Albus Potter sucked his finger, and then irritably examined the oozing cut. In front of him, a particularly grubby gnome watched him with beady little eyes, licking its lips. Al could have sworn it was grinning hat him.
“Come here, you bugger!” Al made a grab for the errant gnome, but lost his footing in the loose earth and ended up sprawled, face down, in a flowerbed. The gnome took to its heels, and ran giggling behind the rose bushes next to the window to Al’s father’s study. Al pulled himself to his knees and tried to brush the dirt from his arms and legs, but it clung stubbornly to his sweaty limbs; it was far too hot to be running around like this.
Looking up, Al could see his sister Lily chasing a pair of gnomes across the lawn, with Calamity, the Potter family’s accident-prone cat, in hot pursuit. Al and Lily had been de-gnoming the garden for most of the morning, with very little success. In fairness, neither Al nor his sister were trying particularly hard. However, with Calamity tearing around, scattering the gnomes left, right and centre, the whole operation was twice as difficult as it needed to be. Al smirked as Calamity manage to steer Lily’s gnomes into the compost heap near the greenhouse. He might be about to get shredded by a rose bush, but at least he wouldn’t be wading through a mountain of decomposing vegetable peelings.
Schadenfreude aside, Al was in an exceptionally bad mood. Summer holidays were for lounging about in the sun, or meeting his friends for three-a-side Quidditch, or a million and one other fun things. They were not for de-gnoming the garden, but attempting to explain that to his mother had not gone well. He replayed the conversation over the breakfast table in his mind.
“I don’t care, Albus,” his mother had said, waving away his protests. “It won’t kill you to help a little around the house while you’re on holiday.”
Throwing a speculative look at his father (or at least, at the newspaper behind which his father was hiding), Al had decided to try a diversionary tactic.
“How come Dad doesn’t have to help? It’s a Saturday! He doesn’t have any work to do.”
“Yes, he does,” shot back his mother. “He has paperwork to do this morning, and I know he would like to be able to relax in the garden later on. But he can’t relax in the garden later on if it’s swarming with gnomes. So will you please stop whining and get on with it?”
His father’s newspaper had quivered a little. Al strongly suspected he had been laughing. “Oh, Mum....”
His mother had thrown her arms up in exasperation. “Fine, Al! I’ll de-gnome the garden, and you can do all my jobs! You can start with the laundry, then there’s the ironing, then the downstairs loo needs cleaning...”
It was at that point that Al had capitulated, and so here he was, nursing a bleeding finger and covered in soil, with only three weeks of precious loafing time remaining before he had to go back to school. He so badly wanted to make the most of it, because going back to Hogwarts was not something he was looking forward to at all. His fifth year had been bad enough, with school-work a constant intrusion into his precious social life, something that would only get worse once he began his sixth year studies. O.W.L.s had been pretty horrific, and although he had secured the grades he needed for his chosen N.E.W.T. subjects, the fact that his results had not been quite as good as James’s was another sore point.
James. Just thinking about his elder brother darkened his mood even further. James, of course, was not helping to de-gnome the garden. Oh no - that was because I-can-do-no-wrong first-born golden boy James was currently in Romania doing work experience with Uncle Charlie. Dragon-wrangling. Which was typical, just typical. James gets to wrangle dragons, I get bitten by gnomes. And they call Dad the Chosen One?
A muffled giggle caught Al’s attention. He looked back towards the rose bush and saw the gnome responsible for his throbbing finger poke its head out. Al tensed his legs, preparing to pounce. Right, you little bastard! You’re mine!
Unfortunately, just as Al sprang, so did Calamity. Spooked by the cat, the gnome bolted the other way from behind the roses, with Calamity following close behind, leaving Al, once again, eating dirt. Biting back some choice expletives, he started to climb to his feet, but became aware of voices drifting from the open window above his head. One was his father’s, and the other belonged to... Teddy? Teddy Lupin was here? Why had no one told him?
Teddy was Al’s father’s godson, and Al had known him all his life. He was one of Al’s very favourite people. No scratch that – Teddy was Al’s absolute number one favourite person. Al thought of him like a big brother – or at least, like he thought a big brother ought to be, so in other words, nothing like James. Oh, it wasn’t that he didn’t get on with his actual brother, it was just that, genetic material aside, they seemed to have absolutely nothing in common.
Teddy, though, was cool. When Al was small, Teddy helped mend his broken toys and stole treats from the kitchen for him. As Al grew older, Teddy was always there for a game of Quidditch, and he never threatened to tell when Al ‘accidentally’ used underage magic. When Al didn’t know how to cope with a bully at school, or worried about how to go about kissing a girl for the first time, or generally needed someone to help set the world to rights, it was Teddy to whom he turned. In fact, there was only one problem with Teddy these days, and that was Teddy’s girlfriend Victoire, who also happened to be Al’s eldest cousin. They had been together forever. Well, for more than six years, which amounted to pretty much the same thing as far as Al was concerned.
It wasn’t that Al didn’t like Victoire. She was family, after all, and she had always been nice to him - kind, thoughtful and tolerant, just as she was with all her younger cousins. They had never been close, though. Blame that on a combination of the age gap, and the fact that Victoire spent a lot of time with other relatives in France when they were kids. Even at school, they didn’t see much of one another. By the time Al had started at Hogwarts, she was already in her final year, and besides, they had been in different houses. For the most part, she was just another happy, smiling face around the table at The Burrow at Christmas.
No, the problem with Victoire was simply that ever since she and Teddy got really serious a couple of years ago, Teddy had so much less time to spend with Al. It made it all the more galling that Teddy had come to visit today, but hadn’t been outside to say ‘hi’.
Al was about to spring up and poke his head in through the window when it occurred to him that Teddy’s tone of voice was hushed and confused. Al frowned. Teddy was usually so happy-go-lucky, it wasn’t like him to be down. His interest piqued, he settled down to listen.
“…not that simple, though, is it, Uncle Harry?” Teddy was saying. “Vicky’s only twenty-two. I’m only twenty-four. I feel like I’ve barely got started. Isn’t it too soon tie myself down?” Al raised his eyebrows. So Teddy wasn’t happy with Victoire? This sounded very hopeful.
“By the time I was your age, Teddy, I was married to your Aunt Ginny and we were already parents,” said Al’s dad.
Teddy sighed. “I know. But was that what you really wanted? I mean you were so young!”
“Yes, Teddy, it was what I really wanted.” Al thought his father sounded amused. “Believe it or not, your Aunt has always been a very attractive woman.” Al really hoped his father wasn’t going to start discussing his parent’s sex life. Maybe listening in wasn’t such a good idea after all.
“Oh Merlin, no!” said Teddy, very quickly. “I didn’t mean it like that, it’s just... well, please don’t be offended, but did you ever feel that you had to, like it was just what people expected of you? Wouldn’t you have rather…” Teddy trailed off, sounding embarrassed. A broad grin spread across Al’s face. It sounded like Teddy resented feeling like he ‘had to’ be with Victoire.
“Wouldn’t I rather have gone out and sown my wild oats?” The laughter in his father’s voice was unmistakable now. “You’re right, we were both very young to be getting married and having a baby, but no, I don’t regret it. Actually, I was relieved. You were too young to remember, but things weren’t always straightforward between me and Ginny.”
“Maybe that’s just my point. Even you knew what else was out there.”
“Even me? You make me sound like a right old codger!”
“I’m sorry, that’s not what I meant. It’s just that I worry about me and Vicky. What if I’m tying myself down before I should be? I’ve barely seen anything of the world. What if there’s something else out there for me? For Vicky? Don’t I owe it to myself to be sure?”
Yes, Teddy! Yes you do! Al wanted to shout. Of course you shouldn’t tie yourself down!
“The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, Teddy,” replied his father, in that mild, non-committal tone that always irritated Al so much.
Teddy didn’t seem to mind. “I know. That’s partly the problem. I can’t imagine life without her, and that worries me too. I want to know what it is that I’m missing before... before it’s too late.”
This was just getting better and better, as far as Al was concerned. Didn’t ‘knowing what he was missing out on’ mean Teddy wanted to see other girls? Surely that meant Teddy and Victoire wouldn’t be together for much longer?
“I know you want me to tell you what to do, Teddy. But if ever there was a time for you to make your own decision, this is it. You know I’ll support you, whatever you choose.”
The room went quiet for several seconds. Al could almost hear Teddy nodding.
“Uncle Harry? Promise you won’t tell anyone about this? Not even Aunt Ginny? At least not until I’ve spoken to Vicky.”
His father laughed. “I’ll try my best, but you do know how difficult it is to keep anything from your Aunt Ginny, don’t you? She can sniff out a guilty conscience at fifty paces! Come on, let’s get a cup of tea. You can tell me all about how your job’s going…”
His father’s voice grew steadily quieter as he and Teddy left the study. Al leaned back against the wall, a smile plastered across his face as he mulled over what he’d just heard. So, Teddy had decided to speak to Victoire. Surely that meant he was going to dump her? For just a moment, Al felt bad for his cousin. She might be a bit upset, but it was definitely for the best. Teddy was way too cool to be settling down to a life of cosy domesticity. No, he should be off conquering mountains, or taming wild beasts, or exploring far-off lands. With Al at his side, naturally. Suddenly, life was looking up for Al Potter.
“Albus? Albus, come and help!” Lily’s strident tones interrupted his thoughts. Looking up, he could see his sister’s flaming red head poking out from amongst the branches of the large oak tree at the far side of the garden. “Calamity’s stuck up the tree! Help me get her down.”
Still grinning, Al climbed to his feet, and ambled across the garden to help his sister rescue the world’s most stupid cat.
A/N - Schadenfreude is a German word, used untranslated in English. It means ‘taking pleasure in the misfortune of others.’
Thanks to the amazing CambAngst, a true gent and a fantastic beta reader!