This part: 5,441 words, PG-13, ships going to war
a/n: Anyone remember that little story what I wrote - The Road Less Travelled? No? Unsurprising; it was over six months ago. The trail is dead, but I picked it up all the same, because I am and always will be a glutton for punishment. So here goes: It’s five years later, and all is not well...
If our souls should meet again
with tattered and worn-out shoes
Do not despair
for we have not learned
“Al, put the pedal to the metal!”
“Don’t call me Al,” said Albus, on reflex. His fingernail gouged a hole in the spot he’d been lightly pawing. It obediently expressed a blob of blood.
Albus hissed in between clenched teeth. He’d been of two minds whether to squeeze that spot. The first mind was the sensible one: it reminded him that topical potions took a long time to work; that squeezing spots left scars; and that no one would notice this spot when they had a mountain range of others from which to choose.
The second mind was the one that had taken up residence sometime after Albus’ fourteenth birthday, much like a fungus invading a house riddled with damp. As Albus’ psyche boasted many such damp spots, the second mind cuddled into all of them, issuing cozy remarks such as: ‘Everyone will notice a huge, pulsating, pus-filled spot in the middle of your chin – it’s a cardinal sign that you don’t wash’ when Albus least wanted or expected them.
The annoying thing was that Albus did wash – too much, according to the current dermato-Healer. She claimed Albus had clogged all his sweat pores with soap in his frantic efforts to turn his skin back to its non-craterous, pre-pubescent state.
At any rate, his decision was now made for him. He wadded up some toilet roll and pressed it to the oozing spot, with the dull certainty that a few rogue fibres would undoubtedly stick there, and the even duller certainty that no one would inform him of the fact. His parents preferred to ignore his little ‘problem.’ Probably this was because when they were his age they were fighting the forces of evil on a regular basis, and didn’t have much angst to spare for acne. James thought it was funny, on the whole, and he wasn’t about to turn down the wattage on the humour. Lily wouldn’t even notice: she never saw much past the book permanently held in front of her nose.
“Al!” yowled James, from too-close proximity. The bathroom door was wrenched half out of its hinges – Beating made James creepily strong – and James lounged against the frame.
“We’re leaving,” he said. He was speaking to his reflection rather than Albus, and Albus could have sworn James winked. At himself.
“I picked up that message,” said Albus, “somehow.”
“Well then, let’s roll.” With this exhortation, James gave a final hair toss and Disapparated.
Somewhere in between discovering girls and discovering his reproductive system, James had picked up a hefty quota of random, usually vehicle-oriented Muggle slang. It got on Albus’ nerves.
By the time Albus stanched the blood-flow, Uncle Ron was tooting the horn. Albus thundered down the stairs, his satchel flagellating his spine with every step. Lily and James were already in the car when he rushed through the front door; no one was outside except Mum and Dad, who was Levitating the three trunks into the boot.
“Albus, there you are! I was starting to think you’d fallen down the plughole,” said Mum. She crushed him to her chest and Albus breathed deep of her comforting scent for a second, before wriggling away.
“Take care,” said Dad. He clapped Albus hard on the shoulder. “Don’t fight too much on the way there.”
“Ha,” said Albus, “funny.”
He got into the backseat with his ears still ringing from the car horn, and his eyes slightly watery. He’d like nothing better than a few minutes alone, to compose his tender feelings into something more resembling hearty manliness, but it was out of the question. Leaving home for school always hit him hard. The first hour was the worst: as soon as Albus met his friends, the pain began to abate. By the time he arrived at Hogwarts it was almost entirely forgotten.
Of course, there was the trip to the station to be endured first.
Uncle Ron and Aunt Hermione sat up front. A thick pane of hazy glass separated their seat from the rest of the car. From the outside, it looked like a perfectly ordinary Mercedes Benz. Uncle Ron went to a lot of trouble to keep it that way.
“Shut the door, shut the door!” he barked. As soon as they were on their way a Muffling Charm would be placed on the glass partition, but for now Albus could hear him perfectly. “You want every Tom, Dick and Muggle peeping in at the backseat?”
“No,” said Albus. He slammed shut the door and the blinds came down, cutting off his last
snatched view of home.
Hugo nodded coolly at Albus. Rose didn’t even look up from filing her nails. Lily had already folded herself into a corner, effectively nullifying her potential as either enemy or ally.
“Your spots are incredibly bad,” said Hugo. “Are you taking your potion properly? It looks like you pour it down the sink.”
“Hush,” murmured Rose. “You know what Mother says about teasing the unfortunate and afflicted.”
“‘Don’t?’” said Hugo. “I was just asking a question.”
Albus filled up his lungs with air and let it out again in a slow whoosh. The metal window casing was cool against his forehead. He purposely didn’t look at his cousin.
Hugo pushed back his fringe of heavy, strawberry-blonde hair. His eyes lit on Lily. The ancient tome in her lap obscured her almost totally. Only the tops of her tortoiseshell glasses could be seen between the book and her wild mop of hair.
Hugo kicked her: just a light swipe of her shin, but it was enough to make Albus’ blood boil. He caught James’ eye. James immediately began rummaging in the box labelled ‘Travel Boardgames’ in Aunt Hermione’s prim hand.
“Studying already?” asked Hugo. “I suppose you need to get a head start. Where did you come in the class rankings last year? Third last, wasn’t it?”
“No,” said Lily, in her curiously hoarse voice. “Second last.”
Rose rubbed her forehead. “Someone conjure that girl a cough drop,” she said. “I have the most abominable headache.”
“Rough night, was it?” asked James.
“You could say that,” said Rose. “I snuck out to Joyce Trefoil’s seventeenth birthday party.”
“I thought you hated Joyce Trefoil,” said James.
“I do,” said Rose, “but Macnight Trefoil? Not so much. He and his friends snuck in Firewhiskey, so we had our own little party in his father’s study. Why didn’t you come? You were invited.”
“Previous engagement.” James smoothed his hair, his lips curving into a half-smile.
“Previous engagement my sweet arse,” said Rose. “Well, I hope she’s pretty this time. I need not remind you what a social disaster your little dalliance with Minuette Nestor was.”
“Hey, Minuette isn’t that bad,” protested James.
“Bad? My dear boy, you could plow a field with that girl’s nose.”
“True. But she had plenty of other ... qualities ... to make up for it.”
“Spare me the sordid details.” Rose laid her head back. “Make yourself useful and spell up a cool towel for my head.”
James pulled out his wand to obey. In the meantime, Hugo was prodding his Port-a-Floo subsequent to receiving an alert for an incoming call. This having been dispensed with, he turned his attention back to Lily.
“Show us what you’re studying, then,” he said.
“I’m not studying, I’m looking at the pictures,” said Lily.
“A picture-book? That sounds about right for your skill level. Let me see.”
Lily shrugged and turned the book around. Hugo recoiled at the sight: huge, beautifully detailed colour plates of dissected birds and animals.
“You’re sick,” said Hugo. Green did not suit his colouring, Albus reflected.
“Mmm,” said Lily, adjusting the book so she couldn’t see his face.
“Who wants to play Wizopoly?” asked James.
The first person Albus saw on arriving at Platform Nine and Three Quarters was Celerity Malfoy. She made certain of the fact by racing towards him slightly slower than the speed of light, and wrapping her arms around his legs. Albus, well used to this form of greeting, had already braced his knees to prevent falling in an undignified manner.
“Hello, Bubbles.” Albus scooped up an armful of squirming little girl. She clung to his neck
as if they’d been separated for two decades instead of two weeks. “What’s new with you?”
“I don’t know, what’s new with you, boo?” asked Celerity. She patted his cheeks, fascinated as ever by the bumpy surface. She’d once compared his skin to a cauliflower. As Celerity was a strange child who actually enjoyed vegetables for their taste, Albus was pleased rather
than otherwise with the comment.
“I might have Cherry Bombs in my pocket,” said Albus.
“For me? Yee!” Celerity plunged one grubby hand into the pocket of her robes. “I brought you a present-smescent.”
“You’re too kind,” said Albus, as Celerity handed him a pebble. “No, really.”
“It’s a magic rock,” Celerity informed him. “Lots of chock. Scorpius gave it to me to protect me from dragons in wagons.”
“Are you afraid of dragons, Bubbles?”
“I read a horrible story, allory,” said Celerity, “where a princess was eated up by a dragon! Flagon, snagon, twagon.”
“Don’t worry,” said Albus. “Most princesses are far uglier than you. If a dragon came here, he’d eat Rose first. Then he’d get indigestion and die.”
Celerity giggled. Rose was nothing but charming to Celerity, who looked just like a butter-pixie. Rose liked surrounding herself with pretty people; Celerity was no exception. However, some whim on Celerity’s part made her take exception to Rose. She ran away or cried whenever Rose tried to talk to her. When he realised he couldn’t break Celerity of the habit, Albus decided to count her as a kindred spirit and leave it at that.
Celerity smoothed back her hair with her palms, exactly how Scorpius did, before tucking her head companionably into Albus’ shoulder. Her blonde curls reminded Albus of how Scorpius’ used to be, before his sunshiney locks faded to dishcloth grey sometime in third year. Scorpius had lately taken to dying his hair blonde, but it wasn’t the same.
“Is Gin-Win here?” asked Celerity. The unlikely friendship that had blossomed between Serena Malfoy and Ginny Weasley had lead to Celerity adopting the former as a second mother, much to her chagrin and Mrs Malfoy’s amusement.
“No,” said Albus. “It’s Uncle Ron’s turn to drop us to the station. She’ll be there to pick us up at Christmas, though.”
“We might have a dinner party before then, with a wren,” said Celerity. She sounded enthused, as well she might be. The Potter seniors were regular guests at Mrs Malfoy’s soirees, events which always threw Mum into panic and Dad into the doldrums. The entertainment value for the onlookers was enormous.
“There you are!” Scorpius whirled round a pillar, breathless. “You little toad, I’ve been looking for you everywhere.”
“I told you I was going to see Albus, rail-bus.” Celerity put Albus’ neck in a chokehold to prove her point. “Not my fault you were talking to smelly pristine Christine.”
“She can’t be smelly if she’s pristine,” said Scorpius. Albus had long since given up pointing out the futility of arguing logic with a six-year-old; even Scorpius’ inevitable failures didn’t deter him.
“She stinks,” declared Celerity, “like a chimp.”
“How do you know what a chimp smells like?”
“Mummer and Gin-Win went to the zoo with me, free free free,” said Celerity. “Christine stinks like a chimp. And you smell like a tortoise shell.”
Before Scorpius could lambast Celerity with a rational retort, their mother appeared. Mrs Malfoy, with her hair piled up like a champagne ice-cream, didn’t look a day over thirty. Up close, Albus knew there wrinkles were etched into the delicate skin around her mouth and eyes. That didn’t stop her being the most beautiful woman he knew.
“Celerity darling, where are you?” called Mrs Malfoy.
Celerity planted a wet kiss on Albus’ chin and slithered out of his arms. Her diaphanous robes, periwinkle blue and cut in the Greek style that was painfully fashionable, glittered in the sun. Mrs Malfoy took out an embroidered handkerchief and scrubbed her daughter’s hands before leading her across to Scorpius.
“Say goodbye to your brother,” she instructed. “We have to be going now. Scorpius, are you sure you’ve got everything? A few Galleons for lunch? Owl if you forget anything.”
“I’m fine, Ma,” said Scorpius impatiently. Mrs Malfoy patted his cheek and Celerity hugged
his leg. Even these Spartan shows of affection embarrassed Scorpius; he folded his arms and fixed his gaze on the great clock, sending a not-so-subtle hint.
“Goodbye, Albus.” Mrs Malfoy kissed Albus’ forehead. The kiss was light and dry, unlike Celerity’s, and she smelled of flowers. “Have a good year.”
“Bye,” echoed Albus, a good five seconds after they had moved away.
“The way you drool over my mother is perfectly disgusting,” announced Scorpius. “Can’t you at least choose someone your own age?”
“What, like the Precious Christine?” said Albus. Scorpius had once confided that Christine insisted on being called by pet-names like ‘sweetcheeks’ and ‘sugarplum.’ Albus only used the information in retaliation, such as when Scorpius insinuated that Albus fancied his mother.
Scorpius drew back his top lip, exposing his rather long front teeth in a way that made him look like an irritated pony. It was a flag of truce. “Do you think that child is ever going to learn to speak properly?”
“She can speak properly.” Albus was tired of this argument as well; too tired to come up with an original angle. “She just likes the way the words sound.”
“She sounds like an idiot,” said Scorpius. “But she never does it around Da, and Ma pretends to like it.”
“Maybe she’s not pretending. Maybe she thinks it’s cute.”
“And maybe she’s soft in the head, although that’s less of a supposition than a cold hard fact.” Scorpius sighed.
Albus bent to retrieve his luggage, which lay toppled and forgotten after Celerity’s attack. When he straightened up again, Scorpius silently took a bag from him and lead him to their compartment.
Rambo was already in situ, his head bent over a crossword book. His pumpkin-round face broke into a jack o’lantern grin when he spotted Albus.
“How are you, mate?” he asked. “Mum sent you a bag of M&Ms; I’ll fetch it down for you once I’ve finished this.”
Albus peered over Rambo’s shoulder. Only two words remained to be filled in. Although the clues were Dutch to Albus – all nonsense like Found ermine, deer hides damaged – Rambo had probably solved the previous twenty-four since sitting down on the train.
“Tell her thanks when you write,” said Albus. He turned to Scorpius. “I don’t know why she always sends along food. Mum packs enough to feed an army, and there’s always the trolley.”
“Probably thinks you need fattening up.” Scorpius pinched one of Albus’ elbows, which were admittedly rather bony and pokeish. “You’d be better off leaving out the chocolate, though. All that hydrogenated fat can’t be good for your skin.”
Albus pressed his lips shut. Behind them, his jaw ached with the effort of clenching his teeth. He took the window seat opposite Rambo and stared out, willing down the half-angry, half-homesick tears.
Rose and James were still on the platform. Hugo was a few feet away, rocking on his heels with his hands clasped behind his back as he pontificated to his friends-slash-followers. Albus could put names to one or two of the so-called ‘popular’ crowd. There was Joyce Trefoil, whose teeth were bleached so white James had taken to conjuring sunglasses whenever he saw her coming; she didn’t get the joke. Her brother Macnight had his arm slung low around Rose’s waist. While Albus watched, Macnight’s fingers crept southwards.
Rose laughed at something James said. The hem of her mini-dress fluttered in the breeze, a hairsbreath beneath Macnight’s squeezing hand. The big navy circles printed on the red silk hurt Albus’ eyes. He shut them.
When he opened them again, the group was moving. James led, with Macnight and Rose in her thigh-high boots close behind. Their movement left a gap that was soon filled with a far more welcome sight: the Abbott twins.
Scorpius stepped across to the window. “Ye gods, what has Titania done to her hair?” he murmured.
Albus yanked up the sash of the window and leaned out. “Hey, Ti! Norma! Over here!” He waved frantically. On catching sight of him Titania returned the gesture with gusto. Norma just raised a hand, as if she were feigning off paparazzi.
“Don’t lean out so far, you’ll fall on the tracks.” Scorpius tugged on Albus’ collar.
“The tracks are a whole foot down,” said Albus. “I doubt I’d do lasting damage.”
“You should be more careful.”
“Look, I’m not allergic to iron. Chill out.”
“Does anyone have an idea what a ‘chaperone shredded corset’ could be?” asked Rambo.
“Not a pig’s notion,” said Scorpius.
At that moment, Titania burst into the carriage. Albus could see clearly why her hair aroused comment from Scorpius, who was sadly inclined to priggishness. She’d dyed violet streaks into her dark-brown mane, and pinned it up with hairclips made out of pink feathers. Her street-clothes were equally outrageous and mis-matched: a black t-shirt with a bulldog’s head picked out in diamante chips, paired with red and purple striped trousers. She looked like she’d been getting fashion tips from a lunatic, or Morse Lovegood.
By contrast, Norma had the appearance of a sober attorney. Her one concession to the warm weather was her cream linen skirt; everything else, from her tweed bakerboy cap to her sensible leather mules, whispered restraint.
Norma immediately cleaved to Rambo’s side. “Look what I brought,” she said, in tones of high glee. She reverently withdrew from her backpack a garishly coloured magazine, which had the good fortune to be called ‘The Bumper Book of Cryptic Crossword Puzzles.’
“Awesome!” said Rambo. “This’ll keep us going for the whole journey.”
“I know. It’s quite possibly the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”
“Are you two seriously going to have, like, a crossword party in here?” Scorpius eyed them askance. “If so, I’m gone.”
“Don’t you have Prefect duties anyway?” asked Albus. “Ones that you have to do? Now?”
“As a matter of fact, I do.” Scorpius crouched, eyeing his reflection in the window. After a few seconds of conscientious patting, he was satisfied. “I suppose I’ll see you later.”
“Don’t put yourself out or anything,” said Albus. He glared at Scorpius’ back as he left, envy for those broad shoulders mixed up with the tumult of emotions currently housed in his stomach.
“I swear, every year that boy gets more insufferable,” said Titania cheerfully. “If he gets made Head Boy I’m quitting school in protest. Anything for eating? By the way, Albus, you’ve got some tissue on your face.”
Albus scratched the offending article off his face, relishing the painful pulsations. “Rambo has some M&Ms,” he said. “Want to share?”
Albus was playing a raucous game of Exploding Snap with Titania when his Port-a-Floo went off.
James had begged and pleaded, cajoled and threatened, for six long months, all in the name of owning a Port-a-Floo. Mum had been all for it. She used her Port – a fortieth birthday present from Mrs Malfoy – at least sixty times a day, calling friends and arranging the mysterious things that went on behind closed laundry doors. Dad, on the other hand, was reluctant. Albus privately thought this might have something to do with the Granger-Weasleys and the way they never looked up from the little green flames every time they came for a visit.
Albus knew his family wasn’t poor, but he also knew it wasn’t as rich as Rose and Hugo’s, either. From bits of snatched conversations, heard before the doors were firmly shut, he gathered that Uncle Ron and Aunt Hermione were paid a stipend by the Ministry on top of their salaries, for services rendered to wizardkind. Dad, however, refused to take the Ministry’s ‘dirt money.’ It was all tangled up in the Great War, as most confusing and distasteful things were. Dad was a lot less wealthy now than when he was young, for what reason Albus couldn’t fathom.
In the end, Dad worked overtime for a few months and not alone James, but also Lily and Albus, ended up with Ports.
For a few days Albus was delighted to own such an elite magical object. But once he’d altered all the settings, so that the fire glowed blue when not in use and the flames crackled the tune of ‘Merlin’s Balls’ when a call was in-coming, the novelty wore off. It wore off all the quicker because Albus had little actual use for a Port-a-Floo. The twins could not afford even one between them, Rambo hadn’t yet designed a viable interface between the Ports and his Muggle mobile phone, and as for Scorpius...
Scorpius’ communication skills were as subject to his fits and whims as anything else. Malfoy Manor was Unplottable, which was his excuse whenever a letter ‘went astray,’ either coming or going. Trying to contact him by Port was an exercise doomed to failure ninety percent of the time. The other ten percent, the call would be cut-off midway with no explanation ever given, or else would be dominated by long silences when it seemed Scorpius had taken his finger out of the flame and simply wandered off to do something else.
Albus recognised the current caller as Lily, because the flames were flaring red. (James was black, Mum gold; Dad still refused to buy a Port for himself.)
“Ha!” said Titania, as she won the round of Snap by tint of Albus’ distraction.
“Lily, are you there?” asked Albus. He pulled the wheel slightly; it was taut, the connection still open.
“Did you know that farm-raised turkeys drown if they go outside in the rain?” Lily’s growl was barely audible above Titania’s crows of triumph and Rambo and Norma’s conversation about xenophobia.
“No,” said Albus. “Sounds like a tough break. Listen, do you want to come sit in our carriage?” He knew Lily would be by herself otherwise; or worse, stuck in a corner while
other kids alternately teased and ignored her.
When he heard no reply, Albus pulled the wheel again. It trundled freely, the spokes slack. Lily had taken her finger out of the fire.
“Who was that?” asked Titania, when her exultant victory raised no corresponding ire in Albus.
“Lily.” Albus frowned down at his Port. He thought about trying to call Lily back, but for all he knew she’d just wanted to tell him about turkeys. Non-sequiturs were her main contribution to any conversation.
“She brush her hair yet?” inquired Titania. “Please say no; I’ve got five Galleons going on seven years straight.”
“I wouldn’t know,” said Albus. “She doesn’t let anyone in her room. And what do you mean, five Galleons? You swore you wouldn’t take part in that betting pool!”
“Did I say five Galleons?” Titania stuffed her mouth full of M&Ms. “Slip of the tongue. I was thinking about another bet.”
“You fool, how many have you laid? Templeton Gudgeon cooks the books. You won’t see a Sickle of your prize money even if you win.”
“Hark at you, seasoned gambler,” said Titania. “You know an awful lot about it for someone who doesn’t bet.”
Albus was about to reply when three raps came at the door, which was then opened by the knocker without waiting for an invitation.
Christine Ohtori’s pretty face peered around the door. She seemed reluctant to actually step inside, as if the general scorn for the compartment’s inhabitants – perfectly visible in every line around her pinched mouth – would infect her if she got too close.
“Have you seen Scorpius?” she asked the room in general. Norma and Rambo didn’t even look up. Titania shrugged and continued to shovel M&Ms into her mouth. As usual, it fell to Albus’ lot to talk to the girl. He thought this dreadfully unfair, considering that out of all of them, he disliked Scorpius’ girlfriend the most.
“Not lately,” said Albus. “He went to the Prefect’s compartment before we left London.”
“Well, he’s not there now,” said Christine, as if this was Albus’ personal fault. “He hasn’t been back here at all?”
“No,” said Albus. He restrained himself from adding, ‘not since we poked his eyes out with a quill and stuffed him under the seats to rot.’ Christine didn’t have a strong grasp on the concept of sarcasm. It was wasted on her except for the times when she took offence to it, and even that was hit-and-miss.
“Tell him I want to see him immediately, when he turns up,” said Christine.
“Will do,” said Albus, jerkily, his voice muffled from biting the inside of his cheek.
As Christine turned to flounce out, Albus saw something crushed and vulnerable in her face.
It was quickly invaded by haughty legions, but Albus couldn’t help feeling a mite sorry for the girl. It occurred to him that Scorpius had never once, in their six-year relationship, failed to meet up with Christine on the train to Hogwarts for some quality snogging time. That they were nearly there by now and Scorpius hadn’t yet sought her out bespoke something rotten in the state of Denmark.
Scorpius’ and Christine’s fights were frequent and infamous. To be precise, they were Christine’s fights: she’d storm and rage over some real or imagined slight, while Scorpius weathered it like an unsmiling stone. The fights never been serious enough to constitute a break-up, and Scorpius’ friends had long since given up hope of ever being rid of her. The idea that the ‘and’ could be permanently scratched from ‘Scorpius-and-Christine’ was now an almost shocking one to Albus.
Then again, Albus mused, Scorpius had been acting strangely for a while. They’d fought tooth and nail to be able to visit each other’s houses for a week each summer, yet this year it had been a complete waste of time. When Albus arrived at Malfoy Manor, he hadn’t even seen Scorpius until late the following morning. During the visit Scorpius spent most of his time in his room, mooning around writing letters, while Albus played with Celerity and acted guinea-pig to Mrs Malfoy’s cake-making experiments.
“Scorpius used to love doing this,” she’d said.
Albus expected Scorpius to perk up when he came to Godric’s Hollow, if only out of the politeness he owed as a barely-tolerated guest. Yet, while he was more visible, he still managed to be absent. He appropriated the hammock in the garden and read his way through the meagre Potter library. After two days Albus wished he’d never come, in between longing for the lost days of bygone summers, when a week wasn’t long enough to build all the forts and play all the games they wanted.
Of course, they were a little old for forts now, and there was no space to play Quidditch in Godric’s Hollow; but Albus felt Scorpius could at least have made an effort. In the end Albus left him to his own devices and went on doing whatever he did when Scorpius wasn’t visiting. The only surprise was that Albus missed Scorpius as much as ever when he left. It seemed silly to miss something that hadn’t really been there in the first place.
It wasn’t as if Scorpius’ low mood could be blamed on his OWL exam results. Albus knew Scorpius had done brilliantly – although Mrs Malfoy had told him; Scorpius had not breathed a word on the subject. Albus’ own results were respectable, if not as good as he’d hoped, but that was yet another thing he couldn’t tell Scorpius now. Norma and Titania had both got exactly what they’d expected, and Rambo was top of the year.
Albus shrugged off his gloomy thoughts and turned back to the card game. You knew where you were with cards. They didn’t all of a sudden decide they were going to be chequers, which was what Albus liked about them.
He and Titania were at a ten-all draw, both down half an eyebrow, when Norma said, “What ho, we’ve arrived.” They all clambered over the seats to the window for a first view of Hogwarts, lit up like a firework cake. Albus felt a bone-deep thrum of satisfaction, which forced out the last dredges of self-pitying homesickness. It would return to prey on him whenever he failed a test, or had a relapse, or looked in the mirror, but for now he was simply happy to be back.
Scorpius caught up with Albus as he straggled into the Great Hall after a gaggle of sixth-years. He’d hung back at the train station to avoid his cousins and ended up riding in a carriage with two strangers and Templeton Gudgeon, who kept egging him to bet on whether the carriage would overturn before they got to the gates of Hogwarts.
“Hello, stranger.” Scorpius bumped shoulders with Albus.
“You look pleased with yourself.” Albus took in his friend’s windswept hair and the high colour in his cheeks. It took more than a night-time jaunt to make Scorpius this elated; for one thing, he was scared of the dark.
“And why not? I have plenty to be pleased about.”
“I don’t know about that. Christine’s looking for you. She said you were to find her ‘immediately.’” Albus put up his hands like claws to quote the order. He was greatly surprised when Scorpius laughed and batted them away.
“Leave worrying about Christine to me. It’s my job.”
“Yeah, like anyone else would want it.”
“Christine is a very pretty girl, you know. I know plenty of boys who’d be interested, if I happened to break up with her.”
“Where, in the frontal lobotomy ward?” retorted Albus. He let Scorpius’ scowl pass as he contemplated his words. “Or ... are you trying to justify treating her badly? That’s a joke if I ever heard one.”
“What are you yowling about? You treat her badly all the time.”
“I don’t like her. She’s your girlfriend. Grasp the difference, there?” Albus sniffed. “Besides, I don’t treat her badly – just think and talk about her behind her back badly.”
“She’s in Ravenclaw.” Scorpius sounded amused. “She knows that already.”
“Good for her.”
“Hey! Pax.” Scorpius held up his hands. “Don’t look at me all fierce like that.”
“Then talk about something else,” said Albus. He started towards the Great Hall. Savoury smells tantalised his nostrils, but for some reason he didn’t feel hungry. He had to eat, of course, or his glucose levels would go out of whack and trigger off one of the chain reactions of which they were so fond. He sighed and fingered the pill-box in his pocket.
“I got you something.” Scorpius bounced to Albus’ side. There was definitely something wrong with him. Scorpius never bounced.
“Is it lube?” Albus eyed the small tube askance. Scorpius’ fifteenth birthday present to him had been a packet of items so unspeakable he couldn’t show his mother. In revenge, he’d bought Scorpius a potted plant.
“No. Take it and see.”
Albus gingerly took the tube between two fingers and read the label. His eyes scanned the words slowly, it seemed, in comparison to the build-up of his rage, which was instantaneous.
“‘Mrs Skower’s Blemish Away! Skin Formula,’” he read aloud. Scorpius was smiling happily. “What the flaming hell is this?”
Albus’ hand was shaking. “Are you ashamed of me too, is that it? Is that why you gave me this – this snake-oil?”
“Ashamed? I would never – I was only trying to help!”
“Then you’re an idiot as well as a bastard,” snarled Albus. “Don’t you think I haven’t tried
this? Don’t you think I haven’t tried everything? I use a prescribed potion so strong I have to measure it out in millilitres so it doesn’t abrade the skin off my face. I don’t have these bloody spots because I eat too much chocolate or need to change cleansers. God. How could you be so blind?”
“I’m sorry.” Scorpius’ voice was subdued, a world away from the carefree nonchalance of earlier. “I didn’t realise.”
“You don’t realise a lot lately,” said Albus. For an instant, he hated his best friend.
“Are you coming inside? You need to eat,” said Scorpius. That, at least, he hadn’t forgotten,
Albus thought bitterly. Or had experience rather than friendship been the teacher there?
“No,” said Albus. “I’m not hungry.”
He turned on his heel and stalked towards the Hufflepuff common room. Screw hypoglycaemia; he was going to bed. He didn’t expect Scorpius to follow him. Nothing about his behaviour lately made sense.
Albus still felt absurdly hurt when he didn’t.