Aaron fucking hates this shit. Granted, that describes his mindset 90 percent of the time, but right now what he fucking hates is Defense Against the Dark Arts. Which is frustrating, because of all his classes, this is one of the only ones he doesn't mind – you wouldn't know it by the amount of work he gets done in class, but there's something reassuring about learning how to protect himself, even if his actual policy when he gets in a fight is "offense is the best defense". (More accurately, his policy when he gets in a fight is "let off some steam" and it tends to happen when he's so riled up he can't think straight, but he likes to pretend he has some sort of strategy.)
But right now, they're working on patronuses. It's bullshit. When is he going to go up against a Dementor, really? ("They use your worst memories against you", the professor says, and he forces himself not to think about what would happen if he did meet one.)
He doesn't have any friends in this class, though, nobody to mess around with – he's on alright terms with the other Hufflepuffs, but not enough that any of them will be interested in getting in trouble with him, and they're working with the bloody Ravenclaws this year, who he makes a point to avoid on principle – and all of his teachers have long since learnt not to put him near anything breakable when working on spellwork, so he resigns himself to making a halfhearted attempt.
A good memory. What's a good memory? He casts around for something suitable, throwing his wand in the air so that it spins and catching it while he thinks, and finally settles on seeing Adam on the train at the beginning of the school year.
He gets there early. He always has, that first year because his dad didn't know how long the unfamiliar process would take and he wanted to make absolutely sure they were there on time – he was really just desperate to get rid of him, as always, Aaron thinks – and then afterwards because that way Aaron has the upper hand, can find himself an empty carriage and lay claim, doesn't have to rely on other people letting him into their space.
His mum had insisted on being the one to take him to the station – when he's feeling generous he thinks it's probably her feeling guilty for leaving him with Paddy, when he's not he thinks it's her making sure he actually got on the train and out of her hair - so he'd said a quick goodbye to Paddy and resigned himself to an awkward journey with his mum.
He's still getting used to the Dingles, with their weird cobbled together lives of magic and muggle, who don't seem to know what world they're in but somehow seamlessly sit in both instead of standing awkwardly with one foot in either. Thankfully his mum doesn't try to get him to make the entire journey the muggle way like he'd been half afraid she would - the majority of the Dingles are perfectly capable of apparition, he has no idea why they seem so fond of cars – and the journey is mercifully quick, a simple portkey and then a bit of a walk.
"Have a good time, love," she says, standing unsure on the platform, having already been batted away from checking over his things. "We'll all write, okay?" Aaron just shrugs, like he's not bothered – he isn't bothered, he insists to himself – but, well, at least she is trying, and most of the people here are scared little first years with their families, nobody he knows. So he gives her a quick hug and then heads quickly into the train, pretending not to care about her pleased, hopeful smile.
He'd settled into an empty carriage, tucked against the wall with his stuff spread out on the seats, trying to make his carriage look as unappealing as possible. His owl, is on the seat right next to him, head tucked under his wing, and he spends the next while trying his best to make sure that anyone peeking into his carriage knows they're not welcome.
And then Adam pokes his head in.
Aaron braces himself for awkwardness, for swallowing the bitterness of knowing someone is going to leave and then being hurt when they do. They might be friends, of a sort, back in Emmerdale where Aaron is pretty much the only option, but their paths had never really crossed in Hogwarts even though they're in the same year. He'd known of Adam, vaguely – he wasn't overwhelmingly popular, but he had his own group of friends, was always friendly and cheerful – but they hadn't said even two words to each other, until they both ended up in Emmerdale.
He figured they'd go back to that, back at Hogwarts, would hang out at Emmerdale when they both had nobody else to spend time with but wouldn't have much cause to at school, where they're in different houses, different friend groups (as if you have any friends, his brain sneers, but he fucking does, alright, they might not really talk outside of school but he's not some lonely sadsack).
Adam's face lights up when he realises it's Aaron, though, beaming his familiar boyish smile, and he immediately pulls the door completely open, dragging his stuff through.
"Alright, lad?" He makes space for himself on the seats and drops onto them, dumping his stuff haphazardly on the floor, his cat giving an unimpressed yowl. "Was wondering where you'd got to."
That's the moment he focusses on, when he'd realised that Adam intended to stay, to spend time with him, that it was because it was him and not because he had no one else.
"Expecto patronum," he says firmly with a flick of his wand, and he feels that surprised happiness run through him, that feeling of being wanted, it's power starting to take shape – and then those other things he'd felt hit him, that heat in his chest and his stomach, the way his heart had been in his throat, how much he'd liked that smile on Adam's face and that power is buried in a rush of shame and disgust, a tiny wisp of silvery smoke the only thing that appears from the end of his wand.
"Nice patronus," William Byrne sneers – the stuck up prat has always thought he was better than him, has called him a thug on more than one occasion – and Aaron sneers back, ready to make a pointed comment about William's mother's prowess, or lack thereof, in bed, when there's a commotion on the other side of the room.
Lydia Edwards is standing proudly surrounded by curious students, a sleek silver cheetah (leopard? No, he decides, definitely a cheetah) preening in front of her. It's not the solid, almost liquid looking silver of the professor's bird, is see through and has a slightly smudgy form, but it's undeniably a patronus, and much better than anyone else's attempts so far.
He smirks over at William – the only good thing about being in a class with Ravenclaws is the satisfaction of a fellow Hufflepuff outdoing them – but the satisfied feeling doesn't last long as more and more people draw out their patronuses, as people's attempts get more solid and impressive, and he continues to fail to produce anything other than tiny puffs of smoke.
Memories involving Adam are very firmly off limits, he quickly finds, and the exhilaration of a fight is entirely the wrong sort of happiness for a patronus. He finally gives up when his memory of kissing Ellie Carter in an empty classroom fails to draw even the smallest response, fighting the urge to throw his wand across the room.
Who the fuck cares about patronuses anyway, he thinks grumpily, watching with distaste as William's gleaming white terrier trots around in a circle.
He sulks for the rest of the lesson, his professor apparently willing to let him get away with slacking off as long as he doesn't cause any trouble, and then he's out the door as soon as they're let go.
* * *
"You're grumpier than usual."
"Maybe 's 'cause I'm sick of you stalking me," Aaron grumbles back, scowling down at his dinner. Victoria just snorts, never taking Aaron's half-hearted attempts to get rid seriously, and steals a chip from Aaron's plate.
"Any food you could possibly want, right at your fingertips, and you always get boring pub grub," she says disapprovingly, and Aaron holds an arm up protectively over his food, turning his glower onto her.
"Keep your grubby mitts off it, then, if it's so below you," he snaps – as if she was above him, anyway. The Sugdens might think they're better than the Dingles, but at least the Dingles look after their own – and he's not even a Dingle, alright, but it's the principal of the thing, and he knows everyone in Emmerdale lumps him in with them. Anyway, it's not like Vic herself is an angel.
She just shrugs, though, reaches for another and gets her hand smacked away, then finally goes back to her own plate.
Victoria Sugden is another unexpected addition that carried over from Emmerdale (burden, he likes to tell himself, but if he really wanted to make her leave him alone he could, and it's not like he was ever drowning in company, sat with the other Hufflepuffs). Another relationship he'd thought would end when there were other options.
She'd found him the first day, though, plonked herself down next to him as if it was totally normal, a year 5 sitting among all of the year 7s, and been a thorn in his side ever since.
"Really, though. What's the foul mood for? Get knocked back by Lexi again?" Aaron makes a face.
"Lexi? I'm well over that slag." That earns him an eyeroll.
"A girl isn't a slag just because she won't sleep with you, Aaron, and don't think that distracted me, either. Come on, what is it, you had a fight with Adam or summat?"
Aaron sighs, exasperated, but he knows she won't leave him alone until she has an explanation.
"No, Vic, can I not just be in a bad mood?" Vic quirks an eyebrow, obviously unconvinced. "Defence was shit today, alright? Is that enough for you?"
"Oh. I thought you guys were working on patronuses right now, is yours shit? What is it, a mouse? Oh, wait, is it a proper Dingle one, a sheep, or a pig?" Her eyes gleam at the chance for some ribbing, and she's obviously about to push the point, but then she hesitates, taking in Aaron's defensive posture. "Oh. Did you not...? Well, that's fine, Aaron, I'm sure you'll get it."
"I don't care, patronuses are shit anyway," he grunts, ears burning. “I wasn’t even trying.”
"Not much point to them, is there," she agrees, obviously throwing him a bone. He can't stand the sympathy he assumes is in her gaze, and his food is hard to swallow in the uncomfortable silence, so he shoves back his chair and stalks out of the hall without so much as a goodbye.
* * *
He finds himself coming back to the subject, though, like poking a bruise. He's hiding out in the room he goes to to get away – a weird one he'd found in year three, that nobody else seems to know how to find, that seems to somehow know what he needs. He'd been angry, pacing, lip bloody as a result of a good old muggle-style fist fight, and somewhere in between all of the pacing back and forth a door had appeared.
That wasn't all that unusual – it was Hogwarts, rooms and staircases appeared and disappeared all the time – but he'd been curious, had pulled the door open and found a room lit with the glow of a crackling fire, a soft, comfortable looking chair in front of it's warmth. There was a hand basin in the corner, full of warm water and with a soft washcloth on the side, and he'd cautiously washed his face off and then curled up in front of the fire.
The door hadn't been there the next day, when he ventured back, but he'd walked back and forth in front of the spot where he thought it had been and sure enough, a door was there the third time he turned around. That time, the hand basin was gone, and a simple, solid looking desk was there in it's place.
He'd been back many times since, gone there when he was overwhelmed by people or burning with anger or just wanted somewhere to go, and it always knew what he wanted from it. Right now there were wooden dummies lined up against the wall, some singed or cracked from Aaron's practice with magic he can use to fight – not that they teach them much of it, and certainly not anything that could do real damage. He's curious, though, about what his patronus would be, about what would be enough to summon it.
So he tries again. He needs to be a bit more real with himself, he figures, try to use a memory with deeper, proper happiness in it. So he casts his mind back, back to before his mum left, to when she was a rock solid presence in his life and her arms were the safest place in the world.
He doesn't like car rides. He likes moving, likes being able to run around. But this car ride – this one isn't so bad.
His mum is in a brilliant mood, has been all day. She'd indulged him in games of I Spy, nodded along as he'd excitedly caught her up to speed on all of the shows he'd been watching, even though he'd confused himself trying to keep everything in order and talked himself in circles, had sent him into peals of laughter singing dramatically along to the radio. But now they're finally pulling up, and he's straining in his seat, peering over the dash with his mouth open.
There's a line of straggly grass, and then a long expanse of sand, and then the ocean stretching out into the horizon, and Aaron wants to run around and explore all of it. He wiggles out of his seat as soon as the car rolls to a stop, bounding out and up onto the grass, and the first thing that hits him is the salt in the air.
It's not the best day for it, objectively, with the sun hidden behind clouds more often than not and the breeze sharp against his face, but to him it's brilliant. The whole day is brilliant. From mucking about in the sand to getting playfully ordered into the water, with his mum there right beside him (or watching from the safety of dry land).
And now he's sitting in the sand next to her, hands sticky with ice cream, and there's an arcade nearby that he knows his mum will let him play in, with her typical Dingle fondness for muggle things, and she's happy, and he's happy, and everything is perfect.
"Expecto patronum," he says, voice loud and clear, channelling his feelings of being loved, of the excitement at being treated to a special day out with his mum all to himself, the memory of her smiling face, genuinely happy in a way she wasn't always, and he knows as he's saying it that this time it's different. Sure enough, this time a proper stream of white light bursts from his wand, quickly solidifying and taking shape, and within seconds he's staring at an Alsatian seemingly carved from the air.
He can't help but laugh, exhilarated, as the dog sits back on it's haunches, big tail wagging and mouth open in a perfect doggy grin. It's not a perfect patronus, but it is a patronus, one he made.
He admires it for a little bit, thinks for a few seconds about making it do tricks but decides not to lighten the moment and lets it disappear, fading quickly into the air. The room seems a little bit darker with it gone, and his smile turns slightly bittersweet.
His mum might be a fucking mess, and she might have the absolute worst taste in men and an inability to keep hold of a good thing when she has it - but, well, she's still his mum, isn't she. She's still the same person who sat up with him when he was little and scared of the dark, who took him out to have fun. And she has been trying, since he careened back into her life. There's a pile of letters, sitting in his bedside table next to the ones from Paddy, some that he's responded to and some not - but he's kept them all, hasn't he, all the ones she's sent this year, and as much as he doesn't want it to, that means something.
Not that he cares, what kind of bother Cain has gotten into, what mess Eli is in at the moment - but the fact that she's taking the time to write. That she's trying in her own way to get back to what it was - and maybe that's not possible. But... maybe he'll send her one first, this time, he thinks. Maybe he can let her try.