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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30. The Mark Embark

"Do we really need to make a scene out of it?" asked Molly Weasley, this year's Head Girl and awaiting Hogwarts graduate.

Her younger sister looked up at Molly in confusion, asking, "Don't you want it to be exciting?" Lucy was a Hufflepuff prefect, so she was automatically on the graduation committee that was currently in the middle of one of what seemed like a never-ending slew of meetings that always revolved around nonsensical ideas, all of which Al knew would never actually come to fruition.

"I think she just doesn't want to get caught, Lu," said Lorcan Scamander to his long-time girlfriend in a comforting, steady voice. He was Head Boy, and he and Molly were responsible for more than just the meetings.

Every year, the Hogwarts graduation ceremony was a night to remember, and though it was up to the sixth year prefects to plan the event down to each and every millisecond, the blame would fall on Molly and Lorcan if things got out of hand. And with James and Lysander already measuring various parts of the castle to see how large their Portable Swamp needed to be in order to successfully prank the professors, it was understandable that the head students had grown slightly worried.

Being the voice of reason as always, Rose spoke next by telling Lorcan and Molly, "Well, it's your night, after all. Whatever you'd like us to do or not do, we will."

Lorcan and Molly nodded at Rose in thanks, and Rose smiled at her astounding ability to compromise before she sat back in her seat and glanced quickly at Albus. He was sitting on the opposite side of the room next to fellow prefect, Patty Parkinson, but he hadn't said a word through the entire meeting.

His mind was boggled down with things far more important than this pathetic party planning. He was starting to look like the seventh years himself, all of whom were pale-faced and sleep-deprived as they started studying for their NEWT examinations, which would take place earlier than the other exams to make time for the graduation that capped off exam week. It was because, much like the seventh years, Al had very little time to complete an extremely difficult task, and he too needed to make sure that he wouldn't get caught.

Meanwhile, Al's plate was filling quickly with enormous final assignments along with this ridiculous planning that tended to be the reason students wanted to be prefects in the first place. But it wasn't the reason for Al. In fact, he'd only ever wanted the title; he'd never wanted the work that came with it.

After losing track of the conversation in the Transfiguration classroom, Al started listening again when Lorcan suggested, "How about we call it a day and meet up again next week? I know we'll all be even busier then, but Molly and I really need to know that everything's planned before we start our exams and lose all control."

The prefects laughed at this and nodded, but Al just stood up and walked out of the room, passing the cages of rustling ferrets and opening the double doors into a candle-lit hallway. Normally, Al enjoyed being in the castle at night, because it was so much more peaceful when he knew he wouldn't run into old friends, but tonight was not one of those nights, and it didn't take long for him to run into a certain new enemy.

It wasn't Scorpius's presence that bothered Al, though. The former was leaning against the wall opposite the classroom, just underneath a magically floating lantern, and Al would have ignored him had it not been for the girl Scorpius was standing next to.

"Since when are you two friends?" asked Al as he approached Scorpius and Ilana, who was shimmering beneath the light and smiling from cheek to cheek about something Scorpius had just said. Al didn't really think about what he was saying before he'd said it, though, and now he was staring at Scorpius as he tried to keep his eyes averted from Ilana's smile that he'd turned into a frown.

For the past few weeks, Scorpius had been the one avoiding Al for a change. Though Rose would still try to pity Al every chance she got, Scorpius had given up, no doubt realizing that he couldn't help after his recent conversation with Al. Tonight didn't prove to be any different, for Scorpius didn't react at all to Al's snarky question before he nodded goodbye to Ilana and then walked past her and Al to meet Rose.

Albus could hear Scorpius kissing Rose and then whispering in her ear, and it took every nerve in his body to keep him from turning around and watching them leave. It wasn't that he missed them, though. It wasn't even that he longed for all the moments they'd shared together in the past. What made Al so angry when he saw either of them, even more so when he saw the two of them together, was the fact that they missed him, and it was impossible for him to move on when they refused to let go.

"Potter, relax," said Ilana suddenly, her hand on Al's face and directing his eyes back to hers.

Al shivered at her touch, blinking rapidly as she dropped her hand back to her side. She had felt cold against his skin, but he assumed that that was only because his blood was still pumping straight to his head. He didn't say anything as he took a few deep breaths to calm his frustration and waited for Ilana to speak once more.

"I found all the ingredients you asked for," she said, explaining why she'd been waiting outside the classroom for Al. He'd gone to her for help with Astoria's potion a few days ago, but had been careful to give her a long list of ingredients that didn't normally go together so that she wouldn't suspect him of brewing something poisonous.

"They're in the Room of Requirement, like you asked," Ilana continued, for Al was still silent.

Nodding, Al finally spoke, but only managed to mumble, "Thanks." He wasn't being the usual, charming self that he was normally with Ilana, but he just wasn't in the mood at the moment. He'd already had too much on his mind during the prefect meeting, and now his head felt even fuller.

Sensing this, Ilana pushed herself off the wall and said, "Right then. I guess I'll be off." But just as she was about to turn her back, she stopped and asked, "I don't suppose you'll be in the stands tomorrow?"

"No, probably not," answered Al, his eyes facing the floor and his hands stuffed in his pockets. Gryffindor was playing Hufflepuff in the latest Quidditch match tomorrow morning, which meant that the castle would be practically empty of both students and professors, offering Al the perfect opportunity to work on the potion he'd been procrastinating.

"Well, maybe I'll see you around, then." Of course, Ilana wouldn't be going to watch the game either. She wasn't a fan of Quidditch; that was one of the few things Al knew about her, because it had been one of the few questions he'd ever asked.

For some reason, Al couldn't get the thought of Scorpius and Ilana out of his mind through his entire journey down to the boathouse. There wasn't another soul in sight as he moved quietly through the castle and into the night, which was most definitely a good thing, because Al had his hand gripped pretty tightly around his wand, ready to point it at whoever addressed him next.

By the time he made it to the water, the fresh air had helped him cool off slightly, but he couldn't completely shake the anger in his bones as he made his way into the darkened shack that students were strictly forbidden from entering.

"Lumos," Al whispered just after closing the door. His wand lit at the tip immediately, and it didn't take long for Albus to realize that this was no normal amount of light. It was sharp and incredible, taking up the entire room within seconds, and Al realized that this was one of the few spells that truly showcased the power of the Elder Wand.

"Bloody hell, that's blinding!" came a voice from somewhere in the middle of the wooden hut, but Al couldn't quite see whom it was coming from. "Put it out already!"

Obeying the order, Al said, "Knox," and his wand went dark again, only to reveal the presence of Knox Rookwood himself, standing right in front of Al with his own wand already lit. The young man was dark in every sense of the word, from his physical features to his clothing and even demeanor, but it wasn't a frightening kind of darkness. Instead, Knox's darkness was powerful.

"Good to see you again, Rookie," Al smiled up at him, for Knox was about half a foot taller than the Potter boy. His height sometimes reminded Al of James, though Knox was far more impressive than Al's older brother, and so Al had a much easier time respecting him than he did James.

"I would return the gesture, but I'm not sensing such lighthearted vibes from you, Black Hawk," said Knox rather seriously, seemingly implying that he could literally feel Al's frustration filtering through his pores.

Al rolled his eyes at what he could only assume was one of the many special abilities that came with Knox's incredible 'seeing'. Sometimes, he could look at people and see right through them, as if he was reading their very thoughts, or at least their emotions.

When Knox didn't look away and instead sat down in a windowsill and waited for Al to provide him with an explanation, Al sighed and said, "I don't really feel like talking about it."

"I'm sure you don't," Knox said with a shrug. "I never do either. But that's what people are like – they always know what they want, but they can't ever tell what it is that they need. And then, when they finally figure things out, it's always too late."

By now, Albus was incredibly confused. Knox was clearly thinking about some past experience in his own life, but why was he so pensive now rather than his usual joking self? And even if he was lost in his own thoughts, what did that have to do with Al? But he didn't have time to get the answers to any of his questions before the hawk form of Astoria flew through an open window and transformed right in front of her two disciples.

Without bothering to greet Albus or Knox, Astoria ran a few skeletal fingers through her hair as she asked, "Have you boys had enough chit-chat yet? Because I do believe that it's time we get to work. We have much to discuss, after all."

Al and Knox nodded in unison as Astoria conjured a couple of stools out of thin air, giving herself and Al something to sit on while Knox stayed in the windowsill. She didn't have all her files with her, but she did have a small notepad and a Quick-Quotes Quill floating beside her right ear, ready to record anything that was said by the three of them.

"Knox has been briefed with the upcoming marking ceremony, but I'd like to know what stage you're at regarding the potion, Albus," said Astoria curtly. She may have been the one using phrases like 'marking ceremony' in the most drastically sinister of tones, but Astoria was no wiz with potions, so Al had been on his own in brewing it, which he hadn't exactly started yet.

The ingredient list he had passed on to Ilana had been inspired mostly by a few other potions Al had read about which he thought were similar to the one Astoria needed, for he hadn't actually found a recipe that could create a scarring juice. At this point, he knew that he'd have to develop the potion himself, but he was worried about a certain ingredient that he was fairly certain he'd be needing, and that hadn't been on Ilana's list.

"Yeah, about that," Al started, trying not to face Astoria head-on, "I've collected a bunch of stuff already – asphodel, bulladox powder, flobberworm parts – that, together, should be able to create the permanent scar that you're looking for. It's just that I've got nothing that can make the potion detect the blood of a Muggle-born versus any other witch or wizard."

Though Al had put off the actual brewing of the potion, he had done his research. Ironically, the most similar scenario to what Astoria was hoping for had involved Al's father when he'd been at school. Al had noticed the scars on the back of Harry's hand before, but he hadn't known where they'd come from until he'd read about them and an old Hogwarts professor named Dolores Umbridge. She had owned a rather unique quill that would scar its user with the same words that they wrote with it, but it was the quill's specialized ink that had caught Al's interest.

Astoria thought about Al's words before looking at him and realizing that that wasn't all he needed to tell her and asking him, "What are you suggesting?"

Knox, who'd been sitting silently and bouncing one of his rings between his hands, went still at Astoria's question, leaning forward with curiosity. Now, he and Astoria were looking at Al as if waiting to see if he would pass his latest test, for there was always a wrong answer with them. That was why Al was so hesitant to say, "If I'm not mistaken, the potion itself must fully reflect its purpose." Umbridge's quill had reflected its purpose as well, for the ink was in fact not an ink at all.

When Astoria and Knox still didn't quite understand, Al said clearly, "I'm going to need blood." And because this potion was even more specialized than Umbridge's ink, he added, "And not just any blood. I'll need the blood of a Muggle."

Much like how Al felt about the idea, Knox grimaced slightly at the thought of extracting a Muggle's blood only to make a school full of children unknowingly drink it, but Astoria didn't seem disgusted in the slightest. If anything, she seemed rather inspired by the idea, smiling gaily and saying, "Well, don't worry about that. I'll have your ingredient by sundown tomorrow."

Al nodded at Astoria in thanks, though he wasn't sure if he actually felt all that thankful. In the same way that he had wanted to become a prefect but had never wanted to participate in prefect duties, Al was glad to be playing such an important role in the Forbidden Flock, but he wasn't so keen on carrying out the Flock's true goals. Everything he was doing was for Astoria, because she had believed him to be worth something when no one else had, but talking about things like Muggles and blood made Al realize that his actions had consequences that would affect more than just Astoria.

"How much time will you need to brew it?" asked Astoria, breaking Al's concentration as she moved on to the next task at hand while he struggled not to stay behind.

Thinking about all the ingredients he'd be using, Al realized that none of them took very long to brew at all. "It shouldn't take longer than overnight," he answered, but while Astoria accepted his answer without question, Al wasn't so sure of himself. It all seemed too simple that such a complex potion could be finished in no time at all, or that Al's first true task in the Flock would prove to be so incredibly easy. There had to be a catch.

"Well, that's perfect, then," said Knox as Astoria got up from her stool and began to pace around the room. "We can hold this so-called 'marking ceremony' first thing the day after tomorrow."

Al was still locked in his own head trying to figure out what he was missing when Astoria continued her steady pacing as she addressed Knox and corrected him. "Yes, but we cannot head into that morning without developing a seamless plan beforehand," she said.

"But the plan doesn't have to be so complicated," argued Knox. "Why don't we just sneak the potion into the kitchen's pumpkin juice and make all the students drink it at breakfast? Problem solved."

Astoria sighed, clearly frustrated by Knox's current impotence. "Yes," she snarled at him. "But we need to be certain that everyone is there, not to mention the fact that Albus must record the name of each Mud-blood without being seen by any of them. People are already suspicious of him, and I don't want to lose our only Hogwarts spy."

Al couldn't help but smile at Astoria's confession. All he'd ever hoped for was to feel wanted, in whatever form it came. His reassurance of her came with perfect timing as well, as he was suddenly able to jump back into the conversation and say, "Everybody will be there; I can assure you. It's the morning after a Quidditch match, so the winning house will want to gloat, the losing one will want have pity to swim in, and the other two will have money to collect from their bets. If there's ever a time that you can be sure of every student being in the Great Hall, it's the breakfast after a Quidditch match."

Astoria, though at first skeptical of Al, soon nodded in acceptance of his theory. Al didn't blame her for not remembering the importance of Quidditch from her days at Hogwarts, for she herself had surely never been much involved in the sport. Al wished he could say the same about himself, but being a Potter practically ensured that he would never be able to run away from the sport, no matter how hard he tried.

"All right, good," Astoria commented as she sat back down. However, her forehead was still wrinkled with concern as she said with a hardly subtle glance at Knox, "So, now we just need to decide what sort of diversion we should create to keep the eyes off of Albus."

Al instinctively thought of James's cloak when Astoria mentioned that he'd need to avoid being seen. The Invisibility Cloak could come in handy for Al in a myriad of circumstances, but he doubted that he could ever get his hands on it. James protected it with his life, and the only person he'd ever willingly lent it to was Rose. Plus, it was sure to be locked somewhere in his Gryffindor dormitory, and there was no way that Al could break into that common room without being caught in the act.

Albus was busy trying to think of alternative disappearance magic when Knox, who'd been locked in a staring contest with Astoria, stepped up with a sigh that almost sounded like a grunt and said, "I'll do it."

"Do what?" Al asked, both confused and concerned. Knox had already done enough of Astoria's dirty work and was one of the few members of the Flock currently wanted for arrest at the Ministry. He'd be sent to Azkaban in a second, no trial necessary, if anybody got so close as to even touch him.

"I'll be your diversion," answered Knox, though he was looking to Astoria rather than Al. She didn't seem all that shocked at the risk he was willing to take as he took a step toward her and explained further, "Black Hawk can open a window into the kitchen for me, and I'll fly in as an Animagus. I can perch myself on one of the ceiling beams in the Great Hall, so that even if somebody sees me, they'll just think I got in through the owl opening. Then I'll transform once the frenzy starts and run from the castle as a human. The hall's close enough to the door that I should be able to make it outside without too much trouble, and I can fend off any followers or even transform again once I'm in the courtyard."

Astoria almost looked proud of Knox, as if he had just said what she'd been willing him to say, as she held out her hand to shake his. Their agreement was set in stone before Al even had the chance to speak up again, but he tried to nonetheless.

"But even if you manage to escape," he started, breaking Astoria's eye contact with Knox by urging her to look to him. "What are we supposed to do next? Even in your Animagus form, McGonagall will know that you've infiltrated Hogwarts grounds. She'll have a search party looking for you and Astoria within seconds, and she might not wait any longer to try out whatever new protective charms they've surely been planning since the Weasley attack. How are all of those consequences worth one measly solution that might not even work in the first place?"

Al wasn't completely sure why he was so concerned about their hiding place being discovered or Astoria and Knox being banished from Hogwarts, but he thought perhaps it was because he'd rather sacrifice his place at the school if it meant being able to stay in their circle. He had a purpose so long as part of the Flock was there, but if they left, what would he do with himself?

Astoria didn't share the same concern, as she answered Al without a moment's pause, "If we have to leave, then we'll leave. You can send us the list of names by owl if you have to. In any case, Knox and I have further business to attend to, elsewhere."

As much as he wanted to know what Astoria was referring to, Al knew his place with her. Her stiff body language and stance far above Al told him that he shouldn't pry any further. If she needed him, then she'd let him know, and if she didn't let him know, then whatever she was doing was not of his concern. After all, Al was all in, but Astoria was still the one who was dealing the cards.

When the leader was sure that Al wasn't going to press further, she asked both him and Knox, "Is everything understood, then? The ceremony will take place the morning after next, and Albus is responsible for the list of names while Knox creates a diversion."

Al and Knox responded in unison, "Understood."

"Good," said Astoria without so much as a smile as she put away her Quick Quotes Quill. "I'll send the minutes back to Ryder. As for you, Albus, you can have the boathouse to yourself tomorrow if you need somewhere to work. I'll meet you in the afternoon with the required ingredient."

Scowling at the thought yet again, Al had to make himself nod in response. Then Astoria was off just as quickly as she'd come, transfiguring and then flying through the still-open window at the back of the boathouse. Knox did the same, turning into a scruffy rook and winking at Al as he left.

After his run-in with Scorpius a few weeks back, Al was careful to keep an eye out for followers as he exited the boathouse and began the endless climb back to the castle. He was looking for Hagrid in particular, for the giant was known to roam the grounds at night, or even that assistant of his, Colin Creevey. Neither of them would pose any threat to Al even if they saw him, but he still wasn't all that keen on making up some sort of excuse on the fly.

But as luck would have it, Albus did run into somebody, though it was not anyone he had expected to see. The person came out of nowhere, walking right up to him as he reached the top of the hill and stopping him just before his feet touched the marble floor of the front courtyard.

Jumping back slightly at the sight of two relatively small feet surrounded by darkness, Al looked up at the person with wide eyes of shock. Calming down upon seeing the straight red hair and kind brown eyes of his mother, Al sighed and said, "Lily. What are you doing out here?"

"I might ask you the same question!" she spat at Al, crossing her arms in defiance and pouting her lips like she was speaking to one of her fourth year followers.

Reverting back to the old days of sibling rivalry, Al crossed his own arms and retorted, "Well, I asked you first."

With a roll of her eyes, Lily turned around and started walking away, but Al made sure to keep on his sister's tail. "You do realize that it's hours past the underclassmen curfew, don't you?" he asked as he was running to catch up with her. Only fifth, sixth, and seventh years were allowed to even be out of their common rooms past nightfall, let alone wandering around the grounds. That was technically against the rules for all Hogwarts students, regardless of their age, though it was strictly enforced for those under fifteen.

"Of course I realize that, you dim-wit!" Lily replied harshly. Though she normally got along with her brothers much better than they did with each other, the older she grew, the snappier she became, which wasn't exactly a redeeming quality from Al's perspective.

Still waiting for an explanation as to why she was out of bed, Albus took hold of Lily's arm to make her stop walking and face him. Since he was stronger than her, if only slightly, she had no choice but to oblige, and seemed to understand what he was waiting for when she looked back at him.

With a deep breath, Lily finally answered with a shrug of her shoulders, "I like going out at night – you know, walking around underneath the stars. I've just needed to get away lately, that's all."

"Get away from what?" asked Al. He wasn't usually so concerned for Lily's well-being, but he knew that she'd been going through a rough time this year, after everything that happened between her and Scorpius, and Al figured she could use someone to talk to. Of course, he hadn't been willing to do so with Knox, so he had his doubts that Lily would be at all open with him.

Taking a step toward Al and adjusting her focus to see him through the dark, Lily said, "You know what from, Al... from everything. I mean, isn't that why you did what you did on Christmas? Isn't that why you were in the boathouse just now? You and I both know what being a Potter can feel like. You know that sometimes we just need to escape."

Hearing what Lily had to say, Al let go of her arm and walked her back to the castle without asking any more questions. He knew exactly how she felt, so regardless of how Lily was coping with whatever form of dejection this was, at least it was safer than what Al was doing.

However, thinking about what he was doing and what Lily had admitted to seeing, Al asked just before they were about to sneak through the still-open double doors to the castle, "So, you saw me just now? Coming from the boathouse, I mean."

Lily didn't bother confirming before laughing and saying, "Don't worry. I'm not going to report back to James. Whatever it is that you're going through right now, or whatever it is that you're hoping to find from all of this, I know that you're doing it for you, so I'm not about to try to concern myself with it."

Al was relieved to hear that Lily hadn't been filled with James's theories or delusions that he could somehow fix Al. Still, he wasn't too thrilled to hear how little help she was willing to extend to her own brother. After all, Al was currently going to great risks and sacrifice to aid a woman who, only last year, had been a stranger to him, yet Lily didn't even want to try to help her own brother? Or was it possible that Lily knew that it was too late, and that Al was far past the point of saving?

Wrinkling his forehead and licking his lips in thought, Al stopped at the hallway of the moving staircases and lied to Lily by saying, "You do know that I'm not working with Astoria anymore, right?" He was fairly certain that Lily didn't suspect him of returning to the Forbidden Flock, for surely she'd have told the whole school by now if she did, but Al wanted to make sure that he hadn't accidentally pulled her onto his side, because just like she had said, this was his own battle to fight. The last thing he wanted was to drag others into the mess he'd made for himself.

"Yeah, I know," answered Lily without a second's hesitation. She wasn't the best liar, so Al knew immediately that she was telling him the truth. His confidence was only cemented further when she added, "I've spent this whole year searching for something that I thought I wanted, like I'd been missing it before. And I was right, because I was missing something; it just didn't turn out to be the thing I wanted. You did the same with the Forbidden Flock."

If Lily's theory hadn't been largely flawed, she'd be coming across as quite the sage at the moment. Al couldn't help but wonder when she'd grown so wise for her years, but he didn't dwell on it after what she told him next.

Just as she was ascending the first of many staircases that could take her back to her common room, Lily looked back at Al and said, "One of these days, I'm going to find my own secret to keep, so that I won't have to go looking for everybody else's. And as much as I'm sure I'll regret saying this tomorrow when I yell at you for not coming to my Quidditch match, I hope that you'll find what you're missing, Al."

And then she was gone, leaving Al to walk through the empty castle and down to the dungeons on his own, the whole time knowing that Lily was right. He had the same feeling about his potion back at the boathouse, and though he wasn't sure whether it had to do with the potion or something much bigger than that, Al knew that he was missing something. He needed to find it, possibly even before he finished that potion, because unlike Lily, he couldn't just escape from it all. He'd already done that; he'd already run away. At this point, there was nowhere left for him to run.

The next morning, Albus was woken up earlier than he would have liked to be by a loud banging in the hallway just outside his dormitory. His roommates, with the exception of Scorpius (who seemed to have already left), heard the noise at the precise moment that Al did. All four of them jumped out of bed as if woken by the military to perform their morning drills and ran over to the door without bothering to put shirts on.

Al was the first off the threshold and was met with an enormous crowd of people in the hallway, all of whom appeared to be centered around yet another shirtless boy who was writhing across the black floor.

"If you want to leave, leave!" came a yell from the other side of the hall, which was home to the girls' dormitories. Al didn't recognize the voice right away, but after a second glance at the boy on the floor, he could guess whom it had come from.

James had just managed to stand himself up as a pile of clothing flew at his chest from inside the doorway of the seventh year girls' room. He caught his jeans and shirt and then ran up to the door as it was about to slam shut, sliding his foot inside to keep it open as he yelled back at Mercy, "Please, I only said that I have a game to get to!"

Mercy, who must have had her back against the door as she tried to close it on James's foot, opened it wide upon hearing his grovelling and snarled at him, "But then you started talking about your stupid contract with the Magpies this summer, proceeding to comment that you couldn't wait to rejoin the team and that you won't let yourself have anydistractions while you're on it."

James was confused as he nodded and tried to understand what he'd done wrong, while Mercy was still fuming as she widened her eyes and added, "Including me!"

This time, the slam was completed and James was thrown straight back into the hallway, where a slew of sighs came from the audience that surrounded him. Everyone in the vicinity now knew what he'd apparently told Mercy and how incredibly idiotic it had been of him, though Al couldn't care less about the blow-up. All he was thinking about as he stared at the clothing in his brother's hands was the fact that James wasn't holding the Invisibility Cloak that he had surely used to get inside the night before, and that therefore it must be back in Mercy's dorm.

Luckily, James didn't realize that he was missing the cloak as he started the frantic run out of the hallway and through the Slytherin common room. Just about everyone followed him to the entryway, where he turned back at them, looking toward Al as he addressed everyone and said, "You didn't see me. I was never here. Got it?"

Everyone nodded, for they were all terrified of James. Even Al went along with it, telling his brother, "Got it," so that James would leave and allow Al the opportunity to look for the cloak.

Once James was gone, the crowd dissipated back into their dorms to get ready for the day's Quidditch match, but Al was too impatient to wait for them to fade out. Instead, he went straight back to Mercy's door just as a pair of doe-eyed girls were opening it. They walked right past Al without even noticing his presence, so he took the chance to stop the door from closing, cracking it open just enough so that he could peer through and try to find Mercy's bed.

But it must have been around the corner, because of course, Mercy wasn't anywhere near Al's line of vision. Sighing at the difficulties this mission was already posing for him, Al was about to give up and let the door close when somebody walked in front of the bed closest to him.

Ilana had just come out of the shower, and though a towel was wrapped tightly around her chest, her shoulders were bare and her back was still shining with drops of water. Al's view of it was bettered when Ilana pointed a wand at her wavy hair and made it dry instantly before twirling it into a messy knot and pinning it atop her head. Now, Al had a clear view of the nape of her neck, only a few ringlets of hair protruding his vision.

He was breathing slowly so that he wouldn't be heard by anyone as he watched Ilana, but he could feel his heartbeat growing faster. His pulse was racing so quickly, his blood pumping against his skin so loudly, that Ilana seemed to hear it as well, since before long, she turned her head suddenly and locked eyes with Al.

He kept eye contact with her longer that he realized before blinking and making himself leave, retreating back to his own dormitory where he could put some more clothes on. She didn't come after him or even yell in his direction before he was gone, but he couldn't get the sight of her out of his head even afterward.

Hoping to avoid an awkward run-in with Ilana, however, Al rushed out of the common room just as soon as he was dressed and ran to the one place in the castle where he could be sure no one would find him, at least for a couple of hours. He didn't even stop at the Great Hall for breakfast or to wish Lily luck before the game, as he was far too focused on getting to the fifth floor. In fact, he was so focused that he completely forgot about James's cloak, not even considering to attempt to steal it a second time.

Al had never actually been to the Prefects' bathroom before, though it had been open to him for half a year now. He hadn't been very keen on walking in to find a fellow prefect or Quidditch captain busy bathing themselves, but today they'd all be out watching the game. Just in case Hufflepuff was obliterated with an hour and Lorcan came to the bathroom to sulk, though, Al still put a binding curse on the door, which was the fourth to the left of a statue of Boris the Bewildered.

Immediately upon seeing the lavatory, Al was impressed. Though the toilet stalls on one side were nothing to rave about, the rest of the room was filled with the largest tub Al had ever seen. It was the size of a Muggle swimming pool and was surrounded with taps connected to transparent pipes that held water in all different colors. All Al had to do was press a single button on the edge of the tub, and suddenly a rainbow of water was filling the bath at an uncanny rate.

It only took a few minutes for the tub to fill completely, a fluffy layer of bubbles on the water's surface, and Al was glad to have found some peace and quiet. After quickly undressing and jumping into the water, he sat back against some jets in the tub wall and closed his eyes, letting his thoughts roam wherever they pleased.

For the next ten minutes or so, Al silently ran through the list of ingredients he'd gathered for the potion, pushing aside the images of Ilana's naked back that were invading his mind at every opportunity. He couldn't shake the feeling that there was something missing, or that something about this potion was going to go wrong. Still, he couldn't for the life of him find a solution.

"My, oh my, don't you look stressed!" The taunting, sing-song voice came from Al's left side, and its source couldn't be more than a few feet away.

Opening his eyes and turning to the voice as he jumped from beneath the water and instinctively moved in the opposite direction, Al asked, "Who are you? What are you doing in here?" before he even had the chance to take in the person he was looking toward – or, more precisely, looking through.

The ghost of a young girl was staring straight at him with bug eyes hidden behind round spectacles. Her long hair was tied up in two pigtails and she had bangs that covered her forehead and got caught in her glasses, so she was perpetually twitching her head to flick the hair away. She also happened to be wearing Ravenclaw robes that looked about as old as McGonagall, dusty and torn but also much too long for the girl's small arms.

"I'm Moaning Myrtle, of course," said the ghost as she inched toward Al, not even trying to hide her obvious peering at him through the bubbles. "Now, don't tell me you've never heard of me!"

He had heard of her, though Al couldn't remember where from. Either Harry or Rose must have told him about this ghost before, but he found it odd that he'd never run into her when she clearly wasn't all that shy.

Choosing to ignore Myrtle's question, Al moved further from her again as he asked, "Don't take this personally or anything, but do you think you could, er, go away?"

At that, Myrtle flew from Al and up toward the ceiling, only to circle back around and come straight at him, her face swelling with anger as she pointed and yelled, "AND WHY SHOULD I?"

Leaning back and over the edge of the tub, for Myrtle's face was inches away from his now, Al put his hands up in surrender and said, "Woah, woah, I just meant that I wanted to be alone, that's all."

"Well, if you wanted to be alone, why were you sitting here mumbling to yourself about a scarring potion?" retorted Myrtle, her mouth opening incredibly wide every time a word came out of it.

Al was going to say that he wasn't mumbling about anything before he realized that she knew what his ingredients were being used for. After all, even if he had been listing them aloud without meaning to, he most definitely hadn't mentioned the type of potion he was planning to brew with them, yet Myrtle had made the connection without any further clues.

Thinking this, Al changed his response just in time to ask, "How did you know what those ingredients were for?"

Myrtle pulled away then, floating backward into the center of the tub, where she shrugged her shoulders and batted her eyelashes like a little girl at a Gilderoy Lockhart signing and said innocently, "Oh, well, it was just a lucky guess, I suppose. I mean, I'm only fourteen."

Al's confusion from Myrtle's body language vanquished, however, when her face went from naïve and sweet to aged and ugly as she flew back to him and yelled even more loudly than before, "WHO DO YOU THINK I AM, ALBUS? Does it look like I died yesterday?"

Al was shaking his head, too numb to ask how it was that she knew his name, as she continued, "For your information, I've been dead for quite some time now, and I've seen potions in the pipes of this castle that you'll never even dream of, so if I were you, I wouldn't walk around believing that nobody will ever guess what you're up to."

Myrtle had Al's full attention by the time she mentioned seeing potions that he'd never even dream of, so he barely heard the threat of her last sentence. "Do you know what I'm trying to brew?" he asked her as soon as her mouth had shut. Agitatedly, he added, "Do you know what I'm missing?"

She tried to smile and hint that she knew what he was talking about, but Myrtle didn't fool Al. He could tell just from her lack of response that she didn't know what he was missing after all; she was far too chatty to play hard to get.

Sighing, Al waited for Myrtle to look away guiltily before he jumped out of the tub and threw his pants back on while mumbling, "Never mind."

Al had the tub draining and the door open by the time Myrtle finally spoke up again, this time saying quietly from behind him, "Have you looked in the restricted section?" He'd been to the library about a hundred times over the past few weeks, but he hadn't had permission to check something out of the restricted section, so he hadn't tried to. But today, Madam Pince was most likely at the Quidditch pitch with the rest of the professors, so it might just be the perfect time to give it a shot.

"Thank you," Al said genuinely as he turned back to Myrtle, running out of the bathroom as the ghost flew down a toilet bowl.

Sure enough, Al didn't pass a single person on his way down to the library, for there was nobody left in the whole of the castle. Knowing this, he ran through the halls without worrying about being scolded for going so fast and was out of breath by the time he broke into the closed library.

The windows made it so that the enormous room was still light and lively even without the desk lamps on or the studying students walking around and whispering to each other. Al almost liked it better like this, he thought as he power-walked his way to the back of the hall, where the restricted section was located and tied off with nothing but a measly rope.

Because he didn't know where the potions books were in this section, he perused each shelf by scanning the titles of one book after the next. He was in the middle of the second row when Ilana snuck up on him from behind and asked, "What are you looking for?"

Al didn't even flinch upon hearing her name, almost as if he'd expected her to be there. Still, he wasn't sure that he could act like nothing had happened between them that morning, so he tried not to look at her as he said, "What do you think? I need help on that potion I'm brewing."

Nodding and moving slightly to let Al pass by so that he could keep reading the bindings, Ilana asked, "Well, did you look for the antidote? Because sometimes that's where I like to start."

Failing to think before he spoke, Al responded, "This potion doesn't have an antidote, Higgs." He regretted saying it right away, but was soon distracted by a book on the top shelf that said something about potions and the dark arts.

"Everything has an antidote," Ilana said confidently, but Al was no longer listening. He had his wand out and was summoning the book he'd seen, which was soon flying straight into his arms and causing him to swerve backward as he lost his balance.

He caught himself before Ilana had to and then walked out of the restricted section and into the study area of main library, where there was more light. Ilana followed him there and watched as Al dropped the book onto a desk – the same desk she'd been using before to write a letter on – and started flipping through it as if his life depended on finding something within the next two minutes.

Not understanding why any of this was so important to Al, Ilana asked again, "Potter, what are you even looking for?"

Al was breathing deeply and his forehead was sweaty. He felt almost like he was about to pass out, but he didn't understand this any more than Ilana did, which is why he shouted at her, "I DON'T KNOW!"

Just as he didn't flinch before, Ilana didn't flinch now. She did, however, step away from Al to give him some air as she said, "I'm sorry; I shouldn't have bothered you. I'll leave."

Closing his eyes as she left, Al cursed himself for pushing her away, something he seemed to be doing to Ilana a lot lately. Trying to pull himself back together, he closed the book and took it in his arms as he ran after her and yelled, "Wait!"

Ilana was beside Madam Pince's desk when Al caught up to her, and she stopped walking just in time for him to put his hand on her arm and say, "Don't leave. I will." And then he went, picking up the ingredients from the Room of Requirement before bringing them and the book down to the boathouse, just hoping that he had what he needed to make this potion work.

For the next few hours, Al delved into work-mode, never once losing focus as he cut, crumbled, and poured various ingredients into a cauldron of boiling water, all in a very specific order. Whenever he had time to take pause, he'd flip through the book to look for things, but once again, there was no specific recipe for what he was trying to do. Still, the book proved useful enough just from its chapter on general scarring potions, which helped immensely with the timing of the brew.

It was almost dark when Astoria showed up, and neither she nor Al said anything as she handed him a small vial of thick, crimson liquid that made him even queasier than he'd felt all day.

The blood was the final component that needed to be added to the potion before it spent the night setting itself in a mild boil. As Al poured it into the pot, Astoria asked him, "Is that it, then? That's everything you need?"

"Yeah. That's everything," answered Al, but he still felt like he was lying.

A mere twelve hours later, Albus was back at the boathouse after a terribly short sleep. He was no more confident today than he'd been yesterday, but he had no choice but to follow Astoria's plan for her marking ceremony. He knew that whatever consequence his gut was anticipating couldn't possibly be as bad as the one he would receive if he didn't go through with Astoria's wishes in the first place.

After pouring the potion in magically made containers and packing it all into a bag with an undetectable extension charm, Al made his way up to the castle just in time to see the sun rise over the horizon line of the Black Lake.

It was still too early for most students to be up yet, so Al was able to sneak into the kitchens beneath the Great Hall without anyone seeing him. After making sure that there were no Hufflepuff students lingering outside their common room, Al tickled the pear of a mural-sized portrait of fruit, turning it into a green doorknob that allowed him to enter the room.

The kitchens were the size of the Great Hall itself, long and narrow with rows of short counters against stone walls, and a cornucopia of brass pots and silverware hanging from the low ceiling. And unlike the rest of the castle, the kitchens were bustling with noise, for hundreds of house-elves were running up and down the hall in frenzy as they worked as a team to prepare the first meal of the day. These elves were all well-paid to be working, though, since Hermione Weasley had long since passed a law on the unfair abuse of the elves. Only those who had wanted to remain at Hogwarts had done so, and they'd received a considerable raise in return.

Before any of the elves noticed the intruder, Al pointed his wand at the center of the room and whispered, "Confundus." It was a spell that caused the victim to become light-headed and confused, and Al only had to use it once for it to act on all of the elves, thanks to the power of the Elder Wand. This way, they'd continue working (if at a slower pace), but they wouldn't question Al as he mixed his potion with the morning pumpkin juice.

Once the elves were looking up at him and smiling like he was a long-lost friend, Al felt confident about the charm and moved on to the task at hand. The first thing he did was open the window at the very top of the ceiling on the right wall of the room, allowing the awaiting Knox to fly inside and transfigure beside one of the two fireplaces.

"You ready, Black Hawk?" asked Knox as he brushed off some light snow left on his black robes, which had been deemed the official uniform for the Forbidden Flock.

Al was busy pulling the potions out of his pack as he replied, "Does it matter?"

Knox considered the question for a moment before answering, "Good point. Oh, and thanks."

"For what?" asked Al, the containers of the potion now lined up atop a counter.

"For not asking if I was ready too," said Knox, chuckling sadly to himself.

Al could sense Knox's fear even without looking at him, and he didn't blame Rookie for being scared. With so many people who would surely chase after him, Knox had a high probability of being caught and shipped off to prison, and Al was immensely grateful to Knox for taking the risk that should have been his.

Not knowing what else to say, Al told Knox, "Ah, you'll be fine."

Failing to believe Al, Knox decided to change the subject by saying, "Right, well, we'd better get on with it."

At that, Al gave Knox a couple of instructions on how much potion to add to each goblet of juice, and then the two went to work. They were both careful to only use a few drops of the thick, clear liquid, for Albus had read that it should be quite strong and he didn't want anyone to be able to smell or taste it from within the juice.

They purposefully finished with a single vial of potion left over, which Knox put in his pocket as proof of being the one to have used it in case he was caught. Then they lined all the goblets up along the counters where the elves would make them disappear and resurface on the four tables in the Great Hall.

It was nearing the time that most students would head to breakfast on a normal weekend when Knox transfigured back into a rook and snuck through an opening in the ceiling of the kitchens to get into the Great Hall. As soon as Knox was out of sight, Al left the kitchens the same way he'd come in, sneaking through the opening of the portrait hole and trying to blend in with the Hufflepuff students who had since appeared, but weren't observant enough to notice him.

On the way upstairs, Al noted that most of the kids he was surrounded by were long-faced and quiet, so he thought it safe to assume that Gryffindor had won yesterday's match. That wasn't very surprising, either, since Gryffindor had been on quite the winning streak this season. Slytherin was close behind, as always, but Al wasn't sure by how many points. He hadn't thought about the Quidditch House Cup in ages, and he realized now that he really hadn't missed it.

The Great Hall was packed with students by the time Al walked inside, though the tables had yet to be filled with food. That would all come once when every student was seated, for it was easier to accommodate everyone that way. It was for that same reason that Al sat at his normal spot at the Slytherin table and awaited the appearance of his breakfast, for he didn't want to stand out by lurking suspiciously in the corner and watching everybody eat.

Luckily, the Slytherin table was at the far left side of the hall, and Al was sitting so that his back faced the wall, allowing him a decent view of all the other houses. Keeping an eye out for incoming students, he adjusted himself on the stool so that he was comfortable and slyly reached into his pant pocket and pulled out a notepad and quill that he could use to write all the Muggle-born names on. He figured this part of his task shouldn't be too difficult, since the scarring would be obvious on anyone. Plus, even if he missed a few, they'd be taken to the hospital wing straight away, and he could check his list there if needed.

Al's part of the table, which had been fairly empty when he'd sat down, was filling quickly now. Most of the Quidditch players came in together, even including Mercy, since she hadn't seemed to have forgiven James just yet. They sat at the end of the table by the double doors, while a gaggle of first years ran off to the opposite end. Scorpius came in just after his team, his arm wrapped around Rose as he followed her to the Gryffindor table and sat beside a celebratory James.

Ilana was the very last student to walk into the hall, and she ignored Al as she sat down a few feet away from him on the other side of the table, her face buried in the book Al had returned to the restricted section last night. He wanted to go up and to talk to her, so much so that it hurt to stay still, but he knew that now wasn't the time.

As soon as Ilana took her seat amongst the rest of the school, the food and drinks finally appeared, a plate of eggs and a goblet of pumpkin juice for each and every student. People dug in quickly as if nothing was wrong, for of course to them nothing was, but Al was having a difficult time acting like everything was normal as he stared down at his potion.

After reminding himself that nothing would happen to him once he drank it and after glancing to the ceiling to make sure that Knox was ready and waiting in the beams, Al took hold of his goblet and sipped. He drank about half a glass before putting it down, and was relieved to find that he couldn't taste the potion and that nothing was happening anywhere on his skin.

His appetite barely existent, Al pushed his food aside as he scanned the hall and waited for the first Muggle-born to receive their scar. It came with a scream from the Gryffindor table, and Al already knew the person to whom it belonged.

The boy's name was Bobby Dormer, and he was Rose's fellow prefect. He'd mentioned in a few classes before that he had Muggle parents, but Al was quick to write down his name before he forgot as he watched Bobby stand up from his bench and back up toward the wall. He was gaping down at his arm, and all Al could see from across the hall was a trail of blood dripping off of Bobby's fingernails and onto the marble floor.

There was a crowd around him quickly, with Rose inspecting Bobby's wound as it seeped into his skin. "Somebody call the nurse!" she yelled into the hall at anybody who would listen.

But Bobby was just the beginning. Roddy Matheson, a fourth year from Hufflepuff, was next, and he fainted and fell off the bench before he had a chance to scream like Bobby had. A couple of other Hufflepuffs followed suit, then came two second year girls from Ravenclaw, and soon there were cries and screams from all over the three tables.

The only area of the hall that wasn't drowning in the blood of Muggle-borns was by the Slytherin table, though many of the students had still run off to help the others. Al stood up as well, but only to get a better view of the kids who were now being escorted out of the hall and to the hospital wing by their closest friends.

On his way to the doorway, however, Al noticed that Ilana had disappeared. He hadn't seen her leave the table before, and surely she didn't have any friends from other houses to attend to, so Al was instantly concerned, spinning his head around to try to see where she'd jetted off to.

He was still looking for Ilana when one of the remaining students in the hall, an older boy from Ravenclaw, yelled, "It's the juice! Somebody's tampered with it!"

By the time Al swirled around to see who'd spoken, Scorpius and Rose had found Knox in a corner of the ceiling. They were pointing up at the bird and yelling back at James, "It's him! It's Rookwood!"

Upon hearing his name, Knox took off from the beam and flew for the entryway, which Lysander Scamander was running to in attempt to close the doors and trap Knox inside, but Knox made it out before Lysander even came close.

Al snuck out the entryway just behind Knox, but stayed beside the doors as the latter transfigured into his human form and waited to be followed. It didn't take long for Lysander, James, and Scorpius to come running after him in the Entrance Hall and follow him all the way outside and into the courtyard.

At this point, the professors that hadn't been called to the hospital wing were on Knox's tail as well. McGonagall was at their head, yelling something at Scorpius that Al couldn't make out, and Arthur Weasley and Neville Longbottom weren't far behind her.

Once they were all outside and the only people left in the Entrance Hall were the Slytherins and a few others who hadn't retreated yet, Al pushed his way through the crowd so that he could get outside. He knew that he should be leaving before anyone saw him, but he needed to know that Knox was safe before he could save himself.

When Al couldn't see any sign of black robes still on the ground and once he noticed that Knox's followers were no longer running, he looked up at the sky and saw that Knox was already flying away. Granted, he had Scorpius, James, and Lysander flying on brooms and shooting spells from behind him, but he seemed to have gained a head start. Al was only reassured of Knox's chances of escape when he heard McGonagall sigh and tell Arthur and Neville, "They'll never catch him."

Upon hearing this, the two professors ran off toward the Black Lake, Neville yelling at Hagrid to use his magical megaphone to tell the Quidditch captains to head back while Arthur took out an old camera and tried to snap some photos of Knox that he'd surely be sending to the Ministry within the next hour or so.

Telling himself that it had worked, and that everything was fine, Al turned around to get away from the on-lookers just as McGonagall noticed that he was there, her eyes pinned on the notepad that was still locked in his right hand. She didn't say anything to him, though, so he broke her glare by running off like he should have before.

There was a bounty of students all still wide-mouthed and gaping in the Entrance Hall, and as Al passed by the open doors to the Great Hall, his eyes caught the last person left in the pool of the blood. It was Rose, standing in the middle of the hall, her hair the same color as the puddles on the floor, and her cheeks glistening with fresh streaks of tears.

Rose had always felt eternally connected to her peers, and what she hated more than anything in the world was seeing innocent people suffer. Al had never fully understood that about her until this very moment, for it was the first time in his life that he could see her from an outsider's perspective. Now, it didn't matter how many people Rose felt eternally connected to, because after what he'd just done, Al knew that he was no longer one of them.

It took all his might for Al to walk away from Rose, but he did just that, fleeing down the staircase and into the dungeons until he was inside the familiar Slytherin common room. As was expected, there wasn't anyone there. Even though nobody in Slytherin had received a 'Mud-blood' scar themselves, Al doubted that anyone would have gone back to their room after seeing such an event take place, no matter how little they themselves were involved.

Walking to his dormitory in complete silence, Al gripped his notepad tightly and tried to relive the marking ceremony in his mind. Regardless of his worries leading up to today, everything had gone according to plan. Knox had escaped, Al had recorded the names of every Muggle-born in the school, and, most surprisingly, the potion had worked. But as he stowed the notepad deep in his suitcase, Al realized that he still felt worried.

He still felt like was something was missing, that needed something, or that something had gone wrong without him realizing it. Stashing his suitcase back under his bed and then standing back up, Al closed his eyes and wiped his forehead, trying to figure out where all of these thoughts were coming from.

Knowing that it was futile but not coming up with a better idea, Al tried to relax like he had in the Prefects' bathroom, clearing his mind in order to think of only what he needed to fill this newfound hole in himself. Much to his surprise, however, the technique worked, because Al was soon only thinking of one thing that he'd been longing for, that he'd been waiting for, that he'd been searching for. And he knew that if he finally found it, he'd be able to listen to himself again, because this hole wasn't just in his head. It was in his heart, and there was only one thing in this world that had ever been able to get his heart beating.

He couldn't explain how he knew where she'd be, but before long, Al was knocking on the door to the seventh year girls' dormitory, waiting for Ilana to open it so that he could apologize for the way he'd been acting and so that he could tell her why he'd ever acted that way in the first place.

Al's instinct turned out to be correct, for after a few knocks, the door did open, and a straight-faced Ilana let him inside without any questions asked. She was wearing jeans and a baggy sweater that was especially large around her arms, an unusual outfit for someone who tended to dress in vintage specialty items. Still, Al didn't think much of it as he faced her and prepared himself for what he was about to say.

She was still silent, her eyes dark and distant as she crossed her arms and waited, but Al was too enamored by the memories of her flawless skin to notice her cold body language as he said, "I'm sorry."

Ilana looked as if she was about to interrupt, but Al stopped her by stepping closer to her and continuing, "I've been walking around this past week feeling lost, and thinking that I've been missing something, that there was something I needed to find."

He had her full attention now, and Ilana had un-crossed her arms but still had her hands clasped together by her stomach. She wasn't letting Al touch her, even though he was now close enough to as he said, "And I think I finally found it."

Al's voice was surer than it had been in months, which Ilana seemed to sense, since she looked straight into his eyes before he confirmed what she knew he was about to say. And as Al looked back at her, he wondered how he had ever failed to notice her before last year. He wondered what had made him so oblivious or closed off to the person he now felt lost without. He wondered how he could have possibly existed before she'd become his reason to exist.

"It's you, Higgs," he said, his voice just as sure and steady as before. "You're what I've been missing. You're what I've been looking for. You're what I need."

Now, it was Al's turn to wait for Ilana to say something. He watched her closely as she parted her lips and darted her eyes away from him before stepping back a foot or so and saying to the ground, "No, Potter. I'm what you want. But I'm not what you need."

Confused, Al didn't respond right away as he tried to comprehend Ilana's words, but his silence gave her the perfect opportunity to walk away from him, jolting out of her own dormitory and disappearing from Al's view all over again.

For a while, Al stayed where he was, too dumbfounded to move. But then, when Ilana's words became too painful to think about, he decided that he needed a distraction. This realization put him on his feet once more, and he found himself crossing the hallway and entering his own dormitory, where he searched through his hidden suitcase all over again, this time hoping to extract the notepad rather than hide it.

As he was rummaging through his things, however, he noticed that one of his most prized possessions – the bezoar that Rose had given him a couple of Christmases ago – was gone. Just to be sure that he wasn't imagining things, Al emptied his suitcase completely, but the stone-like antidote was nowhere to be found.

With yet another thing he didn't want to think about, Al whistled to his spotted gray owl, Witherwings, and waited for the bird to perch itself on his shoulder before he set off again, the notepad now stuffed in his pocket.

He didn't need to go all the way to the boathouse to know that Astoria and Knox had left for good, but he found himself walking there anyway. All of the students must have been corralled outside for the day, because the castle was fairly empty and the Great Hall was completely closed off. Sure enough, there were groups of kids scattered around the grounds, making it difficult for Al to go unnoticed. But rather than trying to hide from them, he decided to just keep going without hesitation. If McGonagall was secretly watching him, so be it.

But Al didn't get caught as he stopped outside the boathouse, gave Witherwings his note and told her to fly it to Astoria, and then broke into the shed on his own. He didn't know what he was looking for until he found a note about the size of the one he'd just sent away, pinned to an oar on the wall by the window Knox had been sitting in the other night.

Al took the slip of paper that had been written on in Knox's perfect cursive handwriting and read, 'Off to raise the army. See you when the grass turns green.'

Albus ripped up the note after reading it, letting the bits scatter across the wooden floor. He tried to convince himself that he was okay, because everything had worked out the way they'd planned, but he wouldn't believe it. He knew what he was missing now, but somehow, the knowing was worse than the not knowing. Before, he'd had a reason to hope for finding what he needed. Now, he needed what he couldn't have, and Al knew better than anyone what that felt like. It felt like he was trapped. It felt like there was no escape, because there was nowhere left for him to run.

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