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Chapter 16 : In Which Al Sits Still
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Once my bag was crammed full of a whole load of things I wasn’t sure would even be useful, I stood up and glanced at the mirror on the wardrobe door. I hadn’t washed my hair for a few days and it hadn’t even occurred to me to put on makeup recently. The girl looking back at me from the glass was recognisable as myself but I sort of wished she wasn’t. I’d lost weight with the stress of the term and generally looked like a bit of a mess.
Cass would have been cross with me for neglecting to put any effort into my appearance. I could imagine her chastising me: charming my hair to look shiny and smooth and throwing me her new favourite shade of lipstick, insisting that I needed to look presentable before leaving the dormitory and being visible to the wider world. I chewed on my lip and pushed thoughts of what my best friend would have said out of my head. She wasn’t here to care, and Al wouldn’t mind whether I had makeup on or not.
I threw my bag over my shoulder and left the dormitory. It was nearly curfew but nobody tried to stop me as I walked out of the Common Room. With a start, I remembered that I was a prefect now. Technically, I was allowed to be out at night.
Al was waiting for me in the Entrance Hall like we’d agreed. He was wearing black jeans with a white shirt and looked significantly smarter than I did. I hoped he hadn’t put a conscious effort into looking good. He grinned as I approached and gave me a quick hug.
“So, what’s the plan? You wanted to do something in recognition of Miss Selwyn’s birthday,” he smiled. He looked cheerful but his words were voiced carefully and I knew he was trying to gage how I was feeling.
“Um, yeah,” I mumbled. “We kind of have a tradition, for our birthdays, you know?”
Al nodded encouragingly, waiting for me to explain.
“We’ve done it since Cass’s birthday in second year. We go out to the Shrieking Shack. There’s still furniture and stuff inside, and we light a fire and bring snacks and have a bit of a sleepover out there,” I explained. I thought the whole thing might sound silly to Al, but he smiled and didn’t show any sign of thinking it wasn’t a good idea.
“So, you want to go out there tonight?” He didn’t sound judgemental. He just seemed to be seeking clarification of what I wanted.
“Erm, well, you don’t have to come, of course,” I said, stumbling over the words as they left my mouth. “I thought I’d like to go, you know. It’s been strange not having her here. And, I don’t know, I felt like it might be nice to do one of our things even though she’s...wherever she is.”
Al put a hand on my arm and smiled an easy smile. “Liv,” he said, cutting me off from my ramble. “If you’re happy to have me there I’d love to come with.”
We walked out to the Whomping Willow without being stopped. Both of us were prefects and it still wasn’t quite curfew but I was relieved that nobody asked us where we were going. I wasn’t sure I’d have been able to come up with an excuse.
Al levitated a stick to poke the knot in the Whomping Willow that made it freeze. I’d forgotten that he would know how to do it. It was his family that had been involved in all the stories about it after all. We had only found out how to get into the shack through the Weasley family: Al’s cousin Roxanne was dating Clara’s older sister, and news of some of the secrets of Hogwarts had filtered back to us.
The tunnel to the shack was narrow and the ceiling was so low in places that we had to crawl. When we were younger and had first started coming out here we had been able to get by just bending over in the lower places, but that wasn’t an option any more. Al was quite a bit taller than me and the whole thing seemed like more of a struggle for him but he didn’t complain.
I lit my wand when we reached the shack, straightening my back to stand up properly as we entered the building. I heard Al mutter Lumos behind me and the light of his wand joined mine.
It was grubbier than I remembered it. The dust across the floor was so thick that it lifted in small clouds as we walked across the bare floorboards and left footprints behind us. A row of footprints were already visible across the room from some other visitor. I supposed the secret passageway was no longer the big secret it had once been.
“So, erm, what do we do?” Al sounded worried.
I wasn’t sure whether he was scared of the building or just anxious about what was expected of him. Whichever it was, I understood. It seemed silly to have brought him here. When I used to come with Cassie and Scor it was fun, an adventure. Now, it seemed like a strange way to spend a night, sitting amongst the cobwebs in the darkness. I watched Al carefully, but he didn’t show any sign of irritation.
“We usually go and sit upstairs. There’s still some furniture and stuff, and a fireplace. We’ve done quite a lot of cleaning as well so it’s not as gross. I mean, it’s still not great, but it’s not like this. And we light a fire and then it feels nicer, you know,” I said, very aware of the fact I seemed to be talking too much.
A loud crash sounded from up the staircase and both Al and I jumped. I looked at him nervously and he took a small step so he was standing in front of me, as if he was protecting me from whatever was up there.
“What was that?” My voice sounded small.
“I don’t know,” Al whispered. “Maybe we should get out of here.”
I was about to agree when a sob sounded from the same direction. It was a familiar sound and I knew I was going to have to follow it. I stepped out from behind Al and he grabbed my arm.
“Liv, what are you doing? We should go back to the castle,” he said. His eyes were wide and concerned and his hand was warm against me.
“It’s okay. I promise,” I said, trying to make my voice sound reassuring as I pulled away from him.
I hurried up the stairs as quickly as I felt safe to. The staircase was old and I was reluctant to run in case the moulding wood crumbled beneath me. At the top of the stairs I paused, looking into the room I’d been in so many times before.
A fire was already lit in the grate, flickering happily, oblivious to the gloom of the rest of the room. The floor was cleaner up here. I’d been telling Al the truth when I said we’d cleaned it. The whole place felt painfully familiar, full of memories of laughter with Cassie. I took a step forwards and chewed my lip as I looked at the figure curled up in the armchair.
“Scor,” I breathed, letting my bag slide off my shoulder and drop to the floor.
He turned slowly to face me and I tried to stay calm. His eyes were rimmed with red and then surrounded by dark, bluish circles. His hair was unwashed, and he was pale even for a Malfoy. He was holding a large, half-empty glass bottle of an amber liquid I didn't recognise. His sobs didn’t stop as he looked at me. They racked his whole body, lifting his shoulders and shaking his chest. His cheeks were wet with tears he made no move to wipe away.
“Hey,” I said quietly.
He looked like he might be thinking about saying something to me. I waited for him to speak, watching his struggle to come up with the words, hoping that this might be the moment he broke the silence that had grown between us. But his eyes left me as footsteps sounded from behind us. As Al entered the room, Scor’s expression shifted from devastation to fury.
I watched my ex-best friend stagger to his feet. He shot me a vicious glare and then pushed past me, swaying as he climbed down the stairs. I knew I should help him. He was in no state to safely get himself into bed and I didn’t want him to get into trouble on his way back to the Common Room. But he’d looked at me with such pure hatred that I found myself frozen to the spot.
We waited until we heard the door to the shack slam shut and then I collapsed onto one of the threadbare arm chairs, dazed and shocked.
Al took a few uncertain steps towards me. One of his hands was in his hair, awkwardly messing it up as if he was desperate for something to do with himself.
“Do you want to go back to the castle?” His voice was anxious.
I shook my head but didn’t speak. I was biting my lip again and didn’t want to stop to open my mouth.
“Is there anything I can do?” Al tried again.
I took a deep breath and sat up a little straighter. “Um, there’s, um, there’s food in my bag,” I stammered, trying very hard not to cry. “Maybe you could…”
“I’ll get everything out,” Al smiled. He picked up my bag from where I’d left it in the doorway and sat down in a chair opposite mine to look through it.
I focussed on taking deep breaths. I’d lost control around Al too many times and didn’t want this to be another outing that ended with my sobbing into his chest. I’d known the evening was going to be hard. Cassie’s absence hadn’t become any easier to deal with as time had passed, and going to this place I’d always been to with her was always going to be hard. But seeing Scor had brought up a lot of feelings I didn’t want to deal with in that moment. I supposed I should have guessed he might be there. Cassie’s disappearance was even harder for him than it was for me. It made sense that he would be struggling to deal with her birthday.
“I thoroughly approve of your snack choices,” Al grinned. He threw me a chocolate frog and then continued to take out things from my bag.
I unwrapped the frog and stunned it when it tried to leap away. It felt unreasonably satisfying to bite its head off and the chocolate made me feel a little bit better.
“What’s this?” Al tugged a book out of my bag and gave me a questioning look.
I’d forgotten my sketchbook was even in there. I hadn’t drawn anything since coming back to school without Cass and her christmas present to me had been left neglected in my schoolbag, forgotten underneath stacks of parchment and chunky textbooks.
“Is it a sketchbook?” Al turned the book over in his hands and ran his thumb down the spine.
I nodded. “Cass and Scor gave it to me for christmas.”
“I didn’t know you could draw,” Al said. “Can I look?”
I shrugged. “Go for it. I can’t really remember what’s in there. It might not be any good.”
“I’ve always wished I could sketch,” Al confessed as he opened the book. “My cousin Freddy’s fantastic at art, and he used to draw us dragons and things to stick up on our walls. When I was little I used to try join in, but I’ve always been rubbish.”
I smiled and leaned forward so I could see my sketches from several months ago as Al looked at them. They filled a surprising number of pages considering that I'd only used the book for a couple of weeks. They started with rough sketches of Cassie and Scor on the Malfoy rooftop, and then moved through a series of landscape sketches and watercolours before returning to portraits, almost exclusively of Scorpius and Cass but with a few appearances from my parents and some of the other Slytherins.
“Liv, these are fantastic,” Al said, bending his neck so he could look at a charcoal drawing of Scor more closely. It was one of my favourites. His head was tilted back in laughter and the fine lines of his hair smudged into the background where I’d accidentally dragged my wrist across the parchment. I’d drawn it on New Years Day when we’d gone to his house for lunch after leaving a grumpy, hungover Cass to go back to bed. The memory made me feel a jolt in my stomach. It had been the last time I’d properly seen her.
“I had no idea you were so talented,” Al continued. “I’ve never seen you draw.”
“I don’t do it so much anymore,” I said, still looking at the drawing of Scor. “I guess I haven’t really felt like it much this term.”
“Could you...do you think you could draw me?” Al asked. He looked almost excited by the idea which seemed strange to me. All my old friend were used to me drawing all the time and wouldn’t have thought it was a big deal for me to sketch them.
“Um, yes. I guess,” I said.
Al’s eyes widened. “Sorry. That was so insensitive of me. You literally just said you haven’t felt like drawing recently. I shouldn’t have asked. Obviously you don’t have to draw me.”
“Al,” I cut him off. “Stop apologising. I’d like to do it.”
“Are you sure?” Al looked hopeful. “You sounded like you didn’t really want to.
“Course I am. I was just being a pain. Chuck me the sketchbook.” I held out my hand to take the book from him and then sat back in my seat. “Is there a sketching pencil somewhere in that bag? There are usually a few under everything else.”
He reached back into the bag and then threw a pencil at me. I caught it, relieved that I had good instincts from Quidditch. It was one of the pencils I’d been given for christmas, and I would have been upset if the lead had shattered.
‘So, erm, what do I do? Do I have to do anything?” Al sounded dubious, which I thought was a bit unfair given that the drawing had been his own request.
“You’re fine. Just sit comfortably because it might take a little while,” I said. I opened the sketchbook to a blank page and then looked carefully at Al.
It felt oddly personal to be looking at him like that, which was unexpected. Usually, I drew people I’d known for a really long time, so I decided that it probably just felt different because he was a relatively new addition to my life. I chewed on my lip as I looked at him, and then started to slide my pencil across the page, outlining the smooth curve of his jawline and the roundness of his nose.
“Can I talk?” Al asked, cocking his head to one side. “Or will that distract you?”
I laughed. “You can talk, but you don’t have to tilt your whole head while you do it. I can’t draw you if you’re moving.”
“Oh,” Al frowned and straightened his head back. “Sorry. I’ll sit still.”
He clearly meant his words quite literally because he sat up straight, keeping his whole body rigid and only moving his eyes every so often in an attempt to see what I was doing. I smiled and started to shade in messy tufts of his hair, dragging the pencil out in chaotic lines to get across how out of control it always looked. It felt good to be drawing again and I found I quite liked drawing Al. It was very different to drawing Scorpius. Scor was all sharp lines and angular features, where Al’s face was softer, kinder.
“Are you nearly done?” Al asked after a chunk of time had passed.
I frowned at my drawing before replying. I’d drawn his face in quite a lot of detail, with messy, jagged lines of hair encircling it. His neck and chest were indicated in lighter lines, trailing off into a rough sketch of his shirt and the chair behind him.
“Yeah, I guess,” I said. I was never really sure how to say a drawing was done but I supposed this was good enough. It looked like him, at least, and I quite liked the shading and the detail in his eyes.
“Can I see?” Al still didn’t move, obviously worried about disrupting my work.
I passed him the sketch and he finally relaxed as he took it. I watched him nervously as he stared at the drawing, and then his whole face lit up.
“This is genuinely astonishing,” he grinned, looking back up at me. “Honestly, Liv. This is amazing. Can I keep it?”
“Do you think you could duplicate it? I quite like keeping a copy of everything I draw,” I said.
Al nodded and tapped the drawing with his wand, looking delighted when an exact copy appeared beside it.
“It’s fantastic. I love it,” he said earnestly.
“Thanks,” I smiled. “And thanks for asking me to do it. I’d forgotten how much I love it.”
“Yeah. I used to draw all the time. Somehow this term it's slipped away from me a bit,” I murmured.
“That’s okay. I think we always find a way back to the things we love,” Al said.
I looked at him. It seemed an unusually poignant thing for a seventeen year old boy to say. Al’s cheeks flushed, and he broke our eye contact before I did.
“Anyway,” he said, sounding embarrassed. “Shall we eat something? You’ve brought an impressive amount of food.”
“Snacking is one of my main talents,” I said.
Al laughed and passed me a pumpkin pasty.
“Seems like you have quite a lot of talents, Olivia Bell.” His eyes flitted over my sketch of him again before focussing back on my face.
I smiled and gave a kind of awkward shrug, unsure how to accept the compliment. He didn’t look away and we ended up making eye contact for an uncomfortable amount of time. It sort of felt like one of those moments that could have turned into something else. He was leaning forward in his seat and I could imagine shifting to the edge of my own to come closer to him, although I wasn't sure what would happen next if I did. Instead, I looked away and reached for another chocolate frog.
Al leaned back, a small frown briefly visible on his forehead before he rearranged his face into a relaxed smile. “So, any fun plans for the holidays?”
I sighed. The holidays weren’t something I really wanted to think about. “I don’t know. I’m going home. But Dad’s obviously not going to be there, so I suppose that’s a bit strange.”
“It’ll be nice to see your mum, though,” Al said through a mouthful of chocolate.
I raised my eyebrows. “You’ve met my mother, Al. It won’t be nice at all.”
He laughed and shook his head. “I know you love her deep down.”
“Maybe. Very, very, very deep down,” I conceded. “What about you? What are your plans?”
He started to describe the Potter family Easter celebrations to me and I curled up in my chair to listen. He was obviously excited to be going home: he couldn’t stop talking about it once he’d started. His whole face was lit up with excitement and he looked almost embarrassed about the fact he couldn’t stop smiling. I started quickly sketching him again, trying to capture his enthusiasm.
I found myself quite content, sitting in the dusty room with Al Potter. It couldn’t have been more different from my usual nights there with Cassie and Scor. We were completely sober, and we were talking about things we loved and things that excited us, rather than creating scathing commentaries of people we knew. I missed Cassie’s cutting humour, and Scorpius’s quiet care, but being with Al was nice in a different way.
After a while, I closed my eyes, letting the sketchbook drop down onto the seat beside my leg. Our conversation had trailed off and had left us in comfortable silence. I had expected Al to suggest that we go back to the castle but it seemed that he was just as happy to stay a bit longer as I was.
I let myself relax, and at some point I must have fallen asleep, because when I opened my eyes again my back was stiff and dusty light was filtering through the boarded up windows. I sat up straighter and stretched out my arms, disorientated until I saw Al in the chair opposite me. His eyes were closed and his head was resting on his forearm, leaning against the arm of his chair. He looked younger while he slept. His cheek was squashed against his arm, distorting his face a bit, and he was smiling a wider smile than usual. I wanted to pick up my sketchbook and draw him again, but a glance at my watch told me that we didn’t have much time.
“Al.” I nudge his shin with my toe. He groaned and turned his face away from me so I kicked him.
“Ow!” He sat upright and scowled at me.
“Sorry,” I said brightly. “I needed you to wake up.”
“What’s the time?” He mumbled groggily.
“Not sure. But it’s light outside and I have to finish packing before going home.” I bent down and started to pack up the bag I’d brought with me the night before.
“Oh. Packing,” Al repeated after me. “I’ve not done any of that.”
I zipped up my bag and frowned at Al. “You’ve not done any?”
Al shook his head. “I didn’t plan to stay out all night. Thought I’d get it done when we got back.”
“Maybe you can get Rose to help?” I suggested. “She seems the type to know all those clever spells that do things for you.”
“Yeah, she’s fantastic, but I’m not sure it would be worth it to see her face. She gets super cross with us for being disorganised,” Al said. “I think I’m going to have to just do it. It’s cool, I didn’t unpack properly at the beginning of term so lots of my stuff’s still in my trunk anyway.”
“You’re a mess,” I said, rolling my eyes. “Come on then. We should get back quickly if you still need to do all your packing.”
He sighed but stood up and followed me back through the shack and into the tunnel. At first. he grumbled because his back was stiff from the old armchair and he didn’t want to do his packing, but I used the leftover chocolate frogs to bribe him into walking more quickly and smiling again. He was hardly even being grumpy - his bad mood didn’t even come close to Scor’s furious insults or Cassie’s tantrums - but I found I missed his excessive cheerfulness when he was complaining, and chocolate was the way to get it back while we walked to the castle.
The other girls in my dormitory were all already up when I tiptoed into the dormitory, still smiling from the warmth of Al’s hug when he left for Gryffindor Tower - I was feeling unusually affectionate and for some reason the hug had made the world feel a bit nicer.
“And what time do you call this?” Clara asked lazily. She was lying on her back in her bed but the curtains were open and the closed trunk on the floor showed that she'd already been up for a while to finish packing.
“Where were you, young lady?” Esther looked sleepy. She’d moved the carefully folded pile of clothes she’d set out the day before onto her mattress and was slowly starting to get dressed.
Both of them wore identical grins and I pulled a face. I’d known that they’d want to interrogate me about my whereabouts. Usually nobody else would care where I’d been if I didn’t come back for a night, but that was because Cassie’s bed would also be empty and they’d know I was with her and Scor. Now, my absence implied a story. And a story implied gossip, which Clara Zabini adores.
“More importantly, who were you with?” Clara rolled over to lie on her front and propped her face up on the palms of her hands to look at me, batting her eyelashes as she waited for my response.
I shrugged and opened my trunk to find something clean to wear. Unlike Esther, I hadn’t had the foresight to leave out things I still needed when doing my packing.
“Nobody important,” I shrugged. I pulled out the clothes nearest the top of my trunk and started to get dressed, ignoring Esther and Clara’s questioning.
“You’re wearing a red jumper,” Clara giggled. “Gryffindor colours. Is there a reason for that?”
I stuck my tongue out at her and headed into the bathroom with my toothbrush.
Once inside, I took as long as possible to wash my face and do my make up. I didn’t really feel like walking down to the station with Esther and Clara, and definitely didn’t want to spend the whole journey home with the two of them. The time I’d spent with the other girls during Cassie’s absence had made me fond of them, and I enjoyed their company, but I still didn’t find it easy to join in with their girl talk. I wasn’t sure how I felt about their intrusive questions, and their certainty that something was happening between Al and I made me uncomfortable.
I waited until Clara had called out that they were heading down to the train, gave it another minute, and then went back into the dormitory to pack my last few things and close my trunk. I felt a bit guilty for avoiding the others, and was slightly worried that I’d end up regretting my decision if I ended up sitting by myself all the way back to London. Being completely honest with myself, I recognised that my choice might have something to do with a desire to sit with the Gryffindors instead, but I tried not to think about that too much.
I checked under my bed one last time, and then struggled to pick up my trunk so I could drag it out of the room. As I headed towards the door, I caught sight of my reflection in the mirror on the wardrobe door, snug in my scarlet jumper. Gryffindor scarlet. Clara had been right. For some reason, the thought made me smile.
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