Ron stood in front of his bureau for several moments, listening to the sounds of Rose and Hugo bickering good-naturedly back and forth as they packed for the train in the morning. Rose's methodical methods clashed with Hugo's rather slapdash approach to layering their school things in their trunks. Rose's trunk was a marvel of engineering and precision, with her books forming a foundation layer in the bottom, while her more delicate supplies were painstakingly wrapped in various clothing items, like jumpers and socks. It was all finished by Rose tucking her cloak over the whole arrangement. As a result, her clothing emerged still neatly folded and pressed. Hugo's trunk reminded Ron of the pathetic attempts he and Harry had made in packing their own so long ago. They, like Hugo, tossed things in as they came to hand: books on top of shirts; ties crammed into corners; cloak stuffed into the cauldron. When they dressed for the first day of classes, they both looked quite rumpled and disheveled. Especially Harry since his hair was so messy on its own. Shaking himself from his reverie, Ron eased open the top drawer of the bureau, and reached into the back corner. His fingers unerringly closed around a small, silver object and he withdrew his hand, and slipped it into his pocket. He quickly walked to the small spare room and knocked on the door. Al opened it and frowned at his uncle. 'I'm packed,' Al pronounced flatly.
'Brilliant,' Ron snorted. 'Mind if I bend your ear for a tick?'
Al sighed gustily and retreated into the room, flinging himself onto the camp bed. 'Another lecture?' he asked. 'Aunt Hermione was already in here earlier reminding me about how to conduct myself properly in public.'
The corner of Ron's mouth quirked upward in a hastily-hidden grin. Of course she had. Hermione had never let the opportunity to give someone a piece of her mind pass by in all the years Ron had known her. If pressed, he would grudgingly admit to taking the counter position simply to provoke her. He found it amusing, and from the glint in his wife's eye as she delivered her spiel in that insufferable-know-it-all tone from school, Hermione knew he did it deliberately and found it just as diverting as he did. 'No lectures,' Ron assured him, stepping into the room, and closing the door behind him. 'Well, not really.' His fingers curled around the Deluminator. 'I thought you and I could have a bit of talk.'
'About what? Dad?' Al's face darkened suspiciously.
Ron leaned against the edge of the desk and shrugged. 'No. Just a request.'
'Try talking to your dad. Without letting your feelings get in the way. We've all done things we're not proud of the last year or so in regards to you and your… profession. I'm not saying you have to beg for forgiveness…' Ron could feel himself flailing and Al visibly withdrew from the conversation. He inhaled and plunged forward. 'I know what it means to let Harry down. I've let more petty nonsense come between us than I care to remember. But every time your dad was able to forgive me. Most of the time, it was more than I deserved. For all that Harry's childhood – not that he had one – was absolute crap, he has such a capacity to forgive,' Ron said earnestly. 'But you have to give him a chance, yeah?'
Al's teeth bared in a cynical grimace. 'Like he gave me?' Al shook his head. 'I'm not nearly as ignorant about our history as everyone seems to think I am. I do know how to use a library, contrary to what Aunt Hermione might think.' Ron quickly smothered a chuckle. 'I've done some reading in my spare time over the last five years. Didn't that Dumbledore bloke say something like things have the meaning we attach to them? Like why he referred to Tom Riddle, Voldemort – whatever his name was – by name and not You-Know-Who or He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Didn't he say that by giving him all those fearsome nicknames, it added to his mystique and made people fear him more?' Al challenged.
Taken aback, Ron murmured, 'I suppose…'
'Isn't it the same with my tattoo?' Al plowed forward, somewhat recklessly. 'There's not a damn thing remotely sinister about it. You know it, I know it. Even Dad, Mum, and Aunt Hermione know it. Dad is being completely selective about it.'
Ron's eyebrow arched. 'Oh?' He settled in to hear his nephew's explanation. It was bound to be good. And Ron wouldn't be hard pressed to admit Al did have logic on his side. At least in regards to his new decoration.
'Protean charms,' Al stated triumphantly. 'Whatisname… Voldemort… Used them. So did you. Your group – Dumbledore's Army – you used charmed Galleons to call meetings. Bloody hell, Dad uses them today with the Aurors to communicate. If we're going to use his logic, you oughtn't to use things because of previous bad associations.'
Ron blinked. In all honesty, he couldn't argue with that. It was true. 'You do have a point,' he conceded. 'However,' he continued before Al could speak, 'there is still the issue about your behavior.'
Al's eyes rolled back in his head and he plopped to his camp bed. 'Here we go,' he sighed.
Ron sat next to Al and let his fingers drum on his knee. 'I've said my share of hurtful things to Harry,' he said haltingly, shifting uncomfortably on the bed. 'I've accused him of things like trying to take all sorts of glory for himself, even when I knew he shied away from it, because I was angry about other things.'
'Like what?' Al asked.
Ron found himself wanting to tell Al about the Triwizard and how he resented Harry for having the chance to win a thousand Galleons, when Ron and his family scraped by on Arthur's pitiful salary. It sounded incredibly stupid to his internal ears and the last thing he wanted was for Al to think the same. 'Let's just say I resented your dad for things that neither of us had any control over, and I was only fourteen and unable to see past my own nose,' Ron said finally. Al just snorted, but he remained silent. Encouraged by Al's silence, Ron moved on with his speech. 'When we were searching for those Horcruxes,' he said awkwardly. It was still a subject that made his stomach feel hollow and his chest tightened to the point where he almost believed he couldn't draw air into his lungs. 'I did tell your father that he couldn't understand how worried I was about my family, because he didn't have one,' Ron said so softly, Al nearly didn't hear it. 'You're not the first one to toss that one in his face.' His fingers dipped into the pocket of his trousers and he pulled out the Deluminator and rolled it nervously between his fingers. 'And then I left. Stormed out of our tent into the rain. Abandoned both him and Hermione for… I dunno. Weeks. Like you, I didn't have anywhere to go. I couldn't go home, because I'd have to face the disappointment of Mum and Dad. There wasn't space with Fred and George. And they'd have never stopped taking the mickey out of me for that. Merlin knew where Charlie was, and Percy wasn't speaking to us. That left Bill. Bill never bothered me much about why I was there. Mostly he left me to myself. Which was good, because I needed the distance, and nothing Bill could have said would have been worse than what I told myself.' He faced Al with a look of consternation on his mobile face. 'When I said your dad had an amazing capacity to forgive, I meant it. When I did manage to find them, he acted like nothing had happened, that I'd never said any of the horrible things I'd said or that I'd abandoned them. And to this day, he's never used it against me.'
'So?' Al asked. Ron was slightly pleased to note the faint quaver in Al's voice.
'There is much to be said for remorse,' Ron said. If Dumbledore had called love the most powerful weapon, Ron reckoned remorse to be nearly so. While it might have been the one thing that could have saved Voldemort, the pain would have been such that it would have probably killed him as well. He knew all too well how much the remorse for his own comparatively negligible sins had hurt, and could only imagine how it would have pained someone with Voldemort's crimes on their soul. 'It isn't easy. It makes you feel like you've been kicked in your stomach.' Ron swallowed heavily. 'Just… try… It isn't a contest to see who can hold out the longest. You shouldn't do it if you don't mean it, either. And you don't have to do it tomorrow on the platform.' He stood up, and tucked the Deluminator back into his pocket. 'Just one day.' Ron cleared his throat and walked out of the room without looking back.
Harry passed through the barrier of Platform Nine and Three-Quarters after Ginny, Lily, and James had walked through it. They arrived with minutes to spare, so luckily, it was quite crowded, and no one seemed to notice he was one child short in the melee. As they hugged James and Lily goodbye, Ginny saw Ron and Hermione come through the barrier from the corner of her eye and shooed James and Lily into the train under the pretext of finding a good compartment before the "good" ones were taken. In reality, she wanted to give Harry and Al a chance to say something to one another in relative privacy. Ron and Hermione quickly bid Rose and Hugo farewell, giving them each an extra hug. Their smiles were slightly strained, and it seemed as if Rose and Hugo boarded the train with something like relief. Ginny bit her lip as Al wound his way through the crowds and stopped in front of his parents, his face set in impassive lines. Harry, Ginny, and Al stared at each other for several moments before Harry awkwardly stuck out a hand. Al took it gingerly and shook it, dropping it as if he'd been burned. 'Have a good term,' Harry said stiffly.
'Yeah, all right.' Al spun around and all but fled to the relative sanctuary of the train. He melted into the throng streaming into the nearest carriage. The whistle blew shrilly, announcing the train's departure. Harry slid an arm around Ginny's shoulders and they waited silently, buffeted by the exodus of families, as the Hogwarts Express pulled out of the station and disappeared around a bend.
Ron stood on Harry's other side and cleared his throat. 'He'll come round,' Ron said softly. 'Someday.'
'One can hope,' Harry replied. He straightened his shoulders and gave Ginny's shoulders a brief squeeze. 'I'll be home late,' he said, picking invisible lint from the sleeve of his jacket. 'Long meeting today.'
Ginny rose on her toes and gave him a light kiss. 'I'll keep dinner for you.' She turned to Ron and Hermione. 'I can't thank you enough for taking in Al.' She passed a hand over her eyes. 'Especially considering the circumstances.'
Hermione shook her head. 'You'd do the same for one of ours.' She checked her watch and motioned to Harry. 'We're going to be late.'
'Right.' Harry and Hermione hurried off through the barrier, leaving Ron and Ginny on the platform.
Ron stuck his hands into his pockets. 'Got anywhere to be today?'
Ginny turned to look at him. 'Not until one. Why?'
'Famished,' Ginny admitted. 'Haven't been eating much lately.'
'If you'll come to the shop with me, I'll throw something together. Probably just eggs, toast, and tea.' Ron gave Ginny a hard look. 'You look like you could use a nice cuppa.'
Ginny impulsively threw her arms around Ron. 'You're the best brother, you know that?'
Ron flushed and headed for an Apparitition point. 'I'll remind you of that next time I do something stupid.'
Al fought his way down the corridor through a line of people who wanted to shake his hand, slap him on the back, or otherwise bask in his glory. His cheeks were starting to hurt from the wide smile he'd worn since he climbed the steps into the carriage. It took ages for him to move more than a few feet, and he found himself stopped all together more often than not to rehash the game with some of the most ardent fans. After an hour, he'd finally worked his way to the compartment containing Scorpius, James, Lily, Rose, and Hugo. He caught James' eye, but James deliberately looked away and Al withdrew his hand from the handle on the door. He glanced around, feeling more than a little lost when two seventh year girls – a Ravenclaw and a Hufflepuff – hailed him from the open door of their compartment. 'Al! Come sit with us!' Al pasted a smile on his face and sidled through the clusters of students. He couldn't quite recall their names, but they had several things working in their favor: they were tall, willowy, with lots of flowing hair, and most importantly, they weren't family members and wanted his company.
Al hefted his trunk on the overhead rack. 'Hello, ladies.'
'Hi, Albus,' the blonde Ravenclaw trilled. She elbowed her friend sharply in the ribs, making the Hufflepuff giggle. 'Shelly and I were at the World Cup,' the blonde informed Al.
'I hope you enjoyed it,' Al told her, tossing his knapsack on an empty seat.
'Ever so much,' Shelly gushed. 'Petra and I were talking about it for days.'
Al sighed a little. Petra and Shelly. He knew of them. Shelly had a reputation for being bubbly and vivacious, if a bit dotty. Petra… well, there was no other way to say it. The girl exuded sex. It oozed from her pores, and she was quite unaware of it. At least she seemed unaware of it. Either way, the effect was extraordinarily intoxicating. Shelly was content to take the seat across from Al, but Petra dropped next to Al, her arm grazing his in a gesture that was so casually done, it might have been completely innocent. Then again, Petra wasn't above flirting with boys. Al leaned back in his seat, letting his eyes half-close lazily so he could study Petra. Ethan Palmer had pulled him aside a few days before the final and bluntly explained what would await him when he returned to the Real World. Win or lose, Al's spectacular play in the semi-final match was going to make people sit up and take notice. Merely playing in the final would put Al in the sights of women – or men, if Al preferred it – who sought the notoriety of shagging a talented International Quidditch star.
It had been an eye-opening conversation…
'If you're just itching to have a go with a girl, I can't tell you enough to be discreet,' Ethan, one of the Chasers, warned. 'There are plenty of bored, wealthy women out there that would give their wands to initiate you. If you're still a virgin, that is…'
Al felt his face flush so rapidly, sweat broke out along his hairline. Still, he nodded in confirmation.
Ethan grunted in acknowledgement. 'No doubt you've been told, but try to learn if they desire your company for your sake, or if they merely want bragging rights to your bed. And if they're married, several of 'em have husbands that are more than likely to look the other way. More so if we win the Cup.'
Al's brows drew together in a frown. 'How do you know if it's you they want to be with?'
Ethan leaned back. 'Well, lad,' he began, 'start by talking with her. If she doesn't repeatedly try to turn the conversation to you and does manage to keep up with a two-sided conversation, that's a good hint.' He paused for a moment. 'Also, if she isn't half in your lap, with her hand on your cock, and all but naked, that's a good one, too.'
Al's eyes went wide with disbelief. 'Does that happen? Really?'
Ethan chuckled. 'Sometimes. Especially if you're easy on the eyes. Never did understand why countless witches threw themselves at Viktor Krum. Last I read in Magical Maunderings near to four hundred women claim to have shagged him.' He paused thoughtfully. 'And that's just in Europe!'
Al shuddered. Even if he wasn't on very good terms with his parents, they had instilled a sense of what a proper relationship looked like, and it didn't involve casual sex. Plus, he could appreciate keeping the family out of the tabloids.
'So why aren't you with your family?' Shelly asked.
'Eh?' The question jolted Al from his meditation.
'You usually sit with Scorpius, Rose, James… Your family,' Petra prodded.
'Oh. Right. It's a bit crowded in there,' Al explained. 'Past few weeks were a rather hectic and I could use a bit of quiet time.'
'Yeah, I can see that,' Petra said sagely. 'Must be annoying to constantly be with other people.' Shelly's head bobbed in agreement with Petra's words. 'Quite the drawback to having a large family, no?'
Al shrugged with one shoulder. 'It's not too bad,' he said after a long hesitation. 'Most of the time, anyway,' he allowed. 'It's when everyone feels the need to voice an opinion about your decisions that it's difficult.'
'Oh, to be sure,' Shelly tittered.
Al smiled at her, but only out of politeness. He had already pegged her as a follower. Petra, on the other hand… She might prove to be welcome company in the days to come.
Harry contemplated the man sitting on the other side of his desk. 'Why did you want to meet today?'
Draco allowed himself a slightly triumphant grin. 'September first is a perfect day. Ministry employees with children on the Hogwarts Express have somewhat divided attentions, even if their child is of age and a seventh year until they hear their offspring have arrived safely. It is far easier for me to slip in here relatively unnoticed by all but the most observant. You've even managed to train my Auror watchdogs most efficiently so they are as unobtrusive as possible.'
'I'm so glad you approve,' Harry said dryly. 'Now about the terms for the N.E.W.T.-level textbook…'
'They are more than fair,' Draco said quickly. 'Generous, even.' He colored as he produced a scroll from his bag containing his contract for the textbook, and laid it on the desk. 'I've already signed it.'
'Oh.' Harry unrolled the scroll and scanned over it before stowing it in his desk. 'They were prepared to haggle with you.'
Draco gave Harry a bland look. 'I can always renegotiate.' He leaned forward a little peering at Harry. 'You don't look well. If you're ill I can come back at another time.'
Harry pulled off his glasses and knuckled an eye, then shook his head. 'Now is as good a time as any. The sooner the trainees can test what you've written, the sooner we can deliver it to the publisher.'
Draco withdrew a thick folder from his old schoolbag and set it on the desk. 'Thomas' drawings are excellent as always,' he commented, referring to Dean Thomas' illustrations. 'Adding animation to the illustrations with the instructions is, I will admit, a brilliant touch, as the potions become more complex.' Draco tapped the folder with a forefinger, struggling to formulate his thoughts without coming off as needlessly superior. 'That being said, by the time a student achieves the privilege of an N.E.W.T.-level class, they ought to be well beyond that,' he said in tones of disapproval.
Harry pulled the folder toward him, flipped it open, and studied a random lesson. 'I dunno,' he said slowly, grateful for the diversion from his own inner turmoil. 'Remember what our lessons were like?'
Draco's lips pressed together as he summoned his memories of their Potions classes. 'I seem to recall Professor Snape stalking round the classroom, offering those he deemed unworthy little more than scathing comments. Especially Longbottom.'
'Exactly,' Harry agreed. 'And Slughorn had a better attitude as a teacher, but he could make the mistake of assuming we knew more than we really did. As well as doting on student who he thought had connections to people in a position to make his life more comfortable.' Draco opened his mouth, but after a moment of consideration, closed it and adopted an attitude of expectation, waiting for Harry to say more. 'What if some student is trying to revise for exams and doesn't have all the necessary materials at hand or the proper supervision to brew the damn things.' Harry sat back in his chair, lacing his fingers together, and gave Draco a chance to visualize the scenario. Draco's eyelids fluttered slightly, the only movement that betrayed his softening stance. Harry pressed on. 'Think about how much different it might have been for Neville, had he been able to consult something like this, instead of relying on someone surreptitiously muttering information in his ear. Or even what your sixth year might have been like when you no longer had Snape helping you along. Wouldn't you have wanted this?'
Draco's eyes gleamed and he glanced sharply at Harry, fingers tightening on the arms of his chair until his knuckles turned white. 'As you well know, Potter, preparing for exams was not the utmost priority that year,' he said in a low voice. His fingers cramped and he flexed them a few times. 'That was low, Potter, even for you.' Harry said nothing, so Draco frowned, but nodded in acquiescence. 'Very well. Do they wish to revise the O.W.L.-level text to include the animated drawings?'
'Only with your approval.' Harry watched with satisfaction as a tiny smile fluttered across Draco's face. He had managed to arrange terms with the publisher that any revisions of the O.W.L-level textbook had to have Draco's assent before they could be made. Draco had so little say over his own life, that Harry wanted to give him that much. He tapped the stack of parchment with his wand and an identical pile appeared next to the first. Harry pushed the originals back to Draco. 'The trainees find the drawings useful, too,' he remarked. 'Especially for some of the fiddly bits of antidotes.'
Draco gave a short bark of sardonic laughter. 'You mean you don't merely take shortcuts and supply them all with bezoars?'
Bezoars were, in fact, part of every Auror's medical kit. It was one of the first things Harry had changed when he became Head. The previous Head felt that all Aurors should be prepared to brew antidotes, but Harry felt in uncertain situations, attempting to brew a potion would waste precious time. He knew from personal experience every second counted. Harry chuckled to himself, wondering if he and Draco might have been, well, if not friends, then at least on friendlier terms, had Voldemort never existed. The thought brought reality back with a jarring sensation. Was there to be nothing in his personal life untainted by that thing? 'How do you do it?' Harry asked abruptly.
Draco paused in the act of stuffing the folder back into his bag. 'I beg your pardon?'
Harry sighed and started to prop his feet on the desk, but caught himself in the act of lifting them from the floor. He shifted in the chair, then got up and began to pace uneasily around the office. 'How do you stay so aloof with Scorpius?'
'Why? Troubles in paradise?' Draco returned mockingly. 'Are there cracks in the perfect Potter façade?'
Harry froze in place, his hands locked behind his back. 'I had a disagreement with Albus about… well never mind what it was about,' Harry admitted. 'It's been a bit on the frosty side lately. I was wondering, knowing how strained Scorpius' relationship is with you, how you manage it?'
Draco took his time arranging the folder in his bag. 'Who's to say I manage?' He toyed with the clasp of his bag. 'I didn't intend for things to turn out this way. My father spent years detailing what was expected of me in my duties as a Malfoy, so when I did have my own son, the manner in which I treated him was not very unlike how my father had been with me.' He gave Harry a sad smile. 'The irony is I vowed I wouldn't do that when my son was born. How I tried to raise him was fallback position due to a decided lack of other influences over me. It was like a bad habit I couldn't break.
'And when he became of an age to understand any of this, I'm afraid I didn't know how to breach the wall that had been erected between us over the course of his childhood. I turned to drink, which I do not recommend as a course of action.' Draco stared intently at Harry. 'I suppose I maintain the status quo merely because it takes much less effort than metaphorically banging my head on that wall I mentioned. It was just easier to let things be. And before I realized it, five years had gone by.' His gaze dropped to his knees at the bag resting across them, starting in surprise to see it there and not on the floor. He couldn't remember retrieving it. 'Did that satisfy your curiosity?'
'If you ever tell anyone…' Draco threatened half-heartedly.
'Tell anyone what?' Harry asked dead-panned. 'As far as anyone outside this office is concerned, this conversation never happened.'
'Good,' Draco muttered, gathering his coat and bag as he stood up. 'If you ever reach a solution, do let me know. I might want to try it.'
James stood on the Quidditch pitch and cleared his throat. Over the summer holidays, he had spent several hours talking with Ginny about her times as a professional player, and what their training sessions had been like. Ginny had stressed one of the reasons the Harpies were so consistently good was their versatility. Every player that Gwenog Jones recruited was able to play a secondary position nearly as well as their primary position. Not only that, they regularly played practice matches in their secondary position, so if the unthinkable occurred, and the starting player and Reserve were unable to play, someone could – and more often than not – did step in for a game. Gwenog didn't like surprises. James had wanted to talk to Harry about his experiences on the Gryffindor team, but even with Ginny's encouragement, James demurred. He had a feeling that Harry might not have wanted to discuss anything regarding Quidditch this past summer, so he had avoided the conversation. 'Today we're going to do things a bit differently,' he announced. 'I know every one of you can play at least one other position than the one you usually play.'
'Aw, come on, James! Slytherin's up soon!' protested Rose. 'We don't have time to muck about with playing some other position we're never going to play.'
James turned to Rose and stabbed her with a look he inherited from Molly. 'You'll be a better Keeper if you know how a Chaser approaches the goalposts,' he said sternly. 'This will keep us from becoming complacent. And Mum said this is one of the ways they used to train when she played with Holyhead.'
'Yeah, 'cause Mum knows everything about Quidditch,' Al muttered under his breath. Lily glared at him, but remained silent, turning back around to James.
James appeared to have not heard Al's remark, and he consulted a scrap of parchment he pulled from his pocket. 'Right. So Lils, you're going to play Seeker today. Rose, Chaser; Sophie, Chaser; and Alex, Chaser. Nicky, Beater. I'll play Keeper, and that leaves Al to play the other Beater position.' James couldn't help the smirk that passed over his face. Like all the Weasley/Potter cousins, Al had grown up playing any and all positions, and Beater was his worst position. His natural flexibility, such an asset as a Seeker, wasn't a very good fit for a Beater. Furthermore, most Beaters had powerful shoulders and upper bodies, but Al had the lean, wiry build of a pure Seeker. It was no accident that James picked that particular position for Al to play today. He had seen Al's progress down the corridor on the carriage of the train, witnessed the clusters of giggling girls that seemed to intensify when Al walked past them. The way Al seemed to behave as if students ought to clear a path for him in the corridors in the castle. He had an inkling that Harry and Ginny might very well disapprove of what he was doing, but someone had to deflate Albus' increasingly oversized ego. 'Get your brooms and get some kit on and be back here in ten minutes.'
Al stalked to the pile of shin guards and dug through the various shin and arm guards until he found a set suited to playing Beater that fit him and grumbled under his breath as he donned them, yanking his jeans and sweatshirt sleeves over them. 'Oi! Sophie!' he called. 'Can I borrow your bat?'
Sophie snorted. 'No, you can't,' she said with over exaggerated patience. 'It's bespelled to fit my hand.' She turned away pulling a pair of Chaser's gloves over her hands. 'Which you would know if you'd paid the slightest bit of attention to anything anyone said over the summer holiday, you eejit,' she added in a quiet voice to Alex and Nicky.
'Have to do with one of the school bats, then,' Nicky snickered, not bothering to keep the satisfaction from his voice. Al's jaw tightened, but he snatched up one of the school bats and grabbed his broom. He stomped to the edge of the pitch, mounted his broom, and waited for James to release the Snitch, fuming silently. He willed himself to settle, knowing if he allowed his emotions to continue on this path, he would perform poorly, giving James just what he wanted. James might deny it, but Al knew what he was about today: utter humiliation and Al didn't fancy giving James the satisfaction of seeing him fail.
James took his place in front of the goalposts, and tossed the Snitch into the air, and Al released a pent-up breath. He was going to prove to James that he could do this, and do it better than they had imagined.
The Gryffindor common room was always raucous, and tonight was no exception. Patrick and Aiden occupied a quiet corner, practicing the basic Levitation Charm, levitating quills, scrolls, even their trainers, much to their delight. James scowled at a lengthy scroll for his Arithmancy class, swearing pungently every so often when a formula didn't behave the way it was supposed to do. Owen and Payton were huddled over their notes from last year's Potions class, revising for an upcoming exam. Sophie, Alex, and Nicky were in the midst of a heated discussion that had carried over from dinner over something that had been mentioned in History of Magic – an unusual occurrence because Professor Binns had finally been convinced that it was time for him to perhaps have an assistant. Professor Moreno had taken over the position and taught all the History of Magic classes, including Arithmancy. It wasn't as difficult as one might have assumed. Arithmancy wasn't offered until the third year anyway and so few students took the course, he didn't have to divvy it up in quite the same manner as History of Magic. Furthermore, the N.E.W.T.-level classes only met once, perhaps twice a week. Given the internal motivation of the average N.E.W.T.-level Arithmancy student, there was little worry they would skive off their projects or weekly assignments. Rose and Scorpius read the latest chapter for Transfiguration, making notes in the margins of the textbook, or adding them to an increasingly lengthening scroll. Hugo's nose was buried in a book with incredibly tiny, crabbed writing, completely ignoring the stack of textbooks at his elbow. Lily had asked another student to firmly tie her wrists behind her back, while another timed how long it took her to escape from the bonds.
It was into this scene that Al entered as he climbed through the portrait hole. He was still smarting from the utter failure he'd been as a Beater at practice that day. An utter failure that had been witnessed by none other than Petra, Shelley, and a gaggle of other adoring girls. He gazed around the common room, looking for an empty seat so he could do his homework, but the only one available was on the edge of the cluster of chairs and tables that held his family. Sighing with resignation, Al nonchalantly strolled to the chair and sat down, muffling a grunt as he did so. He knew why this particular chair was vacant. It was an elderly chair, and a spring jabbed occupants painfully in the bottom when they plopped into it. He shifted casually, easing off the spring the best he could, his mood darkening into further irritability. He unceremoniously yanked out a random textbook and opened it to an equally random page. The cheers that accompanied Lily's ability to break free of the rope began to grate on him until after the last of several successful attempts; he slammed his book shut and glared at Lily. 'Give it over, will you?' he snarled.
The rope dangled from Lily's nerveless fingers. 'I beg your pardon?'
Al jammed his book into his knapsack and heaved himself from the chair, reaching for Lily's rope as he did so. He brandished it in her face like a talisman against evil. 'Why do you waste your time with this rubbish?'
'It's not rubbish!' Lily exclaimed hotly, attempting to snatch it from Al's grasp, but he neatly dangled it out of her reach. Her face reddened with mortification and anger.
'Uncle George and Uncle Ron sell Muggle magic tricks in the shop!' Lily shouted.
'Doesn't mean it isn't rubbish,' Al said dismissively. His eyes narrowed with barely disguised triumph as the sharpest arrow in his arsenal came to hand. 'What's wrong, Lily?' he sneered. 'Are your marks in class bad enough that you'll just barely squeak under the wire to qualify for Auror training and have to make up for it by knowing how to be an escape artist?'
Lily gasped. She had excellent marks. Al knew that just as well as she did. She could easily perform Charms from the sixth year curriculum, and even Harry admitted her potion-brewing far outstripped his abilities at her age. 'My marks are just fine,' she snapped. 'I'm the best in my year at D.A.D.A, I'll have you know.'
'Oh, huzzah,' Al drawled lazily. 'Try doing something useful with your time, instead of mucking about with Muggle tricks to entertain the common room, why don't you?' He took aim and flung the rope into the nearby fire, where it landed neatly on the coals. It lay there inert for a few seconds, then burst into sudden and rapid flames. Lily's mouth dropped open in dismay, furious tears forming in the corners of her eyes. She blinked them back, unwilling to let Al see how much he had affected her. Al wasn't quite finished with her yet. 'And don't think for a bloody moment that Dad's going to let you become an Auror. You know it and I know it. Because Merlin forbid anyone surpass Dad,' he said sarcastically before striding toward the portrait hole, leaving a room of shocked silence in his wake. Lily's eyes widened behind the lenses of her glasses, dark and shiny with unshed tears. She pressed her lips together in a vain attempt to stifle the desire to weep, but her shoulders presently began to tremble with the effort to suppress the sobs.
Nobody noticed that Scorpius had slipped out behind Albus.
Scorpius' shoes thumped the stone floor in the corridor as he chased after Al. Al could, and had insulted Scorpius a few times recently, but he just bore it in stoic silence. After all, it wasn't anything his own extended family hadn't leveled at him. But the image of Lily's stunned expression rose in front of his eyes and he ran faster, until he caught up with Al near a tapestry of a unicorn cavorting in a rolling green meadow. 'What the bloody hell is wrong with you?'
'There's nothing wrong with me,' Al shot back.
'Why would you say those things to Lily?'
'I did her a favor,' Al replied harshly. 'I didn't tell her anything but the truth.'
'Your warped, twisted version of the truth,' Scorpius corrected. 'You're just angry that everyone didn't embrace you as the Quidditch hero you think you are.'
'Am. Not think. Am.'
'Whatever.' Scorpius shoved his hands into his trouser pockets.
'And what right do you have to lecture me?' Al retorted mulishly. 'Your father doesn't speak to you. After five years, you'd think he'd have gotten over it already.'
'My family has nothing to do with this,' Scorpius said stiffly.
'And then you attach yourself to my family. Mum and Dad only let you spend holidays with us because they felt sorry for you,' Al hissed, as if Scorpius hadn't spoken.
Scorpius inhaled slowly and deeply counting to ten in Ancient Runes to control his sudden temper. Al's words made him feel as if someone had just punched him hard in the stomach, and his throat tightened with the urge to be sick. 'I'm going to go now,' he said softly. 'Before one of us says something they'll truly regret later.' He turned on his heel and said under his breath, 'Wanker.'
'You should know,' came the low, taunting voice. 'We can all hear you, you know. Those bed curtains aren't soundproof. Bloody hell, man; are you so effing desperate to scratch an itch that you forget to cast a few charms to keep the rest of us from hearing you?' Scorpius felt his ears burn in shame. He was hardly the only one to forget Silencing charms on the bed curtains. They had all forgotten at one point or another. The polite thing to do was pretend it hadn't happened.
Just walk away… Scorpius told himself. 'Was that meant to hurt?' he found himself saying, while he slowly faced Al.
'Why? Did it?' Al jeered.
'Wouldn't you like to know,' Scorpius scoffed.
'If you are going to do that, you ought to have proper inspiration,' Al continued in a feigned thoughtful manner. 'I mean, for Merlin's sake, Scorpius, I would have thought you would have had better taste.'
'What's that supposed to mean?'
'At the risk of sounding like a perv,' Al admonished. 'But come on. Lily? Really? I mean, she's practically a child.'
'She's fourteen and I'm sixteen,' Scorpius interrupted. 'And it's not like I'm some skeevy forty year-old with my hand in my pants and a picture of Lily in my other hand.' He felt numb and found himself all but rooted to the spot, unable to let Al continue to abuse Lily, nor leave her undefended.
'She's a scrawny, bollocks-busting, smug bint,' Al spat, remembering the set-down he'd received at her hands earlier the previous summer, his pride still smarting from the ease at which she'd bested him.
If Scorpius had been asked later just what precipitated his next actions, he wouldn't have been able to make an honest reckoning of the events. A small, detached corner of his mind watched with fascination as he drew back a fist, and let it fly. It rocketed into Al's smirking mouth, smashing into his teeth. Al's head rocked back and he clapped a hand to his bleeding mouth, staring at Scorpius in stupefaction. Scorpius rarely lost his temper. The impact jarred Scorpius' arm clear to his shoulder. 'What is the matter with you?' Scorpius screamed. 'I've defended you and made excuses for you ever since you found out England wanted to have you for the Cup this year! And this is how you show friendship?' His mouth opened and closed, and he dearly wanted to tell Al they were through, he'd had enough, and they were no longer friends, but something that lurked in the depths of Al's eyes stilled the words in his throat. Scorpius shook his head sadly, and lurched away in the direction from which he'd come, clutching his fist in the other hand.
Scorpius awkwardly stepped through the portrait hole into Gryffindor's common room. Lily was huddled with Rose, her face tear-stained, smudged glasses askew on her nose. She looked up when the Fat Lady's portrait swung open, a hand smearing tears over her cheek. Snuffling a little, she indicated his cradled fist. 'What happened?'
Scorpius looked down, the stinging on his knuckles finally registering. 'Nothing,' he muttered.
'But you're bleeding!' Lily protested.
'It's nothing,' Scorpius said firmly, wiping his hand carelessly on his trousers. It only served to pull off the half-formed scabs on his scraped and abraded knuckles, and they began to ooze blood once more.
Lily reached for his hand. 'At least go to Madam Pomfrey and let her see to it.'
Scorpius snatched his hand away and he stomped to the staircase leading to the boys' dormitories. 'Just leave me alone!' he snapped. He ran up the stairs and threw himself into his bed, yanking the curtains around the bed, enveloping himself in soft darkness. He spent hours staring at the canopy overhead, listening to his other year-mates come to bed, only able to sleep once he'd heard Al's familiar footfalls on the floor, and the rustle of the bedclothes in the bed directly to his right that Al had slept in for over five years.
Al stumbled aimlessly down a deserted corridor, eyes glued to the floor. He didn't see the dark shadow loom ahead until he'd walked straight into Professor Williams. 'What happened to you, lad?' Williams asked in concern.
Al shook his head. He didn't want to talk about it.
'I gather you don't fancy going to see Madam Pomfrey, because she'll have to report a fight?'
'I see.' Williams placed a hand on Al's shoulder and steered him toward the Potions classroom. 'I think I've got something that will take care of that in a jiffy,' he said lightly. He pulled a small bottle from his desk drawer and decanted a few drops into a glass of water, then handed it to Al. 'Swish that around your mouth for a minute or so. It'll probably burn a bit, but you'll be as good as new soon.'
Al glanced suspiciously at the glass, then met Williams' eyes with a raised brow.
'Good lad. Never accept anything that anyone gives you without knowing what's in it. Just essence of dittany and water. I keep it around in case someone gets a cut or burn in class. It's just easier on everyone if we don't have to go to the hospital wing for every scrape and bump.' He handed the vial to Al, who recognized the deep gold liquid inside. Essence of dittany was a regular occupant in the upper cupboard in the Potters' kitchen, next to the analgesic potions.
Al exhaled slowly and accepted the water-dittany mixture and walked to the sinks against the back wall. True to Williams' word, it stung, bringing tears to his eyes. Al resisted the urge to spit it immediately into the sink, but he doggedly swished the mixture around his mouth, feeling the cuts on his lips and inside his mouth heal. After he had spat repeatedly into the sink, and rinsed his mouth with the frigid water from the tap, he returned the glass to Williams. 'Sit,' Williams said, motioning to a chair. 'I'm not going to report this, or send a letter home, or even give you an official detention, but you and I are going to have an honest chat about what happened.'
'Fine.' Al sighed in resignation and sat in the hard-backed chair.
'Now,' Williams said easily. 'What did you do?'
'I didn't do anything!' Al flared. 'Scorpius punched me!'
'Oh? Hm… How would you explain what happened? Because I heard the voices, just not the words. Now. What did you do?'
'Nothing!' Al insisted vehemently.
Williams sighed and turned to the shelves behind his desk, lined with glass jars of potions ingredients, like an ersatz apothecary. He selected a few of them and lined them up methodically on his desk. 'What happens when you leave these things alone?'
'Nothing,' Al said dully.
'Exactly.' Williams tossed one into a cauldron set up on a table next to the desk that he used for demonstrations in class and lit a very hot fire underneath. He picked up a dried Lionfish Spine and examined it thoughtfully. 'Take this for example. On its own, it's quite benign. Given enough heat…' He threw it into the cauldron, and it exploded in a shower of bright yellow sparks. 'It reacts to it.' He reached for a mortar and pestle and quickly crushed a few of the spines into a fine powder, and tipped the mortar over the cauldron with his wand. The explosion was even larger. 'Add pressure to the heat… Well, you can see what might happen. People are like these ingredients. If you don't care to do anything with them, they sit here collecting dust and losing their potency until they're fair useless. I know it sounds odd, but if there was no conflict, it would mean people around you didn't care about you. They care enough to become angry and upset with the choices you're making,' Williams stated. 'If they didn't care, they couldn't be bothered.' He wiped his hands on a towel behind the desk and folded the long fingers together. 'I've had my eye on you since our discussion with Professor Longbottom last spring. You've behaved quite arrogantly at school since England signed you and I do wonder if your behavior at home is similar.
'Students talk while they're working, as well you know. One can't help but overhear some of their conversations. You didn't sit with your family on the train, which is extraordinarily unusual, seeing as how your family is so tightly-knit. Rose and Scorpius don't sit near you in my class. Nor do they go out of their way to sit with you at meals, even if you've got plenty of space around you. Although it's filled quite readily by others.' Williams leaned back in his chair. 'What did you do?'
'I picked a fight with Lily,' Al confessed monotonously.
'I see. Might one inquire why?'
Al made a face. 'It's James' fault,' he said.
'It's James' fault that you started a fight with Lily?' Williams retorted skeptically.
'Well, if he hadn't made me play Beater during practice!' Al exclaimed. 'He made me play a position I'm absolute rubbish in just to make me look bad.'
'And why would he do this?'
'He said it was to make us better at our own position,' Al said scornfully.
Williams shrugged. 'It's a common practice with the better professional teams.'
Al's indignation deflated. He had never considered that particular tidbit. The English team had certainly never done it during the summer. They just played their usual position with the intent of attaining flawlessness. 'Oh… It is?'
'Hmmm. So you didn't do very well, I take it?'
'It was terrible,' Al said quietly. 'I couldn't hit the Bludger in the right direction or even hard enough to make a difference to one of the others playing Chaser or Seeker. It was really embarrassing. I helped win the World Cup… I'm not supposed to be bad at Quidditch.'
'But does that give you the right to argue with your sister, who I might add, had nothing to do with what happened in practice today?'
'I suppose not…'
'Who should have earned your ire?' Williams asked calmly.
'James, I suppose,' Al said wearily.
'What are you going to do about this mess you've created?'
'Apologize to Lily, I guess.'
'And Scorpius. I don't think I've ever seen that boy lose his temper, much less strike another person.'
'He should apologize to me for hitting me,' Al said mulishly.
'If I know Mr. Malfoy, he's clawed with guilt right now over it.' Williams ran a hand through his hair. 'I know it might be difficult, but try looking at your behavior from someone else's perspective. You're an intelligent young man, Albus, and very talented, but if you don't rein in that ego of yours, when you finish school in two years, no professional team in Britain or Ireland will want you. Not even Falmouth and they'll take nearly anybody. I can't speak for any teams on the Continent or elsewhere in the world, but I don't imagine they'll want to sully their reputations be signing a player that's gotten bad reports from previous teams. And for you, that would be Gryffindor, and I promise you, they will speak to every last captain you've ever had. Not to mention Madam Pimm.' Williams grabbed a scrap of parchment and scribbled a note on it, then signed with his usual spare signature. 'That'll get you back to Gryffindor tower without undue trouble from teachers, the Head Boy or Girl, or any prefects that might be about. It's past curfew.'
Al took the parchment and slowly walked back to Gryffindor tower. His head was overflowing from Williams' conversation. It felt as if it was stuffed with cotton wool, so many thoughts were clashing together in his brain. Was it possible that Williams was telling the truth about professional teams? That what he thought was confidence was showing as arrogance? You weren't taught to behave that way, he chided himself. When he opened the portrait hole and climbed into the common room, the only person left was James, sitting in a chair that faced the portrait hole. James gave him a long, inscrutable look, but said nothing. Al swallowed through a suddenly dry throat. 'James,' he said rustily, 'could we… that is, would you…' James raised a brow and waited. Al felt his face flush painfully and he coughed. 'Never mind.'
James murmured, 'Very well.' He left the common room and went up to his dormitory without saying another word. If Al wanted to talk, he was going to have to make the first move, James decided.
Al followed James lethargically up the stairs, wondering for the first time if he'd irreparably damaged his relationships with his family.