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oh, i'm gonna let the future in

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Al has never been the smartest of people. Part of that, he knows, is due to the never-ending list of talents that his family members possess. It seems as if every single one of them is special, clever; they’re all uniquely brilliant.

For instance, Rose is smart, but also wild, full of exciting facts about dragons and explosive spells. She soaks up knowledge like a bright red sponge and spouts facts to anyone with a pair of ears. Hugo speaks seven languages fluently, cooks delicious gourmet meals and tutors struggling students. Roxanne sings like an angel, and can coax melodies from even the most stubborn instruments. Freddie has a passion for potions that borders on obsession. Dominique might have dropped out of Hogwarts, but she joined one of the most prestigious Quidditch Teams in the world, and her grades were always effortlessly high anyway.

Al speaks English, and sings off-key in the shower. Nobody calls Al dumb to his face, but nobody was surprised when he came home every summer with T’s to his name. They sighed a bit, and rolled their eyes, and patted his head. They were used to it, expected it, even. It had been embarrassing. Even Al’s dad, whom Aunt Hermione often says was oblivious and lazy when it came to schoolwork, managed to scrape the necessary grades for Auror training.

Not to mention the fact that he defeated the darkest wizard known to the magical world.

Al is twenty now, and school is a happy three years behind him. No more accidental potion explosions because he has trouble following the instructions. No more awkward, embarrassing moments where he stutters through the wrong answer to the teacher’s question. No more bad grades. Just a simple office job in the Ministry, filing reports that he doesn’t have to write, and a brand new studio apartment.

It’s small, his apartment, but it’s on the top floor of a set of flats overlooking Diagon Alley, and the rent is cheap enough that Albus doesn’t care about the size. It’s not as if anyone will be joining him, anyway. Louise is on holiday in France for the term, visiting his Mother’s family, and the only other close friend that Al has is Scorpius Malfoy, who’s a curse breaker. He’s a bloody good one, too, but that makes him highly requested, so his work takes him all over the world.

A box collides with his back and jolts Al out of his contemplation. He wheels around, flicks his wand and the procession of boxes makes its way reluctantly through the flat. Some pile up by the doors, and one temperamental box empties itself all over the living room floor. Al sighs, watches his socks make a bid for freedom, and then goes to find the kettle.

*

All things considering, Al’s life is pretty quiet. His flat is a newer model in the lower parts of Diagon Alley, all white walls and clean cream carpets. It smells of paint and the green tea that Al is particularly fond of, the kind that soothes his late night headaches. He has a few neighbours that mostly spare him a few curious glances in the morning as he fetches his mail, but otherwise they leave him alone. His best friend, his only friend outside of the family, is gone more often than not, spending his time digging up Ancient Curses in the pits of Cairo with Al’s Uncle Bill. Scorpius calls roughly once a month to yell excitedly about his latest find, pester him with questions regarding Rose’s latest boyfriend and then squeeze in a few platitudes before vanishing from the Floo.

“And what about this Rose?” Al shifts uncomfortably in his seat and watches the way that Duncan’s eyes narrow. “She’s your cousin, isn’t she?”

Rose is his cousin, but despite all expectation, they never developed the kind of friendship that their family assumed they would. Rose is firm and fierce and strong-willed, with a passion for Dragonology that had sparked their Uncle Charlie’s interest. He had recruited her right out of school, which she had blazed through with flying colours, and she had spent the last half a year in Romania, dodging Aunt Hermione’s calls about when she was going to come home and start a proper, sensible job. She’s loud and impressive, and Al doesn’t hate her, but he does hate how easily all of this comes to her.

“One of many,” Al replies. He plays with the Muggle puzzle in his hands, a cubic mechanism covered with different coloured squares. Duncan Grey’s desk is littered with odd toys and stress balls and pencils, just in case Al wants to write something down or doodle. There’s also a plaque, stating his doctorate, and his title as one of the leading therapist’s in the United Kingdom.

“You have a big family.” It’s not a question, so Al doesn’t bother answering it. Everyone in the Wizarding World knows that the Weasley-Potter-Delacour-Lovegood-Longbottom etc family is big and loud and impressive. It’s those things that Al takes issue with. He’s small and quiet and ordinary, despite the magic and the legacy that supposedly runs in his veins.

Duncan sighs and places his clipboard down on the table. He laces his fingers together and looks at Al over his hands, eyes firm but kind.

“I’m not going to beat around the bush, Albus,” he says. “I know how expensive these sessions are, and we’ve made no real progress since you told me about your headaches last week. Recovery is a long, slow process, and I don’t want to rush you. The last thing I want to do is pressure you or put you back a few paces. But I think we both know what is at the heart of your particular problems, and unless you talk about it, then I’m not entirely sure how much use I’ll be to you.”

Carefully, Al places the cube down on the table. Then he shifts it two inches to the right and brushes some invisible lint off of his trousers with his thumb. The clock ticks in the background and Duncan sighs and leans back in his chair with a squeak of leather.

“You don’t like to talk about your family,” Duncan states plainly. “I’d like to know why, when you think you’re ready.”

Al wrings his hands together. “It’s not that I don’t want to talk about them,” he says, although that isn’t quite true. “It’s just that I don’t know what to say. You know I’m not that good with words.”

Duncan nods, his expression keen. “You’re much better than you think you are. Besides, that’s nothing to be ashamed of. It doesn’t matter if you stutter or stumble, just as long as you try.”

Al nods slowly. He thinks of Freddie, one of the brightest and loudest of people that Al knows, the boy with all the pranks and all of the ideas, the one with what Muggles call Dyslexia.

“Freddie has Dyslexia,” Al tells Duncan, haltingly. “He’s, ah, another cousin. Older than me. My brother’s best friend. We all found out during his NEWT year. He had a break-down, told everyone that he’d been cheating for most of his school year, leeching off of classmates and friends because it was so – so hard for him to read. Then they took him to the hospital and to a few therapists. Got him diagnosed with Dyslexia.”

“Dyslexia is quite a common disability that affects people’s ability to read,” Duncan states. It’s the one thing that Al hates about his therapist – he always sounds like he’s reading a script from a book, like his advice is pre-meditated.

“I know,” Al says quietly. “And I don’t have it.”

Duncan raises an eyebrow. “Would you like to have that disability?”

Al shakes his head, frustrated as he thinks of a way to explain. He rubs a hand over his face and Duncan makes a small, soothing sound.

“It’s alright, Albus,” Duncan says patiently. “Take your time.”

Al breathes out sharply through his mouth and takes a deep, calm breath in through his mouth, like Duncan taught him. Breathing techniques don’t usually help when he’s on the brink of a panic attack, or in the midst of an episode, but they have their uses. It helps, sometimes, to clear his head and help him focus.

“I don’t want the disability,” Al says. “Any disability, really. I’d just like a reason beyond…”

Duncan leans forward. “Beyond what?”

Al bites his lip and then releases it. It’s taken weeks to curb the habit of biting through the skin on his lip, weeks for the small cuts to heal. He’s not about to relapse just because he’s having a stressful day.

“Beyond just being me,” Al says miserably, because that’s not the real answer, not the words he wants to say, but he can’t find the right ones, the ones that would help him explain it properly. He doesn’t want to be Dyslexic, but nobody expects Freddie to be able to read well, or quickly. He has a reason, a proper one. He isn’t stupid, he’s disabled. “Something that isn’t just me being who I am.”

He feels awful. He feels even more stupid – here he is, saying that he wants what Freddie struggles with every day, and it makes the guilt in his stomach tighten until he feels sick.

Duncan nods at him, but his face is impassive. A small trilling sound echoes from Duncan’s bag, and a flicker of irritation passes through the other man’s eyes. “You’ve made a good start today, Al. Unfortunately, our time is up for the day, but I’d like you to take something away from this session. If possible, I’d like to write down any negative thoughts you have about your family as you encounter them. As much information as you can handle. Maybe keep a small notebook and a pen with you, do you think you can do that for me?”

*

A week after he finishes moving in, Al bumps into his neighbour. There are three bags in his grip, each one crammed full of groceries, and Al is actually looking forward to a calm evening of cleaning and cooking and paperwork. He didn’t get the grades to be an Auror, but his father assures him that the amount of paperwork they have to do is at least equal to Al’s load. That doesn’t really cheer Al up.

His neighbour eyes him shrewdly. She’s an old woman, probably about fifty, and her grey hair is pinned up in bright pink curlers. She has a long green cardigan over her hunched shoulders and a pair of pink slippers on her feet.

“Let me get that for you,” Al offers, pocketing his keys as he bends down to retrieve the newspaper and milk bottles that are cluttering up the doormat. He leaves the bags on his doorstep, which is right next to the woman’s.

“Lost your wand, boy?” the old woman enquires. She has a husky voice, scratchy, as if she’s smoked ten cigars a day for most of her life.

“Uh,” Al says. “No? But my hands are free. Seems a waste not to use them.”

The woman regards him for a moment and then lets out an abrupt snort of laughter. She shuffles backwards out of the way, beckoning him inside, and Al follows her after only a moment’s hesitation. She seems harmless enough, although you can never be too sure.

“You can put the milk in the fridge, boy, and I’ll have the newspaper here.”

Al does as she says. She has the same kind of not-to-be-argued-with tone as Grandma Weasley. Al puts the milk away in the fridge, and frowns at the Tupperware boxes inside. There’s nothing fresh, and all of the food seems to be for one person.

“My name’s Al,” Al says, as he hands over the newspaper.

“Betsy,” Betsy replies, lowering herself into a tartan armchair. She opens up the newspaper, and disappears behind it. Al stands a little awkwardly in front of her and scuffs the toe of his shoe against the worn carpet. After a few long seconds, Al shrugs to himself and heads for the door, but Betsy’s cackle stops him short.

“These comics make me laugh.” She peers at Al over the top of her newspaper. “Have you seen them? There’s one about a cat in here somewhere. Do you like cats?” She narrows her eyes at Albus, as if his reply will cement her opinion of him. He nods dutifully.

“You do?” She nods firmly. “Good. Cats are good company, you know.”

“I do know, ma’am,” Al says. “My brother has a cat.” James does have a cat, although it’s more his girlfriend’s pet than his, and Al decides not to mention the time that James levitated it out of the window and into the garden because it jumped on his head at three in the morning. That would make a pretty good comic, he thinks, and vows to make a note of it somewhere.

Betsy sniffs a little, shuffles her newspaper. “You should take a leaf out of his book.”

Al hides a grin. He doesn’t think he’s been in a situation quite as strange as this before, but despite how awkward he feels, he can’t say he’s not enjoying himself a little.

 “I should probably get my shopping away,” Al says, starting to walk backwards towards the door. Betsy heaves herself out of her chair and marches with him down the hallway. As he’s leaving, she takes the newspaper and shoves it into his hands.

“Read the comics,” Betsy says gruffly, and then produces a sickle from the pocket of her cardigan. Al tries to back away but there’s a purring sound, and something rubs against his ankles, halting him. Betsy uses his distraction to unzip his jacket pocket and shove the sickle inside, whilst Al tries to untangle himself from the ginger cat currently malting all over his work trousers.

“Buy yourself something nice,” she tells him, and then shuts the door in his face. Al blinks, a bemused smile in place, and withdraws the sickle from his pocket.

“Women are strange,” he tells his shopping, and then groans as he remembers the boxes of ice cream at the bottom of the bag. He supposes it will taste just as good melted.

*

It’s as if meeting one neighbour opens up invites for all of the others. Al makes a few friends over the course of the next week. There’s a guy downstairs called Adam Palter who keeps accidentally picking up Al’s mail, and a woman who works in the Ministry library on floor three that apologises when her kids knock him over as they race downstairs.

“They’re in a rush,” Jane tells him apologetically, juggling several backpacks and an open juice box, which is dribbling all over her thumb. “Actually, they’re always in a rush. I never get a minute’s peace between the three of them.”

“I get it,” Al says, hoisting himself up off of the ground. The floors here are pretty dirty and he doesn’t want to stay down for longer than he has to. “I have a big family, lots of cousins and nieces and nephews. They’re a rowdy bunch.”

Jane still looks pretty worried, eyeing him up and down as if he might be hiding several broken bones beneath his thin sweater. He grins reassuringly at her. She looks so harassed that he has to say something.

“You know,” he offers hesitatingly, “if you ever want more than a minute’s peace, I’m happy to babysit. I’ve got a bunch of references from school and work. Just knock on number twenty-five.”

Jane looks surprised, and then intrigued, and then distressed as a loud shout echoes up from the first floor. “I may just take you up on that,” she promises, and then rushes past, shouting another apology over her shoulder. Al shakes his head, wondering how he gets himself into these things as he heads upstairs to his flat.

When he gets there, Betsy is leaning against her open doorway, smoking a large cigar as her cat weaves its way around her slippers.

“Do you ever wear shoes?” Al asks politely, a bit of a grin on his face. It’s become habit to tease Betsy on her smoking habits and her fashion sense.

“Cheek,” Betsy says, sniffing indignantly. Her mouth twitches into a reluctant smile. The wrinkles all around her lips make Al think that she must have laughed a lot, when she was younger. He wonders why she stopped, why she lives alone, and then decides he doesn’t want to know. “I have old feet. When you get to be my age you won’t wear anything but slippers either.”

“Well, pink is my colour,” Al says agreeably, and then he lets himself into his flat to the sound of Betsy cackling.

It takes about ten minutes for it to dawn on him, that he’s just offered to babysit for a relative stranger. He makes a cup of tea, stirs in the four sugars, and then an accidental fifth as he stares absentmindedly out of the window. The glass is grimy, so the little light that filters in from the back of the flat has to fight hard to get though. He puts down the spoon, takes a sip of tea, and then searches through the mostly empty cupboards in search of something to clean with.

He doesn’t know what he’s doing. Not just with the new apartment, but with his life in general. He has two friends, and his family quietly looks down on him. It feels as if they’re always waiting for him to do something spectacular, but without actually expecting it of him. They’ve given up on expecting anything of him.  

He firecalls his parents once a week, and goes for Sunday lunches once a month with the entire family, at the burrow. He gets to hear about all of his cousins new achievements. He gets to hear Lily wax poetic about her latest duties as Head Girl, gets to watch James and Lauren stare at each other with hearts in their eyes, feeding each other pieces of Grandma Weasley’s delicious apple pie. If he’s lucky, Molly might even drop in to ruffle Lucy’s hair importantly and remind them to vote for her in the upcoming Wizengamot election.

Al slams a basket of bleach and old rags down on the kitchen table, and then sits down, just as heavily, bypassing the chair and crossing his legs on the floor. He loves his family, and he knows they must love him, but he can’t remember the last time anyone ever professed that love. Probably at his Hogwarts graduation, which Al just barely scraped through. He didn’t pass most of his NEWT’s, but students have the graduation ceremony at Hogwarts whether they pass or not.

He wishes that he didn’t feel like this. He wishes that he could make them proud. An office job, where he files reports and claims, is boring, and easy. Living alone is easy. Shopping, cleaning and cooking – these are all things that come easily to most people.

Sometimes, Al wonders if he’s unhappy. The thing is, he doesn’t usually feel unhappy. He likes living alone. He likes the space and the quietness, the way it feels like a relief from the outside world. He has no one to impress here, no one watching him. He can just be himself. He only feels unhappy when he goes to his parents’ house, or to the Burrow, when he sees his successful, talented family in action, all loud and bright and smart. He feels small there. He feels like he’ll never be worth anything in their eyes.

Al only speaks English, and he sings in the shower, badly. He likes tea, and he cleans when he’s stressed. He sees a therapist. He has two friends, and one of them is his cousin. He isn’t smart; he’s simple.

He wishes that could be enough.

 

Chapter Text

“You’ve made friends,” Duncan observes, smiling. “That’s an improvement.”  

“I don’t know that I would call them friends,” Al says, scratching his nose. He feels very jittery this session, but he doesn’t know why. Unable to sit still, Al stands up abruptly and begins to pace. “I think they’re just acquaintances, people I see often.”

“That’s how most friendships start, isn’t it?” Duncan says, spreading his hands and following Al’s pacing with his eyes. “You mentioned a best friend before. Scorpius, I believe his name was? Tell me about him.”

Al pauses in his pacing, confused, but shrugs eventually. He’s not completely comfortable with sharing information like that, but Duncan is harmless, waiting with a placid expression, and he’s always saying that Al needs to open up. So he takes a breath and begins.

“We met on the train to Hogwarts,” Al says. He can remember it clearly. “I was in the compartment with Rose, because our parents had told us to stick together, and neither of us knew anybody yet.”

If he takes a deep breath and closes his eyes, the words fall out with a little more ease.

“Some student, a fifth year, kicked Scorpius through our doors. He was so small then, this little blonde thing, just lying on the ground, but he didn’t get scared or anything. Just grinned up at the guy and started rambling about the rules of Quidditch. He’s always been like that, flitting from topic to topic. Never scared, not over anything.”

Al almost backtracks, because it’s not true that Scorpius is never scared. There was one time, one particularly harrowing day in their fourth year, when Scorpius had been very afraid. It had been after curfew, and a bunch of them had snuck out to the Black Lake with bottles of butterbeer, ready to end the year with a bang. Rose had gotten a little too drunk and fallen off of the edge of the pier, and Al remembered the instant panic that had bloomed in his gut, because Rose was good at a lot of things, but she had never been able to swim.

He had ran so fast that day, out from underneath the old Oak tree, towards the end of the pier. But not as fast as Scorpius. There had been panic and fear, real fear, plastered all over Scorpius’s face as he had dived in after Rose. Al remembered Scorpius’ hands brushing Rose’s wet hair out of her face. It had been the only thing that could calm her down.

Their friendship had changed that day. All three of them had come back to their fifth year different. Scorpius was a little more serious, a little more focused. Rose had changed too, although she had become more reckless, wilder, as if that brush with danger had convinced her that she was living life the wrong way. And she had become fixated with Scorpius the way that Scorpius had become besotted with her, and Al knew then that their friendship was always going to be different.

He had been happy for them, despite their idiotic insistence that they felt nothing for each other. The truth was written plainly on their faces, and it had been there ever since, only growing stronger, even despite their distance from each other.

Al tries not to examine why that hurt him, deep down to his bones. He tries not to think about Scorpius at all, if he could help it.

“So, you’re both close, then? He’s your best friend. But just because your friendship began instantly doesn’t mean that others will. Like I always say, Albus,” Duncan says, smiling, “Things take time.”

Al gets home from work one Friday, and Jane is there, waiting in the corridor, by his door. She puts up a hand to knock, and Al coughs quietly, startling her.

“Oh!” Jane says, wheeling around. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know if I should knock or not.”

“Well, it wouldn’t have made much of a difference since I’m here, but in the future, I’m normally home at about five.” He smiles, and sidles past her, keys at the ready.

“I was wondering if I could ask you a favour?” Jane bites her lip, runs a hand through her long blonde hair. It hits Al that she’s quite pretty, but honestly, she seems much too grown up for him. She looks like someone who actually has her life together.

“Of course.” Al nods, wary but curious.

“I know this is a bit forward, but the boys’ babysitter just cancelled, and I have a work event to go to. I’m supposed to leave in half an hour and I don’t have anyone else to call.”

“You want me to babysit?” Al guesses. He can feel his stomach droop with nerves.

“You won’t have to feed them or anything, they’re eating at the minute, just put them to bed and keep an eye on them until I get home,” she pleads, clasping her hands together. “Betsy vouched for you, said you were polite and pretty well-known. You’re Harry Potter’s son, aren’t you?”

To her credit, she doesn’t sound star-struck.  

Al shifts on his feet, bites his lip hard. He’s not sure that he wants to do it, but he takes another look at Jane’s desperate face and caves. “Okay, I don’t have anything else planned. Just give me ten minutes to change and eat something.”

Jane lets out a squeal, grabs his arm. Al shifts back in alarm, but she just shakes him a little. “Thank you!” She backs away. “Number fourteen,” she adds, “Just walk right in.”

Al nods an affirmative, fumbling with his keys, and falls through his doorway as Jane jogs out of sight. He shuts his front door and leans back against it with a sigh. So much for a quiet night in. You offered to do this, he reminds himself, but all that reminder does is make him feel like hitting himself.

There’s a lot of noise coming from Apartment Number Fourteen, and Al stands outside the door in comfortable jeans and a grey sweater. He adjusts his black glasses, which Lily cheerfully calls “Hipster” whenever she spots them, and knocks on the door. There’s a yell, and the door swings open.

Al blinks at the empty doorway, confused, and then looks down. There’s a small, wide-eyed boy there, with a thumb in his mouth, a blanket hanging from his fingers, and too-long pyjama pants trailing along the floor.

“Hello,” the boy says, blinking up at Al. “Are you here to sit on us?”

“Jamie,” Jane hisses exasperatedly, appearing out of nowhere. She scoops the little boy up in her arms and fixes him with a stern look. “How many times have I told you not to go near the front door?”

“Sixteen times,” Jamie says around a yawn. Al quirks a grin; the boy is pretty sweet.

Jane ushers him inside, and Al closes the door gently behind him.

“Boys!” Jane yells, and glances nervously at her watch. Al moves to put a hand on her shoulder but stops after a moment. He offers her a comforting smile instead.

“I brought a couple of letters, old character references for jobs that I applied for. I was never with a babysitting company, but my cousin has five children, and I used to look after them a lot when they were younger.”

He hands the letters over, watches with a smile as Jane’s expression goes from stressed to relieved. It’s true; Victoire and Teddy have five children, all of which are monsters with bright blonde hair and vicious temperaments, monsters that Al doesn’t mind watching if his God-brother needs a break.

Jamie squirms in his mother’s arms and she puts him down absentmindedly.

“Jamie’s bedtime is at half past six, Caleb’s is at seven, and Jason’s is at half past seven.” Jane scribbles everything down on a piece of paper, and Al listens intently. “They’ve already eaten, but if they want a snack then there are cookies in the cupboard. I’ll leave the emergency numbers here, and the floo network is open in case you need to get them out for some reason. Oh, I hope that’s everything. Please, please don’t hesitate to call.”

“Goodbye Mumma,” Jamie mumbles around his blanket, waving three fingers at her as she heads for the door. Al lifts the piece of paper off the counter as she kisses her boys goodbye, and tries not to look too afraid as she gives him a thumbs up. There’s a thump of the door as it closes behind her, and then the flat is plunged into ominous silence.

“What’s your name?”

Al jumps. There’s a taller boy leaning against the counter, eyes narrowed at him. He looks about eight, sockless feet tapping impatiently against the kitchen tiles.

“I’m Al,” Al says, swallowing the lump in his throat. “Are you Caleb or Jason?”

“Jason,” the boy says firmly, holding out a tiny hand for him to shake. Al hides his grin, adopts a solemn look, and shakes hands once.

“I’m the man of the house,” Jason tells him proudly, and Al nods politely, listens to Jason ramble about all the things he’s in charge of. Most of them seem to revolve around his video games.

It takes a few minutes, but Al finally rounds all three boys up and sits them down on the couch in front of some cartoons. Jason is serious, and a bit bossy, and reminds Al a little bit of Lily. Caleb has a huge, multi-coloured scarf wrapped around his neck and a pair of fake glasses on. He takes an instant fascination to Al’s glasses, poking them whilst Al hands them all glasses of milk. Jamie has his in a beaker, and pats Al clumsily on the cheek before he can move away.

They’re sweet boys.

“Mister Al,” Jamie says later, around a mouthful of toothpaste, “I have stories at bedtime. You have to do the voices.” He spits and washes his mouth, and turns to look patiently at Al. Al stares back, panic blooming within him. The toothbrush goes back in the pot and Jamie waves his little hands up at him.

Al hands the blanket back to Jamie and picks him up carefully. He’s small, and curls up easily against Al’s chest, head on Al’s shoulder.

It’s sort of alarming, how trusting the boy is.

Al’s never really wanted children of his own. He likes kids, he gets along with them. He likes the way they say the funniest things, how little and bright and unapologetic they are. It’s just that when he pictures himself with a wife and children, the whole white picket-fence thing, his stomach drops uncomfortably, and the picture blurs.

It might also have something to do with the fact that he’s never really had a proper relationship. He’s kissed people, or they’ve kissed him on a dare, a quick press of mouths during a party game. He was never as popular as James, who was the epitome of the model Gryffindor. James was fit and toned and handsome and charming, an all-rounder in the academic department and a star Quidditch Player. Al was gangly and awkward in school. He’s still gangly and awkward now, although he has a little more muscle, and a better hairstyle now, and he dresses well.

James probably wants kids. Lauren Thomas is beautiful, wickedly smart and entirely in love with all of their family, and Al knows James wants to propose as soon as the right moment strikes. He even has a ring picked out.

Al doesn’t know if there’s something wrong with him for not wanting all of that, but he supposes that figuring it all out can wait a while. After all, he has a bedtime story to blunder through.

Flourish and Blotts is one of Al’s favourite haunts. It is quiet, the shopkeepers let him be, and he can ready anything he likes, as long as he puts it back in the proper place. He mostly sticks to the Muggle Literature Section, which is full of classic fairy-tales and fictional adventures.

He takes Jamie and Jason and Caleb there on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

“Mister Al?” Jamie says, swinging their hands together. “Where are we going?”

Al swings Jamie over a puddle, and then pauses to adjust Jamie’s hood, which is slipping down. He’s pretty sure Jane would resent him if he brought her youngest child back with a fever or a cold. Caleb, up ahead, is busy splashing in puddles, muddying up his red boots. His scarf trails on the ground. Apparently, the large scarf is a costume from a muggle television show that Caleb loves.

“To the bookshop, to look at some stories.” Al pushes the door open as they reach it, and nudges Jamie inside.

“Is this for bedtime?” Jamie murmurs, looking around with wide eyes. Al grins, guides the boy through the piles of precariously stacked books, the shelves that stretch right up to the ceiling. Jason kicks at a stack, and Al shoots him a warning look. The boy subsides, rolling his eyes.

“It’s for any time when you want a story,” Al replies lightly. There’s a bright, colourful corner of Flourish and Blotts that’s specifically for children. There are a number of large, squishy beanbags in primary colours, shelves of picture books, and thin novels. Al collapses onto a blue beanbag, and watches fondly as Jamie races towards the books.

Jason pulls a face. “These are baby books.”

Al points around the corner and grins. “And over there, are some books that you might enjoy. Caleb as well.”

Jason looks at him suspiciously. “What kind of books?”

“There are some on magical monsters. Have you read Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them?”

Jason shakes his head wildly and disappears, Caleb at his heels.

“There’s some on space, too, Caleb!” Al calls, just as Jamie returns with a pile of colourful books and a wide grin. Al grins up at him and pats the beanbag.

“We can buy a few,” Al promises him, ruffling the boys hair. “Which one shall we read whilst we wait?”

*

There’s a crackle of noise from his fireplace, and Al puts down his tea with a wary look. He hasn’t given anyone his address, because nobody had asked, and it would have felt awkward to just present them with it during an unrelated conversation, even to his parents. They know he lives in Diagon Alley, that he moved out of his parent’s house to be closer to work, but they don’t know where in Diagon Alley.

He walks around the kitchen counter and blinks in surprise. Scorpius’s head is sticking out of the fire.

“Scorp,” he says, kneeling down on the soft cream rug. A smile comes to his face, unbidden, at the sight of Scorpius’s bright-eyed grin.

“Al!” he half-shouts, and Al winces at the noise.

“I forgot that you only come with one volume,” Al says, although he doesn’t actually mind.

“I’ve missed your face,” Scorpius says breezily. “Is this the new place, then?”

“Well, it’s hardly the old one, is it?” Al asks, rolling his eyes. “How did you get my address?”

“I did some digging,” Scorpius says, and the way his head moves makes Al think he must have shrugged. “How’ve you been?”

Scorpius is the only person in the world to have an inkling of what Al feels at any given time. He’s always been an empathetic person, always shied away from expectations of who he has to be, as a Malfoy. He’s kind, and he’s smart and he knows what to say. He was a Prefect, and he tutored a bunch of kids who weren’t that great in Charms, and Al used to go along with him sometimes, to watch him brighten up the firsties by making Al’s stuff go whizzing around the room. He’s loud and fun, and even after their fourth year, when he became a little bit more serious, he never lost his character. He stayed loud and fun and kind.

Al should probably let Scorpius find other friends, people who won’t drag him down as much as Al does, but he can’t bring himself to let go of one of the only bright spots in his life.

“I’m good,” he says softly. “You?”

Scorpius narrows his eyes. “I wish you wouldn’t do that. You know I can tell when you’re lying, Albus.”

“Don’t call me Albus,” Al mutters, sitting down properly and crossing his legs underneath him. He plays with the rug, ignores Scorpius’s keen stare until the other boy sighs gustily and starts to talk about his work in Egypt. Al props his elbows up on his knees, chin on his hands, and grins fondly as Scorpius jumps from disaster to disaster, talking with wild haste.

“So we were knee-deep in this pit, right, and the mud was rising pretty fast, and it was right up to my armpits by the time I realised it was a glyph charm and not a proper curse,” Scorpius says, his blonde hair bouncing as he shakes his head. “And I couldn’t reach the glyph on the other side of the wall so I had to, sort of, launch Jeremy out of the pit with one of those Spring spells we learnt off of Flitwick, and then flew right at the glyph on the wall and smacked his head on it. Knocked him out, but at least it got rid of the mud.”

A bang on the door stops him abruptly, and Al frowns over at it. He flicks his eyes to Scorpius.

 “It’s late,” Scorpius says, looking concerned. “Who’s that?”

Al rolls his eyes. “A booty call, obviously.”

Scorpius splutters, and then coughs as ash flies up his nose. Al snorts, and then there’s another bang, more insistent this time. He holds up his finger, stands up and shuffles barefoot into the hallway. Scorpius hisses something at him about his wand, but Al’s already moving.

He swings the door open, and blinks in surprise at Jane.

Jane shoves Jamie and a large bag into Al’s arms, shouts something incoherent, and sprints away. Al fumbles the bag, which lands at his feet, in favour of hauling Jamie onto his hip.

“What the hell,” Al says. The empty corridor doesn’t have an answer for him. He blinks at Jamie, who blinks back sleepily.

“Hey kiddo,” Al murmurs, brushing Jamie’s hair out of his eyes, “What’s going on?” 

“Cal had an ‘lerrgic reaction,” Jamie mumbles around his thumb. “Mum’s takin’ him to the magic doctors.”

“Okay,” Al says, pushing down the panic that threatens to make him freeze. “Okay, and where’s Jason?”

“School camp,” Jamie says, and the drops off to sleep, head pillowed on Al’s shoulder.

Al looks from Jamie’s closed eyes, to the bag at his feet, and to the empty corridor. “Okay.” He sighs. “Guess it’s just you and me, pal.”

He shuts the door, and then pads back into the living room. Scorpius is still in the fireplace, craning his neck to try and see Al, a scowl painted on his pretty face. His expression melts into one of shock at the sight of Al, with Jamie balanced on his hip, asleep.

Al puts a finger to his lips, rather unnecessarily, and Scorpius’ face goes blank as Al settles Jamie gently onto the sofa and drapes a blanket over him, tucking him in carefully. When he turns around, Scorpius has a rather wide-eyed look on his face, like he wants to run. His cheeks are red, too, which is odd because Scorpius is shameless. He never blushes.

“What’s wrong?” Al whispers, coming closer. “It’s just my neighbour.”

Scorpius makes a small noise, glancing from Al to the little boy asleep behind him, and then vanishes from the fire. Al blinks at the hearth, which is empty now.

“That was strange,” Al mutters. There’s this churning feeling in his stomach, like he’s done something wrong, over-stepped himself somehow and chased Scorpius away, but he barely said anything, and he certainly didn’t mention his feelings, or anything that might have hinted at feelings. He fiddles with his sleeve, staring at the fire.

Jamie sleeps for another three hours, but Al can’t even sit still.

Al cleans, instead. It’s become something of a habit, cleaning when he’s stressed. He washes the windows, and dusts and polishes every surface in the house. He bleaches the bathroom, throws out the trash, and puts away the dishes on the draining board. When he runs out of things to clean, he organises the kitchen cupboards, first by item, and then again, by colour. He does it all by hand, his wand tucked behind his ear like a pencil.

Lily might have had a point when she called him obsessive, that one time.

Al’s changed into clean grey sweatpants and a black sweater, and he’s cooking scrambled eggs when Jamie wakes up.

“Hey kiddo,” Al says, when Jamie bumbles into the kitchen. He’s still sucking his thumb, and his hair is stuck up in little black spikes. Blue eyes blink widely at Al, and Al grins softly, scooping the little boy up to sit on the counter with him.

“M’not sleepy now,” Jamie informs him.

“That’s good,” Al nods solemnly. “Any nice robot dreams this time?”

Jamie shakes his head. “Dreams about cows.”

Al pauses, pepper suspended over the pan of eggs, and then shrugs. “Cows are pretty cool. You want some toast with this, buddy?”

Jamie tilts his head, apparently thinking it over. Al lets him take his time; it’s a big decision for a four year old, after all.

“Only one bit of toast,” Jamie decides, bobbing his head up and down. 

The door to the apartment swings open, and Al moves swiftly to stand in front of Jamie, spatula outstretched. Then he recognises Jane, who’s stood there in the doorway. She looks exhausted and tearful, but not dangerously upset.

“Caleb’s okay?” Al asked, turning the heat down on the grill. He picks Jamie up and leads him over to Jane, who accepts him gratefully and hugs him tight.

“He’s going to be fine,” Jane says, kissing Jamie’s forehead. “They gave him a peanut butter bar at playgroup today and he must have eaten it as a midnight snack. I’m so mad at that place. I had to sign dozens of health and safety forms just to get him in there, and then they don’t even bother to retain the one important bit of information regarding his health!”

Al winces. “Peanut allergies are pretty common. You’d think they’d keep peanut butter bars out of the way on principle, really.”

“You would think,” Jane says tearfully, suddenly overcome. Al winces again, for an entirely different reason. Scorpius is good at this stuff, not Al.

“Okay, look, why don’t you go back to yours and catch up on some sleep. Is someone with Cal?” Al asks, walking backwards to check on breakfast.

Jane nods slowly. “His grandmother’s there at the moment. They’re discharging him this afternoon, but she sent me home for this little munchkin. Thank you so much, by the way. I didn’t mean to bother you, I just didn’t have the time.”

Al waves a hand awkwardly. “Don’t be ridiculous. I’m glad you came here. Anyway, why don’t you leave Jamie here, we’re sorting out breakfast, and you can go and nap before you have to bring Cal home.”

It takes a few more minutes to convince her, but eventually Jane agrees and leaves Jamie curled up on the couch with cartoons and a plate of slightly overcooked food. Al’s never claimed to be a master-chef. He expects Hugo could do better, but Hugo isn’t here, and Jamie doesn’t seem to mind.

“Mister Al?” Jamie says as Al sits beside him.

“Yeah, kiddo?”

“You should have a playgroup.”

Al turns to look at him, stumped. “You mean I should go to playgroup? I’m a bit big for that now.”

Jamie shakes his head aggressively, a bit of toast chomped between his teeth. “No. You should have a playgroup, here. Then I could go to it.”

Al sits up as realisation dawns on him. “I think you need to be pretty smart to run a playgroup buddy.”

Jamie frowns at him. “You’re smart. You read books and you make up stories, and you make eggs.”

Al chuckles. “A different kind of smart. And you’re damn right I make good eggs, so you better eat them before Betsy comes over and gobbles them up.”

Jamie giggles and stuffs his mouth full, attention distracted by the television. Al thinks about running a playgroup, for a moment, and then he laughs a little bewilderedly. Like he could do something like that. As if.

Chapter Text

Al goes to see his therapist; the same way he does every other Wednesday. Duncan greets him cheerfully, no clipboard in hand. They’ve been seeing each other for approximately two years now, so the note-taking isn’t really necessary.

“How have you been?” Duncan enquires.  

“Okay,” Al says quietly.

“Truthfully?”

Al caves impossibly quickly. “I’ve started cleaning more, and I had a panic attack the other day. Nothing else though.”

“Were you able to identify a trigger for the panic attack?”

Al nods slowly. “It was my fault. I got back from a job interview and started going over and over it in my head, and then I did the thing where I think about my stupidly successful family and I just got dragged into a panic attack.”

He drops his head into his hands. He hates panic attacks. No matter where he is, no matter how many times he tells himself that there’s nobody watching him, that he’s safe and unjudged, he always feels ridiculed and stupid, especially afterwards. Once he’s calmed down, it feels like an overreaction, like he’s making a drama out of something small.

Duncan looks at him calmly. “What have we said before? Panic attacks are never your fault. How we react to things are not our fault. Some reactions are healthy, even. We just have to learn to break certain habits. Cleaning can be a harmless way of dealing with stress. Are you worried that it may turn into an obsession? Are you able to stop cleaning if you want to?”

Al shakes his head. “It’s not obsessive, not like before. It just helps me shut my mind off at times, so I’m not that worried about it. It’s nice. It keeps me busy.”

Duncan nods, smiles. “Good. And were you able to deal with the panic attack? Did you remember the breathing techniques that we established early on?”

Al nods. He does remember them, but sometimes he forgets to use them, or he’s too overwhelmed to remember. He’s getting better at it all, though. Better than in the beginning.

“Good. Don’t be afraid to ask, if you would like me to go back over them, or introduce some different ways of dealing with the panic attacks. Now, why don’t you talk to me about your week. Whatever comes to mind.”

It takes Al a while, but he eventually outlines his week. He talks about the kids and Jane and Betsy. He talks about Jamie, who keeps demanding that Al write down the bedtime stories he makes up so that Jamie can read them in the day. He talks about Cal, and about his allergic reaction, and about how he’s better now, but also obsessed with all things medical now, and wants to be a Healer when he’s older. He talks about Jason, who came back from camp with sunburn all over his face and a crush, his first crush, according to Jane.

He talks about Betsy, who’s acquired another cat that doesn’t like Al, and whose grandson is apparently coming down to visit her. He talks about cooking for her, doing up small meals and sneaking them into her fridge when she drags him inside. Sometimes they read the newspaper, together, and sometimes Betsy talks about the war, about her family, about her old life. Al doesn’t mind; he’s good at listening.

“This is excellent progress, Albus.” Duncan reaches over to grab a post-it off of the table, makes a quick note of something, and then looks up at Al with a placid smile. “Sitting around and dwelling on things can take you down an unpleasant path, as you well know. Keeping yourself occupied is good for your mind. You’re doing good.”

“It’s nothing special, though, is it?” Al says quietly. “It’s not… I’m not doing anything worthwhile, or ground-breaking, or important. Nothing big. Everyone – my cousins, they’re all doing well in school or doing the jobs they want to do, or working towards what they want to do.”

Duncan leans forward, his eyes keen. “Why don’t you elaborate on that?”

Al swallows. “Um. Well, Rose, my cousin, is with my Uncle Charlie, in Romania, learning to look after dragons. And train them. She’s rearing one by hand, a baby one that the mother dragon rejected. She sends Aunt Hermione letters about it all the time.”

Duncan steeples his fingers. “And this is more worthwhile, in your mind. Al, do you want to train dragons?”

Al blinks at him. “No. But that’s not the point.”

“Isn’t it?”

Al frowns. He thinks about it, for a moment, turning it over in his mind. He knows what Duncan is trying to say, and he understands, on an intellectual level, but there is a big difference between understanding something and being able to actually apply that understanding.

“I suppose it’s part of the point,” Al says. “But the rest is… I’m not doing anything. I’m just at home, babysitting, and not doing anything. Not anything to be proud of.”

“Something that you are proud of?” Duncan asks gently. “Or something that other people are proud of?”

Al looks down. He twitches his fingers, clasps them in his lap, and taps his toes against the carpet. Then he swallows thickly again, clears his throat, and continues to look at the floor. Because that’s the cinch, isn’t it? That’s what this is all about, or at least a part of it. Pride, and not his own.

“It’s not weird, is it?” Al asks, when he can get the words out.

“To want other people to be proud of you? It’s not weird at all,” Duncan assures him kindly. “It is human nature, to want to feel loved and make others proud, especially those who you care about. And I am not saying that it shouldn’t be something to work for, but you should also strive to be proud of yourself, regardless of other people’s opinions on what you do and who you are.”

The half-hour session flies by after that, and Al feels simultaneously relieved and drained when he leaves, the way he always does. Before he goes, Duncan stands and stops him with a hand on his arm. Al manages to shift away without looking suspicious, but Duncan catches the movement anyway, holds his hand up, like he’s surrendering. It’s not that Al is afraid of people touching him, or that he doesn’t like Duncan; sometimes he just prefers to be in his own space.

“I was just wondering, if you had kept to that agreement we made that other day.”

Al frowns at him.

“To write things down, about your family,” Duncan adds, and Al remembers. His hand drifts to his jacket pocket, where there’s a small, blue notebook tucked away, shut tight with an elastic band, a little yellow wooden pencil attached to it. He has been sticking to his agreement, writing down anything and everything he can think of about his family and friends as the thoughts hit him. Little things, nothing too awful, nothing too revealing.

He doesn’t quite want to give it away, though. Not yet. Probably not ever.

“It’s alright, Albus,” Duncan says, smiling. “Just keep writing. It’ll help.”

Tea is in order, Al thinks, when he reaches his flat. Tea and some mindless television. Daytime television has become his one weakness on the weekend, and he’s glad that he got the television second-hand, off of Aunt Hermione, because it means that the spell was already on it, to keep electricity from acting up around magic.

His plans are put on hold when he returns home to find a tall man with an armful of boxes standing on his doorstep. Al blinks, confused.

“Hello? Can I help you?” Al says, clearing his throat.

The man turns around. He looks oddly familiar, but Al doesn’t think he’s ever seen him before.

“Are you Al?”

“Yes?” Al says, idly fiddling with his keys.

“I’m Spencer. Jane’s ex-husband.” Spencer holds a hand out for Al to shake.

“Oh!” Now Al realises why he looks familiar. It’s like looking at a mix of all three boys, only taller and handsomer, with more laughter lines. Jamie’s eyes and Jason’s nose and Cal’s toothy smile. He shakes Spencer’s hand and then shifts awkwardly on the spot; once again, there’s someone standing between him and his front door.

“What can I do for you?” Al asks eventually.

“I’ve been visiting more, recently, after Caleb was in the hospital, and Jane told me you were looking after the boys every now and again,” Spencer says, shifting the boxes. “Then Jamie said you were planning on starting a playgroup of sorts.”

Al splutters a laugh. “Oh. That’s not – Jamie’s got his heart set on it. Ever since the peanut incident with Cal, but it’s not a thing, I’m not qualified. It’s just Jamie.”

Spencer raises an eyebrow. “Ah, well. I’m pretty sure they’ve got information in the Alley somewhere, if you do decide to look into it. Anyway, I work at the library just outside of London, and when Jane mentioned it I thought it would be a good idea to do something with all these toys. We had a fund-raising event but hardly anyone came to it, so all the donations are homeless. There’s a few boxes in my car. Jane thought you might want it all, to sort of start you off.”

Al looks up in surprise. He doesn’t really know what to do with himself; he’s definitely not planning to start a playgroup up, but he can’t very well say no, not when the man’s come all the way out here and is staring at him expectedly.

“Well, if you’re sure?”

Spencer shrugs. “Nowhere else to put them. I don’t really want to have to drive back with them either.”

“Of course, of course,” Al mumbles. He definitely can’t say no now. “Let me just get the door.”

Spencer brings seven boxes up from the car and leaves them in Al’s living room, before disappearing downstairs with a wink and a cheery wave. Al stares blindly at the boxes and then hides in the kitchen with a mug of hot tea. It feels like he’s back at square one, alone in an apartment with a bunch of things to unpack.

Shaking his head, he moves back into the front room and settles down on the rug, surrounded by several stacks of large cardboard boxes.

He shakes all of the boxes open to discover piles and piles of arts and crafts things. Bottles of brightly coloured paint, brushes and pencils and glue sticks, tubs of glitter, a big pack of colourful card and paper, shiny material, scrap bits of fabric, sheets upon sheets of stickers and lots of little boxes full of sequins and pom-poms. Al looks at it, overwhelmed, and wonders what the hell he’s supposed to do with it all.

Eventually, Al’s living room looks like a sparsely decorated art factory. He has a smear of glitter up one cheek and a sock puppet on one hand when the doorbell rings.

“If it’s a delivery of children, I don’t want it,” Al says fervently, getting up.

It turns out to be exactly that. A delivery of three children, to be exact. A delivery of three children who want very much to watch cartoons until they spot the mounds of exciting, messy stuff all over Al’s floor.

“Sorry,” Jane says, wincing a little. It doesn’t quite hide her pleased, flushed expression. “I would have dropped them at their grandmother’s, but she’s out at bingo. I hope you don’t mind? Spencer’s taking me on a date, you see, just to catch up.”

“I expect an entire cake just for me at the wedding,” Al tells her, in a surprising burst of confidence, and dodges the smack to his shoulder with a wide grin that surprises even himself.

“It’s just one date,” Jane says, laughing. Then she stops and looks at him, keenly. “I’m sorry if I pushed with the donations. Spencer said he didn’t know what to do with it all, and I immediately thought of you. You’re so good with the boys, they adore you. You’ve even managed to get Jason to stop being so serious all the time.”

“He actually laughed the other day, although that had something to do with me landing on my ass in a puddle,” Al recalls.

Jane laughs again. “And you got Caleb to take that scarf off for more than a few minutes at a time. He lets you call him Cal. He won’t answer to me or Spence if we try.”

“He worked out that my name was shortened,” Al mumbles, brushing it off. “And Cal rhymes with Al, so there was no escaping it really.”

“And Jamie wants to move in with you,” Jane says with a big grin. “I won’t be surprised if I wake up one day and his room’s been emptied. I don’t pay you enough, in all honesty.”

Al shrugs. He can feel heat creeping up to his ears and there’s this weird, warm feeling in his belly. He doesn’t really know how to deal with all of these comments.

“My point, Al,” says Jane, with a hand on his shoulder, “is that you know what you’re doing. You’re smart and kind, and you already know what to do when it comes to these kids, and teaching would be a natural step up. Just think about it.”

Al nods, promises that he will, and then urges Jane to get going on her date. He closes the door with a grin and leans against it. Smart and kind. Nobody’s ever called him that before. His mother used to, when he was younger. Her big, strong, kind boy.

“Mister Al,” Cal says, waving the end of his scarf around and looking particularly glittery. “Jamie made a mess.”

“I did not!” Jamie says, lobbing a pom-pom across the room. It misses Cal by an inch and hits Jason in the face.

“Enough!” Al calls. Then he puts his hand up, the one still encased in a sock puppet, and starts moving it around, putting on a high-pitched voice. “I don’t care who made the mess, you are all cleaning it up.”

Jason looks unimpressed, although Al can see his mouth twitch; Cal laughs heartily and Jamie’s eyes widen.

“What’s his name?” Jamie asks, around his thumb. “Mr Sock?”

“Noodles,” Al says decisively, and then swoops Noodles down to chase all of them into the bathroom, where he can safely remove the glitter without destroying his carpet.

*

Scorpius is back in Al’s fire, his face smeared with ash, his usual bright grin dimmed a little.

“Are you okay?” Al asks, frowning as he settles down on the rug. He doesn’t like it when Scorpius looks upset, never has. He gets this crease above his eyebrows that Al wants to smooth down with his thumb, but he’s never had the courage to do it.  

“Yeah,” Scorpius says, a little hollowly. “I just – I might have just agreed to something stupid.”

Al looks at him warily. “What kind of stupid thing? Because if this is like our third year, with the Blast-Ended Skrewts, then I think I’d like to sit this one out.”

“I didn’t know the firework was going to do that,” Scorpius protests, smiling a little. The sight of it fills Al with warmth. “I thought it was an ordinary one.”

Al shakes his head fondly and crosses his legs, balancing his drink on top of his leg. Scorpius glances down at his hand in surprise.

“You never drink alcohol,” he says.

Al lifts his wineglass. “Betsy dropped me off a bottle of wine earlier, as thanks for all the meals I’ve been cooking for her. Actually, I think she just wanted to talk me into visiting this weekend, since her Grandson’s down. He’s my age apparently. She wants to introduce us.”

“Why?” Scorpius asks. His voice is inexplicably tight. 

Al shoots him an odd look. “Just to be friendly, I guess.”

Scorpius mutters something, looks a little moody.

“What is with you lately?” Al asks, a little more sharply than he intended. “You called up out of the blue last time, and then you disappeared without a word in the middle of a conversation, and I didn’t hear from you for days. And now you’re being weird.”

Scorpius huffs, but doesn’t disappear. Al takes a gulp of wine and feels his mood souring unpleasantly.

“Why do you cook for Betsy?”

“She’s old,” Al says, voice clipped. “Ninety-something. She can’t get out as much to buy food, so I buy it for her and cook her small meals.”

“That’s nice.”

“It is.”

The silence grows more and more awkward, but damn if Al’s going to be the first one to break it. He takes another gulp of wine, and the way Scorpius eyes the glass like it’s a ticking bomb makes his blood boil a little. Al is an adult, and it’s a weekend, and he can drink one glass of wine if he wants to. He takes another sip, staring pointedly at his best friend.

Scorpius sighs. “Alright, alright, I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

“For being an ass,” Scorpius mumbles. His face flickers in the fire, and he turns his head to look at something that Al can’t see. When he turns back, there’s a wide-eyed look on his face. “Shit, sorry Albus. Something just exploded in the cursed artefact’s cell. I’ll call you later. Love you.”

And then he vanishes.

Al stares at the fire, frozen in place, his drink held aloft, halfway to his lips. Love you, he mouths. He blinks rapidly at the empty hearth, absently brushing some ash from his trousers. Love you.

It was a mistake, obviously, Al thinks, as he rises and heads for the sink. Just a slip of the tongue.

Al’s done the same thing before, said I love you instead of thank you to a guy at the farmer’s market, who had handed over his change with a bemused look. Al had gone beet red, high-tailed it out of the field and vowed never to return to the farmer’s market ever again.

So it’s not a big deal. It was just a slip of the tongue, and even if it hadn’t been, Scorpius probably meant it in a friendly, brotherly way. It makes Al a little miserable, that the first, and likely only time that Scorpius says those words to him are going to be an accident, a mistake. It makes him even more miserable that he’s not going to be able to say it back now.

Al downs the rest of his wine and washes the glass, running mostly on autopilot. Love you.

He didn’t even find out what the stupid thing was, that Scorpius had agreed to. He has a nagging feeling that he’s going to find out pretty soon.

*

The weekend rolls around surprisingly quickly. Al spends his time growing increasingly more hateful of the dull little cubicle that he spends more of his life in, filing papers in an ordinary manner, and finds himself thinking of things, things that he could do instead. He doesn’t usually like to dwell on the if’s and the maybe’s, or the future at all, really. Sometimes, if he thinks about it too much, he finds himself spiralling, finds himself thinking bitter, miserably thoughts, and he doesn’t want that.

But he can’t ignore the future forever, as Duncan keeps gently reminding him. And the fact of the matter is, Al hates his job. Not with a burning passion, because that would imply some sort of strong emotion towards it – in reality, he feels like things are dimmer and darker inside that office building, feels like he is dimmer and darker.

He doesn’t want to do it anymore.

He’s got money. Not a lot, but he does have money – his family are some of the richest people in Wizarding Britain, now, although you wouldn’t be able to tell just by looking at them. It’s all his parents’ money, though, so he only accepted a little bit, to get a deposit on his flat, and a little more to keep him going for a few months, and then the rest came out of his own pocket. He knows, logically, that he can always ask them for more, for help, but truthfully, the idea sets his teeth on edge.

He had paid his dad back for the deposit money, and Harry had looked surprised but pleased, patted him on the shoulder and told him he hoped Al liked the new place.

Al tries not to let it bother him that neither his mother or his father had asked for the address, or to come and visit, or to help with the move. He’s not even sure if he wants them in his space, but he can’t escape the fact that they didn’t ask to be there.

There’s a knock from somewhere in his apartment, and Al frowns. He checks the door, but there’s nobody there, and then he hears a screech, and darts into the kitchen to find an owl at the window, tapping against the glass with its beak and ruffling its feathers impatiently.

Al lets the owl in reluctantly, sighs as feathers flutter loose all over his clean worktops.

“Who do you belong to, then?” Al asks, clicking his tongue and coaxing the owl closer. He unfolds the note attached to its leg – it’s a small note, and as soon as he undoes the tie, the owl takes off, soaring out of the open window.

Al, borrowed Lauren’s owl. Aunt Angelina wanted to remind us all that it’s Roxy’s concert tonight, but you weren’t at lunch yesterday. See you at the Leaky Cauldron at six. James.

“It’s hard to attend a lunch that you’re not invited to,” Al tells the empty air. He sighs and tucks the note in his pocket – it’s pretty late in the day, which means he’s got an hour or two before he’s supposed to leave for the concert. He remembers it being mentioned, vaguely, because of Roxanne’s involvement with one of Diagon Alley’s school choirs during the holidays. Gran had been so proud.

“What the hell am I supposed to wear?” Al mutters.

Five o’clock finds Al sitting at his kitchen countertop, fiddling nervously with the zips on his jacket. He’s made an effort, but not too much, and he knows for a fact that his jeans are a little bit too small, and his jacket is a bit too tight around his arms but it’s already freezing, so Al doesn’t really care. He’s not getting changed. It took him half an hour of searching through his meagre amount of clothes in search of something that wouldn’t make him feel too dull or unattractive, and a further ten minutes in front of the mirror convincing himself that he looked fine.

He grips his knee with one hand and counts to five, slowly, in his head. He’s not getting changed.

There’s a knock again, and this time it is the door. Al opens it and almost stops breathing.

The man on his doorstop is devastatingly handsome. Soft black hair that curls a little at the ends, dark stubble that kisses the sharp line of his jaw, plump lips pulled up at the corners in a casual smile. His eyes are stunningly blue, wide and round, and he’s got laughter lines around the edges already. He’s tall, but not so tall that Al feels too much like a goblin in comparison, and he’s fit, too, muscles expertly emphasised by his tight denim jeans, and the way his expensive-looking coat clings to him.

“Hey,” the guy says, in a deep, slightly hoarse voice and Al is pretty sure he melts. He’s definitely sure that his mouth is hanging wide open, but he doesn’t have the higher brain function to fix that.

“Put your tongue back in, boy,” Betsy says, shuffling over to them and chucking Al under the chin. Al snaps his mouth shut, teeth clacking together.  He can feel heat rising in his cheeks, but the guy just looks kind of amused. “Meet my grandson, Dan. He’s down for the week to keep me company. You ready, lad?”

Al frowns at her. “Ready for what?”

“Jason’s ceremony, of course,” Betsy says. “Jane did invite you, didn’t she? Of course she did, now come on, I don’t want to be late. Just because we’ve got tickets doesn’t mean someone won’t try and steal our seats, and I don’t want to sit behind anyone too tall, I won’t be able to see a thing.”

Al automatically closes his door behind him, locking it as he falls into step with Betsy’s grandson.

“I actually have a concert to go to,” Al says, but Betsy simply charges ahead, oblivious. Al looks up at the guy, Dan, a little helplessly.

“So, you’re the guy who’s been keeping my grandma from starving to death, huh?” Dan says.

“I keep telling her that Ice Mice aren’t a good substitute for actual food, but she won’t listen,” Al says, shoving his hands in his pockets and fiddling with his keys. He’s got the urge to run back to his flat and hide in the bathroom until everything falls away, but it doesn’t look like that’s about to happen anytime soon. Dan falls back to walk with him as Betsy charges ahead of Jane and Spencer, always surprising Al with how fast and fit she is.

Dan grins at him. “She doesn’t listen to anyone. Did you know she used to work in the Department of Mysteries?”

Al blinks in surprise. “No. Merlin, that explains why she’s so hard-core. Those guys don’t mess around.”

“Definitely not,” Dan says, shaking his head fondly. “Mum says she’s the kind of person who would live forever, out of spite.”

They fall into step a little awkwardly.

“So, how come you started looking after her?” Dan’s got a nice smile, all flashing white teeth, and it's this slow thing where his lips curve up sort of hesitantly, and Al honestly should not be dissecting a half-smile as much as he is. He coughs a little, blushing, and shakes his head.

"I just cook for her sometimes," Al says, scratching his nose. "She didn't have any proper meals sorted out for her, and it's no trouble, even though I'm not the best cook in the world."

"I actually am a chef," Dan says, and he manages to say it in a way that isn’t bragging. "And when I heard what you were doing for her, I demanded to try some food, just to make sure it was up to scratch." He winks at Al, and Al's eyes widen. "I'd say you definitely pass the test. That carbonara was to die for."

"Pasta is easy," Al says, after a minute of stumbling over his words. "I practically live off of noodles. Well, noodles and bacon."

"I'll make you a creamy bacon carbonara one day," Dan promises him, grinning teasingly. "That way we can combine all of the best things into one evening."

Al could be wrong, but he's pretty sure he's being hit on right now. Nobody's ever really flirted with him before, barring Frank Longbottom once during an Affection Potion incident in their fifth year, which had left both of them pretty mortified for a good week and a half. There was also the couple of times that he and Scorpius had a little too much butterbeer, but that's all just friendly stuff, barely even flirting. Well, on Scorpius's part, anyway.

This, though, feels a little bit more than friendly. And Al is shocked, to say the least, that someone as attractive as Dan is giving him the time of day, but he's also not complaining, despite the weird way it makes him feel inside, a strange mix of excitement, anticipation and anxiety.

"Are you always this forward?" Al blurts out accidentally. He stupidly slaps his hand over his mouth afterward, but Dan actually looks a little charmed by the gesture.

"Only with the special guys," Dan says, and he winks again. Almost as quickly as he does, however, he sobers a little. "If it makes you uncomfortable at all, just tell me to shut up, alright? I won't be offended."

This, more than anything, warms Al to him. He smiles up at him, and opens his mouth to refute his discomfort, when Betsy hollers at them from the edge of the pavement.

"Will you two stop making heart-eyes at each other and come and help an old woman across the street?" Betsy demands, and both he and Dan rush to her aid, only to find that she's already crossing the road, nose in the air.

"Mad old bat," Dan says fondly, and Al snorts in agreement.

Dan is remarkably easy to talk to. They spend the journey from Al's flat to the Leaky Cauldron discussing everything from this mornings news to the rare Silver-Beaked Dragon that Rose had tended to a mere week ago. Al learns that Dan owns a restaurant further up the country, that he plays Quidditch in his spare time but isn't very good at it, and that he has a baby sister that frequently bullies him into having his make-up done and his nails polished.

By the time they step through the doors to the pub, Al has forgotten all about his conflicting invitation from his brother, and is too busy laughing shyly at one of Dan's work stories involving a misfiring oven and an unfortunately-placed vat of old, cold soup, to notice that the Leaky Cauldron is packed full of most of the Weasley’s and Potter’s on the planet.

When he does notice, he comes to a halt in the doorway, only for Jane to barrel into him from behind.

"Oh, sorry, Al!" Jane squeals, as she leans over to offer him a hand. Al waves a hand, winded, and tries to remember how to breathe from his position on the floor. Dan helps him up with a poorly concealed grin, and Jane squeaks about having been following them for the past few minutes but not being able to catch up.

Ginny is the first to wander over, a slightly distracted smile fixed on her face as she rummages through her bag. "Albus, I almost didn't think you were going to make it. I couldn't remember if I'd sent you an invitation or not."

"James sent it today," Al says, as Ginny kisses his cheek briefly, her gaze flittering from Betsy, to Jane and Spencer, and then back to Dan, where it lingers a little longer. Dan smiles back easily.

"Oh good," she says, after a pause. "Why don't you introduce me to your new friends?"

Al feels about five years old all of a sudden. He winces, well aware that his cousins are gawking at him and whispering among themselves whilst the adults chat amongst themselves. Most of them keep glancing at Dan, and Al has never felt a need to bury his head in the sand as strongly as he does now.

"This is Jane and Spencer," Al manages to stutter out, gesturing awkwardly. "They live in the same building as me, and so does Betsy, my other neighbour, and her grandson, Dan.”

"Al looks after our sons sometimes, and one of them happens to be in the show tonight," Jane explains, shaking Ginny's hand. "It's his school, you see. He wanted Al to come and watch."

Ginny smiles again, but her hand is still in her bag and she looks pretty vacant. “Damn,” she says irritably. “I can’t find the tickets. Excuse me a minute, Harry, where are the tickets?” She stalks off, leaving them in a vaguely awkward silence. Al doesn’t even know why it’s awkward, but it is.

Betsy harrumphs, but doesn’t say anything.

“Perhaps we should go in,” Spencer suggests. “I expect everyone’s pretty busy, but I think they’ve set up the floo to take us directly into the school.”

Al is only just catching on that this is the same event, that the school that Jamie goes to is probably the same one that Roxy is performing for. He catches his sister’s eye as Jane and Simon move ahead of him, Betsy at their heels, and she mouths get over here.

Dan puts a warm hand on his shoulder, still smiling easily. “We’ll see you in there, then? If not, I’m sure I’ll have a chance to talk to you before I go home. I’m still here for a few days, after all.”

“Good,” Al blurts out, his smile growing. He feels a little less awkward, although he can’t stop glancing at Lily, who’s now waving frantically, her expression slightly panicked.

“Good,” Dan repeats, his grin growing more amused by the second. His hand lingers for a second, and then he strolls casually towards the floo, disappearing into the flames. Al gets a little caught up watching him go, and then slams back to earth as Lily practically wrenches his arm off.

“Albus,” she hisses. “You idiot.”

“What?” Al asks, trying to pull his sleeve out of her grip. “I haven’t done anything.”

Lily’s hair is a different colour to what it was when he last saw her, but that doesn’t mean anything. Lily changes style and colours and outfits more often than most people change their underwear. Her hair is bright pink, with black tips, and it should look ridiculous, but she makes it work in a sleek black outfit. Al feels decidedly underdressed and carefully ruffles his own messy hair.

“Who was that man?” Lily demands. Lily never just asks things, she has to demand or command, just like she never walks anywhere, she runs or marches. She shakes his sleeve imperatively.

“A friend,” Al mumbles. “A new one, as well, and yet somehow I’ve already made a ridiculous impression.”

“Hardly surprising,” Freddie says, winking as he walks past, dragging James with him. Al grimaces at their backs and then turns back to Lily.

“Why did you look so panicked?”

“So he’s not your boyfriend?” Lily asks.

“What?” Al screeches. He slaps a hand over his mouth and lowers his voice, hissing, “What are you talking about?”

Lily visibly relaxes. “Oh good, thank merlin.” Then she grimaces, glancing behind her. “Although, on second thought, the damage might have already been done.”

“Seriously, Lily, has the hair dye gone to your brain?” Al mumbles. He crosses his arms defensively over his chest and rubs at his arms, feeling extremely out of place. He wants to follow the familiarity of his friends, or better yet, turn right around and sprint back to his flat. That would cause a scene though, now that Lily’s here, and that’s the last thing he wants. If she hadn’t spotted him, he probably would have been able to slip away unnoticed.

“Albus.”

Al jolts in shock and stares over Lily’s shoulder, eyes wide. Scorpius is staring there, his face oddly blank, lips pursed in a flat line. He looks as stunningly beautiful as ever, blonde hair handsomely tousled, limbs a little thicker with muscle from all the work he does, his cheeks archly angled. He’s wearing a navy button-down that makes his hair look a bit silvery, and – and Rose is standing beside him.

“Scorpius,” Al says, his voice embarrassingly breathy with delight. “You’re back! I didn’t think you were coming home yet, you never said. And Rose.”

Rose smiles at him, tucking a lock of her hair behind her ear distractedly, which is when Al notices it.

They’re holding hands.

Rose and Scorpius, they’re holding hands. Her tanned, freckled fingers are intertwined with his pale, slender ones, slipping easily into the spaces between each digit like they belong there, like puzzle pieces. Al blinks, and thinks he sees the hands tighten a little.

The happiness bleeds out of Al as quickly as it had bloomed. He feels a little like a kite that’s just been cut loose, and he actually sways a little on his feet. Lily winces noticeably, and then vanishes into the crowd of people, the crowd that’s quickly growing.

“I, uh.” Al swallows. “I guess, uh, congratulations are in order.”

He looks up in time to see something unreadable flash through Scorpius’s eyes. Rose is still looking around, presumably searching for her parents, but she flashes him a brief smile.

“Likewise,” Scorpius says stiffly. Al actually feels a little hurt – his voice is so cold, so aloof, so much like Malfoy senior that Al stares at him in disbelief until Scorpius’s haughty gaze crumbles into something that’s just plainly uncomfortable.

“What?” Al asks. “Oh, no. That was my neighbour’s Grandson. I just met him, literally twenty minutes ago.”

He tapers off – it doesn’t feel like he’s saying anything interesting, and his words fall flat.

“Oh,” Scorpius says. “Well, that’s. That’s nice.”

“Mum,” Rose says suddenly, brightening up. She tugs on Scorpius’s hand, waving at Al before they duck through the crowd. Al stands on the edge of it all, watches as Rose embraces her mum and dad, who both look shocked to see her. He watches, heart in his throat, as Rose leans up to kiss Scorpius pointedly. It’s a chaste kiss, like they’ve done this a hundred times. Maybe they have, Al thinks dully. Obviously there’s a lot going on here that he doesn’t know about.

“Son?”

Al turns with some difficulty. His dad is there, holding some tickets between his teeth as he fiddles with the button on his jacket. Harry puts the tickets in his pocket and then examines Al critically, eyes narrowed. “Something wrong?” he asks quietly. He glances around, and Al can see the moment that he spots it, spots Scorpius and Rose cuddled up together, arms around waists and shoulders, lipstick smudged on each others’ mouths.

He glances sharply back at Al, who cringes. Did everyone know? Was it common knowledge, that he was mooning pathetically after a boy that wouldn’t want him, a boy that obviously loved someone else? Did they talk about it, behind his back, murmur about it in the kitchen while he laughed too loudly at Scorpius’s jokes in the garden of the Burrow?

He knows, rationally, that he’s probably being dramatic, but there’s at least a partial truth there.

“I’m fine,” Al says hoarsely. “How’s work?”

Harry’s expression darkens immediately. “I need to talk to you, actually. I’ve warned the others, but I don’t have your floo address and I kept getting held up at work, so you’re the last to know.”

What a shocker, Al thinks dryly. He doesn’t actually blame his dad – Harry had done the best he possibly could, been the best dad he could possibly be, loved his children no matter what. It’s not his fault that Al is defective, that he’s broken, that he’s messed up. Harry Potter could never be anything less than a great Dad.

“I’ve been getting threats at work,” Harry says seriously. “Different to the usual ones, these ones keep making it through security no matter what spells we put up. It’s probably nothing, as your Gran keeps informing me, but I’ve always been paranoid.” He grins a little wryly, and Al smiles back weakly. “Still, I want you to be extra vigilant.”

“Constant vigilance,” Al agrees. It’s the family motto, and it’ll do for now, because Al can’t think of anything else to say. His head is spinning.

“Great,” Harry grins. He claps Al on the shoulder and then sidles past him, holding the tickets aloft when he spots Ginny’s exasperated expression. The whole family begin to pour towards the fireplace. Al stands there, contemplating turning around and going home despite making a scene.

“Jamie,” Al reminds himself. He watches Scorpius bow dramatically as Rose walks past him into the floo, laughing loudly. Something sharp lodges itself in his throat, and he curses himself. This isn’t about you, he tells himself. This is about Jamie. Just get through the next two hours, give Jamie a hug, and then bow out.

He fixes a smile on his face and stalks towards the floo, a dull sadness coalescing in his chest.

 

Chapter Text

 

The world keeps on turning. Al expects everything to stop, or slow down, but he’s long since learned that the world doesn’t wait for you, no matter what kind of a day you’re having. It takes Al a bit longer to get out of bed these days, but that’s his own business, not the worlds’. It takes him extra energy to clean the way he needs to, but that’s his own business. It costs him something to force down breakfast every day, but that’s his own business. It’s all his own business, because the world isn’t waiting for him. It keeps on turning.

Al walks through the Alley with his hands shoved deep in his pockets, jacket turned up against the rough wind, and tries to pick out the differences in the world. There’s nothing.

There’s a woman at the corner of the street selling peacock quills at half the usual price, and Al almost gets a face-full of cerulean plume before he ducks behind a large, muscled man carrying barrels of butterbeer to the Leaky Cauldron. A kid shrieks as his mother pulls him past Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes, and Al catches sight of Freddie in the window, demonstrating something that looks pretty explosive to a bunch of giggling girls.

Everything is the same.

Except everything isn’t the same; it’s like the world is tilted slightly, like someone switched Al’s glasses out for slightly weaker ones during the night. There’s a plastic film over everything in sight, distorting it slightly. He knows it’s not the world outside, but what’s inside him that’s changed, but Al still stumbles as he heads up the library steps, like there was an extra one there, just waiting to trip him up. He still keeps his head down to avoid everyone’s gazes, still mumbles when he reaches the counter instead of smiling and chatting.

His mind keeps flitting back to the evening of the school concert. He keeps seeing Rose lean up to catch Scorpius in a chaste kiss. Scorpius smiling back at her, small but genuine. It keeps him awake most nights, makes things a little slower in the day, a little more agonising. He hasn’t seen Duncan yet – the man had been suspiciously quiet on the phone, when Al rang to move their appointment forward – but he needs to. He needs to talk, to get this out, and there’s nobody else in the entire world that knows he likes guys, not for sure. There’s nobody he’s told, although now he knows that people have guessed. Lily definitely guessed.

He wonders if they talk about it, behind his back, about poor, lonely Al. He wonders if that’s just his own mind, spinning tales of fool’s gold.

“Bad day?” asks the girl in the library. Al grimaces at her, and she clucks sympathetically before handing him his parcel, sliding it across the counter with a wink and a thumbs up. Al smiles back weakly and pulls the parcel towards him. It’s a thick brown envelope with a green wax seal stamped on the front. He takes it over to one of the tables in the corner, settles himself into a chair and tries to shed his coat and open the envelope at the same time, which ends up with him crashing to the floor and then jolting up hastily, smoothing down his hair and glancing around to check that nobody spotted him. The girl at the counter purposely averts her gaze.

“Very smooth.”

Al stops, one arm still trapped in his sleeve, and peers over the top of his glasses at the figure at the other end of the table. His heart sinks a little bit.

“Hey, Dan.”

Dan actually winces. “Well, that was enthusiastic. I can go, if you like?”

That jolts Al out of his stupor.

“No, no! I’m sorry, I’m just having a bad day. Bad week,” he corrects himself, sliding back into the chair. He gestures at the empty seat beside him and then finally wrangles himself out of his sleeve, folding his coat up carefully and putting it in his lap. Dan drops into the seat and glances at the envelope with unguarded curiosity, but doesn’t actually ask. It makes something settle inside Al, something grateful, something fond.

“Is this to do with the concert the other day? Your bad week, I mean,” Dan asks. He props his chin up on his hand and looks at Al, and Al stutters a little before finally spitting out an answer – Dan is stupidly attractive, there’s no other way of putting it, and he looks particularly angelic like that, eyes all wide and interested and blue, very blue.

“Just family stuff,” Al mutters. “And friend stuff, I guess.”

Dan arches the other eyebrow. “And boyfriend stuff?”

“I don’t –” Al coughs. “I don’t… uh… have a boyfriend?”

“You don’t sound very sure.”

Al bites his lip, looks at the envelope. He doesn’t want to talk about it, but he also really, really does. This isn’t the same as with Duncan – Dan can judge him, easily, and make comments. Dan can listen, but he can also react, the way that Duncan can’t.

“I might have broken the cardinal rule of liking guys,” Al admits quietly, shrugging. He glances around, but there’s nobody else in the library this early in the morning, which is a relief. “Which is to never fall for your straight best friend.”

Dan blinks at him slowly, sympathy written all over his face. “Ouch. Damn, sorry Albus. I’ve been there, although it was a while ago now. This wouldn’t happen to be the blonde guy, would it? The one with the red-head on his arm?”

Al dredges up a smile. “Half of my family are red-heads, but yeah. The blonde guy. And now I think I’m doing something stupid because of it.” He gestures to the envelope and then drops his head into his hands, sighing into his skin. Something stupid. He’s pretty sure he’s heard those words recently, and they trigger something in him – a memory, perhaps, but before he can think on it more, Dan puts a hand on his shoulder, lightly.

“Want to talk about it? We can grab coffee, if you like. Just coffee, no pressure.”

It’s right there, an offer to talk about it, and Al can feel himself caving in easily. He looks up, grips the envelope tightly in his hands.

“Just coffee?”

“Just coffee.”

*

“It’s not even that they’re together that’s the problem, because I already knew that was going to happen, and it’s not like I thought he might like me, because that’s just stupid. Which I am, stupid, but I knew he wouldn’t like me back. It’s just that they’re supposed to be my friends. I don’t make friends easily, I’m not good with people, but I’ve been friends with Scorpius since we started school. I thought they would have told me. S’that stupid?”

Al is on his fourth glass of wine. It’s possible that he may have over-estimated his body’s ability to handle alcohol of any kind, especially since the last thing he drank was Betsy’s gift to him a few weeks ago, and he still has half a bottle left of that. Al is mostly made up of tea and water at this point.

Dan is sprawled on Al’s sofa with a half-empty bottle of butterbeer in his loose grip, gazing at the ceiling and occasionally hiccupping with laughter. At Al’s question, which is a little more pathetic-sounding than Al intended it to be, Dan attempts to sit upright in outrage. He hands up hanging mostly off of the sofa, staring at Al, who is starfished across the rug.

“S’not stupid. S’bloody just a decent thing to do, tell your friends that your together, y’know? Why can’t people just be decent?”

Al polishes off his wine in one gulp and then rolls the glass along the floor absent-mindedly. From here, Dan’s upside-down eyebrows look a little bit like wriggly caterpillars – handsome caterpillars – and he laughs to himself. The glass rolls away from him, which is probably for the better.

“Is that why you’re really down here, with your grandma? She’s evil, by the way. She makes me take her to Bingo, and all the old ladies pinch my cheeks.”

Dan snorts, reaches down with his free hand to do exactly the same thing. His hand lingers though, fingers ghosting along Al’s cheekbone, and Al sighs, leaning into the caress.

“I don’t blame them,” Dan says quietly.

Al can feel the pull of sleep, feel his limbs grow loose and tired as the alcohol flows through his veins. The space in his chest that’s filled with Scorpius hurts a little less, feels a little less empty. He’s not drunk, not even close. He’s just a little bit relaxed, a little bit uninhibited, a little loose-tongued. It’s the only reason he feels brave enough to talk like this, to spill his feelings out into the evening air and not feel stupid for feeling wronged, somehow. Dan’s nice about it, too.

They started out with coffee, but Al had gotten a bit agitated while they were out, dealing with the crowds and the noise and the pressure that came in the form of a brown envelope, one that he still hadn’t opened. And Dan had actually noticed. And suggested that maybe they go home, because Dan was pretty cold and hadn’t brought a jacket, even though he could have summoned one or conjured one up, and Al had gratefully accepted.

The envelope is on Al’s coffee table now, beside three two empty bottles of wine and both of their wands. Al keeps glancing at it and then quickly pretending he didn’t see it, which doesn’t actually benefit anyone other than himself, but whatever. It’s been a bad week.

“You didn’t answer the question,” Al says, yawning. “About why you’re down here really.”

“Bad break-up,” Dan says quietly, after a pause, and there’s real pain in his voice that makes Al wince. “Wanted me to quit my job, said I put my work first. Said I didn’t care about him enough.”

Al has nothing to say. He doesn’t know Dan all that well, not after only a few days. He props himself dizzily up on his elbows, and says, “Wanna help me get a new job?”

*

Waking up in the morning is pure hell. Al peels open one eye, groans, and then shuts it again. He stays as still as possible, certain that if he moves, his stomach is going to scream at him. His head is pounding, but he opens his eyes again, slowly, and spends a good few minutes trying to decide if his brain is broken or if he accidentally fell asleep on a merry-go-round last night. All signs point to the latter, Al thinks, as the room continues to spin. Merlin, how much did he drink?

He usually takes his wand to bed with him; he desperately needs a Hangover potion and he’s pretty sure there are two or three in his medicine cabinet, where he keeps all kinds of potions, just in case of an emergency. He doesn’t brew them, of course, but there’s a little store in the Alley that sells sample potions off for a cheaper price. Al groans again as his head threatens to split open, feeling around on top of the sheets for his wand – and he freezes when he finds a hand instead.

Unthinkingly, Al squeezes the fingers beneath his, and the hand shifts a little in his grasp. Al rolls over and almost shrieks like a banshee.

There’s a man on his bed. Or rather, there’s a man in his bed, half-tucked under the white sheets, head slightly falling off of the pillow. He’s definitely shirtless. Black tousled hair and lots of pale skin and beautifully broad shoulders. It takes a full minute of staring before Al’s brain weakly supplies that yes, this is Dan. It’s Dan, Dan the man, Dan the man that’s inside Al’s bed, under the covers, lots of manly chest on display – it’s possible that Al’s brain is still suffering the effects of alcohol, which is why he giggles hysterically and then shoves his head into his own pillow.

“Well, shit,” Al whispers, voice muffled by the fabric. “Shit.”

Dan shifts a little, and Al whips his head up to see Dan frowning in his sleep. The edge of the sheet slides down to his hips as he rolls on the bed, and Al shoves his knuckles in his mouth so that he won’t shriek properly or laugh again. He’s panicking a little, but it’s not the full body panic attacks that usually grip him when he’s done something stupid – this is more of an Oh My Merin there’s an actual human guy in my bed sort of panic. He stares, wide-eyed, at the impressive physique, at the dip in the sheet, and then forces himself to avert his eyes. It’s not an image he’s going to be able to get out of his head any time soon. He’s not entirely sure that he wants to forget about this.

Oh fuck. Al’s mind goes blank. Is he naked?

Al yanks his own sheet up and stares at his own crotch, which is safely ensconced in a pair of boxers, and breathes out a sigh of relief. Not naked, just mostly undressed. He hasn’t got a shirt on either, and as soon as he realises it, the room grows colder. Shuddering, Al scoops the nearest thing off of the floor and shoves it over his head before sliding out of bed as quietly as possible. He’s going to have to deal with this, but not yet. First, he needs a Hangover potion.

He pauses briefly in the doorway, glancing back to ensure that this isn’t just a bed-induced dream, but no, there’s still a man in his bed. Then he pads quietly into the kitchen, barefoot and bewildered. The world is waking up around them, people rolling out of homes and into cars, kissing cheeks and cuddling, gathering up briefcases and tripping their way into the real world, but Al is here, in the safety of his own kitchen, feeling like his hands are moving in slow-motion. He pours two glasses of water and drains one, watching the bustle of people marching by from the window. He downs the potion, which takes care of his headache and any lingering sickness, and then he grabs another potion and the other glass before venturing back into his room.

Dan is in the process of sitting up as Al walks in, sheets pooling around broad hips as he digs the heels of his palms into his eyes, groaning. Al gts caught up, watching all of those muscles ripple delightfully as Dan stretches, and then he freezes as he catches Dan watching him unreadably.

“I’m in your bed,” Dan says, with a note of uncertainty in his usually calm voice.

“Yeah,” Al confirms, rounding the bed and handing him the potion. Dan takes it, gulps it down eagerly, and grimaces at the taste.

“I’m in your bed,” Dan says again, accepting the glass of water. “And you’re wearing my shirt. Did we have sex?”

Al startles, glances down at his chest and belatedly realises that the shirt he’s wearing is way too big to be his. It’s practically hanging off of him, dipping so low that it drops down over the ass of his boxers and reveals a slip of collarbone, too.

“I don’t think so. Are you naked?”

Dan jolts, like the thought didn’t occur to him. He lifts the sheet and then smiles, obviously relieved at the sight of clean, dry boxers. Al tries not to take offence, considering he did the exact same thing, but Dan catches on anyway. He slides smoothly out of bed and puts the water down on the bedside table, next to the lamp. One of his hands rises and cups Al’s jaw, callused fingers brushing against soft skin, sending shivers down Al’s spine. Al goes still, eyes wide and breath a little shallow. He’s not sure what he’s expecting, but it’s definitely not the sweet, chaste kiss that lands on the corner of his mouth and lingers there, the lightest of pressures. Al feels warm, a blush rising in his cheeks as Dan pulls away, expression soft.

“I’d want to remember it, if it did happen,” Dan says, jerking his head at the bed, “but I think we both know this isn’t what we want. Besides, we were both pretty upset last night, as far as I can remember. I would have hated myself if I’d taken advantage of that.”

“I wouldn’t have let you,” Al says seriously. “I can take care of myself, you know. Just because I’m not good with a wand doesn’t mean I can’t look after myself.”

“I don’t doubt that for a second.” Dan winks. “How about I cook you breakfast, since this wasn’t a one-night-stand, and we don’t have to go through the awkward morning routine?”

It’s the nicest, not-break-up that Al could have imagined, and it’s the kindest way he could imagine this ending. He’s grateful for it. And Al might be pretty stupid, but even he’s not that much of an idiot.

“I’m hardly going to turn down free breakfast from a master chef, now, am I?”

*

Al is in the middle of Diagon Alley when he runs into Scorpius. They both come to a stop outside of Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes, and Al is already reaching for the door, ready to hold it open, before he realises who the blonde guy in front of him with a stunned expression is. Cal peers around Al’s leg curiously, scarf trailing along the floor despite the warm weather that’s crept up on them.

“Al,” Scorpius says, his eyes lighting up. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you.”

“Who are you?” Cal says loudly. “Why are you in the way?”

Scorpius looks a little taken aback, blinking down at the small boy. Al taps Cal on the nose with his finger and the boy squeaks, trying to duck away.

“Don’t be rude,” Al says. “This is Scorpius Malfoy. He’s a friend of mine, and he’s not in the way.”

They sort of are in the way, as evidence by an old woman who trundles out of the shop with her crying Grandson, and huffs at them as she shoves past. Al pulls Cal out of the line of fire and then gestures towards the door awkwardly. Scorpius shakes himself and leans forward to open the door.

It’s been a week since Al last saw Scorpius. He looks good, that’s for sure. He’s wearing a white t-shirt and loose, ripped jeans, and his pale eyes are focused intently on Al’s. Al blushes as he steers Cal through the door and then directs him towards the back of the shop, where they keep most of the kid stuff. Aunt Angelina smiles at them as she bustles past, arms full of laundry that looks bright pink, and Al doesn’t envy Uncle George one bit.

“What are we looking for?” Al asks, and Cal jumps eagerly, reciting a list of items that Jane had gratefully given them when Al had offered to help with Jason’s birthday party. Scorpius watches them for a moment with a blank stare, and then shifts closer to whisper in Al’s ear. Al jerks away immediately, putting space between them. Scorpius stares at him, wide-eyed, looking vaguely hurt.

That’s not fair, Al thinks crossly. Scorpius has no right to look at him like that, like a puppy that just got its toy stolen from right under its nose. Al is supposed to be the hurt one here.

“I was going to ask if you were going to the dinner next Sunday,” Scorpius says quietly. “I haven’t seen you in so long, it would be nice to catch up. I have some… stuff, that I need to share with you. Things to say, you know.”

Al furrows his brow, aware of Cal’s growing impatience. “The family dinner thing? Can’t we just talk now?”

Scorpius winces. He looks pretty pissed at himself, for some reason. “I want to, believe me, I really want to. But I’m here with Rose, and we’re supposed to be meeting Ron and Hermione at Fortesque’s for lunch. Believe me, I’d much rather talk to you.”

Al snorts. “Yeah, I think anyone would. They’ll probably go easy on you, though. You’re part of the family, after all, and Uncle Ron doesn’t hate you nearly as much as he used to.”

“That’s not what I…” Scorpius gnashes his teeth as an alarm beeps on his watch, and then he’s backing up, still staring seriously at Al. “Sunday, yeah? Promise?”

Al frowns, but nods. He’s curious, now, and he wants to know what Scorpius has to say. Even if it’s just an apology, or a regular catch-up; anything would be better than this awkwardness that surrounds them where there used to be fierce friendship.

Scorpius grins so brightly that Al stops breathing, mesmerised as he watches his best friend disappear into the crowd. Damn it. He’s been hoping that lots of space, and the fact that Scorpius and Rose are official now, would be enough to convince his traitor heart that moving on would be better for him, for all of them.

“I like mister Dan better,” Cal pipes up, as he tugs Al towards the balloons. Al carefully averts Cal’s gaze from the rude ones, which must have gotten mixed in from the adult section, and points at some very sparkly balloons that explode and then put themselves back together. “Is he really gone?”

“He’s really gone,” Al says, despite the fact that they’ve had this conversation already. “He’s got to go back to work and see his other friends, too.”

It hadn’t been as sad as Al had thought it might have been, saying goodbye to Dan. They had exchanged addresses, and Al had bullied him into buying a phone (he had mentioned a phone and Dan had immediately gone out and bought one and added Al as his only contact, after performing the spell to keep it from messing up around magic) and promised to keep in touch. Al had already received a letter, complete with moving pictures of the restaurant he owned.

“I liked him,” Cal says sulkily. “And now Betsy’s grumpy too.”

Betsy is grumpy, but Al can’t exactly blame her. It must be odd, sharing a flat with someone for a good week, and then having to come back to an empty home once they leave. She also keeps giving Al suspicious looks every time she brings Dan up, like she wants to ask about why she found her Grandson sneaking out of Al’s flat in the morning. She had been leaning against the doorframe at the time, hair in curlers and a cigar between her teeth as she arched her eyebrows at their frozen expressions.

“She’s just sad,” Al says, swinging their hands. “She misses him.”

“Do you miss him?”

“Yep, I miss him too.”

“But not as much as you miss that other man?” Cal asks shrewdly. Al coughs hastily and points at some party blowers, relieved when Cal goes along with the diversion happily. He glances behind him, even though Scorpius is long gone, and feels his heart flip over in his chest. Yeah. Damn it.

*

Family dinners are not something that Al particularly enjoys. Al knows that the others get together frequently. There’s always some a handful of relatives at The Burrow cooing over Grandma Weasley’s cooking and discussing the latest news or gossiping over Dominique’s latest girlfriend. Al generally isn’t there. He never gets the feeling that he’s invited, and he doesn’t think he could comfortably walk through the front door without an official invitation, not like the rest of his family can.

Sometimes, he feels the same way about his childhood home.

The last Sunday of every month is an exception, though. Al has to go – it’s the big family dinner, and everyone is there.

Everyone is there, and they’re all very loud.

Al takes a deep breath and hovers in the living room doorway. The kids are sprawled all over the rug and behind him, in the kitchen, the adults are chattering away to each other about work and the kids and relationships. Al usually ends up in the in between’s of everything, hovering on the fringes and getting in everyone’s way. If Louis were here, then it might be a little different – Louis has a habit of dragging Al into places he doesn’t want to go, to talk to people he barely knows, about things he dislikes, generally – but the other boy went straight from France to Hogwarts, where he’s starting up his apprenticeship.

Teddy’s youngest son, Billy, waddles up to Al slowly, his face scrunched up in determination, and crashes into Al’s legs. Al scoops him up before he can hit the floor and whooshes him through the air, making airplane noises. Billy shrieks with laughter and pulls at Al’s hair, and Al cradles him and pretends to nibble his ears, much to Billy’s delight.

“Don’t wind him up, Albus,” Victoire says, shaking her head. She doesn’t look angry, just exasperated, and Al quirks her a hesitant, apologetic smile before he places Billy back on the floor, nudging him towards the living room. Billy pouts sadly for a minute before trundling off, still wobbly on his chubby legs.

Al leans against the doorframe, watches Aunt Angelina and Ginny exchange slightly sardonic looks at the expense of Teddy, who’s just said something phenomenally stupid.

“Where on earth is Rose?” Aunt Hermione asks, exasperated, coming into the kitchen with her hands on her hips. “She said she would arrive at two, and it’s nearly half past three now. You don’t suppose she’s in trouble, do you?”

Uncle Ron rolls his eyes. “Hermione, Rose doesn’t know the meaning of early or on time.”

“A trait which she obviously gets from her father.”

“She’ll be fine, love,” Uncle Ron says, moving to pat his wife warily on the shoulder, just as the door bursts open and Rose breezes in breathlessly, Scorpius Malfoy on her heels.

“Sorry we’re late,” Rose says, grinning wildly, her cheeks flushed. “Scorpius got caught at the Ministry, and then we had to –”

“Snog each other senseless in the garden?” Freddie suggests. Al privately agrees, since they both look rather rumpled, but he doesn’t say anything; Ron’s face is equally as bright as his daughters, and Scorpius stares at the ceiling like he thinks it might save him. He has lipstick on his cheek – Al looks away quickly.

Ginny whacks Freddie on the head with a tea-towel, just as Grandma Weasley bustles over and kisses both Rose and Scorpius on the cheek.

“Lovely to see you, dears,” she says, in a voice that brooks no argument. “Pull up a seat and I’ll pop the kettle on. There’s still some sandwiches left, I think, and there are biscuits in the tin, providing your father hasn’t eaten them all. I’m glad you got here safe, Rosie. You had your mother and father worried.”

The evening progresses easily – Rose chats about dragons and Uncle Charlie and asks questions excitedly, and nobody mentions the way Scorpius and her are holding hands and blushing every time they so much as breathe in each other’s direction, although Aunt Hermione looks pretty happy. Al can’t help but feel a little miserable, although he’s trying not to. He’s happy for them, sure, but it still hurts. It hurts badly.

It hurts even more that neither of them will really look at him. He wonders, for a moment, if maybe this is the end of their friendship. Maybe they’re just going to slowly stop including him in everything, until the distance is big enough that it would actually be weird to floo-call him out of the blue, or invite him over, or tell him things first. Maybe Scorpius was just talking his way out of an awkward encounter in Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes. Maybe he doesn’t have anything to say to Al.

Al pushes his potatoes around his plate, listening to Lily attempt at a potion that will apparently remove freckles for brief periods of time. Behind him, on the stairs, Roxanne is busy tuning her guitar, Lucy chattering away at her feet, holding a book and reciting passages in Latin.

“Al, stop playing with your food,” Ginny says, busy piling up dirty dishes.

“I’m finished,” Al says, putting down his fork. Scorpius looks at him over the table – because of course Al had to be seated directly opposite him, where he gets a front row seat to Rose giggling and trying to feed her new boyfriend bits of food, which is a lot messier and a lot less romantic than it sounds – and their eyes meet for a moment. Scorpius looks oddly pleading, like he wants Al to stay there, or maybe wants to talk to him, and for a moment, Al’s spirits lift.

“Good, you can carry these to the sink.” Ginny pushes a stack of plates into his hands, breaking the moment. Nodding, Al stands up, shuffling around the table towards the kitchen counter, away from Scorpius. He hears Rose ask Scorpius a question, hears his reply, voice light and yet rough at the same time. Grandma Weasley looks at Al as he approaches the sink, a little harassed-looking, and pinches his cheek with a sudsy hand.

“Just wait right there a moment, dear,” she says, and heads back to the table, just as Al’s dad pushes open the door.

“Uncle Harry!” There’s a general cry of greeting from around the table, but Harry doesn’t look pleased. He smiles distractedly, but Al can tell that he looks a little irritated, his green eyes flashing behind his glasses until he finally sets his sights on Al. Al blinks at him, his stomach flipping with nerves even as he hurriedly tries to think of a reason for that look. What could he possibly have done to anger his dad?

“Harry?” Ginny says, standing up. “Love, are you okay?”

Nobody bothers to pretend like they’re not listening, but the chatter gets louder to cover up the awkwardness, and knives scrape against plates with enthusiasm. Freddie props his chin up on his hand and grins at Al.

“Not really,” Harry says quietly. “I just found out something rather distressing. Al, can I talk to you for a minute?”

“Dad?” Al asks, nervous. He counts to five in his head and takes a slow, deep breath. Harry disappears through the front door, out into the garden, and Ginny gestures with a confused look. Al is so nervous that he forgets to put down the plates, carrying them with him into the garden.

In the garden, Al looks from his mother to his father, pretends that his family isn’t pressing their noses to the window to try and watch what’s happening. The door hasn’t even shut yet before Harry blurts out, “When exactly did you plan on telling your mother and I that you lost your job?”

Al freezes. At first all he can feel is a kind of free-falling sensation, like he’s missed a step going downwards. The front door is still open, and someone in the kitchen mutters busted. Al thinks it might have been Freddie – it’s not James, who’s spending the night with Lauren – but he can’t be sure, because he’s too busy trying to think through the white-hot anger that’s suddenly gripped him. His hold on the plates tightens until his knuckles are white.

“What? You lost your job?” Ginny demands, putting her hands on her hips.

“Two days ago,” Harry says quietly.

Al takes a deep steadying breath, about to explain, when Ginny interrupts again.

“What did you do?” Ginny asks, sighing. That hurts worse than anything else possibly could have, and Al blinks at her.

“Your father worked hard to get you that job, he vouched for you, and you’ve gone and thrown that opportunity down the drain? Have you even bothered to think about what you’re going to do now?”

Al knows she doesn’t mean to start shouting – his mother has a temper on her, one that only her kids and her idiotic brothers can ignite.

“Ginny,” his dad says quietly, glancing at Al’s gleeful cousins with a look of regret on his face. “Maybe we should discuss this at home.”

“This is ridiculous,” Ginny says exasperatedly, throwing her hands up in the air. “I raised you to be hard-working and diligent. Al, you have to start applying yourself if you want to get anywhere in life. What are you going to do now? What did you do? And when the hell were you planning on telling us?”

In one swift move, Al slams the stack of plates down, cutting off his mother.

Bits of porcelain fly everywhere. There’s a large crash as the plates collide with the grass and shatter completely. Silence creeps through the Burrow. Al can feel the stunned gazes of his entire family, as they freeze in the kitchen.

“Al,” Harry begins to shout, his eyes flashing, but Al shouts over him.

“I didn’t lose my job!”

There’s another silence, a much more confused silence this time.

“What?” Harry says, blinking rapidly.

“I didn’t lose my job.” Al can feel his chest heaving. He can’t quite believe that he actually did that. “I didn’t lose it, I quit it. I gave my notice two weeks ago, and I had my last shift two days ago.”

“You quit?” His mum’s face is pale, and she keeps glancing from the pile of shattered plates to Al’s face, as if she can’t quite believe what she’s seeing. “Why on earth did you quit?”

Al swallows thickly. “Because I hated it. I’ve hated it since the day I started there. I never wanted to work there. I’ve spent the last three years filing paperwork and doing nothing else, and feeling too stupid to even think about looking for other jobs, jobs that I might actually want to do. Thank you, though, for assuming that I’m so awful that I even managed to mess filing up somehow.”

Ginny looks taken aback. “Al, that’s – that’s not fair. I didn’t know.”

“You didn’t ask,” Al stresses, talking over her, his hands shaking. “You just assumed, because of course I couldn’t be so stupid as to get rid of the only job I was ever going to get, right? That’s why Dad had to put a good word in for me, even though I didn’t ask him too, because there was no other way I could have possibly gotten a successful job on my own merit, was there?”

There’s a very different kind of silence, now, and Al fervently wishes he was somewhere else, that he had never opened his mouth in the first place. Part of him feels lighter than ever though, a tiny part of him that just keeps unravelling the words on his tongue and pushing them up and out.

Harry shakes his head, mouth slack. “No, Al, that’s not why I did it. I just.” He stops, apparently lost for words.

“You just what?” Al asks, crossing his arms. He glances at the ground, fixes his gaze on a chunk of china to keep tears from welling up; he’s a grown man, and of all things, one thing he doesn’t need right now, is to cry.

“I just wanted to help,” Harry says softly, placing a hesitant hand on Al’s shoulder and squeezing gently.

“I know I’m not like everyone else,” Al says quietly, trying to keep his voice low so that the others won’t hear. “I know I’m not as smart or as talented. I know I’m not Lily, who gets O’s in everything. She’s Head Girl and she’s going to be a fantastic Healer, and I know I’m not James, who’s got a fiancé and the career of his dreams, coaching the Holyhead Harpies. I get why you’re proud of them and not me, because I know that I let you down, but I –  I just, I wish you hadn’t promised me you’d be proud when I was younger. You promised me that you would be proud of me, even if I was in Slytherin.”

Al jams his lips together to keep any more words from spilling out. He can’t look up at his parents, or away to the rest of his family. The Burrow is silent. Nobody says anything. Everyone is still in various stages of surprise and shock. Al glances quickly at the window and catches Lily’s eyes, which are wide and beginning to fill with realisation.

His dad clears his throat a little awkwardly, his green eyes glittering intensely behind his glasses.

“Al, buddy. I’ve always been proud of you. And you were never in Slytherin.”

There’s a question there, a shell-shocked one, as if he’s not sure where Al’s mind is at.

Al shakes his head. “You’re not proud, and that’s fine. I haven’t done anything to make you proud. And I know, I was in Hufflepuff. And I never had a problem with it, until I realised that all of you did.”

There’s a click as the door opens, and Grandma Weasley comes down the back steps. “Albus, don’t be silly dear. Lucy’s in Hufflepuff. We’ve never had a problem with any of you being in different Houses.”

“Lucy is smart,” Al says hoarsely. His heart is beating stupidly fast, and he wants to run. “The Hat put her in Hufflepuff because she values loyalty and kindness, not because she was so thick that there wasn’t anywhere else to put her.”

He doesn’t look at Lucy, or anyone. His gaze flicks to his parents. Harry is pale, and he opens his mouth to say something, but no words seem forthcoming. Ginny has one hand over her mouth, and her eyes are wide and horrified. Al balks; he’s never seen his mum look like that before. She’s crying. Al made his mum cry.

Al shakes his head a little dizzily, and then he’s moving quickly, dodging the mess at his feet and turning around. He stops in front of his Grandma, who has her hands over her mouth too, her eyes sad.

“I’ll buy you some new plates,” he promises her quietly, and then ducks past her into the house. He has to shove past Lily and then he ducks into the living room, ignores his parents calling for him as he throws himself into the floo.

Al lands hard in the grate in his apartment. His knees buckle and he stumbles out, dropping to the floor. He can feel a panic attack coming on, flooding through him, and he lies down on his side, curls up and tries to breathe. He has the presence of mind to lock his fireplace, a quick wave of magic before it hits. Al has never been able to keep panic attacks at bay.

Sobs stick in his throat and he can’t breathe and his whole body is shaking relentlessly, and there’s nothing to do but ride it out, until he’s able to move, able to suck in a long, slow breath. Al doesn’t know how long it takes, but gradually he moves to sit up, slumped against his breakfast bar. His throat hurts and his eyes sting with tears, and he’s just very, very tired.

“C’mon, Al,” he says to himself. “Time to get up.”

He does, eventually. He feels like he’s moving through treacle, like there are lead balloons tied to every bone in his body. He heaves himself upright and shuffles tiredly into the kitchen, hands reaching for the kettle. He calls Duncan, leaves a voicemail when he doesn’t answer, worries about how croaky his voice sounds on the answering machine. He’s glad that Duncan has a mobile – it’s almost impossible to get messages to him otherwise, since he’s always moving around, and Al’s owl is taking his finished paperwork back to the appropriate offices in London.

There’s sunlight coming in through the stained glass window, shading the countertop in a myriad of colours. Al leans forward and opens the latch, lets the warm breeze filter through the gap. His wooden chimes clink together harmoniously, and Al relaxes, tension seeping out of him. He loves it here, in the quiet, the calm. He loves it so fiercely, this space that he’s made for himself. It’s easy to pretend that everything that just happened was a dream. Easy to pretend he didn’t just let out years’ worth of feelings in front of everyone.

Al meant to tell them about quitting his job. He was going to tell them after he got the approval back for his daycare service, after the last of the papers were filled in and filed. He didn’t want to tell his parents, or anyone, really, about all of this, only for it to fall through at the last hurdle. He didn’t want anyone to get their hopes up, that he might actually be doing something worthwhile, only to be disappointed when he failed. His job finished two days ago, but he had spent the last week or so collecting brown envelopes from the library and writing as much as he could, answering the right questions and arranging meetings. There were people that needed to look at his flat, people that needed references and to do background checks.

There was so much to do, and he had meant to explain it, but he hadn’t been able to find a way.

There’s an insistent knock on the door, just as the kettle clicks off.

Al freezes. He doesn’t know how long he was on the floor for, panicking, but he’s pretty sure it’s not long enough for his family to have found his address and Apparated to it. He’s not in hiding, but he’s also not out in the open. His flat is pretty tucked away.

Warily, Al pads over to the front door. He toes off his shoes on the mat, wriggles his sock-covered feet, and peers out of the peephole in the centre of the door.

James is on the other side of the door. His eyes are intense, and he’s frowning worriedly. Al stares in surprise. James is the last person that Al expected to see there.

“Open up, little brother!” James calls, banging on the door again. “We need to talk.”

Al stays quiet, fidgets.

“I know you’re in there!”

Al wants desperately to ignore him, but he knows his idiot brother. James isn’t going to go away. That, and Betsy will probably come out soon if he doesn’t stop. Slowly, Al pulls the locks on the door off and tugs on the handle. The door swings open to reveal James, who’s stood with one hand raised, as if he was about to knock again.

James looks Al up and down, and swears.

Al blinks, taken aback. “What was that for?”

“You look awful,” James says, and strides into the apartment. The door bangs shut behind him, and Al busies himself with the locks. When he turns around, James is studying the apartment with a surprised, appreciative expression.

“Nice place.”

“Thanks,” Al says thickly, rubbing his eyes. “Why are you here?”

He feels a little bit bad for his short tone when James blinks at him, looking hurt.

“Mum and Dad fire-called me in a right state,” James says slowly. “Something about you going off on one at dinner. The whole family’s gone off their nut, Lily sent me a Patronus after mum and dad called, told me to get my ass over here, since I’m closest. Scorpius told her the address.”  

Scorpius. Al shoves down a wave of choking fear – he had forgotten, stupidly, about Rose and Scorpius. It’s ironic, he thinks, as he laugh a little wryly. He had been trying to forget about Rose and Scorpius the entire time he had been there.

“Well, I’m fine,” Al says. His stomach is heavy with guilt, and he feels a bit light-headed. “Sorry to have wasted your time.” He starts to walk towards James, herding him back towards the door, but James stays where he is. Al bumps into him and James hooks one arm around his neck, pulling him in for a fierce hug.

Al stands stock-still, shocked. It’s been a fairly long while since anyone hugged him like this, anyone that wasn’t a kid.

“If you honestly think you’re fine,” James says into Al’s hair, “then we definitely need to talk.”

He lets Al go, but leaves one hand resting lightly on his shoulder. Al blinks up at him, a lump forming in his throat.

“The kettle just boiled,” Al says faintly. “We can go in the kitchen.”

“Lead the way,” James says, and Al does just that.

Maybe half an hour later, Al is nursing his third cup of tea and they’ve exhausted all topics of small talk.

“I know you’re waiting for me to talk about what happened,” Al murmurs. “But I don’t know what to say to you.”

James shrugs. He looks so calm, seated at Al’s breakfast bar with an empty cup in his hand, leather jacket thrown over the back of his chair. “I don’t know what happened. Mum was pretty unclear. They both sounded like hell.”

“They’re angry?” Al asks, keeping his gaze fixed on his tea. It’s jasmine tea, from the dark wooden box that Betsy gave him, as a very late moving-in present. It tastes good, hot and sweet.

“I don’t think so,” James says, scratching his chin. “They sounded more upset than anything.”

Al stays quiet. It’s not hard for him to imagine what his parents sound like when they’re upset. There was that time that James fell off his broom in a Quidditch match. He broke almost every bone in the right side of his body, and he’d spent the better part of a month in St Mungo’s, with Mum and Dad at his bedside.

Then there was the time that a fourteen-year-old Lily fooled a tattoo parlour into thinking she was of age, but that was a different kind of upset. But they’ve never really been upset over Al. Al’s never really done anything to warrant it, besides tantrums when he was little.

He hears James sigh explosively and hunches down, trying to hide.

“Al, just talk,” James says. It’s the closest to pleading that Al has ever heard. “I don’t care what you say, I just want you to talk to me.”

It’s almost exactly what Duncan said to him, in his first ever therapy session, so much so that Al looks up in surprise. He remembers everything from their first session. He remembers almost everything from every session.

“My therapist,” Al begins hesitantly, “That’s what he said to me, the first time I met him.”

“Therapist,” James repeats. There’s a look in his eyes, as if he’s starting to realise that there’s a bit more to this than Al just shouting at a family dinner. “Alright.”

“It’s nothing serious, not anymore,” Al says quietly. He casts his eyes about for something to look at that isn’t James, and his eyes land on the pictures stuck up on his wall, paintings done by Jamie and Cal. He smiles a little. “Nothing I can’t handle. But it’s good, having someone to talk to. Someone neutral.”

“You mean someone that isn’t part of our ever-growing family,” James deduces drily. Al glances at him, and then away.

James puts down his cup. “Okay, truth time. Everyone knows you’ve got a bit of a problem with being a Weasley-Potter. We’ve all noticed it, but nobody’s mentioned it because they don’t want to cause a fuss, or start something painful, I guess. I don’t know what it is that you hate about it, but the thing is, we’re your family. You can’t get away from that, no matter how much you might want to.”

Al chokes on his tea. He puts the cup down heavily, so much so that tea slops over the side, and then wipes his mouth, shocked. He stares at his brother, mouth slack with bewilderment.

That’s what you think? You think I don’t want to be part of this family?”

James spreads his hands. “You live in an apartment that’s miles away from the rest of us, and you didn’t give anyone the address. You barely talk to anyone at get-togethers. You’re always so withdrawn. Plus, there was your last year at school.”

“Nobody asked for the address,” Al says, still a little wrong-footed. He isn’t going to touch on the last comment. “And I guess I never have anything to say.”

James looks at him. “You’re telling me that in the entire time you’ve been alive, you’ve never had anything to say to any of us?”

“Why are you making it seem like I’ve never said a word before today? I do speak, you know, it’s not my fault if you don’t listen,” Al snaps. Then he closes his eyes, regret beginning to sink in.

“I’m sorry,” Al says lowly. “I didn’t mean to bite your head off.”

James stands up abruptly, his chair scraping loudly against the floor. “I want you to bite my head off, idiot. I want you to talk to me like you’re actually a real person. I’d rather you were pissed off than all quiet and withdrawn! The last time you were withdrawn, you spent the whole of your seventh year not talking to any of us!”

Al purses his lips and stares at the counter. There’s a grain of rice there that escaped his last cleaning frenzy, and Al is seized with the urge to grab the basket from the kitchen cupboard and get to work. He can’t, though. He promised Duncan that he could handle this, that cleaning wouldn’t become a problem, and anyway, James is watching.

James is watching, and he looks so frustrated, so confused and annoyed. Al doesn’t know if it’s because of him specifically or just the whole situation, but it makes his stomach tighten. How can he explain? How can he explain the misery that clouded him during his last school year, when he realised he was going to walk out of there at the end of term with barely even one good grade and hardly a single friend at his side? He had Scorpius, sure, the boy who breezed through Hogwarts with flying colours, the boy who was going to be the shining centre of attention at graduation, because he was brilliant and wonderfully talented and deserved to be admired. And he had his cousins, to an extent, cousins that were busy planning teaching internships and trips to Romania while Al was planning to go back to his childhood home and live there for a few more years, because he had nowhere else to go, nor the means to make it there.

How is he supposed to explain that his last year had been spent watching Scorpius and Rose dance around each other while he worried about his future? How is he supposed to tell James that that was the year that he had realised, finally, that Scorpius would never love him back, not in the way he wanted him to? He couldn’t explain the dark places that his mind went to, the hours he spent lying awake each night, despite being exhausted to the bone. He couldn’t explain how it felt, to see everyone else moving ahead of him, living, while he stayed where he was, doing everything he could and not seeming to get anywhere.

He can’t explain the fatigue, the panic attacks, the time it had taken to build himself into something resembling a normal human being again. He can’t explain the pills he takes, still takes, or the carefully watchful gaze of his therapist, or the way he can’t eat sometimes, not for days.

There is no explaining any of it.

Al has to take another breath, and this one is short and gets stuck in his throat. He puts his hands over his eyes and breathes carefully, not eager to bring on another panic attack. The darkness of his palms help him to focus, a little, help to ground him. He cannot have a panic attack, not now. He doesn’t need to give James another reason to look down on him.

“There’s nothing to say,” Al says roughly.  

A warm hand squeezes his shoulder, and for a moment, Al is reminded of his dad, and then of Dan, and then, finally, of James, who still looks a little fearful as Al finally stops hiding in his hands.

“I think there’s a lot to say,” James says. “But if you don’t want to talk, we can do something else. I can’t make you talk to me.”

Al sighs and collapses back against the cabinet. James is there, right there in front of him, asking for him to talk about it, and Al has done such a good job of keeping everything inside that he doesn’t know if he can do this. He let some of it out at the Burrow, but now that he looks back, it just feels dramatic and stupid of him. Are they laughing at him behind his back? Is everything going to be different now, awkward? Will they look at him the same, or will they think he’s childish, for exploding like that, over nothing?

But James is there. For the first time in a long time, someone is there, and they’re asking.

It’s not easy to speak. Al takes regular medication now, and his therapy sessions have helped him, even though he didn’t think they would, in the beginning. He thought they were a load of rubbish, that talking wouldn’t help, but it’s not just the talking. It’s having someone that will listen. Someone who will listen without judging him, without taking offense to anything he says. Everything important is in the past; the worst of it is behind him, that’s what Duncan says, but most days Al still feels like he’s in the eye of the storm, waiting for the next hurricane.

He put his hands to his jacket pocket, thinks for a moment about simply handing James his notebook that Duncan asked him to start using. It’s got pretty much every negative thought that Al’s ever had in it, especially when it comes to his family. Oddly, though, the notebook isn’t in his pocket. He frowns, and then dismisses it. It’s probably in the bedroom somewhere.

It means he’s going to have to actually talk, though.

“Alright,” Al says quietly. “But you can’t laugh at me.”

The grip on his shoulder suddenly becomes too tight, and Al winces, shoots James a look.

“I wouldn’t laugh, Al, I’m bloody worried, you moron. Merlin, is that what you think of me?”

“No, I just…” Al sighs. “I’m just saying, alright? Don’t laugh, or make jokes, or tell anyone, okay?”

James frowns, and the nods. “Mum and Dad won’t be happy about it, but sure. Keep it between us, ‘til you decide you’re ready to come out.”

Al almost falls off of the stool. “What did you say?”

James’ gaze is a pitying, and a little confused, and then a lot sheepish. “Sorry, I meant to let you say it. Look, pretend I didn’t say anything, alright? Let’s just go from the beginning.”

“That’s not … that’s what you thought this was?” Al gapes at him, and James shifts a little uncomfortably.

“Everyone knows, Al,” James says. “I would have thought you’d have realised it, but you’re as oblivious as ever. I mean, there’s that guy that you brought to the concert the other week, and I’ve seen the way you used to look at Frank from school – he was asking about you the other day, by the way, I can put in a good word if you want – and then there’s, well…”

“Scorpius,” Al says firmly. “There’s Scorpius. Yeah, James, I’m not entirely stupid, you know. I worked it out when you were shooting me pitying looks at the concert, but if you think I’m gay, you’ve got another thing coming.”

“You’re telling me that you don’t like guys?” James looks dubious.

Al sighs, and it’s the first time that he’s ever felt more in control of a conversation than the person he’s talking to. “I like guys,” Al explains patiently. “I also like girls. Given the chance, and depending on who they are and what they’re like, I think I could like anyone. It’s not the gender that’s the problem.”

It really isn’t a problem. This isn’t something that Al’s been ashamed of in a long time – in his second year, when he realised that he quite liked Frank Longbottom Jr as much as he liked Maisie Smalls, he had panicked. He had panicked and shoved everything down, and he had pulled it all up again, bit by bit, examining it carefully over the years. Every time he looked at a guy, every time he noticed a boy’s smile, or Scorpius’s laugh, or Scorpius’s everything, and then it had blended into liking Scorpius, and he didn’t have room for shame. Nobody minded Domi’s girlfriends, or that Oliver Wood and Percy had finally gotten together after Penelope left for good.

Just because he hadn’t told anybody yet, didn’t mean Al was ashamed. He didn’t want to do the big reveal, and nobody had ever outright asked him, so he was planning on just waiting to see if he got a boyfriend, and announcing it that way. It was the only thing he could think of that wouldn’t seem over-dramatic.

“Nobody minds,” James says apologetically. “Sorry, I said I was gonna let you talk. Lauren would rip my balls off.”

“How is she, anyway?”

“Oh hell, no, little brother,” James says, grinning. “We were actually getting somewhere then, don’t think I’m about to let you get away with that. C’mon, you were telling me about why you don’t actually hate this family.”

He’s teasing, but something snaps inside Al.

“It’s this family that has a problem with me,” Al says harshly. “I’m not like any of you, James. I’m not like Hugo or Rose, who are so smart that it physically hurts to listen to them talk. I can’t even hold a conversation with them. And I’m not like Lucy or Molly – Molly’s going to be a member of the Wizengamot, for Merlin’s sake, and Lucy’s read everything under the sun, and she’s going to write everything under the sun, too. Scorpius is in a relationship, and he’s one of the best Curse Breakers since Bill. Roxy was on the damn radio the other morning, and Freddie practically owns his own branch of WWW in Hogsmeade. Louis just started his apprenticeship and Teddy and Vic have another baby on the way, and don’t even get me started on you and Lily. And I’m just here, on my own, doing nothing and going nowhere. Everyone’s so much more than me.”

Al can feel himself shaking when he finally shuts his mouth. Merlin, he hadn’t even said hardy anything and he’s already a mess.

James puts his hands on Al’s shoulders and, very carefully, reels Al in. Al closes his eyes as he rests his forehead on James’s chest and sighs. He always feels stupid after outbursts like these, always feels melodramatic and ridiculous. James doesn’t say anything, and Al realises he’s waiting for Al to stop crying. Tears slide down his cheeks silently, and Al swipes them away, leaning back and keeping his head ducked.

“Al.”

“Not what you expected?” Al ventures a guess. He’s not sure what there is left to say.

“You could say that,” James says. He takes a deep breath and pulls him into another hug. It’s a lot more careful than the first one had been, as if he’s scared that Al is something brittle. “Shit, we’ve really done a number on you, haven’t we?”

“I won’t bloody well break, James,” Al says. James makes a small sound and crushes him in his arms. Al yelps, but makes no move to escape. He needs this.

“Al, I – I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.” He looks Al straight in the eye. “I haven’t been a great big brother, have I? Yeah, I’m going to have to work on that. We’re all going to have to work on things, okay? Just, thank you. For telling me. And for not kicking me in the dick a few years ago when I deserved it. I promise, stuff’s gonna change, alright? I promise.”

Al’s not entirely sure that it’s true, but at least it’s out there now. Somebody knows. James knows, and he’s going to try. That’s – that’s enough, for now.

“You know you have to tell Mum and Dad,” James says, later, when they’re both sprawled on the couch. Al is on his fourth cup of tea, and James is on his second packet of biscuits. Al is going to have to go shopping, because James has eaten all the good ones, the ones with chocolate on. He mumbles something incoherent. They’ve talked a little, but mostly James has just been there, a steady presence as Al describes why he quit his job, and, in fits and starts, his tentative plans for a new one.  

“Al, you know they aren’t gonna let this go,” James tells him, watching the television with a slightly amazed expression. “I’ve got to convince Lauren to get one of these. How does it work around all the magic?”

“Aunt Hermione made a spell a few years ago to counter the effects of magic against technology. I heard her telling Rose, and I got my neighbour to do the spell. Besides, I don’t use as much magic here,” Al explains.

“I’m not very good at magic,” Al adds quietly, a little while later.

James hums. “Thing is, with Hogwarts, we only learn certain things. We only learn the magic. We don’t do math, or whatever the muggles learn. Not being good at magic doesn’t make you a stupid person. And even if you weren’t very clever, that doesn’t make you any less of a person.”

Al stares at him. “Who knew you could be all wise?”

“Yeah, yeah. Enough chick-flick stuff, I want to watch these guys beat the shit out of each other.”

*

Dear Mr A. Potter,

We are pleased to inform you that, pending the results of your Health, Fire and Safety training course, you have been accepted into the Earlybird childcare program, developed by The Ministry of Magic in 1992. Inspections will be performed weekly on your home and any inappropriate behaviour will result in your immediate eviction from the program, as well as a ban from all childcare approach services in the future…

Tea grows cold by Al’s outstretched hand, untouched. He hasn’t moved in a while, hasn’t let himself move. He feels as if he even so much as breathes, this whole, unsteady structure of disbelief will come crumbling down around him, and he’ll be back to square one again. The letter is still open, the ink a little smudged from where Al has run his fingers over it. The owl that brought it is still hopping about on the windowsill, nipping at biscuit crumbs that James left behind last night.

Al knows this doesn’t fix everything, but he’s got permission now. He can start up a Day-care, and as long as he’s careful, he might actually be able to keep it. This letter is a part of his future, and even if it’s something small and stupid, even if it’s something that other people are going to scoff at and laugh about, Al damn well earned it. He earned this.

He picks up the letter and smiles hesitantly, feels safe enough to do so in the warmth of his kitchen. It’s a start.

 

Chapter Text

“I came to apologise.”

Al blinks, standing in the doorway with Jamie wrapped around his ankle and Amber giggling from somewhere behind him, which probably means she’s doing something she shouldn’t be doing, like sticking glitter up Gemma’s nose again.

“Uh,” he says. “What?”

Rose deflates a little, her shoulders sagging as her dramatic announcement goes right over Al’s head. Rose has always had a flair for the dramatic, and usually Al doesn’t mind, but he’s a little busy at the moment. Not only that, but he really doesn’t want to see her.

He glances behind her, expecting to see Scorpius joined at her hip, but the hallway is empty. He catches sight of Adam Porter instead, the guy who keeps getting Al’s mail, on the stairs, and they both wave. Rose turns to see what he’s looking at, and when she turns back, her eyes widen.

“What’s with all the kids?” Rose says suddenly, as though she’s only just spotted Jamie. She peers past Al at the mess of toys and socks and snacks, her expression growing more and more bewildered.

“I’ve been invaded,” Al says solemnly. There’s a chorus of little shrieks of protest.

“Mister Al is our teacher,” Jamie pipes up, still clinging to Al’s leg. Al gently nudges him off and picks him up instead, poking Jamie in the ribs gently and making the little boy giggle. He’s aware of Rose watching him curiously, but he tries not to let it bother him.

“Come in,” Al says, stepping away from the door. “I’ll explain inside, if you like.”

Rose stalks in, banishing her cloak to the peg behind the door with a flick of her wrist. She examines his living room curiously, and then follows Al into the kitchen. Al is immensely grateful that the kitchen isn’t a separate room, just partitioned off by the island counter, otherwise he’d have a hard time seeing the kids. He shoos Jamie away with a pile of coloured paper for the kids to draw on.

He puts the kettle on and fetches two mugs. He hands Rose the one with a Hungarian Horntail on, and she grins at it, watches the dragon soar across the ceramic, shaking its wings mightily. He dumps coffee into her mug and selects a teabag for his own, and they both wait for the kettle to boil; Al keeps a keen eye on the kids as they make a start on some pictures, and Rose keeps a keen eye on him.

“So what brings you here?” Al murmurs, once they’ve both taken a sip of their drinks. He catches sight of Amber over Rose’s shoulder and sighs. “Amber, roll your sleeves up, sweetheart. You’ll get glue on them, and I don’t have a spare.”

Rose is staring at him blankly.

“What?” Al asks, fidgeting uncomfortably.

“What do you mean, ‘what’?” Rose asks incredulously, spluttering a little. “What is all this? The kids and the glitter everywhere and the ‘being a parent’ thing. You have paint on your cheek and there are apple slices everywhere.”

Al splutters back. “I’m not a parent. None of these are mine, I just look after them in the day. It’s a new thing.”

“Don’t you need qualifications for that?” Rose asks, frowning as she sips her tea. “It’s not exactly an easy job, is it, looking after children?”

How would you know? Al wants to snap, but he purses his lips instead. Rose must catch something in his gaze, because she puts her coffee down with a roll of her eyes.

“I was just making an observation, Al,” Rose says. “Merlin, don’t be so sensitive. It was a surprise, that’s all.”

“Of course it was,” Al mutters. “Because it’s not as if anyone expects me to actually be doing something with my life, is it?” 

“That’s not what I meant,” Rose says, throwing her hands up in exasperation. “I thought you were happy in your old job, that’s all. We all did. And I definitely didn’t picture you with kids.”

Al folds his arms. He can feel his heart start to beat a little faster, but he can’t tell if it’s anger or anxiety.

“What was my old job?” Al asks, trying to keep his voice calm. Rose looks at him quizzically. “My old job, the one I was so happy doing, what was it?”

Rose stares at him. And then she shifts a little uncomfortably, her eyes flitting to the left, and Al feels a small measure of triumph before he sags against the counter. He doesn’t want to fight; he hates confrontation, and he knows that most of the time, Rose doesn’t mean to be insulting. She’s always been a little blunt, a little too forward with her opinions. Sometimes, Al wishes he was more like her. Mostly, he just wishes he was less like himself.

“Never mind,” he says, bracingly. “What did you come here for?”

Amber giggles, and Al glances over, smiling softly when he sees Jamie holding up his picture with a proud grin. He’s got a sticker stuck to his forehead, and Amber is pointing at it with one tiny finger as she laughs uncontrollably. Al grins a little, shaking his head fondly, and when he turns back to Rose, she’s got this soft, thoughtful look on her face.

“I came to apologise to you,” Rose says. She stirs her coffee with her wand absentmindedly. “About Scorpius.”

Whatever good mood Al had retained since Rose’s visit evaporates immediately at the mention of his best friend. He’s not angry, exactly, (he doesn’t have the energy for angry) but he feels cheated somehow – hurt. Like he wasn’t worth being told about this fantastic new relationship, like they thought he wouldn’t take it well. And no, he wouldn’t have taken it well, but he would have kept that inside. He’s been expecting it, after all, ever since Scorpius pulled Rose out of the lake, and maybe even before that.

“You don’t need to apologise,” Al says quietly, shrugging as he looks at anything other than Rose. “I’m happy for the both of you.”

Rose snorts. “That’s the worst lie you’ve ever told, Albus, and you know it.”

Al looks at her sharply. “It’s been a long time coming, the both of you together. I am happy for you. Maybe I wasn’t at first, but I’m not so awful that I don’t want to see my two friends happy together, if that’s what you want. And if you think otherwise, then you really don’t know me very well at all.”

He takes a long gulp of tea so that he won’t open his mouth again. Christ, since when did he get so talkative?

Rose looks taken aback. She lets go of her coffee and hesitantly slides her hand across the table until she finds one of Al’s, and then she squeezes his fingers gently. It takes him by surprise; Rose is tactile, but only briefly, and it’s all instinct. She claps people on the shoulders, ruffles hair, kisses cheeks breezily. She’s never like this. Not with Al, anyway. Not many people are.

“Now I owe you two apologies,” Rose says, and she laughs nervously when Al looks up at her in surprise. “Look, Al… Scorpius and I, we aren’t together. Not properly.”

It takes a moment for the words to sink in. When they do, a sort of numbness settles over him. Very slowly, Al drags his hand out of her grip. “Excuse me?”

Rose winces. “Just listen, okay? Mum’s been going on and on at me, and so has Gran, about family and coming home more often, and about settling down and getting a boyfriend, or a girlfriend, which personally I think is hypocritical, considering what she and Dad and Uncle Harry got up to back in their day. There was no settling down when they were younger, was there, no, it was all fighting Death Eaters and being fugitives.”

“They were in the middle of a war,” Al points out, in the interest of fairness. He feels a little light-headed.

“My point is,” Rose says impatiently, “I was fed up of Mum nagging me half to death, and I know they all love Scorpius to pieces, so I decided to just let them see that I was trying with relationships and that sort of thing, even though it doesn’t really interest me in the slightest. I asked Scorpius, a little while ago, if he would pretend to be my boyfriend for a bit. Just for a bit!”

Silence falls over the kitchen. Al watches the kids – there’s just the three of them for today, since Al doesn’t have the supplies or the budget or the clients for more of them, he’s only just starting up after all – and finds that he rather does have the energy to be angry after all.

“How long were you going to keep it up?” Al asks quietly.

“We were going to ‘break up’ on Sunday, at the family dinner,” Rose says, watching him carefully. “I knew Mum would leave me alone if I pretended to not want anything to do with relationships for a while, because I’d be all upset over the break up, as far as she knew. We were waiting for the right moment. It was a bit earlier than I had hoped for, actually, but Scorpius insisted that we end it as soon as possible.”

“Why didn’t you – ah.” Al had his own little breakdown at the Burrow that day, which must have put a damper on things already.

He doesn’t say anything for a while, glancing over every now and again to make sure the kids are alright. He wants to be over there, sitting on the floor at the coffee table, cutting out foam and drawing giraffes with all the little ones, making them laugh as he tries to guess what they’ve drawn with increasingly silly suggestions. He doesn’t want to be here, trying to work out of he’s mad or tired or hurt or pleased while Rose looks at him anxiously, bottom lip trapped between her teeth.

It makes sense, in a ridiculously stupid way, but it’s very on par for Rose. Acting, being the centre of attention for a while, and then a big, dramatic break-up in front of the whole family. Al doesn’t have a problem with Rose being dramatic – it shows how confident she is, and it’s just a part of her. Most of the time, it’s amusing. Some of the time, though, it just hurts.

“So you faked a relationship,” Al says slowly. “Even though you, and apparently everyone in the entire family, knows how I feel – actually, that’s not even the point. The point is, why the hell didn’t you tell me? I know we’re not as… close, anymore, but you could have told me. Especially if it wasn’t even real. You could have just told me.”

Rose winces again. “Scorpius wanted to tell you, as soon as I asked him. He didn’t want you to find out at the same time as everyone else.”

“So why didn’t he?” Al isn’t ready to make excuses for Scorpius yet.

“I told him not to.” A blush spreads across Rose’s dark skin.

“Why?”

Rose throws her hands up in distress, and coffee slops onto the counter. “I don’t know! I don’t even have a good reason. I told myself it was because I didn’t want you to accidentally give anything away, but I think it was something else. Jealousy, maybe.”

Al can’t help the incredulous look that spreads across his face. “What can you possibly be jealous of?”

Rose shoots him a look, as though he’s behaving very oddly. “Well, you, obviously.”

Al is so shocked that he just sits there, mouth hanging open unattractively. He’s momentarily distracted by a shout from the living room, and quickly hurries in when he spots a pot lying on its side, glitter spilling out all over the mess of paper. It takes a minute or two to brush it all up and pour it back into the pot, and then another minute as he’s derailed by three very eager children holding up sparkly pictures.

Cartoons, Al thinks, staring down at the mess in his living room. Cartoons would have been much safer than this.

He walks slowly back into the kitchen, crisis averted, and leans against the counter, as far away from Rose as he can manage. He’s too worked up to sit down, but he manages not to show it. His hands shake, so he puts them in his pockets. Rose watches him, like she’s waiting for an explosion, but when nothing is forthcoming, she says, “Al? Can you say something?”

“Why me?” he asks abruptly, his voice low. “Out of all the people in the world, I am the last person you should be jealous of. There’s nothing to be jealous of. I haven’t done anything worth envying. I’m just – I’m me, Rose.”

This time, Rose is the one who looks incredulous. “It’s not what you’ve done, Al. It’s who you are, what you’re like. Look, I like who I am, and I wouldn’t change it for the world, but I can’t help but wish that things were a little easier. I don’t make friends easily, Al. I’m too brash, and I don’t care enough. You, though. You care more than anyone else in the world, and that’s why you’re the first person I will always be jealous of.”

Al is left reeling. He doesn’t – this isn’t something he ever envisioned happening, having someone tell him that they wished they were more like him. This stuff never happens, not even in Al’s daydreams. It’s baffling to hear. Rose –  brave, clever, amazing Rose, is jealous of him.

“And then there’s you and Scorpius,” Rose adds. Al looks up sharply. He’s not sure that he wants to hear whatever Rose is about to say, but as usual, he has no choice in the matter. Rose is definitely her mother and father’s daughter – all the ruthless curiosity of Hermione paired with the blunt, slightly tactless behaviour of Ron, and it’s terrifying. It’s a wonder, Al thinks, that Hugo turned out as mellow as he did.

“C’mon, Al, you must have seen it. You two have this ridiculous friendship that transcends all boundaries.” She sounds a little bitter. “From the minute you met him on the very first train ride, to our graduation, and beyond that, you’ve both been glued at the hip.”

“You were there too,” Al reminds her. “We were your friends, too. That’s why I don’t understand any of this, why you kept this a secret, especially since I was waiting for it to happen. Ever since fourth year, everyone’s been expecting you two to kiss and grow old together.”

“Fourth year,” Rose says, and she laughs a little wryly. “Fourth year is the year we realised that nothing was ever going to happen between us.”

Al blinks at her in confusion. He takes his hands out of his pockets and steps hesitantly towards the counter. “What are you talking about?”

“You mean the lake, right?” Rose asks. “Right, he pulled me out of it – I could have saved myself, by the way, if I’d just had a little more time – and then after he did his whole hero act, he cornered me in the common room and interrogated me to make sure I didn’t feel anything more than brotherly affection for him. He was freaking out, too, and I would have slapped some sense into him if he hadn’t just done what he did.”

“Why was he freaking out?” Even now, Al doesn’t like to think of Scorpius being upset. He remembers that day, remembers thinking that Scorpius’ absence was probably to do with Rose, although it doesn’t look like he was entirely right about what he suspected they were doing. He remembers lying in bed that night, listening to his classmates snore and grumble in their sleep whilst he stared at the canvas, thinking miserably that everything was going to change now.

And everything had changed, but apparently not in the way that Al had thought it did.

“He said he’d realised something, once he got me to the shore, and I did too.” Rose purses her lips. “You’ll have to ask him about the rest, though. It’s not my story to tell.”

Yeah, that’s not happening, Al thinks, as he watches Rose stand and gather up her things.

“I really am sorry,” Rose says guiltily, as he leads her to the door. “You deserved better than that. I should have told you from the beginning – or thought of something smarter, so that we could have avoided this whole mess. And I think that was pretty brave, by the way, standing up to everyone at the Burrow, even if I don’t believe half of the shit you said about yourself. It was still brave though.” She punches Al in the shoulder and Al tries not to wince.

“Promise me you’ll talk to Scorpius?” Rose asks, looking stern. Al arches an eyebrow back.

“You two are best friends,” Rose says, shrugging on her coat. “You get each other, you understand each other, even though one of you barely talks and the other one never shuts up. You’re both friends, Al, proper friends. He looks at you like you hung the moon, for Merlin’s sake. I refuse to be the one to ruin the relationship of the century.”

Al shakes his head emphatically, snorting with laughter. “I think you’re confused, Rose. That’s me, that’s how I look at him. And we aren’t – Scorpius is – he deserves a lot more than this.” He gestures at himself, and Rose looks a little sad all of a sudden. “He doesn’t want me like that, never has. Never has and never will.”

He has no intention of seeking Scorpius out, not if he can help it. Scorpius is going to have to come to him for this one, and seeing as Rose is definitely wrong about the other boy’s ‘feelings’, Al knows it’s not going to happen anytime soon.

“You might be surprised,” Rose says softly. She leans in and kisses him on the cheek, purposefully, leaving Al a little dumbstruck and nostalgic – she used to do that in school, when he was falling asleep on his textbook during an all-nighter study session. It hasn’t happened in a while.

He stays in the doorway for a few more minutes after Rose has left, pondering the whole conversation. He’s surprised that he didn’t get mad, but he can feel it brewing. Anger, at being left out yet again, at being put through so much unnecessary – well, pain. It feels dramatic to say pain, but the truth was, it hurt, to see them together. He feels like a child, watching adults spell out the word ‘sweets’ so that he won’t get mad and demand some. It’s more than a little humiliating.

“You look worse for wear. Girlfriend?” Betsy asks, appearing in her doorway. She’s shuffling a little, her slippers scuffing against the ground, a cigar between her teeth. She lights it with her wand and stares at Al until he snorts and shakes his head.

“She’s my cousin,” Al corrects her. “You know those aren’t good for your lungs.”

Betsy snorts. “Is that what my Grandson told you to say? He worries too much, silly boy.” There’s a slightly sad note to her voice, and Al’s heart aches. He wonders if she’s lonely. He wonders if he’ll end up like that one day, alone in his flat with a few pets and nobody to talk to, nothing to keep his mind occupied as the days drift by.

“I think he worries just enough,” Al says. He steps back and gestures inside. “I’ve got lasagne that was going to be your dinner, but we can eat it now, if you like, while it’s hot. The kids will want to see you, too.”

“This better not be sympathy, boy.”

“No sympathy. Just lasagne.”

Betsy eyes him a little suspiciously and then grumbles her acceptance.

“No cigars though,” Al adds, grinning as he backs into his flat. “Not with the kids around.”

“Cheeky bugger.”

*

Al snaps a couple of pictures of Betsy eating lasagne with Amber in her lap and paint on her face, and then he picks the silliest one later that night, after everyone’s gone home, and sends it to Dan. There’s a beep a few moments later, and he reads the text from Dan with a grin. They talk back and forth for a bit, and then Al wishes him goodnight and puts his phone away, only for it to start ringing a few moments later. Al frowns, struggling to sit up in bed as he fumbles for the phone in the dark. There are only three people with his number, since the majority of phones still struggle to work around magic, even with Hermione’s special spells.

“Duncan?” Al asks, putting his phone to his ear.

“Albus, I’m so sorry that I had to cancel our appointments recently.” He sounds a little stiff, his voice a lot less buoyant than usual, but it’s definitely Duncan.

“You haven’t been answering your phone,” Al says hesitantly, still not completely comfortable with phone-calls. “I was worried.”

“Everything’s quite fine,” Duncan says. There’s no reassurance in his tone. Al pulls the phone away from his ear and stares at it for a moment before he puts it back.

“Are you sure?”

“Quite sure. Listen, I’d like to make an appointment to see you as soon as possible. I know you’ve got that volunteering group in the poppy fields tomorrow, but when’s the earliest you can come in after that?”

Al opens his mouth to answer, only to snap it shut as his blood runs cold. Poppy fields.

When Al had first met Duncan, they had established rules. Boundaries were set over what Al would talk about, and what questions Duncan would ask. Decisions were made over whom Duncan could inform of Al’s condition should something happen, and Al had reluctantly stated his parents’ contact details, which were only to be accessed should Al give Duncan permission, or if Al was hurt. And they had also, born out of Al’s growing paranoia, decided on a safe word.

It was a precaution, when Duncan was dealing with patients who were more or less in the public eye. They would select a password, and if something was going wrong, they would find a way to insert the password into general conversation.

In all the years that he had spoken to Duncan, they had never used the password before. Until now. Poppy fields, Duncan had said. Al doesn’t have a group on in the poppy fields. There aren’t any poppy fields close by, not in London. Something is wrong, Al realises.

“Albus?”

Al swallows thickly as he realises he’s been quiet for some time now. He clears his throat as a strange thump echoes over the phone, and then he says, “Sorry! Sorry, I’m a bit groggy, and I’m trying to think. I’m free the day after tomorrow, if that would work?”

There’s a pause, and then Duncan says, “That would be perfect. Thank you, Albus. I look forward to meeting you.”

“You too,” Al murmurs, and then the phone clicks off.

Shit.

*

The Ministry of Magic is rather quiet. Evening has long since fallen, and it’s almost the middle of the night, and he has playgroup the next morning, but this is important. Al waits impatiently as the desk clerk finishes examining his wand suspiciously, a polite smile fixed on his face.

“’Ere’, don’t I know you from somewhere?” The clerk asks, nodding to a wizard as he strides past with a briefcase in hand. The wizard barely spares them a glance. Al grits his teeth – of all the Potter children, Al is the one who looks most like his father. James and Lily both got their mother’s fair skin and auburn hair, but is Al’s skin is dark and his eyes are bright green, and his hair is a black mess. There’s a picture of his dad from school next to a picture of Al from school sat on the mantelpiece at the Potter house, and everyone who glances at it coos over how similar they look. That’s where the similarities end, though, in Al’s opinion. Harry Potter is a much better man than Al will ever be.

“No, but you might know my dad,” Al says. “He’s the Head Auror around here. I’m here to see him, actually, if he’s still working.”

There’s a beat where the clerk simply stares at him, confused, and then realisation dawns. His eyes go as wide as saucers, and he nearly knocks his hat off in his haste to thrust Al’s wand back into his hand.

“Go through, Mr Potter, go right through!”

“Thanks,” Al says, a little sheepishly. He doesn’t particularly enjoy using his dad’s name to get things done, but this is an emergency, he tells himself. It’s fine in an emergency.

His stomach is in knots by the time he reaches his dad’s office. It’s a little way down from the Minister’s office, where Kingsley is probably still dealing with paperwork, much like Al hopes his dad is. He knocks on the door.

“Enter.”

Harry is sat at his desk, surrounded by piles of paper and open folders. He’s got ink on his chin, and his hair sticks up all over the place, like he’s been running his hands through it.

“Just one minute,” Harry mutters. Al kicks the door shut carefully, wincing as the noise echoes through the room. He puts his hands in his pockets and slouches, waiting for his dad to finish scribbling something down on a sheaf of notes.

“Sorry about that,” Harry says pleasantly, putting down his quill. “How can I help – Al.”

Al scratches his nose and smiles a little awkwardly. It feels more like a grimace. Harry shoots up out of his chair, looking bewildered and concerned, and Al waves him back down.

“Is everything alright?” Harry demands.  

Al explains, briefly, about the situation with Duncan. Now that he’s had time to think on it, he’s a little less sure of himself. What if Duncan just mistakenly said the wrong thing? He must have other patients besides Al, after all, and it’s no telling what kind of things they do in their spare time. And the cancelled sessions and the absences can be easily explained away. But what if it is serious? Then Al will be the one who let a grown man suffer, and maybe his family too, and honestly, he has no idea what to do.

“I didn’t know what to do,” Al says, wringing his hands. “But it seemed suspicious, and that’s our safe-word. I thought, maybe you could check it out, seeing as you’re Head Auror? I have his address. I wrote it down, and his number.”

He hands his dad a piece of folded notepaper, and Harry examines it.

“So, Duncan is your therapist?” Harry asks hesitantly.

Al nods.

“How long have you been seeing him?”

“A few years.” Al shrugs. “He’s a good man, and a good therapist. And I didn’t want to do nothing, not if there was something wrong.”

“You did the right thing,” Harry assures him. “I’m not sure how much help I can be, but we can look into it. It’ll have to be tomorrow though, when the rest of the team’s in. And it might be that nothing comes up, Al. He might be fine, and this might be a misunderstanding.”

Al nods, bites his lip. “I know, I just…”

Harry squeezes his shoulder. “You did the right thing.”

There’s a moment of tense silence, and then Al makes to leave, pointing awkwardly over his shoulder at the door, and Harry waylays him by tugging on his sleeve.

“Al, your mother and I have been meaning to talk to you since we saw you at the Burrow. We thought you might want a bit of space… after, uh, after everything that happened.”

“I’m sorry about all of that,” Al murmurs. He knew there was a big chance that his dad would want to talk about everything that had happened at the Burrow, but he had hoped to be in and out of the office quickly, had hoped to avoid the awkwardness of not knowing what to say. He’s not sure if he should be the one apologising or not, so he apologises anyway. “I shouldn’t have made such a fuss.”

“I shouldn’t have started an argument in front of the entire family,” Harry says firmly. “Especially since there was nothing to argue about, in the end. I’m sorry, Al.”

Al looks up in surprise. The silence stretches for just a little too long, and Harry’s cheeks go red.

“I – that’s – Thank you,” Al finally gets out. “For apologising. Even though you didn’t need to. Thank you.”

“I did need to,” Harry says. “I think we should have a talk, you and your mother and I. Nothing terrifying.”

“Will it be as awkward as this?” Al blurts out.

Harry snorts with laughter, grinning widely. “Probably. But I’ll do the cooking, if you like.”

Al looks at him for a moment, at the earnest look in his eyes, the determination that won him a war. He thinks of the way his mother had looked after he had shouted at her, and his gut twists. He doesn’t like feeling like this. He hates it. He wants, more than anything, to fix all of this, to mend their relationship.

Maybe it won’t be easy, but it’ll be infinitely more difficult if he doesn’t try at all.

“I could cook,” Al offers. He has to clear his throat twice before he can get the words to sound like actual words. “My new flat. You could come and see it, and I could cook. We could talk, if you like.”

“Are you sure? I don’t want to make you uncomfortable.”

Whatever hesitance Al has immediately disappears at the warmth and concern in his tone. “I’m sure,” he says. “It’ll be nice. Here.”

He takes the piece of paper back and scrawls his own address at the bottom of it, along with the flat number. Harry takes it with a relieved grin, and then surprises Al with a brief hug, before reassuring him that he’ll let him know what happens tomorrow, with Duncan. Al jogs out of the room and comes to a halt in the middle of the corridor when he realises that he just did that. He had a normal, heartfelt conversation with his dad and nothing bad happened, nobody got upset, and they put themselves on the right track to fixing some of this.

He’s not naive enough to think that this fixes everything, and he’s still deeply worried about Duncan, but it’s a start, after all. He’s done what he can.

*

Al stares at the ceiling, blinking lethargically. There’s no reason for the empty pit in his stomach, nor is there a reason for the way sleep clings to him like a second skin. He went to bed at a reasonable hour and he hasn’t eaten anything bad, but some days are just plain bad. Some days have already decided that they’re going to suck before Al has even opened his eyes.

His bed is not extraordinarily comfortable that morning, and it’s a bit cold in the house, as though the miserable weather has seeped in through the locked doors and shuttered windows, and rain patters against the window, making it impossible to sleep, but Al doesn’t want to leave his bed. He feels so very tired, and yet he can’t sleep. He has things to do today, important things, but it makes no difference. His lungs feel heavy, and every breath is a chore.

He hates these days. There’s no rhyme or reason for them, and that’s the most frustrating thing about them. He’s done everything right and yet it still takes a phenomenal amount of effort just to open the fucking curtains. He starts to make himself tea, but when the kettle finally boils he just sits at the counter, lets the water grow cold again while he waits for the flat to warm up. The flat stays cold, and Al stares out of the window, trying to summon the energy to get up and get ready.

The morning brings no news of Duncan. Or rather, it brings news that Al doesn’t want to hear regarding Duncan.

“We checked his house, and his wife and kids were home, but they claimed that Duncan was on a work trip with some other professors,” Harry says, his head bobbing about in the fire. “I’m going to put out an alert on his whereabouts, but his family didn’t seem worried. His wife said that she talked to him yesterday. I’ll keep on it, Al. Try not to worry too much, and send me a message if something changes.”

Al nods and waves half-heartedly as he watches his dad duck out of the fire. So that’s that, then. There’s either something going on and Al still hasn’t fixed it, or nothing’s gone wrong and he’s made a big deal over nothing. He grits his teeth and forces himself to find clothes, to brush his teeth. He doesn’t bother combing his hair, and he just splashes cold water on his face; showers require more effort than he can scrounge up today.

“Stop being so bloody miserable,” Al tells his reflection sharply, but his reflection doesn’t listen. It stays pale and forlorn and tired.

Al yanks the hood up on his coat, which is a little too small, all bunched up under the arms. He’s got a list a mile long of errands and the rain is coming down harder now, but he can’t put this off any longer. If he’s lucky, he can get through everything in the morning, and he won’t see anyone he knows, and then he can come back here and sleep away the afternoon.

Al opens his front door and finds Scorpius on the other side.

For a moment, Al just stares. Then Scorpius opens his mouth, and Al slams the door shut in his face.

It makes a very satisfying noise, and Al considers dusting his hands off and walking away, considers giving up and going back to bed, but he hears the way Scorpius's breath catches even through the thick wood and it hurts a little bit, and there's a part of him that just wants to see his best friend’s face. Gritting his teeth, Al forces himself to wait, hand hovering over the handle.

There's a very tiny knock. "Al?"

Al folds his arms over his chest, which hurts. "What do you want?"

"Al, please. I want to talk to you, and apologise, and just - please, I want to see you."

Al ducks his head, yanks his hood back down. There’s no way he’s going outside now. "Bugger off."

"Al, please."

Oh fuck. That's all it takes, Al seethes to himself, that's all it takes before Al is lifting the latch and yanking the door open again, and he hates himself for it, but he can't help it. Scorpius looks up, wide-eyed. He looks like a wreck, hair all mussed up like he's been dragging his fingers through it, clothes rumpled like he ran here, and he looks so very pale, in a way that's unhealthy.

"Are you ill?" Al asks uncertainly, fingers clinging tightly to the doorframe. He might be pissed at Scorpius, but that doesn't mean he wants him to look like this. He never wants Scorpius to look like this. He wants Scorpius to grin and bounce on his heels and reel off random factoids about the Ancient Greek Wizards at the speed of light.

"Do you need to lie down? I've got some potions here, I'm sure something will help."

Scorpius stares at him, and then lets out a slightly incredulous, crazed laugh. Al blinks at him, still uncertain and now a little bit extra concerned.

"Why are you being nice to me?" Scorpius mutters, and then he shakes his head before Al can reply. "What am I saying? Of course you're being nice to me. Someone could explicitly say that they're here to murder you and you'd probably put the damn kettle on. Merlin, Al, I'm the last person that deserves you being nice to me."

"I'm aware of that," Al says quietly. He's also aware of the fact that they're still in the doorway, but he doesn't really want to let Scorpius into his flat. "Mostly I'm just glad that you've realised it too. We don't have to do this, you know."

"Do what?"

"Whatever it is you came here to do." Al flutters a hand, not sure what to do with himself. "Rose already explained everything, so I know the truth now. You don't have to be here."

Scorpius looks at him warily. "You mean, you don't want me here."

Al sighs explosively, sagging against the doorframe. He closes his eyes and admits, "I always want you here. That's a very large part of the problem, Scorpius, because you can keep doing things like this and I will probably still always want you here, with me. And that's not exactly healthy, is it?"

He swallows thickly, aware that he doesn’t usually say stuff like this. Scorpius is the one that talks, and Al is the one who listens, and Scorpius can usually tell what he’s thinking, but not this time.

Scorpius's mouth parts slightly, and he stares at Al with eyes that are just a little too bright, a little too wide. "No," he says hoarsely. "No, it's not healthy. And the last thing I want to do is set you back, health wise. I know how hard you're working. I know it must be difficult, and I know I'm not fucking helping, but I just had to see you."

Al sighs and leans against the open door, trusts it to hold him up. "That's why you're here? To see me?"

Scorpius licks his lips. "I'm here to apologise. I was going to ask if you wanted to go for coffee, or hot chocolate, since I know you don't like coffee. Or tea, maybe. You like tea. I still have a box of that herbal stuff you gave me for Christmas last year."

Al holds his breath, and then let's it out slowly. He's not - he's imagined this, in a hundred and one ways, for the last seven years. Seven years is a long time, long enough to make up a whole plethora of scenarios where Scorpius decides he wants to be with him and asks him out, and not once, in any of those scenarios, did Al ever imagine that he would be saying no.

"No," he says quietly, and he still can't quite believe that it's him speaking. "No, I won't go out with you."

Scorpius's face falls.

Al opens the door a little wider, steps outside, and then shuts the door behind him. "I have stuff to do today.” He ducks his head as he fiddles with his keys, and he can feel Scorpius behind him, shuffling his feet and trying to think of something to say, but he’s not going to throw him a bone here.

“I could come with you,” Scorpius offers tentatively, speaking to the back of Al’s neck. “If you need a hand?”

Al bites his lip, pockets his keys. “It’s just boring errands. Shopping, and going to the library. That sort of stuff.”

“I love boring errands,” Scorpius says, a little more firmly. “Al – Al, I want to fix this.”

He says it so quietly that Al almost doesn’t hear him, despite how close they are. After a moment, Al spins around and sighs, because honestly, that’s all it takes. If he can give his parents a chance, and if he can talk to Rose, then he can give Scorpius a chance.

“You can come with me.”

That’s all it takes.

*

They end up in a large toy store in the middle of London, pushing a trolley down an aisle full of noisy, bright toys. It’s awkward, and although the store is full of noise and people, they seem to be walking in their own private bubble. Al has never wanted to fill a silence more in his life, but he doesn’t want to be the one to speak first. He’s not going to fix this on his own. He deserves more than that.

“What – what are we doing here? I mean, what are you looking for?”

“I have a list.”

He hands it to Scorpius, who examines it with an arched eyebrow. It’s a pretty long list, but he reads it quickly. Al tries to pretend that he isn’t paying avid attention to everything Scorpius does, but he can’t even fool himself.

“Storage boxes, folders, lined notebooks, labels… Al, this is all stationary stuff. We’re in a toy shop.”

Al looks at him askance and then reaches over to flip the piece of paper over. “Here. I’m going to the stationary shop afterwards.”

“Oh. Why do you need all of this stuff? If it’s okay to ask.”

Scorpius never bothers to ask for permission to ask things. Al instantly feels like an ass, even though he’s pretty sure he’s not in the wrong here. He could be, though. He’s never been that good at picking up signals, or acting on social cues.

“Am I the one in the wrong here?” Al blurts out, his nerves bubbling up and twisting into words that he wishes he could snatch back out of the air. They’ve come to a halt in the middle of the aisle, standing beside the trolley. Scorpius actually has one foot in the air, as though struck dumb by Al’s words.

“No,” Scorpius says emphatically, shaking his head frantically. “No, Al, I just – I wanted to come and apologise. You’re the one who got screwed over here, not me.”

“I don’t want to be the reason that things are uncomfortable between us,” Al mutters. He flinches as a woman strolls past, talking loudly into her mobile phone, and Scorpius looks at him in concern.

“Are you alright?”

“Just having a bad morning,” Al says. He starts to move the trolley again, but Scorpius puts a hand on his shoulder gently and tugs until he stops again. The trolley almost rolls into the shelf, but Al pulls it back in time, flinching again as another woman frowns at him.

“Look, let’s get through your list as quickly as possible,” Scorpius says, his voice calm and light. “And then we can go somewhere quiet and talk, alright? Or not talk, if you want.”

Al shoots him a grateful look, and Scorpius’s expression softens. He stares at Al, the moment stretching as his grey eyes graze every inch of Al’s face, and Al feels himself blush under the attention.

Don’t give in that easily, Al tells himself sternly, ducking his head, but it’s been a bad day. It’s not wrong to want to spend an uncomplicated hour with his best friend, is it? It doesn’t mean he forgives Scorpius. It doesn’t even mean that he wants things to go back to how they were, or that things are going to change – he just wants to have a better afternoon, to not feel so small and stupid and uncomfortable. He wants his friend.

It takes an hour and a half before he’s got everything on the list, and when they finish shopping and stumble out of the stationary shop and onto the street in Muggle London, laden down with bags that Scorpius had discreetly placed lightening charms on, Al directs them towards a tiny café that Dan introduced him to, and they collapse into a comfortable booth.

Al very carefully doesn’t mention that Dan brought him here, once. He’s not sure how Scorpius would take it, and he’s not afraid of him, or his reaction, and he’s definitely not ashamed of the tiny not-date, but he’s still striving for an atmosphere that isn’t painfully awkward. Mentioning Dan would definitely make things awkward, even if Al doesn’t entirely believe the stuff about Scorpius being jealous.

Al picks at the lettuce in his sandwich while Scorpius slurps his coffee. Neither of them make eye contact.

“So, all this stuff is for your new job?”

Al nods, relaxing. He can do this. “Yeah.”

Another silence descends. Maybe he can’t do this.

Scorpius sighs and puts his cup down. “Right, I’m just going to talk, otherwise we’re going to sit here all awkwardly, and you’ll leave, and I won’t have said anything important. Alright?”

Al hides a smile behind a bite of sandwich. Scorpius really hasn’t changed at all.

“Right. Okay. Well, I know Rose told you everything, but I’m going to tell it again anyway, just in case she missed it.”

And he does explain. He explains about feeling bad for Rose, and how he initially didn’t want to do it because it felt wrong, but he felt sorry for her and decided to help her out as long as it didn’t last for very long. Al listens as Scorpius explains, and he finishes his sandwich, rearranges the condiments on the table and folds the napkin up into a slightly crinkled bird. Scorpius takes the napkin and blows on it, and the little bird flies across the café, unnoticed by the muggles that sit and chatter.

“My dad taught me that spell,” Scorpius says, watching the bird circle one of the lights. Al watches it too, not entirely sure what to say.

“It’s a nice spell,” Al says eventually. “You did it with my notes, once.”

Scorpius cracks a grin. “I remember. Hogwarts seems a long, long time ago, doesn’t it?”

Not to me, Al thinks. To him, Hogwarts is just a few days ago. He has trouble letting things go, and his memories of Hogwarts are some of his brightest and his darkest, and it’s impossible to forget them, no matter how hard he might have tried in the past.

A hand touches his, and then the warmth is gone just as quickly as it arrived. Al looks down to find Scorpius clutching the handle of his empty mug in a white-knuckled grip, and all of a sudden the energy just flows out of him. He slumps against the window and regards Scorpius, the storm in his eyes and the chapped bottom lip, where he’s bitten it to death.

“It’s okay,” Al says. “Everything that happened, it’s okay. I was just surprised, that’s all. You didn’t mention anything about it, so I was confused, and then I was a bit pissed that it was a lie, but I’m honestly too tired to stay angry.”

“Are you not sleeping?” Scorpius asks, leaning in with a frown. “Is something going on? Rose said something about your dad getting threats at home and work. She said they were pretty awful.”

“It’s not that,” Al says, but he has to wonder. Is it possible that they’re related, the thing with Duncan and the threats? He makes a mental note to mention it to his dad, who’s supposed to be checking in again later, after work. “Just something happened with my therapist, he’s not answering, I think there might be something wrong. But dad’s looking into it, and I’m sure it’s nothing serious.”

Scorpius bites his lip. “You’ll let me know, won’t you? I do worry, you know, even if I’ve done a really bad job at showing it.”

Al nods. “’Course. Look, do you mind if I go home? I’ve got work tomorrow, and I’ve got to get all of this stuff unpacked and tidied away.”

Scorpius stands up immediately, picking up bundles of the carrier bags and searching for money, and Al can tell that he’s a bit disappointed, but he’s doing a damn good job of not showing it, and he apologised profusely, and that’s enough for him, for the minute. They have time to fix this, too.

*

Betsy sits at the kitchen table with Grandma Weasley fussing over her, and Jane and Spencer are talking quietly to each other in the front garden, Jamie in their arms, and Victoire is herding Amber and Jess and Gemma around the room, bringing them juice and toys and making sure they’re calm and busy.

Al sits at the freshly-scrubbed dining table, well aware of the way his family linger at the edges, watching with concern and confusion, leaning against work tops in an attempt to appear casual. He focuses on the floo calls instead, speaking in calm, reassuring tones, making sure that none of the parents panic or overreact. He says there's been an accident, but that the children are unharmed and happily playing in the living room of esteemed war hero's, the Weasley's, and quiets their concerns, and then he gives them the address. He listens to the parents give arrival times, speaks when he needs to, and otherwise tries not to fall into a panic attack, one that he can feel waiting for him. He cuts off the last call with a sigh and then stands abruptly, pushing back one of the many mismatched chairs that ring the dining table. He staggers a little, waves off his parents concerned noises, and barely manages to open the back door before he vomits into his gran's flutterby plant.

There are several squeals as the butterflies fly for cover, but Al is too busy leaning over, hands on his knees as his stomach heaves, his insides rolling with belated fear and shock, his vision wavering. When he finally stops retching, he sniffs and stands up a little better. It takes three tries to vanish the mess, and the third time isn't his.

Harry puts his wand away and adjusts his glasses as he passes Al a cup of water, and Ginny gently rubs her fingers through Al's hair, clucking soothingly. His mind jumps back to being seven years old, when a stomach bug had ripped relentlessly through the whole family. It had hit Al last out of all the Potters, and he had been confined to his bed, listening miserably as James sped around the garden on his broomstick. But he hadn't minded so much, after a few hours; Ginny read him stories from the muggle world, and she and Harry had sat on his bed and talked jokingly about all the ways that muggle problems could be solved if they had magic. Glass slippers and finding spells, the Trace, because Cinderella was but a young girl. Askaban for Snow White's wicked step-mother, for attempted murder, Harry had joked, and Ginny had elbowed him pointedly and mouthed seven years old, rolling her eyes. Al's favourite had been Aladdin, purely because it was the story of the orphaned boy with nothing but a heart of gold, who beat the evil wizard and won the heart of a fiery princess through truth and kindness and strength. It was the perfect story.

That, and Al had always wanted a pet monkey.

"You did good, Al," Harry says, urging him to take a sip of water. Ginny mutters a spell, and the air around them becomes sweet and flowery, clearing up the last of his nausea. Her hand cups the back of his head.

"You did really good."

"I just threw up in Gran's garden," Al says thickly, wiping his mouth shakily. "I don't think anyone could class that as good, Dad."

Harry puts a hand on Al's chin and tips it up a little, and Al stares back into eyes that are so similar to his that it hurts to look at, sometimes. Harry's face is severe, but not in a way that means he's angry, and not even in a way that means he's disappointed, which is an emotion that Al has encountered more often than not.

Al can almost convince himself that his Dad looks proud.

"You were placed in an awful situation, and you reacted with more composure and strength and sense than any trained Auror would have," Harry says firmly. Al feels the words hit something deep and cold inside of him. "You got those kids out without any of them getting even the slightest scratch on them. You made sure that your neighbours, civilians, were safe before you followed the children and reported the attack to a member of authority, people that could help. And then you went out of your way to offer support to anyone that needed it. You protected everyone. What happens after is nobody's business."

Al doesn’t know about all of that. He had barely done anything. He had heard the shouts and spells and crashes from downstairs, and he could see people running and shrieking in the Alley, and he had acted on instinct. He had brought the kids he was looking after through the floo and yelled for whoever was in the burrow to get help, and then he had gone back through to help, because what else was he going to do? He couldn’t just abandon everyone.

“Is Duncan alright?” Al asks.

“He’s in St Mungo’s, but he’s mostly unharmed, Al. Just a bit shaken up,” Harry says reassuringly. “And the Death Eater that was with him only had him for a few days. He wanted access to the family. He’s one of the last that we’ve been searching for since the war, and we’ve got him tucked away in a cell now, thanks to you.”

Al hadn’t really done anything. He had just shot several spells down the stairs, dragged Jane and Spencer up to his house, followed swiftly by Adam, and then picked up the sand-table he had bought with Scorpius the previous day and thrown that down the stairs too. Whatever the Death Eater had been expecting, it certainly wasn’t a sand-table to the head.

He had rolled all of the way down the stairs and landed at Harry Potter’s feet.

“I got lucky,” Al murmurs. “And this isn’t exactly brave or dignified.” He sweeps a hand at the garden.

"You think we didn't get sick or upset when we dealt with stuff like this in our youth?" Ginny asks, nudging him a little. "You think we walked through a war without breaking down a little? You're still standing, Al."

"Your mothers right, as usual," Harry says, with a small smile. "And most of the things I did, when I was younger, was down to luck and good friends. However you deal with it afterward is fine, it's what you do in the moment that counts. There's no shame in this."

Harry gestures to the flutterby bush and then grimaces; the offended butterflies have gathered to form a rather graphic image involving middle fingers, and Al finds himself laughing, and only a tiny bit of it is hysteria. Harry grins a little sheepishly, pushes his glasses back up and pats Al on the shoulder before ducking back inside the house, answering Gran's shouts.

"I expect your father thinks it was Fred and George that taught them that," Ginny says fondly, nodding at the butterflies, whom are now moving to spell out a swear word or two. "In reality, it only took me a few afternoons, and I wasn't even in Hogwarts yet."

Al really does laugh, then, properly. He pictures his mother, smaller and thinner, wearing a pair of ratty dungarees, her bright red hair in a messy bun as she mutters darkly to herself, directing the butterflies with helpful flicks of her fingers, two young to hold a wand but old enough to pick up on things that her brothers didn't want her to hear.

He wipes his face and stands up properly, still a little shakily, but mostly better.

"Thanks, mum," he mutters. When he glances up, he finds her looking at him keenly, her eyes warm and concerned.

"I know the value of keeping things to myself, and of not wanting to burden people with my troubles," Ginny begins softly. "I've been in dark places before, Al, we all have. Your father especially. I don't know if this is something that happens often, if it's something you struggle with, but as long as you know that you don't have to struggle alone. I think perhaps we owe you a lot more than we realise."

Al stays quiet. He's beginning to realise that things aren't quite as black and white as his mind makes them seem - his parents can be plenty of things, not just disappointed in him. They can be proud too, and they can miss him, and they can be unsure of themselves. It's just going to take a while for him to believe it, is all, and a little demonstration on their part wouldn't go amiss. Demonstrations like this.

But how do they know? asks the little voice in his head. How do they know what you need if you won't ask for it, if you keep everything locked away in here?

"I know we don't say it enough, but you made us both proud today," Ginny murmurs. She puts a hand on his cheek briefly, her smile small but genuine. "You did good, baby. Now, why don't you go and brush your teeth, freshen up a bit. I expect the parents will be here soon. Don't worry, we'll think of an excuse to keep them from panicking, so you don’t lose any clients. Your father’s good at thinking on his feet when it comes to this sort of stuff."

She pats his cheek once tenderly and then leaves him to his thoughts, to a garden of wild flowers and strangling weeds and scandalising butterflies. Al flips off the flutterby bush and then heads inside, ducking through the kitchen without making eye contact with anyone and hurrying up the stairs. There are almost twenty floors now, what with all the grandchildren that need squeezing into the Burrow, and the bathroom with a spare toothbrush in is close to the top. He takes his time, scrubbing his face and smoothing out his unruly hair, and brushes his teeth three times before he feels clean again. The face in the mirror is pale but calm, his eyes a little too dark. He feels better, though.

He opens the door and almost mows down his siblings.

"Steady on," James says, stopping him with a hand on his shoulder. "Merlin, I'm not sure I want to know who you were going after then. Did Freddie put shaving cream in the toothpaste again? That one’s lame, man."

“I wasn’t going after anyone,” Al says.

“Could have fooled me,” James says, gesturing at Al’s face in general. “You looked like you were about to unleash hell.”

Lily rolls her eyes and then crushes Al in a hug. It's a point of constant tension between them, that Lily is taller than Al, that Al is the smallest of all of his cousins, besides Lucy, but Al doesn't care right now. He doesn't feel small. He hugs Lily back a little hesitantly, waiting for something to happen, for the moment to break, but nothing does. Lily simply draws away and looks at him keenly, in much the same way that their mother had earlier.

"I'm fine," Al mutters. James snorts, and Lily rolls her eyes.

"Like you'd say if you weren't fine," Lily says. "Louis is downstairs, by the way. I think he's demanded you to get your ass down there at least three times in the past ten seconds."

"What's he doing here?" Al asks, eyes widening in surprise. "He's supposed to be at work."

"He flooed here about one minute ago," James explains. "Uncle Bill got called on to the scene and recognised your address, so naturally Fleur knew, and once Fleur knows something, all of her children do too. Look, Al, are you sure you're alright?"

They're both looking at him with undisguised worry, and it's such an unfamiliar sight that Al falters. He doesn't have the words, so he just shuts his mouth and nods a little, hoping that will satisfy them. James and Lily share a look - Merlin, Al hates it when they do that, he's right here, he can see it, it's insulting - and then step back a little.

"We won't say anything," Lily says. "You can talk to us if you want, later, or whenever." She kisses him on the cheek and then flounces downstairs, her black-tipped hair bouncing all over the place. Al watches her go with amusement and not a small amount of envy; his sister has never been anything but calm and collected, cool and aloof, completely at peace with herself.

"I'm glad you're alright," James says a little gruffly, startling Al.

"I honestly thought you were coming up here to tease me about throwing up," Al admits. He's trying this honesty thing, with James, per his brothers’ request, and it's awkward as hell but he can't exactly back out now. Besides, he can’t deny that it feels good, to get things off his chest, rather than letting them grow sour inside.

"Nah," James says easily, tugging him towards the stairs. "Remember my fourth year? With my boxers and that gnome that Freddie transfigured? Those rules apply to this too; what happens in Gran's garden, stays in Gran's garden."

Louis drags Al away as soon as he steps foot into the kitchen.

“You’ve got a surprisingly strong grip,” Al says, rubbing his arm as Louis looks on unrepentantly. “What are you doing here?”

“There’s no need to sound so enthusiastic,” Louis says, rolling his eyes. His ponytail swings as he shakes his head. Louis has always been rather expressive, and he’s got a rather strange style – a mix between his mum’s radiant elegance and his dad’s devil-may-care look. Al is used to the ripped jeans and cropped jumpers, but the ponytail and the dangly earring are new additions.

“I came to see how you were,” Louis continues, watching Al keenly. “I kept meaning to write, but between the paperwork at Hogwarts and the modelling contract on the side, life’s been a bit busy. Not that that’s any excuse, of course. I’ve been a dick.”

This time, Al rolls his eyes. “You haven’t been a dick, and you’re only saying that because you like playing the martyr.”

“Well obviously, Albus,” Louis says, quirking a roguish grin. “But that’s beside the point, my short little friend. No damage to your face, I see. Anywhere else ruined beyond compare?”

Al snorts. “I’m fine. We all got out before any harm could come to the building, and my dad was already on route with a couple of aurors, so they caught the guy quickly.”

“I heard you were quite the hero,” Louis says, glancing over Al’s shoulder with an arched eyebrow. “Your husband’s on the way. He looks like shit.”

Al furrows his brow, half-turning, only to be almost knocked to the ground by Scorpius barging right into him. All three of them stumble back into the empty living room, and Al hears James snicker mischievously before the door slams shut behind them, and there’s a click as it locks. Al sighs heavily, and then awkwardly tries to manoeuvre around Scorpius’s death grip on his arm and Louis clinging to his shoulder.

“I could have broken my neck,” Louis hisses, clutching his long, trailing scarf theatrically. Al glances down and raises an eyebrow at the very tall heels on Louis’s feet, but doesn’t say anything.

Scorpius glances down too, and frowns. “Those aren’t very practical, especially not in this kind of weather. Have you ever heard of galoshes?”

Al winces.

Louis closes his eyes very slowly, a pained expression on his face, as he clings tighter to Al’s sleeve. “Albus. Albus, hold me, I feel faint. He just swore at me.”

“I didn’t swear –”

“Scorpius was just trying to be considerate,” Al sighs, “and Louis is just being dramatic, and you’re both breaking my arms.”

At that, Scorpius lets go immediately, only to put a hand on Al’s cheek and turn his head slightly so that they’re facing each other. His fingers are soft and gentle, a barely-there touch, and Al gets all of the breath caught in his throat.

“Are you sure you’re alright?” Scorpius murmurs quietly. Al nods carefully, not wanting to dislodge the hand on his face.

Oh,” Louis says. He starts to grin, like a cat that got the cream, and Al groans slightly, taking a step back from both of them. Scorpius doesn’t appear to have noticed Louis, still looking at Al intently, like he’s searching for bruises or scrapes, something to fix, and Al wants to tell him not to bother, that he’s still mad and that Scorpius can’t help in any way, but the truth is quite the opposite. Scorpius does help. He doesn’t fix things, and he doesn’t make it all go away, but he helps.

“So when did this happen?” Louis inquires innocently, still with that same sly grin.

Scorpius tears his eyes away. “When did what happen?”

“Oh,” Louis says again. “Oh, you don’t know. You’re still in that adorable pining stage, how wonderful. Al, we are going out for drinks tomorrow, no excuses. Pick me up at six.”

He strides towards the door, hips swaying, and then hammers on the wood, hollering for James to stop being a dick and let him out.

“Before the sexual tension chokes me to death!” Louis yells, and Scorpius splutters, staring wildly from him to Louis. The door opens to reveal James’s sheepish grin, and then Louis vanishes through the door, threatening to dye James’s hideous, almost non-existent moustache blue.

“It really is an awful moustache,” Scorpius agrees quietly, as the door shuts again. There’s no click of a lock, this time, which is good because Al doesn’t think he can stand to be locked in with just Scorpius. Especially not today – he’s so keyed up that he’s not sure what he might do, and in any case, the parents will be arriving soon.

Al mumbles something incoherent, staring at his feet, and then he glances up and Scorpius is walking towards him with intent. He stops a few inches away from Al and puts his hand slowly back on his cheek again, hesitant, like he’s afraid that Al might slap his hand away. Al stays quiet, watching him carefully, and doesn’t move until there’s a thumb caressing his cheek.

Then he lets his eyes flutter closed, exhaustion sweeping through him, and he sways forward and puts his forehead on Scorpius’s chest. The cotton of his shirt is soft, and Al can feel the beat of his heart through skin and bone, and it calms him. Nervous fingertips hover near the back of his head.

“Are you sure you’re alright?” Scorpius asks again. His voice is oddly scratchy, like he’s just woken up, and Al feels him swallow three times before the words will come out at all.

“Yeah,” Al says. “I’m not hurt. They didn’t get anywhere near me.”

“But are you alright?”

Al pulls away a little, warmed by the concern in his voice. “I’m tired. And I reckon I’m gonna either pass out or have a tiny break down once I’m home and away from everyone, but I’m alright. I’m just glad that the kids are okay.”

“Your dad could probably deal with all the parents, if you wanted to go and sleep. I think they’re going to say it was a gas leak, something wrong with the area, rather than an attack. You shouldn’t have to worry about losing customers.”

“I wasn’t even worried about that,” Al admits. “I know a lot of the parents quite well by now. But the kids are my responsibility, and they’ll want to speak to me. I want to do it.”

There’s an odd smile on Scorpius’s face that Al’s seen before, but has never quite been able to place. He saw it after their exams, and at graduation, and even just on general days at school, when it was just them, reading in the library or relaxing on the school grounds.

“Is it weird that I’m phenomenally proud of you?”

Oh. Al blinks. Oh. Pride. So that’s what it is. Pride makes sense, but he never even considered it. Pride seemed too big, and he seemed so underserving, but it’s there, in the crooked tilt of Scorpius’s mouth.

“No.” Al swallows thickly. “Not weird at all.”

There’s a knock on the door, and then Louis pokes his head around the gap. He looks extremely disappointed, as though he expected to find them making out aggressively against the bookcase, and that’s an image that Al won’t get out of his head for a long time.

“Parents are here,” Louis says, tapping on the wood. “Coming?”

Al nods, and draws away. He makes it to the door before he gives in and turns around, hesitating slightly. “If you wanted to come around, at any point, I think… I might be less mad than I was. Only if you wanted to. If you aren’t busy. You don’t have to, obviously, I just thought I’d…”

Scorpius smiles at him brilliantly, and Al forgets every word in the English language.

“I’d love to.”

*

Louis is phenomenally drunk. The kind of drunk where words aren’t actually words anymore, they’re just sad little slurred noises. Al hauls him off the barstool, grimaces at the woman behind the counter, who’s wearing a sympathetic, slightly harassed smile as she slides a drink down the length of the bar, and then drags Louis out into the cold night air.

He's had maybe one, two drinks, but Louis had been surrounded by little cocktails that men kept sending him, and Louis could never say no to a drink, especially when it came with a flirty smile from a handsome man. So Al had watched, with growing amusement, as Louis had grown steadily more and more drunk, and eventually spilled his own troubles all over the bar.

“He dumped me,” Louis says, slurring as they stagger down the street. The cold air has done nothing to wake Louis up, and Al is seriously considering a Sobering Charm, but he’s never used the spell before and he doesn’t want to get it wrong.

“He fuckin’ dumped me, Albus.”

“I know,” Al says, wincing as he drags Louis towards his flat. There’s no way the other man can Apparate to Hogsmeade as planned. “You mentioned.”

“Why did he dump me?”

“Because he’s an ass,” Al says dutifully, and Louis snorts.

“Where are we goooing?”

“To my home,” Al says. “You need water, and then you need to sleep.”

He knew, in the back of his mind, that this night wasn’t going to be about him. Louis is a fiercely protective person, and a loyal one, and he loves his family, but Al has known him for years, been friends for most of their Hogwarts life, and he knows exactly how selfish the other man is. Well, perhaps not selfish, but he’s very self-absorbed, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Louis has confidence, and he knows what he wants, and Al wishes he could say the same thing about himself.

“You said home,” Louis slurs. “You never say home. You always say ‘Hogwarts’ or ‘Mum and Dad’s place’ or ‘The Burrow.’ You never say home. You found a home?”

“I made a home,” Al corrects him.

Louis stops and narrows his eyes at him, and Al arches an eyebrow back. Louis is too drunk to really do anything, so he just waves a hand in Al’s face and says, “You’ve changed. I like it.”

It takes thirty minutes to get Louis back to the flat, and Al spends all of those minutes trying to figure out how he’s different. Has he changed? He doesn’t think so. He hasn’t done anything, it feels like. He still wakes up some mornings and doesn’t want to get out of bed, and sometimes he doesn’t - sometimes he spends a whole morning with his head under the covers, trying to work up the motivation to just move. He still can’t cook anything more complicated than chicken. He still has panic attacks at the thought of Scorpius finding out how he feels and leaving. He still thinks his job is going to become this huge, disastrous failure that his family mutters about for years to come.

But there are good things, too, aren’t there? Al asks himself, as he gently guides Louis towards the sofa. There’s the boys’ downstairs, and even if I do fuck up the playgroup thing, at least I tried, didn’t I? There’s Betsy, and Dan, and my parents come for dinner now, and even if I have no fucking clue what’s happening with me and Scorpius, at least he’s not with Rose anymore.

“Stop thinking so hard,” Louis groans, yanking the blanket up to his chin. Al rolls his eyes and goes to get a glass of water, and he makes Louis drink the whole thing before he goes to get a refill. When he gets back, Louis is half-sitting up, and there’s a pinched expression on his face.

Al regards him warily. “You’re not going to be sick, are you?”

“Weasley-Delacour’s are never sick,” Louis says, glaring weakly. “We don’t get hangover’s, either. Why is there a brick under my arse?”

Al takes the little wooden bricks and grins as he puts them in the toy-box under the window.

“Jamie was building a zoo,” Al explains.

“James is an adult, why the fuck was he building a zoo out of toy bricks?”

“Jamie,” Al says patiently. “One of the kids I look after. He wants to see a lion for his birthday. Now go to sleep before you say another stupid thing and I have to laugh at you.”

Louis snorts again, and his gaze is assessing. “I was supposed to be getting you drunk so I could ask about Scorpius. Not turning into a blubbering mess.”

“I didn’t see any tears,” Al lies.

Louis smiles up at him gratefully. Al is almost to his bedroom door when he hears Louis say, softly, “You’re meant for each other, both of you. And you’re both fucking in love, so do something about it, Al.”

Al lies in bed, wide away, staring at the ceiling. He would text Duncan, but the man has taken a real holiday with his kids and his wife after the whole ordeal with the Death Eater, and Al doesn’t actually feel, for the first time, lie he needs Duncan. He feels like, maybe, he can sort through this mess of feelings on his own.

He’s not sure that he believes that people are meant for each other. He thinks that some people are better suited to each other, but regardless of that, it takes work. Relationships, no matter the nature of them, take effort on both parts, and they take dedication, and nothing slots together easily. There are compromises and disagreements, and it isn’t easy. But Al knows that when you get it right, it feels like you were meant for each other, and that’s what he wants. He’s seen it in his grandparents, in his Aunt’s and Uncle’s, in his parents. His family is full of loving people, and none of them got there easily.

He’s not made for Scorpius, and he’s not meant for him, but he loves him.

He loves him.

“I love him,” Al says quietly. He’s never said it out loud before. He likes the sound of it. He wonders what it would be like to say those words to Scorpius, and he can feel the growing dread in his stomach, because he’s going to have to tell him one day. He’s not quite as naïve as he used to be – or perhaps he’s just less in denial now, because he knows this won’t just go away. It won’t do him any good anymore to tuck the feelings away and pretend they aren’t there. If he ever wants to move on, or have a chance at an actual relationship, then he needs to say something.  

Tomorrow, he decides, with his heart thudding in his throat. I’ll tell him tomorrow.

…Or maybe the next day.

*

It quickly becomes clear that there’s no possible way to look dignified whilst wearing a spotty paper party hat, so Al gives up and lets it sit lopsided on top of his black curls. Despite the fact that dignity has gone out of the window, Scorpius still looks irritatingly good in his hat, which is red with black spots, like a ladybug. He even has a party blower sticking out of the corner of his mouth, and Jamie is busy pressing stickers onto his hands and face whilst babbling about the penguins, but Scorpius still looks good. He’s wearing a button down and jeans, and his hair is nicely tousled, and he’s grinning brightly at Jamie, who won’t stop crawling from his lap to Al’s.

“Jamie, sweetheart, I think that’s enough stickers,” Jane says, laughing slightly behind her hand. “We won’t be able to see Mr Malfoy’s face soon.”

“Just Scorpius, please,” Scorpius says, wincing, and Jane smiles at him warmly.

Jamie deliberately presses a large heart sticker onto the end of his nose, and Scorpius goes cross-eyed and sneezes loudly, making the little boy shriek with laughter. Al swoops in and grabs him before he can fall off of Scorpius’s lap, just as Jason sprints towards them and skids to a halt beside the table, panting.

“Where’s Cal?” Jane asks immediately, her face dropping into a stern look.

“I fed him to the lion,” Jason says, rolling his eyes. Al catches Scorpius’s eye and they both grin. Jason’s been going through his rebellious teenager phase early, in Jane’s own words. In Betsy’s own words, he’s going through his pain in the arse phase, and Al kind of agrees, but it’s still fun to watch.

“Where is your brother?”

“He’s with dad,” Jason grumbles, sliding into one of the spare seats and attacking a juice box with vigour. “They’re going to feed the penguins soon. Can we watch?”

Jamie shrieks again, clambering off of Al’s lap and almost elbowing him in the groin. “Penguins! Mister Al, penguins!”

“You two go on,” Jane says, gathering the mess up on the table and shoving it into her bag. “Take Jamie to see the penguins, and Jason and I will catch up in a minute, after we’ve cleaned up.”

Jason starts to complain, but crumbles when his mother shoots him a warning look, pointedly putting a rubbish bag in his arms. Al doesn’t need to be told twice. He scoops up Jamie and puts him on his shoulders, with a little help from Scorpius, and then they set off through the crowded zoo.

“Reckon he’s having a good birthday?” Scorpius asks drily, as Jamie points out a woman with a funny hat, loudly.

“I reckon so,” Al says, grinning back. “Are you sure you don’t mind coming along?”

Al has asked this question possibly fifty times in between Scorpius arriving unannounced at his flat this morning, wherein Jane immediately invited him along, to now, even though they’ve been in the zoo for at least three hours now, and Scorpius hasn’t made a single complaint.  

“I told you, I’m having a good time,” Scorpius says, leaning over the nudge him in the arm. “Stop worrying. It’s brilliant here. We have to come back at some point.”

“Maybe without kids,” Al suggests ruefully, as Jamie kicks him in the chest in excitement. “We can make a date – day, we can make a day of it.”

Al purses his lips and speeds up a little bit, his heart hammering in his chest. He doesn’t look at Scorpius, who is suspiciously quiet, and he keeps his eyes on the penguin enclosure, which is just up ahead. Fuck, why did he have to blurt that out? Now he’s ruined a perfectly nice day with his own stupid feelings, and Scorpius won’t –

“A date would be nice,” Scorpius says quietly.

Al comes to an abrupt stop beside the woman with the funny hat, and she glares at a giggling Jamie before stalking off huffily.

“I was going to wait a while before I asked you,” Scorpius says, coming a bit closer and gripping Al’s sleeve nervously, like he’s afraid Al will take off running if he lets go. “I didn’t know how mad you still were, and I was waiting for you to forgive me after the whole thing with Rose, and then I couldn’t get the courage up to do it.”

“You’re the bravest person I know,” Al blurts out.

Scorpius leans in, his eyes bright, and his grip on Al’s arm grows tighter. “See, you say stuff like that all the time, and I’m never sure if it’s just you being your usual nice self or of you actually mean it.”

“I always mean it,” Al says. He unhooks Jamie from his shoulders and waves at Spencer, who’s finally dragged Cal away from the parakeets and towards the penguin enclosure. He watches Jamie zip through the crowd and doesn’t look away until he’s safely in Spencer’s arms, and then he rounds on Scorpius, who’s watching him with something akin to fear, like he’s afraid of what Al might say. Like he’s afraid of what Al’s words could do to him.

“I always mean it,” he repeats, remarkably calmly considering the fact that his insides are doing some kind of dance. He’s been waiting for this moment for years, seven years, and he never thought it was something that could happen outside of his daydreams, and nothing’s even really happened yet and he’s still a shaking mess.

You,” Al says, darting a hand through the air as though that could possibly articulate everything that Scorpius is, everything that he means to Al. “When you say date, what do you mean?”

“Anything,” Scorpius says immediately. “Anything you want. If you want days like this, where we just talk and hang out and spend time, then that’s fine. Or if you want more…” He clears his throat. “I’d like that, too.”

Al just stares at him for a little while. Stares and stares and stares until slowly, a little bit of hope trickles through him.

“How long?” he asks. “How long have you… wanted more?”

Scorpius goes bright pink, and it’s charming. “Since fourth year? I thought, before that, that I just liked girls. I thought I liked Rose, actually.”

“I thought you liked Rose too,” Al says quietly. He refuses to let that get him down, not now, not when Scorpius is using past tense. “I’ve been expecting it, for you two to get together, but she said, when she came to apologise to me, that there was something you realised, when you rescued her from the lake.”

He’s not going to ask, despite how much he wants to, but Scorpius must hear the question regardless. He laughs, a little wry and a little bitter, and sweeps a hand through his hair, and Al realises that this is hard for him, the same way that it’s hard for Al to talk about this. Both of them are darting around the edge of something big, something that they’ve both been avoiding. It’s mutual, Al realises, incredulously. This is a real, genuine thing, and he feels it too.

They have to move to the side to avoid being trampled by a hoard of little children as one of the zookeepers start to ask for helpers from the crowds. Al watches absent-mindedly as Jamie’s name is called, and then Scorpius is taking his hand as they both fall onto the nearest bench, tucked away out of sight.

“I realised something very important,” Scorpius says slowly, carefully. “That I liked you, as more than a friend. That I didn’t care if you wanted to just be friends, because it was enough to have you in my life. And then I realised, later on, when I was in Egypt and hadn’t talked to you in a week, that I loved you, and I didn’t want another day to go by without talking to you, or seeing you.”

“Al? Will you take the pictures?” Jane comes to a stop at their bench, biting her lip as she holds out the camera. “Oh. I’m so sorry! I didn’t realise you were…”

“We’re not,” Scorpius says immediately, shooting to his feet. He gives Al an apologetic smile and says, “I think we’ve finished talking. I can take the pictures, if you like?”

He doesn’t know, Al thinks. He has no idea that Al may have loved him first, that he loves him back.

“Just one minute,” Al says, swiping the camera before Scorpius can take it. He smiles at Jane, who blushes as she looks between them before nodding. She looks over her shoulder curiously as she walks away, and Al feels a little guilty for abandoning Jamie’s birthday party, but he also knows that he needs to say something now, before Scorpius gets the wrong idea, before the moment breaks and they both lose their nerve, and all of these possibilities fade away. He takes a deep, long breath in the way that Duncan taught him to do, and for once, the panic is only small. If Scorpius says no, if Al has somehow still got the wrong idea, then Al will be okay. He knows he will be okay.

“I’ve loved you for about seven years,” Al says, quietly, taking a small step forward so that Scorpius can hear him. The camera shakes a little bit in his grip. “I loved you all through Hogwarts, and after, when you went away to Cairo to work, I still loved you then. What we’ve had recently hasn’t exactly been… healthy. I haven’t exactly been healthy. But I’m getting better, slowly, and I knew I had to tell you soon, even if nothing came of it, so that I could keep getting better.”

Scorpius’s eyes are so wide that Al is afraid they’re going to fall out of his head. His hands are shaking too, and Al desperately wants to hold them, but he has to say this.

“I’m still angry,” Al says. “And maybe a bit hurt, too. But I also still love you, and I’d like to go on that date, if you would too.”

Scorpius laughs loudly, his face so bright and hopeful that Al can feel his heart melting. He watches this ridiculous boy bounce on his heels, still grinning, and feels something small settle into place inside of him. Relief blows through him like a storm, leaving him weak-kneed and oddly proud – he did it, he told him, he actually said the words and took the leap and it went well and he did it.

“A hundred dates,” Scorpius promises him softly, one hand grazing Al’s cheek. “A thousand dates. But first, we have penguins to feed.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*

Uncle Ron finds him in the back garden of the Burrow, leaning against the large tree that used to house the white swing that Grandad Weasley built a few years ago. The remains of the swing are on the ground, put there when Freddie accidentally aimed a new prototype firework at the ground, rather than the sky, and all of them found out exactly how explosive the new ones are. Uncle George had been proud, and Aunt Angelina had almost ripped both of their heads off. Al smiles down at the remains of the swing, turns to smile at Uncle Ron as he leans against the tree beside him.

It’s hot out, but everyone else is still inside, laying the table and being bossed around by Grandma Weasley. Al’s only outside because he needs a minute of quiet away from all of the noise, but he doesn’t mind Uncle Ron’s company. He’s a kind, funny man, and surprisingly quiet himself.

“Hiding from the rabble?” Uncle Ron asks, grinning knowingly. “Got something for you.”

He holds out a cake tin with a piece of paper spellotaped to the top, and Al takes it, arching an eyebrow. When he prises the lid off, there’s an army of sweet little cakes waiting inside.

“I taped the recipe to the top,” Uncle Ron says, tapping the tin. “Rose mentioned you were doing some cooking for one of your neighbours, and baking always helps me calm down, or relax. Thought you might enjoy it.”

“Thanks,” Al says, grinning up at him. “It was you who made these, right?”

“Uncle Ron snorts. “Hermione didn’t go anywhere near them, don’t worry. I don’t get how she can be so fantastic at everything, including potions, but she can’t make a stew that’s actually edible. She’s too busy for that kind of stuff, anyway, and I like doing it. I like most things involving food.”

They both grin at each other. Then Uncle Ron’s face goes slightly more serious, and a little more awkward.

“I wanted to say sorry, about Rosie. Not that it’s my place to do so, and I know she apologised. She explained everything to us, and she shouldn’t have done it, but I’m glad it’s mostly sorted now. You and Scorpius figured things out?”

Al looks at him askance. “Do you actually want to know? I know you don’t like him.”

“I like him alright.” Uncle Ron shrugs sheepishly. “Just not around my daughter. Nobody’s good enough for my daughter.”

“Well, we’re good. Sorting things out.”

“Good. I’ve been meaning to talk to you, for ages actually. But after you yelled at your parents – nice one, by the way, you’re a braver man than I am when it comes to Ginny – I really wanted to talk to you.”

Al turns around, shuffles his feet a little. This isn’t exactly comfortable, but it’s a nice afternoon, and it seems serious, and Al likes Uncle Ron.

Uncle Ron rubs the back of his neck, spots of colour blooming high on his cheeks. “Might have made a few mistakes back in my day, when it came to my friends. I’m still ashamed of them now, even though your Aunt and Dad tell me to shut up if it ever comes up in conversation. They say I’ve done more than enough to make up for it, and that it doesn’t even matter anymore, and it didn’t matter back then and all that stuff.”

Uncle Ron takes a moment, takes a deep breath. “Point is, I let my insecurities get in the way. I had a lot of insecurities.” He chuckles a bit self-consciously. “Still got some now, probably always will. But I always meant to talk to you, Al, about not doing what I did. And I don’t mean making mistakes, because you’re the last one out of all of the kids to make rash decisions, or drop your friends, and making mistakes is a good thing, sometimes. But I meant to talk to you about comparing yourself to others, especially your family and your friends.”

Al thinks about it a little. He knows a few things about his parents’ time during the war, and leading up to it, but the stories aren’t out there for everyone to read, because it wasn’t all about the war. It was their lives, and their pasts, and their childhood, and Al doesn’t begrudge them the secrecy. He knows the value of privacy. But if he thinks about it, he can see why Uncle Ron might have been insecure.

He thinks about Uncle Ron being the youngest boy of six, and then having a little sister thrown on top of that, the only girl, and it paints Uncle Ron in a new, slightly more relatable light. And if he thinks about how Uncle Ron befriended Harry Potter on the train to Hogwarts, and stuck with him all the way through their school years, bringing him into a family that already felt too big for him, then he starts to feel a touch more respect for the man. And then if he thinks about Hermione Granger, the beautiful, brightest witch of her age, and all the rumours of her and Harry, plus the weight of expectation and the pain of war and the worry for his family, then Al can see why some people still call Uncle Ron the King, for bearing all those weights and never folding.

Or maybe he did fold a little, at times, but the point was, he got back up. Al smiles a small smile, and Uncle Ron claps him on the shoulder, and they both know that they don’t need words here. This is nice, standing here, and Al feels remarkably at peace.

There’s a noise from behind them, and Uncle Ron glances over his shoulder and makes a suspiciously fake-sounding cough before he takes the tin out of Al’s hands.

“Good talk. Come over one day, and I’ll teach you to make some of Gram’s favourite recipes, if you like?”

Al grins, thanks him quietly, and watches him beat a hasty retreat.

Al doesn’t have to turn around to know it’s Scorpius. He’s got this weird skip in his step that kicks up stones, like he’s too excited to walk normally, and he uses this strong peppermint conditioner in his hair that makes him smell a bit like the dark corner of an old sweet shop.

“I saw you duck out of the house,” Scorpius says, coming to stand beside Al, arms swinging a little awkwardly at his sides. “Is everything alright?”

Al turns to look at him, offers him a small smile in answer, which Scorpius returns brightly.

“What did Mr Weasley want?”

Al chuckles slightly at the title. Scorpius has never quite gotten over his fear of Uncle Ron – not fear, exactly, but there was a healthy level of intimidation there that Scorpius still feels on a daily basis. Al suspects that it won’t go away until after Rose and Scorpius settle down with someone other than each other.

“He just wanted to apologise, for the whole you and Rose thing,” Al says. “And he brought me cakes and a recipe to try out.”

“Al, I…”

Al arches an eyebrow at him, confused at the change in Scorpius’s voice, and then he remembers that it’s still a sore spot for them, the whole Rose and Scorpius thing. He blinks, astounded that he actually forgot about it, for a second. Maybe it’s the calm, quiet evening that reminds him of his kitchen, or maybe it’s the time between then and now, or maybe it’s the way Scorpius smiled at him earlier, when Al came through the floo, small and secret like it was just between them.

They’re on date four out of the one thousand that Scorpius promised him. The zoo is a warm, slightly distant memory, and Al still feels that weak-kneed relief, that pride, every time he thinks about it. He told Duncan about it, called the man while he was on his holiday and arranged a session for when he gets back, but he could tell that the other man was proud too. Shaken, and tired, but still proud.

Al looks at Scorpius. Scorpius looks deflated and apologetic and resigned, and Al feels warm. Warm enough to reach over and take his hand, revelling in the tiny noise that escapes Scorpius when he twines their fingers together. Scorpius’s hands always smell like old books, and he has calluses from his work, but the palms are soft and his pale skin is stark in contrast to Al’s dark skin.

“I think,” Al says softly, “that maybe we can put it behind us? I think I forgave you a while ago, actually.”

Scorpius takes a deep, shaky breath, and squeezes their hands. “I’m not going to stop apologising for it. It was stupid and wrong and I should have just said –”

Al cuts him off with a kiss.

It’s supposed to be a brief, chaste kiss, but it lingers. Al’s eyes flutter closed without his permission, and he feels fingers graze his cheekbone, dart down to his chin and tilt it up slightly. The kiss deepens, and Al’s stomach flips over. He pulls back to take a breath, but Scorpius chases him, kisses him again and again, peppers his mouth and jaw and cheek with small, swift kisses. Al ends up laughing, breathlessly, as Scorpius frames his face in both hands and keeps kissing him, everywhere, all over his face, and then his hands when Al tries to push him away laughingly.

Scorpius kisses Al’s palm, sweetly, on this warm, syrupy evening, beside the broken swing, and Al feels like he can breathe again.

*

Al is not stupid. He might not be the smartest of people, but he isn’t stupid. He knows, realistically, that Scorpius won’t fix everything, that more therapy sessions won’t fix everything, that family dinners where they actually listen to him won’t fix everything, but it helps. All of it, it helps, like little building blocks that pile on top of each other and make something that vaguely resembles a functioning human being.

He might only speak one language and sing really badly, and he cleans when he’s stressed, but he also makes good scrambled eggs, and his abysmal finger-painting makes the kids laugh. He’s an expert at getting glitter out of his furniture, and he can bake pretty awesome cakes now. When he and Scorpius go for dates in the Leaky Cauldron, or eat ice cream in the Alley, Al can pay for his own food and talk to people they bump into without fumbling his words too much, without shaking out of his skin, without succumbing to panic.

He’s not stupid. He has bad days, and bad weeks, and he probably always will, but now he has good months, too. Scorpius won’t stop the panic attacks from coming, but he will read old books through the door to Al when he’s curled up in the bathroom, and he’ll kiss his cheek afterwards and offer to make Al tea, and he’ll make nice with James when he comes over to hug his brother and then watch the television.

When Jane and Spencer invite him to their second wedding, Al will stand on Jane’s side and herd the boys down the aisle, and he won’t feel self-conscious about the suit, because he and Jamie are wearing the same ones, albeit with a rather large size difference. He’ll dance with Jane, and he’ll dutifully bring Betsy as much cake as he can get away with, despite her doctor’s orders, and he’ll swing Jason and Cal and Jamie around in the air when the A Cauldron Full of Hot Strong Love comes on, and then he’ll dance with Scorpius in a quiet corner, and he won’t care about his two left feet, not when Scorpius is equally as awful at it.

He’s not stupid, and he knows that nothing is set in stone, but he also knows that, no matter what happens, he will be fine. He’s picked himself up once before, and he’ll do it again if he has to. He knows he can do it. He might not be the smartest of people, but he doesn’t have to be smart to be strong and kind, and that’s what he is.

He’s going to be just fine.