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24 May 2008 @ 07:01 pm
HP fic: Three Steps Back  
HP fic: Three Steps Back
This part: 6,415 words, PG-13, ships at war
a/n: ...and I'm back in the game.
Previous parts here.
Sequel to The Road Less Travelled.



Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.

(Christina Rossetti)

When Albus awoke the next morning, a gleeful cramp of nausea ambushed his stomach. He struggled with the ensuing confusion - the sick anticipation was normal, but he knew the cause for it was gone. The Reveal was over; he was perfect now.

Scorpius.

Albus rolled over and crushed his head into the pillow. He only realised he was shaking when he pressed a hand to his mouth, trying to rub the stray hairs out of it. His fringe really needed a cut.

His mind felt broken in half. It shook around inside his skull every time he tried to think of something innocuous. Sausages for breakfast? Yes, but what about the look on Scorpius' face when Albus denounced him? His mouth tasted furry; toothpaste beckoned. Very true, but didn't Scorpius deserve what he'd got? For his deceit and - worse - his hypocrisy?

Albus could understand lying about the small things. Sometimes it was easier to tell Titania that her hair looked fine than to get into a huge debate about the relative merits of blonde highlights against a snowy complexion. But this issue was bigger than hair. This was a whole facet of Scorpius' personality that he'd lied about, blatantly and viciously.

The different arguments were ganging up on each other. Albus put his hands to his temples as if that would cure the thumping of his thoughts. When the curtains rustled, he didn't hear, and consequently fell sideways in fright when Rambo's head stuck through the gap.

"All right?" he asked, eyeing Albus with some concern. For some reason, Rambo's round, jolly face made Albus want to cry - something none of the awful events of the last twelve hours had achieved. Rambo's world today was the same as yesterday. It wasn't fair.

"Mmm," said Albus. He checked his watch. "Wait - it's not seriously eleven o'clock, is it?"

"Yes, it is," said Rambo. "That's why I came to wake you. I would have come earlier, only Norma and I got engrossed in figuring out 'matching paper' and ... anyway." He frowned. "Didn't Scorpius send someone to wake you?"

"Obviously not," snapped Albus. Rambo blinked, big and slow. Albus instantly felt bad. Too bad to apologise. Instead he swung his legs out of bed. "I suppose there's not a single drop of hot water left."

"Hello, Eoghan, what did you do with Albus' brain?" said Rambo.

"Shut up."

"Oh - hey, your face is different."

"Yeah, I'd noticed," said Albus.

"Looked better when you weren't scowling, though." Rambo headed for the door. "I got Norma to save you some hash browns. See you later."

Albus curled his hand around the bedpost as he stared at Rambo's retreating bulk. His body felt hot and heavy; his eyes smarted and his tongue ached to call Rambo back. But he didn't. To pretend that things were normal when they weren't would have been the final betrayal.

+++

Thanks to almost missing a meal, Albus was thrown off kilter for the rest of the day. A Potions essay - completed but for the finishing touches Albus hoped would bring a happy gleam to Professor Redding's eye - mocked him. He abandoned the common room early, evaded one or two more unflatteringly surprised comments about his face, and went to bed.

Many people noticed the change - far more than Albus calculated even knew his name. Then again, his father was famous. Dad was famous in the way a former politician was famous, but still, people always knew the surname. Albus was reconciled to hearing himself referred to as 'the one who's not James,' but the tacked-on 'he used to be the Elephant Man, what happened?' was a new and unwelcome addition. The only bright spot had been seeing Christine's face. Her not-so-veiled comments over the years had made Albus chew his tongue on several occasions. The smirk was on the other side of her face now.

Albus walked in on Conan wearing nothing but tartan boxers, singing along lustily to Hexed. 'The act of being observed is just an act," Conan told his hairbrush. "If you're not observing, you might as well play dead ... oh! Hey, Albus."

"Nice voice," said Albus. It came out sounding sarcastic rather than amused. Fortunately, Conan didn't appear to notice.

"Do you think I'd get far in Magic Idol?" he asked, waggling his hips.

"In those boxers?" said Albus. "Not unless my Aunt Minerva was judging."

"These are very stylish underpants, I'll have you know," protested Conan.

"I'll take your word for it." Albus flopped down on his bed with a sigh. He'd like nothing more than to sleep where he lay, but his jeans were tight and his shoes were pinching. Besides, sleeping fully clothed was only something one did when drunk or depressed.

"Hey." The bed dipped slightly. Albus didn't open his eyes. "Are you okay? You seem down."

"I'm not down," said Albus. "I just had a fight with Scorpius."

"Oh."

"A big one," Albus felt compelled to add. "A world-ending friendship Armageddon. I told him I never wanted to speak to him again."

"What did he do this time?"

"I - I can't say. But - hey. What do you mean, 'this time'?"

"You two are always fighting." The bed shifted again, and Conan's leg bumped Albus'. "I always thought it must be completely exhausting being Scorpius' friend. His moods are up and down like a yoyo - he's occasionally violent - and talk about irrational. I mean, what do you get out of it?"

"He is - was - my friend," said Albus stiffly. "That's what I got out of it."

"Right," said Conan, in a way that meant 'wow, wrong.' "I wonder - no."

"What?" said Albus, through a yawn.

"Nothing." Conan stood up. The bed bounced; Albus gritted his teeth. "Guess what I found out today? Hexed are playing the Hog's Head next weekend."

The world and all its cares were instantly sloughed from Albus' mind. He sat bolt upright. "Are you serious? Where'd you hear that? Why wasn't it on their tour schedule?"

"It's a last-minute addition - very select." Conan grinned. "Luckily for me, my cousin works in the bar. He got me two tickets - at an extortionist price, of course."

"Oh, blimey," said Albus. "You lucky, lucky bastard. Who are you taking?"

Conan cleared his throat. "Well, you. If you're interested."

"Are you kidding? Interested? I'd marry you for those tickets!" Albus' face fell. "But ... next weekend? That's not a Hogsmeade weekend. We'll never get permission to go."

"Albus, my man," said Conan. "Who said anything about getting permission?"

+++

Rambo cornered Albus at the Clubhouse on Monday evening. Albus expected it; he just hadn't expected it so soon, counting on Norma and crosswords to distract Rambo for a few more days.

"You've had a face like a wet week since that party," said Rambo, "and now I hear you and Scorpius had a fight. What's up?"

"Nothing," said Albus. "It's none of your business."

Rambo went quiet for a second. Albus folded his limbs into a hammock. It seemed a long time before Rambo followed him; Albus almost wondered if he even would.

Instead of curling in beside him as Scorpius would have done, Rambo stood in front of Albus. It was probably for the best: Dudley's genetics combined with Crystal's proxy feeding resulted in Rambo having essentially the same proportions as a brick. Albus, though short, was no lightweight either. They'd probably have collapsed the hammock if they sat in it together. When Scorpius - but it was irrelevant to think of that.

"Scorpius is a bit of bastard," said Rambo. Albus' lower lip dropped. That wasn't the opener he'd expected. "But, you know, he always has been. Even as a titchy kid he had a rotten side to his personality. And you're pretty smart, so why are you only realising that now?"

"You think we fought over the fact that Scorpius is a bastard?"

"No," said Rambo, "I think Scorpius did something because he's a bastard, and now you're mad at him for it. My point is that it's like accusing a shark of murder. It's in a shark's nature to eat and maim other fish."

"I ... Scorpius isn't a fish," said Albus.

Rambo favoured him with a long, cool look. "Yes," he said, "I know."

"I don't think you do," said Albus. "This time, it's - okay, it's like Scorpius acted like a shark, but all along, he's actually been an orca whale."

"I kind of wish I hadn't started the sea life metaphor now," said Rambo, after a minute. "I have no idea what you're talking about."

"Pretend it's a cryptic clue," snapped Albus. "Pretend he's seven down and I'm eleven across. A three-letter word meaning betrayal."

"He'd betrayed you?" said Rambo. "How on earth - can't you just tell me what he's done? Scorpius won't say a word on the subject, of course."

Albus stubbornly shook his head. It wasn't his place to out Scorpius. Even if he did, it wouldn't make Scorpius face up to himself. Albus wanted that still, and not only because it would be painful - although the ouch factor did account for at least sixty percent of his reasoning.

"This will be tricky," sighed Rambo. "Do you want to ban him from the Clubhouse, because -"

"He never comes here anyway," said Albus.

"That's true," said Rambo. "I was about to say: because it would be unfair. I can't take sides unless I know the full story."

"You wouldn't take sides anyway," said Albus.

"I'd take yours," said Rambo. "You're my friend more than Scorpius - Scorpius is only anyone's friend because of you. But then again, you're usually more honest than this."

"I can't," Albus burst out.

"Fine." Rambo looked a little lost. "But won't you fix it - please? Everything's all wrong like this."

Albus thought of Scorpius' present, smashed into a million saw-edged fragments. "There's no going back this time," he said. "You'll just have to get used to it the way it is."

"The way it is sucks," said Rambo, with unaccustomed violence, and slammed out of the room.

Albus huddled deeper into the hammock. One of the advantages of the Clubhouse was that, no matter the season, it was always the right temperature. But right now Albus felt chilled.

He didn't have long to ruminate - Scorpius, who knew the emotion well, would have called it sulking - before the Clubhouse door banged open again. Albus' heart soared sickeningly as he hoped, for an instant, it was Scorpius.

It was Norma, and Albus was furious at himself for wishing it wasn't.

"Oh, hello," she said, seeming distracted.

"Hey," he returned.

"Seen Rambo lately?" she asked. "Looked everywhere. At least five places. Not a sign."

"He left here just ten minutes ago," said Albus.

Norma huffed. "Any indication where he went?"

"No," said Albus, "but I'd guess the common room. Isn't it snowing outside?"

"A mild drift," said Norma, dismissing the gale howling through the eaves. "Didn't mention anything about the next edition, I suppose?"

"Of Mad Crosswords?"

"Crosswords for Crazies," Norma corrected him. She scowled, although Albus couldn't see how his title was any worse.

"No. We were talking about Scorpius."

"Oh, that boy," said Norma. "Sitting by the fire with a frown like thunder, staring out anyone who dares to come close. At least four first years caught cold through terror of him."

"People are afraid of Scorpius?"

"Yes, people are afraid of Scorpius," said Norma. "I'm afraid of Scorpius sometimes, god. The faces he can make. Freezes my marrow."

"We're not friends anymore," said Albus.

"What did I do?" Norma looked highly indignant.

"Not me and you. Me and Scorpius."

"Ah." Norma nodded wisely. "That would explain the frown."

"If he's frowning, it's not over me," said Albus bitterly.

"Idiot," said Norma. "When Scorpius frowns, it's always over you."

Albus felt a flash of rage. At any rate it was hot and horrible, so he decided it must be rage. "It doesn't matter. I'm never talking to him again."

"Reminds me - must put a bet on," said Norma. "'Never' for you is usually two weeks, isn't it? Insider knowledge is essential for dealing with Templeton Gudgeon."

"How long does the Gudgeon run his bets?" asked Albus fiercely.

"Six months is the longest I remember. That was for -" Norma broke off and coughed. "Why?"

"Because he'll need to open a book on 'forever'," said Albus. "I'm serious - me and Scorpius are through. And remind your boyfriend of that when you find him."

"My - boyfriend?" repeated Norma. Her staccato voice became suddenly cantabile. "Who - you mean -"

"Scorpius," said Albus. "Not. Rambo, of course."

"We're not - he's not. I."

Albus stared. Norma's cheeks pinked up, requiring Albus to stare some more. Norma was harder to faze than a reticent goblin.

"He fancies Minuette Nestor, all right?" Norma scowled at Albus, as though Rambo's dire taste in women was directly and wholly his fault. "He came to me for advice. About asking her out."

"Oh, my god," sighed Albus. He'd expected to feel triumph the day he discovered the one thing at which Rambo didn't excel. He didn't.

"Yeah, so." Norma stuck her hands on her hips. "Now you know. So don't be stupid or call him my boyfriend when..." she sucked in a breath of air "... he's not."

"Okay - noted." Albus put his hands up in truce. "I just assumed -"

"You assumed wrong," snarled Norma. "Even if he asked, I wouldn't. So there."

This time when the door slammed, the entire room shook.

+++

Albus felt horribly drained by the time his weekly appointment with Madam MacDougal rolled around. He ended up being late because the third flight of stairs defeated him: he'd been forced to sit and catch his breath for a full ten minutes before he could continue. He put the weakness down to the stress of recent events, coupled with a new difficulty in getting to sleep.

"So, this is the famous face," said Madam MacDougal, sounding subdued. "Healer Bilharzia must be over the moon. Has she seen it yet?"

"No," said Albus. "I wrote to her - but I have another appointment in two weeks. She's pretty excited, though."

"I can imagine. It's quite the coup, curing acne. She stands to make a fortune."

Albus prickled at what he thought was resentment in Madam MacDougal's tone. "She deserves it. For the first time in years I can look at myself in the mirror and not want to throw up. That's worth any price."

"Indeed?" said Madam MacDougal. "But at what cost?" At a flick of her wand, a spignometer wrapped itself around Albus' arm. "I had Scorpius Malfoy in here yesterday," she added, when the silence had just lulled Albus into a false sense of security.

"Huh," said Albus, but only because it would have been ruder to say nothing.

"He got into another fight," continued Madam MacDougal. "He was rather badly banged up - two black eyes and a broken arm, not to mention a dozen cuts and scrapes. I did my best, but he'll be feeling it today."

Albus' cheeks puffed with the effort of not crying out. It was hard to believe that Scorpius could break his arm and Albus wouldn't know about it. It was harder to believe that, after everything, Albus still cared.

"I thought you were helping him to stay out of trouble?" said Madam MacDougal, with deceptive disingenuousness.

Albus shrugged.

"He wouldn't tell me what the fight was about, but Roe Negworthy came in a few hours later with a nose the size of a watermelon, and sprouting alfalfa instead of hair. I'm not a genius, but I imagine the two events aren't unconnected."

"Roe Negworthy?" Albus couldn't stop himself. Roe and Scorpius were nothing like friends, but Albus would have put Roe on the 'good acquaintance' side of the equation, not the 'potential punching bag' one.

"Teachers talk about two kinds of students," said Madam MacDougal. "The best and the worst. I stay out of it, but I do listen. And I have eyes. Scorpius might be one of the brightest wizards of your generation - especially if we don't include your cousin - but he would have gone off the rails long ago if it wasn't for you."

"I hate this," complained Albus. "I'm not his keeper. If I upped and died tomorrow like I was supposed to years ago, he'd be fine."

"Are you sure?"

Albus wasn't. "Does it matter?" he asked. "Since when is it my job to be Scorpius Malfoy's keeper?"

"Since you decided to become his friend, I suppose," said Madam MacDougal. "I was at school with his father, you know. Yours, too - but I knew Draco Malfoy a little." She laughed. "Everyone knew your father's name, but very few could claim to know him. Draco, on the other hand, had quite a large circle of friends. At least, he did until he came under the Dark Lord's sway. But I've always thought someone could have prevented that - he was very persuadable. He just needed a good friend."

"Scorpius isn't persuadable at all," said Albus.

"Not in the general run of things," agreed Madam MacDougal. "There, that's it." She frowned at the sparkling pink data. "Your peak flow volume is down to 350. Do you have a cold?"

"No, I'm fine," said Albus. "Fit as a fiddle, can I go?"

"I suppose," said Madam MacDougal, still frowning. "But if it's not up by next week, I'll have to speak with Healer Bilharzia."

"It'll be up," said Albus. "It's probably a flawed reading."

"Yes, that happens sometimes," said Madam MacDougal. She gave him a speaking look. Albus opted to ignore it and skipped out.

+++

Albus' health deteriorated steadily throughout the week, a fact he tried - with a modicum of success - to conceal from himself. He spent most of Saturday by the common room fire with a refilling teapot in easy reach, swaddled in a vast quantity of blankets. An hour before he and Conan were due to sneak out, Albus dragged his reluctant legs upstairs to change.

He didn't have a huge selection of casual clothing. His shopping choices in the last few years were aimed at rendering himself invisible, thus by necessity involving a lot of black and grey. At least the former still went with his hair, but in juxtaposition the black jeans, black shirt, black converse and black jacket made him look like an aspiring mortician. With little hope Albus rooted through his trunk. To his surprise, he discovered a sea-green scarf at the very bottom. It was still in a Malkin's bag with the tag attached.

Not until he was halfway back down to the common room did Albus remember that the scarf had been a present from the person Albus used to be friends with. Albus was too tired to go and change it; by the time he got back to his armchair he didn't even have the energy to toss it into the fire.

In the interval Titania had installed herself on the rug. She was lying on her stomach, scribbling over a parchment with red crayon.

"Hey, Ti," he said. He put his head back against the chair and wondered if ten minutes sleep now would make up for staying up all night.

"Hello?" Titania waved her hand in Albus' face when he made no further conversational sorties. "Haven't you got anything to say about my hair?"

"Your -" started Albus, before his eyes caught up. "Wow. It's very - yellow."

Titania rolled her eyes. "I think you'll find the correct term is 'blonde'," she said. "Do you like it?"

Albus' brain scrambled for a comment that was both complimentary and honest, and tripped over itself. "Sure," he lied.

As far as blonde went, Titania's hair was nothing like the person Albus used to be friends with's hair. The person Albus used to be friends with had hair the colour of sun-drenched salt. Titania's looked more like dirty brass. The shade was somewhat uneven as well, as if the dye had run out towards the end.

"Did you do it yourself?" Albus hoped the answer was yes, or he'd have to kill her accomplice.

"Yup. Madam Skower's DIY Dye," said Titania. "Norma hasn't seen it yet. She's gonna die."

Albus privately thought this was all too possible.

At that moment Conan jumped through the portal. He grinned when he spotted Albus, and purposely took a route close to Albus' chair so he could whisper, "Give me ten minutes to shower."

Albus nodded, and Conan sprinted up the dormitory stairs. Titania followed this exchange with interest. She turned bright eyes on Albus, who squirmed under her scrutiny. Titania didn't have the penetration of Norma or the person Albus used to be friends with, nor did she possess Rambo's freaky insight, but she wasn't stupid either.

"You're looking rather spiffy this evening," she observed. "Hot date?"

"Yeah, totally," scoffed Albus. Then he wondered if he should have said 'yes', to throw Titania off the scent. Dates in Hogwarts, when Hogsmeade wasn't an option, entailed dressing up to walk around the Entrance Hall with someone. Seventh years often used the Astronomy Tower for this purpose, because they were the only ones with the password. During Christine's reign the person Albus used to be friends with had a knack for locating the seventh years who were willing to bend this rule (for a price), and consequently knew the layout better than the Professor.

"Oh yeah?" said Titania. "Spill."

"I'm not dressed up and I don't have a date," said Albus firmly. "What are you writing? Professors don't accept essays that aren't in ink, you know."

"You're not getting out of it that easily," said Titania. "There's not a boy alive who'd put on aftershave just because he felt like it."

"Scorpius does," said Albus, without thinking, and forgetting his rule about not calling the person he used to be friends with by name.

"You can be sure Christine was behind that," said Titania. "Misdirection still not working. If you're not going on a date, you're going somewhere."

"And what if I were? Would you dob me in?"

"As if." Titania looked hurt. "I'd never do that to you. I'd maybe do it to Norma, if she pissed me off. Or Scorpius, because he deserves it -"

"Why?" interrupted Albus, suddenly keen.

"He fought with you," said Titania, "duh. But seriously, I wouldn't tattle."

"I know," said Albus. "It's just - the fewer people who know, the better. In case Inquisition catches us - me, you understand."

"C'mon," wheedled Titania. "I'd be a great partner in crime. I have the hair to match now and everything."

Fortunately, Albus' need to reply was forestalled by the advent of Conan. Unlike Albus, Conan believed in variation in his wardrobe: he'd chosen tight indigo jeans over boots and a check shirt. He looked a bit like a cowboy, although Albus severely doubted the practicality of Conan's jeans in terms of bestriding a horse.

"Nice scarf," Conan commented. "Ready?"

Titania's eyes showed white all around. "Where are you going?" she mouthed at Albus. Albus just frowned.

"She'll think we're dating," he complained to Conan as they walked out together. Conan just laughed.

"Why would she think that?" he asked. He nodded to a third year Albus vaguely recognised then, as soon as she was out of sight, pulled Albus behind a statue of a singularly unattractive witch. "Can you see anyone coming?"

Albus peeked around the witch's hump. "Nope."

"Good," said Conan. When Albus turned around, a tunnel had opened before Conan's feet. "Coming?"

"This is amazing!" said Albus. "How did you know about it?"

"Lumos!" said Conan. As he lead the way, he explained, "Eoghan found it in second year. He's very good at discovering things." Conan's voice was a compound of wistful and sour. "It comes out under the old part of Honeydukes - where the back offices are. There shouldn't be anyone there at this time of night."

"Good," said Albus. He felt a shot of nervous anxiety.

Conan looked back and smiled. "I won't get us caught if I can help it," he said. The tunnel widened out, and he waited for Albus to catch up so they could walk side by side. Albus tried not to betray how laborious he found the walk and Conan strolled along, almost as if he were aware of it. Occasionally he touched Albus' elbow to get his attention, pointing out pitfalls or ancient graffiti, or just to make him listen.

"I'm going to have to sit down," Albus admitted at last.

"Are you okay? No, of course you're not, but can you go on?" Conan crouched down beside him, his mouth drooping with concern. The arm he put around Albus' shoulders didn't help matters, but Albus appreciated the thought behind the gesture.

"Of course," he managed to answer. "I'm not very fit, that's all."

"I beg to differ," said Conan, with a little laugh.

"What? Oh," said Albus, and blushed. Conan grinned; for a split second, his arm tightened around Albus. Then he bounced to his feet.

"We're not far from the trapdoor - I'll just go and unlatch it," he said.

Albus stared at the rough wall and wished, for the first time, that he'd never taken Bilharzia's potion.

+++

The uncomfortable notion that Conan might be hitting on him only grew stronger as the night progressed. Albus was hyper-aware of every time Conan touched him, and discovered it to be often - far more often than could arise by chance. The touches were not intrusive, involving as they did only Albus' arm or on occasion, his shoulder, but Albus disliked them more and more. Plus, Conan smiled at him too much. He laughed at comments from Albus that were only slightly funny. Albus wondered uneasily how long Conan's feelings had surpassed friendship. He couldn't decide if he'd feel better or worse if they dated from the change in Albus' appearance.

Skeleton Key Choir opened for Hexed, which at least meant Albus' mental perturbation didn't distract him from anything worth hearing. As Hexed's set approached, however, Albus began seriously considering how he could get Conan to leave him alone for a while.

Inspiration struck just as the lights went up for the interval. Albus turned to Conan and rubbed his throat. "I'm feeling a bit thirsty," he said. "Could you get me a drink? I'll pay you."

"Don't be ridiculous," said Conan immediately, as Albus half-expected, half-dreaded. "My treat."

"Okay, thanks." Albus didn't want Conan to buy him drinks - that really was something you did on a date. On the other hand, he did want Conan to leave his vicinity.

The crowd at the bar was ten deep and Conan, being young and polite, would probably be stuck there for hours. Predictably, Albus felt guilty about that, but not guilty enough to be sorry. He wormed his way through the crowd, heading for a colonnade near the stage that would provide suitable cover. He was installed there by the time Hexed's lead singer took the mike, close enough for Albus to see the sweat on his forehead from the harsh spotlights.

Albus soon came to be grateful for the pillar at his back. The room was sweltering and his already wobbly legs did not appreciate the rise in temperature. He simply wasn't designed for dancing the night away - which was a pity, because Hexed were even better live than on their records. Albus tapped his foot to show willing and wished for a chair.

Hexed were singing their final number by the time Conan located Albus. The drink, about which Albus had entirely forgotten, was half empty. Conan looked extremely cross. Albus couldn't help but prefer the expression to the moony one he'd sported earlier.

"Hey," yelled Albus, "great show, huh?"

Conan shrugged and passed over the drink. The glass was sticky; Albus decided against investigating the contents. "I guess," he yelled back. "Didn't see much."

"What?"

Conan shrugged again and looked at the stage. Albus did too. The bass guitarist was also a virtuoso gymnast, who could back flip while keeping the beat. He rolled his hips into his guitar and the girls went wild. Albus cheered too: a move like that would have dumped a lesser man on his backside. The expression on Conan's face lifted slightly.

Hexed did three encores, by the end of which Albus was certain he had jelly flowing in his veins instead of blood. When Conan put a hand on his shoulder, Albus was forced to lean into it, instead of shrugging it off as he'd have liked to do.

"You look pale," said Conan.

"I'll probably need to eat something when we get back," said Albus. "The house elves know about me. They won't mind."

"Lean on me," said Conan, more describing what was already occurring than issuing an invitation. Conan smelled slightly of aftershave, but more of sweat and dried beer. The cocktail of odours was far from appetising, but Albus stumbled every second step; he was in no position to complain.

Albus saw dancing spots at the edge of his vision by the time they reached the stone witch. He sank on to the plinth. Air didn't seem to be getting all the way to his lungs, no matter how much he heaved. Distantly, he heard Conan say something about fetching help. It was the last thing he heard for some time.

+++

"You're awake!"

This was the sort of daft comment Albus heard on a far too frequent basis. It always meant he'd had another attack and lost consciousness. Apparently, it also meant he'd temporarily lost the ability to tell the difference between being awake and being asleep - or so observer reaction would suggest.

He wrenched open sticky eyelids and looked upon his mother's face. Dismay drowned his heart. It had to have been a bad one for his parents to be called.

"Hello, darling," said Mum. It hadn't been her voice that spoke first - that honour belonged to Dad. Both his parents looked tired, and his father more than usually unkempt.

"Hi Mum." Albus submitted to a hug. It was cut short when Mum sat back to say sternly: "I should be very angry at you right now. If I didn't know better, I'd swear you'd got sick on purpose to avoid punishment."

"Albus wouldn't do that," said Dad. "He's straight as a die."

"Avoid punishment - oh," said Albus. "We were caught."

"You most certainly were." Mum half-smiled, half-frowned, a peculiar accomplishment that belonged only to mothers. "Quite spectacularly, I'd say."

"At least your friend had the foresight to close the tunnel," said Dad quietly. "That's a legacy that you need to pass down to your children."

The one good thing about being chronically ill was the way few people had the heart to get very angry at you, Albus reflected. "Did we get detention?"

"Your friend did - Conor, is it?" said Mum. "But he claimed the concert was all his idea and that he talked you into it. Which I don't believe for a second, Albus Severus, but it was very honourable of him all the same."

"And considering the state of your health, Nev - Professor Longbottom said you could just spend an afternoon cleaning cauldrons when you're better," added Dad.

"What day is it?" asked Albus.

"Tuesday," said Mum. "And you've been out cold the whole time. It's very strange. You usually wake up a lot - always feverish and babbling, about Scorpius usually. But this time, not once."

"That Irish lad's come to visit you every day," said Dad. "I think he feels guilty. I didn't see the Malfoy boy at all. He hasn't fallen down any deep holes, by any chance?"

"No," said Albus. "We had a fight and we're not friends now." He glanced at Dad. "You'll be happy, at least."

Dad didn't look happy. He looked shocked and concerned, but that might just have been layover from Albus' illness.

Madam MacDougal and Conan came through the curtains at the same time, identical frowns of worry bisecting each forehead. Madam MacDougal's face smoothed on seeing Albus awake.

"Good morning, finally," she said. "I was beginning to think we'd need a spinning wheel and a handsome prince to wake you up."

"A princess, you mean," said Albus sharply. Conan's lower lip disappeared between his teeth.

"Don't underestimate the dangers of defying tradition," said Madam MacDougal. "For example, the tradition of eating properly, getting enough rest and taking all your potions correctly. Which one was it this time?"

"None of them," said Albus. "I just felt faint, and now here I am."

"Did you drink anything at the Hog's Head?" asked Madam MacDougal, sounding less cheerful. "Or eat?"

"No - Conan brought me a drink, but I didn't have any," said Albus.

Madam MacDougal made a thrumming noise. "I'll run some tests when your visitors have left."

"We should be getting home," Dad said to Mum.

"Yes." Mum kissed Albus' forehead, despite his attempts to wriggle away. "We'll be back tomorrow. Get better, you hear?"

"Yes Mum."

"I love you, darling."

"Oh, Mum!"

"I remember when you used to say 'I love you' back," grumbled Mum. Dad chuckled and pulled her away by the arm.

"Don't embarrass the boy, Gin."

As they strolled arm in arm towards the Floo, Albus could hear Mum arguing - "but he's my son, I'll always have the right to embarrass him!" He stared after them until Conan twitched the curtains shut. Albus couldn't help flinching when Conan sat on the bed.

"I was so worried." Conan's voice split and shook in the middle of this admission.

"Don't be," said Albus curtly. "Waste of energy. I get sick a lot."

"But I feel like this was my fault." Conan repetitively smoothed the bedcover; the motion irritated Albus.

"I choose to do things that sometimes end in me getting ill because of them," said Albus. "But it's always my choice, not anyone else's." He paused. He could tell Conan wanted to flagellate himself further. Even without his current mixed feelings towards Conan, Albus was disinclined to indulge him. "About the concert..."

"Did you enjoy yourself, at least? I mean, before all this happened."

"I love Hexed," said Albus. It wasn't an answer. "But. Conan - was it a date?"

"It could have been," Conan hedged.

"But was it? I'm asking you. Do you -" Albus swallowed against a parched throat. This was harder than he'd anticipated. "Do you like me that way?"

"I - God." Conan ran a hand through his hair, staring intently at the bed frame. "What's the right answer here? What do you want me to say?"

"The truth," said Albus.

"You don't look like you want the truth."

"No," said Albus, "I do. I just won't necessarily like it, but that's your problem, not mine."

Conan's mouth went wry. "I can take it you don't feel the same way, then."

"Damn right you can! Jeez." Albus slapped the pillow, nails scraping cotton. "I mean, I thought we were friends. When were you planning to tell me you were - what, flirting with me? Whatever you were doing? Before or after you made your move?"

"After?" suggested Conan. "So you'd be bowled over by my multiple talents."

"This isn't a joke!" yelled Albus. "I trusted you and you lied to me."

"I didn't lie," said Conan. "I've always liked you. Now I like you more."

"But now - all the times you were nice to me, or we talked - you meant something different than I did. So it's all fake."

Conan was silent for a moment. Then - "I thought you'd be different. You were so understanding when the shit went down with Eoghan."

"But I'm not gay," said Albus. "I told you that."

"You're sixteen," said Conan. "You don't know what you are yet."

"You do," said Albus. "You know you're gay; why can't I know I'm straight?"

"I - it's not the same. I've been with girls and it wasn't right. You'll never know if you like boys unless you try - you'll never be entirely straight until you've done that."

"That's the stupidest argument I've ever heard," declared Albus. "But even it if were true, I'd never try it with a friend. It would ruin everything. And now ... I don't know what you are to me."

"Well, I hope we can be friends," said Conan. "I made a mistake too. I read some signals wrong. We - I suppose we got along so well, I thought it would be interesting to get along even better."

"Can you stop thinking that about me?" asked Albus. "Please. It makes me feel weird."

"I'll try," said Conan. "It's a feeling. It doesn't go off by turning a tap."

"Fine." Albus picked at a loose thread in the pillowcase. "Maybe we should ... I mean, it would be easier if we didn't hang out a lot. For a while."

Conan seemed to freeze. When he thawed, his features didn't, leaving his face hard and cold. "If that's what you want," he said, and slipped off the bed.

Albus felt guilt; he felt self-loathing, and he felt relief.

He felt like Scorpius.

tbc
 
 
Current Mood: mellowmellow
Current Music: be gentle with me (the boy least likely to)
 
 
 
every Starbucks should have a polar bear: Marie Antoinettescoradh on May 25th, 2008 12:26 pm (UTC)
All in good time, my pretty. *is mysterious*

Ha, oh god. That is the peril of coming back to a story five months late. >.> I'll go in and fix it. It's not an essential plot point (I wish I could say that it was). Thanks!