Chapter 30 : On an Open Fire
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It was Christmas Day and Scorpius still hadn't burned his father's present.
That was if he'd even sent one. Scorpius had been checking the post owls regularly and nothing had arrived. Not from his father, not from anyone, to him or any of the others. It was a little peculiar, but if his father wasn't sending anything and his mother was doing who-knew-what, who-knew-where, who else was he to expect attention from?
That he'd seen no signs of the others getting anything coming in was odd, admittedly. But then, the five if them had collectively, wordlessly accepted they were not going to make a big deal out of Christmas Day. There had been no plans. Nothing arranged. They would do their work that day, and move on to the next. Maybe the others had had the foresight to tell friends and families to not bother. That they'd celebrate together later. When they were out.
He'd told his father no such thing, and so had expected at least a letter when he'd risen, bright and early, to intercept the post on Christmas morning. Instead he'd found a dark, silent owlery, completely empty. Scorpius had been prepared for many things. For anger, for upset, for disappointment. For his father to do or say something completely thoughtless and disregarding. Or intentionally hurtful. All of these were expected.
There being absolutely nothing sent a stab through him he hadn't anticipated.
Can't you just tell me I'm useless once more, Dad? One more time, it's Christmas. The bitter thought filled him as he stomped his way back down the stairs, into the corridor, and -
Almost walked flat into Albus. Considering there was so much of him to walk into, this was fairly easy, and Scorpius bounced off hard enough to knock the bitter thoughts out of his head.
'Great brick wall impression, mate!' he said as he reeled, and Albus put out a strong hand to steady him. 'Very life-like.'
'I suppose that's why you felt compelled to run right into me.' Albus grinned. 'Sorry. Couldn't resist. What were you up to?'
'Same thing as you. Checking up on the post. There's nothing there.'
Albus peered up the steps gloomily. 'Oh, well. Probably for the best.'
'You told your family to send nothing?'
'Hm? Oh, yes. It seemed best. Christmas would feel off today.' Albus jerked a thumb over his shoulder. 'Still. Let's go for a fly, huh?'
Scorpius looked to the window. 'It's barely dawn.'
'So it will be dawn when we're in the air. Come on, the blizzard stopped, it's all snowy and still out there, so let's bundle up and make the most of it.'
It was hard to argue with that logic. Harder still to argue with the temptation of a broom flight at dawn across the grounds after the previous day's heavy snowfall. The school and the hills around were cast in white, pristine, untouched, as if someone had tipped a giant bag of cotton-wool from horizon to horizon. Their footsteps crunched as they blemished the snow outside the front doors, and their breath misted in front of them soon enough at the exertion of an exhilarating flight.
The only thing he had to miss was his broom. He was flying one of the Slytherin team backup brooms, but it was an old, cantankerous contraption, not as swift and smooth as his old X-Series, broken and abandoned in an Acromantula's nest. But by now that had almost become the fun of it - anticipating what the blasted ancient backup broom would do next. Almost.
They were high above the east side of the grounds, the Forbidden Forest stretching out in white beyond them, before Scorpius finally drew his broom to a sharp halt and grinned. 'That makes it worth it.'
Albus pulled up, propping his goggles on his forehead. 'The view?'
'Well, sure, if you go for perfect winter wonderlands that're almost out of a Christmas card.' Scorpius smirked. 'But if Thane and his cronies are out there, I bet they're having a miserable time in this weather.'
That got a deep, belly laugh from Albus, and when he subsided he wore a lopsided smirk. 'They're out there.’
'They've been passing through the outer detection wards on the east side sporadically. I don't know if there's a pattern yet, but if there is and I find it, I'll watch the areas on the Marauder's Map. Then we don't just get to watch their full movements, we get names.'
'We do.' Scorpius hesitated. 'Though Thane couldn't be picked up by the Map.'
'I know.' Albus rolled a shoulder. 'We'll cross that bridge when we come to it.'
'Does the Map pick up the ritual site?'
'It doesn't reach that far. Why?'
Scorpius shrugged. 'I was just wondering. If there's movement down there, we'll want to see it.'
'I guess. I'm worrying about one thing at a time, though. Well, mostly.' Albus jerked his head for them to carry on their flight, now at a less break-neck pace, drifting across the tree-tops at a leisurely, relaxed rate. 'Training's going better.'
'Especially Patronus training.'
'Yeah. Jones can actually cast something now. It's like there was a breakthrough.'
'Or a new good memory.' Scorpius smirked when Albus glanced over his shoulder at him. 'Selena!'
'Nope. He even asked me for advice.'
'Oh dear. What did you say?'
'Hey! I was nice!'
'Nice, I don't question. Accurate...' Albus grinned.
Scorpius leaned over his broom to put on an extra burst of speed, drawing level with the tail of Albus', and reached out to give the bristles a short, playful tug. Albus gave a shout of laughter, veering wildly to keep control and get out of Scorpius' reach. 'I know what I'm doing!'
'Great!' Albus shouted back. 'So put it into practice!'
Scorpius pulled his broom up to a halt. 'What's that supposed to mean?'
'You know what I mean.' Albus stopped himself a few metres away, spinning to face him. 'You're my best mate, but Merlin, you go dozy as anything when it comes to girls.'
'It's not like girls are top of my worry list right now.'
'Except for Rose.'
Scorpius winced. So she told you, huh? 'Except for Rose...'
Albus looked suddenly apologetic. 'I told her about Hector and Miranda. I'm sorry.'
'You're not that sorry.' Scorpius waved a dismissive hand. 'It was lousy of me to ask you to keep it a secret from her.'
'I think she needed to know.' Albus drifted closer. 'I know times are tough, though. I know we're all a bit stressed and flighty and that means we're sometimes going to do stupid things even if it's against our better judgement...'
His words were like knives twisting Scorpius' gut. 'She said that?'
'What?' Albus squinted. 'I meant you. I didn't even know you liked her.'
Scorpius sighed, looking away. 'Neither did I.'
'Are you still angry with her?'
He shrugged. 'I don't know. I'm angry with a lot of things right now. She's just kind of slotted in under the header of "the world". Definitely angry with that.'
Albus winced. 'I'm sorry, mate. Didn't mean to stir things up. I'm just trying to help.'
‘I know.’ Scorpius shrugged. ‘Of all the mental things to happen over the last few months, though, she’s definitely the most mental.’
‘I didn’t see it coming. I didn’t think she was your type. Was it, you know. At all serious?’
Scorpius hid his expression from Albus by tugging his scarf tighter around his mouth. ‘I wasn’t just screwing around, Al. I know you’d dangle me by my ankles off this broom if I’d been just looking for a laugh, or to get back at Hector, especially in a crisis. It’s not that.’
‘I don’t think you’re that much of an arse.’
‘She just… I don’t know.’ Scorpius sighed. ‘She at least takes me seriously? And she doesn’t just fall over herself laughing at my jokes, but she does laugh. It’s just harder to make her laugh. I like that. It makes it worth more. She’s not…’ His voice trailed off, and he glowered at the horizon as his thoughts were reluctant to form themselves into anything solid. ‘She doesn’t treat me like I’m nothing more than a bit of fun.’
Albus sat on his broom, fiddling with the strap on his goggles with that awkward air he assumed whenever Scorpius started discussing girls. Eventually he seemed to realise that was all that was coming, and cleared his throat. ‘Are you going to talk to her?’
Scorpius made a face. ‘Every time I think I should I just remember her making me feel awful. It’s like a - a big thing I really can’t get over. I look at her, I see her smile, I think “okay, well, maybe”, and then - it’s like a stab in the gut. I get she was in a rotten situation. But she still put Hector’s feelings before mine. Still treated me like I was going to stand around and wait for her. And what, now she’s finally realised Hector’s a jackass I should be, I don’t know, grateful?’ Despite his words he spoke quietly, honestly, trying to keep out the bitterness. The last thing he wanted was a fight with Albus, and he wasn’t really angry any more anyway. Just hurt.
'I guess that's a "no",' Albus mused.
'I would say that once this situation's over maybe I'll get five minutes to set my head straight,' said Scorpius. 'But once this situation's over neither one of us has any reason to so much as look at the other again, do we?' His friend looked pained and Scorpius sighed, rubbing his gloved hands together. 'Let's head back. It's been hours.'
Albus didn't argue, and the two streaked their way across the skies of Hogwarts at speeds which would have any watching teacher positively shriek with panic and disapproval, envisioning two young scions of ancient lines splattering themselves across ancient masonry. But they made it back to the castle without incident, spirits lighter for the morning flight despite these dark times, and as they wound their way back to their rooms, Albus gave Scorpius a companionable punch on the arm.
'Stop down in the Great Hall for lunch?'
'I thought we weren't doing anything for Christmas?'
'We're not. But I think Harley is resenting having to run me up food to the headmaster's office. And it's easier to forget the day if we have ham sandwiches like nothing's wrong.'
'If we're having sandwiches for Christmas lunch something's very wrong,' Scorpius pointed out.
'Well, yeah. But today's not Christmas. Remember?' And with a toothy grin Albus headed for his room as if the matter was settled.
Scorpius supposed it was. If Albus had decided on something, which he rarely did without the agreement or at least acceptance of others, it became rather difficult to argue with him. Not just for his stubborn nature, when he got going, but simply, nobody wanted to disappoint Albus Potter. And for his part, he'd done that enough to not want to do so again.
So he showered. Scrubbed up like the day was nothing unusual, which of course meant a certain amount of making sure he was clean, crisp, presentable. Selena Rourke didn't have a monopoly on using looking good as a defensive coping mechanism. And, just to be sure, really sure, he swung up to the owlery just before lunchtime to confirm nothing was there.
Only the echoes of a House Elf too shy to show its face as it scurried into a shadowy corner greeted him, along with the quiet, sleepy hoots of the owls trying to get some rest. He gave them a mock-scowl. 'Don't know why you're so tired,' he told the birds. 'You've been here for days.'
Unsurprisingly they didn't answer and so, trying to remove the knife of worry worming its way through his gut, Scorpius descended the stairs and made his way through the corridors, decked with decorations in a way which made it awfully difficult to ignore what time of year it was, to the Great Hall.
To find it full.
Not of people, but of lights, of tables, of decorations. Of sounds and music. Of cheer, and of presents stacked up across the head table. Around which the other four students were sat, wearing the biggest grins Scorpius had ever seen on their faces.
Well, Methuselah Jones wore a smirk, but it was still the biggest smile Scorpius had ever seen from him.
Albus roared with laughter at the stunned look on his face, and bounded to his feet. 'Don't look like that!' he called across the hall, waving for him to come over. 'You really thought we were going to do nothing?'
'I- I thought - yes!' Scorpius' mouth worked helplessly as he stumbled across the huge hall to where his friends were sat. 'I didn't see anything coming in by owl!'
'That would be because we were sneaky and made sure we got everything out before you spotted it,' said Selena, and leaned over to Rose for the two girls to clink their tankards of butterbeer together in smug celebration.
Scorpius rounded on Methuselah, who wore a paper hat at a jaunty angle. 'You - you were distracting me.'
'Traditional diversionary tactic. Most effective. Works best if subject is buttered up by being told only they can help with matter at hand. Ego blinds suspicion.'
Scorpius narrowed his eyes at him, before his gaze swept around to Albus. 'Why did you keep this from me? Not that I'm complaining at the surprise. But you four all knew. Why does this surprise me?'
Albus looked a bit sheepish. 'Well. Ah. That one's best explained by Rose. It was her idea.' He gestured over.
Rose stood, brushing down the ridiculously oversized Weasley jumper she wore, same as Albus. Scorpius suspected their existence was a Christmas obligation which no cursed plague dragged from the depths of hell could expunge. 'We forgot your birthday,' she said by way of starting.
Scorpius winced. 'Not really. I was being a jackass. Didn't expect everything to stop for -'
'But you're seventeen and we all let it pass us by. I didn't know and Albus was caught up in things and you were moody - we didn't know if you'd...' Rose stopped herself, seeming to know the justifications were no good. 'I didn't know until Lockett told me.'
'She said you corrected her on your age a few weeks ago. I'd gone up to ask her opinion on some papers and she didn't seem to care about the research but she pointed out your birthday went unnoticed. So I thought we should do something about it. So...' Rose's voice trailed off and she gestured to one end of the table, upon which the presents were heaped highest.
Scorpius looked bewildered. 'That's my pile?'
'I told Mum,' Rose admitted. 'And she told - well. I think she let slip to people when your birthday had been. And so all this.'
'I really don't follow.'
'They've been sent by people's parents, mate,' said Albus gently. 'Half of Britain splashed out because giving us trinkets is about all they can do to help. But the lion's share of attention fell on you. Seeing as it was your seventeenth. But most of all, seeing as how you did the letters. And the radio show.'
'That was only for a few weeks -'
'But it was a few weeks where scared families heard directly from their children. You don't know - apparently none of us have any idea - how much that made a difference. How much hope it gave people.' Rose wrung her hands together. 'So people wanted to do something. For all of us in general but really, Scorpius, for you in particular. To say thank you.'
Scorpius worked his jaw gormlessly as he boggled at the pile. 'But I - I just talked to people, all of you did the work, with the potions and the ritual and the wards and the House Elves!'
'I think people liked the sob story of your seventeenth going unnoticed,' said Selena. 'Also, I'm really hungry, so if you could get over the inferiority complex and just enjoy being celebrated for once, then you'll feel a lot better and I'll have some turkey.'
Rose flapped a hand at her then turned to Scorpius. 'People just wanted to say thank you.'
He peered at her. 'Because you told them.'
Her lips thinned. 'I didn't think it was fair.'
Albus stepped up next to Scorpius and clapped him on the shoulder. 'Sit down and enjoy it, mate. With everything horrid that's been going on, I reckon we can do with one decent day of just having a good time.'
'Don't look a gift horse in the mouth,' Selena agreed. 'Also, still hungry.'
'Then let's eat,' said Scorpius. 'And I'll pick at the presents. I don't want you all staring at me while I get through this.' He hesitated, looking from what he'd realised was his pile to the other four, smaller ones. 'I didn't get any of you anything. I thought we weren't making a fuss this year.'
'Don't worry, Malfoy,' said Selena. 'Your humour is a gift which keeps on giving.' She smirked at him and he had to laugh, and then they all sat down for what was positively the strangest Christmas dinner Scorpius had ever had.
And the best.
Parents and families had been generous. Everyone had a bit of something, but most of what Scorpius’ were the kind of generic gifts which would have suited most seventeen year-olds. He didn't think he'd be running out of ties, or cuff-links, or other such knick-knacks in his lifetime at this rate. But it was the notes he found himself valuing and putting to one side; even if the tags were from people he'd never met in his life whose children he couldn't even remember, each and every one had at least the words "thank you" inside. He couldn't bring himself to put them in a pile of refuse to be removed.
He was bewildered to find one which was simply tagged, "N.L.", not putting two and two together until he'd tugged off the wrapping paper to find himself holding the familiar sight of a worn, old Quaffle.
Albus looked over. 'Who's that from?'
Scorpius turned it over in his hands before it clicked. 'Professor Lockett,' he said in a dull, stunned voice.
Selena arched an eyebrow. 'Wow. She makes an effort. It's like she learned you like Quidditch and this was what she thought you'd desperately want.'
'This isn't just a Quaffle. I know what this is.' Scorpius' jaw dropped. 'This is the Quaffle from the 2004 European Cup final between Puddlemere United and the Heidelberg Harriers.’
'That's a bit obscure,' Selena mused.
'It's only meant to be the greatest game played in the last century!' Scorpius exploded. 'It went on for three days until Puddlemere’s Harper got the Snitch! They shattered a Bludger! Oliver Wood broke his left arm and kept playing for another three hours without telling anyone before someone noticed and he was substituted!'
'How can you tell where it's from?' said Rose.
'Because it's been signed by both teams - it should have gone to the Man of the Match, how on Earth did Lockett get her hands on this?' Scorpius turned the worn Quaffle over, fingers tracing the names of Quidditch legends. 'This is priceless - literally, nobody would sell this.'
'Well, we knew there were all those rumours about Lockett having ties to the black market,' Selena mused. 'It's just a ball.'
'It's unique!' But, aware he couldn't goggle at the Quaffle all day, Scorpius put it reverently to one side and carried on going through the gifts.
He realised that Albus and Rose had carefully organised the pile to leave the more personal at the bottom by the time he came across a six foot-long, narrow, wrapped package, and spotted the tag saying it was from the Weasleys and the Potters. He narrowed his eyes. 'This better not be what I think it is,' he warned.
'Guess you'd better just open it,' said Albus with a smirk.
Heart in his mouth, Scorpius did. And swore when he saw what was inside. 'Are you all crazy? I can't accept this.'
'Apparently, you can,' mused Rose. 'When Dad heard you'd lost your last broom to an Acromantula pit he went spare.'
'Almost lose his daughter, get congratulated. Actually lose a broom, disaster,' said Selena.
'It's the new Nimbus Starfall model,' said Albus, leaning over excitedly.
'I can see that,' said Scorpius, voice numb. He traced his fingertips across the broom model's name, stylishly engraved along the handle. 'It's the newest broom. The one that's not out yet.'
'It's out for you when Mum gets in touch with the manufacturers and explains the situation,' said Albus, beaming. 'They were only too happy to help.'
'This - this is -' Scorpius stood suddenly, cheeks hot. 'This is insane. I can't accept all of this, it's ridiculous. And what about all of you, you're -'
'Suffering, yes. But firstly, it's your name people will have heard, your name on the radio, the letters,' said Selena. 'Secondly, you look like you could do with a break. Thirdly, we've been perfectly well taken care of.' She lifted an envelope aloft. 'A full wardrobe from Madam Malkin's, paid for up-front. When this is over, Weasley and me are going shopping.' She beamed.
'Mum and Dad - and I'm sure Uncle Harry and Aunt Ginny, too - just wanted to say thank you, Malfoy,' said Rose earnestly. 'Though Hugo's probably going to spit teeth when he wakes up and finds out, you'll have a better broom than him.'
But she was giving him a look he didn't like, a knowing, piercing one, like pieces were falling into place. So he forced a cheery smile, sat down, and was relieved when Albus pushed the next present into his hands, something soft and squishy, and this time he was too rattled to check the tag before he pulled off the paper. Before he knew it, then, he was holding in his hands something voluminous, green, and knitted.
He didn't know if he wanted to cheer or vomit when he realised what it was. 'A jumper?'
'Gran insisted,' said Albus happily. 'Go on, put it on.'
Scorpius did so, and felt a fraud. 'Well, that's about it, then,' he said, and realised that all of the presents were gone, but left under the pile was a small bundle of letters. The one at the top was sealed with wax, addressed to him in a familiar hand with green ink. Recognising any thick letter from his father, he was immediately grateful for the jumper as he grabbed the bundle and shoved it under his top, out of sight of the others - out of mind. He thought he spotted Albus glance over suspiciously, but diverted this by leaning over. 'So. We eat?'
Selena waved a sprout impaled on her fork. 'Way ahead of you, Malfoy.'
Dinner passed in something of a haze. It looked like the House Elves had out-done themselves thanks to, she said proudly, a little buttering up of Harley by Selena. Glazed turkey, pigs wrapped in blankets, potatoes - creamily mashed and crunchily roasted - there was no little luxury that had been passed on, the feast all the more sumptuous that it had been cooked for four, not produced for hundreds of children.
And it all tasted like ash in Scorpius' mouth. His definition of ‘best’ Christmas was certainly skewed.
He made a show of enjoying it. Laughed at Albus' jokes and then, when his friend was giving him curious looks, poked fun at Selena to make it look more normal. Bantered with an unwitting Methuselah who didn't get the banter, talked exuberantly about the things he'd do with his broom once they were out, once the weather was better. And didn't once look at Rose, because he could feel her piercing gaze upon him, stabbing straight through his mask, and knew that if he looked at her it would implode entirely.
It was only hours later, when they were all groaning from good food and enjoying this brief respite from the strife they were trapped in, that Scorpius dared stretch and feign a yawn. 'I'm going to have a nap,' he said. 'All of this good food's downright exhausting.'
Albus grinned and nodded. His worried, suspicious air had faded, and Scorpius felt a new stab of guilt at this. When had he become so adept at lying to his best friend? When had he needed to practice? But he knew the answer, of course. He'd always had to lie, sometimes with more success than others, when it came to the subject of his father. It was just the only way to survive.
So he left without fuss, keeping the bundle of letters pinned by his side under the jumper with his elbow, and tried to not run out of the Hall. It was a fight he lost by the time he made it to the stairs, out of sight of anyone but his own demons, and he fair sprinted up the steps, down the corridor, around the corners and winding passageways until he made it to his bedroom, and he slammed the door shut behind him.
His heart was pounding in his chest, breathing ragged, sweat breaking out across his brow, all as if he'd run a marathon instead of for a few scant minutes. He pulled out the pile of letters and threw them down on the bed before yanking off the jumper, the Weasley jumper, and that, too, was tossed away to the far side of the room.
Then, despite all of his instincts telling him to not bother, he picked up the first letter on the pile, slid into a bundle on the floor by the foot of his bed, and cracked it open to read what his father had to say to him on Christmas Day.
He didn't know how long he was there. Didn't know how long he spent reading the words, staring at them, letting them burn into his mind along with everything else Draco Malfoy had ever said to him. But he did know that by the time he was tossing it sheet by sheet into the roaring flames he'd stoked up in the fireplace, someone was knocking on the door to his bedroom.
At first he ignored it, staring at the flames as they made the paper curl, blacken, disappear. Then the knocking became a hammering, too insistent for him to ignore, and there was a shouting from the other side of the door. 'Scorpius? Come on, I know you're in there, Harley told me.'
It was Rose, and his expression twisted. 'I'm napping,' he called out sharply.
There was a long pause. 'You're very vocal when you nap.'
He got to his feet, scowling still, and stalked over to the door to yank it open. 'That was a clue,' he told her bewildered, worried face. 'It was subtle, so it might have flown over your head. The message, in case you didn't get the message, seeing as my entirely transparent lie was discreet, was that I wanted to be left alone.'
Rose drew a deep breath, and again he hated her as her eyes roved over every inch of his face, intent, evaluating, before she said, 'You shouldn't be left alone.'
'Aren't I the best judge of that? And why not?'
'Because the more gifts you were given, the more you looked like you wanted to kill yourself and that's not normal.' She exhaled slowly. 'I was worried.'
'Worried about what?'
'Worried about how you're feeling -'
'I'm feeling terrible - see, this girl screwed me around to save the feelings of her jackass of a boyfriend, and -'
'...and suddenly the wizarding world wants to treat me as some sort of patron saint of poorly children even though I've done nothing, nothing deserving adulation and definitely nothing more important than all of you have done, even though I'm a useless, selfish fool -'
Rose's brow furrowed. 'Nobody thinks that.'
'My father does!' The words spilt out before he could stop them, hurt and indignant, and his expression sank the moment he realised what he'd said. Scorpius gestured wildly, as if he could grab the sentence and stuff it back behind the sofa, but to no avail. 'I mean. He thinks that - sometimes, like - it's not a big deal -'
But there was no fib he could tell to sound nonchalant, to make this not sound horrific, and so the energy sagged from him as he saw the look of pity on her face. He didn't resist as she planted a hand on his chest and pushed him back into his room, the door closing behind them, and then he was unpleasantly reminded of how things had gone the last time she'd been in his bedroom.
'What makes you think,' said Rose once they were in the gloom together, the only light coming from the crackling fire, 'that your father believes this?'
Wordlessly he pulled away from her to pluck up the last of the pages from his father's letter, the one he'd not yet burned, and wordlessly he handed it over to her. An hour before, a minute before, doing so would have been the most impossible thing in the world to imagine, but it was too late now. The pity had set in, and all he could do was rush through this to the time she walked out in disgust.
Rose took the page and read quickly, eyes flickering over the immaculately-penned words - and her jaw dropped. 'This is insane.'
'No,' said Scorpius, shoving his hands in his pockets and turning to the fire. 'That's Draco Malfoy.'
'"You are to stop your childish showing off for the wizarding world and pathetic pursuit of the acclaim which comes from the approval of the Potter clan -"' Rose cut herself off, jaw working silently as she goggled. 'That's - that's -'
'Not the first time he's said that. A radio show, apparently, was beneath a Malfoy.' He peered about the room. Suddenly he understood Lockett's fondness for drink. 'He also wants me to take up the Ministry on their offer for a quarantined re-homing somewhere other than Hogwarts. Just me, you understand. He doesn't really care if the rest of you leave.'
She again had to pick up her jaw. 'And this is all he gives you on Christmas Day? A letter of abuse?'
'Better than abuse in person; this really is the best Christmas ever.' He shrugged, glowering at the flickering flames of the fireplace. 'And, no, it's not all. There's a holiday in Italy in the summer waiting me. Contingent on my accepting the Ministry offer, of course. Anything else is being selfish. Selfish to my family, selfish to our lineage - see, I'm more important than other kids, because they're not sole scions of an ancient line -'
'Stop it!' She'd crossed the space in between them only to stop inches away, hands half-raised, hovering uncertainly. 'Selfish - you are the furthest thing in the world from selfish, from self-aggrandising, not when it really matters -'
He rounded on her, expression creasing. 'Why did you do this today? Al said it was your idea to make the fuss of it - why?'
She flinched. 'Because I thought you needed reminding that people appreciate and care about you. Not just Al. Not just me. The whole of Britain, Scorpius. You gave them hope -'
'Which is gone, now, they can't talk to any of us and people have died -' It was easier, he remembered, to say "people" rather than name Tim; it made it seem more distant, more like something that had happened on the news than something that had happened right in front of him. Twice.
'You still did it.' Rose kept his gaze, ardent, intent. 'You did that for them and so people wanted to do something for you.'
'Don't you mean you did something to try to get back into my good books?'
'Maybe I did want to make up for things.' Her eyes flashed. 'Is that so bad?'
He waved a dismissive hand. 'It doesn't make things okay overnight -'
'I don't expect them to be okay overnight. But maybe just tonight. And you clearly needed it.' She hesitated as he glared - then pushed on. 'If people giving you presents is enough to set you to have a breakdown in your room, if you're getting letters from your father saying things most of us only hear from our worst inner demons, if you're so incapable of recognising just how much you've done for all those people, parents and students and families, then yes, clearly I did need to do this!' Her voice echoed in the small bedroom as it rose, her indignation firing her up despite the hesitation, and for the first time in weeks he saw that spark in her eye again, the spark she hadn't dared let loose when talking to him in case it drove him off.
And, blinded by it, he turned away, turned to the fire which could never burn away his father's words even if it burned away the paper they'd been written on. When he spoke, his voice was harsh, hoarse. 'I just feel like such a fraud.'
She only let her fingertips brush against his knuckles. That was it, that was all she dared do, with how volatile everything - he - had been over the last few weeks. But the feeling was still a warmth which started with a tingle on his skin and continued to flow on through him, softening the and the hardness that had set in him - how long ago? Since Tim died? No, sooner than that, much sooner than that -
He rounded back on her, anger finally stirred. 'So why aren't you gone yet?' he demanded. 'Is that it, is there just one more cruelty to deliver? Well done, you've seen me at my lowest, you saw me when Tim died, you saw me be a pissy bastard for the last two months, you've seen what my father, who knows me best, really thinks of me - this is about the time you've got your excuse, your reason, you can take one look at me and say "see you" and be out the door with no guilt...'
Like Mum was.
Rose looked startled. 'Albus never did that.'
'Al doesn't see as much as he thinks he does,' said Scorpius bitterly, angry not with his friend but himself for how much he'd hidden over the years, so desperate as he had been to make sure Albus didn't see the whole of him in case it drove him off. There had been plans, and walls, and carefully-executed distractions and problems and dramas, all to keep Albus at bay.
And then Rose had somehow burst right through them.
'He didn't see today, did he,' said Scorpius, fire fading from him. 'I put on the mask, I told the jokes, and he didn't see.'
She drew a deep breath. 'I did.'
'Yes, but I've also done a fine job of treating you like hell, haven't I? Why are you even here, Rose, I just about set you broken glass to walk over as penance for daring to not want to kick Flynn while he was down, and I...' He hesitated, running a hand through his hair to rumple it. 'You were supposed to go.'
Her eyes narrowed. 'Was that the point?'
'I hurt you, so you drive me away and keep on driving, just to make absolutely sure I stay gone?' The light of realisation was sparking in her eyes, along with a certain dose of indignation.
He exhaled slowly. 'Not intentionally.'
'But unintentionally?' Her gaze flickered over his face, and before he knew it she'd lifted her hand, fingertips grazing along his cheekbone. He tried to not flinch. 'I'm getting there's a lot going on in here even you're not sure about...'
Scorpius suddenly felt his lips go dry. 'Rose...' Did you ever call her that to her face before? He wasn't sure.
Her fingers curled back, though she didn't pull her hand away, gaze self-conscious. 'I'm sorry.'
'No, I -' Despite himself he found his hand going to her wrist, stopping her from moving back. 'I'm just a mess right now -'
'Who isn't?' But her voice was wry. 'I'm sorry. I didn't mean to complicate things.'
'You didn't.' He sighed, closing his eyes. 'I did treat you like hell. I'm sorry. I know it wasn't easy with Hector. I know you've been struggling with Hugo ill. I know it's been tough for people who aren't me, and I didn't cut you enough slack.'
'I think I gave as good as I got on that point. And yet, I'm still here.' Her lips twitched. 'And I'll come back every time.'
He cocked his head. 'Why?'
'Because even with Phlegethon running amok you can still make my day brighter.' Rose offered a hesitant smile. 'And yet, we're both - this is messy and complicated - and I don't want to fight with you any more.'
'I don't want to fight either.' He was still holding her by the wrist, he realised, and sheepishly he let her go. 'I don't - we don't - I still - you -' Words failed him, and he scowled at his own, unusual ineloquence. 'If I kiss you it just gets complicated again.'
'Maybe not right away.' She drew her hand back slowly. 'But. Probably.'
He wanted to, and the feeling was unusual to Scorpius. Not wanting to kiss a girl - that feeling he knew well, and knew the best way to deal with it was acting on it. Not heartache, either, with that he was well-familiar. But this was an unusual mixture of the two, like there was a bruise on the part of him that wanted to kiss her which made the feeling no less sincere but certainly painful.
So he shoved his hands in his pockets and assumed the smug, teasing smile he knew and could control. 'I've never wanted to savour for later kissing a girl before, Weasley. You should feel special.'
Something flickered in her gaze - then the arch, dry look returned, though her eyes sparkled. 'You know how to make a girl feel wanted, Malfoy.'
'I do want to.' Already he'd sobered and he sighed. 'Look at us. This sounds halfway mature.' He extended his hand wryly. 'Friends again?'
She quirked an eyebrow. 'I'm not sure you could say we were friends before.'
'Oh.' He dropped his hand, mock-forlorn. Then his eyes glittered and he raised it again, smirk returning. 'Awkwardly flirting-and-fighting again?'
She laughed, and the sound loosened something in his gut, eased one of the bruises on him, and the desire to kiss her rose again, even if he knew the feeling would be right now like sticking his hand in the fire. A nice fire. But a burning one nevertheless.
'You really are a good guy, Scorpius.' And he realised just how much he'd burn when she stepped forwards and his gut clenched with both excitement and a sudden, blinding panic - she would hurt him again, this would go wrong again, he wasn't yet sure how to relax without bringing with it all the pain he'd bunched up and was still dealing with. But instead all she did was press her lips gently against his cheek, and when she pulled back she wore a hesitant smile.
'You should come with me. The others are down in the staff room. We're just listening to the wireless, reading, hanging out...' Her gaze flickered to the rest of the room, and she didn't need to elaborate.
Better than lurking in here.
Finally, the prospect of facing the others didn't fill him with dread and guilt. 'All right.' He stepped back, then glanced around the room. 'Just let me get my jumper.'
She positively beamed as he retrieved the knitted green jumper and pulled it on, and he couldn't stop from grinning too, and it was almost, almost enough to make the sick feeling in his gut go away. And it was no failure of hers that it couldn't disperse entirely, because this was closer to being clear-headed than he'd felt in months. Or, perhaps, years.
So when she took his hand and started for the door he let her lead him out, out of the dark, gloomy room with its burning letters and into the corridor bedecked with the joys of Christmas and bathed with light.
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