Chapter Nine: Epiphany
When she was little, James used to sing to her when she was sick. He’d never had much of a voice but there had always been something about him that calmed her down. Her big brother, her protector; she’d never seen the dark to him. With her, he was always smiles and laughs and playful jabs in the ribs. He had threatened to beat up Finlay Fenwick when she found him snogging Tish Jordan in the common room, and he had stood there, every single holiday, by her side as she earned the money to send her halfway across the world. It was him who had always told her not to scrounge off their parents. He had said it wasn’t fair.
Had he always had this motive, even when he was fifteen?
Rolling over, Lily stared up at the sky. There was usually something about England in summer that made everything seem okay but against the never-ending blue above her head, she could see the specks of grey cloud, the tails of airplanes, the daylight shadow of the moon. It wasn’t perfect; things never were, after all.
“Do you want some lunch?”
Her mother’s voice was steadier than it had been in days. There had been something about having James home that had made her tense, stressed like Lily remembered her being in their childhood. Upon her son’s return, she had straightened up, become the leader that Lily had thought she had left behind when they had started to grow up. Now, it was back to the placid tone of the days of James’s absence.
“Yeah, please,” Lily said back, pulling a dandelion out of the grass and twirling it between two fingers. She waited for her mum to ask her to be more specific but the words never came.
She pushed a strand of dark red hair out of her face and let the flower drop onto her stomach. Nature; it had been the one thing she’d always felt somewhat akin to. James had joked it was because of her name. She’d punched him. There was just something about it that made her feel happier than when she was in a room filled with people. She wasn’t shy, far from it, but people were loud and brash and thoughtless. They said things that hurt. Nature never did. The world, the silent living world that they lived off, was filled with secrets and she could only learn a small amount about from the tiny village in the tiny county in the tiny country. Out there, that was where she was meant to be.
The soft padding of her mother’s footsteps on the ground made her roll her eyes to the left. The plate dropped down by her side, followed by her mum’s body. She held out a bowl of crisps and a blanket, and Lily sat up so that Ginny could spread it out beneath them. They’d had a lot of this, the mother-daughter bonding or whatever it was that people called it, since James had left. In her childhood, in the two years when her brothers had been at school and she had been alone in the home, they had built forts in the living room and played hide and seek in the cellar. She had come back from her first year thinking it stupid and childish but now, she wanted nothing more than to take the blanket under their bodies and drift it over the furniture again. She wanted to pretend she could hear bears and wolves and centaurs outside. She wanted to pretend that lettuce was boiled nettles, carrots the stripped down branches of an exotic tree.
“You okay?” Ginny asked, pulling at the crusts of her sandwich. Lily smiled and shrugged.
“I suppose.” She took a bite of her own lunch. Raspberry jam – her favourite. Would James even remember something like that? He’d always preferred damson. “You?”
Ginny nodded slowly, taking a crisp and chewing carefully. Lily smiled. Her mother was forty-five but didn’t look a day over thirty; svelte, her skin smooth and hair as red as ever. She had never looked frail or weak until her eldest child’s visit. Her appetite had failed under the cover of James’s return. Lily supposed she thought she’d hidden it well but there were some things that nineteen years of knowing someone could never disguise. She’d noticed the food being pushed around the plate, the first to her feet to clear up, the last to bed. Worry didn’t become anyone but on her mother, it was scary.
“Where do you think he is?”
Lily frowned. How was she supposed to know? She would be exaggerating if she said that he could fall off the face of the earth and she wouldn’t feel a thing, but at the same time, she merely felt indifferent. She could see him, sprawled over some bar somewhere, passed out and lying there until the doors opened again. Maybe he’d end up in some poor soul’s bed, their name just a distant memory. As long as he was nowhere near them, nowhere where he could hurt her family, she didn’t care.
“I don’t know,” she said honestly. “Why?”
“I can’t believe my mum would let him stay in a Muggle pub,” she said, slowly as though the thoughts were coming to her as she spoke, new and fresh. “I can’t. She’s not like that.” She paused, licking her lips. “We’re not like that.”
“You think he’s at Nanna’s?” Lily prompted and Ginny shrugged.
“I don’t know for sure,” she said. “But I’d guess so, yeah.”
Lily took a long sip from the bottle that her mother had brought out with her. It made sense. There was something new now, past the anger and the false hatred that they had felt during James’s first escapade. This time, there was distant guilt, pity. The golden boy had fallen from grace. He had turned from the boy everyone thought would become the Coolest Uncle, the Best Dad, the success story of their lives, into a young man filled with so much disdain for the family that made him who he was that he had to ruin it for his own satisfaction, for his own sanity. He had to stay in charge. That was why he had done it, Lily realised in that moment. He had felt he was losing control and the only way to bring himself back from the brink of dependence was to create something big, something explosive.
He was only twenty-two but he was ashamed. He had turned into someone he hated and that
was why he had left at nineteen and that was why when he’d come back, he’d come out to destroy everything around him.
It made sense. She knew that she knew him better than that, better than she had thought for so long. Expectations had finally become too much and he had cracked. She took another sip from the bottle and then finished off her sandwich.
She dusted her hands off and smiled. She understood. Finally, she understood.
Al kicked his heels against the side of his bed gently, his hands cradling a small golden ball, cold in his grasp. He threw it in the air, not following its path before catching it neatly. He had never been Quidditch material. It had been James’s thing, before everything went balls up, and even he wasn’t great. Maybe that’s what it was, Al mused. Maybe he is how he is because of Quidditch.
He snorted almost as soon as the thought crossed his mind. It was ridiculous. Admittedly, so was everything concerning his oaf of a brother but James didn’t care that much for the sport. Al was fairly sure he had only showed interest so that he had a conversation topic, so that he fitted the stereotype expected of him by the outside world and, in James’s kind of messed up, definitely pea sized brain, to make sure their parents were proud of him continuing their legacy.
He stopped throwing his father’s Snitch in the air and flopped back across the bed. His room was small, smaller than his siblings’, anyway. After James had left the first time, he’d tried to convince his mum to let him move. She had said no. Even after she’d stripped it of every single piece of James that he’d left behind, she wouldn’t let a soul in. Grieving for the living was a strange feeling.
Al glanced up to his window. If his room lacked in size, the view made up for it. It looked straight across to the moor in the distance, trees growing sparser and sparser until there was nothing but an expanse of what was now dark heather growing past the capabilities of his poor eyesight. He smiled, a soft but heartfelt smile that always set him apart from everyone else with their big grins and strong laughs. He tossed the Snitch from hand to hand absent-mindedly. The stories his father had told him and James were beyond the realms of imagination, founded so deeply in reality that it had become impossible for those who had not experienced it to imagine; a world so far apart from the calmness of today, generally speaking.
James wasn’t evil. He didn’t do what he did to upset people. He understood feelings and he must have known, deep down, that what he was doing was wrong. Albus didn’t claim to know much, an average student at best, but he knew his brother. He knew his family. He knew they were acting as protectors for the majority but still they loved him. They only knew of one way to eradicate a problem, and that was to remove the source.
“Knut for them?” His father’s voice startled him and Albus sat up, the Snitch almost falling out of his grasp, except for the tips of his fingers clasping around it. “We’ll make a Seeker of you yet.” The younger man smiled, sitting up straight and tightening his hand around his father’s heirloom. Strictly speaking, it was meant to be kept in its box, hidden away from view. Harry had promised it to him when he was a child and now, it had its place behind a row of unread books on the case.
“I don’t hate him,” Albus said cautiously as his father sat down beside him, holding his hand out for the ball. The youngest passed it over and watched his dad turning it softly in his hands. “I want to sometimes, but I don’t.”
Harry nodded slowly, tossing the ball into the air with a flick of his wrist and catching it again a split second before it fell out of possible reach. He glanced across to Albus who was watching on in childlike awe.
“You don’t always have to like the people you love,” he said. “It’s when you stop loving them that the problem comes.” Al nodded slowly.
“Do you ever wish you could stop?”
For a moment, Harry looked as though his son had asked him to commit murder. The look of understanding on his face settled in then and he shook his head.
“Never.” Each syllable was heavy, weighted with the conviction etched on his features. “Do you?”
“No.” It was truth. Even if James had murdered someone, it wouldn’t make him stop loving him. They were kin. Flesh and blood. The brothers so different on first glance, yet really the same person underneath, the same person taking two paths spiralling away from each other.
“Not even after what he did?”
Albus shook his head. He could feel the back of his neck twinge with the vigour. He hadn’t thought of it before. He had seen his brother as a thieving liar, a traitor to his family. He had gone after him for his sister’s sake; so many years of saving for the future she had dreamt of, the future Al had always felt James was jealous of. He lacked imagination. Where Lily was abstract as they came, James always held onto the concrete. Al wandered between them, hands outstretched between the physical and the emptiness of wandering thought. He had thought he could bridge the gap again. That was why he did it. It was stupid of him in the first place.
It came out in a roar he didn’t know he had in him. James turned slowly, reluctantly. On his back, a rucksack filled to the brim with things that as far as Al was concerned, didn’t belong to him: his mother’s food, his father’s books, his clothes, and most importantly, their little sister’s money.
“Go home.” He said it wearily, his voice dejected and steady. Albus stumbled further forward, protest not quite forming on his lips. “Al, go home.”
“Where are you going?”
“Nowhere.” Everywhere, away, it had spoken louder than anything in his words. Al stepped forward again. James didn’t recoil or turn away. He didn’t Disapparate. He stood fast in his spot and stared his little brother down. “Just leave me be.”
“Not until you give me that.”
He was close enough now to swipe at the bag, but as soon as his hand was in the air, James had knocked it back. He tried again but his brother grabbed it and twisted it tight enough that it hurt but not enough to do any damage.
“Go.” He shoved him away and Al tripped on the uneven tarmac of the road, broken and shattered from the coldest winter on record last year. The council kept saying they’d fix it. They never did. Staying upright, at least, Albus pulled out his wand. James had laughed meekly. “Don’t even think it.”
“Give me her money and I’ll leave you be.”
“Dad’ll just replace it, you know he will,” James said as though it was a response. His brother shook his head, lowering his wand arm to raise his eyebrows in disbelief. “What?”
“So the fact she worked for countless summers to earn that doesn’t mean a thing? Dad’ll just give it to her anyway?”
“That’s not what I meant.” Albus’ anger was starting to twinge inside him. He could feel his heart beating quicker, his face flushing. Around his wand, his hand tightened again. “You won’t understand. Just go home.” It didn’t need an answer. The refusal was written on his younger brother’s face. James stared blankly at him for a moment before turning his back. Shifting the rucksack straps so they sat more comfortably, James began to walk away. Albus could feel his heart beating. Lily’s voice, Lily crying, Lily shouting in his head and he knew he had to something, anything.
He didn’t finish the spell. He saw James’s wand hand twisting behind him, the flash of red and then black.
It was funny what thinking about things properly could do. Now, he saw James not arrogantly flaunting his triumph in his face but a dejected, saddened, maybe even hurt nineteen-year-old boy walking away from a family he most certainly did love. He’d got it all wrong. Every memory before had been twisted by anger, by disbelief. He had invited James’ spell. He had taunted and pressured and pushed him towards it.
“Al?” His father’s voice once again made him jump and Albus sighed. “I’ll leave you be.” Harry tossed the Snitch back into his son’s hands, the young man just about making the catch. As the door shut, Albus exhaled deeply. Memory was a trickier thing than he’d thought.
A/N: This is one of my favourite chapters ever. On any story. I don't really know why; it came quite naturally, I think, and it's a bit of a turning point. No James here but there'll be plenty of him later. I'd love to hear what you think, as always!