Chapter 6 : Day Twenty-Three
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There was something unbelievably refreshing about waking up early in the morning to go for a jog. I couldn’t quite put my finger on the reason why, but as my muscles stretched beneath my skin, the coils of tension began to unwind. So I pushed myself harder, going as far as tackling the Hill, which possessed an impressive incline that made my calves feel as though I dunked my lower legs in hot lava. At the time, I thought it was a great sensation, the burning and the deep ache in my calves. I liked the way I had to convince myself to push onwards, to not stop for breath until I reached the crest of the Hill.
However, by the time I actually reached the top of the Hill, I was covered in sweat. It made my hair cling uncomfortably to my forehead and the back of my neck. My tee shirt was soaked, plastered to my chest and back like a second skin. There was a stitch in my side and suddenly, I was regretting the choice to leave a water bottle behind as my mouth was unbelievably dry, my throat throbbing from lack of moisture. Doubling over, I placed my hands on my knees and drew in deep breaths, hoping to soothe the piercing in my side.
If you couldn’t tell, I wasn’t much of an athlete. Sure, I played recreational Quidditch with my family and occasionally, I chased the garden gnomes around the house, but that was pretty much the extent of the exercise I received. Unless you counted the mental strain of trying to levitate the remote control to my hand with just my mind to avoid getting up from my comfortable position on the couch. So why the idea of a run was so appealing, I have no idea, but something possessed me to go out and take in the last of the fall air before winter settled in.
Maybe it was Healer Docket’s voice in the back of my head. After all, the last time I went to his office, he took the basic measurements and performed a basic check-up. The results were not what I expected. I wasn’t skinny, but I wasn’t muscled either. And, according to Healer Docket, if I didn’t start getting exercise, I would turn in a turnip.
I don’t even like turnips, so why would I want to turn into one?
If that isn’t motivation to whip one’s arse into shape, I didn’t know what was.
Once I was able to breath without wheezing, I straightened and immediately groaned. I wasn’t even home yet and my muscles were already aching. Mentally berating myself for being such a daft idiot, I turned around and headed back down the Hill. I thought it would be easier going down, but it turns out that gravity is not as friendly as everyone makes her out to be. By the time I reached the bottom, I was, once again, short of breath.
This was pathetic. I was pathetic.
“Merlin, I’m out of shape,” I muttered to myself in between gasps of breath, wiping the sweat from my brow with the back of my arm. I grimaced; I smelled, and felt, like a pile of dragon dung. A shower was most definitely in order when I got back to the house.
I stretched out my muscles, which burned like no other, before setting back on the path home. However, as I started down the winding road, I realised that I must have run at least three miles. That in itself was amazing. What wasn’t amazing was the prospect of walking another three miles to get home. Again, I groaned. Suddenly, the shower wasn’t a question of when I got home, but if I made it back.
With a dissatisfied grunt, I cracked my neck and prepared myself for the journey. If this wasn’t the stupidest idea I’d ever had, I honestly don’t know what was.
Rose was standing at the kitchen sink, rinsing out a bowl when I barged through the back door, all but collapsing on the floor. She raised her eyebrows. “Where were you?”
“R-running,” I panted, shutting the door behind me and pulling a chair out from the table. I plopped down, feeling exhausted.
Shutting off the water, she wrinkled her nose. “Why would you do a thing like that?” Rose may have enjoyed flying around on a broomstick and whacking balls with a bat at innocent people - case in point, me, her darling little brother, but when it came to physical exertion, we shared a similar dislike. It was quite possibly the only thing we agreed on.
“I have no idea,” I admitted, casting my arms upon the table and throwing my head down dramatically. “But never again.”
“Do you want something to drink? Water, maybe?” She opened the nearest cabinet and retrieved a glass. “Are you hungry? I think we might have some of those snicker doodles that Nana Molly sent yesterday.”
I raised my head and narrowed my eyes at her back suspiciously. “Okay, what happened? Did you break something of mine? Accidentally make Dad choke when you told him of your plans to move in with Teddy?”
She whipped around, slammed the cabinet door, and scowled at me. “Would you keep your voice down?” she hissed through clenched teeth, throwing daggers at me with her eyes. Ah, there was the sister I knew and loved.
“So you didn’t tell them?” I asked as she turned back to the faucet and ran the tap.
“No,” she answered, tucking a strand of frizzy red hair behind her ear as she filled up the glass. Pulling her wand from the front pocket of the leopard print dressing gown I had given her last Christmas, she levitated the glass over to the table. “And so help me God, Hugo, if you so much as breath a word of this to either of them, I will smother you in your sleep.”
I grinned at her. “I love it when you threaten me. It lets me know just how deeply you care about me.” I picked up the glass and nodded to her. “Cheers.”
She rolled her eyes and pulled out the chair opposite of me, sinking into it with a sigh. “I mean it, Hugh,” she emphasised, her eyes boring into mine. “This is one of the biggest decisions I’ve ever made, and I want to be the one who tells them.”
“I get it, Rose. Consider my lips sealed.”
She continued to stare at me sceptically. “How come I have a hard time believing you?”
“I really don’t know,” I began loftily. “You’d think with my innocent face and angelic manner, it would be - OUCH! What the hell was that for?”
Flattening the rolled-up newspaper she had just smacked me with, Rose smirked, looking very much like the cat that just gobbled up the poor canary. “I had to shut you up somehow, didn’t I?“ asked Rose rhetorically as she shook out the paper and began to scan the economics section.
Narrowing my eyes at her and glaring, I decided that it would be best if I didn’t say anything for a number of reasons. For one, I was fresh out of witty comments - not that they were in large supply, but I think the point is present. Two, Rose was still in possession of the newspaper and the likelihood of her beating me was high. And three, I felt like shit and didn’t want to get into it with my sister. Especially since she already had a leg up.
“You win,” I said, pushing away from the table and rising to my feet. I felt like an old man, restricting by the pain in my muscles and lower back to move much quicker than a snail. “For now.”
Again, Rose rolled her eyes, but she kept her attention focussed on the article. It was probably for the best.
Two hours and one long, hot shower later, I was reclining in my bed, idly flipping through the newest issue of The Quibbler. It was a strange, but highly entertaining publication and though I didn’t believe half of the rubbish printed, it was much better than perusing through Quidditch Weekly and pretending to be interested. At least this was stimulating and managed to hold my attention for longer than five minutes.
I was just getting into the nitty, gritty details of Rolf Scamander’s last journey into the African jungles in search for the ever-elusive Snorkack when there was a knock at my door. Startled, I released a rather unmanly yelp and nearly dropped the magazine in shock. “You scared the shit out of me,” I said, dog-earing the page and closing the Quibbler.
“Language, Hugh,” Mum patronised from her position in the doorway.
I sighed in exasperation. “I don’t see why cursing bothers you so much. Shit is just a word.”
“It’s also something that comes out of your arse,” she countered, “so why you would want it coming out of your mouth is beyond me.”
Of all the things I was expecting her to say, it definitely was not that. Dad always told me that Mum was incredibly clever and he had made the mistake of engaging in a war of words with her, but I didn’t believe him. For as long as I could remember, all of Mum’s so-called ‘witty’ jokes were either stupid or lame or a combination of both. I supposed that was why I laughed at her attempts at humour anyway - because they were so horrible. But that - that was not horrible. That was ingenious and oddly logical.
Effectively gob-smacked, I nodded at her. “Touché.”
She smiled in her endearing way. “I’ve been waiting to use that one for quite some time.” Folding her arms over her chest, she leaned against the doorframe and inclined her chin at the closed magazine. “What are you reading?”
I held up the issue of the Quibbler. “Rolf Scamander’s latest article detailing his search for the Snorkack.”
“Oh, I haven’t read that one yet,” Mum said, taking a subtle step into my room. “Luna said it was a very enlightening issue.”
I snorted, staring at the grainy picture underneath the emboldened. “It’s hardly enlightening. In fact, it’s the same old shi - I mean, rubbish that it always is.” Rolf Scamander may have been one of the nicest men in existence, but he was also one of the strangest. He had the craziest theories, most of which I had heard multiple times as Lorcan was one of my best mates and I was always over at their house during the summer holidays. Crazy, but entertaining. It’s a wonder how Lorcan and Lysander escaped with minimal damage.
Well, at least Lysander did. Lorcan, on the other hand, not so much.
“Anyway,” I said after clearing my throat. “What are you doing up here? I thought you and Dad were going over to Uncle Harry’s for chess?”
Mum’s expression shifted and I knew I had said something that displeased her. “We were planning on going together, but Harry scored tickets to the last Cannons’ game of the season and he asked your father to go.” She scoffed and rolled her eyes, muttering something that sounded eerily like “boys” under her breath.
“Oh. That - er- sucks.”
She shook her head and batted a strand of bushy hair out of her eyes. “Anyway, I was wondering if you would be interested in accompanying me to the market. Your sister vanished as soon as I mentioned it and since your father will be gone, I need a big, strapping lad to help carry the bags and I figured, who better than my son?”
I furrowed my brow, casting a look about my room. “Do you have another son I don’t know about? Because I have no idea who you’re talking about.”
Mum rolled her eyes again, and I realised where Rose got the trait from. “Oh, Hugo, can’t you just accept the flattery and say yes?”
I heaved an almighty sigh. “I suppose I could.”
She beamed. “Thank you so much, dear, I appreciate it. And as payment, I’ll make your favourite dish for dinner tonight.” She smiled encouragingly and I returned it half-heartedly, my stomach already twisting itself into an agonizing knot. Mum may have fancied herself a decent cook, but by Merlin, she wasn’t. Half of the time, her food tasted like plastic.
I could taste the bile on the back of my tongue already. What a lovely taste.
As it turns out, the market was not located in the town square like I initially perceived it to be. Oh no, we had to Apparate to get there as it was a special once-a-year crock pot of rubbish in Diagon Alley.
“I hate Apparating,” I complained as Mum tied her bushy hair back into a messy bun.
“Hugo, you’re twenty five years old -”
“In three months and then some,” I interrupted immaturely.
Mum fixed me with a pointed stare. “The point is, you need to get over your fear.”
“It’s not a fear,” I explained as I closed and locked the front door behind me. “I’m not scared of it, I just don’t like the sensation of being squeezed through a tube. It’s about as pleasant as being prodded by Filch with a Security Sensor.”
“Oh, now you’re just over exaggerating,” Mum said with a toss of her eyes. “Honestly, you can be exactly like your father at times. There’s always an excuse for something. ‘I can’t pull weeds because I threw out my back at work’ or ‘I’m too big to fit in the attic, have one of the kids do it’.” She clucked her tongue and held out her arm.
I stared at the proffered limb dubiously. “Do I have to?”
“Fine, fine,” I grumbled, latching onto her arm. “I am capable of Apparating by myself, you know.”
“Yes, I know,” Mum began, withdrawing her wand from her pocket. “But I’ve been writing to Healer Docket about the things you can and cannot do, and he said that he wouldn’t advise individual Apparation. Too much strain on the brain, you see.”
Why this piece of information was surprising to me, I have no idea. I should have expected that she had gone behind my back and discussed my health with my healers. She was my mother, after all, and while I knew she was concerned about me, it was starting to get annoying. I was a big boy, I could take care of myself. And I didn’t need her checking up with my healers to make sure I was following the rules even if I had broken this one.
We spun on spot, disappearing with a loud crack. Though the feeling was unpleasant, it was over as quickly as it had begun to disrupt my stomach. We landed next to a vendor’s booth. By the looks of it, he was selling charmed and enchanted amulets. Mum’s eyes went wide, giving her the appearance of a little kid in a candy store.
This frightened me very much.
“Are you okay?” I asked when she kept turning her head this way and that.
“I’m fine, darling,” she muttered, patting me on the shoulder. “I’m just a little - a little overwhelmed - oh Merlin, are those Burn Proof Anti-Stick pots?! I’ve been wanting some for ages, but your father won’t let me get them. Hm, what your father doesn’t know what kill him. Hugo, I’ll be right back.”
Before I could say ‘sheep’, Mum bolted towards a tent, leaving me in the dust.
Stuffing my hands in my pockets, I rocked back and forth on my heels as I searched for something to do. Since I wasn’t a hardcore Quidditch fan and I wasn’t a middle aged housewife, none of the booths tickled my fancy. So, with a sigh, I decided to meander and let my feet take me where they pleased.
I perused through the various stands and tents, picking up random objects and putting them down. At one of the booths there was a table littered with pink plates, each emblazoned with a moving kitten. Some wore bows and others played with balls of yarn. I grimaced at the cuteness; it was like Nana had vomited rainbows all over the plates. Despite their nauseating level of adorableness, I grabbed one of the dishes and turned it over in my hand, inwardly wondering if Nana would like one for Christmas.
Since it was seemingly impossible for me to avoid embarrassment longer than five minutes, I would see someone I knew while inspecting a fuchsia plate with a prancing, fluffy kitten on the front. Or rather, they saw me. I wouldn’t be initiate a conversation while holding such a monstrosity.
“Hugo!” a slightly familiar voice called out.
I looked up and immediately flushed. It was the girl from St. Mungo’s. The brunette. Crazy Lift Girl. She smiled as she drew nearer, clutching an odd assortment of items in her arms. Try as I might, I couldn’t think of her name.
Merlin, what was her name? Cathy? No, that didn’t sound right. Johanna? That wasn’t it. It was something with a ‘J’. Or was it a ‘G’? I was going to Hell. Or karma was just taking a huge shit on me today.
“Hi!” she greeted enthusiastically, her eyes flickering to the plate in my hand. Her eyebrows rose a fraction of an inch, but other than that, her face did not betray her surprise.
“Oh, hey,” I returned, forcing a smile.
Shifting the objects in her arm, she tucked a wild piece of frizzy dark brown hair behind her ear, squinting up at me. “I haven’t see you around at St. Mungo’s for the past few days.”
“I’ve been down on level three.”
“Oh, well, that would certainly explain it.” She smiled at me, her eyes wrinkling at the corners and a dimple appearing in her cheek. “So, what brings you here on this fine Sunday afternoon? I didn’t take you as the type to enjoy rubbish sales.”
“So that’s what this is.”
She laughed. Much to my surprise, it wasn’t mad-sounding at all. In fact, it was quite pleasant, light and bubbly, almost an exact replica of her personality. Or at least the side I’ve seen of her thus far. Who knew how she really acted. She was a fellow crazy.
“What did you think this was?”
I shrugged. “A festival. I don’t know. My mum dragged me here.”
Her eyes returned to the plate in my hand. “Is that for your mum?” she questioned, struggling to keep a straight face. Her bottom lip quivered and her dark eyes sparkled with mirth.
Then, like a bolt of lightning streaking down from the sky and striking me where I stood, I remembered her name. I cocked a brow at her, pinning her with a stern expression. “So what if it is, Gwen?”
Something sparked in her eyes at the sound of her name. They brightened. Her entire face brightened as amusement washed over her features. She looked prettier, less sardonic and more delicate. “Wow. You must really hate your mother,” Gwen quipped sarcastically, the delicacy disappearing from her features.
“I take offence to that,” I returned, setting the plate back on the table.
“The only thing that’s offence is that plate.” Leaning around me to get a better look at the plate, she scrunched up her face in disgust. “It’s hideous.”
The vendor turned his lamp-like eyes on Gwen and narrowed them into a deadly glare. Out of instinct, I grabbed her by the elbow and steered her away from the table, out of the line of fire.
She furrowed her brow in confusion. “Where are we going?”
“As far away from that creep as possible,” I said, tugging her down the crowded sidewalk. “He looked like he was going to smite you where you stood.”
Gwen snorted derisively. “For what? Insulting his ugly designs?” She raised her voice towards the end so that it carried back to the vendor. Almost immediately, the man stiffened, his eyes narrowing even further, if at all possible. Even from this distant, I could feel the heat of his glare. And he wasn’t even angry with me.
“What are you doing?” I hissed, eyeing her as though she had grown two heads. “Are you mad?”
“No, but he must be if he thinks those things will sell,” Gwen commented coolly, casting a look over her shoulder. “The only people who would like those things are ninety year old women and the descendants of Satan.”
Despite the peculiarity of the statement, I laughed because, odd though it may have been, it made sense in a twisted sort of way. “Now that you mention it, I think one of my parents’ old professors had kitten plates plastered all over her walls.”
Gwen chuckled. “And was she the spawn of Satan?”
“My dad says she was,” I answered, slowing our pace. Glancing over my shoulder nervously, I saw that we had put a fair amount of distance between us and Crazy Cat Man. “I think we’re in the clear.”
Suddenly, I was aware that I was still holding onto her arm. Drawing to a stop, I unwound my hand from her upper arm and dropped it to my side. She must have noticed the change in pressure because she took a step away from me, almost as though we were too close. When I measured the space between us, I realised that maybe she was right.
Our eyes met and we quickly averted our gazes, staring in opposite directions.
The awkwardness of the situation was stifling.
“So,” I drawled.
“Yeah,” she agreed with a bob of her head. “I should go. I need to find my sister and give her all of this.” She jangled the stuff in her arms. From the looks of it, there was a coo-coo clock, a small hand mirror, and several rolls of colourful ribbon. “She likes to collect nick knacks and turn them into her own crafts,” she explained upon my blatant staring.
Gwen pulled a face that clearly said that she didn’t quite agree. If anything, she looked a bit put out about having to collect stuff for her sister when she could have been buying things for herself. Shifting the mess once again, she blew a flyaway strand of hair out of her face.
“Will I see you at St. Mungo’s tomorrow?” she asked. “You know, for the group therapy session. It’s your first one, right?”
Shit. I forgot about that. “Yeah, it is.”
A small smile played at the corners of her mouth. “I’ll save you a seat.”
“That’d be great,” I replied, feeling an immense amount of surprise that I actually meant it. Was it possible? Had I just made friends with a crazy person?
The smile widened. “Okay then! See you tomorrow!”
I watched as she walked down the street, struggling to keep her hold on the cluster in her arms. I contemplated going after her to see if she needed any assistance, but before I could spur myself into action, an older woman with short brown hair and a carefree expression approached Gwen and relieved her of her burden. I was just about to turn around and head back to the amulet vendor when Gwen waved at me.
Giving a short wave in return, I slipped my hand back into my pocket and spun on my heel, preparing to go find my mother, but quickly finding that there was no need. She was coming at me right now, carrying an array of brown paper bags on her wrist. Without asking, she handed the bags over to me, her eyebrows puckered.
“Who was that?” she inquired, following my line of sight.
“Just a friend.”
“Oh, that’s nice.” Her smile was brief. “Well, let’s get back home before your father beats us there. I can’t let him see what’s in the bags.”
I sent her a quizzical look. “You didn’t get another kneazle, did you?”
“No, I didn’t. Now grab onto my arm before you get me into more trouble than I need,” she said sternly, holding out her arm.
With a roll of my eyes, I grabbed on and prepared myself for the squeezing sensation. It wasn’t so bad this time.
A/N 2: Questions? Comments? Concerns? Let me know in a review!
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