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Quantum Physics by peppersweet
Chapter 2 : 2
 
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I will come back here, bring me back when I'm old
I want to lay here forever in the cold

- goodbye england (covered in snow), Laura Marling



The sky wept down on them as they walked along the path that embraced the edges of the woods. Lucy put up the hood of her jacket and stared intently at the track beneath her feet through her sodden fringe: Scorpius acted like the rain didn’t exist and let it soak right through his unsuitable jacket to his skin.


It only occurred to Lucy once they’d turned off the path and into the woods that it was probably unwise to go wandering off with a boy she barely knew, although she felt she could trust someone who knew her sister. Her sister was clever and sensible and tended to associate herself with the sort of people who held study groups outside of school. Besides, it was more exciting than the alternative, which was taking the ancient bus back to the village and spending her afternoon on her holiday Chemistry homework.


They hadn’t spoken since their initial exchange, when she’d suggested they go somewhere a bit quieter if they were going to talk about magic. Life was already complicated enough without the added risk of getting done for breaking the International Statute of Secrecy. She cast a brief glance at Scorpius through the rain: he looked distinctly unthreatening. But she couldn’t help but feel threatened in any sort of company. She was just waiting for him to make some bumbling politically incorrect comment about how squibs were surprisingly alright, really, like some of Molly’s friends had done when they visited the house.


The sound of traffic from the town had all but vanished; all she could hear were their footsteps, breathing, raindrops tapping like agitated fingertips upon the leaves around them.


‘You said Molly doesn’t like you?’


‘Yeah,’ he said, without a hint of embarrassment.


‘Oh,’ she said. ‘Are you in her year or something?’


‘I used to be.’


‘Sorry?’


‘I had to repeat fifth year,’ he said, again, without the slightest embarrassment. ‘And she’s a Ravenclaw. I’m in Hufflepuff.’


Lucy had heard enough about Hufflepuff from her parents: she raised an eyebrow. ‘Right.’


‘I should be in seventh year,’ he added. ‘But I’m in the year below.’


‘Oh, right,’ she said. ‘I’m in sixth year. Doing my Highers.’


He frowned. ‘What are Highers?’


‘Muggle N.E.W.Ts. I’m doing some of them too. Do you take History of Magic?’


‘Yeah,’ he said, and a hint of colour rose in his pale face. ‘Not very good at it.’


They reached a bench beside the path, sheltered by an overgrown holly bush. It was hardly dry, but seemed a better alternative to wandering listlessly on in the rain. Lucy sat on the right, Scorpius taking the seat at her side.


‘It’s freezing,’ she said.


He simply nodded.


‘So,’ she said. ‘You think you’re a squib, huh?’


There was no hesitation in his answer. ‘Yes.’


‘You need to take a test before you know if you’re a squib or not,’ she said, feeling a little impatient. ‘I was in and out of St Mungo’s all year after I didn’t get the letter.’


‘Wouldn’t they have known before?’


He was sharper than she’d thought.


‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘But people always get magic before their letter. Things used to vanish around me.’


A weak memory she wasn’t even sure was hers surfaced in her mind; she bit her lip and tried to suppress it.


‘Well, maybe nobody was watching me closely enough.’


There had been something, but only once. And only fleeting. It was the sort of electric tingling Molly had talked about. Veins and arteries becoming circuits. Evidently, in Lucy’s case, her brain had failed to complete the circuit. And it had only been once. Just the one time.


‘Yeah, well, I know I’ve got magic,’ he said. ‘I just don’t get it.’


He spoke so simply and plainly that she wondered if she was missing something very obvious.


‘But…’ she trailed off. ‘You can’t be a squib if you’ve got magic. Simple as.’


‘I can’t think of any other explanation.’


Silence apart from the rain’s agitated tapping on the leaves.


‘I’m telling the truth,’ he said.


She noticed, for the first time, how he barely blinked. His sincerity, his otherworldliness – it had all knocked her a little senseless. Half of her wanted to leave. The other half was compelled to stay. If there was a possibility that someone might understand…she checked her watch, more looking for a distraction from his unsettling gaze than for the time.


Ten minutes until the next bus home. And the bus only came every hour.


‘It’s okay,’ she said. ‘I believe you. But I have to go home now.’


‘Can I see you again?’


She considered it. ‘Two days’ time?’


‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘The solstice. Weird things happen then.’


*



It had only been once, but it had been something. Vases barely smashed of their own accord in quiet, empty rooms. She had been sitting at the kitchen table on her own when, suddenly – crash – and then shards of pottery had fallen to the floor like rain.


Her parents had been arguing just before. They argued all the time, but it had been an unusual disagreement that had been brewing for days. Lucy couldn’t remember the details but, then again, she had been very young.


She would never forget, however, what magic felt like. Something surging in her head, like – and she was reminded of her sporadic physics lessons at the Academy for the Non-Magically Able – a power socket with multiple extension cables plugged into it, wires so thickly layered in a heap that they resembled some alien wig. An overload. A hot, bright feeling, something sparking in her limbs. For a second she’d seen stars. The vase smashed. And when she fled from the room she happened to pass by the mirror in the hallway and noticed that her hair stood on end, as if she’d rubbed it with a balloon like they sometimes did at parties.


Magic was electric. A little unexplained. It helped to think of it as electricity; it made more sense to her that way. Like magic was mains electricity that wizards and witches could somehow connect to, to draw upon. She was like a plug with a broken fuse, a gap in the connection that could not complete the current. When she explained this to her granddad, he told her it made perfect sense. Magic was illogical and irrational and difficult to get her half-muggle brain around.


Above all, magic was anger.


She resented it.


*



The second time they met, there was nowhere better to go than the woods again. It hadn’t rained again, but the sky had remained a sullen, heavy white. The air, though cold, was perfectly still. It was almost as if there was a total absence of weather, a suspension of nature. The solstice. Weird things happen then. December the twenty-first, day of superstition, day of magic, longest night. She reminded herself to be home before half past four, because the last bit of the walk was always more difficult in the dark.


Weird things never happened to her on the solstice. It was the sort of day she might have spent reading at home, or maybe taking on an extra shift at work. She counted their second meeting as the first weird thing to happen to her in months, perhaps years. There was no way Scorpius could be considered anywhere near normal, even despite the name. He was so unusual that, had he told her he actually came from some barren rock of a planet a million light years away in space, she might have been willing to suspend her disbelief and ask if she could visit.


She spent three hours at work before she met him. The first thing she did after she left the supermarket perimeter was to tear off her orange tabard and shove it into her bag. Then she tried to be formal about it, talking about the tests she’d been through to prove she really was a squib and not some anomaly, some blip in the Hogwarts’ records impeccable history. He didn’t want to know about any of it because, as he said, it was all rather useless. It was obvious he had magic. He just didn’t use it. Or want it.


Instead, he asked her about physics.


Perplexed, she explained as much of the basics as she could until they reached the bench they’d sat on that first day. About her first year physics lessons, which had been muddled up with biology and chemistry and she could only really remember studying the solar system.


She skimmed over nuclear energy and radio waves, electricity and forces – things she hadn’t entirely understood herself at the time – and finished off with the more complicated stuff they tended to wind up their physics lessons talking about. The quantum stuff. She barely understood that either, but it was a lot more interesting than the things she tended to take notes on.


She was midway through explaining the theory they’d discussed so much in their last lesson that she realised it – certainly, he seemed strange to her. But she must have been just as strange to him.


He nodded, though, and asked a lot of questions. And when she was finished, he smiled and said:


‘I think it sounds pretty great.’


*



He didn’t mean for things to vanish around him. It just tended to happen. Most of the other kids talked about their magic cropping up when they were angry; most of the other kids were full of stories about teddybears exploding in the middle of a temper tantrum, windows shattering at the height of a screaming fit. Things just tended to disappear when Scorpius was around. They would always turn up, later, in some bizarre part of the house – a colander from the kitchen would materialise in the bathtub, a flowerpot would appear atop the chimneystack, a book would be placed by some invisible hand upon the swing in the garden.


The strangest thing was that he didn’t feel it. Most of the times, he’d barely even notice that something had vanished unless it was in his line of vision. Things would just…go. But it was unmistakeably him that made them disappear.


As soon as he got his Hogwarts letter and he was taken to buy a wand – the vanishing problem well, vanished. He supposed it was because he was learning to control his magic, even if he wasn’t especially good at it. In all the years he’d been practising magic, though, in lessons and even at some of the remedial one-to-one sessions he’d been forced to attend, he’d never once felt it like everyone else seemed to.


*



‘What?’


‘Sounds great,’ he said. ‘To be a cat in a box, you know?’


She couldn’t suppress a laugh. ‘I don’t know.’


‘Well, the way you explained it…nobody knowing whether you were alive or dead, so you just become a complete non-entity, something that’s dead and alive at the same time and therefore neither…did I get it right? Nobody can prove you exist, so existing isn’t a worry anymore. I mean, who would care if you just…weren’t? If they can’t see you then they can’t care.’


She got his point, and it was like a needle had punctured the air around them. She glanced at the floor, where the hem of her tabard peeked out of her bag. Fluorescent. Nauseating. If there was ever a colour for sickness, it was that fluorescent orange. It felt as if the colour consumed her; the more she wore it, the more the colour gobbled her up and the sicker she felt until she realised she was becoming it.


‘You couldn’t,’ she said. ‘Sooner or later some idiot like me would come along and try to prove your existence.’


‘You’re not an idiot,’ he said blithely. ‘You understand that…quantum stuff.’


‘Barely.’


Silence; they were mutes again. Lucy tore her eyes away from the bag, the tabard: what was the opposite of orange? Blue. The sky was white today. Off-white, with the smudge of a raincloud like a fingerprint on paper. It made her feel a little better. White was like a melting lump of ice in her throat, a stifling relief. The clouds were strangling the sky. She unfolded her hands from her lap and let them slip to her sides; for the briefest of moments, their hands met and it was as if they had completed an electric circuit.


‘You could do with some gloves,’ he said.


Quantum physics to gloves. Somehow their conversations, so far, had turned out to be so banal.
She turned to look at him and noticed, for the first time, how he had the most startling pair of blue eyes. Dark, almost navy, but in the tiny black looking-glasses of the pupils she saw that the sky was reflected twice, so it was almost as if even tinier pupils of the finest china white were dotted in the middle of his eyes. She had read, once, in a book, about how photographers always sought to capture a reflection on the eyes, a gloss of white that would make the subject look more alive.


He asked her more about muggle science, and she didn’t even notice when the hour hand of her watch passed the four.


*



The light of the streetlamps caught the snow as it fell through the dark, stitching the air with shifting white thread. The sky was a sullen, dirty orange, the path icy underfoot. Lucy was scared of the path over the railway bridge, where there was no lighting, no concrete path, only the stubborn darkness and a trail of frosted, skeletal leaves.


They had talked for hours and she still didn’t feel like they’d finished the conversation.
At the bridge, they came to a standstill. She’d walked the bridge path almost every day of her life but, somehow, she didn’t want to go over it tonight. The darkness looked too solid, like a physical barrier.


‘Where do you live?’


‘Over the bridge.’


Lucy glanced to her left. ‘You mean-’


‘Forth Bridge.’


Her smile faltered. ‘Edinburgh. Hearts or Hibs?’


He fixed her with a strange look. In the dull streetlight, he looked completely colourless. ‘Leith. And the Montrose Magpies.’


‘Oh.’


It was dark and she did not want to walk alone when he had reminded her how lonely she’d been.


‘I’m not too far away,’ she said. ‘Do you want a cup of tea before you get the train?’


*



Introducing Scorpius to her father was nothing short of surreal. There was some sort of ancient family feud between the Weasleys and Malfoys that Lucy only half knew about, but thought it was rather decent of her father to at least smile and make the strange boy with the strange name feel at home once he was over the threshold of their little cottage.


She was unused to inviting people into her room, realising the implication of asking Scorpius to follow her upstairs only moments before her father told her to leave the door ajar. She blushed, gripped the bannister with her hand, sternly reminded him that the kettle would be due to come off the boil soon – as if he should suspect that this oddity she’d found in a supermarket car park only two days before could be anything but a friend!


Scorpius followed her in silence, watching the photographs that lined the stairs. Lucy, turning at the top of the stairs, could think of nothing better to say than ‘Yeah. Everyone in my family is ginger.’


Her room was uncharacteristically tidy. She half-wondered if she’d only tidied it in anticipation that he’d be coming back home with her, then realised that, until a few hours ago, she hadn’t even wanted to meet him that much. But he was interesting and, likewise, he seemed to find her patchy knowledge of muggle science interesting. So she let him have the chair before her desk so that he could look through her physics textbook, and she perched on the edge of the bed and watched him closely. It almost looked as if he was searching for something specific.


‘There isn’t…’ he came to the last page of the textbook and set it down on her desk. ‘None of that…quantum stuff.’


‘Oh, god, no,’ she said. ‘That’s not on the syllabus.’


‘I can’t get it out of my head,’ he told her. ‘It’s so complicated, but somehow it makes so much sense.’


‘What, quantum physics?’


‘The thing about putting cats in boxes.’


She gave him a piercing look. ‘It really isn’t, er, normal to be this interested in, well, quantum physics.’


‘Just the cat thing.’


Unlocking the door to face her father and say, hello, dad, this is Scorpius, he’s popped back for some tea had been nothing short of surreal, but his very presence in her room was close to absurdity. Her bedroom walls were a particularly bright shade of blue, the room made claustrophobic by the assorted photographs and paper mementos tacked to the walls. It all had the effect of making him look like a pencil sketch in black and white made physical; a living, breathing monochrome.


A knock on the door interrupted them and her father entered with a mug in each hand. They sipped at the tea in silence again as the footsteps retreated back down the stairs. Lucy wasn’t sure what else she could say.


‘Did you hang out in a car park just to ask me about science?’ she said. ‘Because, you know, a book probably could have told you all that.’


‘I’m not allowed to read muggle books.’


‘Sorry?’


‘My dad doesn’t like them. And I don’t have a muggle library card or anything. You’re the only squib I’d heard of.’


She felt her face go red again. ‘We’re not that common,’ she muttered. ‘Just…a mistake in a million.’


He ignored her last comment. ‘You do muggle and magic stuff, right?’


‘Only the theory of magic. We’re…we’re not allowed wands.’


His face remained impassive. A welcome change from the usual feigned sympathy the we’re not allowed wands line got. ‘I wanted to see if I could do some muggle subjects, really.’


‘Why?’


‘I’m only taking three N.E.W.T.s.’


‘And…’ Lucy frowned. ‘What do you want to do after school?’


‘Find a job. Something that doesn’t need spellwork.’


‘Do you know what I’ll get with half magic, half muggle qualifications and no wand? There’s…they say there’s a scheme the Ministry does that’ll get me a special job.’


‘Oh.’


Her tea suddenly tasted bitter; for a few hours, she’d thought he understood. ‘Do you…do you really realise what that is? Bit of menial work, but of manual labour, maybe I’ll be a secretary if I’m lucky. Benefits, a bedsit in Diagon Alley so they can keep an eye on me. Identity papers and check-ups and sometimes they make you take mandatory Kwikspell courses just in case you get your magic late or something – don’t you realise?’


He looked at her blankly. ‘No.’


‘I’d be shackled to the Ministry forever,’ she said. ‘If I don’t pick their scheme, I don’t get anything, I have to make my way in the muggle world but knowing everything that I know. And people keep telling me that I’ll be lucky, someday I’ll levitate my pet cat down the stairs by mistake and then I can take night classes, and even though the chances of that are so slim they’re negligible they tell it to us every week at school. Do you know how many times I’ve dreamt of making Weatherby float down the stairs? Sorry,’ she said, as his blank look turned to one of confusion. ‘That’s the family cat. But it’s just false hope, do you realise? You don’t want any of that. It’d be a waste of time to take muggle courses, believe me. It’s all just a huge waste of time.’


He looked impassive again; she might have just made a passing remark about the weather.


‘Okay.’


She shook her head. ‘You think you’re a squib. I get the feeling that you wish you were. But you aren’t and you shouldn’t. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.’


‘Oh. Okay.’


‘Family’s the worst,’ she went on. ‘They look at me and mean to say something, but then they don’t know what to say, so they just end up looking at me and I’m tired of only ever seeing other peoples’ eyes and never hearing their voices. I feel like some insect that just flew into the room whenever I’m around them. Seriously. Please, just go back to…to magic school and get those qualifications and live the life everyone expects of you, because it’ll be so much easier.’


‘I already decided I don’t want to go back.’


‘Well,’ she said, then realised she couldn’t think of a single good reason for why he should return to Hogwarts. ‘Tough.’


‘I’m sorry. I just-’


‘You know,’ she interrupted. ‘I…I prefer it when we don’t talk about squibs and stuff. I like talking to you, but I wish you wouldn’t bring it up anymore.’


‘Okay.’


‘We can still talk about physics and stuff if you’d like, I just…stop wishing the worst for yourself.’


‘Okay. That’s okay.’


They lapsed into silence again. Scorpius lifted his mug and blew on the tea to cool it down.


‘It’d be nice if you could visit me,’ he said. ‘Over the bridge. Some day soon.’


‘What, so I can look at your Transfiguration textbooks?’


‘No,’ he said. ‘I just think it would be nice.’


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