Blood of Birds

Note: Hi! The following is a 2nd generation Harry Potter fanfiction, with main characters being Rose Weasley, Scorpius Malfoy, and Albus Potter. It will be comprised of four parts, the first of which will follow Rose. There will also be seven one-shots (or side-alongs) following other characters at points throughout the series, each uploaded separately. I've also taken the liberty to include a few re-quotes, courtesy of JK Rowling and Steve Kloves of course, to pay homage to the original books and films. So without further ado, here is Chapter 1. Happy reading!

~ Lauren

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31. Astoria's Army

What are you waiting for?" asked the smooth, silky voice of Astoria. In her signature snarl, she added, "You have an army to lead, Albus. Now lead it."

Her command seemed to be more than just a command as Al heard it. He followed it willingly, without any question or choice. He just put his head down and did as he was told, under Astoria's complete control and without any of his own say in the matter. It was almost like he was under her Imperius Curse, fulfilling every last wish of the evil witch and taking the consequences on his own shoulders. But unlike Vincent Goyle, Al's shoulders were hardly broad enough to carry such weight, and it was only a matter of time until he crumbled to his knees.

For now, though, he was staying strong as he walked across the Hogwarts grounds, an army marching behind him. He was headed in a straight line from the shore of a frozen Black Lake to the center of a snowy Quidditch pitch, where a giant tent was barely standing, its tarp torn to pieces and its edges chiseled from fire. Beneath it laid a crowd of well-dressed witches and wizards assembled in one long line, and every pair of eyes was pointed at Al.

He was only a matter of yards away from the enemy now, and Vega and Wynn were on each of his sides as they chortled with excitement. Behind them was a horde of men whom Al felt no connection to, and then there were the giants, spiders, and dementors. But that wasn't the half of it, for the entire Forbidden Flock was the size of a measly ant in comparison to the roaring black dragon that flew steadily above them.

The creature intimidated some in the enemy group, though Al was surprisingly not intimidated at all. This confused him, because he had always been squeamish around all sorts of magical creatures, and he would have assumed that he'd fear dragons most of all. But he did not fear this dragon, and in fact almost felt attached to it, which was evident when Al stopped in his tracks to face the awaiting line-up and the dragon followed his exact movements, hovering above him until he slowly flew to the ground and landed just beside Albus with a giant thump.

The dragon's presence caused a slight stirring amongst the line facing Al, but the group of witches and wizards closest to him didn't even flinch at the sight of the beast. They all just looked at Al, waiting for either him or their own commander to say something. For a while, though, Al was silent, for he needed time to take in the sight of his adversaries.

The Order of the Phoenix was at least as large as the Forbidden Flock, and the group that was at its center made up the core alliance. The Creeveys were on one far side, their sons peeking above their shoulders from behind, while a gorgeously white Luna was holding hands with a rather dapper Neville from the other side. Beside the Creeveys were the Weasleys, Hugo hidden behind a furious Ron and somber Hermione, who was standing next to Draco Malfoy. Across from them was Teddy Lupin, but it was the presence of Mercy Golding that Al didn't quite understand. She was lodged in between Teddy and James, clearly an integral part of the alliance, and though Al's body didn't bat an eyelash upon seeing her, his mind wasn't quite sure why she was there. But even such curiosity couldn't hold his attention for long, since across from James was Ginny and Harry, and the latter's gaze was daring his son to look back at him. Still, Al didn't take the dare, for his gaze was already locked on somebody else.

Scorpius was standing a few steps ahead of the others in the very middle, only a yard or so away from where Al was positioned. The young Malfoy looked sharp as usual, with dress pants, a collared shirt, and a blazer. Everything he wore was as white as his hair, the perfect contrast to Albus, whose clothes also matched his own hair color. But while they may have been differentiated by their clothing, they currently had much more in common than they realized.

It wasn't until Al noticed the tears that streaked Scorpius's cheek that he realized Rose was nowhere to be found. Glancing back at Ron, Al now understood why his uncle seemed so profusely angry. Still, Scorpius's expression was worse, because Al's former best friend and new leader of the Order of the Phoenix already looked beaten when the war hadn't even started yet.

And as Al grew more aware of the weakening beat emanating from Scorpius's fractured heart, the hole in his own became wider and more prominent. He hadn't comprehended the gravity of his own pain before because he'd been used to it then. The hole in his heart had always been there, because he'd always been missing something, but now it felt different. Now, it was heavy instead of hollow, aching instead of waiting, loveless instead of lonesome. It was as if he had found what he'd been missing and held onto it… onto her. He had found Ilana and she'd filled the hole in his heart, but then she'd disappeared and had ripped what was left of him into shreds. Because like Rose with Scorpius, Ilana wasn't by Al's side, nor was she anywhere in the opposing crowd, and the thought that he'd somehow managed to find her but had just as hastily let her go was enough restore the anger in the Al. That was enough to finally make him speak.

"Today, we end this," he stated fiercely, extending his right hand for Scorpius to shake.

Scorpius took it without a word, grasping Al's skin feebly before letting go and taking out his wand. As soon as he did so, the army behind him all clasped their own weapons, and soon the Flock did so as well. This was also the first moment that Al spotted the Order's own dark creatures, for they had somehow managed to win over the giants, who were pounding out of the Forbidden Forest in perfect unison, their stomping steps sending vibrations across the entire Quidditch pitch.

With the sight of a sizeable opponent, Al's dragon flew back into the air and headed for the giants, leading a slew of relatives that had just arrived after soaring across the Black Lake. Beneath them, Al was breathing deeply to prepare himself for imminent battle, and there were three particular wizards whom he had his sights set on.

As soon as he made his plans clear, it was as if the rest of the two armies disappeared. Now, it was just Albus, standing on one edge of a square that had been formed by himself, James, Harry, and Scorpius. Al was about to face the three people he'd always envied more than any others, the three people who had hurt him the most, the three people he'd betrayed. And as he faced them, he couldn't help but laugh at the irony of the situation. After all, this was the first time in his life that Al himself wasn't part of a trio. He wasn't one of three Potter children, he wasn't working beside Astoria and Knox, and he wasn't one of three best friends. What made it all so funny was that it had taken him this long – it wasn't until this moment, after it was far too late to go back – that Al realized just how lonely it was to be on the outside looking in.

Albus opened his eyes just before a spell struck him, and it took him a moment to accept that it had all been a dream when it had felt so real. Yet here he was, half of his face buried into a pillow that sat on the bed in his dormitory, and his one open ear tuned into the synchronized snoring of his Slytherin roommates. But one of those roommates – the only one who never snored – wasn't in the bed beside Al's where he normally slept.

Scorpius was avoiding Al even more now than he had been before. Ever since he'd reunited with Rose, he'd been sneaking out of the dorm fairly often to meet her in the Gryffindor Tower, but following the recent marking ceremony, it seemed as though Scorpius never even dropped by to change his clothes. He must have known that Al had played a part in the ceremony, and Scorpius was most likely blaming himself for Al's involvement. Scorpius was like that; he blamed himself for everything because he'd always been responsible for more than he could keep track of. His leadership for the Order of the Phoenix was just the tip of an already leaning iceberg, and running into Al outside of class would surely push him over the edge.

After listening to the snoring for a while longer, Al decided that there was no way he was going to fall back asleep. After all, it wasn't the complete middle of the night; he could see a few rays of sunlight shining through the water outside his dormitory window. So, Al stepped out of his bed and put his uniform on without bothering to check if his tie was crooked, and then sneaked outside quietly and headed for the common room, where he hoped Ilana would be.

Much like Scorpius, Ilana hadn't spoken to Al since the marking ceremony. It had been almost a month since then, though, and Al was starting to feel like he hadn't spoken to anyone at all recently. Not that talking to anybody else would do him any good; it was her he wanted. But for now, at least, fate wasn't so kind to him, for Ilana was not sitting in the common room like Al hoped she'd be.

Instead, Al stumbled upon Aaron Goodall and Salem Keyes, two of his old Quidditch mates who'd played Chaser with him, polishing their brooms on the couches as they got ready for what was surely an early morning practice. Figuring it would seem odd if he ignored them, Al turned to the seventh years and said, "Hey. Long time, no see. Scorpius has got you two pretty whipped, hasn't he?"

"Yeah, tell me about it," sneered Salem, the darker-looking of the two. "We have major exams to study for, so of course we have morning practices all bloody week."

NEWT's were only a week away now for the seventh years, so all of them were highly stressed. These exams would ultimately determine which jobs they could qualify for, effectively deciding their life path in one shot. The only students who had a right to feel remotely comfortable about their futures were ones who already had spots on a Quidditch team, and as far as Al knew, James was the only one with such luck.

Of course, that might just be the reasoning behind Scorpius's tight schedule. Aaron and Salem had been on the Slytherin team for years, both of them longing to play professionally one day. Neither of them was talented enough yet, but scouts would be coming to the two final games in May, which would be the boys' last opportunity to earn even a sub spot on a team, and the only way they'd be considered would be if they got enough training in over the few weeks beforehand.

This theory was confirmed when Aaron said to Salem, "Oh, pipe down, mate. Malfoy's just doing what he can to get us a job once we're done with this place. Plus, some people have way more exams than we do." Aaron had always been more of a gentleman than Salem, similar to how Scorpius had always been in comparison to Al.

"Yeah, well, we can't all be as perfect as Mercy Golding, can we?" snorted Salem. This piqued Al's interest slightly, because nobody at Hogwarts disliked Mercy more than he did, so naturally he wanted to know all of her secrets.

"What's so perfect about her?" Al asked, trying not to seem too curious. With a laugh, he added, "I mean, other than the obvious." Mercy was, after all, a gorgeous blonde with legs as long as Al was tall, so he couldn't very well deny that she was attractive. Still, that didn't mean that she was anywhere near his type.

Salem grunted with envy as Aaron answered, "She's got more exams than anyone in our year. The girl's no ditz, believe it or not. Mercy's the only one of us who even stands a chance at qualifying for Auror training."

If Al had had a drink in his mouth, he would have spit it out then and there, he was chortling so hard. "Mercy wants to be an Auror?" No wonder she was dating James; he had all the connections she'd ever need.

With a heavily annoyed sigh, Salem commented, "Just one of the many reasons she gets away with boycotting all the practices that we are required to attend."

"Speaking of which, we should probably get going," suggested Aaron. At that, the two left Al while berating him of his decision to quit the team, to which he failed to listen, his mind already filled with more important thoughts.

Running into the seventh years had reminded Al that it was pointless to search for Ilana in the common room or even her dormitory. At this time of the year, most of the upperclassmen lived in the library from dawn until dusk, and for once, Ilana was most probably no exception to such a rule.

Still with plenty of time to spare before breakfast, let alone before his first class, Al ran out the door just after Aaron and Salem and headed upstairs to the library. He himself hadn't been all that worried about his impending exams, since sixth year finals were a breeze in comparison to OWL's and NEWT's. For this reason, he hadn't had any need to visit the library recently, and once he arrived there, he was thankful he hadn't come looking for his own peace and quiet.

The place was utterly packed, fifth and seventh years piled across the desks and chairs and roaming the hallways with sweat already running down their necks. Al had never realized there were so many people up this early, even the Ravenclaws. But of course, he'd had no way of knowing when they'd all been hiding out in the part of the castle that Al was least familiar with.

It took him quite some time to sort through the crowd and find Ilana, but eventually he did. Naturally, she was curled up in a large chair beside the Potions stacks, a pile of books sitting on the floor in front of her. So consumed in her reading, she didn't even notice when Al added a book to the pile.

Trying to gain her attention, he kicked at the leg of her chair, nodded his head toward the Half-Blood Prince's book that he'd just returned to her, and said, "To help you study."

Ilana didn't even look him in the eye as she replied, "Thanks, but I don't need any help."

Al laughed, because he wasn't about to give up that easily. Pressing further, he asked, "Well, then, what about some company?" and then leaned against the armrest of Ilana's chair.

However, she too wasn't willing to back down. Slamming her book shut and finally meeting Al's gaze, she said pointedly, "Look, Potter, I'm kind of busy right now, so I'd really appreciate it if you could just sod off, all right?"

"And why should I?" Al responded instinctively. "Why do you get to make all the decisions? How is it that you get to know what's right for me better than I do?" He was referring to their last conversation, when she'd pushed him away by shooting down his own desires and telling him that she wasn't what he needed after all.

"Blimey, don't you get it?" she shot back at him, raising her voice so much that she gained the attention of a few snooping students. Realizing this, she added more quietly, but still putting emphasis on every word, "We can't be together, and you just want what you can't have."

Al tried to take in her words for a moment. He tried to understand what she wanted him to hear, but nothing made any sense. How is it that he could feel this way about a person he wasn't supposed to be with? Even just now, as he was sitting beside her in the middle of an argument, all he wanted to do was reach out and touch her hair. He wanted to run his fingers over her black waves, brush his lips over her pale cheeks, whisper things in her ear that he'd never say to anybody else.

Thinking this, he shook his head stubbornly, then turned back to Ilana and cupped her cheek in his hand. Pulling her toward him with a slight roughness in his touch, he whispered with a clenched jaw, "No, Higgs. There are hundreds of things that I can't have, but I still want you."

She held his gaze for a minute or two, but then took a deep breath and turned away, slapping his hand off her cheek with a sharp jerk of her head. No longer able to look at him, she fought through her own temptation as she said, "I told you, Potter – I'm busy right now."
Al would have stayed and argued further had the bell not rung at that exact moment. He didn't mind missing class, but he was still under surveillance from his parents, so he couldn't exactly afford a letter home to Mum and Dad for skipping Transfiguration, which happened to be taught by the Headmistress herself. So, he left Ilana and set off for his least favorite class on a day that already didn't feel like it could get any worse.

Because that had just been the warning bell and the Transfiguration classroom happened to be on the same floor as the library, Al ended up being early to class. When he arrived, most of the room was filled with its usual animal cages rather than students, with only a few overachievers sitting at their desks with their books already open. Unsurprisingly, Rose was one of them.

At first, Albus didn't think anything of her presence toward the front of the room, and he was about to take his regular seat in the very back row when he had the sudden urge to talk with his cousin. After all, she was the one person he always went to when he needed to talk, and so now, after suffering through a disturbing dream and then Ilana's rejection, Rose was the only person who might be able to make him feel better. Of course, he was disregarding the fact that they too hadn't spoken all month, hoping that maybe she'd be as forgiving with him now as she'd been back in January.

Taking Scorpius's seat beside her, Al caught Rose off her guard when he said, "Hey."

As soon as Rose looked back at him, Al knew he'd made a mistake in talking to her. There were few occasions over the years that he'd ever seen Rose look angry, but each one was etched in his memory thanks to the expression it invoked on her. Normally so calm and collected, Rose's eyes would pierce like bullets of hail and her freckles would singe like burning coal whenever her frustration overruled her tolerance.

She didn't wait for Al to explain his presence before she asked him simply, "Did you have anything to do with the 'Mud-blood' scars?"

Al didn't answer, but he didn't have to. He knew before he could stop himself that his silence said all that his words couldn't. Rose, of all people, had a right to feel personally victimized by Astoria's marking ceremony, since it had been inspired by a scar branded in the skin of Rose's own mother. And of course she would assume that Al had had something to do with it, since he'd never denied to her that he was still working with the Flock.

Rose was sighing with disappointment when Al tried to change the subject by saying, "I just wanted to talk." She didn't back down, though, and all too soon the rest of the sixth years were barging in, and so Al moved returned to his seat before Scorpius saw him with Rose and finally found a reason to scorn him.

Al made it to the back just before Scorpius ran in, followed closely by a still guilty McGonagall. She too was suffering from the repercussions of the marking ceremony, since it was her all the Muggle-borns' parents were writing to with questions about the school's safety and security.

Today, McGonagall was especially self-conscious as she welcomed Bobby Dormer back to class. The Muggle-borns who'd received scars had either been held captive in the hospital wing while the nurses tried to find a cure or had returned home for a few weeks to gain support from their families. Bobby had been of the former group, and the nurses had just now come to terms with the fact that nothing more could be done; the scars were permanent.

Seeing Bobby wasn't exactly what Al had been hoping for either. He couldn't explain how he felt upon witnessing the normally loquacious boy act so silently as he checked his sleeves with every spell he cast, making sure that nobody could see the word he'd been branded with. It wasn't guilt that Al felt so much as fear, though. Bobby wasn't at all suspicious of Al, but McGonagall most definitely was.

She'd already suspected him of something after the Weasley attack, but now she looked at Al with less inquiry and more determination. He had to be careful over these last few weeks of school, because she was watching him just as closely as Astoria always was. He felt like both of them were constantly waiting for him to make the wrong move, and it was getting more and more difficult to decide which move was right.

But for now, McGonagall had no proof of Al's involvement in anything pertaining to the Forbidden Flock, and so he put his head down and made it through the class without drawing any more attention than he already had. After he was dismissed, he was off to Defense Against the Dark Arts, a class in which he really didn't mind all the attention that he earned so easily.

This time rushing in to get his seat up front, Al was surprised but excited to see that the desks in the classroom had all been pushed aside, stacked against the two long walls and leaving a narrow expanse of floorboard in the center of the room. Students were whispering about the new formation as soon as they walked in, for all sixth years knew about the heavily anticipated DADA lesson that was rumored to take place toward the end of the year. It was a special class that was by no means on the syllabus, but that offered the perfect segue into the countless number of applied lessons they'd be participating in come seventh year.

"As I'm sure some of you may have guessed, it is time for the annual Sixth Year Dueling Tournament," announced Professor Smethley as she descended the staircase from her office. With her confirmation came even more whispering, but it silenced when the petite professor walked into the center of the circle of students and began to explain the rules of the traditional game.

"The tournament is simple," she started. "We'll begin with a pair of you to duel in the center of the room so that everyone else may watch. As we must abide by the niceties, the two students will bow before casting any spells. Those spells may include anything that you have learned in this classroom over the past six years, though I will not tolerate Unforgivable Curses or other spells that may cause insurmountable damage upon your audience or your opponent."

Al looked directly at Scorpius as soon as he heard Smethley's final word, and he wasn't particularly shocked to see that Scorpius was looking back at him. But the two didn't have much time to continue sending each other threatening glares before Smethley continued, "Of course, I would advise you all to use as many silent spells as possible, both for your own defense as well as your success in the duel. Remember, this will be graded."

There were a few eye-rolls at this, but most of the students would still rather be assessed based off actual skill than the written exam that would be coming in a matter of weeks. Listening intently, they all accepted the marking scheme as Smethley went on, "And there is one thing about the tournament that makes it especially difficult. You see, rather than hosting a bounty of pairs, then having the winners of each pair take on each other, and so on and so forth, there will only be one duel to start with. The loser of that duel, which will be determined when one of the students is put into a compromised position against the opponent, will receive an ally. Together with their friend, they will compete once again against the winner of the previous duel. If the previous winner loses against the group of opponents, then we will start over with a fresh pair. However, if the previous winner gains victory once again, the pattern will continue with an ally added to the losing group until the entire class must face the single remaining witch or wizard."

Al liked this idea. He had a clear advantage because of the Elder Wand, but that wasn't the true reason he appreciated the rules of the tournament. He appreciated it because it was much more like the real world than a regular duel would be. After all, when faced with an attacker, there was almost always more than one, and a brilliant wizard needed to be prepared to take down as many as dared to face him. In the real world, that was the only way to ensure one's survival, and if there was one thing that Al had always been good at, it was surviving.

"Now, bear in mind that I have never seen a true victor arise from this tournament," Smethley continued, breaking Al's concentration. Quickly going from serious to eager herself, she asked her students, "So, who's ready to change that trend?"

At that, everyone clapped and cheered, and soon there were over ten hands raised in the air as all they all attempted to volunteer for the first round. Pranav Patil was the first chosen, but lost his duel against Patty Parkinson. After gaining an ally from Hufflepuff, together they took Patty down and ended the round. For the second turn, Smethley was more creative with her choosing, and ended up selecting a pair of wizards that were not only well matched against each other, but who would also provide some serious entertainment to their classmates.

Al and Scorpius faced each other head-on, and though they were required to bow as a sign of respect, it was clear from their eyes that neither of them currently respected the other in the slightest. If Rose had been angry, it was nothing compared to Scorpius's rage. He knew without a shadow of doubt that Al was to blame for the recent bloodshed, finally reciprocating the anger Al had been aiming at him.

When their duel began, Al was the first to attack, pointing the Elder Wand at Scorpius and shouting, "Stupefy!" He thought he'd start with something small, but the curse didn't even hit Scorpius; he was better at defending himself than he liked to let on.

Scorpius came at Al next, sending a silent spell his way, the effects of which Al didn't get a chance to see as he dodged behind a desk in the corner. By now, the rest of the class was riveted by the duel taking place before their eyes, none more so than Rose. She had to make way for Al when he ran to the corner, but he caught a glimpse of her in time to see the worry written all over her face. She knew better than anyone how much Al and Scorpius had been waiting to take their anger out on each other, and Rose hated having to stand by and let it happen.

But any concern Al may have had for Rose vanished when Scorpius shot another spell Al's way, this time voicing the command aloud since he wasn't practiced enough to say it silently. "Incarcerous!"

"Protego!" Al produced a protective shield just in time to save himself from being wrapped up in ropes produced by Scorpius's wand.

When Al looked up to see Scorpius focused on another spell that he seemed to be casting on himself, however, Al took the opportunity to disarm him, flicking his wand nonchalantly and saying the magic word, Expelliarmus, in the back of his mind.

Scorpius's wand immediately flew across the room only to be caught by Rose, whose Keeper instincts always came in handy at unexpected times. But without his wand to fight back, Scorpius was named the loser of the duel, making Al smile with pride for his victory.

"All right, all right," Smethley came between the two boys, trying to pipe down the other students who were itching to join Scorpius in his second attempt to take down Al. But instead of choosing one of them, Smethley turned to Scorpius and said, "Pick a partner, Mr. Malfoy."

Al didn't need to wait to hear Scorpius say without any hesitation, "Rose." He saw that coming from a mile away, because of course the two would gang up on him. It was what they always did. What Al hadn't expected, however, was to see the ending of this morning's dream play out right before his eyes.

Though Rose joined Scorpius with much more reluctance than she'd shown to Al before, the latter couldn't help but feel as though this next duel was the perfect way of illustrating their broken trio. It was only fitting that Al would finally get the chance to stand up for his third wheel status.

The others in the room seemed to sense this as well, as there wasn't a single person who dared to make a sound that might distract the old friends from their current conflict. And after bowing and facing each other in a triangle, Rose and Scorpius slightly closer together as they had always been, everything around them disappeared.

Just like in his dream, Al's thoughts were glued to his opponents only, and all three of them were condemned to the world of frustrations they all felt toward each other. Al and Scorpius were determined to make those frustrations known, firing spells upon curses and running in every possible direction to avoid the blasts. Rose, on the other hand, tried to sidestep the conflict and focus on defensive spells, but eventually she too yearned to use the duel as a gateway for her anger.

Now with both Scorpius and Rose to fend off, Al started to get more serious with his spells. He was done with simple hexes and counter-curses; he needed to pull out the spells that could overthrow multiple wizards in one take if he wanted to beat the lovebirds once and for all.

"Petrificus Totalus!" he shouted to Rose just as she attempted to disarm him for the third time. Unfortunately, Scorpius threw a protective wall in front of his girlfriend just before she was struck.

Now feeling vengeful, Scorpius ran toward Al but pointed at the desks by the walls and said, "Reducto!"

Suddenly, the pile of wood exploded from all sides, most of the debris flying toward Al since he'd been closest to the stack. However, the fire spread across the classroom, causing Smethley and the rest of the students to run around in frenzy. Still, Al and his adversaries were too focused on their duel to hear Smethley's screams for them to surrender.

It was Al's turn to fire back, and he did just that with the first spell that came to mind, one he'd seen in his potions book a thousand times but had never tried out. Aiming at Scorpius because he didn't actually want to harm Rose if it came down to it, Al shouted, "Sectumsempra!"

But the curse, which fired a line of green sparks from Al's wand, didn't manage to hit Scorpius, since he whispered, "Evanesco," to himself before his entire body vanished and he ran from Al's range.

"That's ENOUGH!" yelled Professor Smethley, making the rest of the world suddenly reappear. Scorpius silently came out from the Invisibility Cloak he'd created for himself, stopping dead in his tracks next to Rose as Al tried to subdue his adrenaline rush.

Adjusting to the sight of the classroom and his peers, Al saw that the fire had been put out but that the students were still shell-shocked by the chaos created by the most recent duel. "I told you before," Smethley directed mainly at Al and Scorpius, "I didn't want any insurmountable damage. Since you three seemed to have ignored such instruction, I'll have to ask that you serve a detention."

When Rose attempted to protest, since she was the only one of the three who'd never been given a detention before, Smethley turned around to her and added, "To all of you. No excuses."

Then the three of them sighed in unison, because none of them could bear the thought of interacting any further, what with all the fire that raged between them and that they only seemed to be adding fuel to as of late. Al's sigh was met with a small laugh, though, since he never should have thought that this day couldn't get any worse, because it just did.

The trio's detention took place on the following Friday, when the three of them were asked to meet Hagrid down at his hut at sunset. They didn't yet know what their task would be, but Al was already not looking forward to it. After all, it was fairly late by the time he got down to meet them, and he hadn't been sleeping well thanks to his recurring nightmare.

The dream kept flooding his mind whenever he closed his eyes, and it always presented itself in the same way, though he barely understood any of it, and he didn't know what he could do to make it go away. Was his sub-conscious telling him that he needed to take a leadership role in the Flock even with Astoria and Knox off on their mission? Was the dream meant to act as a reminder of how he felt about Ilana? Or, worst of all, was it possibly saying that something was going to happen to Rose, and that it would be his fault? And no matter which was true, what was Al supposed to do about it? This detention alone made it pretty clear that he already had enough problems to deal with; he couldn't afford to take on any more.

Of all people, Hagrid was especially attuned to Al's exhaustion when the latter was the first of the trio to arrive at the giant's ridiculously small abode. "It's abou' time yeh came 'round fer a visit!" he complained from his stool that was currently placed in the middle of his wilted pumpkin patch. "Even if I had ter use a detention to get yeh here."

Not needing to fake his guilt this time, Al put his hands in his pockets and said, "Sorry about that, Hagrid. I know I've been a bit absent lately." Even after his falling out with Scorpius that fall, Al had continued to visit Hagrid for tea on his own, but he hadn't found the time to stop by since before Christmas.

But Hagrid seemed much less gullible tonight than he normally was, responding back to Al, "Don' try ter fool me, Al. I know there's somethin' goin' on with yeh three, and I'm gonna' sort it out tonigh'; don' yeh worry." He was pointing a bulging finger at Al now, though Al didn't have the chance to ask Hagrid what his big plans were before Rose and Scorpius showed up.

The pair came strolling down the hill hand in hand, though neither of them looked particularly gleeful as they approached the hut. Rose was still feeling sour about earning the detention in the first place, and Scorpius seemed to be frightened to address Hagrid, who crossed his arms upon seeing the boy and tried to hide the tears of betrayal that were forming in the corners of his eyes.

"Well, now that yer all here, lemme get yeh started," he grunted awkwardly. It was funny how just about every part of this evening felt out of sync for the four of them, even after they'd spent countless hours together in complete harmony. But as Al was beginning to understand, that was the past, and the present was a whole new ball-game.

Hagrid motioned for them all to sit down at that, so Al took a seat beside a rotting pumpkin while Rose and Scorpius stayed clinging to each other on Hagrid's other side. The only part of this arrangement that was at all normal was the presence of Hagrid's dog, Saber, who found his way to Al before lying down and resting his head in Al's lap.

This managed to gain a smile from Rose as she noticed the dog's position, for Al had always detested the boarhound just as much as it adored him. But their momentary connection was broken when Hagrid cleared his throat and said, "Think of tonigh' as a sor' o' therapy session."

Confused, Al leaned forward as Hagrid continued with, "Now, I dunno what's goin' on with the three of yeh', but I know that 's not right. Yeh're no' actin' like yerselves lately, gettin' in detention for no good reason. An' I'm gonna' fix yeh up whether yeh like it er not."

"And how do you suppose you're going to do that?" Al asked before he could stop himself. He didn't mean to slight Hagrid in any way, but he also didn't believe for a second that Hagrid had any idea what was going on between the old friends.

Rose seemed curious to hear what Hagrid was planning as well, though Scorpius still had his head down as if he'd already done something wrong, and it was him Hagrid looked to when he said, "I'm goin' ter split yeh up and 'ave yeh look fer some unicorn hair. I'm always lookin' ter use it for me bandages and things, and I could use the help in tryin' to find all the shed patches of it in the forest."

Al's stomach twisted itself into a knot when he heard the word 'forest'. He'd been careful to never step foot in the Forbidden Forest during his time at Hogwarts, for he had absolutely no interest in heading into a place he could very well never return from. But it wasn't the idea of exploring the forest that seemed to wake up Scorpius.

His attention had been drawn to something else Hagrid had mentioned, for he suddenly broke his silence and asked, "You're going to split us up?"

"Thas' right," Hagrid said. Looking between Scorpius and Al, he explained, "When the two of yeh's parents were in their firs' year here, they weren' gettin' along very well. So, when they got a detention of their own, I made 'em werk together."

"My dad and Draco?" Al asked, now curious for the same reasons Scorpius had been. "Working together?"

"Thas' righ'," answered Hagrid with an incredible nod. "It brought 'em closer, it did."

Al and Scorpius were both too dumbfounded to ask any more questions as Hagrid stood from his stool and handed them each a large canvas bag and said, "Yeh two will take the eas' side with Saber, and Rose and me will stay wes'. I 'spect ter meet yeh back here in an hour; are we clear?"

Al was too busy scoffing to reply, but Scorpius took the empty sack and said, "Yeah. We're clear." He then gave Rose a kiss on the cheek and whispered something in her ear before setting off toward the forest's east-side border, not bothering to wait for Al to follow him.

But Hagrid did wait, staring down at Al until he stalked off in the direction Scorpius had gone, not seeing any way out of the predicament that the neighborhood's friendly giant had placed them in.

"Oi!" Al called out as he ran after Scorpius, "Wait up!" He was already inside the forest now, and Al was just reaching its edge.

Even so, Scorpius didn't oblige by Albus's request. Instead, he let Al sweat a little with fear of the forest as he called back, "Like hell I'm waiting for you! I've waited long enough. I'm not fooling myself anymore; I know now that there's no point in waiting. My best mate's never going to come back."

That hit Al hard, and the only comeback he could come up with quickly enough was, "Says the guy who didn't say a word to his best mate all summer long!" He knew as soon as he'd said it that it wasn't fair, though. There were only so many times Al could use Scorpius's absence that summer as an excuse for his latest betrayal.

Scorpius agreed with Al's thoughts, as all of the sudden he was standing a few feet in front of Al, having apparently come out of nowhere, and was spitting back at him, "Don't youdare try that with me again! I'm done apologizing for doing what I thought was right at the time. I'm done apologizing to you, period."

Then Scorpius turned around and continued walking, but this time Al was able to keep up with him. They both had their wands lit as they strode down a muddy hill, and after a minute or two of silence, Al thought about Scorpius's statement and couldn't help but shake his head at it. It may have taken him until now to ascertain the source of Al's own frustration with Scorpius, but the latter's last statement made it all suddenly come to light.

Stopping in his tracks, Al mumbled to the forest floor, "But you never did."

Though Scorpius could barely hear him, he told himself to keep walking as he asked, "I never did what?"

Speaking up, Al practically shouted, "You never apologized!" He and Scorpius had fought and argued all year, to the point where they'd practically gone from eternal best friends to mortal enemies. All they ever did was blame each other for their own mistakes, since neither one of them had actually admitted to them.

Letting the statement sink in, Scorpius stood still for a moment before he turned around to face Al once more. He had his mouth open and was about to say something when his eyes flicked from Al to the space just behind him. Wrinkling his forehead, Scorpius took a few steps forward and chose to ignore Al's comment as he pointed to thing his eyes were locked on and asked, "What's that?"

"What's what?" asked Al as he turned around to look where Scorpius was pointing and saw nothing there.

"That horse thing," muttered Scorpius as he inched ever forward, transfixed by this creature that apparently only he could see. He was staring into an empty enclave between two tall trees that were swaying in the wind as he added, "I think they're thestrals."

"Oh, so now are there are multiples of them?" Al asked with a chuckle, though he was secretly terrified of whatever Scorpius might be seeing.

Sighing, Scorpius kept his gaze on the enclosure but turned his focus back to Al as he said, "Don't you remember? Rose saw one last year, and Hagrid's told us about them before. It's believed that they can only be seen by those who have seen death."

The memories flooded back to Al in one fail swoop just as soon as Scorpius reminded him of them. Rose had been in a flustered mood that day in October of last year, when she'd come to them almost in tears after seeing one of the skeletal horses for the first time. It had been just after she'd discovered Filch's dead body with Lysander, and it had taken all of Al and Scorpius's support to help her cope with the trauma.

"Rose, right," Al mumbled, more to himself than to Scorpius. To him, Al added thoughtfully, "Rose was always the glue that held us together, wasn't she?"

Scorpius thought about this for a while before turning around to face Al directly and stating, "No. Rose may have helped calm the air between us a couple of times, but she wasn't the one who held the three of us together. That was all you."

Then Scorpius started walking again, leaving the thestrals behind to head off in the same direction he'd been going before. With one last glance at the horses that he couldn't see, Al fled after him, letting Scorpius act as the leader that he'd so recently become.

Al decided not to comment on what Scorpius had said about him being the one to hold their friendship together. He wasn't completely sure if he agreed with the statement, and he was sick of arguing with Scorpius. He was sick of arguing with anyone, period.

Instead, Al tried to have an actual conversation with Scorpius as they continued to trek through the forest that seemed to grow darker with every step they took. "You can see the thestrals because of your grandmother," he said questionably from behind Scorpius.

"Yeah," Scorpius replied, a hint of sadness in his voice. If there was anyone who understood how close he'd been to Narcissa, it was Al. If there was anyone who understood even a speck of his childhood, it was Al. It would always be Al.

But Scorpius couldn't help but feel as if that Albus was gone, even if pieces of him still revealed themselves when he least expected them to, like right now. Those pieces just weren't enough, not after all the pieces he'd seen disappear before his very eyes. That was why Scorpius had to reply to Al with as snarky a comment as he could muster as he said, "Don't worry. At the rate you're going, you'll be seeing plenty of thestrals in no time."

Al knew what Scorpius meant. He knew what the Malfoy was getting at. He knew that if he stayed aligned with the Flock, innocent people would die, and he would see it happen. He'd known that a long time ago, and so for once, he didn't fight back against Scorpius. He just let the statement pile atop his shoulders with all the rest of his buried guilt, because that was the only way he knew how to handle it without making Scorpius his first real target.

Scorpius seemed surprised by Al's lack of response, though, and so he took full advantage of Al's newfound composure as he asked, "What are you getting out of all this anyway, Al?"

Al didn't exactly want to answer Scorpius's question, because he felt like he'd be giving away too much of himself, but he'd also been longing to have someone to talk to lately. He never meant for that person to be Scorpius, but for now, he'd take what he could get. "I guess it just feels good to be a part of something, even if it isn't something I ever thought I'd agree with."

"That doesn't make it okay," Scorpius replied almost instantaneously. Al could tell that he'd been waiting to say that, and in an odd way, it also happened to be what Al had been waiting to hear.

"I know it doesn't," Al said, both of them having stopped walking yet again, "But what choice do I have? Astoria's the only one who wants me anymore, Scorp. And anyway, it's too late to turn back now." For some reason, it felt like everything Al admitted to tonight was off the record. Tonight was a clean slate, because it was just the two of them alone in a forest, and the forest was so much bigger than them. Everything was, and so whatever they said here didn't really matter in the end. This conversation would soon be lost amongst the trees, so they both knew that neither of them would ever be able to find it again.

"It's never too late," retorted Scorpius adamantly.

Rolling his eyes, Al asked, "Did James tell you to say that?" His brother and Scorpius had never been very close, but Al didn't doubt for a second that James was rallying all the troops he could find to try to talk some sense into Al.

Confused by the assumption, though, Scorpius said honestly, "No. No, I'm saying that. And it didn't come from James. If anything, I learned that from Rose."

When Scorpius paused before saying any more, Al urged him to continue by telling him, "I'm listening."

Putting his thoughts in order, Scorpius took a deep breath and said, "I tried to give up on her. I convinced myself that it was too late, that she'd never forgive me. But it's never too late to apologize, Al."

Realizing that the conversation had taken a turn, Al asked, "What are you saying?"

"I'm saying that I'm sorry," Scorpius said with a shrug. "I'm sorry that I never wrote you this summer. I'm sorry that I ever left you out just so that I could be on my own, or so that I could be with Rose. And I'm sorry that I gave up on you so quickly when Rose never did. I shouldn't have ever fought with you or blamed you for betraying me. I should have just listened."

Feeling uncomfortable by the serious talk, Al tried to lighten the mood by saying, "Well, it's not as if I was all that chatty."

"That's true," Scorpius laughed. "But I was the one to stop speaking first."

Al let his head fall to his chest then. He wanted so desperately to take his best mate back and to be a part of the trio that he'd grown up with again. But things were different now. He and Scorpius had both changed over the past year, as had Rose. And even with Scorpius's apology, Al still couldn't shake his anger or his feeling of loneliness. He would always resent Scorpius for one reason or another, and he still had a large amount of respect for and gratitude toward Astoria for taking him in when no one else did. He couldn't turn his back on that now.

Thinking this, Al tried to be as honest with Scorpius as he was being with Al as the latter said, "I can't just forgive you, you know."

"Yeah, I know," Scorpius nodded. "I can't forgive you either. But, just so you know, you can do whatever you want with your own secrets. I might like to think that everything in this world is either black or white, but you've always been the first to tell me that life isn't a game of chess, because there's always going to be somebody who tries to play both sides."

Those were the last words they shared. Al didn't respond and Scorpius didn't press any further. Instead, they just walked through the forest, collecting any patches of shed unicorn hair that they managed to stumble across before making their way back to Hagrid's hut. Once there, they went their separate ways, Scorpius taking off with Rose while Al stayed behind for a minute to say goodbye to Hagrid.

"Thanks for doing this," Al said genuinely from the doorstep of the hut. He wasn't sure that Hagrid's plan had worked the way he'd intended it to, but for some reason, Al felt like it had helped him – like it had helped all of them.

With a smile about as wide as his stomach, Hagrid blushed and said, "Don' mention it. Yeh know I'm always 'ere fer yeh'."

Letting Hagrid hug him, Al lost himself in the giant's scruffy beard as he muttered, "Yeah. I know."

The next week passed far more quickly than the last, though Al's dreams seemed to be sticking around for the long haul. He tried to forget about the dragons and giants during the day, but they always managed to sneak up on him come nightfall. Meanwhile, Al had reverted back to stalking Ilana from the sidelines, since he just couldn't seem to accept defeat.

Plus, the seventh years had nearly gotten through their NEWT's by now. At least, James most definitely had, since he was sending celebratory fireworks into the sky of the courtyard just about afternoon. Al was thankful for the distraction James was providing their parents, though, since his impending graduation seemed to be keeping Harry and Ginny from reprimanding Al for his latest indiscretion, which McGonagall had surely written them about.

But it was Ilana who consumed the majority of Al's thoughts. He felt as if he thought about her during every moment of every day, but meals were the worst, because those were the times that he was closest to her. Now just so happened to be one of those times, as Al was currently sitting in the middle of the Slytherin table eating his supper as he glanced every so often at the girl who was only half a table away.

Al was so focused on the mystery girl that he found himself jumping off his bench in surprise when Rose unexpectedly sat down beside him. Taking a page from his book, she laughed at his reaction and said, "Hey."

"Hi," he replied after settling himself back into his seat. "Where's Scorpius?" It was the first question that came to mind, since Rose was hardly ever seen without her other half these days.

"He has a meeting with McGonagall," Rose answered, deciding not to try to dance around the subject because they both knew Al could see right through her.

Al hadn't yet heard of Scorpius's meetings, but he didn't ask Rose about them, since he could tell that there was something else on her mind, Sure enough, she eventually worked up the courage to say, "But he told me about your conversation in the forest. I just wanted you to know that I'm really glad you heard each other out, and that I'm sorry for accosting you in Transfiguration last week."

Shaking his head, Al said, "Rose, it's really not a big deal." He didn't blame her for anything, especially not for being angry with him when she had plenty of reason to be.

"Well, still, I felt bad about it after it happened," Rose continued, "And I hope you know that I'll always care about you. There's nothing you can do to change that."

Al knew that Rose meant what she was saying, though he had no idea how she could mean it. How was it that she was so willing to forgive when Al never was? Still, he wasn't about to contradict her as she added, "I miss you, Al. And while I might not agree with all of the decisions you're making, I'll always be here to lift some of that weight off your shoulders."

"Thanks, Rose. I miss you, too," Al said as Rose excused herself for a late-night Quidditch practice. She promised him that they'd talk soon, about whatever he'd been hoping to tell her the last time he'd tried, and he said that he was looking forward to it.

But as soon as she was gone, Al found himself running their short conversation through his head as if there was more to it than he'd realized. Then, upon rewinding Rose's last words, Al finally made the connection he'd been waiting to make for the past two weeks.

Maybe that was it. Maybe Rose and Scorpius were right. Maybe Al was carrying too much weight on his shoulders, and maybe that was the point of his dream. Maybe it was time for Al to pass along one of the secrets he'd been keeping and let somebody else decide what to do with it. Maybe it was time for him to start playing both sides.

Trying to relive his dream so that he might pick up on more of its clues, Albus found that the part he kept thinking back on had to with the two armies raging war against each other. It was the Forbidden Flock against the Order of the Phoenix just as he would expect it to be, but what he wouldn't expect was all the extra recruits from both sides of the battle.

Right now, possibly at this very moment, Astoria was off with Knox negotiating deals and alliances with all manner of dark creatures, but for some reason, Al's dream had shown the giants siding with Scorpius rather than Astoria. Surely she was after them now, so how was it that the Order could ever gain their company before the Flock did?

It was this thought that led Al back to Hagrid's hut, because if there was anybody who could raise support of the giants, it was the son of one of their own. Knocking furiously at his door just as the sun was beginning to fall, Al waited impatiently for Hagrid to open up. During this short time, he wondered if what he was doing was what he was supposed to do. It didn't feel completely right, but then again, not much had lately. And like he had said to Scorpius, Al wasn't working with Astoria because he shared her beliefs about magical blood statuses. He wanted to be a part of something, but he didn't want to be the one to blame for a whole race of deaths. He didn't want to start seeing thestrals like Rose and Scorpius. After all, he already detested the magical creatures that were cute and cuddly like pygmy puffs and unicorns. He didn't want to run into any skeletal horses.

By the time Hagrid finally opened the door, Al was confident in his decision. Still, his anxiety took control as he babbled to Hagrid in hopes that the giant would listen, "You need to leave now. You need to find the giants before Astoria does, and you need to make sure they're on your side. You won't win without them."

Acting groggily as if he'd just woken up from a nap, Hagrid scratched his beard and asked, "Al, whas' all this abou'?"

"Astoria's after the dragons, Hagrid!" Al practically yelled at him. He wanted this to be done and over with so that he could try to go to sleep and see if it worked in making his dreams disappear, but he needed Hagrid to pay Al his full attention before Al could leave. "She's after the dragons and the spiders and the dementors, and you're the only one who can get to the giants before she does!"

"How do yeh know all of this?" Hagrid asked as he poured himself a cup of tea and then offered Al one.

Al declined and answered, "Never mind how I know about this. That's not important. What is important is getting those giants on your side. Now, I know you couldn't do it the last time, but please believe me when I say that you'll find a way to now." Al knew plenty about the wizarding war his father had once won, including the fact that Hagrid had tried and failed to convince the giants to fight with them, but that didn't matter. If Al's dream was somehow a premonition regarding the upcoming war, then it was already decided that Hagrid would win over the giants, because he most certainly had in the dream.

But when Hagrid still looked skeptical, Al put a hand on his arm, looked him straight in his big round eyes, and said, "What are you waiting for? You have an army to raise, Hagrid. Nowraise it."

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