The final weeks of first semester were rather more peaceful than the first. Umelting Icicles and fairy lights appeared in the main corridors around the beginning of December; pine trees drenched with Everfrost, festooned with baubles and ribbons in House colors, sprung up in the Great Hall soon after. All over the castle arose a general sense of holiday cheer: portraits grinned, rosy-cheeked, from the walls, and the moving staircases seemed to be working with the students, rather than against. The nicer professors eased off with the lengthy assignments, and before he knew it, Al was handing in his last bits of homework and packing his duffel for home.
Teaching officially ended on the fifteenth, and the following day most of the student body trundled through the Hogwarts gates in a line of horseless carriages, all headed to Hogsmeade Station.
"Poor Danica," said Ana, pulling up the collar of her cloak. Winter had finally made its presence known in the form of freezing wind and rain, and the air inside their carriage was cold and musty.
"She'll be fine," said Al. He shrugged, nudging a lilting Scor upright. His housemate was usually awake by now, but he suspected Scor had stayed up until the wee hours of the morning the night before, along with Matthias and Paul, at the common room Christmas Party. Al and Argil had nearly had to Summon the three out of bed that morning—neither of them knew any Summoning Spells, but Al had been prepared to look one up, should it have come to that.
"She's the only first year staying behind." Sighing, Ana leaned toward the window, craning her neck to catch one more glimpse of the castle.
"The only Slytherin first year," Al corrected.
"Same difference," she mumbled.
Al glanced at her, but Ana was staring out at the passing grounds. As far as he could tell, she'd been in a sort of funk since talk of winter break began—quieter than usual, and silent in most of their classes. Ana tended to brighten whenever Tam was around, and he and Scor managed to get a laugh out of her now and then, but it seemed the closer they drew to fifteenth Decemeber, the more withdrawn she became.
Al didn't know what was bothering her, and he didn't know quite know how to ask.
"All right?" he tried, for what felt like the hundredth time.
"Dunno how I'll make it home from Kings Cross," he said, as though she had asked. "James and I in the backseat—I hope they brought Lily, so she can sit in the middle."
Ana looked at him, her brow furrowed. "Backseat—of a car?"
"Oh—yeah," said Al, a bit thrown. "My dad has one he sometimes drives. It's hideous—old and brown, really loud—" He forced a laugh, aware he was babbling. "Still has a gas engine."
Ana blinked. "I've—never been in a car before."
"They're—erm, not that great," said Al. "Bumpy." He glanced down, absently pushed Scor upright again. When he risked a look back at Ana, she was staring at him, chagrinned.
"Sorry," she said.
"What? No—" He shook his head. "It's just—what's wrong?"
In the window behind Ana, Hogsmeade Station was growing larger in the morning mist, the Express shining red on the tracks alongside.
"I dunno." She played with a braid, followed his gaze outside to the gray. "Something Frank said."
"Frank," repeated Al. "Frank Nott? What'd he say?"
Ana seemed hesitant to explain. "It was at the Quidditch party. After you'd gone back to your dorm, he was talking about—names."
Ana waved a hand in the air. "It's nothing."
"Al." She dropped the braid, and he closed his mouth. "We're at the Station—you better wake him. I'm fine, all right?"
"Yeah, all right." Al turned to Scor and made to shake his shoulder. "Scor—"
His eyes sprang open. "Yeah?"
"Oh." Al lowered his hand. "I thought you were—"
"Nah," he said, brushing hair out of his eyes. "Just didn't want to ruin the sharing. Don't worry though—I would've saved you if it got too awkward. Fallen out of my seat, or something."
Al laughed as Ana threw an obligatory glare their way. "Thanks, you're a pal."
"Yeah," said Scor, gritting as he stretched. "I am."
On the train, they shared a compartment with Matthias, Paul, Abbey and Sarah-May—Argil had left earlier that day to meet his parents in Hogsmeade. Ana settled near the window, Al beside her, so that Scor occupied more or less the center of the row. This suited Scor just fine; by the time the Express lurched from the platform he'd gained uncontested rein of the conversation, effectively banishing silence for the duration of the journey.
About an hour later, Ana was gazing at the sloping hills of green easing past the window, and Scor was distracting Matthias from their game of Exploding Snap by loudly recounting his first trip to Minos' Maze, the largest magical zoo in the world. Al had heard this story before—it began with Scor wandering off while his father was engrossed in the Swedish Short-Snout exhibit, and ended with a Maze-wide Security detail finding him hours later by the Jarvey enclosure, trading insults with the weasel-like creatures.
Checking to make sure Ana was still lost in the downs, Al reached into his duffel and withdrew Sláine's Quaich, a book he'd borrowed from the library the day before. He flipped to the second chapter, drawing up his legs to rest the novel against his knees, and unfolded the letter that had been marking his page.
One more week! I'm counting down until you and James are stampeding around the house again—Lily does her best to make a racket, but it's still too quiet without you boys around. And don't forget to bring along your tests and essays and things! Dad and I can't wait to see the good grades you've been hinting at. We're still trying to puzzle where you got these brains of yours… He thinks the smarts are from his side, but I remember more than one of my brothers being quite bookish at school.
I'm sorry your friend Argil will be traveling over the holidays—I was hoping to have a chance to meet him. Maybe in the spring?
We'll be waiting for you on the platform. And prepare yourself, dear: Dad has promised to let me drive home!
All my love,
He'd read it four times, now. Letters from Mum were like having a conversation you could carry in your pocket; Al heard her voice so clearly in her writing, it was as though she were there with him. He stored all of his letters from home in the bottom drawer of his bedside table, but this most recent one he'd brought with him, lest he forget the pressing issues it raised: the potential collision of friends and family on platform 9 ¾, and surviving the trip to Honiton—which, even with the car's magical improvements, would take at least three hours.
When the snackwitch stopped by in the early afternoon, Ana was fast asleep, her head pillowed on her folded cloak, and Al was nearing the end of chapter three in his book. He bought Ana a pumpkin muffin, figuring she'd be hungry when she woke, and settled into chapter four, picking idly at his Cauldron Cake.
"An Abraxan foal beats a flying carpet!" exclaimed Scor, drawing Al's attention. "Besides, those are illegal—aren't they?"
It seemed Scor, Sarah-May and Abbey had begun a competition of sorts—listing past Christmas gifts from either their parents or grandparents, vying for the claim of most extravagant.
"In Britain, they are," said Abbey. She eyed Sarah-May, who was struggling to contain a smug smile, dying for Abbey's next question: "Why would they get you something you can't use?"
"Well," said Sarah-May. "They told me it was the best way to get around the island."
"The island?" repeated Scor.
"My island," she corrected.
Abbey was laughing. "You never said you had an island! Where is it?"
"In my pocket," said Sarah-May, even as she grinned. "No—it's just a small thing in the Java Sea."
Scor was shaking his head in disbelief. "I can't beat an island."
Across the compartment, Matthias wore a similar expression, peering at the three as though waiting for the punch line. Paul was oblivious, flipping through their shared copy of Quidditch Quarterly as he debated the merits of the Nebula X broom series over the remodeled Nimbus Classic.
Sensing Al's stare, Matthias glanced up. Al darted his gaze to Scor, Sarah-May and Abbey, then back to Matthias, and deliberately rolled his eyes. Matthias chuckled and nodded his agreement.
---- ---- ---- ---- ----
It was late afternoon, long dark, when the Hogwarts Express lurched and sighed to a stop at King's Cross Station. Al could make out a dense crowd on the platform as he shook Ana awake—she's nodded off again after eating her muffin top an hour earlier. Donning their cloaks, bags slung over shoulders, they joined the throng of students jostling for the exit outside their compartment.
Matthias was the first to spot his mother—a dark-haired witch from whom he had clearly inherited his wide build. Paul slipped away a moment later with barely a word of farewell, though Al saw him make his way alone to the disguised station entrance. Soon, only Al, Ana and Scor remained, clustered together as they scanned the surrounding crowd.
"There's my mother," said Scor.
Al followed his line of sight to a narrow, honey blonde woman, her eyes placidly roving the platform.
Scor hefted his duffel and shot them each a grin. "Hope you don't mind me owling you—I'll be bored out of my skull until her side come for Christmas. Nothing but house elves and rain and a bit of France, if Father has his way."
"Er—yeah," said Al. "I mean, no—I don't mind…"
But Scor was already hurrying away, waving an arm to his smiling mother. He consented to be hugged and have his hair ruffled, all the while talking at top speed.
"Al," said Ana, tugging on his sleeve. "I think—isn't that your dad?"
He turned and, sure enough, there were his parents standing by a far pillar, where the crowd was beginning to clear. They had already found James—Mum had just released him from a hug and Dad was clapping him on the back.
Al struggled to quell a sudden, irrational resentment—his parent hadn't failed to find him, no more than they'd purposely found his brother first. He was being stupid. He should be wishing Ana a happy holiday and walking towards his family.
"Al?" Ana was staring at him with concern.
"Yeah," he said, clearing his throat. "Maybe I should—do you want me to… Erm, wait with you? Until—"
What was he saying? If he stalled with Ana, his family would see him with Ana, which would lead to questions, or—Merlin forbid—introductions. Somehow, he doubted the best way to begin the holiday was a nice-to-meet-you between the Potters and the Dolohovs.
"There you are!" a familiar voice shrieked in his ear.
Al looked down at the freckled, gap-toothed face of his sister and forced a smile. "Lily!"
"I promised I wouldn't get lost, so Dad let me come find you—but where have you been? I've been all over and up and down twice! Come on, I'm supposed to bring you back."
She beamed at Ana, opening her mouth to say hello, but Al grabbed her arm. "Thanks, Lil—why don't you lead the way." He glanced quickly at Ana, who was smirking at Lily's retreating back, bemused. "You'll be okay? Do you see your parents?"
Ana nodded, jerking her head toward the front of the train. "Yeah, I think I see my dad."
Al felt his face twitch and hid it with a grin. "All right," he said, backing away. "Happy Hols—I'll write you!"
A second later, Ana was obscured in the mill of people. Al quickened his step to catch up with Lily, ignoring a slight twinge of guilt. As he approached his parents, he willed one of them to look up, beckon him with a smile like Scor's mother had done, but an apparent tear in James' duffel held their attention for the moment. Al reached them unnoticed, drawing to a stop beside his sister, who was staring at them impatiently, hands on her hips.
"Hello," she announced. "I found him!"
His mum spun around, dropping the end of the bag she'd been holding while Dad mended the rip. Al barely heard James' indignant cry—"Merlin Mum, my broom's in there!"—before his head was squashed against his mother's stomach, enveloped in her arms.
"Hi, Mum," he said, voice muffled in her robe.
She stepped back, hands slipping to his shoulders, and held him at a distance, eyes roving up and down as though checking for damage.
"Al, sweetheart—" She broke off, blinking alarmingly bright eyes. "Sorry," she said, laughing at herself. By way of explanation: "Missed you."
"We all missed you," said his father, bending down for a hug. Al was secretly glad he wasn't yet emitting the vibes that kept Dad from embracing James. "Well, except for Lily—she's been enjoying open access to your shelves."
"Lily!" exclaimed Al, horrified.
"I put everything back!"
His mum sent her husband an exasperated look as she began ushering them toward the exit. "They're not back five minutes, and you're already stirring up trouble."
Al glanced at James with a gulp. His brother had yet to meet his eyes, though it was too soon to tell if that was deliberate. Lily, meanwhile, launched into a detailed narration of everything she'd been up to since September—losing teeth and tormenting her and Hugo's tutor, for the most part—pausing only when they were within sight of the car to shout: "I call middle seat!"
Thank Merlin, thought Al.
When the bags were stowed and they had all piled into the ancient brown sedan, Dad shifted nervously in the passenger seat, reaching for the safety belt.
"Er—everyone's buckled up, yeah?" He met his wife's glare with feigned innocence. "What? It's the law!"
"Keeping talking," she advised, turning her key in the ignition. The car roared to life, the sound conspicuous in what Al reckoned was a lot full of hybrids and electrics.
The Dursleys had an electric car—it was silver, and so quiet that Aunt Dena sometimes couldn't remember if she'd started the engine or not. Her car didn't have a key—just a rectangular piece of plastic she called her "magic wand" that allowed the car to start when she pushed a button. Al didn't know much about Muggle automobiles, but he reckoned a monkey could tell that the Dursley's car was much nicer than the Potter's. The Potter's car, for one, didn't talk to them—Aunt Dena's told her where to go, what conditions the roads were in, and the current temperature outdoors.
As Mum peeled out of the parking lot and onto the traffic-clogged streets, Dad's hand found it's way to the small handle bolted to the ceiling above his head. Al had no idea what purpose the handles were supposed to serve—he had one above his seat as well, though he was too short to reach it comfortably—unless they really were only there for passengers to grab in times of fright.
Al counted five car horns blared in their direction on their way out of the city. Lily's chatter continued unabated, despite minimal audience response: James was flipping through the same issue of Quidditch Quarterly as Al's housemates; Mum and Dad were concentrating on the road. Being friends with Scor, Al had simply fine-tuned the ability to block out such noise.
His father visibly relaxed once they made it to the M3, dropping his hand from the Panic Handle and settling back in his seat.
"Always an adventure," he said.
"It's sad," Mum replied. "How low your standards for adventure have sunk."
Dad tilted his head back with a sigh and grinned when he caught Al watching. "Not so sad."
---- ---- ---- ---- ----
They stopped for sandwiches in Andover around seven, which was when his mother asked the question he'd been secretly dreading all day. He'd known it was coming the moment they opted for sit in rather than take away.
"You've been awfully quiet, Al," said Mum, taking a bite of her cheddar and apple chutney on poppyseed bread. When he failed to respond, she swallowed and tried again. "Tell us more about your semester. You were so cryptic in your letters."
Al sucked on his Strawberry Coke and wondered what "cryptic" meant. Did it have to do with tombs, where dead people were buried? He didn't see how she could've gotten that impression—he hadn't mentioned death once in his owls home.
Or it could have to do with avoiding straight answers, like he was doing now.
"It was—fun," he said, playing with his crusts. Mum nodded, encouraging. "Everyone in my year's great and I have two classes with Rose, so I get to see her a lot."
"Yes, I remember you writing that," she said. "Astronomy and Defense."
"Yeah." He chewed the inside of his lip, wondering what else he could tell them that he hadn't already written about. Scouring his brain for safe topics, only the touchy subjects sprang to mind: Flying Lessons, wand duping, Quidditch—
"Getting along with your housemates?" asked Dad.
"We all get along fine," said Al, a bit annoyed at the question.
"Well, tell us about them," suggested Mum.
"He can't, Mum—don't you get it?" said James, in the joking tone he adopted whenever adults were around. "He's got no friends!"
"James," said Dad, in the stern tone he adopted whenever he disliked James' jokes. "That's not true—Al's made loads of friends."
All eyes turned to Al, waiting for him to support this claim.
"I—yeah." In the embarrassed pause that followed, the only sound was the break of Lily's crisps as she crushed them on her plate.
"Lily, dear, stop making a mess," chided Mum.
"Who was that girl?" asked Lily, wiping her greasy fingers on her shirt. "The one you were with by the train."
Al opened his mouth, planning to identify Ana as a housemate and maybe start talking about Argil, but James piped in yet again.
"O-oh!" he sang. "Alie's got a girlfriend." He snickered into his sandwich while Lily keeled over in a fit of giggles.
Al knew better than to protest, opting instead to roll his eyes, but the automatic blush he felt creeping up his neck wasn't helping his cause. Mum and Dad, at least, seemed more sympathetic than amused. Glancing at his brother, their eyes met for the first time in weeks and Al barely suppressed a flinch.
"Look at him turning red!" crowed James.
"Now, stop teasing, you two." Mum smiled at Al understandingly. "She a friend of yours?"
"Housemate," he said with a shrug, resolving to send Ana a really great Christmas present to make up for it. Until then, he'd just have to live with feeling like a jerk. He pushed away his plate, suddenly exhausted. "I'm done."
Back on the road, the soda managed to keep him conscious for half an hour before the lull of the car eased him to sleep. He awoke early the next morning to find himself snug in his own bed, in his own room, at the Den.
---- ---- ---- ---- ----
In many ways, the week leading up to Christmas proceeded as usual. It was one of the few times of the year when the Potters saw nothing of Aunt Hermione, Uncle Ron, Rose and Hugo—they spent the week in Australia visiting Aunt Hermione's parents, traveling back to the UK in time for Christmas Day supper with Ron's side of the family. With their absence, it was by default a time for Potter togetherness—outings to restaurants and shopping for gifts in Diagon Alley, morning broom flights with Mum or Dad, afternoons spent reading or playing games with a sibling.
This winter, that sibling was Lily. It wasn't always possible to avoid James, but Al did the best he could and reckoned he was much happier for it. Mostly, he could be found curled up in his favorite armchair with a book. Sláine's Quaich was a quick read—he finished it his first day home—and surprisingly good.
His second morning back, a toucan landed on the porch railing outside the kitchen window, heralded by Lily's scream of terror when the bird's enormous bill swung into sight beyond the glass.
"It's for Al," Dad said, on detaching the scroll tied to its leg.
Al laughed, knowing immediately whom it was from. How any bird had made it halfway around the world in two days, he had no idea—but here was proof, at least, that he did have one friend.
Unrolling the letter, he couldn't suppress a snort. Argil's message was comically brief.
We met a Peruvian postman who swore these things could do Same Day Delivery, Anywhere In The World. Father thought it'd be fun to test it. If the bird shows up a day later than 17th December, we want a refund! Write back to let us know, will you?
"Is it the seventeenth?" asked Al, peering round at the calendar on the wall.
"Yep," said Dad.
"Wow," he said. The toucan was shifting left and right along the windowsill, bobbing its bill to a nonexistent beat. At Dad and Lily's curious stares, he explained the bird's origin.
"Well, let the poor thing rest before sending it back, eh?" said Dad, going back to his newspaper.
"Is it—do you think it bites?" said Lily, approaching the window.
"Poke it and find out," said Al lightly. Behind his paper, Dad stifled a chuckle.
"You poke it," said Lily.
"We'll have James poke it when he and Mum get back from flying," decided Dad.
Later, in his room, Al sat at his desk staring down at a tauntingly blank piece of parchment. He'd managed one word in the past five minutes:
A moment later, he added "Dear."
The problem, it occurred to him, was that he had nothing to write about. In the few days since Scor had last seen him, he'd read a book and hung out with his family in their house in the middle of nowhere. Al wasn't writing to Scor because he wanted to or particularly needed to—he was writing so that Scor wouldn't be the one to write first.
It was stupid, he knew, but the thought had been troubling him even since the toucan arrived in his kitchen that morning: when Scor wrote to him, as he'd implied he would, his letter would arrive in a similar manner—by owl, probably in front of Al's family. Since it was unlikely the Malfoys utilized toucans, he wouldn't be able to pass off the letter as coming from Argil; if he didn't say who it was from, that would pique his family's interests even more; and if he lied outright, chances were it would come back to cause him grief, or at the very least necessitate more lies.
Al didn't know this from personal experience, per say—he'd more gleaned it from the experiences of others.
So, he was writing to Scor. Usually, his friend could be counted on for taking Al's lead, picking up on his cues—and it didn't really matter what Al said in the letter. It was all in the sign off:
How's your skull?
There. It was almost guaranteed that Scor would follow suit, and had the added bonus that it would make him laugh.
Filibert was napping in the backyard broomshed that also served as an owlery for the family birds. As he prodded her awake, he thought perhaps he should bring the toucan there for the night—Mum definitely wouldn't like it in the house.
"Good girl," he said when she accepted the scroll. "Take that to Scorpius Malfoy for me?"
Filibert ruffled her feathers and consented to be carried outside, taking flight just before Al spotted his mother and James descending from the cloudy sky.
"Morning, dear," said Mum.
James landed beside her and wordlessly shouldered his broom, heading for the shed.
Mum shielded her eyes to find Filibert against the grey. "Where's Filly off to?"
"A friend's," said Al.
"Oh? Not Argil?"
"No," he said.
Mum arched her brow, inquiring.
"His name's—Slim," he said, hoping he didn't sound as daft as he thought.
"Odd name," said Mum.
"Odder than Argiletum?"
Mum laughed. "Point."