The boy hobbled into the office on his wooden leg, holding a hand out for the candy before he stopped, giving the teacher a wary look. "You're sure they're not cursed?" he asked, an edge of tension in his voice.
This had been going on since the first day of school, and soon the Hogwarts' staff had realized that they had what one might lightly refer to as a "situation" on their hands. Someone else had to taste all of the boy's food, from his dish, before he would even go near it. Albus was trying to take it in stride, but he knew what the boy must have been through. He shot him a reassuring smile. "I made it myself," he answered pleasantly. "Not a hex or a jinx in sight."
The boy gave him a skeptical look, then accepted one of the sweets, pulling out a knife to cut it in half. He held one half out to the teacher. "You eat first."
"Alastor, you know you're not to carry knives in school," Albus said to the boy, holding his hand out for the knife. "We've had this talk how many times now? I think you can reasonably break a piece of Turkish Delight in half with your fingers, can't you? Those look like some nice, strong fingers you have there." He popped the piece of Turkish Delight into his mouth, giving Alastor an encouraging look.
The boy scowled at the teacher, then handed him the knife. Rather more hesitantly, he put the sweet into his mouth, waiting for a moment with the candy on his tongue, as if he were expecting to suddenly explode.
This, Albus thought to himself, this was what war wrought. He couldn't remember years like this since he'd started teaching; there were so many students left parentless, so many children who left the school in the summer and didn't return in the autumn. There were the Goldstein twins, who barely spoke English, whom Albus himself had lifted out of Germany so they wouldn't be systematically murdered like their parents had been. War made everything ugly—Wizards, Muggles, adults, children. It left boys crippled, like the one in front of him, and Albus couldn't decide whether the child was more crippled physically, or in his head.
The boy looked around shiftily, then very carefully felt the seat of the chair in front of him before lowering himself into in. He hunched where he sat, looking as if he were cringing from imminent danger—bombs, Unforgiveables—it was all the same here.
Albus continued to smile warmly at the boy. "You wanted to see me, Alastor?" he asked.
The boy nodded, straightening up a bit and finally meeting the teacher's gaze as he fidgeted with his blue-and-bronze. "I think there's something you should know," he said quietly, leaning toward the teacher in a conspiratorial manner. "I'm concerned about one of the students here."
Albus blinked at the boy. "Concerned?" he asked, frowning. "About someone in your Transfiguration class?"
The last time Alastor had mentioned concern, he had been concerned that one of his fellow first years was secretly part of a werewolf cabal. The time before that, he had been concerned that the house elves were plotting to overthrow the teaching staff. The time before that, Alastor had been concerned that Progessor Slughorn was secretly teaching them how to brew poisons when they were supposed to be learning simple antidotes.
Albus' concern, on the other hand, was more for the boy. Too much of a push in the wrong direction, and he could head off that way for good. Albus' lips pursed. Too many things had gone in the wrong direction for him to let it happen again.
"Well, of course, Alastor, let me know what I can—"
"No," the boy answered sharply. "It's a Slytherin."
The teacher raised an eyebrow. "Why not see the Headmaster?" he asked. "Or Professor Flitwick. He can talk to Professor Slughorn for you, and I'm sure they'll work everything out." It wasn't that he wanted to discourage the boy, but there was only so much he could do, if Alastor was getting teased again. The first few months had been hard on the boy, but as soon as it had become clear that he could hold his own, at least among the first-years, the other students had let him be.
"Because," Alastor whispered gravely, leaning toward the professor. He glanced around furtively and cupped his hands around his mouth, as if he expected someone to be listening. "You're the only one I can trust."
"Is that so?" Albus asked the boy, frowning at him quizzically. He certainly couldn't turn him away now. "Well, Alastor, why don't you tell me what it is, and I'll see if I can't take care of it for you? And then we'll have a peppermint stick, how's that?" he offered with a broad smile. "I find that there's nothing to pick up my mood like a little peppermint. The scent just gets up in your nose and tickles, doesn't it?" he asked cheerfully.
Alastor quirked an eyebrow up at the teacher, as if it was the professor and not the little boy who was quite out of his wits. "Peppermint can't fix this," he said darkly. "I don't know what can. But if something doesn't, something terrible is going to happen. It might not happen today, or tomorrow, but it's coming," the boy said, gravely serious.
Albus couldn't belp but feel a bit silly, being admonished by such a tiny boy, as if he were the child. "All right, Alastor. I'm listening."
The boy bit his lip, then nodded. "I can't say it," he informed the professor, then reached for a blank scroll on Albus' desk and a ready quill. He jotted something down, then folded up the bit of parchment, pushing it across the desk toward the teacher.
Alastor got up from his chair, giving Albus a knowing look. "Don't read it until I leave the room. Wait five minutes so I've had time to get far away," he commanded.
Albus fingered the parchment worriedly. The boy really was quite out of his mind, but he smiled and held up the piece of peppermint anyway. "Don't forget this," he said warmly, shaking it at the boy.
Alastor grimaced, stopping to snatch the peppermint stick. "Five minutes," he repeated in a warning tone, before hobbling back out of the office.
Albus shook his head, and began opening the piece of paper before he sighed. What had the boy said? That he'd trusted him, and no one else.
He waited for five minutes, then unfolded the parchment, reading it over a few times before shaking his head. He looked at it again, but it still said the same thing: