I wish I could stay a little longer.
Terribly that was Abeo's first thought when Matron Abbott announced him well enough to be discharged from the infirmary, arm fully healed and relocated, bruises settled beneath the toughest layers of his skin. He'd demolished his supply of sweets and treats from his friends and well-wishers, and been let off from doing any homework.
He'd been in a safe little bubble, and now it was time to return to the real world.
Matron Abbott had tried. She'd really tried to get Abeo to talk.
"I was watching the match, Abeo," she'd said softly, but firmly, not rising to Abeo's attitude or sharp retorts. "If something is bothering you—"
"Nothing's bothering me except my arm, Matron," he'd said.
"I didn't mean your body. I meant your mind."
His face had crumpled.
"I know about your family, Abeo. I was so sorry to hear about your family's passing."
Passing. An unfortunate accident. It was… embarrassing, almost, the words, shrivelling his heart, pruning every hopeful thought in his head. They'd just… left. Left the world without so much as a warning. One moment they were his family, and the next, memories of before, memories that would only fade with time.
"You and everyone else is sorry, Matron," he'd said coldly. "I just want to move on, and I can't keep doing that if everyone keeps bringing it up."
Matron Abbott had studied him then. She'd seen her fair share of war, of its hardships and consequences. She'd lived a few of them herself, he knew – every magical child had learnt about the Second Wizarding War since they could talk. It was all there in the way her face held its colour, its breath, even when such memories clung to her like wet clothes. She fought on despite what had occurred so long ago. She'd moved on.
Why couldn't she let him?
"These things take time," she'd said gently in the end. "Take the day off today. No class. If you want to talk, then my door will always be open."
She'd let him go now, and the words turned in his head, over and over with infuriating insistence. His family were dead. He was on his own in the world now.
But if he couldn't play Quidditch again…
He rounded the corner, determined to confront the team and prove he could play. Prove to them and himself. The sport might've been inexplicably intertwined with his sister, his family, but it was ridiculous if he had to give it up because— because what, exactly? Because he'd hallucinated?
Abeo almost leapt into the air. He turned around; Teagan was standing by the wall.
"How the hell—? I didn't see you there."
"I know," she said. "I was waiting for you. Matron Abbott told me you'd be discharged today."
Something inside him squeezed painfully. "Thanks. You didn't have to do that. Where's everyone else?"
"At lunch. I didn't think you would like being crowded when you arrived."
"Didn't like being surprised half out of my skin, either."
She lowered her eyes. "I'm sorry. I won't do it again."
He waved it away. It wasn't her fault. Teagan, as always, was only doing what she thought best for him. Maybe he was so in his own thoughts he didn't see her. So in my thoughts again? Was this going to be a recurring problem?
"Are you okay?" she asked suddenly.
"Yeah. My arm is fine."
She frowned. "Abeo—"
"I told you I'm fine, Teagan. Please stop asking."
Her shoulders rose, but she said, "Okay."
Now he felt bad. Teagan was very much a person of face value, an over-thinker. He didn't want the comment to sting, for her to ruminate on his words as if it might mean something worse, but he valued his privacy, his space. She would have to understand that.
"Do you remember when we first met?" she asked, almost randomly.
The unbidden memory was enough to cause Abeo to smile. "Yeah. In Diagon Alley."
She'd been standing alone. Two weeks before the start of the new term, Diagon Alley was crammed with eager families and their kids buying supplies, the scent of new books and feathers and fur thick between vendors with kebabs that tasted like entire three-course meals, or bubblewrap waffles that temporarily gave the eater a helium voice. Abeo had been passing Madame Malkins on his way to Ollivander's. That was how he found her, expression terrified, eyes cast upon the ground as if anchored by an invisible force, palms bronzing at how tightly she was shakily clutching a paper shopping bag.
She must be Muggle-born, he immediately thought. Overwhelmed by everything. No one seemed to pay her any attention.
"Hello," he'd said after he'd reached her. "Are you a first-year too?"
The girl's head snapped up. A wetness glistened in her eyes, but she just mumbled, "Yes."
"Are you lost?"
She shook her head meekly. "I-I know where I am. But my dads…"
They'd separated. Abeo cast his eyes to the people marching past, bags jostling from hips, kids' mouths around giant lollipops, pets squeaking and squawking inside round, iron cages.
"It's okay. Parents lose their children here a lot because it's so busy. Happens to us wizard kids as well as Muggle-borns, too. One time my sister played a prank on me by leaving me at the entrance of Knockturn Alley – you know, the Dark Magic place?" He grinned at the girl's startled face. "Mum and Dad chewed her out so bad, but I was smart enough not to go in."
His stomach roiled when he realised his family were now also nowhere to be found – he'd run off in such a hurry – but he refused to show his nerves. He didn't want to look uncool, and it was Diagon Alley. He'd been here hundreds of times, and that was before Amo got her letter to Hogwarts. The girl in front of him had hair in half cornrows, half cloud puffs, cutely arranged with a series of rainbow hairclips.
"Are you Muggle-born?" he asked.
She shook her head. "I… I'm adopted, but I don't think so, no."
Phew. He couldn't help but feel relief. It was kind of difficult having conversations with hapless Muggle-borns. How did you help someone who had been lied to their whole life?
"What house are you hoping for then?" he asked instead, hoping to keep her occupied with words alone. "Both my parents and my sister were Ravenclaw, and my sister said if I don't get the same she'll kick me out of the house and never speak to me again."
The girl's mouth dropped open, alarmed. "That's not very nice."
"… It was a joke."
"What about you?"
"I hope my dads don't kick me out."
"… No, I mean, what house do you want?"
"O-Oh." She swallowed loudly. "I-I don't know. Gryffindor would be nice I suppose…"
"My sister says they're really rowdy, but they have great parties, so I guess I wouldn't mind being Gryffindor either. I like green so Slytherin would be cool. She also said that I shouldn't underestimate the Hufflepuffs. They might seem like a nice bunch, but feed them a little alcohol and they turn into freaks." Amo had made him promise never to repeat this information, or how she knew it, but for some reason this girl had felt safe. "What's your name?"
He raised his hand. It was polite, after all. "Nice. I'm Abeo."
They shook; Teagan retracted hers as quickly as she could.
"What's that?" he asked, pointing at the bag.
"My new robes," she said.
"Oh cool. I didn't need to buy any. Mum and Dad are seamstresses, so they hand-make all my clothes. All regulation and stuff, obviously. Technically they usually work with leather to make armour, but they're still good with normal fabrics. I get my sister's old robe though because Mum says it's better for the environment." At Teagan's stricken, distracted face, Abeo said, "Cheer up. I bet your dads are around—"
Amo marched up to him, grabbing his hand.
"What did I tell you about running off? Do you want Mum to murder you halfway to Sunday?" Her eyes darted to Teagan. "Oh, hello, who're you?"
"Teagan," Abeo answered, snatching his hand back when Teagan opened and closed her mouth several times. "Her dads have lost her. I'm waiting with her."
Amo frowned. "Ollivander's is closing soon. Mum and Dad are in the queue, and we really need to get your wand."
Abeo grinned at Teagan. "Why don't you come with us?"
"Come—" Teagan blinked. "I-I shouldn't…"
"'Course you can! We can find your dads after. Come on!"
He did not hear another word of it. They joined the queue just as Abeo's mum and dad had reached the front (and they, of course, were delighted to see Abeo had made a friend, less delighted that Abeo had almost missed their time slot). Teagan had mostly stayed out of the way, back against the shelves, as Abeo determinedly swung around multiple wands with Ollivander's assistant.
"Hey, quick question, how does the core, like, know how to choose its wizard? How does the wood and core type effect the magic? Wait… is it possible that there are no wands for me?"
The assistant had chuckled. "You are a talker, aren't you?"
"When I want to be."
"Abeo," his mother warned.
"But no," said the assistant. "There's always a wand for everyone. I've yet to meet a person I couldn't find a good wand for. And when I can't, Mr Ollivander will."
They'd left not half an hour later, when a thin, squiggly sort of wand made from apple wood with a dragon heartstring core had shot a pleasant tingle down his arm. His family were pleased, crowing their delight until the bell tinkled behind them.
That was when Abeo had noticed Teagan was crying.
Abeo stopped suddenly in the corridor. Teagan hovered next to him.
"You helped me when I was sad and afraid," she reminded quietly. "I didn't ask you to. You did because you wanted to."
He shrugged. "What's your point?
"I want to help you."
"I don't need help."
"I thought I didn't, back then."
"This is different."
"It is not." Teagan's voice was resolute. "Let me help you. We can… talk, or—"
"Look, Teag, I really appreciate it," Abeo clung his frustration close to his chest, "but I really, really don't want to talk or moon about how sad my life is and whatever. I just want to get on with shit. Okay?"
The face of one of his best friends was hard, carved from stone as she regarded him, eyes steeling to stay hitched on his own. Teagan usually struggled to maintain eye contact – that she was doing it now, out of her own sheer force of will, meant that this was serious to her. He matched her gaze, equally unyielding, and eventually Teagan's eyes flickered to the ground.
It didn't sound like an acceptance, more of a we'll try again later, but Abeo was determined to smooth over this blip in his life like a plaster on a broken wall.
"I'm going to the dorm. Matron Abbott told me to rest."
"You don't want lunch?"
Teagan nodded. "All right."
But she didn't follow him after that.
After lunch, Rose headed to the dorm to grab her books for the upcoming Defence Against the Dark Arts lesson. Professor Oliviera had started to teach them less enchantments for defence and more hexes for offence, and Rose wanted to make sure she had a front seat, if anything, to pick up a few new tricks to use in duels.
Just in case it ever came in handy again.
Sev Com was mostly empty, its waterfall a quiet rush, save for Malina, sitting alone by the window, textbook open. She raised her head slightly at Rose's entrance before promptly glancing back down again. Rose furrowed her brow.
"Aren't you coming?"
Malina raised her head. "To what?"
"Oh." Malina seemed to flush, like she'd forgotten the time. "Yes."
"Okay." It didn't make sense not to wait for her, walk together when they were going to the same place. Be a kind, generous liaison, remember? Rose tried to smile. "Want to … go together?"
Even Malina seemed put-out by the odd request. Confusion flickered in her eyes before it was gone, replaced by that blank, unfeeling husk.
"All right," she said. "I… need to grab some things."
They grabbed their respective quills and tomes before both met at the Sev Com entrance. Malina gestured for Rose to go first, so Rose opened the portrait door and led them both down the staircases towards the DADA classrooms. Between the rush of students trying to get to their next lessons, there wasn't much opportunity to talk; Rose as thankful. She really didn't know what to say to Malina, and Malina seemed content to follow in silence, head bowed like she could melt into the walls and disappear at any moment.
Around a corner, through a stream of noisy Hufflepuffs, Rose took the moment to study the girl. She was pretty, beautiful even, Malina. Almost unnaturally so. It had almost two months now since she'd arrived here, and yet Rose didn't feel like she knew her at all. She didn't have many friends, didn't talk or laugh much at anything, and the few times Malina was engaged with something, her attention had been snagged from afar. How much time did it take for quiet buds to open their petals?
Inside the DADA classroom, Rose was grateful to see there wasn't many people yet. Only a handful. None of her Ravenclaw classmates. Sorrel Covington was taking space at the back, shifting and adjusting himself in his usual seat. His eyes snapped to Rose once she stepped into the classroom, almost restless, hungry even, but all he did was narrow his eyes and look away.
What a weirdo, Rose thought.
Malina glanced at the boy too, but then look back down at her textbook. "I sit over there."
So Malina went to take her usual place in the middle, away from prying eyes, and Rose dropped her things on her usual space. She watched with a low level of curiosity as Malina methodically extracted her quill and parchment and opened her textbook, then withdrew her wand. No end to revision, it seemed. Rose wryly considered getting her on board with the secret research project with Scorpius. If she liked books so much, maybe she'd be happy to look for the link in the library between Romania, Greece and the Caribbean. It wasn't like Rose was keen to trawl through pages upon pages of ancient European history. There was a reason she'd dropped History of Magic.
It wasn't long before Lonnie and Halie strode inside next, and Lonnie looked nothing like the meek girl from the other day, eagerly but quietly searching for her family's history. She flicked her head and giggled.
"— and the Frog Choir performance tonight! Tristan's going to be in it. Isn't that great?"
"But… he doesn't have a frog?"
"I asked Rhys if he could borrow his toad."
"Christ on a bike." Halie chuckled darkly. "I can't wait to see how this will turn out."
Lonnie nudged her and they sat down.
Shortly after another bunch of students came Scorpius. Rose was surprised – no, shocked – to see the grin on his face. It was nothing like she'd ever seen on him. So calm, so collected, not… close to hysterical. Then Brooke came in next to him, and she was also snorting so badly she had to stop at the wall to catch her breath.
"And then in the middle of the argument—" Brooke had to stop because her voice was going so high-pitched, because laughter was crumbling her words, "I said— I said 'we can't have beef, because— because I'm vegan'."
Scorpius laughed. For some reason, the sight stunned Rose into complete silence. Scorpius Malfoy, laughing. It was practically an oxymoron. Something strange, some feeling Rose couldn't identify, whirled in her sternum. Interesting. Intriguing. Scorpius and Brooke were laughing and making jokes together, totally wholesome on its own… and yet, Rose's jaw clenched at the sight.
He muttered something to her, laughed with another wicked smile as she shoved him away. Where was Minhyuk, and Karlin, and Suzume? Had she been hanging out with Scorpius during lunch? They parted to go to their respective desks, and suddenly Rose was on her feet, on her way over to Scorpius, now sitting next to some other Slytherin called Cora El-Ghazzawy. Scorpius had managed to regain some composure by the time he realised she was standing there, staring at him.
"You should take a photo. It lasts longer."
"What were you doing at lunch?" She didn't mean for it to come out accusing.
She pulled her shoulders tighter. "Very funny. Were you researching?"
"I've been reading bits of the books, yeah," he said in a lower voice. "But I'm not going to spend my entire lunch doing it. I do have other stuff going on in my life. I know that might surprise you."
"I was at the library all lunch today, if you must know."
"Good for you."
"Are you even taking this seriously?"
"Yes, I am," he said, faced impassive. "Take it down a notch, Rosie. You don't have to come for me if I take it easy for one lunch time."
She hated that he was right and laboured on a long, deep breath to cool… whatever it was that was firing up her temper. "I just… wanted to know if you'd got anywhere with it, is all."
"No," came his short answer. "You?"
"Then we keep searching."
"If you weren't busy tonight, I would ask if you wanted to continue."
"I'm not busy tonight."
"Oh." Why had she assumed—? Rose massaged her temples. It was probably the weather. Or the Mole situation. It was stressing her unnecessarily. "Yes. Right. Tonight then."
"What is up with you?"
She didn't have the chance to respond; the office door swung open. Oliviera strode out and waved his arm to signal for attention. "Settle down, class. Take your textbooks out. We're going over theory. Miss Weasley, take your seat, please. Miss Casey, stop that giggling or I'll have to move Miss Williams again."
Rose shot Scorpius a glare – that he entirely ignored but obviously knew she was making – and moved back to her seat, at the same time that the door opened. Minhyuk scrambled inside, robes fussed.
"Sorry! Sorry," he called.
"Lost again, Mr Park?" drawled Oliviera.
"Yes, sir," Minhyuk laughed sheepishly. "I never remember where I'm meant to be going."
It didn't seem to faze him at all. Class began, Oliviera scrawling on the whiteboard with chalk that moved in time with his wand movements. To Rose's left, she spotted Karlin doodling in his parchment what looked to be a Quidditch diagram, and next to him, Suzume was scrutinising the drawing with fierce eyes.
Not ten minutes in, however, did a knock cut swiftly through Oliviera's lecture of defence enchantments. His eyes darted sharply to the door in confusion, but he halted mid-sentence to open it. At the threshold, hands tight behind his back, was Ruthven, face as moored as a boat anchored to port. Immediately his own gaze went out – and snagged on Rose. At once Rose's heart went into her mouth.
Oh no. He knows.
"Apologies for interrupting the lesson, Professor," said Ruthven coolly, not at all angrily like Rose might've expected. "May I speak with Miss Weasley and Mr Malfoy? I will only need them for a few minutes."
"Ah," said Oliviera, following his gaze. "Liaison duties, I presume?"
Ruthven nodded once. Rose gathered her courage and came to her feet, then swept out of the room. If this was not about the Mole, then what?
In the corridor, Ruthven turned to eye them both. A stray beam of sunlight hit the side of his silken features, but it didn't seem to brighten him whatsoever. Only deepen the shadows. The silver chain around his neck was the only thing that glimmered, and again Rose wondered why he wore jewellery, when all he did was tuck it beneath his robes every time.
"We have not spoken for a while," he said smoothly. "I would like a report on how everything is. How everyone is."
Couldn't this wait until after class? She tried to make eye contact with Scorpius, but he didn't look at her once.
"Everyone seems to be fine," said Rose. "Personally, I mean. Karlin is complaining about how much homework he has to do, but since he took six subjects it's his own fault, really."
"He still asks regularly about getting a single room," remarked Scorpius.
Ruthven made an affirmative noise. "And the others?"
Rose didn't know what to say. "Malina's quiet, as usual. Suzume regularly hangs out with the Slytherin Quidditch team now. Minhyuk keeps forgetting everything, so I might have to give him a map again. Halie's… Halie. And Brooke…"
Well. Scorpius could answer. If he wanted.
"Brooke's fine," he said. "Still mad her phone won't work."
For some reason, Rose's chest tightened at the fact that he did, actually, answer the question.
"I see," said Ruthven, pausing a moment. "Do you suspect anything… untoward?"
"What?" Rose said at once. "Why would we suspect anything untoward?"
"I have been asked to keep an eye out for such things."
But they were just students, coming on the international programme. What untoward things was he worried about? Were the school worried about?
"Halie keeps putting peas in Karlin's clothes… he pulled one out of his sock this morning." Scorpius cleared his throat. "It's definitely not hilarious, Professor, and I can put a stop to it—"
"No. Do as you wish," said Ruthven. His voice had turned slightly less friendly. "I implore you to come to me if you… have any further suspicions."
Rose and Scorpius didn't have time to talk about it. Back in the classroom, back in her seat, Rose mulled the conversation in her head. So many strange things, she pondered, fingers tightening over her quill. Now the foreign students are being dragged into it.
But dragged into what, exactly, she didn't know.
The huge oak doors opened at the threshold of the Great Hall, its air flavoured with thick stormy clouds, its front dais decorated tastefully with black and white streamers. Abeo's eyes immediately snagged on his friends – on Lonnie, waving riotously from her side of the Ravenclaw table.
All day he'd been trying to avoid seeing his friends, and he wasn't sure why. After the Quidditch match, he knew there'd be questions. He knew there'd be speculation. Lonnie, Teagan, Felicity and Cooper were his friends. They always would be. Yet something about going up to them now, after hours of skipping the common rooms and finding solace by the Arithmancy tower, let the palpable sense of tension clutch his shoulders more tightly.
When he eventually slunk his way over, all his friends stood up – and there were only four of them. Tristan was missing. For some reason Abeo thought Lonnie looked odd without him on her arm, but the boy was nowhere to be seen.
"We were all so worried!" she said. "Where've you been?"
"Resting. Matron's orders," he lied.
Felicity pouted, her entire face ballooning in that endearing, Felicity-like way. "Are you feeling better? Do you want to go back to the infirmary? Do you feel well enough to eat?" Suddenly she was on her tiptoes with a hand to Abeo's forehead, and he was starkly conscious of the sweat there. "Maybe Matron discharged you too early. You nearly fell off your broom!"
"Been in worse scrapes, haven't I?" He waved her off, sat down and rested his hands on the table, wishing there was some food to distract from the inevitable conversation. Eventually he would have to face it – the Quidditch team, that was – but now was not the time. "What did I miss when I was bedridden?"
"Not much. Some boring classes. You can copy— er, I mean, borrow my notes," Lonnie added quickly, when she noticed Teagan glaring at her. "Otherwise there hasn't been anything going on! Isn't that weird?"
Felicity made a noise. "Well, actually, I baked you some cookies, but someone ate them all."
"I was hungry," protested Cooper, but then his expression turned conflicted. "Are you sure you're okay? You look…" And he trailed off, struggling to find the words.
"Crap?" Abeo offered.
"A stint in the infirmary doesn't excuse the language, Mr Fulami."
Abeo turned to Professor Flitwick, glasses swooping on his nose. He may have been shorter, but Flitwick always had a way of getting to Abeo, seeing past any façade. Something about his authority as a teacher despite his friendly face, maybe.
"Miss Finnegan-Thomas informed me that you're feeling better. I just wanted to check."
"That's good. I should be thankful of her, you know. She barely left your bedside. Your other friends, too." With a start he tugged on his suit jacket – Abeo belatedly realised he was wearing full coattails this evening. "I hope you enjoy the performance!"
When he was gone, Abeo turned to them. "What performance?"
"The Frog Choir!" Lonnie tittered. "It's going to be amazing! Tristan's in it! He's already eaten so he can prepare! Isn't that sooooo dedicated?"
Abeo rolled his eyes. That explained the absence. "I didn't know he had a frog."
"Abeo." Teagan's voice cut swiftly across. As usual, her gaze cut into him, bared his soul for all the see, no matter how desperately he scrambled to pull the wool over. For a moment he thought she was going to bring up their earlier conversation, and his haunches rose defensively, prepared to guard his choices, but it was like the wind left her sails. "I think awful might be a sufficient word choice to how you look."
Cooper choked on air, Felicity gasped, and Abeo couldn't help the ungentlemanly snort that erupted from his throat. Suddenly he took his goblet, poured himself some pumpkin juice, and raised it. "Well then. To good friends and looking awful."
Teagan smiled. Just a little. It would be enough to placate her. For now.
But it was far from over, and Abeo knew it.
"Yeah!" Lonnie cheered. "Except the looking awful part. I look fabulous."
"I, too, think I look above average," said Cooper.
"Me three. On your own, Abeo," said Felicity, giggling into her goblet.
Wisp called for their attention, and after a short speech, she clapped her hands, and huge silver platters appeared on the table. Abeo's mouth watered as he raised the nearest cloche. Steam fountained from the pie, its crust a shiny bronze, its chicken and leak filling oozing from the sides. Next to that were troughs of creamy mashed potato and heaping bowls of honey-glazed parsnips. A veritable feast – he hadn't realised how hungry he was until now. Abeo tucked in.
Right as he shovelled a helping into his mouth, Abeo turned around to Rose Weasley, awkwardly half-bent over him so as not to be too noticeably alone in the aisles between the house tables.
"Mmmfph?" he said.
"How are you feeling?"
He swallowed. "Better."
Rose nodded once, all business. "Good." Then she turned to Lonnie. "Have you, er, seen Minhyuk?"
For some reason Lonnie had stiffened at his side, but she immediately relaxed and said, "Minhyuk? No I haven't. He was in DADA earlier. Isn't he with you?"
"Would I be asking if he was?"
Abeo leant past her. The small cut-off slice of the Gryffindor table that had been repurposed for the international students was indeed missing one, though it looked like Karlin was doing his best to maintain some sort of conversation, judging by the snooty way he waved his fork around and jabbed it in Halie's direction.
"I haven't seen him," Lonnie repeated, more apologetically. "Ask Halie."
"Halie said to ask you."
"You sure he hasn't joined the Frog Choir too?" Abeo said, thinking of Tristan.
"Minhyu's got a Puffskein, not a frog. Ugh. He's probably gone and got himself lost again. How he can't find his way to the Great Hall is beyond me." Rose paused, making eye contact with the others, and then said, in a staccato voice, "Right. Okay. Thanks. Enjoy."
And she marched her way back to the international table.
"She didn't have to be so rude," said Teagan.
"Rude? Oh no. That's just Rose," said Lonnie.
"They're not mutually exclusive."
Abeo snorted. "But they definitely go hand in hand."
Rose had filled herself up with a bowl of savoury noodle soup – Suzume called it miso ramen – and waited with her head resting in her hands for the Frog Choir performance to start. Mostly out of morbid curiosity for Tristan to show up with a toad, which according to Halie he'd only apparently practiced with a total of twice. It was destined to be terrible. Delightfully terrible.
"— trip on Grand Staircase?" Karlin was saying, swirling his fork in his own bowl of ramen. "What if student falls as stairs change position and plummets to death? It is not very safe."
"There's cushioning charms," said Scorpius, who didn't even look up from his slice of chicken and leak pie.
Rose hadn't the opportunity to talk to him since the interruption during DADA. He'd gone back into that classroom like nothing had changed, then palled around with Brooke for the rest of the day – at least, Brooke had dragged him away. Rose wasn't sure it was reciprocated. They were supposed to go to the library after dinner but she didn't know if he was still up for it. She'd only managed to sit next to him here, but he hadn't responded to her urgent darting eyes or the rapid tapping of her fingers.
Karlin raised an eyebrow. "And you know this how?"
"Because I've lived here for six years," Scorpius said.
"You have fallen off stairs?"
"Then how do you know?"
"Because Halie fell off last week."
Karlin choked back laughter as he looked at her. "You fell off stairs?"
Halie's cheeks went bright red. "Hey, it was an easy mistake to make!"
"You insisted you could jump to the connecting platform," said Suzume nonchalantly.
"God, I wish it could be recorded," groaned Brooke. "That sounds hilarious!"
"It was very scary at the time!" said Halie.
"You yelled wheeeee as you dropped," said Suzume.
Rose was about to say something – like how, exactly, one could be so stupid as to try and jump the gap between the stairs and the platform in a two hundred foot tall tower – but Wisp curtly cut through the clatter of spoons and bowls with a brisk clap of her meaty hands.
"I'm so delighted to welcome our first Frog Choir performance of the year, composed, directed, written, mixed and costumed by none other than our very own Professor Flitwick. Please join me in giving him and our performers today, human and amphibian, a round of applause!"
As the student body obeyed and the Frog Choir assembled at the front in rows – Tristan was, typically, smack bang in the middle of the first row – Rose hissed in a low tone, "We should talk."
"About what?" Scorpius said.
"About— about tonight. Our trip to the library."
"What about it?"
The Frog Choir began, a resounding thunder of voices and croaks that could've lifted the ceiling off the Great Hall, if it weren't already ceiling-less, a rich grey of dusky fog.
"Well, I just think we should adjust our strategy and read individual history books about each country—"
"We can talk about this when we get there," he said. Then, "Are you really that desperate to get back to the library with me?"
"I mean, you were pretty mad earlier when you realised I hadn't dedicated my entire free time to research."
"I wasn't— wasn't mad."
"Ssshhh," Karlin hissed. "I want to listen."
Old words floated back into her head as the choir droned on. Scorpius had called her pressed once. Was that what she was being now? Chastened, she sat back and used her fork to slide about the bananas and custard untouched in her bowl. Only when she realised something was missing from the performance did she sit up, squint at the front row. The others in the choir were belting out the music, including Tristan himself, but his toad was completely silent.
As the Frog Choir reached the ending crescendo of the piece – Flitwick's gesticulate conducting turning even more violent – Rose leant forward again to Scorpius.
"I just— I just want to take this seriously, that's all."
She didn't hear, so much as see, Scorpius sigh. His whole body sagged.
"I get little free time as it is. You don't have to lecture me on what I do with it."
Rose blinked through her confusion. "I wasn't."
"And I'm just saying, Rosie," now she could feel the smile in his voice, "if you like spending time with me, you should say so."
Anger shot through her chest. "Of course that's how you would interpret—"
The Great Hall went into total, complete silence. Rose's wide eyes landed on the toad in Tristan's possession. That wasn't music. That was hardly a note.
"Did…" Halie said, "did his toad just burp?"
Flitwick hastily turned around and bowed, and the hall hesitatingly applauded. Tristan's face had gone as white as a sheet, as had the faces of all the others in the Frog Choir. Professor Wisp stood up.
"What a rousing and… memorable performance! Let's give them another clap! Especially to all the newcomers this year!"
Another round of claps broke out. Rose was pretty sure Halie was right. Tristan's toad just burped the last note of the song.
"Thank you, everyone!" Wisp called genially over the muttering of the audience. "Please enjoy your dessert!"
Sorrel's stomach grumbled, but he forged on through the low fog, terrified his movements would attract the wrong attention.
The surrounding incline down to the Owlery was quiet, barren almost of life, with the sun well past the horizon, and darkness a thick, chilling blanket, snuffing out the sounds of life. With the students and teachers packed into the Great Hall for the Frog Choir performance, only the grass tittered in the breeze, only the lake in the distance rippled with life within. There was no light from the moon, so Sorrel had to rely only on his gut and his memory to make it to the tower, somewhere in the distance.
Frigid dirt compacted the noise of his boots. Sorrel drew the cloak around himself. The goggles he'd temporarily borrowed (stolen) from Scorpius – Quidditch goggles – were bewitched the shield from the elements, but they weren't doing anything to let him see through fog, nor were they providing any warmth or comfort at the sharpness beating against his face, rushing blood to his cheeks. He would stop, glance around, then continue, trying and failing to clamp down on his nerves. Whoever he met tonight was supposed to be on his side, and yet he didn't feel better about the meeting. Things were moving so fast now, faster than ever before. Sorrel thought he'd have a few months more at least.
He reached a landmark of stone jutting haphazardly from the ground, and banked further down the plateau until the restless calls of owls filled his ears, and a set of stairs emerged from the mist. Sorrel reached to grab the stone bannister – freezing cold – and ascended slowly, mindful of potential black ice, mindful more of the sounds. Beyond owls, there was nothing to indicate his contact was here yet. He was early, after all, but they didn't have much time to talk. The dinner wouldn't go on forever, and if his prefects suspected he'd left…
Who cares? Everyone bunks once in a while. It was true. He wasn't the first student to skip dinner for something else, and he sure as hell wouldn't be the last, especially with a boring interlude such as the Frog Choir too. Still, this was him. Sorrel Covington. Even if everyone else did it, he didn't have the most stellar reputation amongst his peers. He couldn't get away with it as easily. He'd have to make this quick.
The stench of feather and faeces was an unwelcome acridity up his nose once Sorrel reached the inside of the tower, its walls hollowed with cubby holes. Many owls were awake now that the sun had gone down, dancing on their toes, shivering their wings. None paid him any attention. He had a sudden wish for his old, brown tabby called Marnie. In the entire school, she was the only person to show him any affection. If she wasn't old and weathered, crooked in her limbs and movements, he could've brought her for some peace of mind.
Sorrel strode inside and sat against the opposite wall, ears keening for any signs. They'd show up eventually. Whoever they were. Whoever was chosen to be envoy.
To his enemy clan.
Sorrel waited in listless silence until at once he heard the tell-tale clop of boots. The person didn't seem to be hiding their approach, rather announcing it with thunderous declaration. Sorrel scrabbled to stand, hand automatically reaching for his wand, stowed in his cloak pocket. But no. If he was caught holding that aloft, he might get attacked. This person was a broker, a messenger, and Sorrel could not jeopardise his chance to make the arrangements.
Eventually the figure stepped around the stone wall, cloak similarly draped over them, hiding their face. Sorrel's muscles bunched in his limbs.
"By ruby's glow, I am here," they said – he said, with a distinctive Australian twang.
Sorrel only faintly recognised the voice.
"Show your face."
Slender hands lowered the hood around the face, crowned in a healthy head of dyed bronze hair. Minhyuk Park did not smile but did not frown.
"So, Sorrel Covington, of Clan Abhartach," he said, oozing confidence, "let's bargain."
A/N: dun dun duuun!
Hey everyone, I hope you enjoyed the chapter! Quite a whopper with a lot going on. Abeo gets discharged from the infirmary but holds his grief close to his chest. Rose and Scorpius have a suspicious talk with Professor Ruthven. Scorpius finds a new friend in Brooke Summers... that Rose dislikes for some reason. Tristan's Frog Choir debut goes very poorly. Sorrel's mysterious contact turns out to be Minhyuk Park... whatever could they be bargaining for? Stay tuned...
Very pleased to say I finally banged out an outline, and I'm now currently working on Chapter 22, so I'm far enough ahead that I now feel comfortable enough to start posting again. Writing multiple projects at once is fun and challenging and the way I like to operate, but at the moment I'm at a total blockade impasse with my original stuff, so I've found ACOR to be a better output for words right now. I'm not going to say I'm definitely returning to my usual once-every-fortnight schedule – that's what I'm aiming for but I'm taking it easy for now – but I am aiming for some semi-regularity, so as always thanks for sticking with me.
In the meantime, tell me in the reviews what your favourite food is. I'm hungry.
Thanks for reading!
NTT: "I never should've let you live."