Even though I told him that he absolutely didn't have to, Professor Ramsay let us use his classroom for our cast party which followed the performance. I can't really take any sort of credit for the party (I didn't know that we were even supposed to have one) as it was totally Lily's idea. I only managed a quick word with Mum and Dad before I was swept away for the party, but we arranged to have lunch together the following day in Hogsmeade. I had completely forgotten that tomorrow was Sunday.
It was hard for me to properly enjoy the party as I felt truly exhausted; the last few weeks seemed to have finally caught up with me. Even so, it was still very nice to have conversations with people that didn't involve props, backdrops, or costumes. Mipsy, who was really a wonder-elf, put together a bunch of food for us to snack on while at the party. I tried to convince her to stay, and even though her eyes welled up with tears from the offer, she declined. The party really must have been something magical as I remembered Lily and Glen having a civil conversation at one point. The party passed in something of a daze, but there was a point when I was saying goodnight to everyone, that I was struck by the realization of how many friends I had acquired in such a short time. I hadn't had this many in my whole life thus far combined. Every single person who left the dungeon that night, didn't depart without giving me a smile or a wave. And, even though things were still messed up between us, Connie actually gave me a hug before we left. I liked it, but it hurt at the same time.
When I felt too tired to even chew my food anymore, I decided that it was definitely time for bed. The other Hufflepuff boys were already asleep by the time we made it back to the common room, and Glen collapsed into his own bed after stripping his pants off. Lovely. His snores began moments later. I carefully got into my pajamas, folded the outfit I had been wearing, and finally slid under my sheets and patchwork quilt, at last allowing my eyes to close. My mind was too tired to even reflect on the day, and I was about to drift off when I felt something on my arm. The pressure was strange and light, and I could feel the hairs on my arm being gently disturbed. I tried to tell myself that it was nothing, merely a product of my over exhausted mind, but as I started to imagine terrible things like spiders scuttling across my skin, my eyes shot open.
It was too dark to see properly, and just when I was about to fling my arm about to shake free whatever was crawling there, I heard my name.
Some part of my brain recognized the voice, but that still didn't stop me from letting out a high-pitched yelp.
“Well, it seems like some things never change, even though you have,” the voice said next.
“I don't know about that,” I replied, quietly, listening to the sounds around the room to see if I had disturbed any of my house mates. Though, Glen was snoring so loudly, it likely drowned out any sounds I had made. The moon outside was casting a very thin strip of light inside the dormitory, and I rubbed at my eyes as they adjusted to the semi-darkness.
“Well I do know,” the mouse said, now settling herself on my chest. I tried not to think about fleas or anything of that nature. It hadn't infected me yet, after all. There was a small piece of parchment clenched in her tiny paws.
“Another name?” I asked, unable to suppress a yawn. O.W.Ls were so close now, so I hoped whoever I had to help now had an easier solution than Connie's. I had loved helping her, and I would never forget the smile that lit up her face when she was on stage, but it had been a lot of work and a lot of time. I suddenly wondered if the mouse would be following me around during the summer as well. Perhaps I was going to be getting names for the rest of my life? How long exactly did mice live? Did talking mice live longer than the regular kind? However, the mouse's next statement silenced all of my questions.
“Its your last,” she told me, her head titling to the side kindly.
I should have been relieved. I should have been desperately happy that things were going to go back to normal, and that I wouldn't have to pour so much energy into situations that solutions that often made me uncomfortable. But, I didn't feel anything of the sort. I felt...strange. If it wasn't for all of this, I wouldn't be friends with Charlie. If it wasn't for all of this, I wouldn't understand Albus or Glen, really. I wouldn't have ever gotten closer with Connie, and there's no way I would have ever participated in a play. I felt odd, as though I was saying goodbye to a really good friend. Though the solutions to the names had not always been clear from the beginning, the fact that I had to help them always had been. It had been nice to have some sort of purpose and direction, even though it had been hard.
“Okay,” I replied quietly, waiting for her to hand it over.
“I wanted to talk to you instead of just leaving it this time,” the mouse explained, twitching her tail. “After all, this might be the last time you see me, at least like this.”
“I don't understand,” I whispered back, wondering if I should lean over and wake Glen. That way I'd finally know if I was having some sort of elaborate hallucination.
“I don't know if I understand either,” she answered, sounding very honest. “All I know is that the Room of Requirement offers its user the aide they ask for. You asked for help, and somehow I was born. You left the room before I could do anything for you, so I got out before you shut the door. I think I'm part of you.”
“I still don't get it,” I admitted. If I ever was able to tell Mum about all this, without her thinking I needed therapy, she might be able to explain it.
“I know,” the mouse went on, letting go of the piece of parchment. “But, I'm just here to tell you that you've done beautifully over the past months. You've been there for a lot of people, Hugo. And, whether you see it or not, you've grown more than I could have ever hoped for.” If mice could smile, I'm sure this one would have. “I think you're ready for this last name now.” Her eyes watched me for a few more seconds, but then she blinked, and worked her way off my chest, onto my sheets, and then onto the floor.
“Thank you,” I called out, suddenly into the darkness, even though I could no longer see her.
“Thank yourself, Hugo,” I heard her reply, though her voice was getting faint. “It's all been you.”
And, then, she was gone. Even with Glen's snoring, the room seemed quiet somehow. I settled myself back against my pillow, and pulled the piece of parchment towards me, gently running my fingertips over its rough surface. So, this was really the end. I took a breath, opened the parchment, and tried to use the light in the room to read it. I squinted hard, figuring that I was misreading it.
I was surprised, but at the exact same time, I wasn't surprised at all. I felt as though I had always known my name would be the last one, but I was surprised that I had actually made it to this point in the journey. My first thought was that this should be remarkably easy. I didn't have to track the person down, I didn't have to follow them in an attempt to figure out what they needed. It was just me. The answers were already there. I expected to have some kind of light bulb, epiphany moment as I lay in my bed, but I had no such luck. And, the fact that the answer did not immediately leap into my mind bothered me deeply. I tried to tell myself that I was simply too tired to address this issue at the moment, and that a good night's sleep would solve everything. I turned to my side, curling up into a more comfortable position, the scrap of parchment with my name on it, clenched tightly in my fist.
I slept in until ten. I know that doesn't seem very late, but it definitely is for me. Normally, I'm up by eight, even when its Sunday. I awoke to still find my fingers wrapped around my name. Glen was still asleep and probably would be until one in the afternoon, so I dressed quietly and went down to the Entrance Hall on my own. There were a few students at breakfast, but I wasn't in the mood for eating, so I passed by the Great Hall and exited the castle through the oak doors. It wasn't technically summer yet, but it sure felt like it. It was morning, but probably at least 70 degrees already. The world smelled like grass and the mounting anticipation everyone feels as the end of the school year approached. I knew that the study planner Mum got me stated that I should be studying Transfiguration this morning, but I just needed time to think.
I made it down to the lake and, after brushing all the dirt and moss off, sat down on a rock near the water. The sunlight shimmered and danced as the calm water lapped happily at the shore. I took in a deep breath and waited. This would be the perfect time for my epiphany. Right here. Right now. The setting was perfect. I was told that I was finally ready to help myself. I just had to focus. This was going to be great.
But, as my thoughts raced around in my head, I talked myself into circles instead of coming to any conclusions. In truth, I thought I had already helped myself. Though, I hadn't really considered that fact while I was taking care of the names I was given, I had managed help myself. I was still quiet for the most part, but I didn't think my words were lacking worth. I was still rather different from everyone else, especially my family, but found that I didn't mind so much anymore. I often worried about the fact that I didn't have that many friends, but that really wasn't the case anymore. So, what was left? What was it that was still wrong with me? There had to be something.
There was still an awful lot I was afraid of. I had helped Mipsy tackle one of her fears. Was I supposed to find a spider to hold or something? Try and look at a needle without throwing up? Who knew, exactly? I suddenly wished I had my guitar out here to pass the time; I always seemed to think better when I was strumming. Perhaps I wasn't supposed to solve a particular problem right now. I was going to know myself forever, after all, maybe the solution was coming months from now, or even years. Even though embracing that idea would absolve me of immediate responsibility, it did little to comfort me. This should be the easiest name of them all, yet I was struggling worse than ever. And, if I didn't have the answer, no one else would.
I kept sitting, telling myself that I couldn't leave until I figured this out, but Rose broke through my thoughts before I came up with the solution. Her red hair was loose and she hadn't done any straightening spells on it so it had some of Mum's bushiness to it. Her cheeks were little flushed, and she leaned over and put her hands on her knees. Had she run down here?
“We're going to be late,” she informed me, when she lifted her head.
“Late?” I asked, narrowing my eyebrows at my older sister.
“We're meeting Mum and Dad for lunch at the Three Broomsticks,” she reminded me before extending a hand to me and pulling me to my feet. “Lily was at breakfast and saw you heading out. What have you been doing out here this whole time?”
“Not much,” I admitted honestly with a shrug. “It was just a nice day.”
“Well, we better get going as we have quite a ways to walk,” Rose said. We turned together and made our way down the path, heading towards the village. I was watching the clouds for a few moments when Rose broke our silence and asked,
“How are you doing, Hugo?”
It was an interesting question, to say the least. I was pretty good, in the long run. There were just some things left that needed to be figured out.
“I'm okay,” I answered as casually as I could. “I'm glad the show is finally over, even though it was fun.”
“It was really fun,” Rose agreed, as we passed through the gates. “Scorpius really enjoyed himself as well.”
I smiled, interpreting that comment as Rose telling me that she and Scorpius were still getting on well in their relationship. There was, however, still a major hurdle for them to leap.
“Have you told Mum and Dad yet?” I asked gently, not knowing if it was a sensitive subject or not. Rose tucked a chunk of red hair behind her ear as the breeze tickled our faces.
“No. Scorpius and I wanted to see if we actually made it to the end of the year first. We figured why have a difficult conversation with them if this all ended up amounting to nothing in the end.”
“It is pretty much the end of the year,” I said, kicking at a pine cone in our path.
“I know,” Rose answered with a small shrug. “And its not like I haven't dated boys before. Its just, I've never actually been worried about what they thought before.”
I smiled to myself, thinking about how often I worried about what Mum and Dad thought. Rose never really had to do that. She had always been the favorite, and I could totally see why. Smart, popular, funny; what wasn't to like?
“I don't think you have to worry too much,” I said comfortingly. “Scorpius is a really good guy.” Rose brightened.
“Yeah, you're right. Besides, I can always tell them the story where he helped you up after busting your head on the stairs.”
“Its pure gold,” I grinned, instinctively putting a hand to my forehead. Sometimes it was just reassuring to know there was no blood coming out of it. Rose laughed, and I was reminded that I had gotten much closer to her this year as well. We had always gotten on fairly well, but seemed to just exist in different types of worlds. Now, I felt as though we were connected, or that I had realized our worlds had never actually been separate in the first place.
“But what about you?” Rose went on, watching me closely, as the first roofs and chimneys of the village came into view. “I've seen the way Connie's been looking at you lately.” I blushed and broke our eye contact so I could look down at my perfectly tied shoelaces.
“Maybe,” I managed to admit. “I don't know if we'll ever get there though. Things just might be too weird.”
“Because of James?”
“Because of James.”
Rose twisted her lips thoughtfully. “Hugo, how many girlfriends does James have in a regular school year?” I considered the question for a moment, trying to remember what I had seen for the past five years at Hogwarts. There had certainly been a lot of girls, no doubt about it. But, that made a lot of sense. James was pretty much the ideal guy. I bit my bottom lip.
“Two or three?” I tried.
“Probably even more than that,” Rose corrected me. “You really like Connie, right?”
“Yes,” I breathed. Oh, Rose; you don't even know the half of it.
“And she really likes you?”
“I really hope so,” I said.
“I just have one more thing to say on the subject, and then I promise I'll leave it alone forever.”
“Alright,” I nodded.
Rose looked at me closely, studying my face.
“I just want you to consider if James is really the one holding you back.”
Just as she promised, Rose let the subject drop after her comment, and we spent our last few minutes en route to The Three Broomsticks in silence. I had plenty to think about after a comment like that.
Clearly, Rose was suggesting that I was holding myself back from having a relationship with Connie. While I could definitely see how my normal lack of confidence would attribute to that idea, I didn't see the problem with being realistic. I had done something nice for Connie, but that didn't mean that she wanted to be involved with me on a romantic level. She might even think I was what she wanted, but would she really like me when she got to know me all the way? Everything I've observed in my fifteen years tells me otherwise. What was the point of flying up on the wings of hope if you were just going to end up shattered on the rocks later?
Then again, was this the course of action I was meant to take in order to help myself? To finally have the nerve to put all other things aside and try having an actual relationship with Connie Bishop? Or was there some other path I was meant to take?
My thoughts were still all twisted, and I felt all strange and jumpy when Rose and I finally reached our destination and went inside. Mum and Dad had already secured a table towards the back of the room. I think they were attempting to be discrete, but the people who were part of the current lunch rush were already looking. It didn't really matter in the end, we were all rather used to it by this point. Our table had one rounded bench that wrapped around the table and it really made it easy on everyone who was trying to watch us as we all technically facing them. Rose squeezed into the space next to Dad, and I sat next to Mum.
“We were just talking about your play!” Mum said almost instantly, giving me a kiss on the cheek. “It was wonderful!” Dad jolted slightly in his seat as though Mum had just kicked him under the table.
“Right!” he added with a smile. “Really, really good, mate.”
“Thanks,” I answered, saved from any additional words as the waitress came over to take our order.
Once she was gone, Mum started grilling Rose and I on our studies.
“You've been using that studying planner I sent you, right?” she asked me, taking a sip of her water.
“Yeah,” I replied, and it was true for the most part. No, I wasn't doing each and every crazy thing it said, but I was using it. Mum turned her attention to Rose, inquiring about her grades and prefect duties. Dad seemed to perk up a bit.
I leaned back a bit further in my seat as I tried as hard as I could to figure out why I was still feeling so...off. It felt as though there were electric snakes swirling around in my stomach. My thoughts were all jumbled, even though I felt like there was something I wanted to say. What was wrong with me? I didn't get much time to consider that fully, as Mum turned back to me, still smiling brightly.
“I still can't get over your play!” she went on excitedly. “I'm so glad you decided to take my advice!”
“What advice?” I asked.
Mum patted me on the shoulder.
“My advice about you getting involved with an extracurricular activity,” she reminded me, and the very thought of that letter made me a little sad. “I think being involved is helping already.”
Helping what, exactly? Was I really that different from what I had been at the beginning of the year? I didn't think so. It wasn't that I had changed, it was that I was on the road to accepting myself for who I was.
“Its true,” Dad chimed in, and it now felt like the electric snakes were at war with each other. “How's flying going, by the way?”
“Flying?” I practically sputtered, confused.
“Well,” Dad continued, looking just as confused. “We sent you your broomstick like you asked. I figured you wanted to get some practice in and try again.”
They were all looking at me. Dad. Mum. Rose. Maybe at the beginning of the year I would have told a simple lie to spare everyone some awkward feelings. I may have told Dad that I was giving flying another try. I may have told Mum that the reason I wanted to be involved with the play was to become more social like she suggested. But, I found that now, I just didn't want to. The mouse had been right. I hadn't changed, but I had grown. The truth blurted its way out of my mouth before I could even consider if it was the right thing.
“I gave it away!”
Mum and Dad were staring, but I could tell they thought they had misheard. Rose's mouth was partway open. I think she might have known what was coming next.
“You gave away your broomstick?” Mum asked, as Dad was still busy gaping at me.
“Yes,” I answered, my left foot starting to twitch nervously. What was I doing?
“Why?” Dad gasped when he found his voice.
Images flashed through my mind. Of being pulled into Ramona Weather's room for the first time. Of Charlie holding my broomstick. Of hitting Evan Lee in the face. Of scribbling notes to Pamela Macy. Of Professor Ramsay with Cassie at the beach. Of finding Albus' journals. Of standing in a high tower with Mipsy. Of Rose and Scorpius holding hands. Of Glen telling me about his father. Of Myrtle's clean bathroom. And of Connie's shining face on stage. I could do this.
For once, I really, really wanted to talk.
And so I did. I kept my voice as calm and level as I could, but the words tumbled out as though they had always been there at the very tip of my tongue.
“I gave my broomstick away to my friend Charlie because he really needed it to make the Quidditch team. His old broomstick was terrible, and I figured it made sense for the broom to go to good use.” I barreled on without pausing. “And I didn't get involved with the play because I wanted to be more social or popular, I did it because Connie wanted to act, and it was the only way I could see to make it happen.”
Mum and Dad exchanged a look and something in their expressions sparked another memory from the back of my mind.
“And, I don't need therapy,” I continued, though now my whole leg was trembling. “I know I'm mostly odd, and I know I don't necessarily fit in very well with the family. I'm quiet and shy for the most part. I have a strange need to keep things even and find that I have to separate the food on my plate before I can eat it. My list of fears is extensive, and most things included on the list make me faint. I don't have a wide array of friends, and I'm definitely not popular. I don't really understand most of the rules of Quidditch and I have no desire to play it as I'm rubbish and it scares me. My grades are average for the most part. And, I'm a Hufflepuff.”
I had to take a breath at this point and, even though I really didn't want to. I just wanted to keep talking before my brain got the better of me and told me to stop. I breathed deep. I was so close. I had to finish.
“I know none of those things are the type of stuff you'd ever want to brag about or be proud of, but it's who I am.”
My voice was shaking now, but I held it together the best I could.
“And I've finally realized that I don't have to be less like myself. I think I'm actually okay with all of the things on that list. I just want you to be too.”
I finally looked up from the wooden table surface. My head had been up, but my gaze had been focusing hard on the water ring that had formed because of my glass. I finally looked at my family. Rose was looking half shocked and half proud. Mum had tears glistening in her eyes. Dad was looking thunderstruck. But, they were all staring.
My courage finally gave out. I couldn't look at their faces anymore. And, even though I knew it was cowardly and pathetic, the next thing I knew I was outside again, on the path towards the castle. I didn't remember deciding to leave. I didn't remember getting up to do it. My thoughts and the colossal lump in my throat didn't fully catch up with me until I was back inside the entrance hall, and I nearly collapsed on the steps of the grand staircase. Lunch in the Great Hall was in full session by this point; I could hear the distant chattering of hundreds of students. I pulled my knees in close to me and waited for my heart to stop racing.
The bubble of guilt that had been building during my escape suddenly exploded and I could feel it searing through my body. I broke down into tears. I knew that anybody could walk by at this point. I knew it was embarrassing and it would make people uncomfortable if they came across me bawling my eyes out. But, I didn't care. I kept crying. It had been a long time since I had cried. It felt good and terrible all at the same time.
What kind of son says those kinds of things to their parents? I had good parents, no, I had great parents.
They took care of me. I knew that they loved me. I had both of them. I was so lucky. I was so lucky and I had just broken their hearts. They had looked so shocked and hurt by what I said.
I thought of what Glen's father had done to him and started to cry harder. He'd probably be disgusted if he knew what I had just done.
I continued sobbing until I realized that someone was sitting next to me on the stairs. I almost cried out in surprise, but it turned into a hiccup instead.
It was James.
It was unnatural, like a very strange dream, to have James sitting next to me on the stairs casually as if we hung out together all the time. I tried to calm myself, so I didn't seem like such a mess. But, as I was sure my eyes were red and my nose was running, I was likely far past that point. We sat quietly together for another few seconds, while I wondered what James was doing and if he was going to say something. I knew he wasn't going to ask me what was wrong. It just wasn't the way things worked between us. I took a Kleenex out of my pocket and blew my nose. He finally spoke, as if the noise from my nostrils jolted him into remembering what he was here for.
“Look,” he started, and I could tell this was hard for him. “I shouldn't have pushed you at Christmas. And I shouldn't have played that prank on you afterwards.”
Wait...he was apologizing? Had he really listened to what Glen had told him? I decided that his reasons for doing it were unimportant. James was offering me an apology that was genuine. He had never apologized to me before, and I was really grateful to hear him say it.
“Thank you,” I answered, wiping at the remaining tears in my eyes. “And thank you for the Cloak.” There was more silence, and I knew James was struggling with what to say next.
“If you wanted to ask her out, you can,” he finally said, and my eyes widened. He definitely looked serious. “I know how much you like her.”
And then, as quickly as he had appeared, James got up and went into the Great Hall as I stared after him. James' presence usually made me so tense and nervous; it was so odd seeing him feeling nervous instead. And all he was doing was talking to me. I sure wasn't intimidating. He was a good guy, really. We were very different from one another, and probably always would be, but that didn't mean we both couldn't be good.
If the day had been normal, this conversation would have had me deliriously happy. I would have been dancing around. James had given me his blessing. We weren't going to grow into old, quiet enemies. But, the lunch disaster still hung heavily in my heart. Why did I have to say all those things? I would have been dancing if I hadn't shot myself in the foot. How was I ever going to face them again?
I continued sitting on the step, lacking the strength to stand. My guilt was weighing me down.
AN: Only one more to go.
All my love,
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