Stuck On a Puzzle
I have been searching from
The bottom to the top for such a sight
As the one I caught when I saw your
Fingers dimming the light
Like you're used to being told that you're trouble
And I spent all night stuck on a puzzle
He could see her stirring feebly, her hunched figure only a silhouette to him in the dim moon light, the stench of blood choking him and the pain of his torn flesh rippling through his broken body.
Unable to stand and with one hand clutched over his wound in a wishful attempt to quell the bleeding, he dug his elbow into the soft earth to edge himself forwards, swallowing the grunts of pain that hit his lips as he struggled towards her. The wet grass beneath him soaked through his robes, with blood or water he was unsure.
She was mere feet from him but he could not see her face, her head against the earth, her body still shuddering even now. He breathed her name but she gave no sign of hearing.
If he could only reach her before she fell still; if only he had not been such a fool and had stopped it when the chance was still there; if he only had his wand, and had not lost it in the fray; if only someone would come for them, find them in the ruin, promise him she would be safe just as he had once promised, and then he could allow himself to die.
He arrived with a twirl of his cloak, staggering from the apparation, straightening hurriedly and storming down the empty corridor without pause. He was late again, and he knew it incensed his master, but what alternative was there when he had been preoccupied with work so crucial to their cause?
By the time he reached the manor's top storey he was panting for breath, and his brisk pace slowed ever so slightly as he started down the long corridor to his master's chambers.
'You're late, Goyle.'
Ire quickly surmounted his anxiety at the sound of the drawling voice, and he swivelled to face its owner. There, concealed in the shadows at the mouth of an adjoining corridor, was the thin, pointed, loathsome face, more lined now than he remembered.
'I had business to attend to,' he snarled back and to his dismay he saw a smile creep across the face of the tall man before him. 'And what are you doing dawdling out here when our master has requested our presence?'
'My tardiness is due to work I was carrying out at the request of our master, Goyle,' the man replied. 'I doubt you can say the same for yourself.'
'For your information I had my own work to do for our master,' he bit back. 'I have a message for him.'
'Then I suggest you quicken your pace,' the smirking lips told him. 'If the news you carry is as important as you seem to believe then I am sure our master would view your time-wasting as a great discourtesy.'
His anger roared in his ears, choking his throat and clogging his lips of any retort; he stood in seething silence as the man, smiling his loathsome smile, slithered out of the shadows and started down the corridor towards their master's chambers, striding with that regal air he had detested as long as he could recall. Goyle hurried after him, his eyes fixed on the back of the man's head of thinning silver hair, gleaming under the torchlight.
The two old allies rounded the corridor's turn, Goyle struggling to match his companion's brisk strides, before they reached the heavy oak doors that sent a pang of apprehension coursing through him. He cleared his throat, straightening himself up to his fullest height, knowing that the man beside him did not share in this anxiety as he raised a pale hand to rap on polished oak.
No noise from within the chambers reached them as they waited before the door was wrenched open before them and they were met by the familiar sallow face who gazed up at them coolly before barking over his shoulder, 'Malfoy and Goyle have arrived, my Lord.'
'Ah, at last,' came the deep, cool voice from within the depths of the dark room. 'Step aside, Nott. Come in, my friends. Pour yourself a drink.'
Nott obeyed the order and Malfoy strode forward with all the power of a lord, leaving Goyle to hurry in after him, Nott locking the door after them with a hoarse incantation.
The room was occupied by the usual faces, each of them aligned in their allocated seats around the black mahogany table nursing goblets of mead and, as always, he was swamped by the unwelcome memory of his Hogwarts days by the familiar watchfulness of his ex-school mates eyes. He took his seat at the end of the table, farthest of the lot of them from his master, and reached for the decanter in the centre of the table, pouring himself a generous goblet of mead, drinking deeply.
'My Lord,' came Malfoy's drawling voice, as he himself took his seat beside their master, 'you must excuse our lateness. Goyle fancied himself some small talk on the way to join you.'
The rage surfaced within him and he opened his mouth to protest before he heard his master give a low chuckle that soon spread around the table.
'Now, Malfoy, lateness is of no matter when Goyle has taken such a risk for me as he did tonight,' their master told him calmly. 'What news do you bring, Goyle?'
Under his master's unwavering gaze Goyle felt a pang of apprehension in his chest but he forced himself to meet his master's gaze and, in a voice ringing with firmness that surprised himself, he hissed, 'The Aurors arrived before we could even enter the grounds, my Lord.'
The silence amongst them was thick enough to cut and while Goyle could feel his fellows' eyes watching him and knew Malfoy's scowl was fixed upon him, he did not break his master's gaze, and waited for the man to give a slow now and say in his ever-calm voice, 'Thank you for this information, Goyle.'
'The protective charms around the school are far greater than we anticipated, my Lord,' insisted Goyle, struggling to keep the urgency from his voice. 'There was nothing we could have done-'
The words died on his tongue as his master raised a pale hand, signalling for silence. 'I understand, Goyle. It is of no matter.'
'N-no matter?' repeated Goyle in bewilderment, gazing at his master in disbelief. 'But, my Lord…'
'Hogwarts will come into our grasp in time,' his master assured them calmly. 'What is important is that the Aurors were preoccupied.'
Each other occupants of the table, spare for Malfoy, who wore the same look of contemplative satisfaction as their master, appeared to share in Goyle's astonishment.
'You weren't recognised, were you, Goyle?' inquired his master.
'N-no, my Lord.'
Goyle's mind ticked over, fighting to understand, before he spluttered out, 'My Lord, if… if I may ask…'
'Ask away, Goyle. I would not deny you answers after the risk you took tonight.'
'Thank you, my Lord,' stammered Goyle. 'Only I don't understand. Urquhart and Flint have been captured… The Aurors know their history. They will have no trouble getting the Wizengamot's approval for administering Veritaserum. If they were to name any of us…'
To Goyle's surprise he saw his master give a wry smile before he emitted a soft, slow sigh. 'It is regrettable, yes. But you can rest easy - I'm afraid Urquhart and Flint will have no opportunity to name us. The Wizengamot will not convene until the morning and the hemlock essence you consumed before embarking this evening will take its effect long before then.'
A chill crept sprung within his chest and his head spun with panic. He made to stand. 'Hemlock?'
'Goyle, Goyle, calm yourself,' said his master, raising a steadying hand. 'You have nothing to fear. Drink up your mead. It has the antidote. How cruel do you believe me to be?'
His heart pulsing in his chest, he lowered himself back into his chair and snatched up his goblet with a shaking hand, draining it of mead. From across the table he heard Malfoy emit a murmur that sounded suspiciously close to laughter.
'You must forgive my deception, Goyle,' his master told him as he drank. 'I'll have you know I do not have a habit of poisoning my fellows when I offer them a drink but I had to face the truth of the matter; that is was likely not all of you would return to me this evening. Tell me, Goyle; did you see Harry Potter?'
The name spurred a chorus of hisses and jeers from around the table but Goyle could not bring himself to contribute. He set his goblet down heavily on the mahogany table and poured himself another helping of mead, his chest still pounding.
'Yes,' he said, recapping the decanter with a trembling hand. 'It was him who got Urquhart.'
Another round of jeers sounded around the table but they died away when their master raised a hand once more to call for silence. 'That is good,' his master informed them. 'Very good. We need to Auror department preoccupied as long as possible. You have bought us at least until the morning. I believe a toast is in order.' Goyle watched as his master's pale fingers closed around his own goblet and raised it into the air; around the table the men followed suit. 'To Gregory Goyle – a brave man. And of course Marcus Flint and Eustace Urquhart, who served the Dark Arts justly and faithfully. Their sacrifice will not be forgotten.'
There was a rustling of cloaks as goblets were raised to lips. Their master waited patiently for his servants to place their goblets back on the table before he spoke again. 'And now, Malfoy, please do tell. Was your mission tonight successful?'
Malfoy met his master's unwavering gaze and said in a voice that he seemed to intend only to reach their master, 'Yes, it was.'
The dim torchlight flickered across their master's face, creating the illusion of movement though the man was statue still as he gazed back at Malfoy. Several seconds that felt like an eternity passed before the man's lips twisted into a smile. 'Well done, my friend.'
In the dim light Malfoy seemed to radiate with joy that the other men did not understand. 'Thank you, my Lord.'
Their master turned back to the table to address the group at large and when he spoke again his voice seemed to prickle with excitement. 'Tonight we have taken perhaps our greatest leap forward yet. My friends, drink with me. Gamp is dead.'
The cheers that erupted around the table were almost deafening. Goblets were thrust into the air, grunts of glee and jest were shouted amongst the men, and, to Goyle's disgust, Malfoy nodded serenely at the praise thrown his way.
'Our next move in crucial,' their master informed them over the subsiding babble. He turned to the man sitting to his left and said coolly, 'And now you must be ready.'
'Of course, my Lord,' the man assured him gleefully from across the table. 'I promise you, the moment the Minister is within my reach…'
'I'm afraid that won't be necessary.'
The man's grin faltered in an instant. 'My Lord?'
'We each have imperative roles to play and we cannot risk you gaining too much attention too soon. I have another plan for Kingsley Shacklebolt.'
'You have another servant in the Department of Magical Law Enforcement?' asked Nott eagerly.
'I have servants in all the necessary nooks, Nott.'
'And Hogwarts?' asked Goyle before he could stop himself.
His master gave a smile. 'Goyle, you must forgive my misdemeanour but if I had wanted Hogwarts penetrated this evening it would have been, but it is my belief that we do not currently need the school.'
'May I make a suggestion, my Lord?' began Malfoy.
'Of course, Malfoy.'
'You are aware that many amongst us have children returning to the school tomorrow. Should it be suggested to them that you require assistance…'
'That is a fine offer, Malfoy,' said his master. 'And I am sure the sons and daughters of each of you will make valuable servants to the Dark Lord, but I must ask you to forget Hogwarts for the time.'
Malfoy gave a curt nod, his grey eyes fixed upon his master, before he spoke again, now with a definite tone of urgency in his voice. 'My Lord, excuse my curiosity, but I am wondering.'
'Wonder away, my friend. I believe you have earned it.'
Malfoy gave twisted smile. 'I cannot help but wonder what are we to do with Harry Potter?'
Heads whipped towards their master to gauge his reaction, but the man's face was as unreadable as ever before he gave a dry smile. 'Ah, Malfoy, will your vendetta against that man ever end?'
Goyle gave a snort of laughter but his master's gaze did not shift from Malfoy, who was no longer smiling.
'Do not concern yourself with Potter, Malfoy,' their master informed him. 'There is much to come in the next few months, and I do not want you thinking of that man. He is getting old – he is tired. He is not of our concern for this moment. There are far greater things in our futures. But you have my assurance, Malfoy, as I believe you deserve it; Harry Potter will die, and your master will rise once more.'
Albus Potter woke to a feeling somewhere between dread and excitement before he recalled the promise he had made to himself the previous evening.
He gave a heaving groan and shifted into his side. The alarm clock on his beside table read quarter past seven, promising another fifteen minutes before his mother would arrive to drag him from bed, and so he reached for the leather-bound notebook that lay resting beside the alarm clock. He lay it on the pillow beside him and flipped to the appropriate page, scanning the notes he had scribbled out by moonlight, before he reached for the quill that lay on his bedside table and made a scribbled entry.
1st September 2021
First day back at school. Wish me luck or kill me. I'm not sure which.
He tossed the quill aside and pulled himself from his dismally single bed that his mother would not trust him transfigure into a double and crossed to the foot of his dresser where his trunk was waiting for his departure later that morning. Stowing his journal into the hidden compartment he had added beneath the trunk's lid, he collected his preselected clothing from his dresser for the train trip before leaving his bedroom.
Hecate Hall was silent as he passed beneath the stained glass windows towards the bathroom, his siblings still dozing; however, once he was showered and dressed, the building was rife with the usual array of sounds that emerged each year on September first.
Footsteps stormed up and down corridor of the house's upper level and voices rang from outside the bathroom door. He lingered beneath the mirror, spending more time that he typically would trying to flatten his mess of ebony hair.
'Mum, I can't find my cardigan!'
'Which cardigan, Lily? You have thousands-'
'The green one!'
'Which green one?' He could hear his mother ask over the thundering footsteps of his brother storming up the passageway to meet them.
'The green one! With the cable knit-'
'Oi, Ginny, where's the broom polish?'
'The broom polish. The polish for brooms.'
'Oh, for god's sake, James, it's where it always is. In the shed on the shelf above the dragon manure-'
'Yes, mother, I looked there. I do live in this house too, you know-'
'Lily, stop yelling! It will be around here somewhere - and James, don't just stand there staring at me. If it's not in the shed I have no idea.'
His brother gave a heaving groan and his stomping footsteps began again, drowning out the sound of his sister's and mother's bickering, and an instant later the bathroom door was wrenched open.
'Al, where's the - are you doing your hair?'
Under scrutiny of his brother's delighted brown eyes, Albus whipped his hand away from his unruly fringe. 'No.'
'Don't worry, you look very pretty. Where's the broom polish?'
'How should I know?'
'Because you had it last.'
'No, I didn't.'
'Yes, you did. I saw your dismal attempt of trying to mount dad's broom the other day. Slipped right off into the mud, didn't you?'
'I did not!'
'Yes, you did. Finlay and I were watching from the window. It was bloody hilarious. So where's the broom polish?'
'I told you, I don't know.'
James gave a sigh of annoyance. 'Fine, but if I can't find it you're buying a new bottle.' And he turned on his heel before Albus could conjure a retort and strode back down the passageway to hurry down the stairs and a moment later Albus heard the back door slam shut as James headed out into the yard to scout for the broom polish.
Scowling through his blushing cheeks, Albus gave himself one final forlorn look in the bathroom mirror, before he himself left the bathroom and trudged down the passageway to the staircase, the rising voices of his mother and sister growing muffled as he headed into the kitchen.
The fire crackled in the hearth and beside it sat the kitchen table, at which he found the hunched figure of his father, slumped forward in the chair closest to the flame, adorned in the heavy cloak he donned on raids and nursing a steaming cup of tea in his calloused hands. His father turned tired eyes towards him at the sound of footsteps and croaked out a dreary, 'Morning, Al.'
'Morning,' Albus replied, taking a seat across from the man. 'When did you get home?'
'While you were in the shower.'
'Want some oats?' asked Albus as he poured himself a bowl.
His father declined with a wave of his hand and a peaky smile and sipped his tea in silence while he watched his son eat.
The voices from the house's upper level had now reached the level of yelling, and to cover the sound Albus asked his father, 'Where were you last night?'
'Just surveillance. Nothing important,' his father told him, as was his response whenever any of his children inquired about his work. 'You all packed?'
'I think so.'
'Looking forward to getting back?'
Albus shrugged. 'I suppose.'
Albus gave another shrug. 'James says fifth year is really hard.'
'You'll manage, Al. Don't listen to James.'
Albus nodded and gazed down at the soggy mess of oats. He no longer felt hungry in the slightest.
Before his father could make any more inquiries, the sound of thundering footsteps started down the staircase before Lily burst into the kitchen, followed closely by their scowling mother.
'For Merlin's sake, Lily, would you calm down?' Ginny snapped at the redhead.
'Hello, darling,' Harry said to his daughter, who had crossed to the stove top to set the kettle to boil without a glance towards the kitchen table.
'I can't leave without that cardigan! I'm going to have to change my entire outfit now!' moaned Lily.
'Then go change if it matters so much to you,' Ginny growled back, hands on her hips, before glancing across to her husband and asking briskly, 'When did you get back?'
'Just now. How are you?'
'Have you eaten?'
'No, I'm fine.'
Ginny let out a huff of frustration and jabbed out her wand in the direction of he kitchen cabinet, from which a bowl flew and landed neatly on the table before Harry and was then filled to the brim with oats by the levitating carton.
'Really, I'm not hungry-'
'You've been out all night: eat,' Ginny instructed of him. 'And Lily, if you think you're leaving this house with nothing but tea for breakfast...'
'Fine, I'll stay here then!' barked Lily. 'That was my favourite cardigan, Mum!'
'Could you stop yelling at me, please? I don't know why I'm to blame for your cardigan disappearing-'
'Because you had it last! I put it in the laundry and now it's gone!'
'Well, perhaps if you did your own washing for once you'd know where it was.'
Lily gaped at her mother, mortified, before she flew to the door of the passageway, only to collide with James who had returned from the garden looking sullen.
'Oi, watch it-'
'Move, James!' Lily snarled at him, and she pushed past her eldest brother and disappeared up the passageway, leaving the sound of stomping footsteps in her wake.
James glanced back at the remaining occupants of the kitchen. 'What's up with her?'
Ginny rolled her eyes and turned to the stove to tend to the kettle that Lily had abandoned. 'Your sister has lost her cardigan,' Ginny informed James curtly, and received a bellowed, 'I didn't lose it, you did!' from down the passageway.
'Oh, the humanity,' sighed James, crossing to the table to join his brother and father. 'Well, Al, the broom polish has vanished so that will be three galleons please.'
'That's not fair!' snapped Albus.
'Why is Albus reimbursing you for the broom polish?' asked Ginny shrewdly.
'Because in his state of heartbreak he's misplaced it and is too depressed to remember where it is.'
'No, I didn't!'
'For god's sake, James, why would Albus know where the broom polish is? He doesn't even fly,' growled Ginny.
'I do some times,' grumbled Albus.
'You do not. You slip off as soon as you're airborne,' James dismissed, slicing off two pieces of bread from the loaf with a couple of flicks of his wand.
'You're such a prat, James.'
'And you're a virgin and three galleons in debt, Ducky.'
'There's a new bottle of polish in the study,' intervened their father quickly before a red-faced Albus could snap back.
James looked up, his wand poised over his plate as he toasted his bread. 'Really?'
Harry nodded. 'Take it if you like.'
James gave a dramatic roll of his eyes and got to his feet. 'Well now you tell me.'
Stifling a sigh, Harry watched as his eldest son pushed his chair back and disappeared up the passageway before turning back to pick half-heartedly at his bowl of oats. Ginny joined them at the table, a cup of tea in hand, scowling at the half-toasted bread on James's deserted plate. 'Why does nobody eat in this family?'
'You know how he gets when he's going back to school,' Harry reminded her gently.
'He's seventeen years old. He could at least put his own dishes in the sink.'
As if in response, Albus got to his feet and collected his half-eaten bowl of oats and James's plate from the table, crossing to the kitchen bin and scraping away the remains.
'Thank you, Ducky,' sighed Ginny, as Albus set about washing the dishes.
Wincing at the pet name his mother refused to let die, he assured her it was nothing and continued with the dishes.
'You look awful,' he heard his mother inform his father over his shoulder.
'I thought you said you'd be back by one.'
'Supposedly I was going to be but we got called out to...' Harry caught himself, pausing for what Albus knew was a moment to design a censored account of the evening for his son's ears. 'There was a mix-up in the office...'
Albus set the dishes on the drying rack and departed from the kitchen to allow his parents to talk freely, having no desire to listen to his father's abridged version of events, and trudged through the house out into the backyard to the family's makeshift owlery, wondering how much time he would sacrifice trying to coax his barn owl into her cage and wishing, rather anxiously, he was already on the train with his cousin bound for Hogwarts.
Although she would never admit to anyone, Rose Weasley had a habit of inspecting her body in the mirror before she dressed. Too many freckles and too many bones. Although the previous year had at least seen her grow somewhat into her lanky limbs that were all too thin for a fifteen year old, her legs were too long and her chest too flat.
'But it doesn't matter!' her best friend assured her whenever the conversation approached the topic of breast size. 'You're so pretty!'
The lie was a kind one and she appreciated it, even if she would never allow that to become apparent.
She retrieved her hairbrush from her beside table and tended to her long, crimson curls, watching the girl in her mirror and listening to the familiar, frantic noises in the house's lower floors as her parents and brother performed their scrambled morning routine.
Setting down the hairbrush she crossed to her dresser and pulled out clothes for the day, dressing as slowly as she would dare before her mother would venture to the terrace's third floor to find what was keeping her daughter. Pulling on her sweater, her eyes came to rest on the crimson and gold badge laying waiting on her dressing. She reached for it and gave it another of the frequent examinations she had performed that summer; she was almost surprised her frequent thumbing had not yet begun to wear away at it.
She had not wanted it and yet she had received it; she had known she would, and as arrogant as knew she was she couldn't help but wish it had been bestowed on another girl.
With one last fleeting look in her mirror she moved to retrieve her luggage, stowing the badge deep within the depths of her satchel.
By the age of fifteen, Albus had mastered the art of keeping out of people's way.
'Do you ever get a word in?' his first and only girlfriend had asked him in an undertone when he had her over for dinner at the beginning of the summer; he had given her one of his mumbled excuses, and continued through the dinner largely separate from the conversation held between his family and their guest.
Throughout the car ride to London in which Lily threw out accusations concerning the whereabouts of her cardigan that went largely ignored and James and their parents once again started up their heated discussion as to how exactly finishing his NEWTs served in James's best interest, Albus tried his best to keep his attention focused on the bristling green countryside that rolled by the window. His mind was full of his looming Ordinary Wizarding Levels and the prospect of implementing the plan he had devised the previous evening, and though he attempted heartily to rally himself into excitement, he arrived at King's Cross station feeling nothing but anxious.
'I told Posie I'd be wearing my new black dress,' moaned Lily, who had changed outfits several times before leaving Godric's Hollow in the hopes of compensating for the loss of her cardigan.
'I'm sure Posie won't even notice,' her father assured her, as he pulled the car into a vacant spot outside the station's facade. This reassurance was apparently ill received by Lily, who refused to speak to her father as they unloaded and transferred their school trunks to trolleys.
Struggling with the weight of his own trunk, Albus was forced to accept his mother's help, ignoring James's sniggers. His father had told him many times that he had been shorter and scrawnier even than Albus in his youth, but had shot up in his later years of school. Albus hoped to god that this would be yet another genetic trait he had inherited from the man.
'And you wonder why your girlfriend dumped you,' James chortled as they strode through the station, manoeuvring their trolleys around the hoards of Muggles.
Albus did not reply, for he was preoccupied with pushing the heavy trolley, until he asked in an undertone, 'Can't you do mine too?'
'If you're okay with having my blood on your hands,' replied James, nodding ahead at their mother, who was too busy bickering with Lily to see her eldest son propelling his trolley forward not by hand but by the wand concealed up his sleeve.
'She's not even looking!' snapped back Albus.
'Don't cry, Ducky. You'll be seventeen one day.'
'You never do anything for me! You promised that when you turned seventeen you'd transfigure my bed, and you still haven't done it!'
'Why do you want me to transfigure your bed? It's not like you need to fit two people in it.'
Albus opened his mouth to retort, but was cut short by their father's warning voice from behind them. 'James.'
The brothers glanced over their shoulder at their father who was pushing Lily's trolley and watching his eldest son with a sharp look, his eyes cast on James's jacket sleeve. James gave a dramatic roll of his eyes and lifted the charm, grudgingly taking hold of the trolley.
They reached platform and, taking her trolley from her father, Lily hurried forward towards the space the separated platforms nine and ten.
'Lily, you have to check if anyone's watching!' Ginny hissed at the girl.
'You did not. I've told you a hundred times-'
But her words went unheard, for Lily had disappeared through the bricks that concealed platform nine and three quarters. Scowling at the space from which her daughter had just vanished, Ginny moved forward and she too dissolved into the bricks.
James strode forward to follow, but his father caught him by the shoulder. 'Wait a minute, James.'
'Oh, God, here we go,' sighed James
'Yes, we do.' Harry lowered his voice to avoid being heard by any nearby Muggles. 'You're of age now, and with that comes a certain level of responsibility.'
'Yes, Harry, I'm aware.'
'Upholding the statute of secrecy is nothing to be scoffed at...'
Albus was no longer listening, and with a great shove he pushed his trolley forward, taking a run at the brick wall and wincing as he always did as he collided with the would-be brick wall and finally emerged onto the concealed platform.
He spotted his mother a short distance away and with a jolting relief he caught sight of his cousin standing with her, accompanied by her parents and brother. He hurried over.
'Morning, Al,' greeted his uncle, clapping him on the back. 'Where've James and Harry got to?'
'Oh, I think they're coming in a minute,' he said, avoiding his mother's shrewd gaze, knowing that his father had no intention of telling his wife about James's misdemeanour. He turned to Rose. 'Hi.'
'Hi,' she replied. 'Why are you wearing that?'
He glanced down at the old Quidditch jumper and his cheeks reddened slightly. 'Oh, I just found it in the cupboard while I was packing.'
'You found a Chudley Canons jumper in the cupboard? Albus, you hate Quidditch.'
'Leave him alone, Rosie, the man's come to his senses,' said Ron, beaming at his nephew before giving him another clap on the back. 'Good choice, Al. What brought you around?'
Albus was spared from answering by the arrival of Harry and James, the latter looking mutinous, and was silent as they exchanged greetings with Ron, Hermione and their children.
'Harry, you look exhausted! You weren't there last night, were you?' asked Hermione, after giving him a hug.
Harry gave her a quick nod before he turned down to Hugo.
'Hugo, what's going on? You've grown three foot since last week.'
'I know, he better stop soon or he'll be taller than me,' sighed Ron, throwing an arm around his son.
'You excited?' Harry asked his nephew.
The boy nodded eagerly before asking, 'What where you doing last night, Harry?'
'Oh, Hugo, don't start,' sighed Hermione, and she brushed a stray curl from her son's eyes.
'Mum, get off, people are looking...'
Albus was familiar with the stares his father, uncle and aunt attracted whenever they ventured out into wizarding spaces together, but this made him no more comfortable with the pointing fingers and hushed whispers directed their way.
'Where's Lily gotten to?' asked Harry.
'She went off to find Posie and Zelda,' said Ginny with a rather strained voice. 'She said to say goodbye to you though.'
'Oh, right,' said Harry lightly, though Albus did not miss the disappointment in his eyes.
'Not to break your hearts but I might follow her lead,' said James. 'Want to come find Finlay and Xan with me, Hugo?'
Hugo nodded eagerly, but Hermione gave an affronted gasp.
'Hugo, no, let us at least wave you off!'
'Merlin, mum, do you want to come on the train with me?' grumbled Hugo.
'Listen to your mother, mate,' said Ron. 'We're not going to see you for three months!'
'Don't worry, I'll find you on the train,' James assured him. 'I can't let you be seen hanging around with Al. It will tarnish your reputation before you even get sorted.'
'James...' started Ginny tiredly, but James stooped to kiss her cheek and she decided against arguing. 'Bye, darling. Be good, won't you?'
'You say that as if I'm a delinquent, mother,' said James as he gave his godmother a brief hug.
'We wouldn't have you any other way,' said Ron as they shook hands in goodbye.
James then turned to his father. 'Don't miss me too much, will you?'
'I'll try not to,' said Harry as his son conceded to share a hug. 'Tell me who you end up with on the team.'
James gave a grimace. 'I wouldn't get your hopes up. You gonna try out, Hugo?'
Hugo gave an excited grin. 'Me? But first years aren't allowed their own brooms!'
'Sometimes they make exceptions,' said Harry.
'Yeah, and you fly better than half of the idiots we had last year,' James told his cousin. 'Anyway, I'll see you lot at Christmas. Better be prepared to help Al with his trunk, Rosie.'
Rose stifled a grin. 'Go away, James.'
'As you wish.' He gave his family one final goodbye and flicked his wand at the trolley, free to do so out of sight of Muggles, and disappeared through the crowds of parents and students in search of his friends.
'Well, I suppose you three better get on board,' Ginny told them. 'You have everything, Ducky?'
'Good boy.' She stooped to hug him goodbye, looking slightly forlorn. 'I'll miss you heaps.'
'Miss you too,' he muttered, feeling very aware of a nearby group of boys from his year level. He broke free of her grip and turned to his father.
'See you, Al.' His father gave him a hug which was, to Albus's relief, brief, and he pulled away to see Hermione clutching Hugo tightly against her torso.
'You'll write to us as soon as you get sorted, won't you?'
'Yes, Mum,' sighed Hugo impatiently.
'And if you need anything at all you can ask Rose.'
'And she'll help you find your classrooms if you need-'
'Will I? That's news,' said Rose, but her mother ignored her.
'And we'll miss you so, so much, Hugo-'
'Alright, dear, I think he gets it,' said Ron, grinning as he laid a hand on his wife's shoulder. 'See you, mate.'
'Bye, Dad,' said Hugo, giving his dad a hug once relinquished from his mother's grip. 'Think we'll win on the weekend?'
'I bloody well hope so. If we lose to Puddlemere United with Sloper out on a broken wrist, I'll let you drive home at Christmas.'
'You will not!' snapped Hermione, but Hugo looked delighted.
'Bye, Rosie,' said Ron, giving his daughter a fierce hug. 'If Smith gives you any more trouble let me know and I'll deal with him.'
'God, Dad, all he did was tell me I couldn't sit next to Chandra in his class anymore.'
'So? You're my daughter! You can sit with whoever you like-'
'Can we get on already?' urged Hugo, casting a longing look at the scarlet steam engine. 'I want to go find James and Xan.'
'Alright, let's get moving,' said Harry, and he and Ron grabbed hold of Albus and Hugo's trolleys respectfully and started towards the train. Ginny and Hugo followed them onwards, Hugo almost skipping with excitement.
Albus waited with Rose as she hugged her mother goodbye. 'Bye, darling,' said Hermione, looking slightly tearful. 'Watch out for your brother, won't you?'
Rose gave a nod.
'And don't let him do anything silly,' added Hermione in an undertone.
'I'm not a babysitter, Mum.'
'I'm aware, Rose, but I hoped you could your dad and I a favour.'
'Yes, yes. I promise I won't let him fall off the astronomy tower.'
'That's not funny,' Hermione told her tersely, frowning down at the redhead. 'You haven't got your badge on.'
'I'll put it on later.'
'But what if one of the students need to ask you something?'
'Then they can ask me. I'm able to articulate words without a prefect's badge.'
Her mother pursed her lips. 'Rose, being a prefect is a huge responsibility, and it's your job to look out for other students-'
'Okay, Mum, I'll put it on on the train. Come on. Hugo's about to burst.'
Looking as if she wanted to say more, Hermione helped Rose push her trolley to the train where Harry and Ron had already loaded on the other trunks and soon added Rose's.
'Well, have a great time,' Harry said to the three of them. 'Hope the workload's not too bad, you two. Good luck, Hugo.'
'Thanks!' sang Hugo, visibly bouncing on the balls of his feet with anticipation.
'Gryffindor won't know what's hit it,' said Ron fondly, raising a hand to ruffle Hugo's hair.
Hugo grinned around at them and gave his parents a final hug, ignoring the tears in his mother's eyes, before he scrambled onto the train.
'Hugo, wait for your sister!' Hermione called after him. 'Goodbye, you two. Can you make sure he doesn't get lost?'
'Yeah, due to all the many wrong turns you can make on a train,' said Ron.
Hermione have him a pointed look and he kissed her cheek apologetically before checking his watch. 'Blimey, it's about to leave. Get on you, two. There's Hugo at the window.'
Waving to their parents, Rose and Albus climbed onto the train and joined Hugo at the window. The whistle blew and with their parents waving at them and Hugo looking delighted, the train began to roll slowly forward.
'Take care, you lot!' Ron called to them, as he and the other parents strolled along the side of the train.
'You're gonna love it, Hugo!' Ginny assured him, beaming.
Harry raised a hand in farewell, quickening his pace to keep in stride with the train. 'Good luck-'
His called farewell fell short by the arrival of a tawny owl that had swooped down through the steam of the train upon him, landing heavily on his shoulder and brandishing a letter in his face.
'Bye, Hugo!' Hermione called, almost at a run now, trying to keep sight of her children before they fell out of sight. 'Rose, you should-'
But Rose never found out what she should do as, like her godfather, her mother was soon interrupted by another envelope-clutching tawny owl that swooped upon them, causing Hermione to give a little squeal.
'Oi, watch it!' They heard Ron grumble at the Owls, which had been joined by two more carrying azure envelopes, as the train picked up speed.
'Bye, mum! Bye, dad!' Hugo called, but his voice was whipped away from the wind, and only Ginny continued to wave as they sped off. Hugo, waving fervently, missed what Rose and Albus saw; Harry and Hermione tearing open the letters, Ron trying to wave away the persistent owls that continued to swoop down at them, and Harry and Hermione, ashen-faced, exchanging looks of what could only be called horror, before the train rounded the bend and their parents fell from view.
All around them students straightened up from the windows, excited conversation breaking out, as they began to flock away down the corridor to find compartments.
Rose and Albus turned to face each other, Albus with his pale face twisted with worry and Rose wearing a look of frowning suspicion. Hugo, however, continued to beam and he rounded on his sister and cousin and chirped, 'Let's go find James!'
'There must have been about ten owls there by the time we turned the corner,' said Rose without a glance towards her brother.
'What do you think that was about?' asked Albus wearily. 'I thought the blue envelopes...'
'Rose, come on!' urged Hugo, giving Rose's sweater sleeve a sharp tug.
'It means they're urgent, yes,' said Rose, brushing away her brother.
'But that could be anything,' suggested Albus. 'I mean, it might not be anything really bad...'
'Al, come on!' moaned Hugo, rounding on his cousin.
Albus glanced down at him. 'Hugo, you should probably stay with us...'
'No, he shouldn't,' dismissed Rose. 'Hugo, go find James if you're gonna be a brat.'
'Hugo, wait...' started Albus, but Hugo had already turned on his heel and dashed away up the corridor, glancing into the compartments he passed in search of James.
'We should go after him,' Albus informed Rose pleadingly. 'Those letters...'
'Oh, Al, what could those letters possibly have to do with who Hugo sits with on the train?' sighed Rose.
Albus watched rather helplessly as Rose turned away from him and started up the length of the train away from the direction Hugo had headed, and Albus hurried after her.
'What if there's an emergency?' asked Albus beseechingly.
'Then he's better off with James anyway. He got an O for his Defense OWLs, remember?'
Albus said nothing as Rose continued up the corridor, lugging her luggage along with her; he did, of course, remember, and the thought of it gave his stomach a sharp pinch. Perhaps, he thought, as he was jostled down the corridor of the swaying train in Rose's wake, it would be best if they too were to find James and their cousins, but then how were they to find the whole bunch on the train?
'Wait, Rosie, shouldn't you be in the prefects compartment?' he asked her.
'I'll go later.'
'But what if there's some problem?'
'I'm sure they'll manage without me.'
'But, Rosie, don't you think-'
Albus's words were drowned out by a deafening scream that set his owl screeching, accompanied by a heavy force that bowled Albus sideways and sent him colliding against the train's window before he could reach his wand. Straightening up hurriedly, he could no longer see Rose, for she had been obscured from his view by a head of long, sleek black hair of a girl who was continuing to squeal with excitement.
'Chandra, calm down, you nearly killed Al,' Rose huffed, half laughing, as she tried to disentangle herself from the girl's crushing hug.
'Where were you? I missed you! I tried to find you on the platform but we were running so, so, so late because Lydia wanted to wear the tartan skirt I got last week in London with you and she wouldn't take it off until Mum made her! It was awful!'
After a summer's absence, the babble of Rose's best friend was even more incomprehensible to Albus than usual and, massaging the point in his ribs where Chandra had elbowed him out of the way in her beeline for Rose, he waited for the girls to finally break apart before Chandra turned to face him.
'Oh, Al, I'm sorry! Are you okay? How was your summer? Why don't you two have your prefects badges?'
Albus face flushed scarlet before Rose intervened. 'Look – there's a free compartment. Let's get inside.'
Rose slid into the compartment and crossed to the window seat where she was joined by Chandra. Albus stowed his trunk away, slumped back into a seat opposite them and was visited by the familiar feeling of intruding on Rose and Chandra's breathless conversations.
'I just can't wait to be going back to school,' Chandra informed them wistfully. 'Lydia has been absolutely mad and now that Lavender's got that job at Gringotts she just thinks she's so brilliant – it's just unbearable. God, Rosie, you are so lucky you're the oldest.' She gave a wistful sigh and then glanced around the compartment, a frown passing over her exquisitely pretty face, before she turned to Rose and asked, as if only just having noticed he was absent, 'Rosie, where's Hugo?'
'He went off to find James.'
Albus was all too familiar with the effect James's name had on Chandra, but her flushing cheeks and wide, brown eyes could not help but irk him, and he preoccupied himself with finding some treats for his disgruntled owl.
'Oh, where'd they go? Should we go find them?' asked Chandra innocently.
Rose fixed her with a knowing look and shook her head dismally. 'Honestly, Chandra, you could have any boy in school and you want James?'
'Oh, Rosie, not every boy!' dismissed Chandra. 'There's that boy on the Hufflepuff Quidditch team who never looks me in the eye, and Johnny Kirke is still just obsessed with Mei Zhao, and Scorpius Malfoy is always so rude when we have to work together in Potions. Isn't he, Al?'
Albus gave a shrug as he poked his owl treats into his owl's cage. 'I don't know. Malfoy's rude to everybody.'
'Al, you've never even spoken to him,' sighed Rose.
'You know he's been made prefect?' said Chandra breathlessly, as if offering them information on the whereabouts of the Fountain of Youth. 'I saw him at the station and he had his badge on, and so has his girlfriend, and Lucien Runcorn got it for Slytherin; he came over and told me when he put my luggage on the train – I don't really know why...'
'Don't you?' asked Rose teasingly, but Chandra continued as if she hadn't been interrupted.
'And I'm not sure about the Hufflepuff boys, but I ran into Cassandra Kettleburn the other day in Diagon Alley-'
Albus fingers fumbled and the owl treats spilled onto the floor, prompting an impatient hoot from his owl.
'Oh, damn… sorry, Rhea…'
'Honestly, Al,' sighed Rose, raising her wand and sending the owl treats swooping back to Albus.
'Sorry, sorry…' mumbled Albus, returning to feeding Rhea. 'You saw Cassie?'
'Oh, I forgot, you'd know that!' Chandra trilled at Albus. 'That's so nice that you two both got made prefect!'
'No, I… I didn't get it.'
Chandra blinked at him. 'What?'
'I didn't get it. I think Hamish Coote might have.'
Chandra gazed at him before whipping around to face Rose as for explanation, but Rose was busying herself rummaging around her satchel.
'Oh…' murmured Chandra. 'Oh, Al, I'm sorry, I didn't… That doesn't make any sense! Do you think there was some mistake? I mean, Hamish is sweet and all but… but he's a bit silly, you know? He always wants me to partner up in Charms even though he knows I'm hopeless at Charms – I think he's teasing me, and he really shouldn't be made prefect if he's going to do that, and it would just make so much more sense if you and Cassie were both prefects.' A wicked smile spread across Chandra's face. 'Oooh, imagine if you guys could be able to do the night patrols together-'
'We broke up.'
If it was possible Chandra's cheeks reddened even further. 'Oh, Al… Oh, dear… Oh, that's so sad! What happened? It's so hard to keep it going with someone over the summer! I mean when I was with Donny Hopkins last year and we went on Christmas break and Mum and Dad wanted to go to the Canary Islands he got so upset, and I tried to tell him that it wasn't my idea to go, but he just got so clingy! Maybe now you're at school you could make it work… Cassie's so nice and so sweet and so pretty…'
Albus forced himself to shrug. 'I don't know. She's a bit boring to be honest.'
This statement, said with as little care as Albus could possibly manage, achieved the rarely seen phenomenon of Rose snapping shut a book. 'Excuse you?' she asked dryly.
'Oh, you know, she doesn't have much to say.'
Chandra forced a nod. 'Oh, yes, I… I suppose…'
'Albus, after she dumped you you didn't leave your room for a week,' Rose reminded him tersely. 'You were utterly obsessed with her. What are you on about?'
Albus gave another shrug. 'I don't know… I can do better.'
'Oh, of course you can,' drawled Rose. 'When was the last time you even spoke to a girl that wasn't a blood-relative?'
'Well, I'm talking to Chandra, aren't I?'
'Chandra doesn't count. She only talks to you because she's too nice to ignore you.'
'That's not true!' protested Chandra urgently. 'Al, I love talking to you! I mean, I ignored you a bit in first year but that's just because I didn't really know you and you never talked and I thought you might be mute but then Rosie said you were really nice and that you were just a bit shy and-'
Chandra was spared from finishing her explanation by a sharp rap on their compartment's door, and they turned to see Connor Davies wearing his signature crooked grin with his dark hair swept artfully from his eyes.
'Hi, Chandra. How are you?'
'Hi, Connor! I like your sweater! I'm good, how are you?'
'Can't complain. Hey, Weasley. Hey, Potter.'
'Hey,' they chorused back, Albus glaring at Davies's aforementioned sweater with distaste.
Davies eyes flickering back to Chandra, and when he spoke again it was clear his words were only meant for her. 'So the guys and I are having a drink down the carriage. Kienan got some fire-whiskey aboard. Wanna come join?'
Chandra glanced at Rose to see her shrug in response before Chandra gave an eager nod and got to her feet. Receiving Albus and Rose's assurance that they would meet her on the platform, she skipped to the door where Albus could not help but notice that Davies slung his arm securely around her waist and, if he had not had better things to think about, he could have sworn he saw the Quidditch captain give her neck a fleeting nuzzle.
He turned back to Rose to see that she had returned to her book. 'Since when have they been together?'
Rose glanced up at him over her book with a look that matched the drawl in her voice. 'I'm sorry?'
'Chandra and Davies. You didn't tell me they were together.'
'They're not together,' dismissed Rose. 'They're just sleeping together. It's not like it's exclusive or anything.'
Albus goggled at her. 'They're sleeping together?'
'Are you sure?'
'But… but… why?'
Rose placed her book face down on the table and gave him something between a smirk and a frown. 'Oh, Al. You can't truly be that clueless.'
'No! I mean - I mean not why, just... just how!'
Rose let out a huff of laughter. 'Well, you see, Al...'
'Oh, shut up, Rosie, I don't mean it like that! I mean - I mean how can he do that? He shouldn't do that to her!'
Rose cocked an eyebrow and Albus immediately regretted his choice of words. 'Do that to her? Do what to her? Have sex with her when she wants him to?'
'I didn't mean it like that...'
'She's not a child, Albus. She's allowed to choose who she sleeps with.'
'Yes, I know but-'
'So because Davies is a boy he gets to pick out any girl he wants to sleep with and of course we'll all just submit to it because he's so damn gorgeous, but when a girl wants to have sex with a boy she's obviously too stupid to realise that she's being manipulated-'
'I didn't say that…'
'- and we need guys like you to come save us? Vanquish people like Davies and his big, scary co-'
'Okay, Rosie, forget it,' said Albus hurriedly. 'Don't tell her I said anything about it, okay?'
At that Rose fixed her eyes upon him with the same look of derision he had become so accustomed to receiving from her. 'Why do you care so much?'
'I don't care!' Albus assured her quickly. 'But… but they… They're going back to school, and they could get in trouble, and they're only fifteen-'
'Do you think it would have been best to wait until marriage?'
'Oh, shut up, Rosie,' he grumbled. 'I just thought she would have waited longer.'
'I had no idea you spent so much time thinking about Chandra's sex-life.'
'Well, I'm sorry I'm looking out for your friend! Personally I don't know why you don't care.'
'Oh god, Al, what do you think I am? The sex police? It's not a big deal. Everyone does it.'
Cheeks flushing red, Albus glanced away to stare stubbornly out the window. The amber farmland rolled past the speeding train and the blaring blue of the sky made him think of Cassie Kettleburn's eyes. 'Not everyone does it.'
'Just because you haven't doesn't mean no one else can,' Rose informed him. 'Once you've done it it won't seem like such a big deal.'
'How would you know?'
To his utmost surprise, Rose's freckled cheeks took on a degree of colour and without another word she reopened her book in her lap.
'Are you serious?' he demanded of her.
'Shut up, Al.'
'Oh my god, Rose! When?'
'Is it any of your business?'
'You could have told me! We're supposed to be best mates!'
'I didn't want to burden you. Obviously it's a sensitive topic and I couldn't add another monumental tragedy to your life.'
'Do your Mum and Dad know?'
Rose gave a burst of laughter. 'Are you serious? Do you think I'd be sitting here if dad knew? He would have locked me in the cellar.'
'But… but… how?'
'For god's sake, Al…'
'I mean... with who?'
Rose gave a heavy sigh and snapped her book shut impatiently. 'With that Muggle boy who lives down the road.'
'The tall one?'
'Since when were you seeing him?'
'I'm not seeing him,' said Rose. 'Well, not anymore. I suppose I was for a little while. I saw him at the supermarket – the Muggle shops at the beginning of the summer and he asked how my exams went - he thinks I go to school in Manchester - and then we just got talking and he asked if I wanted to get a coffee. We just kind of hung out for a few weeks and then his parents were going down to Dorset for a few days so I told mum and dad I was going to Chandra's for the night. It wasn't a big deal.'
Albus gazed at her. He could never remember an exact moment in their lives when he had noticed her getting older, but now before him here she was; infinitely brilliant and awful Rosie who now seemed ten years his senior, and he could not help but ask, 'Well… what was it like?'
'Al, you can't ask that.'
He dropped her gaze. 'Sorry.'
He heard her give a muffled sigh before she spoke. 'It was fine. It's overrated. I guess it gets better the more you do it but afterwards I wasn't really interested in seeing him again. I wouldn't rush if I were you.'
Albus gave a nod and turned back to the window. There were several seconds of silence before he spoke once more. 'I bet if I asked Cassie she'd do it. I mean, I know she wanted to…'
'I thought she was too boring?'
'I didn't mean that.'
'I should hope not. Why'd you say it? Did you think it would impress Chandra?'
'No,' he told her quickly. 'I just… I'm sick of people feeling sorry for me.'
'Al, you worry too much.'
'I know I do! That's my point! Everyone thinks I'm so… I don't know. Everything James has ever called me.'
Rose rolled her eyes. 'There isn't a soul on earth who James hasn't psychologically scarred.'
'Yeah, but at least you can hide it,' he grumbled. 'I've been thinking about this all summer and I'm over it. I worked it all out last night. This year's gonna be different… I'm gonna… gonna…'
'Going to what?' asked Rose tiredly.
'I don't know. Anything. Ask out Zaina Faheem, maybe.'
'She's going out with Malfoy.'
'Okay, fine. I'll ask out someone… I don't know. I'll join the Quidditch team.'
'Quidditch?' scoffed Rose. 'You've never played Quidditch in your life.'
'That's not true! I've been practicing all summer. I'm not that bad anymore.'
'Is that why you're wearing that stupid jumper?'
'It's not a stupid jumper! I like it.'
'You do not. You look hideous. You look like a tangerine.'
'I do not! You only hate them because you like annoying your dad.'
Rose gave a great huff of frustration and got to her feet, hoisting her satchel over her shoulder and stuffing her book back inside it. 'I'm going to have to ask for a brief intermission. This conversation is giving me a headache.'
'Oh, don't be like that, Rosie…'
'I'm not being like anything. I have to go to the prefect's carriage. I'll be back later, okay? And don't worry; I'll be sure to let Cassie know you're still willing to shag her.'
And with that she turned on her heel and strode from the compartment, sliding the door shut behind her and Albus was left with the familiar solitary silence, broken only by the rumble of the train and Rhea's soft hoots. He gave a sigh, loathing himself, and rested his head against the train's window, gazing at the sky and wishing the train ride to be over.
Song credit: Stuck On a Puzzle by Alex Turner.
A/N: If you've gotten this far I think I should thank you for reading - thank you, thank you, thank you! This chapter is stupidly, stupidly long and I only managed to put in about half of what I was planning to include.
It's been a long time since I wrote HP fanfiction and even longer since I began planning this fic but only recently did I attempt to start writing it. If you could please, please, please review and let me know what you liked, hated or just any thoughts you have I will adore you forever. If anyone at all wants to know all the madness that's going to transgress then please let me know.
Full disclosure: this isn't in keep with the Cursed Child as I've had this planned for so long and the first chapter was written several months ago. Initially I was going to wait until the script was published and edit this fic to have it fit TCC canon but after having read the script I quickly abandoned that idea. However, weirdly enough there are a few similarities with the TCC that will become obvious in time (don't worry, I promise there won't be any Blood Balls).
I don't think I need to point out that there wasn't any Rose/Scorpius in this chapter, but there's a whole lot to set up and I've got to do this properly. I promise he will be around shortly (and in case anyone is concerned, not every chapter will be so Albus-centric).
Once again, thank you so, so, so much for reading and any review will be utterly adored! Xxxxxxxxx