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Off the Rails by water_lily43175
Chapter 34: thirty-four
This time last week, I’d thought that my flat was the safest place to be. The most comforting place to be. As long as I stayed here, I couldn’t be disturbed by people I didn’t want to talk to.
But right now, those people were my family, who didn’t seem to realise when I didn’t want to talk. I didn’t want to hear what they had to say, didn’t want them to tell me what I already knew – that I was a failure, that I’d gone badly wrong and that I’d disappointed them.
I was a failed human being. And right now, I just wanted to escape.
Escaping was hard. I could lock my door and put Silencing Charms on my room, but that didn’t stop the most determined people, and I didn’t know any spells or wards that would keep them away. After Ryan, Della, Teddy and Roxanne had all tried their hardest to get to me, I finally gave in and left my flat during the daylight hours for the first time in two weeks.
The first time I Apparated there, I wasn’t sure where I was going. I just let my subconscious guide me. Once I was there, I realised it was the perfect place for me to hide.
It was the perfect place for a failed human being.
I needed somewhere nobody would judge me, somewhere nobody would give a damn that I was even a Potter in the first place, let alone that I’d punched a journalist and been kicked off my Quidditch team. And that place was the pub where all failed human beings went, in search of an atmosphere where nobody would criticise them.
The Hog’s Head had, for a short time in its life, served a more upmarket clientele. It had always lagged far behind the Three Broomsticks in terms of class, but after the second war against Voldemort it had experienced an upsurge in visitor numbers and had spruced itself up to match. People had wanted to visit a place that had played such an important role in Voldemort’s eventual defeat; that the landlord Aberforth had also taken part in this almighty battle lent it even more credibility. The Ministry had also cracked down on crime and corruption in those years, weeding out many of its less desirable customers, and so all round, it had become a more acceptable place to be seen.
But this hadn’t lasted long. Aberforth’s death had coincided with the Ministry’s relaxation of their law enforcement, and so the pub had fallen back into its old ways.
Which was why I went there.
It was nice, not to have anybody asking about my career or my parents, or giving a double-take on seeing me. The bartender didn’t give a damn that it was James Potter he was serving and the patrons didn’t seem to care who they were drinking alongside either.
For the next three weeks, I followed the same pattern. I headed to the pub the moment someone tried to catch me in my flat, and stayed there for the rest of the day, often not leaving until it closed in the early hours of the morning. Then, I’d head home to sleep for a few hours, only to be woken by the next visitor in the queue.
Only the Falcons’ matches allowed me to keep track of the time. Aside from that, the days all rolled into one. But the Falcons matches were consistent, the one constant in my life. Three weeks on, two weeks off. The two weeks off had passed, so now we’d reached the next block of matches.
It was odd, not playing a part in them. I’d not missed a match for two seasons; even if I hadn’t played, I’d still been an avid spectator. I almost couldn’t bring myself to watch the first one, against the Caerphilly Catapults. But the Hog’s Head put it on – it seemed even failed human beings still enjoyed watching Quidditch, although I wasn’t sure how much of this interest was down to their gambling habits.
Roxanne was playing alongside Ryan and Della. That, above all else, was what caught my attention, and I shifted closer to the television to get a better view.
The broadcast of this game was the first time any of the customers fully acknowledged who I was.
“I got a solid bet on your lot to win this, boy,” one of them said gruffly. “If they lose cause your cousin’s playin’ instead o’ you...”
“You don’t need to worry,” I interrupted hurriedly, slightly concerned as to what he’d do to me if the Falcons did lose. “Roxie’s better than I am.”
He grunted, looking me up and down.
“Well, tha’s no’ a massive reassurance,” he muttered.
I winced at the slight, but didn’t say anything. After all, he was much bigger than me.
I’d been right to place my confidence in her. We won the match convincingly, and Roxie, Della and Ryan all put on a fantastic show. Two of their opposite number were in the Welsh World Cup squad, but they had a terrible game. I felt a small pang of sympathy for them. In fact, the Catapults’ single shining light was one of their Beaters, a lug of a bloke whose talent – and size and looks to boot – rivalled Cato’s. He nearly unseated Ryan a couple of times, which was an impressive feat.
After the game, my new friend bought a round of drinks in celebration of his winnings, and set a tankard down in front of me.
“’ere you go, chap,” he said. “For what it’s worth, I’d ‘ave liked to ‘ave watched you in that match. Big fan o’ yours, when your head’s screwed on right.”
I smiled slightly.
“I don’t think it ever was screwed on right,” I said slowly. “But thanks anyway.”
He shrugged. “You didn’t seem too ‘ard done by a few weeks ago, pal.” But he left it at that, clearly not wanting to get involved in some kind of deep and meaningful conversation.
And that was the crux of it all. He was right; I wasn’t hard done by at all. In fact, I’d had everything I’d dreamed of. So why had I let it slip away?
The answer came in a single word. A name.
I’d let myself get far too attached; I realised that now. But she hadn’t wanted anything serious from the start, and she was less likely to want anything to do with me now. I’d betrayed her trust and, even worse, I’d offended her. How could I have even suggested she might think differently of me if she’d known about Dad’s fame?
But I’d blown my chance. She was the first girl since Hogwarts who I’d ever truly felt something for, and I’d let her go. And along with her had gone my chance of playing for England. It had been mere inches away from me ... and now it was gone.
I shook my head, and drank my mead. I didn’t want to think about it any longer.
The customers left me alone, until the following Saturday. They didn’t even talk to me about the Prophet’s expose, which had been published that week. I only knew of its existence because I’d found a copy of the paper on the bar one day and had flicked through it. I’d read the offending article – which Deirdre had written – to find it packed with ‘scandals’ from my Hogwarts days, all revealed by ‘close school friends’. Oddly, it didn’t seem to bother me. I’d become so detached from the real world that nothing more could possibly hurt me. I simply shrugged, and threw the paper onto the fire.
The Falcons’ next game was against Wigtown Warriors. But it wasn’t the only match people were talking about; far from it.
It took me a while to twig. I’d noticed the large numbers of people walking up the cobbled street towards the castle, but it wasn’t until the Quidditch channel made reference to Ryan and Roxanne’s two seasons playing together for Gryffindor that I put two and two together.
Today was the last day of the Hogwarts Quidditch season. Gryffindor versus Ravenclaw, in a winner-takes-all. Hugo’s last chance to win the Quidditch Cup.
My stomach contracted, and I subconsciously retreated into the dark shadows at the back of the Hog’s Head, as I realised my family would be here, in the village.
My gambling friend glanced at me, and seemed to realise what was up.
“S’alright, lad,” he grunted. “They won’t come in ‘ere. An’ if they do, we’ll make sure they don’t find you.”
I smiled in gratitude, appreciating the rare show of support.
I watched the Falcons match, but my mind was only half on it. I could hear the cheers and boos from the school, and I was desperate to know what was happening. Were Gryffindor winning? Out on the pitch at Wigtown, Roxanne seemed far more focused on the match than I was. I wondered who was there to watch her. Uncle George and Aunt Angelina surely, so long as they’d found someone else to run the shops. Would Freddie be there too? Uncle Ron, Aunt Hermione and Rose would of course be just up the road, and I suspected I’d find Al there too, maybe even Lily.
I faintly wondered where my parents and siblings would have opted to go had I been playing instead of Roxanne.
The Falcons won their game reasonably quickly, much to the pleasure of my new friend, who bought me another tankard of mead for my troubles. The Hogwarts match went on for longer. I knew when it had finished, because the village began to fill back up again. I slunk back to my safe spot in the dark corner at the back of the pub, but part of me longed to step out onto the street and ask someone the result. Had my cousin won his trophy?
Eventually my friend took pity on me, and headed out himself to get the result from someone.
“Your boy won,” he said to me upon his return. “Woss’ that, ten in a row now?”
I nodded, beaming with pride at my old house.
“We’ll ‘ave another one on that, eh? Here, drink up.”
And I received another tankard for my troubles.
That week, he talked to me a bit more.
“Woss’ eatin’ you then, kid?” he asked one evening midweek over another tankard of mead, this time my round.
“Fucked it up, haven’t I?” I said morosely.
“Don’t get why,” he said. “I get tha’ you might get pissed off with all the cameras an’ all, bu’ throwin’ punches? You could be on the biggest stage of ‘em all, boy! Money, fame an’ women tha’ us mere mortals could only dream of! An’ you go an’ let your anger get in the way of it.” He shook his head, bemused.
“I don’t need the money,” I said dully. “And I’ve already got fame enough, why do I need more?”
He shrugged. “Why become a Quidditch pro in the firs’ place, then?”
“I didn’t do it for the money or the fame,” I said, looking up at him. “I did it because I love Quidditch. I love flying, I love the rush it gives me, I love how free it makes me feel. Quidditch is my life, it’s all I know, it’s all I’m good at-” I fell silent, thinking that I’d said too much.
He shook his head, looking bemused.
“But still, you ‘ad it all, kid. You ‘ad the world in the palm of your ‘and!”
“But what if I didn’t have it all?” I said glumly.
He didn’t understand. How could he? He’d never had a taste of the money or the fame, he had no idea how empty it could make you feel. How worthless. How used. The Quidditch was me being me, doing things on my own terms. That was all that I wanted; freedom. And happiness.
But I‘d lost my chance now.
By the next Falcons match, against Wimbourne, my mead-loving friend had all but given up on me as a Quidditch player. I was old news; Roxanne was his new favourite, his new best player, the one he’d back regardless. In fact, he’d placed even more money on a Falcons win than he had done for the two previous matches, along with a second bet on her personal score tally. He lost his second bet – she outscored his guess. If anything, that heightened his spirits even more, and he handed me my weekly tankard with near-infectious glee.
“Do you support the Falcons, then?” I asked him.
“I suppor’ good teams, kid. Good Quidditch. I used to play in my day, you know. Beater, I was. Played for Hufflepuff though; we didn’ ‘ave a chance against the big boys. Good fun though. You know, I’d like to see you an’ ‘er play together one day.” He gestured towards the television, and I knew he meant Roxanne.
“We used to,” I said. “Four years on the Gryffindor team.”
“Reckon it’ll ‘appen again?”
I shrugged sadly.
“I don’t know.”
He ended the conversation there, and left me to sink back into my dark thoughts.
The next week started much the same as the previous three. Not many people frequented the Hog’s Head on a Monday; they were generally sleeping off the weekend’s festivities. Nevertheless, I turned up mid-morning. Nobody had come to bother me at my flat – the number of attempted visits had tailed off during the past few weeks, but people still tried, and so I figured the easiest thing to do was to just pre-empt them.
The day passed in much the same way as those before. I sat at the bar and flicked through the Prophet, along with Quidditch Weekly and even Witch Weekly (why the Hog’s Head even had a copy of the latest Witch Weekly, I wasn’t sure). My name didn’t crop up as frequently as it had in the weeks gone by; in fact, I was barely mentioned at all. It seemed as though the world was beginning to forget about me. It was the effect of the Hog’s Head, I considered wryly.
As I folded up the Prophet and cast it to one side, a shadow fell over me, and I heard a voice that I’d not heard in years.
My jaw dropped as I turned to face the person standing over me.
Ingrid Feversham had always been beautiful, infinitely more so than any other girl or woman I knew. In my mind, she even overshadowed my Veela relatives, probably because their looks almost seemed artificial. But Ingrid was perpetually, naturally, wholly beautiful, and had been so right from the moment I’d first met her. She’d avoided the adolescent awkwardness which most other girls had gone through, and there had always been that special something about her, which never failed to draw people’s attention.
I’d last seen her three years ago, when we’d said our awkward farewells, and I didn’t think it was possible for her to have become more good-looking. Yet, here she was, standing beside me, with white-blonde hair, and those crystal blue eyes, those high cheekbones and full red lips, and that slightly haughty air about her.
It was odd, to think we’d not seen each other since we’d left Hogwarts. I’d bumped into nearly everyone else from my year since we’d left, whether it was in Diagon Alley, at the Hinky, at a Quidditch match or even walking through Muggle London. But my path hadn’t crossed Ingrid’s in those years.
Her mouth formed a slight smile when I spoke, as though she’d been worried that I wouldn’t recognise her. The thought was laughable; how could I not?
“May I join you?” she asked, in that soft voice of hers.
“Feel free.” I shrugged and turned back to face the counter.
She slipped onto the stool next to mine.
“I didn’t think I’d ever see you in a place like this,” she said, a slight tone of intrigue to her voice.
“I could say the same,” I pointed out, then paused, collecting my thoughts. “Right now, it feels as though this is the only place that I belong in. Are you really that surprised? You must have read the papers along with the rest of the country, seen what I’ve done.”
“I don’t believe everything I read in the tabloids,” she said smoothly. “I know better than that.”
Of course she did. Ingrid had been plagued by the tabloids ever since they’d cottoned onto her, when she’d started at Hogwarts. She’d had it far worse than I ever had, even now. Her mother was renowned for being a ‘serial wife’. She had been wed several times, all to wealthy men, who’d died mysterious deaths not long into their marriages. Ingrid had never gotten on with her mother or approved of her marriages, but this was irrelevant to the media, who would rather the facts didn’t get in the way of a good story.
“You wouldn’t go far wrong in believing them this time,” I said glumly, staring into the bottom of my empty glass.
It was her turn to pause.
“I didn’t believe them,” she said slowly, “because the James Potter they portrayed didn’t seem to be anything like the James Potter I knew so well.”
“People change,” I said with a shrug.
“Perhaps.” A third pause. “You always wanted to play Quidditch, though. Right from the start, when I first met you, that was what you said you wanted to do. You were determined to make it. That was one of the things I liked about you, that you knew what you wanted to achieve and would go to nearly any lengths to achieve it. I admired that drive. And yet, here you sit, with the potential to be playing in a World Cup, but instead drinking foul alcohol in a foul pub. And I refuse to believe that you just changed your mind on your career choice.”
“But what if I did?” I turned to face her. “What if I decided, enough was enough, that I was fed up of all the attention and the praise and the criticism and just ... decided to pack it in?”
Her eyes flickered, and a tiny smile pulled at the corner of her mouth.
“James Potter doesn’t just ‘pack things in’. He doesn’t give up. But James Potter does get frustrated at receiving attention for the wrong reasons...”
She’d always been far too perceptive. Or perhaps she recognised in others the frustration she felt herself at being unable to escape the shadow of a parent.
Or perhaps she just remembered how I’d confided in her about this frustration, that it was one of the things that had drawn us together.
“I...” I hesitated. “There’s a girl...”
Ingrid frowned, seeming puzzled as to where the conversation was going.
“She’s a Muggle, and-”
“Oh, can I believe the papers on this one, too? Continue.”
“She ... she found out about Dad. About Voldemort. I’d kept it all from her, because ... I don’t know why. I guess I liked that she didn’t know about all he’d done, that the reason people know my name is because of him, not my achievements. That she liked me for who I was. And she found out, from reading the bloody Prophet. And ... she didn’t like that I’d kept it from her. Said I’d disrespected him...”
I turned away from Ingrid, back to the bar again.
“It’s just ... it’s Dad again, isn’t it? I can’t bloody escape him. Everything people say about me, it can’t be said on merit, people can’t appreciate that I’ve done this by myself, that I’ve not had Dad’s support and backing in this at all. They have to mention him, and his achievements, and how I was bound to get where I am now with someone like him as a dad, and it’s like I’m being discredited, like I always am-”
She reached out and placed her hands on mine, which were firmly gripped around my glass.
“You don’t want to do that, or the consequences will be very painful,” she said gently.
I let go of the glass, and she removed it from my reach. I stared numbly at my hands for a moment, not sure what to say.
“Whose opinions in this world truly matter to you?”
I blinked, taken aback by the unusual question.
“I – what?”
“Answer it. Whose opinions do you really value?”
“My ... my friends and family, of course-”
“And do you think they think you got there on merit?”
I thought of Freddie’s beaming smile every time we won a game, of Brigid’s proud smile, thought of Al, and Lily, and Rose, and Lucy, and Aunt Audrey, and Mum...
“But what does that matter?”
“One thing I’ve learned is that you just have to ignore what the tabloids say. They’re not important. If people want to think your parentage got you where you are, then let them. They clearly don’t know you at all. But I know you, or at least I know the man you were growing up to become, and I know that you’re not just your father’s son. You’re an incredible person in your own right, and all your achievements are down to your hard work. Good genes help, admittedly, but just having parents who’ve done it all doesn’t mean you can automatically do it yourself. And you haven’t, you’ve done it because you’ve worked for it.” She paused. “This girl ... she must mean a lot to you, to get you so worked up?”
I shifted slightly on my stool.
“Yeah ... yeah, I guess she does. She’s different from most others, you know? And I don’t just mean because she doesn’t hero-worship my family, I mean she has this drive, and she’s confident, and funny, and so relaxing to be with, and...”
“She sounds like she’s quite something,” Ingrid said quietly.
“Yeah. She is. You’d like her.”
“If she’s got you this hung up, I’m sure I would.” She smiled slightly. “So why are you here, then? Why aren’t you with her?”
I laughed bitterly.
“She doesn’t want a thing to do with me. She thinks I’m disrespectful, that I don’t trust her, that I don’t think anything of her ... and she’s right! I should have told her from the start about Dad, and now it just looks like I think as little of her as I do of all the other girls, the fame-hungry ones, it looks as though I thought she’d just become like them-”
“And did you think that?”
“Of course not!” I burst out. “I ... I just wanted to keep it like it was, you know? Without Dad’s fame getting in the way.”
“You can’t run from it, you know,” she said quietly. “It will always be there, your father’s past. He’s a living legend. Of course people will think of him when they see you, or hear of you. But that brings me back to my point; you’re still letting those people bother you, the unimportant people, who have no right to say what they say or to dictate what you do.”
Her voice was becoming stronger, more passionate, and I knew exactly why.
“You think I let them dictate my life too much?”
“I understand the difficulties of being thrust into the public eye so thoroughly.” Her voice fell quieter again.
“But I gave in. I let them put pressure on me, like I did before-”
“We both did then. Besides, we were eighteen, we didn’t deserve the pressure, we didn’t know how to deal with it.” She shrugged. “Everything was conspiring against us, anyway; we were bound to hit at least one wall.”
“They’re idiots, you know. All those people who didn’t like you. They never got to properly know you like I did-”
“You do realise you’re calling your brother and your best friend idiots-”
“I know. And they were. I told you not to take what they thought to heart...”
“It’s different when they’re people you care about though, isn’t it?” She bit her lip. “It’s all in the past though, isn’t it? We’ve both moved on ... I’d say we’re both happy, but given our environment...”
It was only now that I properly looked at Ingrid. In some ways, she looked exactly the same as I remembered her, but in other ways, she was so different from the girl I’d dated for four years. Her eyes lacked that sparkle they used to have; her skin seemed duller than before; the corners of her mouth turned down more than they used to; and she had heavy bags under her eyes.
And the Hog’s Head certainly wasn’t the type of place she’d normally frequent.
“Life not treating you so well?” I asked gently.
She smiled sadly.
“I’ve met a guy.”
“I met him not long after we left school. I was upset that we’d broken up, and that Mother was so angry about it, because she’d always dreamed of being a part of the Potter family, and I was frustrated with her, and how she’d messed my life up just by being my mother, and giving me such a reputation ... and then Mark came along. And he didn’t give a damn who my mother was, or that I’d been with you, or about anything that any of the tabloids had said, and he taught me not to care. I guess it’s kind of the same as with your girl, except that he knew it all from the start and still didn’t care. And ... that meant a lot. I guess it all stemmed from there, really...”
“Well, that sounds good...”
“Yeah, it is, until you factor in the fact that Mother disowned me for falling in love with a muggleborn with no prospects. Which wouldn’t bother me if it hadn’t left me near enough broke. I’ve had to juggle two jobs to help pay the rent.”
I felt a surge of anger towards Ingrid’s mother, whom I’d never been fond of in the first place. It was the likes of her that still gave Slytherin House its bad name.
“But you’re happy with him?”
“Well, yes. But I won’t be ‘with him’ for much longer. He’s dying, James.”
I was taken aback.
“I – what?”
“Ever heard of cancer?” she said bitterly.
Cancer wasn’t as widespread an illness within the wizarding world as it was in the Muggle world. It seemed there was something in a wizard’s genes which made most magical people near enough immune to it.
But not completely immune. And it seemed as if Ingrid’s fellow was one of those who wasn’t quite so immune as the rest of us.
And although it was unlikely somebody close to me would develop it, I still knew that ‘cancer’ meant ‘bad’.
“Is ... is it serious, then?” I mentally kicked myself for asking such a stupid question, even as I said it.
“They thought he was cured when he met me. He told me so himself. And then, about a year ago ... it came back. Or maybe it never went. I don’t know. Either way, he went downhill fast, and now there’s nothing anyone can do. He ... he’s got months left, at best, they say.” She fiercely wiped a tear from her cheek. “So ... yeah. Life’s not treating me so well.”
I was speechless for a moment.
“And here I am moping about how my dad’s more famous than me-”
“No! Don’t, James ... I’m sorry, I don’t want you to feel like ... like your problem is less important than mine-”
“But it is, isn’t it?”
“I love him more than anything else in the world. And I know he feels the same. But we both know that, and that makes it slightly more bearable. Yours is an entirely different problem, they’re not at all comparable.”
But I wasn’t so sure I believed that. A few moments ago, I was feeling better about things. But now ... well, who was I to sit and mope about the cards I’d been dealt, when my problems were a whole load of nothing? The worst bit was, the only thing this realisation made me want to do was mope some more.
“We’re a right pair, aren’t we?” She placed her hand on the back of my neck for a moment, leaning over and kissing my cheek. “We’ll be alright, Jimmy. You’ll be alright.”
She turned to get the attention of the barman.
I smiled slightly at her use of the nickname which she’d coined all those years ago. Despite the fact that nearly everyone I knew now called me that, it still sounded different from her. It felt special.
I wished I could do something to help her. But then, if I couldn’t even help myself, how could I possibly help somebody else?
She slid a drink in front of me.
“You want my advice?” she said. “It sounds to me like you miss this girl.”
I smiled slightly, looking down at the glass.
“You have no idea.”
“Then do what you do best. Fight for what you want. Go after this girl, tell her how much she means to you, tell her that you want to be with her. You need to know what you want out of your life before you can start living it. You have a big heart, and all you want to do is love people. So let yourself do that, and then you can start living properly. Don’t run away from who you are, Jimmy. Embrace it. Be the best you that you can be. And then, everything will fall into place for you.”
I wanted to believe her. But right now, I didn’t know if I could.