Dear Mrs. Corner:
Thank you for your kind offer to take Tiresius during the upcoming holiday, but my husband and I feel it is only fair to warn you that you may wish to reconsider, and if at any time you decide you need to send him home early, we will understand completely. He is a very difficult child; deceptive, intrusive, and demanding despite our best efforts. Several times during this term, however, he has written us about your son, Michael, and as he has never shown signs of normal interest in other children before, we can only hope that Michael will prove to be a positive influence on him instead of the other way around.
Mrs. Ismene Boot, MAGI
Elaine twisted the parchment in the pocket of her robes as she waited on the platform, trying not to shift and fidget like a schoolgirl. She didn't need to look at it – she had memorized it long ago – but it still worried her. What kind of little troublemaker had her Mikey got himself involved with? He was such a kind boy, always ready to see the best in people, and it would be so easy for him to be taken advantage of by someone unscrupulous, even as incredibly intelligent as he was.
Not that she'd suspected anything until Mrs. Boot's reply, and that worried her all the more. Michael's letters had just enthused over his new friend, and it wasn't until she'd read them again with the warnings in mind that certain words and phrases had jumped out at her. "Kind of different." "Never had a friend before." And the most unsettling; "I've decided he needs me."
If Mikey wanted to take on someone as a project, she'd be behind him, of course, but there had to be limits. For his own safety, if nothing else. He was too essentially good to be 'turned,' but she didn't want him exposed to someone who would try. And what kind of child could already be so much of an issue at only eleven? If he was one of those budding psychopaths setting fire to Kneazle kittens…
Her thoughts were interrupted as the edge of the platform shifted and the Hogwarts Express appeared, puffing and steaming and screeching to a slow halt. Elaine gripped her husband's hand tightly, all thoughts of unknown new friends gone in a fluttering wave of excitement. It had been so hard having Mikey gone for months, the first time she'd ever been parted from her precious son for more than a few days, and her heart was pounding in her throat as she tried to blink back the tears that seemed to have resumed right where they had left off when she'd waved good-bye.
Three months! Would he look any different? Children grew so fast! What if she didn't recognize him? What if he'd been hurt and hadn't told her? What if –
The doors slid open, students tumbling out over each other, trunks and owls and cats and toads and shouting and parents and siblings and friends. Instantly, the platform was chaos, ratcheting ever higher as everyone shouted louder to be heard, waving hands and shooting off sparks to be found among the steam clouds that still made everything even more of a melee. Here an older Slytherin girl introducing her parents to a new boyfriend. There a tall, gangly young Hufflepuff enthusing to his father about being made Team Captain. Over there the entire ginger-headed gaggle of the Weasley clan, impossible to miss and so much a bustle in themselves that they'd gotten a dark-haired boy and girl caught up in the mess without even noticing.
But here, now, finally, Ravenclaws, but all of them older, and why did so many of them have to be so tall that you couldn't even find the little ones? "Mikey!?" Elaine craned her neck, trying to spot one dark head among the dozens. "Mikey!?"
"There he is!" Lionel pointed towards the door of the car, and her heart skipped a beat as her eyes followed. He was still in his uniform, just as she'd asked because she wanted to see him in it, but he hadn't seen them yet and it wasn't his fault that he hadn't heard them among all the other shouts, as he was still half turned-back to talk to someone still inside.
Either the other parents and their children had moved farther down the platform by now, or the sight of her son had simply made them cease to matter, but it was only seconds before they had reached the side of the train, and Lionel reached in to pluck the unsuspecting boy completely off his feet in an exuberant hug. It earned him a bit of a startled squawk at first, but then Mikey recognized who it was, squirming around in the embrace to throw his arms around his father's neck. "Dad! Mum! Missed you!"
She couldn't wait, and she embraced both of her boys first, then Lionel put him down, and she was able to have him a few moments to herself, embracing him, then pushing him back to arms length to smooth his hair, tidy his robes, just look at him after three months starved.
It never stopped being a miracle that he was there, that he was hers, and she knew more from that sweet look of confusion he wore than any awareness of herself that Mummy was Being Funny and crying again, but she couldn't help it. Oh, Merlin, he was perfect. So beautiful, and how silly she'd been to worry he hadn't been being fed or cared for properly, because his hair was shining, his cheeks glowing pink, his eyes sparkling, and he felt just right under her hands, balanced on that precarious prepubescent edge between a child's roundness and a youth's leaner form.
She could have stared at him forever, but she shook herself, kissing his cheek and wiping her eyes quickly as she stood. "Did you have a good time, Mikey? Do you like school?"
"Doing well in your classes, of course?" Lionel asked eagerly, and she saw that he already had Michael's trunk, levitating it off the train over the heads of the crowd in an elaborate airborne choreography with all the other parents doing the same. "Ravenclaw, of course! So proud of you, boy!"
Mikey nodded, that one impish cowlick falling forward into his eyes and unconsciously swept back. "It's great, really is! Professor Flitwick says I've got a real knack for Charms, and I'm taking flying lessons –"
Elaine's eyes narrowed, and she folded her arms. "You're too young, Mikey. You could hurt yourself."
"I'm not fragile, Mum," he insisted stubbornly. "And it's fun!"
"Don't fuss, Ellie," Lionel shot her an admonishing look over the boy's head. "Everyone starts a broomstick at his age, a lot of kids even younger. The only real danger is those cheap school brooms. Do you want one of your own, Michael?"
His mouth dropped open a moment, then he burst into a grin that seemed to light the entire overcast London day. "Please, Dad! Can we go straight to Diagon –"
"Already planned," she interrupted. "We've got to celebrate your first term, don't we?"
Mikey looked like he was about to say something, then his eyes widened, and he spun back towards the car. "I can't believe I –" He smacked himself in the forehead, hopping up on the edge of the train and leaning in to call down the now-empty car. "TERRY!"
There was a long pause, and he was rocking back and forth with impatient, childish excitement as he held onto the frame with both hands. "Well I kind of – that's silly, Terry – you don't have to – just come on, they want to meet you!"
The reminder of the mysterious young Mr. Boot was like a splash of cold water on the bliss of Mikey's return, and she had to fight to keep the welcoming smile on her face. It seemed to take a very long time for Mikey to pull back, and she had no idea what she was expecting when he did. Not horns and fangs, of course, but the child who eventually emerged raised all of her alarms nonetheless.
There was just something so wrong about him, and it wasn't just the way that most children seemed dimmed next to Mikey. He was shorter by a few inches, with a lean, hard look to him, his dark blonde hair worn too long for a boy, falling in eyes that gave her the shivers when they met hers across the platform. The color was lovely, but there was no boyish glitter there; they were assessing her, picking her apart, analyzing the situation and she could see the intelligence Mikey had written about, except in her boy it was appropriate, still tempered with innocence, and here it was shuttered, guarded, far too keen.
Not a movement was wasted as he brought his own trunk out, and it reminded her of the dolls and toys that were charmed to move. Correct, of course, perfectly lifelike, but nothing lively. Michael shifted, bounced, wiggled, tossed his hair and talked with his hands and looked everywhere at once as a child should. The only thing that seemed spontaneous about the Boot boy was when he pushed his hair behind one ear, or when he surreptitiously touched the glasses in his breast pocket as if to make sure he hadn't forgotten them.
Seemingly exasperated with how slowly his friend was moving, Mikey grabbed him by one thin, pale wrist, towing him over and presenting him proudly. "Mum, Dad, this is Terry! He's my best mate now, and he's a really great bloke, maybe smarter than me, even!"
Elaine refused to allow Mikey to see her reservations, reaching out instead to offer her hand to his friend. "A pleasure to meet you, Terry. Mikey's told us so much about you, we're excited to have you for the holiday."
"Thank you, ma'am," Boot said quietly, shaking her hand so reticently that she almost felt nothing at all. "You don't have to."
"Nonsense! Smarter than our lad, are you? Have to see that!" Lionel laughed teasingly, ruffling the child's hair. He startled badly, flinching back and gaping, wide-eyed, in the first genuine reaction she'd seen from him. It was gone in a heartbeat, he looked perfectly composed again, but it disturbed her.
Not the reaction of a child who expected to be hit, no, not quite, but…like no one had ever done it before. Not just mussing his hair, but the teasing. She could see his mind racing, the fledgling shields of a pre-teen not as solid as they had first seemed, and no, he had no idea how to respond to being teased good-naturedly by an adult. How strange.
Smoothing his hair back down with a deep breath, Boot finally settled on a weak half-smile. "Oh, I'm not any more intelligent than Mike, I certainly wouldn't say that, even if you could quantify such things consistently. Maybe more adept in some fields, but he's my better in others, and mostly we just…" The unexpectedly adult tumble trailed off in a little boy's bitten lip and shrug, but the deep blue eyes dropped to his shoes as if he were ashamed at not having a three-Galleon word at the tip of his tongue. "We're friends."
"Of course," Elaine smiled, putting one hand on his shoulder and the other on Mikey's, and it was thinner than the sweater and robes made it seem. "Well, boys, let's see if we can get to Diagon Alley before everyone else and their cousin, yes? There's always a long queue at Florian's when Hogwarts gets out, but I think ice cream is absolutely in order here."
"They've got nearly a hundred flavors!" Mikey twisted to look at Terry around her, and she let go, taking a step back and watching the two of them.
Terry was clearly more comfortable with Mikey than with adults, but he never really lost the awareness that they were there, constantly darting little looks back to them as they followed with the trunks. Assessing looks, not quite frightened, not quite confused, but a little of all of it, and such a contrast to the way he could almost seem like a normal boy in the spaces in between when his whole world seemed to contract to their son.
Almost. Not quite. Still too restrained, still too measured, still not seeming to take up enough space despite how small he actually was.
Lionel had fallen back to walk next to her, and he slipped an arm around her waist with a meaningful nod towards the two boys. "Mikey's telling him about ice cream."
It wasn't lost on her, and she frowned, keeping her reply quiet so that only he could hear. "You'd think he'd never had it before. But there's a lot that's off about him, don't you think?"
"But he doesn't seem like a beaten child. He's just..."
"Different," Lionel agreed. "Do you think we should worry? Mikey seems to be very fond of him, and he's usually a wonderful judge of character. I've never seen him take a liking to a bully or a delinquent before."
Elaine considered it for a long time, but then they had reached the edge of the platform, and they each had to take one of the boy's hands for Apparation to Diagon Alley. She wanted to take Mikey's, but she chose Terry's instead, taking the opportunity to study him once more. He was standing perfectly still, perfectly composed in the textbook ideal position for Sidealong, his hand again almost disappearing in hers for the reluctance to touch, and although her mother's heart surged with the instinct that he needed feeding and cuddling, her Healer's mind didn't want to jump to a diagnosis just yet.
There would need to be more observation, certainly, because these were symptoms that could have any number of causes, and the priority here was unquestionably what was best for Mikey. If this boy did have some kind of serious problem, well, it wouldn't exactly be hard for her son to find other friends.
And really, she was probably blowing it all out of proportion anyway. After all, they were eleven, and children's friendships so rarely lasted. Whatever was going on with little Terry Boot, he'd almost certainly be forgotten by summer.