She visited earlier than people generally did. Perhaps that was how she outsmarted me.
Or it might have been because I’d become attuned to hearing even the faintest pop of Apparition or roar of my fireplace, but the simple turn of a key in a lock was a far quieter and less obtrusive form of entry.
As such, she’d managed to open my bedroom door and turn the light on before I realised I had company. The only reason I didn’t Disapparate away the moment I realised that someone had intruded my privacy was that I was paralysed by shock at who it was.
Well, partly that, and partly the fact that I wasn’t wearing anything. I knew that the Hog’s Head had lower standards than other places but I thought it highly likely that even they’d throw me out in a trice if I turned up in my birthday suit.
But that was a secondary concern to me right now; my only thought was about the woman standing in front of me.
It had been five weeks since I’d last seen her, and it was as though I’d forgotten how stunning she really was.
“Carla...” I croaked.
Her arm was shaking slightly, I suddenly realised. It reminded me of the day that I’d told her all about magic; it had done the same then, too. I reached out towards it, but she took a step backwards, out of my reach.
“Get up, and have a shower,” she said slowly and quietly, as though she was making sure I heard her right. “Now.”
I blindly obeyed her, rolling out of bed and stumbling into the bathroom. It wasn’t until I’d gotten under the shower and turned the water on that I could begin to think clearly. It was as if the scalding water was washing away the shock of her appearance, along with five weeks’ worth of alcohol and sour thoughts.
I had no idea why she was here. I’d thought she’d wanted nothing more to do with me, and yet here she was in my flat.
It struck me that this was my chance to talk to her, to tell her how I felt – but how did I feel? Did I really want to be with her, properly?
Yes. That was a ridiculously easy question to answer. I hadn’t felt like this about anyone since I’d broken things off with Ingrid. It was partly because I hadn’t let myself; I’d been too scared of being used, of girls wanting the fame and the money. With Ingrid, I’d never needed to worry about that; she would never have even considered dating someone for their name or wealth. But all the girls since – Cassie, Vivienne, Astrid, the list went on – had only ever been interested for one reason. It hadn’t taken me long to learn that it was safer to just not get attached. And it hadn’t been all that hard to stop myself; the constant fawning was utterly nauseating.
But Carlotta had never fawned. Perhaps that was why I’d let myself get so attached.
I turned the shower off, and made my mind up about what I was going to do. I was going to tell her. Just what I was going to tell her, I wasn’t sure, but I couldn’t let her slip away, not again. And then it crossed my mind that she might have left while I’d been showering.
I opened the door, not even bothering to dry myself – and came to a halt in the doorway as a wonderful smell hit me. She was cooking me breakfast. I smiled to myself, pushing the door shut again and grabbing my towel.
She cared. On some level, she cared. That had to say something.
Once I was dry I headed back to my room to get dressed, and then followed the smell of food to the kitchen. Carlotta was placing a plate piled with food onto the table, and she looked up at me as I reached the doorway.
“Eat,” she said in the same quiet voice, pointing to the plate.
“Eat first. Talk later.”
I was tempted to disagree, but my stomach begged for me to tuck in. I’d been living on Hog’s Head food for three weeks, which was edible at best, and didn’t hold a candle to Carlotta’s fry-ups.
I sat down and tucked in, as she busied herself tidying up the kitchen. I thought she might leave once she’d finished, but she leant against the counter opposite me, arms folded, and watched me eat. Her arm was still twitching. Once I’d finished, she silently took the plate from me and washed it up.
“Go and see your parents,” she then said to me. She was still talking slowly; it felt as though she was talking to an invalid. “They love you. They just want what’s best for you. Sort things out with them, first, and then things won’t seem so bad.”
“How do you know I need to sort things out with them?”
The side of her mouth twitched, as though she’d been about to smile slightly.
“I knew from the start there was ill-feeling between you and your father. It doesn’t take a genius to know there’s something you need to fix. Both of you. You think the world is against you; it’s not. It really isn’t. Just make things better with him, and they can help you fix everything else.”
“Everything else? What do you know about everything else? I – why are you even here all of a sudden?”
She shook her head.
“I can’t answer that.”
“What do you mean, you can’t answer-”
“Why I’m here isn’t important. Smarten yourself up, and then go to see your dad.”
She made as if to leave. My eyes widened as I got to my feet, desperate to say my piece.
“No, wait! You can’t go-”
“I have work,” she said in that same slow, quiet voice, not stopping as she spoke.
Of course she did. It was Tuesday. She worked on Tuesdays. And Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. I didn’t know how I’d remembered that, but I remembered all the same.
“Please, don’t leave!” I pleaded. “I don’t want you to leave, I ... I need you, please...”
She stopped in the doorway, her hand on the frame.
“No, you don’t,” she said, not turning to face me. “You just think you do. You just ... you just cling to people too much. That’s all it is. I need to go to work-”
“No, it’s not like that! It’s more than that, let me explain-”
I stumbled across the kitchen, reached out and grabbed her wrist, but she pulled away, retreating into the living room.
“No, it’s not!” she said. “It’s not James, it’s really not! You don’t need me at all, just go to see your parents and leave me alone!”
That came out much faster; so fast the words were slurred and it was almost impossible to decipher them. I frowned, the fear of her leaving becoming a secondary worry.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
She laughed slightly, still backtracking to the door.
“You’re worried that I’m not okay?” Her speech was slow again, more controlled. “I’m fine. You’re not. Visit your dad. Sort it out. And please, just ... leave me.”
“I’m sorry,” I blurted out, desperate to get my point across. “I should have told you, I was wrong to keep it from you, I was wrong to say what I said...”
Now she allowed a sad smile to spread across her face.
“I know.” Her voice was almost a whisper. “It’s okay. I understand. You don’t need to apologise. But I...” She stood there a moment, looking as though she was deliberating with herself about something, but she said no more.
And then she left.
And I let her.
I shook my head, exasperated with myself. I trudged back into the kitchen, where I noticed my spare key sitting on the worktop. I smiled slightly, picking it up and turning it over and over between my fingers.
I didn’t understand her. At all. She wasn’t mad at me for not telling her about Dad; that was a good thing. But she wanted me to leave her alone ... that was less easy to work out.
And why had she come here in the first place?
I sat back in the chair I’d sat in while eating. Her presence, along with the shower and good food, had cleared my head slightly, and allowed me to think properly for the first time in weeks.
I wanted to sort things out with Mum, that was a given. But my relationship with Dad had been on a downhill spiral for nearly ten years. While I at least thought we’d hit rock bottom and couldn’t make things worse, I also failed to see how they could get better. I’d drawn my wand on him! He was my father, my flesh and blood, and all I’d wanted to do was hurt him. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t go to see him, not now. What would I say?
And once more I remembered being a scared little boy, soothed only by being in Dad’s comforting, loving embrace...
I buried my head in my arms, and screwed my eyes tight shut.
I’d been an idiot. A blind, foolish idiot. And I had no idea what to do now, to fix what I’d done wrong. But parents always knew best, especially mine.
I was going to have to swallow my pride and bite the bullet a lot if I wanted to resolve things with my family and get myself reinstated onto the Quidditch team. And putting it off wasn’t going to help my cause.
So I got to my feet, grabbed my wand, some money and an appeasement tactic, and left my flat.
The minute the door opened, I stuck my foot in the gap. I knew Dad could easily remove it, but it was at least a signal of intent.
He raised an eyebrow when he saw me, but otherwise his facial expression remained unreadable.
“James,” he said.
“Can I come in?” I said quickly. My heart was thudding so quickly and loudly that I felt certain he would be able to hear it.
His eyes fell to my hands, and the bottle of mead I was carrying.
“You can’t just turn up with a bottle of mead and hope that makes everything better,” he said calmly.
“I know, but I figured it was worth a try. If you don’t want it, I’ll take it home and drink it myself.”
“I hardly think you need any more alcohol in your system.”
“Looks like you’ll have to take it off my hands then.” I smiled feebly.
He sighed, and opened the door wider, standing back to let me in.
“Your mother’s out,” he said as I stepped over the threshold.
My heart sank slightly. I knew Mum would be easier to apologise to than Dad, and so I’d hoped that facing them together would make my task with Dad a little easier.
He led me into the kitchen and sat down at the head of the table, the seat he had always taken when I lived in the house. I sat opposite him.
“I’m sorry,” I blurted out after a moment’s silence. “I shouldn’t have drawn my wand on you.”
His mouth twitched slightly.
“No, it wasn’t a very wise move,” he said.
“I don’t know why I did it,” I admitted. “It was hardly as though I could overpower you.”
“You’ve got an Outstanding in your Defence Against the Dark Arts N.E.W.T.; that’s more than I do.”
“Yes, but you’ve got ‘Defeated Voldemort’ on your C.V. And besides...” I shifted awkwardly in my seat. “I didn’t deserve that O.”
“Interesting time to show some modesty,” he said coolly.
I looked down at my fingers, which were intertwined, resting on the table.
“I mean it,” I said. I swallowed the lump that had appeared in my throat. “I shouldn’t have got that O. Or any of the results I got. I didn’t work hard enough, I shouldn’t have got those results.”
“I’m serious!” I looked up at him, desperate for him to understand. “Ask Brie, she’ll tell you the same. I barely revised! I didn’t want good results; I wanted to fail!”
I held his gaze for a moment, before looking back down at my hands.
“James...” he said again. “Why did you want to fail?”
I closed my eyes.
“Because ... because ... I wanted everyone to know I’m not you,” I said, my voice little more than a whisper.
There was another awkward pause, and then he let out a sigh. I looked up to see his forehead resting in his hands.
“When we found out Lily was a Squib, I felt so sorry for her. I wondered how she’d fit in, I wondered if she’d cope in the Muggle world. But ... all this time, it wasn’t her I should have been worrying about. It was you and Albus.” He looked up at me. “I’m sorry-”
“It’s not your fault some Seer made a prophecy about you,” I said, shrugging.
“Not about that. I should have known you’d have pressure on you. I should have recognised that you couldn’t cope with the attention and the pressure. I’m your father, for Merlin’s sake, that’s supposed to be my job. And instead I focused on Lily, and just stood by as you messed your life up, convincing myself you could manage yourself, that you didn’t need me, that if you did then you’d come to me, when it was plainly obvious that of the three of you, you needed me the most.” He paused. “I’m the one who should be apologising here, not you. You’ve done nothing wrong-”
“I let myself go off the rails!” I said, my eyes wide. “I lost Mum her job! I-”
“You didn’t lose Mum her job,” he interrupted. “Many other young men and women would have caved under the pressure you’ve been under years ago. I should have realised this, and I didn’t. Please, James, forgive me.”
“Only if you forgive me for being an idiot,” I replied.
He smiled slightly.
“James, you weren’t an idiot. Trust me, there’s nothing for you to apologise for.” He paused. “You’re not the only one who ever felt alone in this world, you know.”
I looked at him, bemused.
“In my Fifth Year, when people refused to believe that Voldemort was back, I felt completely alienated. But I wasn’t. I had Ron and Hermione, and your mother, and your whole family. And you have us too. Not to mention Brigid and Ryan and the rest of your team. You don’t have to do this alone.”
I closed my eyes.
“My problems sound pathetic next to yours,” I muttered. “I mean, a Dark Lord! What’s a girl and a bit of media pressure compared to the worst Dark Lord who ever lived?”
“No, they’re not comparable. But that doesn’t trivialise your problems at all, Jimmy.”
It was the first time he'd ever called me that.
“I’m one of a kind, remember? My whole life is incomparable with anyone else’s.” He grinned cheekily for a moment, before his face resumed its previous expression. “Everyone loses sight of who they are occasionally. You don’t have to be ashamed of that. You just have to stay on track, to try to discover who you really are.”
“It’s just ... hard. You know? I mean, everyone expects me to do what you’ve done. And if I fail, then I’m a failure, and if I succeed, then it’s no big deal anyway because you’ve already done it...”
“We don't expect that of you," he said quietly. “Anyone who does clearly doesn’t care about you. I'd never wish what I’ve been through on anyone. You’re not me, James. You’re you. And I’m proud of you.”
I looked up at him, a smile spreading across my face.
“You... you are? You really are?”
He smiled sadly.
“Of course I am. How could I not be? Look at what you’ve achieved. An England call up!”
“Yeah, and look what I did with that chance,” I muttered.
“Everyone makes mistakes. It’s just about how you rectify them. Just remember, you’re not alone.”
He was interrupted by the sound of the front door opening.
“That’ll be your mother,” he said. “I don’t think she needs to know about the N.E.W.T. situation, does she?” he added quietly.
“Thanks, Dad,” I said.
“Diagon Alley was manic!” Mum said, entering the kitchen, laden with bags. “I can’t think why-”
She paused as her eyes fell on me.
“Hi, Mum,” I said, smiling nervously.
Her hand found her mouth and she stared at me for a moment, as though she was unsure as to whether she was really seeing me.
“James,” she whispered after a moment. “Oh, James...”
She let the bags drop to the floor and swiftly crossed the kitchen to me, pulling me into a tight hug. I wrapped my arms round her and buried my head in her shoulder, inhaling the flowery scent that was so comforting.
“I’m sorry I shut the door on you,” I whispered, closing my eyes tight shut. “It was horrible of me, I shouldn’t have done it...”
“It’s okay, sweetie, it’s okay,” she reassured me, planting a soft kiss on my head. “You’re here now, and that’s all that matters.”
At that moment, I felt so much love and gratitude towards my parents that I thought my chest might burst.
She pulled away and held me out at arm’s length. “Oh, baby, you look so thin, you must have barely been eating! You’ll stay here for dinner, won’t you? I’ll cook you something nourishing-”
“I’ve booked you a table in that posh Muggle restaurant by the Leaky,” I interrupted. “You and Dad. For tonight. At seven. I know you like it there...”
Tears welled in her eyes.
“Come with us,” she said.
“No, I don’t want to intrude-”
“James,” she said firmly, “your father and I eat together almost every night. I’ve not seen you properly for five weeks. Come on, come with us. Please?”
I glanced at Dad, who’d gotten up from the table to pick up the bags she’d dropped and was now leaning against the kitchen counter. He nodded in agreement.
“Okay.” I turned back to her. “I’ll come.”
“I’ll ring Al and Lily!” she said. “We’ll make it a family outing. I’m sure they’d love to come...” She turned to consult the notice board on the wall next to her. “Lily’s next exam is next week, she can have a night off. Oh, they’ll be so happy to know you’re alright!”
She dashed off to the living room, presumably to call them both.
“You know, your mother never used to be so emotional,” Dad said conversationally. “I blame it on you kids. It’s clearly motherhood that’s done it.”
“Yeah, blame us, sounds about right.” I rolled my eyes.
He laughed and threw me a pumpkin pasty, which I caught deftly. He sat back at the table, next to me instead of opposite me, with a pasty of his own.
“What exactly happened?” he asked softly.
I didn’t need to ask what he was referring to.
“She found out,” I said, frowning at my pasty, which I had placed on the table in front of me.
“What did she find out?”
I bit my lip.
“I ... I hadn’t told her about you,” I said. “About how you defeated Voldemort and ... and stuff. She knew about him, that there’d been Muggle persecution, but I hadn’t told her the whole thing. And then, the day I got called into the England squad, she read the Prophet, and…and she yelled at me, then left.”
There was a pregnant pause, as I stared fiercely at my pasty, refusing to look up and meet his eyes.
“Why didn’t you tell her before?” he asked finally.
“I guess ... I guess I liked the fact that she didn’t have any preconceptions of me, or any ambitions to suck up because of my surname. And ... telling her about you would mean admitting that ... that I could do better, that maybe what I’ve done isn’t really all that special. I guess it was partly a case of letting my ego get in the way. And ... well, I just wanted to avoid it all, really...” I tailed off.
“And she got angry about it?”
His tone was one of puzzlement. I looked up at him, to find him looking at me concernedly.
“I think it was partly because I’d already held something back from her,” I said. “I mean, when I first explained magic to her, I didn’t tell her about the Muggle persecution. She understood why, when I did tell her, but she asked if there was anything else I thought she needed to know. And I thought about telling her about you, and Uncle Ron, and Aunt Hermione ... but I chickened out. And so when she found out ... well, to her it was just something else I hadn’t told her. And she said I’d disrespected you too...”
“No you didn’t, don’t be daft,” he said reassuringly. “So ... that was why you started drinking? Because Carlotta left?”
I sighed heavily, and looked back down at the table, which was much easier to talk to than Dad’s face.
“I guess ... I guess her words kind of hit home. Made me think about things too much...”
I broke off part of the pasty crust and stuffed it in my mouth.
“I’ve been so worried,” Dad said quietly, his tone so dark it took me by surprise. “I’ve been calling at your flat every day, and you weren’t there. I was far too hard on you; I thought anger would work, but it just made things worse. What you really needed was a comforting arm round the shoulders. And the next time I arrived, you weren’t there, and nobody had any idea where you’d gone or what had happened to you ... everyone was so worried about you, and it was my fault...”
I looked up to see he had his head in his hands again, and was gripping his hair tightly.
“No, it wasn’t,” I said, reaching out and touching his arm lightly. “I just didn’t want to see anyone. I wanted to be alone...”
He looked up at me.
“Where did you go?”
“The Hog’s Head.”
“The whole time?”
I nodded; he shook his head incredulously.
“And to think, your brother and sister were so close only a week ago...”
I smiled wryly, thinking about the Hogwarts Quidditch match. And then I frowned.
“You didn’t go?”
He shook his head.
“I was at the Falcons match. Been to the last three. I guess I was hoping you might show up to watch one, and that I’d see you there...”
I couldn’t stop the tears from welling in my eyes. And then he reached over and hugged me, for the first time in years. I buried my head in his shoulder and inhaled his familiar smell, which triggered all sorts of childhood memories.
“I’m so proud of you,” he said quietly. “For everything. And the fact that you’re here now, that you’ve gotten yourself out of your funk...”
“But I didn’t,” I said, frowning and pulling away. “Carla did. She visited, made me have a shower, restocked my kitchen, cooked me breakfast and then left. I tried talking to her, tried to sort things out, but she wouldn’t listen.”
Dad looked puzzled.
“How did Carlotta know something was up?”
“Beats me,” I said. “She wouldn’t say. Barely said a thing. But I think that whatever it was we had between us, it’s gone now.”
“I don’t think you should give up quite so easily,” he said quietly. “You seemed happy with her, happier than we’ve seen you for a while. She’s worth the leg work, don’t you think?”
My mouth twitched as my thoughts switched to Carlotta’s legs.
“They’re both coming!” Mum joined us in the kitchen. “We’re meeting them at ten to seven outside the restaurant.”
I groaned, my head dropping into my hands. I was worried about what they’d say, whether they’d accept my apologies.
“It’ll all be fine,” she said soothingly. “Don’t worry.”
I hoped she was right.
“Stop fidgeting!” Mum hissed, slapping my hand down from my hair. “Honestly, you’re worse than your father.”
“She’s going to tear me to shreds!” I moaned.
“Don’t be so melodramatic,” she said, rolling her eyes. “She’s not that scary-”
“You would say that, it’s your temper she’s inherited!”
“He’s got a point,” Dad added, prompting a glare from Mum.
“There they are!” she said suddenly, pointing up the road towards the Leaky Cauldron.
Nothing could have prepared me for what happened next.
Lily ran up to me and threw her arms round my neck, knocking me several steps backward.
“I knew it would work!” she exclaimed.
“Knew what would work?” I asked, hugging her back.
She pulled away, looking slightly sheepish.
“Wait a minute...” My brain was clicking into gear. “Did you visit Carlotta?”
“Don’t be mad...” She twirled a strand of hair round her finger, a sign that she was nervous. “I mean, it got you up, didn’t it?”
I grinned at her.
“Thanks, Lil,” I said, ruffling up her hair; she squealed and slapped my hand away.
I then turned to Al. I’d been horrible to him, he had every right to refuse to have anything to do with me...
“It’s good to have you back,” he said, clapping a hand on my shoulder.
I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt so much love for my family.
Mum and Dad refused to let me pay for dinner. I’d tried to argue my case, but Mum had put her foot down, and in the end I had to concede defeat; winning an argument with Mum was a near impossibility.
“You going to visit Brie?” Lily asked as we sat at a table at the Leaky, waiting for Maddie to let Lily know when Mrs Atkinson’s house was free for her to Floo back to.
“That’s tomorrow’s job.” I grimaced at the thought. “Can’t say I’m looking forward to that one.”
“You’ll be fine.” Lily took a slurp from her Butterbeer tankard.
“I said some really horrible things to her...”
“She’ll be fine. She’s been worried sick about you, as well. Just say your piece; she’ll understand. How did things go with Carla, anyway?”
“Not amazingly,” I said gloomily, staring into my own tankard. “She didn’t seem interested in sorting things out.”
“But you want to?”
“I guess,” I said. “I mean, she’s more than any of the other girls were, she’s a friend as well ... well, she was...”
“I think you’ve met your match, James Potter,” she said gleefully. “Go see her in a few weeks. I think she’s worth the trouble, whatever arrangement comes of it. She can actually handle you, which is something I thought only Brie could do – well, and me, of course.” She grinned cheekily. “What about Freddie?”
“Brie first,” I said. “Freddie will be ... not more understanding, necessarily, but ... well, I hurt Brie more.”
Lily nodded in agreement.
“Also, the sooner you make things up with Brie, the sooner you can get back to playing Quidditch.” She paused. “Dad told me what you said, about him mollycoddling me.”
I winced. “I didn’t mean that, I-”
“Thank you,” she said sincerely. My jaw dropped. “He needed to hear it from someone. I’m happy, James, I’m perfectly happy. I’m proud of who I am. You see that, but I don’t think he did before. But he knows now. I know that he was looking out for my best interests, and maybe I needed that at first, but I can stand on my own two feet now. You’ve helped him to realise that. So ... thank you.”
A bleep from her phone interrupted us before I could respond.
“Maddie says the coast is clear.” She drained her tankard and got to her feet. “It’s really nice to see you better, Jim.”
“Yeah.” I finished my own Butterbeer, got up and pulled her into a one-armed hug. “Thanks, Lil.”
“Anything for my favourite eldest brother.”
I was suddenly reminded of something.
“How are the exams coming along?”
“Pretty good.” She nodded. “Two left, next week, so fingers crossed.”
“Good luck with them.”
“Good luck to you too.” She shot me one last smile, before vanishing in the vivid green flames.