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Chapter 28 : Out of the Kitchen
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Firewhisky, Scorpius thought absently, was aptly-named. It burned on the way down. There was nothing more deep about his thoughts than that. He'd have been lying if he claimed he'd never drunk it before turning seventeen -
- wait, when had he turned seventeen?
The surprise of this almost made him trip up the stairs. They'd just come into December, winter marching onto Hogwarts, heralded by the howling, biting winds that whistled about the soaring towers. Which meant it had been a few weeks since his seventeenth birthday, since he'd come of age, and the entire escapade had come and gone without ceremony or fanfare.
He couldn't blame anyone for not noticing it. Not only had it come when he was deep in the depths of his isolation, talking to nobody, but he'd forgotten it himself. It just hadn't seemed relevant. There had been no message from his father, but that much was to be expected. If anything distracted Draco Malfoy from his family, then he could forget their very existence. Sometimes poor figures in the finances section of the Daily Prophet was enough to incur his bad mood. And sometimes this suited father and son down to the ground.
But there had still been nothing from abroad -
Stop it. She'd write if she could. She's a long way away.
Scorpius bit his tongue and focused on the corridor ahead. He, too, could be distracted from his family. And nothing distracted him better than a show. Even if he was the star. Especially if he was the star.
When he reached the door he wanted, he sank onto his haunches in front of it and, from that crouched position, rapped sharply on the wood. Then he waited.
It was perhaps a minute before he heard Lockett's muffled voice on the other side. 'Who is it?'
Scorpius inhaled deeply, and put on a high-pitched, squeaky voice. 'Professor Lockett! Sticksy is here with your supplies!' He had no idea, truth be told, if there even was a House Elf called Sticksy. But he was pretty sure Lockett wouldn't know, either.
Footsteps answered his call and he grinned with satisfaction. He was still grinning when the door opened in front of him and he found himself staring at Professor Lockett's knees. He raised his head.
She looked a state. Her hair was wild, bags hung under her eyes, her face was pale and drawn. Her clothes were a crumpled mess, likely whatever she'd had lying around. Scorpius reasoned they were rather lucky the House Elves were seeing to laundry, or this could have been a desperate situation by now. And she looked deeply, sorely unimpressed.
His grin took on an air of apology. But not completely. 'The funny thing about this,' he said, 'is that I'm not the one of us who looks the most silly.'
Her expression folded, and Scorpius had to ram his foot in the doorway to stop her from slamming it shut on him. Not for the first time did he thank his exquisite sense of fashion which demanded his Oxford shoes be made with perfect style - and sturdiness. 'Malfoy, go away.' Lockett's voice was rasping as she squinted at him through the narrow gap in the doorway.
'So you can continue to keep yourself in an alcohol-induced stupor? Great plan, Professor. Worthy of Dumbledore himself.' Scorpius rose. 'I'll do you a deal. Let me in, let me talk, and you get this bottle of Firewhisky.'
'I don't want to talk to you.'
'Do you want the whisky?' He waggled the bottle.
Her eyes narrowed - but she stepped back, swinging the door open. 'Make it quick.'
'Why, do you have a terribly important liquid luncheon to get to?' He swaggered in, but kept the whisky bottle cradled in his right arm, not easy for her to snatch at. He didn't know if she'd try to be that furtive, but didn't want to risk losing his one and only gambling chip before he'd said his piece.
If Lockett's appearance had already claimed the descriptor 'a mess', then her room looked like a bomb had gone off in it. Clothes were strewn about the floor, the bed was a tip, the curtains drawn. The air had a musty smell, and not only was the far desk covered in stacks of paper, but the walls, too, sheafs of parchment pinned to flat surfaces with magic. He couldn't even begin to understand the lists and symbols strewn across them.
She didn't answer his question, so he went to the window, pulled the curtains open, and was greeted with a view of the blizzard that blazed beyond the walls. 'You really need to get out of here.'
'And do what?' Her green eyes watched him warily.
'Get back to work.'
She gave a humourless laugh. 'I've had this conversation with Potter already.'
Scorpius turned. 'I'm not Albus.'
'No. You think you can be more persuasive than him?'
His smile died. 'I think I'm the only person in the school who has the slightest idea how you're feeling right now.'
She flinched at that, and turned to her stacks of paper on the desk. 'The slightest. You didn't kill him.'
'Way I see it, you didn't either. Phlegethon did. Prometheus Thane, anyone he's working for, did it. It's them I'm gunning for, not you.' He ran a hand through his hair. 'But you think we can do this alone?'
'I think you don't need me to do this.'
'Don't need you to find a cure?'
'It's not going to happen!' Lockett turned, scowling. 'Not from here. Maybe if I had a lab and a fully-qualified team. Weasley and Jones, they're bright kids, but they're half-trained and inexperienced and between them I have maybe one lab assistant. There's at least a twenty-four hour delay on any resources I need. And you think Granger's going to send any to me now, with the report Potter will have given her?'
'Ms Granger isn't going to blame you for Warwick's death.'
'She might blame me for hiding away in here.'
'She doesn't know that.' Scorpius frowned. 'We didn't tell her. Albus didn't tell her.'
Lockett stopped, jaw dropping. 'Why?'
He shrugged. 'Al? Al likes to think the best of people. Give everyone a chance. He reckons you'll snap out of this on your own. Can't say I agree with him.'
'So why haven't you told them?'
'Because I reckon you can get past this. Because I reckon you need help. And I'm here because you're probably the only person in this school, awake or asleep, who's more messed up than I am.'
'And you think talking's going to make that better?'
'I think it'll do more than another bottle of Firewhisky.' Scorpius frowned. 'Where do the House Elves even get this from?'
'Stubbs keeps a supply in. For the teachers. The odd drink of an evening. Special occasions. It's not a lot, but that's "not a lot" for upwards of twenty staff for a year. Now it's mine.' Her expression twisted into a mockery of a pleased smirk.
'So you can drink it on your own?'
'Funnily enough, I like being on my own. There's nothing wrong with me being on my own. Why does everyone assume that if someone's on their own, something's wrong?'
'I don't,' said Scorpius. 'I assume when someone's drinking on their own, something's wrong.' He sighed. 'I don't - I can understand the desire to crawl into a hole and not come back out.'
'So why haven't you?'
Scorpius hesitated at that. 'Because Al dragged me out, kicking and screaming, and wouldn't take "no" for an answer.'
Lockett's lips twitched. 'You're going to drag me out?'
'I was going to go with "encouraging nudging".' He looked away. 'I realised the alternative would give me a lot of time to think on what had happened. And the last thing I want to do is think about it.'
'You think, if I went back to work, I wouldn't be thinking about Tim Warwick?' Lockett's eyebrows went up. 'If I went back to work, it would be my job to think about Tim Warwick. How he died. What went wrong with the Alleviating Draught. What this tells us about Phlegethon. What do you think about at work, Scorpius?'
Her voice had taken on a gentler tone, and he flinched. 'Wards.'
'Sounds like good work. Busy. Distracting.' She closed her eyes. 'I'm sorry.'
Scorpius looked away sharply as he felt something in his chest quaver. He hadn't come here to falter. 'I don't blame you,' he said, and his voice betrayed him by croaking.
'It was my draught that -'
'And I got the spider skins, does that make me to blame too?' He closed his eyes. 'You did everything to save him. I saw him die, yeah. But I saw you fight, Professor. I bet loads of people would have given up before you did. People shouldn't be saying, "that Lockett, she didn't do enough", they should be thankful that Tim had someone like you there 'cos you gave him half a chance, which is half a chance more than I reckon anyone else would have got him.'
When he opened his eyes, Lockett was ashen-faced. When she drew a deep breath, it quavered, and he thought she had her. 'Thank you for stopping by, Scorpius.'
Frustration coiled in his gut. 'And the unspoken words after that are, "now give me my drink"?'
She tensed. 'When you're not some sixteen year-old kid who's been in a pinch for all of three months, then you get to judge me, okay?'
Scorpius scowled, stalking over to her desk. He slammed the bottle down on it, then turned for the door. 'Seventeen,' he muttered on his way. 'I was seventeen in November.'
Lockett didn't say anything, looking stricken, but he was past caring by then, the boiling anger and pain back to churning in his gut. He slammed the door shut behind him and, out in the corridor, with the cool draught creeping through from outside, felt a little better. A little more himself.
He didn't stop. Lockett hadn't been wrong; working with Albus on the wards meant he didn't have to think about Tim, didn't have to think about what had happened to him. He was clawing away from that black pit. So he was going to make damn sure he'd banished it to the shadows before he went and talked to anyone else in the accursed castle.
'The sixth floor west wing. Home of Hogwarts' biggest losers: the Duelling Club.' Scorpius folded his arms across his chest.
'Don't knock it,' said Albus. The huge room had padded mats on the floor, big windows in the ceiling rather than in the walls to minimise the damage from spells gone astray, and a dozen training dummies lined up near the centre. It was to these that Albus was walking, checking each one for its stability and magical resistance. 'Three out of the top five practical results for Defence OWLs were members of the Duelling Club.'
'And the two who weren't - and coincidentally were first and second - are in this room.' Scorpius nodded to Albus and then jerked a thumb at Rose, not quite looking at her.
Selena peered at Methuselah. 'I didn't know you were in the Duelling Club.'
A pained expression tugged at his face. 'I am not.' He straightened his already impeccably presentable robes. 'I was, ah. Sixth in the year at the practical.'
'Only you would make being in the top quarter of our year in anything sound bad,' Scorpius mused. 'You were still top of the year in everything else.'
'But not at a fast wand. Wits on which spell to use when against what opponent. On these matters we listen to Potter.' Methuselah jerked his head forwards to Albus.
Albus finished his checking of the last dummy to his satisfaction before he turned to the other four. 'Right. We've all got our OWLs in Defence. Which means we all have a decent array of spells under our belts. A decent grasp of protection magic, how to maintain it and break through it. And how to react to a changing combat situation. So, with two notable exceptions, I'm not here to get us to do anything new. I'm here to get us to practice what we know. Perfect it. Know how to do it together.'
Selena stuck her hand up. 'What're the two exceptions?'
'One's a spell. The other's a technique.' Albus drew a deep breath. 'I want us to learn how to do a little non-verbal casting.'
'Oh,' said Scorpius. 'Something easy.'
Rose quirked an eyebrow. 'And the spell?'
Albus winced. 'A Patronus.'
'Oh,' said Scorpius in the same tone. 'Something even easier.'
'This is serious,' said Albus. 'I'm asking us to go up against trained mercenaries -'
'Which I would like to remind everyone is still mental,' said Selena.
'- and so we have to take this seriously.'
Scorpius squinted. 'So why the Patronus?'
'There are a lot of Dementors coming from ground zero of that ritual,' said Albus. 'I don't want us making forays into the Forest without being ready to deal with them. They almost got the better of you two when you ran into them.' He nodded at Scorpius and Methuselah.
'If it hadn't been for Hugo,' said Scorpius unhappily, 'I think they would have done.'
'There's another reason. Jones?'
Methuselah nudged his glasses up his nose. 'Mere postulation at present. Purely theoretical. Preparatory regime unnecessary based on such vague hypothesising -'
'Jones thinks it might be possible to cleanse the ritual using Patronuses.' Albus paused. 'Patroni? Patrona?'
'Many misconceptions about pluralisation. Technically it is Patronus, like fish and sheep. Often misused even by well-educated wizards,' said Methuselah without missing a beat. 'But at present we are A) Unsure if the theory is correct, and B) In no position to enact such a theory anyway.'
'If it turns out it's correct and then we need to act on it,' said Rose, 'that'll be a bit late to learn such advanced magic from scratch.'
'And, for now,' said Albus, 'we start with practice. We've not been working as hard on this sort of thing since, really, before the summer. So I'm going to start us simple: the dummies have been enchanted with mid-difficulty protection spells. We're going to try to break through them in three spells or less.'
Obligingly, though with some grumbles from Selena, they all lined up before their respective dummies.
'Now, remember,' said Albus, 'breaking through with one powerful spell is not automatically more valuable than breaking through with several. One spell might be blocked, or missed, or parried; a swift array of piercing spells in quick succession can sometimes achieve what brute force can't. Find your forte. Perfect it, then buoy up your weakness. First person to ten broken shields wins.'
'What do we win?' asked Scorpius.
Albus hesitated. 'Satisfaction.'
'Oh, good,' said Scorpius. 'Because you know what I said to myself this morning? I said, "Scorp-" I'm "Scorp" when I talk in my head, being best friends with myself and all that - I said, "Scorp, we're in a crisis. We've got no cure, we've got mad mercenaries at our door, we're five kids on our own, and this morning Harley implied we're running low on chocolate biscuits. You know what would really improve our lives? Satisfaction".'
Albus just stared at him. Scorpius made a face and lifted his wand. 'So... it's just as well you put this exercise together,' he mumbled sheepishly.
His best friend gave a firm nod and lifted his wand. 'You can start when ready.'
There was no real competition for who won. Albus emerged head and shoulders ahead of anyone else. Knowing he himself was competing with Selena to not come last, Scorpius chanced a glance down the row of them once Albus shattered his tenth shield. Methuselah was showing no obvious signs of strain save a tellingly clenched jaw and white knuckles, while Rose -
His lips twitched as he saw the furrowed of concentration on Rose's brow. She was really going to town. Of course; Methuselah had thwarted her over and over in class, and this sort of wandwork was, so far as Scorpius was aware, his only weakness, the only subject where she'd bested him. Even if Matthias Doyle, Garrett Saxby, and Sophia Moore had also thwarted him in the practical at OWL level, Rose was obviously determined to keep this small victory.
'Ten,' she proclaimed triumphantly, a split second before Methuselah himself lifted his wand and gave a satisfied, 'Ten.' He scowled, and she smiled, and Scorpius had to wipe his smirk off his own face and focus on his dummy.
For that distraction, he came last.
This pattern continued for most of the session. They practised breaking a shield while the dummy flung Stuns back, they practised their own defences, they trained against each other. Albus was always head-and-shoulders above the rest of them. As the magics got more frenetic - less theoretical and slow, more instinct and wits - Rose only widened the gap between her and Methuselah. Scorpius - a more safe fourth when he wasn't distracted - even began to gain ground on him.
It felt good, he reflected, as Albus knocked him on his rump for the fourth time and, laughing apologetically, helped him back up again. It felt good to practice for what felt like practise's sake. It felt good to work together, encourage and compete and good-naturedly mock. It felt, for the first time since the crisis had begun, like they were just getting ready for class, and if they walked out into the corridors they would be full of life and sounds and the bustling run-up to Christmas.
Of course, this was not the case. And the fall to mundane Earth was all the harder when they emerged back into Hogwarts, the day's work done. But it had been a pleasant way to escape for an afternoon.
'You've got quicker,' Albus told him as they made their aching way up the stairs to the Headmaster's Office.
'All that flying. And still not as fast as you.'
'Maybe not. But you almost had me that time - those sparks you shot out instead of a real spell? If I hadn't realised at the last second what you'd said, I would have sworn it was a Stun.'
'That I didn't say "Stupefy" was a bit of a giveaway, yes,' Scorpius drawled. After the day's work, after Albus driving them like a slave-master, he figured it was his turn in Stubbs' seat, and slouched around the headmaster's desk to slump into the chair.
'Practice that,' said Albus, shoving his hands in his pockets.
'Pretty sparks?' Scorpius raised an eyebrow. 'I panicked. That was all.'
'And when we're casting non-verbally, sparks will look like the real thing, are quicker and easier for you to cast, and can be an amazing feint. And you're good at illusions, you always have been. I don't know why you didn't practice them more.'
'Toys for charlatans and tricksters,' Scorpius muttered.
'Nothing.' He scowled. 'Maybe. If non-verbal casting goes anywhere.'
Albus gave a small smile. 'Give it a week.'
It took more like two.
Albus was the first one to cast a spell non-verbally. Of course. But Rose was the first to break a shield with a non-verbal spell, and not for one moment did Scorpius think Albus begrudged her the achievement. One moment she'd been squinting at the dummy, trying to throw something at it wordlessly other than sparks - the next, a Stun was erupting from the tip of her wand and the magical barrier inches away from the dummy's surface crackled and shattered.
Silence met the victory - then Rose was throwing her hands in the air with a whoop of glee, and Selena bounded over to join in the cheering. Even Methuselah looked bitterly, grudgingly impressed. Scorpius shoved his hands in his pockets, wearing a quiet smirk, and when her gaze landed on him he gave an exaggerated shrug.
'Don't fib, Weasley. I know you were imagining it was my face.' It was the first joke he'd made at her in weeks, and she beamed more broadly at that than the successful spell.
'I think, with that victory,' said Albus, himself pleased as anything, 'we'll take a break from non-verbal and start with Patronuses.'
'Patronus,' said Methuselah helpfully.
'It's because I was getting good at something,' said Scorpius, whose achievements with non-verbal casting to date could be ranked by how brightly coloured the harmless sparks were. 'He's got to put me down, you see, or else I'll overshadow him.'
'I've never cast a Patronus,' admitted Albus. 'So I'm running entirely off textbooks and some letters off Dad. But he cast one when he was thirteen.'
Selena stuck up her hand. 'We're still not Harry Potter.'
Rose quirked an eyebrow. 'Is it me, or do you only stick your hand up when you want to ask a snide question?'
'Yes. If it's a helpful question I don't wait for permission.'
She wrinkled her nose. 'I can't fault your logic and that's making me kind of crazy.'
'The most important thing about casting Patronuses -'
'Patronus,' said Methuselah.
'- is a happy memory,' said Albus, desperately trying to ignore the assaults on his plans and his grammar. 'The magic comes from the words, of course, "Expecto Patronum", but it is a spell more reliant upon emotional strength than perhaps any other. You have to find a happy memory and cling to it. Use it to cast.'
'Does it have to be, like, super happy?' asked Selena.
'How're we quantifying "super" happy?' Rose wondered.
'Maybe it's a chart,' said Scorpius. 'Super happy. Ordinary happy. Shitty happy.'
'What's shitty happy?' asked Rose.
'It's like when you get really happy because something horrid's happened to someone else.'
'I think that's my super happy,' mused Selena.
Albus glared. 'You will not necessarily succeed first time at casting your Patronuses -'
'Patronus,' said Methuselah again. Everyone looked at him. He shrugged. 'Like "sheep" or "fish",' he repeated.
'Yeah,' said Scorpius, 'except I'm not casting fish. Or casting sheep. I mean, would that work?'
'Are you proposing we defeat Dementors with livestock?' Rose quirked an eyebrow.
'No, no. Of course not.' He shook his head. 'We're defeating the ritual with livestock.'
‘You know what?’ said Albus, mock-glaring. ‘You can all sod right off.’
They laughed as he made an exaggerated point of turning away in a huff, clearly not sincere, but Rose called out an apology and he laughed too, before they got to work. Secretly, Scorpius was glad they'd horsed around like that coming up to the practice. This was complicated, advanced magic, and he was never going to pretend to be the most powerful wizard around. He wasn't expecting much success.
Which was just as well, because he didn't get any. Neither did anyone else, not fully.
By the end of the two hour practice session, Albus had managed to produce a meagre ray of white light from the tip of his wand and Rose had seen a few spurts.
The next day, Albus' ray was bigger, Rose's was a much more impressive beam of light, and Selena and Scorpius were getting sparks.
By the fourth day, Albus had produced a fully corporeal Patronus, only for a split second, such a short moment that none of them were sure what it was other than something with four legs. That success invigorated the others, to the extent that Rose, Selena, and Scorpius were all beginning to see something take form by the end of that session.
While Methuselah Jones still stood on the far side of the room, having moved away from the jubilation which he claimed was noisy enough to disrupt his concentration, muttering to himself and producing exactly nothing from the tip of his wand.
As the cheer from Albus' success settled down, he urged the other three to get back to practice before he padded across the training room to the other boy. 'You're clenching,' he said. 'You have to relax; this is an emotional spell, and while discipline's a part of it, you've got to let it flow.'
'Perfectly relaxed,' said Methuselah in a clipped voice. 'Magic flows, Potter. My success rate speaks for itself.'
'It's complicated magic,' said Albus soothingly. 'You don't have to get it first time -'
'Try three hundred and forty-seventh.' Methuselah swished his wand and muttered. 'Three hundred and forty-eighth.'
'Perhaps you should try a different memory.'
'My memory is quite adequate -'
'Maybe it's not, if it's not producing the result. You don't look very pleased by it.'
Methuselah whipped his wand up, head snapping around for his dark-eyed gaze to land on Albus, glowering at him over his spectacles. 'My memory,' he said, 'is fine. My technique is fine. This is simply unsophisticated magic.'
'Ancient magics like this can be a bit more gut instinct, blood and bone, yes,' said Albus, 'but that doesn't make them unhelpful. We're going to have to crack this if we want to get the ritual -'
'Which you wouldn't know about,' snapped Methuselah, 'without me. My findings. My research. My understanding of magic and ritual while you pranced on a broom. Spare me your condescension, Potter.'
Albus drew back, everyone in the room falling silent and staring. Nobody could remember Methuselah Jones ever raising his voice before, ever showing such outright frustration before. He didn't say another word, just shoved his wand away and pushed past Albus to stalk out of the training room, slamming the door shut behind him.
Scorpius' eyebrows raised to his hairline. 'Someone doesn't like not being the best at something,' he said in a sing-song voice.
Selena glared at him. 'Oh, bugger off, Scorpius, he's had you beaten on everything else.'
'And yet, you don't see me getting my knickers in a twist about it.'
'No, just about anything and everything else that -'
'Okay!' That was Albus, raising his hands and his voice to cut off this argument before it became any more fervent. 'I think we'll leave it there for the night. We've done really well, guys, we'll pick it up tomorrow because I don't want to lose momentum on this.' He sighed, rubbing his chin. 'I'd best go talk to Jones.'
'No,' said Selena, tucking away her wand. 'I'll do it.'
'Does he listen to you?' wondered Rose.
'Today Scorpius managed to be a moderately civil human being,' was her answer as she headed out the door. 'So, frankly, I reckon anything's possible.'
A/N: So. It looks like I'm back on this wagon. It's crazy, I spent a few months without work and got no fic written (I did work on actual sloping towards publication, but that's news for a different time). Now I have a job of 10-hour days and 12-day fortnights and what do I do in the free time I get? Write fic! The good news is I have a bit of a buffer already and I'm hoping to get Ignite done in under 40 chapters (I am halfway through Chapter 31). There is no bad news!
Thanks to everyone who's continued to follow the story during my awful absence!
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