The Start of Something
I break the law once every week
To feel your touch
What's a book to you in bed?
Do you feel better? Older?
This just makes me ill
Your name is dripping from my pen
Still, you're not around to curse
I've got to drop the gun now
Say I'm still under you
Quidditch matches and the last day of term and the second of May all had much the same affect on Hogwarts students. That evening there was an excitement in the common room, more crowded than usual, with younger students chattering away about the events of the day and older students capitalising on the free afternoon to share around bottles of mead.
The buzz in Gryffindor tower was not enough to rouse enthusiasm from Albus and Rose. They were sitting in a quiet corner in an attempt to avoid conversation, with Rose sitting curled in an armchair reading with Chandra's cat on her lap and Albus trying his hand at giving Chandra a tarot reading as the two of them lay on the rug.
'This one,' said Albus, turning over the Page of Swords and laying it before Chandra. 'Oh, I know this one. Isn't it like – like an upcoming challenge or something?'
'No, not quite,' said Chandra patiently. 'It's more about energy and enthusiasm.'
'Oh, right. So, what does that mean?'
'I don't know, Al, you have to tell me,' Chandra told him. 'The reader has to impart their own interpretation on the reading.'
'Er, okay… I guess it means…'
But he was interrupted by a chorus of laughter from the group of seventh years sitting across the room. He cast the group a reproachful look. Finlay, Julian, Linus, Xan, Corrina Peakes and Anadia Indra were huddled by the fire, deep into a cask of mead and hours deep into a series of increasingly convoluted drinking games. James was conspicuously absent, having slipped away when they reached the castle after the memorial and failed to return to the common room when curfew began.
'God, I wish they'd do that up in their dormitory,' sighed Albus. 'They're so bloody noisy.'
'Just go to bed if it's bothering you,' drawled Rose.
'I can't,' grumbled Albus. 'Emory's got some girl in our dorm and I don't fancy getting hexed.'
'I'm sure they'll quieten down soon,' said Chandra calmly. Since the memorial that afternoon she had been pointedly positive, evidently trying to soothe Rose's and Albus's foul moods. 'Come on, Al, keep going.'
Albus sighed and surveyed the Page of Swords. 'I'm going to say it means… it means we'll have a good time at your place this summer if we go. And this one…' Albus flicked over another card, revealing an illustration a yellow orb hanging over a river. He gave a grimace. 'The Moon. I know what that one means.'
'And what's that?' asked Chandra.
'Worry,' said Albus tiredly. 'Anxiety and uncertainty and stuff.
Chandra frowned slightly, staring at the card. 'Well, kind of. But what do you think it means for me?'
'Probably just that,' said Albus. 'Knowing my luck.'
Rose gave a sigh. 'Albus, you're reading for Chandra. How is it worry for you if she's drawn the card?'
Albus didn't reply, but rolled over on the rug, staring at the stone ceiling of the common room. He could feel Rose and Chandra watching him, knowing he was being dramatic, but not much caring. He was too busy feeling sorry for himself.
'We don't have to keep doing the reading, Al,' said Chandra gently. 'It's been a long day.'
'No, I'm just thinking,' said Albus. 'That card reminded me.'
'About what?' asked Rose.
'When I was with Mei's parents, her dad said this weird thing to me,' he said, frowning at the tall ceiling of the tower. 'He works for the Department of Mysteries, in the experimental magic unit. He researches new potions and spells and stuff-'
'Yes, we know what experimental magic means,' drawled Rose. 'Is this going anywhere?'
Albus sat up, glaring at her. 'Yes, Rosie. He told me this thing, saying that - that Mikhael Rowle has been asking them to do stuff he's not comfortable with. Like working on dark magic and - and stuff that could be used as a weapon.'
Chandra's eyes swelled, and Albus was satisfied to see that even Rose looked surprised.
'Oh, Merlin,' sighed Chandra. 'What type of stuff?'
'He didn't say,' said Albus. 'He kind of tried to backtrack a bit - I think he realised he'd said too much. He asked me not to tell anyone, and I don't want to get Adalric in trouble but I kind of thought I should tell my dad… but then he and Ron and Hermione warned us off getting involved and I was so annoyed that I forgot all about it, and now I won't be able to tell them because our mail is being checked by the Ministry.'
There was a silence between them as each of them contemplated the predicament, before Rose spoke.
'Surely the Deputy Head of the DMLE can't just waltz into the Department of Mysteries and tell the Unspeakables to start making him weapons,' she said matter-of-factly. 'There must be some sort of process surrounding that. Some kind of approval system with the Wizengamot or the Auror Office.'
Albus looked at her. 'I don't know, but Adalric said that's what happened.'
'Well, perhaps it's a matter of opinion,' said Rose. 'Maybe the things Rowle is asking them to do is just usual defence preparation, but because Mei's stepdad doesn't like Rowle he objects to it.'
Albus gave a disgruntled sigh. The day had been too long for him to endure Rose's superiority. 'I don't know, maybe. But I think Adalric probably knows more about it than you do, Rose.'
Chandra knew this was her queue to intervene, and she said gently, 'Perhaps we could tell Neville again. He can obviously talk to your parents without the Ministry knowing.'
'Yeah, maybe,' grumbled Albus. He knew that this was a perfectly sound solution, but he found that he didn't much want to hear solutions: he was still bitter for after the conversation with his father and had no energy to pull himself out of his sulk. 'I bet even if we did have a way to tell our parents they'd just tell us not to worry about it though.'
'Probably,' agreed Rose. 'Especially when we have nothing concrete to tell them.'
'Could you maybe ask Mei more about it, Al?' asked Chandra. 'Perhaps if she got more information from her stepdad…'
'I doubt she'll want to ask Adalric anything about it,' said Albus truthfully. 'She'd say it's Ministry business.'
Rose gave a sniff of derision, and Albus looked at her.
'Oh, don't start,' he warned her.
'I didn't say anything,' retorted Rose.
'You were thinking it.'
'I can't help what I think, Albus.'
'Well, think more quietly then,' Albus suggested.
Chandra once again opened her mouth to intervene, but she didn't, as their attention was caught by the sudden hush that had fallen over the common room. The three of them looked around at the source of the interruption to see Neville climbing through the portrait hole.
The appearance of the Head of House in the common room was novel enough to spark interest from most of the students: the teachers usually only came to the common room when something serious had happened or they were going to give someone a detention.
As Neville stepped through the portrait hole, the loudness and energy of the common room seemed to deflate, and students started speaking more quietly and abandoned whatever untoward behaviour they had been involved in a moment ago. The seventh years seemed to immediately sober up, glancing around at each other in panic, trying to tuck away their bottles of mead. Neville, however, seemed disinterested: he was frowning, scanning the room, and his eyes travelled right over the seventh years to land on Albus, Rose and Chandra, before he started towards them.
'Oh, God, what now?' Rose hissed as Neville approached them, closing her book and sitting up in her armchair. Chandra's cat jumped off of her lap and skulked away.
Neville didn't waste any time when he reached them, but said briskly, 'Albus, I need you to come with me.'
Albus hesitated, casting a glance towards Rose. Had their parents asked Neville to scare them off their pursuit of August Selwyn?
'Er…' said Albus slowly, 'okay. Has something…'
'It's your dad, Al,' said Neville briskly. Albus suddenly realised he had never seen Neville look like this before: the herbology professor's round face was pale and pinched. 'There's been an accident and he's been taken to St. Mungo's…'
At this, the chatter of the students from around the room seemed to soften, and Rose's movement as she got to her feet seemed far away, and Chandra's hand reaching for his shoulder seemed numb. He suddenly found himself on his feet without realising he had stood up.
'But he's okay, right?' he found himself asking. 'He's…'
There was a brief hesitation before Neville continued. 'I don't know Al. The healers are working on him. Professor Sinisitra is going to arrange a portkey for you and Lily and James to go meet your mum at St. Mungo's.'
Albus didn't need to hear anymore to know that this was bad. His mother wouldn't pull him out of school if it wasn't bad. Too bad to even think about.
It was then that the world around him suddenly seemed to constrict. He drew a breath and found it hard to fill his lungs. Everything seemed too loud, too bright, too busy. He could feel himself shaking.
He heard Neville ask Rose, as if from very far away, where James and Lily were, and then things started moving very quickly. Rose departed to the girl's dormitories to find Lily, and Neville crossed the room to ask the seventh years where James was, and from around the room he could feel people watching him, and he shut his eyes.
Distantly, as if watching it happen to someone else, he heard Chandra ask him if he was okay, and he tried to answer but he couldn't seem to make his mouth work.
'Al, it's okay,' Chandra's shaky voice told him. 'It's okay. Sit down. Breathe.'
She took his hand and led him over to the couch and lowered him down and he allowed her to do it because it was easier than having to decide what to do for himself, but he knew he shouldn't be sitting down. He should be moving - he should be leaving. He needed to be with his parents.
And then Rose reappeared with Lily at her side, and Lily asked what had happened, and he couldn't answer her, and then suddenly Louis and Hugo also appeared, wanting to know what was wrong, and he put his hands over his ears so he didn't have to listen to Rose explain. And then Neville reappeared with Xan and Finlay following him, telling him they needed to go.
'We can't go without James,' said Lily.
The calmness in Lily's voice seemed to draw him back, and he looked up at her. She was standing with her face impassive, looking up at Neville with a defiance that made her look older than fourteen.
'I know, Lily, but he's not here. When did you see him last?' asked Neville.
'He walked back with us to the castle after the memorial, but I didn't see him at dinner,' said Rose. 'He didn't come back to the common room after curfew.'
Albus knew that he he ought to be angry at this. This was about the most James thing that James could do: abscond while their father lay in St. Mungo's. But even as he tried to feel angry towards James he couldn't quite manage it: he wanted too badly to have James there with them.
Neville seemed to draw in a sigh, before he said, 'I'm going to get some of the aurors together and we'll go look for him, but Al, Lily – I need you two to come to the headmistress's office.'
And then he was being told to stand up, but his legs felt too weak to move, and he felt Chandra and Rose each take a hold of his arm and ease him up, and then he was being guided out of the common room, Lily at his other side, and Neville waved them through the portrait hole.
'Bye, Al,' murmured Chandra, giving him a weak smile as she let go of his arm.
'We'll see you soon,' said Rose stiffly.
He wanted to say goodbye to them, as if it was the last time he would see them, but he couldn't make his mouth move, and so all he could do was raise his hand at them.
'Albus, come on,' said Lily, not harshly but in a voice that told him he needed to move. She put a hand on his shoulder and nudged him forward, and with one last look at Rose and Chandra he climbed through the portrait hole with Lily and Neville following him.
As summer approached the evenings were starting to warm up, and that had once again given him the option to spend his post-curfew evenings not hidden away in some quiet part of the castle, but down at the Quidditch pitch.
On that particular evening, the air was thick and sweltering with humidity from the day's rain. The grass had dried since that afternoon and so he lay lie spread-eagled on it, feeling the coolness of the earth radiating into him, one hand behind his head and the other holding a cigarette, a bottle of firewhiskey lying beside him.
It wasn't often that James wanted to be alone. Being alone was boring.
But, on the odd occasion when he wanted solitude, he always found it at the Quidditch pitch. The lengthy walk from the castle meant that it was rarely used by students outside of Quidditch practise, and James had discovered soon into his life at Hogwarts that it was outside of the prefect patrol route.
He shut his eyes and breathed in the smell of the pitch: the mown grass and the pine trees in the distance.
The scent of it and the firewhiskey in his head was bringing all of these memories rushing back, the years and years of moments that had happened on the Quidditch pitch: borrowing Teddy's broom to practise flying before he had had his own; the try-outs in his second year when he had been made chaser after outflying students five years his senior; getting drunk for the first time with Finlay, Julian and Linus and the five bottles of mead they had stolen from the kitchen; the nameless girls he had brought down here to get off with after Quidditch parties; the days spent with Finlay and the rest of the Quidditch team talking and laughing.
And now, in less than two months, he would be leaving forever, and none of it would matter anymore. He knew his friendships with Linus and Julian and the other students in his year level weren't built to last: he just happened to share a dormitory with them. They liked drinking together, and talking about Quidditch and gossip from around the school, but there wasn't anything of substance to their relationships. They would float away into non-existence once school was over.
Only his friendship with Finlay had ever given him the illusion of something enduring, and now that was gone. There was nothing ahead of him and nothing behind him, and knowing that made him feel angry in a way that not even firewhiskey could quell.
He sat up to roll another cigarette and looked out over the silent pitch, the green grass glowing silver under the moon. He imagined, as he rolled his cigarette, all the times he had sat here, wanting to be alone, and all the times he had watched Finlay come towards him from the castle, knowing where to find him.
He imagined it happening again now. What would he say if Finlay were to come find him now? How would he apologise?
But that was a stupid thing to think about, because even now James knew he had no interest in apologising. He wasn't sorry he hit Zabini, he wasn't sorry he told Finlay to fuck off, and he wasn't sorry for being the way he was, because being this way was the only thing he had.
And then, over the sloping hill that led down the castle, he saw movement. He thought that perhaps, for the first time, an auror or a teacher had come to find students out of bounds on the pitch, but then he recognised the tall stature, the purposeful gait with which the figure approached, as if by thinking it he had conjured him.
He wondered what Finlay was coming to find him. Surely it wasn't to make amends – Finlay had nothing to make amends for – and surely he knew James well enough to know that the apology would never come from him.
But of course, Finlay would come looking for him, expecting better from him, wanting more from him, and in that moment it infuriated him. Finlay's gentleness and his righteousness and his patience, all of these things that James had none of and never would. He would never be the way Finlay was.
James saw as he drew closer that he was carrying James's invisibility cloak under his arm, and James knew that he would have had to search through James's trunk to find it. This only irritated James further: a month ago he would have had no qualms with Finlay rifling through his things, but Finlay had relinquished the right to James's cloak and the Maurauder's Map and stealing his cigarettes when they had stopped talking.
And so once Finlay was near enough, James asked, 'So how was it?'
Finlay didn't stop coming – he didn't even seem register what James had said. His jaw was set, his dark eyes fixed on James, and he said in a hollow voice, 'James…'
But James wasn't going to let him try to reason with him: he was going to make Finlay fight for it. And so he said, 'Sucking Zabini's dick. How was it?'
He didn't get what he had been expecting. Finlay didn't roll his eyes, or tell him to fuck off, or walk away. He just kept coming until he was standing over James, his dark face illuminated by the moonlight.
James had never seen Finlay look at him like that, and the severity of it unnerved him, but perhaps this was what he had wanted: to cross a line with Finlay. To get to a point of no return where he no longer had to question how to salvage their friendship, because there would be no way to salvage it.
'Was that rude?' asked James, careful to keep his voice serene in a bid to push Finlay further. 'I'm just too exhausting, aren't I, Fin?'
'James…' said Finlay again, but he stopped talking. He ran a hand through his hair, pushing his dreadlocks back from his face. 'You need to come to the castle. Neville's looking for you.
At this, James raised his eyebrows. 'Oh no, am I in trouble? Have you come here to make sure I get my retribution?'
'It's Harry,' said Finlay flatly. 'He's hurt. He's been taken to St. Mungo's.'
It took a moment for James to register what Finlay had said. He had been expecting something cutting, but not this. He tossed away his cigarette and asked evenly, 'What did you say?'
'Something's happened to your dad,' said Finlay, his voice still calm. 'He's been hurt and he's at St. Mungo's. I don't know much else but your mum's at the hospital with him and Sinistra's organising a portkey for you and Al and Lily.'
James was silent for a moment, letting the information settle over him. If it had been anyone else other than Finlay telling him this, he may have suspected it to be some elaborate form of revenge, but he knew Finlay would never do such a thing.
'Is he okay?' asked James.
And he could see the fear in Finlay's eyes when he said, 'I don't know. The healers are working on him.'
It was that look – that fear in Finlay's dark eyes that he didn't often see – that seemed to make James register what was happening. His father was hurt – badly enough to warrant James being pulled out of school.
It seemed too hard to believe: he had seen his father only hours beforehand. It didn't seem possible, and James's mind rushed trying to make sense of it. Harry had left the school with Ron, to go find Mundungus Fletcher, to take him into custody. How could something so trivial have put him in hospital?
He felt a hand touch his shoulder and started slightly, looking up to find Finlay leaning over him. He had apparently been silent for too long without realising.
Finlay said James's name, in a voice that James had never heard him use before. A kind of softness to it that made something within him break. 'James. We've got to go. Come on.'
And then the beater straightened up, extending his hand to James, and James took it, allowing Finlay to pull him to his feet and let go of his hand.
With Finlay at his side, they strode back across the Quidditch pitch towards the pathway back to the castle. They walked slowly. He knew he ought to be hurrying – to be doing more – but he couldn't find the strength in his legs. It was as if something had been sapped out of him; like all of his anger and his hurt and his drive was gone.
He had, of course, visited the possibility in his head of this happening. When he was younger, he had played it out in his mind's eye when he couldn't sleep. The logistics of the thing: he would imagine Professor Sinistra coming to call him from class, the stiffness in her voice when she delivered his news as they stood in an empty corridor. He had imagined his mother waiting for him in the head mistress's office, and Lily weeping, and seeing his father unconscious in a hospital bed.
He had never spared much thought for how it would actually feel to hear the news. He had never allowed himself to approach the panic and the terror and the anger that he was sure would have to come with it. The thought of such feelings seemed too immense – almost unfathomable for a person like James to feel.
And yet now, when it was finally happening, these feelings didn't come. All he felt was a numbness, and all he could think of was the look on his father's face as he had bid him goodbye that afternoon. The way Harry's green eyes had travelled over him, had stayed on him for just a second longer than usual, and had given him a look of warning, or perhaps it was disappointment, or perhaps it was apologetic.
James didn't know, because he didn't know his father, and his father didn't know him, and he had always wanted it that way, and now he realised how childish that was, because perhaps they would never have the chance to know each other.
And then the panic was coming. The horrible, choking panic that he had been afraid of, that he thought he would keep at bay. But there was no way to hold it back: it was bearing down upon him. The what if, what if, what if of it all.
'James…' Finlay's face was in front of his, leaning over him.
He only then realised that he must have stopped walking. They had made it to the mouth of the courtyard without James bearing much thought for where he was going, and he now realised how close he was: he would be at the head mistress's office in a few minutes, and then the what ifs would stop being what ifs, and they would become real.
Finlay's hand closed on his shoulder, jostling him gently. 'James,' he said again. 'We've got to keep walking.'
James met his eye, and he realised how long it had been since they had looked at each other this closely. Nearly three weeks: not long at all, but much longer than James had ever gone without being close enough to see the dimpled laugh-lines at the curve of Finlay's eyes.
He remembered, as if was from a very long time ago, that he had had so many things to say to Finlay. So much anger, so much outrage. It all seemed so useless now.
'I know,' James managed. 'I just… Just give me a minute.'
'It's alright,' Finlay said, and his hand slid from James's shoulder to close around his arm, giving him a tug forward. 'Come on.'
James followed the pull of Finlay's hand and allowed himself to be let up to the doors of the castle. There was an auror standing guard at the door, but evidently the aurors had been told to be on the lookout for James Potter, for he waved the two Gryffindors through the doors without question.
James could feel his chest getting tighter as he walked. He tried to imagine what he would say to Albus and Lily when he saw them: he tried to remember what he had done back in those long-ago imaginings when he had pictured Professor Sinistra pulling them out of class. He was sure at the time he had thought of a long list of stoic, wise things to say to his siblings, but he couldn't recall them now. He knew himself better now to think that he was ever stoic and wise.
And then – worse than Albus and Lily – what would he say to his mother? He tried to imagine her, sitting beside her father's bed in St. Mungo's, tears streaking her freckled cheeks. The thought of it was somehow worse than any of the other things he could imagine for himself; the strangeness of seeing his unshakeable mother being shaken.
He felt Finlay let go of his arm, and he looked up to find himself at the stone gargoyle that guarded the head mistress's office. Finlay turned to look at him, and without saying anything pulled the invisibility cloak out from under his arm and offered it to James.
'You can have this back,' said Finlay. 'And this.'
He saw Finlay then reach into his pocket and withdraw the Marauder's Map, which he too offered to James.
James took the offerings and, to fill the silence, asked, 'Is that how you found me?'
'No, I just took it so I could avoid the auror patrol,' said Finlay. 'I figured you'd be at the Quidditch pitch.'
James gave a small huff of laughter as he shoved the map and the cloak into his pocket of his jacket. He then lapsed into silence, casting his gaze at the stone gargoyle. He knew what was to come once he went into the head mistress's office.
'You ready?' Finlay asked him.
James looked at him. It occurred to him that – depending on what was to come at St. Mungo's – it could be a while before he saw him again. The thought of it seemed to make his stomach plummet, and he couldn't leave like that. Not without saying something more, and all he could say was the truth.
'I don't know what I'm going to say to my mum when I see her,' he told Finlay.
Finlay considered this with his eyes fixed on James, and James could feel his eyes travelling over him. He knew there was pity in the way Finlay was looking at him, but he didn't hate it the way he would have if it was anyone else.
'You don't have to say anything,' said Finlay. 'Just – just give her a hug.'
James nodded and he looked away, his eyes travelling to the stone gargoyle. He knew he couldn't prolong it anymore – he had to go.
He looked back at Finlay. 'You didn't have to come get me,' he said.
'Course I did,' said Finlay without hesitation.
The rush of gratitude and admiration he felt at that seemed to catch the air in his throat, and he swallowed heavily before he could speak again. And then he said, because he couldn't leave without knowing, 'I thought you said you were done with me?'
Finlay's eyes stayed fixed on James and he said, 'I'm not done with you, James.'
'I know what I said,' said Finlay tiredly, and he looked away, frowning, as if annoyed with himself. 'But I didn't mean… It's not that I don't want to be mates anymore. I just needed a break, okay? I just want some time… but I'd never be done with you.'
James let this wash over him. He didn't realise how much he had wanted to hear that until he heard it. There was no more he had to say – no more he needed to know – and so he let himself stand beneath the torchlight, watching it flicker over Finlay's dark face.
He thought he could have stood there all evening, but they were interrupted by Neville's voice from along the corridor. 'James! Thank God.'
They both turned to see Neville hurrying towards them, his face pale and worried-looking, following by an auror. When Neville reached them, he threw a hand out to catch James's shoulder.
'James, we have to go,' said Neville breathlessly, and he turned to the auror and said, 'Can you make sure Finlay makes it back to Gryffindor tower?'
Neville stepped toward the stone gargoyle, gave it the password, and it began to turn to allow them entrance into the head mistress's office. Neville pulled James towards the stairs, just as the auror took a hold of Finlay's arm to lead him away, and both Gryffindors twisted in their spot to keep their eyes on each other a little longer.
'I'll see you soon,' said Finlay as he started away. 'It – it will be okay.'
James opened his mouth, but the words wouldn't come, and so the only goodbye he could give was a wave of his hand as Neville led him upstairs.
The silence of the head mistress's office was too much to bear.
When they had first arrived he had been managing to keep it together: there had been distractions. First Neville had had to explain to the head mistress that James hadn't been found, and then Neville departed with an auror to search for him, and then the head mistress had told Albus and Lily what she knew, which wasn't anything more than what Neville had already told them: that Harry was hurt, badly, and the healers were working on him. They had then been offered tea, and then offered seats, and then the head mistress had asked them if they were okay, and then they had fallen into silence.
Albus's eyes searched the room as he nursed his tea, but he couldn't decide where he wanted to look. He didn't want to meet the head mistress's eyes, for fear she would try to talk to him. He didn't want to look at Lily beside him, worried that the sight of her would make him cry. But he needed to look somewhere, because otherwise all he would do would think, and when he started to think he felt like he was going to be sick.
He tried desperately to think of something else, and he searched his mind for something he could focus on: the names of different flying patterns that James had taught him, and once he had named them all he sifted through the tarot cards Chandra had taught him, and once he exhausted those we moved onto the flashcards that Mei had prepared for him to help him revise for herbology.
And suddenly his head was full of Mei, and wishing she was there, and all the things he wished he could ask her.
They had never spoken much about her father. He knew that he had died when she was ten, of a disease that the Muggle healers couldn't fix, and that he was buried in Weymouth where she had grown up, and that Mei would sometimes visit the cemetery when she and her mother visited family in Dorset in the summers.
He knew all of the facts, but he had always been too scared to dig any deeper – to ask her how it felt. The only time he had ever raised it with her was at Christmas the first night they had slept together, and he had learnt after reducing her to tears that it wasn't something he wanted to talk about. He was too scared of how useless it made him feel, knowing that there was a hole in her life that he was powerless to heal.
But now, perhaps, he was going to find out how it felt, and suddenly he wanted to know everything. When did she know he was going to die? Did it happen quickly or slowly? What was it like waiting? What was it like knowing? What was it like after he was gone?
He was relieved when he heard Professor Sinistra clear her throat and break the silence. He looked up at her, grateful for the distraction, to see her checking her watch. She then turned her gaze across the table to Albus and Lily, breathing a low sigh.
'I think it's time you two were on your way,' she said gently. 'I'll set up the portkey –'
'We're still waiting for James,' said Lily.
Albus felt a rush of pride in his siter: had it been him here alone, he would have followed the head mistress's direction without any challenge. He couldn't even find the words to voice his agreement with his sister.
Professor Sinistra gave a slow nod. 'I know, Lily,' she said, more gently than she seemed used to, 'but your mother's waiting for you. Once James is found I can escort him-'
'No,' said Lily flatly. 'We're staying here until James comes.'
'Lily, it could be a while before we locate him. Your brother has a habit of –'
'Well, then you should try harder,' Lily snapped. 'You've got dozens and dozens of aurors here, doing nothing, and they can't even stop one student from going missing, when they could have been at the Ministry with my dad.'
Albus glanced at his sister's profile. She wasn't crying, but he could hear a tremor in his voice. He extended a hand to her shoulder. 'Lil…'
But she brushed his hand away. 'Mum will want all of us there together,' Lily informed the head mistress. 'James should be there when – if…'
She stopped talking. Albus could see her shaking, and yet still there were no tears in her eyes.
Professor Sinistra gave a nod. 'I understand that this is scary…'
'I'm not scared,' snarled Lily. 'I'm waiting for James. I'm not going to –'
But Lily didn't need to finish, for at that moment the sound of footsteps reached them from behind the door to the head mistress's office. Albus's heart gave a nervous leap, and he turned in his chair in time to see Neville throw the door open and step through.
And then, from behind him, came James. He was walking with his shoulders slumped, still in the damp sweater and jeans he had worn to the memorial, with his brown eyes bloodshot and his tanned face clammy, and Albus knew immediately he had been drinking, but he was here.
James stepped into the room, glancing between Albus and Lily and the head mistress, and then he said in a shallow voice quite unlike his usual drawl, 'Sorry.'
'It's okay, James,' said Professor Sinistra. 'Has Professor Longbottom explained-'
'Yeah, I know what's happened,' replied James. 'Dad's hurt.'
Professor Sinistra gave a brisk nod, before she opened the drawer of her desk and withdrew a small, gold spyglass. She lay it on the desk and gave it a tap with her wand.
'Come here, please,' the head mistress said to the three Potters. 'Everyone put your hand on the portkey.'
Albus and Lily set down their cups of tea and leant over their desk, each laying a hand on the cool metal of the spyglass. James lumbered over, coming to stand beside Albus, and reaching for the portkey. Albus surmised he had been somewhere out in the schoolgrounds, judging by the chill radiating from him and the smell of tobacco and firewhiskey, but still Albus felt a rush of relief at James's presence.
'Alright,' said the head mistress. 'It should be starting.'
And then Albus's felt the familiar tug at his stomach, and the lurch of the portkey, and then, with James and Lily beside him, he was pulled towards whatever was waiting for them.
Finlay hadn't announced that he was leaving, and in amongst the panic and the worry none of them had seen him slip away, but after Xan had asked where he was they all surmised that he had gone looking for James.
It was for this reason that none of them seemed able to go to sleep. Rose, Chandra, Hugo, Xan, Louis and Lucy had taken seats together around the fire. A game of exploding snap had been initiated by Louis, but they were playing without any conviction and largely in silence.
And then, finally, after what felt by hours but could have been no more than forty minutes, the portrait hole was opened and the cousins twisted eagerly to see if the new comer was anyone who would have had an update for them.
At the site of Finlay, Xan and Lucy jumped to their feet, starting towards him to ask after James, but Finlay was already making a beeline towards them.
'I found him,' Finlay told them. 'He's at the head mistress's office with Al and Lily.'
'Where was he?' asked Lucy.
'The Quidditch pitch.'
Xan rolled her eyes, but she looked relieved. 'Typical.'
'Did you tell him what had happened?' Louis asked Finlay.
'Everything I knew,' said Finlay. 'But there wasn't much to say.'
'Was he…' asked Chandra softly, but then she stopped, before drawing a breath and trying again. 'Did he seem…'
Finlay seemed to consider this, before he said slowly, 'I don't know. He didn't say much. I think he was kind of in shock.'
'Oh, poor James,' murmured Chandra, pressing her hands to her mouth. 'And poor – poor Al.'
At this Chandra began to cry. Rose had expected it to happen sooner, but the uncertainty over James's whereabouts had seemed to be the last thing keeping their adrenaline going, and now the exhaustion was setting in and with it their own worry was getting the best of them. Louis was looking pale and shaken, and Lucy too had tears in her eyes.
'Did you get to talk to Professor Sinistra?' asked Hugo hopefully. 'Did she tell you anything else?'
Finlay shook his head. 'I didn't see her. Neville met us at the door to her office and took James up.'
Xan let out a low sigh. 'I can't believe this.'
Louis gave his head a slow shake. 'Me neither. It's never much of a shock when you hear about aurors getting hurt on the job but – but for some reason I never really thought it would happen to Harry.'
'How often do aurors get hurt?' asked Hugo.
'Not often,' said Lucy quickly, and she fixed Louis with a warning look. 'They know what they're doing. They're highly trained professionals.'
Rose stopped herself rolling her eyes. What was the use of lying to Hugo? Was it merely to prolong the period before he knew what the rest of them all knew: that everyday Harry and her father took their lives in their hands?'
As if to change the topic, Finlay said to the group, 'Mei should probably know what happened. I can tell her tomorrow.'
Chandra gave a nod, wiping her eyes, and said in a croaky voice, 'I can go tell her tonight. Connor gave me the riddle to let myself into Ravenclaw tower.'
'You don't have to go now,' Rose told her. 'It can wait until the morning. She won't be able to do anything to help.'
'No, no, I think I'd like to go for a walk before I try to sleep,' said Chandra.
'It's past curfew,' said Lucy.
'Seriously, Lucy?' snapped Xan. 'Leave it for the night, would you? Neville would understand.'
Surprisingly, Lucy looked somewhat bashful and made no further protest when Chandra bid them goodbye.
Rose walked her across the room, asking her as they went, 'Do you want me to come with you?'
'No, it's okay,' said Chandra, and she nodded back across the room to where Hugo, Finlay and their cousins were standing. 'You should stay here. I'll be back soon.'
Rose wanted to refute this: she knew she could be of more comfort to Chandra than to her cousins, and yet Hugo's question seemed to hold her back. He had asked it lightly, as if out of curiosity only, but Rose knew there was more to it. He knew he was starting to adopt the worry that she herself had for their father.
And so instead, Rose gave Chandra a tight hug and bid her goodbye, before Chandra started through the portrait hole and Rose crossed the room to re-join her brother and cousins.
'I feel like we should be doing something,' Xan was saying when Rose reached them. 'It feels weird just sitting around.'
'Yeah, me too,' agreed Finlay. 'But there's nothing we can do right now. I think I might go try to revise for a bit – I don't want to just stand around thinking about it.'
There was a nod of agreement from around the cousins and each of them gave reasons for needing to depart, with Lucy wanting to finish an essay and Xan wanting to sleep and Louis saying his boyfriend would be waiting for him in their dorm. They gave each other stiff, sleepy goodnights and then went their separate ways, leaving Rose with her brother.
'Do you need to study too?' Hugo asked her once they were alone.
Rose gave a shrug. 'No, I'll just wait up until Chandra gets back.'
'We could play a game of chess, if you want?' suggested Hugo. 'We haven't played in ages.'
'I think your friends might be waiting for you,' said Rose, casting a glance across the room at the group of first years who had been hovering around the fireplace, casting them curious glances. 'You don't have to stay and hang out with me.'
'I know I don't have to. I just want to see if I can beat you. I've gotten better.'
She managed a laugh. 'I don't think so.'
'Prove it then, Rosie.'
And so Hugo went up to his dormitory to collect his chessboard while Rose took over an empty coffee table on which they could play. Rose offered to take black to allow Hugo to move first, but she realised quickly that there was no need to give him an advantage: he had indeed improved since she had last played with him, and she found that it was taking more concentration than she thought she could manage to avoid his traps.
It was a good distraction, however: fighting her way out of Hugo's forks gave her little opportunity to spend time thinking about Albus and James and Lily and her uncle being worked on by healers.
'Check,' said Hugo, for the third time that game.
She had seen it coming, and didn't need time to contemplate before she moved her bishop to block her king from Hugo's rook.
Hugo's next move was just as quick as hers. She watched as, from across the board, his nimble fingers swept his queen up to H8.
Hugo grinned up at her. 'Check mate.'
Rose grit her teeth. 'Don't look so smug.'
'Don't be such a sore loser,' Hugo told her. 'Can we play again?'
'I'm white this time,' Rose told him, arranging her pieces to prepare to play. 'When did you get so good?'
'Just playing against Dad,' said Hugo. 'And I've joined the chess club since I've been at Hogwarts.'
This was news to Rose. It occurred to her how little she spoke to Hugo when they weren't at home in Islington together.
She had always gotten on well enough with her brother: she remembered very few arguments with him throughout her life. The four years separating them in age had given them enough distance to avoid the squabbles that had plagued the Potter household throughout their childhood, but it had also inserted a level of disconnect between them. She had left for Hogwarts when Hugo was only seven and since then had only had two months a year with him: two months a year was not a lot of time to observe somebody changing as they went from seven years old to twelve.
'Well, Dad betrayed me then,' she said to him, as she pushed her king's pawn forward to start the next game. 'He used to tell me these openings would beat anyone.'
'Well, he said the same thing to me,' said Hugo brightly, moving out a pawn to meet hers. 'So, who's the favourite now?'
'You are,' said Rose. 'You've always been. You're their baby.'
'Nah,' said Hugo. 'I can't compete with perfect prefect Rosie.'
'Oh, shut up.'
'But maybe if you keep getting in trouble I will,' said Hugo, and Rose knew by the way he asked it that he was hoping to learn something from her. 'Why did they want to talk to you before the memorial this morning?'
The argument with her parents seemed a long time ago now – it took her a moment to remember that it really had only happened that morning. She found it hard to muster any conviction about her outrage now; the squabble seemed so juvenile in the light of Harry getting hurt.
'It was nothing,' Rose told Hugo. 'They wanted to talk to me about the Quidditch game between Gryffindor and Hufflepuff when I set the pitch alight.'
'Yeah, when you were with Scorpius Malfoy,' said Hugo. 'Why did you do that?'
'Scorpius thought the bludger was acting weird. It was over calibrated.'
'How are you and Scorpius friends all of a sudden?'
Rose could feel Hugo looking at her as he asked this, and she was careful to avoid his eyes as she moved her knight forward. 'We're not friends.'
'But you and Al are with him all the time,' insisted Hugo.
'He and Al are friends,' said Rose. 'They revise together, and practise Quidditch, but it has nothing to do with me.
'But why is Al friends with him?' asked Hugo. 'I thought he was, you know… isn't his dad like…'
Hugo seemed to be struggling with the words, and it occurred to her that the Second Wizarding War would be just as obscure and unknown to him as it had been to her when she was in her first year at Hogwarts.
'A Death Eater,' Rose finished for him. 'He supported Voldemort in the war. But that's Scorpius's dad – not Scorpius.'
Hugo frowned. 'But Dad always said that the Malfoys were bad people.'
'Dad's not right about everything,' said Rose. 'You can make up your own mind about things, you know.'
'I know that,' said Hugo, slightly defensively. He hesitated, frowning down at the chessboard, before he asked, 'Do you think Dad was with Harry when he got hurt?'
'I don't know,' said Rose earnestly. 'Maybe.'
Hugo's eyes narrowed, still fixed on the chessboard as if he was considering his next move, but Rose knew he was wrestling with something more immense. 'But Dad's okay, right?'
At this, Rose looked up at him. Upon posing this question to her, he looked somewhat bashful – almost guilty – and Rose was sure he was feeling what she was feeling. The worry for Harry and the concern for Albus, James and Lily that had enveloped her hadn't quite managed to wipe out the tiny, selfish part of her that was thinking of her own father – grateful that he was unhurt, but agonising over the possibility. If nothing had protected Harry, then what would protect her dad?
'He's fine,' Rose said to Hugo. 'We'd know if anything had happened to him.'
'Yeah, I guess,' said Hugo. He hesitated again, and when he spoke again his voice was much smaller than it had been. 'I wish Dad hadn't gone back to being an auror.'
Rose considered the boy before her. He had always been much more of a Weasley than she had been: outgoing and funny and easy-going and good at Quidditch. He even looked more like their dad than she did, with his thin face and Roman nose, but with their mother's dark complexion. She realised now that he looked older than she had ever realised before, with his lanky limbs and his brown ringlets that he kept pulled back in a ponytail and his school shirt missing the first and last buttons in the way James wore his.
'Yeah,' she said slowly. 'Me too.'
Rose had been so enraptured by the conversation with Hugo that she hadn't managed to notice another person approaching them, and Rose turned in her seat to find Chandra standing over them. Her dark cheeks were flushed with pink and she looked slightly out of breath.
Rose got half-way to her feet, asking as she did, 'What's happened?'
'Oh, no, no, nothing,' said Chandra soothingly. 'It's just that Scorpius is outside. I went into the Ravenclaw common room and he saw me talking to Mei, so I told him what had happened, and he said he wanted to come talk to you.'
Rose sent a sideways glance at Hugo to see if he was paying attention, and he was indeed watching the conversation keenly.
'Why did he want to talk to me?' Rose asked.
'I'm not sure,' said Chandra. 'He just asked if you were in the common room and asked if I'd come tell you he was there. Just to check if you're okay, I suppose.'
'I'm fine,' said Rose briskly. 'He didn't need to come.'
Chandra looked slightly taken-aback. 'You don't want to talk to him?'
'Not particularly. I'm busy.' And she gestured towards Hugo.
'You're not busy,' refuted Hugo. 'I'm just going to beat you again.'
'You are not.'
'Yes, I am. I beat you easily enough last game.'
Rose glared at her brother. 'Alright, fine. I'll go tell Scorpius to go to bed and then I'll come back and we can play again.'
'Sure you will,' said Hugo knowingly, before he swivelled in his seat to call across the room to his friends. 'Oi, Danny, Alex – fancy a game of gobstones?'
Rose realised she was being dismissed and so, rolling her eyes, she got to her feet and crossed back across the room with Chandra and out of the portrait hole.
Scorpius was waiting there, his hands in his pockets, and when he heard the portrait hole open he suddenly straightened up.
'Here she is,' said Chandra.
'Have you heard anything?' Scorpius asked immediately.
Rose shook her head. 'No, they've only been gone about an hour. I don't think we'll hear anything for a while.'
Scorpius nodded, though he looked perturbed. 'Was Albus okay when he left?'
'What do you think?' asked Rose.
Scorpius seemed to want to roll his eyes at this, but stopped himself, before he looked at Chandra. 'Do you want us to walk you back to Ravenclaw tower?'
Chandra shook her head. 'No, it's okay. I think I'd rather sleep in my own bed tonight.'
Rose nodded. 'I'll come up with you.'
'Oh, no, it's alright,' said Chandra. 'I might just wash my hair and try to sleep.'
She moved forward to give Rose a hug and the prefect returned it. Then – as if she had done it a hundred times – Chandra pulled Scorpius into the same tight hug she had given Rose. Rose watched Scorpius hesitate, his arms limp at his side, before he seemed to adjust to the newfound show of friendship and gave Chandra a pat on the back. Rose looked away to stop herself laughing.
'Night, Chandra,' said Scorpius awkwardly as they let go of each other.
'Night, you two,' said Chandra. 'I'm sure it will be okay. We'll probably wake up in the morning and Albus will be back.'
'Probably,' agreed Rose, though she didn't feel so certain.
Chandra gave them a weak smile, before she raised her hand in farewell and climbed back into the portrait hole. They both watched her go and it wasn't until it clicked shut fully that Rose felt Scorpius turn to look at her.
There were a few seconds in which they looked at each other, before Scorpius said, 'Are you alright?'
'Yes, I'm fine,' she told curtly. 'Did you come all the way here just to ask me that?'
Scorpius gave a low sigh. 'You know, it would be alright if you weren't alright. It's your uncle, and your best friend's dad, and your parents' best friend…'
'Yes, thanks for reminding me,' she replied. 'You're a great comfort.'
Scorpius's brow creased. She could see him fighting with himself, knowing he wanted to respond more viciously but trying to remain calm.
'I only meant…' he stammered. 'I just thought you might want someone to talk to.'
'I have someone to talk to,' she said. 'I've got Chandra and my brother and my cousins. You're not a head-healer, Scorpius.'
'I know that,' he growled at her. 'Only – only I meant that you don't have to be so Rose about this, you know?'
'Well, thank you for telling me how I'm allowed to feel.'
He gave another sigh, shutting his eyes, before he looked back at her. He seemed to survey her for a moment before saying slowly, 'Look, I know you're being hostile because you're upset, and it makes you feel in control or whatever-'
This caused something angry to stir inside her. She didn't like it when he did that – acted like he knew her.
'I'm not upset, Scorpius,' she bit at him before he could get another word out. 'But if you came all the way here just to tell me I should be sad then you can go. My brother's probably waiting for me.'
Even as she said this she knew it wasn't true: Hugo would have happily integrated back into his group of friends, but she wasn't going to admit this. She liked the idea that she had somewhere better to be than with Scorpius.
She watched Scorpius stare at her, the flickering torchlight casting shadows over his pale face. He seemed to want to protest, but apparently decided against, because finally he looked away from her.
'Alright, fine,' he said. 'I guess – I guess I'll just go then.'
'I guess so.'
'Well, then,' he said resolutely, 'I'll see you in the morning. Let me know if – when you hear something.'
And she turned away, starting back towards the portrait hole, and she heard Scorpius's footsteps start away from her. She reached the fat lady and opened her mouth to give the password, before Scorpius's voice cut across.
'Actually, no, fuck that.'
She turned back to look at him. He had stopped a few paces away, having turned back to look at her, a look of defiance in his grey eyes.
'I'm sick of doing this with you,' he said, taking a few strides towards her. 'Every time I talk to you, I have to make up some justification as to why I need to talk to you, instead of just being able to actually talk to you, and it's getting really, really tiring, so I'm just going to be the bigger person and admit that I want someone to talk to.'
She was taken aback by his sudden outburst, and stared at him for a moment, trying to form a response, but before she could think of a response, he had crossed back to her, coming to meet her with his arms folded.
'And I know we're not friends,' he continued breathlessly, almost angrily, 'and I know you think I'm a prat, but right now I don't much fancy sitting in my dorm room with Zaina when all I'm going to be thinking about it Al and his family, because I know it's just going to make me shitty, and Zaina's going to ask me what's wrong, and I don't want to explain it all to her, and then she'll be annoyed, and then we're going to fight. And I really, really can't be fucked fighting with her right now. So, believe it or not if it's a choice between fighting with Zaina and talking to you I'm going to choose to talk to you, okay?'
She stared at him for a moment, taking in what he had said. She knew what he was saying was true, of course, though she would never admit it: her insistence that they needed an excuse to speak to each other, her determination to skirt away from him whenever there was a prospect of being left alone with him, her insistence to anyone that suggested otherwise that she and Scorpius were not friends.
She thought about her options: she could continue this insistence and return to her common room, where Chandra had retired to bed and Hugo had joined his friends, and lie awake in her bed thinking about Harry, or she could admit to herself that perhaps talking to Scorpius Malfoy was preferable.
And so she said, in an even voice so as not to give too much away, 'Okay.'
Scorpius's assuredness seemed to escape him immediately, and the look of defiance in his eyes disappeared. He blinked at her in surprise. 'O… kay?'
'Okay, we can talk,' she said. 'If that's what you want.'
'Okay…' he said again. He apparently hadn't expected his appeal to her to work, as he gazed at for a few seconds, and then cast his eyes around the corridor as if looking for something to say. 'So… so what do you want to talk about?'
Rose raised her eyebrows. 'I thought you wanted to talk to me.'
'I do,' Scorpius assured her, and then he gave her a shrug. 'I didn't prepare notes or anything though.'
She gave a huff of laughter, before she said, 'Maybe we could just go for a walk.'
'Yeah,' agreed Scorpius. 'Let's do that.'
They didn't look at each other as they started down the stairs of Gryffindor tower, their footsteps echoing off of the stone walls. It wasn't until they reached the bottom of the tower when Scorpius turned to look at her.
'Where do you want to go?' he replied.
Rose replied with a shrug. 'Avoid the auror patrol, I guess.'
Scorpius nodded and together they started off again. Being prefects, they knew that the auror patrol was intended to stop anyone leaving or entering the castle, and was therefore concentrated on the lower levels and near the entrances of the castle. This allowed them to walk to halls of the upper floors relatively unbothered, and without voicing it to the other they both instinctively started along the corridor to the staircases.
The silence that ensued wasn't an uncomfortable one. Rose didn't feel compelled to talk: this walk hadn't been her idea, after all, and so she allowed them to walk in silence, waiting for Scorpius to offer up something in the way of conversation.
A minute passed in silence before she felt Scorpius turn to look at her as they walked and said, 'That's a good look.'
This caught her off guard: she had expected him to ask about Albus. Frowning, she looked down at the old sweater and flannel pyjama pants she was wearing.
She gave a huff. 'Well, I'm sorry. I wasn't expecting to be dragged out of my common room to go on an outing.'
'Your outfits get more and more inspired,' he continued placidly. 'What do you call this one?'
She picked at the scarlet sweater she was wearing, eyeing the knobbly pink rose sewn into the front. 'This is "old pyjamas and a sweater my grandmother knitted me that I no longer let people see me in".'
'You're letting me see it,' he said to her.
'You're not really people.'
'Does your grandmother stitch a rose into it so she can remember your name?' asked Scorpius.
Rose rolled her eyes. 'Funny, but I've heard that one before.'
'She admitted that to you? That's brutally honest.'
She stopped herself from smiling and instead rolled her eyes again, looking annoyed. 'No, my cousins have pointed it out. They all get things like broomsticks and snitches, and I get a rose. I guess I don't have any other noteworthy traits.'
'She could have stitched a lemon?'
She raised her eyebrows at him. 'Because I'm b-'
'Yes, because you're bitter,' Scorpius finished for her. 'It sounded funnier in my head. It's been a long day, okay?
She turned to look at him, inspecting what he was wearing. He had changed out of his dress-robes from the memorial, but was still wearing the dark trousers and silk button-down shirt he had had on underneath. 'And is that what you wear to bed? Very sophisticated.'
'Sort of. I was having a drink with Zaina when Chandra came into the common room,' said Scorpius. 'Which was pretty bold of her, by the way. People don't like it when we share the answers to the riddles with outsiders.'
'Oh, because only Ravenclaws can figure out riddles?' asked Rose. 'It's such a useless security measure. Eight-year-olds can solve riddles.'
'Not all eight-year-olds are as enlightened as you, Rose.'
'Alright, give me today's riddle then.'
'Why? Do you want to come visit me?'
'Yes, I want to see your dragon-hide pyjamas,' she quipped. 'But don't tell me if you're too worried I'll get it.'
'Okay, fine,' said Scorpius. 'This week it's: I have cities, but no houses. I have mountains, but no trees. I have water, but no fish. What am I?'
Rose was silent for a moment as they walked, pondering the riddle, before she said resolutely, 'A map?'
She knew she was right immediately by the sullen look Scorpius gave her, and she grinned at him, to which he responded by rolling his eyes.
'That one was an easy one,' he told her sullenly.
'Ha. I'm sure.'
They approached a flight of stairs that Rose knew led to Ravenclaw tower, but as they made it to the edge of the staircase, she and Scorpius both stopped walking: the sound of approaching voices was drifting down the staircase. The two prefects cast each other a look before, wordlessly, they stepped back into the darkness of the corridor, away from the staircase.
The footsteps were drawing nearer as two people descended the stairs, and the voices were becoming clearer.
'… we've got an extra thirty men patrolling the grounds,' one man was saying. 'Head Office don't want to take any chances after what happened in Belfast.'
'Good,' replied Neville's voice. 'And you've got aurors stationed at the entrances?'
'Yes, and all the usual patrol points,' replied the man. 'And we'll have a few extra men in the corridors, just to be safe.'
The two men were far enough down the staircase for Rose and Scorpius to see them from where they were hiding in the darkness, and they recognised the man with Neville as one of the Head Aurors stationed at the school.
'Okay, I'm glad to hear it,' Neville replied. 'And you – have you received any updates about the casualties in Belfast?'
The other man hesitated before replying. 'I'm afraid not, Professor. Information like that isn't usually shared with us while we're out on patrol.'
'Of course,' said Neville evenly, but Rose could sense an edge in his voice. 'Well, if that's all in order, I think I might turn in for the evening…'
The two men continued down the staircase, and Rose and Scorpius allowed their voices to fade completely they turned to look at each other. There was a silence between them; it seemed that the conversation between Neville and the auror had brought Harry's fate back to the forefront of their mind.
'Well,' said Scorpius slowly, 'sounds like there might be more aurors around.'
Rose gave a nod. 'I suppose we should head back to our common rooms then.'
She had said this to give Scorpius an out: to offer him up a reason to politely leave her be. And yet, to her surprise, Scorpius didn't take it.
'Yeah,' he said. 'Or we could go somewhere the aurors won't patrol.'
Rose considered this. Despite the exhaustion from the day, she still didn't feel like sleeping. 'Where won't they patrol?'
'The prefect's office?' offered Scorpius. 'Take a trip down memory lane?'
It had been several months since the prefects had been called to a meeting in the prefect's office. The growing auror presence at the school had rendered many prefect duties, like patrolling the corridors and supervising common areas, largely redundant. This meant that the prefect's office had somewhat fallen into disuse, and yet Rose was sure it would be unlocked to allow the head boy and girl to use it.
'Alright,' said Rose. 'Let's go.'
They landed with a jolt, and he heard Albus give a cry of surprise beside him as their feet hit the ground, and then his legs gave way beneath him and his knees hit the floor heavily, and the golden spyglass slipped from their grip and rolled away.
'Fuck,' he muttered, wincing over the pain in his knees.
He wasn't allowed much time to recover, however. Lily was already scrambling to her feet, glancing around the reception area for some sign of where they were supposed to go, and then she caught sight of the Welcome Witch at reception.
'Come on,' she barked at her brothers, hurrying forward.
James pulled himself to his feet, casting an look around the reception. He had scattered memories of it from his childhood, being led by the hand by his father through the crowded waiting room when Lily was born and again when Hugo was, and it was just as busy and crowded as it had been then.
He looked back at Albus, who was still hunched on the floor, dizzy from the portkey. He couldn't seem to find his voice to tell him to hurry up, and so he grabbed Albus's arm, hauled him to his feet, and followed Lily across the room to the reception desk.
'He's on the fourth floor – Spell Damage,' the witch behind reception was telling Lily when they reached her. 'But the healers are still working on him – there's a waiting area on the fourth floor that you can go to. I believe your mother and uncle are already there…'
Lily didn't wait for the witch to finish, but turned on her heel and marched back across the reception area to the elevators. Albus seemed rooted numbly to the spot, and so James once again dragged him across the room.
They followed Lily through a set of doors and down a long passageway lined with portraits who stared down at them, and up the flight of stairs. They arrived on the fourth floor landing and Lily went bursting through the set of double doors, with James and Albus close behind her.
They found themselves in another waiting room. Unlike the noise and business of the main reception downstairs, there was an austere silence over this room. He was dully aware of the other occupants in the room who looked around as they entered and the receptionist who started towards them, but all of his focus was honed on one person. His eyes fell immediately on his mother. She looked up at them as they entered, her face impassive.
'Mum…' he heard Lily murmur.
Ginny rose to her feet and drifted towards them, and Lily and Albus both seemed to fall into her, allowing themselves to be enveloped by their mother.
He knew he ought to be doing the same – to be hugging his mother as fiercely as Albus and Lily were – but he couldn't seem to make his legs move.
It seemed like a long time since he had seen her. She looked worlds away from the woman he had seen at the memorial that afternoon, having discarded her dress robes and her braided hair for simple trousers and an old Holyhead Harpies sweater, her long hair pulled into a messy bun.
And yet she wasn't crying: the image that had scared him as he had walked to the head mistress's office with Finlay of his weeping mother, shaken and broken, was unrealised. Her face was as calm and unwavering as always.
He watched her kiss Lily's forehead, and then Albus's temple, and then her eyes met James's. Wordlessly, she extended a hand to him, her fingers catching his arm.
Just give her a hug, Finlay had told him, and the memory of it urged him forward. He took a step towards his huddled family; he couldn't seem to make his arms work well enough to hug them, but he managed to squeeze his mother's hand, standing rigidly with Albus and Lily in between them.
Lily pulled away first, looking up at their mother and asking, 'Is he okay?'
'They're still working on him,' said Ginny, and she cast a look towards the doors at the end of the room, over which a sign read Healing quarters. 'They said it could be a few hours.'
'What happened?' asked Albus.
In answer, Ginny looked around, and James only then realised that Ron was there too. He had apparently been sitting with Ginny when they had entered, but had kept his distance to allow the Potters a moment alone, but now he stepped forward to save Ginny from needing to explain. The usual dark blue of his auror's robes were pale, coated in what looked like dust, and there was a deep cut running along his cheek, half-heeled by hurried spellwork but looking like it was ready to bleed again.
Unlike his sister, Ron seemed shaken. He was pale and tired-looking, and when he spoke his voice was hoarse. 'There was a skirmish while we were out on a job. We… We were trying to take somebody into custody and they resisted arrest.'
Something twisted in James's stomach. He knew that that somebody was Mundungus.
James had never known Mundungus well – he wouldn't pretend otherwise. He had met him when he was very young, and one Order reunion or another, but Mundungus's attendance at such things had become less and less frequent. For as long as James could remember, the Order took up whatever opportunity they had to deride Mundungus when his name came up. James was familiar with the murmurs of distaste that would sweep around the dinner table whenever his name was mentioned, the lack of trust the Order had for him. And yet James had never thought of Mundungus as dangerous – he had never suspected he could actually hurt another person.
'Did they attack dad?' Lily pressed further.
'The building was destroyed,' said Ron. 'I was stationed outside and – and I heard curses being thrown, and before I could get in there the building collapsed. We're not exactly sure what happened, but it appears to have been the same fiendfyre that was used in Hogsmeade last October.'
James's stomach gave another unpleasant turn. Had Mundungus been responsible for that destruction too? James tried to convince himself that Mundungus didn't have that kind of magic, but he knew it wasn't true. Mundungus wasn't a fool.
'It took a while for us to get the fyre out,' Ron continued. 'I managed to find Harry. We're still trying to excavate the others.'
Ron stopped talking and swallowed heavily. James saw him raise a hand as if unsure what to do with it; first he touched his mouth, and then he pushed his hair out of his face, and then he raised the hand in gesture.
'I told him I should be the one to go in,' said Ron, his voice growing hoarser. 'It should have been me going in-'
'It doesn't matter now,' said Ginny briskly, and she turned away from Ron and back to her children.
This was the way his mother had always been, James realised; there were too many things weighing on her to spend time dwelling on comfort and sympathy and reassurance. He realised he admired that about her.
'The healers are going to do everything they can,' Ginny informed her children. 'They told me that it's difficult because there's a mix of wounds from the building collapsing and cursed wounds from the altercation. It's making it harder to stop the bleeding.'
'But he'll be okay, right?' said Albus quietly. 'They can fix him?'
James watched as Ginny looked at Albus, and she raised a hand to brush his fringe back from his face. 'I'm not sure, Al,' she said.
James's wasn't surprised by this, he realised: he had been expecting this as soon as Finlay had told him he needed to go the head mistress's office. It appeared, however, that Lily and Albus had still been hoping for some reassurance: at their mother's frankness, he saw Albus's face pinch in an effort to hold back tears, and Lily raise a hand to her mouth as if to stop herself gasping. They were used to having their father feed them reassurances, to settle their questions and their worries with a wry smile and placating words, but now their father wasn't there to lie to them.
'We should sit,' said Ginny gently. 'We might be here all night.'
With her arms around Lily and Albus, Ginny steered them back across the room to where she had been sitting. Ron stayed rooted beside James, and James chanced to glance at him, but regretted it immediately. He had never seen his uncle look like that – battered and broken and on edge – and the rawness of it made it all too real.
'Are you alright, mate?' Ron asked him softly, raising a hand to James's shoulder.
But James flinched away. He couldn't bear the thought of being comforted. His mind was racing, struggling to make sense of it all: his father was hurt, and all evidence pointed to Mundungus Fletcher being responsible – Mundungus Fletcher, who James had worked with, admired, even liked. As consumed by he was by worry for his father, he was dully aware of a small, shameful part of himself that wanted to ask if Mundungus was okay.
'I'm fine,' James replied. 'We should sit down.'
And without another glance at his uncle, he crossed the room to take a seat beside Albus.
They were silent for most of the walk to the prefects' office, not wanting to attract attention to themselves from any potential auror patrols. When they reached the door, Rose inspected the dragon's head door knocker, and a memory came rushing back to her. She wondered if Scorpius was remembering it to, and she glanced at him. The uncomfortable look on his face told her that he did.
Rose decided not to comment, and instead looked back at the doorknob and gave it the password. 'Newt livers.'
The door swung open and Scorpius gestured for Rose to enter first, which she did. The office had a distinct feeling of disuse to it: the chairs had been stacked on top of the tables and the heavy curtains were drawn, blocking out any sliver of moonlight. The sight of it made Rose feel strangely nostalgic. She had never enjoyed any of her prefect's duty, and yet the end of them had correlated with the beginning of the war, and suddenly things had become much more complicated than she was used to.
Scorpius shut the door behind them, and then crossed to the torches the lined the stone walls of the room, igniting them with a tip of his wand. Rose too crossed the room, moving to the window and drawing back the curtains. The sky outside was still wispy with grey clouds, but they were sparse enough to allow the moon to shine through, illuminating the room.
'This takes me back,' said Scorpius voice from behind her.
Rose turned around to look at Scorpius. He had taken a seat at the head boy's chair, his arms folded, his eyes fixed upon her. The square of moonlight from the window illuminated one side of his bony cheeks.
'To what?' she asked.
'The first day of term,' he said. 'When I let you get bitten by the doorknob.'
'Right,' she said, and she crossed the room to take a seat beside him in the head girl's chair. She turned in her chair to face him and she held up her fist, showing him the two dots of mottled skin on the back of her hand. 'It left a scar, you know?'
Scorpius gave a grimace, before he raised his own hand. 'Same.'
'Yeah, I guess I deserve it,' said Scorpius. 'Can I get a pass seeming I'd just found out my dad had been arrested earlier that day?'
Rose gave a shrug. 'I suppose. Just this once.'
'Well, that's a weight off of my shoulders.'
Rose hugged her knees into her chest and rested her chin upon them. 'I guess this was a good year to become prefect.'
Scorpius adjusted himself in his chair, brushing his overgrown fringe from his eyes. 'How do you figure?'
'Well, we've been pretty much absolved of any responsibility,' said Rose.
Scorpius smiled, and nodded, and gazed out over the prefect's office. A moment passed in silence before he looked back at Rose and asked, 'Why do you think Professor Longbottom made you prefect?'
Rose considered this for a moment before she gave a shrug. 'I don't know. I get good grades, I guess?'
'And so modest, too.'
She rolled her eyes. 'Well, you asked.'
'Yeah, but I would have thought your apathy made you kind of a poor candidate.'
Rose considered this with a frown: he was right. 'I think Neville thinks the best of me and my cousins – even when we're brats,' she admitted. 'And it doesn't hurt that there was nobody else in my house to do it – Kim's whole world revolves around Quidditch and Elena and Sue aren't exactly models of good behaviour and Chandra's way too nice to ever tell anybody off for anything.
'Yeah. You're definitely not too nice.'
'Exactly,' said Rose. 'Why do you think Professor Karim made you prefect?'
Scorpius gave a shrug. 'My charming personality, probably.'
'Oh, yes, I should have known,' said Rose. 'Sycophancy gets you a long way. And I suppose your parents were thrilled?'
'Oh, yes, absolutely,' said Scorpius. 'Dad bought me a new broom at the end of the summer.'
Rose rolled her eyes. 'Only the best for you. And what did your mum say?'
'She didn't say anything' said Scorpius. 'She was in St. Mungo's when I got my letter, and when she came home she was kind – kind of in bed for a while.'
Rose, as usual, didn't know how to respond to this show of vulnerability. She knew Scorpius was looking at her, but she was careful to avoid his gaze.
Scorpius must have sensed her discomfort, as he continued. 'But I'm sure she was happy about it. My mum never says a bad word about anything. She does what she's supposed to do as the wife of a nice pureblood family – praises her son and her husband and everything we do. Was your mum absolutely ecstatic when her perfect little Rose Virginia got made prefect?'
'Yeah, I suppose,' said Rose, relieved to move away from talk of his mother. 'Maybe not ecstatic. I think it was sort of like – like relieved. As if by not getting prefect I would have bought eternal shame on my family. I don't think she thinks I'm deserving of being a prefect.'
She heard Scorpius let out a low sigh, and she turned to look at him, finding him watching her with raised eyebrows.
'What?' she demanded.
'Nothing,' said Scorpius. 'Only I don't think you really believe that.'
Rose frowned at him, and he looked away. She watched him raised a hand to thumb the velvet on the arm of his chair, his eyes narrowed. She realised she was familiar with this: Scorpius's habit for fidgeting when he said something to her that he regretted.
But his display of bashfulness wasn't enough to quell her annoyance at what he had said. 'I'm sorry?' she asked acidly.
Scorpius hesitated, and she watched his eyes flicker briefly towards her before he looked away again. He gave a slow sigh. 'I know you like to think you're very hard done by with the parents you have, and that they're disappointed in you, and all that, but it seems like they've given you everything you want in life. Mailing books to you at your beck and call and everything.'
Rose raised her eyebrows at him. 'What the hell does mailing books to me matter?'
'Well, my parents don't do that for me.'
'Only because you don't ask them to,' she snapped back. She could feel her irritation growing the more she thought about what he had said. 'And don't act like your parents haven't taken excellent care of you. How's that brand new racing broom working out for you? Pity it hasn't made a difference when it comes to catching a snitch.'
She could see Scorpius frown beneath the torchlight. 'I didn't say they haven't taken good care of me. I only meant – I just meant your parents obviously love you a lot-'
'I know they love me,' she snapped. 'You don't have to tell me that – I know they love me, and I know they want to look after me, but that doesn't mean it doesn't feel shitty when I have to hear about their lives from a newspaper instead of from them.'
She paused to draw a breath, and in that brief silence she knew she was going to regret what she said next, but she pushed through it anyway. 'I can give or take having books mailed to me. I think I'd rather some honesty from them. And I don't hear you complaining about my mum mailing me books when you keep on putting in reading requests.'
'I know that,' he insisted. 'I know that – that your parents aren't honest with you. And I know that's really shit – and I know is sucks worrying about your dad. But I just… I suppose sometimes I can't help but feel…'
There was a heavy silence, and she would have liked it not to bother her, but it did, and so she looked at him and ask, 'Can't help but feel what?'
His grey eyes were fixed on her, the torches overhead flickering over his face, and in an even voice he said, 'Jealous of you.'
At this, she couldn't help but let out a laugh. 'Jealous of me? With my no friends and my pathetic love life, as you like to remind me of?'
To her surprise, he seemed to wince at the suggestion, and she saw his fingers beat faster against the armchair. He gave his head a jerky shake. 'No, no… I mean… jealous of your parents.'
'My parents?' she asked incredulously. 'Why? Because they send me books?'
'I don't know, maybe,' he told her. 'Not just that but just… I don't know. I suppose…'
He stopped talking, and she heard his fingers beat harder against the armchair. She could see him wrestling with something internal, but she found herself too desperate to know what he was thinking.
'What do you have to be jealous of?' she pressed, perhaps more harshly than she intended, as she saw him grimace briefly. 'My dad could have just as easily been hurt tonight just like Harry. I have no idea where he was – or where my mum was – or what's going on. And I probably will never know the full story. So what about that are you jealous of?'
She saw Scorpius shift uncomfortably in his seat, and then he looked up at her. 'I didn't mean…'
'Well, what did you mean?'
'Look, here's the thing,' said Scorpius, briskly as if giving himself the chance to stop would make him lose his courage. 'I know that it's hard for you and Al with your parents, and the attention you get, and all of that… and I don't blame you for hating it. But – but I didn't know it was like that until I got to know you, did I? Before that all I had to go off was what I saw in the papers: you and your perfect family with your heroic parents and adoring grandparents and amazing cousins. And I – I didn't have any of that.'
There was a heavy silence in which Rose stared at him. She was glad he wasn't looking at her, because it allowed her to consider the way his long fingers trailed over the velvet of the armchair and the way his hair fell into his eyes.
'And I know my parents – my parents gave me everything I could have wanted,' he continued. 'I know I've got – got privileges that other people don't have. I know that. But I don't like being at home, okay? I hate it.'
This stumped Rose for a moment. It was hard for her to imagine such a thing.
Despite everything, and she couldn't deny to herself that she had always liked going home for the summer. She liked her bedroom on the third floor and the winding staircase lined with books and the view over London from the bedroom window. She liked having privacy and solitude and freedom that she didn't have at school, with which she could spend hours wandering the streets or alone in her bedroom.
And along with that, even if she would never tell them, she liked her family: even when her parents infuriated her, there was something comforting that came with finding her mother reading at the kitchen table when she awoke, with her reading glasses perched on her nose and a pot of tea brewed. She liked the sound of the wireless cracking late at night and her father muttering to himself when the Cannons didn't score. She liked hearing their conversations drifting up the staircase, their sharing of their day with each other when they both got home from work as they made dinner.
And suddenly she felt that familiar guilt that often surfaced when she was with Scorpius. He had a funny way of making her confront things she didn't like confronting: her own pettiness and childishness and entitlement.
She knew she ought to meet him halfway: to acknowledge what he had admitted to her. That perhaps, despite her parents' dishonesty, there was something to be jealous of when it came to her family.
But she couldn't make herself do it, and the closest she could come was to ask, 'Why don't you like going home for the summer?'
He seemed to hesitate, and she wondered if he was regretted the grandness of his statement. Finally, he said, 'I don't know. I suppose I don't hate it, I just… just my dad's difficult.'
There was a silence, in which she stared at him, watching him with half of his face cast alight in moonlight and the other covered in shadow.
'I've told you about my dad,' said Scorpius. 'I mean, he and I get on fine. Most of the time. But when I go home I have to get used to hearing comments about how I need to cut my hair, or about how the house-elves aren't working as hard as they should, and the way he talks down to my mum. And he loves my mum – I know he does – but that's just the way they are. They're old fashioned: he makes the rules and she doesn't challenge him. And as I've gotten older I've realised… I've realised I don't like it.'
He finished uncertainly, his voice sounding light, but she could see the way he was frowning. She would have liked to tell him she understood, and though she couldn't earnestly she tell him she knew what it was like to witness her parents deride each other, she could at least tell him she knew what it was like to feel suffocated by her parents.
'I get that,' she told him slowly. 'I mean, my dad's not like that – my parents get on well. But sometimes it gets a bit much being around them all the time. I spend a lot of time out walking when I'm home, so I can have a break.'
'You don't like going home either?' he asked her.
He sounded almost hopeful when he said this, as if comforted by the thought that they were similar. She thought, briefly, that she would have liked to tell him that she didn't like going home, but that would have been a lie.
'No, I do,' she said. 'I… I get frustrated with my parents but… but I suppose I like being at home.'
But then, she reminded herself, that was all before. Before the war started, and before her father re-joined the auror office, and before Harry had been hurt. Perhaps when she returned home this summer everything would be different. Perhaps there would be no chatter as her parents cooked or the wireless crackling off the walls or her mother brewing tea. The thought of Pembroke Road with an absence of those things made something within her ache.
'Only it might be different this year,' she finished.
'Why would it be different?' he asked.
She looked away from him, and gave a shrug. She didn't trust herself to speak at that moment – she could feel a tremor threatening her voice. 'Because of the war. And if Harry…'
And suddenly it was too much. The thought of Harry lying in a hospital bed at St Mungo's. The pale look of terror on Albus's face when Neville had told him. The look Albus had given her and Chandra as he left the portrait hole, as if it was the last time they would ever see each other, and perhaps it was, because depending on what transgressed at St Mungo's tonight, Albus might not return as the same person. He could return changed forever, and then what could Rose do? What could she possibly say to try to help him?
And then, horrified, she thought she was at risk of crying. She felt the tears well up in her throat and the thought of letting them spill in front of Scorpius was unbearable, and so she looked pointedly away from him, choking down the tears burning her throat.
She could feel him watching her, and heard him ask, 'Are you okay?'
'I'm fine,' she snapped, angrily. 'I'm just thinking.'
She gave a stiff nod.
There was a beat of silence, before Scorpius asked, 'What happened?'
She had known it was coming – that at some point he was going to ask her what she knew, and of course she would need to tell him, because Albus was as much his friend as he was hers.
'I'm not sure,' said Rose. 'I just know Harry's been hurt. I suppose it has something to do with him rushing off from the memorial.'
'Your cousin said it was Mundungus Fletcher,' said Scorpius. 'But I thought he was part of the Order. Surely he wouldn't hurt your uncle, would he?'
'I don't know,' said Rose. 'He doesn't come to Order reunions anymore. I think he's a bit of an outsider.'
Scorpius leant back in his chair, and she heard him give a low sigh. 'It doesn't bode well for the election in November.'
Rose couldn't help but roll her eyes – she didn't care about the election. 'That's your takeaway from this?'
'I mean, it's not the only takeaway,' he said. 'But it doesn't look good, does it? Rowle's been telling people not to trust the Order, and that blood equality activists are to blame for the attacks, and if it turns out that somebody who used to be in the Order is behind it all then that's going to turn more people around to Rowle's view of things.'
Rose gave a huff of laughter. 'My mum would love you.'
Scorpius looked at her. 'Wouldn't she detest me? Because of my dad?'
Rose shook her head. 'No. My mum's not like that. She's… she's too good. She's so rational and level-headed and virtuous and…'
And she stopped again, because all of it was true. In that moment, she could see her mother so clearly: the smile she had given her when she had received her prefects badge, and it was the same smile she had given her when Rose had first asked to borrow her Muggle books, and it was the same smile she gave her when she came to meet her at Platform 9 ¾ at the end of each schoolyear.
'…and you're right,' she finished.
Scorpius hesitated, and then he asked, 'What am I right about?'
'That I… I'm ungrateful,' said Rose. 'For the things my parents do for me.'
'Rose, I didn't mean that,' he told her. 'You – you can be angry. You're allowed to be angry sometimes.'
'But I let it get the better of me,' said Rose. 'At the memorial today – when my parents told me not to get involved – it was almost like… like I had been waiting for it. Like I had wanted the excuse to me mad at them. At my mum, especially. And that's so fucking childish.'
'Why your mum especially?' asked Scorpius.
He had asked it without judgement, and the softness in his voice seemed to loosen her tongue. She knew he wasn't asking because he disapproved, or to chide her, but only because he wanted to know – because he wanted to understand.
'We had a… a talk at Christmas,' she told him, and then she stopped.
The memory of that seemed strange and unlike her; she had never spoken of that moment on the kitchen with her mother to anybody else, and she wondered now if she was remembering it correctly. It was unlike her to be so frank about something like that with her mother, and even more unlike her to now retell it to Scorpius Malfoy.
'Yeah?' prompted Scorpius at her silence. 'What kind of talk?'
She knew she had come too far to back out of retelling it now, and so she continued. 'It was about - about this boy who lives on our street in Islington. That Muggle boy I told you about.'
'Oh, yes,' said Scorpius, and then he drawled, 'Andrew.'
Even now – wallowing in her self-loathing – hearing Scorpius say his name still surprised her. She looked up at him, expecting to find him smirking, but he wasn't. He had returned to fidgeting with the arm of his chair, something close to a scowl on his face.
'You remember his name?' asked Rose.
'How could I forget someone with a name as interesting as Andrew?' he drawled. 'So what was this talk with your mum?'
'It was on Boxing Day,' Rose said. 'The morning after the Christmas Day Massacre. I was talking to my mum about what happened at the Ministry, and we had argued a few days earlier and - and I felt bad. For being a brat. And I don't know why but - but I told her about Andrew. And then she said she appreciated me being honest with her and we agreed to… to tell each other things. But she didn't - we didn't.'
Scorpius considered this for a moment, but didn't say anything, and Rose continued.
'And ever since my dad went back to the auror office I've been expecting something to - to happen,' she told him. 'But it didn't happen to him. It happened to Harry. And I was relieved it was him and not my dad. And I know that's so awful - and I feel so shitty thinking about Al… but I'm still thinking about my own dad. And that makes me really mad at myself.'
Out of the corner of her eye she saw Scorpius move, and looking at him to see him rising from his chair, saying as he did, 'Rose…'
'I'm fine,' she bit at him. 'I'm not going to cry or anything. I was just telling you what's what.'
Scorpius stopped, half out of his chair, his arm half-raised towards her. He seemed to consider her for a moment, before he sank back down into his chair.
'It's okay to feel that way,' he told her. 'I mean it's… it's normal, you know. Obviously you don't want Harry to get hurt - but you're still allowed to worry about your own dad.'
Rose shook her head, and said, 'It's selfish.'
'Everyone's selfish when they're upset.'
Rose gave a huff of laughter. 'Not my parents. My parents are never selfish. Even when they're lying to me they're doing it for my own good – I wish they wouldn't, but I know they think that's what's best.'
'Yeah, well… well, I think it's hard to be like your parents,' said Scorpius. 'I don't think many people are that altruistic. Most people don't want to put themselves in danger unless it's to protect their family.'
'You don't seem to have a problem with it,' she said. 'You wanted to stop the Slytherins and August Selwyn, even though it has nothing to do with your family. Your family would probably even benefit from it. No more Muggle-borns in power.'
Scorpius was silent at this, and she wondered if she had been too harsh, and then he said, 'That's not really true, though.'
'Okay, maybe not benefit,' she said, 'but the war doesn't affect your family the way it affects mine.'
'No, not that,' he said to her. 'I meant that… that altruism isn't why I want to find out who what August Selwyn wants. You were right when - when you said I had ulterior motives.'
Rose frowned at this. 'What do you mean?'
'It's my dad,' said Scorpius, and as he said it something unpleasant turned over in Rose's stomach.
She didn't know what Scorpius was going to tell her, but the prospect of finding our scared her. The distrust she had once had for him seemed so distant now, and she didn't want it to return.
Guardedly, she said, 'What about your dad?'
'I thought…' He hesitated, drumming his fingers against the arm of his chair, and then he pushed his hair roughly from his face. 'I thought that if I could prove that the Slytherins were involved then that… that would prove my dad was innocent.'
The weight of what he had just said seemed to settle over them. She hesitated, staring at him, watching his eyes shift. She tried to discern how she felt: it wasn't anger and it wasn't hurt and it wasn't surprise. In some strange way, it was almost relief; relief that, like her, he wasn't the vision of altruism she was beginning to think he was.
'Scorpius…' she began.
'I'm sorry,' he said quickly, pushing his fringe back again. 'I'm sorry, okay? I… I promise it's not that I don't care about the war. I do. But I… I did suspect him. I was so scared he would go to prison.'
He heaved a shaking breath. 'That's why I followed you and Albus out of the castle in November. I thought if I could find a way to prove James or - or anyone else was responsible then my dad wouldn't be under suspicion anymore. But if it wasn't for that I probably – I probably wouldn't have gotten involved,' he told her. 'I mean, obviously it's not like I like Rowle – I hate him. And I don't trust the Slytherins, and I don't want to see anyone get hurt – but mainly… mainly I just didn't want me dad to go to prison.'
'Scorpius, it's alright –'
But he continued as if she hadn't spoken. 'It's my mum, you know? After the miscarriage she – she hadn't really recovered when I went back to school. She hardly spoke to me – she just slept all day. And I don't really like the way my dad treats her but – but I know they love each other. And I think she kind of needs him around to make her feel okay. I was scared of what would happen to her if he wasn't around. And the thought of going home to a house with just her and me – without my dad around – I just couldn't bear the thought of it.'
'Scorpius,' said Rose, and she shifted in her seat to angle her body towards him. She had the impulse to reach for his shoulder, but she resisted it, and instead allowed herself to lean in towards him. He looked up at her with wide, worried eyes. 'That's a really, really normal reaction, okay? I wouldn't want to see my dad go to prison either.'
'Yeah, but…' he managed, his voice sounding choked. 'But I've been acting like – like you're so terrible for not wanting to get involved. Trying to convince you to help me.
'Yeah, well, someone had to,' she said. 'You didn't have to do it in such a condescending way, but you did it.'
'Yeah,' he agreed. 'And I swear, it's – it's more than that now. It's not about my dad anymore. I really do want to – to stop Selwyn. And I'm sorry I wasn't honest about it from the beginning.
'Don't worry about it.'
'I suppose…' he started, and then stopped, and she looked at him. This time he didn't look away, but stared right back at her, his pale eyes gleaming in the torchlight. 'I suppose that's why I don't like going home.'
'Because of your dad?'
'Not him,' he admitted, and then he said as if breathing the words took all the air in his lungs. 'My mum. She… she makes me too sad.'
At this, Rose felt something deep within her seem to shudder. She suddenly wanted to do more – to tell him that it would be okay – but she knew she couldn't do that. Instead she said, 'Well, it's a good thing we're going to go to Cornwall, isn't it?'
He looked around at her, frowning. 'What?'
And to her relief, she saw Scorpius give a smile. 'It wouldn't bother you?' asked Scorpius. 'Having me around?'
Rose shrugged. 'You're Albus's friend. And Chandra likes you. You should come.'
'And what about you?'
'What about me?'
His smile faltered, and he sighed. 'Rose, how long do we have to go on acting like we aren't friends?'
This caught Rose off guard: he sounded genuinely frustrated as he asked this. She considered her response, and stubbornly said, 'Well, we're not.'
'See, why do you do that?' said Scorpius. 'I just – I just told you things I've never told anyone else. And you told me things I'm pretty sure you haven't told anyone else. And you want to keep telling me you're not my friend?'
'You're – we're very different people,' said Rose. 'We butt heads.'
'You and Chandra are different people,' said Scorpius. 'Me and Albus are different people. In fact, if I had to pick the people out of the four of us that were most similar, I'd say it's you and me. I think that's why we butt heads. Because we're both stubborn and up ourselves and we – we don't like admitting we're wrong. We're similar, you know?'
'We are not.'
'But we are,' he insisted. 'And we have things in common. Things we both like. Like Muggle books. And geography.'
'Yeah, you know,' he said, and he grinned at her. 'You don't know where things are, so I tell you, and then you're impressed by me.'
She rolled her eyes. 'Oh, right. I forgot.'
'And I mean, we don't hate each other,' said Scorpius. 'I think you're a nice… well, maybe not a nice person, but you certainly have redeeming features.'
'So, what is it that makes us not friends?' asked Scorpius. 'Do you just really hate my personality or something?'
'I never said that.'
'So… I don't know. I suppose…'
'See, you don't have a reason,' he said, somewhere between satisfied and dismayed.
'I do,' she said. 'We argue too much.'
'Rose, friends argue,' said Scorpius. 'And the reason we argue – the reason we argue is because we talk about things that we would never talk about if we weren't friends. You tell me things that – that I don't understand. But I want to understand them, alright? I want to understand them because – because I like you.'
This caught her off guard. She realised she had never been told this by somebody so frankly, and she wasn't sure how to respond. 'You… like me?'
'Yes, because you're my friend,' he said very quickly, as if needing to explain himself. 'I think you're a good person, and a good friend, and I like talking to you, and I think you like talking to me, and you can keep on telling yourself you don't like talking to me, but until you stop doing it I'm just going to trust you think I'm your friend too, okay?'
There was a very long silence in which they stared at each other. She took in the sight of him: his pale grey eyes and the sharp features of his face and his shoulder-length blonde hair. She had never quite appreciated just how unkempt his hair was.
It was longer than was presently in fashion; at the beginning of the year, before she knew him, she had seen that as yet another stroke testifying for his arrogance. It had told her that he thought himself too important for what was considered on trend, as if he considered himself good looking enough to get away with letting his hair grow out. Watching him now, his hair in his eyes and at his neck, she no longer thought that; she now saw him differently.
She saw him as a boy who grew his hair not because he liked it that way, not because he had anything to say about himself, but only because an overgrown fringe was a secret flag of rebellion; a way to get wordlessly under his father's skin, a way to defy him without hurting his mother. Knowing this made her feel somehow admirable, somewhat proud to know him.
'Okay,' she said. 'You can think that if you want to, but it doesn't make it right.'
She saw him smile, and she found she wasn't bothered by it, and he said with a nod, 'Okay.'
There was a silence, in which they sat side-by-side, first looking at each other, and then looking away, and she found that it was easy to sit to like that. To be in each other's presence.
'I haven't told Al about… about wanting to prove Dad was innocent,' he admitted after a moment. 'He doesn't know that's why I followed you out of the castle in November.'
'Are you going to tell him?' asked Rose.
'I know I should,' said Scorpius. 'I just… Albus is… he's too good. I don't think he'll understand.'
'He'll understand,' Rose assured him. 'Albus doesn't hold grudges.'
'Yeah,' said Scorpius. 'I'll tell him. I just… I just need to do it at the right time.' And he looked at her, cautious, as if fearful she was going to immediately bolt off to the library to send a letter to Albus.
'I won't tell him if you want to wait,' said Rose.
She heard him give the faintest sigh of relief. 'Thanks.'
Another silence ensued, until Scorpius said, 'I will tell him, though. I'll just… I'll just give it some time. Until we hear about – about his dad.'
Rose gave a nod. 'Okay.'
'Do you think…' began Scorpius, and then he hesitated, and then he started again. 'Do you think your parents will tell you once – once they hear if he's okay?'
Rose gave an honest nod. She knew her parents would never tell her the whole truth, and she knew any detail would be omitted, but she also trusted they wouldn't keep her waiting on news when it came to life and death. 'Yeah, I think so. Hopefully I get a letter tomorrow morning.'
And for the first time that evening she thought of the time, and how long they had walked the corridors for and how long they had been talking. She glanced across the room at the bejewelled clock against the wall.
'God, it's nearly one o'clock,' she said, and she suddenly felt numbly aware of how tired she ought to be.
'It's not, is it?' said Scorpius, glancing around at the clock, and he gave a guilty grimace. 'Oh, shit. Look, sorry, I lost track of time…'
'So did I,' said Rose.
She realised as she said it that, even though she could feel the weight of her tiredness, the events of the day had left her with a kind of nervous energy that seemed to be staving off exhaustion. But, she knew, there was no way to justify staying out any longer: they had been out for much longer than she had anticipated.
'I suppose we should get back to our dormitories,' said Rose. 'I should try to wake up early in case – in case there's a letter waiting for me in the morning.'
The prospect of such a thing frightened her – the contents of this forthcoming letter were going to dictate whether her life changed irrevocably. But she didn't want to think of that, and so instead she focused on the way Scorpius looked when he gave her a nod, brushing his hair from his face.
'Yeah, you're right,' Scorpius agreed, though Rose could hear some dejection in his voice: she decided to attribute it to tiredness rather than disappointment.
They got silently to their feet and erased any sign of their presence in the room, Rose drawing the curtains and Scorpius extinguishing the torches. They were careful to shut the door gently as they left so as not to make any noise, and seemed to be in an unspoken agreement not to talk as they started back towards their dormitories, but Rose suspected that Scorpius, like her, had nothing left to say. It seemed they had both said more to each other that evening than each of them had intended to.
It wasn't until they reached the stairs that led to Gryffindor tower that they stopped, and Scorpius turned to look at her, pushing his hair out of his eyes.
'Well,' he said to her, almost in a whisper, 'goodnight, friend.'
She stopped herself from smiling to roll her eyes. 'If that's what you think then you can think it.'
'Okay, I will,' he said. 'Sorry we've been out so long. I know it was a long day –'
'It's fine, Scorpius, I'm not an infant,' and she folded her arms, leaning back against the wall of the corridor.
'Funny, you're so infantile,' he told her, and he smiled, and then his lips straightened. 'Can you let me know when you hear anything about Albus's dad?'
'Yes, of course.'
They stared at each other for a moment, both aware that now was their queue to say goodnight, and Rose said, 'Well, I'll see you.'
'Right,' he said, and again she heard something like reluctance in his voice. 'Hey, I…'
She cocked her head to look at him. 'Yes?'
'I just…' he seemed to be struggling with something, and she stood still while she watched him wrestle with the words, and then he said in a low voice, 'I don't want you to hate me.'
'Why would I hate you?'
'Because of what I told you,' he said. 'About my dad. I know I deserve it but-'
And without thinking, without any humility or hubris or hesitation, she said, 'I don't hate you.'
'You… you don't?'
'No, and you don't deserve it,' she said. 'I know you care about your family, and I know you care about your friends, and I know you care about – about everything else too.'
Scorpius avoided her gaze now as he said, 'Yeah, well, so do you. Even if you're too cool to admit it.'
She considered this: he seemed to believe that she was brave and valiant and just, and she wanted to believe him. She wanted to be like him, and like Albus, and like her mother, and maybe if he thought she could be then she could be.
When she didn't respond, he folded his arms and said resolutely, 'Well, I should go.'
'Yeah,' she said. 'Me, too.'
And he raised a hand in farewell, and she mirrored him, and he smiled, and she smiled back, and then she turned to go.
She made it a few steps up the staircase, and then he said her name. 'Rose?'
She turned back to look at him. 'Yes?'
He had taken a step towards her, she realised, and he was standing at the bottom rung of the staircase, his hand on the balustrade as if paused to take another step towards her, but he held his ground. His fingers drummed against the balustrade and he said, 'Have you still got that bluebell?'
And her mind cast her back to that evening, back in March, when she had stood on another staircase, poised above him like she was now, and they had shaken hands and made their armistice. 'Yeah, I do.'
Scorpius seemed to consider this, and then he said, 'Okay, good.'
'Do you want it?'
'No, it's okay, just… just as long as you've got it.'
She gave a nod. 'I do.'
And she turned to go again, and she started up the stairs slowly, allowing him as much time as she could to call her back again, but this time he let her go, and then she heard his footsteps start away.
Climbing the stairs to Gryffindor tower, she thought of bluebells in envelopes and the way he talked about his home in Wiltshire and the way he pushed his hair from his eyes.
She realised, thinking of the look of anguish in his pale eyes when he talked about his mother, and the laugh-lines that appeared around his mouth when he smirked at her, that there was something similar between them; some prideful, spiteful, awful something that made them akin.
She realised that he was, despite everything that ought to exclude him from being so, the type of person that someone like her made into friends, and that was a rare and ungainly thing. He was hard to like and hard to know and hard to talk to, just as she was, and yet here they were: he was her friend, and perhaps he had been for some time, and knowing that made her feel somehow calm.
There was a stillness that Rose had that he couldn't manage. While he tugged at the loose thread of armchair and drummed his fingers and pushed his hair from his face, she was still.
He realised he liked that about it: he liked watching the stillness of her body as she sat with her legs hugged to her chest in the head girl's chair, and the way hair red ringlets rested against the curve of her cheekbones as she cocked her head at him, and the certainty of the way she stood perched above him on the stairs to Gryffindor tower.
There was a certainty in the way Rose did things: in the way she stood and the way she walked and the way she spoke. He liked that about her, even if he envied it: he had never been confident enough in himself to be certain about anything.
When he reached the top of Ravenclaw tower, the eagle-head doorknocker opened its beak. 'I have cities, but no houses. I have mountains, but no trees. I have water, but no fish. What am I?'
'A map,' he said, thinking of Rose and the way she had looked at him when she had given him the answer. Head tilted, her wide eyes blinking up at him, that assured but curious look he often saw her wear.
Zaina's voice startled him so much they he stumbled back against the common room door, his hand flying to his wand, and he muttered, 'Fuck.'
The common room was drenched in darkness, illuminated only by the glow of the dying embers in the hearth, and in the silence he had assumed he was alone. But now he saw Zaina, rising from an armchair beside the window, folding her arms with a book clutched to her chest.
Recovering from his surprise, he let go of his wand. 'Jesus, you scared me.'
She didn't take a step towards him but instead held her ground by the window. He could only make out her silhouette in the darkness and so he took a few steps towards her. As he drew nearer, the low light from the glowing hearth fell on her face: it was expressionless, but he was familiar enough with Zaina to know that this was dangerous.
He hadn't told her to wait up for him, nor had they agreed upon a time that he would be back, but he had told her he'd see her later and, of course, he had forgotten. He felt that this was quite justified, however: Albus's dad was in St Mungo's.
But Zaina already knew this – he had told her what had happened when he had explained why he was leaving – and the look she now gave him told him this wasn't a good enough excuse. Too tired to try to justify himself, he thought pre-empting her anger with an apology might be the quickest route to sleep.
'I'm sorry I didn't come back sooner,' he told her. 'Rose hadn't heard anything about Albus's dad, and she and Chandra were… a bit upset.'
Zaina's expression didn't change and so Scorpius took a few steps closer to her, coming within arm's reach.
He raised a hand to try to take the book from her arms, and said in a voice intended to be light, 'What are you reading?'
But Zaina slapped his hand away. 'Oh, don't, Scorpius.'
Scorpius stared at her, and she stared right on back. He knew by looking at her that this was going to be more than a regular argument. Zaina wasn't bothering with the drawling, teasing, baiting voice she usually used with him. Instead she just sounded tired.
'Zaina…' he began. 'Look, I'm sorry. I didn't expect to be gone so long. I just wanted to make sure Chandra and Rose were alright and then…' He hesitated and then, fighting through the guilt, said, '… and then they wanted to talk.'
He told himself it wasn't lying. He had spoken to Chandra and Rose. What difference did it make if Chandra had then gone to bed and he had spent several hours meandering around the castle alone with Rose? Rose was his friend (he hoped) and her uncle was hurt. Was he not within his right to console a friend when a family member ended up in hospital?
But still Zaina didn't say anything. She was still looking at him with her blank face and searching eyes. He realised he didn't like seeing her like that: he didn't like the way it made him feel guilty. He chanced extending his hand to her again, reaching for her shoulder and saying her name, but she once again pushed his hand away, more forceful this time.
'Scorpius, stop,' she bit at him, in the same tired voice. 'I've been sitting here for hours waiting for you, and I know if I hadn't stayed up waiting you wouldn't have even remembered I was waiting for you.'
Scorpius told himself this wasn't true and managed to feel insulted. 'Zaina,' he began. 'Come on. Albus's dad is – is really hurt – and I wanted to check if Rose and Chandra were alright…'
'Oh, don't pretend, Scorpius,' she snapped, and this time her voice had more venom in it. 'You don't even bother trying to keep me in the loop with your life anymore. All you ever do is hang around with Albus Potter and Rose Weasley –'
'Zaina,' said Scorpius sharply, 'you can't be mad at me just because I've made new friends.'
'Scorpius, I don't care who you make friends with,' Zaina insisted, and there was real desperation in her voice. Even in the darkness, Scorpius could see the earnestness in Zaina's eyes. He didn't think he had ever seen her look like that before: it was almost hurt. 'And I don't care if you go spend the evening with Rose and Chandra. But the point is that you don't even bother telling me. It doesn't even occur to you that maybe you should have told me not to wait up for you.'
Scorpius was floored by this for a moment: this time he had trouble feeling self-righteous for a moment, but he told himself he had his reasons and managed to bite at her: 'Give me a break, Zaina. My friend's dad's been taken to St. Mungo's. I had other things to worry about tonight-'
Zaina gave a long sigh of dismay, and he watched her push her curls back from her face. 'But, Scorpius, it wasn't just tonight. It's been like this for ages. And don't bother denying it because you know it's true. You never tell me where you're going, or what you're doing. We sometimes go whole days without speaking.'
And she was right, of course: at the beginning of the schoolyear there had been an unspoken precedent that they would spend the night together. He would come to her dorm, or her to his, and they would tell each other about their days, and what gossip they had unearthed, and what stupid things they had overheard their classmates say, and he had liked that. He had liked telling her these things. But then his friendship with Albus had begun, and suddenly he didn't feel the need to tell any of things to Zaina anymore, because now he could tell them to Albus.
Now, put on the spot, he couldn't quite justify it to himself. With Zaina watching him through the darkness, absent of her usual smirk, he realised how long it had been since he had spent an evening with her like he used to, and he searched his head for a reason.
'Look, Zaina,' he said slowly, choosing his words carefully, still searching for a way to justify himself, 'things have been… things have just been really busy. With OWL revision and Quidditch and my mum and all the stuff that's been going on with the Ministry…'
'That you don't tell me about,' she interrupted. 'You tell it all to Albus Potter and Rose Weasley and not to me. I have no idea what's going on with you.'
'Zaina, I'm sorry,' he said hurriedly, and he almost meant it. 'I just… I'm sure things will be different in the summer when exams are over…'
Now Zaina let out a laugh, sounding much more like her usual self. It was a scornful kind of laugh, and it riled him. 'So you want me to just sit patiently for the next month until you have time for me?' she asked him incredulously. 'That's not good enough, Scorpius.'
'Okay,' he said, exasperated. 'Well, what would be good enough?'
Zaina didn't hesitate. 'I want you to talk to me. To tell me what's going on with you. With your mum, and your dad, and the stuff that you're always whispering about with Albus and Rose. I want to know what you're thinking, and I don't think that's too much to ask.'
And it wasn't too much to ask. In fact, it was very simple really. He wouldn't even really have to change that much. He ran the prospect through his head: he could continue his afternoons spent with Albus playing Quidditch or Gobstones, and his evening study sessions in the library with Albus and Rose and Chandra could remain unchanged, and he could even eat with them at mealtimes. The only real adjustment he would need to make was, instead of returning to his dormitory late and ready to sleep, he could return a little earlier and set an hour or two aside for Zaina.
It wasn't too much to ask at all and yet, as he stared at her across the dormitory, he knew it wasn't going to happen.
Zaina Faheem was pretty in the way that made it almost hard to look at her. It was like looking into a very bright light; it somehow obliterated everything else in the vicinity. There was forcefulness about her that could only be properly implemented by people who looked like her; she lived life unimpeded by limitations or shortcomings or insecurities.
This was why he liked her. Her lips and her eyes and her hips were things he liked a great deal, but it was the forcefulness that had made him want to be with her. She had a confidence about her that was new to him, and it excited him, and the fact that somebody like her had agreed to spend time with him had made him feel almost normal.
But those evenings spent together in their beds had lost their shimmer. He realised, and he knew he ought to have realised sooner, that he didn't want it anymore. Or if he did want it he didn't want it enough, because the prospect of sharing the things with Zaina that she wanted shared – his feelings about his parents and the war – felt so strange and foreign and indecent that he couldn't bear to think about it.
'Okay…' he said slowly, realising as he said it that he had started out in the wrong direction, and so he tried again. 'But… I don't think I can do that.'
Zaina's eyes narrowed – first curious, and then dangerous. 'What do you mean?' she asked.
'Zaina,' he said, and he was surprised by how easy the words came off his chest. 'I don't think I can keep doing this.'
He tried to fight it when he felt himself waking. He didn't want to relinquish his sleep, as uncomfortable as he was. He tried to pull his jumper further up around him against the chill, aware of voices nearby, wishing his dorm-mates would shut up and wishing his bed was softer and wishing he hadn't drunk so much the day before.
And then – like a punch to the gut – he remembered. He hadn't returned to his dormitory yesterday, drunk and exhausted, and crawled into bed. Instead he had gone to sleep lying across the hard benches in the St Mungo's waiting room, Lily and Albus on either side, waiting for news about their father.
His eyes flew open, suddenly panicked, thinking he had slept too long, thinking he was too late, thinking he needed to be somewhere he wasn't, and he sat bolt upright. What if he had missed his dad waking up? What if he had missed something worse?
But as he glanced around, he realised there was no urgency: Lily and Albus were on either side of him, just where they had been the last time he had seen them. They were both asleep, Lily curled up in a ball in her seat with her head in her knees and Albus sitting slumped in his chair, snoring loudly. He reasoned he must have been asleep for several hours: the window across the room, which had been pitch black outside when they had arrived, now showed a pink sky, the grey rooftops of London dotted outside under the rising sun.
He glanced around the reception room to find they were now alone: the reception desk was unmanned and all other visitors had left the waiting room. Even his mother and uncle were missing. But James realised now that the distant voices that, in his sleep, he had mistaken for his dorm-mates had not been part of a dream: he could still hear them faintly coming from behind the two double doors that stood across the waiting room marked Healing quarters.
He got hurriedly to his feet and started towards the doors. As he got nearer, he could see two sets of bright-red hair through the frosted glass of the door, and another figure with them wearing the lime-green robes as a healer.
He stopped in his tracks, his heart pounding, suddenly aware of what he might overhear if he got any closer. The thought of it terrified him, but he knew he needed to know.
He took a few steps forward, coming within earshot of the healer's voice.
'He likely won't be awake for a few hours,' the healer was saying. 'We've medicated him heavily for the pain, but you should be able to speak with him when he wakes up.'
'But he's okay?' he heard his mother ask, and for the first time in a long time he thought he could hear tears in her voice. 'He's – he's going to be alright?'
'Yes, there shouldn't be any lasting damage physically or mentally,' replied the healer, 'although he'll need some time to recuperate.'
Something seemed to break inside James, and he felt his face pinch with tears, and his chest heave, and his legs shook beneath him. He grabbed onto the back of a chair to stop himself collapsing under his own weight – and then he almost laughed.
He's okay, he said to himself. He's okay, he's okay, he's okay.
The voices continued from behind the glass doors, but James stopped following them for a moment, allowing the relief to wash over him. It was the sweetest feeling in the world, and in that moment everything seemed pristine: his father and his family and the dim waiting room around him.
'And do you have an update on Mundungus Fletcher?'
Ron's question brought James's attention back to the conversation behind the glass doors. He had been so enraptured with the news of his father's recovery that he may as well have forgotten Mundungus existed. But now, at the mention of his name, that shameful anxiety he had felt the previous evening reared again. He didn't want Mundungus to be hurt.
The healer was apparently hesitating in Ginny's presence, because James saw Ron give a jerk of his head towards his sister and snap impatiently, 'You can say it in front of her.'
The healer paused, and then James saw him give a nod. 'We've determined the cause of death. Head injury – must have been caught by the rubble when the building collapsed.'
The blow that this seemed to deliver to James's lungs was debilitating, and his grip on the chair wasn't enough to keep him upright. He sank down into the chair.
Mundungus was dead.
Mundungus had died trying to escape the Ministry – trying to protect himself.
Mundungus was dead.
'And have you received anymore survivors from the scene of the incident?' asked Ron.
'No more than the two that arrived last night,' said the healer. 'It appears the two of them and Mr Potter were the only survivors.'
There was a heavy silence behind the door, and James could see the Ron plunge his hands into the pockets of his robes through the door, before he said slowly, 'Alright, thank you.'
'I'll let you know when Mr Potter is awake,' said the healer. 'You should both try to get some rest.'
It suddenly occurred to James that they were going to be coming through the double doors, and he couldn't bear the idea of facing them: of trying to balance his elation at knowing his father was okay and his horror over Mundungus's death – a horror that even he knew wasn't deserved.
He jumped to his feet and hurried back across the room, slumping back into his chair between Albus and Lily and shutting his eyes, feigning what he hoped was a convincing impression of sleeping. He heard the doors open across the room and Ginny and Ron's footsteps growing nearer.
He listened, trying to breath evenly, as Ron and Ginny took a seat across from him. They sat in silence for a moment before Ron said, 'That was too bloody close.'
His mother didn't reply, and so Ron kept talking, 'I really thought…'
'I know,' said Ginny in a small, sniffly voice. 'So did I.'
'But he's okay,' said Ron in a weak voice, as if needing to convince himself. 'He's fine.'
James tried to focus on this, to let that knowledge consume him: he's fine. His dad was fine, and his mother was fine, and Ginny and Albus were fine, and Finlay didn't hate him. He tried to let this settle throughout his body, willing it to blot out all of the other voices fighting for attention in his head, all of the other worries. His dad was fine, and that was enough.
And yet, as he sat slumped in his chair with his eyes forced shut, the intrusive truth of the matter kept lunging at him. Mundungus was dead.
Song credit: The Start of Something by Voxtrot.
A/N: I'm so, so sorry about the long wait between chapters, although you're probably used to it by now. I have a lot of other commitments in my life that take precedence, much more so than I did when I first started writing this fic, but I promise I'm still working on it and always have the next chapter on the backburner.
Thanks as always for reading and I really, really, really appreciate the enduring interest and kindness of readers. Without you guys I seriously wouldn't have had the motivation to continue writing, but because of you insightful reviews I remain excited to continue!