Albus hadn't expected his mum to be the one to collect him.
Last he'd heard (three days ago), she'd been in Holyhead, doing something he wasn't really clear on (assisting training camp, perhaps, or maybe an article—she'd told him through the Floo, but at the time, he'd been more preoccupied with his Chess match against Scorpius). Because of that, he'd fully anticipated either Flooing back to Godric's Hollow, or side-along apparating home with his father. Truthfully, the very last thing he would've envisioned for his departure day from Malfoy Manor would've been this: his mum, sitting across from Scorpius' dad, cooling mugs of tea held in their hands and a million unsaid words strung up between them.
"So, ah," Scorpius began, attempting to break the tension. "That's, ah, nice mud you're wearing, Mrs. Potter. It really accents your robes."
Albus lowered his face into his hands for a brief, weary moment. When he looked back up, his mum was smiling kindly at Scorpius, and looking comically in that moment like the utter opposite to Draco Malfoy, who was sitting primly on the armchair across from Ginny Potter, his suit ironed and spotless, his hair pulled back, his expression stiff. Albus's mum, in contrast, was perched on the edge of the sofa, donning a mud-caked Holyhead Harpies kit, her hair tangled and windswept.
"I appreciate that, Scorpius. I did wonder if it clashed with the emerald. I nearly went with the Keeper's blood, but just narrowly chose the mud—a solid choice." His mum waved a hand at her kit, drawing a series of laughs from Scorpius, who found his best mate's mum a lot funnier than she actually was (in Albus's opinion). She winked in response, amused. And Albus didn't want to be dramatic…but he kind of wanted to die.
Draco Malfoy looked as if he felt a similar way. He was trying so hard to keep an impassive face that he looked a bit constipated.
"Mum," Albus spoke up, his voice a bit of a whine. "I could've gone home in the Floo. What were you doing in Holyhead, anyway? You aren't a Harpies player anymore."
She blinked, stunned. "What? Oh, damn. Well, there's three days of my life I'm never getting back."
Scorpius laughed again, and this time, Albus aimed a soft kick at his calf. Don't encourage her, he tried to communicate, but Scorpius merely gave him a puzzled (albeit adorable) look.
"Albus, I volunteered to help with this season's training camp. Gwenog's finally retired for good. Weren't you listening when we spoke earlier this week?"
"Er…no. I was too busy pummeling Scorpius in Wizard Chess," he admitted. He thought back to Scorpius' good-natured grin after Albus beat him for the fifth time in a row, his heart swelling. He looked down as his ears began burning, hoping his mum hadn't noticed, but when he glanced back up, she was giving him one of her knowing looks. Damn.
"I actually wanted to speak with you, Draco," his mum finally admitted. She leaned forward and set her half-drank tea on the table. "I was wondering if—assuming Scorpius wants to, of course—he'd like to come spend a week with us. We're all—that is, my brothers and their kids and, you know, the entire Weasley lot—going camping for a week at Shell Island. It's a belated surprise for my dad's birthday, a proper Muggle holiday, and—"
Scorpius's face had been brightening with every bit of information Ginny provided, but when his dad interrupted her with a silent shake of his head, his face dropped. Albus's stomach turned. He shifted closer to him by instinct, meeting his disappointed eyes.
"No, thank you, but I think not." Draco was firm.
Ginny hesitated for a brief moment. She glanced towards Albus and Scorpius, and then looked back.
"Are you concerned about safety? Because we are going to set up wards before we go officially wand-less; Harry would never let—"
"No. I just don't think it's the best idea."
Albus privately thought that Draco Malfoy was the bravest man alive because he'd never known anybody to pointedly interrupt his mum mid-sentence twice and live to tell the tale.
"Dad, please, you never let me—" Scorpius tried, but Draco silenced him with one severe look.
"That's quite enough," he told his son.
And then, before Albus's very eyes, Scorpius not only went against his father's command…but appealed to Albus's mum for help.
"Please, Mrs. Potter, I really want to—"
"Scorpius Hyperion!" Draco boomed. Patches of pink embarrassment bloomed over his otherwise pale face. "Sorry, Ginny. For his rudeness."
Scorpius wilted. He didn't even acknowledge Albus when he reached over and patted his knee.
"There's nothing at all to apologize for." Uh oh. His mum's voice was frighteningly cool. He screwed his eyes shut and prayed to Merlin for his mother to keep her Weasley temper in check. "He's made a decent point. You never allow him over at ours. Albus has stayed here at Malfoy Manor three times this summer and yet every invitation Harry and I extend for Scorpius is met with a stony refusal. Why? Is it a matter of distrust or a matter of pride?"
Draco sniffed lightly. "It is not a matter of either. I simply don't think it's appropriate for him to join your family holiday."
"But he might as well be family," she said fiercely. "I don't know how it was here growing up, but in my home, best mates are considered as good as family. Scorpius is Albus's greatest friend. He has a place on our holidays, just like James' best mate does and Lily's does."
"He's not—he isn't your family! He's mine. And I don't want him to leave me—" Draco broke off.
"You don't want him to leave?" Ginny latched onto the slip-up, her tone shifting to something careful and soft. Albus immediately relaxed back into the cushions at the tonal shift, because it was okay. Things were okay now. He knew that tone and his mum was about to fix everything. She was about to work out whatever it was that was upsetting or scaring Mr. Malfoy—like she did for Albus all the time—and then she was going to fix it effortlessly. He smiled at Scorpius, to try and reassure him, but he still looked terribly depressed at the turn their evening had taken. Getting invited on a Weasley holiday, camping and playing Muggles, only to have his father immediately turn it down. It was indeed rotten luck, but it would soon be mended.
"What I mean is…" Draco began. Albus felt embarrassed when he saw Mr. Malfoy's eyes growing damp. "I only see him for a few months a year, and I don't want him gone for any of it, and anything could happen out there, how would I know he's safe, and cared for, and happy, if I'm not with him?"
"Well, you're welcome to come, Draco, but something tells me you'd rather lick the soles of your own shoes than join in on a Weasley Muggle Holiday."
Draco didn't smile and Scorpius didn't laugh. Ginny's slipped from her face quickly, before Albus was able to vocalize the pity-laugh he'd been building up for his mum.
"He'll be with Harry. With me," she tried instead, her voice soft again.
"Yes. Harry Potter, who nearly caused me to bleed to death in Moaning Myrtle's bathroom. Ginny Weasley, who once made my bogeys turn into life-size bats, fly from my nasal passage and attack my face. My nose bled on and off for a week. A week."
Albus stared at his mum, wide-eyed. Scorpius had perked up in interest, too.
"And if I recall correctly," Ginny replied, not the least bit fazed. Albus could tell she was valiantly fighting off laughter but hoped Draco Malfoy couldn't. "You were pinning me against the wall and you scratched half my face."
"Well, if you hadn't kicked Patricia over I wouldn't've had to—"
"And if you hadn't been working for that horrible beast Umbridge none of it would've happened!"
Scorpius was lost. Albus was partially so. He knew Umbridge was the woman responsible for the scars on his dad's hand—I must not tell lies—but hadn't known Draco Malfoy had worked with her.
"And," his mum continued, her voice regaining its previous coolness. "Harry didn't mean to hurt you that badly and you know it. He didn't know what that curse would do."
"If Potters would stop stupidly following things they read in nasty books—"
"What is that supposed to mean?"
Albus was drilling holes in Draco's face with his eyes, desperately trying to warn him to stop, because he knew his mum was very close to becoming angry.
"You know exactly what it means."
"Might I remind you that it was your father who planted that Horcrux on me in the first place? Very brave of him, I'm sure. Using an eleven-year-old girl to get petty revenge in a feud. Who cares about the little girl, right? As long as Lucius Malfoy gets his revenge—"
"Don't talk about my father!"
"Don't talk about my husband!"
"Everybody talks about your husband and that's the problem. The only way I could plant a larger target on my son's head than he's already got would be to send him off with a clan of Potters and Weasleys."
"Harry would die before he'd let anybody hurt his family, and incidentally, he has."
"Oh, bravo! Too bad that parlor trick wouldn't work a second time, so forgive me for not feeling supremely reassured."
"Look," Ginny snapped, her tone brittle. "I know what you're trying to do. And it isn't fair to our sons. Insulting me and insulting Harry will not get us to stop asking Scorpius over. It won't make us hate you again. You can try to act like the old Draco Malfoy, but your heart's just not in it. Let Scorpius go with us. He wants to, it'll be fun. I swear nothing will happen to him. I know you don't want him out of your sight, I know that after Astoria it—"
"Please," Draco's voice broke. Albus felt a swell of pain engulf him, and he didn't know who initiated it, but he realized a moment later that he was holding Scorpius's hand. "I just—need to protect what's left of my family."
There was a soaked and strangled silence.
"It's okay, Dad. Dad, I don't have to go. I'll stay here with you." Scorpius's voice held false bravado, but he'd tightened his grip on Albus's hand. "Yeah, it'll be fun. We can have our own holiday. Maybe we can make s'mores. Rose's mum makes s'mores. I even have a muggle recipe book that she gave me for my birthday—I think it was meant to be a joke, 'cos she calls me Bread Head, but I really like it— and it has special holiday recipes for special s'mores, and there's a beach themed one, and what you do is you get blue marshmallows…oh, I don't suppose we could go to a muggle supermarket, could we, Dad?" Draco Malfoy was staring at Scorpius with a pained expression, like Scorpius had kicked him in the bollocks. "…no, guessing not. No—that's okay, no s'mores, forget s'mores. Well…we'll find something better."
Before Albus had really gotten a grasp on the expression covering Draco's face, he'd risen from the chair, crossed over, and perched beside Scorpius. Scorpius's fingers gradually unlatched from around Albus's as his dad pulled him into a sudden, strong hug. It was so uncharacteristic that Albus was gaping rudely.
"Al," his mum hissed. He quickly readjusted his expression.
"I'm sorry," Draco whispered to Scorpius. Albus wasn't meant to hear. He awkwardly stood up and paced over to the bookshelf spanning the entire length of the far wall, as if he'd suddenly found a great need to peruse The Ten Greatest Wizarding Families of the 1900s. From behind him, Scorpius and Draco were talking softly, and his mum was idly picking mud out from beneath her nails, her expression one of poorly-masked smugness. It was that look that informed Albus that they'd won, and sure enough, when Draco let go of Scorpius, he nodded.
"Well, go and pack your things. I'll help."
With a beam so magnificent it left Albus dry-mouthed, Scorpius flung his arms around Draco again, squeezing him tightly.
"You're the best dad in the entire world," he admitted, in the tender, honest way only somebody like Scorpius could get away with. Draco rose stiffly to follow after Scorpius, though Albus thought he may've looked teary again.
Albus crossed over to his mum, beaming. He fell down beside her on the sofa and gladly accepted her earthy hug. He smiled up at her afterwards.
"You're not as funny as you think you are, Mum. But you are as great."
Ginny poked Albus's side; he crossly swatted at her hands, refusing to laugh, even though she'd poked his most ticklish side.
"Wrong—I'm exactly as funny as I think I am. I am, you know, a wonder. That's what yesterday's issue of Witch Weekly called me, anyway." She lifted her chin and elevated her voice to a posh, lofty accent. "'Ginny Potter, England's own wonder, was spotted yesterday evening leaving the Ministry wearing robes with multiple ink stains. We here at Witch Weekly want to know—where is her money going? Why can the red-haired Mrs Potter not afford clean robes?'. To which I responded, quite humorously, by running around Diagon Alley like this earlier today. I can't wait for tomorrow's article: Ginny Potter, England's own disgrace, spotted covered head-to-toe in mud while making a rude hand gesture at our personality correspondent. Concerned readers are asking: who let this woman raise children? Where is the Chosen One now? Will he save the wizarding world once again—this time from Mrs Potter's sloppiness? Or has he, as recent photos of him elbow-deep in garden soil suggest, joined the dark and dirty side of the Dirt Eaters?'"
He forced his smile from his face and gulped down his building laughter, but not before letting out an amused snort. He stared stoically at his mother for a full ten seconds, but that was all he could manage. When he began laughing, she pulled him into another hug, smiling as she kissed the top of his head.
He cocked an eyebrow at her once she dropped her arms from him again.
"You bat-bogey hexed Draco Malfoy?" he demanded. He paused. "Dad's gardening now?"
"Quite proudly, yes. In response to both questions."
He'd only seen his mum's famous hex once, when he was small. His mum had brought him and James along with her and Luna on a shopping trip and an odd lady followed them around for an hour, refusing to heed his mum's orders to leave them be. Luna was supposed to have pulled them into the sweets shop so they didn't see, but she'd paused, turned them both around, and pointed. 'Look, little ones. It's important for children to understand their parents' talents.' At the time, Albus wasn't sure how that was considering a talent, as the woman's bogey-bats viciously lunged at her face. And now he was just trying not to laugh as he imagined the woman being school-age Draco Malfoy.
"Scorpius's dad worked with Umbridge?" He pressed further.
"Hmm," his mum hummed, in her annoying I'm-trying-to-decide-how-much-to-tell-you way. She rubbed absentmindedly over her knee, which Albus suddenly noticed was skinned open, the fabric in front of it torn and jagged. He thought about pointing it out, and telling her that she ought to mend it, but was afraid to change the subject.
"I'm going into fifth year, Mum! No more secrets," he pleaded. He often felt like all his peers knew more about his parents' pasts than he did. Scorpius definitely did—having read all the books on them growing up. Albus supposed he could've read those same books…but it seemed wrong to do so, to learn about the people who'd given him life through pages instead of their own words.
"I'm not keeping secrets, Al. It's really not as big a deal as it may've sounded—your dad and I can go over the story again later if you like." His mum was the only one who could still get away with calling him Al. He didn't mind it much at all coming from her because she'd loved and accepted him through every season of his life, whether he was Al or Albus.
"Well, I didn't know you once hexed Scorpius's dad. I didn't know dad used a dark curse on him, either," Albus persisted.
"We were not intentionally keeping those things from you. Your dad did so many things in his Hogwarts years—you can't really blame us for there being a few things that have gone undiscussed?"
He never got the chance to respond, because Scorpius and his dad reentered a moment later, Scorpius' luggage levitating obediently behind him. Scorpius was all smiles, looking happier than Albus had seen him in a while (even happier than he'd looked when Albus had arrived a week earlier for his third visit this summer). Albus beamed back at him. He crossed over to him as the adults began talking, their conversation merging into background noise.
("Does he need anything specific that we may not have packed?"
"No, don't worry, we've got everything."
"How can I get in touch with him? If it's a Muggle campground?"
"Hermione's got that all set up—the Minister can't exactly fall off the grid entirely, so she's arranged a few pairs of enchanted mirrors. I'll have her drop one off at your office tomorrow and we'll give Scorpius the other."
"Will there be…")
"I can't believe my luck," Scorpius burst, squirming with delight. "A Potter-Weasley family holiday! Playing Muggles!"
"Yeah, well," Albus began dryly. "Don't get too excited until you see how annoying my family is."
"Annoying?! You're mad, Albus! We're going to have the best time!" His eyes widened. "Maybe Rose will even start calling me by my name!"
Albus's stomach dropped to his toes so quickly that he felt nauseated. He had forgotten that Rose would be there for a stupid moment. He smiled back at Scorpius weakly.
He wasn't feeling very good at all when it came time to leave. His mum took his hand with her right, Scorpius's with her left, made sure he had a grip on his luggage, and then turned on the spot, sending them spiraling towards Godric's Hollow with a squeezing pressure that Albus had never liked.
Unfortunately, it was James who spotted them first as they walked up the drive. Their home had anti-apparition wards in place—the Potter parents were still a bit paranoid, in Albus's opinion—so they had to apparate into Godric's Hollow itself and walk the rest of the way towards their home on the outskirts. The minute they'd crossed onto their property (and the notification wards had buzzed), James came bolting from the house, newspaper in hand. He completely ignored Albus and Scorpius, choosing instead to give their mum a hard high-five.
"Wicked!" he cried, after giving yet another high-five. He shook the newspaper enthusiastically. "They interviewed a healer that focuses on insanity! She said your messiness was a manifestation of repressed trauma! They corned Dad in the lift at work and he said—" James pulled the newspaper back up to eye level, scanning for the spot in question. "He said: 'It's none of your business what my wife wears in public; she could run starkers through Diagon Alley and she'd still have more brains than you lot' and the paper ran the headline: Harry James Potter Calls for Wife to Travel Nude, which Rita then pointed out would be an improvement upon your muddy clothing! Mum, you've started an uprising—look! Five pages in Witch Weekly about it, a full page in the Prophet, and we got thirty owls today! Horace Slughorn, that old bat, told you to hex the lot of them and to use your bat-bogey on...places that are not noses!"
Immediately, Ginny and James Potter collapsed into peals of nearly-identical laughter. Scorpius chuckled along with them, looking from face to face, clearly wanting to be in on the joke.
"It's okay," Albus told him gently. "I don't really think it's funny, either. They're weird. They have this inside joke thing with the press. James loves all the articles that get written about our parents…the more outlandish, the better."
After James was finished laughing, he noticed Scorpius.
"If it isn't Alby's best mate! Hey, Scorp! How're you?" James crossed over and took Scorpius's hand, giving it a rather enthusiastic and hard shake. Scorpius quickly masked his grimace, though Albus spotted him massaging his hand once the handshake ended.
"Hi! You're good! I mean—I'm good! I'm excited. I've never been a Muggle before, pretend or not." A beat. "Thanks for inviting me."
"Oh, well, that wasn't much to do with me, but you're welcome, mate!" James threw an arm over Albus's shoulders, and then his other over Scorpius's. "How was Malfoy Manor?"
For James's benefit, he was very kind to Scorpius for the entire walk up to the house. Scorpius grew more and more confident as he chatted with James about the things he and Albus had done at Malfoy Manor. Albus couldn't help but feel suspicious. His brother had been extremely kind to him for the entire summer—no doubt out of guilt for being so up-himself that he hardly noticed how much his little brother was being bullied at school—but Albus doubted that the comradery would last.
"Ah," Albus's dad said, as they stepped into the kitchen. He was stirring something in a large pot that smelled heavenly—potato soup, maybe. The smell of fresh-baked bread also lingered in the air. "Hi, Albus! Hi, Scorpius!"
"Hello, Mr. Harry Potter!" Scorpius greeted cheerfully.
"Hi, Dad," Albus greeted. His dad smiled at him.
"Call me Harry, Scorpius," his dad said kindly. He grabbed a plate off the counter beside him. "Cheese and apples?"
"Mmm, yes! Cheese is my fifth favorite item to eat before dinner!" Scorpius hurried over to the kitchen table and sat. Albus reluctantly trudged over and sat beside him. He'd been hoping they could sneak up to his room before catching the attention of every family member, but clearly, they would have no such luck.
Harry sent the plate floating over to the table, where it landed gently in front of them. Albus crunched moodily on a slice of apple as Scorpius enthusiastically examined the different sorts of cheeses. While he mulled, Albus's mum came to sit beside Albus, after knocking hips with Harry in greeting. She too grabbed an apple slice. Albus's dad settled down to sit on her other side, taking her free hand in his.
"You've had a full morning," he addressed his wife. "How'd you manage to infuriate both Rita and the Witch Weekly journalists enough to write multi-page articles about you and stalk me at work?"
She wordlessly waved the hand holding her apple slice down her body. "They said I was sloppy. So I decided to show them I didn't do sloppy half-way."
"I thought we'd mutually agreed to stop having a go at the press?"
She scoffed. "Are you joking? I simply will not rest until I am crowned England's sloppiest household name."
"Well, clearly, you're nearly there. Look at you." He dropped her hand, reaching over to gently scratch a bit of dried dirt loose from her neck.
Scorpius was nibbling on a square of Red Leicester, his eyes widened anxiously as he watched the Potter parents. Albus realized he probably thought they were close to rowing. Unfortunately, they were very far from it. Ugh. Sure enough, Ginny winked at Harry, who took her hand again in response.
"You always do, anyway," she quipped.
"What? Look at you?"
"Mm. You fancy a bit of mud."
"I fancy a bit of you. The mud's inconsequential."
"Mum!" Albus cried, mortified. "Dad! We've got company, honestly!"
They'd gotten nearer and nearer as they spoke. At Albus's cry, Harry jumped slightly. His ears reddened.
"Right. Erm…oh! Your knee, Gin, what've you done to it? Let me see," Harry fussed, clearly for a lack of knowing what else to do with the awkward silence. He quickly kneeled in front of Ginny and busied himself with cleaning her wound and then mending it, while Ginny cheerfully finished her apple slice. Albus was starting to wonder if having Scorpius over was a mistake, but when he glanced at him, he saw he was entirely at ease, working his way through his fifth square.
"This is gweat chweese!" Scorpius told them, around a mouthful of cheese. He gave them a thumbs-up. Harry and Ginny laughed fondly.
"WHO'S HERE? WHO'S HERE? IS IT LUNA? LUNA! LUNA!"
Lily came sliding into the kitchen wildly on socked feet, her red hair soaked and dripping water steadily onto the floor behind her. She came to a stop at the mouth of the kitchen, her wide eyes locked on Scorpius. He smiled and waved.
"Hi, Lily!" he greeted. "Nice cat socks!"
She stared, gaping. Slowly, her cheeks began reddening. She very slowly crossed her arms over her chest, as if she were naked instead of in her stupid pink dressing gown.
"Mum!" she finally cried, outraged and humiliated. She stamped her foot; the kittens on them went leaping up towards her ankles, frightened. "Ginevra Potter! You've got to tell me if there's a real boy in the house! Damn it! Damn it all! Bollocks on top of bollocks!"
Ginny blinked. "Oh, Lily, dear—by the way—there's a real boy in the house."
Lily's face grew redder in her rage.
"Lily, language," Harry commented, but it was lazy and clearly by habit more than anything else. "And don't call your mum Ginevra."
"A real boy?" Albus demanded, insulted. "What's that supposed to mean?"
But Lily merely gave another horrified, offended huff, her cheeks flaming, and then turned on her heel and took off towards her bedroom.
"Well," Ginny said, as if nothing had happened. "I'm going to go shower. My rebellion doesn't feel quite as great when it's been caked onto me for hours."
She kissed Harry and walked from the kitchen. She'd only just cleared the doorway when Albus's dad hurriedly set the spoon down beside the pot and turned, heading after her.
"Hey!" Albus called, his stomach rumbling in protest. "Aren't you cooking? What about dinner? Where are you going?"
Harry paused. "Er…I've got to…make a phone call. Dinner's fine—it needs to simmer. See you in a bit."
Scorpius was frowning deeply. "What's a…phone call? How do you make it? What's it for?"
"We don't even have a telephone!" Albus yelled after Harry. But not wanting to give his father's true whereabouts any real thought, he let it go.
Scorpius dropped his bag on the second bed in Albus's room. He turned around, beaming.
"I like it. It's…warm!"
Albus felt a bit sheepish. His family wasn't poor by any stretch of the imagination—in fact, they were probably one of the wealthiest wizarding families left—but his home was certainly different than Malfoy Manor, which boasted a severe, aristocratic décor that the Potter house was very far from. Albus's room was emerald (Harpy emerald, actually), with mismatched furniture and two soft, double beds piled high with an assortment of colorful blankets and pillows. His bookshelf was in a state of chaos, with half the books stacked in vertical rows, half stacked horizontally, and others simply thrown on top. Albus watched as Scorpius immediately stepped to examine the bookshelf, his ears a bit hot.
"It's sort of weird, but it works," Albus said.
"It's not weird!" Scorpius assured him, his nose already buried in some muggle novel Dudley had given him last Christmas. "It's brilliant!"
Albus sincerely hoped he still felt that way about the Potter house after experiencing dinner, which was sure to be an embarrassing ordeal. He stretched out atop the spare double bed with Scorpius to look at a comic he'd found, and that's where they stayed until Lily shrieked up the stairs: Dinner is ready!
"Look," Albus began. He reached out and grabbed Scorpius's forearm, stopping him from climbing off the bed. "I know my family's really weird and…a bit much, so don't feel like you have to pretend to like them."
Scorpius was giving him one of those looks. The you-are-the-oddest-boy-I've-ever-met one.
"I think you're probably the only person on the entire planet that would complain about having dinner here, Albus. I, for one, am incredibly excited, and I won't let you take that from me. I just won't allow it, so stuff the negativity."
"Okay, okay," Albus said skeptically. "But you don't have to laugh at their jokes."
"Why not? They're funny."
"I just mean…if they're not funny…"
Scorpius's lips twitched. "Okay, I promise I won't laugh at any jokes that aren't funny."
Albus sighed, feeling like Scorpius had very much missed the point, and was in for quite a dinner experience.
Lily was in much better spirits as they came down for dinner, now that she was properly dressed and expecting Scorpius's presence.
"Sorry," she told Scorpius. She swung her red hair over her shoulder and peered at him coquettishly from behind her circular, black rimmed glasses. Albus rolled his eyes. "I was just surprised. I'm glad you're here, though!"
Scorpius—forever indifferent to girls and flirting—beamed. "Thank you! I'm glad to be here!"
Nobody could doubt that he was genuine, but Albus couldn't figure out why. Harry and James struck up a conversation about Defense Against the Dark Arts that Albus was avoiding like the plague, Ginny was entertaining Scorpius with her Harpies Best Hits stories, and Albus was glowering at Lily, who spent the first half of dinner pointedly brushing hands with Scorpius, leaning against his side, and giggling at nearly everything he said. Finally, after she leaned over to wipe something from his face with a silly giggle (and Scorpius appeared to finally catch on to the fact that Lily was flirting with him), their mum intervened.
"Lily Luna," she began, exasperated. Scorpius was attempting to shift out of Lily's reach without her noticing, but couldn't move any farther without literally climbing onto Albus's lap. Albus glared even harder at Lily for making his friend so uncomfortable. "Could you at least have a bit of tact?"
Lily shrugged. "Flirting's not tactful, Mum."
"Not the way you're doing it, that's for certain."
Lily scoffed. She flicked her hair over her shoulder. Albus ground his teeth in annoyance; Lily's waist-length hair made up about fifty percent of her sass, and Albus often felt an urge to chop it off while she slept. He'd been whacked in the face with it on far too many occasions.
"Who made you the flirting queen, Mum? Are you the flirting rule-maker? The…flirting captain? Did you study flirting; did you get an O on the examination?"
Without missing a beat:
"Your mum didn't need to study flirting because she revolutionized it. Stop victimizing our guest, eat your vegetables, and stop with the backchat," Harry ordered.
Lily obeyed, but she stabbed her fork through her broccoli a bit more aggressively than strictly necessary.
"Sorry," Albus muttered to Scorpius. His cheeks were a bit pink, but he looked baffled more than anything.
"It's okay," he assured Albus. He gradually slid back onto his own seat. He perked up a moment later. "Is that treacle tart?!"
"Don't get excited. Sugar-free. We're all still off sugar, thanks to James," Albus said miserably. He was certain that this was it. This is the moment that Scorpius would realize that he hated the Potters, that he would pity Albus, that he would wish he'd never come. But his expression didn't fall. He merely examined the awaiting dessert intently, like he found it highly interesting. That interest turned to shock after his first bite.
"Mmm! Yum!" He cried, surprised.
Harry looked extremely flattered. "Yeah? I used this new plant I'm growing to sweeten the golden syrup, it's a healthy sugar substitute; I wasn't sure if the texture would be right."
Scorpius nodded, his cheeks bulging, to show that he found it better than all right. Albus begrudgingly admitted that it was good, once his dad looked at him questioningly, his expression oddly vulnerable.
"Yeah," Albus muttered. "It's good, Dad."
James and Scorpius ended up in a conversation about animagi, animatedly discussing what creature they'd most likely be if they ever learned it. Albus, comforted more and more with each passing second by the clearly-positive experience Scorpius was having, joined in, and soon Lily had as well (thankfully fettered when it came to her crush on Scorpius). The four of them talked well into the evening, Harry and Ginny periodically joining in as they flittered to and fro. Harry joined them again around nine, much to Albus's surprise, choosing to tell Scorpius all about Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot, and Prongs, instead of joining Ginny on their nightly broom ride. Ginny joined them at ten, ushered them all into the sitting room, passed around homemade (and sugar-free) butterbeer, and dropped down beside Harry. Albus pretended not to notice her pleased smile as she spotted Scorpius's arm casually resting on Albus's shoulders as he chatted.
"So is it always like that, Dad?" James questioned. He was stretched out with his feet in Lily's lap. She was lazily painting his toenails an electric purple, not that he seemed to notice or care. Her head was resting on Ginny's shoulder as their mum stroked her hair.
"From my experience, yes. The only animagi I've known have always had the same form as their patronuses."
James looked pleased. "That's brilliant! I'd be an elk! Dad, you and I would be a proper squad!"
Lily lifted her head from their mum's shoulder and glanced up from James's feet. "No fair! I want to know what I'd be! Dad, teach me how to do a Patronus!"
"You're not allowed to do magic outside of school, Lily," Ginny reminded her.
"They'll never know! They'll think it's you and dad!"
"Why would your dad and I repetitively cast a Patronus charm at ten in the evening?"
"I dunno, you two are weird; people would believe anything of you," Lily whined. "Please?"
"No, Lily," Harry said.
"But what if I'm attacked by a dementor, Dad?! And I'm alone?! And I get my entire soul sucked out because my own father wouldn't teach me the Patronus charm?! You taught James!"
"James is older."
"You learned in your third year! I'm going into my third year!"
"Times were different back then."
Lily glowered. "If I get my soul sucked out, you're going to feel so guilty."
"Lily Luna Potter—" Ginny began sternly, but Harry interrupted.
"I dunno, Gin. Maybe it wouldn't hurt to let her practice."
Albus had been slouched against Scorpius, but he shot up at that.
"If Lily gets to learn, then I do, too!" Albus insisted.
"Oh, fine," Ginny finally snapped, after looking between Lily and Albus's excited expressions. "But if Aunt Hermione finds out, you lot are dealing with it."
Harry looked less confident after that ultimatum.
It was eleven that night, they'd all had too much butterbeer, and Scorpius was standing so closely to Albus that he could feel his body heat.
"Something happy, like books and sweets and Albus Potter!" he encouraged.
Albus furrowed his brow. "You want me to think of myself? How vain do you think I am?"
A few feet from him, Lily was standing with her eyes screwed tightly, focusing so intently on her 'happy memory' that she wasn't even breathing. At some point during their Patronus practice, she'd ditched her glasses, and Albus laughed a bit cruelly at the sudden thought that she wouldn't even be able to determine the form of her Patronus without them. He felt guilty right afterwards.
"Breathe, Lily," Ginny reminded her, from her place on the sofa.
Albus had produced quite a few bursts of silver light but had yet to produce anything corporal. Scorpius had assured him that in one of the splinter realities, he'd only managed to produce wisps as well, which kept Albus from feeling too embarrassed or inept.
"Good, Lily!" Harry boomed. Albus snapped his head towards his sister, relieved to find she'd only managed a wisp of silver. He couldn't let his little sister make one before he did. "Ten more times and I bet you'll get it, Lil!"
"We are so getting a nasty letter from the Ministry," Ginny commented, but she didn't look worried anymore. She just looked annoyed.
"Nah. They wouldn't dare. Dad saved everybody's arse. What wanker would send Harry Potter a—"
"Language, James!" Harry scolded.
"Yeah, yeah, all right," James yawned.
"You're not focusing," Scorpius tsked, drawing his focus back to his task.
Albus sighed, frustrated. "I can't focus with so many people."
"Easier than trying to do it with actual dementors around you," Scorpius said wisely.
He had a point. Albus nodded.
"Okay, here I go." He took a deep breath and stared at the floor. He'd been focusing on three really strong memories (a broom ride he'd taken with his father when he was really young, just the two of them; the time he and his mum had woken up early and attempted to bake a cake for Harry's birthday, only to end up laughing hysterically in a snowy pile of flour; the moment he'd met Scorpius and realized he'd found a perfect friend), but that time, he randomly thought about that night instead. It surely couldn't even count as a memory yet, as it'd happened only a few hours ago, but he was locked into the memory of the latter part of dinner. Warmth flooded his chest as he thought about how hard everybody had laughed, the easy, enjoyable flow of conversation, the look of genuine affection covering Scorpius' face. It was that look that he narrowed in on, and as his heart swelled with love and contentment, he cried Expecto Patronum!
Lily's cry of outrage registered before the creature in front of him did.
"Damn it!" she shrieked. She slapped her wand angrily against her palm; Ginny cried out as red-hot sparks emitted, nearly hitting her full in the face. She lifted her wand just in time to deflect it. Lily looked appropriately contrite afterwards, though she shot an intense glower at Albus. It slid right off Albus's shoulders. His parents were cheering, James had called out 'nice!', and Scorpius was ecstatic.
"Cool! An owl!" His light eyes followed it as it soared throughout the room.
"It looks like Hedwig," his mum blurted, her eyes locked on the Patronus. His dad didn't reply, but Albus saw him take Ginny's hand, a proud smile in place.
Harry crossed over to Albus once his Patronus had dissipated. He pulled Albus into a warm hug.
"You got it quicker than James did," he whispered, and then pulled back. Albus grinned, his heart soaring from his father's praise.
Lily was even more determined now, and after only three more tries, they silently watched her lion Patronus prowl around the living room. It was massive and intimidating; even James was speechless.
"Whoa," he breathed.
Scorpius flinched as the lion walked near him. Lily giggled.
"Aw, come back," she lamented when it disappeared. "We only just met."
Albus was growing extremely tired, and he knew everybody else was, too, but nobody seemed to want to be the one to end the night. It occurred to him that he hadn't spent that long hanging out with his family since before he started Hogwarts. They used to do this all the time—stay up chatting and laughing, spending time together—but it'd stopped after he started school. He hadn't realized how much he'd missed it until that moment. His parents must've felt the same way, because they looked horrifically exhausted, but were still not ushering him off to bed.
"Oh, go on, Scorpius," Harry called, still grinning proudly from the sight of Lily's lion. "Give it a go! I'll take the blame."
Scorpius had clearly been waiting for those words. He closed his eyes, went eerily still as he focused on something, and then gave a confident incantation. After a series of five attempts, a small figure bloomed from his wand. A bird of some sort soared above them.
"What is it?" Lily asked excitedly.
"A bird! Are you blind?" James exclaimed. He did a double-take at his sister. "Wait—you are blind. Where are your glasses, Lily?"
"I know it's a bird, idiot! What type of bird?!"
Albus was watching Scorpius while everybody else watched the bird. He was watching it with amazement.
"A finch?" Harry wondered.
"No," Ginny said, and Albus could hear the smile in her voice. "A sparrow."
After it disappeared, Harry seemed to remember James's words from before.
"Hey," Harry frowned. "James is right—where are your glasses, Lily? You know that isn't good for your eyes."
Lily looked smug. "I lost them."
Ginny arched an eyebrow. "Accio Lily Potter's glasses." The glasses flew downstairs and into her waiting hand. "Checkmate."
Lily sighed. She crammed the glasses onto her face. "Joke's on you, parents; I'm going to bed and taking them right off."
Scorpius observed her innocently "I like those glasses, Lily. Why don't you wear them? They're nice."
Immediately, Lily seemed to melt. She glowed with happiness and reached up to straighten the dark-rimmed glasses. Harry looked at Ginny with an exasperated look, but she was watching Albus, who had been trying not to glare or frown at the scene in front of him. He met his mum's eyes and spotted the worry glowing in her eyes. It bothered him—Lily's crush. He refused to let himself examine why it did…he just knew that he hated it.
James had fallen asleep, his purple-toed feet propped up on the far arm of the sofa. Harry covered him with a blanket, ushered Lily upstairs, and then set a brief hand on Albus's shoulder.
"You two can stay up later if you'd like, but stay in the house, and keep quiet."
Albus yawned and glanced at Scorpius. He looked equally exhausted.
"We're just going to go to bed. Thanks, though."
They told his parents goodnight and then closed themselves off in Albus's room. They fell back onto their respective beds. Albus had his eyes shut and his face turned upwards, but he could feel Scorpius's eyes on him.
"Don't say it," he warned.
"Okay. I won't say it," Scorpius agreed. Albus knew he was smiling from the sound of his voice. "I won't say that your family is great."
Albus grimaced. He opened his eyes, examined his ceiling for a moment, and then turned over onto his side. Scorpius mirrored him, so they were facing each other.
"My sister's annoying, though," Albus began, watching Scorpius's expression carefully.
He frowned. "I don't get it. Why would she be flirting with me?"
Albus grinned despite himself. "You've got a certain…you're rather…" he stopped, realizing too late that perhaps best mates didn't usually comment on each other's appearances. "Er…" sod it. "You're attractive. Did you know that?"
He did not. It was news to Scorpius. Or perhaps it was just news that Albus thought that he was. He flushed.
Albus was equally red-faced. "Yeah. I guess she likes that."
Scorpius smiled slowly…and Albus panicked.
"But—you can't date her," he blurted, alarmed. "She's my little sister. You just can't. It's the rules."
Scorpius sat up. "I don't want to date Lily, Albus," he admitted, confused. "But…isn't your mum's brother your dad's best mate? So that bit about dating little sisters is not entirely true, is it?"
Albus flushed even deeper. He felt a sudden sting of pity for his Uncle Ron (even if, deep down, he knew their situations were not exactly identical).
"Well, they aren't always great moral-compasses, my parents," he grumbled. He picked at his nails and sulked. He could feel Scorpius's lingering gaze.
"She's funny and clever and pretty. But it's not like that and it never will be."
For a moment, he thought he might be brave enough to ask: why?
But then he remembered Rose. And his stomach inched its way back towards his toes. He swallowed roughly.
"Okay. We should get some sleep."
As they bustled around the room, pulling covers back, changing into pajamas, stepping in and out to brush teeth and wash faces…Albus felt the weight of Scorpius's eyes more than once. And when they finally turned the lights off and crawled beneath their covers, he turned to peer at Albus in the dark.
"It was funny to me because you're the attractive one, not me."
Albus forced himself to remain supine, even though he'd wanted to shoot up at those words. His heart thumped so loudly he feared Scorpius could hear it.
"Me?" He all but squeaked.
"Yeah. I thought everybody knew that, including you."
"No. No, Scorpius. It's the opposite."
"No way. I'm…sallow."
"You're handsome," Albus replied immediately, a bit defensive on Scorpius's behalf.
"But you're….you know," Albus got the feeling he was choosing his words carefully. "Beautiful." An awkward silence. "Is that…an okay word to use?"
Albus was terribly glad for the darkness. He smiled into his pillow for a moment.
"Yeah, that's an okay word," he finally said.
He knew that this was where they both needed to add onto what they'd said. He knew he should've said just from what I've heard girls in our year saying, you know. And Scorpius's should've said something of the same. But neither of them said anything like that. For the first time since he'd asked Rose out, Albus's heart inflated with foolish hope.
"Well, 'night," Scorpius finally yawned. "A sparrow! I hope it's in my dreams."
"Yeah, 'night," Albus said, his own thoughts straying to his silver owl. As he drifted towards sleep, he thought about his Patronus…about how he and Scorpius were the only people who'd produced a bird…he thought of his mum's and dad's…both large, strong, four-legged creatures…Aunt Hermione's and Uncle Ron's…smaller, playful four-legged creatures…an owl went with a sparrow better than a lion did…what was Rose's Patronus? He hoped viciously, right there on the edge of sleep, that it was something massive and grounded, like an elephant or an ox….
In his dreams that night, he was flying above the Burrow with Scorpius, their Patronuses soaring alongside them.