Chapter Twelve: One Step Back
“So what’s the plan?” Rose said when she got home from work on Monday evening. James started from his position on the sofa, flicking idly through a copy of a Muggle paper he’d ventured out to the corner shop to buy with the pound he’d found on the pavement. Muggles, he had decided, were decidedly less interesting than wizards. A missing dog? The day a missing dog got onto the second page of the Prophet was a sad day for magical kind.
“Plan?” he said, folding up the paper and dropping it on the floor, on top of his lunch plate and breakfast bowl. He’d wash them up later. She poked her head around the bedroom door, undoing her earrings and nodding as he sat up.
“Plan for your big change. I thought you’d have been having a think about it.”
“I don’t bloody know,” he said darkly. It was true. He didn’t even know where to start. They were all so different. Lily was going to be a nightmare but he thought he might win Victoire or Lucy over more easily. Should he start easy and progress up? Or was it best to just bite the bullet and aim at those he’d hurt most directly? Rose sighed and shuffled into the living room.
“Well, I’ll cook dinner and you think, and then we’ll talk about it,” she said. “I’m not doing all the legwork. I’m not as much as a pushover as I used to be.”
He rolled his eyes, glad she had turned her back on him. She had changed, he’d give her that, but still she had still taken the bare minimum of convincing to take him in. His memories of the wedding day were scattered and blurred but he knew he hadn’t spent long in that pub. He’d barely even taken a few sips of his pint when she’d rolled up.
“Okay,” he called. It was best not to rile up one of the few allies he had managed to gain, even if it was out of duty to someone else that had made her do it. She wasn’t so averse to him, anyway. He’d barely heard an insult since he arrived. She was properly on side, very little reluctance about her, and that was definitely something to start up this fire with. Rose didn’t much like conflict. She knew the ways of avoiding it, of twisting words in a way that seemed sympathetic and polite not controlling and angry. It had been her most frustrating quality in their youth, as far as James was concerned, but now he knew he could use it for his advantage.
Preparing dinner didn’t take long. If Rose’s parents were bad cooks, it had been passed down to their children. Her entire repertoire consisted of something on or in pasta, and occasionally a batch of chips. Today, he’d struck lucky with Spaghetti Bolognese out of a packet. It was at least edible. The pair of them sat down at the tiny table, both of their plates overlapping the end of the surface. The flat wasn’t really built for two people. James had to wonder how she’d ever managed to live there with that ex-boyfriend of hers; it’d probably explain the break-up, at any rate.
“Any thoughts?” she said, dabbing a tissue across her lips to try and get rid of the sauce staining her mouth. He shrugged, his mouth filled to the brim with pasta. “I’m not just going to spoon-feed you the solution,” she paused, “there isn’t just one way of doing it.”
“I know.” He took a big gulp of water and looked down at his plate. “I just don’t – everyone’s changed and I don’t even know where to start.”
She nodded and they sat in silence for a moment as they both chewed slowly on their mouthfuls. Rose looked like she was thinking, her eyes looking firmly at her plate, her eyebrows twitching and head tilting as she ran through different options in her mind.
“Who would you have started with before, given the chance?” she asked after an age.
“Dominique.” There was no hesitation. If he’d not done what he’d done, it’d have been easy to slip his way back in through her. She had power, she had influence; people listened to Dominique, though he’d never really understood why. They just did. “Or Victoire.”
“I think that’s your better option,” Rose said. James nodded, spooning another mouthful of spaghetti into his mouth.
“Who would you have picked?”
“Victoire,” she said. “Victoire or Fred, one of them.”
Fred; he’d almost forgotten about him. As kids, they’d never got on terribly well. They vied for the attention, for the role as the clown. When they’d grown up a bit, they realised they were too different types of people. Fred was born to make people laugh because he could. He wasn’t into the big pranks, the farcical stuff that his father had been famed for. He had a dry, sarcastic sense of humour that James had always envied. James, on the other hand, tried. He wasn’t naturally funny. He insulted and mocked and offended people to make others laugh. He had been a bully. Fred had told him so on several occasions but the long-rooted jealousy between them had prevented James from taking it too seriously.
He sighed. “Victoire it is.” Now it had been decided, spoken out loud and agreed, he felt the nerves starting to stir in his stomach.
He glanced down to his plate and smiled. Maybe it was just Rose’s cooking.
He stood in front of the mirror in the ridiculous clothes he’d inherited from Rose’s bloke and groaned. He’d not been serious when he said he was going to go and get his stuff from his parents’ house. He’d intended to ask Rose to do it at some point for him but it had slipped his mind and now it was Tuesday and she was in work.
He looked like he was drowning in the elephant sized t-shirt and not even a belt could keep the jeans up this time. His eyes flickered to the clock. It was only half twelve. He had told himself he’d leave for Victoire’s at one. He was showered, his hair was halfway decent and he had even had a proper shave. All he’d need to do was sneak home – hoping that they still kept the spare key under one of the Muggle gnomes that hid under the shade of the porch – go inside, grab his bag and leave. It wouldn’t even take five minutes.
And yet, he’d been debating it for an hour now and he still couldn’t find the courage to do it. He’d wondered a few times whether Ella might have something that might fit, something kept from an ex like Rose or maybe she knew someone his size. However, explaining why he didn’t have clothes would mean explaining the entire story and that would be risky. He was definitely the worst Gryffindor ever, he thought, scowling into the mirror and feeling a soft sinking sensation as his shoulders slumped a bit. His father had broken into Gringotts, for goodness’ sake. He could sneak into a cottage.
With an emphatic nod, he made up his mind. Grabbing his copy of the front door key and his wand off the table, he walked away from the mirror, out of the door and downstairs. A little unsteadily, he Disapparated and when he appeared on the lane he’d known so well, once, he felt a surge of confidence.
Five minute job. He’d done plenty of those before in houses he knew less well than this one. Nobody would be home. It was Tuesday.
Still, upon lifting the gnome up and removing the protective charm on the key, he cast a quick, “Homenum revelio,” for signs of life. Nothing. Not a soul. It was just him in this house and he shut the door quietly behind him. He didn’t want to stay too long. The accusations would fly and that was the last thing he needed.
He took the steps two at a time and threw his bedroom door open. It was empty. His trunk and bag had been there. He remembered them being there. There was no sign of anything that could have been his. Shutting the door, he went through every room in the house and all he found was, eventually, in the shed, Beryl. The bird went berserk at the sight of him and flew more obediently than ever onto his shoulder. She’d been fed and watered, he knew that much, and the other owls all looked at him in vague recognition, if owls could recognise faces, that is. He ran a finger down the bird’s body and smiled.
“You know where Rose lives,” he said and the bird gave what might have been perceived as a nod but was definitely affirmation.
He turned back to the house and in the kitchen, pulled out his wand. He tried every variation on the Summoning spell he could think but there was nothing; not even a rustle of something trying to escape. It was gone. It was all gone. The clothes, the souvenirs, the little money he did have, the bottles, all of it had been thrown out or given away or hidden.
He looked down to the garden. Beyond the outhouse, where the land boundary became dubious and the protective enchantments of the Potters’ house ended, was a field. Normally as green as the richest emerald, it was different now. Shutting everything behind him, he walked down past the patio, past the owls, past the vegetable patch that Lily had so loved. He felt the magic break as he crossed the border and looked down.
A patch of grass the colour not of his brother’s eyes but of their hair: black, burnt to a cinder, and in the middle, all that was left was a mangled, blackened padlock. He let out one low laugh, edged in disappointment, in disbelief and pulled out his wand. He Disapparated without even looking around. Nobody was there to see. None of them cared and so, in turn, nor did he.
Rose pushed heavily on the front door of her flat and groaned. She needed to fix the hinges. They were starting to stick and it was getting nigh-on impossible to open it without putting her shoulder out. Her eyes flickered to the sofa but it was empty. She smiled. It was the first day she’d arrived home and not seen her cousin slumped on it as though it was all he had. Things with Victoire must have gone well.
She had to admit that she hadn’t expected it. Putting her bag down and shrugging her work robes off in her room, she felt a surge of pride for James and for herself. She’d had her doubts, she had to admit, when he’d asked for her help and when she’d offered it in reply. She had evidently underestimated the others. Perhaps they felt as she realised she had: obligated to show disdain towards him in spite of the reality. She’d always thought it was funny, what one person’s opinion could do, how much it could change things.
Unpinning her brown hair from its tight bun, she tugged a brush through it and glanced at the clock. Her stomach was rumbling. James would be back, she decided, if he wanted feeding. Victoire had probably offered him something. She glanced in the fridge and sighed. She’d always wished she could cook but Owen had always been protective of his kitchen and her parents were no example. Hugo had asked their Nanna to teach him and he could whip up a decent shepherd’s pie in no time. She thought she might do the same, if she ever found the time. For now, pasta and tomato sauce it was.
As always, average. Her taste buds were fairly displeased but her stomach seemed content and so she washed down the last mouthful with a healthy swig of wine. She glanced to the clock again. It was almost seven and still no sign of James. She bit her lip and checked her watch. It was definitely right.
It took her less than five minutes to decide that she’d make a quick Floo call to check he was okay. She pulled James’s pillow off the sofa and nestled herself in front of the fire before sticking her head into the green flames.
Victoire’s living room came into sight and she called out. The room was empty, save for one of the cats which started and dove behind the sofa. “Stupid thing,” Rose muttered. “Vic?” There was a scuffling and then her cousin’s footsteps – always far heavier than her appearance would have you imagine – coming towards the room. The blonde always looked far too pretty all the time. Rose cursed her.
“What can I do for you?” she asked. Rose realised with a sinking feeling in her stomach that it was now highly unlikely that James was still there and that he might not even have gone at all. So much for a newfound confidence in him.
“Have you had a visitor today?” she managed to say, hoping that wouldn’t arouse too much suspicion. Victoire shook her head.
“Not a soul,” she said and Rose must have shown her confusion more evidently than she’d have liked because Victoire added, “Why?”
In that moment, Rose thanked her mother for giving her the quick-thinking brain that her father lacked. The story was plotted out in a second, and she only stumbled over her first words.
“Just some reporter came round, asking about Uncle Harry and Aunt Ginny,” she said. Victoire groaned.
“Divorce rumours again?”
“Yeah,” Rose said. “Sorry, I’ve got to run. I told Fred I’d meet him for dinner.”
They exchanged their goodbyes and Rose sat up. The flames turned to nothing and she groaned, running her hand angrily back through her hair. The stupid prat. She grabbed her cloak and her handbag and threw them on haphazardly. She locked her front door behind her and ran downstairs, knocking on Ella’s door as she passed.
“You’ve not seen James, have you?”
It was a blunt welcome but Ella didn’t flinch. She glanced to her watch and shook her head.
“He went out at about midday,” the blonde said, recalling the bang of the front door and watching him leave from the front window. “Everything okay?” Rose shook her head and groaned. “Want me to come with you?” The brunette thought it over for a moment and then nodded. She could do with any help she could get. There was one more place she had to go to though. She wedged the door of Ella’s flat open whilst the girl grabbed her bag and coat, and as soon as she had locked the door, Rose hurried her outside and offered out her arm. Ella took it and together, they Disapparated.
Fred’s flat wasn’t much better than hers and as soon as he opened the front door, the pair of the stepped in. They had a decent enough relationship. Fred was the least likely to judge of the lot of the Weasley boys, and most of the girls too. It also helped that he knew James’s old hangouts. She’d heard many a story about them bumping into each other in a list of pubs that she couldn’t recall at all now. It was funny what the mind thought was irrelevant and cast aside like yesterday’s news.
“Rose,” he said, as surprised as she’d sound if he turned up in her living room looking as flustered and manic as she must have, complete with a slightly dazed stranger. “What’s up?”
“James,” she muttered. She had to tell someone
who knew the full story. Fred was the most trustworthy of the sorry lot of them. He scoffed and she carried on before he could comment. “He’s staying with me.” She waited for the noise of protest, of disbelief but it didn’t come. “I’ve…well, lost him.”
“You’ve lost a twenty-two year old man?” he asked and she nodded. It sounded quite absurd now it was out in the open. She waited for the lecture, for the refusal but it didn’t come. He sat down on the arm of the sofa and she tapped her foot impatiently. It was all very well and good, digesting this very brief bit of information, but James could be lying splinched in a ditch. He wasn’t the world’s best Apparator at the best of times, let alone drunk or angry.
“Where do you think he’d go?” she said and he shook his head. “Just help us find him, please?”
“Why are you so concerned?” he said, looking at her sternly and then to Ella, who was tactfully stood by the door, admiring a small statue that Rose couldn’t quite make out from her seat. She sighed, tapping her fingers on her crossed arms. Fred had always taken things slowly. She’d quite admired him for it, once, but now him understanding her motivation wasn’t the most pressing thing.
“Nanna asked me to help him, okay?” she said. Fred’s face softened. “If I have to tell her I’ve failed after a week, I don’t know what I’ll do.”
He stood up, looking from her to his bedroom door and back to her. He exhaled deeply and ran a hand back through his short dark hair. Without a word, he disappeared into the other room and re-emerged with his cloak.
“Half an hour but then I’m coming back. I’m not searching every bloody pub in Britain.”
Rose didn’t need to say thank you. She just smiled, pulled her wand out of her robes and the two girls followed him until they found a safe point to Apparate from.
It didn’t anywhere near as long as either of them had anticipated. It was their fourth try, a small tavern down a dirty back street in Sheffield. Fred said that one of James’s friends had introduced him to it, back in the day. They served underage wizards. It had been an instant hit with the Gryffindor boys as soon as the secret was out.
He wasn’t propping up the bar and he wasn’t anywhere near the gaggle of chattering girls by the door. They almost gave up hope when the barman caught sight of Fred and beckoned him over. Rose stayed firmly out of the way, Ella by her side squeezing her wrist comfortingly. The place was filthy and really, Rose thought she ought to report it and have it shut down. It wasn’t until Fred turned slowly towards a corner of the room, near an old unused darts board, that she saw him.
Hunched on the floor was James. His hands were clasped around a glass of half-consumed beer. Every few seconds, he took a swig out of it, his hands trembling. Rose groaned and marched past Fred. “Get up.”
She took the glass out of his hand and he didn’t protest. Rose glanced over her shoulder. The place hadn’t been bustling upon her arrival but it was decidedly still now. Fred stepped forward but James had hugged his legs closer to him, his grip tight on himself.
“I’m not playing this game,” she said. “Up.” He didn’t budge and she gave an exasperated groan, guttural and fuelled with anger. She pushed his arm heavily. “James.” She felt a hand on her shoulder and looked to see Ella guiding her out of the way. As she stood up, Rose threw her a questioning look.
“Softly,” the blonde said and bent down as if to demonstrate. “James?”
He looked up for the first time and as his face caught the light, Rose wanted to take the words back. He was crying. James didn’t cry. He was practically famous for it. James laughed or swore or punched or yelled. He didn’t cry. She bent down again, looking up at Fred who was trying in vain to shield him from the view of the others. When he’d sobered up, he’d be ashamed of himself.
“Come on.” She kept her voice soft now and hooked her hand around his arm, tugging, but he merely shook his head. “People are looking.”
“Don’t care,” he said. He wasn’t slurring. He’d definitely had something, each breath he let out smelled of alcohol, but it wasn’t anywhere near as much as she’d seen him with the week before. His breathing was steady but loud as he tried to calm himself enough to formulate the right words. Rose watched as Ella softly stroked her thumb across his hand. “They burned all my stuff.”
“What?” Fred said. He’d come closer now and James’s eyes flickered over him, barely even registering the presence of a fourth person before looking back to the floor.
“Mum and Dad. All of it, it’s gone.”
Rose sighed, looking to Fred who just shrugged. It didn’t make sense. Harry and Ginny were angry. They were ashamed. She would be too, if James was her son, but neither of them was like that. They were adults, for starters. Grown-up people didn’t burn other people’s things. It only ever happened in those books that her mother had always said were made specifically to lower the intelligence of the world to make the author feel better about themselves.
“Okay,” she said softly. “Let’s go home.”
Fred bent down and together, the three of them hauled him to his feet. The barman pointed to the fireplace and the girls carefully helped James and Fred inside, the latter holding tight to his cousin who was shaking his head and murmuring what sounded to Rose like nothing but nonsense. They disappeared and Ella placed a Galleon on the bar, for the trouble of the poor staff before following the other two.
Rose’s heart sank. She’d never seen him like that. Not in twenty-one years of knowing him had she ever seen him look quite so lost. James had always had a place in the world. He’d always known where he belonged. Seeing him now made her want to demand a thousand things of her godparents, but she had to bide her time. She knew that. She had told Fred because she trusted him. She had told Ella because she needed support. If she told anyone else, there’d be a riot.
Deeming it safe to say that the others were out of the way of her fireplace, she stepped into the grate. When she landed in her living room, gracefully and with her back straight, she watched Fred help James into her bed. He didn’t say a word, except passing a pitying smile over James’s body, before disappearing out of the front door. Rose watched as Ella helped him strip off his too big clothes and shoes, and she tucked him in tightly.
“I won’t tell anyone,” Ella said softly, and Rose wasn’t sure whether that was aimed at her or James. Neither replied. “Come on. Leave him be.” She took Rose’s hand and guided her out of the room. On reaching the door, Rose sighed, looking down at her cousin, still awake and still shaking. No words would be enough. She turned around, turned off the light and shut the door.
Tomorrow was another day, another chance. She just had to hope he’d take it.