[This is a work of ‘fanfiction’, essentially a tribute to the world created by JK Rowling. No infringement of copyright is intended, and neither is any commercial exploitation.]
Scorpius Malfoy picked himself up off the ground. His bones hurt from the fall. His head ached. His knees were bruised. He wasn't exactly sure whether the rest of him was in working condition, but at least he could not detect anything actively wrong with those body parts. He'd have been lying if he'd said he felt fine, but on the other hand, he could have been much worse. After all, he'd lasted five rounds of three minutes each against James Potter, and that was more than anyone else in Hogwarts could say.
In fact, it had started well enough. Thanks to Estelle's presumably well-intentioned pessimism, he had arrived at the appointed place behind the lake rather well aware of the outstanding track record that his opponent possessed.
"Oh, James will have you for breakfast, lunch and dinner. He started in the Duelling club in his second year and by the end of it was already known to have a rock-solid defense. By his third year no one wanted to go up against him, not even seasoned seventh-years and he was crowned the school champion at the end of term. Sensational is the only word," she had gushed as they had made their way through a quiet corridor from the Slytherin dorm to the greenhouses. "Right, I got that the last three times you said it," grumbled Scorpius.
"He's got an impenetrable defense, you know. Nothing can get past his shield spells. He wears you down for a few rounds and then – BAM! You're hit by a Reducto or a stinging hex before you know what's what."
"You're such a comfort."
"Just doing my duty," she replied in a modest tone. "No one's ever lasted more than five rounds against him, at least not since he became the champ. His unbeaten streak goes back three years…"
"Is that someone swimming in the ruddy lake?" asked Scorpius, more to change the subject than anything else. He had noticed a movement in the still reflection of the stars.
"Hmm, you may be right. Must be off their rocker, whoever it is. It's dreadfully cold! I wouldn't want to get a toe in, let alone swim."
"Might be one of the mer-people," Scorpius pointed out. "Perhaps they come close to the surface at nights when they're less likely to be seen."
"I suppose you're right. Ah – here we are. Hullo, Elk. How nice to see you!"
James was accompanied by Trellawny, his second, a pale, reedy boy from his year. Elk Moose was holding up an ancient gold watch.
"I'll be the referee, if that's all right with you folks," he said. "Let's have a fair duel, shall we, or else I'll have to put a stunning curse on the both of you. The seconds will appeal to me if they feel anything is going amiss."
"I'm fine with that," said Scorpius, who was aware of Elk Moose's reputation for being a fair man who wouldn't let being a Gryffindor get in the way of his refereeing. James nodded as well.
"We'll have rounds of three minutes each with a half-minute between them. The first to lose grip of his wand or suffer injury resulting in an inability to continue will be the loser. No unforgivables, no attacking after I call 'time'. I wish we had someone with decent healing skills on hand. There's a couple of people in Ravenclaw who're good with their healing spells and poultices but the more houses know about the duel the more danger we are in of being found out."
"Send for my sister Lily, then," said James. "She's a terrific healer. I'll send a Patronus."
"Lily? Isn't she a bit…" Estelle left the question hanging, realising just in time that it would be rather unwise to use the expression "thick as a brick" in reference to the sister of the man who was about to duel her cousin and would probably massacre him anyway.
"She's a genius with healing spells, somehow," said James. "I know, not the brightest girl in the world, but has a gift for healing. Is that your broom, Malfoy? Where'd you find it – a Muggle joke shop?"
He cast his patronus, a beautiful horse and sent the message. Scorpius fingered his broom nervously. It was terribly weather-beaten, true, the broom he had picked up the previous evening when he had met Rose. But it had felt better than his own and that was important. He wondered if the Potter boy was show-boating. Scorpius could produce a patronus himself, so he wasn't intimidated or anything, but there was something about James' expression – cold determination instead of the hot-blooded anger that Scorpius generally had to face from him – that was unnerving.
"It's the best I have. Can we get on with things?"
Lily arrived eventually, still rubbing her sleepy eyes. James explained to her what was going on in a few terse easy-to-understand words and she seated herself on a bench with a beatific smile.
After that, the real business of the evening had begun. To his credit, Scorpius had started well. For the first two rounds he had hounded James with a barrage of spells. They didn't get through his famous defense, but James wasn't able to retaliate either. The third began the same way, but Scorpius felt himself tiring. At the half-way mark, as the time interval between his spells began to prolong, James came into his own, shooting a couple of hexes that Scorpius only just managed to block. Into the fourth round, Scorpius was barely holding on, in fact, only the amazing responsiveness of the weathered broomstick under him kept him in the air. His hand had taken a hit when a spell from James grazed it and that made his own spell-work rather wobbly for a while, but the break at the end of the fourth round came just in time.
Lily cast a quick healing spell that had Scorpius waving his hand about as good as new.
"Er, thanks, Miss. Potter," said Scorpius.
"All better now," said Lily with a bright smile.
"You're not doing half-badly," Estelle said, patting him on the back patronisingly.
"Partly skill, partly dumb luck," he confessed.
"Actually, you're out-flying him," said Estelle. "Keep it up a bit longer and he may tire enough for you to have a decent shot at him."
"I'm not entirely sure I can keep this up a bit longer," confessed Scorpius, just as Elk's voice rang out, "Time!"
The fifth round started well for Scorpius. He circled upwards into the air, instead of straight up and managed to catch James off-guard for long enough to land an Expelliarmus before the Potter boy had his shield up. The wand detached itself from James' hand and flew up in the air towards Scorpius, but James, though taken off-guard, had not earned his reputation for nothing. Before Scorpius realised quite what his opponent was doing, James had accelerated towards Scorpius and caught his wand just inches from the Slytherin boy, who had to dive to his left to escape collision. No sooner had James recovered his balance than he had fired off a spell at Scorpius, who, still in evasive mode, could not avoid being hit. The spell was a stunning spell and Scorpius felt the stiffness take over his joints as he hurtled to what he was sure would be a defeat.
As it was, the broom, apparently having a fairly independent bent of mind, not only did not crash to the earth without his control, but stayed afloat and took him circuitously around James, keeping him out of harm's way even as his opponent fired hex after hex at him.
On the ground, Estelle clenched her fists as she saw her cousin get hit by the stunner, and could only have a sigh of relief when she realised that he was not heading earthwards, as he ought to have been.
"Elk! You've got to stop the fight!" she said, running up to the boy.
"I don't see any reason why," came the stubbon reply. "It's an evenly matched duel so far."
"It's gone on long enough. Call it a draw."
"Don't be ridiculous, Estelle! Wizards don't call off matches because they go on too long. In the year 1846 a duel between Peter Poliski and Maynard McTaggert lasted two days straight."
Stamping her foot in frustration, Estelle turned, to find herself looking into the face of Lily, who was watching the proceedings with open-mouthed fascination.
"Yes?" came the response.
"Can you get your brother to..." Estelle meant to say "stop", but her sentence was interrupted at that moment by the sight of Scorpius being hit square on the chest by another stunning spell, and this time, her cousin crashed straight to the ground just as Elk called "Time!" again.
Both girls ran over to where Scorpius lay.
"Not a concussion, I hope," said Elk.
"He's hurt, Moose! You've got to call it off."
"Not if he recovers before the start of the next round," said Elk with exasperating calm, moving off to check on James, who had landed safely some ten meters away.
"Shall I try a reviving spell?" asked Lily solicitously.
"No! Look, Lily - can you go find Rose? Tell her about the duel. Go, fast!"
Lily nodded and took off, without asking any questions. Whether this was because she grasped the situation or just her general lack of curiosity, Estelle could not tell.
"Where's she going?" asked Scorpius, panting, as he slowly regained control of his faculties.
"Couldn't stand the stress," said Estelle.
Scorpius struggled to his feet and looked around. The Potter girl had disappeared out of sight. Elk was marking time on his watch while James and his second were jabbering to each other. His wand was in one piece, which was good news. His wand arm, not so much.
Still, he struggled onto his broom and took off again, just as their referee called the start of the sixth round. Scorpius did not try any spells, but stuck to evasive action, keeping safely out of harm's way. His arm did not feel up to any serious defensive spellwork, and against James Potter, defensive spellwork was what kept a chap afloat. Thankfully, the skills he had picked up playing Quidditch stood him in good stead as he weaved around, his concentration purely on not being hit by James.
As it often turns out, though, evasive action was only effective for a while. Trajectories and flight patterns become predictable, and James was able to fire his spells in anticipation of Scorpius' movements. After his fourth time barely escaping a fireball, Scorpius had no choice but to careen backwards and fire a spell of his own. To his own surprise, it was Wingardium Leviosa. Since it was also probably the last thing James had expected, the spell met with no resistance - there really isn't a counter-curse for a levitation spell, after all.
James teetered for several seconds in the air while Scorpius, taking advantage of his opponent's discomfiture, fired a stunning spell at him. It hit him squarely in the chest, knocking him off his broomstick and Scorpius felt a sense of exultation as his opponent hurtled downwards.
"Time!" called Elk as Trellawney expertly caught James with a cushioning spell before he hit the ground.
Scorpius descended quickly, and ran up to Elk, Estelle close on his heels.
"That's a win!" said Estelle, before Scorpius could.
"I called the end of the round," said Elk calmly. "If he recovers before the start of the next, the duel is on."
"Pretty fair, actually," admitted Scorpius, knowing he had only survived to fight this round because of time being called in the fifth.
A few feet away, James sat on the turf, shaking his head. As always, Scorpius noted with disgust, the boy's ability to recover from curses was phenomenal.
"Just keep hitting him with what he doesn't expect," Estelle whispered urgently in his ear, dragging him away.
"How many times do you think I can pull off a stunt like that?" Scorpius muttered.
"Hopefully, you won't have to," his cousin replied. Surprised, Scorpius followed her gaze to where a slender figure was running from the castle up towards them.
It did not take the eyes of love to identify this figure to be Rose Weasley. By the time she was within twenty paces, even the fact that it was past midnight could not hide the arched eyebrows and muddy brown hair that was her hallmark.
"Rose! What the hell are you doing here?" James voice rang out.
"Thank Merlin you're here," said Estelle. "You need to stop this before someone gets hurt."
"Look, nobody's getting hurt..." began Scorpius in a half-apologetic tone. He was cut off when Rose pushed him aside with what he would admit later was a surprisingly strong shove.
"Confringo!" Rose's voice echoed through the night as she blasted the spell at her cousin. Scorpius, who was standing closest to her, felt the heat generated by the spell as it erupted from her wand and unerringly caught it's hapless target. The explosive spell caught James squarely in the chest, and threw him a few feet backwards, while engulfing him in a ball of flame.
"What the HELL, Weasley!" shouted Trellawney, rushing to his friend's side. Everyone present heaved a sigh of relief as James tottered back onto his feet, a few singed strands of hair being the only parts of him noticeably affected by the incident.
"Yes?" said Rose, with exaggerated politeness.
"You could've killed him!" said Trellawney, though he looked visibly relieved.
"If I had it in me to cast spells that powerful, my dear Trellawney," Rose continued in the same tone, "I most certainly would have attempted the task. Given that I do not, this was really little more than a cousinly fracas."
"If you're having cousinly fracases," came the voice of Hugo Weasley as he trotted up to the group, followed closely by Albus, Martin and Lily, "you can't leave the rest of us out, can you? How'd 'ee do, James? Looking peaky. Elk, my boy, you get bigger and stronger with each passing day. Trellawney! You festering old eyesore, you! Don't you owe me five galleons?"
The persons he had addressed looked at him in the state of helpless puzzlement that he so liked to inflict on people he interacted with. Hugo allowed himself a self-satisfied smile.
Scorpius took advantage of the fact that nobody actually had their eyes on him to grab Rose by the arm and lead her a few feet away. She didn't resist.
"Look, it's not what it looks like," he began, "James challenged me to a duel. It's all fair and -"
"And you just had to accept, didn't you?" she interjected.
"If I hadn't, I'd be branded a coward throughout Hogwarts, wouldn't I?" Scorpius said, his tone a touch defiant.
"So WHAT, Malfoy?" exclaimed Rose in a louder tone. Scorpius glanced around to see if anybody had noticed, but they had walked some distance away by now and Hugo appeared to be holding the group enthralled with something or the other. (He was, in reality, enumerating how exactly Trellawney had run up the massive debt of five galleons. As this involved the fascinating story of how Trellawney had gotten involved with a muggle cocktail waitress, it is easily understandable that his audience did not notice Rose and Scorpius.)
"I don't know how your mind works, Rose, but I was not going to back down..."
"Gladiatorial combat more your style, eh? What did you see this as? You and James duelling over my honour? Some sort of medieval joust?"
"Nothing of that sort, really. I was only defending what's left of my honour," said Scorpius, a little sullenly.
Rose cast a disgusted look at him and turned back towards the rest of the group.
"Rose?" Scorpius' voice behind her was barely a whisper, but she stopped. Maybe it was something she had wanted to hear.
"I won't pretend to be any better than I am, Rose," said Scorpius in a calm, measured undertone. "But I won't take the blame for being something I am not, either. Your cousin there challenged me to a duel for no good reason that I can think of. He seems to be under the impression that I am some sort of pasteboard villain bent on sullying your lily-white honour – and by extension, I suppose, his. At this point it's less about you than just a desire to shut him up. If he beats me – and he probably will – at least that will be the end of it and you can join the rest of your cousins in crowing over the loser Malfoy boy."
"Look, I never…" began Rose in a softer tone.
"No, hear me out. I may be a Malfoy, but that name hasn't meant anything to me beyond a crackpot grandfather who can't stop going on about how the name once carried a lot of weight in wizarding circles. I'd like to tell him it still does – it's mud. It means that I can't even attempt to be a friend to a girl I like – and admire – very much for no fault of my own."
"Scorpius…" Rose began, a blush beginning to colour her cheeks.
"I won't be bothering you again, Rose, so – please, don't interrupt. You've been-" he hesitated "- good to me at a time when no one else was willing to look at me as anything other than what my last name says about me. I felt you were something special from the time we first met on the train coming to Hogwarts, four years ago. You stood up for me, though you had no reason to. You spoke to me when no one else did. I don't think you ever thought of me as a friend, exactly, but it meant the world to me that you were willing to take me for what I am, rather than what my father or grandfathers were before me."
He paused. Rose's eyes were fixed on him but she did not speak. He could see Hugo behind her, now expostulating with expansive hand gestures on how Trellawney had been dragged away by bouncers.
"I won't pretend that gratitude or friendship is all that I feel for you, because that would be a lie," he resumed. "I have feelings for you that I can't define, really. I don't know if it's love – I know we're both too young to even be thinking in that direction – but I know I can't help but wish we could be more than friends. You are beautiful to me, Rose. Your hair when it tousles with the breeze, your eyes when they shine with joy or even anger, your hands when you clench them into balls and rest your head on them. Everything about you is magical, Rose, far more than anything this wand can produce. And that's why I think it's best if I just – stay away from you for what left of our school life. If it causes this much strife to you and yours, it may be better just to, just forget that I ever knew someone as perfect as you."
The boy's fists were clenched, the effort of speaking seemed to have taken a toll on him, though he would have confessed, if pressed, that he was really trying to hold back tears. Finished, he relaxed, letting out an inaudible sigh before turning to return to the castle. Hugo had also finished his story by now and had begun shepherding his little flock towards the castle as well.
"I say, rather nice speech. What does he do for an encore?"
The voice, clear as a bell, cut across the now-still night. With a start, the ten children turned to look towards the speaker. Only Rose, however, recognised her, and her heart sank.
"Cherry!" she exclaimed in a despairing voice.
"Not alone, this time," smiled the woman. "Have you met my rather fiery friend Maitreyi? She does a mean party trick with those hands. We were out for a nightly swim and guess what we found on the other side of the lake – your school! Now wasn't that lucky?"
Rose exchanged a nervous glance with Albus and Martin as another woman stepped forth from behind Cherry. She was a little taller than Cherry and had a mane of thick red hair. Her eyes seemed to glow a deep yellow even in the dark. Cherry, who wore a black one-piece swimsuit, was nonchalantly surveying the castle and the surrounding grounds. The other woman was dressed in a dull grey cowl and overcoat. Surprisingly, she didn't seem to be even slightly wet. And yet, the lake must have been the way they came. Scorpius and Estelle recalled seeing the nightly swimmers as he had walked towards the site of the duel, but could not really associate the beautiful dark-haired woman opposite him with anything he could remember. Albus, Hugo and Martin recognised from Rose's description exactly who stood before them by now, and Martin's mention of the name Maitreyi was still fresh in their memory. James and Trellawney, who knew the least, were caught between apprehension and arousal. Cherry's swimsuit left little about her perfect shape to the imagination. Lily was wondering if she should dye her hair red over the vacation.
"Well, Em. It' s your show. The instructions are to burn down the castle."
The red-haired woman gave a grim smile before saying, "Why don't I try a little preview before the main show, Cherry?"
"Now that's quite unnecessary, Em," said Cherry, and Rose thought she detected a trace of apprehension in her voice.
"Oh shut up, Chitra," said the woman. "It's showtime." In a moment, she whipped off the grey overcoat to reveal a bright orange robe. Before the horrified eyes of the children, she held out her right hand towards them, a finger pointed right at Rose. Her eyes seemed to glow for an instant and then a steady stream of fire emerged from her hand and darted towards Rose, engulfing her in a sheet of flame.