Chapter 4 : after hours
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Can I ask you a favor? If mum is reading this letter with you, can you ask her to go into a different room? It’s man stuff.
Is she gone? It’s not really man stuff. I wanted to ask you about your scar, but I don’t want mum to worry because it’s not a big deal. I wanted to ask if your scar still twinges, or if that was just a Voldemort thing. I have a scar and I can’t remember if it’s old or new, but it twinges every once in a while. Maybe once an hour or so. Just every once in a while. I had the nurse look at it and she said it wasn’t magical, so it probably shouldn’t be twinging right?
You can tell mum that I’m doing well in my classes and that we won our first match yesterday. I’ll send another letter soon after I talk to Lily. I know she’s bad at writing home, so I’ll do it for her.
Albus set down his quill and looked up to see Joel and Vanessa kissing heatedly in the middle of the Common Room, Vanessa's small frame coiled agilely on Joel’s lap. Though their very public exhibition only consumed one cushion of the overstuffed couch, the other Gryffindors had given them a wide berth, avoiding the entire circle of furniture surrounding the hearth.
This was a common enough occurrence that no one seemed to mind sacrificing the comfiest seating to allow the Cutest Couple in Gryffindor—a title granted by an anonymous poll scribbled on spare parchment and passed around furtively for weeks—a designated snogging space.
This didn’t mean that Albus was okay with it, however.
Desperate for escape, he shoved the letter and his ink into his bag and hastily got up to leave. But before he’d taken so much as two steps, Joel dislodged his lips from Vanessa’s with a crude sucking noise and yelled, “Oy, where do you think you’re going?”
Albus groaned. Somehow, his best mate had developed clairvoyance; he could detect movement mid-snog. Perhaps Divination was good for something after all.
“Owlery. I have to mail this letter home,” Albus responded, moving toward the portrait hole with hands held high in a display of innocence. “I’ll be right back.”
“Nonsense, mate. Vanessa and I wanted to talk to you about something.”
Albus considered his options. He tucked in the back of his button up awkwardly, thinking about how he’d rather not spend his afternoon as a third wheel. Hiding away in the Owlery amidst owl poop and mouse bones seemed even less appealing.
“Okay,” he conceded. “But quickly. I do need to mail this letter.”
Vanessa slid onto the floor, opening up space for Albus to sit. She leaned against Joel’s legs and began picking at her fingernails. Albus shuffled over to sit beside Joel, letting the bag slide from his shoulder and onto the cushion beside him. The contents shuffled inside, his inkbottle clinking against his reading glasses.
“We’re worried about you, Al,” Joel said, his voice hushed and strikingly genuine. “You haven’t been yourself lately.”
Albus felt his discomfort begin to chip away. Despite his distaste for the excruciating publicity of their affection, Joel and Vanessa were two of his closest friends and they cared about him. Gratitude pressed against his chest. He felt buoyant.
“I guess I have been distracted,” he admitted.
“By that note?” Joel asked, rearranging his now unkempt locks, which hung just below his ears in a charcoal two shades lighter than Vanessa's pin-straight sheet of hair.
The latter reached behind her head to pat Albus’s kneecap. “You should be flattered to have a secret admirer. And she would be lucky to have you.”
“I know," Albus replied, "I just—err—I don’t believe that’s what it is though."
Vanessa patted his knee thrice more with a manicured hand, the smell of patchouli on her skin. Albus and Joel often teased her for her habit of burning incense, calling her a "closet hippie," but neither could deny that her method of stress relief resulted in an unshakably clear and calm mind—infuriatingly so.
“Regardless,” Joel replied dismissively, “we think you should stop dwelling on the bad—mysterious letters, unknown illnesses, stalker girlfriend—”
“Sophie’s not my girl—”
“Regardless,” Joel echoed. “We propose a solution to get your mind off of all this… depressing stuff.”
Vanessa flipped around, resting her elbows on Joel’s knees and smiling up at Albus. Her deep-set, brown eyes twinkled. Albus attempted a smile in return, but his scar gave an unexpected twinge, twisting his expression into a grimace.
“We’re going to set you up!” Vanessa sing-songed.
Albus had the sudden sensation of being hit by a bus—the air squeezing from his lungs, his eyes bulging. “You’re kidding.”
Joel nodded solemnly. “Desperate times call for desperate measures.”
A silence fell, punctuated by the scratching of quills and shuffling of papers. Several pairs of eyes flitted in their direction. Seventh years always became a source of entertainment—in a cautionary tale sort of way.
As Albus considered Joel’s proposition, he briefly thought back to the first time they’d met. Albus had been sitting at the Gryffindor table, enjoying his welcome feast with shaking hands, a tinny ringing in his ears. The food, so luxurious a spread, had no taste. He felt light-headed and impatient and totally wrong for the House of the courageous.
And then there was Joel, a little firecracker of a first year, sitting beside an intimidatingly beautiful sixth year girl. And what did Joel do? He asked her on a date. Albus had thought it unspeakable and watched for the inevitability of Joel’s humiliation. Instead, the girl had laughed, had called him adorable. Albus’s world shifted in that moment and suddenly he was no longer nervous. Suddenly, he was laughing. He was laughing so hard that he had to hold his stomach for fear it would burst. Joel watched, fascinated, and when Albus finished laughing they were immediate friends.
Ever since, Joel had been pulling ridiculous stunts. Somehow or another they always worked in his favor (even if they didn’t technically work). He was either the luckiest or the cleverest person Albus knew—perhaps both.
So how could Albus say no?
“Okay, fine,” he replied, his tone reluctant. “But just one date.”
Joel smirked. “Fair enough.”
Vanessa clapped her hands together once. “Now to collect the data.”
“Blonde or brunette?”
Albus cleared his throat. “Oh, umm, brunette.”
“Short or tall?”
“Too superficial,” she agreed, sensing Albus’s unvoiced apprehension. “Okay, how about this one: What House would you not date? Slytherin?”
“Gryffindor,” Albus replied. He half expected the date to go terribly and didn’t fancy having to avoid the Common Room for the rest of the year. To appease Joel’s raised eyebrow, though, Albus lied, “Wouldn’t want to compete with Gryffindor’s Cutest Couple.”
Joel winked at Vanessa affectionately.
“One more,” Vanessa continued. “On a scale of 1-10, how important is your family’s approval?”
Albus rolled his eyes at Joel’s resultant snickering. He knew they were both remembering fifth year, when Albus dated Nora Westover from Slytherin—a shy girl, but surprisingly good at kissing—and his family had called a meeting to discuss Albus’s mental health. Nora had a reputation for sleeping around, a reputation that Albus had never been able to confirm or deny, and his family had disapproved. At the time, he cared enough about their general opinion of his girlfriends and so he dumped her.
In time, he regretted the decision. Nora really had been a great kisser.
“Three,” he decided aloud.
Joel and Vanessa exchanged enigmatic smiles.
“Is that it? Are we good?” Albus voiced, feeling suddenly and inexplicably uncomfortable.
“Yeah, that’s it,” Joel replied. “Your lady caller will appear at your door within the fortnight.”
Vanessa scoffed. “He means within 48 hours.”
Albus tossed his bag over his shoulder and clumsily saluted the pair. “Right. I’ll see you two later,” he voiced, walking backwards in the direction of the dormitories.
“Uhh—Albus,” Joel called after him. “The Owlery’s the other way.”
Albus spun around and shouted, unnecessarily loudly, “Oh, it is? How silly of me.”
“You’re making another pro/con list aren’t you?” Joel yelled up to him. His voice echoed off the walls of the upstairs landing, swooping in on Albus from a seemingly infinite number of directions. “You better not chicken out, Al!”
Going on a Blind Date
Pros: Joel’s right, it will distract me.
Cons: It could cause even more problems, like with Sophie. (Why did I just write that? I’ve been Imperiused, obviously.) I’ll probably make a fool of myself. Again. And if James finds out he’ll probably tease me. This is why I hate dating. I hate everything.
Albus crumpled up the parchment, opened the window, and hurled it out. He counted twenty-six seconds before squeals of distress rent the air. Then he closed the window and sat grumpily on his four-poster, his scar taking the opportunity to goad him further by giving a distinctive twinge.
The sun burned low in the darkening sky. Albus sat alone in the bleachers, the night breeze rippling the fabric of his Quidditch robes, which were dirt-stained and reeking. Quidditch practice had ended thirty minutes previous, when the sun just barely kissed the treetops, yet Albus remained—a lone figure in the big, dark expanse of the Quidditch Pitch.
Wand tip aglow, Albus read. The pale light of his Lumos spell bathed him in ghostly white. This remained his only form of protection—appearing as an undead apparition, that is. He didn’t bother with protective spells; roving around after hours had become so routine that it gave him less anxiety than brushing his teeth.
This reading of his had become routine, too. Albus always read after a particularly demanding Quidditch practice. It was an escapist approach to coping with the pain of aching muscles. When he resurfaced from his biography of choice, sometimes hours later, the ache purred at low tide and his walk back to Gryffindor Tower was without complaint.
Tonight, Albus had chosen a biography of Albus Dumbledore written just a year after his death: Hogwarts’ Finest Headmaster: Albus Dumbledore, 1881-1997. With dog-eared and yellowing pages, a soft binding, and a cover both dirty and creased, this biography was easily Albus’s favorite. He’d lost count after 23 reads, often returning to the book in the hopes of discovering a secret message left just for him (a la the Snitch left for his father).
It was a silly hope, and he knew it. The man had died long before Al popped into existence. But he kept on hoping. After all, the life of his namesake had been extraordinary. Albus Dumbledore was the greatest wizard who ever lived, according to the seven biographies written in his honor (minus Rita Skeeter’s, which had been discredited less than a year after its release). Who wouldn’t want even a fragment of advice from such a brilliant man?
Albus looked up suddenly. His heart beat frantically, signaling danger, and Albus was standing before consciously deciding to, the book and his wand falling from his lap, clamoring against the metal of the bleachers.
“Hello?” Albus muttered under his breath. “Is anyone there?”
In his periphery, a shadow moved. The fabric at the entrance to his section fluttered. His feet moved without command, walking then running up the bleachers, springing from row to row even as his muscles screamed.
He whipped through the opening in the fabric and there it was. A figure. Standing under the protection of shadow, silent.
Holding his breath, Albus watched as the figure raised its right arm. Instinctively, his hand went to his back pocket, groping for a wand that lay hidden underneath the dark bleachers, next to the biography of the greatest wizard who ever lived.
“Joel, is that you?” he asked into the darkness. “If this is your idea of a joke, it’s not funny.”
The figure pulled back slightly. It seemed to recoil. Then there was a sniffling noise and the figure ran. Briefly, Albus considered following, but his exhausted muscles got the better of him. He sank to the ground, heart decelerating.
“Well,” he exhaled. He balled his hands into fists, clenching and unclenching to calm himself. He snorted a laugh. “Bloody Gryffindor courage.”
Leaning his head against the wall, Albus closed his eyes and breathed.
Fifteen minutes later, he assembled his things and began the trek up the thousands of stairs to the Gryffindor Common Room. On the way up, he rehearsed several different speeches he could lay on Joel when he got there. Subsequent versions included the phrases “bloody prick” and “are you in love with me or something?” and “you’re responsible for my hospital bill when they have me committed for PTSD.”
Anger burned in the pit of his stomach, flaring louder than his throbbing muscles. He was fully prepared to cuss—such colorful vocabulary he saved for the most opportune of moments—except when he finally stumbled into the Common Room, he was so fatigued that he immediately fell face first into the sofa, unconscious.
Joel was safe, for the next eight hours or so.
Author’s Note: Thanks again to all of you who have left me a review. I love hearing from my readers!
We’re coming closer to meeting the mysterious D.L.Z., so stay tuned! Chapter five will be posted shortly.
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