This part: 6215 words, PG-13, ships have dropped anchor in deep waters
Previous chapters: Go here.
maggie and milly and molly and may
went down to the beach(to play one day)
and maggie discovered a shell that sang
so sweetly she couldn't remember her troubles,and
milly befriended a stranded star
whose rays five languid fingers were;
and molly was chased by a horrible thing
which raced sideways while blowing bubbles:and
may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone.
For whatever we lose(like a you or a me)
it's always ourselves we find in the sea
Albus was at the bottom of a deep well. There was nothing about the current decor to suggest that it wasn't perhaps a prison, or a dusty nook in a wine cellar, but Albus knew that it was a well the same way he knew his eyes were green and his hair was brown.
He'd been in the well for quite some time. If Titania had been there with him, she'd have been complaining of hunger by now. If Norma had been there, she would have already devised a plan for their escape, with the help of Rambo's brute magic - if they'd been there. No one was there except Albus, but he was expecting someone.
The stone walls of the well were laced with spongy moss, the colour of what green would be if the only other colour in the world was black. The stones looked damp, the moss invitingly soft, but Albus had already tried touching them. Doing so gave no more tactile information than waving a hand through air.
Whenever Albus tried to think too hard about anything - and his mind kept straying to his friends - the walls seemed to close in on him, distracting him with a primal fear that sheared off the thoughts at their roots. He wasn't afraid; fear was one of the emotions guiding the thoughts, but without the thoughts it had no shape.
He had no idea how much time had passed in the well, but he was learning patience fast.
"We meet again, Albus Severus Potter."
Albus struggled to open his eyes; then he struggled to unkink his neck. He'd fallen into a doze on the floor of the well. His nose was harbouring ambitions to remain permanently welded to his collarbone. Absorbed in rubbing the tension out of his shoulders, Albus took his time responding to the greeting. When he did, Severus Snape bore a distinctly unimpressed expression, complete with folded arms and a slowly tapping foot.
"Hello, Professor," said Albus. "What are you doing here?"
"I am doing absolutely nothing," said Snape. "The reason being, I'm not actually here. Your mind is playing tricks on you."
"I'm glad it played you, then, and not some horrible green monster with tentacles," said Albus. "I'm not so good with tentacles. They creep me out."
For someone who wasn't really there, Snape did an excellent job of rolling his eyes.
"You're a Potter," he said, "and therefore, I must concurrently assume, an ill-cultured buffoon. Have you ever come across the works of Charles Dickens?"
"Would my own mind insult me this much?" wondered Albus.
"Believe me; you have no idea of the depths to which your own mind will stoop." For a moment, Snape's face was contorted in a grimace - strangely similar to the one Hugo made when he was trying not to cry, but with lines that ran deeper across his face. "Answer my question, if you don't mind, and refrain from asking inane ones of your own."
"Charles Dickens?" Albus thought hard. "No, I don't think so. Was he a great wizard?"
"The history books would have you believe so," said Snape, "but as history book are written by historians and not the people they write about, I think we can safely leave that aside. He was a moderately skilled wizard who fell on hard times and made spare cash selling stories to Muggles. He was a Slytherin, of course; the House was a far more brutal place in his time - quite bleak. In any case, he wasn't above mixing and matching Muggle and magic -"
"Try saying that five times fast," murmured Albus, earning himself a narrow glare.
"As I was saying, he played fast and loose with his own experiences. At one point in his student life, he nearly drowned in the Great Lake. That's why so many stupid Muggles know Mystery of the Three Ghosts - because he bastardised the Mystery in some silly songbook. I suppose Muggles may even experience it, although my research would suggest that they are not as attuned to other dimensions as the magical brethren. Mundane minds and so on."
"Maybe not." Albus shrugged. "But I've heard of this thing called tee-vee and it sounds great."
Snape made a noise half way between 'pfft' and 'augh.' "The point I am attempting to make, and that you are forcing me to labour like a pack-animal, is that you are currently being inducted into the Mystery of the Three Ghosts. I am Past, and I am here to guide you into your memory."
"Past? What? I don't understand."
"Why does that not surprise me - a Potter, misunderstanding?" Snape muttered something under his breath; Albus guessed it was a rude word. "Have you ever heard the term, 'your life flashing before your eyes'?"
"Well, yeah. People say it happens before you..."
"Exactly." Snape gripped his arm; it felt very real, and very painful. "Potter, welcome to your Past."
It was an extremely odd sensation, looking at your past self. Albus' consciousness was floating somewhere around the treetops, watching everything from a three-sixty degree angle that would have been physically impossible had he been inside his own body. Yet, every now and then, he could feel flashes of sense memory. The conversations flowed and ebbed, but when they reached a point Albus remembered as being annoying or frustrating, or downright unfair, he felt an echo of it - just as he did when he remembered anything unpleasant.
Snape was nowhere to be seen. Albus could recall the pinch of his fingers, guiding him through a lighted tunnel that was shorter than a second and longer than a lifetime. But as soon as he'd opened his eyes to the scene of Luna's wedding - in particular, the aftermath of his and Scorpius' tussle with Rose - Snape's touch ceased to exist.
Albus floated over to where his body was standing, shoulder-to-shoulder with Scorpius against the firing squad of the Potter parentship. Albus hadn't realised at the time that he and Scorpius were wearing curiously identical mutinous expressions. Even their arms were folded the same way. Despite the physical dissimilarities - Scorpius' three-inch superiority in height, his curls almost white against Albus' unruly dark spikes, his paleness contrasting strongly with Albus' ruddy cheeks and freckle-splodged nose - they looked more alike than Albus and James ever had.
Dad was shaking his head, looking more bewildered than angry. All the adults bore versions of the same look; Uncle Ron was the only one who looked plainly and completely enraged. He and Aunt Hermione were at the other side of the field, comforting Rose, who was suffering a fit of hysterics.
"Look, I'm not trying to punish you," Dad was saying as Albus floated over to stand beside his body. "I just want to understand why you called Rose that awful name. It's not like you to be so rude. Well -" Dad rethought his last comment "- not without a good reason, anyway."
Scorpius opened his mouth to say something, but Albus’ body elbowed him in the side and shot him a vicious glare. Scorpius scowled.
Dad's voice became stern. "I don't want to lay blame where it's undeserved, but if you persist with this, I'll have no choice but to assume your faulty choice in friends is at the root of it."
"Not this again," said Albus' body. Albus felt a sting of rage dart through his mind, a faint reminder of the full-blown emotion he'd felt at the time. "Look, I had a good reason to call Rose what I did. I'm sorry I was so mean, but I didn't intend to say it. It sort of slipped out."
"If you tell me the reason -" started Dad, and Scorpius chimed in.
"Don't you think it would be better if -"
"Dad," appealed Albus' body, turning so that he excluded Scorpius from the conversation. "Punish me all you want, but I'm not telling you anything except that I was angry and that I'm sorry for it now."
Dad sighed heavily. When he ran a hand through his hair, Albus could see that it was more speckled with grey than ever.
"Then I think it's best if you don't hang around with Malfoy's son anymore." Dad held up a hand, stemming the tide of Albus' outrage. "Consider it your punishment. You're too young, and too close to the situation, to understand the effect he's obviously having on your mind. Before you met him, you didn't lie, you didn't call names and you didn't backchat."
"I don't lie now," said Albus' body, the hurt so overwhelming that Albus felt the memory gush through him.
"You're refusing to tell me why you acted so horribly," said Dad. "That's a lie by omission."
"Mr Potter, please," said Scorpius. Dad turned his gaze on to Scorpius, his eyes flashing green fire.
"What?" he snapped. Even Albus would have quailed at the bite in his voice. Scorpius paled even more, but he stood his ground. Mum, who had been silent up to now, her face an open book of anguish and regret, put a hand on Dad's arm.
She murmured something into his ear that Albus hadn't quite caught the first time around. Albus floated closer and heard her say, "The boy isn't Draco, darling, no matter how much he looks like he is. He's got some good blood in him too."
Dad snorted, but his gaze flicked away from Scorpius to where Serena was standing with her husband, her long fingers wrapped around the stem of a wineglass. Her diamond pendant flashed in the sun.
"Come on then," said Dad. His voice was significantly less frosty than before. "Out with it."
"Rose and I don't get along," said Scorpius. Albus' body glared daggers at him, but Scorpius soldiered on. "I beat her in exams and I know as many spells as she does. Mother says we rub each other up the wrong way. This fight was mainly my fault and hers. You shouldn't punish Albus for it."
"That's a pretty little speech, but it doesn't make up for the fact that my son called my niece a bitch - and now he won't tell me why."
"Perhaps you should trust him," said Scorpius. "Perhaps he's just trying to protect you."
Dad snorted. "Protect me from what? The last I checked, there were no Dark Lords or Death Eaters around to make life dangerous. The only one who needs protecting is Albus, and the only thing he needs protection from is you."
"I see the years haven't dulled that wit and charm I remember so well," said a dry voice. Mr Malfoy strolled into the fray, with one hand lightly holding a wineglass and the other resting in the small of Mrs Malfoy's back. "You clearly don't inspire much confidence in your children, do you, Potter?"
"Caro, is that necessary?" reproved Mrs Malfoy. She directed a slow smile at Dad. "I'm sure Mr Potter does the best he can."
"I - do," said Dad. Mum rolled her eyes at Mrs Malfoy, who just smiled more.
"Fortunately for all of us, my child confides in me, so I can shed some light on the situation," said Mr Malfoy. "You see, the thing is -"
"Mr Malfoy," Albus broke in desperately, "please don't."
Mr Malfoy stopped short. "Whatever is the matter? Despite your ancestry, which I loathe and abhor, I'm trying to help you."
"Father," said Scorpius, at the same time as Mrs Malfoy stopped smiling to say, "Draco," in tones of deepest annoyance.
"Fine," huffed Mr Malfoy. "Your ancestry is no worse than mine, all things considered. Probably. Now, Harry, I'm sure it will shock you to learn that your precious niece is not the creature of sweetness and light all Gryffindors are supposed to be - although if you had a brain cell in your head, it wouldn't. I hold out no hope on that score, however."
"Just spit it out," said Dad. "I haven't got all day to stand around and listen to your base slander."
"Your niece," said Mr Malfoy, enunciating every word, "stole your son's favourite toy and threw it in a river. My son nearly lost his life trying to save the damn thing. Personally, I'd call that grounds to call the girl a bitch - but of course, I know not your Gryffindorian standards of perfection."
"Mouse? You told me you gave him to your friend!" said Mum. "Why did you lie about it? Oh, sweetheart."
Albus' body was crushed in a hug that Albus hadn't enjoyed at the time, and that he didn't intend on suffering through again. More interesting were the looks on Dad's and Mr Malfoy's faces - one of unalloyed shock, the other of smug satisfaction.
"Is this true?" asked Dad. "Albus? Why didn't you tell me?"
"I should have thought that was obvious." Mr Malfoy sniffed. "Come, Scorpius. I'm afraid if we stay here much longer some of their bad parenting might rub off on you."
Scorpius touched Albus' body's arm and whispered, "I'm sorry. I always tell them everything, but I didn't -"
He stepped away and followed his father. Albus was willing to leave his body behind, to ignore the mingled, mixed-up feelings of relief and anger that had swollen from Mr Malfoy's bombshell. He floated after the Malfoys. Mr Malfoy stopped in front of Aunt Hermione.
"I always thought you had more intelligence than most Gryffindors," he said brusquely. Aunt Hermione stared at him. Her unflattering olive dress robes were covered in snot and tears, her hair was a mess and her nose was red from the champagne, but Mr Malfoy was treating her with the respect due a queen. "I'll leave it to you to ferret out the truth of the matter. All I suggest is that you ask your daughter about a certain Mouse."
"Mouse?" Aunt Hermione pushed her fuzzy hair off her forehead. "You don't mean Albus' toy Mouse?"
"There, you see?" said Mr Malfoy to his wife. "Quite clever, for a Gryffindor."
Mrs Malfoy made a non-committal noise, but she was smirking at her husband in a way Albus had never seen her share with anyone else. "Goodbye, Mrs Weasley," she said politely. "Well, Scorpius? Did you enjoy yourself?"
"I should damn well hope so, dragging us to this godforsaken copse just so you could see your objectionable little friend," said Mr Malfoy.
"Come now," said Mrs Malfoy. "You can't deny that you enjoyed meeting Miss Lovegood again - or, should I say, Mrs Scamander."
"No, it's still Miss Lovegood. She's not changing her name, of course - that would be far too normal."
The elder Malfoys laughed, their attention diverted from their son to their own amusing conversation. Neither of them noticed that Scorpius hadn't answered the question.
Albus was woken by a chubby finger prodding the back of his neck. This was Lily's habitual manner of waking anyone she believed needed to be woken, so when Albus crawled into a sitting position he wasn't surprised to see his sister standing in front of him. Both of her fists were planted square on her hips; her flowery pumps were lighting up of their own accord.
"I thought you were gonna sleep forever," she announced. "That would be so boring. I've got some really fun stuff to show you."
"Are you a Ghost too?" asked Albus.
"D'oh," giggled Lily. "I'm here to give you a Present."
Albus stood next to his body, which was marvelling at the wonders there were to behold around every corner. Rambo was sinking into a sofa, with little hope of ever emerging, and flicking channels on the TV with all the careless abandon of one for whom the charm of novelty has long since fled.
"This place is so cool," said Albus' body fervently. Albus stood beside it and touched his own shoulder. The skin sucked his energy inside; and all of a sudden he was looking out through his own eyes instead of at them.
"Yeah, it's pretty nice," Rambo agreed. "Dad'll be home soon. He's ever so keen to meet you. I hope you have a secret passion for answering endless questions."
Albus nodded, although he felt far more like asking questions than answering them.
Rambo's house was, if possible, even cooler than Hogwarts. Albus had grown up with magical all around, so the moving stairs and the sky in the Great Hall were the only two things that truly impressed him there. He'd caught a Muggle train to Rambo's home town, where he'd had lunch with him and Mrs Dursley. The shopping centre had escalators, which were like the moving stairs only better. And once Rambo turned on the TV, Albus realised that even the sky in the Great Hall was facing some stiff competition.
"If you look in that cabinet over there," said Rambo, "you'll find all our DVDs. You can pick one to watch if you like."
"What's a DVD? And what do they do that's worth watching?"
"I think it'd be easier to show you rather than tell you. Have you seen a film before?"
"Oh, sure," said Albus. Wizarding cinema was very expensive, but his parents had taken him and his siblings there every year. His favourite had been the film version of Marvin the Mad Muggle. There were rumours that one of VD Wallflower's books was to be turned into a film, but even if they were true it would take years to make. Albus wondered if Muggles had as many films as wizards.
He opened the cabinet and saw row upon row of tiny plastic boxes, which didn't in the slightest resemble the huge canisters he'd once seen in the projection room. Perhaps the canisters were hidden behind the tiny boxes? With that thought in mind, he shoved a stack of them aside. A few fell on the floor, and the noise roused Rambo.
"What are you doing? Be a bit more careful, eh? If you step on them, they stay broken."
"What do you mean? Step on what?"
"The DVDs, idiot." Making a gargantuan effort, Rambo heaved himself out of the squishy sofa and joined Albus at the cabinet. He picked up a plastic box. "Here's one - Pirates of the Caribbean. It's ancient, but my dad loves it. The special effects are rudimentary, of course, but it's still a fun film."
"This is a film?"
"It is." Rambo opened the box, revealing a shiny round circle inside. "I'm not sure exactly how the technology works - I was going to ask my high school computer science teacher, but of course I went to Hogwarts instead - but the film is printed on the CD. When I put it in the DVD player, the film comes up on the TV."
"But there are hundreds of them!" Albus looked starry-eyed at the endless array of DVDs. "More than you could ever watch!"
"There's not that many," said Rambo. "How about we start with Pirates, then?"
Albus had no objection, so they settled down in front of the TV. Presently, Mrs Dursley came in to see if they wanted snacks.
Mrs 'Call-me-Crystal-cutepie!' Dursley was like no adult female Albus had ever seen. She didn't wear robes. Albus was prepared for that. He knew Muggles didn't, and he and his own parents wore jeans and sweaters regularly. Call-me-Crystal's clothes weren't all that different in their basic concept, barring one important distinction: Call-me-Crystal's jeans were welded to her legs, and her sweaters were the colour of candy and designed to fit a child. Albus hadn't accidentally thought the word 'breasts' so often since he'd last seen Serena Malfoy.
"Are you boys okay? Do you want milkshakes and cookies? How about some pancakes? I could whip them up in five seconds flat."
"I'm fine," said Rambo. "What 'bout you, Al?"
"Oh, I'm still full from lunch," said Albus. He declined to remind Call-me-Crystal that she'd forced three servings of everything on him, with the consequence that he felt as bloated as pregnant elephant.
"Don't be silly!" she cried. "Lunch was a whole hour ago. I know how boys eat."
"Maybe some crackers then," said Rambo diplomatically.
From what Albus had gleaned from Call-me-Crystal's rants on the subject, Rambo had dropped to skin and bone at school from eating merely three enormous meals a day. Albus could see how Rambo - who seemed to have a terminal fear of giving offence - ended up consuming far more food than he either needed or wanted just to satisfy his mother. Albus had also seen the predatory way Call-me-Crystal had tracked each mouthful disappearing down Rambo's gullet, and surmised that the only way she kept to her own starvation diet was through eating by proxy.
Despite her alien appearance and obsession with food, Albus quite liked Call-me-Crystal. He suspected that Lily would like her even more, and Mum not at all. He was starting to realise that every woman was strange. Call-me-Crystal was no exception.
But Mr Dursley was the one Albus really wanted to meet. He was the one who'd known Dad as a child, the one who featured prominently in Rambo's stories about his home life. Mr Dursley was the hub of this miniature family, so Albus was intensely curious about him.
Mr Dursley didn't return home from work until well after six. Rambo had told Albus that his father ran a gym, whatever that was. At half-past, his booming "HELLO, FAMILY" resounded through the house. He strode into the living room like a Colossus, and Rambo wriggled out of the sofa in five seconds flat in order to give his father a hug.
"So this is Harry's son, eh?" Mr Dursley rested his slab-like hand on Rambo's head and stared at Albus. Albus stared back. The pictures hadn't done Mr Dursley justice. He was huge, but all of his hugeness was bronzed muscle.
"Albus Potter, pleased to meet you." Albus stuck out his hand and Mr Dursley shook it, nearly breaking it off at the wrist.
"It's incredible." Mr Dursley circled the sofa, keeping Albus in his eye line. Albus felt a little like a butterfly pinned to a corkboard. "You look so like your father - only he was much paler than you. And he always looked angry."
"Really?" Albus absorbed this information, trying to make sense of it. "Well, he doesn't get angry much anymore. Except when we're naughty."
Mr Dursley laughed, and the ornaments on the mantelpiece rattled. "That's one thing you learn when you get to be as old as us, son - how to control your temper. Tell me, do you have any brothers or sisters?"
"Yup - I have a little sister called Lily, who's nearly ten. She'll be starting Hogwarts next September." Albus brought himself up short. "Oh yeah, and I have a brother. James."
"Don't get along, eh?" Mr Dursley's small eyes twinkled. "Not surprising. Your father and I fought like weasels when we were young'uns. Goes with the territory. Give yourselves a few decades and you'll be nice as pie to each other - just you wait and see."
"I'll do that," said Albus.
"My son's told you I teach combat for a living, hasn't he?" said Mr Dursley. "Rambo! On guard!"
Rambo immediately put his fists up. Mr Dursley swung a few gentle punches. Albus could tell he wasn't putting his full strength behind them because he wasn't even tensing his muscles. Rambo blocked the first three blows but the fourth got under his guard, tipping him on the shoulder. He fell back on to the sofa, breathless. Mr Dursley hadn't so much as moved his feet.
"Wow," said Albus, his eyes round as marbles. "Could you teach me that?"
"What would you like to learn?" asked Mr Dursley.
"No, that's wrong," said Lily. "That's the wrong part of the present."
"You're the one in charge here," protested Albus. "How was I supposed to know?"
"I'm a figment of your imagination," said Lily. "Now try again - and this time, go to the right place."
Albus felt a throbbing pain in his right hand. When he looked down, he nearly threw up in disgust and horror. A wire was leading into into his vein, a tube coming out, and a creepy orange liquid was going inside of him.
He looked around, breathing hard. He was lying in a bed on wheels, under covers patterned with sick-making pale green leaves. There was a curtain rail around the bed; the clinical blue curtains were drawn closed. Machines beeped and hummed at him. One had a screen with green and red lines going up and down. Bags of more yucky liquid hung from what looked like a coat-rack. A grey clothes-peg pinched his finger.
Albus couldn't prevent a fear-stricken whimper passing his lips. He looked like he was in some kind of torture chamber, all alone.
A squeak of shoes on parquet alerted him to someone's arrival. He immediately realised how much better it was to be alone in a torture chamber rather than in company. Fortunately, the woman who wrenched aside his curtains - letting in blinding sunlight - didn't look much like Albus' idea of a torturer. She was dressed in a white tunic and shapeless navy trousers; her greasy hair was scraped back in a bun and she was wearing a nametag. Albus squinted, trying to read her name as she bent over him and adjusted his pillows, then took his wrist in a death grip.
"Pulse still weak and thready," she said accusingly, as if it were Albus' fault. "Let's take your blood pressure, shall we?"
"Where am I, please?" asked Albus.
"In the Happy Funhouse of Fun," she said, and caught sight of Albus' face. "The hospital, Albus. I'm sorry - it's just that you've asked me that every single day. I'm Nurse Allison, remember? You had a severe allergic attack, remember?" She sighed. "There's nothing wrong with your memory. I'm starting to think you do this for the attention."
"Where's Mum and Dad? Have you Owled them yet?"
"Now stop this nonsense," said Nurse Allison firmly. "It's making you agitated and you need to rest. Your guardians will be along to visit you at four o'clock - you wouldn't want to be too tired to see them, now would you?"
"No," guessed Albus.
"That's right. Now be a good boy and sit up while I take your blood pressure." The blood pressure, whatever that was, made Nurse Allison frown and suck in her lower lip. "I'll get Doctor Kildare to come take a look at you. The IV saline hasn't helped your systolic BP at all."
"Don't be silly," said Nurse Allison distractedly. "It's not your fault." She held a small black object to her mouth. "Page Kildare to ward 203, Albus Potter." She turned to Albus. "The doctor will be along shortly."
"I'm hungry," said Albus.
"Well, you just had breakfast. You'll have to wait for morning tea."
"All right," said Albus. He suddenly felt exhausted, so he lay back and closed his eyes. When he opened them again, a broad face with heavy-set eyebrows was leaning over him.
"Good, you're awake," said the face. "I'm Doctor Kildare. Do you remember me?" Albus shook his head. "That's all right. I work in geriatrics usually, so I'm used to people not remembering who I am." Doctor Kildare flipped open Albus' chart. "Still no medical history? What are those nurses doing? Albus, do you remember being sick on any previous occasions? An earache, a 'flu, anything."
"Yeah," said Albus, "I have an immune deficiency."
"That's a start - although you could have mentioned this before. Is it a serious condition? I don't see any medications on here."
"Samire gave me potions," said Albus. "I don't know what's in them - I'm only a first-year."
"Oh, great," muttered the doctor. "Hippies." Louder, he said, "I guess that's why there's nothing mentioned. It's all right. Hmm." He tapped his chin. "I might try giving you some standard vaccinations. Hopefully they'll help you shake that lingering cold. Are your guardians around to sign a form for me?"
"I don't know who they are," said Albus. "I want Mum."
"Look, do you want a scone?" said Doctor Kildare. Albus shook his head, but Doctor Kildare cut one in half anyway. In the meantime the obstinate tears welling in Albus' eyes died back, and he was able to accept the offering with suitable composure.
"I'll fetch the inoculation needle," said Doctor Kildare. "I'll be right back. Eat your scone."
"Does it have nuts in it?" asked Albus anxiously. But the doctor had already gone.
Albus put the scone aside and tried to relax his mind. The last he could remember was staying at Rambo's house...
He thought and thought, but he couldn't put together a sequence of events that led to him being stranded in this strange place. He saw that his chart had been left on his bed; inspiration struck, and he took a peek.
Almost all the sections were empty - everything but his name, an incomprehensible trail of scrawls under 'current treatments' and Crystal and Dudley Dursley written besides 'parents or guardians.'
Albus traced the word 'parents' with his finger. "But what happened to Mum and Dad?" he asked the empty air.
When Doctor Kildare returned, Albus had put the chart back where he found it. There was nothing on the tea tray to suggest that the scone was gluten-free, so Albus hadn't touched it. Doctor Kildare didn't appear to notice. He was prepping a needle and syringe, making it squirt liquid into the air. Albus had seen needles before. James had dressed up as a saw-doctor for Halloween three years running, and had liked to pretend to stick it in Albus.
"What are you doing with that?" Albus couldn't keep the apprehension out of his voice.
Doctor Kildare's expression was surprised. "You've never had a vaccination before? Oh. It's quick and painless - don't worry -"
Albus didn't worry, but he did scream and scream and scream.
Someone was stroking his hair, soft fingers weaving through it to gentle his scalp. Albus knew one moment of perfect contentment; a moment that he would later remember, although the source would be lost to time, and try to feel again - without success.
"Feels nice," he mumbled.
"It's good to finally get some feedback," drawled the person petting him. "I've only been doing this for five hundred hours."
"You're such a drama queen, Scorpius." Albus breathed deep - for some reason Scorpius-here smelled of vanilla, which Scorpius-there certainly didn't - and let his eyes blink open. He was looking straight up Scorpius' nostrils. "That's a pleasant view."
"You must like it," said Scorpius. "It's not as if I'm the one controlling your urge to loll about in my lap."
"You smell nice," Albus told him. Scorpius blushed.
"This is all highly irrelevant. Did the other Ghosts explain the situation to you?"
"Not really," said Albus. "One of them was a cranky old Headmaster who reminded me a lot of your Dad, in the sense that he thought I was a blithering idiot, and the other one was my kid sister. Neither of them was terribly helpful."
"Trust me to be the fountain of wisdom," sighed Scorpius. "I gather you've realised you very nearly died. You got a lot closer to it than usual. The real version of me is in bits over it. But you're not actually dead, which is a mercy for all concerned. You're on the way back out. We three Ghosts are your guardians."
"The way back out of where?"
"Here, of course." Scorpius waved his hand at the mossy well. "I have no idea why your idea of the afterlife is a well. If only the real me could have a long and serious chat to you about it - but of course you won't remember a thing when you wake up. I deeply believe there should be more harps and angels. And maybe a few fluffy clouds."
"I'm afraid of heights," Albus reminded him. "Why would I want to be up in the sky with a bunch of clouds and flying maniacs? That's more like your idea of heaven."
"Hmm, I suppose." Scorpius rose gracefully to his feet and held out a hand. "Let's go then, you and I, to see what your future holds."
Albus reached out, but didn't let Scorpius pull him up. "Our parents don't want us to be friends."
"What have our parents got to do with anything?" Scorpius let out a snort. "C'mon, I'll lead you through. And I'll be waiting for you on the flipside."
Albus sat on the porch of Godric's Hollow, one leg folded beneath him and the other gently rocking the porch swing. Mum had piled a Sherpa’s dowry of woolly crocheted blankets around him. The summer air was sharp with the hint of autumn; Albus could spot cheeky splashes of red in the leaves. It wasn't cool enough to be unpleasant, but it was cool enough for him to be grateful for the blankets.
When the porch door banged, Albus stiffened. There was only one person who announced their travels through the house by banging every door in it: James. And Albus really wasn't in the mood for James tonight.
James was uncustomarily silent when he stomped on to the porch. After a moment's deliberation, he sat down on the swing beside Albus. Albus bit his lip and turned away. He didn't want to provoke James with words; hopefully his silence would sufficiently bore James into seeking amusement elsewhere.
James' foot played ragtime on the wooden floor. "Mum and Dad were so worried when they couldn't contact you," was his surprising opening shot.
"Huh?" Albus turned his eyes to James, trying to read the punch line. But James' usually mobile face was still, his wicked eyes shaded.
"It was crazy," James went on. "They never thought the Dursleys would stop you from going to the nearest Owl office to check in, and all their owls got returned to sender. O'course, you can't send owls to Muggles who aren't in the know about us, like that hospital. And the Dursleys couldn't find us, being Unplottable and all. It was ... mad. Crazy."
"You said that already," said Albus. "And I know all this. Believe me, I didn't intend on getting sick before I could write home and let them know where I was. If we'd had one of those 'mobile phones' -" he pronounced the unfamiliar words carefully "- like Crystal gave Mum, we wouldn't have had a problem. But look, I really didn't know I was allergic to hayseeds as well as everything else."
"Yeah, well." James' heel was slamming against the floor now, all rhythm lost. "Those Muggle doctors, what were they like?"
"Totally insane," said Albus. He amended it to, "Well, I suppose they do their best with what they have, which isn't much. You'd like them: lots of blood and cutting people open and stuff."
James laughed, a nervous donkey sound that made Albus at first fear he was choking to death. He'd never heard James laugh before: snigger, yes; laugh, no. "Yeah, well," he said again, like it was a funny catchphrase. "Listen, just ... don't die, all right?"
"Pardon?" said Albus. Astonishment made his fingertips tingle.
"Don't die," said James, fiercely. "All that time, I should have been glad you were gone and I wasn't. I should have been glad, but all I could think was that I was sorry for telling Rose to do that to Mouse."
"If you're feeling that penitent, you could always go fetch me a glass of cranberry juice," said Albus. He felt rather light-headed, but he didn't think it was due to anything allergy-related.
"Don't be stupid." James' face contorted into a gruesome scowl. "We're not ... friends. This isn't a truce. Just don't die."
"Oh, well then," said Albus. "If you insist."
James stood up abruptly. He shoved the swing so hard it crashed against the side of the house. The resulting upswing made Albus' stomach loop-the-loop.
"Promise me," he said.
"Christ, James." Albus caught sight of his brother's face. It was wearing a look Albus had never seen there before. "Fine. I promise to do my very best not to die, despite what you and my allergies might do to convince me otherwise."
James let go of the swing and strode to the door. Albus was just resettling his blankets when James said, "From now on, just worry about the allergies."
Albus could hear them before he could see them - their voices were coming closer and closer, as if he were on a train rushing into the station. A whitish film blurred his vision, but it was steadily burning away, like a mist in the sun.
There was Mum, talking to Dad; James and Lily arguing about the last apple; two well-modulated voices conversing quietly from further away.
And. Someone was gripping his hand tight enough to cut off the circulation.
And. Someone smelled of sweat and hospital disinfectant and vanilla.
Albus opened his eyes and smiled at Scorpius.
the end of the road (although not the journey)
a/n: Thank you, crazy people. You've been an audience.
ps: I don't actually like Dickens. Just ... don't ask, okay?