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Oblivion by Slide
Chapter 19 : Descending Through the Dismal Night
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 16

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Descending Through the Dismal Night

‘I’ll put some leftovers away for your father,’ said Ginny, hauling the platter with the remains of roast beef off the table.

‘It was really good, Mum.’ Albus leaned back on the dining chair with a satisfied groan. ‘When’s Dad back?’

‘If he’s very very lucky, today.

Al looked at the wall clock. It was eight o’ clock; this would be an early return home by the standards of the MLE these days. ‘I may wait up. I’d like a word.’

‘You can do that,’ said James, pushing his chair back and getting to his feet. ‘But I’m going home.’

Ginny turned away from the fridge, eyebrows raised. ‘I see how it is. Your brother’s an excuse to swoop in for dinner and disappear before it’s time to do the dishes?’

James grinned and punched Albus on the arm. ‘I use him. Big brother’s prerogative.’

‘He does, I’m just a victim here. A well-fed victim.’

Their mother looked between them, a gaze that was both judging at their conspiracy and pleased they were getting on. ‘It doesn’t get you out of the dishes, James.’

Albus stood. ‘I’ll do them, it’s fine. Jim can go.’

James clapped him on the arm again. ‘I owe you one,’ he said, hugged their mother, and headed out.

Ginny glanced towards the living room and the front door, then back to Albus. ‘I’m glad you two are on better terms,’ she said, voice dropping.

Albus grimaced. ‘Hey, so am I. It makes things easier -’

There was a rap at the front door, and James called through. ‘I’ll get it, I’m putting my coat on anyway.’

Al looked at Ginny. ‘Expecting someone?’

‘Not me,’ she said, and they both looked to the living room at the sound of muffled voices, then what Albus was certain was muffled sobbing, then James calling again.

Al.’ He sounded urgent. Not a life-or-death urgent, but Al knew that tone. Emotional complexity is here. Help.

Albus hurried through to find James holding a sobbing Rose in his arms, and his heart lunged into his throat. But freezing in place meant it was easier for James to steer her over and more or less tip her to him, and she clung like a limpet just as readily.

‘I’m gonna go!’ James declared, and vanished through the front door before Albus could find a word. Leaving him with his cousin, more wretched and distraught than he’d ever seen her. Barring once.

Because you ran the last time she was broken. ‘Rose - what’s happened, is it Scorpius, is something -’

Rose drew a shuddering breath and pulled back, fighting to talk, fighting for composure. Her hair was wild, her cheeks tear-stained, and her voice a squeak. ‘Matt left me.’

Ginny spun in the kitchen door. ‘I’ll put the kettle on.’

‘I’m sorry for coming here, Al, I know we’re not - but he said he’s going to Selena’s, and I didn’t want to be alone, and I don’t know if Mum or Dad are even home right now so…’

‘No, no, of course. Hey, c’mere.’ Instinct took over, instinct that had him steering her to the sofa, guiding her down with his arm still around her. ‘Of course you’re welcome here, of course I can - what happened?’

Rose wiped her face with the back of her hand. ‘He said that… that Scorpius being back made things complicated, and that he wanted me to make an honest decision about my feelings. Not, like, stay with him because I felt obligated. But he also…’ Her shoulders hunched up, and Albus tightened his hold. ‘He said the relationship was killing him, that waiting around for me was killing him. That I had to think about if I really wanted him.’ Her eyes slammed shut. ‘I don’t think he expects me to come back.’

‘I… will you?’ It was all Al could think of saying, but it was the wrong thing, bringing a fresh wave of tears.

‘I don’t know! I don’t know what I do without him, Al, he’s been by my side for so long, I don’t know how I’m supposed to cope without having him to turn to.’

Ginny appeared in the living room to set two cups of tea on the coffee table, and spoke in a low voice. ‘You can stay here as long as you need, Rose; overnight, longer. Do you want me to Floo your parents, let them know what’s happened, let them know you’re alright?’

It was a gentle offer, one open to refusal, but Rose gave an awkward nod. ‘Thanks. Yes. I don’t - I’m okay to see them, but they’re busy and I don’t want them worrying, but they should know…’

‘I’ll tell them,’ Ginny said softly, and squeezed her shoulder before she left for the upstairs study.

Rose reached for the tea with shaking hands but didn’t drink it, staring at the surface. ‘I’m sorry for coming here,’ she mumbled again. ‘I didn’t know where else to go.’

‘Don’t be sorry,’ said Albus, not removing his arm. ‘I’m glad you could come to me.’ He frowned at the table for a moment. ‘You might not have Matt to turn to, but you have me, you know?’

She looked away. ‘I’m not… used to that.’

It was a comment made without accusation, a regretful statement of fact, and he didn’t know to respond to it. He settled for not trying. ‘It sounds like this is at least… progress? I know that’s a harsh thing to say, but he’s not gone forever.’

‘Progress? My boyfriend leaving me is progress?’

‘You admitted, after Hogsmeade, that he didn’t make you happy, he just made you… not-miserable,’ said Albus in a low voice. ‘Now everything’s changing. Scorpius is back. You do have a lot to think about.’

‘Maybe.’ Rose wrapped her hands around the warm mug. ‘But what kind of bitch dumps her recently-maimed boyfriend?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Albus, ‘but that’s not what happened. And I also remember a girl who refused to dump her plagued boyfriend, even though she didn’t want to be with him any more, and all that happened was it made a lot of people unhappy.’ He squeezed her shoulder. ‘Even though I get why you made that choice.’

She slumped, stared into the tea. ‘I used to dream of Scorpius coming back. It was always the most vivid dream, the worst dream, because it was so real and then I’d wake up and -’

‘And you’d remember,’ he whispered. ‘You’d remember you lived in a different world.’

Rose nodded, jaw tight. ‘It happened the night before the first Gryffindor-Slytherin match, two years ago. I dreamt like it had never happened, like I came down for breakfast and he was a brat, teasing me about split loyalties until you dragged him off… and then I woke up.’ She drew a wavering breath. ‘Slytherin played with black armbands for Scorpius, and their hearts weren’t in it, and Gryffindor smashed them and I never saw my brother look more miserable than the first time he captained his team to victory. He apologised to me for it afterwards. Nobody really cheered.’

Albus remained silent, arm in place, and she went on.

‘Of course, come the Slytherin-Ravenclaw match… business as usual. It was months later. People were used to the absences. They played like you two had graduated, or dropped out. And, er, still lost.’ Of all things, Rose sounded guilty for criticising the Slytherin Quidditch Team. ‘But nobody was embarrassed for beating them. Time rolled on. For everyone else.’ She rubbed her eyes. ‘I had a different point at the beginning of this. Scorpius coming back was once a dream come true. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t still have those dreams even a fortnight ago. But now it’s real and it’s turned everything upside-down.’

‘It’s huge,’ Al said. ‘You’re allowed to be blind-sided by it. I think Matt had a point if he thought you’d wind yourself up trying to react how you’re “supposed” to, though. You need to figure out what you really feel. What you really want.’

‘I have no idea.’

‘Then…’ Albus drew a deep breath. ‘You’ve got me to help you.’

She looked up at him, and he could see the spark of pain in those dark eyes. Her expression creased. ‘Al… you…’

‘I left,’ he murmured. ‘And I - and I’m sorry.’ He saw her face start to crumble, and pushed on. ‘It was wrong. It was wrong to my family, to the people who cared about me. It was wrong to me. But - but you and I - we were supposed to be allies, always, weren’t we? Partners. I let you down.’ His throat tightened. ‘I failed you. And I’m sorry, Rose.’

She didn’t burst into tears, he suspected because she was all out. But she did give a strangled sob and threw herself against him, and he wrapped his arms around her for his own comfort as much as hers. ‘I missed you.’ Her voice was muffled against his shoulder. ‘You were the only person who’d get it, who’d understand; you left me and I missed you…’

He kissed the top of her head. ‘I missed you too,’ Albus rumbled. ‘I just - I felt too guilty. Too… responsible.’

‘Because of Saida?’

His shoulders tensed, but she reached for his hand. Her touch was warm from the tea, a warmth which spilt through him. ‘When I thought she’d betrayed us in Venice - I mean, she did betray us, but I thought she was why the Council found us, which was why Scorpius died, and I trusted her, I…’

‘Al.’ Rose’s voice was soft. ‘You still feel betrayed. You still feel like you trusted her, and had that trust thrown in your face. But she didn’t sell us out to the Council. She saved us in Ager Sanguinis. And we wouldn’t have found Selena without her.’

‘I know -’

‘You feel we were hurt because you trusted her. But your trust meant she chose to turn on the Council. She chose to help us. She chose to save us. We weren’t hurt because you trusted her. We were saved because you trusted her.’ Rose’s lips twisted. ‘Maybe it’s easier for me to say this now Scorpius isn’t gone.’

The tension that had broiled in his gut since their meeting that afternoon flared up. ‘You were more critical of her earlier.’

‘I was critical of Matt bringing it up like he did. Are you okay with - you and Scorpius…’

Albus closed his eyes. ‘I feel like I’ve fucked up the last two years. Which I probably have. But if he was throwing around harsh truths at Selena, at Matt, I didn’t - I couldn’t -’ The words clogged up his throat, and he had to fight through them. ‘I didn’t want to hear it from him.’

Her grip on his hand tightened. ‘I know.’

‘Are you going to be okay working with him?’

She shrugged. ‘There’s nothing to work on yet. We’ve got to find a lead first.’

Albus’ brow knotted. ‘You’ve got one. He talked to Victoire this evening. You need the Magical Alliance records in Niemandhorn.’

‘Oh.’ Rose blinked. ‘Maybe he sent me an owl or a Floo, I haven’t… I didn’t check. I’ll go see him in the morning. Ask.’ She looked up, corners of her eyes creasing. ‘Do you know what you’re going to do about Saida? Matt was out of line to throw it at you like that, but he…’

‘He has a point, yes.’ Albus grimaced. ‘I don’t know. I don’t know what to think. At what point does her good outweigh her bad? At what point does her usefulness outweigh her crimes? She could help us do a whole lot of good, but does that mean she shouldn’t be punished? And if she’s punished, who does that help? Whose life does that improve? Merlin help me, I actually believe she’s changing, or wants to change, and regrets it. Is punishment then… cruel?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘And that’s just wider morality.’ He huffed. ‘I… you know me, Rose. You know I’m not good at letting people in. But I let her in and…’

‘You didn’t have long,’ Rose murmured, ‘but you were happy. I remember.’

‘She was like nobody I’d ever met. I guess I know why.’

Her thumb rubbed the back of his hand. ‘You can work with her without having to forgive her. You can work with her and then throw her in a cell again afterwards.’

‘That,’ Albus murmured, ‘feels an awful lot like using her.’

To his surprise, Rose smiled - a wide, genuine smile that shone in her eyes. ‘You haven’t changed that much, you know.’

‘I -’

‘You still have that sense of fair play.’

He grimaced. ‘Only because he’s back. It’s like a reprieve. It’s like I can breathe more easily again.’

She slumped, leaning against him, and once again he put his arm around her. For the first time in years, as they were silent for a few gathered heartbeats, everything felt normal. Cousins who’d been closer to each other than to their own siblings, to any of the extended family, allies against everything - and now allies against their own pain.

‘The tiniest part of me,’ Rose whispered, ‘feels like it was simpler when he was gone. But I know I’d rather have all of this complex pain and joy than simple, pure agony.’

Words rose to Albus’ lips, unbidden, and he couldn’t stop them. ‘Do you still love him?’

‘Of course I do,’ she said, oddly calm. ‘I don’t think it’s possible for me to stop loving him. But love isn’t the problem, is it?’ She gave a gentle snort, then glanced up at him, and there was a certain wry archness to her voice when she retaliated. ‘Do you still love Saida?’

Albus’ heart clenched - and then loosened, and with it came a fresh wave of that complex pain and joy. ‘I don’t know. But love isn’t the problem,’ he murmured. ‘Is it?’

* *

‘I thought,’ said Selena when she opened her door to see a damp Matt stood there, ‘we didn’t show up unexpected like...’ Only then did she see how he stood, shoulders slumped, expression utterly sunken, arm in a sling under his coat because even with the prosthetic fitted he still needed it elevated from time to time. Her insides fluttered. ‘Something’s happened - you - Rose broke up with you?’

She wasn’t sure how she knew, but his brow knotted. ‘Close.’ Matt’s voice was hoarse. ‘I left her.’

‘Holy shit.’ It wasn’t her most sympathetic reaction, but before she could think, she guiding him in, closing the door behind her. ‘Holy shit, Matt, what happened?’

He gave a short, hollow laugh. ‘I never saw you look so surprised.’

‘You show up at my door out of the blue and drop this, this bombshell, of course I’m surprised!’ She led him into the living room, where Miranda was sat with a magazine.

‘Bombshells?’ she drawled, lifting her eyes - which immediately narrowed as she took in the sight. ‘I’m on tea duty, aren’t I.’

‘This might be whiskey duty,’ said Selena, brow furrowed.

‘No, no.’ Matt waved his good hand as he collapsed onto an armchair. ‘I’m still on potions which might make me vomit and die if I drink alcohol.’

‘Tea it is!’ declared Miranda, and vanished. She was, Selena thought, rather good at that.

She turned to Matt. ‘Can I take your coat…?’

‘You didn’t think I’d do it, did you.’ He met her gaze, rather wide-eyed. She wondered how much of those painkilling potions he’d taken before he got here, or if emotions alone were leaving him swaying. ‘You thought I’d never leave her. You thought I’d be there until that toxic relationship killed us both.’

‘I… also didn’t think Scorpius would come back. That kind of changes things.’ She reached for his coat anyway, ushering him out of it. ‘Are you okay?’

He let her, mindful of his right arm, then collapsed onto the sofa. ‘I need a favour. Can I sleep on the couch? I’ve let her keep the flat, because it’s shitty to dump her and then make her homeless, but Mum’s abroad and I don’t want to face Annie, not tonight.’

‘We have a spare room. But yes. As long as you need,’ Selena blurted, and in the end she just tossed the coat over an armrest and perched next to him. ‘Matt, you’re not okay…’

‘You’re so smart with people. I just walked out on the love of my life, and though I said she had choices to make and things to think about, I know I’m never coming back to her. No. I’m so not okay.’

He was dry-eyed but his voice grated even through the wry humour, and she couldn’t help but put her arms around him. He slumped against her, drained and lifeless. ‘I’m so sorry, Matt,’ she murmured.

‘Don’t be. You were right. All along. But you knew that, didn’t you?’ he said miserably. ‘She didn’t love me, and maybe she could but she had to get over Scorpius first, and that… wasn’t happening. Maybe it never will.’

‘Ironically,’ Selena mused, ‘she has a better chance of getting over him now he’s back.’

‘Yeah.’ He frowned at his hand. ‘I just don’t know if I’m going to wait around to see if that happens.’ His shoulders hunched in. ‘That’s so fucking selfish of me -’

‘Matt -’ She squeezed his shoulder, careful of his bad arm. ‘You could stand to be a bit more selfish. A lot more selfish.’

‘I have been selfish, though, haven’t I? I wanted her so badly, I didn’t even pay attention to if it was right for us to be together. For her. For me. I thought having her in a terrible situation was better than not having her at all.’

‘You wanted to help her, that’s all you’ve ever wanted to do.’ Her hand came up to brush his messy hair back, and he closed his eyes, relaxed in the embrace. ‘But I think you were right to do this. I think this needed to happen.’

‘I know,’ he mumbled. ‘It just took me a long time to listen to you. And I wouldn’t have got here without you.’ He looked up, slate-grey eyes stormier than usual in the low light. ‘You know, I thought this - losing her - would be the end of the world. And now it’s happened, and I’m still here.’

‘Yeah,’ Selena murmured, still stroking his hair. ‘The end of the world’s sort of like that. It doesn’t kill you.’

‘What I said the other day…’ His voice went hoarse, and her chest tightened as he swallowed. ‘I meant it. Listening. Helping. I even meant the bit where you don’t have to talk about it. But Scorpius threw it in your face…’

‘You’ve had a horrid day, Matt, one of the worst,’ she said, and remembered him pointing out her evasion tactics. Her nose wrinkled, and she sighed. ‘Let me worry about you, instead?’ She saw his lips purse, and she leaned in to kiss him on the forehead. ‘Just for a little bit. I promise.’

He sighed, tension fading from him, but she could almost feel the ache in his bones taking its place. ‘Just for a little,’ he whispered. She heard Miranda’s footsteps as her housemate came tromping back, likely with tea, and pulled away - but he caught her eye for a heartbeat more. ‘I’m going to hold you to that.’

* *

Drinks with Graham Bellamy, Reuben Oakes, and Peregrine Hollis would not have been on Scorpius’ to-do list even under normal circumstances. Normal, pre-death-and-resurrection circumstances. It was made worse by Bellamy trying too hard to be normal, Hollis being incredibly awkward, and Oakes trying to compensate for this by being simply loud.

They’d started in the Leaky Cauldron, and Scorpius remembered why he hadn’t gone out much since his return when everyone stared at him.

‘Ignore them!’ Oakes boomed, and passed him a tankard of foaming ale. ‘They’re just jealous of your not-dead-ness.’

Fuck me, Scorpius groaned internally, and drank his pint.

‘So! So, what’re you doing these days,’ Bellamy demanded.

‘Oh, you know. Sitting in my hotel suite. Contemplating how to re-integrate with society. Watching my ex-girlfriend be emotionally distraught. Plotting how to bring down international mercenaries.’ Selena, this was a terrible idea.

‘Weasley wasn’t -’

Oakes judiciously cut Hollis off. ‘You and Weasley! That was something we never got to ask you about!’ He clapped Scorpius on his back hard enough to spill the ale. ‘How the buggery did that happen?’

Scorpius bit his lip. ‘Crises change people, guys. We were in a tough spot, it meant we saw and understood more of each other.’

‘Sure,’ said Bellamy, eyes widening with desperation. ‘It just - I mean, she used to be so uptight, and then Phlegethon happened, and then the break, and then we came back and she was just miserable…’

‘I couldn’t comment on that. I was dead at the time.’ Scorpius drained his tankard in record time, then wiped the back of his hand over his mouth. ‘Next pub?’

‘You were famous, you know,’ said Hollis as they weaved into Diagon Alley, the staring eyes of the Leaky Cauldron’s patrons left far behind. ‘During Phlegethon, when you were abroad, especially after you died -’

‘Leave it out, Hol, he doesn’t want to hear this,’ Oakes chided him.

‘No, you’re alright. Do tell why I can’t go down the street without being gawped at,’ Scorpius sighed.

‘I just mean - he were, weren’t he!’ Hollis looked indignant. ‘Famous sacrifice, hero, all that. And then now he’s back, there’s all that fuss about his father being a bloody -’

Bellamy clipped Hollis around the ear. ‘Merlin’s teeth, Hol, put a lid on it. Where’s the next pub?’

The One-Legged Hippogriff was a pub Scorpius hadn’t been in before, dingy and run-down and thoroughly unwelcoming. People didn’t stop staring at him there, either, and the ale tasted like it had been dragged out of the bottom of several barrels. The landlord did, however, serve some sort of Norwegian clear alcohol which burnt all the way down, and threatened to do so on the way back up.

That didn’t stop the staring and it didn’t make his companions shut up, but Scorpius found them a good deal more tolerable after several shots.

‘So tell me,’ he slurred as they staggered into their third establishment of the evening, the busier and more upmarket Nothing in Moderation, where he was much more easily overlooked, ‘how’d the Quidditch go?’

It was a guaranteed way to get Bellamy talking, and as Bellamy was the one Scorpius objected to the least, he knew he’d judged well. Ranting about Hufflepuff team - the wounds of the last defeat of Slytherin only six months old - were joined by Oakes bringing more, brightly-coloured drinks, and Scorpius was just starting to think he could get through the evening in one piece.

Then he felt the eyes on him.

He’d been stared at all evening; being stared at some more was nothing new. But this wasn’t the open gawping, this wasn’t accompanied by furtive whispering or discreet second glances. He’d fought for his life too many times to not know when he was being assessed. Analysed. Sized up.

Bellamy was allowed to rant on as Scorpius leaned back in his chair and let his gaze sweep across the bar. Packs of friends out for drinks of a weekend, teams of work colleagues out and about; Britain might be intimidated by the Council of Thorns, and nobody wanted to linger outside, but Nothing in Moderation still saw a boom in business with the Three Broomsticks out of action.

When he saw who was sizing him up, it came with a sinking and surprised recognition. He drained his drink and looked at the other three. ‘I’m going to get a refill.’

They said something, maybe asked for their own drinks, but Scorpius ignored them and weaved through the crowd, heading for the bar. He let his posture slip, let himself stumble more than the alcohol demanded, adopted the facade of intoxication - and kept his hand on his wand, slipped up his sleeve.

When he got to the bar, he all but fell against it, elbows on the side, and let his voice drop as he watched his target out of the corner of his eyes. ‘You don’t want to do anything here. Too many people.’

John Colton raised an eyebrow at this, and sipped his beer. ‘I wasn’t planning on it.’

‘What was the plan? Wait until I was gone? Hope to get me on my own?’

Lips pursed. ‘Honestly, I didn’t have much of a plan.’

‘You should. I’m tougher than I look. You want to turn around, go home, and I won’t tell anyone.’ He didn’t know John Colton very well at all; he’d barely paid attention to Matthias Doyle in school, and he’d paid even less attention to his loyal shadow. It would do nobody any good to learn the truth of Colton’s betrayal, but for now all Scorpius could think about was making sure the bar didn’t turn into a pitched battle with an undercover Thornweaver.

Colton’s perplexed expression remained. ‘Steady on, old chap. Didn’t mean to cause offence.’

Scorpius looked at him straight on, grip on his wand tight, and gave a smile that didn’t reach his eyes. ‘I get offended when someone’s looking to shank me.’

‘Shank -’ Colton put his beer bottle down. ‘What do you think’s going on here?’

There was a moment as Scorpius considered the situation, brow furrowed. ‘You’re… not a secret Thornweaver agent planning an attack?’

John Colton stared at him a moment - then burst into laughter so hard he doubled over, clutching his gut. ‘Attack? Lord, no! Oh, Christ, this - you thought I was…’

Scorpius was not accustomed to circumstances slipping away from him like this. He straightened, abandoning the veneer of drunkenness. ‘You were staring at me!’

John wiped the corner of his eye as he regained control. ‘I’d like to think I was issuing most discreet glances of positively understated attention!’

‘I’m sorry!’ Mortification was not, Scorpius thought, much better than being attacked. ‘I’m really sorry, I thought - old habits die hard!’

‘I’ll say! Can’t a fellow look across a bar without being accused of a completely different sort of ulterior motives?’ John gave a wry smile that made dark eyes twinkle. ‘Though, join me for a drink and I won’t hold it against you. No ulterior motives, I promise. You just looked bored out of your skull, sat there with those three.’

Realisation sparked embarrassingly in Scorpius’ brain, but all he could do was return the toothy smile and settle on a bar stool. ‘I’m remembering why I didn’t spend much time with them in school.’

‘Some men,’ said John, waving a hand at the bartender, ‘emerge from Hogwarts better, brighter, and enthused to take on the world. Others still can’t let go of absolutely turgid Quidditch matches. Slytherin were terrible without you and Potter, truly.’

‘Of all the things I denied the world, my Quidditch prowess is what I feel guiltiest about.’

‘You should. You made the games rather more engaging. Now, what’re we drinking? I wouldn’t recommend the beer, it tastes most fascinatingly of utter desolation.’

‘I don’t really fancy a pint of utter desolation,’ Scorpius mused. ‘Let me buy you a cocktail, instead.’

‘If you must, but I insist on it being a thoroughly fruity one…’

* *

The next morning came with a most necessary Floo to room service for breakfast and buckets of coffee. Scorpius sat in his suite in one of the hotel-issued dressing gowns, not at all ready to face the world, when there was a knock on the door. He groaned and slumped over, and when he opened up to see Rose stood there, every inch of him tightened into a tense, terrified knot. ‘What’re you…’

She looked tired. Pale. Worn, but he couldn’t think about this now, especially as she shrugged past him inside, because they were working together, weren’t they? They could talk. ‘I’m sorry, it’s early, but I saw Al last night and he mentioned you’d seen Victoire, and we’re going to Niemandhorn?’

Scorpius blinked at her. ‘What? Oh. Yes. That’s where we’ll find more on Cassian.’

‘We’ll need train tickets,’ said Rose, too quickly, and there was something detached about her, like he remembered when she was burying herself in study or contemplation so she didn’t have to think about a problem. ‘Everyone’s heading there now Lillian Rourke’s uprooting the IMC to use the castle’s old meeting halls -’

‘Yes, I’ll - I’ll handle it, Rose.’ He lifted his hands. ‘I’d have sent word sooner. I just didn’t have more than five minutes to myself after I got home from the records office. Selena coerced the guys to take me out for a drink, and I - well, I was going to tell you today.’

‘It’s not a problem,’ said Rose, still talking very fast. ‘I’ll just need to pack and make preparations and I’ll tell Mum, because she can help make sure we get tickets -’

‘I’ll sort it out -’

‘I’m sure we can travel on the Ministry’s knut -’

‘There had better be coffee,’ boomed the voice of John Colton as the man himself swanned out the bathroom door, adorned in nothing more than a towel, hair wet and swept back. ‘Because that shower was superb and if there’s coffee, this day is going to be better than sex.’

Scorpius’ eyes crashed shut, but he didn’t need to see the scene to picture it. John, the picture of unsubtlety, made worse by all that bare skin even darker against the bone-white towel. Rose, staring, jaw dropped. Him, wishing the world would swallow him up.

He could almost hear John floundering. ‘…which we absolutely did not have.’

Oh, Merlin’s tits.

When Scorpius opened his eyes, Rose was backing off for the door. ‘I’m - I’m so sorry, if I’d known, I wouldn’t have - I’m going to go!’

‘Rose, you’re not intruding -’ Scorpius extended a desperate hand.

‘I really am, and this is none of my business, and I’m so sorry - I’ll Floo you…’ Then she was gone, slamming the door behind her, and leaving the two men stood in the mid-morning sun streaming into the hotel suite.

John’s expression tensed. ‘Bugger. I didn’t know she was here.’

Scorpius pinched the bridge of his nose. ‘You weren’t to know. There is coffee, by the way.’

John didn’t move, and would have been a comical sight, so crestfallen with nothing but a towel to protect his dignity, had anyone felt like laughing. ‘I suppose it would have been telling if I had known and hid in the bathroom until she was gone.’

‘I didn’t say you should have done that.’ Scorpius turned, frowning.

‘No, but you obviously didn’t want her to know, did you.’

‘That situation,’ said Scorpius, pointing at the door through which Rose had disappeared, ‘is so complicated I don’t know where it starts or ends or what I’m even supposed to think. Shame, or anything like that, is so far down on the list…’

John watched him for a long moment, and Scorpius was so unaccustomed to him looking serious that he wasn’t sure what to think. Eventually, John drew a deep breath. ‘I’m going to find my trousers,’ he decided, ‘and then I’m going to have a coffee, and then I think I should go.’

‘Hey!’ Scorpius moved to intercept him as he headed for the bedroom. ‘That’s not what I meant. I didn’t - I wish Rose hadn’t seen that, but I wish about a billion things with Rose and none of them can happen, but you - I’m not regretting what’s happened.’

His hand came to John’s elbow, and John stared at it like he wasn’t sure what to do. Then the corners of his lips curled with that whimsical smile. ‘Don’t worry, Scorp,’ he said after a heartbeat. ‘I’m not looking for flowers or moonlit serenades or even a round two.’

‘Oh, so I was just a passing distraction?’ Scorpius tried to return the smile, bring back the levity which had lifted the whole night.

‘I think,’ said John, not unkindly, ‘that was the case for both of us. Considering how you looked at her just then.’

‘Hey,’ Scorpius said again, tightening his hold as John went to pull away. He tugged him back, slid a hand around his waist, bare skin warm against the coldness of Rose’s staring. ‘You’re right, my life’s a whole world of complicated, and I… thanks for getting that. But you have no idea how much I needed last night.’

John’s grin was a white slice of smugness. ‘You were knotted tighter than a sailor’s rigging once I got my hands on you. I have some idea how much you needed to unwind.’

It was hard to stop his own smile from being tinged with all the apprehension of the darkness he knew was coming. ‘Maybe I should hurl flowers at you next time I’m tense. I’ve even got a guitar somewhere for some serenades…’

‘Carnations,’ said John, not at all serious. ‘I’m fond of them. But not as fond as, right now, I am of my trousers and that coffee.’ And he slid out of Scorpius’ grip with that wry smile, sauntered to the bedroom with no shame of the view he was giving, and disappeared to find some clothes and dignity as the curtain fell on the theatre they both knew would have no second showings.

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