Chapter 22 : Hot Issue
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‘You look tired.’
Rose glanced up from the book she’d been reading at Hugo’s interruption. She knew it was a little childish to be reading out loud to him, even if he was too tired to do it much himself. The list of conversation topics was thin, or at least included issues she didn’t want to get into, and this was the best way she could think of keeping him occupied, happy, and spending time with him. She’d expected bellyaching that he wasn’t five years old any more.
She hadn’t expected her little brother to turn the tables.
‘There’s a lot to be doing,’ she admitted, putting the book down. ‘The elixir isn’t a cure, but it might be a lead to one. I’m trying to help Professor Lockett with that.’
‘Oh, come on,’ said Hugo, sleepy but looking content enough. ‘You’re trying to work yourself into an early grave, aren’t you? To get out of all of this?’
She tensed, but he was grinning, and she couldn’t bring herself to berate him for that. ‘I am working hard,’ she agreed. ‘Which is why I’m taking time off with you up here.’
Hugo’s bed was in the corner of the fourth year Gryffindor boys’ dormitory, which was just as well or she’d have had to put up with all of his classmates. Not that she disliked them or begrudged them the chance to spend some time with someone, anyone, but it was a little bit closer to a Florence Nightingale impression than she was strictly happy with.
‘Didn’t say I didn’t appreciate it,’ said Hugo, with all the emotional inaccessibility of a standoffish boy who was set to become just as standoffish as the men - older boys - she knew.
‘I imagine it’s quiet up here with just you lot all the time.’
‘Well, Malfoy comes up.’
Rose narrowed her eyes. ‘Malfoy?’
‘Yeah - the letters?’ Hugo quirked an eyebrow at her. ‘The rest of the guys don’t have big sisters to bring them the post and the news. Isn’t that his job?’
His job is to stay out of my way, leave me breakfast behind as some sort of creepy generous guilt-trip, and to walk around like a bear with a headache. Scorpius’ bad mood had become an accepted part of Hogwarts over the last week, and the knowledge this was mostly her fault meant she wanted to have as little to do with him as possible. Not just so she didn’t have to deal with him - but she certainly didn’t want to have her guilt thrown in her face.
‘I didn’t realise,’ said Rose, feeling a bit stupid. Of course her parents wouldn’t be the only ones writing now that plenty of Hogwarts students were at least conscious enough to know they’d been written to.
‘Yeah. He comes up with the post, gives it out, reads it to them who aren’t well enough to read it. Even writes a dictated letter back if they’re too tired to do it themselves.’
And that was the day Rose learned Scorpius was going through the fifty-six student dormitories with the post, daily.
She ran into him later, seeking him out for the first time all week. She’d gone through all the common rooms once Hugo had drifted off to sleep, trying to find him, though there had been evidence of his passing when she’d known to look for it. Letters left on nightstands. Sleepy students clutching unfolded sheets of paper. Children resting but looking, for once, content rather than tense.
Process of elimination had her scurrying last of all up the steps to Ravenclaw Tower, and this trip brought the sound of footsteps above rather than just the gloomy silence that she’d found at the Hufflepuff and Slytherin common rooms. And as she rounded the final spiral he was there, stood beside the door, lowering the magically-levitated bag of post.
He jumped as he saw her, tired gaze at first surprised and unpleasantly, openly raw at the sight of her - then his expression twisted into a scowl. ‘Weasley. What do you want?’
Rose opened and closed her mouth. What was she actually coming to say? To ask? Hugo had told her and all she’d thought was that she had to find him - and she’d just spent half an hour tearing around the castle looking for him. Now that she was face to face with him, anything she had to say sounded redundant or cruel.
‘The post,’ she stammered eloquently. ‘I mean. You’re doing it?’
Scorpius narrowed his eyes. ‘Yes,’ he said, extending the word as if she were dim.
It wasn’t what she meant to say, or imply, and his eyes flashed. ‘Because not everyone’s got a big sister or big brother to look out for them. Because someone has to do it. Because I need to make myself useful. Because I feel like a bit less of an arse -’ He stopped himself, gaze still blazing, before he turned to the ornate doorknocker to Ravenclaw tower, and rapped it.
As it had done many times before, it shifted before her eyes for the beak to open, and the ominous voice to echo out with, ‘What question can you never answer “yes” to?’
‘Is Rose Weasley not an enormous bitch?’ Scorpius smirked cruelly.
She narrowed her eyes. ‘You’re really stretching sentence construction to shoehorn that one in.’
‘Fine. Have I been treated fairly and honestly or have I been completely screwed over and led up the garden path?’
‘You can’t answer an “or” question with “yes”,’ she said flatly.
‘I think I’ve made my case,’ said Scorpius, before turning back to her. ‘Now. Seriously. What did you want? And if you came here to say it makes me sound like a good guy to be doing this for everyone who’s sick, I really, really don’t want to hear it. Not just because it’ll just be you trying to make yourself feel less bad about all of this, but I think I’ve made it pretty damn clear I’m not a good guy.’
She worked her jaw silently, taken aback by his sheer venom, guilt hitting her all over again in a fresh wave. But before she could answer, before she could find something that denied both points, he turned to the door and, in a voice as cold as when he’d first addressed her, gave the knocker its answer.
‘Are you dead?’
The door swung open at his words, and Scorpius simply turned, bags now hovering again to follow him, and disappeared into the stairway up the tower without giving her a chance to say anything.
Not that she had anything more to say.
It was another two days before she had the chance to talk to Albus about it. Not that she didn’t see Albus every day. But they had both been driven away, into their own separate hiding holes of upset and worry and stress, and they’d allowed the recovery of their siblings and cousins to bring reassurance and distraction.
And above all, neither one of them had mentioned Scorpius. Rose had no idea what had happened between them, except that immediately after she and Scorpius had rowed, he and Albus had seemed to no longer be on speaking terms either.
It wasn’t that she didn’t want to help her cousin. But she worried, if she brought the topic up - would he turn the tables on her, ask questions she wasn’t sure how to answer, didn’t know how to answer? And there was always so much to do. Work, research, and in the quiet times, they were with Hugo and Lily and their cousins. She had no desire to bring pain to those quiet moments.
So she didn’t mention it until one morning where they were both leaving the Great Hall after the briefing with her mother, and she drew a shaking breath and didn’t quite look at Albus as she bluntly said, ‘Did you know about Malfoy and the letters?’
Albus’ hesitation told her all she needed to know. That he’d known, and didn’t want to make anything of it. That he was unsure what to say to her about Scorpius. That he was unsure what to feel about Scorpius. But hesitation was still not a response, and he gave a stiff nod. ‘I heard. I think it’s good.’
‘It is,’ she said, because there was nothing to do but agree. But the doors were open now, and though she had no desire to linger on the topic of Scorpius, she couldn’t just slam them shut again. ‘Are - are you all right, Al? I’ve been -’
‘Worried about you,’ he finished, turning to face her as they reached the huge doors onto the grounds. The chill of winter was settling into Hogwarts now, but still the doors were open, the cold wind seeping into the halls and the corridors and the rooms.
It had already seeped into their bones.
Albus gave a lopsided grimace of a smile at her expression. ‘We’re all tense, Rosie -’
She tensed at the familiarity; it felt a mixture of a lie and an echo and she wanted to deal with neither right then. ‘So what? You are, and -’ And I don’t want to talk about Malfoy. And I don’t think you do either.
But this is about more than just Scorpius Malfoy.
‘I never apologised to you myself,’ she said, falteringly. ‘I mean, just myself. For going into the Forest like that. For not telling you. For letting Malfoy nick the Map and for agreeing to keep you out of it. I mean, I said sorry, but he was there and - I mean, I owe you an apology.’
Albus’ gaze flickered over her expression for a moment. His big, honest face had just grown more and more tense in the past few months. Of all of them, he voiced his upset, his tension, his discontent the least, and yet she could see it, every day, wearing him down. Every day he stooped a little more as if the weight on his shoulders was literal. Every day he talked a little more quietly, a little more wearily. Of all of them, she suspected it was Albus who had aged the most, just because he felt it all more keenly than the rest of them.
Rose, for her part, was becoming rather practiced in Not Feeling it.
‘Come on,’ he said with a sigh, pointing out the doors. ‘I need to do a quick grounds-check on foot. The wards were giving me some odd input this morning and I didn’t have time to check it out before the briefing.’
‘I’m not sure,’ he said as he led her out the door and onto the grounds, the grass crunching underfoot from the gentle frost. ‘But I think it’s near the Herbology greenhouses.’
They were the outermost part of the castle save Hagrid’s cabin or the Quidditch grounds and facilities, and so Rose tugged her coat tightly around herself and fell into step beside him. Even though he’d changed the course of the conversation, she knew this was an invitation to talk, and so floundered for what else to say other than give her apologies.
‘...nobody thinks any less of you for not going, you know that?’
Albus’ shoulders squared as they wandered down the path winding its way through the grounds. ‘I think less of me.’
‘It was a stupid thing to do -’
‘And you did it anyway. Knowing it was stupid.’
‘I didn’t think you’d do something that stupid.’
‘Like stay behind to fight Redcaps off from some supply crates? Stupid like that?’ He gave her a sharp look. ‘When you say stupid, I hear “risky, but important”. When did I ever give the impression I wouldn’t do these things?’
Rose hesitated. ‘You’re right. I’m sorry. I just - you’ve always been -’
‘The sensible one?’ Albus sounded irritated. ‘Rose, how much does it annoy you when people compare you to Aunt Hermione?’
‘Quite a lot -’
‘Now imagine you had not only the shadow of your parents over you, but the shadow of your brother.’
Rose’s brow furrowed. ‘Everyone loves James -’
‘I really don’t follow.’
‘Dad, the hero. James, the superstar. There aren’t really many directions I can go without falling under someone’s shadow. And even if I tried to move into studies, I’d end up being overshadowed by you.’
Rose’s frown remained, a mixture of perturbed and confused. ‘But you don’t care about that kind of thing, Al - I mean, I find it annoying that everyone compares me to Mum, but I’m still me, we’re not twelve any more -’
‘You didn’t get Sorted into Slytherin.’
Her breath caught. Never before had he mentioned what had happened, never before had he so much as implied that being Sorted into Slytherin was a problem, had been anything but a -
‘You said that in Slytherin you got to be completely different?’
‘I did. I do.’ Albus scowled. ‘But, I don’t know. Everyone said I was so much like Dad - then I got Sorted into Slytherin and it’s like everyone expected me to become his opposite.’
‘We were eleven; we thought a lot of stupid things. And I was, I was the oddball Potter. James is like - people say James is like Dad could have been if he hadn’t fought a war, because they reckon James is like my Granddad. I’m... I don’t know.’
‘You’re you, Al.’ Rose stopped on the path, the two of them by now a good distance from the main castle and working their way around the outskirts towards the Herbology greenhouses. She reached to grab his sleeve, pulling him to a halt and around to face her. ‘Do you want to know why I didn’t tell you? Really, why I didn’t tell you?’
Albus’ expression creased. ‘I don’t -’
You don’t know if you dare. It was the most vulnerable she’d ever seen him - and on an impulse Rose stepped forward, pulling him to her for a bear-hug. ‘You silly - you are so silly - and I’m so silly -’ He returned the hug, but there was tension and apprehension there, and she knew it wouldn’t go away until she answered. She pulled back, but didn’t let go, gripping his arm tightly. ‘I didn’t not tell you because I thought you’d stop us. I didn’t tell you because I thought you’d go, and then you’d take responsibility, and then if something happened you’d never forgive yourself -’
‘Would you forgive yourself if something happened?’
‘No, but - Al, it’s like you shoulder the world. You’re a million miles away from being the opposite of your father. You feel everything we all feel, you feel all of the worry here, you try to help everyone and you try to fix everything. But most of all, you do it. I couldn’t let Malfoy go alone, but if something happened to us, I couldn’t leave everyone else here without you! Lockett, Jones, Rourke - really?’
Rose sagged as his expression twisted. ‘It was wrong, and I’m sorry. It sounds so stupid for me to tell you that you were too good for us to bring with us, but that’s kind of the truth. You wouldn’t have done it yourself - you’d have trusted Mum to get the reagents in when we needed them. But if we suggested it, you’d have gone with us.’
‘Because I’m family, and I’m your friend.’
‘And you wouldn’t have done it yourself,’ Rose said, and let go of him to lift her hands in defeat. ‘All right - it was wrong. I’m sorry. But it was all wrong, and of all the wrong choices, I picked the wrongest. Which isn’t really a word.’
She wrinkled her nose, but he gave a small, sincere grin, and she relaxed a smidgeon. ‘I don’t want anyone thinking I’m - not a coward, but too cautious.’
‘We don’t, Al. We think you’re too damn good.’ But she offered him a smile, and he seemed to accept it. ‘You’re my cousin, and I love you. But you know how much safer I feel knowing you’re the one checking up on us? Our guardian angel flying about the grounds?’
Albus drew a deep breath. ‘I don’t want to be useless,’ he admitted. ‘And worse, I don’t want to be left behind by my friends because they think too much of me. That sounds kind of stupid.’
‘Because it is kind of stupid. And I’m sorry.’ Rose hesitated. ‘And... we kind of need to stick together in this.’ She didn’t mean all of them. She meant just him and her.
He gave her another look, a look with understanding but also its own hurt and uncertainty she wasn’t sure she dared touch. Then he was walking again, down the winding path towards the Herbology greenhouses. ‘I know. And I do forgive you, Rose, honestly. And I’m getting over fussing if people think I’m Harry Potter’s more cowardly son -’
‘Nobody thinks that,’ Rose said, eyes widening. ‘You’re his smarter son.’
Albus looked over at her, surprised at her vehemence, and finally he smiled. It was a small smile, but infinitely genuine, honestly affected. ‘That’s really insulting to Dad,’ he said quietly, the smile curving. ‘But it might be the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me.’
Then the path rounded the corner and they were greeted with the broken windows of the Herbology greenhouses.
Rose stared. ‘What the -’
But Albus had grabbed her by the arm, yanking her into the shadow of the castle walls, his wand in hand. ‘Shh.’ She fell silent, by surprise as much as by instruction, and for several long moment they stood there, hidden, watching and waiting.
Nothing moved. Not within the greenhouses, not around the greenhouses - just the wind as it whistled and howled in the gaps, and after several long seconds Albus waved his wand, muttering to himself. She recognised it as a detection spell, one of the more complicated only the best students had attempted in Defence classes last year.
She’d tried it. Not mastered it. Definitely couldn’t do it with the same ease as Albus, and that familiar pang of jealousy stirred in her as she watched him. She might have been the best student of the year, top of almost all classes, but she still envied him for his capabilities. Book-smarts were one thing, but what Al did was magic of the blood and bone and gut and instincts, and she couldn’t begin to rival him.
Not that this was the only reason she had to envy him...
‘Nothing,’ he murmured, letting her go and pulling away from the wall. ‘Anything that came here isn’t here any more.’ He padded towards the greenhouses and she fell into his wake, only just thinking of reaching for her wand as he led her to the first.
They were wrecked, the lot of them. Barely a single window-pane remained untouched, and inside was chaos. Tables were tipped over, pots smashed, a devastation of almost every plant, every greenhouse, almost everything that could be grown or used, and as they picked sombrely through the rubble, Rose finally voiced what they were both thinking.
‘Do you think this was Thane?’
Albus shook his head. ‘I think this was pixies.’
‘If you wanted to trash the greenhouses, how would you do it? You’d cast a spell and start to level the whole thing, or set fire to it. You wouldn’t go through each one, tipping each pot over, and leaving some left. A couple of the weirder and valuable plants are fine. Every single one of the Shrivelfig’s been wrecked!’
‘So you think this was chaos for its own sake?’ Rose peered under one of the broken wooden tables at the remains of plants strewn about the floor. There was so little left to salvage she didn’t think it was worth it. And, at the least, they hadn’t needed most of it. What they had needed, the Ministry could provide.
‘If Thane was striking at us, he’d be striking the supply crates, wouldn’t he? Not the greenhouses. No, this was pixies from the Forest. I’d put money on it,’ said Albus with certainty.
‘All right.’ She straightened. ‘Aren’t the wards supposed to keep them out?’
‘They do. Normally.’ Albus sighed. ‘The wards are enough to make it uncomfortable for most denizens of the Forest to come onto the grounds. They’re not strong enough to force them out, because - well, that’s a lot of magic and that makes it harder for the staff to use the Forest. But everyone, everything in the Forest is agitated right now.’
‘Agitated enough to ignore the discomfort of the wards?’
‘It was enough for the Redcaps. And it must be getting worse; this is bolder, this is much closer to the castle. And from outside of the Headmaster’s Office I can’t change the wards, and all I can do to monitor them is to use some spells to try to feel when and where they’ve been disrupted.’
‘But we can’t get into the Headmaster’s Office.’
Albus’ gaze turned rueful. ‘Nope.’
‘If you could - you can control the wards from there? Make them stronger, make it so we have a better overview of all of the castle, so if we’re hit we know when and how and where from?’
He shrugged despondently. ‘Yeah, I reckon so.’
Rose’s gaze swept across the ruined greenhouses, then back up towards the castle. They weren’t immediately close to anything but some classrooms, but just a little way around the wall would be the windows into the Hufflepuff common room and dormitories, granting the students a comfortable, ground-level view of the rolling fields and grounds. The pixies hadn’t got any closer to the castle than the greenhouses, as far as they could tell, but they were getting bolder.
What if they snuck up to the castle? What if they broke in and caused chaos? What if they got into one of the dormitories?
‘I’m really sorry about not inviting you to join us on our stupid escapade into the Forbidden Forest.’
He frowned. ‘Look, Rose, right now really isn’t -’
She looked at him, smiling sweetly, and he faltered in confusion. ‘Would you like to join me in a brand-new stupid escapade?’
‘I’ve got good news and bad news,’ said her mother’s Patronus the next morning, sounding more tired than she had in a long time. Rose’s breath caught. ‘I’ll start with the bad, just to - well, it’s important.’
Lockett arched an eyebrow. ‘Kind of you, Ms Granger.’
‘I know,’ Hermione mused, wry and worried. ‘We should have stumbled across this one sooner. But - well, I made the mistake of not asking the one person who could answer it. I was going through the notes on the ritual that Mister Jones sent to us, and though we’ve not been able to find anything conclusive about that, I happened to be studying them when Harry came to see me yesterday.’
Albus lifted his head. ‘Dad knows something about the ritual?’
‘No,’ said Hermione’s patronus, and drew a deep breath. ‘But he saw where on the map the ritual, and now this spawning ground for Dementors happened.’
Methuselah frowned. ‘Location is middle of forest. No confluence of magical energies. No notable ancient landmarks. No relation to any individual species activity or historical -’
‘It’s where he died.’
Rose boggled at her mother. ‘What?’
‘Or, more accurately, it’s where he survived the Killing Curse for a second time, a process which destroyed a Horcrux of Lord Voldemort. It’s also -’ The patronus looked away at this, its little ottery forehead wrinkling. ‘He doesn’t want this getting out. But this is important. It’s also the area where he abandoned the Resurrection Stone.’
Selena quirked an eyebrow. ‘Wait, the fictional -’
‘I’ll explain later,’ said Rose, waving a hand impatiently. The Deathly Hallows, and their fate, was a story she’d had to wrangle out of her mother after the most ferocious reading of her history and her family’s history. This was not the time to retread old stories. ‘You’re saying that the heart of this ritual, the epicentre of this Dementor-spawning darkness, is where horrendously dark magic happened...’
‘And a possibly dark magic item which in itself has a connection to the afterlife was abandoned and lost, yes.’
Lockett’s eyes bulged. ‘Holy shit -’ She seemed to, briefly, realise she was swearing like a trooper in front of children, but carried on regardless, barely missing a beat. ‘Phlegethon, a river into Hades. This isn’t just some sort of fancy name, some sort of pretentious invocation of hell. This is literal. This curse is literally tapping into powers of death, and the dark magic of spells and powers which use death!’
‘Are you saying Phlegethon is killing them?’ asked Albus, suddenly pale.
‘I don’t know if that’s an inevitability, but this isn’t just an illness which is weakening them. It’ll be tethering them to the world of the dead, inflicting them with dark magic energies intended to cause death. It’s weaker, obviously, or they would all be dead, but that’s the source of the evil, the source of the pain,’ Lockett said, hands waving in the air.
‘And this is why Dementors are spawning there,’ said Hermione. ‘That place must have been seeped in the energy already, but the ritual has tapped into the latent power and in harnessing it...’
‘The whole area. Infused with death magic. And the dark magic of Horcruxes,’ intoned Methuselah sombrely. Then he perked up. ‘Much more insight into the ritual, now.’
‘I know this makes me crazy,’ said Rose, ‘but Jones is right. We shouldn’t fuss over the implications of this, we should use it. This is immensely useful to understanding Phlegethon and the means of infection, no?’
‘It is,’ said Lockett, and looked up at Hermione. ‘I think for a cure we need to start looking at different avenues. Not ways of attacking the dark magic. But ways of infusing the afflicted with life magic. Don’t target it, overwhelm it.’
‘It’s an avenue to pursue. And at least, for now, your elixir means the symptoms are under control,’ agreed Hermione. ‘If that’s all, then, I’ll get to -’
‘What’s the good news?’
The patronus looked at Albus. ‘Sorry?’
‘You said there was good news and bad news,’ said Rose. ‘You gave us the bad news. Some good news could go down really well right now.’
‘Oh, of course.’ The patronus looked at the five of them. ‘Where’s Scorpius?’
Albus cleared his throat. ‘In the dorms, I guess. Doing the letters.’
‘Of course he is - that’s rather what I wanted to mention. I’ll catch up on listening to him later.’
Albus and Rose exchanged bewildered glances - and past Albus she could see Lockett and Selena looking equally nonplussed. Methuselah, for his part, just nodded. ‘Listening?’
Hermione’s patronus stared at them. ‘Have you not - has he not mentioned...?’
Rose frowned. ‘Mentioned what?’
This was Methuselah, and all four of them gaped at him. Rose’s scowl only deepened. ‘Someone really needs to explain this!’
Methuselah looked a mixture of bewildered and completely innocent in a way she found maddening - as if he couldn’t understand why she was quite so frustrated. ‘He has been writing to families for the pupils,’ he said in his calm, quick voice. ‘But day by day more parents were writing. And he had more to write back. It was taking him all day to go from dorm to dorm. So he asked me for help. So I gave him the Ravenclaw House Wireless Transmitter. Adapted it to wider broadcast.’
Rose stared at him. ‘Malfoy’s doing a radio show.’
‘Talking to pupils. Letting them read their letters. Letting them answer their parents on the wireless. Said he didn’t have time to write letters out for every student. This way they get to give word anyway.’
‘The Ministry’s been recording it, too, so parents who don’t hear it can listen. He wrote to me a few days ago to tell me about it - has he honestly not mentioned it to you?’ Her mother’s brow furrowed.
‘No! To none of us!’
Albus beamed. ‘That’s such a cool idea.’
It’s mental, was Rose’s first thought. But she also couldn’t disagree with Albus, with Methuselah’s implied points about how this gave every student at Hogwarts the chance to get a message out to their family when the number of people to care for them were so limited, and above all a chance for the parents to hear their children’s voices directly.
‘It’s really helping everyone,’ said Hermione. ‘I have the luck of speaking to you directly, but this is the first most people have heard from the castle themselves. I just wanted to pass that onto Scorpius directly, how much it’s helping everyone. But I imagine he’s busy right now - so if you could tell him?’
Tell Scorpius Malfoy how much good he’s doing, even though he’s liable to throw it in my face. Sure, Mum. Thanks, Mum.
But being told that is no more than he deserves.
And having it thrown in my face is no less than I deserve.