Chapter 8 : Affection
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"Considering nobody but the mother, his adoptive mother and siblings, one nanny who signed a NDA worth one million galleons and my immediate family actually knows that my son exists, I sincerely doubt that you read about him in some kind of magazine rag. So how did you find out? Did Wallis tell you?" I can tell from his tone that he's trying as hard as possible to keep his volume down in the small confines of the car.
Trying to find a way to get my newfound sort-of friend out of trouble with this clearly mentally unstable teenager but still not make it look like I've been snooping in his personal business, I gape a little bit and then clamp my dry lips shut. To use my mouth for something other than talking, I pull out a deep burgundy lipgloss and began to smooth it onto my lips with a little more concentration and tenacity than is strictly necessary for the act of lipgloss smoothing. Albus audibly hisses, sounding like some kind of irate snake, but I manage to ignore him as best I can.
"Flora, I swear to Merlin, if you don't start speaking then I am going to chuck you out of the car and make you walk to the next motel in those stripper heels of yours." I object to both being threatened and his description of my heels as stripper-like, and battle inwardly as to which I want to broach first.
"First of all, Albus, my heels are not stripper heels. They are beautiful heels that I had to have imported over from Italy – Milan, specifically – despite them being from a French designer. They weren't too expensive considering who designed them, but they fit amazingly and they have a special gel in the insole of the shoe to stop them from causing any strain on the joints in the leg. The back of the shoe was modelled on glass to make sure it moulds perfectly against the back of my foot and doesn't cause any swelling around the back of my heel-" Albus slams his hand onto the horn suddenly, despite the road being empty, and the resounding honking noise quashes me into silence.
"Flora, I do not give two short flying shits about where your shoes are from, who designed them and whether or not I saw them at a strip club last year on the feet of a girl dressed in nothing but a spangled silver bikini. I do not care. What I do care about is knowing how you found out about my son – that is not something I ever permit people to talk about." I find myself wishing I had never opened my newly glossy mouth and mentioned what is clearly a sensitive topic.
"I… you were right, anyway. Wallis told me. She didn't mean to, she gave it away when I think she was a little drunk. I asked her to tell me the whole story so I understood better. I wasn't trying to pry, I was merely curious. Though, I would like to offer my condolences to you over Amelie." The tightening of Albus's lips into a thin white line tells me that my well wishes are not welcome.
"You didn't know Amelie, Flora, there is no need for you to console me over her. I didn't really know her either. You'd be better ringing her parents and telling them." Albus's voice is nothing short of a growl. Hostility rolls off him in waves. "And I am going to fucking murder Wallis."
"Don't blame Wallis," I say quickly, trying to remember the diplomatic techniques Daddy drummed into me as a child. Albus is chewing on the inside of his cheek and has turned a dangerous red colour.
"If she told you the one thing that she swore she would never tell anyone, then of fucking course I'm going to blame her. That's like someone killing you and then claiming it's not their fault, you got in the way of the killing curse that just happened to have spewed out of their wand in your direction." I raise an eyebrow at the likening but say nothing.
"Look, I'm not going to tell anyone, Albus. I have more tact than that. I can only imagine the scandal an illegitimate child would cause, and I'm sure that I don't want to be publically associated with such public discord." Albus's expression flattens out and his nostrils flare, but I assume that is a reference to my portrayal of his having a child as 'public discord'. That, and calling little Noah 'illegitimate'. He opens his mouth to snap something, but I quickly cut across him. "I apologise, I didn't mean it like that. But really, can't we go and visit him for a day? Please? I think it would be a really good thing for you to spend more time with your son."
Albus's hand once again slams down onto the horn, blaring a horrifyingly loud noise out across the abandoned road. Some sheep in the field next to us titter and baa.
"This is none of your fucking business, Flora, and you're treading a very thin line right now." Albus's voice has grown more and more aggressive, and I realise that his anger is building rather than dissipating as time passes. "I don't want you to mention him again, okay? I will visit my son when I choose to, not when some random chick tells me to." I fold my arms indignantly across my chest at his judgemental tone and do my best to look affronted.
"You asked me what I wanted to do. I want to visit your son. I thought that it might relax you, it might be a nice thing to do for a day, but clearly you have objections about visiting your own flesh and blood." Albus's actual blood has pooled into his face, and he's a dangerous tomato colour that spreads all the way from the collar of his shirt to his startlingly scarlet ears.
"Don't even try to act like you know what's going on!" Albus spits suddenly, and I feel the need to recoil at the amount of venom packed into that one sentence. I press myself slightly against my car door, praying it's been cleaned recently. "Don't even act like you know anything about me, my son or Amelie. You know absolutely fuck all, do you get that?"
"I… I…" I stammer pathetically, unable to regain my equilibrium. Albus's sudden change in character – from grumpy and reserved, a little rude but generally reasonably easy to sit in the company of – has me shaking. He looks outright dangerous – the kind of danger that I have never before been exposed to. Having no scorned ex-lovers, I am unsure how to handle such an angry male. I content myself with looking as small and meek as possible against the passenger side door. Albus is shaking, breathing hard out of his nose as though he is struggling to regain his temperature.
"Do not sit there and look at me with those eyes of yours and tell me that you want to see my son – he's had enough hardship in his life without being introduced to some girl he's never going to see again. Not that he'd like you – you're too stuffy for children." The throwaway comment is like a punch to the stomach – though being a mother was never a primary concern of mine, being told that I lack the natural womanly abilities to get along with infants leaves me feeling oddly deflated.
"Albus, I didn't mean to upset you," I whisper, trying to placate him. The irony of such an angry boy being put in charge of my protection, when he looks like he'd nothing more than to wrap his arms around my throat and squeeze, sits uncomfortably heavily in my stomach.
"I'm not upset," he snarls, but his tone proves otherwise. He squeezes his eyes shut.
"What?" I whisper. The voice sounds like a cannon in the otherwise silent inside of the car. Even Cupcake has been scared into stillness and silence by Albus's infuriated ranting. My hands have been clutching the edge of my seat without my realising, and a chord of resentment sounds in my head as I wonder what right Albus Potter has for making me feel so scared. No right whatsoever, that's what. I make a note to write to Daddy and inform him of Albus's filthy temper. Maybe then, somehow, he will see that it's a good idea to let me leave this hell-trip early. Clearly, whoever was the reason that I got sent away in the first place has followed me. So, that begs the question, what is the point in the road trip – would it not be simpler to cut out the middle man and just go home to be found? With an entire security team around my home, I'm sure it would be quite safe.
"You had no right to pry. That was my business." Albus's voice is shaking, and I notice that his hands are too. No traces of the calm man that checked out Wallis's house after the break-in remain. He's like a new person. "You had no right to ask Wallis about anything, and that stupid bitch should have known to keep her fat mouth shut." My jaw drops at his derogatory slandering of Wallis.
"Don't insult Wallis," I murmur, my voice to quiet and scared to actually carry any authority. Albus shoots me a filthy glare that makes my stomach clench. "Albus, I didn't mean to offend you. I was merely curious. If I've overstepped the mark, I'm sorry." My voice grows in both volume and confidence. "Plenty of boys accidentally get their girlfriends pregnant; don't feel you're the only one that has ever made that mistake. And plenty of boys struggle to step up to the demands of fatherhood – it's not just you. I'm not judging you for having a son, Albus. I think it's fine. Not the kind of life I would choose for myself, but we have very different aspirations in life."
I think, for once foolish moment, that I have calmed Albus down with my explanation, but the purple tinge steeping across his cheeks tells me otherwise. His foot slams down on the brake a moment later, and Albus drops his head to the steering wheel. His hands are clenched so tightly his knuckles are straining against the skin on his hands.
"You are, without a shadow of a doubt, the most arrogant and ignorant human being I have ever met." His voice is full of scorn and disdain, and embarrassment pricks at my heart as I realise that my eyes have filled with tears over the last few minutes, a few spilling over the sides of my lashes and rolling down my cheeks, dripping onto my already-stained trousers. I refrain from wiping the tears away to avoid drawing attention to my emotional self.
"Why do you hate me so much?" I suddenly ask, and Albus's back stiffens over the steering wheel. I have no idea where my sudden bout of bravery comes from. He raises his head slowly from the steering wheel and stares right at me, his lip curling up into a horrible sneer. It makes him look twelve times crueller than he ever was at school, and he could be a right diva when he wanted to be as a teenager. My heart pounds in my chest.
"Honestly, Flora? I don't hate you. But I hate everything about you. Right down to your conservative, ridiculously expensive clothing and your perfectly curled hair and your snotty attitude and your repressive upbringing and the way you look down on everything. You are literally the human embodiment of everything I can't stand, and I have you sit with you twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Even the way you put classical music on the radio and eat lobster pate on crackers… like… what the hell is wrong with you? You have no sense of humour, no social skills, you struggle to hold conversations with people, you have no friends to speak of, you're arrogant, you're obnoxious, you think the world should be handed to you on a golden platter because of who your father is and because you're so goddamn rich… you think everyone is so beneath you, when really, I'd rather be trapped in a car with anyone, absolutely anyone, before you."
"I…" I say, realising a lump is rising in my throat and my eyes are still swimming with moisture. A second later, the car still sitting on the side of the road, leaving a gap on the rest of the road not quite big enough for another vehicle to squeeze past, Albus pushes his way out of his seat and storms out his door, slamming it shut behind him. He walks until he reaches a turning point, and then disappears around a corner, out of sight. I pull out some parchment and a self-ink quill.
How could you possibly expect Albus Potter to be able to safely transport me around the country? He may be keeping you filled in – don't think I don't know you're communicating with him and not me – but he's clearly paraphrasing for you. Take now, for example. I am sitting alone in our car by the roadside, unsure as to even what part of the United Kingdom we are in, and Albus has left the car in anger to take a walk. He has not informed me where he is going or when he will be back, nor has he given me anything with which to protect myself. Considering we have just had a witch walk in front of our car, hide, and then watch our car drive away, this can hardly be classed as safety conscious behaviour. He is supposed to be a BODYGUARD. Am I the only person that understands this? Not only that, but his temper is appalling, his manners are shockingly underdeveloped, he swears an inordinate and frightfully impolite amount of times and he has already expressed his intense dislike for me.
This is not a good idea, Daddy. Please let me come home. Please. I apologise if this letter seems to question your judgement or suggests that you do not know what is best for me, but I feel I have the right to express my opinion. This is a bad idea, Daddy. Please, please, please let me come home.
All my love always,
Flora M. Dainty
An hour later I am still sitting alone in the car, almost developing a nervous twitch since I am glancing over my shoulder twice every thirty seconds to check for both MIA Albus and The Terrifying Cloaked Villain. I like to think that I'm only glancing once every thirty seconds for each. Cupcake has grown restless, but I can't force myself to take him for a short walk up the road. I tried listening to the outdated radio for a while, but the crackling due to poor service was irritating and I found myself unable to concentrate on the cheerful voice of the radio presenter.
Despite unintentional procrastination never being something I have suffered from, I try to distract myself with something menial. Alas, it does not work, and I find myself twisting a diamond and topaz solitaire around my middle finger to try and alleviate some of the tension growing in my gut.
"Young ladies do not fidget, Flora Mae." I can practically hear my mother's disapproving tone, and see the way she would purse her lips and frown at me over the rim of her designer glasses. The thought makes me clench my teeth together for half a second, before I begin to worry about damaging my veneers. There was never anything wrong with my teeth, but mother thought they weren't straight enough, and after magical straightening they weren't white enough, and after magical whitening they weren't the right size, so perfect veneers ended up being charmed into my gums.
I glance at my watch one last time, taking a moment to admire the diamond encrusted rim of the clock face, and pinch my lips together. The last remainders of my burgundy lipgloss faded from my lips about thirty minutes before. Albus has been gone for two and a half hours, and with each additional minute that passes, more cold sweat breaks out the back of my neck. I feel the urge to cry.
I try as hard as I can not to think about what he said – the horrible things he said to me. The kind of words that a man should never say to a woman – or to anyone, really. The kind of words that made me forget how brave he was back with that cloaked person, and the kind of words that made me want to draw my knee up in the most unladylike way and show him just how repressed I am.
And then, before I know what has happened, some form of mental dam breaks and tears flow down my cheeks and drip onto my shirt before I've had a chance to register anything. Everything that I've ever thought about myself, late at night when stress or noises outside my window were keeping me awake, had come of that boy's mouth. Everything that you worry people think; no matter how hard you pretend you don't care one iota what people say about you – everything that you loathe about yourself. And for someone with a position of authority over you, a safe-haven, someone you have shared a bed with, for goodness' sakes, to list off everything they hate about you in such a crass manner… well, you'd have to be exactly the kind of person that I would never associate with.
I may be his idea of a worst nightmare, but he's mine. The only difference between our both thinking it is that I would never put something so hurtful into words. He would. And therein lies the difference between the pair of us. I feel nothing but sorrow for the woman that he ends up with – if he convinces or even allows a woman to stay with him. She'll have no kind of life with a man that toxic.
All that bottled anger is good for no one – what seems to be anger issues, drinking problems, a reluctance to grow up, a compulsion to be the leader of everything, an illegitimate son that he refuses to take responsibility for, a dead ex-girlfriend, a family unsure of how to deal with him and a promising future withering away before his eyes – Albus Potter is destroying himself. And as soon as this infernal trip is over, I'm getting as far away from him as possible; I don't want to be the one there when he crashes and burns.
Wiping my streaming eyes with a monogrammed handkerchief from my bag, I try to fix my mascara and eyeliner so that I no longer resemble something from the racoon family. I dab a little concealer onto my ring finger and pat it under my eyes, trying to cover up the dark circles from lack of sleep and a sudden spike in my stress levels.
"You are a calm, collected young woman, Flora Dainty," I murmur aloud, reaching one arm into the backseat so that Cupcake can lick my palm reassuringly. "You are not going to be affected or hurt by Albus Potter's immature remarks – he's nothing but your chauffer. A safety feature, if you will – like an airbag. You do not converse with an airbag, so see no need to converse with Mr Potter. You are a calm, collected young woman, and he cannot hurt you unless you let him." I take a deep, shuddering breath and clasp my hands on my lap. A second later, a loud tapping on the window causes a piercing scream to wrench itself from my throat and fill the inside of the car.
Albus cringes back from the window, wincing, holding both of his hands up in what could either be apology, surrender or a mixture of the two. I grasp the fabric of my shirt that sits over my heart and breathe slowly to calm down my breathing. Pulling my wand out of my bag, I unlock my door and swing my legs out so they hang towards the ground.
I stare at Albus expectantly, not speaking, and eventually he lets out a frustrated sigh.
"I'm sorry," Albus sighs, looking like he's physically having to claw the words out of his own throat. His lips are pinched together in a thin white line and his eyes are looking anywhere but me – namely at the ground. His hands are clenched into tight fists and a pucker has appeared between his eyebrows. "I… I didn't mean the things I said and I was out of order. No, in fact, I did mean what I said. But I'm still sorry that I said it." I nod and smooth my hands down the front of my trousers. "Sometimes I have trouble with my temper. A lot of trouble. I know I need to work on it. So if I ever say anything to you in anger that truly offends you… well, sorry in advance."
"That's quite alright," I murmur, also looking at the ground. A moment later, a hand is stuck under my nose and I try not to check whether dirt lurks beneath the tips of his fingernails. "Yes?" I ask quietly, wondering whether I am expected to shake his hand when he has been alone in the practically-wilderness for near enough three hours, most likely without a large bottle of heavy-duty hand wash and a good washcloth.
"Shake my hand, Flora. It's the polite thing to do. And here was me thinking that your parents drummed manners into you the second they found out you were in the womb." Albus cocks an eyebrow at me as I finally curl my hand around his and allow him to shake my wrist up then down.
"Well, thank you for the apology. We better get going, it's getting to noontime and we'll get burned if we stay outside. We'll be better driving somewhere for something to eat." Albus stares at me for a moment, noting the polite detachment in my voice, and then seemingly gives up on his forced apology. He frowns at me for a second.
"Do you want to take a minute to stretch your legs first? You've been sitting in that car for three hours now. It's not good for your muscles. You're best standing up for a minute or two." I nod my acceptance and the frown lines of Albus's forehead shallow slightly.
Albus still has hold of my hand, and he uses it to pull me up out of my seat and onto my feet, so fast that my head spins a little bit and I end up a little closer to Albus's face than I am strictly comfortable with. I know my eyes are widening like saucers, but this kind of proximity is unusual, to say the least.
There is a few seconds of tense silence, and then the dull and aging lines on his face smooth out to reveal a bright smirk that reeks of the arrogant child he was in school; the playboy that stomped all over girls, splashed his father's history around like his own badge of honour and smoked more than questionable substances in the dank corridor in the dungeons by the Slytherin common room.
"You know, Flora," he murmurs, slowly letting go of my hand and leaning his head back so we aren't within one inch of one another's noses, "look at a man like that again, and you might get more than you bargained for." I flush at the innuendo behind his words and take a few dignified steps away from him, re-establishing the personal bubble and all its meritable qualities.
"I'll just stretch my legs now. Feel free to get back into the car and warm up the engine. Since you took the keys with you, and I don't know any spells pertaining to cars, I wasn't able to switch the air conditioning on for Cupcake and I think he was getting a little warm. I was worried." I keep my tone as neutral as possible and do not make eye contact with Albus, despite him trying to step directly into my line of vision. I merely avert my gaze elsewhere.
"Flora, look at me." I don't. "Flora, look at me." I ignore him for a second time. "Now." The natural authority in his voice finally overtakes my pitiful amount of pride and I raise my brown eyes to meet his green ones. "Lizards are cold-blooded animals. Cupcake is fine." Smirking, he turns away.
Feeling something akin to irritation bubbling in my gut, I swallow with difficulty, curl my fingers around the heel of my shoe and use it to stretch out my calf muscles. I can almost hear them groan in protest, but I continue to stretch regardless. I repeat the process with my other leg, jump up and down several times and then turn to get back into the car. I reach out and pull on the door handle, but it doesn't give – it stays shut. Albus poorly disguises laughter from the driver's seat. He doesn't seem to realise he is just getting himself into deeper water.
"Unlock the door, Albus," I say sternly, wondering why I have not yet taken the time to explain to Albus that I do not like practical jokes or pranks and do not find such childish displays amusing. I would have assumed he learned that with the Marigold Simulator fiasco, but apparently not.
"Only when you wipe that sniffy look off your face and at least attempt to smile," he smirks, and I flare my nostrils out as I try to figure what a sniffy expression even is so that I can alter my features. I take a deep breath to clear my head, before making a very rash decision that shocks even me. Without thinking, I bend down and pick up a large rock in front of my left foot, straighten up and plunge it straight into the passenger side window.
The glass shatters on impact, and Albus swears loudly as he throws his arms up to cover his face. Only half the pane has smashed, so I use the rock to bash at the little pieces still held in the doorframe. Albus thrusts open his door and throws himself out the car, stalking over to my side with his face an odd shade of puce.
"What the bloody fuck do you think you're playing at? Are you absolutely fucking mad, woman? What in the shit is wrong with you? You are actually crazy, do you know that?" I turn to face him, step forward until our chests are only fifteen inches apart and glare up at him.
"Let me get one thing straight with you now, Albus Potter. I don't like pranks, I don't like practical jokes, and I don't like immaturity in people that should know better. You have a temper, yes, and that's fine, but the things you said were hurtful, so don't expect me to act all buddy-buddy with you five seconds after you force out an apology. Locking the door was a pointless, childish thing to do and while you may find it funny, I find it irritating and stupid, so don't do it again. You and I have to spend a lot of time together, Albus, and trust me, if you think I'm bad at the moment, you should see me when I'm trying to be difficult. You'd wish you'd never been born. So fix the window, get back in the car and take me somewhere to get lunch, because to be quite frank, I am not in the mood to talk to you right now." Albus gapes at me, his face red with anger, but he keeps his mouth clamped shut as he pulls out his wand, fixes the window, and stalks back to his own side of the car.
"And for you?" the waitress asks, staring down at me with a friendly smile. I frown at the menu again and wonder why Albus always picks the greasiest, lowest-class diners for us to eat at. We can quite easily afford to eat somewhere decent, but no – he wants to live on a diet of triple layer burgers and curly fries.
"I would like the… Wild West Burger meal, please, but without the burger… and the chips. And I'll have extra of the salad that comes on the side. And a jacket potato with tuna on the side would be lovely, thank you." I hand over my menu as the woman chuckles and scribbles it down onto her pad. Albus rolls his eyes but says nothing, and I choose to ignore him.
To be honest with you, I am still embarrassed that I acted to immaturely – smashing his window.
I can't possibly see what I was thinking. There is just something about him that makes me see red, and… I don't like it. I want to get away from him so that everything will go back to normal – I won't go around vandalising other people's property or yelling at people in broad daylight where anyone could overhear. Honestly, next thing you know I'll be smoking something dodgy in the back of a club and then inviting the DJ back to my bedroom for a rendezvous, if you catch my drift.
"So where are we going today?" I ask cordially, brushing down my skirt and laying a napkin over my lap. Albus shrugs, but his expression looks oddly thoughtful. I pray that he hasn't chosen something dreadful to get back at me for the window-smashing incident. I'll probably wake up tomorrow with shaving foam in my hair, or toothpaste drawn in a moustache across my upper lip.
"Who knows?" he shrugs, before going back to ignoring me. He pulls out a fancy, high-tech phone and begins to tap around on the screen, his mouth twisting slightly into a grimace and the skin between his eyebrows puckering. "God, I wish she'd just get the hint and frig the hell off." I frown at him and he sighs, before getting out of his side of the booth and sliding around to mine.
"Erm, Albus, what are you doing?" I ask uncertainly, wondering whether he's going to stab me with a fork.
"Making conversation," he grunts. "See this girl?" he turns his phone towards me to show me a photograph of a pretty-ish girl sitting on a wall. Her long legs are bare in miniscule denim shorts, and her chest is fit to bursting out of the small scrap of cotton she's wearing as a shirt. Her blonde hair stands three inches off her head, and hangs down to her waist like a curtain of plastic. She looks like the type of girl that would be traditionally pretty if she washed the excessive makeup off of her face.
"What about her?" I ask, as he makes the picture disappear.
"She's an ex-girlfriend of mine. Her name's Paige-Ellen." I raise an eyebrow demurely and turn my attention away from the phone screen, trying not to show my distaste in my expression. For all I know, he still likes the girl. He taps the phone again and something else comes up on the screen, a collection of blue and grey boxes alternating from left to right, a text messaging conversation, I assume. Andromeda always tried to get me into texting but it was never for me. I carry a phone with me to make telephone calls, but texting has never been my scene. There is just something so impersonal about tapping an electronic message to someone.
"Am I supposed to read that?" I ask, coming across a little snobby but deciding that is preferential to actually letting on that I am unsure as to what I am supposed to do. Albus rolls his eyes, not seeming surprised, and puts the phone on my palm.
"Yeah. I dunno, it might make you laugh. Thought it might make you loosen up a bit. Girls tend to like bitching about other girls, so I dunno. I don't feel like getting the cold shoulder for the next three days." I almost manage a smile at that and squint at the phone screen, trying to figure out what I'm supposed to be reading and in what order. Naturally, I start at the top.
Hey babeeee, do you miss me?xxx
Not particularly, no.
Aww, don't be a meanie, Albie. You know you lurveeee me. Come over tonight and see me 3xxx
I'm busy, sorry Paige.
Doing what? Wouldn't you rather be doing me? ;);)xxx
I'm with the Minister for Magic's daughter, actually. Sorry.
Then sneak away and come and see me ;) bring me a gift and you can spend the night, baby. Love you xxx
I'm busy, Paige.
Boo you whore. Hate you!xxx
Sure you do, Paige. Bye.
"You're quite mean to her," I murmur, and Albus's eyebrows rise in surprise. He takes the phone back off me and pockets it, chuckling slightly. "I mean, I can see why you're distant with her, she's… certainly quite… well, regardless, you're a little short with her. You just need to tell her that she can't ask for gifts because it's rude and you don't wish to share her bed any longer. That is, if you don't, of course." I flush at the topic of the conversation and glance down at the table cloth.
"We broke up because she slept with my cousin," Albus laughs. "Freddie bought her a diamond tennis bracelet so she screwed him. He didn't know she was my girl at the time. I broke up with her because of it. Freddie found out she'd been my girlfriend and refused to speak to her again, and pointed out that he was not her personal fountain of jewellery and diamonds. She lost her rag with him when she realised he meant it, that he really wasn't going to buy her anything, and she's been trying to get back with me ever since. Wallis told me she'd decapitate me if I ever got back with her." I laugh at that.
"Sounds like Wallis," I smile. Albus nods and grins at the waitress as she deposits the food in front of us. I take one tentative bite, confirm it is not poisoned and begin to eat with gusto, realising how hungry I actually am. Albus chuckles again and begins on his own meal. "Albus?" I suddenly ask.
"Yeah?" he grunts between mouthfuls.
"You know when you said I was… well, you know…" He grimaces at me, clearly having no idea what I'm talking about. "You know that you said I was trying to… cuddle up to you in the night?" Albus's face suddenly cracks into a grin as my cheeks bloom with colour. "Well, were you being serious?" He nodded, grinning around a mouthful of mushy peas.
"Yeah, I was. When I tried to get out of bed you clung to me like a spider monkey, gripping hold of my shirt. It was quite cute actually. You were completely out of it, though. You were asleep. And then you snuggled up to my side and wrapped your arms around me when I got back. It was… quite nice… well, I – I dunno. Cute. Sweet. I dunno. I've never actually spent the night with a girl before. I've always left after, you know, and gone home. Or back to my dorm. Or whatever. It was different, I'll certainly say that, having a girl snuggle up to me at night. I actually didn't…" he trails off, suddenly embarrassed. I nudge him lightly in the side with my elbow in an uncharacteristically playful gesture.
"What?" I ask, taking another forkful of food as I watch his cheeks colour to a pale pink.
"I didn't mind it. It was quite warm and… cuddly. I dunno. Don't think I'm going soft, mind!"
I smile and take another bite of my food, wondering what happened to the foul tempered boy that had stormed out of our car not four hours before, too furious to even look at me. The boy that said such horrible things to me. Because the Albus sitting with me, joking and laughing and blushing, is the kind of Albus that I don't mind spending time with. The kind of Albus that Wallis loves, that the boys enjoy spending time with. The kind of Albus that his dad is trying to get back. And I wonder just how long he's going to stay in this state of mind.
"Where are we?" I ask as we pull into the front garden of an ordinary suburban house, lined with a navy blue picket fence and perfectly tended rose bushes. I admire them for a moment as I wait for Albus to jog around the hood of the car and open my door. Having my door opened is something I grew accustomed to growing up, and after a few days of me forgetting to open my own and sitting in the car like an orange for a few minutes until I remembered, Albus cottoned on and started opening it for me. He said it was the first gentlemanly thing he'd done in years, and I warned him – I'd make a gentleman of him yet.
"Well, I – I'm still not happy that you know. And I'm fucking fuming with Wallis for telling you. But I took that out on you and that wasn't fair. I know, anger aside, that you probably meant well when you suggested we come here. And I haven't seen my boy in about seven weeks now, and that's ridiculous. I need to – I need to step up my game, or he's going to be twenty before he comes to live with me." Albus runs his hands through his hair and then offers me his arm to help me out of the car. I smile widely at him and his laughs throatily, before bopping me on the nose with his index finger.
"We're here to see Noah?" I ask, and Albus nods slowly. And then, before either of us have registered what has really happened, I throw myself across the gap between us and into his arms – which were not ready for me to be launched into them. The hug only lasts two seconds, but it's enough to get my heart pounding. I push away from him and hope that my face hasn't paled. Close physical contact is something I've tried to avoid since – since Harrison. Albus looks surprised at both my sudden hug and then freak reaction to it, but chooses not to comment. "Sorry," I murmur.
"No problem," he shrugs, clearly not caring. I swallow with difficulty and force my mind to remain in the present. My hands shake a little and I pray that Albus won't notice, but he does. He tries to catch one of them and pull it towards him but I flinch like I've been burned. He stops trying immediately. "Flora, are you alright?" I nod with difficulty.
"Do you want to go inside?" I ask loudly, my voice sounding odd even to my own ears. Albus's eyes narrow and he shakes his head slowly. "Why not?" I nearly snap, my patience wearing thin.
"Give me a hug first, Flora," he says quietly, his eyes inspecting my face for any sign of a flinch. I swallow around the lump in my throat and slowly stretch my arms out until there is around a foot of space between them. Albus frowns and gestures for me to open them wider. As though invisible ropes are tying my wrists to one another, I struggle to open my arms further but eventually manage it. Standing like a lemon with my arms open, Albus rolls his eyes and walks into my frosty embrace.
A second later he flings his arms around my waist and picks me up, spinning around like a merry-go-round and then tipping me backwards so that a few tendrils of my hair flutter along the paving flags. I try not to screech at the thought of the germs. Albus grins wider.
"There, that wasn't so hard, was it?" he chuckles, setting me back down on my feet. I raise one hand and place it on my chest, checking to feel the pace of my heartbeat, and my eyebrows rise when I realise that it's not going that fast at all. While anyone of the male species hugging me would normally cause me to break out into a full blown panic – a major version of the minor tizzy Albus witnessed after the first attempted hug – my heartbeat has remained reasonably regular. There is no chill along my spine, and my hands aren't shaking. And I can't figure out why.
Maybe it's that Albus is the first boy I have ever actually gotten to know – not that I know much about Albus at all. But spending seven days with someone in a car, or their friend's bedroom, means that you know someone a little, that you trust them a little. And just knowing Albus, knowing that he's not Harrison, that he's there to protect me and not hurt me, means that my heart hasn't leapt into my mouth at the thought of coming within a four foot radius of the bloke.
"Can we go and see Noah now?" I ask, ignoring the slightly concerned look on Albus's face and hoisting my handbag up onto my shoulders while simultaneously snatching my bottle of hand sanitizing gel out of the plastic pocket in the passenger car door. From what I've heard – not that I've been around them much – little kids are full of germs and cold. And frankly, that's revolting.
"Sure," Albus agrees, and then turns on his heel and heads off towards the house. After checking my hair quickly for flyaways in the car window, I follow suit.
"Dada!" a lisping, high-pitched voice squeals out the moment we step through the door. I glance around, startled, and find a tall woman sitting in a comfortable armchair next to a baby sitting on a colourful mat, surrounded by enormous foam blocks that are being haphazardly arranged into some sort of tower structure. The child is, without a shadow of a doubt, Albus's son – and quite adorable.
He has his daddy's dark hair, which sits messily on the top of his head, but has clearly been combed through in a fruitless attempt to tame it down. It's not as rowdy as his father's, and I wonder if he got the smoothness and shine from his mother. What was her name? Amelie? His eyes are wide, as toddlers' often are, and are as startling a shade of green as Albus's. His cheeks are chubby and red, and his plump pink mouth is spread into a wide smile as he smacks his chubby little hands together.
"Hi there, kiddo," Albus grins, jogging into the living room from the tiny hallway and dropping down onto the edge of the play-mat. Noah stretches his arms out, and after a few moments of struggling, has pulled himself up to his feet. He waddles quickly over to his daddy's side, his nappy forcing his legs out slightly like a duckling, and drops down heavily by Albus's thigh. I giggle a little and pull off my jacket, hanging it on the newel post as no one has directed me otherwise.
"You alright there, Albus?" The woman – who I can only assume is Wallis's mother – asks, and she slowly gets out of her chair and turns to face me. "Oh. Hello. Who are you?" One of her thinning eyebrows rises and I almost frown at her tone – it is not welcoming, to say the least. Her lips are pursed, and from her face alone I can tell that she is nowhere near as nice as her daughter.
"My name is Flora Dainty – I'm Albus's… friend." The woman frowns for a second, and then her expression clears up as something clearly occurs to her. Her previously pursed mouth spreads into something resembling a smile and a second later she sticks out a bony hand for me to shake.
"Mara Chelan," she offers as I shake her hand. "I'm Noah's foster mum, and Wallis's mother. She told me about you and Albus and your dad. Road trip, huh?" I nod slowly and she winks at me, suddenly conspiratorial, and cocks her head towards to Albus. "I bet you've got your hands full with that one, haven't you?" she says, and then gestures for me to follow her as she heads to the kitchen.
"He can be…" I start, and then notice Albus staring at me with a raised eyebrow and quickly change tack, "nice when he likes to be." 'Mara' nods and heads over to a plastic kettle, which she fills up with water from the tap without filtering it first. I try not to grimace. I feel awkward with this woman, but do not know how to get back into the living room without offending her since she asked me to follow her into the kitchen. She fills three cups with a large teaspoon of coffee granules – I hold back the urge to retch – and then tops them off with dried UHT milk and a sweetener. When the kettle boils, she tops off all the mugs and then hands one to me. I try not to gag over the thought of drinking it.
She takes the other two and heads back into the living room without another word, and quickly gives one to Albus. He murmurs a word of thanks and goes back to building a castle out of blocks with Noah, who is staring up at Albus like he is Merlin himself, his wide eyes full of adoration.
"For a minute there, when I noticed you hanging around in the hall, I thought you were another one of Al's girlfriends. Then I realised that not only are you really not his type, but he'd never have told one of his slappers about his boy." My jaw drops slightly at her language, partly because of her age and partly because of the child in the room, but she pretends not to notice. "He tends to go for ninnies in short skirts without a brain cell between them – you're much too… refined for his tastes." If I didn't know any better, I'd say there is almost a… warning in her tone.
As though she honestly believes that Albus Potter is even close to my tastes. Though I myself am not too sure what my tastes are, a bad boy turned chauffer with a bad attitude and an illegitimate child is not immediately what springs to mind. I prefer the more – to use her jargon – 'refined' types, those that will happily wear a suit to work to look smart and will slick their hair back with oil when attending an important soiree to keep it off their faces.
"Would have thought you'd be pleased about that, Mara," Albus says absently, letting Noah play with this index finger. "You're always griping about my girlfriends." Mara rolls her eyes, purses her lips and takes a deep gulp of her coffee, before ducking out of the living room while muttering about needing her latest nicotine fix. I wonder if a cigarette addiction is the cause of her rail thin figure.
Albus glances up at me from his position on the edge of Noah's play-mat, and a slight smile curves the corners of his lips. He looks adorably like a little boy, surrounded by big foam blocks randomly arranged in something resembling a castle. Noah giggles and bends his finger back just a little too far, causing Albus to wince and then pull his hand free. There is a second of hesitation, and then he holds the hand out to me. I take it with only a moment's pause.
"Come and introduce yourself," he says, pulling me down onto the mat before I can protest. Sitting on the floor like some a homeless beggar is not something to which I wish to become accustomed, and so I shift awkwardly in my expensive clothes and try to arrange my legs in a way that looks reasonably ladylike. And then I realise that I have no idea how to introduce myself to a two-year-old.
"Hello," I say awkwardly. "My name is Flora." Noah glances up at me through his dark, thick eyelashes and offers me a wide and gummy grin, all saliva and giggles. His chubby arms flap out and a second later, Albus has scooped him up and plopped him onto my lap, chuckling at the look of shock (horror) that crosses my face.
"Pwetty," Noah coos, not all too eloquently before reaching up and patting me on the cheek.
I try not to grimace at what feels like – and I hope was – jam being squished onto my cheek from his most likely unwashed hand, and Albus's face splits into a wide grin. I go to grimace but Noah's chubby face is beaming up at me so brightly that I feel mean, like he might actually notice that I'm grimacing at his mangy hands. So instead, I attempt to smile and end up looking like I'm suffering through some intestinal troubles. Albus smirks and scoots closer to me.
"The pair of you look cute together. Of course, he's better looking – he's my kid, after all." Albus looks young again. Not that he has been going grey in the week that I have known him. But his face has smoothed out, the tension has left his shoulders and for a boy that has been a rather – well, pissy, as Andromeda would say, he looks a lot happier. Considering his acted like both Wallis and I had committed treason when he found out I know about his boy, he certainly seems to be rather chilled.
"He is a good looking boy," I conceded. "He gets that from his mother's side, I assume?" Albus's jaw drops open in shock, a frown slightly marring his forehead, before he bursts out into a raucous round of laughter that makes me jump a little and causes Noah to join in with childish giggles. I smile a little.
"Who knew, huh? Flora Dainty has a sense of humour after all." I frown and reach out to lightly shove him on the shoulder, a move I had seen many times made by my peers, and I worry instantly that it is too casual and friendly. Albus doesn't seem to notice, however. Instead, he is staring at my arms, which are loosely wrapped around Noah's waist so he doesn't fall, and Noah's beaming face.
A second later, Albus has whipped his fancy phone out of his pocket and is snapping pictures of the pair of us, laughing as my mouth drops open and Noah laughs and waves his hands in reaction to the flash of the camera.
"Albus! I don't photograph well, stop it!" I say loudly, a little too loudly for polite conversation decorum, but I don't really care. "Albus, stop taking pictures of me!" I lean forwards to try and grasp the phone, instinctively shifting Noah so he sits on my hip with my arm wrapped around him.
"You're good with him," Albus comments in surprise. "I thought you said you haven't been around babies much before."
"I haven't," I supply. "I'm as surprised as you. But he's a good little boy."
"So you like him?" Albus smiles, a toothy and shy grin that is too sweet for his arrogant face.
"Yes, I do."
"Pwetty," Noah coos, inserting his two cents into the conversation, his hand banging ceaselessly against my breast until Albus chuckles and takes him off me, setting him on his own lap. I smile sweetly, then lean forward and snatch the phone out of his hand. He gapes at me in shock.
"Flora Mae, young ladies do not snatch!" he yells in mock protest, but I just laugh. The noise sounds and feels odd.
"I know that," I grin. Albus is shaking his head, as though he cannot quite believe that he's having this conversation with me, of all people. But a second later, his surprise is cut off by protests as he is subjected to even more pictures than he took of me.
"Flora, stop it! First that dreadful devil creature that bunks with us, and now this? Stop torturing me, woman!"
"Are you ready to go?" Albus asks as he heads back into the living room from his visit to the bathroom, some three hours or so later. I am bopping Noah lightly on my hip as he fiddles with two of his large foam blocks. I nod and hand his son back to him, trying not to wince as my hands brush his chest in the process.
"I'd just like to nip to the bathroom, but then I'll be ready to go, yes." Albus nods as I head past him and up the stairs. I turn into the bathroom and nearly trip over something large and leather lying on the floor, and then realise that it is Albus's jacket. He clearly hung it on the back of the door, forgot it and then knocked it off when he closed the door. I pick it up, and as I do, something white falls out of it and onto the floor.
A piece of parchment.
I pick it up and, personal boundaries be damned, unfold it.
Leading me right to your son was not a good idea. I'll go through anything to get to her. Give her up now, and no one will be harmed. The little bitch is not worth your son's life, Potter. Quit while you're ahead. I'm warning you. I will kill him, and you, and her. Don't play with this fire, son. You're going to get burned.
disclaimer: nothing in this chapter belongs to me.
hey chillun. sorry this chapter has taken so long, gcses were kicking my ass, but they are dunzo now so that's all good. erm, yeah. i only wrote the very end of this today so i cant actually remember what it says, but i hope you enjoy it and such. i should be back much more regularly now :)
ellie :) xx
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