February melts into March, and March into April. James tries to focus on his studies. At least he's got time to himself now. All the other Gryffindor boys are busy with their friends and even Rose – quiet little Rose, who everyone ignored in first year – is busy chatting away with friends in the common room every night. She makes the Quidditch team and leaves everyone awestruck by her performance. Apparently she's going to make one of the best Seekers they've seen for years. James wouldn't know; the try-outs had been held on a Saturday afternoon, when he was in detention for damaging Scorpius's Ever-Growing Basil. It had been a stupid thing to do, but James hadn't been able to help it. It had been revenge for his unhappy cactus.
But fortune smiles upon Scorpius, as always, and the Ever-Growing Basil has been quickly restored to its former state of luxurious leaves and healthy appearance. James, on the other hand, is still stuck with a dead cactus, a week of detentions, and he missed Rose's try-outs.
It can't get any worse, he thinks.
But of course, it does.
His vendetta with Scorpius reaches a new height a few weeks later. One afternoon, as students spill into the corridor after class, James grows more and more impatient as a group of Ravenclaws dawdle along in front of him, blocking his path. He recognises Scorpius among them, and his impatience soon gives way to a flash of anger.
"Get out of my way, Malfoy," James snaps, shoving past Scorpius; the next moment, he stumbles and falls over, sprawling across the floor, his bookbag spilling ink and quills and parchment everywhere. The other students laugh while Martin and Paul rush to help James up.
"He got you with a Tripping Jinx," Martin mutters. "Honestly, there's no need for that."
James looks up just in time to see Scorpius tucking his wand away. The little git! He seethes and draws his wand, but Paul shakes his head.
"It's not worth it, mate – "
Scorpius – already turning away from James – is caught unawares and the jinx hits his bookbag, immediately sending parchment and quills exploding from it. Scorpius whips around to face James, wand already in his hand.
James can't dodge the spell in time; it hits him squarely in the chest and vines begin to curl around him. A group of Hufflepuffs nearby start giggling, and his face burns with embarrassment.
"You'll pay for that one!" James snarls. "Consenesco!"
Scorpius sidesteps it easily, James is infuriated to see. "Oppugno!"
James lets out a cry of dismay as quills rise up to attack him, darting at his skin with sharp nibs. The other students are all laughing now and, furious, James slashes his wand through the air. A sizzle of white light bursts across the hallway and a moment later Scorpius cries out, an angry scarlet welt appearing across his arm, another appearing on his hand. Good, James thinks, casting a quick Incendio to reduce the bothersome quills to ashes. No doubt Scorpius will scurry away now –
The spell slams into James, sending him stumbling back several feet; his head slams into the stone wall and he doesn't move for a moment, dazed. Nobody's laughing anymore. Scorpius takes a step forward, expression still furious.
The spell is blinding white, and James has no idea what it is, except it's so bright that his eyes hurt, and then even when the light has faded his vision is still marked with an imprint of the spell, and his eyes are itchy...he rubs his hands furiously across his eyes, but the itchiness gets worse and worse and he stumbles blindly.
"I'm getting a teacher," somebody says.
Someone touches his shoulder and speaks. Martin, he'd guess. "You okay, mate?"
No. It's among the worst pain he's ever endured. It feels like someone has thrown vinegar into his eyes. "It hurts," he mumbles. Someone touches the back of his head and he makes an angry noise of pain.
"Sorry," Martin says quickly. "You must've hit your head pretty hard. It's bleeding a bit."
There's a sudden kerfuffle and then, to James's faint relief, the very disapproving tones of McGonagall.
"Honeycutt! Take Mr Potter to the hospital wing at once. Malfoy – with me."
Martin drags James to the hospital wing, where Madam Pomfrey diagnoses him with a nasty case of the Conjunctivitis Hex. He's given eye drops and spends the rest of the afternoon waiting for the pain to subside. McGonagall makes an appearance after a while, Scorpius in tow, and James immediately hates that Scorpius is there. No doubt he's pleased to see James looking so pathetic.
"Duelling is strictly forbidden at Hogwarts," McGonagall says severely. "You'll both apologise to each other."
"No," James retorts, giving her a defiant look, although fear flickers in his heart when McGonagall's lips thin.
"This is very serious," she snaps. "You may apologise now or receive a week of detentions."
"I'll take the detentions," James says, and McGonagall's lips somehow thin even further.
"I'm disappointed," she says. "I had hoped for more maturity, Potter." She turns to Scorpius. "And your choice?"
James can feel Scorpius looking at him, but he resolutely glares at the floor.
"Sorry, James," Scorpius says at last.
"Good." McGonagall turns as if to leave and James is immediately outraged.
"That's it? Two words and he's free to go? He doesn't even mean it! He's only sorry he's in trouble!"
"Rest assured that Malfoy is certainly dealing with more consequences," McGonagall says. She sweeps away, Scorpius trailing after her.
Well, at least James has been excused from the rest of the day's classes. A nap looks very enticing now, he thinks as he begins to lie down.
"What are you doing?" Pomfrey says sharply.
"Having a nap?"
"Certainly not. You may have a minor concussion – you are not to go to sleep under any circumstances. Sitting up, please, and keeping yourself awake. Haven't you got any homework?"
"Yeah, but you said I should try and stay awake."
Pomfrey doesn't seem to think that's very amusing. "In that case, you can consider Professor McGonagall's advice and think about the foolishness that led you here."
Scowling, James picks up his Herbology textbook and turns the page so violently it nearly tears.
But if there's anything worse than Scorpius getting away with it, James thinks, it's the fact that his own friends won't take his side either.
"Wow, that's awful," Iwan says sympathetically that night in the dormitory, after listening to James's story. "I can't believe he used that curse."
James scowls. "Typical of him."
"I don't know," Nate says. They turn to look at him; he's looking up from the book he's reading, looking faintly doubtful. "Scorpius seems pretty level-headed."
"Are you serious? You're defending him?" James demands.
"Look, obviously it was a completely awful thing for Scorpius to do, but I'm not sure I'd say it was typical of him. We're partners in Herbology, if you remember, and he's been very nice. If you ask me, you two have some sort of stupid fight going on. Maybe you should just stay out of his way, James."
"Maybe you should shut up and mind your own business," James retorts furiously, in absolutely no mood to be lectured on the virtues of Scorpius Malfoy. By a fellow Gryffindor, no less.
Nate blinks at him. "Okay," he says slowly. "Guess you're in a bad mood…" He picks up his book and leaves.
"Can you believe that prat?" James demands.
The other boys exchange looks and say nothing.
James finds his copy of Martin Miggs, well-worn, the pages tattered like the edges of a young child's security blanket.
Nevertheless, it's Scorpius who searches for James a few days later.
James is sitting beneath a tree near the edge of the lake when Scorpius approaches him. He's by himself, sketchbook in his lap, pencil-tin open nearby with its contents spilling out across the grass. James used to enjoy drawing quite a lot, but the hobby has waned in recent years. Nevertheless, he's in the mood for a bit of sketching and he's just started shading the lines of the castle when a shadow falls across the paper.
James glances up.
James doesn't react, too surprised to do anything for a moment, even scowl – he just sits there, looking up at Scorpius with a bewildered expression.
Then Scorpius tosses a piece of parchment down; it lands on the grass beside James.
"McGonagall said I had to give you a written apology," he says.
"Oh," James says stupidly.
Scorpius turns without another word and walks away. James watches him until he disappears completely from sight, and then he glances at the folded parchment beside him. He should just throw it away, he thinks. Incinerate it. Who knows what hurtful words Scorpius has scrawled across the parchment?
But curiosity wins and after a long moment, James sets his sketchbook aside, slowly unfolds the parchment and begins reading.
I'm sorry about what happened. When I saw you in so much pain, I felt like the worst person ever. I was just so angry at the time, I didn't think before hexing you.
Nobody else gets me this riled, you know, and I think it's because we used to be friends and I hate that. I suppose the best thing is to just forget we were ever friends. I'm reading a book on memory charms at the moment so hopefully I can make that a reality.
The funny thing is, when I think about it, you probably feel the same. Well, maybe, if you ask nicely, I'll erase your memories too.
James doesn't read it again.
Once is enough.
He slowly folds the letter up, puts it back in the envelope, and sets it aside. After another pause, he picks his sketchbook up slowly and tries to continue the drawing. Walls, he thinks, staring down at the sketched castle. He was shading the walls.
He picks up his pencil and resumes his work.
Just a few more weeks and summer will begin.
Harry knows the summer holidays have been creeping up like Devil's Snare, but on the day of James's return a surveillance meeting takes a very interesting turn and it's an entire hour later when Harry suddenly jumps to his feet, swearing loudly.
By the time he arrives at King's Cross, the platform has long since emptied. A brief but very panicked search leads him to Andromeda's house; Teddy apparently took the day off to greet James at the station as a nice surprise. When Harry arrives at Andromeda's home, overcome with relief, James is certainly chilly towards him.
"Forgot something, did you?" he asks coolly.
"I'm so sorry, I was busy at work, this surveillance took a really unexpected turn and I just completely... Are you all right?"
"Whatever," James mutters.
And things only seem to go downhill from there. Harry spends the rest of the summer holidays buried in work; as the mercury climbs higher and the skies blaze midsummer blue, tempers seem to fray and patience disappears. James spends most of the time sprawled across the cool floorboards, reading his comics and ignoring Harry.
Harry had so many plans — trips to the seaside, perhaps, or even a visit to France, and plenty of journeys to London. But somehow the summer races through his hands like fine sand and before he knows it, the holidays are nearly over. Well, he thinks as the end of August bears down upon them like the Hogwarts Express, at least he's got a few days left to spend time with James. He can help James pack for Hogwarts and apologise for being so absent lately.
But on the final day of the summer holidays, Harry's hope for a happy farewell is destroyed.
He spends most of the day working, but at least he has the evening free. He walks through the front door, puts his cloak on the peg, and hears voices from the kitchen. Teddy and James are making dinner, apparently, and Harry has to smile.
"Rose has a terrible crush on some third-year Hufflepuff called Andrew," Teddy is saying. "At least, that's what Hugo reckons. Little toerag reckons she's mentioned him a few times, but I think he's just reading her diary again."
"I hope you're not discussing your cousin's love life," Harry says, stepping into the kitchen.
Teddy looks up from his task of stirring something in the saucepan. "Of course not," he grins. "Poor Rose, she's got enough embarrassment in her life. Like having a nosy little brother."
Harry laughs and they fall into casual conversation – if James has packed for Hogwarts yet, if he's looking forward to seeing all his friends again, what Teddy's plans are for the next week.
"I'm assisting a few of my colleagues, actually, on the first real project I'll be involved with," Teddy says excitedly. "We're doing a big feature piece on the origins of Quidditch."
"When it's published, send a copy to Rose," Harry says. "She's getting rather keen on Quidditch."
James begins peeling potatoes. "I'm not sure if Aunt Hermione would like that. Rose tried doing a Wronski Feint last week, nearly broke her nose."
Harry smiles, reminded of his recent visits to the Malfoy home. Scorpius has been very diligent with his Quidditch practice. "Well, it takes a bit of work. I actually taught Scorpius that same move a few weeks ago – there were a few near misses."
Surprise – then anger – flashes across James's face. "Why are you still teaching him Quidditch? I asked you not to!"
"Oh, for – are we really going to have this conversation again? It's nice to do things for people – "
"Not Scorpius Malfoy!"
"For Merlin's sake, would you drop it already?" Harry can't help the exasperation needling through his voice. "I know you had a bit of a row with Scorpius – a whole year ago – but there's no reason why everyone else should share your irrational dislike – "
"I'm just going to get some fresh air," Teddy says quickly, slipping away. Neither James nor Harry bother replying to him.
"First you gave my Skyblazer away, then you promised you'd stop giving him advice – he's on the Ravenclaw team, remember! What about Rose? She'll have to play against him, I hope you know," James says mutinously to Harry.
"It's just a game! And I didn't promise I'd stop giving him advice, James. Why are you getting so angry about this?"
"Because I asked you not to, and you just ignored me! I'm not as important as helping out someone else's kid – "
"Don't be ridiculous," Harry snaps. "I didn't realise that giving Scorpius a few bits of advice every month or so apparently counts as me not giving you enough attention!"
"You know what I mean! And I want my Skyblazer back, and I don't want you talking to Scorpius ever again!"
Harry exhales sharply. "I don't know what's happened to you," he says at last. "What happened to that nice child I used to know? I honestly can't deal with you sometimes."
"Then don't," James snarls, and he sweeps the nearest item – a mug – from the counter, sending it smashing over the tiles, tea splashing everywhere. Harry jumps, startled.
"Really? Now you're destroying things? I thought I raised you better than that." Harry shakes his head. "I am so disappointed in you."
"Yeah," James retorts, "I know."
"Go to your room," Harry says tiredly.
James turns and storms away.
Harry stands in the silence for a long moment, then sighs and waves his wand, mending the mug again, and fetches a cloth to clean the spilled tea. There's footsteps again – Teddy returning.
"Everything all right?" Teddy asks cautiously.
"Fine." Harry sighs again, standing up to survey the clean floor. "He's just…" He shakes his head. "The moody teenage years have started, I suppose. Why does he have to get so angry about everything?"
Teddy shrugs. "Problems at school, maybe?"
"No, he always seems happy in his letters. Plenty of friends, star of the swim team – his grades were a little low last year, but you know how it is. Midnight adventures and games." Harry wrings the cloth out, the drops of tea splashing into the sink. "I don't know...I just wonder if – damn it." The Auror coin is burning in his pocket again. "Come on, I just finished my shift!"
"It's okay. I can stay overnight if needed."
"Would you? Thanks, Teddy. You're a lifesaver. Try talking to James if you can. Make sure he's packed for Hogwarts." Harry goes into the hallway, grabbing his cloak. "I'll try to return as soon as possible."
It never stops, he thinks as he heads out the front door.
Never, ever stops.
James has lashed out before – throwing books across the room with frustration, or kicking a toy across the floor – but this is different. He rages around his bedroom. He rips posters from the wall, and shatters ornaments, and hurls his frightened Quidditch figures across the room, and kicks his beloved books, sending pages drifting around the room like feathers, and grabs framed pictures from the wall, throwing them to the floor and listening to the satisfying shatter of glass.
And when he's done – when the anger has exhausted itself – he slumps to the floor and cries like a child.
"You broke me," a small voice says, and James looks up, scrubbing a hand furiously across his eyes. A shard of mirror lies beside him.
"How will you see yourself now?" the shard of mirror says disconsolately.
"I don't want to see myself." James reaches out and pushes the shard across the floor, beneath his bed, where it's out of sight. There's a cut across his palm now, the blood forming a long, thin line.
Footsteps. James glances up, eyes wide, and snatches up his wand, aiming it at the attic door. "Colloportus."
"Ah, come on, cuz. I wasn't just going to barge in."
At least it's not Harry. James feels a little relieved, although he doesn't remove the locking charm. "Go away."
"Are you okay? I heard something breaking."
"Fine. Wand misfired, that's all."
"What? Come on, you know you shouldn't practice charms. One of these days you'll get an Underage Magic notification."
"What do you want?" James snaps, hoping Teddy will leave. He can't stand the idea of Teddy – always smiling, never upset or frightened or hurt – seeing James cry. He'd die of embarrassment.
"Come downstairs, we'll finish making dinner."
"I'm not hungry."
There's a long silence and James wonders if Teddy's left.
"Okay," Teddy says at last. "But come and say goodbye before I leave, okay? I always miss you the most after the summer holidays."
James's heart suddenly gives a sharp ache, as if the shard of mirror has somehow found its way in, and he leaps up, scrambling over to the door. "Alohomora. Teddy, come back!"
"Haven't left yet," Teddy says, looking slightly startled, but he climbs into the attic and frowns. "What happened?"
James looks at his feet. "I got mad."
"No kidding." Teddy picks something up off the floor. "Oh…"
It's one of the drawings Ginny commissioned from Dean Thomas, James realises. The first thing she ever bought for him, Harry always said. The first thing she bought for the nursery – before the pots of paint, before the crib, before the soft blankets. The set of pictures: two foxes wearing waistcoats, a badger setting out a picnic for its family, a hedgehog with a little top-hat. Now, the glass is shattered and the frame chipped, the badger family huddling fearfully in the corner of the picture.
Teddy sets the picture on the bookshelf, the broken glass slowly cascading downwards as he sets it upright again. "James…is everything okay?"
"Yeah. Fine." James doesn't lift his gaze. There's an origami crane near his foot – Rose made it for him years ago. It's crushed now.
"Okay…well…are you coming downstairs, then?"
James hesitates. "Fine," he says after a moment. But when they go downstairs, Teddy doesn't go to the kitchen. He goes outside, instead, into the gardens. "Where are we going?" James asks with slight apprehension.
"Come on, cuz, don't tell me you forgot our tradition."
"What tradition? I…oh! I…I thought you'd be too busy this summer…"
"Well, it is the last day of the holidays," Teddy admits. "I kept forgetting to bring them." He begins taking the fireworks from the pockets of his robes. "Okay, let's see…"
"What's that one?"
"Oh, you're going to love that. It's a new type of spinner."
"Look at all the comets!"
"I know they're your favourite. Come on, let's set them up."
They walk though the gardens, past the low fence, and out into the field. James walks through the long summer-tall grass, feeling the dry husks of the wild wheat feathering his skin, snagging on his clothes. Ahead of him, he can see Teddy, a dark shadow moving quickly through the grass until they've reached the end of the field. Beyond it is a small clearing, just before the start of the woods, and it is here they'll set up the fireworks.
"Okay, give me that box."
They work quietly, speaking in low voices even though there's nobody else around, and at last they retreat to the edges of the clearing. Teddy raises his wand.
The bright spark rushes through the air. Moments later, the first firework erupts into the sky, sending colours popping and soaring across the dark night. James watches, spellbound – he'll never get tired of these summer nights. All those times they snuck out of the house, pockets and bags stuffed full of bottle rockets, fountains, smoke balls and spinners. His favourite childhood memories smell like gunpowder and are filled with exploding stars.
He would give anything to be five years old again, standing beside his cousin, laughing into the sky. And afterwards he'd climb into his bed and listen to his father tell stories. The soft glow of his lamp, the stuffed toys littered about the room. The little family of badgers snoozing in their picture.
The longest distance between two places, James thinks, is time.
After they've returned to the house and have finished dinner, Teddy retreats to the living room to complete some research for work. James goes upstairs.
His room is a mess. But nobody else is going to fix it. He's far too old now for others to be picking up after him. James goes about the room, collecting clothes, folding them, putting them away. He gathers up his books, carefully using Sticking Charms to put the pages back in order, and rearranges his Quidditch figures, placing them back onto shelves. He hesitantly tries casting Reparo a few times and is relieved when it works.
"Sorry," he says to the family of badgers, picking up their picture. "Reparo."
The glass goes back together, but there's still a chip in the frame, and there's a long scratch across the beautiful watercolour sky. James puts the picture back on the wall, watching the badgers blink sadly at him.
It's long after midnight by the time James has put his room back in order and then packed for Hogwarts. Teddy appears to give him a cup of weak coffee at two o'clock in the morning.
"Still awake? Come on, go to bed or I won't hear the end of it from Harry."
"Only just finished packing." James stifles a yawn.
"Ready for third year?"
Teddy smiles. "This'll be your year, I know it."
Teddy studies him for a long moment. "Are you sure everything's okay, cuz?" he asks at last.
James pauses, but then he gives Teddy a quick smile. "Yeah, I promise. I'm fine."
Teddy frowns, but he nods and says his farewells then, as he has to leave early in the morning for work. "I'll see you at Christmas," he says, giving James a hug, and James fiercely resists the urge to cling to him.
"See you then," he says.
"Take care of yourself, cuz. Write me loads of letters, okay?"
Teddy leaves and James goes to bed. He stares at the ceiling for a long time, watching patterns of light and dark play across the rafters as outside, the moon filters through clouds.
A quiet voice speaks.
"I'm still broken."
James rolls over, facing the wall. "Shut up."
The shard of mirror falls silent again.
For Draco, the summer holidays seem to drag by. Normally they pass in a rush of activities — visiting museums and constant trips to the library — but Scorpius seems to have become smaller and quieter somehow. He cheers up briefly when he receives an invitation to a birthday party. It's for a fellow Ravenclaw, and Draco swings between great anxiety – will Scorpius be all right? – to happiness that Scorpius has finally, finally made proper friends.
Scorpius departs for the party, wearing his best robes and a very anxious expression, carefully holding the gift he'd bought for the host, but when Draco picks him up at the end of the party, Scorpius is smiling and holding a slice of cake wrapped in a napkin and chatting to another partygoer. And he's not the only one socialising; Draco finds himself conversing with other parents while he's waiting for Scorpius to say his farewells. He even finds a new customer: a Muggle mother keen to see if there's any other wizards or witches hidden away in her lineage.
But just as Scorpius is collecting his cloak and preparing to go home, a boy says something to Scorpius and points to another group of children. Scorpius turns to look at them; they start giggling.
Scorpius looks away again and walks very slowly to Draco.
"Let's go home," he mumbles.
"Did those children do something?"
"Let's just go," Scorpius pleads.
"Who are their parents? I'll have a word with them! They've got absolutely no right to upset anyone like that — "
And then Scorpius retreats completely. Draco knows it by the way he sets his expression, presses his mouth into a thin line. He won't speak for the rest of the day now, Draco knows.
He Disapparates, taking Scorpius with him.
"What happened?" he asks, still holding Scorpius's arm.
Scorpius wrenches away from him and says nothing, disappearing down the hallway. Moments later, there's the quiet sound of a door closing.
Draco exhales slowly.
Scorpius's mood lingers for a few days, sending a shadow over the bright summer days. But a week later, he seems to have forgotten the incident and Draco's wondering if he overreacted. One evening, after dinner, the slightly-chilly distance between them has given way to comfortable closeness again. Scorpius is curled up in the armchair in the study, reading a book while Draco works on a genealogy project. There's a soothing silence between them, broken only by the crackling of the fire. Despite the warmth of summer, parts of the manor are still chilly. Mostly the parts yet to be renovated, where the windows are small and narrow and the ghosts of Draco's past still linger, faint footsteps and voices echoing with sadness.
There's a little noise, like something scurrying along, and Draco looks up. That little silver rat that Scorpius acquired at some point in his first year. It had only been an ornament back then, he thinks, but now it's running about and Scorpius looks pleased with himself.
"Practicing transfiguration?" Draco asks wryly and Scorpius has the grace to look a little embarrassed.
"Sorry." He places his wand down and holds the book up, showing Draco the title. Modification: The Fine Art of Motion in Transfiguration.
The rat suddenly stops running, becoming still and silent again, and Scorpius frowns and picks it up. "I suppose I still need to work on it," he says.
"Well, as long as you're learning something from it." Draco picks up his quill and resumes his genealogy project.
Silence reigns for a while until Scorpius speaks again.
"Hm?" Draco looks up from his work. Scorpius is gazing down at the little silver rat in his hand.
"It's nothing," he says at last.
Draco waits, but Scorpius remains silent, staring at the silver rat with a look that Draco finds hard to decipher. Melancholy, he thinks. Perhaps sadness, perhaps wistfulness.
"Missing something?" Draco asks, and Scorpius looks up, a startled expression on his face. "It's all right," Draco adds. "I think the death of a first pet is always difficult. One day, maybe you'd like another rat? Or perhaps an owl..."
Scorpius looks back down at the silver rat. "I don't want a replacement." He strokes the rat's delicate whiskers. "At least I have this reminder."
Draco opens his mouth to reassure that a new pet wouldn't be a replacement, but Scorpius's mood seems oddly pensive and he doesn't want to ruin it with reminders of Pan's untimely death.
So he turns back to his genealogy project and they while away the rest of the evening together, Scorpius working on his transfiguration work, Draco's quill scratching across the parchment.
For once, the shadows of this place, this study – always his father's study – retreat to the edges of the room, and Draco is content.
His son is home again.
James returns to Hogwarts. Third year, but it seems very little has changed. The old routines are easy to resume. The classes are still boring, the professors still give James the same lectures about paying more attention, and swim practice is still his one saving grace. The first swim practice can't come fast enough; James is itching to get back into the water. He performs well during the first three swim practices, but they're in their third week of school before James really hits his stride again. He cuts a smooth and powerful line straight across the lake, leaving the others trailing in his wake, and even Saltworth is impressed.
"Glad to see you've got the results to justify your ego, at least," she tells him, and once James has recovered from that remark he offers a dutiful 'thanks, coach' before taking Iwan aside at the end of the practice.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Huh?" Iwan tilts his head, trying to get water out of his ear.
"You know. Saltworth said that at least I can justify my ego, or something like that. What's she talking about?"
"Er…nothing?" Iwan offers uncertainly.
"Don't sugarcoat it, Iwan," Thomas says, coming over to them, and James scowls at him.
"There's…there's nothing to sugarcoat," Iwan says, looking as if he wished he were somewhere else. "James is a good swimmer."
"Selfish, you mean," Thomas says, and James's mouth falls open.
"What are you talking about?" he demands. "Selfish?"
"That's what I said." Thomas raises his chin, giving James a defiant look. "We're a team. But you never share any knowledge with anyone else – Saltworth is always saying 'you should give Calthorpe some tips on breathing' or 'Stephenson could do with a bit of help with his backstroke' – but you never offer anyone advice on anything."
"That's not my job, you moron! I'm a swimmer, not a coach!"
"Let's just forget it," Iwan says pleadingly, but neither Thomas nor James look at him.
"We're all swimmers, and we're all supposed to help each other out! There's been a million times where I've told you that I know I need extra work on my tumble turns, or how terrible I am at breaststroke – "
"So? From the first day of joining the team, you've treated me like a rival."
"Friendly rivalry, you complete idiot!" Thomas snaps. "That's what you do in a team – you push each other to try harder, but you help when people need it!"
"Don't call me an idiot!"
"You are! You're a snob, too. Too good for the rest of us, won't give us the time of day. You've had private swim coaching since you were old enough to crawl, but you'll be damned if you give a few bits of advice to your team mates."
James punches him.
Thomas staggers backwards. James takes a step backward too, realising what he's just done. He hadn't been able to help it. Besides, the rest of the team – still towelling off after practice – is right there. What's James supposed to do, just let Thomas get away with calling him names in front of everyone?
He waits for Thomas to retaliate, or spit insults at him, but instead he looks at James in disbelief, holding a hand to his nose, blood tricking through his fingers.
And then he starts to cry.
"What did you do that for?" another team mate shouts at James. They're all coming over now, fussing over Thomas, asking if he's all right.
"I didn't mean to," James mutters. "It was an accident."
"How do you accidentally punch someone, you prat?"
Saltworth is storming over now, seeing what all the commotion is about, and James almost winces in anticipation.
"What happened?" she demands.
"Potter punched Pearson!"
"He started it!" James says quickly.
Saltworth looks at Thomas – blood and tears smeared across his face – and then stares at James.
James returns to the dormitory later that night, in a furious mood. McGonagall had given him the usual disapproving look and lecture — and then informed him that he'd actually been shortlisted to attend the European Schools Swimming Championship. Now, Saltworth has removed him from all competitions.
It had been enough to make his blood boil, and he'd made no attempt to disguise his anger. McGonagall had gotten very sharp with him then, and told him that any more misbehaviour would result in his removal from the swim team for the rest of the term.
He rants to the other boys about it. "It's so unfair! Thomas picks a fight with me, then I finally snap and somehow I'm the one who gets in trouble for it. D'you know what Thomas got? Nothing. Not even a single detention."
"Well, I think he was just trying to ask if you could help out a little on the team," Iwan offers. James gives him an irritated look.
"Yeah, and he was so nice about it." He turns back to Paul, Martin, and Nate. "And he actually cried when I punched him. Cried. You wouldn't catch me crying like a little baby over one punch."
"I dunno," Nate says. "You're always doing a bunch of that strength training stuff for swimming. I probably wouldn't just brush it off if you punched me either."
"Plus you're supposed to be his friend," Iwan adds, and James turns to gape at him.
"His friend. We're all on the same team, we've spent a year training together. We're all supposed to be friends."
"With Thomas? He's Slytherin, I hope you remember. Probably take all my advice, then stab me in the back the moment I've turned around. Anyway, I've got nothing in common with anyone on the team."
Iwan says nothing to that, although he gets a certain look on his face before he gets up and starts making a pot of hot chocolate, his back turned to them. Martin and Paul exchange a look, then start talking about Paul's Quidditch practice.
James moodily puts on his cloak, preparing to leave for his first detention of the year.
The first month of school passes quickly. To James's dismay, Sprout is very pleased with their results for the second year project – the adopted plants – and wants them to continue their care for their chosen plant.
"Potter, come here," she tells him as the others rush to search the shelves of potted plants for their projects. "Look."
It's the Oversensitive Cactus. James had spent a very long time trying to recover it last term, but had given up and it had certainly affected his final grade. However, now it seems to have come back to life, looking quite sickly but nevertheless battling valiantly onwards.
"I nursed it back to health," Sprout says proudly.
"Oh. Uh…thanks, but it's okay. I can pick another plant this time…"
The cactus droops slightly. Sprout frowns at him.
"…because…I feel that…the cactus deserves a lot more care than I can give it," James finishes weakly.
"Nonsense! You spent quite a lot of time trying to rescue the poor dear," Sprout says briskly.
"No, that's okay, I – "
"Nearly brought it back to life, you did – I just did a bit of care during the summer holidays, that's all. Go on, give it a pat," Sprout says encouragingly.
"…right." James puts on his gardening gloves, gives the cactus a reserved look, then reaches out and very gingerly pats it. Sprout nods approvingly.
"Wonderful. Well, you two will get along like a house on fire." She gives him another cheerful look before leaving.
Yeah, James thinks disparagingly. Lots of panic and shouting for help.
"People are idiots," he tells it. "You have the right idea, being a cactus."
It seems rather pleased with that remark, straightening up slightly.
James gives it another very careful pat.
It's useless anyway, he thinks. The cactus will probably have another near-death experience sometime in the very foreseeable future. As the weeks pass, its health certainly seems to take a turn.
On the day of Halloween, he spends the lunch hour in one of the Herbology greenhouses, tending to it. It's looking very sickly. Someone put a little pumpkin next to it and for whatever reason, this seems to have greatly offended the cactus.
"So what? It's just a pumpkin. Get over it," James says, picking the pumpkin up and tossing it aside. The cactus immediately turns an awful black colour and begins to shrivel up, and James panics. "No – I mean – I was talking about myself. Calling myself an idiot. Not you. You're not an idiot. You wouldn't do something as stupid as getting kicked out of every major swimming competition, would you?"
Footsteps. James glances up – he wouldn't be caught dead in here, speaking aloud to an annoyed cactus and giving it awkward compliments.
But fortunately, it's only Rose.
"Oh, hello," she says cheerfully. "Didn't expect to find you here." She picks up a plant that James recognises as Scorpius's basil plant.
"What're you doing with that?" he asks.
"Hmm? Oh, I promised Scorpius I'd check on it. Oh, look! I think it's trying to grow even taller," Rose says with excitement. "You're trying, aren't you?" she coos at it. "Yes, you are. You look so lovely…"
"Don't encourage it," James says sharply. "And since when did you start doing favours for Scorpius Malfoy?"
Rose straightens up slightly and gives him a guarded look. "We share Herbology with the Ravenclaws, if you remember, and Scorpius has let me borrow a few books on growing flowers. My project plant is a Lovesick Daisy and they can be very temperamental."
"So? It's Malfoy."
Rose crosses her arms. "He's very nice, you know – "
"You have got to be kidding me! You fancy Scorpius Malfoy?"
"What? Are you mental? I said he seemed nice! How is that, in any way – "
"Oh, that's right," James says recklessly, "you've got a crush on Andrew."
Rose turns crimson. "I – I do not! Who told you that? They're lying!"
"Don't think so, it was a pretty reliable source."
There's a slight pause, then Rose's embarrassment gives way to anger. Her eyes narrow. "Hugo," she says. "I'll kill him."
"Stop talking to Scorpius Malfoy! You're my cousin, you're supposed to be on my side!"
"I'll talk to whomever I please!" Rose snatches up her bag and begins to stride away.
"Or I'll tell everyone that you're spending every night crying over pictures of Andrew!"
Rose pauses then and turns back to him, looking horrified. "You wouldn't!"
"I would," James says grimly.
"But – you – what is your problem? If Teddy or Uncle Harry could see you now, they'd be so disappointed. You can be so mean sometimes!"
"Good thing they're not here, then," James retorts, and Rose gives him a furious look before turning on her heel and storming away.
He stands in silence, biting the inside of his cheek so hard that he tastes blood. Before him, his cactus is slowly wilting again.
"What?" James tells it sharply, but his voice trembles and he furiously swipes a sleeve across his eyes. Weak, weak, so weak, he tells himself. Oh, he thinks it's pathetic that Thomas cries from a punch, but here James stands, tears forming at the thought of Teddy thinking how sad and pathetic James's life really is. And his father…always speaking about James's imaginary friends, about how popular he must be…believing all those stupid letters James sends about his supposed successes. Don't you dare cry, James tells himself.
He swallows the lump in his throat and blinks rapidly, staring at the cactus.
It's still wilting.
October passes by quickly for Harry; it's the first week of November when he begins the final stage of the surveillance and he wonders where on earth all the time has gone. And on the fifteenth of November – Scorpius's birthday, Harry remembers idly – he's spending another late night at the office, hunched over his desk, intently finishing some paperwork. Usually he'd be the last to leave, but today there's quite a few lamplights scattering the desks around the room. Everyone's doing overtime these days.
He glances up. Williamson stands before him, his grizzled face half-hidden in shadows. "Might I have a word?"
"Of course, sir." Harry stands up and follows Williamson to his office. As he steps into the room, Williamson closing the door behind him, Harry realises this isn't a usual quick conversation about Operation Helios (as they've called it). Hopkins, one of the senior Aurors, is sitting on a chair pulled up beside the desk, and Cuthbert is hovering nearby, quill and parchment in hand.
"Am I in some sort of trouble?" Harry says, frowning. Did he miss a debriefing? Is there a problem with the evidence?
Williamson laughs, his half-cough bark of a laugh, and gestures for Harry to sit. "Quite the opposite, Potter," he says.
Harry sits down, still feeling slightly unnerved. Williamson makes his way to the other side of the desk and sits down heavily, the chair groaning under his weight. He rests his hands on the desk, the gnarled fingers hooking around each other.
"I was sixty-two when we last had a conversation like this. Now I'm sixty-four." Williamson exhales slowly. "The years add up quick if you don't pay attention. How long have you been here, Hopkins?"
"Too long," Hopkins says, and they all smile, perhaps with a trace of wryness. It's the standard Auror response to that question.
"Sounds about right." Williamson looks across the desk and Harry follows his gaze. There's a postcard from Spain resting atop some files. "Spend a lot of time dreaming about my boat, you know. Spent years restoring that old girl. Proper sailing boat, it is. Those long nights – you know how it is, lying in a muddy field wondering when the next spell's coming – I kept thinking, 'one day I'll be sailing over the Channel and this'll be nothing but a faded memory'. Well, I reckon that 'one day' has finally come."
"You're…you're retiring?" Harry asks. He's surprised. Of course a few people wondered about Williamson's inevitable retirement, but they had it estimated for two or three years from now. Harry thought Williamson would probably mentor him for a lot longer.
"I've paid my dues." Williamson looks down at his hands, at the scar-crossed skin, the ruined fingertips and cratered knuckles. "I just want to live in my little cottage near Cornwall and sail my boat. I've earned my rest."
"You have, definitely," Harry says, still taken aback. "But…well, we all thought you weren't going to retire this soon."
"Shacklebolt wanted me to see the end to Operation Helios but let's be realistic, Potter. We're probably still a long way away from that, especially if we're aiming to hook the bosses instead of the underlings." Williamson leans forward, his eyes shining beetle-black in the shadowed cragginess of his face. "It's time, I reckon, for me to sail my boat. And for you to lead the team."
"You'll want some time to think about it, I'd wager. Got that little boy of yours to think about. Little James."
Harry smiles. "Not so little anymore. He'll be turning fourteen soon."
"My word!" Williamson's eyebrows – or at least, what's left of them – rise. "Seems only yesterday we were all chipping in a few sickles to buy you a congratulations card on the day he was born."
"Time flies," Hopkins adds gravely.
"Don't it just." Williamson nods at Cuthbert. "Making notes on this?"
"On James?" Cuthbert seems lost; Williamson laughs, another deep growly laugh, and Harry gives Cuthbert a dry look.
"The official offer of promotion to Head Auror," Hopkins says reprovingly.
"Oh! Yes, sir."
"Good," Williamson says. "Very good. We'll have it all written up official, like. All right, Potter. Don't rush your decision. Now go on, go home. You've been here since early this morning."
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir," Harry adds, shaking his hand and nodding to the others. "I'll see you tomorrow."
He turns and leaves, goes to his desk, and picks up his cloak. As he leaves the office and walks to the fireplace, his colleagues call out their goodbyes.
"Off already, Potter?"
"See you tomorrow, then."
Harry manages to throw a pinch of Floo powder into the flames, reappear in the connective fireplace – a disused hearth in a boarded-up house in Chichester – and calmly Apparate home before he finally allows himself to laugh, overwhelmed with happiness.
He finally made it.
Everything is perfect now.