Al and I weren’t normal brothers. Okay, we were. By blood. And we slept in the same house and there may have been a few instances growing up where I stole his toy broom and chucked it out the window for him getting more pudding than me at dinner. May have. Those were speculation. Otherwise, we had a different relationship than most brothers.
We didn’t fight over women, gang up on our sister, or shove each other’s head in the toilet. He tried that on me once and ended up with a black eye. And a truce.
Sure, everything wasn’t always dandy between us. He liked ties. I thought ties were for prats. He liked blonds. I thought brunettes were the better snog. He liked that weird man jewelry. I pretended to lose the shell necklace he brought from Barbados at one point.
We did have one thing in common, though: Dragons.
Every summer Al and I went to visit uncle Charlie in Romania. He lived there full time taking care of a colony of dragons – training them, feeding them, and not avoiding burns all that well. He used to go out and help them in the wild, but he has people for that now and instead he gets to stay and tend to the ones in the facility.
I was thirteen when we went for a visit with our parents. They left Lily with Grandmum, and lucky they did because these beasts are bloody huge. Definitely not a family pet, as half my hair was singed off the first day. Al started naming off nineties celebrities I favored. Until I pushed him into a pile of dragon dung.
Smells great, baby brother.
This summer wasn’t any different, except for the fact that I was now of age and could wave my wand all over the place and Al had to follow me around with that goofy grimace on his face. He was shorter than me, though not by much. It wasn’t hard to tell we were brothers, either. The hair gave it away. Same length. Same messiness. Same damn unwillingness to cooperate. But it was our eyes that set us apart. Mum loved Al’s eyes. She said they were so beautiful and he was going to be a heartbreaker.
Pfft. Only heart he’d broken was his pet snake when he went to Hogwarts each year.
“Are you writing her again?” I groaned, leaning against the wall of the small room we shared at the colony. It wasn’t very big, enough for two twin beds with skeptical bedspreads, a couple dressers, and one desk (which he hogged, claiming to be a writer or some rubbish). There was one window, but it opened to one of the dragon cages so I opted to keep the curtains closed for fear of waking up to a dragon eye peeking in watching me drool on my pillow.
“It’s been two days.”
“It’s only been two days!” I said, slapping my brother on the back of the head. “This girl’s got you wrapped around her finger.”
“I just miss her.”
Albus had been seeing Pip Lansing for three weeks. She was in his year and a Ravenclaw and from his jabbering I knew all about how smart she was. Isn’t that obvious given the House? He had his eye on her for the last few days of the year, finally asking her to get dinner during the feast. She laughed and said she was already having it, but gave him a rain check.
Right out of a soppy movie.
They went out in Diagon Alley and of course I tagged along. By tagged along I mean I put on a long black jacket and hat, then followed them in a creeper fashion to see what they were getting up to. Nothing spectacular. They just talked and then got ice cream. I thought the date was a dud until Al came home and told me they’d be going out again the next day.
Who knew talking and ice cream could be the hook, line, and sinker?
I rolled my eyes and tugged on a shirt, performing a quick fireproofing spell (learned that one the hard way). Then I turned back. “Done?”
“Almost.” Al’s hand was moving fast as he scribbled across the parchment. “There. Perfection.”
Only my brother would use that word in response to a letter he’d finished composing.
Get a grip.
He stood, stretching his back, and then folded it a couple times. Al took a piece of string and tied it before looking at me. “Don’t be a git just because you broke up with Jeanette before we came.”
Yeah, because she wanted me to keep in contact with her.
Stage Five Clinger.
“We’re late,” I said, wrinkling my nose. There wasn’t anything entirely wrong with Pip. It was more the fact that she was breathing, really. Not that she should stop breathing. She was just annoying. She talked a lot. And she had a bit of a whine to her voice. Nasally and such.
She just wasn’t right for Al.
We started down the hallway, which was lit with torches on the side. They were magical, so they wouldn’t go out, but I figured it was Charlie’s idea to make the place look more medieval since it was underground and there were dragons. Off to our left and right were more bunks of guests and workers, each with a window pointing to the courtyard of a dragon.
Al stopped by the owlry to drop off his letter and then followed after me to Courtyard Three, where we’d been working for the last week.
The room was massive. The ceilings had been extended higher than the Entrance Hall at Hogwarts and the room itself was several Great Halls placed side-by-side. It was in a stone grey with the feeding containers placed on one side, a giant ditch full of water for cooling, and various toys. When I asked about it the first day, Charlie shot me a look.
“Just because it’s a dragon doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be amused,” he said. It was almost scary how much he thought about dragons.
The only thing he thought about that even came close was his dog Skipper back at his flat, which was also attached to the colony. You’d think since Al and I were family that we’d get hooked up with a flat. No such luck. Instead I get the dragon-eye room with flowers on my sheets.
Courtyard Three’s dragon was currently in the back corner, curled up. He was an enormous Welsh Greenback with giant emerald scales and ivory horns sticking out of its head.
His name was William.
“It’s a proper name,” Charlie had told us when we gave him a skeptical look.
“James!” Hillsdale Steel was the primary caretaker of William. He was a tall bloke in his thirties with greying hair and a strong build. And enough burn marks to never need to shave again. “Albus! A bit late rolling out of bed today?”
“It was love letter time,” I said, rubbing the back of my neck. I hated being late. Bothered the piss out of me.
“How is the lovely Pip?” Hillsdale asked. He had one of those smiles older gents tended to have when they knew something you didn’t.
“She’s doing well,” Albus responded as we moved across the courtyard toward him. “She had dinner with her family the other night and were discussing the NEWTS.”
“Horrible process,” Hillsdale said. “Bloody failed all of mine. But look at me, I’m doing fine!”
I’d like to pass a few just to avoid a shiny shin.
“Her birthday is coming up,” Al added.
Blah blah blah. Pip’s turning sixteen. Everyone rejoice and grab the Butterbeer.
“What are you getting her?” Hillsdale asked. He pulled open a door to the left, dragging a huge bucket onto the concrete floor. It was full of dead fish.
It smelled like it was full of dead fish.
“I was thinking a necklace or something.” Al grabbed the side of the bucket and began to pull. He paused to roll up his sleeves.
“That soon?” I said, brow raising.
“You’re getting her a necklace that soon?” I gaped at him. It had been three weeks. You can’t just go and get a girl a necklace after three weeks. Maybe like three years or never.
Al shrugged. “Why not? Girls like jewelry.”
“Why don’t you just PROPOSE!” I cried.
William opened a lazy eye, but then closed it because William was a lazy bastard.
It wasn’t that I didn’t like Pip. I liked Pip just fine. I just didn’t understand why the girl needed a sodding necklace when she’d barely snogged my brother. In fact, she didn’t need a gift at all. Girls were too needy. Al should save his money for something worthwhile. Like new dragonhide boots.
Al and Hillsdale both raised a brow.
My shouting may have echoed.
“Anyway, I think a necklace is nice.” Hillsdale started grabbing the slimy fish out and throwing them into William’s dish. “You two going out tonight?”
“Planned on it,” I said a little bitterly. We’d planned on it last night before Al bailed to write yet another letter to Pip Pippington the buzzkill.
We always went out when we were here. Me, Al, and Uncle Charlie hitting the pub and playing wingman.
“I’m not single,” Al said defensively. “A lot of it lost its charm.”
“It didn’t have charm, it had bloody alcohol,” I shot back.
“Well, I’ll be there.” Hillsdale dumped the rest of the nasty fish guts into the dish and straightened up. “Who wants to coax William to come eat?”
I tapped my nose.
“Git,” Al muttered and he walked across the courtyard to prompt William awake without getting burned, eaten, or mauled.
“Is there a reason you two are always in here?”
Uncle Charlie had his feet up on his desk, leaning back in the old suede chair we used to have spinning contests on. He wasn’t the head of the entire colony, but he had a badge and people moved out of his way. You’d think this would get me special treatment, but no such luck. I still had to buy a girl a drink to get her to look at me, something that amused Charlie to no end.
“Al poked Charlotte,” I said matter-of-factly.
“Okay Aunt Hermione,” Al muttered. “I did not poke Charlotte. I touched her.”
“Poked,” I said.
Charlie turned his laugh into a cough. “And what did Charlotte do?”
Al lifted up his old shirt, which had been fireproofed. Had been. Until Charlotte sneezed on him. It was a tangled mess of fabric strips in his hands.
“And so you’re in trouble?”
“Hillsdale kicked us out of Four,” I explained. “Told us to show you the damage.”
He cocked a brow. “You boys are becoming a liability.”
“We’re in a bloody dragon colony,” I said, plopping down on one of the nearby leather chairs. “We going out tonight?”
“Wouldn’t that promote poor behavior?” Charlie said, but he was smirking. I think I got that from him. I definitely didn’t get it from Dad, who had no idea how to be arrogant and cocky at the same time.
“How am I supposed to be a good wingman if I can’t go out?” Al said, plopping on top of me and elbowing me right in the gut.
“What about love letter night?” I choked, shoving him onto the floor.
“Pip can wait.” He shrugged.
Now that was my brother, ladies and gents.
The pub was dark, but loud. There were glass lamps lining the walls and a few mismatched fixtures extending from the ceiling, but I couldn’t see into the corners. Probably for good reason. We took our seats at the bar, Uncle Charlie, then Al, then myself.
The three somethings. We had yet to come up with a name because every time we tried we were too drunk and thought up things like The Three Firewhiskeys, The Three Button Blazers, and The Three Sided Leaves. Quality.
Uncle Charlie ordered the first round and the bartender started asking him about the new dragon we got in last week, a Horntail called Phoenix.
“Any I Spy, Jamesey?” Al asked, taking a large gulp of his Firewhiskey. At least he looked a bit older than sixteen. Not by much, though.
Last year I chatted up a pretty girl from Pliot, the Romanian School for Magic, and she had a younger sister about Al’s age we fixed him up with. She ended up being a biter. His neck still looks a bit wonky.
I glanced around the pub, coming up a bit short. “It’s still early,” I said. “Get a sappy letter back from Pipsqueak yet?”
“She misses me.” Al grinned.
“Load of bollocks you only just left,” I said.
He rolled his eyes and concentrated on his drink while Uncle Charlie made animated arm gestures about Phoenix. “Remember two years ago when we came here every night?” he asked.
“We had a vomit count going.” I chuckled. “You lost.”
“I won,” Al countered. “You just weren’t counting the day after.”
I grimaced. Hangovers while trying to tame dragons were not exactly Merlin’s gift to men. “Yes, well, you were still a baby.”
“You were fifteen.” He put back the rest of his drink and slid it across the counter. “We had some fun, didn’t we?”
I ruffled my hair nervously. We did. We had a lot of fun. We woke up early, cleaned up dragon shit, and then drank until we threw up. We partied with the colony workers, the interns, and the families. Especially the pretty girls visiting their older brothers.
Al and I were a team. An unbreakable team of man force.
And now he was seeing Pip.
What was so good about Pip anyway?
Al even left me at the feast to go talk to her. We were in the middle of our annual pumpkin pasty fight. There were disappointed faces.
Mine was among them.
“Cheers, little brother,” I said, raising my glass against his new one. “To us.” I clinked them together. “Let us enjoy this night like we used to and wake up to even William being too fucking loud.”
Al smirked. “I’ll drink to that.”
And so he did. We both did. We put back shot after drink after shot, Charlie chiming in to climb over the bar and pour his own mixture of liquor I’d never heard of. And I’d never remember.
Things I remember:
Dancing on the bar
Dancing with Al on the bar
Dancing on the floor
Crawling on the floor
Being dared to kiss some broad
Pretending to be Pip
Grabbing a bottlecap and insisting Al use it as Pip’s gift
Trying to eat said bottlecap
Losing the bottlecap
Crying because I lost said bottlecap
We stumbled home sometime in the middle of the night, running into stray trees and hooking arms with strangers. One girl hit me with her purse.
“Probably because you just licked her face, James,” Al said, grabbing me around the middle and tugging me toward him. “You gunna tell Mum?”
“That I licked that girl’s face?” I stared after her. There were like four of her. And each had a hot arse. “Probably not. I mean, maybe. No promises.”
“That we got piss drunk.” Al squeezed my middle.
“Nah. She would scold. Then her voice gets all high.” I wrinkled my nose and put my arm around his shoulder. “You doing okay?”
“Pip will not approve.”
“Tell Pip to bloody sod off,” I barked angrily. Who was Pip anyway? Why did she matter? Oh, that’s right. She didn’t.
Or something. My stomach felt funky and the space between my ribs was burning.
“I can’t. She’s my girlthing.”
“The fuck is a girlthing?” I grabbed a tree trunk. My fingers were bleeding. The hell did that happen? Fuckery.
“Girl that’s a thing.”
“You’re talking out your ass,” I said, pushing off from the tree and walking toward the colony. Which was somewhere. To the east? Hell. Everything was blurry. Where was Charlie?
“I should have made her my girlfriend.”
“No you shouldn’t have,” I snapped. “You can’t have a girlfriend while you’re here.”
“Do you honestly believe that?” Al asked, pressing his head against my chest. “I think I’d be fine.”
“Come on, James.” Al poked my ribs, which hurt so I slapped him away. “What’s wrong with it?”
“Just shut up. We’re almost back.” I spotted the light above the colony door, which was marked with the charred outline of a dragon. I remained silent until I grabbed the door and pulled it.
Then I pulled it again.
Except that it was stuck.
“I’m telling all those girls you can’t open a door.” Al untangled himself from me and pulled on the door. Nothing. “Clearly I’m not telling them anything.”
I looked around. “This is the west door,” I said. “This is where we got in last year.”
There was no one around us. No stray drunks wandering back after hours. Just some scattered trees and weeds.
I decided to knock. “Oy, Charlie!” I cried. Not that Charlie would be right inside the west door and waiting to let us in. “Let me in, goddamn it!” More pounding. Al started kicking it.
We knocked for ten minutes. My fingers were bleeding again.
“You need a bandage,” Al said once the blood was moving up my arm.
Thank you. I appreciate the deep insight.
“Need a fucking dragon,” I muttered, sinking down against the door. Everything was dark past the reach of the light beside us. Anything could be lurking out there.
Charlie told us the story once of a dragon they caught not fifty meters from the colony. Great, now I was going to get eaten by a dragon. I wasn’t even sober enough to put up a fight.
But I would Lumos the shit out of it.
Al moved beside me and stretched his legs into the dirt. “Think we’ll die out here?” he asked.
“Probably.” I shrugged and wiped the blood onto my pants. “I’ll probably attract the dragons.”
“They’re not sharks, James.”
“Great. Now there are dragon-sharks,” I muttered. “Just what I need right now.”
Albus leaned his head on my shoulder. “Remember when we tried to sneak out instead of in?” He chuckled.
“You were like thirteen,” I replied. “Made it out of a window and then you fell and broke your leg.”
“And then you insisted we keep going.” He narrowed his eyes. “I believe you told me to walk it off.”
“Yes, well.” I chuckled, putting an arm around his shoulders. “You were being a git.”
“Because my leg hurt!”
“Should have just sucked it up.” I ruffled his dark hair. “You weren’t too keen on pity last year when I was bleeding from the back of my head.”
“Your dumb ass fell off the bar.” Al shrugged.
“And you were snogging a ginger in the back corner,” I added.
“Had absolutely nothing to do with it.”
“Might I add that I was the one who introduced you?”
“No, you may not add that.” He chuckled.
I ruffled his hair again, causing it to stand up on its ends. “Lily’s missing out on these trips,” I said. “Then again she calls all the dragons ‘Scales’ so I don’t think she’d get the hang of it.”
“She might like William.” Albus straightened up again and leaned his head back against the door.
I wrinkled my nose. “Not as much as we do.”
I jumped, damn near leaping away from my brother. “What’re you doing?”
“Maybe William can hear us,” he said cheerfully.
“You’re drunker than me.” I rolled my eyes. “William is in a courtyard. Probably sodding sleeping.”
“WILLIAM I LOVE YOU!”
“WILLIAM I DO!”
“Stop it right now.”
“WHEN YOU’RE NOT WITH ME–”
I slapped him on the back of the head. “I’m telling Pip.”
“She wants me to come home,” Al said, rubbing his head and shooting me a scathing glare.
“What? I’ll punch her.”
Which was obviously not true. Right?
He narrowed his eyes, bringing his arms across his chest as it was getting a little chilly. “She asked if I could come home a week or two early. Spend some time with her. Go on dates.”
I paused, trying to comprehend it.
“But,” I began, “You work with dragons.”
“I don’t think you understand,” I continued. “You wake up every fucking morning, walk down the hallway, and feed a fucking fire-ass-breathing dragon. With your brother. I’m cool as shit. Does she not think I’m cool? I’m giving her the intentions talk. In it I am going to ask what the hell she has against William, because he’s lazy, but he’s cool. Dragons don’t even need to be that active, okay? I don’t understand what the hell Pip has against William!”
I took a breath.
Albus cleared his throat. I could tell he was trying not to smirk, but I didn’t know why because Pip hating William was a serious offense. They would have to break up. Or stop seeing each other. Was it breaking up if it wasn’t official? I’d have to look that shit up when I got home.
“James, I’m not going anywhere,” he said with a small chuckle, leaning against the door again and pulling his legs up against his chest. “Don’t worry, mate.” He elbowed me.
I elbowed him back.
Because he was an asshole. Or whatever.
Someone was kicking my boot. Those were expensive. I opened one eye and found my uncle standing in front of us. His hair was lopsided, but he was dressed for work. Wrinkled clothes, but work clothes all the same.
“What’re you two doing out here?” he asked.
“Got locked out,” I mumbled, shoving Al off me. He had fallen asleep with his head on my shoulder and drooled all down my sodding arm.
Charlie stared at us for a minute. “Locked out?”
“Yep.” I used the door handle to pull myself up and dusted off my clothes. I needed a shower.
“You do realize you have a key, right?”
I paused and felt my left pocket. Keys. On that ring of keys was a key to this very door. After hours key.
Al did the same. His nose wrinkled.
“Hope you got enough sleep,” Charlie said with a shit-eating grin. “Because you boys are with Phoenix today and we’re teaching him how to fetch.” He moved between us and into the colony.
Al looked up at me. “Is that a real thing?” he asked.
“Dibs on sick day,” I said.
“No sick days!” Charlie called from the hallway.
It turned out, that was a real thing. Al and I spent the day hurling a giant log across the room for Phoenix to bound over to, pick up, and then snort at. Charlie said I wasn’t allowed the use of my wand because it was scare the dragon.
He was just being a shit. His wand was out the whole time.
Especially during the “Accio Tuna Melt” spell. Jerk.
I was exhausted and fell down onto one of the cafeteria tables during lunch, cheek pressed unceremoniously against the counter. “Just let me die,” I whined.
“Walk it off.” Al slapped me on the back and plopped down beside me. “At least we got some headway.”
“Seven hours and the dragon managed to take it from where we’d thrown it to his bloody water dish,” I grumbled. “That does not count as progress.”
“At least I still have a shirt,” Al said. He slid a sandwich toward me and I grunted in response. “You have to eat it.”
“I’m serious. We’re cleaning out Courtyard Three this afternoon. You’re not passing out on me.”
“Then you’ll have to do my work for me,” I whined again. “That is exactly what’s happening.”
He slapped me hard on the back of the head. “Eat or I’m going to Uncle Charlie.”
Some brother he was.
I grabbed the sandwich and stuffed part of it in my mouth. “Happy?”
“The happiest.” He grinned. “I’ve gotta bail a little early on lunch, though. I have to write Pip back.”
“Didn’t you do that yesterday?” I was in a whiny mood.
“Yes. And I’m going to do it again today.”
“We were supposed to throw darts before cleaning Three,” I mumbled.
“Ah, shit.” Al scrunched up his nose. “We’ll do it tonight. After the shift, okay?”
“Pretty sure you like her more than me.”
“She smells better.” He laughed and slid off the bench, heading for the door.
Hillsdale stole his seat. “Where’s the kid going?” He nodded to my brother and took out his own sandwich, which looked like a lopsided taco made of bread. And run over a few times.
By a dragon.
“To write a sonnet to his girlthing,” I grumbled bitterly. Way to leave me with Hillsdale. He smelled like a bag of powdered donuts. “He needs to keep up appearances while he’s away.”
“She a clinger?” he asked softly.
“Probably.” I shrugged. Stupid Pip Lansing and her stupid clinging.
“Your brother, git.”
“I just saw him five seconds ago. You’re sitting in his seat.”
“I mean when he’s with her.” Hillsdale nudged me. Made me want to go out for breakfast. “You guys spend all your time together during the summer.”
“We’re in different years at school.” I shrugged and took another bite just so I didn’t have to talk.
He had a point. Al and I were rarely ever apart when we were in Romania. We stuck to each other just as we did at home. Sure, I spent a weekend here or there with my mates and he went out once in a while, but for the most part we crashed in the living room after watching a rerun of a Quidditch match or the Dragon Games, which Uncle Charlie participated in every year.
But before we went to Romania he had been out each night with Pip. Ice cream. Dancing. Kissing on the front porch.
Lily peeked through the blinds and made a face because she wasn’t really into snogging yet. She was thirteen so good on her because I’d punch any bloke that so much as thought about her.
“You like his girlfriend?”
“Girlthing,” I corrected. “And she’s all right.”
“So you hate her?”
“Can’t stand her face,” I said.
Hillsdale chuckled and continued to eat. “Tell your brother how you feel?”
“It’s his choice, isn’t it?” I frowned. It was his choice. I knew that. It wasn’t up to me who Al fancied or dated or saw or whatever it was he was doing instead of playing darts with me. I usually let him win too. Had nothing to do with me having shit aim.
“Doesn’t mean you can’t tell him.” He reached over and screwed up my hair with the heel of his hand. “Just talk to him or something, Potter. See you in a half hour. Bring a shovel.” He smirked and left the cafeteria.
I was going to have a word with Uncle Charlie about these tasks.
It was late and Albus was already in bed. He’d written a second letter to Pip that evening after dinner, crawled under the covers, and begun staring at the ceiling. It didn’t look very interesting. Probably because it wasn’t. Couldn’t even count tiles.
I paused, contemplating writing a quick letter to Mum or Dad, but decided against it. I wanted them to think I was busy chasing dragons and shit. Not that Uncle Charlie would let me near a wild dragon. Phoenix was about as wild as they got and he reminded me of a scaly puppy. Charlie knew better than to let me near a legitimate dragon.
I sank down under the blankets and tugged them to my chest. Then I closed the curtains (dragons were creepers) and blew out the candle beside the bed.
Everything was quiet for a moment.
“Sorry I missed darts,” Al grunted.
“Twice in one day is better than three times.” My tone was a little bitter. Al had found a way to use the colony phone to get into touch with Pip and they talked for two hours before he wrote her another letter.
I stood outside of the room for fifteen minutes. They were discussing ice cream flavors.
“Tomorrow,” Al insisted.
“Come on, I’m sorry.”
I rolled my eyes, stubbornly folding my arms. I didn’t know why I was so mad. It wasn’t because he had a girl. I could have had a girl if I wanted. I wanted him to be happy. Then what was it?
It was because I wanted him to be happy hanging out with me.
He used to just sort of tag along because he was my younger brother. I came up with the things to do. I executed them. I dared him to jump out of the second-story window. I pushed him off his first broom to see if he bounced.
And now he was off doing things on his own. I frowned.
“Forgive me or not?”
“Good night,” I said and rolled onto my side.
“Good night, Albus,” I corrected.
“Ugh.” I heard him groan again and the mattress squeaked. “You’re not allowed to be this way.”
“I can be any way I please, thank you.” Hmph. Take that.
That was when I got mauled by my brother.
“ALBUS FUCKING GODRIC GRYFFINDOR WHAT ARE YOU DOING.”
Al stuck his elbow right in my ribcage and plopped on top of me, sitting there. He then pulled the blanket off my upper body and prodded me. “Talk to me,” he said. “C’mon. Quit being so broody and angsty.”
“It’s a good look for me,” I shot back. “Get off my bed. I’m telling Pip.”
“You are not. You won’t even talk to her.” He elbowed me again and I groaned. “C’mon, James. Is that what’s bothering you? Pip.”
I hesitated. It sounded stupid if I said it out loud.
“Yes!” I cried. “Okay? Is that what you want to hear?”
Al slid off me on the other side, leaning against the bed as his legs draped over my middle. “Why does she bother you?”
“This was our trip,” I said angrily. My fingers bunched around the blankets. “Every year this is what we do together. We wake up and do dangerous shit and then go home and brag about it for a whole year of Hogwarts. It’s about to be my last year of Hogwarts and the stories I’m going to tell consist of me talking to Hillsdale, not doing dangerous shit with my brother.” I looked at the ceiling.
“Come on, James.”
“No, sod off,” I snapped. “This is what we do. This is what we do together and you don’t give two shits enough to stop writing your girlthing long enough to throw some fucking darts.”
He let out a long sigh, tilting his head back against the wall.
“It’s fine,” I said, shoving his legs off me and climbing to my feet. “Tomorrow Uncle Charlie and I are going to play darts. I’m going to win because he is fucking miserable anyway. And then we’re going to go dragon hunting.”
He looked up. “What?”
“Yep.” I shot him the most arrogant, twatty smirk I could muster. “So you can go write Pip a bloody novel because tomorrow I will be out in the field.”
Was this true? Of course not. I didn’t care at that point.
“Whoa,” Albus said, pulling his knees up to his chest. He was watching me. “Are you excited?”
“Bloody right I am,” I shot back. “I need to get my rest so I can go it alone tomorrow.” My tone was icy and cold. I almost didn’t recognize it. “So scram.” I jerked my head to his bed. Al climbed off mine and onto his own, still staring at me.
I didn’t say anything else; just crawled back into bed and faced the wall.
I didn’t sleep either, even after he started snoring an hour later.
Uncle Charlie stared at me, one ginger eyebrow raised into his hairline. “So, let me get this straight,” he said. “You were pissed with Al so you told him you and I were going out into the field to go dragon-hunting.”
“Darts first,” I corrected.
“Right.” He couldn’t get that eyebrow any higher. “Darts and then dragon-hunting. In the wild. You, who has never had the proper training to so much as smile in the direction of an untamed dragon. Outside the colony. Hunting a dragon.”
“That’s pretty much it,” I said. “Yep. Nothing else to add.”
“You’re a fucking idiot, James.”
“Just let me hide out in here or something,” I said. “He’ll think I was out hunting shit.”
“I’m paying you to clean Courtyards. I don’t need you in my office.”
“I’ll buy you a drink.” I grinned in a cheeky way.
“Buy me a whole bloody round,” Charlie mumbled bitterly. “Fine. Come with me. I’m going to practice with Phoenix again and you can watch. Pleasantly. And smile for three hours straight. But I am not lying to Al.”
Al probably had no idea I was gone anyway. When I left that morning he was composing another letter to Pip. I dressed quickly and bailed in case he wanted to talk about how beautiful her hair was or how she really liked cats but her family had a dog.
Phoenix was in the corner of Courtyard Seventeen. He looked like a mean bugger, but started jumping around the second Charlie walked in.
“We sure he’s not a dog?” I asked, taking a seat on the bench beside the door.
“The trainers have a feeling he’s been exposed to humans before,” he explained, grabbing a huge slab of meat out of a bucket and tossing it to Phoenix, who caught it and swallowed it whole. Then he burped up a little fire, which was kind of cool. “They found him down by the river a few kilometers away trying to get fish out of it. No luck.”
“You think someone gave him up?” I asked.
“No idea.” Charlie shrugged and approached Phoenix. He patted his hide. “He’s just a big brute.” Big was right considering my uncle’s midsection was barely taller than the smallest part of the dragon’s thick leg. “Want a dragon, James?”
“Fat chance.” I thought about Mum’s reaction if I came home with that. Not good.
Charlie patted him again and walked around, examining its scales for any sign of damage or decay. He did this every day and he always had his tongue between his teeth during. “Oy. C’mere.”
I looked around. “Want me to get someone?” No trainers were in the courtyard.
“No. Just c’mere. Tell me if this looks irregular.”
I stood, walking over to Phoenix. His tongue was now lolling out of his chops like a sodding mutt. What a dragon. Should have just had a collar. “If what looks irregular?”
Charlie pointed to a reddish coloration behind Phoenix’s right leg joint.
“Doesn’t look normal.” I squinted and bent down.
He placed his fingers against the scale and Phoenix let out a low growl.
Just go get the newspaper and some slippers already.
“Go get Al,” Charlie said. “I let him borrow my injuries book for some light reading since he wants to go into creature healing.” He frowned and crouched down, now examining the increased spacing between each scale.
I made a face. “All right.” I nodded and left the courtyard, heading down the hall to find my brother. Phoenix was still growling when the door closed behind me.
I didn’t know why some trainer couldn’t have just gotten him. Then I could have hidden in the closet and he could think I was out hunting dragons. When I clearly wasn’t.
I shoved open the door to Courtyard Three, but all I saw was William lounging in the corner, nudging a plastic beach ball around between his claws.
“Lazy git,” I muttered, moving back into the hall.
There were twenty-five courtyards at the colony. Five staff rooms. Fifty-seven offices. One hundred bunk rooms. Ten flats.
And I had a missing brother.
On my way back to the bunk, I checked in a few courtyards. Just dragons and trainers. Some were angry dragons, too.
I left Courtyard Two with a singed eyebrow. Asshole lizard.
I poked my head into our room, but Al wasn’t there. The beds had been made by the working House Elves, so I took a load off on my search for my brother. Then again, maybe the book was around the room. I bent down, searching below the desk where there were a few of my notebooks from William’s behavioral training.
I straightened out and peered around again. Random books. Stack of empty envelopes. Check stub. Al’s letter to Pip.
I smirked, picking it up. If it started with ‘My dearest Pip’ I was going to smack him right in the mouth.
It started off quite differently.
I know you’re pissed with me. Right now you’re probably out with Uncle Charlie tracking dragons. I’m sure you’re having fun. I know we spent the last five years talking about how that would go. We’d crouch low to the grass, wands in hands (because we would obviously have to be of age), and track each giant dragon. Then we’d stumble upon a hurt baby dragon, sniffing so much it exhaled smoke.
We used to pretend in the backyard. Okay, we called it practicing, but we both knew unless we moved to Romania Uncle Charlie wouldn’t let us anywhere near dragons.
I’m proud of you, big brother. I know you’ve been talking about it all the time. Bragging about the idealized version of it. Laughing. And now you’re off doing it.
So I’m going to head home I think. I’ve told Pip I’m staying here so I can have some time to prep for school since I’m terribly behind on my reading. I want you to stay and have fun, though. This is your dream.
I’m going to go home and work on finding mine.
I stared at the letter, written in sprawling cursive. My brother was upset I went without him.
I tore out of the room, rushing down the hall. “Al!” I shouted. It echoed against the lanterns. “Albus Potter!” I began looking in random rooms. Some bloke with hairy feet was sleeping. A girl was eating a bowl of noodles even though food isn’t allowed out of the cafeteria. I threatened her and told her my Uncle is the boss. She flipped me off.
Nothing in the staff lounges. I didn’t know what I was expecting to find, considering he’d written that letter earlier. Before I left. Before I went ‘hunting dragons.’ What a bunch of shit. Like I was halfway qualified to even walk to the pub.
And now he thought I was abandoning him.
Come on, Al! He was the one abandoning me for Pip bloody Lansing, Bint Extraordinaire.
“Albus!” I shouted. Nothing but echo.
“You looking for Al?” Hillsdale stuck his head out of Courtyard Seven.
“Was it that obvious?” I came to a stop, fighting to catch my breath. I really needed to do more jogging. My insides were on fire.
“He was in the caf earlier.” He popped his gum. “Said he was heading home.”
“Fuck.” I broke into a run again, not built for this. If I wanted to run I would play football or some other dumb sport. I chased dragons. Fuck sports.
I threw open the doors to the cafeteria, sliding to a stop.
Most of the trainers were in there on break, bright blue uniforms shining against the artificial light.
“What’s up, James?” said Juri Dennison, glancing up from the third table. He was one of William’s primary trainers.
“You seen my brother?” I really needed to work out. This was just not okay. Chest was heaving. How many donuts did I have at breakfast? Probably like six thousand.
“Just walked out the back down to the shoot,” Juri said, popping some fish into his mouth. Fried fish. That was why I couldn’t bloody run.
The shoot was what they called the apparating bay for side-along and where they held the stray portkeys that went around England since there were various dragon offices there.
“Shit.” I shoved open the side door, racing down another hallway, blood pumping hard. Why the fuck did my brother have to be so dramatic?
There was a sign above the far stone archway that read SHOOT.
Below this sign? A gitty raven-haired teen with a rust backpack.
“OY!” I called.
“You can’t leave now,” I shouted. “Caught you a dragon. I’ve gotta help you convince Mum to have it in the garden.”
Albus spun around, his brows creased. His eyes looked strangely puffy. “You didn’t go dragon-hunting, did you?”
I shook my head. “Sorry for being a jealous jerk,” I said.
“Sorry for blowing off darts for twice.” He frowned in a boyish way.
“Want to piss of Charlie and hunt dragons by ourselves?” I offered.
“You mean crouching in the grass and pretending bushes are dragons?”
“Isn’t that what I said?” I smirked, moving toward him. “Did you really tell Pip you weren’t coming home yet?”
He shrugged and I put an arm around his shoulder. “Didn’t feel right going home to see her after leaving you.”
“Good man.” I cleared my throat. “You have Charlie’s book with you? Phoenix has some scale problems.”
He patted his bag. “Oh, he needs us now?”
“I’ll bribe him to let us take William home for a week.”
Al snorted as we made our way back to the cafeteria. “Throw in Charlotte to pester you and we’ve got a deal.”
“Out of the goodness of my heart, I couldn’t tear Charlotte away from Charlie.”
“Go back to bloody England?” Charlie called when we reentered the courtyard. He was still crouching by Phoenix’s leg. “Took you long enough.”
“Sorry I had to stop my brother from escaping,” I grumbled. “He’s got the book.”
“It’s a strain,” Al said, moving next to our uncle. He hadn’t so much as glanced.
Charlie snatched the book out of his hand and started flipping.
“I’m telling you,” Al insisted. “Go to the sixth chapter. Looks just like the picture.” He tapped his foot impatiently until Charlie opened the book to the appropriate page. He held it up to the wound.
“You’re shitting me,” Charlie muttered, looking up at my brother. “How many times have you read this?”
To my amusement, Al blushed. Scarlet. “A few times,” he mumbled.
“Meaning he checked it out of the Hogwarts library a thousand times,” I muttered and got an elbow to the gut.
Charlie was still looking dumbstruck. “Al, that’s impressive,” he said. “I’m serious. I’ve been working here almost twenty years and I couldn’t recognize that.”
“You’re not a healer,” Al stammered. “You’ve got people to do that for you.”
“Which you should think about.” Charlie straightened up and closed the book. “All right, smart guy, what do you do for a sprain?” He looked like a happy teacher.
“Ice, boss,” Al responded with a cocky smirk I was very proud of. I clapped him on the back.
“And who gets the ice?” Charlie asked.
“James does,” Charlie said, grinning at me. I stared. “Just think of it like hunting dragons.” He smirked. “Hunting cold, lazy dragons in a bag.”
I shot him a look and then slapped him in the chest. “I’m so glad you agreed to start training me this week to go out on a mission now that Al is training to be a healer.” I gave him a large, shit-eating grin. “That’s very kind of you, Uncle.” I cut him off again. “Oh, you’re buying drinks at the pub? Did you just tell me you’ll get me a snog by a brunette? Oh -- really? You’re giving me a raise?” I pushed open the door and led him into the hall. “And you’re letting me train remotely during my seventh year and maybe bring a girl to meet William in order to impress her? You’re really, truly the best.”
“I have no idea how your parents deal with you,” Uncle Charlie muttered darkly.
“Small doses,” piped Al, falling into step and giving me a high-five.
A/N: Any excuse I get to write James, I will always take it :) I hope you enjoyed my little dragon story with James and Albus bromancin' it up :)