Chapter Fourteen: Stage One
He wasn’t one to grovel. He especially wasn’t one to grovel when it came to work but still he found himself being forced into a pair of new robes by Rose, ready to face his old boss, the one who he’d abandoned without so much as a resignation notice. He wasn’t sure the Potter name was going to do him any favours this time round, really. Victoire had been right, though. He and Rose had both agreed on that when he arrived back at the flat. How was he going to convince anyone he’d changed in the space of less than two weeks? It was laughable.
So, they had decided that they needed to get him back on his feet. First things first, he needed to get a job. Then he could move out and start working on everyone again and if all went to plan, they’d all come around to him being back. At the very least, maybe they’d get used to him.
“Just –” Rose started but seemed to run out of words. “Just be confident.” It was something he’d never been told to be before. It had always come naturally but now he wanted to be like his brother, for the first time ever. He just wanted to hide in the background. “Go on,” she pushed him towards the fire, “you’ll be late.”
He scowled. He’d been all for the option of just turning up as if the past two and a half years hadn’t even happened but Rose had told him that was unprofessional and immature and several other things that he couldn’t remember but which were all contributing factors to him allowing Rose to set him up with a proper meeting with old Boot. Feeling like he was going to his death, he stepped into the fireplace and disappeared.
When he Apparated back, not long after, he knew Rose would already have left for work herself. He had, at least, been welcomed back with partially open arms. Apparently there was an opening at the bottom of the ladder, lower down the ranks than when he’d started, and since they’d not found a good enough candidate, Boot had handed him the job with relatively little convincing. He had, after all, travelled a fair bit in his absence and considering the department, the old codger seemed to find it more of a positive than anything else. He would start next Monday.
He practically ran up the path to the front door of the house, throwing it open and almost knocking Ella off her feet. “Sorry,” he said hurriedly. She shook her head, laughing to hide the shock and waving a hand dismissively.
“It’s fine,” she said, looking him up and down and smiling. “You look like the Niffler who got the gold.”
“I just got my job back.”
It was practically impossible not to smile back. It was the first time he’d said it out loud and it sounded far better than he’d thought it would. He hadn’t even had the time to acknowledge that in two weeks, he’d be moaning all over again about how boring it was but for now, the idea was enough. Ella’s smile grew and she shifted the mass of paperwork in her arms so that she could give him a quick, one-armed hug. He squeezed her tightly with both arms and she gave a small laugh that trickled down his ear. He let go and she brushed her pale hair out of her eyes.
“Well done,” she said. “Cause for celebration?”
“You should come over for dinner tonight,” he said, nodding enthusiastically and wondering quite where these words were coming from. “Sevenish. You, me and Rose.” The latter was an afterthought but he owed her probably more than he did Ella. In fact, definitely more. The blonde looked at him for a moment, chewing one corner of her mouth before nodding slowly.
“Okay, yeah. I’ll rearrange some stuff,” she replied. He nodded firmly. “See you later.” She gave one last smile before ducking past him and out of the door. He took the stairs up to Rose’s flat two at a time and threw open the door with an almost manic laugh. It was daft, really. She was just a girl.
He made a bee-line for the kitchen, opening the fridge and glancing inside. He thought that maybe the problem with Rose’s cooking was the lack of any actual decent ingredients but anyway, he wasn’t going to let her poison Ella’s taste buds. Grabbing the money he’d picked up from Gringotts the week before, he headed out.
Diagon Alley was bustling and as he walked past shop front after shop front, he truly felt as though he’d been missing out. The old Apothecary had been revamped, there were half a dozen new restaurants and there, amongst the rabble, was the constant bang or whizz from his Uncle George’s shop. It had always lifted up over the noise of the crowd. He’d laughed as a child at the tourists, those unfamiliar with this hub of magical England, who would jump at every screech or boom that came out of the door.
He wound his way around to the market, hidden away down one of the alleys coming off the main street. The smell of freshly cooked pumpkin pasties and bacon baguettes wafted all the way down it. The money in his pocket burned for a different reason than it had before. He made sure he was quick; if he was seen by too many people, the questions would start to be asked and even though he thought he was well disguised in his work glasses and his hat, there were bound to be stares. He gathered up everything he needed to make a decent curry and as soon as he deemed himself ready, Disapparated.
Rose was impressed, that much was certain. As soon as she’d walked in, he’d noticed that from the sceptical eyes and the way she slowly poked her head into the kitchen. It was a fair enough point, really. The only time he ever ventured in there was to get a drink or talk to her. “What are you doing?” she said, as though it wasn’t obvious from the array of dirty dishes and bubbling pans. He turned, showing off the apron and waving the spatula at her.
“I wanted a decent meal and you were never going to give me one.” She looked mildly offended but hid it quickly. Unpinning her hair, she peered around him to try and see what was in the pots. He moved and hid them from view. “It’ll be ready at seven.” She nodded and disappeared into her room, shutting the door. It took her two minutes to come back out, slowly and with her hands crossed over her chest.
“James?” He jumped and turned. “You’ve invited Ella, haven’t you?” He tried his best to look hurt and offended but he didn’t do a terribly good job. “I don’t mind
,” she said, shaking her head, “but I take it that means you got the job?”
“Yeah,” he said as she took her earrings out and slipped her shoes off. “I’ll only be an assistant but it’s better than nothing.” She nodded encouragingly and glanced to the clock.
“If you want, I can go to Mum and Dad’s for tea?” she offered but he shook his head. Even if he’d only said it to impress Ella, this was as much a thank you for his cousin as it was a celebration for him. Plus, he wasn’t even sure what to say to a girl that he didn’t intend on bedding by the end of the night. Rose would provide cover if he got stuck, or at least prevent him from offering to clean her apartment again. “Well, at the very least go and make yourself look a bit more presentable.” She flapped a hand at his robes. “You’re not taking her to a bloody funeral.” He glanced down and sighed.
“I need some new clothes,” he said. Rose didn’t argue but continued flapping him away. “Just don’t touch anything.” He didn’t even trust her to stir something without screwing it up. He grabbed the jeans he’d inherited from Rose's ex and the white shirt he’d worn to the wedding and shut himself in the bathroom.
As he got changed, he thought back to Victoire. Was simply getting a job really enough? After all, he’d got it back so easily that he wouldn’t even be convinced himself that it was a sign of change. For all she knew, he could have flashed his surname in Boot’s direction and that was it, sold. She’d settled down but she was five years his elder. She couldn’t expect him, at merely twenty-two, to throw his life away yet. He could grow up without love. He could grow up without marriage and children and the other things that people did when they became Official Adults.
His thoughts switched to Ella. A girlfriend. Would that convince his family? It wouldn’t need to be for long, after all. She would agree, wouldn’t she? She’d done a fair bit for him already. He knew he was charming. He knew he could twist a girl around his little finger if he said the right string of words but there was a throb in his heart. A throb of disgust, he thought. It was tricking himself, tricking his family and tricking Ella. He wouldn’t do it to any of them.
He shook his head, his hair falling obediently into the untidy way he’d grown well acquainted with through his life. It was what always gave him away as a Potter. It was the only thing Al had escaped from his father’s genes and James smiled. It was at least less irritating than the common simper of, “You have your father’s eyes,” that his poor younger brother ended up with every time they went out of the house.
His poor younger brother; he’d not thought of him like that for a long time, if ever. He did look on Al with pity, once, but pity for being so dull, so lifeless. His whole manner had always been one of incertitude, of quiet. He wanted to fade into the background when all James and Lily wanted was the stage. His sister had struck lucky with the genes. She had her twenty-twenty eyesight and their mother’s eyes and their father’s build. Her hair was always neat and it glowed proudly with the Weasley tint. Third time lucky; with Lily, their parents had finally found the balance between the families.
He felt his stomach shifting again with guilt. He had stared around his vault at Gringotts and considered collecting the money and just taking it straight to her. Of course, he’d told himself that would be stupid. He wasn’t going to buy them back. It was funny, how money had started it all in the eyes of his family yet it would not be permitted as a solution, as an end. The world was strange.
“Are you going to be in there all night or do I actually have to finish this off myself?” Rose yelled and he started. He’d forgotten about the food. Gathering his robes and yanking the door open, he cast his clothes into the darkened corner of the room with the rest and pushed Rose gently but firmly out of the way, grabbing the spoon from her hand. She scowled and glanced to the clock. His gaze followed her: half an hour. She tutted and disappeared, her bedroom door shutting firmly behind her.
His mind faded back into his own thoughts as he watched everything simmering in front of him. After Victoire, he wasn’t sure where he was going to go. Molly was usually a good bet but he was sure Rose mentioned that she was pregnant and when she’d been expecting Imogen, she’d become more thirsty for a fight than a dragon. He didn’t fancy being chopped up and used in a stew just yet. He was still young.
He was debating between Lucy and Roxanne when a light knock grabbed his attention and he carefully smoothed down his hair, though knew it was in vain. Balancing the spoon on the edge of one of the pans, he took a deep breath and crossed to the front door, opening it to view Ella cradling a bottle of wine and a stack of paperwork. He looked bemusedly at it and she laughed.
“Thought I’d kill two birds with one stone,” she said, smiling as she ducked under his arm to step inside. She had put her jacket on, even just to climb a flight of stairs, and shrugged it off. “Smells amazing.”
“Recipe I picked up in Thailand,” he said and it wasn’t a lie. He felt a surge of pride at being able to say that kind of thing; it made him sound far more educated and exciting than the reality. She handed him the bottle, the widening of her eyes showing that she was suitably impressed, and glanced around. “Rose is just getting changed.” She lay her jacket down over the back of the sofa and set her work on one of the cushions. “Drink?”
He nodded towards the bottle, ice cold in her hand, and she held it out.
“I wasn’t sure what we were having,” she said, almost excusing her choice of white. He nodded, inspecting the label as though he was expecting it to be stamped with a French seal of approval but the name was decidedly English and he felt a little disappointed. “It was on offer at the offy.”
He laughed and shook his head as she blushed before him. There was something about her that made him feel more mature. Perhaps it was that she looked so young – he wasn’t even sure how old she was, now he thought on it – and he felt he was expected to act like that. Perhaps it was just what his mind did when he felt an attraction to someone without alcoholic stimulation. Or maybe, he was imagining it all.
There was a crash as the spoon he’d balanced on the pan slipped off and he glanced over his shoulder. Excusing himself and gesturing to the sofa, he disappeared behind the kitchen wall and wiped up the mess it had made on the hob. He looked back, just for a second, into the living room where Ella was pushing back her hair and flicking through a couple of pieces of the purple parchment he’d seen her with on their first meeting. He smiled.
He definitely wasn’t imagining it. There was something there, something about her that made him like her yet the thought of waking up one morning and walking away without looking back made guilt settle uneasily in his gut. It was like the early days, the feeling of obligation to the girl. A phone number – invented – scrawled on an old till receipt. He’d almost forgotten that was the way of the world.
“Eyes, head, in,” Rose said as she obscured Ella from view with the excuse she called hair. He hushed her with a flapping hand and she shook her head. “Need a hand?” she asked as he started pulling cupboards open looking for plates. He scowled.
“Yeah, shut up and entertain our guest.” He stressed the two words heavily and jerked his head towards the living room. The blonde was lost in her own little world, sifting through reports and Rose sighed.
“Don’t break anything,” she said as he yanked three of the good plates from the bottom of the pile. He flicked two fingers at her but she’d already turned to the settee and the sound of the two of them talking was obscured by half a foot of brickwork and the sound of something bubbling away. With a flick of his wand, the flames turned themselves down to minimum and he picked up the abandoned bottle of wine. Rose had to have glasses somewhere; she was unsociable at times and couldn’t exactly entertain crowds in her tiny flat but they couldn’t just drink tea all the time.
It turns out, he was wrong. The only thing close to wine glasses were the two tumblers at the back of the cupboard, translucent with goodness knew how many months of dust. He chewed his lip and took three of the nicest mugs he could find, sloshing the wine into them and levitating them gently towards the sofa. He made one bash Rose’s head heavily enough to get her attention but not so much that she’d deem there to be a need for revenge, and the other floated just shy of Ella’s shoulder so that when she turned, she didn’t knock it over. They lifted their cups in salutation and cradled them in their hands.
When he served the meal, the three of them crowded around Rose’s dining table, James having to eat his from a plate suspended in mid-air by what he hoped was strong magic. Their conversation was light, filled with compliments on the cooking and talk of things they all had in common. When Ella had tried to engage James in conversation about his time in Thailand, Rose had swept in with more wine and a question about her drinking habits. It had been barely noticeable but the distraction seemed to work, nonetheless.
It wasn’t until the clock struck eleven and Rose’s head slumped back against the sofa that Ella stood up to leave. Their conversation had been quiet since the meal. It had been more focused on the blonde’s work and the news – of which James had nothing to offer – and he had played with his empty mug and smiled along when either of them looked to him.
“It was lovely,” Ella said as he held open the door. He made a note to fix the hinges over the weekend. “My place next time?” He smiled and nodded his answer. He felt words might ruin it. “You can tell me about Thailand,” she said, drooping her coat over her shoulders and smiling up at him. “I think someone was a bit jealous.”
James laughed awkwardly and shook his head. “It’s boring, honestly.”
“Well, I want to hear it,” she said, and he conceded with a tilt of his head. Rose shuffled on the sofa and he looked over his shoulder. “Night.” She leant up, right to the tip of her toes to lean and press a kiss to his cheek. He felt his face flame up – yet another of the traits he’d not wanted to inherit from either of his parents – and when she disappeared and he thought it safe to shut the door, Rose gave a soft whistle.
“Someone’s got a crush,” she said. He turned around, Banishing all the plates into the kitchen and didn’t say another word. It wasn’t worth denying it. Everything in front of him was practically lit up pink from his cheeks and even if he’d tried, he couldn’t turn his smile upside down.
He didn’t feel guilt. He didn’t lust after her. She was Ella, Rose’s neighbour, and he was Rose’s lodger. She was nice to him – a rare quality in his life, that was undeniable – and she made him smile. It was simple, it was easy, and for now it was enough.