Chapter 4 : 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.
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 like a giant five-year-old. “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.
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.
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 about the...." He waved his arms around himself awkwardly. "You know, in case it's illegal or something. My dad doesn't' know."
He didn't want to get his dad, Head Auror of the British Ministry of Magic, sacked over a sibling dispute. The age-old 'Work it out amongst yourselves' had gotten more complicated than when they were younger and simply arguing over a racing broom.
"Got it." His friend gave a knowing nod. Scorpius' dad had remained blissfully ignorant of how he spent most of his summers with Albus - getting up to all kinds of non-shenanigans and anti-trouble. They really were just bored and restless most of the time, especially since Wren had been too busy to hang out - or even answer his owls. That still stung, but deep in his gut, he felt like he should give it a go.
“See you later,” Scorpius waved and followed James out the door. 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.
She'd truly had an awful time of it with the moving and her Gran's condition. 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 at the 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. "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.
Wren sat next to the big display window with her feet tucked under her chair. Bunny was fine. He just needed to see that she was alright.
She was alright, wasn't she? Wren 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. She must have looked like an idiot, rushing away and then brushing him off. 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.
Next to her in the display window, the shop's newest life-like mannequin stared blankly ahead, 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 shifted her back to the window, concentrating instead on Albus and his new paper pants. Somehow, he pulled off the look, standing tall and poised in the ridiculous outfit, at least until the seamstress got too close with her pins and he nearly jumped.
Wren felt a warm sensation crawl up her spine when the seamstress left the dais for more pins. Albus had always been nice to look at, but now she wanted to look at him even more. Wren wished she had her camera. 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.
The strange visions and the panic attack had scared her silly. Disorientation, fatigue, losing track of time... Those specific symptoms had been highlighted in Gran's magical maladies texts which Gran had scoured for clues of Frank and Alice's condition. Wren felt like she'd lived through some of those symptoms an could totally relate to the descriptions in that book, which scared her even more.
She could quite possibly be starting to lose her mind.
Albus stepped off the fitting dais to pay for his new clothes, and Wren did her best to shake herself out of it.
"I'll bring your packages when the others are ready," the woman said sweetly, and disappeared behind the curtain.
Albus nodded politely and turned back to Wren.
Wren blinked up at the sudden worry on his face. It was her birthday. She was supposed to be having fun, not going crazy! Before she said anything, she had to know if she really was losing her mind. She'd test it and see.
Wren stood up and wrapped her arms around him, 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. It was just a one-off. She wasn't going insane.
Sighing in relief, she let 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.
She wasn't though. Some strange, nagging thing inside of her made her wish she could run back up those stairs and curl up on her bed. But that wasn't going to happen. This was her birthday.
"Really," Wren said. 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."
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 she was his little sister. Albus could imagine if Lily had been here, chatting up every bloke within three blocks, nannering endlessly so that no one around her could think straight. Even though she got along well with Wren, he was glad Lily hadn't been able to show. "Choose your flavor," James said, and Wren peered through the glass at the many colored tubs.
"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 basically 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.)
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.
Wren had thankfully remained neutral, 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. "That's going to stain your mouth for days!"
"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.
"Why is it always about the Ravenclaws? What’s wrong with Slytherins?” Scorpius voiced over the crowd.
“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 act much better. Albus figured it was probably his fault that the two of them bothered spending their free time in the same room together.
He sat 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 until 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. And then on moving day at the Longbottom's, he'd completely lost his senses.
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 let him know exactly what kind of idiot he'd been. Besides the 'of course you fancy her, you dolt' speech, he'd reminded Albus of when Sloan had split with Wren (the longest week of his life) and how he'd waited for Wren to come to him, expecting her to be broken up, 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 now 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. 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. Normally, he'd expect her to hold her ice cream at a funny angle, or take everyone's cherries and arrange them on a napkin so she could take weird pictures of them.
She obviously had something on her mind, except she wasn’t talking about it.
After ice cream, the group set back out onto the street and Albus slowed to walk behind with Wren. He flinched as James waved his wand around ahead of them.
"I wish he'd put that thing away," Albus muttered.
Wren looked up 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'd ogled him 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. 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. 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 tried 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 to gape at 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 again.
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. 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 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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