It’s surprising, what you notice about the most mundane things when you have no ambition in life but to sit and stare at them. On Tuesday, James lay on his sofa and stared at the ceiling for hours. He noticed several miniscule cracks that, by the end of the day, seemed gargantuan now that they were so readily apparent to him. He counted them, fell asleep, awoke a few hours later, and got halfway through naming each of them before he fell asleep again.
On Wednesday, he contemplated the northern wall of his flat; after about seven hours, he determined that there was really nothing wrong with it. On Thursday, he decided that the southern wall in the same room was not actually at a ninety-degree angle to the eastern and western walls – perhaps eighty-seven degrees on one end and ninety-three on the other – and this bothered him so much that he turned his attention back to the ceiling.
On Friday, after waking up sometime around noon, he began to assess the shape of his fireplace, and he was about an hour into this endeavor when he heard a knock at the door. He ignored it, of course; he couldn’t care less who was there and hoped they would bugger off immediately.
The visitor, however, was persistent, knocking several more times before calling, “James! If you don’t open this door right now, I’m going to break in and start throwing all of your pants out the window!”
Recognizing the voice, and believing five minutes of knocking to be quite enough, James gave in and opened the door to find his cousin Fred staring anxiously back at him.
“Are you the search party?” he asked flatly. He walked away, leaving the door open and waving Fred inside.
“That’s not funny, James. You’ve scared everyone half to death…not answering any owls for days…you know what that makes people think?”
“Whole family talking about me?”
“Yes, you idiot. And they don’t know I’m here, so don’t look at me like I’m some kind of a traitor. I’m not going to make you talk to anyone.”
James relaxed slightly. “Thanks, Fred.”
Fred gave a great sigh and loosened the scarf around his neck. “And why the bleeding hinkypunk couldn’t I get here through the Floo Network?”
James shrugged in an apathetic manner. “I had it disconnected for awhile. Didn’t want any visitors.” He gave his cousin a bleak smile. “Never could take a hint, could you, you stupid git?”
“So you don’t answer anyone’s owls, but you’ll contact the Ministry to get your fireplace disconnected?” Fred removed his hat and smacked James’ arm with it. “And what if there were an emergency here and you couldn’t use the front door?”
“You’re worse than my mother, you know that?”
A moment of companionable silence passed between them, and Fred gave a small shake of his head as he glanced around at James’ tiny flat.
“Merlin, James, look at the state of this place.”
James took in their surroundings. His clothes were littered all over the place, and the kitchen table was covered with a thick layer of Daily Prophets, Quidditch magazines, and the countless letters he had received over the past week…but as far as James could tell, it was nothing too far out of the ordinary.
“What? It’s always messy.”
“Yeah, but now it’s depressing messy. When was the last time you shaved? Or changed your clothes, for that matter?”
“You haven’t been drinking a load, have you?” Fred’s eyes scanned the room warily.
“I’m not really the type to drink away my misery.”
“Well, maybe you ought to. Come on, get cleaned up, we’re going to the Leaky Cauldron.”
“No way. I’m not going out in public. And you know how friendly Hannah is with my parents.”
“Hannah won’t say anything to anybody. She’s a bartender, it’s her job to keep secrets.”
James gave Fred a dubious look. “I still don’t want to go out – people seeing me – ”
“Put a hat on, stupid. And nobody’s going to bother you at the Leaky – we’ll just lie low as long as you don’t go doing one prat thing or another.”
“Why can’t we just go to a Muggle pub and watch football, then?”
“No way, I’m not going to watch one of those mad Muggle sports you like to watch when you’re all depressed over Quidditch.” Fred crossed his arms and added, “I’m not taking no for an answer, and I’m not leaving. If you don’t come with me, I’m just going to move in here with you, and I’m bringing my two cats.”
In the end, Fred won, and James found himself trailing his cousin down Charing Cross Road towards the Leaky Cauldron. It was one of the most frigid Januaries in recent memory, and James cursed himself for shutting off his Floo connection. Of course, this really wasn’t his fault – it was Fred’s, obviously.
Even with his head down and his eyes focused straight ahead, he could feel the other patrons’ eyes on him when he entered the pub. Judging him. Laughing at him. Probably planning to hex him, if they were Puddlemere fans.
“Fred, everyone’s looking at me.”
“Nobody’s looking at you, you conceited git.”
Normally, James would have laughed at Fred’s comment. But now, he shrugged it off and stared at the floor in moody silence.
Halfway to the bar, James and Fred were nearly bowled over by a small boy rushing towards the fireplaces that lined the far wall.
“Hey!” said James in bewilderment. He caught the boy’s arm to stop him toppling over. “Careful there, mate!”
“Calvin!” A harried-looking man, perhaps five or six years older than James, followed a short distance behind the boy, grappling with a few bulky parcels that had probably come from Diagon Alley. “What have I said about running ahead? What do you say to someone when you bump into them?” He threw the two cousins an apologetic glance, raising his eyebrows in recognition as he took in James’ features.
James made a frustrated noise in the back of his throat and instinctively adjusted his hat.
Calvin looked up at James. “I’m sorry…” His voice trailed off, and his blue eyes widened eagerly. “Hey!” he exclaimed, breaking into a grin. “Don’t you play for Puddlemere United?”
James returned a half-smile. “Yeah. Yeah, I do.”
In a manner of speaking, he added glumly to himself.
“So...so you play with Jamie Hoskins!”
James chewed the inside of his cheek. “Yeah…I play with Jamie.”
He glanced around the room, positive that all eyes must be on him at this exact moment. He was going to kill Fred. The Leaky Cauldron, of all places!
“Do you think you could ask him to send me an autograph?” Calvin’s eyes danced, even while James’ stomach plummeted and what was left of his smile slid off his face. Fred squeezed James’ shoulder as Calvin barreled ahead with his request. “I’ve always wanted his autograph, but we haven’t been to any matches in a long time because we haven’t got very much money.”
“Calvin!” The man, who James assumed was Calvin’s father, spoke the boy’s name sharply and turned slightly pink in the cheeks. His eyes met James’ in another expression of apology, but this time James recognized the look of a man who had lost all faith in his own self-worth. It was like looking in a mirror.
He dropped his eyes as Calvin’s father put his hand on the boy’s shoulder and started to steer him away with a mumbled apology.
Don’t be an arse, James, he thought to himself. It’s not the kid’s fault.
“Um, wait,” he called quietly. The boy and his father turned around to face James. “I, um…I can have Hoskins – you know, Jamie – send him one, if that’s alright with you.”
Calvin’s dad cracked a smile. “That’d be nice – right, Cal?” The small boy nodded eagerly.
“So…I should have him send it to…?”
“Calvin Merrick,” answered the boy’s father. James took the family’s address and waved goodbye to Calvin before resuming his shameful journey towards the bar.
“Nobody heard that, mate,” said Fred quietly when James pulled his hat down so that it nearly covered his eyes.
James couldn’t even look at his cousin. Even worse than the idea that a roomful of perfect strangers had seen that interaction, was the fact that Fred had seen it. Fred had been James’ best friend from the moment James was born. When they were young, Fred had been like an older brother to him; and even though Fred was only a year older, James had looked up to him like a god. Even in adulthood, sometimes it seemed to James that Fred’s good opinion was the only one that mattered.
“Hello, Fred, James,” said Hannah as they took their seats. She smiled in a friendly way, but her eyes were cautious and her voice measured. James realized she was taking great care not to do anything that might offend him, including being overly sunny. Of course, he thought acerbically, of course even Hannah, who didn’t follow Quidditch, would know what had happened to him.
“Um, James,” she continued carefully, “your mum contacted me.”
Of course she had. James groaned and placed his forehead against the bar counter.
“She says you haven’t been returning anyone’s owls, and, um…she actually asked me to let her know if I see you in here.”
“Oh, please don’t, Hannah. I’m not in the mood to talk to anyone, I’m only here because Fred made me.”
Hannah tilted her head to one side and gave James a reproachful look. “I won’t say anything, but…well, I know it’s none of my business, but owl your mother today or tomorrow, okay? She worries about you.”
“Fine.” He realized he must sound like a petulant child. Funnily enough, he didn’t care.
Hannah seemed satisfied. “Now,” she said, once again in bartender mode, rather than Ginny-Potter’s-spy mode, “what will you boys have to drink?”
“Well, I’ll have firewhiskey,” said Fred, “and he’ll have a Flaming Chimaera.”
“Are you trying to kill me??” sputtered James as Hannah went to fetch their drinks.
“I’m trying to get you to feel something, even if it’s just a burning sensation in your throat.”
“What am I going to be feeling after a couple of those? You may as well give me a tranquilizer and some anesthetic.”
“You’re already completely numb, James. It’s freaking me out.”
When Hannah returned with their drinks, James raised his eyebrows at the bright red concoction in his tumbler.
“Well,” he said, raising his glass, “here’s to being dead and buried at twenty-five.”
Fred rolled his eyes. “Here’s to you, Sunshine.”
They sat in silence for what could have been hours or minutes – it didn’t matter much. At occasional intervals, Fred made light conversation about his radio show, his parents, and the various methods he was considering to kill his sister’s boyfriend. But he didn’t push James to talk about anything. Fred knew too well how to deal with people in general and James Potter in particular.
James felt a slight twinge of guilt for not contacting Fred within the past week – surely, he should have been in touch with his best friend, if nobody else. But the weight pressing in on his chest and the hollow sensation in the pit of his stomach minimized all other feelings.
He didn’t even want to be here, in the cheerful, brightly lit pub, with Hannah humming to herself as she tended to a handful of patrons, several of whom cast furtive glances in James’ direction when they thought he wasn’t paying attention. No, he would much rather have stayed at home finding patterns in the cracks on the ceiling. But at least Fred meant well.
Fred also had a way of getting people to talk without even realizing they were caving in. It was the result of a highly technical combination of charisma and knowing which drinks to buy for someone. And so James finally found himself participating in what had previously been a one-sided conversation.
“You know what?” James wagged his finger in front of his cousin’s face at the end of a long-winded rant. After three or four of these Flaming Whatevers, it all started to taste pretty good. “Everyone is trying to tell me what I can do when they chuck me off Puddlemere. Everyone is telling me how I can move along with my life and just forget about this. Everyone has a bloody solution. But nobody wants to listen to how I’m feeling about it.”
Fred chuckled into his glass. “You sound like a girl.”
“Yeah, well you look like one.”
“There’s the cousin I know and love!” Fred drained the rest of his drink.
Their laughter died down and another moment of silence passed, during which James felt himself deflate even further.
“This is bollocks!” he moaned, dragging one hand down his face. “What am I going to do?”
Fred thought for a few seconds before replying, “What do you want me to say? You just finished telling me you don’t want to hear any solutions.”
“What, are you saying you’ve got one?”
“Well…I wasn’t planning on saying anything yet, but now you mention it, yeah, I do.”
“Go on, then, genius.”
“I want to do a Quidditch segment on my show. We need someone good, and there’s nobody who knows the sport better than you do. No, no – hear me out, okay?” he insisted as James tried to interrupt. “I wish you wouldn’t let your injury destroy you like this. It’s nothing you could have prevented, but now you’ve got to deal with it. You can’t spend the next few months lying around your flat – I won’t allow it. I mean…hell, it’s like you think you never had anything going for you besides your Quidditch talent. That’s not true, and there are lots of things you can do, although you obviously don’t have to live Quidditch-free, either. Hence, the segment on my show.”
“Brilliant.” James’ mouth twitched as he stared into his glass. “So I get to be the washed-up former player who can’t do anything but commentate.”
Fred gave his cousin a sharp look. “I don’t think you’re washed-up.”
“You’re the only one.”
A pregnant pause filled the space between them as James swirled his drink around in his tumbler. Then, without warning, he received a smart whack on the head with a rolled-up newspaper clutched in Fred’s hand.
“Oi! What was that for?!”
Fred shrugged and raised his eyebrows reasonably. “Just making sure we exhaust all possible avenues of recovery.”
James punched his cousin in the arm and received another smack from Fred’s newspaper.
“Come on,” laughed Fred, “finish your drink and I’ll get you home.”
The following Monday arrived far too quickly for James’ liking – as if it had been barreling at top speed to get there before the preceding week was even over. He gave some serious thought to skiving off practice again, but ultimately decided not to lower his teammates’ opinions of him any further…if that was even possible.
He kept his head down that day, and the following day, too, following instructions obediently but remaining as solitary as possible. Calvin Merrick stuck in the back of his mind, but he just couldn’t bring himself to relay the request to Hoskins yet. He may as well have just lain down and asked Hoskins to kick him a few times instead. Perhaps, he thought, if he avoided Hoskins’ smug face and laughing eyes all week, it would eventually be easier to humiliate himself like that.
All such thoughts went out the window on Wednesday, when Eleanor asked James to run some drills with the active Seeker. They were simple drills, routine and instinctive; James could have done them in his sleep. But it occurred to him that it was wholly unnecessary to place him alongside the person who was now, undoubtedly, the more capable flyer.
Hoskins basked in the glory of the situation, of course; he flew much more ardently than he usually did during practices. For the better part of two hours, James tried to ignore it.
But you couldn’t be a professional Quidditch player and not have a competitive streak. So, as the two Seekers raced up the pitch during a speed drill, James put on a burst of acceleration normally reserved only for Snitch sightings. Whether it was his trusty broom, or innate capability, or the fact that he just wanted it more, James left Hoskins trailing miserably behind him. And for about two seconds, it made him feel big again.
He wasn’t an idiot, though. The moment his foot touched the ground, he realized how meaningless his little display had been. As he walked off the pitch to take his mid-practice break, Hoskins voiced exactly what James was thinking.
“That’s impressive, Potter, flying really fast in a straight line. As long as the Snitch follows a linear path, I guess you should be alright.”
James froze. A voice inside him told him to keep walking, but he disregarded it and turned around slowly. Giving Hoskins a cold stare, he summoned every last drop of arrogance from the tips of his fingers and toes and allowed it to saturate his voice.
“You know, when I was an active player, I had a ninety percent record catching the Snitch. Should I tell you where you can shove your seventy percent, or do you have enough sense of direction to figure it out yourself?”
Hoskins had enough sense and self-discipline not to escalate the situation any further, though his eyes sparked with indignation. The two players went their separate ways, and, fortunately, James spent the rest of that day’s practice with the other reserve players.
There was no way he was going to ask Hoskins for anything having to do with his autograph now. It was out of the question. He still had some shred of pride. It was hidden, but it was sharp and grated against the underside of his skin, and that’s how he knew it was still there.
Maybe the kid would just think the autograph had been lost in the post. With any luck, it would only reflect poorly on Hoskins, and not on James. Nobody would have reason to think James hadn’t held up his end of the deal; he had always been a man of his word. He was the player who stuck around the longest after matches to make the kids happy – though, really, who was he kidding? He always said – and thought – that he did it for the kids, but he’d be lying if he didn’t admit that it made him feel good about himself.
And that was why Calvin Merrick wasn’t going to get an autograph from his favorite Quidditch player…because James Potter decided his feelings were more important than a little boy’s.
He got dressed slowly after practice, waiting until everyone had gone before shutting his locker. Heading towards the door, he raised his eyes to meet those of his reflection in the mirror.