Chapter 4 : The Shift
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“This is the second time today! What could she possibly have to study this early in the term?” I snap. “You’ve only had, like, three classes so far!” Something suddenly occurs to me, and I lower my voice considerably. “Is she looking up anything to do with...?” I jerk my head toward the wall behind me, indicating the grounds and Bartleby Cuffe, but don’t say it aloud.
Albus shrugs. “Didn’t ask.” He stuffs half a red potato in his mouth in one go. I have to try very hard not to reach across the table and throttle him.
“Hey, Potter,” someone sneers, and I look up at the boy who’s suddenly arrived to stand behind Albus. I scowl at once, not even thinking about it. Scorpius Malfoy’s face seems like it’s forever carved in a holier-than-thou smirk, and from the sound of Uncle Ron’s Christmas soliloquies on his youth, his father Draco was basically the same way. It’s hard to imagine anyone’s more unpleasant than Scorpius, though.
“What do you want?” I ask him. I can see a few of his buddies standing in a clump at the end of the Slytherin table across the hall, trying to pretend they’re not watching.
Scorpius’s upper lip lifts in a derisive sneer. “Not you,” he says, like I’m just some of the mud that’s been tracked into the hall. Albus turns and gives him a surly look.
“You’re rather touchy, aren’t you?” Scorpius looks very pleased that he’s managed to make this observation. “Where’s your girlfriend, Potter?”
“She’s not my girlfriend,” Albus mutters viciously, but the fact that he instantly knows Scorpius is talking about Erin gives away his feelings better than he could ever do consciously. I wince in sympathy without thinking about it, and upon seeing this, Albus gives me a look that could crack glaciers.
“I’m really surprised she hangs around you lot at all, you know,” Scorpius is drawling now, playing with a loose string on his cuff like he’s talking about something as inane as the weather. “Then again, McKay’s a bit of a nobody, isn’t she? You lot of misfits probably feel right at home around each other.”
Albus stands up and is already reaching for his wand; his plate is sent clattering to the floor, peas bouncing merrily along the flagstones, but he doesn’t seem to have noticed. “Don’t call her a misfit.” The tip of his wand quivers dangerously close to his opponent’s rather pointed nose.
Scorpius smirks, but doesn’t back away. His gray eyes cross slightly as he attempts, and then gives up on, focusing on the wand tip. “I’d call you touchy, but we just had that conversation.” He runs a hand over his hair, but I can see it’s to distract from the fact that he backs up a couple of steps. “Did you already ask her and run her off, is that it?”
Albus takes a step back as well. I don’t blame him – I’ve suddenly lost the thread of conversation myself. It looks like it’s paining him to be less informed about something than Scorpius Malfoy, but he finally spits, “Ask her what?”
Scorpius grins. “What, you haven’t seen the announcement?” And just like that, he walks away, backtracking to his buddies across the hall. Al watches him go, his mouth just slightly open. I swipe my mouth hastily with the napkin and stand up, coming around the table and grabbing his elbow.
“Come on,” I say. “You know he’s an arse.”
But this time, it turns out that Scorpius is actually telling the truth – not that that makes him less of an arse – because when Albus and I emerge into the entrance hall, carefully watched by Scorpius, there’s a huge cluster of people pressed around the notice board just to the right of the doors. Whatever’s been posted there, it definitely hadn’t been up when Al and I had gone in for lunch.
“Wait here,” I tell him, because he still looks a bit dumbstruck. As soon as I start pressing through the crowd, it parts slightly, which is a common and unnerving phenomenon. I spend about half of my life here feeling like I’ve got the plague, which does come in handy if I’m running late for a class – but decidedly does not if I feel like acting normal on any given day.
The poster in the middle of the board dwarfs all of the smaller, less ostentatious announcements around it. A huge piece of parchment’s been stained white instead of its normal burnt yellow, and around someone’s bewitched tiny black-and-white sketches of bats to flit around the edges. But even they don’t distract from the words in the middle of the page:
ANNOUNCING: THE BALL OF SPIRITS AND SHADOWS. 31ST OCTOBER, 2022. ELEVEN O’ CLOCK IN THE EVENING. FORMAL MASQUERADE WEAR. PARTNERS ENCOURAGED BUT NOT REQUIRED. LIGHT MEAL PROVIDED IN HONOR OF SIR NICHOLAS DE MIMSY-PORPINGTON’S 520TH DEATHDAY.
All of the girls around me are giggling breathily, their palms pressed flat against their mouths as their eyes drink in the announcement of a school dance, something that hasn’t been seen since Dad’s Yule Ball in his fourth year, and beyond memory before that. The boys are wavering between looking pleased and disgusted.
“The Ball of Spirits and Shadows,” I murmur aloud, and a sixth-year girl just in front of me looks at me over her shoulder. I am suddenly fearful that what I see in her eyes is more predatory than anything else, and beat a hasty retreat back through the parted crowd to where Albus is standing.
“There’s going to be a dance,” I say, feeling somewhat out of breath even though I’ve had to walk maybe ten steps. “On Halloween.” Albus’s eyebrows shoot up so high on his forehead that they become lost underneath his tangle of curly hair.
“A dance?” He frowns, and his eyebrows reappear. “But they’ve never done a dance on Halloween before. Just the feast.” And suddenly realization dawns over his face as he connects this new information with what Scorpius was saying inside the Great Hall. “Oh no,” he murmurs, speaking so quietly he evidently thinks he’s talking to himself.
I grin. “What? Aren’t you going to ask Erin?”
The glacier-cracking scowl is back. “Why?” he says defensively, and I roll my eyes so hard I can actually feel them straining in their sockets.
“Oh, I don’t know,” I say, trying to infuse as much sarcasm into the words as I can possibly manage. “Because you follow her around like a puppy? Because you sulk whenever she’s not around? Because even Scorpius Malfoy can tell that you’re madly in love with her?”
“I’m not – !”
“If you’re not in love with her,” I interrupt firmly, “then you’re sure as hell on the way there.” He’s drifting away from me now, headed listlessly towards the grand staircase, and I run over and catch his elbow, still grinning. “Look,” I say. “What’s the worst she can do if you ask her?”
“Say no and never speak to me again.” Albus pauses, considering. “Or say she’s already agreed to go with Scorpius.” Another pause, and then, “Or say yes and stand me up and then go with Scorpius.”
I give him a weird look. “Well, don’t be so cheerful about it.” My mind has, for the moment, completely drifted away from any thoughts of murder or Daily Prophet letters or anything but my brother and his inability to admit to emotion, which is pretty sad when I take time to inventory it. But all of a sudden he looks so crestfallen, and big brother instincts are firing.
“Just ask her,” I say now, and Albus buries his face in his hands, massaging his temples with the tips of his fingers. “Or you’ll essentially have been shot down regardless.”
This is about as inspirational as a speech from me is ever going to get, but for a moment, I think he looks hopeful. And this is the moment Erin chooses to come trotting down the staircase, and when she calls out Albus’s name, he jumps so hard that he smacks his bag into the stone stair post, and I distinctly hear an inkwell shatter inside it.
“Where have you been?” I ask, both to give Albus time to collect himself and because I’m genuinely wondering what would have driven her to the library at lunchtime on our first day of classes.
Erin is graciously pretending she can’t see Albus fumbling with recently-drenched parchment and quills. “I was trying to find more information on what sort of spell —”
She frowns at me slightly for interrupting her. “And nothing,” she responds at last. “Just like this morning. I don’t know if I’m looking in the wrong place, or if it’s a made-up spell, or if it’s not a spell at all...” She trails off and shrugs her shoulders, at a loss. I know how she feels. I’m at a loss, too.
I remember what Dad said to me this morning out on the grounds about not using spells I wasn’t sure of. Just because Al and I had had that lecture growing up didn’t mean everyone had – or that everyone paid attention to it. But if it was a malicious piece of magic with the intent to harm the girls, it would make a little more sense if they had anything in common with Bartleby Cuffe. Why students? Why Gryffindor fifth year girls, for that matter? What was the connection?
Or maybe it didn’t mean anything at all. Maybe, like Teddy had said, it was a prank that had gone sour in a hurry. Maybe it had nothing to do with Cuffe’s murder at all. Maybe – although it seemed unlikely now – Cuffe wasn’t even murdered at all. Who were we to jump to conclusions?
I have my suspicions, of course, but they are mine and mine alone.
Erin’s fiddling with her own bag now, face turned away from me, and I look at her intently. I think she’s disappointed, but I can’t tell, and that’s when I remember the announcement on the wall just a few feet from where the three of us stand. I look over to Al, who’s clutching a sheaf of half-black parchment that’s slowly dripping dark ink onto the flagstones.
Well? I mouth, jerking my head at Erin.
Albus’s green eyes go wide. Now? he mouths back. It’s like I’ve asked him to kiss an acromantula. I roll my eyes to show him just how much of an idiot I think he’s being about this.
In the distance, a bell rings, and all the milling students perk up and start for their after-lunch classes in a surge of orderly chaos. Albus breathes out a visible sigh of relief as Erin finished rifling through her bag. She looks between both of us, politely confused, and I just shake my head.
“See you later,” I tell them both, and turn for the narrow door leading to the dungeons. It’s double Potions now, and I intend to put everything that’s happened in the past twenty-four hours – Cuffe, the midnight inferno, the Ball of Spirits and Shadows – out of my head. But across the entrance hall, I see Scorpius and his friends emerge from the Great Hall. His eyes catch mine, and he grins unpleasantly. I get the impression he’s seen Albus chicken out.
I have to resist the urge to hex that stupid smile off his smug little face. What a git.
The dungeons smell damp and moldy when I arrive for double Potions. I’m not surprised – they almost always smell like an old boot after it’s rained. The shadows cluster thickly in the corners, not helped by the fact that most of the iron-bracketed torches have been extinguished, another commonality after a rainstorm like yesterday’s. The only thing worse than a damp dungeon is a damp and humid dungeon, and considering that cauldron fires are fairly necessary for brewing potions, Professor Veratrum always sacrifices our vision in favor of our schoolwork. We all just basically pray that having our faces about two inches above our potions won’t result in burned-off skin.
Still, even with the dark and the faint smell of moldering stone, I can’t stop my pulse from tripping excitedly as I sink into a desk near the front, propping my bag against my feet. I understand Potions; it’s the one subject that makes absolute and complete sense to me. It’s finicky as hell, with its precise measurements and timings and movements. But each new elixir’s a puzzle I love figuring out.
I don’t say this aloud ever, but I can think it to myself.
Professor Veratrum is writing the instructions for the day’s potion on the chalkboard at the front of the room. I watch her with my elbows propped on the desk, my hands clenched together in front of my mouth. I think of the last time I saw her properly, glaring at us from the top of the teacher’s table last night. Honestly, she still looks just about the same, severity-wise, this afternoon.
She stabs the blackboard with a period and turns, the chalk still in her hand. Her eyes lock with mine, and I busy myself with turning to the correct page, a flush creeping up the back of my neck. Last year the running joke had been that I was in love with her – which was more than ridiculous, obviously, but that didn’t stop some of the sixth year boys from writing crude and incredibly bad limericks about it for a month last spring.
Casper Finnigan sinks into the desk to my left, and I’m really glad he wasn’t there a few seconds earlier; he’d been one of the instigators of the limerick movement. I nod shortly to him, and he seems to realize that it’s me he’s sitting next to, because a gleam of excitement suddenly creeps into his eyes. Three guesses what he wants to talk about.
“Hey, Potter –”
“Good afternoon, class.” The door shuts with a bang as Professor Veratrum points her wand at it, and the ensuing silence is as thick as the gloom. I’m just relieved I don’t have to tell Casper anything about Dad, who I’m sure is the current subject of the rumor mill after his appearance on the grounds this morning.
Professor Veratrum folds her arms over her chest and surveys us all from under her eyebrows, which are drawn in a straight and stark line across her forehead. Her temples are pink from how tightly her dark hair is scraped into a knot at the base of her neck. “As I’m sure you are very much aware,” she says briskly, without introduction, “this is your last year of study –”
“Yes!” shouts Wallace Ponsby, a friend of Hufflepuff Chaser Robin Japes, from the back of the room. A couple of girls I can’t see giggle. Professor Veratrum frowns, if possible, even more mightily.
“Your last year of study before sitting your N.E.W.T. exams at the end of the year,” she finishes, her most powerful glare reserved for Ponsby. I can’t see him without turning around, but I get the feeling he’s withering under that look. It’s made stronger men than Ponsby wet themselves, I imagine.
“Naturally, I expect that anyone who’s made it this far takes the study of potions and the practice of making them very seriously. If you are anything less than serious, this is your time to leave.” She flicks her eyes around the room, daring us to stand up. No one moves.
“Very well,” she says. “For those of you who are serious, you may turn to page thirty-nine in your text and begin reading about Emotion-Stifling Elixir. Once you have finished, you may begin brewing. Ingredients are in the cupboard. One full flask is due on my desk by the end of the period.”
And, having said her piece, she returns to her desk, immediately drawing a stack of parchment rolls towards her. There’s a brief silence, and then talk breaks out in low swarms, darting around the room, the sound of a dozen students doing exactly the opposite of reading the introduction on page thirty-nine. I can see Casper Finnigan looking at me again from the corner of his eye, and pull my book closer to me, gritting my teeth.
Don’t say anything. Go away. Do your work.
“James,” Casper hisses. I ignore him, even though the words have blurred with lack of focus, like I wasn’t wearing my glasses. Undeterred, he reaches over and swats at my elbow, one eye trained on the desk at the front of the room to make sure Professor Veratrum doesn’t see. “James.”
I glance at him, and he seems to take this as encouragement. “Did you talk to your dad this morning?” he asks eagerly, and, without waiting for me to either confirm or deny this, plows on with his line of questioning. “What did he say? Do they know who that guy was? Or who killed him?”
The conversation in the room has dipped slightly in volume. I know everyone has seen Casper talking to me, has heard the questions he’s asked. Professor Veratrum continues making liberal marks on the parchment in front of her, but I don’t want to risk her overhearing, too. “I didn’t talk to him,” I mutter, shoving my glasses up on my nose with my index finger. They’ve hardly slipped down my nose enough to warrant this, but it’s a nervous gesture.
Casper’s mouth twists in displeasure; I can’t tell if he knows I’m lying or not. But just then Professor Veratrum again becomes my saving grace, and I feel like I could kiss her, crude limericks or not.
“To your own work, Mr. Finnigan, and leave Mr. Potter alone to do his.”
The gracious feeling slips away as Casper shoots me a look, like it’s my fault he’s been reprimanded, and I feel the sting of having had a teacher intervene on my path. Nothing’s a surer way to an even deeper feeling of alienation than becoming a teacher’s pet, and I can already feel the rest of the class building up their old walls between us again. Me versus them. James Potter against the world.
Suddenly, overwhelmingly annoyed – with Casper, with Professor Veratrum, with myself – I stand up quickly from my chair and cross to the ingredients cupboard, even though I’m not even halfway through reading the elixir’s introduction thanks to Casper. I fiddle uselessly with the bottles and phials, unsure about what I’m looking for but too restless to care.
You’re not trying to make friends with these people, I tell myself firmly. They’re just your classmates. You can’t help that. But it still sucks, and it sucks even more than they don’t seem to know they’re doing it. But after six years of just brushing it off and assuming it would get better, it’s like I’ve dug my own grave. The Hogwarts students are so used to being too afraid to touch a Potter that I’ve passed this feeling on to Albus and Lily, too, which only makes me feel worse.
I realize I’m squeezing a bottle of spine of lionfish in my palm, and hastily set it back on the shelf. People are starting to drift up to the cupboard for the proper ingredients now, and as soon as I see Casper leave his seat, I return to mine. But it still feels like there’s a stone weighting down my stomach.
I glance up, and Professor Veratrum’s looking at me, forehead puckered in something that I think is concern or... pity. She looks down almost immediately, but I know what I saw. And I wish I had more spine of lionfish to crush.
Then, at the corner of my eye, near one of the extinguished torches in a far corner of the room, something shifts.
It’s a subtle, barely perceptible movement, and I whip my head around, staring. There’s absolutely nothing there; nothing big enough to make that movement could have hidden themselves away that quickly. But it feels like someone was just there – a person, crouched in the dim corner of the Potions dungeon, who’s melted away as soon as I tried to look. I think of Bartleby Cuffe, and the Gryffindor dorm fire, and the hair on the back of my neck prickles. And despite my best efforts, for the rest of class, I can’t relax.
A/N: Happy Halloween -- chapter four is finally up! It's been written for a while, but I've sort of been saving it for two reasons. The first is that chapter five currently isn't finished, but it's also because I want to take this story much slower than I've taken fic in the past. For those who've read my stories before, you might know that for almost two straight years, I kept to a very strict weekly updating schedule. And I did love it! But it also took a lot of energy to maintain, and now that my greatest focus is on my original novels, it makes more sense for me to be a more sporadic updater.
Saying that -- this story isn't being abandoned! Responding to reviews and reading over this chapter to post has made me remember why I enjoyed writing it in the first place. Updates may have long gaps, but they'll come!
If you've made it this far, leaving a review would be so appreciated. Thank you for reading!
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