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HP fic: Three Steps Back

HP fic: Three Steps Back
This part: 6,082 words, PG-13, ships going to war
a/n: Sequel to The Road Less Travelled. Not sugar-coated.
Previous parts here



Oh, for it would be a pity
To o'erpraise her or to flout her:
She was wild, and sweet, and witty -
Let's not say dull things about her.

(Victor Plarr)

It was a dark and stormy night. Albus mummified himself in blankets and tried not to think about two things: the Potions essay that was due on the morrow, and just how cold his feet were.

Of the two, the ice-block status of his extremities was the more pressing issue. This was probably because he didn't have his Potions essay in bed with him - but only because Rambo had come down to the common room at midnight and forcibly separated them.

Even now – an hour later – Albus' mind was still revolving around the finer points of his assignment. He was already five inches over the required parchment length: a historical event in and of itself. He'd never before understood why Rambo and Scorpius felt such a rush of achievement when they overshot the mark. It always seemed like a monumental waste of effort, both on their part and that of the poor sods that had to correct it. Now, Albus knew better. Now, he understood completely.

His conclusion was raggy. He ruminated on this as he pulled his legs to his chest and tried to rub the circulation back into his feet. He could have sharpened it up a bit – a lot, if only Rambo hadn't dragged him away.

The cold was creeping towards his knees now. Defeated, Albus scrabbled a hand outside the covers and through the curtains to retrieve his wand. In the old days he'd used to keep it in the traditional spot beneath his pillow. He'd rather lost his taste for that when Rambo charmed himself bald in his sleep, one night in fourth year.

The Warming Charm coiled around him like an overheated snake. It was weaker than it could be, but Albus was tired. Not to mention that, between Scorpius and the demands of his now all-important Potions homework, he'd hardly had a moment to breathe all week.

'I've got something to show you.' Albus shook his head. Danger always beckoned when Scorpius uttered those words. And Albus, like a fool, had never once failed to follow it.

+++

"Are you free now?"

Albus looked up into Scorpius' amused face. Albus supposed he did make for a comical figure, with his face flushed from effort and a roaring fire, his tufty hair on end, and a couple of quills stuck behind one ear.

"I'm free all the time," said Albus. "I think it's the law or something."

"Funny." Scorpius leaned over his shoulder and ran a finger down Albus' parchment. "'The Use of Underwater Plants in Fertility Potions: a Case Study,'" he read. "Oh, our assignment? Interesting topic."

"Hm." Albus squirmed. Scorpius would cheerfully castigate anyone's choice of essay subject, potion recipe or general appearance – anyone except Albus, whom he treated with fine kid gloves. The gloves did come off now and again, but Scorpius had been remarkably cheerful of late. His mood contrasted oddly with Christine's, whose stifling grief was that of one mourning a tragic and unexpected death.

"Are you nearly finished it?" asked Scorpius.

Of course he'd finished his. And it wouldn't be on an 'interesting topic,' which was the sort of phrase that people more polite than Scorpius used for hard-working students who'd never break the bell-curve. Obscure, rare, intriguing, ground-breaking, topical, controversial – these were the sort of comments garnered in the otherwise pristine margins of Scorpius' essays, along with 9/10 or 23/25.

"I suppose so." Albus inspected his work doubtfully.

In days past he would have responded with an emphatic 'yes,' and felt eternally grateful to Scorpius for handing him the key to his homework prison. For his other classes, that still held true. Potions was another story. Since the advent of Professor Redding (whom Albus still thought of as Chequer Charley) his enthusiasm for the subject had all but tripled.

"Come on," wheedled Scorpius. "I still haven't shown you that thing - remember, from Monday?"

"Like I could forget." Albus sheathed his quills with an inaudible sigh. "Will this take long?"

"Why? Do you need more time to work on your Harpies scrapbook?"

"No, that's already full," said Albus, trying to match Scorpius' light-hearted tone. He wondered how Scorpius knew about the scrapbook: he'd gone so far as to ward it from intruders to prevent Eoghan finding out about it, and that was nearly guaranteed to repel less nosy people. Perhaps Scorpius had just guessed.

"I brought your cloak."

Scorpius brought his hands from behind his back. True to his word, two folds of woollen cloth - one deep crimson, one green - lay over his arms. He swept the green cloak around Albus' shoulders and would have fastened it too if Albus hadn't batted his hands away.

"I said I'll come and I'll come," he said. "No need to play house-elf."

"Hurry then. And put your hood up. I don't want us to be seen."

"Please don't tell me this is in the Forest."

Scorpius had already tugged his hood forward to hide the silvery gleam of his hair. He kept his dark blue eyes trained on the floor, but mirth tweaked the edges of his mouth.

"It's in the Forest, isn't it," said Albus, resigned.

"Prefect, remember?"

"You going to put a unicorn on detention, are you?" Albus rolled his eyes, but his feet were following Scorpius out of the Clubhouse door and down the hall. The objections and the sarcasm were mere form, and they both knew it.

There was no sound to drown the patter of their feet as they slipped through tapestries and behind statues, taking the long route to the Entrance Hall. Knots of students milled about; a particularly raucous game of Gobstones was on-going under the watchful eye of a suit of armour.

The main doors - ten feet of gnarled and withered oak - were bolted shut, but the watchman's entrance stood slightly ajar. Albus kept watch, crossing his arms in a 'look-how-casual-I-am' gesture while Scorpius wriggled through. Albus took his time, leaning against the door as if by accident until it opened enough to allow his passage.

A slight drizzle was falling outside, drops stinging Albus' nose. He was tempted to stop and fuss with his cloak fastenings, but Scorpius already had him by the hand and was drawing him round behind the greenhouses. It was a sorry reflection on their schooling careers that they both knew the best way to enter the Forbidden Forest unseen.

The Whomping Willow rustled its branches threateningly as they passed, too far away to sustain any damage. Scorpius thumbed his nose at it.

"It'll get you for that one day," Albus warned.

"How? Will it grow legs and chase after me?"

"Stranger things have happened."

Scorpius snorted. "Not to trees."

By the time they reached the outskirts of the Forest, Albus' robe hem was soaking and stained with churned-up mud. He made a mental note to fix that before they went back inside.

"It's not far," Scorpius told him. "Plus, I made a path."

He pointed at an alder that was growing a few yards into the main fringe. A tiny white pendant was spinning in the chill breeze, sending dappled light dancing across the leaves. It was mostly hidden by a cluster of foliage, so that the casual onlooker would probably miss it.

Albus ventured closer to inspect the pendant. The fine silver wires that held it in place were twisted in a Celtic Knot pattern and the milky crystal was inscribed with runes. It looked like Scorpius' own work.

"Good, aren't they?" Scorpius took Albus' hand and wrapped it around the crystal. Instantly, a whole line of white lights lit up, leading off into the trees in a winding trail.

"Wow," breathed Albus.

"And they stay lit until you touch the first one again," said Scorpius. "Nifty little spell, ain't it? It was one of the references in my Ancient Runes textbook. Never-Lost, I think it's called."

"It must have taken you ages," said Albus.

"A few months - I was only doing it to see if I could, at first."

"So you didn't plan on taking multiple trips into strictly forbidden territories?"

"Not as such, no."

Scorpius pushed back his hood and Albus did the same. The thick canopy held off all but the most torrential rain.

Instinctively, Albus reached for Scorpius' hand. Long experience of investigating dark and dangerous places - such as the gnome-infested warrens behind Grandma Weasley's, the magical caves around Godric's Hollow and any given room in Malfoy Manor - had taught them that getting separated was the worst fate that could befall the naive adventurer.

Albus thought Scorpius' hand trembled a little in his, but it was probably the cold.

They tramped through the mulch for fifteen minutes before Scorpius stopped Albus with a squeeze. "There," he whispered, pointing. "Look."

Albus looked, and gasped. Somehow, some time, a great rubble of rocks and boulders had accumulated in the centre of a clearing. They formed a veritable cliff-face that stretched up beyond the tops of the trees. Magic or erosion had carved out a hollow in the centre, through which a waterfall fell endlessly into a dark pool.

"What is it?" said Albus, in a hushed voice. There was an aura surrounding the place akin to the one in Godric's Chapel. Albus felt that talking normally would be disrespectful, although to what or to whom he was uncertain.

"A Wishing Well," said Scorpius. He stepped down into the rocky basin bordered the pool. Albus did likewise and nearly fell - the slippery rock had no purchase. He clutched Scorpius' shoulder for support.

"How did you find out about it?" he asked, once he'd caught his breath.

"On an old map of the Forest," said Scorpius. "It was in the library at home."

"It's beautiful."

Now that Albus was closer, he could see the amazing detail. The inner side of the hollow was pale granite with pink marascite veins, as if someone had cut into stony flesh. The basin had a ledge running all the way around the pool, which was no longer as dark as Albus had first thought. It was all colours, like sunshine on oil.

"Follow me."

Scorpius, one hand on the rock surface, began to pick his way around the narrow ledge. The spray misted across his hair and shoulders, making Albus smile. So that explained it.

The path around was more difficult than it looked, being rough and narrow, but they were well rewarded for their efforts. A smooth hollow of the same creamy stone had been scooped out on the opposite side, easily accommodating two nearly-grown wizards.

Scorpius picked up a handful of tiny pebbles. They rattled as he gathered them into his lap and chose three that were the most evenly-contoured.

"These are for you," he said, cupping Albus' palm and pouring the pebbles into it. "Three wishes - no more, no less."

"What about you?" Albus wanted to know.

Scorpius smiled his secretive smile: the one that was two parts intriguing, one part damn irritating. "I already made my wishes."

"Okay."

Albus closed his eyes and licked his lips. What should he wish for? What, indeed?

Good health and clear skin? But Albus knew a little about the properties of Wishing Wells. They were capricious at best. Those who wished too greedily were rewarded in kind. Besides, for all Albus knew, this Well had been abandoned for centuries. The magic might have faded with no one to maintain it. Best to keep his wishes small, then.

Albus tossed one pebble into the pool. It vanished with a soft plop.

"I wish that Professor Redding would notice me," he thought.

The second pebble slid under with a sound like tearing silk.

"I wish I might become a good Healer one day," he thought.

The final pebble made a great splash that doused Albus' face in spray. He grinned like a child, because he had no wishes left to make.

After a quick deliberation, he thought: "I wish Scorpius to be happy." There: those wishes couldn't be too hard to fulfil.

"All done?" asked Scorpius softly.

"Yeah, I think so," said Albus.

But they stayed there a while longer, staring down at the petrol-spill surface of the pool. Just because.

+++

Dragging himself out of bed the next morning was torture. Albus had fully intended to rise with the sun, the better to make the necessary corrections to his Potions essay. But he'd found the battle against the warm lure of his bedclothes an impossible one to win.

He summoned up a smile for the poster of Professor Redding that Eoghan had taped to the wall. It continually cycled an action sequence, with Professor Redding passing the Quaffle to her teammates in the legendary Chequer formation and scoring the definitive goal that clinched the 2008 World Cup. Her face flashed into focus - sweaty and beautiful - as the poster's caption lit up: Chequer Charley Does It Again!

Rambo had thoughtfully scrambled together Albus' notes and placed them on his trunk. He'd woken unaccustomedly early, as he had every day since they returned to school, and thus saved Albus' essay from the denigration of those cavorting in the common room.

Albus sleep-walked through a shower and dressing. It wasn't until he nearly walked into his sister at the entrance to the Great Hall that he remembered he'd been meaning to check up on her.

"Lils, wait," he said, catching at her arm. Lily turned slowly, regarding him from under her woolly fringe.

"You wanted something?"

"Yeah - how are you getting on?"

"With what?" Lily wasn't being purposely obtuse, Albus knew, although most people read it that way. Lily just liked to be clear.

"Classes, your dorm-mates - life, in general."

Lily pondered this for a while, shifting her anatomy book from hip to hip. Albus had yet to see her without it: she seemed to look on it as a talisman. Considering that it could have brained an elephant, he didn't blame her.

"My classes are boring," Lily announced at last. "My dorm-mates are squealing imbeciles who all want in James' pants. I've tried to tell them how disappointing they'd find that, but of course they don't listen to me. Life is as disappointing as usual, in other words."

"Are you still intending on..." Albus waved his hands, knowing he had to say it "... quitting, after your exams?"

"Do you think Mum and Dad will let me?"

"Absolutely not. But that wasn't the question I asked."

"Yes, then." Lily swapped hips again. "I've already talked to Morse about it. He's willing to take me on as an apprentice."

"Won't you need NEWTs for that?"

"Taxidermy isn't exactly a Ministry job." Lily's voice was more gravelly than ever. "There are no regulations, just aptitude. Morse thinks I have it."

Albus could attest to that. Mum and Dad kept Chicken, Lily's first taxidermy attempt on her pet raven, on the piano next to James' Quidditch trophies. It still gave Albus the willies, but at least it was big enough to hide his own lack of offerings to the family pride.

"What about you, big bro?" asked Lily. "Any plans to follow in James' footsteps?"

She sounded like Dad. Albus restrained himself from scowling - just. "I can barely fly in a straight line. The only Quidditch team that'd sign me would be blind circus performers."

"Uncle Ron's delighted, I hear."

"He would be - he owns shares in the Cannons, remember?"

"Is it possible to forget?"

Albus and Lily shared a smile. One entire room in the Granger-Weasley mansion was given over entirely to Cannon memorabilia. It was a truly hideous chamber - an epileptic's nightmare. All the gold in Gringotts couldn't teach Uncle Ron good taste.

To be fair to his father, Albus' newly-minted interest in Quidditch was bound to be misleading. He still attended school matches on sufferance, and then only when Scorpius was playing (he was a good, although not especially gifted, Keeper). Albus declined the season tickets Uncle Ron regularly offered to Dad, pleading illness or vertigo. It was the only time he ever played the sick card.

Albus couldn't exactly tell his father that his sole interest in the Holyhead Harpies revolved around their star Chaser.

"Anyway." Albus cleared his throat awkwardly. "You can talk to me. And stuff."

"I'm aware of that," said Lily. "My vocal cords are one hundred percent intact." She turned and walked to the Slytherin table. For Lily, that was practically affectionate.

When Albus arrived at the Hufflepuff table, Norma was sitting beside Rambo, sharing a plate of rashers. Albus served himself some cornflakes, nodding hello to his friends.

"How's Lily?" Norma asked.

"She's Lily," said Albus, "but otherwise, fine. Why do you ask?"

"No reason." Norma shook her head, as if to dislodge flies. "I've tried talking to her - telling her pranks - everything I can think of. She just doesn't want to settle in."

"That's true," agreed Albus. "Don't lose sleep over it. She chooses to be like that."

"I want to help her!" Norma pronged a piece of bacon so hard it bounced off the plate.

"They won't rescind your Prefecture if every student in Slytherin isn't singing 'Oh Happy Day' every morning," Albus pointed out.

"Slytherins, singing? Pah," said Norma. She chewed moodily on her rasher.

Rambo looked up from his astronomy book, tuning into the conversation for the first time. "I used to be in a choir," he said.

"Excellent," said Albus. "Norma's thinking of starting an inter-House singing competition, to bring all the loners back into the fold."

"I should think you'd be more compassionate. She is your sister, after all."
"Exactly," said Albus, in such a way that even the rhinoceros-skinned Norma knew the conversation was closed.

"Are we still on for tonight?" Rambo asked Norma, who nodded vigorously, bits of chewed bacon spraying everywhere.

Albus stared at them in dawning comprehension. Rambo - and Norma! Together at night ... doing God knows what. Albus didn't know whether to laugh or vomit. Titania's timely entrance forestalled the decision.

"Kippers! Lovely!" she said, plopping herself down beside Albus. "Aren't you having anything?"

"Yeah," said Albus. He crammed a slice of toast into his mouth, out of necessity more than hunger.

He felt an urgent need to impart this slice of news to Scorpius, but he was nowhere to be seen.

+++

Albus trawled the corridors of the dungeons. He was far too early for class, but he was hoping to find Scorpius either coming or going. Predictably, there was no answer to his Port call.

He rounded the corner that lead to the potions supply room. And there was Scorpius, slipping through the door and looking furtive. His hair was ruffled and his cheeks were pink.

"What are you doing in there?" asked Albus, at which Scorpius gave a enormous start.

"Oh! Er, nothing." Scorpius closed the door behind his back and leaned against it. "What are you doing here?"

"We have class." Albus gestured further down the hall to the Potions lab. Scorpius was looking bamboozled. "Are you okay? Did you hit your head?"

"No! What?"

"In the storeroom," said Albus, talking slowly. "Your head?"

"I just had to get some supplies. You know, for things."

Albus nodded, as if this were a reasonable explanation that made even a vague kind of sense. "Are you coming to class?"

"Yes, in a minute. I just have to finish getting those ... things."

"Right." Albus didn't move, expecting that Scorpius would run inside and hurry out to meet him. After a few seconds, however, it was clear that Scorpius was waiting for him to leave.

"I'll meet you there, shall I?" asked Albus, wondering if this morning would get any more disturbing.

Scorpius' face cleared. "Yes! Do that. I'll be in as soon as I, you know -"

"Get your things?" Albus finished. "Right."

Frowning, he made his way into the classroom. Professor Redding was seated at her desk. Unlike the rest of the teachers, who stuck to sedate robes with boring cuts, Redding was as flashy as a bird of paradise. Her cerise robes were slashed almost to her waist, and the flimsy scrap of material across her cleavage enhanced rather than covered what was beneath it. Her fingernails were painted to match, and she had jewelled combs in her hair. Albus felt as dazzled as if he'd looked directly into the sun.

"Good morning," she said. "Algernon, wasn't it?"

"Albus. Albus Severus Potter."

"Oh yes, of course. My apologies, Albus. Have you finished your essay?"

"I have." Albus fumbled in his satchel. He wished, suddenly, that he'd bound his essay in gold thread, used a better quill, anything that would make it more pleasing to Professor Redding. Alas, it was too late, too late.

"Thank you, Alg - Albus." Professor Redding smiled at him, revealing her rather long but brilliantly white teeth. Albus felt his heart race. "You can take a seat now."

Albus just stopped himself from thanking her. He stumbled a little as he walked to the back of the room and sat, face flaming.

After all, Scorpius wasn't so long in following him. He'd smoothed down his hair, but the flush on his face and neck made him look like he'd just ran a marathon. He tossed his essay on Professor Redding's desk as he passed, hardly even looking at her.

"Your robes are buttoned wrong," Albus told him. "Did you get dressed in the dark?" Was it his imagination, or did Scorpius blush deeper?

"Something like that," he muttered, hands flying to his neck.

"I have something to tell you." Albus leaned closer. "I think Norma and Rambo are ... going out."

"Oh, really?" Scorpius didn't sound overly interested. He was staring cross-eyed at his collar. Making an impatient noise, Albus pulled his hands away and re-did the buttons for him.

"Now, can you pay attention?"

"To what?"

"Norma and Rambo!"

"So they finally got it together, did they?" Scorpius shrugged. "About time."
"You knew about this?" Albus was aghast.

"If you mean, did I know they are now an item, then no. If you mean, did I think it would happen sooner or later, then yes, of course. Didn't you?"

"I never even thought about it," said Albus honestly.

"Oh, come on. They're the only two people in the known universe who enjoy doing crossword puzzles. They have to go out with each other. No one else will."

"But aren't you ... worried? What if they break up? What happens to the rest of us?"

"We'll survive."

"How can you be so sure?"

Scorpius rolled his shoulders irritably. "Because it's really nothing to do with us. Provided they don't go getting down and dirty in front of us, that is. If they're going out then they're going out. If they break up they break up. Did Christine damage our friendship?"

"No-o," said Albus. Only because she's been such a constant fixture that she's formed part of the foundations, was what he didn't say. "But she wasn't my friend."

"And still isn't, I'd wager." Scorpius smiled, suddenly serene. "You're such a little worry-wart, you know that?"

"Says the boy who has a nervous breakdown every time he gets an A," retorted Albus, without heat. After all, it had only happened twice in living memory.

At that point, Professor Redding called for the class's attention, and Albus had none to spare for Scorpius, Norma and Rambo, or indeed anything else in the world.

+++

Five minutes before Potions ended, Albus started gathering up his notes and quills into a neat pile. His plan was to exit the class promptly, so that he would be one of the first to walk past Professor Redding's desk - maybe even in time to catch her gaze and mouth 'goodbye.'

He was bitterly disappointed at the outcome of his scheming. Granted, he got to the front of the classroom in double-quick time - Scorpius was barely out of his seat - but at the last, last minute Roe upset his cauldron and Professor Redding rushed to his aid.

The first blow was bad enough, but the second was nearly too much to bear. A front-row view of the Professor's cleavage! Albus only hoped Roe appreciated it.

He dawdled down the corridor, lost in thought, and nearly walked straight into his brother.

"James!"

"That's my name, don't wear it out."

Albus scowled. Although matters between them were held in an uneasy truce, Albus didn't go out of his way to seek out James. James, equally, kept to his own territory and didn't stray much beyond it. The dungeons - especially now that James had unilaterally denounced Potions and all that it stood for - were most certainly not his territory.

"What are you doing here?" asked Albus.

"I'm waiting for Marie-Jeanette," James replied easily. Albus had been expecting more a fight to gain the answer and, now that he had it, he didn't quite know what to do with it.

"Marie-Jeanette isn't in my class," was the answer he settled on.

"Yeah, but she said she'd meet me here." James blew his hair out of his eyes. "God knows why. Girls, eh?"

"Right." Albus graced his brother with a narrow-eyed stare.

There was little of Albus in his face, the pebbly layer of spots notwithstanding. His nose was larger and beakier than Albus', his cheeks thinner, his eyes deeper-set. He was a rainbow of browns: russet hair, blackberry eyes, nut-gold skin. Why Albus and Lily had to be so pale and weedy by comparison was a family mystery that bespoke no understanding.

"If you happen to see her, do remind her I'm waiting," said James. "I'd hate to be late for Transfigurations. I do love it so."

Loved it enough to barely scrape a P in his OWLs, but that was beside the point. "Okay."

"Aren't you going to pass on your best wishes to our charming cousins?" James bared his teeth.

"Huh," muttered Albus. He walked away, James waving him off cheerfully.
It was only as he was climbing the stairs to the Entrance Hall that an alarming thought occurred to Albus.

James - smooth, dashing, handsome, swooned-over James - was inexplicably outside the Potions classroom. Professor Redding - beautiful, charming, famous, not very old Professor Redding - was inside the Potions classroom. A coincidence?

Albus was very much afraid that it wasn't.

+++

Albus sat over the edge of the bed, swinging his legs. A cold breeze was blowing through his paper gown, becoming intimately acquainted with his nether regions. Albus longed to grab his wand and incant an Impervus, but he was very well aware that any magic casting would interfere with the readings.

After Albus had endured five more minutes of buttock-clenching agony, Madam MacDougal at last consented to check up on him. She bustled through the curtains, seemingly inured to the sight of bare behinds. She removed her wand from Albus' ear and waved it around a few times.

"This is looking good," she said, casting her eye over the shimmering pink data burst. "You've been sticking to your diet, I see."

Albus nodded. There had been a significant Lapse last year, when Albus, fed up with the endless restrictions his illness imposed, had gorged himself silly at Scorpius' birthday party. He'd paid the price for it, coming closer to a fatal anaphylaxis than he had since first year. He'd been suitably cowed ever since, rejecting even the specialised chocolate his mother ordered in from Norway.

Madam MacDougal opened an enormous ledger and began noting down results. The ledger was Albus' very own: it was approximately four inches thick. Weekly check-ups, monthly physicals, copies of his hospital reports from St Mungo's - they were all in there. Madam MacDougal took her custodianship of Albus' welfare very seriously.

"You're going to see Samire in a fortnight, yes?" Madam MacDougal ran her finger down the most recent entries.

Albus shook his head. "No - Healer Bilharzia. They alternate now. I went to Samire the week before school started, so it's Bilhazia's turn."
"How's that working out for you?"

"Fine, I guess." Albus' hand went automatically to his face. It still felt rough as carpet. "There's no change that I can see, but she did tell me to give it six months."

"You should be happy," Madam MacDougal chided him. "You're healthier than you've ever been. Everyone gets spots."

"I know," sighed Albus. It was hard, though, to remember how much worse it could be, when images of James smiling cockily at Professor Redding persisted in tormenting him. He knew it was silly to be jealous of something that existed solely in his imagination – or so he hoped.

And still, and still. James got every girl he wanted, and a dozen more besides. James had skin like a peach. Little wonder that Albus extrapolated that the two were irrevocably connected.

"Is there anything else I need to know?" Madam MacDougal's Quick Quotes Quill was flying busily across the page. "Night-time emissions? Masturbation?"

"No. Yes," replied Albus, feeling only a small thrill of embarrassment. Madam MacDougal had asked him these questions so many times he could answer them in his sleep.

"More or less often than usual?"

"Er ... more." Albus smiled sheepishly as Madam MacDougal raised her eyebrows.
"Girlfriend?" she asked, a smile playing about her lips.

"No," said Albus. "Not yet."

"Ah," said Madam MacDougal. She slapped the Quick Quotes Quill. "Oy! That's enough out of you." She thumped the ledger closed. "I think that's everything. You can get dressed now. I'll see you in a week - and not before, do you understand?"

"Yes." Albus rolled his eyes, but discreetly. Aside from his scheduled visits, he didn't attend the Infirmary that frequently. Not as frequently as he could have, that was for sure.

As he dressed he smoothed his hands over his stomach, contemplative. He thought about Professor Redding and her gloriously low-cut robes. He thought, too, about Scorpius' flushes and furtiveness. He'd clearly got a new bird on the go, and was either too ashamed or too nervous to tell Albus about her. Knowing Scorpius, it was unlikely to be the former. Then again, Minuette Nestor looked like something a griffin had stepped on, and she counted James as only one of a long list of conquests. If she had caught Scorpius in her net, he'd probably want to keep it to himself.

Albus pulled on his robes with a sigh. There were many things that were confusing about the game of love, but one thing was crystal clear: the Infirmary was not the place to be thinking about them too deeply.

+++

On tiptoe, Albus just curled his fingers around the edge of the ancient encyclopaedia. He rested a few seconds, stretched out along the bookshelves. Then he steeled himself for another attempt.

After a few hefty tugs, the book came free. It teetered on the edge of the shelf, then toppled over - plunging straight at Albus' face. Fortunately, he had his wand at the ready. He Levitated the book in mid-air and brought it down with a gentle thud atop the pile he'd already accumulated.

He dusted off his hands, feeling the satisfaction of a job well done. There were enough volumes here to reference a dozen Potions essays. Surely, they'd be sufficient to pad out a lone, yet brilliant one.

He looked up at the sound of footsteps. The library was colossal and labyrinthine: Albus was certain he'd never seen these particular stacks before. Then again, he'd never traversed the shelves with such enthusiasm before. He was rather surprised that someone else would venture so far.

The tapping sounds resolved into the distinct click of high-heels, and Marie-Jeanette rounded the corner. She was tailed by a retinue of books floating in mid-air. They paused when she paused, chittering as she tapped her quill against her teeth and inspected a long piece of parchment. Its rolls coiled around her feet.

Typical Ravenclaw, thought Albus, but fondly. He'd never had much time for that fashion-plate Victoire, who treated his spots like a terminal diagnosis. Marie-Jeanette - and to a lesser extent her younger sister Therese - was another matter. Although just as beautiful as her older sister, Marie-Jeanette was charmingly unconcerned about her looks, preferring instead to follow in her Aunt Hermione's footsteps as a great scholar.

Knowing Marie-Jeanette would never notice him if he didn't make his presence known, Albus stepped over to her and touched her shoulder. Marie-Jeanette started, as if he'd woken her from a deep sleep. Her face creased into a smile.

"Albus! How are you, darling boy?" She kissed each of his spotty cheeks, making 'mwah' noises as she did so. Even her academic achievements could not entirely free her of her mother's influence.

"Not bad," Albus acknowledged.

"I'm sorry I haven't had a chance to talk to you before." Marie-Jeanette rolled her eyes expressively. "Work, work, work! As you know, I wish to apply for a job in the Department of Mysteries. Professor Bones thinks this means I want to be worked like a slave."

"Is there much difference?" teased Albus. Marie-Jeanette had at him with her endless parchment.

"But! I see you have joined the ranks," she said, her eyes lighting on Albus' miniature Leaning Tower of Pisa. "Might I ask to what this sudden endeavour pertains?"

"I like Potions, that's all." Albus feigned indifference, but Marie-Jeanette was sharper than that. To fend off the interrogation, he asked quickly, "Did you ever catch up with James?"

"James? No. Why would I see James?"

"He said he was supposed to meet you ... oh, two days ago. Down in the dungeons."

Marie-Jeanette shuddered. "I avoid that ghastly place whenever I can. Wreaks havoc with my hair. No, indeed, I would never arrange a rendezvous in the dungeons!"

Albus made a moue of surprise. Not huge surprise, though: a good memory was not one of James' more notable attributes.

"Speaking of rendezvous, though," continued Marie-Jeanette, "did you get the invitation to Victoire's engagement party yet?"

"No. Is it soon?"

"Halloween. How original. I still cannot believe the girl is getting married! She's only twenty-two. Throwing her life away."

"I suppose she's in love," said Albus. Marie-Jeanette made a very unladylike noise.

"That's neither here nor there. She can be in love all she wants - marriage has nothing to do with it. The world is more civilized now than when our parents married. Thirty. Now there's a reasonable age to be wed. By the time Victoire is thirty she'll probably be divorced."

"Don't let Aunt Fleur hear you say that," warned Albus.

Aunt Fleur was ecstatic that Victoire, one-time page three model for Weasley's Wicked Wheezes, had succumbed to matrimony and, more importantly, respectability. The fact that Terry Boot was over twenty years Victoire's senior was neither here nor there: he was a multi-millionaire Curse Breaker. That was all Aunt Fleur needed to know.

"Don't worry," said Marie-Jeanette. "Between pretending to Vicky that I'm delighted for her - to Terry that I don't think he's a disgusting old letch - to Teddy that of course he still doesn't have feelings for Vicky - and to everyone that this isn't a stupendously ridiculous idea, lying to Maman will be a piece of cake. At least you'll be there. I can pour my troubles into your ear when no one else is listening."

"It should be a good party, then?"

"Oh, certainly. Gauntlets thrown down, fisticuffs before dawn. All the usual party entertainment. And, joy upon joy, Maman has got Tomaz to do the catering."

"Is that ... wise?"

"Wise? Surely you jest. Tomaz is family - or close enough. Grandma would never let Maman hear the end of it if she did not employ Tomaz's services. Ergo, we shall finely dine upon half-scorched lumps of dragon meat and whale. Oh! Did anyone ever have such a complicated, frustrating family?"

Albus thought of Crystal, feeding her son so she wouldn't eat herself. He thought of the dour and silent Mr Malfoy, the glittering Mrs Malfoy, and complicated, mixed-up Scorpius.

Then he shook his head. Their families were complicated. His family - with his famous father, his filthy-rich relations, his stuck-up cousins, George and his semi-legal inventions, and Uncle Charlie's boyfriend, who could never be prevailed upon not to cook whenever the occasion arose - was insane.

"No," agreed Albus. "No one but us."

tbc
Tags: hp fic, three steps back
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