Chapter 22 : 22. Charmed Hearts
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Wren set her empty mug on the bridge railing. The tea had chased away the fog in her head, and in another hour, the sun would be high enough to melt the cold mist that still clung to the open air between the castle and the mountains in the distance. By then, she would be in class with the wet still clinging to her skin.
Her nerves flared. Albus was supposed to meet her soon, and she was going to have to do magic in front of him. She didn’t want to look like an idiot. It had been embarrassing enough, the way she must have looked when he didn’t ask about Hogsmeade yesterday. He already said he wanted them to hang out together. When had she started needing him to like her more?
She cast a Hot Air Charm and felt her tension melt away as the warm air spurted out of her wand with no resistance. Lazy circles appeared in the fog where her wand guided the steady stream.
“Hey.” Albus raised his chin at the patterns in the mist. “You started without me.”
How did he just appear and make her feel like she was wearing the wrong skin? "Didn't sleep well. Might as well practice."
Her unease wasn’t all about Albus. About three in the morning, Bunny had returned to her. She hadn't given in to his doleful eyes and his little twitchy nose that begged to snuggle with her on her pillow, still haunted by the discussion with Nate in the library about Thralls and monster rabbits. Wren felt bad for him, she could feel his hurt, and something deeper below the surface that she was too afraid to explore. After hours of lying stiff in her bed and staring at the ceiling, while Bunny butted his head relentlessly against the door to get her attention, Wren had given up on sleep.
She lowered her wand and watched her spell work blow away in the morning breeze. “I think I'm finally getting this.”
“It’s good,” he said. “Better than you’ve managed before.”
Wren blushed at that. The whole class must have seen her flail around for the first few weeks of school. “I never used to have trouble with magic, ever. I kept thinking there was something wrong with me.”
Albus looked affronted. “There’s nothing wrong with you!” he said, like he’d taken her words as a personal insult. He held up a small paper bag. “I brought muffins. Blueberry. And hot tea, but I see you’ve got your own.”
Wren dismissed her mug that still balanced on the railing. “It’s finished.” She lifted one of the steaming mugs out of the bag to warm her hands, and then reached back in for a muffin. When she bit into it, she got a burst of ripe fruit flavor. “These are perfect. Thanks.” Wren said around a mouth full of blueberry. She stifled a giggle and tried not to spray muffin crumbs everywhere.
As she ate, Albus pointed his wand out into the mist, charming the tiny droplets into a circle of fire. His spells were more vibrant than hers, more alive.
“You make it look so easy. I guess that stuff with your brother paid off."
"When the itch powder ended up in my shorts, I nicked James’ Charms text and learned some stuff that helped out. Too bad there’s no charm for detecting stupidity."
Wren frowned. "Your mum and dad let you use magic at home over the summer?”
"They didn’t know.” Albus' wand lowered, letting the flaming circle fade into nothing. “There's a place in my dad's study that has so many protection spells on it that you can't detect anything from the outside. When no one was around, I found a way in. Anti jinxes aren’t as complicated as they’re made out to be.”
Wren hadn’t counted the armbands as she’d ripped them off of him during detention, and Pomfrey had found even more. "How many did you have, Albus?"
He scratched at his upper arm. "A lot. Sometimes I think they’re still there, but they’re not. I feel sort of naked without them. We should keep practicing. Your turn."
Something not too complicated, she decided, silently coaxing the mist in front of her to change blue. It held for a few seconds, and then faded.
“What were you thinking?”
Frustrated, Wren looked up at Albus. “What do you mean? I was thinking ‘Colovaria’. Didn’t you see?”
“I meant, what were you thinking about when you did the spell? Just the name?”
“What else would I be thinking?”
“When we changed the wool to silk in class, Professor Ackerly didn’t give us a name for the spell until after we’d tried it. Remember how knowing what it was called didn’t help? The magic isn’t in the words. All you need is the intent to change.”
“Did you get that from James’ textbook?” Wren teased. Albus just shrugged. “Alright, I’ll try it.”
She aimed her wand and thought ‘blue’. No, not just blue. What did she want? Wren thought for a second, and decided on a specific shade of blue, something brighter than before, that could easily be seen against the sky. Her arm brushed against Albus and she started to move away, but then she decided that she wanted that too. Wren stayed where she was, arm outstretched, and pushed a stream of blue mist out of her wand.
“Nice,” Albus said.
Wren began tracing patterns again, painting the air with blue spirals. “Do you see that?” she asked excitedly. “I’m doing it!”
“Yeah, I’m a little jealous here. It took me weeks to get that.”
“Thanks, Albus,” Wren said, giving his shoulder a friendly bump. She changed her mist color to a deep purple, and laughed at how easy it had all become.
A green stream of mist appeared near hers, looping around and under her shapes. Albus guided his wand alongside hers. “Glad I could help. From the looks of things, you're doing fine without me now.”
Wren's charm danced around his, making pretty colors. “I wish our practical exam would be as fun as mist painting.”
As they practiced, the patterns became more complex, intermingling at some points and chasing each other away at others. Wren felt a small tug at her insides to get closer to Albus, if only to be warmer next to him in the chilly air. She could feel the static between them, an irresistible pull to duck under his arm and be right there.
Wren’s charm faltered. What was she doing? It didn’t feel exactly the same as when she needed Bunny or how Dillon seemed to need her, but how was this any different? Albus was looking at her like he needed something too - Wren’s breath came in short gasps - she wanted, needed… oh god, did that rabbit get to Albus too?
“Wren,” Albus said, almost in a whisper, but then the double doors opened behind them and a crowd of Hufflepuffs spilled out onto the bridge.
Wren spun around, knocking Albus away from the bridge railing. Flustered, she looked out and saw Nate among the Hufflepuffs.
“Hi Wren!” he called, and dropped his hand mid-wave when he saw her stricken face. “Morning, Potter.” His greeting sounded like a question, and Wren didn’t have any answers, so she stayed awkwardly silent. Nate looked warily between the two of them, a letter in his hand. “I got word back from Hogsmeade. We can go on Sunday. That is, if you didn’t have other plans.”
Wren shook her head dumbly.
“Alright then. We should talk more about your zombie friends from the library. See you later.” Nate went to catch up with the group of Hufflepuffs who'd already gotten to the other side of the bridge.
Wren turned back to Albus, fully expecting to give him an explanation, to get back to where they had left off… no, wait… to see if that rabbit had... But he was gathering his things and strangely quiet.
"I thought you hated zombies."
"It's just an expression," Wren said, frowning at his sudden clipped tone.
He dropped his Charms texts and had to pick it up again. “So," Albus said when his book was securely under his arm, "you and Nate.”
Wren opened her mouth to tell him what it really was, but he interrupted her. “That’s great.” Then he snickered. “Sorry. It also rhymes."
"Sorry. I didn’t mean to make fun. Nate's a good guy. I’d better get on."
Wren watched him stride away on long legs as the bell rang to signal the five minute warning for the first class. He was halfway across the bridge before she called out, "It's not really a...", but Albus didn't turn around. He was already too far away to hear her.
"...date," she finished lamely, pushed aside by a cluster of third years on their way to the Transfiguration corridor. Wren picked up the brown paper bag, stopping for a moment to flick her wand at the abandoned mugs. They disappeared from the railing, and Wren imagined that they had immediately been snatched up by the hands of some capable house elf as soon as they appeared back in the kitchens. Her sense of pride at her progress faded along with the mist as it burned away in the sun's rays peeking over the mountains.
By the looks of things, you're doing fine without me.
Albus was right. She could do it without him, but she didn't want to.
Defeated, Albus kept his head down, counting stones as he trudged off in the opposite direction of Charms class. I should have left Wren Alone, he told himself. But that wasn't possible, not with every thought about her becoming this intense, uncontrollable thing... He couldn’t tell if the familiar prickling sensation on the back of his neck was from his anti-hex bracelets or from the embarrassment of thinking that things would finally go his way.
"Hey, little brother!"
Albus stopped short of running into James and groaned. "Not now, I’ve got lessons." He wasn’t in the mood for another game of map-exchange, and fully intended to ignore whatever it was that James would throw at him, because...
He wasn’t wearing his arm bands!
Instinctively, Albus ducked. A hot flash skimmed over his right shoulder and slammed a bright purple blotch onto the wall next to him.
That's the last straw, Albus thought furiously. They were in Hogwarts, and he had a wand. He could easily blast his brother into the next corridor. He didn't care about another detention, or three. It would be worth it, just this once, to fire off the Stunning Spell he’d been practicing all summer in his dad’s study.
Red light poured out of his wand, just as he saw movement behind his target. He pulled up fast, redirecting his aim higher than he’d intended. The light shattered harmlessly against the wall near a lit torch just as a golden head of hair came bouncing around the corner.
Lori looked like she’d just sprinted the whole way down the last corridor. "James! You walk really fast."
James ignored her as if she wasn’t there and raised his wand. She ducked under his arm in irritation. "Are you even listening to me? I said how'd you like the cookies?"
James' grin faltered. "Go away, Lori. I'm busy."
Lori pouted and turned around, locking eyes with Albus. Her face glowed. For a second, he thought she’d been hit with his blast after all.
James used Lori’s distraction to his advantage and threw a curse straight at Albus’ head.
Arrogant prat! Albus shoved Lori into the wall, cast a shield charm and swung his wand to deflect the blue light right back at his brother. “Get out of here, Lori!”
James’ grin grew, and instead of dodging the rebounding curse, he thrust his own wand in the air and yelled, “Protego!” In a split second, the curse turned back on Albus.
Albus grimaced, bouncing the curse back to James. His brother’s expression of glee quickly turned to shock as the same curse hurled back at him a second time. On the sidelines, Lori’s head bobbed back and forth, watching the blue jet of light shoot back and forth between the two brothers as if they were playing a game of Toad Toss.
After another agonizing volley with no end in sight, Albus flicked his wand and wordlessly softened the shape of his shield to deflect the curse away from his brother. He just wanted get to class without growing two heads, getting his legs fused together or whatever else his brother had planned.
The blue light spun off his shield and pitched harder than he’d counted on, hitting Lori squarely in the chest. She gasped and stumbled backwards, and would have hit the floor too, if Scorpius hadn't come barreling around the corner. They ended up in a heap in the middle of the corridor with Lori on top.
"Oi!" Scorpius waved his arms from under Lori. "What's going on here?"
Lori stumbled to her feet, dazed, and James smiled wide. "Ask her," he said with a smirk, and ran off before the bell let out its final warning.
Scorpius brushed himself off and turned on Albus. "Are your trolleys right round?" he hissed. "You're already down one tick for detentions! What do you think they'll if they catch you dueling in the halls?"
"He started it," Albus said, pointing down the corridor to where his brother had vanished. It was a lame excuse, but if James hadn’t shown up, Albus would’ve likely hurled a curse at something else instead.
Scorpius spun Lori around. “Oi!” He waved his hand in front of her face. "She's still out of it. What’d the tosser hit her with?"
Albus shrugged. "Dunno. It was meant for me."
Scorpius snapped in Lori’s ears, but she still didn’t react. "Don’t suppose we should leave her like this. She's on her feet, so it can't be too bad. I guess we'll just wait it out and hope it's good enough for Professor Ackerly to excuse us from the bell. We're late anyway." He picked at his teeth with a nail. "How'd it go with Wren?"
"She's going to ace the Charms Practicals," Albus said flatly. He wasn’t in the mood to be reminded about that.
Scorpius waggled his eyebrows. "I was talking about the other thing. Hogsmeade’s coming up, and I thought you..."
Albus put his wand away, and forced himself to let it go. "She's going with someone else." He wished his friend would take the hint, but Scorpius put on a smirk and kept at it.
"Told you it wouldn't take too long."
Suddenly, the duel with James didn’t feel like it had been enough. Albus was ready to punch something. Scorpius' face looked awfully convenient.
Scorpius wisely backed off with raised hands. "Alright, alright, I'll leave it alone." He jerked a thumb at Lori. "What are we going to do about her?"
Albus grabbed the girl by her shoulders. "Lori?"
She blinked rapidly, and then smiled with the brightness of a thousand-watt Lumos. "Albus! Oh my god! I have so much to tell you... or maybe it was your brother... but he's not here, is he? That's alright. I think you're keen too." The blacks of her eyes kept growing until they blocked out all color.
Albus winced as she kept babbling nonsense. He caught sight of the 'all seeing eye' on the cover of the book in her hands. "Divination. Right." With a hand on her back, he steered her in the direction of the North Tower.
To his dismay, Lori took the contact as an invitation to throw her arms around him. "Where are we going, Albus?” Her voice wobbled, almost like a drunken slur, confirming that James’ curse had definitely had some kind of mental effect. “Are you busy this weekend, because I don't want my new dress to go to waste.”
Albus tried to push her forward, but instead of prodding her on, she leaned back into his hand and batted her eyes at him, words rushing out of her mouth the whole time. If his brother’s curse was to make Albus regret ever getting out of bed, he’d done a smashing job.
“Besides, I don't think James would appreciate it like you would.” She held onto him tighter, leaning her head against him with a deep sigh.
As he guided her down the corridor with a curious Scorpius in tow, there was a blessed pause in Lori’s chatter. She loosened her grip on him slightly, but just as Albus thought that the ordeal was over, she took another breath and started up again. “You're nice, Albus." She swayed slightly and gripped his arm tighter for support. "And steady,” she cooed. A smile blossomed on her face. She looked up at him. “I like steady boys."
Scorpius watched them with his signature smirk. "Well, this is fun."
"Shut up. I'll walk her to her class. James’ hexes have never lasted long enough to be traced."
Albus hoped he hadn’t misjudged his brother’s usual intention of not actually hurting someone. Even the pranks that he’d endured over the summer had only gone to the point of extreme irritation. If he could avoid taking Lori to the Hospital Wing, he wouldn’t have to explain his own involvement in the situation. trying to come up with a reasonable excuse without getting blamed for being part of the problem was going to be near impossible.
What was the point anymore? Wren was going to Hogsmeade with someone that wasn’t him. He might as well give up now and save himself the heartache.
On Friday afternoon, Bunny had been silent for four days straight. And as the time drew nearer, Wren’s anxiety about going back to the Inn and Gran had ramped up so high that she just decided not to think about anything at all, which hadn’t helped either. Pushing her problems out of her mind just made them all come back in a rush, making her dizzy with indecision.
Albus hadn’t suggested that they try to get together again. By the way he was avoiding her, it was clear that he didn’t want to talk about what had happened on the bridge. Which was good, she told herself, because that meant he hadn’t been affected by the rabbit biting him… but then why had they both felt so out of control?
She passed the open door to Greenhouse Four, where her father was explaining the proper way to pot seedlings to a collection of first and second year students. The two boys in the back of the group were too busy tossing clumps of mooncalf dung at each other to notice that they were standing dangerously near a Devil's Snare vine.
What did her dad find out since they last talked? She hadn’t had time to see him all week, and he was obviously busy now. Albus’ rabbit was still in the library, so whatever her father had done wasn’t working. A sickening thought occurred to her that maybe he hadn’t done anything about it at all.
Wren hurried to the dark room. There wasn’t much time before the Portkey left for Diagon Alley. She entered the shed and passed through the thick curtains. Her pictures from last weekend were still on the line, bone dry by now, along with a few others that hadn’t been there before.
Ugh! Those were more of Serena’s pictures.
The strange curve of the newest photograph was an extreme close up… of what, Wren didn’t want to guess. The texture of whatever-it-was was slightly grainy, with a shallow dip on the edge. At the far right of the frame, it became bumpy… no, wait… were those smooth ridges? And was that a… single hair?
The heavy fabric rustled behind her, but Wren still couldn't tear her eyes away from the strange image.
“It’s not what you think it is,” Serena told her, going straight up to the picture Wren had been staring at. Wren was embarrassed to be caught staring at it, but it wasn’t like she was going to be able to pretend she hadn’t been looking. Serena hadn’t done anything to hide her pictures either. “Things look different from different angles. I call it my skin collection.”
Obviously, Wren thought to herself, busying herself with the task she had come to do. She adjusted the developing potion, poured her rolls of film into the tub and covered it with the lid. All those rolls were going to take hours to finish, and Wren's Portkey was leaving right after supper. She definitely had enough work to justify ignoring Serena’s pictures.
“That’s the inside of my elbow, by the way.”
Wren stared at the incriminating photograph in disbelief. The animation charm hadn’t been applied yet, so the static picture definitely resembled some other part of the human anatomy.
“And that one over there is a close-up of my palm. My hand,” Serena clarified. “I’ve got a wicked zoom. See?”
She handed Wren her camera, with a shorter, fatter (and much heavier) lens. Wren pointed it at her stack of undeveloped parchment squares and curiously peeked through the viewfinder. She gasped as the thick, crisp corners appeared. From this hyper-focused perspective, it was impossible to guess what she was looking at if she hadn’t known beforehand.
Serena was looking at Wren's dry photos now, holding up the glowing point of her wand to Bunny’s clear eyes. "Wow,” she said. “Look at how detailed his whiskers are! They’re almost popping off the parchment. The image isn’t even moving yet and I can almost see him breathing." She stepped back from the picture. “That’s a keen close up.”
“I got a new lens too,” Wren said, not expecting Serena to care.
“Really? Let me see!”
Wren handed her camera over and Serena brought it up to peer through the viewfinder. “I wish I had something like this for action shots. Mine specializes in high-powered close-ups.”
“What’s this?” Wren dared to ask of a picture that was still hanging up. It was definitely still skin, but the texture was stubbly and rounded... very different from the others.
Serena said, “Oh, that. That’s Scorpius’ chin.”
“Ahh, I see.” Wren said. It got her thinking what kind of angle the camera had to be in to get that shot. Wren's head was almost bent upside down when she thought she had it.
Serena giggled. "Something like that. I just like to have fun with the boys. I let them say their crude jokes and stare at my thrumpenny bits, as long as I get the shot. I keep my shirt on, “ she said emphatically. “And I take pictures like these. Oh, I just remembered! You're friends with Nate Berkshire, right? I noticed that he’s got nice hair. Tell me, how are his hands?”
Wren stumbled back in surprise, hitting her head on the dangling legs of a tripod hanging from the ceiling. “What? Why are you asking about Nate?”
"You sit next to him in class, right? Are they smooth or rough? Does he use lotion? Does he eat cucumbers? What's his collagen level, do you think?"
"Umm," Wren said. "We're not that close.”
She suddenly wondered if Nate was the sort to be interested in Serena’s “bits” and got a little nauseated. Did this girl have no shame? And besides, Nate was already occupied on Sunday, with Wren… on a non-date, with no bits involved… She found herself getting slightly irritated at the notion of Serena fixating on his hands, or his big toe, or whatever. Besides, Serena was supposed to be dating someone else already.
“Aren’t you with Elias Cootes now?"
Serena rolled her eyes. "Don't remind me of that twat. Cootes was a complete waste of my film. Nevins, on the other hand, has got real potential. Don’t get me wrong, Scorpius was great, but you can only ask a boy to hold his head in the right spot and swallow so many times before it gets old." She tapped the top print. "This is Nevvin’s Adam's apple. Isn’t it a fine one? When I charm it, it should bob up and down. But I’m going to need someone new soon. He’s worse than Malfoy, with his fascination for bare knees. It's getting too cold to prance around in a mini..."
She saw Wren's disbelieving expression and her words halted. "Wait a minute,” she said with an indignant scowl. “What did you think I was talking about?"
"Nothing. Never mind." Wren turned away before Serena could see her turn beet red. “I’ve got loads of pictures to process here. Better get started…” She shuffled things around and cleared a space on the table for her prints.
Serena bumped shoulders with her, reaching out to pluck her photographs off the line. "Here, I’ll make some room. You look busy, so I'll leave you alone. Ask Berkshire about his skin tone for me, won't you? See you later, Wren!"
With a flip of her hair, Serena parted the curtains and left the darkroom, taking her questionable art with her.
Thankfully alone again, Wren checked the soaking potion to make sure it was still active before she opened her camera and dropped the last finished roll into it. She left it to soak while she performed the last step to the dry set of pictures.
The photography animation spell should work this time - her Advanced Charms assignments were coming easier - the morning session with Albus had gone well… the practicing part, anyway.
She hovered her wand over the first of her pictures and said the incantation like her camera instructions had said. The parchment square glowed softly as Wren counted slowly to ten. Sure enough, the photograph came to life on its own. Nothing faded or disappeared like last time. Relieved, Wren watched the full ten seconds repeat over and over, just as the instructions had described.
She couldn’t tell in the dark exactly what was happening in the frame, but it didn’t matter. At this point, she trusted the process enough to finish the rest of the film.
Wren stacked up the photographs when they were dry. She stared at the top photo, the one of Bunny in her room that she’d taken sometime late at night, right before she’d gone to sleep.
Even with her misgivings about the animal, a surge of affection ran through her. There was no denying such a cute, wiggly nose, and when he yawned, his little pink tongue stretched… his mouth widened and...
She froze in horror as the animated picture of Bunny transformed...
Wren’s world was still reeling, even after the Portkey had finished twisting her gut inside out and hurled her to the ground into the courtyard near the Leaky Cauldron Inn.
The stack of pictures swished around in her bag as Wren stumbled into the Inn. She hadn't had time to examine them all. The little that she had seen that afternoon was bad enough. Wren had wanted to run to someone and tell them what she’d discovered, but Headmistress McGonagall hadn’t been in her study before supper and there wasn’t time to go and find her dad before the Portkey left.
She’d been afraid before. Afraid of overreacting… just afraid in general. Wren had put so much energy into her excuses: it was just a rabbit… he was just her pet… she was just tired or anxious or going insane with some mysterious family condition, or the horrific possibility that she was turning into a Squib.
But her pictures showed it all - the red rimmed eyes of the strange-acting students in the library, Madame Pince included, particularly on the night she’d left the library without locking up. Enlarged, the photos had shown fang marks on some of the students’ necks.
Thrall symptoms - Wren had seen them in the mirror every day. Bunny hadn’t slept on her pillow... fed on her… for almost a week now, and every morning she checked - no more red-rimmed eyes, and dark veins on her face and neck.
The signs were all there. She and Bunny were no different than the enthralled students in the Book Club. She’d thought he was her friend all this time, but was he even that?
Wren stepped into the warmth of the Inn and shook off the chill from outside. Her thoughts still rattling around like ice cubes in her head. That last picture had bothered Wren the most. Bunny's long, pointed teeth that grew unmistakably into needle-sharp fangs...
Bunny couldn't be responsible for everything that had happened. He was only a rabbit, not a full-blown vampire.
Wren didn’t see her mum around, and followed the sound of rattling dishes. As she walked into the tavern area near the kitchen, she noticed that it was empty except for a few stragglers from the supper crowd. Everything seemed normal. An older wizard with a pointed hat sat at the end, nursing a pint of something dark and a woman with a snake-skin clutch had her steel-toed boots wrapped around the bar stool a few paces away from him. And the man behind the bar, Smeed, who had given her the tea...
didn't use a wand
Wren had never seen his teeth, but then her gut clenched and she felt the pull, just like Bunny, and just like Dillon. There was her irrefutable proof, more than the books and Nate's conspiracy theories.
Wren looked around at the room, full of unknowing people. He was in the middle of it all, and no one around him seemed to suspect a thing.
She knew now. She knew a lot of things. About Bunny, about the boys and the librarian… about the disturbing images in her head and the man that her mother had hired to work behind the bar. She hadn’t done anything about it, but that was about to change.
Wren was going to say something. She had to. She couldn’t just let things around her spin out of control without trying to stop it. She forced herself to go straight up to an empty spot at the bar and face her fears head on.
"I know," Wren said with a shaky voice.
Smeed stopped polishing the glasses, looked up at her. "Miss Longbottom."
Wren swallowed her nerves and spoke louder over the din of clanking dishes from the other room. "I know what you are!"
Smeed put the set of glasses down and looked into her eyes, deep and unsettling. “Yes, I see that. But the real question is, what are you? Come, we should discuss things.”
Wren had never felt this kind of pull before. It was compelling, not forceful. She found herself following him around the bar willingly, not that she probably should. It just felt like she didn’t have a reason not to...
"Get away from her!"
The commanding voice made heads turn to the old woman on the stairs with a traveling cloak on her arm. The stuffed vulture on the top of her hat bobbled as she grasped the railing for balance. Her shocked expression mirrored Wren’s.
For a second, Wren was elated. "Gran?" The old woman's eyes were clear, focused. Furious. She was up. She was talking and she knew who Wren was.
"Upstairs, Wren," Gran said to her. Her no-nonsense tone was back in place where it belonged. Wren was almost ready to forget everything she’d learned at St. Mungo’s if it meant having Gran whole again.
Gran stomped her foot, making Wren jump, along with everyone else in the room.
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