Albus had seen the sea plenty of times, thanks to the innumerable trips he’d taken to Shell Cottage over the course of his childhood. It had never been a very big deal; it was simply background noise, a bit of salt on the air, a soothing constant. But there was something different about the beach there on Shell Island. Albus stood barefoot in the sand as the waning tide crashed forward into his ankles, only to slink back, his toes sucked further and further into the sand with every stationary moment that passed. He could hear James, Roxanne, and Fred arguing about something from further up the beach. Teddy and Victoire had disappeared at some point during the walk down and Albus had no interest in speculating why or where they’d gone. The important thing was that Scorpius was with him, standing a few steps back, watching the moon’s reflection on the silken surface of the water like he’d never seen anything more moving. The important thing was that they were here spending actual time with his brother and cousins, and everybody seemed to like Scorpius. Even odder still—everybody seemed to like Al. The same people he’d alienated through surly glances and harsh words the four years prior had acted like nothing had ever happened. If only Albus could stop having intermittent nightmares, he might truly believe last year was a dream.
His heart gave a sudden jolt, tugging him back to the present and back to his best friend. Scorpius had joined him further down, his own shoes kicked off. He was standing close enough for their arms to brush. Scorpius let out an alarmed laugh as he stepped into the wet sand and began sinking down. He took a step forward, yanking his feet free, and then watched in amusement as the water and sand gradually filled and smoothed over the place his feet had been moments prior.
Albus—now up to his ankles in sand—reached forward, grasping onto Scorpius’s hand. He pulled him back beside him.
“Just stand still, it feels nice,” he reassured him. Scorpius’s previous wariness dissipated quickly at those words. He nodded, planted his feet, and stared off at the distant swells of the waves as the sand inhaled him. Albus would’ve given anything for a bit of Gryffindor bravery, if only he could muster the strength to reach over and take Scorpius’s hand. It was one thing to take it casually throughout the day. It was another to take it here, sprouting from the sea, the moon’s light making even Albus feel particularly romantic.
“Whoa—!” Scorpius cried out softly, alarmed. His body swayed forward as the sand engulfed him nearly to his ankles and a strong wave crashed into their calves. Scorpius reached out, his arms flailing, and grasped onto Albus’s forearm. His hand was slick from the splashing sea water; Albus could feel grains of sand grating between their skin. He turned his face down to the sand, blushing, and with what felt like every ounce of bravery he might’ve inherited from his parents—he settled his hand over Scorpius’s.
It was instant, easy. Scorpius slid his palm down Albus’s forearm (the caress made Albus’s ears burn, his stomach jolt) and took his hand.
“There,” Scorpius said, beaming ear-to-ear. “Please be my anchor! I think these waves want to fight with me, and if they do, they’ll definitely win.”
“Definitely," Albus agreed, his own grin gradually blooming. In a surge of affection, he gave Scorpius’s fingers a gentle squeeze. He glanced up at him shyly a second later, relieved to see that Scorpius’s grin was wider still. “Don’t worry. If you get knocked down, I’ll probably get knocked down too, so at least we’ll both die an embarrassing death together.”
“…I’m not sure I’m feeling very reassured, actually. I’d prefer to live embarrassing lives together instead?”
The sea mist felt refreshingly nice against Albus’s burning face. He wished he could’ve submerged his face into the actual sea.
“Halfway there, mate,” he muttered instead.
“Halfway there?!” Scorpius yelped, turning to look down at Albus. “Do you know something I don’t?!”
It came to him effortlessly.
“Yeah,” Albus said. “If you end up going on a date with Rose in the next couple of years, she’ll eat you alive over the table in Madame Puddifoot’s tea shop!”
Scorpius laughed. “Why would she do that?! I don’t think she’d risk Azkaban just for me.” Scorpius perked up. “Or would she?”
“No," Albus deadpanned. The water suddenly felt colder, the sand grittier. He looked down and away.
“D’you what she told me earlier? When you went off to help your gran?” Scorpius continued.
Albus’s heart was sinking faster than his feet were.
“No. What?” He mumbled. He knew he’d uttered the words like they were being forced out of him, and in a way, they were. He thought to his mum’s words from earlier in the day. About how things take time; she hadn’t been with his dad in the beginning of her fifth year. And his dad had been with another girl in his fifth year. It had comforted Albus all day, reminding him that the present wasn’t necessarily the future, but he was reminded once again that love could transcend all.
“She told me that she doesn’t want to date me!” Scorpius exclaimed.
Albus looked up at him immediately, a bit taken aback. It wasn’t what he’d expected.
“Well…yeah, Scorpius. She’s told you that repetitively in every way possible. By ignoring you, by calling you rude names, by letting her friends laugh at you, by turning down your date offer…”
Scorpius nodded. “Yeah, but here’s the thing! She told me she doesn’t want to date anybody!”
This distinction meant something to Scorpius. To Albus, it was nothing new.
“So it’s not me. Well, I mean, she said it was still sort of me. Because I’m a Malfoy, and then there was that whole son-of-Voldemort thing that I’m sure will continue on despite your dad debunking it….but most importantly, she said dating seems like a ‘colossal’ waste of time and intellectual energy.” Scorpius was beaming again. “But she patted my hand after she said that, so I think maybe we can be friends! That would be brilliant, don’t you think? If Rose was our friend!”
Albus hardly dared to breathe. He knew this stroke of luck might turn out to be nothing—Rose might decide after their O.W.L.s that she did want to date and that Scorpius was the perfect candidate. But right then, it was the best possible thing that could’ve happened. Scorpius was realizing that his current chances with Rose were slim and (very importantly) his feelings hadn’t been hurt. Albus hadn’t wanted that and it had been difficult to picture a scenario where it didn’t happen. He couldn’t envision Scorpius being turned down firmly enough to stop his advances without it shattering his heart. But Rose had managed, as she always did. She may have irritated Albus to tears at times, but she was the most talented and clever person he knew.
“Yeah, that’d be nice,” Albus finally agreed.
“And if my dad keeps helping me with Quidditch, I may make the team, and maybe then people will stop teasing us so much.” He looked back up at Albus. “You know, if you got your mum to help you with the flying bit, I think you’d have a chance of making Chaser.”
Had it been a year prior, he would’ve scoffed at Scorpius for even suggesting it. But the thought of being on the team with Scorpius was undeniably a good one, even if it meant he’d have to get over his rebellious, forced hatred of Quidditch. He’d really enjoyed it before Hogwarts; he’d loved to follow the professional matches. His mum used to bring him along when she commentated. But once he went to Hogwarts, it turned into a symbol of all the people who mocked him. It would be nice to reclaim it again.
“Maybe,” Albus hedged. “I can ask her.”
As if it hinged on his mum agreeing. Scorpius gave him a doubtful look but didn’t say anything else. They were both aware that Albus’s stubbornness and pride were the real hurdles to that plan.
“They’ve got three positions opening up on the Slytherin team this year: Chaser, Seeker, and Keeper. I think I’m going to go for Seeker. That’s what my dad was and we’ve worked on it the most this summer,” Scorpius continued.
“Are you any good?” Albus wondered. Scorpius had often woken well before Albus during the time he’d spent at Malfoy Manor that summer. By the time Albus had risen for the day, Scorpius and his dad were done with practice and were usually waiting for him in the kitchen. Scorpius had always seemed too sheepish about it all to give him many details, but Albus felt now was a good time to ask, and he wasn’t wrong.
Scorpius smiled. “Not bad! I’ve only fallen from my broom twice! And I’ve caught the snitch 84% of the time, which is better than 0% of the time. So overall, I’m feeling pretty optimistic.”
“Well,” Albus joked. “If you can do it, there’s hope for me yet.”
“That’s the spirit!”
Their hands were still joined and Albus had the urge to wrap his arm around Scorpius’s waist. But before he could entertain the idea too seriously, a sudden splash towards their left drew both their eyes. Albus squinted at a dim, approaching shape.
“What is that?” Albus wondered. He pried his feet from the sand with a somewhat sickening squelch and then took a half-step forward, squinting harder into the moonlit landscape. “A dog? Did somebody’s dog wander off from camp?”
Scorpius took a half-step back. He dropped his hand from Albus’s and moved it to his shoulder, clenching hard.
“Albus. That is not a dog,” he breathed. He tightened his hand to the point of pain. “That’s a wolf.”
Albus stared. “Oh…yeah, I see that now, it’s got a…oh, sodding hell—it’s coming closer! We’re dead.”
“Deader than dead. Don’t move!” Scorpius exclaimed, his voice high in fright. “Don’t run. It’ll only chase us.”
“I…don’t think that’s the proper thing to do in this situation, Scorpius,” Albus hissed. His body was coiled tight with fear. He didn’t think he could’ve run even if he wanted to. “Playing dead is for bears…right?”
“Uh…er…erm…” Scorpius panicked. “I don’t know! I can’t remember! I don’t know if I’ve ever read a book about what to do if wolves attack! Why have I never read that book?!”
“Shh!” Albus cried. The wolf had noticed them without a doubt. Albus’s heart froze as it turned and began stalking their way. “Okay. New plan. Run!”
Albus grabbed Scorpius hand and gave him an almighty yank, tugging him forcefully along behind him. He sprinted down the beach, flecks of water and sand spattering high up his legs, and didn’t dare to stop. He didn’t even consider the fact that they both had their wands; running had seemed, instinctively, like the better option.
“James!” Albus screamed, waving his free arm overhead towards his brother. James looked up from the driftwood he was perched on. He peered into the distance, towards the rapidly approaching wolf (Albus could hear the noisy panting and the soft slaps of paws against wet sand), but seemed entirely indifferent.
“Hey, Al. You all right?”
“Wolf!” Scorpius shrieked. He overtook Albus at that point but refused to let go of his hand. Albus’s arm was yanked painfully as his shorter legs tried to keep up with Scorpius’s pace. They both tripped on a higher pile of sand near the spot James was (having been unable to see it in the dim light) and went sprawling face-first, earning a mouthful of sand.
This is it. We’re dead. Dead. As Scorpius said, deader than dead.
But James was howling with laughter. And the panting had stopped. Albus could still feel Scorpius’s hand, warm and sweaty in his, and that gave him the strength to sit up. He brushed the dry sand from his face and turned, peering around them. He didn’t understand. There was his eldest cousin, Victoire. Where had she come from? And most importantly—why was that same wolf curled up in her lap, half his massive body spilling out it, his chin turned contentedly towards the sky as she scratched behind his ears?
“Erm…” Scorpius squeaked. He half-crawled backwards away from the wolf, knocking back into Albus. “Victoire, is this your…pet? Because—because I think it’s important for you to know…wolves don’t make good pets. You can’t really domesticate them.”
Victoire was enjoying herself immensely. She shook her blonde hair out behind herself and laughed.
“No? Watch this.” She gently prodded the wolf’s back. “Make a sandcastle.”
Albus gaped as the wolf clambered off Victoire’s lap and immediately began digging in the sand. Only a minute or two later, and a distinct shape began to emerge.
“Erm…” Scorpius repeated.
Albus narrowed his eyes. He turned his gaze from the wolf, to Victoire’s star-filled eyes, to James’s hysterical laughter. He thought randomly to the five hour long conversation James had instigated about animagi the night Scorpius had arrived at the Potter household. He felt a chill race down his spine.
“Teddy?” he realized.
The wolf stopped immediately. Albus still flinched by instinct as it turned and trotted over. He grimaced as the wolf (Teddy?) gave a friendly and somewhat apologetic lick to the back of Albus’s free hand. Scorpius’s lips had parted.
“You’re a—you!” Albus was at a loss. That speechlessness only grew when Teddy transformed back into his human form, right in front of Albus’s eyes. His eyes were bulging. “You!!!”
“Sorry, Al,” Teddy told him. His hair shifted from electric blue to bright pink. “James blackmailed me. Are you all right?” Albus nodded numbly. He turned to Scorpius. “Are you all right? You look a bit clammy.”
Scorpius was still clinging weakly to Albus’s hand.
“Yes,” he squeaked, higher than normal. “Yes. Fine. I’m fine. You’re a…”
“Animagus. Been working on it for three years.”
“But…you’re not registered,” Albus blurted. “My dad’s going to—to arrest you!”
“Your dad’s not going to find out,” Teddy said brusquely. “I was going to register, but then I considered how beneficial it was for Sirius that he wasn’t registered, and I decided I’d do it a different way. I’d do it the way my dad’s best mates did it.”
“And how I’m going to do it!” James said proudly. “Like the first James and Sirius!”
Albus spun around. “What? Are you an idiot?”
James stuck his tongue out at Albus. Albus was initially taken aback by how childish it was, but then he noticed something small stuck to his brother’s tongue.
“Mandrake leaf! I’ve had it in my mouth for an entire month. Nora will be glad to be rid of it,” James said proudly. “It’s part of the process.”
“I don’t think this is a good idea…” Scorpius tried to say, but James cut him off.
“I didn’t bring you slithering Slytherins here to lecture me. I’ve heard that you’re exceptionally good at Potions, Al.”
“No? Who told you that?” Albus demanded. “I’m good at a potion. One! The Polyjuice Potion! And I’m not even good making it—just taking it!”
“Still, you have more experience with illegal potions than me. I never did get on well with Potions,” James continued. “Neither do Fred, Roxanne, or Dominique.”
Albus turned his focus onto his other cousins.
“Not you three, too!” He moaned, horrified.
In response, they stuck their tongues out, revealing a leaf each. He turned to Victoire, pleading. Thankfully, she shook her head.
“I’m not. No way. My Patronus is a butterfly," Victoire assured him. “And while it’s never been proven that you’re always what your Patronus is, I haven’t seen a case that disputes it, and I don’t want to end up splattered on some Muggle’s windshield.”
“The moon,” Scorpius said, realization dawning over his features. “This is the only night you could do the potion for probably another year or two. But how are you going to do it— you don’t have anything with you.”
“Moon? What about the moon?” Albus demanded.
“It’s a blue moon. The second full moon this month. This step of the process can only happen underneath a blue moon,” Dominique explained.
“And we’ve got everything we need with us. I nicked this off of Aunt Hermione,” James continued, pulling a tiny, beaded bag from his pocket. “It’s got an Undetectable Extension Charm. I’ve got everything we’ll need in here. I just need you to help with the potion.”
Albus backed up, shaking his head.
“No. No way. I’m not taking part in this! Why can’t Teddy help?! He’s obviously made it successfully once before!”
“Because I don’t approve of this,” Teddy said sourly. “I won’t tell on them, and I certainly won’t help them, so all I can do is hang around to try and keep them from maiming or killing themselves, both of which are likely to happen.”
Roxanne and Fred exchanged a look. “Cool!” they hissed.
“I can tell on them!” Albus cried. He glowered at James. “I can’t believe you stole from Aunt Hermione! I hope she finds out and thrashes you! No—I hope she finds out and makes you do all of Dad’s backed up paperwork!”
“Uh…” Scorpius tightened his grip on Albus’s hand and leaned over, hissing: “We stole from your Aunt Hermione last year, remember?”
“That was different!” Albus hissed back.
“You won’t tell,” James said, a mischievous grin in place, “because if you do, I’ll tell everyone—” he shot a pointed look at Scorpius. “—everything.” He winked.
A wave of panic washed over Albus. He felt a bit queasy.
“I don’t even know what you’re talking about,” Albus snapped, but he could hear the uncertainty in his own voice. In a fit of desperation, he pulled out the biggest weapon he had. “And…and…I’ll tell Mum! I’ll tell her you’re teasing me! And she’ll…hex your face off!”
James shrank back for a moment. They stared at each other, brother to brother, testing the waters. Who was bluffing? Who had more to lose? Albus wagered that losing one’s face was a pretty high price, but he also felt that the risk of losing his friendship with Scorpius was an even bigger one.
Before either could make the next gamble, a brilliant light distracted them both. They turned at once.
“Lily!” James snapped, his wary eyes on the prowling lion. “You idiot—you can’t keep doing that! You’ve still got the Trace on you!”
“The Minister is here, as well as loads of adult wizards and witches. They’ll never know it was me,” Lily said casually. She smiled fondly at the Patronus. “Besides, I love him. I’ve named him Fleamont. He’s my friend.”
“Lily, you’re not doing this, are you?” Scorpius spoke up, his voice nervous. “You’re too young.”
“No, she’s not!” James, Fred, Roxanne, and Teddy chorused fiercely.
“Over my literal dead body!” Teddy added. He had always been extremely protective of Lily, something Albus was grateful for in that moment. The last thing the world needed was Lily to be even more powerful than she already was, and the ability to morph into a lion whenever she wanted would certainly grant her more of it.
“She’s just watching with me,” Victoire reassured them all. “That’s all. Don’t yell at her. Come here, Lily.” Lily and ‘Fleamont’ walked over to Victoire. The Patronus faded and disappeared, but Lily didn’t seem to mind. She was cuddled warmly against Victoire’s side now. Albus scowled. He’d never understood why she was so coddled; she needed it less than any of them.
“So what do you say? Are you going to help me or not?” James asked. He stared hard at the side of Albus’s face until he finally turned, meeting James’s eyes. “If you don’t want to help, fine. I mean, you’ll just be giving the Slytherin house a bad name. But I’ll…respect that. But if you tell on me, I’ll make your life a living hell. Promise.”
Albus groaned. “Dad’ll kill me,” he breathed weakly.
“No, Dad’ll kill me, because I’ll tell him I threatened to ruin your life if you didn’t help. I promise I won’t let you take the fall if this turns sour. Please? Trust me, okay. I won’t mess this up. I won’t get caught. But if I do, I promise I won’t let you and Scorpius take any blame. Dad won’t be disappointed in you.”
Albus hesitated. Part of him wanted to agree eagerly because he’d really liked spending time with his brother again. He’d liked being his friend for the past day. He really wanted James to like him, to respect him. But he was worried. He was worried about James and his cousins. He was worried about what would happen to his parents if James died. He remembered how pale they’d looked when his life was in danger. What would happen if they actually lost one of their children?
He looked up at Teddy. “Are they properly prepared? Or acting like typical Gryffindors?”
“Typical Gryffindors,” the past Hufflepuff Head Boy answered. “But I will admit they’ve done their research.”
“And you’ll know if I mess something up? You’ll step in? You won’t let them get hurt?”
“Of course not. But I won’t help you get it right, either.” Teddy responded. “If the potion is done incorrectly, I won’t let them drink it.”
Albus turned and looked up at Scorpius, and then he turned and looked back at James and his cousins.
“Hang on,” he told them. He tugged Scorpius a few feet away from the group. “What should we do?”
Scorpius was chewing on his bottom lip. “I dunno. I mean, if Teddy is going to check everything, I guess there’s no risk in us helping. And it sounds like they’re going to do it with or without us. Best case scenario: we muck it up, waste their supplies, and they have to wait two years for the next blue moon.”
“Cunning. Clever. Spoken like a true Slytherin,” Albus complemented, surprised. “Worst case scenario?”
“Worst case? Teddy misses a mistake, they take it, and they get permanently stuck as half-human, half-animal creatures.”
Albus sucked in a breath. “So it’s a big one. A big risk.”
“I mean…it depends on how attached you are to James…”
Albus glowered James’s way. “Right now, not very. I wonder why they asked me. Lily is the Potions prodigy. Slughorn’s been begging to adopt her since her first Potions class.”
“I bet Lily refused to help if they wouldn’t let her do it, too,” Scorpius shared.
“Yeah, that sounds like Lily,” Albus shifted from foot to foot, anxious and uncertain. “What do you think?” He asked again.
“I have to decide?”
“Yes. You’re the level-headed one in our duo.”
Scorpius looked up at the sky as he thought.
“Well. We did want to have more friends this school year.”
“Yeah, but I didn’t exactly anticipate that committing a crime would be the stipulation…”
“In retrospect, Albus, you probably should’ve. Look at our track record. The last friend we made was Voldemort’s daughter and her friendship hinged on us, you know, conspiring to kill your dad and bring back hers. So. On the whole, we should be quite used to being used for evil gains.”
“True,” Albus nodded. And then, with a burst of what could only be explained as genetic Gryffindor fault, he squared his shoulders. “Sod it. Let’s do it. Let’s show them how good we are at illegal potions!”
Scorpius pumped his fist up into the air. “Yeah! All right!” He frowned a moment later. “Wait—illegal?” He trailed after Albus, his warm hand grasping his forearm. “Will we go to prison, Albus? Because I can’t go to prison. I can’t sleep on low-quality bedclothes…--”
“Fine,” Albus told James, “we’ll help. But we have some conditions.”
Scorpius’s voice in Albus’s ear:
“We do?” He hissed.
James hooted gleefully. “Brilliant! Okay, what do you want, Al?”
Albus hesitated. What did he want? He turned and looked down at Scorpius, whose eyes had grown wide.
“Er…one moment.” He pulled Scorpius back again.
“Okay, so, you told him we’d do it. Slight, minor detail. We can still back out. Tell him you meant to say...we won’t help?”
“No, we’re still doing it. But we need to get something from it. We aren’t going to work for free anymore,” Albus declared. “From now on, if we’re going to be used, we’re going to get payment.”
“Fine, okay, great, let’s just pop down to Azkaban and tell Delphi she owes us a thousand galleons.”
“No, I’ve got something better. C’mon.” Albus walked back to his brother, Scorpius following after. “Okay. James, if you make Head Boy this year, you’ve got to give Slytherin at least fifty points every week.”
James arched an eyebrow. “For what, exactly?”
Albus crossed his arms. “Because your little brother’s in it. Make things up. Ten points to McGinty for getting to class on time, ten to Malfoy for holding open a door—whatever. But I want fifty each week.”
“You are aware that if you win the House Cup because of this it’ll be cheating?”
“It’ll still be a win. The entire system’s corrupt, anyway.”
James appraised him with something akin to amused disbelief for a long moment. And then he laughed.
“Sure, all right! Deal. If you help with this potion, I’ll award your sneaky, snaky points.”
Albus looked at Scorpius for input.
“Er…decent. Okay.” James and Albus stared at him. “…I haven’t exactly decided how I feel about this yet. Ask me again in ten minutes, or after somebody loses a limb.”
Roxanne was less pleased. “Traitor,” she glowered at James.
He shot a cocky grin her way. “No worries, Roxie. I’ll just make sure to award Gryffindor fifty each week as well.”
Albus shrugged. “I’m not worried because Gryffindor loses about two hundred points each week on average. It’s turned into the pranking House and that’s to my advantage.”
James looked uncertain for a brief moment in time, but it passed quickly.
Between the steam wafting over his face and the pressure of Lily’s eyes boring into the back of his head, he was finding the experience decidedly unpleasant.
“Okay, good. Now…we drop one drop of bowtruckle blood, stir thirty-one times counterclockwise, add another drop facing north, stir twenty-one times clockwise…”
“Wait, slow down,” Albus pleaded. He sat back on his legs, sweating and feeling prickly anxiety surging through his veins. “That was thirty-one and then twenty-one?”
“Er…” Scorpius nervous flipped back to that page. His light brow furrowed as he re-read. “Right! Thirty-one counterclockwise, twenty-one clockwise, eleven counterclockwise, then one clockwise…”
“Okay.” Albus said. He was hyper aware of his cousins’ eyes on him. He struggled to appear composed and confident. “Of course, perfect.”
Sodding hell. Sodding hell. What am I doing?
“Okay…got the bowtruckle blood…one drop…like so…” he held his breath as the drop released from the dropper. It splashed atop the potion, and at once, it turned into a brilliant emerald. He turned and looked up at Scorpius hopefully. “Emerald?”
“Emerald! Though, it says there should be ‘streaks of red’?” Scorpius lowered the book and leaned forward, peering with Albus at the potion. It was stubbornly green. “Right…maybe it gets the streaks after we stir?”
“Maybe. Yeah. Let’s try that.” Albus agreed.
Infuriatingly enough, Lily cleared her throat from behind them.
“Al,” she sang. “Al, you made a mistake.”
“Shut up, Lily, I did not.”
But he felt like somebody had just dropped an ice cube down the back of his shirt. And his stomach clenched. Because it really should’ve had red streaks by now.
“You did so, and I know what it was," she continued.
Scorpius bounced over to her eagerly. He turned the book towards her. “What was it?”
“Sorry. My expertise doesn’t come free. You have to let me take some of the potion if I tell you.”
“No!” James glared.
“No.” Teddy said.
Lily looked a bit taken aback. She frowned.
“Fine,” she shrugged. “Mess it up. See if I care.”
Everybody was beginning to look earnestly nervous now. Scorpius was examining the book like it held the secrets to the universe, his bottom lip pulled between his teeth again. Albus was momentarily distracted by the sight of him: brow furrowed, cheeks flushed, lip bitten…
“Albus!” James snapped. “Stop ogling Scorpius! What did you mess up on?”
Albus jumped, mortified. “I-I’m not—I dunno! I did the drop, I put the correct number of unicorn hairs in, I just…” he trailed off, his eyes on the dropper. Was it a half-drop dropper? He dove forward so quickly that he slammed his head into the cauldron. He saw bright lights from the force of it, and before he could steady himself, he went sprawling down into the dirt.
“Albus!” Scorpius exclaimed. “Albus—there’s a cauldron there!”
There was a dull thunk as Scorpius threw himself down beside Albus. He felt one hand brush down his back and another settle on the back of his head. “Are you okay?!”
Albus sort of wanted to lie there for hours with Scorpius’s hands on him. But he felt that might be a bit ineffective. He slowly sat up, his forehead throbbing madly. He winced and pressed his palm over it. Scorpius batted his hand away and then inched closer to Albus. He grasped his face in his warm hands, peering hard into his eyes.
“Albus,” he said. “Repeat after me: owl, sparrow, lion, dog, cat.”
“Name five animals that start with the letter A!”
Scorpius paled. He gripped Albus’s face firmly and pulled it closer to his own. Albus could feel his breath against his lips now. His cheeks burned.
“I think you’ve got a concussion…and a fever, you’re burning up!”
Surprisingly, James interrupted before Albus could actually perish from embarrassment.
“He’s fine; he’s just a stupid git. He couldn’t name five animals that start with A even before the hit to his head. He’s fine to keep working. Right, Al?”
James glowered. Albus—feeling quite dizzy and a bit nauseated—nodded back shakily. Scorpius wasn’t convinced.
“No…I don’t know, James. I think we should take him back.” He reached up and pried one of Albus’s eyelids up. “His eyes look a bit wonky.”
“No! They always look like that! He’s almost done!”
“He’s not!” Scorpius cried, outraged. “We’re only a page in! There’s fourteen more!”
“That’ll only take a bit longer!”
“Albus, do you feel like continuing?” Scorpius demanded. Albus gave his head a tiny shake; pain pierced along his skull as he did so. A thought occurred to him.
“Ant. Ant, Scorpius. That counts, right?”
Scorpius’s face fell. He turned to look at James.
“I’m taking him back to the adults.”
“Victoire is training to be a Healer!” James remembered. He spun around, his eyes searching for Victoire. “Vic, come check on him!”
But Victoire was eerily silent, standing far off from the group, her expression intense.
“What?” Teddy asked his girlfriend immediately.
Roxanne, Fred, and Dominique, who’d been carefully setting out the ingredients they’d need for the next steps in order, froze. And then Albus heard it, too. Giggling. Snapping branches. Low voices.
“Who’s this far out?” Roxanne hissed.
They’d disappeared into a thick grove of trees to make the potion, certain that nobody would be that far out from any other campsite. Which meant it had to be somebody from their campsite. But even then, why would they be sneaking around these woods?
“Be…very…still…” Dominique told them all, through gritted teeth.
Immediately, everybody froze. Albus wasn’t even sure if they were breathing. He looked around nervously as the noises grew closer and closer. His heart stopped when he realized that, whoever it was, they were going to walk right into their little clearing, and there was nothing they could do about it. And it only got worse.
“Wait—,” a familiar voice said, pausing mid-laugh. Albus, Lily, and James exchanged dismayed glances. “I think I hear something.”
The footsteps stopped. Albus’s dad spoke next.
“Yeah, I do, too. It sounds like…bubbling?”
They looked at the bubbling cauldron. Before anybody could make any real efforts towards getting rid of it, the Potter parents stepped into the clearing, pink-cheeked and a bit disheveled. Everybody froze.
Albus looked at Ginny. And then—with intense trepidation—he looked at Harry. Both Harry and Ginny scanned their eyes slowly over the group of panicked children, landing at last on the cauldron and the book lying face-down on the dirt, the spine clearing broadcasting The Art of Animagi: How to Become an Animagus in Two Short Years, Guaranteed!
“Run,” Fred hissed through the corner of his mouth. “Save yourselves. Run!”
At once, everybody but Albus and Scorpius dove in opposite directions, scattering towards the trees. Harry bellowed an incantation Albus had never heard before. Everybody slammed into an invisible barrier and went falling backwards onto their bottoms, groaning.
His mum seemed taller than usual. The leaves in her tangled hair somehow didn’t hinder her imposing presence even a bit. She drew herself up and ground her teeth.
“Who?” She snarled.
Immediately, nearly everybody’s fingers pointed at James, who huffed.
“You lot are the worst bunch of Gryffindors I’ve ever met!” He cried. “What happened to bravery?!”
Roxanne backed up, her eyes on Ginny’s wand. “We’re brave; we’re not suicidal.”
Everybody waited with bated breath to see what would happen. Harry looked like he’d been kicked in the bollocks. Ginny was gnashing her teeth. And then—
“Who the bloody hell is the wolf?!” Harry demanded. It seemed to hit him a second later. “Edward Lupin!”
The wolf turned and began pawing at the invisible barriers, but was unable to make any more progress than his human form had. Accepting his fate, he slinked over, his tail between his legs. He gently nudged Harry’s hand and peered up at him with true puppy-dog eyes.
“We’ll have words later, you and I,” Harry said coolly. And then: “Sit.” Teddy whined and then lowered down onto the ground at Harry’s feet. He gave a heavy sigh.
Meanwhile, Ginny was stamping her way across the clearing. Roxanne darted behind Fred, who darted behind Dominique, who darted behind Victoire. Lily stood her ground. But it was James she was headed for.
“James Sirius Potter!” She shrieked, and then she grabbed his ear. James sighed up at the sky, grimacing in discomfort, his body bent at the waist to accommodate his mother’s shortness. Ginny released his ear a moment later, though her eyes were blazing. “This is by far the stupidest thing you’ve ever done!”
James parted his lips to argue (or perhaps remind Ginny of something worse he’d done), but their mum waved her wand forwards, furious. James immediately became mute. He opened his mouth soundlessly and then glowered at their mum. In a fit of frustration, he made a very rude hand gesture. Albus recoiled in horror, but Harry beat Ginny to it; he was towering over James in a second, the living embodiment of rage.
“Apologize! I don’t ever want to see you disrespecting your mum like that again!” Harry boomed.
James arched an eyebrow and then pointed at his throat.
“Mime it, I don’t care how, just apologize!”
They all watched with repressed laughter as James attempted to mime out I’m sorry, Mum. When Harry felt his apology was sufficient, he stepped back. Ginny seemed reluctant to take off the silencing charm but did a moment later.
“We didn’t do it!” James burst, as soon as his ability to speak was returned to him. “Teddy’s the only one who completed the process, and we had nothing to do with that! And he wasn’t helping us! He was just…supervising!”
“Yeah, well, he wasn’t stopping you either, was he?” Harry pointed out. He scanned the rest of them, his eyes landing once on Albus, and then trailing back to him. “What’s wrong with Albus?!”
Ginny spun around immediately, her eyes searching their small group. Scorpius spoke up bravely.
“He’s hurt. He hit his head really hard on the cauldron. He needs to be looked over.”
Harry and Ginny locked eyes. She nodded. As she hurried over to Albus, Harry ordered the rest of the kids.
“I want everybody to go back to the campsite. You are going to tell your parents exactly what you’ve been attempting to do. Teddy, you can tell Bill what you were helping Dominique to do. And rest assured that I will be checking with everybody tomorrow to find out what stories you’ve told. Go. Not you two, James and Lily! You stay here.”
They groaned. Albus listened to the sounds of his cousins sulking off. His mum’s soft hands prodded gently at his forehead a moment later, drawing a cry from his lips.
“Sorry—you’ve got quite the bump. What happened?”
Albus closed his eyes as his mum inspected his wound, listening as Scorpius calmly told them everything.
“Dad—don’t!” James shrieked.
“Are you seriously asking me not to vanish your illegal potion?” Harry breathed. James didn’t dare say another word in protest.
“—and then we agreed to help, and I knew we shouldn’t, but I like James and Roxanne and Dominique and—well, everybody really. And…I didn’t want them to hate me. So Albus and I tried to help, but we weren’t doing that great of a job. And then you two arrived," Scorpius finished.
“Two hours. We leave you kids alone for two hours and you try to become animagi!”
“Just James,” Albus spoke up. “They wouldn’t let Lily.”
“Oh, well, thank Merlin for small miracles!” His mum snapped.
“Mum,” James whined. “What is my punishment?”
“I don’t know yet. I’m going to think on it for a long while until I come up with something appropriately horrible. Up, now. Back to camp.”
“Mum, I’d rather you hex me, honestly,” James pleaded. “Just get it over with…we’ll call it even…just lash out in your anger…I know you want to…my face is pleading for a bat-bogey hex…”
“You know what I’d like? I’d like to be able to spend an hour with your dad without worrying that you’re going to set yourself on fire, or dismember yourself, or transform yourself into an Elk! That’s what I’d really like. Get moving.”
“Please hex me, Mum, please…” James continued. Everybody knew that a hex would pale in comparison to whatever punishment their parents would come up with if they were given time to really think it through. Ginny hauled Albus gently to his feet. Scorpius quickly wrapped an arm around his waist. Albus felt okay to walk on his own, but he kept that to himself. He leaned against Scorpius as they began the walk back to camp. James continued his whining the entire walk, but their mum steadily ignored him. She broke as they entered the campsite.
“James! I have not ever and will not ever hex my children! But if you don’t stop and get yourself to bed, I’ll sell your broomstick. I swear I will.”
James widened his eyes. He took off running towards the tent a second later. Ginny spun around.
“Lily, Albus, and Scorpius. Explain why nobody thought to tell on them.”
Albus was quick to throw James to the dogs. “James threatened me, Mum! He said that he would tell…” he trailed off. He darted his eyes to Scorpius, hoping his mum would somehow understand. And she must’ve. Because her expression grew even steelier a second later. “But I wanted to tell. I did!”
“He did!” Scorpius chimed in.
“Yeah, he did. Because he’s a snaky—”
“Lily, that’s quite enough from you, and frankly, you lot have made me ashamed to be a Gryffindor. Why is it that the only two not trying to become illegal animagi were the only two non-Gryffindors?” Harry demanded.
“I wasn’t going to take the potion—” Lily tried.
“Not for lack of trying, I’m sure,” Ginny said dryly.
“Teddy was a Hufflepuff and he—”
“Teddy is an adult! He did it illegally, and he’ll have to answer for that in some way, but he is an adult! You are a child!”
“I am not a child! I’m a man!” James shrieked from the tent. Ginny jabbed her wand forward; the tent zipped up in front of James’s face.
“Ginny! Magic!” Gran yelled.
His mum glanced Gran’s way, her jaw set. “Not the time, Mum!”
Albus became aware of the other sets of bickering parents and children. He drew his arms around himself and wondered when their happy family holiday had turned into this. Sodding James. But then he felt a brief sting of guilt because it wasn’t really all James’s fault. He heaved a sigh and looked up.
They looked at him at once.
“It wasn’t just James, you know. Roxanne, Dominique, and Fred were co-conspirers. They’ve been carrying Mandrake leaves in their mouths for a month, too.”
Better to throw them all to the wolves instead of just James. Harry and Ginny looked at him and then at each other. A long moment passed, in which they seemed to have an entire conversation without any words whatsoever. And then they looked back at Albus.
“Thanks for being honest, Al. You and Scorpius can go back to the tent. You too, Lily.”
Albus hesitated. He stuck his hand into his pocket and fingered the bits of sea glass he’d grabbed before they’d retreated to the woods. He approached his mum.
“Here, Mum,” he said. He held his fist out, and when she opened her hand beneath it, he let the soft blue sea glass fall into her opened palm. She stared at it.
“You asked us to bring you sea glass,” Albus reminded her, beginning to feel a bit nervous. Should he have waited? But she softened completely a beat later. Albus let out a relieved breath when she gathered him into her arms. She gently kissed his wounded forehead.
“Thank you, Al," she told him. “It was sweet of you to remember.”
He smiled. She closed her fingers around the sea glass fondly. “Go on towards the tent, all right?”
“Okay. ‘Night, Mum.”
A smile and a term of endearment. He was definitely saved. Scorpius waited until they were completely out of earshot, and then he nudged Albus.
“Skillful with a perfect delivery—10 out of 10, clever Albus strikes again!”
“I really did get that sea glass for her, before I even knew we were in trouble.”
“Oh, I know,” Scorpius assured him. “But you can’t deny your timing was perfectly cunning.”
“Well, we didn’t do anything. We should be her favorites for the rest of the holiday,” Albus said stubbornly.
“Yeah, I agree.” Scorpius nodded seriously. He looked concerned a moment later. “But they won’t send James to prison, right?”
Albus laughed. “Nah, they’ll be over it by morning. They just wanted to frighten him out of ever trying it again, I’ll bet.”
“Oh, good.” Scorpius said, relieved.
Albus woke well into the night (or, rather, the early morning). For a moment, he was unsure what had woken him. And then he heard the sound of his grandad whistling from outside of the tent.
He drifted in and out of sleep for a few more minutes, but hunger was nagging painfully at his stomach, and he knew he wouldn’t be able to drift back off. With a quick look at both Scorpius and James—who were both still sleeping deeply—he dropped from his bed and padded lightly across the carpet. His grandad was probably getting things ready to start breakfast. He hoped he was still out there by the time he made it outside; after Albus’s hectic night, he could’ve used a quiet hour or two with his grandad, who was always steady and calm no matter the weather.
He shut the door to the bedroom behind him, tiptoeing quietly down the small hall, past Lily’s room, and then out into the main living area. He’d made it halfway in when he heard noises from inside his parents’ room. He paused, hesitating. Eavesdrop or continue out? He was going to continue on, but then he realized it was laughter, and he was too intrigued not to check it out. He inched across the room by-by-bit. He slowly sank down and sat just beside the closed door. Thankfully, the magical tent didn’t include any sound insulation.
“—I’m not surprised. Honestly, nothing they do surprises me.” It was his Aunt Angelina. She was laughing, too.
“That’s because you know the full extent of what Fred and I got up to when we were their age,” George pointed out. He sounded completely chuffed. “I think it’s brilliant. I mean—I didn’t tell them that, of course—but good for them! They’ve got some initiative!”
“I think it’s horrid!” Aunt Hermione whispered. Her tone was drenched with horror. “They could’ve severely maimed themselves!”
“I don’t even know what to think,” Harry said, around peals of laughter. Albus heard the unmistakable sound of his mum laughing along, as well as Uncle Ron. “You should’ve seen their faces. They really, truly thought they were going to get away with it. Those four kept Mandrake leaves in their mouths for a month. An entire month!”
“Well, Teddy did get away with it! What are you going to do about that?” Uncle Bill asked. He sounded a bit cross.
“Hermione and I decided we’re going to get him registered immediately. We’ll play it off as a paperwork issue.”
“I’m not happy about it, though,” Aunt Hermione piped up. “I think the rules ought to apply evenly to everybody. Even if their godfather is Harry Potter.”
“Oh, don’t mind her,” Uncle Ron sighed. “She’s been on this…netipot--”
“Nepotism!” Aunt Hermione interjected, sternly.
“—nepotism kick. She thinks I’m making Rose prejudiced," Uncle Ron scoffed. “So now suddenly everybody has to follow the same rules. Since when has that ever applied to any of us?”
“To be fair, Ron, your daughter did bully my son for years,” Albus’s mum said, her laughing tone giving way to something a bit cooler.
“She didn’t bully him—she just…chose different company," Uncle Ron said.
“Don’t you two start,” Uncle Bill said sternly.
Albus’s mum gave another laugh. “I just wish you lot had been there. James was begging me to hex him rather than plot another punishment.”
“What are we going to choose for his punishment?” Harry asked.
Ginny snorted. “That was the punishment. He’s going to spend the rest of the holiday terrified over what is coming. But nothing’s coming.” A pause. “I adore him, but he can be really thick sometimes. Harry and I were looking through the book earlier, and that potion would’ve taken hours to set up. What did they think—we wouldn’t notice them disappearing for the entire night?”
“They were probably hoping you’d drink enough firewhiskey not to notice,” Aunt Angelina pointed out.
“Angelina, isn’t Roxanne’s Patronus a mole or—”
“A fox! She wanted to spend her spare time prowling around England as a fox! It’s like she’s begging to get shot!”
Harry snorted. “And can you imagine James if he’d succeeded? He would transform every time you turn around, getting his antlers stuck going into doorways, knocking people over…a nightmare. It’d be a nightmare.”
The adults all burst into poorly stifled laughter. Ginny quickly shushed them.
“Hush, you lot—the kids can’t know we find this hilarious. I think I properly frightened James for once and I don’t want to ruin that, lest he tries again next blue moon.”
Albus heard the sound of the bed creaking.
“We’d better head out. I think Dad’s ready to begin breakfast, and Fleur’s probably wondering where I am,” Uncle Bill said.
Footsteps started towards the doorway. Albus quickly bolted from the tent, running blindly out towards the main fire. His grandad looked up.
“Albus!” He cried, elated. “You’re up early!”
“Morning, Grandad! I came to…help with breakfast!” Albus said.
His grandad beamed hugely. When he pulled Albus in for a quick hug, the affection coming off his grandad made him feel like he’d done something bigger than he actually had. He helped him get the kettle going, a peaceful silence settled over them. A silence that was broken as the adults left the Potters’ tent.
“Albus?” Harry asked, confused.
“Morning, Dad,” Albus said. He turned back to the fire. He beamed when it surged, growing brighter. “I think I’ve got it, Grandad!”
His grandad clapped his shoulder. “You do, Albus, fabulous! Fabulous!”
All of his siblings and cousins (except for Lucy and Rose) were still asleep. Albus was sitting between his mum and dad, sipping scalding tea that was too weak.
“Al?” His mum asked softly.
He looked up at his mum. She studied his eyes, her brown eyes full of concern.
“If you ever wanted to talk—you know, about Scorpius, or anything really—I’m here. And I care. And I always want to listen. And I think I would understand.”
He bowed forward. He took a deep, awkward sip of his tea. His mum continued.
“I know it can be difficult to feel like the person you like doesn’t really see you. Or sees you in the wrong light.”
“But,” Harry interjected. He looked nearly as uncomfortable about this as Albus felt. “I can say, from experience, that often times that person does see you in the same way. It just takes time for them to come around.”
He didn’t know how they knew. And he wanted to dig a hole into the dirt beneath his feet and crawl into it at the notion that they did. But oddly, it helped. It helped that he didn’t have to tell them anything. It was one less thing he needed to worry about, and he was thankful for that.
“I dunno if it even matters," he finally told them. Talking about this to his parents was difficult, in general, but to his dad especially so. Their relationship was much better than it was the year prior, but it still felt a bit unstable at times.
“Because of Rose?” His mum asked knowingly.
Albus balked. “How do you know so much about this?”
“I’m clever," she dismissed. “I don’t think you need to worry about Rose. I’m sure Scorpius does have a crush on the idea of her, but he doesn’t…look at her the way he looks at you. And things like that can’t be fabricated. Besides, from what I hear, Rose and Scorpius aren’t even friends.”
“They might be soon, though,” he said miserably. “Scorpius is going to try out for the Quidditch team this year. He’s been practicing all summer. And once he’s on the team, he and Rose will have loads in common. And I’ll be all alone because I’m rubbish.” He kicked the ground moodily. “Brooms don’t listen to me. They don’t like me.”
“You’re great at muggle football, though,” his dad pointed out, completely missing the point.
“You say that almost like you want to be good at Quidditch,” his mum mused carefully. “I thought you hated it now.”
He shrugged. He kicked at the ground again, this time scuffing the toe of his trainers.
“Because if you didn’t hate it, if you wanted to try out for the team, I could have you ready in a week.”
He burst into laughter; he couldn’t help it.
“Mum, you have seen me on a broom, haven’t you?”
“Yes. And I’ve seen the difference it makes when you believe in yourself. You were a really decent flier before Hogwarts, Al. I dunno what happened there. But before you started worrying about what people thought of you, you flew just fine.”
He didn’t say anything.
“You need to want to do it, though. Don’t take up a hobby just because you’re worried about Rose and Scorpius.”
He let the silence stew for a few moments, and then he looked up at his mum. Her hair seemed brighter underneath the rising sun.
“I don’t know what I want, Mum,” he admitted. He hated how torn his voice sounded. “I just know that…it makes my stomach hurt. When they’re together. And it makes me feel miserable.”
“Like a monster’s inside of you, ripping away at things it ought not to rip at?” His dad suggested lightly.
Albus’s head flew in Harry’s direction.
“Yeah, you could say that, actually,” he realized.
“Mmm, yeah, I’ve felt that before. Awful feeling," he agreed. “But the good news is that it doesn’t last forever. Either you get the girl—er, boy—or you move on. What you’re feeling now will pass. You’ll be just fine, no matter what.”
It took a moment, but as his dad’s words seeped in, he realized that that’s what he needed to hear. His heart lightened. He gave his dad a surprised smile.
“That—Dad, that really helped." He could hear his own astonishment.
His dad’s eyes widened. “Wait, what? Seriously?”
Albus nodded. “Yeah. I feel less sick. You really made me feel better!”
Harry laughed, overjoyed. “I said the right thing!”
“Yeah! You did!” Albus agreed, his dad’s joy contagious. He laughed along with him. “Great job, Dad!”
“Yeah!” His dad cried, and before either of them really thought it through, their palms met halfway in a hard high-five that left Albus’s hand stinging.
“Cute,” Ginny commented fondly. “My cute, emotionally stunted boys. I’ll leave you to it.”
They ignored her. “Thanks, Dad,” Albus said sincerely.
“Thank you!” Harry shot back. “For—you know. Letting me be your dad.”
The long-awaited awkward silence settled in, but Albus didn’t mind it so much. He looked back at his dad.
“I’m sorry. About last night. I should’ve told you immediately.”
Harry sighed. “The truth is…I wouldn’t’ve if I were in your shoes. So I understand. I even understand why James did it.”
Albus gave it a shot. “It’s a bit funny, though. Right?”
Harry snorted. He leaned in closer. “Yeah, more than a bit funny. But don’t tell your mum I told you that. We’re all supposed to pretend to be really angry until dinner tonight.”
Albus laughed. He glanced back over towards his mum. His heart lurched when he spotted Scorpius, his eyes still a bit sleepy, talking cheerfully to her. Albus beamed at him, and Scorpius must’ve sensed his gaze, because he looked over a second later. His smile met Albus’s.
“Well,” Harry stood. “I’ll leave you to it. We’re all going down to the beach today. And then there are rumors about a massive football match…though there’s already talk that you’re an ‘unfair advantage’ to Team Potter, so we’ll see what happens.”
His dad walked off a few seconds before Scorpius walked up. He sat down beside Albus.
“What adventures await us today?” He asked eagerly.
Perhaps it was the slight caffeine from his tea kicking in. Perhaps it was residual joy from having an actual, successful communication with his dad. Perhaps it was the subconscious memory of how happy he’d made his grandad that morning. Whatever it was—something spurred Albus to reach over and pull Scorpius into a hug.
“Right,” Scorpius mumbled, his mouth pressed against Albus’s shoulder. “We do this now. All the time. I really like it, this.”
Albus’s heart swelled alarmingly. “Me too. I really like this, too.”
Scorpius tentatively wrapped his arms around him, too. He squeezed tightly. Albus countered by squeezing him tighter. Scorpius laughed into his shirt.
“This is not the hug of losers!” He wheezed proudly, though he was clearly having difficulty inflating his lungs. “You’re—going—to—kill me—with—love! It’s okay…I mean—I can’t – breathe – but no—this is nice—”
Albus quickly loosened his arms. It didn’t pass his notice that Scorpius said love instead of friendship. He was positively glowing in response.
“Sorry,” Albus beamed.
“No,” Scorpius said. He rubbed over his ribs. He smiled. “It’s a good hurt.”
Was Scorpius blushing too? Or were his cheeks pink from having the air squeezed from him? For once, Albus dared to hope that it was the first.
“I’m really glad you’re here,” Albus admitted. He hadn’t planned on saying the words, but they went along perfectly with the feelings of affection and gratitude that had risen within him.
“I’m really glad I’m here. It feels right to be here. Like it’s where I’m meant to be. And that’s a big deal…because I don’t ever feel like I belong anywhere.”
They both turned and looked in opposite directions, but Albus was sure that they were both smiling.