Your hands are behind your back; your lips are moving, muttering feverishly; your steps beat out a constant rhythm on the floor: one-and-two-and-one-and-two-and-one-and-two. Forehead furrowed in concentration, your gaze slides over the post-it notes stuck to the wall, each bearing a different arithmetic symbol on it. You don’t need the sticky notes - you know the formula, know the proof you’ve been working on for the last three months off by heart - they’re only there in case, somehow, you forget.
It’s all well and good, though, to have the symbols, to know a formula - but what you need desperately is to prove that it’s right. To prove that you’re right - and, incidentally, to prove that Adalbert Waffling was wrong when he proposed that one’s own magic could never be turned against oneself, never be used to cause harm to oneself. That proof is what’s been escaping you for the last couple of weeks.
You don’t feel any closer to finding it now than you were three months ago - it’s still just out of your reach, no matter how far you stretch, fingertips ghosting over it but never actually touching.
As you reach the end of the formula, the end of the logical steps you can take, your voice falters. Stumbling, it wavers, before failing completely. There’s nowhere to go after that - after that step, you’ve reached an impassé, a stale-mate, an impossible situation where there is no answer, no move to make.
In short, you’ve stumped yourself.
Releasing a groan of frustration, you kick the nearest solid object - a bedpost - expecting, but not prepared for, the pain that shoots up through your toes and foot straight afterwards. Having successfully added injury to your suffocating list of woes, you flop down onto your bed, staring up at the plain white ceiling.
You don’t know what you’re missing. Something isn’t right - that much is obvious - but you can’t work out what it is that you’re doing wrong, what it is that isn’t right. Once you work that out, you know, everything will be much smoother, the theory will flow much faster, practically writing itself as the logic allows it to unfold neatly.
It’s like, you suppose, unravelling a jumper. The actual unravelling is, in itself, simple: you find a string and pull until you’re left with a pile of soft wool; the difficulty is in finding the correct thread to tug and tug and tug until resistance crumbles, thread snaps and the wool cascades into your hands.
Three months and you still haven’t found it. Occasionally you wonder if you’ll ever find it.
Slipping your hands behind your head, eyes tracing the faint brush-marks left by the previous owner as evidence of his work hand-painting the ceiling, you reflect on the situation - or, rather, on what exactly to do now. Ideally, you’d get back up, bouncing up off your bed and go back to your desk, raring and roaring to take another crack at finding that elusive thread, but the idea doesn’t appeal to you. Four and a half hours work has just been destroyed in a matter of seconds and a small voice in the back of your mind whispers that perhaps the same thing would happen again if you tried once more.
No, working is, perhaps, out of the question. It’s a Saturday afternoon - gently sunny, a stiff breeze rattling the shutters outside your window - and you want to do something. Anything, really, other than work.
Swinging your legs over the side of your bed sitting up, you decide, after a moment’s thought, to go and see Hugo. You’d jog round to Edgar’s flat, since he only lives three streets away, close to the Ministry of Magic, but he’s away on an assignment in Liechtenstein at the moment. Something to do with werewolf rights, you recall vaguely. Having a best mate who works in International Co-operation makes for a lot of good stories to hear, but not quite so often to hear them.
Hugo it is, then.
You push up off your bed, sauntering out of your room and into the lounge. A peer into the small jar on the mantelpiece - glass, painted with blue and gold stripes by Lily years and years ago - shows you that you have just about enough Floo powder for a couple of trips. Nevertheless, it’s another item you need to add to the long list of things you’ve run out of.
Taking a handful, you light a fire with a quick flick of your wand, the charm easy enough to perform wordlessly, and step inside the fireplace. It’s pleasantly warm and you linger a little before throwing down the powder, the fine grey crumbs scattering in the flames, dyeing them a bright green.
“184, Winchester Street!”
Instantly, you’re whisked away, the world spinning around you. The familiar, dizzy feeling begins to overwhelm you, turning your stomach, bile rising in your throat. Closing your eyes tightly, you swallow thickly and hope that it’s over soon.
Less than a minute after you walked into the fireplace, you find yourself falling out of a very different one onto a white, fluffy rug, warm air being replaced by cool. It’s a welcome change, though, and you lie on the rug for a moment, taking a deep breath, allowing your head to stop swimming, allowing your stomach to settle, before moving and standing up.
“Jamie!” Hugo appears in a doorway, his brown hair neatly combed, and grins at you. “Good to see you. What brings you here?”
You shrug lightly, slipping your hands into your jeans pockets, feeling, as usual, very scruffy and out-of-place in Hugo’s pristine sitting room.
“I just wanted to get out of my flat for a bit and thought I’d come and bother you,” you reply nonchalantly, returning his grin.
“What did you have in mind for ‘bothering me’?” Hugo asks, shooting you a faintly amused look - the kind of small, almost secret smile Aunt Hermione gives when she knows Uncle Ron or George is being funny but doesn’t want to admit it. “Going to the park? Fortescue’s?”
“I didn’t really have anything in mind,” you admit easily, considering both proposals. “But your idea sounds pretty good.”
“Which one?” Hugo frowns, confused, and you grin at him. Sometimes Hugo can be so impossibly dense, missing the little things - wordplay, plurals and singulars - the things which don’t seem to matter much, but change the entire meaning of things.
“Both,” you grin at him and he just rolls his eyes at you, muttering something to himself under his breath.
“Fine, fine,” he agrees after a pause of less than five seconds. “Just wait here for a minute.”
While he vanishes off into the confines of his - compared to yours - huge flat, you glance around. Hugo had always been one of those people who liked their homes to look as though no one lived there, as though it was constantly on show, and since leaving home he’d only got worse. The carpet is tan-coloured and velvety, softening even Molly’s spiky heels, and the walls a perfect, clot-free beige. On the bookshelves, everything is done in alphabetical order, organised by genre and type (fiction or non-fiction) which are again in alphabetical order. Every surface is polished, every item clean and in its proper place.
Hugo’s flat is the kind of place where specks of dust are guillotined for even thinking about landing on the windowsill. It’s the kind of place which looks good, but you hate. To you, it has no real character, no sense of home.
Soon enough, before you’re inclined to wander over to the bookshelves and see if there’s anything there that looks interesting, your cousin returns. A coat is thrown over his shoulders, one sleeve flapping as he struggles to slip an arm inside, and a pocket jingling with coins.
“Right,” he says once he’s managed to put the cotton jacket on, zipping up the front. “Let’s go.”
The walk down to Florean Fortescue’s Ice-Cream Parlour is quiet. Since all the kids have gone back to Hogwarts - those of the right age to go, of course - the alley’s been quieter, more subdued. Apart from the odd crying infant and harassed mother, not much really happens. It’s peaceful, and peaceful is what you’re looking for at the moment.
“So,” Hugo breaks the silence as the two of you stroll along, glancing at you briefly, his expression serious. “Lily said you ran away on Thursday evening.”
Your peaceful mood is shattered as soon as he says those words. You should have known, you suppose, that Lily would mention something to Hugo. They’re about the same age and get on pretty well - not to mention Lily could talk for Great Britain, if it counted as a sport - so there was a certain logic to it.
Regardless of Lily’s motives for mentioning the argument to Hugo or Hugo’s for bringing it up with you, you don’t want to talk about it. It’s something in the past - two days ago, now - and things in the past should stay there, they shouldn’t be brought up again to discuss and pick over like vultures with a carcass. It’s unnecessary.
“Do we have to talk about this?” you grumble, giving the cobbles underneath your feet a sour look.
“Yes,” Hugo nods emphatically. “You should talk about it with someone, at least, and probably sooner rather than later,” he pauses, drawing breath before continuing. “Look, I know things aren’t always easy and you don’t want to upset anyone or create a rift in the family or whatever, but you need to talk about it. You and Aunt Ginny and Uncle Harry are going to have to come to an agreement at some point, so you might as well try and work out what the issue is before you see them again. Nana’s next Sunday lunch is in just over two weeks, after all, and there’s no way she’ll let you miss that because of an argument.”
As you enter Diagon Alley properly, stepping out into the sunshine from a small side-street, you turn his words over in your mind. What he said makes sense - that much you know - but that doesn’t mean you have to like the idea at all.
It’s not that you feel the argument was ridiculous or childish in any way, it’s simply that this argument was perhaps more serious than others you’ve had and while it’s not difficult for you to tell Hugo things you don’t want to drag him into this mess - into the whole issue of where you live and how you pay your rent. You know that he’d offer to let you stay with him if you gave him half a chance to get the words out of his mouth, and the idea of staying with your younger cousin… well, you couldn’t honestly say you’ve ever really considered it as an option for longer than a night - two at the most.
“I’ll think about it, alright?” you compromise reluctantly.
For a moment you think Hugo’s going to argue, going to push you, going to insist you talk to him, to Edgar - to someone, whoever he thinks you need to speak to - but then he closes his mouth and nods, blue eyes turning back to the street.
“All right,” he agrees. “Fair enough. If you do want to talk, though -” the two of you separate briefly, going either side of a woman levitating a large, solid silver cauldron, a Flourish and Blotts’ bag in her other hand. “- just let me know, yeah? I know parents can be annoying at times - I mean, come on, you know what my parents are like - and I promise I won’t try and tell you what to do to sort things out.”
He looks at you so earnestly, so seriously and so truthfully that you almost believe him. Despite knowing full well that if you do discuss the argument with him, he will inevitably end up giving you advice (regardless of whether or not you asked for any advice in the first place), you can’t help but agree. Seeing Hugo disappointed gives you the same, faintly guilty, evil feeling inside as kicking a puppy would do - anything you can do to avoid that feeling is pretty much worth it.
“Yeah, fine,” you sigh, giving him a slight smile when he beams encouragingly at you. “Now can we just concentrate on the matter at hand?”
It was too late really, you admit internally a moment later, to ask that question seeing as you’d just entered the Ice-Cream Parlour at that point and Hugo had abandoned your conversation in favour of perusing the flavours displayed in neat rows behind the gleaming glass cover. He might be Hermione Granger’s child in terms of sensibility, but he definitely has his father’s attitude towards food.
Loitering just behind him, you crane your neck to see into the freezer over his shoulder, the bright colours of the tubs inside assailing your eyes immediately, a kaleidoscope of colour which makes it impossible to decide where to look first.
“Can I have a large pineapple and grapefruit Sundae with caramel sauce and chopped hazelnuts, please?” Hugo asks, the words popping out of his mouth without the slightest hesitation.
As the waitress begins scooping the ice-cream into a huge, curved glass, you go to take a step forward, and feel your shoulder bump into something solid. Glancing to the side, you adopt a faintly sheepish expression.
“Sorry,” you apologise quickly. “I didn’t see you there.”
The young man just shrugs, dark sunglasses giving him a strangely blank expression.
“It’s fine,” he replies, and his voice is quiet, soft and tinted with a faint, Italian lilt. Something about him seems vaguely familiar - as if you’ve met him before or seen him before, sauntering casually down the street in blazer and sunglasses.
You give up the question of whether or not you’ve seen him before in favour of ice-cream, your gaze shooting back to the multi-coloured tubs. Such displays and such wide ranges of choice are wonderful because it offers freedom, but it also makes it so hard to actually choose anything when it gets down to it.
“Can I have a large chocolate orange chip sundae with chocolate sauce, please?” you ask, watching as the waitress nods, smiles and begins piling balls of ice-cream into a glass, one on top of another, liberally dousing it all in warm, melted dark chocolate. Your mouth is watering just looking at it.
Gladly handing over the six sickles, four knuts to the waitress, you take the silver spoon offered and move away, ice-cream clutched in one hand. Hugo isn’t too difficult to spot - he’s the only person you know who insists on wearing orange Muggle-style cotton jackets, and his choice of garment has already attracted one or two curious looks - and so you make your way through the parlour to him easily.
“It’s pretty empty,” Hugo comments even before you’ve sat down on the bench next to him. “I would’ve thought more people would be here - parents with small kids and things.”
He has a point - while it’s not the warmest day of the autumn so far, it’s certainly not cold by any means and usually the parlour’s packed whenever there’s even the smallest hint of warm weather. The lack of people crowding around the counter and queuing towards the front of the shop is something of an anomaly, but it doesn’t linger too long on your mind.
Shrugging, you dismiss it.
“Maybe they all decided to stay at home or go to the beach or something,” you offer half-heartedly; the topic of conversation is a puzzle, but not one you’re inclined to try and work out. Too many unknown variables.
“Maybe,” Hugo agrees, taking a spoonful of ice-cream, a contented sigh leaving his mouth a moment later. “’Fis is so good!”
You give him a faintly confused look.
“But it’s all fruit,” you reply, the incredulous tone in your voice emphasising the last word. You’ve never been a big fan of fruit - or vegetables, for that matter - often leading your dad to mutter under his breath about how he doesn’t know how you don’t look like Dudley Dursley.
“Yours has fruit in it too,” Hugo points out with a grin, his spoon hovering in mid-air above his glass, already one-third empty.
“But with chocolate. Chocolate orange with chocolate and more chocolate,” you retort in response, digging in to your own ice-cream, the chocolate chips crunching between your teeth, ice-cream already partially melted by the chocolate sauce. Just the way you like it.
Across the table, Hugo just rolls his eyes at you, too absorbed in eating to bother to respond. You follow his lead, albeit quite a bit slower, steadily working your way through the huge glass, spoon flashing silver and brown alternatively, carving through the soft pudding smoothly.
As you eat, you glance about the parlour, spotting an elderly lady who lives just down the street from you, her crocodile-skin handbag propped up on the chair next to her, and a man perusing the Daily Prophet, an empty coffee cup and small ice-cream glass sitting on a tray in front of him. The corner of the newspaper is drenched in liquid strawberry ice-cream, drops falling onto the table every two-and-a-half seconds, a pink puddle beginning to form.
Directly opposite you, however, is the man you bumped into at the counter. Man, or boy, you wonder, regarding him a second time. Now you can get a proper look at him, he looks young - younger than you, younger than you’d originally thought. He still hasn’t removed his sunglasses, though, the black shades covering his eyes, fingers idly playing with the spoon in his left hand, shifting the purple scoops of ice-cream in his glass.
You find yourself watch him turning the spoon around, as though stirring a cauldron, wrist lazily forming circle after circle after circle. The motion is slow, controlled but carries an absent air, as though he isn’t aware he’s even doing it. It’s probably a habit of his, you guess, something he only realises he’s doing subconsciously until something happens to knock him out of it, to jerk him out of whatever reverie he’s sunk into.
The spoon stops moving.
Curious, you glance up, wondering what’s pulled him out of his thoughts. The sunglasses are looking at you, turned in your direction, his expression blank, hidden, masked. You freeze, watching him watching you, entirely unsure of what to do now, how to proceed.
After a slight pause, you give a small, tentative smile. There’s another wait, heavy, loaded. Then, he seems to return the smile, the corners of his mouth tilting up ever-so-slightly. It’s tiny - hardly a grin and a wink, cheerfully shouting out that everything’s fine - but you can relax, breathe again and forget the idea that you’d done something wrong by staring.
“Stop staring at him,” Hugo hisses to you, jabbing you in the ribs sharply with the subtly of a brick.
“I’m not -” you begin to defend yourself, before recalling that you are very definitely staring, as opposed to looking or simply glancing in the young man’s direction. “Never mind.”
Hugo sniggers into his empty ice-cream glass, wiping his mouth with a napkin he picked up from somewhere en route to the table. Throwing him a dirty look in response, you continue to eat the now mostly-melted ice-cream still left in your glass, being very careful not to raise your head, nervous about looking up and catching the eye of the man across the room again.
It’s not because you’re nervous of him - not at all. It’s simply because you know well enough that some people don’t like being stared at by another man across a room. They’re just not comfortable with it. Not to mention that if you keep staring at him, Hugo will automatically assume that you fancy him, and then he’ll tease you about it, letting slip to Nana Molly and all your cousins and aunts and uncles and parents and siblings at the next Weasley family dinner, and then everyone will be watching you - and him, if they ever see him - for every slight, flicked glance in his general direction, every spot of colour in your cheeks, every tiny gesture that could hint at something more than just admiring his sculpted cheekbones.
Now that you think about it, he does have sculpted cheekbones, you muse, picturing him in your mind exactly as he was sitting opposite. High cheekbones, just carved and chiselled enough to make them stand out slightly, but not enough to give him a gaunt, hollowed-out look.
You’re feeling decidedly odd - now you want to look up at him again, study those cheekbones, seeing if they match the ones in your memory, trace them with your eyes. You almost want him to catch you staring, want him to notice, want him to say something. Almost - but not quite, and so you keep your head down, toying with the nearly-liquidised ice-cream in front of you.
“Hurry up, will you?” Hugo moans from beside you, his voice nearly a whine. “You’re taking ages, and I’ve got a whole host of photos sitting in Motion-Developing Potion back at home, so I need to get back to deal with them. If you want to talk or go to the park, you’re going to have to be quicker.”
“It’s fine,” you assure him, jumping on the information you just received like a dog on a tossed bone. “You don’t need to wait for me. If you need to sort out the photos, get going. I’ll Floo you if I want to talk.”
Hugo regards you closely, tucking a stray brown curl behind an ear. It’s clear from his expression that he doesn’t really believe you will - and, honestly, you can’t blame him. You don’t have the best track record with these sorts of things. After a pause, though, he nods twice, slowly.
“All right,” he says, standing up, zipping up his jacket again. “I’ll see you soon - don’t be a stranger.”
With that last warning, a reminder to not accidentally ‘forget’ to go and talk to him, he rises from the table, leaving his empty glass there, his long stride taking him out of the building before you even had a chance to think about saying ‘goodbye’, let alone actually say it.
Giving a slight shake of your head, a wry smile creeps over your face. It was just typical behaviour of Hugo, to say that it was fine for him to come out with you, to go for ice-cream and a walk, hoping that you’d talk, hoping he could help (even if you didn’t talk. Ice-cream had a magical ability to soothe tempers and help logical thought), even though he had work to do and wasn’t going to stay for very long. Even more typical of him to not tell you this beforehand. You don’t really mind, though - it’s not as though you’re completely unoccupied.
Hugo’s words, mentioning your argument with your parents again and again and again, have sunk into your mind, taking root and growing, blossoming until you’re remembering every little thing they said, every little thing they did and the way they looked, the glances they threw your brother and sister, the way Albus and Lily reacted. Everything. Your mood is darkening, growing more and more melancholy, and you stir the melted ice-cream in your bowl aimlessly, staring at the table top.
Talk to Hugo? What about? You have no idea why you would need to talk to Hugo about the argument - you don’t doubt for one second that he’d take your parents’ side, tell you that you were over-reacting, that they only care about you and want to make sure you’re safe and happy or some other rubbish like that. Ridiculous, really - you know they want you to be happy and safe, but insisting you should move (from somewhere where you’re happy) to somewhere else and that you should allow them to pay for you to live somewhere else (where you probably wouldn’t be as happy as you are now) is, in your opinion, going over-board.
A group of middle-aged witches, all wearing pointed hats in various bright colours and trailing a cloud of perfume, enters the shop, the sudden influx of noise and smell causing you to look up.
You watch them progress to the counter, hoping beyond hope that they don’t choose to come and sit by your table - you’re not sure if you’d be able to breathe the air around them, it’s so thick with distilled flowers and spices.
Thankfully, they seem to be taking their time with choosing what they want (debating loudly the benefits of sorbet as opposed to ‘dreadfully fattening’ ice-cream), and you turn your attention away.
Idly, you lift the spoon out of the liquid in your glass and take a mouthful. It’s not bad - runny, but still cold and chocolate-orange, the chocolate sauce on top diminishing the taste of the fruit to a mere hint at the back of your mouth. Seeing as you have very little food left in your flat, you decide to finish it anyway - that way, you’ll need to pick up less for dinner than you’d originally planned.
You’re only on your fourth spoonful when a strong smell of lavender and freesias tickles your nose, and you cough, spluttering, your eyes watering from the intensity of the scent.
Shooting a glance to your left, hoping that the glance isn’t a glare, you see that the ladies have all sat down at the table immediately beside you.
Of course they would. Logically, you know it had always been likely - there are only two other empty tables in the café, one of which is outside and the other is right by the door to the bathrooms - but you had hoped that perhaps they might defy logic and choose one of those tables. Apparently, you had hoped in vain.
“- just doesn’t want to do anything. I’ve told him time and time again,” one of the women is blabbering away, talking at a hundred miles an hour, one hand gesturing wildly to indicate just how many times she’d told him whatever it was that she’d told him. You have a feeling you are about to find out, and are proved right once again (although you would have been perfectly happy not to have been right, no matter how satisfying the feeling it gives you is), as she continues, a mouthful of ice-cream not stopping her, “That if he wants to get anywhere in life he’s going to have to work for it. It’s not as if he’s stupid - he did well on his NEWTs -”
The perfume assails your nose again, a fresh wave of it, and you wonder if one of them had sprayed herself with more, thinking (wrongly) that the smell was disappearing, being swallowed up by the clean, fresh air that swept into the shop through the open door. You sneeze, breaking out into another quick succession of coughs, wiping your nose and your eyes with the back of your hand.
One of the women notices you and gives you a thin smile, sliding the napkin out from underneath her bowl of lemon sorbet and hands it to you.
“Here you go,” she tells you, leaving a split second pause during which you take the offered tissue and her eyes travel over your face. “You’re Harry Potter’s boy, aren’t you? Not the one who can fly - the other one, the older one.”
Swallowing hard, feeling your stomach drop slightly as she calls you ‘the other one’, as though if you can’t fly there’s no need to know your name. While you’ve never liked being hugely famous, it still stings when everyone knows who Albus is, everyone loves Albus, everyone thinks Albus is incredible and wonderful and so very talented, and you just linger in the background - amazing Albus’ unknown older brother. Harry Potter’s other son.
“Yeah, that’s me,” you nod briefly, gripping the napkin in one hand but not using it yet.
A pair of five-year-old twins race into the ice-cream parlour, giggling excitedly, their mother following close behind, clutching a paper bag bearing the triple W logo of Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes.
“Jemima! Jonathan! Only one scoop of ice-cream each!” she calls to them as she approaches the counter, exchanging a fond, exasperated smile with the waitress who beams down at the children.
“So, what are you doing at the moment?” the woman persists, leaning forward to talk to you, scrutinising you. “Do you have a job? You’re not an Auror, are you?”
“No, I’m not an Auror,” you reply, your tone curt. Yes, that was always people’s other assumption. You were an Auror, like your dad and uncle, you just either weren’t very famous for what you did or you weren’t very good. “And yes, I have a job.”
Avoiding looking at the woman - all of her companions are too busy discussing how adorable the two children looked skipping out of the parlour with their ice-cream cones in hand - you catch the eye of the man across the room.
He’s watching you. Sitting there, his glass of ice-cream turning slowly like yours - melting gently, contentedly - he’s silent, those black sunglasses turned towards you and the woman talking to you. You can’t see his expression, not clearly, but the corners of his mouth are turned down fractionally, making him look as though he might be frowning at the scene.
“Is he a friend of yours?” the woman asks, having spotted you looking at the man, and you tear your gaze away, grateful you’re not blushing. That would have been a dead giveaway.
“Yes,” you find yourself saying, without any warning, but you seize the opportunity to escape with both hands (a small voice in the back of your head tells you that it’s not so much an opportunity to escape as an opportunity to get closer to him, but you ignore it). “He went to school with my brother, actually. Sorry, but I should probably go over…”
Letting the sentence hang in the air, you rise quickly, before your nerves run out, and begin the short walk over.
The lie was easy enough to tell - everyone, it seemed, had gone to school with Albus. Between him and Lily, they seemed to know everyone you ever came across - or, as you frequently suspected, everyone knew them. It was simple and believable enough that unless she asked him whether or not it was true, you shouldn’t have any problems.
He could have been at Hogwarts with Albus, you mused as you approached his table, you just might not have noticed him. You weren’t the most social of people then - not with people in your siblings’ years, at any rate.
“Hi,” you say, trying to sound as casual as possible - as though you really were old school friends who’d happened to run into each other in Fortescue’s. “Do you mind if I sit here?”
“Not at all,” the other man replies, giving you a flash of a tentative smile. Now you’re closer, you can see his eyes behind the sunglasses, see them dart over to the table of chattering women where, no doubt, the one who was talking to you is still watching you, waiting to see if your story was true or not. Dark, oval-shaped, they flicker back to you, meeting your gaze easily. “James.”