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Ignite by Slide
Chapter 12 : False Dawn
 
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 7


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When it all started, Scorpius had begun to count the days of the outbreak. If the Saturday Miranda had vomited on his shoes was Day One, then it wasn’t until Day Three that they had really got the situation remotely under control - “control” being, in this case, a system and anything approaching what would become normalcy.

Normalcy would prove distressingly dull. If there was one thing that could be said for a crisis, Scorpius would have assumed, it was that something was always going on. But without a designated responsibility he was left very much to find and even make his own business, or entertainment.

After having slept in on the designated Day Three he had determined his natural habit of sleeping in for as long as he could get away with wasteful. Normally he might have appreciated the opportunity, but, knowing his fellows were entrenched in actual responsibilities, he was stubbornly committing to not languishing about in a time of trouble.

Selena had wasted no time, once the idea had occurred, in marshalling the services of the House Elves in making the school’s visitors’ rooms ready for use by the five students. Scorpius had tried first, only for Harley to wrinkle his pointed nose and roughly explain how this had “bugger all to do with the crisis situation, and don’t push it, you little gobshite”, clearly inclined to hold a grudge over his and Rose’s manipulation. Selena had seen more success.

By Day Eight, Scorpius had settled into a comfortable pattern. He rose with the sun, harnessing the same keenness he could command if it were an early start for a Quidditch practice regimen for an important game. The guest rooms were small, but they granted privacy, and he’d slept much better there than in the dorm-rooms with all of his friends, boys he’d known for five years, lying around him in various states. Let the House Elves tend to them.

But he showered and dressed, seeing no point in uniform but, despite his mockery of Selena days before, still selecting his clothes with care and accepting - even if he’d never confess to it - that sometimes it felt good to look good. And he’d take whatever he could get in feeling good these days.

It was misleading to say he was the first to rise, but he was always the first to make it to breakfast, and shovelled down bacon and eggs provided by the more obliging House Elves, and a gallon of tea to get himself through the day. Then an extra mug of tea was poured and, knowing where to go even without checking, he took it with him out the door to the Great Hall and to the top of the steps leading down to the courtyard.

Albus stood there, as he had every morning so far, clean and dressed and with his wand extended. He would swish it through a few movements, lips moving inaudibly, and then nod to himself, and Scorpius tried to not interrupt as he set the mug down on the cold stone steps beside him.

Of course, as always, Albus lowered his wand and gave his best friend a crooked grin. ‘Cheers, Scorp.’

‘You could always have breakfast first, you know,’ he said, rubbing his hands together. It was still September, the sun still shone down in the daytime, but for now it lurked behind highlands and trees and though he could see, the air hadn’t shaken off the chill of night.

‘I could,’ said Albus, pausing in his morning routine of checking Hogwarts’ wards remained intact and untouched. ‘But I won’t relax until I know all’s been quiet for the evening. You know me, I like to enjoy my breakfast.’ Still, he clapped Scorpius on the shoulder then bent to pick up the tea, holding it in his free hand as he swished through another spell to check in. ‘All quiet on the west side.’

‘It’s always going to be quiet on the west side, unless something’s come for the Quidditch pitch,’ pointed out Scorpius. ‘It’s east that scares the hell out of me.’ East was the Forbidden Forest.

The instruction by Lockett to maintain the school’s security had been a daunting one, and Scorpius had immediately set about helping Albus, if only in figuring out how to do it. Without access to the Headmaster’s office they’d been forced into the Library, and in the section of the Restricted Section which wasn’t even books, but bound up sheafs of parchment, they’d found a dusty pile marked for the eyes of staff only.

The wards of Hogwarts were ancient and powerful and how to manipulate them was not something one just wrote down and then left lying around. Hermione Granger had promised to dig out her old records on the work that had been done to rebuild them after the War, but so long as they were intact, this was clearly not the top of the priority list.

What they had found was the array of spells used to, at least, ensure the wards were still up and that nothing had tried to breach them, and as Albus ran through the spells, little balls of magical light shimmered into life in front of him, green and reassuring.

‘I’ll leave you to it,’ said Scorpius at last. ‘See you for the patrol.’

Albus just grunted and drank his tea, and Scorpius returned to the Great Hall, returned to the high table and the many plates still adorning it. He stood, poised over the selection of food that had been brought up, and today settled on a buttered muffin and some bacon - because, although he wasn’t really sure what the best choices were, who didn’t like bacon? These were piled onto a plate along with a pot of tea and a mug, and, mindful to not spill anything, he left.

The potions classrooms weren’t especially pleasant at the best of times, and the still, unpleasant silence of the whole school at this hour of the morning was far from such a time. Scorpius couldn’t grasp how anyone could bring themselves to be down here before dawn, and being such on their own was utterly unfathomable to him.

But it was not, evidently, unfathomable to Rose Weasley.

On Day Four, he’d come down to breakfast with Lockett, with Albus, with Selena, and there’d been no sign of either Methuselah or Rose. Lockett had admitted they’d still been in the classroom when she’d gone to bed, and so suspected they’d had a late night. Concerned, Albus and Selena had loaded trays with breakfast and gone up to the rooms.

Suspicious, Scorpius had loaded up a tray and gone right back to the potions classroom.

She was there now, just as she’d been that first day, bent over a stack of parchments, books, and notes. Her hair had gone frizzy, a wild red mane around her head, and her right cheek was streaked with smudged ink she’d likely not realised she’d rubbed across her face.

Rose didn’t look up until he set down the tray in front of her, and her eyes locked greedily onto the mug. ‘Tea?’

He poured. ‘Tea.’ He tried to not roll his eyes as she reached for the mug, and instead settled for looking over her notes. ‘I don’t suppose you’ve unlocked all of our troubles and woes yet?’

‘If you mean a cure, no, Malfoy, of course not, I’d have woken everyone up if that were the case. But I did make some excellent progress.’ A smug smile tugged at her lips, rejuvenated by the power of a mug of hot tea after a sleepless night.

He picked up the nearest book. ‘"Darkest Curses and Malyces". Sounds charming and pretentious - I thought this was an illness?’

‘By definition, if it is an intentional spell of Dark Magic which leads to a physical impairment, it’s a curse,’ Rose reeled off, taking the book from him briskly. ‘The only difference is that this one is contagious, which I suspect is actually a sophisticated variation developed, via ritual, upon an already-existing curse.’

‘Which one?’

She wrinkled her nose. ‘I don’t know,’ Rose admitted. ‘But we’ve been going through some tests and we think we’ve begun to narrow down the kind of curse and contagion it is. Most significantly, we’re rather sure it’s the kind of curse which only affects humans.’

‘Well, obviously,’ said Scorpius, ‘or the owls and the House Elves and everyone’s pets would be ill. And we aren’t that lucky, at least not with your bloody cat.’

‘Artemis is lovely; just because she stole your food -’

‘She’s a miserable breakfast thief and she hates me.’

‘Hm. She likes sausages, she hates you. I think she has impeccable taste.’ Rose tilted her nose in the air.

‘You like sausages best?’ Scorpius frowned. ‘Then I’m glad I brought you bacon today.’

‘And I shall thoroughly enjoy it, Malfoy, just to spite you,’ said Rose, taking up her plate defiantly.

He didn’t have an answer to that, and like all good debaters chose to not remotely show he’d conceded a point and thus changed the subject. ‘So why is it at all useful to know this only affects humans?’

‘Well, we’re going to have to make sure of it first, and Professor Lockett is brewing up a batch of some of her potions and we’ll see what kind of effect that’s going to have, but - it should allow us to send owls back and forth, as they won’t be carriers and just spread the illness.’

Scorpius blinked, impressed. ‘That is good news. Are we sure?’

‘No, which is why we want to do some testing first, and we might even have to test the bloody owls, but it’s a start. Unfortunately it’ll probably still be too risky to use Floo, at least until we know more, and it’ll probably be another week with brewing the potions, though Mum said that the ingredients should be delivered today, so if you and Albus could make sure they get here safe...’

‘What time?’

‘I don’t know, Mum’ll tell us when she checks in.’ Rose suppressed a yawn.

He frowned. ‘You could get some sleep, you know, Weasley. The sky won’t fall in. Lockett keeps hospitable hours.’

‘I work best at night, and anyway, I want to be up to talk to Mum so there’s no point in me going to bed just to wake up in an hour or so.’

‘You want to report in? I can pass on a message.’

Rose hesitated. ‘No, thank you,’ she said, a little primly. ‘I’d just like to talk to my mother.’

The confession was honest, a little too honest for Scorpius’ liking, and he fiddled with the stack of parchments before saying, ‘So how did you figure out about this curse?’

And then she was off, just like he’d counted on, talking about the diagnosis spells they had used and the potions they had already been applying and the results those had seen, but most of the words and technical terms flew thick and thin and over his head.

It was a little peculiar. Scorpius had never thought of himself as stupid, and indeed, most of his teachers had impressed upon him that he could have done very well academically if he actually applied himself. Scorpius, for his part, preferred to apply himself to people and Quidditch and his music, and so sauntered through his academic career on some natural talent and a lot of last-minute rush-jobs. This was well enough for studies which benefited from that talent and a spot of practical improvisation, but it had promised him already a rather average NEWT in Potions if he didn’t keep up on the essential principles learnt early.

He knew Rose was smart, but he’d always put a certain amount of her success down to being swotty. Assumed that if he, too, bothered to apply himself as much, sacrificed as much fun and energy as she did, he could do just as well. It was simply that he chose not to.

Witnessing the work she’d been doing with Professor Lockett, an acknowledged expert in her field, had made it abundantly clear to him that she simply operated on a different playing field to him. And that it had to be rather galling for Rose Weasley to have been gifted with a once-in-a-generation mind - only to be overshadowed at every turn by Methuselah Jones, a once-in-a-century mind.

But it was almost as if she’d read his thoughts, because halfway through talking about the different magical signatures for curses that affected only humans, Rose stopped mid-sentence and said, ‘So are you bringing breakfast to Jones, too?’

He made a face. ‘I would, but last time I did, I couldn’t find him and then when I finally figured out the bloody Ravenclaw Tower riddle to get in to where he was, he didn’t eat it. So bugger him. I made Albus tea, Weasley, don’t worry yourself and take this as any sort of indication I’m stalking you.’

‘It doesn’t prove you’re not. You could be stalking Albus, too.’

‘He’s not my type.’

She rolled her eyes. ‘Oh, I forgot, you prefer them blonde, leggy, and brainless.’

‘Albus is leggy,’ Scorpius argued. ‘But I am shocked you think me so superficial, Weasley. I could have depths.’

She quirked an eyebrow. ‘You could. Do you?’

‘Are you going to take the time to find out?’ Scorpius smirked and folded his arms across his chest. ‘I could be an enigma. I know you love a puzzle.’

Rose was saved from having to answer that by the sound of footsteps at the door, which swung open to allow in a rather grouchy-faced, wild-haired Lockett, who carried a huge, steaming mug. ‘Malfoy, stop disturbing my assistant,’ she said.

‘I brought her breakfast!’ Scorpius said indignantly. ‘And she’s not your assistant!’ He suspected the Potions Professor had been regressing to her old habits as a researcher, and while it was clearly having productive results in the hunt for a cure it wasn’t making her the easiest person to live with.

‘With the crazy hours Weasley keeps, it’s her dinner. You do know a normal sleep pattern’s good for the mind?’ This last was addressed to Rose herself, who stuck her nose in the air.

‘This way someone’s working all hours of the night. I think we’re fine in shifts, Professor.’

‘Isn’t Jones working some sort of shift?’ Scorpius wondered.

‘Jones runs off to the Library, Ravenclaw Tower, or wherever he fancies on any occasion for any reason,’ Lockett sighed. ‘Sometimes he’ll disappear for hours and provide the next piece of the puzzle we’re cracking on, or we won’t see him until dinner and he’s got nothing to show for it, like the day before yesterday.’

‘I’m not sure he’s the most useful person to have on a research team,’ said Rose.

‘He’s brilliant.’ Lockett was clearly talking about Methuselah’s mind rather than issuing outright approval as she took her tea to her chair at the potions worktable. ‘But I’ve seen his ilk before; he couldn’t work with a team to save his life.’

‘Let’s just hope he doesn’t have to work on a team to save everyone else’s lives,’ said Rose.

‘He’s young. He might grow out of it.’

‘I don’t think we really have time for growth.’

Scorpius jerked a thumb at the door. ‘I’m... going to go,’ he said awkwardly. ‘I’ll see you at the morning briefing.’

Even before he was out of earshot they had tumbled into familiar discussion, going over the latest results from the potions tests, enwrapped in debate and analysis of different curses. He was just glad he was leaving it far behind rather than being expected to make sense of it all, let alone join in or contribute.

In a time of crisis, Scorpius had found his most useful contribution was to become the tea boy.

He was just passing the entrance to the Slytherin common room when the stone doorway swung open, and out stepped Selena, the little form of Foreman Harley trotting alongside her, obliging as ever - and now scowling at Scorpius as he was spotted.

Selena herself straightened with a genteel smile. ‘Scorpius. How’re our intrepid team faring?’ It was just like her, he thought, to fail to scrub a hint of arrogant disapproval when talking about the people trying to save them all.

‘Intrepid, sleep-deprived, and crazy. Our chances are excellent,’ Scorpius drawled, then inclined his head to Harley. ‘Foreman, what a delightful morning -’

‘Your chance to bootlick’s been and gone, Little Malfoy; you can bugger off.’

Selena arched an indulgent eyebrow. ‘Mister Harley, please, Scorpius is a well-respected -’

‘Miss Rourke, you know it is a pleasure to work for you,’ said Harley, stiff but not insincere, ‘but the Malfoy name ain’t a well-respected nothing amongst House Elves.’

Scorpius blinked. ‘We still keep Tilley in the house -’

‘Aye, a non-union Elf. Nice try, Malfoy, but you know you’ve been black-listed by every union. No House Elf with a mite of self-respect takes work off your family.’

So it hadn’t just been his natural charisma which had set the Foreman against him quite so vociferously. It came down, as most things inevitably did, to his father. Scorpius shoved his hands in his pockets and sighed. ‘I was just saying good morning.’ He could have protested, but he knew from long experience that railing against reputation - his own, his father’s, his grandfather’s - was nothing but wasteful tacking into the wind. Instead, he looked back at Selena. ‘How’re the Slytherins?’

‘Most remain fast asleep or were due potions to make them sleep; the Elves have been little darlings in bringing those awake enough to read some more books.’

‘You’re a regular Saint Mungo’s Matron.’

‘Buggery, I hope not.’ Selena looked aghast at the thought. ‘I’m not tending to them; that’s the Elves’ job. I’m just here for the register and to confirm all’s well. Oakes had begun to drool something green in his sleep; do you think I’m actually going to mop that up? Have you seen these robes?’

Since Scorpius himself was drawing comfort from a shirt that was comfortable even when buttoned up to his neck, it was the height of hypocrisy to judge Selena Rourke for prizing her immaculately-cut robes in a crisis. Of course, he did it anyway, silently, and carried on. ‘Of course,’ he said. ‘How foolish of me. Is Warwick all right?’

‘Who?’

‘Warwick, Tim Warwick, second year. I was going to check up on him, but if he’s asleep...’

‘Oh, out like a light.’ Selena looked over her badly-scribbled notes. ‘Sleeping more peacefully than most of the second years, according to the elves.’

‘Great. Have you seen Jones?’

‘Methuselah?’ An immaculate eyebrow was arched with an edge of despair. ‘He’s back in Ravenclaw Tower. Apparently they have their own little library there which he likes to work in. But we really must be carrying on, Scorpius, though it’s always delightful to see you.’

‘No, wait -’ He waved at them to stop as they carried on, Harley leading her down the corridor and likely in the direction of the Hufflepuff dorm-rooms, but they didn’t wait, and Scorpius was left scowling at an empty corridor.

He’d hoped to ask them for the answer to the Ravenclaw Tower riddle. Then again, he assumed Harley would have figured it out, and would probably give him the wrong answer out of spite. Or give him the right answer, knowing Scorpius would likely be too suspicious to use it.

Best to test his own mettle. Again. Unpleasantly.

He didn’t hurry his way up the stairs, but sooner than he’d have liked he was stood in front of the hefty oak door that led up to Ravenclaw Tower, and that dastardly knocker was animating, the metal eagle’s head lifting up to face him, its beak opening for that awful, dreary voice to utter:

‘How many months have twenty-eight days.’

Scorpius scowled. ‘That’s easy. One, Feb-’ Then he stopped, and narrowed his eyes at the knocker. ‘Oh, no. No. It’s not that easy. You don’t do riddles, do you, you do trick questions. The answer’s going to be something like “none”, isn’t it, because February sometimes has twenty-nine days. So. There’s my answer. None.’ And he folded his arms across his chest, glaring triumphantly at the door-knocker.

Neither it nor the door itself moved. Not in three seconds, not in five, not in ten, and just as Scorpius was wondering if he’d inadvertently ended up in a staring contest with an inorganic object, the eagle’s beak cracked open again.

‘How many months have twenty-eight days.’

‘This is ridiculous,’ Scorpius snapped. ‘We’re in the middle of a crisis and you will continue to ask your bloody stupid riddles? I don’t even have urgent business with Jones! He might not even be up here! People are getting sicker and sicker and you just can’t bring yourself to let me through? Who the hell cares about the stupid riddle?’

‘How many months -’

‘I don’t have to put up with this shit from the Fat Lady!’ Scorpius was practically hopping on the spot. ‘All of the other houses have just had fixed, unchanging passwords which we all know so we can get in there! You know, in case of a crisis! Like the one we’re in the middle of! Only you, you stupid metal bird, continue to give a crap about ongoing tradition!’

‘How many -’

‘Oh, shut up! I don’t care! Some months have thirty-one, or thirty, or...’ Then clarity hit, sudden and bright for its illumination and sharp for that it was so obvious his cheeks couldn’t help but burn with shamed frustration, and he was only glad nobody was there to witness this second entanglement.

Scorpius folded his arms across his chest. ‘...all of them,’ he mumbled at last, and scowled as the door finally swung open in front of him. ‘You just cook these up to try to make me look stupid, didn’t you?’ The door-knocker remained immobile, but Scorpius could have sworn it was laughing at him as he climbed the stairs up into the Ravenclaw common room.

This time it was devoid of the mass of students he’d seen last time, the infected tucked away in their dorm-rooms to be monitored and cared for by the House Elves, likely supervised by Selena Rourke only at a distance. It was creepy, Scorpius was starting to think, to stand in these common rooms, which just looked like they would if everyone was out for a class or it were a particularly sunny day, as if everything was normal. As if students would come pouring in at any moment to bring fuss and life back to the place.

But they wouldn’t.

A muttering from the far side of the common room, away from the comfortable chairs and the desks, and towards where the stacks of Ravenclaw House’s own small library stood, caught his attention, and Scorpius padded over. ‘Jones?’

He didn’t see any sign of movement, just the muttering which echoed around him, and so as he peered around one bookshelf he almost jumped out of his skin at the footsteps behind him.

‘Malfoy! No interruptions. Too busy.’

Scorpius wheeled around to see Methuselah Jones, a small stack of books in his arms. ‘Jones, I only came up to -’

‘No time to talk. Busy.’ But Methuselah hesitated, then shoved the books into his arms. ‘Carry these.’

‘It’s half past eight, Jones, I -’

‘Doesn’t matter. Been here all night. Brought books down from Main Library. Important developments.’ Methuselah whirled on his heel and went back down into the stacks, and with a sigh, Scorpius followed him.

‘Yeah, look, I heard, Weasley told me about how we can probably use owls -’

‘Owls? Irrelevant. Far bigger matters afoot. Cure may prove pointless.’

Scorpius did stop at this, cocking his head. ‘Pointless?’

‘Moderately so. Curing students is irrelevant if source of curse cannot be found.’ Methuselah didn’t look round, just peered at the shelves with an intense frown.

‘Source?’

‘Indeed. Something - likely ritual performed on Day Zero - lies at root of infection. Contagion from there is inevitable. But subjects if cured will just be infected again. Unless can end source or analyse and duplicate reason for our immunity.’

‘Immunity?’

Methuselah stopped and turned to face Scorpius at last. ‘Is this mockery, Malfoy?’

‘What?’

‘This discussion. Your contribution has been solely repetition. Common form of mockery -’

Scorpius shifted the books under one arm and lifted his free hand. ‘I’m confused, Jones, that’s all. I guess we are immune, but do you know how?’

‘No.’ Methuselah frowned, then took a step closer. ‘If I conducted tests -’

Then suddenly Scorpius remembered why he’d come here and why time was a rather urgent matter. ‘Oh, no, well, maybe, later.’ He took a brisk step back. ‘I just came up to remind you it’s time for the morning briefing with Ms Granger. I thought you might have lost track of time.’

‘Time. Yes.’ Methuselah’s gaze landed on the tall grandfather clock back in the main common room. ‘Not enough. Never enough. Still work to do, must remain here. Inform me if anything of note is reported.’

‘Well, since you asked so nicely...’ Scorpius hesitated. Snark was one thing. Being used as a test subject by Methuselah Jones was not something he wanted to risk by hanging around for any longer than was necessary. So instead he nodded quickly. ‘Yeah. Sure. I’d best head down now if I want to be there on time...’

Methuselah didn’t stop him from going - indeed, seemed to lose interest in his very existence the moment Scorpius put down the pile of books gingerly and walked away from the stacks - but this discussion had taken rather longer than Scorpius had originally hoped, and so he was the last person to make it into the Great Hall, the other four already sat in the chairs they’d pulled up days ago and left in a circle around the spot where Hermione Granger’s patronus regularly manifested.

Albus looked up. ‘No Jones?’

‘He’s hard at work,’ said Scorpius, and spun his finger in a circle around his temple. ‘Talking about how a cure for the curse is going to be pointless.’

Lockett arched an eyebrow. ‘He’s still on that?’

‘He’s not wrong, though, is he?’ wondered Scorpius, pulling up his chair next to Albus. ‘I mean, if something made everyone ill in the first place, is it just going to make everyone ill again even if you guys do manage to cook up a cure?’

‘There’s no telling if whatever cursed everyone is continuing to do so; the curse seems sufficiently contagious entirely by itself once it’s out,’ said Lockett, tilting her head. ‘But also, any ritual to continuously churn out the curse would be tailor-made for the curse itself. So it’s a fine thing to theorise over, but before we figure out both cure and future prevention, we need to properly identify the curse anyway. Which is what Weasley and I are working on.’

Scorpius’ eyes landed on the rather pale Rose. ‘Are you actually going to get some sleep after this, or do we get to see your zombie impression all day?’

She wrinkled her nose. ‘I don’t try to look good for you, Malfoy.’

He opened his mouth to issue a retort, hesitating only because any of his comebacks seemed unnecessarily harsh at that moment - and was saved by the familiar silver shimmer of the air, and the warping and twisting of the appearance of the otter that was Hermione Granger’s patronus.

They’d been through this many times already, and just as before, Scorpius only sat back and let everyone else do the talking. Hermione and Professor Lockett talked shop a little over the research, reporting what both sides had found, but they agreed that the recent discovery was promising. Communicating by letter would make it easier not just for the official correspondence, but also for anxious parents who wanted to hear and send something more personal, and anything which narrowed down their definition and identification of the curse of this illness was valuable.

Selena gave her usual report, and Scorpius couldn’t help but note that it was just like her to have given herself a position of apparent importance, checking up on all of the ill, when in practice she did very little and had the House Elves run around doing it for her. Albus similarly gave the update, but included his reservations that he hadn’t done his full patrol of the perimeter yet.

The otter perked up at this. ‘Oh, good,’ it said. ‘If you’re heading out, I’ll have the crates of potions ingredients dispatched from Hogsmeade at once. You can make for the southern entrance to receive and deliver those, perhaps?’

Albus brightened, always happy to have something productive to do. ‘Thanks, Aunt Hermione,’ he said. ‘If you get them up in an hour, we can do a full sweep and end it on the pickup.’

The rest of the catch-up was nothing which Scorpius cared for - a little bit of an update on the state of things outside of Hogwarts, of how Wizarding Britain had all but creaked to a halt with the catastrophe that had befallen the school. But where Albus, and Rose, and even Selena looked rather fraught when the notion of the outside world worrying about them came up, Scorpius could not bring himself to share in their tension.

It wasn’t as if the outside world would be giving a fig about him.

But he could see the tension in Albus, and heard it in his voice when the patronus finally winked out of existence and his best friend got to his feet, clapping him on the shoulder. ‘Come on, Scorp. We’ll have to be quick if we want to meet up with this delivery.’

‘If it’s the blackwing eyes we’ve been asking for, Professor, we’re likely to be pretty busy -’ Rose began, standing, but everyone save Selena rounded on her at once.

‘Get some sleep, Weasley,’ was Lockett’s curt instruction. ‘There’s nothing I’ll be doing which won’t require hours to brew anyway. If you must be up in the middle of the night, then you’re going to bloody well sleep during the day.’

‘Or you could, you know, keep hospitable hours like everyone else?’ Scorpius suggested lightly.

She made a face. ‘I tried to,’ she said. ‘I just kept waking up with the dawn and there isn’t any food yet ready.’

Scorpius gave a lopsided smile. ‘I’ll tell you what,’ he said. ‘If you sleep at night, when you get up really early I’ll bring you tea and breakfast down the moment it’s ready?’

Of course, he managed to extend such a generous offer sounding more patronising than kind, as was his intention, and he only grinned more broadly as Rose narrowed her eyes. ‘Do try to not fall off your broomstick out there today, Malfoy.’

He beamed. ‘What do I keep telling you, Weasley? I’ll come back, every time.’

But he didn’t wait for a response, just turned on his heel in time to catch Albus rolling his eyes wearily, and the two of them left the Great Hall, heading down towards the Slytherin Quidditch changing rooms. Although there was no need for team colours, the Quidditch padding and goggles made good sense when they weren’t sure what they might see, and sometimes did some fairly low-to-the-ground flying if they had to investigate any particular oddity in and around the boundaries of Hogwarts.

As ever, they started with the east side, flying along the edge of the Forbidden Forest. Normally the trees played tricks with their eyes, rustling and making it seem like something was moving in and amongst them, but today the wind was low, the sun bright, and the air still.

Scorpius knew Albus didn’t really need him to come along on these routine patrols, knew that Albus could quite comfortably fend for himself, but in all honesty going for a fly together was shaping up to be the best part of his day. They could leave the grim and dreary feel of the school behind, the empty corridors and worried frowns and suffering siblings, and be surrounded by nothing but the sky.

On a fine day like this, neither one of them could resist the odd stunt - a sweep unnecessarily close to the Whomping Willow, sudden dives at the ground pulled out of with inches to spare, and as they swept anti-clockwise around the Hogwarts grounds, conducting tight formation flight for fun as they moved south, Scorpius was honestly beginning to believe that everything would, maybe, be all right.

Albus dived lower as they approached the path towards Hogsmeade, the closed and barred gates at the edge of the school grounds in sight. He pointed downwards. ‘There! You see them?’

Scorpius squinted - then he could see them, two stout crates about as tall as he was. They’d been transfigured to have legs and trot merrily along into the quarantine zone of their own accord, but the magic was clearly beginning to fizzle out, and they were slowing down. As the two fliers got closer, they could see one of them had lost a leg entirely, and was being dragged along the pavings by the three others before it came to a stumbling, pathetic halt.

‘There’s got to be a whole lot of stuff in here,’ said Scorpius, pulling up on the ground alongside one of the crates.

‘Potions ingredients. You know what it’s like, mate,’ sighed Albus, looking the crates up and down. ‘They waste all sorts on test batches, botched batches, and the like. But I suppose they waste less than us, and that’s why Professor Lockett’s a professional.’

‘That, and I bet her experiments don’t blow up.’

‘Your experiments don’t blow up, Scorp. You blow things up on purpose.’ But Albus was grinning as he propped his goggles onto his forehead, and drew his wand. ‘Come on. Let’s just levitate one of these each and we can...’

But his voice trailed off and his brow furrowed and, as if he’d heard something, his gaze went east. Scorpius cocked his head in confusion for a moment before he, too, heard it: high-pitched chirps and chants and shouts, quiet for the moment, but numerous and growing in number.

‘What’s...’

Then he saw them. Coming from over the rise, in the direction of the Forbidden Forest, more than twenty of them. Little shapes, smaller even than the House Elves, but with looks of violent malevolence that even Foreman Harley, in all his outrage, couldn’t begin to muster. Their eyes glinted red, their teeth were sharp, and they waved around long wooden poles with vicious metal, curved ends.

‘What the hell are they,’ Scorpius asked flatly, drawing his wand.

Albus didn’t take his eyes from the approaching shapes as he yanked his goggles back down and brandished his own wand. ‘Redcaps,’ he said, voice level and cold. ‘Lots of them.’

And they were headed right for the two of them and their crates.


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