Chapter 14 : Burning Question
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'What did you see?'
'Ow. Ow. Ow. Stoppit.' Scorpius batted Rose's hand, and the ointment-soaked cloth that stung so as she dabbed at his cuts, away. 'These cuts won't kill me. That stinging might.'
'You great big baby -'
'Hey, I lured away and fought a mob of Redcaps! Doesn't that win me any points, oh almighty Gryffindor?'
'It does from me.' Albus leant across the dinner table from where Methuselah had been tending to his injuries - rather worse than Scorpius' after he'd been tackled off his broom, his split lip swelling - to punch his best friend on the arm. 'That was awesome.'
Jones made a noise of frustration. 'Potter. Don't move.''
'Awesome?' Rose's nose wrinkled. 'He almost died!'
Scorpius smirked. 'And yet, here I am.'
She narrowed her eyes. 'Yes, yes, and that makes me unlucky, and then you grin even more repugnantly, and we do ten rounds like that. But if you want me to stop seeing to those cuts, fine!' She draped the cloth on the edge of the ointment-filled bowl, and stood.
'But... I'm... injured...'
'Your obnoxiousness is more severe than your injuries, Malfoy.' Rose stalked across the aisle in the Great Hall to sit next to where Selena was lounging, more interested in filing her nails than listening. 'But we have to leave that to fester, too, because there's no ointment for it.'
Scorpius picked up the cloth forlornly, then turned pleading eyes on Selena. 'Could you... my cheek...'
Selena raised an imperious eyebrow. 'Do I look like a future applicant to Saint Mungo's?'
He gaped at the unexpected alliance against him as Rose Weasley and Selena Rourke smirked in unison, and turned across the table. 'Jones...'
'Busy. Potter. More severe than you.' Methuselah was applying something that looked more like paste to the yellow and swelling patch around Albus' right eye. 'Severe cuts aptly seen to by Weasley. Remainder purely cosmetic. Possibly scarring or misshapen -'
'Misshapen what?' Scorpius snatched up the small, round mirror that sat on the table. 'I don't want a misshapen anything. Scars are fine, birds dig scars...'
'Then you'd best get to applying the ointment instead of pestering me or bellyaching about how hard it is.' Rose peered at him. 'And what did you see?'
'I told you!' Scorpius pulled off his thick woollen Quidditch sweater. 'Just... flashes. Images. Like someone shoved a malfunctioning Chocolate Frog card in my brain. Except, it was an evil Chocolate Frog card.' Then he stood and began unbuttoning the shirt underneath.
Rose straightened half an inch. 'What are you doing?'
'I got jabbed at by a Redcap right here.' Scorpius paused to tug at a rip in the grey shirt, the edges of it stained red. 'Thank Merlin for Quidditch padding because it hurt - but I don't think it's serious...'
She coloured a little. 'You didn't say -'
'Did you want to dab ointment on my bare chest?' As if to illustrate his point, he shamelessly shrugged out of his shirt and tossed it onto the table. Albus and Jones were impassive, Selena merely quirked an eyebrow before returning to the more pressing matter of her cuticles, but Rose flapped her hands in flustered apology.
'You could've -'
'It's fine. See?' Scorpius looked down at himself. What could have been a serious effort to deny him his kidneys had been off-set by poor aiming and the thick leather of his Quidditch uniform. That had been torn through, but it had absorbed the worst of the jab, and there was just a cut running along the right side of his ribcage, not deep enough to worry him with more than niggling pain.
But it did niggle. He reached for the cloth and ointment.
'Trust you to find an excuse to get your shirt off,' muttered Selena, unimpressed.
'And all it took for me to cavort topless in the Great Hall was getting stabbed! Brilliant!' Scorpius made a face as he dabbed at the cut across his ribs. 'This was a superb plan.'
'I'd like to point out,' said Rose, still a little pink, 'that Albus took a far worse beating than you and he's not complained once.'
'That's because Potter shouldn't move. Isn't that right, Potter?' said Methuselah tensely.
'I'm pretty much his captive here,' Albus agreed. 'And it's no good, Rose. I got beaten up because I stupidly let myself get too close. Scorp got beaten up saving the day.'
'And your precious ingredients,' Scorpius added. 'I'm not seeing some proper gratitude!'
'We're all very grateful, Malfoy. Now can someone help him so he can put his shirt on quicker and we can get down to business?' This was Lockett, coming in through the doors and holding a small, stoppered vial in her hand.
Scorpius smirked at Rose. 'Don't be afraid to get close, Weasley.'
'Oh, for heaven's sake. Jones, I'll swap with you.' She stood, waving her hands at Methuselah, who looked rather put out at the rearrangement but obligingly went to help out Scorpius.
Albus, obviously keen to divert everyone back to business, obligingly rolled up his sleeves so Rose could see to his arm and looked over at Lockett. 'Did you find it, Professor?'
'I found something which might help.' Lockett went to sit down next to Selena, turning the vial over in her hands. 'A Potion of Alleviation.'
Methuselah wrinkled his nose. 'But Malfoy's been Obliviated -'
'And under normal circumstances an Obliviation shouldn't have been affected by a Finite Incantatum,' said Rose. 'So I guess a potion to remove a curse or alleviate its symptoms is as good a starting point as any.'
'If it does nothing,' agreed Lockett, 'then I'll set about brewing an Elixir of Remembrance, but those are complicated and take time; anything to fully undo an Obliviation always is. But I found this in Madam Pheasey's supplies, and it's not as if it's any use for anything else we're doing.'
Scorpius pulled his shirt back on once Methuselah was done. 'So what're we waiting for?' He held out his hand.
Lockett stood to pass over the vial 'You'd better sit down. If this works, it won't be a pleasant experience.'
'So what else is new?' He sat, and Albus moved to perch on the table behind him, despite Rose's mumbled protestations, planting a reassuring hand on his shoulder. He pulled off the stopper. 'So what do I drink to?'
'Let's try answers, Malfoy, hmm?' muttered Rose.
'Good idea!' he proclaimed, then drank. And immediately threw his head back, flat of his hand coming to press quickly against his temple. 'Ow. Ow. Ow!'
Albus' hold on his shoulder tightened. 'You all right, mate?'
'Ow. Wait.' Scorpius blinked. 'Not ow. This is weird. Super weird. But not painful. Kind of like painful, like someone's reached into my brain and ripped it open, but...' Then his expression sank. 'Oh, Merlin.'
Rose moved around the table fussily. 'What did you see?'
'Give him a minute,' said Albus protectively.
'I'm just trying to solve this entire mystery -'
'One minute, Rose, Merlin!'
'Weasley's right. Too much delay already. We must -'
'That's enough.' This was Lockett, who'd sat back down, hands clasped in her lap. She didn't raise her voice but Rose, Albus, and Methuselah all fell silent and everyone's eyes landed on Scorpius, who was bent forwards, rubbing his temples.
'I got caught. On Day Zero, out in the Forest,' he said, after what felt like a lifetime of silence. 'After the big wave of light and magic in the clearing. It was... it knocked me for six, I was on my back, disorientated. And then... then I was grabbed. Some big guy in big robes, I didn't get a proper look at him, but he dragged me over towards the big fire.'
He gritted his teeth, brow furrowing as he concentrated. 'It was dying down, but it looked like it had been big, a huge, roaring bonfire of a thing. The remains of it were still about as big as Albus. There were, what, maybe half a dozen wizards in dark robes? And markings on the floor around the bonfire, all sorts of symbols and...'
Then Rose was pressing parchment and a pencil into his hands. 'Draw them,' she urged. 'Anything you can remember -'
Albus stiffened. 'Rose, really -'
'No, she's right.' Scorpius scowled as he bent over the pencil, sketching away what sigils and markings he could remember, even as he continued. 'I was pretty out of it. I did ask them what they were doing, what was going on... and only one of them answered. He was the only one I got a good look at, but he must have been in charge.
'Tall. Blond. Good-looking, if you like that kind of cheek-bones thing. Pretty young, probably not more than ten years older than us. One of them called him "Thane". I don't know if that was his name or if old Scottish titles are some sort of "in" thing with evil ritualists these days.
'Anyway, he pretty much told me to shut up and not ask questions. That was about when some of the others came in dragging Al and Weasley - you two were unconscious already, they said. They didn't seem surprised by this, that the... the wave... had knocked you out? And this "Thane" guy said they should take a look around the area, see if there are any more. And he asked me if there were...'
Scorpius' frown deepened, and he sat up. 'I told him to... well, I told him to piss off. Then he... ugh.' He brought his hand to the side of his head. 'I think he used Legilimency on me; waved his wand and then it was like something was slicing my head... and he was pissed off. Told the others there were three more, sent some of the wizards off after you guys, but then he knew who Al and Weasley were - knew who their parents were - and he was really freaked.'
Rose cocked her head. 'Freaked?'
He bit his lip. 'I really think he was planning on killing us before he found out who you were. Kept swearing about his foul luck for capturing Harry Potter's son. Said we'd all be more trouble than we were worth and that they might as well ditch us, it wasn't as if we could do anything about "it" anyway. Assuming "it" to be the ritual. And it looked like they were packing up, putting things away, getting ready to leave. But they did say they weren't too far from camp, and something about... keeping an eye on things?'
Albus looked up at Lockett, eyes flashing. 'They might still be in the area.'
'Might,' Lockett said quietly, and looked at Scorpius. 'Go on.'
'It took maybe another ten minutes before some of the others brought you three in. You were all out of it, too. And they argued a bit about what to do, some of them said they should just kill us all, but Thane overruled them. Said that none of us had seen anything but me, and they could just wipe my memories, though one of them said the ritual might make that... tough. Didn't say why.' Scorpius shrugged. 'Then they knocked me out. Next thing I remember is waking up in the Infirmary.'
Albus let out a low whistle. 'That's on the one hand really useful,' he said, 'and at the same time, not.'
'It's very useful,' said Rose, reaching to take the parchment Scorpius had finished scribbling his half-recalled symbols on. 'We have these - it might give us a clue what the ritual was, exactly. And we have a name.'
'Thane,' murmured Lockett. 'It could be a title. I don't recognise it.'
'Ritual interfered with an Obliviation,' Methuselah piped up. 'Specific form of magic. Likely a protective element? Partially shielded Malfoy against the effects. Hence a simple dispelling breaking it down. Normally takes specific spell or specific proof of memories being inaccurate to interfere. Narrows down nature of an aspect of ritual.'
'If this ritual was used to spread the illness,' said Rose thoughtfully, 'it would make sense for there to be a protective aspect? I guess that they didn't want to catch it, after all.'
'And none of us were infected,' Lockett agreed. 'We might have been caught in the same part of the spell that kept those responsible for all of this safe. We're going to have a lot to talk about with your mother tomorrow, Weasley.'
Albus frowned at Scorpius, whose head was bent over, his lips moving. 'Scorp? There something else?'
'Phlegmatic? That's not it.' Scorpius raised his head, looking irritated. 'There's a word they used. To do with the ritual - I don't know if it was the ritual, or the illness, or something else, it's all a bit fuzzy.'
'And the word's "phlegmatic"?' said Rose dubiously.
'That's not it,' he repeated. 'Something else. Phlegen. Phlegeton?'
Methuselah cocked his head. 'Phlegethon.'
Scorpius snapped his fingers. 'That's it.'
'And... that's what, exactly?' Selena looked thoroughly nonplussed.
'Unsure,' said Methuselah. 'Matches no curse, or ritual, or potion, that I know of -'
'It's Ancient Greek,' said Lockett, voice dour, expression rather pinched, tense. 'It means "flaming".'
Albus squinted. 'I don't see what that has to do with anything.'
'It's also the name of a river in Greek mythology. Plato would have us believe it was made of fire.' She ran a hand through her hair, and let out a deep breath. 'It's one of the rivers into Hades, the underworld. The realm of the dead.'
'Rose? Hey, Rose!'
She stopped as Albus' footsteps thudded along the corridor, pausing with one hand on the door to the guest bedroom she'd claimed. Selena had set them up all along one corridor, the five of them. While it was a technical improvement over sharing a room with her sick and unconscious housemates, the isolation, after years spent at Hogwarts where privacy was next to impossible, was sometimes disquieting.
It was why she liked being up at night more than around during the day. Hogwarts corridors being silent at night was nothing new to her; it was the only peace and quiet she'd ever enjoyed, wandering the halls on patrols as a prefect. If she was up and about at night, she could pretend the eerie silence was normal. She could imagine everyone would be up with the dawn.
But right then she'd been up for approaching twenty hours of fairly solid work, and couldn't care less that her room was isolated and depressing. It had a bed in it. So she turned only reluctantly to her cousin, pushing the door to her room open pointedly. 'What is it, Al?'
She felt immediately guilty once he drew close and she got a good look at him. Despite Scorpius' bellyaching, Albus had certainly taken the worse of the beatings. The charms and ointments would do their work to bring down the swelling, see that cut lip knit together quickly and neatly, but for the moment he still looked like he'd been through the wringer.
'Are you... I just...' Albus came to a halt, looking between her and the door, and his shoulders sagged. 'No, never mind. You need some sleep.'
'No, I -' She reached out to grab him by the sleeve as he went to turn away. 'I'm sorry. I am tired, but that's no excuse. Are you okay?'
He gave a twist of a smile as bitter as she'd ever seen from him. 'Now you ask.'
Albus shifted his feet, looking ashamed and indignant all at once. 'I came here to make sure you're all right.'
Normally she would have believed him. Normally he wouldn't have been looking at her like that. 'No, what did you mean by that?'
He looked around anxiously, and she tugged him into her room, nudging the door shut behind them. It wasn't as if anyone was liable to come across them, with Scorpius still writing down whatever he could remember of the night of the ritual, and the others returning to their responsibilities. But she still didn't like surprises.
And she was still too unsure where she stood with her cousin to risk having such a conversation out in the open.
Her room was gloomy, Artemis sprawled out across the bed as if she owned the entire thing, and only opened one indignant green eye at the interruption. 'I'm not having a go,' said Albus, and Rose would have assumed this to be a prelude to a particularly rife fit of passive-aggression had it been from anyone else. 'I'm worried about you. Sleeping during the day, working all night, refusing to get some sleep, working yourself to the bone... there are other people here, you know. Lockett's a professional. Methuselah's smart -'
'Methuselah Jones is single-minded and impractical and has been obsessing with this ritual; he's been ignoring what Professor Lockett, the professional, has to say about where we should concentrate. He's wholly unreliable,' she blurted out with more indignation than this really needed. 'And as far as he's concerned this is all one grand academic challenge! He doesn't understand what's at stake!'
Albus made a face. 'I think you're being a little harsh; I know he's weird but we all cope in our different ways -'
'I don't want us to cope, I want us to get through this.' Frustration, burning, boiling frustration that had been festering in her gut for days, came bubbling to the forefront. 'And I don't know if we can unless I put every inch of effort and attention in!'
'I know you're bright, Rose - smarter than me, smarter than most, I know that, but we're sixteen, for Merlin's sake. Do we really think this thing can be beaten by the determination of one sixteen year-old?'
'Our parents weren't much older when they beat Voldemort.' It was a cheap answer, an easy answer, but she knew he would struggle to beat it.
'They didn't have much of a choice -'
'Yes!' Albus drooped. 'We have one of the world's leading experts on potions with a specialisation in curing Dark Magic curses -'
'She's a drunkard.'
He stopped, expression tensing. 'What?'
'Lockett. I don't know if she's, like, an actual alcoholic, I don't know if she's been like this before this week. But she drinks. A lot. While she's working. I've found where she dumps the Firewhisky bottles.' Rose folded her arms across her chest. 'So do we really want to rely on her?'
Albus hesitated, a myriad of emotions flickering across his face, before he gave a sigh and ran his fingers through his hair. 'Okay. So that's bad. But while she might be drinking to cope, you're still working yourself to exhaustion to cope, and you're not a world-class expert to compensate!'
Rose threw her hands in the air. 'I'm fine!'
'You're not fine! You're keeping crazy hours and you're going to burn out. You'll make mistakes, you'll overlook things, you'll isolate yourself from everyone else and that'll drive you nuts. We could be here for weeks, months; we've got to play the long-term game. You keep on like this, Rose, and we can hardly rely on you.' Albus shoved his hands in his pockets, looking like he hated having to say all of this.
She scowled. 'Better to rely on me than anyone else. Lockett's still an alcoholic, and Jones is still a headcase, and you're still only an average Potions student and better off seeing to the defences anyway, and Rourke's still too busy pretending she's supervising the House Elves, and Malfoy is still useless.'
'Useless -' Albus worked his jaw wordlessly for a few moments. 'He risked his life for potions reagents. Because he knew how important they were for your research, for Lockett's research, because he knows how a delay of even only a few days might prove dire. He almost got himself killed, and all you can say is that he's useless -'
'Really, Albus, is now the time for you to leap to standard-issue blind defence of your best friend -'
'We both almost got killed today and all you can do is insult Scorpius and ignore me!'
And there it was. The crux of the matter, the reason he was so beleaguered and stressed and ashamed of himself for it, and it hit her so hard she might as well have been slapped in the face. Rose took a step back, physically staggered by the accusation and the truth of it, and the look of hurt on Albus' face was like a knife in the gut.
'I... I don't...'
'You did,' Albus said, his voice dropping. Now he sounded more sad than angry, and that was definitely worse because no defensive instinct could rise up to protect her. 'You left Jones to take care of me and went straight to Scorpius and spent the entire time pestering him for information and telling him off for what he did!'
Her hands came up to cover her face, as if she could push back the rising wave of emotion, as if blocking Albus out could make him not there - or, more pressingly, make his accusations untrue.
But they weren't.
'I...' The events of the day rushed up in a wave, of how she'd behaved immediately after the fight - and of what she'd seen of the fight. A lump rose in her throat, and she couldn't get the next words past her lips without almost choking on them. 'I - I - I thought he was dead.'
The words sounded hollow to her own ears, a bizarre and convoluted excuse, but as she lowered her hands she saw Albus' expression crumple with sympathy.
Of course he would hear her out. And that just made the tears stop threatening and become reality, and the words came tumbling out in a jumble as she tried to speak through them. '...when - when we got there, he'd Stunned himself, but I didn't know that, so he was just lying on his back completely still when Lockett drove the Redcaps away from him. He wasn't - he wasn't moving, and I thought... I thought...'
Then, despite all he'd said, despite all of his criticisms and his accusations, Albus had closed the gap between them and wrapped his arms around her, and she gave up on trying to talk or fight the tears. She sobbed into his shoulder, feeling the terror of the day, the tension of the past week she hadn't realised had built up so fiercely, ebb out of her. His embrace was close and warm and comforting, and she didn't think they'd hugged like this since they were eleven years old and on the verge of going to Hogwarts and she'd finally, finally admitted she was terrified of everything between them changing...
The knowledge that it had, that her eleven year-old self had been right to be afraid, only made her sob harder, and yet within moments she pulled back enough to look up at Albus, finding his eyes wet too. 'I'm sorry,' she tried to say, which was a challenge in and of itself, and only made him pull her to him again.
'I know,' Albus sighed, voice thick. 'I'm not angry at you, Rose, I was just worried -'
'You were angry,' she said, voice muffled by sobs and his shoulder. 'You were angry and you were hurt at how I behaved, but you always try to be so understanding and that's not fair on you because sometimes people are just being arses. But you try to understand and then you feel bad for being upset at them.' Her tears were more under control now, and she gulped, looking up at him again. 'I was scared and I was upset and I dealt with it by lashing out at Malfoy and trying to not think about what almost happened to you, and that wasn't fair.'
'I know,' he said again. 'And I know you only reacted that badly because you've been running yourself ragged and you wouldn't normally do that, so I'm not angry.'
He should have been, she felt. She'd been horrid to him because she couldn't have fathomed letting herself feel as scared and upset as she'd wanted to feel, and now that defensive wall had come crashing down she couldn't understand why he was being so nice. Why he wasn't punishing her.
So she settled for avoiding the entire issue by bursting into tears on his shoulder again, and he rubbed her back reassuringly. 'You don't need to go on like this,' Albus said gently. 'It's not good for you. You should try to be awake when everyone else is, working when everyone else is, eating and taking breaks with everyone.' He steered her to the bed for them to both sit down, and Artemis finally roused herself, finally conceding she couldn't sleep with an emotional heart-to-heart being so noisy during her nap-time.
Rose let go of Albus to pull her cat into her arms, and Artemis promptly demonstrated she understood the severity of the situation by shoving her paws into her face as if trying to keep her at bay. Despite herself, she smiled at the cat through her tears. 'Oh, it's only hugs on your terms, is it?'
'Yeah, she's about as evasive when it comes to overt displays as you are,' Albus said wryly, one arm still around her shoulder.
She chuckled, the sound noisy and throaty after all her tears, and looked up at him. 'I'm sorry,' she said again. 'You're right, I've been wound too tightly. It's not fair to you.'
'I want what's best for you,' said Albus, leaning over to kiss the top of her head. 'Not what's fair for me. But I forgive you, Rosie.'
Rosie. He hadn't called her that in five years, and she shut her eyes against the wave of emotions that came with it. 'I'll do what you've suggested,' said Rose slowly. 'I'll try to... work more sensibly, not close myself away, you're right. But there's one thing I'm not doing.'
'I'm not apologising to Malfoy.'
Albus laughed, rubbing her back, and she couldn't help but smile along with him as Artemis wriggled and made a bid for freedom, as if all this emotional mess was utterly beneath her. 'I didn't ask you to do that,' he reminded her, smile lopsided. 'It'd only be another sign of the apocalypse.'
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