius was different, even if it was only for a second. He was even more wrong for thinking that he could cross the invisible social line that divided the two. Scorpius was out of reach, and he didn't care about someone lowly like Albus. Did anyone? Albus didn't even know if he cared for himself. If he were someone else, he wouldn't even think of Albus Potter, the quiet boy with the too big eyes. No one really cared at all. And that fact alone was enough to make one of the prickly tears fall.
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