Career day goes exactly the way Albus expects it to. He’s handed a bunch of flashing leaflets, told to work on his Herbology grade if he wants to be a Potioneer, and chivied out into the corridor where the rest of his classmates are waiting. Scorpius has already gone through, and Albus almost runs into him as he rounds the corner. He’s bouncing on his toes, muttering as he leafs through the pamphlets, and he doesn’t pause for breath when Albus grumbles, rubbing his arm where he bounced off him.
“I’m thinking about a Healing course now,” Scorpius says, biting his lip. “I still sort of want to work in the Ministry, but Healing’s much more active and involved, isn’t it? It seems like a more obvious way to help people. But I don’t know! There’s so many options.”
Albus grunts. Maybe there’s options for people like Scorpius, who breeze through their classes, wide-eyed with awe and curiosity. Maybe people like Rose have the world at their feet, ready for the taking as long as they work for it. Albus has worked every day just to get here, and the results are mediocre at best.
“What about you?” Scorpius asks later, when they’ve exhausted every possible career choice for him and gone over each pamphlet in specific detail. Parchment litters the Slytherin table, and anxious babbling fills the corners of the Great Hall as everyone tries to work out what they want to do with the rest of their lives. It seems strange, to make them decide now, when they’ve only just started out.
Albus spoons soup into his mouth and shrugs.
“C’mon Albus, you must have some idea,” Scorpius says, smiling at him encouragingly. “What about Potions? You’re good at that.”
It’s pretty much the only thing he is good at, which is alright, really. Albus doesn’t mind. He didn't grow up thinking he was going to be excellent at school, not when reading was kind of boring and everyone around him seemed cleverer than he was and dad’s paperwork looked like the worst punishment in the world for reaching adulthood.
He didn’t grow up thinking much of anything.
Albus swallows his soup, shrugs again. “Yeah, I’ll probably go with that.”
Scorpius bites his lip. His potatoes sit, untouched, in a pool of gravy on his plate. When he smiles, it seems somewhat bracing, and there’s not really a need for that, but Scorpius has always liked to remind Albus that he’s on his side.
Albus frowns. Always seems like a strange choice of phrase.
“Well, whatever you choose, you’ll be brilliant at, I’m sure. And you don't have to decide right now anyway.”
I’ve probably already decided, Albus thinks distantly.
“You should think about Mind-Healing,” Albus suggests, as he helps himself to more soup. “It’s a more specific branch, I know, but I reckon you’d be good at it.”
When Albus comes to Hogwarts, he expects more. The magic is beautiful, kind and mischievous. The castle blooms each year with an untouchable quality. The forest teems with quiet, wild danger. It’s an untamed place, and Albus expects more.
He expects to find a home, a safe place. Everywhere he goes there are shining gold plaques on the walls, little scrawled signatures of the people that used to walk these halls. Some of the corridors are scarred with the rough hand of war, and the Astronomy Tower is entirely new, built from scratch, but the gleaming marble staircase has a history to it regardless.
“I dunno,” Albus says, when Rose impatiently asks what he was hoping to find here. The library makes soft sounds around them, sleepy and rustling with knowledge. “Dad always talks about how it’s a magical place, about how safe it feels. He said it was more his home than anywhere else had ever been.”
There’s that always, again. Undoubtedly the wrong word, one that fits wrong in his mouth and mind but keeps spilling out into his thoughts anyway. Dad’s never said that, but maybe he will one day, when Albus can hear it.
“It’s a school, Albus,” Rose says, turning back to her books and her friends that sit by her side, a couple of competitive Ravenclaws that don't understand how she made it into Hufflepuff, of all Houses. One of them Hexed her when she was sixteen. “It’s supposed to teach you, and that’s it. I don’t know what you expected, but we’re only in our first year, so maybe you’ll find it later. Or maybe you’re looking too hard for something that’s not there.”
Parchment always has this taunting way of looking at him, like it knows he doesn’t have much to say.
Always always always.
Albus twiddles with the end of a scroll a bit uselessly, feeling an unimaginable amount of hatred for the little form in front of him. It’s binding, even though it’s just a question, an application. He’ll have an answer, one way or another. A yes or a no is binding even though it can always change.
“Having trouble? I could always lend a hand.”
Lorcan Scamander is just a year younger than Albus, but incredibly smart, incredibly self-important, and incredibly mature for his age. In a few years, he’ll come out as gay, and say that he’s only so bloody mature for his age because he felt so pressured to keep everything else about him as normal and nonsense-free as possible. Albus said that was a stupid reason to stifle yourself, and Lorcan threw a quill at him. It’s not happened yet for Lorcan, but Albus kind of enjoyed seeing him let loose a bit. He enjoyed the hug he got, too, after Lorcan calmed down and Albus apologised.
It makes it a bit easier to bear the patronising air suffocating him today. Lorcan tucks himself against the table in the Common Room, tucking a bit of blond hair behind his ear primly, and peers down at Albus’s form.
“A Potions Apprenticeship?” He sounds surprised, which doesn’t surprise Albus.
“It’s just this little place in Diagon Alley,” Albus says, tapping the quill against the edge of the table. “They’re hiring at the minute, so I figured I’d see if they want me after I finish Hogwarts.”
“Confident in your grades, then?”
“Not even a bit.”
He doesn’t need to be.
“Not too long, now,” Lorcan says, clapping him on the shoulder, like dads do sometimes. “Then you’ll know for sure.”
Here, that seems to be the only thing that matters. Knowing for sure whether you’re going to pass or not, holding the little bit of paper with your success scrawled on it in black, damning ink. Years of toil. It’s a school, so it makes sense, like Rose said, but he can’t help but wonder whether there’s supposed to be more.
Maybe he just hasn’t found it yet. Or maybe he has, but he hasn’t lived it yet, so he can’t know what it was.
Unicorns don't usually like boys, not really, but the foals, the ones with the bright-gold shine, they don't mind Albus too much.
Albus throws a half-grin over his shoulder at Hagrid. He always feels tiny next to Hagrid, like a proper eleven-year-old. He’s always going to be kind of short anyway, but Hagrid is enormous and loud and prone to lumbering around in a dangerous, clumsy way.
“Good thanks, you? How’s the pumpkins coming along?”
Hagrid chuckles. “They won’t be coming along ‘til next year, now. I don’t start the next lot straight after Halloween, lad. And I’ve been worse, I’ll tell ya’ that. These seem to have a liking for you.”
Albus runs his hand gently down the unicorns’ nose. It’s soft to the touch, smooth and sleek without being snake-like. Not that Albus minds snakes: sometimes he even chats to them, in the garden at home, although he does it secretly. Dad’ll spot it soon anyway, but the secret is nice for now.
“They came over to keep me company, I think,” Albus says. Hagrid joins him at the edge of the forest properly, hands in his pockets, head tilted as he watches two more golden foals pad softly through the leaves. His beard has a bit of grey in it, but not as much as it did a few days ago.
“Not got any other company?”
Albus thinks of Scorpius, his new friend, the one who likes sweets and smiles quite a lot, but always nervously. Scorpius, who tangled their hands together and bought yellow curtains for their flat and spelled Albus’s toothbrush to the ceiling when he left the lid off the paste one too many times. He thinks of Rose, already busy untangling the secrets of Hogwarts and magic and social interaction, Rose in her Dragon Trainer outfit, swearing at too-tight leather pants and falling over outside the Burrow at the age of four, scraping her knee and screeching like a banshee until Hermione came to pick her up.
He thinks of James, who played three pranks on him yesterday during a celebration for winning his first Appleby Arrows match, and hugged him in full view of the Great Hall this morning on his way to Transfiguration.
“I keep seeing them by the forest whenever I come for a walk,” Albus says, rather than answering, because he thinks that’s answer enough. “There’s these little guys, and the Thestrals, too, and the Giant Squid always comes out to say hello when I pass the lake. I think creatures are nicer than the people, sometimes.”
Hagrid looks shocked, his face pale behind his bushy beard when Albus tilts his head up to see him.
“Thestrals?” Hagrid puts a hand on Albus’s shoulder, and his knees buckle under the sudden weight. “Albus, lad, who’ve you… who did ya’ see die?”
The unicorn stills under his hand. Sunlight glints just right off the golden flank, and he smiles, almost wistfully. He remembers seeing something similar, when he leaves Hogwarts.
“Oh, nobody,” Albus says, ducking his head to avoid Hagrid’s concerned gaze. Not yet. “Must have been something else, then.”
It’s just a story, that there’s Time itself buried in the sand in Arizona. It’s just a story. Most things are stories, though, Albus thinks, if you tell them right.
“Did you ever think we’d make it here?” Scorpius asks. He’s hanging a wind-chime up in the window, the silver bells tinkling in the breeze that fills the kitchen. Albus reaches around him to slam the window shut, but the wind-chimes keep tinkling. He crowds close, puts his arms around Scorpius’s waist from behind and tucks his nose into the crook of his neck, breathing him in.
He smells like sandalwood from the body-wash he bought in an attempt to feel grown-up and mature, throwing out his old chocolate orange soap. In a few years, peach will take its place. Albus likes the peach one best, but this is good too.
“Yeah, I did,” Albus says.
Scorpius laughs, says something teasing, and the noise is lost in the bells.
“The hell is that?”
Evans’ likes to smoke cigars that make his lips all purple and tingly, and Albus only knows about the tingly-ness because Evans tried to kiss him once, in what turned out to be a drunken mistake, in a few weeks time, and the feeling transferred to his mouth.
He can feel it now, the way his lips buzz. It’s kind of gross.
“No idea,” Albus says, as he brushes his wand over the groove in the sand. “Stop smoking that, you’ll contaminate the area, and I don’t want to have to put up spells again.”
“Stuffy, aren’t you?” Evans blows out a breath, purple and curling, and grins, purple and curling. “It’s not gonna do any harm, mate. Live a little.”
“I already have,” Albus says, rolling his eyes. He digs his wand a little further into the groove, just beside the red markers, the ones that indicate magi-archaeologists have been by and don't like what they’ve found. He goes to dig his wand in. He takes it out. The world drops away. He goes to dig his wand in.
The last of the long stream of magi-archaeologists sweeps past him, slapping him on the shoulder. “All yours, Potter. We’ve put indicators where we think there might be trouble afoot. Greenwood did the blue, and I did the red, so you know which ones are gonna be more accurate.” A wink. “Careful out there, alright?”
Albus nods. Evans lights his first cigar of the day and smiles, slow and easy. Albus thinks fleetingly: what would the cigar smoke taste like? And then blonde hair and nervous smiles fill his mind, and the thought is gone, and he already knows.
“We’re always careful.”
Sometimes, the past doesn’t stay where it should. Sometimes it hasn’t even happened yet. Albus can’t always be sure, although usually he has an inkling, and sometimes he’s already had a full-blown revelation, but he thinks that somewhere, at some point, Albus Severus Potter did something he wasn’t supposed to do, and the Universe got in a bit of a huff over it.
Albus pulls the covers up over his head. Not only is Lysander snoring in the bed above him, but his pulse is racing, and he’s dreamed again. It’s the middle of the night, sometime after New Years, possibly. It’s the first dream, the one about Scorpius and him in their bed a few years from now, kissing and touching, holding each other desperately, gasping into wet, hot mouths.
“Awful things happen to wizards who meddle with time, Harry. We can’t be seen.”
Albus wasn’t there for that bit of wisdom, but he’s there for it now. The memory glistens silver and strong when Albus yanks himself out of the pensieve. It’s his dad’s, tucked away in the attic. He didn't know it was there until a few years from now, but since that happened yesterday, he thinks it’s alright that he’s found it a bit early.
“How does that work?” Albus asks the dusty room, listening to his voice echo around him, asking and asking and asking. “If I found it for the first time in a few years, then how can I find it for the first time now? Do I forget? Or is that part gone now? Why do I still remember it, if it’s gone?”
Nothing answers. Not the split mirror hanging on the wall, or the ragged curtains that used to fight each other thanks to James’s spell, and will fight each other again in the future, thanks to James’s kids’ spell. Albus knows because he was there, laughing uproariously at James’s pride, panic, and exasperation. Even the books on the nearest crate don't answer him, when he flips through them idly, bored and confused.
Nothing’s answered him before. Not since he dug his wand into a groove in the ground in Arizona. Not since before that, maybe. Or after.
What would be in his pensieve, if he used it now? Memories of things that haven’t happened yet. Memories from when he was younger, things he shouldn’t recall. His last day. His first day. Every day in between.
Dad pops his head through the attic door, glasses askew. His hair is loose, his brow sweaty from an impromptu game of Quidditch in the garden. Albus wonders how old he is.
“Just looking at something,” Albus says, jerking a thumb at the pensieve. Dad looks surprised, like he’d forgotten it was there too. Albus wishes he could forget. He will, if the future is correct.
There’s pain all around him, his nerves aching. He feels as big as he’s ever been. His eyes won’t open, and he’s not sure that they are eyes, really, but there are sensations everywhere, hands on his body, and his sounds are loud and desperate - the sounds from his mouth, the mouth he was born with, only seconds ago.
That day doesn’t last long. It’s also the longest day he’s ever lived.
“You need a haircut.”
Scorpius runs a hand through Albus’s hair, humming. His touch is nice, always welcome, but just yesterday Albus was tucked up in bed, staring at the dark ceiling of his parents house, wishing summer would be over because he missed Scorpius. He couldn’t wait to get back to school. Just yesterday, Albus was aching because he knew that Scorpius didn't love him the way that Albus loved Scorpius.
Except that he always knew that wasn’t right, didn't he? He had their first kiss long before they met, after all.
The feelings were there, though. The longing, the wonder, the strange ache for more.
Albus shifts on the sofa, where he’s sprawled against Scorpius. “Yeah, sorry. I was listening. I like my hair like this.”
Scorpius laughs softly. “You said the other day that you hated it being in your eyes. You said it got in the way of your potions.”
Albus sucks in a breath. “Potions?”
Scorpius elbows him gently, the scratch of his nails soothing and welcome. “Why’re you surprised? That’s what the shop’s for, isn’t it? Selling potions?”
A shop. Huh, Albus thinks, with awe, as he moves up to kiss Scorpius. He always pictured himself out in the desert, sort of, looking for more, studying the old things under the sand. Because he’d already done that, so it made sense that he’d end up there at some point. But this must be after.
A potions shop, and a boyfriend. He laces his fingers through Scorpius’s, searching discreetly for a ring, but there’s nothing. Just the jangle of a bracelet as Scorpius shifts under him restlessly, kissing back, their wrists touching. A potions shop and a boyfriend, then.
“Did you help?” Albus asks, as he draws back and looks down at Scorpius. He’s so beautiful, with his flushed cheeks and bitten lips, his eyes wide and a little dark. “With the shop, I mean. Is it blue? That was your favourite colour.”
Scorpius studies him carefully. It’s the first time Albus has ever said anything like that, the first time he’s ever dared to voice the countless questions inside him at any given moment. He always usually gets a full day, but never in the right order, and a full day isn’t always enough time to know everything he should.
“That’s the third time this month that you’ve said something weird like that,” Scorpius says, tightening his grip on Albus’s hand. “What’s going on, Al?”
Thunderbirds are remarkable creatures. In 1926, one finds its way to Arizona, and the storm it creates as it delights in its freedom echoes through time as one of the most powerful storms in wizarding history. It gives life to the desert with the rain that pours off iridescent wings. The rain dampens the sand. The sand churns in the air. Its howl digs into the ground, pock-marking the earth.
The Muggles don't remember, but stories do.
The stories are what leads a group of magi-archaeologists there, years later, to put markers in the ground and look for something they shouldn’t.
“Bowtruckles eat lice, mostly,” Rose says, as she plays with the neck of her butterbeer bottle. There’s froth on her lips and her eyes sparkle with delight. The girl at their booth looks curious, intrigued, and her mouth keeps moving like she wants to smile but can’t quite allow herself too.
Albus recognises her. Her name is Bea, and she was at Rose’s wedding.
“They also have immensely sharp fingers, did you know? They can gouge someone’s eyes out,” Rose adds, leaning forward in her eagerness, her red curls clinging to her temples from the brief burst of rain they just ran through to get here. “They only do that when someone threatens their tree, though, and they only guard wand-trees.”
“Do they?” Albus glances briefly away from the window, where he’s looking for Scorpius in the grey, wet street. His stomach is warm from butterbeer, and he feels a happy lightness in his chest that hasn’t been there in a while. “I didn't know that.”
Rose shoots him a sideways look, a faint frown forming. “Albus, you told me that the other day, you idiot. That’s why I went and researched them for my wandlore essay in Charms. Anyway, like I was saying--”
James is there when he wakes up. Albus blinks open his eyes, squinting in the sudden light that fills his bedroom, as James raps on the door.
“You’re fourty-one,” James says lightly, grinning. “I made eggs.”
Albus keeps blinking even as James disappears. His forehead crinkles. His muscles feel a little stiff from sleeping funny, or maybe from being thirty-one, who knows. He’s never been fourty-one before, and yesterday he was fourteen, all gangly and knobby-kneed. He was still fourteen the day before that, and then the day before that, he was three. He never remembers his younger days quite as well as he’d like. Each day is sharp and vivid until the next one comes, and then sometimes the memories soften, the way old ones do.
James really has made eggs. They’re a bit gooey and runny, but not bad. He eats them, and James bops his head and drums his fingers against the table as he sings along to the radio.
There are wind chimes in the window.
“Where’s Scorpius?” Albus asks, wiping his mouth when his plate is clean.
James reaches over and snags a note off the fridge. It’s pink, and the writing is in Scorpius’s hand.
I’m at the Ministry, doing boring administrative work to get them to employ a mind-healer at Hogwarts. I’ll see you at six. I love you!
Albus pockets the note. There are more on the fridge.
“Is it my birthday?”
James snorts, crinkling his eyes when he laughs. “No. This would be a shit birthday if that was the case, Alby. You know me better than that.”
“Then why,” Albus says, with a growing sense of trepidation, “did you tell me how old I was when you woke me up? Just to rub it in, that I’m old? Because you’re older.”
James grows very still. He leans forward abruptly over the table and stares at Albus.
“This is the first time, isn’t it?” James asks, serious in a way he usually isn’t.
“The first time for what?”
“The first time since you told us. You told us about a year ago, about the time thing. Living life in the wrong order, you said.”
Albus can’t breathe. The world spins away, and comes back again, and he finds James’s wrist and clutches it. James steadies him, the way he always has, and Albus doesn’t need to go through life in the right-wrong way to know that he always will.
“We tell you the date and how old you are when you wake up every morning,” James says quickly, like he’s trying to get the words out to ground Albus, keep him here. “Scorpius leaves you notes. It’s the weirdest thing in the world, and you have no idea how happy I was when you told me about it.”
“No, I don’t,” Albus says, his laugh mingling with a breathless sob, because he hasn’t lived that moment yet, hasn’t seen what happens, how it happens. It’s always him that knows too much. Being on the other end of it is surreal.
“You didn’t say anything yesterday, about today being the first time,” James says.
Albus shrugs, wiping his eyes with his free hand. “It’s kind of hard to keep track. Maybe I’ll let you know, one day, why I kept it quiet.”
“This is the first time,” James says again, like he’s hollow and tired. There’s a spark in his eyes that says he’d fight anyone and anything and the whole universe for Albus, and Albus loves him for it.
“So you’ve never been any further than today before? Never gotten any older?”
James lets him think, let’s him breathe.
“Once, I did,” Albus says eventually, quiet. He went much, much further. Hospital beds and the steady pulse of wandlight in the air. Not something he wants to dwell on, if he can help it.
“Twice,” he adds, thinking of James’s kid. Nobody said any ages then, that morning, but he woke up alone and didn’t go to the fridge, and invited himself to James’s out of curiosity. He still has to live, even if he’s doing it in the wrong order.
And he didn’t think to ask. He didn’t think it would ever happen, that he’d ever tell anyone. Scorpius came close, once or twice. Albus always avoided the question.
“Is it a relief?” James asks, later, when they’ve thoroughly distracted themselves with Exploding Snap, Quidditch, and a nap, curled together on the rug and ignoring their responsibilities. James made him call his assistant at the potions shop, one he still hadn’t seen, and call in sick for the afternoon.
“That I can still kick your arse at Quidditch at fourty-one?” Albus asks, even though that’s a lie, because James has always been better at Quidditch than he is.
“You wish.” James snorts, elbows him. “That you told someone.”
Albus licks his lips, staring at the ceiling. He wonders distantly if he picked out the lampshade or if Scorpius did.
It probably will be a relief, to say the words, to explain it, to see what James meant when he said he was happy to hear it.
“I don’t know,” Albus says. “It hasn't happened yet.”
James is quiet. Then he’s not, because he never is, and James isn’t James unless he’s laughing. Albus watches him snicker into the rug, laughter rocketing through the air, and finds his own grin reluctantly forming.
“Mate, your life is the weirdest thing in the world, and we have Harry bloody Potter for a dad,” James says, when he can breathe again. “You just let me know when it does happen, okay? I’ll meet you in the future. We’ll throw a little celebratory party.”
Nothing makes sense, and he’s full of questions. It feels a little like he’s floating, like he’s observing, but he’s very firmly alive, very obviously living. His first day was career day at Hogwarts, sometime during OWL year, and he was born sometime after that. He doesn’t know if anyone’s been trying to fix this. He doesn’t want to die after anyone else, doesn’t want to grieve people who haven’t gone yet - to have them ripped away one moment, and see them shopping for apples and bread the next. But there are things to look forward to, things that he knows have to happen, like Lily’s first birthday. Like seeing his shop for the first time. Like the day he decides to be a magi-archaeologist.
Nothing makes sense, and it has the potential to break him. Awful things happen to wizards that meddle with time, but the rest of it is worth sticking around for.
It helps, if he thinks of it in terms of Yesterdays and Days Before. Yesterday, he kissed Scorpius for the first time. The day before that, they met for the first time on the train. The day before that, they had their first fight. They day before that, they had their eleventh fight. The day before that, they went to Charms class and levitated Flitwick round the room accidentally. The day before that, Albus failed his Herbology exam and Scorpius made him hot chocolate. The day before that, they moved into their flat, at the age of twenty-three. Scorpius put wind-chimes in the window, and Albus always knew he’d make it there.