Chapter 4 : Hearts and Minds
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“She looked upset,” Callie said, crossing the empty tavern. The rest of the group migrated over to Albus, who was still staring up where Wren had disappeared.
Scorpius scratched soot out of his hair. "Can't wait for that apparition license. I hate the floo." He winced as a door slammed above them. "We should get her presents. Girls like getting stuff."
Albus felt like he'd just swallowed a Bludger. He'd held the plan in the palm of his hand. "I already got her a present," he said. But instead of being delighted, Wren had taken it and bolted.
And she'd run out of film. What was wrong with her?
“Perfect,” Rose said. “You can keep her company while the rest of us go shopping!”
James groaned. “Can’t we just get ice cream?” He waved to Mrs. Longbottom as Rose pushed him towards the door.
Scorpius gave Albus a clap on the back. "You should go for it," he said quietly. "We wouldn't mind waiting for the two of you." He snickered loudly, and got a cold stare from Rose.
Albus shot a look at his brother, in case he'd heard Scorpius' jab, but James was hanging back to inspect the balcony from a different angle.
"Balloons there. Streamers from there to there," he hummed to himself, seemingly oblivious to the comment
When James had moved on to the other end of the tavern, Albus sighed in relief. "It's not like that," he said. Scorpius snorted. "Alright it is," he conceded, "but it's complicated."
Albus' neck started to prickle, a sensation that he'd grown way too familiar with over the last few weeks, no thanks to his brother. He put his hands defensively into his pockets.
"How can it be complicated?" Scorpius asked as the air around them got thicker. Albus quickly felt around the coins and other items in his pockets, searching for the one with the ribbon, as Scorpius gestured with an aristocratic arm. "You tell her you like her and...oof!"
Albus shoved Scorpius out of the way. He quit trying to feel for the specific item in his pocket and gripped the handful of trinkets in his fist. A cold sensation enveloped his lower half. And then it faded. He stood still and wiggled his big toe inside his shoe to make sure he wasn't going to topple over before bending over and offering a hand to his friend.
"Jelly Legs Jinx," he whispered to Scorpius as he helped him up. They both shot a glare at James, whose grin faded as he snapped his head back around and ambled out the door, pretending that nothing was out of the ordinary.
"That blue arsed chancer! My boots are all scuffed up!" Scorpius brushed himself off. "How'd you manage to block it?" he added excitedly.
Albus pulled out the two-inch braid of unicorn tail that had saved him from an embarrassing fall and silently thanked it for working. "I've got fifteen anti-charm items in my pockets and old Kreacher's put anti jinxes on practically everything I own. Plus, I'm still sussing out these anti-hex arm bands. I'll have to tell the seamstress not to use the fitting charm on me, or Madame Malkin's shop will be blasted clear into London.”
“Awesome!” Scorpius hissed.
Albus shuddered. "Pins are not awesome. And remember, you can't tell anyone."
"Got it." Scorpius gave a knowing nod. “See you later.” He followed James out the door and Albus leaned against the stairwell, waiting.
For what, he wasn't sure anymore.
A few minutes later, Albus was glad to see Wren come down the stairs, still pale, but a lot calmer. He opened his mouth to tell her so, but suddenly all the second-guessing slammed back into him.
Maybe she wasn’t ready. Maybe she wanted to be alone. Maybe she wasn't interested in him, and he was just spinning his wheels and heading for a fall. He tried to picture his remaining two years at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, with Wren never talking to him again, ignoring him in the halls and sitting as far away from him in class as she could. The nightmare inside his mind expanded, leading to schisms between their friends and being taunted in the Great Hall by the entire House of Gryffindor.
"Albus?" Wren tilted her head. "You look like you've just seen a ghost."
He shook his head, banishing the worst-case-scenario from his thoughts. Wren would never do that to him. If she was going to turn him down, she was going to be nice about it. Somehow, an image of Wren politely reasoning out the ways that dating him wouldn't be a good idea didn't boost his confidence either.
He cleared his throat and attempted to sound casual. “Ready?"
She looked around at the practically empty tavern. "Where is everyone?"
"Shopping for your presents. They want it to be a surprise. Since I already got you something, they said I had to stay with you."
He'd meant it in a joking way, like he always did, but Wren's face fell.
"You didn't have to wait if you didn't want to."
"No, I meant..." Albus' hair fell into his eyes and he blew it to the side. "I wanted to. I have this fitting appointment in a little while and thought you might want to come along. We could catch up on things." Yes, that sounded like a safe thing to say. There were so many things he wanted to say to her and obviously he'd gotten off to a rotten start. He shoved his hands in his pockets. "We could talk, maybe?"
Wren studied him silently, like she did when she was trying to fit one of her photographs into a frame. "Is this about what happened earlier?"
Earlier? Albus wracked his brain, searching through the last twenty minutes for a reference. All he could remember was working through the knot in his stomach so he could talk to her and give her his gift, and then forcing himself to go through with his plan, which by the looks of things, wasn't going at all the way that he'd imagined.
Wren wrinkled her nose. "Because if it is, I don't want to talk about it." Before he could open his mouth, she spun on her heel and was out the door.
Puzzled, Albus followed Wren out of the Leaky Cauldron. "Wait," he called out, and caught up to her in a few long strides. "You don't have to go with me. We're all supposed to meet up for ice cream so if you want to go there instead, I'm sure they won't take long." Albus fell into step next to her as she continued walking. He wasn't even sure where she was going. "I didn't mean to make you mad."
She shrugged without slowing down. "I'm not mad."
Albus remained quiet as Wren automatically led him up the Alley to a hovering pair of oversized, gilded scissors. She ducked under the sign, as if she'd agreed to go with him all along.
Wren had helped Albus with loads of problems (like that time she'd had to explain to him why it was unacceptable to substitute the word "banana" for "wand" during study sessions with his girlfriends) and he was almost positive that if he staged his current situation as a question, she'd talk him through a logical way to move forward. Unfortunately, she didn't want to talk about it, he reminded himself. Which... what did that even mean, exactly? He caught the door before it closed and stepped into the clothing shop.
Albus hadn't a clue about what he was going to do or say next. She'd said that she wasn't mad, but he'd learned (from her, actually) that even practical girls didn't always mean exactly what they said. When it was just the two of them, he could get her to laugh and joke about things. She wasn't laughing now.
Wren sat next to the big display window with her feet tucked under her chair. She stared out into the street while the seamstress ushered Albus to a raised pedestal and bustled around inside Madame Malkin's Robes for All Occasions.
"No fitting charms? This will take a little longer." The seamstress disappeared behind a thick curtain in the back. Both Wren and Albus heard a high-pitched squeal of "Potter!" and then a second, disappointed cry of "the shorter one?" which made Albus flush and Wren cringe. A younger seamstress came out from behind the curtain wearing a polite smile that widened at the sight of him. Wren watched as Albus gave the seamstress a distant, yet courteous nod. He eyed the measuring tape and cup full of stick pins warily when she stepped onto the fitting platform.
Wren's head was still fuzzy from a mixture of quivering Bunny and a taller Albus. As the younger (and prettier) seamstress began pinning him up with brown paper, Wren wondered just how many girls would be interested in him this year. His girlfriends in the past had all acted nice enough, but their cold, detached smiles gave her the feeling that they weren't always thrilled to be spending time with Albus' friends. But she hadn't had to worry too much. Sometimes in as little as a week, single Albus would return to hang out with her by the big tree after classes. She couldn't help getting immense satisfaction from it.
Albus looked like a statue on the dais, reminding Wren suddenly of the stillness in the Hospital Ward, her grandparents in their beds, unmoving, unblinking. Wren had confided in Albus once about her irrational fear that they'd rise up out of their beds like zombies. It had creeped her out so much that she had to tell someone.
She was creeping herself out now. Wren shuddered and concentrated on the living Albus in front of her. He blinked. He smiled. He winced as the seamstress got too close for comfort with her pins.
Wren felt a warm sensation crawl up her spine when the seamstress left the dais for more pins and Albus turned to with his wide, friendly smile. If she could take a picture of how she felt inside when he did that.. what would it look like? She let the fluttery sensations dance around her insides for a short while before she squashed them out and curled up tighter in her chair.
So far, Albus hadn't noticed when she accidentally stood a little too close to him or laughed a bit too loudly at his jokes. She'd tried to remain quiet and unassuming, because then no one would notice her, which was usually the way she liked it. Actually, that wasn't exactly true. She'd gotten noticed by Ian Sloan for a few weeks last year, but it had felt more than a social experiment than any crush she'd thought she'd ever had.
When the seamstress came back with another cup full of pins, Albus' whole body went rigid. Wren felt her own insides seize up, and this time, it wouldn't simply go away when she told it to. Hanging out with Albus wasn't a big deal before. Why did it have to be different now?
This morning had been different. The strange visions and the panic attack had scared her silly.
Those specific symptoms had been highlighted in Gran's magical maladies texts, like Gran had known something was coming.
Wren could quite possibly be starting to lose her mind.
Albus stepped off the fitting dais, and Wren got caught up in it, almost like it was slow motion as he walked towards her - pushing his hair back and giving her a bone-melting smile. Wren did her best to shake herself out of it as he leaned over the counter and murmured something to the seamstress. She nodded with a sly smile, and waved the packages back behind the counter.
"I'll bring these to you when the others are ready," the woman said sweetly, and disappeared back behind the curtain.
Wren blinked a few times, as the tingling in her gut turned into a tight ball of nerves. She'd been away from him too long. Yes, that was the rational explanation. If she'd seen him more often over the summer, she wouldn't react so badly, she'd have been used to seeing him all the time. It wouldn't have been such a big deal if she'd let him come 'round over the summer. She could have had someone to lean on, someone to comfort her and give her hugs. Albus hugs were easily one of her favorite things in the world, right up there with blueberry ice cream and automatic focus lenses.
Or, she could tell him. Right now. Dump her fluttery guts out in the open and let the drama, heartbreak and recovery play out before they boarded the train for the new school term.
But then it would be over. She never wanted it to be over.
Indecision must have shown on her face, because Albus stopped smiling and was squinting at her instead.
Before she said anything, she had to know if she was really going crazy, if somehow she'd contracted a disease and she was turning into Gran. She'd test it and see. A simple hug - they'd done it a million times before - today, even. He was her friend.
Wren stood up and went to him, wrapping her arms around him and waiting a beat to see if the strangeness would come back. She felt the familiar nervous zing, but that was all. No panic, no strange visions. Wren was elated that nothing happened. It was just a one-off. She wasn't going insane.
She eased out of the hug and nodded up at him, letting the flutters bounce around, just for a second longer, before she forced herself to be sensible again and stepped back to put space between them. "I'm alright," she said.
Suddenly, the imaginary drama didn't seem worth it. She wanted to spend her birthday with Albus. And Rose and Callie and James, and even Scorpius, since it looked like he had chosen to behave (for now).
"Really," Wren said, feeling more confident. Now that she'd said it once, she could say it all day if she had to.
"Freakishly tall. We get to call you that now, right?" Rose said with sass, bumping Albus out of the way as they all gathered around the cold cases of ice cream at Fortescue's Parlor.
Before Albus could ask if the featured flavor was really Dragon-puss green, or if it was a trick of the faulty lighting, James elbowed him aside. "Since we're all here, the birthday girl needs ice cream first. Aunt Hermione made that a law last year, right Rose?"
"Not yet, but I'll owl her straight away," Rose said offhandedly.
Scorpius motioned Albus over behind James and gave him a knowing nod. Albus shook his head. "Not here," he murmured, and tilted his head at Wren.
James swung his arm around Wren's shoulder and led her up to the counter like a little sister. "Choose your flavor," he told her.
"Aren't you supposed to be doing that?" Scorpius ribbed Albus. Albus gave his friend an annoyed look. "Oh," Scorpius said. "Not there yet."
"Not even close." That hug inside the shop had gotten to him, but immediately afterward, she'd backed off. It left him puzzled about his next move.
He'd never had to ask a girl out before. His first girlfriend had practically thrown herself at him, and he hadn't even really liked her. It had taken him two weeks to break it off, only because he'd enjoyed himself too much the first week, and then he'd spent the next seven days trying to figure out how to let her down without hurting her feelings. (And before Scorpius could tell her that she needed to take her fake nails and suffocating perfume and sod off already.)
After her, there were a few others, not many, or at least not many that he remembered. They'd all been nice (sort of) and interesting(sometimes) but eventually someone (usually Albus) got bored and they drifted away after not too long.
Wren had thankfully remained neutral about the whole ordeal, but he could tell that she hadn't liked any of his girlfriends much. When Albus thought about it, maybe he hadn't liked them much either. After undesirable girlfriend number three, he'd realized that if a girl seemed wrong from the start, he could just say no up front and save himself loads of trouble.
Wren passed by with a bowl full of blue on top of blue and Rose laughed at her. "That's going to turn your mouth blue for days," she said.
"I know," Wren said, the blue already seeping into her tongue from the first bite. Albus watched her relax in the company of friends, glad that the awkwardness had faded away. That was what he liked the most about her. She didn't hold grudges and never overreacted to the little things, like most girls did.
"She's not the one who wants to impress the Ravenclaws when we get back to school," Callie piped up from the front of the line.
"What about the Ravenclaws?" Scorpius voiced over the crowd. “Why is it always about the Ravenclaws? What’s wrong with Slytherins?”
“Nothing's wrong with us, except you,” Albus jabbed.
“Gryffindors are a bunch of big fakers, that's what they are," Scorpius said as James tried to sweet-talk the server into a free round of fizzy drinks. "Except Wren. Remember Care of Magical Creatures last fall? She owned that skrewt!"
Rose turned around to give Scorpius one of her signature glares, and Scorpius met her gaze with his own. "They’re just slow to acknowledge our brilliance is all,” he said, punctuating his superiority by sticking his tongue out.
To most people, Scorpius appeared like an upper-crust snob. But when Rose was around, he quickly devolved into an immature prat. To her discredit, Rose didn't handle herself any better. Albus wondered why the two of them bothered spending their free time in the same room together. He figured that it was probably somehow his fault.
Albus sat down with Scorpius at a table across from Wren's and watched her friends chatting animatedly around her. Scorpius wavered between picking lint off his leather jacket and stealing glances at Albus' cousin. At least Albus and Wren were friends, or he'd thought so this morning. She'd always been the most level-headed girl he'd ever known. He'd almost gone mental when Ian Sloan asked her out, and then really did go a bit mad when she accepted. Wren had never criticized any of Albus' dates (to his face) so even though Sloan was a gobby arse, he'd done nothing about it, other than pull Gina (Gillian? Geranium? He'd lost track) off his arm and stew in his room.
It had taken the better part of a week for him to sort out what it all meant, but once he did, he'd never figured out how to put it into words. What was he supposed to say to a girl he'd known almost as long as his sister? That he liked her? Fancied her? He'd come off sounding like an idiot.
Scorpius had taken up an irritating habit of counting all of his missed chances. When Wren broke up with Sloan after only a week ( the longest week that Albus could remember), he ribbed Albus daily for almost a month. Albus had waited for Wren to come to him, expecting her to be broken up about the split, ready to offer comfort that only a guy who'd known her for years and years could offer. But she'd walked into the Great Hall the day after the break up, completely unbroken. She'd even looked relieved about putting the entire ordeal behind her.
What scared him the most was if he got what he finally wanted, and then messed it up somehow - she could do the same thing to him. Too many scenarios had played out in his dreams, both good and bad. If she felt the same way, it would be the best thing that had ever happened to him. And if not, it'd be the worst screw up of his life.
Wren bit into her ice cream and looked only half-interested in the talk around her. The old Wren would never have run out of film and would be snapping pictures of everything right about now. She'd have asked him to hold her ice cream at a funny angle, or taken everyone's cherries to arrange on a napkin or something like that.
She obviously had something on her mind, except she wasn’t talking about it. And he was quite afraid to ask what it was.
After the ice cream was finished, the group set back out onto the street and Wren lagged behind. Albus slowed to walk with her, flinching as James waved his wand around ahead of them.
"I wish he'd put that thing away," he muttered.
Wren looked over at him. "Why? Did he set the house on fire over the summer?"
Before he could mention anything about James and his unrelenting pranks, the seamstress flew out of Madame Malkin's with an armful of packages.
"Yoohoo!" she called, bobbing her head to get his attention. Albus had no choice but to stop in the middle of the street and collect the packages from the woman. When his arms were full, he started passing them to Wren, who was equally puzzled.
The seamstress gave him the last package with a sly smile and eyed his brother with an appraising glint. Albus didn't like the way she eyed him up and down at the shop, and he was even more uncomfortable with her open stares in the middle of the street. If his mother hadn't made the appointment, he wouldn't have gone at all, no matter how short his pants were getting.
What was wrong with wearing his old clothes a little longer? At this rate, he might get taller than his brother by Christmas, and then he'd have to do this all over again.
Thankfully, the woman took out her wand and shrank the parcels to a more manageable size so that Wren and Albus could stuff the tiny boxes into their pockets. When she left to go back inside the shop, Wren was smirking at him.
"That lady liked you, I think," she said.
He looked over at his friend in her faded jeans and her plain t-shirt and half of his school wardrobe in her pockets. Wren made Albus feel normal. He felt like he could tell her anything and she wouldn’t laugh at him or tell him he was bonkers. He'd spent a lot of the summer with Scorpius, planning and scheming for the new year, but it wasn't the same not seeing Wren for so long. The truth was, he’d missed her. He hadn’t known how much until he saw her this morning. He shifted his gaze to the group ahead of them, judging that they were well out of earshot. Well, this was as good a time as any.
"She probably thinks we're dating," he said, testing the waters. He thought he saw a small smile begin on her face, but she had her head turned away from him. Albus swore his heart picked up a few beats, or maybe skipped a few, he wasn't sure.
"Huh," she said. "That's funny."
Albus' hopes sank into the gutter. No, it's not funny, Albus thought. He hunched his shoulders and pulled into himself, trying not to follow that with any more thoughts.
Maybe it was just bad timing. He'd narrowly escaped one of his brother's pranks, and nearly gotten pinned in his sensitive areas. And who goes to a pants fitting in the middle of a birthday party? Blame his mother and her overzealous insistence to schedule things "conveniently".
Mum would be so proud, he thought sarcastically. He'd just conveniently botched his first attempt at asking Wren out.
They'd almost caught up to their friends by then, who had stopped in front of the window display in front of the Quidditch Shop. "Look at these! They're the new set that Madame Hooch said she wanted for the pitch this year." As James' wand arm came around, Albus involuntarily flinched.
He pretended not to see Wren's questioning look. It wasn't the best time to bring up the constant hexing he'd been getting ever since James' birthday, not when his brother was close enough to listen in. Albus had only shared that last bit with Scorpius, and that was because Scorpius had been at the house with him and watched it happen. Or rather, the effects of it. James' magic was so skilled that no one could see it coming, which was why Albus had loaded his pockets with charm-repelling items.
James led the group across the street like a tour guide on a power trip. Albus winced as the trash bin they passed levitated an inch off the ground. A sudden gust of wind took the hat off an unsuspecting stranger a few yards away. James had always said that his last year at Hogwarts would be filled with the greatest pranks ever, but Albus hadn’t appreciated being the practice target all summer. Just because it was legal didn't make it right.
Albus and Scorpius had been planning James' final year as well. There was no way his brother was getting away with a summer of unreturned pranks, just because he could use his wand out of school and Albus couldn't. His brother was being a pain in his arse and the new term hadn't even started yet. Maybe his plans for Wren hadn't gone the way he'd imagined, but his plans for James were failsafe. As soon as they got back to Hogwarts, Albus had a whole summer's worth of payback waiting to be dealt out.
And Wren... something was going on with her, but she had chosen not to tell him about it. Whatever it was, he'd have to wait for another opportunity. He wasn't going to try asking her out again now, especially since they'd caught up to the group. Between Wren's strange behavior and James' pranks, there was too much weird in the air.
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