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Off the Rails by water_lily43175
Chapter 49 : forty-nine
 
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 7


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“This place looks really weird...” Cato mused, glancing around the large entrance hall of Lily and Maddie’s boarding house.

“Don’t look too intrigued, or people will get suspicious,” I reminded him in a low voice, glancing round at the other suited and booted guys waiting for their dates.

He pulled a face, and tugged slightly at his jacket.

“I haven’t worn one of these in a while either,” he said. “Comfier than robes, I suppose.”

“And slightly less conspicuous around Muggles.”

“Very true.”

“Found a suit that fits alright, then.” Kit grinned as he joined us.

Cato returned the grin.

“Just about. Had to get Mrs Potter to make it a bit bigger across the shoulders, I’ve grown a bit since I last wore it.”

“Don’t say that too loudly around the girls. They already swoon enough at your muscle mass as it is,” Kit responded drily.

Cato’s cheeks coloured slightly as he turned back to me.

“Your sister-”

“Is about as hopeless as every other girl when it comes to men,” I finished. “Don’t worry, I’m sure she’ll refrain from jumping your bones at dinner – unless you want that, of course, and my advice is that you don’t.”

“You threatening me, Junior?” he asked, in amusement.

I drew myself up to my full height indignantly; not that it did much, as I was still a good few inches shorter than him.

“My mother taught me how to do a Bat Bogey Hex,” I warned him.

“I’m sure she did, Jim.” He smirked. “So, back to the girls-”

“If it’s about my sister, don’t try it.”

“I was going to move on to Maddie, actually. What’s she like when it comes to men? She doesn’t seem all that fussed-”

Kit and I both snorted in unison.

“Are you kidding?” I said. “She’s worse than Lil; you should hear the way she talks about a bloke like he’s a piece of meat.”

“Really? She doesn’t seem like that...”

“What, from the few times you’ve seen her at a Quidditch match?” I said dryly. “Maddie might be straightforward on the surface but underneath she’s complicated. She’s seen her mum get hurt by her dad, and doesn’t want to end up the same way. But at the same time...” I shrugged. “I dunno, I only know her so well and I’m hardly the most in-depth person around, but I reckon there’s a part of her that wants to feel loved. She’s a softie underneath. And she definitely goes gaga over a good-looking fellow. But if you’re looking for a character profile then Atkinson’s the best one to ask, he’s spent more time with her than I have. He’s observant, as well, for a bloke. Knew about my sister’s little crush without her having to tell him.”

“Yeah?” Cato looked at Kit curiously. “Who was that?”

“I’m not sure how she’d feel about us discussing her personal life,” he pointed out. “She was hoping to go to this with Maddie’s big brother. That’s him over there, look.” He indicated Robbie, who was waiting across the hall.

“So I was her second choice after him, huh?” Cato raised an eyebrow.

“Technically you were third choice; I asked Murph first but he’s at this Irish function.”

“Alright, Potter, no need to rub it in,” he said, elbowing me. “So I’m here as eye candy?”

“Not exactly-”

“Pretty much,” Kit interrupted.

“Least Lily won’t be holding out for a marriage proposal,” Cato said brightly. “Who’s your date then, Kit?”

“The girlfriend,” he said casually. “Another one of Lily’s friends. She doesn’t have a clue about magic, so careful what you say,” he added quietly.

“Why doesn’t she know?”

“Lily opts for damage limitation,” he explained. “She’s had dealings with the Obliviators before, and doesn’t fancy risking it again.”

“Must make things awkward for you, huh?”

“It hasn’t been too bad so far, but I can see things getting difficult once we leave school. Lils, Mads and I are all moving in together, and while the place won’t exactly be full of magic, Lily’s still got the odd gadget, and I know Maddie’s got her heart set on having the Quidditch Channel. I’m not wholly convinced she’ll keep it quiet much longer-”

“She shared a dorm with them for five years. If she’s managed so far there’s nothing to say she won’t continue to,” I reasoned.

“Yeah, I guess...” Kit sighed. “I guess a part of me wishes she would tell Immy, because then I wouldn’t have to worry about keeping my mouth shut. I know it’s not my secret to tell, and I’ll never tell anyone, but it’s not nice to have to keep something about one of her close friends from her. Personally I don’t think she or Grace would take it badly – if anything they’d just be upset at being kept in the dark for so long – but I totally understand why Lily doesn’t want to tell anyone else. She’s scared of losing people.”

The first stream of girls filtering down the stairs, all dressed up to the nines, cut off our conversation. Imogen wasn’t far behind them, and Kit let out a low whistle as she came into view.

“Nice work,” Cato said approvingly.

Kit grinned.

“Cheers,” he said, before heading forwards to meet her at the bottom of the stairs.

Imogen’s friend Grace arrived shortly after them, flashing me a smile as she walked past us on the arm of one of Kit’s classmates.

“How much longer will the girls be, do you reckon?” Cato asked me, as the stream of girls slowed to a trickle, before petering out completely.

I shrugged.

“No idea. They’re not the type to be fashionably late, but they do like to make an entrance.”

“Sounds about right,” he said dryly.

Moments later Maddie emerged in a knee length dress, looking more elegant than I’d ever seen her before, save for the trademark grin plastered across her face.

“She looks ... nice...” Cato murmured next to me.

I managed to refrain from rolling my eyes as Maddie reached the bottom of the stairs and practically bounded across the entrance hall to me, without so much as glancing at her brother.

“Looking good, Potter.” She ruffled up my hair, then turned to Cato and looked him up and down. “You scrub up pretty well too, Bagman.”

“I could say the same for you,” he replied, smirking at her.

“Stop flirting with my date,” I berated, as I slipped an arm round Maddie’s waist. “And on that note, where’s Lily?”

“Taking her time getting ready as usual. It’s alright, she’ll be here in a mo.”

Sure enough, only another minute or so passed before she appeared.

“God, that girl is beautiful,” Maddie said approvingly.

“She looks a lot like your mum...” Cato began.

“I strongly advise you not to expand on that remark,” I said sharply.

Maddie laughed, as Lily joined us. She greeted Cato first, then turned to me.

“Looking smashing, Lils.” I pulled her into a hug.

“Nice to see you made an effort too!” she replied.

“Course I did. I’ve got an image to uphold, haven’t I?” I grinned, pulling away, and extended my elbow towards Maddie. “Lead the way, young lady.”

“That’s the first time I’ve been called a lady.” She giggled, and tucked her hand into the crook of my arm.

“Yeah, don’t get too used to it,” I advised.

The dinner was being held in one of the school’s buildings, which was advantageous primarily because that meant none of us had to worry about how to get there. Of the four of us, Maddie was the only one who could drive, but her car probably wasn’t big enough to fit Cato in and, knowing her, she was undoubtedly planning on getting fairly drunk. Frankly I was impressed she was able to stand upright given the number of celebratory shots she’d consumed in the Leaky less than twenty-four hours ago. It made me feel as though my drinking days were behind me at the tender age of twenty-one.

Once in the hall, Lily headed straight for a table near the front, without even looking at the table plan.

“She helped out with a lot of the planning,” Maddie explained as we weaved through the tables to Lily’s destination. “One of the perks of being Head Girl.”

“Perks? I’d imagine it was a bloody headache.”

“Well, yes, but it also meant she could stick Rosalind’s lot across the other side of the room.”

She was right; that was definitely a perk.

I’d assumed I’d be sitting between Maddie and Lily, but the girls engineered the seating arrangement so Cato sat between them. I frowned as I sat down, and leaned towards Maddie.

“Is your desire to sit between two handsome Quidditch players more important than me wanting to sit next to my sister?” I murmured.

She looked at me indignantly, her cheeks flushing.

“No!” she said firmly. “For your information, Lily and I put a lot of thought into this and decided that if either of you were to sit next to a Muggle, it should be you, because you’ve had far more practice at getting by in a Muggle environment.”

I reassessed the table. Sure enough, Cato was sandwiched between Lily and Kit on one side, and Maddie and me on the other. To my right sat Lily’s very Muggle, very magic-unaware friend Grace.

“There’s method in the madness,” I said with a slight grin. “I sincerely apologise for the slight on your character.”

“I should think so too,” she said loftily.

“But I’m sure you’ll get a lot of pleasure out of sitting next to Cato Bagman,” I added cheekily.

“Hardly,” she said dryly, though her cheeks tinged pink again. “You’re not the slightest of characters, and he’s wide enough for two of me. You’re both taking up all my elbow room; I can barely move!”

“Yeah, keep telling yourself you’re not enjoying it – oi!” I complained, as she threw a sugar lump at me. “Was that necessary?”

“Yes. You should just think yourself lucky I went for the sugar dish, not the butter dish.”

“Duly noted.” I grabbed the menu from the middle of the table and perused it. “So, what’s the deal? We’re eating first, right?”

“Of course. Why, you hungry?”

“Famished.”

“After all you ate at your Nana Weasley’s?”

“I’m a growing boy!”

“Yes, and you’ll be growing in more ways than one if you’re not careful.”

“Oh, pipe down, Bennett. We’re not gonna have loads of speeches afterwards, are we?”

“I suppose you sleep through the speeches at the fancy Quidditch dinners?” She sounded amused. “The Head might say something, and I think Lily gets to make a little Head Girl speech, but the main bit is the awards ceremony.”

Awards?”

“Oh, nothing serious. Lil sent a voting form out a couple of months ago. It’s all a bit of a laugh; there are prizes for things like ‘most memorable moment’, or ‘most likely to become a politician’ – we all know who’ll get that one – but there are a couple of more serious ones at the end. Rosalind wanted to add some ridiculous ‘King and Queen’ thing in-”

“What?” I frowned. “How can you have a King; you’re all girls!”

“This was one of the many reasons Lily turned the idea down,” Maddie explained. “It’s an American thing, I think. Rosalind’s idea was that people would vote for the Queen, and their date would be King. I think she assumed she’d win it easily, and liked the thought of standing up at the front with Robbie and some stupid little tiara.” She snorted. “As though that would happen. It’s obvious that if anyone was going to win that category it would be Lily.”

 “I disagree,” I said. “I think you’d win it.”

“Really?” She shot me a bemused look.

“Only because they’d all be voting for me to be King...”

“You’re insufferable.” She laughed and gave me a slight shove.

“But you still love me!”

“Hardly.”

“You invited me here, didn’t you?” I pointed out.

“Only because of a distinct lack of other options.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t jump in and ask Cato before Lily did,” I said, lowering my voice.

“Oh, shut up – she didn’t even ask him, anyway! She got you to do her dirty work instead! That doesn’t count as a genuine date, he’s just doing you a favour.”

“I dunno, he seemed fairly up for it.” I shrugged.

“Well, he would do, wouldn’t he? It’s Lily, everyone likes Lily. So, you straightened things out with the love of your life, I noticed. I suppose this means it really is curtains for you and me, eh?”

“’Fraid so, my little buttercup,” I said apologetically. “But there’s still Albus, and you never know, I might be in need of a bit on the side.”

She laughed.

“Yeah, sure thing Jimmy, I’ll keep myself free in case you ever need a mistress. You think things will work out with her, then?”

“Well, I’d like to think so, although I’m not entirely sure what ‘things’ are. I guess we’ll just play it by ear, see how things pan out. Neither of us really buys into serious relationships, and besides it’s hardly going to be a walk in the park for her, having to straddle two worlds.”

I’d expected her to pick up on the second point, but oddly it was the first that took her interest.

“Weren’t you fairly serious with Ingrid back in the day? I mean, you were looking at moving in together, if I remember rightly. I know that doesn’t necessarily mean marriage, but it’s still fairly heavy stuff.”

I shrugged.

“It’s more a case of whether someone comes along who’s worth it. Can you imagine me settling down with Astrid?”

Maddie scoffed.

“That woman was terrible; I still can’t believe you went anywhere near her!”

“She was good with her-”

“I don’t want to know,” she said flatly, reaching forwards to help herself to one of the bottles of wine in the middle of the table. “Want a glass?”

“Would I say no?”

“Touché.” She unscrewed the bottle top – I was reminded of Carlotta’s mother’s distaste for such things – and poured us both a glass. “So,” she continued, “is she worth it?”

“Is who worth what?!

Carlotta, of course. Is she worth your while? Serious relationship material?”

I shrugged again, and took a gulp of the wine, before pulling a face; I much preferred mead.

“I guess,” I said, once I’d swallowed. “But it depends more on whether she’s interested in something serious.”

“Why wouldn’t she be?”

I went to answer, then remembered Maddie didn’t know about Carlotta’s ‘Parky’ – in fact, most of my family were still in the dark.

“No reason why she should be,” I pointed out instead. “Are you?”

“I hardly have a line-up of potential suitors to choose from,” she said dryly. “But I take your point. Ooh, food!”

The emergence of the starters brought our conversation to an end and we turned our attention to our plates. Food, as always, took precedence.

But there was genial table chatter between courses, led mainly by Maddie and Kit who by themselves could talk the hind leg off a Thestral. Combined, they barely left any time for anyone else to speak, which may have been for the best, as it meant Cato could sit back and pretend he understood all the Muggle references. The only sticky point came when Imogen asked how he and Lily knew one another, but Lily smoothed this over quite easily by informing her, quite truthfully, that he was my work colleague. Luckily for us, Lily had already told her Muggle friends I worked in an office in London, so there was no awkward conversation like the one I’d had with Carlotta’s family when I’d met them.

Once the meal was over, a woman I assumed was the Headmistress got up to make a speech. At first I tried to listen, not wanting to seem rude, but I soon realised Maddie had zoned out completely and decided I was free to do the same. I caught her attention and wordlessly invited her to a game of Bludger-parchment-wand under the table. I was leading by fifteen rounds to thirteen when the woman finished and Lily took her place at the front of the room.

She didn’t make a speech in the normal sense of the word – “She knows most of us wouldn’t pay attention to it,” Maddie muttered in my ear – but instead produced a visual presentation, having compiled a collection of photos documenting her classmates’ time at their school.

It was very well done, I considered; everyone was featured at least once, and the more timid girls were saved the humiliation which was heaped upon the more confident personalities, such as Maddie, Imogen and Grace, and those who deserved bringing down a peg or three, namely Rosalind and her friends.

Once that was over, it was time for the mock award ceremony Maddie had mentioned. Sure enough, Lily won the accolade for the girl most likely to go into politics, and Maddie picked up the corresponding prize for the sports industry; she rather appropriately won a tennis visor which she promptly pulled on. She also won the ‘most memorable moment’ award for falling into the school lake in their second year. Having been treated to Lily’s memory of the event, it was all I could do to not burst into laughter with the female contingent of the room as Maddie proudly marched up to collect her second prize.

The most amusing moment of the night was when Lily came to the award simply titled ‘most vain’. The moment she said it, I knew exactly who’d come up with it, and exactly who would win it. Funnily enough, they were both blonde. Unfortunately, instead of taking it on the chin, Rosalind refused to move from her seat when her name was called out. After a few moments of cajoling, Lily shrugged and set the mirror to one side, moving onto the next award.

“She just made that moment infinitely worse for herself,” Maddie muttered. “I’d have just gone up and accepted the thing-”

“Yes, but you can take the piss out of yourself,” I reminded her.

As she was still wearing her tennis visor, and the goggles, snorkel and flippers that had been her second prize, she had to concede the point.

The most touching moment of the night was when Lily announced the last award, essentially for the most appreciated member of the year. She clearly hadn’t looked at the winner’s name in advance, as she seemed genuinely taken-aback as she announced her own name.

“You’d think she’d have been expecting that,” Maddie said dryly amongst the applause, adjusting her snorkel. “There are about three people in this room who would have voted against her. She’s the most popular person in the year! It’s like I said, everyone likes Lily.”

“Maybe she expected you to win it?” I suggested cheekily.

“Pull the other one, it’s got bells on.”

After the formalities, the night disintegrated into raucousness as Lily and her classmates went about seeing  their school years off in style.

For a while Cato and I were quite content to remain at the table and set the world to rights over a few pints of lager, which was infinitely better than the wine on offer. We weren’t spared all night, as Lily swooped down on us at one point and dragged Cato away to dance. Maddie, still with all her headgear on, soon followed suit with me.

It was later still, when we’d retired to the table, that Robbie approached us. He greeted me with the standard manly handshake, then introduced himself to Cato, before asking Maddie for a dance.

“No chance,” she snorted. “Go dance with your date.”

“Are you kidding?” He looked horrified. “Don’t make me spend any more time with her than I have to.”

“Not enjoying the night?” Maddie sounded positively gleeful. “I did warn you!”

“I know, and I told you, I didn’t want to come with her-”

“Rob, she asked you. You said yes. It doesn’t get much clearer-cut than that. You brought it all on yourself. And I’m still not dancing with you.”

He rolled his eyes, and instead extended a hand to Lily. She glanced at us, a slightly apprehensive look on her face, then took his hand and allowed him to lead her onto the dance floor.

“Well, I’ve just lost my dance partner,” Cato said, though he didn’t seem too put out. Instead, he turned to Maddie. “Care to dance?”

“Why, I would simply love to,” was her reply.

“Wait, what about me?” I complained.

Maddie shot me a cheeky grin.

“I think Rosalind’s without a dance partner,” she suggested, before following Cato into the melee of people dancing.

I shook my head in mock disgust. Then, noticing Kit’s mother on the opposite side of the room, I got to my feet and headed over to her.

“Hello, James,” she greeted me. “Didn’t your sister do a good job earlier?”

“She was fantastic,” I said proudly.

“She’s been a wonderful student,” Mrs Atkinson said. “She’s adjusted to everything with far more ease than I could have imagined. I remember her first few weeks here; she was so uncertain about everything. To see her now ... and to think, she could be working for the government in a few months’ time.”

“It’s great to see her so happy with the hand she’s been dealt,” I agreed. “I just wanted to thank you for being there for her over the years. Your whole family has been such a help to her, I think it was a huge reassurance to her to have someone here who knew about her right from the start.”

She smiled, looking slightly abashed.

“I’ll be honest, it’s not something I’ve been faced with before,” she admitted. “But it really was a pleasure to be able to help her ease into our way of life. It’s just a shame Christopher reacted the way he did when he first found out...”

“Hey, that’s the normal reaction to learning about us,” I reasoned. “And besides, he’s been there for her ever since, hasn’t he? That’s what matters, at the end of the day.”

“Indeed it is,” she agreed. “It’s nice to see you here, as well. I think it really means a lot to Lily that you could make it.”

“The day I become too busy to make it to my sister’s school dance is the day I become too big for my boots. Besides, Maddie would’ve castrated me if I hadn’t come.”

“Very true,” she laughed. “That girl is a liability at times. But she does mean well.” She paused for a moment. “I just wish she’d stop drinking wine through that snorkel.”

I headed back onto the dance floor after that, swooping up a partner-less Grace on the way. Once other girls saw me dancing with someone other than Maddie, they all seemed to decide they wanted in on the action. Imogen was next to swoop in for a dance, and as the night went on I found myself dancing with most of the year. Rosalind thankfully stayed away, but her friends didn’t. To my relief, however, Maddie took it upon herself to interrupt those moments. I even found myself doing a ridiculous dance with Kit at one point.

But the one person I wanted to dance with was Lily, who was unfortunately as popular amongst the blokes as I was with their dates. Too soon, the music man announced the last song, and my heart sank as I realised I’d missed my chance. But then she appeared from nowhere and took my hand.

“I saved the last dance for you,” she said, smiling.

“What about your date?” I asked, as a slow song struck up.

“Oh, he’s got himself a dance partner already.” She gestured lazily over to my right and I turned to see Cato and Maddie doing some sort of fast-paced dance of their own at the edge of the dance floor.

“Is this her refusing to conform to tradition?”

“When doesn’t she refuse to conform?”

“Touché.” I grinned, and hugged her tightly as we swayed completely out of time with the music. “I love you, Lil.”

“Love you too, Jim.”

***

All I wanted on Sunday morning was a lie-in. Unfortunately I didn’t even get that, as my phone rang at about eight. It was Brigid.

“James, you need to get to St Mungo’s.”

What?” I sat up in bed abruptly. “What’s happened? Who’s hurt?”

“It’s fine, everyone’s fine, calm down,” she said hurriedly. “It’s nothing serious – well, I suppose it is in a way-”

“Get to the point, Brie.”

“Right. The point. There’s a case of dragon pox in the League and they’re summoning all players to Mungo’s to get tested in case it’s spread.”

Dragon pox? Well ... who’s got it?”

“I can’t tell you that.”

“Do you know?”

“Yes, but I can’t tell you. Just go straight to the hospital, they’re expecting you.”

I grimaced.

“I can’t say this was what I had in mind for today...”

“I know. I didn’t particularly want to ring all my clients, either. But I’m afraid it’s got to be done, sweetie. Let me know when you’re done, though I’m sure you’ll be fine. I’ve got to go; I need to make my way through this list...”

She hung up.

Fifteen minutes later, I was heading down one of the corridors of St. Mungo’s behind a Healer, who directed me into a small consulting room.

 “Someone will be with you shortly,” he said, before leaving.

I sat down on the bed, and glanced round at the posters that covered the walls. They were emblazoned with medical sayings I’d heard numerous times before, mostly from Nana Molly and Aunt Audrey.

After a moment or two the door opened and another Healer entered, her arms laden with various potions and other medical equipment. It didn’t take me long to recognise her.

“Allegra?”

She blinked as she realised who her patient was.

“Oh. James.”

I felt myself swell with guilt, remembering how horrible I’d been to her that morning a couple of months ago, when I’d effectively accused her of being shallow.

“I’m sorry,” I blurted out, shifting awkwardly. “What I said to you ... I was really rude, and I’m sorry. I don’t think you’re one of those girls, of course I don’t-”

Her expression was unreadable.

“I couldn’t quite believe it when you said that to me.” Her voice shook ever so slightly. “It was as though it wasn’t really you, because I couldn’t imagine you saying something like that to anyone.”

“I wasn’t really myself at the time,” I admitted. “I’m so sorry, though, I really am; the moment I said it, I knew it was wrong-”

She smiled faintly.

“That’s okay.” She took a vial of purple liquid from the medical bag she’d set down on the worktop opposite, and handed it to me. “Here, drink this.”

“What will it do?” I said warily.

“To you? Nothing. At least, nothing noticeable. But without it, the tests won’t work.”

“Fair enough. All of it?”

“Please.”

I unstoppered it and downed the liquid, pulling a face as it hit my taste buds.

“That’s vile.”

“Few medicinal concoctions come with a nice taste,” she agreed, taking the empty vial back from me. “You know,” she continued, turning towards her bag, and away from me, “I always liked you at school. Not because you were good-looking, charismatic James Potter – that sort of thing isn’t what gets my attention – but because you were always nice to me. Even when we were little kids, growing up together in Ottery St. Catchpole. You taught me how to fly, and how to throw a Quaffle; I’ll never forget that. And I remember when we played you in my Fifth Year, and I got injured, you probably won’t remember though-”

I smiled slightly. As a matter of fact, I did remember that Quidditch match against Ravenclaw. Freddie had aimed a Bludger at Allegra when she’d had the Quaffle – he hadn’t meant her to get hurt, only to lose possession, but unfortunately the hit had been too good.

“I seem to remember you refusing to leave the pitch,” I said. “You wanted to see the game out, even though there was blood everywhere.”

She turned back to look at me, looking slightly surprised, but pleasantly so.

 “I was fine,” she insisted. “Madam Hooch always worries too much. But you won the Cup when you won that match. All your teammates started celebrating on the pitch. You didn’t. You came straight over to me and insisted on taking me to the hospital wing yourself.”

“I just wanted to make sure you were okay.” I shrugged. “I felt bad; one of our players had injured you. It seemed like the least I could do, as captain-”

“But you didn’t have to do it. I had six team-mates, my friends, my Head of House, Hooch and Pomfrey all determined to get me to the hospital wing, but you still insisted on doing it yourself. And it wasn’t just me. You knew everyone’s name, even the First Years. You helped a few budding Second Year players improve their flying so they felt confident enough to try out. You helped the Hufflepuff Chasers when they asked for tips on how to pull off a Parkin’s Pincer. You gave some money to that poor little kid in my house who had his stolen by those bastard Slytherins and was upset he couldn’t buy Christmas presents for his family. And you were always nice to the Slytherin outcast, right from the start.”

I smiled softly, as that remark led my thoughts towards Ingrid.

“You cared about everyone, even people you didn’t know. You didn’t have to do any of it, but you did anyway. You still do. And that’s far more attractive a trait than good looks or charm. At least, it is to me. That should be what matters; what someone’s like inside. People who only care about the exterior are superficial.”

Her cheeks had gone slightly red, and she glanced down at her hands, which were knotted together, in slight embarrassment.

“I kind of wish you’d told me that before,” I said softly. “It would have been nice to know there were other people who weren’t drawn in by the fame...”

“You do yourself a disservice.” She glanced back up at my face. “Most of the girls who fancied you at school? You may have caught their eye because you were James Potter – but they were mostly just interested in James, that guy in Gryffindor who had a nice word for anyone, and a little cheeky streak in him. I can’t talk for the birds who you’ve picked up and shed since school; you seem to have had particularly poor taste in decent women in the past few years, present company excluded ... but most of us girls at school didn’t give a fig about the name Potter in the end.”

I smiled sheepishly.

“I guess it’s easy to get paranoid about these things,” I admitted.

“I guess so.” She took a second vial, this one containing a mucky green liquid, and handed it to me. “As before.”

Once I’d drank the stuff and she’d taken the vial back, she carried on talking.

 “I think I had this faint hope, when we got together last New Year, that it might become something more than that. I knew it probably wouldn’t, because you’d gone off the whole relationship scene since Ingrid Feversham. But there was still a slight hope that maybe you’d see I wasn’t like all the others. Like that heinous model you were with the other year...”

I shuddered as I thought of Astrid.

“I’d rather you didn’t remind me.”

She smiled apologetically.

“When you snapped at me that morning ... well, like I said, it seemed nothing like you. And I’ll admit, snapping back might not have been the best thing to do, but I was angry. I felt so bad after I’d left though, and then all those stories started coming out, about you visiting the Lair, and that photographer...”

I suppressed a second shudder.

“Yeah, I guess I kind of lost myself.” I ran my hand through my hair absent-mindedly.

“Well, I’m glad you’re back,” she said delicately. “And that Muggle girl, Carlotta; I talked to her the other day at the Bats match. She seems really lovely. Completely different from your usual type.”

“Yeah, she is.” I smiled fondly, as I thought about her.

“Girlfriend?”

“We’ve not actually put a label on it ... but yeah, I think so.”

“Well, I hope you’re very happy together.”

It was said completely sincerely, without a hint of jealousy or malice. Because that was just the type of person Leggy Allegra was. I couldn’t help but wonder what might have come about had I had more to do with her a couple of years ago, before Carlotta had come onto the scene. But I didn’t voice this thought.

“You should find yourself a nice man. Don’t settle for anything less than what you’re worth, either. You deserve the best. Better than me,” I added.

“And Carlotta doesn’t?” Allegra raised an eyebrow.

“Of course she does. I tell her so all the time.”

“Nonsense,” she said delicately, holding out a third vial. “Anyway, I’m not particularly looking for anyone right now. I’m just concentrating on my Healer training.”

“You mean you’re not fully qualified and you’re giving me potions?” I joked, eyeing the vial with mock suspicion.

“Didn’t I tell you? Feargus Lynch has paid me to bump you off.”

I laughed, and knocked back the third potion, this one completely clear.

“Won’t our families need testing?” I asked as I handed the glass back.

“I’m not sure.” She frowned. “If this comes back positive, we’ll have to. If not ... you could still be carrying the pox, but it’s unlikely. Obviously in this instance it’s best to just test all players, because we’ll have an influx of players over the next few weeks and we can’t have an outbreak of dragon pox just before the World Cup. With a normal case of dragon pox, we wouldn’t test people like this – most cases aren’t serious so there’s no real urgency about it. This particular one is quite savage though, which makes the situation slightly more delicate.”

“What about Carlotta? And Lily’s friends?”

“They’d be susceptible,” she admitted. “I’m not entirely sure what effect the illness has on Muggles, though. Your aunt would be best-placed to tell you that.”

 I nodded, making a mental note to ask Aunt Audrey later.

“It’s a serious case, then?” I asked now.

She nodded.

“Quite vicious. The player’s very ill. We think it might be a foreign strain.”

Foreign? How would they have caught it then?”

“Well, a family member might have gone abroad and picked it up,” she suggested. “It’s hardly an implausible concept. In this particular case, the patient was abroad a couple of weeks ago.”

I frowned, trying to work out who it was. A foreign international attending a training camp perhaps?

“Who is it?” I asked her. I knew the question hadn’t worked on Brigid, but I thought I might be able to wheedle the answer out of Allegra.

“I can’t tell you,” she said. “Patient confidentiality.”

“Is that really the only reason you can’t say?” I said suspiciously. I couldn’t see why she couldn’t tell me who had a simple case of dragon pox; it was hardly as though I was going to use that information.

“Demelza Robins has asked us to keep it quiet-” She clamped her mouth shut, but she’d already said too much.

Demelza’s getting involved. But – that must mean it’s an England player, someone in the squad­-” My eyes widened with worry. “It’s not Cleo, is it? It can’t be Cato, I only saw him last night ... oh Merlin, is it Cato?”

She looked awkward.

“I’ve already said too much, I really shouldn’t-”

“You can tell me who it isn’t, surely? Besides, they’re my friends. Are they okay? They must be, neither of them have been abroad in the past few weeks-”

She sighed.

“It’s neither of them,” she said.

I breathed a sigh of relief.

“What about Emily? Or Michael? It’s not either of them, is it?”

“You’re not going to take me through the entire squad, are you? I’m not supposed to tell you-”

“I know! I just want to know they’re okay! I’m being caring, you see.”

She shot me an irritated look, but it was softened by the slight smile that was tugging at her lips.

“No, it’s neither of the Woods.”

“McLaggen? Oh, please tell me it’s McLaggen-”

“You’re horrible,” she said, her smile widening.

“So’s he. Well?”

“No, it’s not McLaggen. Sadly,” she added, in a tone of voice which told me she thought as highly of him as I did.

“Had a run-in with him?”

“Tested him earlier. Bloody insufferable git.”

“Try playing Quidditch with him. Come on, Allie, just tell me who it is, won’t you?” I wheedled.

The nickname, one her friends used often, seemed to work. She sighed.

“It’s Wadcock. Joshua Wadcock has dragon pox.”


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