Chapter 1: Diagon Alley
August 19th, 2018
On the outskirts of Ottery St Catchpole, near Devon’s coast, was a house. It was tall, at least six floors, with a ramshackle roof from which six chimneys stuck out like sore thumbs. A lopsided shed sat nearby, alongside a chicken coop and vegetable patch. A carved sign fixed to the fence by the front door read: THE BURROW.
The dawn trickled through mismatched windows, stealing past curtains and over slatted blinds to rest on the sleeping faces of the house’s occupants. A cockerel crowed outside the kitchen window, bringing a fond smile to the face of a plump, laugh-lined woman in her seventies.
Molly Weasley drizzled a mixing bowl full of chocolate cake batter into three beaten tins. Crowded frying pans sat on the stove, hissing and spitting bacon grease. Two pitchers of freshly-squeezed orange juice sat out on the kitchen table, alongside milk and a steaming pot of porridge and honey.
After pulling on her gloves, Molly popped the cake tins into the oven and directed her attention to the rickety stairs reaching up into the bowels of the house.
“BREAKFAST!” she bellowed and the foundations of the house rattled.
Four floors above her head, in a dark room full of snores and grunts and sleep-weary mumbles, Rowan Potter jerked awake to find a foot centimetres from his nose.
Ricky Potter, the owner of said foot, snorted, his eyes slitting open, dark red hair flattened on one side and sticking out like an old broomstick on the other. A patch of drool had dried across his lips and cheek.
“Mmfmnr,” he slurred, before flopping back down and rolling over to face the wall. Artie’s arm was sticking out of a pile of pillows.
Rowan, heart still pounding, pulled the closest jumper on over his pyjamas and wobbled to his feet. Beams of light illuminated the mattresses strewn across the room. Three of his cousins were the intervening space between the spot her and her brothers laid claim to and the door to freedom, but careful planning allowed Rowan to hop through the obstacle course they created and squeeze out into the hallway.
He padded downstairs to the kitchen, the smell of sizzling bacon and eggs thick in the air, and his stomach announced his arrival with a well-timed rumble.
“Hello, sweetie,” Nanny glanced over her shoulder with a wrinkled grin. Her hair was as grey and curled at the ends, much like Rowan’s did, though hers was infinitely messier and much longer. Rowan’s mood fouled a little at that thought.
He poured himself a large glass of juice. “Good morning.”
“You and those brothers of yours didn’t stay up too late, did you?” Nanny set a steaming plate of bacon, eggs and sausages down. “I think you’re getting a bit big to be sleeping all together, anyway. Wouldn’t you rather be in a room by yourself like James and Albus?”
“Mm,” he hummed noncommittally, quickly digging into his food before Nanny could prod him to a more coherent answer. He didn’t want to be in a room by himself - what would he do without Ricky and Artie?
The stairs creaked.
“Smells fantastic, my love!” Arthur Weasley shuffled into the room, still dressed in his tartan dressing gown and matching slippers. He gave Nanny a peck on the cheek and sat at the head of the table where the Daily Planet was already laid out in preparation.
“Hi, Gramps,” Rowan said around a mouthful of eggy soldier. Crumbs sprayed across his plate.
“Hello, my boy. Always awake bright and early, aren’t you? Goodness knows who you get that from - not your father!”
Nanny shook her head in that particular way only parents did when reminiscing about their children. “He and Fred were by far the laziest of all my boys, even worse than Ron! They’d have slept till noon if I’d let them!”
“It must be from Harry’s side,” Gramps said as Nanny gave him his breakfast plate. “Thank you, dear.”
Rowan shovelled another spoonful of yolky sausage into his mouth, washing it down with a short gulp of juice. He was polishing off his plate when Dad came in dressed in his eye-sore of an outfit - pea-green suit over a lilac shirt.
Rowan slid out of his chair, making a dash for the stairs.
Dad caught his arm. “Hang on a second, you,” he demanded, “don’t forget to brush your teeth.” A grin split his face. “And tip water on any lazy buggers left awake, will you?”
Nanny rounded on him with hardened brown eyes. “George Fabian Weasley! I will not sit by whilst you corrupt my grandbaby!”
Rowan fled as Gramps made a futile attempt to diffuse the situation. He peered into the gloom of the bedroom he’d shared with his brothers and cousins.
Sprawled across the bed like always, Ricky and Artie slept on. Louis, Freddie and Hugo were still tucked under the mound of blankets. Albus was audibly shuffling around in his borrowed room. He always woke up at an ungodly hour - he and Rowan were the early risers of the family.
Heat rolled out from the bathroom door across the hall, warming the chilly August air. After a few moments, it opened to expel a large steam cloud and Molly, a towel twisted onto the top of her head. A few strands of chestnut hair clung to her damp cheeks.
“Hi, Rowan! You next?”
A hand hooked into the back of Rowan’s jumper and reeled him away from the door.
Freddie loomed over his shoulder, white teeth flashing against his brown skin. “Nope. My turn, thanks.” He slammed the door shut in Rowan’s red, gobsmacked face.
“I call second!” Hugo slapped a hand on the wall, a towel slung over his shoulders. Behind him, Louis and David shuffled into a queue.
Molly patted Rowan on the shoulder and headed off without offering to help or telling the boys to let him go first. He gaped, stung at his cousin’s dismissal and the others’ callousness.
“Sorry, Rowan,” Hugo mumbled sheepishly. “I would let you go ahead of me, but Mum wants to leave soon or we’ll miss the book launch...”
“Tough luck, John.” David shot him a nasty grin. “Maybe you should have gotten up sooner.”
Fists clenching, Rowan hoped his glare conveyed the contempt he felt at the smug grin David had plastered across his slimy pig face. He stomped to the third floor, huffing his tangled nest of hair out of his eyes.
Aria stood crammed beside Rose and Dominiqué at the sink, with an array of potions, salves and creams surrounding them.
“No,” Rose said.
“Wait your turn, Rowan,” Aria almost poked herself in the eye with her mascara as she leant towards the mirror with a focused frown. “We got here first, right Luce?”
Lucy popped her head out of the bedroom the other girls had slept in, dark locks twisted in pink curlers. “Yeah, you know the rules! If you want the first go you have to get here first! Besides, this is the girls bathroom.” She patted Rowan on the head like he was a particularly harmless and amusing puppy.
Rowan sulked all the way back to the kitchen. It was loud, full of people and loud voices and laughter and lots and lots of food.
He crept beside his dad’s chair, hands twisting behind his back. “Dad,” he tried, patting his elbow.
Uncle Fred dragged him into a giant bear hug. “Look at all this!” He twirled a strand of Rowan’s short hair around his finger. “So cute. From your mum’s side, that is!”
“Ouch,” Dad said. “It doesn't even remind you a little bit of me?”
“No way, this red is all Harry’s mum! Besides, we may be identical, but you and I both know who the handsome twin is.”
“Yeah - it's me!”
“Is no -”
Nanny glared. “Boys! You are grown men with children - try to act like it!”
“Is he this annoying at home?” Uncle Bill was the tallest person in the family. He had wicked scars across his face, a bushy beard and long hair, which made him look exceedingly cool. He was Rowan’s favourite uncle for this reason, but also because he was secretly a big softy.
Dad cackled. “Of course! They love it.”
“That’s debatable,” Uncle Ron said from across the table, shoving an entire rasher of bacon into his mouth. “I ‘unno ‘ow ‘arry ‘puts u’ ‘it ‘it.”
“Oh, Ron!” Aunt Hermione, already ready and raring to go in a sharp blue robe, gently rapped him on the back of the head. “Honestly!”
“Mornin’, love. Rose ready yet?”
“Of course she isn’t. Neither of them are - Hugo hasn’t even showered yet!”
Rowan wiggled out of his uncle’s grasp. “Dad,” he tried for the second time, also to no avail, but with the unfortunate side-effect of drawing Aunt Hermione’s ire.
“Wha - Rowan! Honestly, you’re still in your pyjamas?! Hurry upstairs and shower now - we’re late enough as it is!”
Dad rolled his eyes. “We’ll get there when we get there.” He looked at Rowan. “But head on off anyway, before you get us both into trouble!”
Rowan dragged his feet back upstairs.
When he was at home the interruptions seemed to happen less often, but still too much for her taste. Though, really, what could he do about it? Telling his parents seemed ridiculous and overdramatic - they’d either brush his complaints off as insignificant or, an even worse option, bring it up with everyone else to calls of favouritism from his less agreeable cousins or creating over-the-top pitying inclusion from the rest. There was no good foreseeable result as far as he was concerned.
The study was where David slept. He had his own room because he snored and would ‘keep everyone awake all night’. Of course, most everyone knew that was a total lie, but it seemed an unspoken rule to not mention that in fear of rocking the boat and upsetting Aunt Ginny or her husband Zach.
He stole to the window on light feet and shoved it open, putting his shoulder into it when rust caught on the hinges.
Rowan climbed onto the sill and judged the distance between his feet and the kitchen roof with a hefty dose of scepticism - he’d grown taller since his last foray into escapism, but that was still a distance he would take with any other options. He slid forward and clung to the window for as long as possible until he reached solid footing.
“C’mon, Potter,” Rowan told himself as he snuck across the mossy red shingles to peer down at the basket of hay kept out for the animals. It wasn’t too far down, especially with such a soft landing. “Don’t be a chicken.”
He jumped, heart flying up into his throat in the brief second it took to land, and after collecting his wits, Rowan opened his eyes and rolled off the hay, wet mud squelching between his bare toes. Nanny and Gramps’ cockerel crowed as hens and their chicks scattered, wings flapping angrily.
Rowan hopped the fence and cut across the grass to the shed, where, around the back, sat a large metal basin Nanny used for dyeing or soaking the filthiest of clothes. The water lapped at the top from the rain during the night, cold and unforgiving.
Stripping off his pyjamas after making sure no one was around to see, Rowan climbed inside the basin, sucking in a sharp breath at the sheer intensity of the cold and clinging to his knees to retain any warmth left as a swift wind bit at the damp skin left exposed to the air.
Having his morning bath in the garden was no foreign concept to him, though. He’d been doing so for around four years already - it was much easier that way. As one of the youngest members of his large, imposing and frankly downright ridiculous family, Rowan and his brothers always ended at the bottom of the totem pole. Whether that be as the one who received the smallest slices of cake, the last presents on Christmas Day when everyone was already exhausted, or, like now, stuck at the end of an hour-long queue to use the shower. Weighing up the options, it was simpler to brace the elements and bathe outside.
He scrubbed at his skin until it turned pink, making sure to get between his toes and around his shoulders. There was no soap, but that was alright; water would do for one day.
After dunking his head underwater to scrub through as much hair as he could manage, Rowan climbed out of the basin and grabbed a damp towel from the washing line. He wrapped it around her trembling shoulders, collected his clothes and ran into the shed, which belonged to Gramps and was full of Muggle artifacts: broken televisions, cannibalised radios and telephones, a box of light bulbs, rusty unused tools, and a few tins of soup years out of date and coated with a thick layer of dust.
A chill wound its way under the rotten door and bit at his ankles, so Rowan sat at the cleanest workbench to dry himself off as quickly as possible, scrubbing warmth back into his skin. He squeezed the water droplets out of his hair, redressed in his, slightly damp, pyjamas and jumper, and trudged back to the house.
Voices clamoured for attention in the warmth of the kitchen, laughter and joyful shouts filled the air. A baked bean sailed overhead and Rowan barely ducked in time. The culprit - Hugo - grinned cheekily as he squeezed past Rose to reach where his mum was sat.
Aunt Hermione was primping Uncle Ron’s lopsided brown bowtie as they all chatted away. However, their conversation stopped as soon as they realised it was Rowan stood beside them.
Mum beamed, sweeping him into a warm hug. Rowan closed his eyes with a heavy sigh, inhaling his mum’s familiar, comforting scent. There was no real way to describe it, but the faint smell of leather and polish and something distinctly mum-like clung to her clothes. It always made Rowan feel better after a rough patch of morning and today was no exception.
“Have you had breakfast yet, sweetie?”
“Yes,” Rowan stole a piece of sausage off his mum’s plate to pop into his mouth.
Dad leaned over and wiped a fake tear from his cheek. “He gets it from me!”
Mum rolled her eyes before sending Rowan off to get ready - he dawdled by the table, but, when Freddie decided he wanted a willing participant for testing his Muggle magic tricks, couldn’t get away fast enough. Family were a nuisance in groups of more than four others - after that, it became too excessive to handle.
Forty-five minutes later, they gathered by the fireplace. Uncle Ron, Hugo and Rose had already been dragged off by Aunt Hermione to ‘get an early start’, but that still left a significant amount of people queueing up to leave. Albus had turned up from wherever secret location he’d disappeared off to, though he was tapping his foot nervously and looked anxious to get going. Rowan wondered what had gotten him so wound up. Was he thinking about Scorpius?
“Are you excited?” Ricky asked, clinging onto Rowan’s left arm.
“I am,” Artie added, clinging onto Rowan’s right arm.
Rowan looked between them. “I guess. At least it’ll be just us at home next month. No more cousins, no more -”
Ricky pulled a face, brown eyes scrunching up. “No more sister.”
“Thank goodness,” Artie grinned lopsidedly.
“Roxanne,” Aunt Angie tutted. “Hurry up now.” Since moving out of her house with Uncle Fred, she hadn’t been around very much. Rowan privately thought it would have been better if she hadn’t turned up at all. Roxy and Freddie certainly didn’t seem too bothered about her being there.
As if to further Rowan’s point, Freddie shot his mum a disgruntled look as he led Roxy into the fireplace. She took a handful of floo powder without looking in Aunt Angie’s direction.
Emerald flames erupted at their feet, puffing a ball of tar-black smoke right into Rowan’s surprised face. He choked and coughed and sputtered, eyes squeezed shut around burning, itching tears, his mouth drying at the foul, ashy taste, his lungs withering as Artie and Ricky pounded him frantically on the back.
“Anapneo!” Mum cried, tilting his head back. “Oculis liquet!”
Rowan’s coughing subsided almost immediately, the burning ash removed completely from her airway and bleary, water-welled vision. Tears poured down her face. The painful clarity of a dozen eyes surrounded her: pitying, sympathetic, or exasperated, perhaps a measure of all of them.
“Are you okay, Roro!?”
“That was so scary!”
“Are you alright, love?”
“Nasty stuff that.”
“Walk it off!”
“Can you breath, Rowan?”
He managed a croaky groan.
Mum clapped her hands. “You’re fine! He’s fine, everybody. Come on, boys, off you pop!” Mum didn’t like to linger on injuries, minor or otherwise, preferring to move on, which was a holdover from the Second War most likely.
Rowan understood. Mum was an odd one. She had a whole list of strange dislikes: big black dogs (Sirius Black), graveyards (Cedric Diggory), the smell of bleach (the Dursleys), etcetera etcetera. Rowan and his brothers was never told much about that time, the bit before Victoire was born, and it remained unspoken-of in the Weasley-Potter household in sensible company, but James, on occasion, could be persuaded to let some things slip to them. Teddy even more so.
Ricky tugged Rowan and Artie into the fireplace and took some powder from the pot Nanny was holding out, grains trickling between his fingers to fall and sizzle in the embers at their feet.
“Diagon Alley!” they chorused.
Body twisting and turning, nausea rushing from his stomach and up into the back of his throat, the explosion of sound in the squeeze of the chimney, the threat of what would happen if he didn’t tuck his limbs in tight enough...Rowan didn’t dare open his eyes. He’d done so once before and the blur of fireplaces, flickering lights and distorted sounds had caused him to vomit. All over Aria’s shoes.
His feet hit the floor with all the grace of a stampeding centaur and he tumbled forwards.
“Woah!” A hand caught Rowan’s elbow in time to avoid him slamming face-first into the ground. “Careful, Roro!” Artie pulled her out of the way of the fireplace Ricky dusted him off.
Roxy, standing nearby with her arms crossed, huffed. “Nice, klutz,” she sneered. “Hey, what happened to your face? Did you fall on the way in to the floo, as well?”
“Oi, watch your mouth,” Artie snapped.
She wilted a little under the intensity of his dirty glare. “Whatever. It’s just...we’ve flooed a million times before! How do you still mess it up?”
Face burning, Rowan averted his eyes. He wanted to snap back, say something witty, but like always, words seemed to vanish in his time of need. Listening he could do; arguably the best listener in his family, in fact - because he could never get a word in edgewise - but defending himself to anyone but Artie and Ricky seemed impossible.
Molly and Lucy came bounding through the floo next, keeping their balance perfectly and without a speck of dust dirtying their spit-shiny shoes. Rowan had a sneaking suspicion that Uncle Percy forced them to practice their entrances over and over again at home in London. It seemed a very Uncle Percy thing to do.
Everyone else trooped through with no further accidents. A Weasley family reunion always drew the gaze of passersbys, not that Rowan could blame them much. Seeing the Girl-Who-Lived out and about with her extended relatives was probably quite a shock for most people. They stopped and whispered about it enough, after all.
They split off into groups as quickly as possible to avoid as much pointing as they could; James and Freddie disappeared in the ensuing chaos, Dominiqué spotted her school friends, whilst Aunt Fleur took Louis, David, Molly and Rose to Gringotts.
“I think I saw Scorpius just now,” Albus said. “Going into Flourish and Blotts -”
Mum waved a hand. “Yes, yes, off you go! Meet us back here by lunchtime, though!”
“Okay, thanks, Mum,” Albus replied and then he was gone. Rowan shook his head. Albus was such a mystery to them all. He and Aria weren’t close at all - probably more distant than Albus and James, actually, and that was saying something. Rowan, Ricky and Artie found it very strange indeed when they spoke about it at night.
“Wands!” Aria exclaimed almost immediately. “Let’s do wands first!”
“Oh, yes!” Lucy was vibrating with excitement. “We must!”
Uncle Percy flushed. “Lucille, please behave yourself.”
Aunt Audrey huffed an amused sigh. “Relax, my love. It’s not everyday you get your first wand, after all!”
“Yeah, Perce,” Dad and Uncle Fred chorused, flinging their arms around Uncle Percy’s stiffening shoulders. “Lighten up!”
Roxy whined: “Come on! I need to get my wand before Mina and Dougal, but I can’t if there’s a line!” Mina and Abel were Roxy’s best friends. Rowan, no surprise, was not particularly fond of them, especially when they decided he was worth bothering. They’d be starting Hogwarts with Aria, Roxy, Lucy and Hugo, where they would hopefully find someone else to torment.
“Okay, okay. Is everyone ready, then?”
Aria threw her hands up. “Yes, Mum, honestly! Let’s go!”
Rowan grabbed his mum’s outstretched fingers. Aria would never hold hands with anyone in public, but Rowan didn’t mind - he didn’t have any friends to tease him about it, after all. Artie took Mum’s other hand, whilst Ricky rotated between either side.
They strode down the cobbles of Diagon Alley, Mum chatting to Aria, Roxy and Lucy, Dad and Uncle Fred easing Uncle Percy about his reluctance to let his daughter grow up and ‘leave the nest’, and Aunt Audrey and Aunt Angie let in a stilted limbo of awkward silence. Then again, everyone was awkward around Aunt Angie nowadays.
“Where were you this morning?” Ricky whispered as their shoulders brushed. “Artie thought you were in the shower, but when we went to check, Lucy said you’d run off.”
“Basin,” he muttered and Ricky knew immediately.
“Uck! I told you you should’ve had bathtime with us yesterday and not waited - everyone always bullies us into going last and by then there’s no hot water left.”
“I know, I know,” Rowan rolled his eyes. “You were right, I was wrong, what else is new? At least we won’t have to deal with this in a few weeks.”
Ricky beamed. “Damn straight.”
Roxy kicked open the door to Ollivanders: Makers of Fine Wands since 382 BC with a triumphant bellow, charging in with Aria on her heels. There was a little sign in the window that said: UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT.
The first impression of the wand shop Rowan had was that it had horrendous lighting, lit only by the beams managing to squeeze through the grimy windows. There were no candles in sight. Boxes were piled to the ceiling in teetering stacks and coated in a thick smog of dust. A counter split the room, upon which a boy was sitting, studying a tomb the size of his - very small - head.
“Welcome! Here for a wand fitting?”
Uncle Percy cleared his throat importantly. “Hello, young man. Is the owner present today?”
“She is,” the boy replied. He had downturned eyebrows over big eyes and a long, pointy nose that, paired with his height, likened his features to that of a goblin. “I’m her apprentice, Jupiter Flitwick at your service.”
“Flitwick?” Uncle Fred asked. “As in -?”
“- the Charm professor at Hogwarts? I didn’t know he had any kids. Are you -”
“- his son?”
The boy - Flitwick - looked between Dad and Uncle Fred in bewilderment before a grin split his face. “Oh! Instinctive legilimens between twins is very rare! Not very well-documented by the Ministry. I’d like to ask you about it someday, but to answer your question - no, Uncle Filius is just my legal guardian.”
“Come on,” Roxy huffed. “We need our wands for school! Is your boss here or not?”
“Roxanne!” Aunt Angie hissed.
“Like I said, she’s around, of course,” Flitwick replied, hopping off the counter. The top of his head barely reached Rowan’s shoulder. “Miss Pandit! We have customers!”
A clatter came from overhead. A series of crashes and mutters followed, before a thin woman in a long grey cloak came stumbling out from behind a teetering pile of wand boxes.
“Welcome, welcome! Parents, please take a seat. Now, who’s first?”
Squealing, Roxy waved her hand in the air, “Oh, me, me! I cast with my right.”
Miss Pandit pushed up her sleeves, revealing dark brown skin speckled with gold paint, and summoned a tape measure, which ran along Roxy from head to toe; the circumference of her head, the length of her calves and even the width of her nose! Rowan found himself on the edge of his, metaphorical (there hadn’t been enough chairs to go round), seat. What sort of wood suited Roxy’s loud and, often obnoxious, personality? Oak? Cedar? Cherry?
Flitwick took notes in a black leather-bound book, the long full-plumaged blue quill he was holding letting off the occasional silver sparks. Aria and Lucy oohed and ahhed.
A thick, stumpy wand with a purple gem on the end was handed to Roxy for all of a second before it was snatched away. “No, no! Try...this!”
As wand after wand came - until twenty boxes lay discarded on the counter - Aria and Lucy eventually gravitated to sitting on the floor out of sheer boredom.
“Ah-hah!” Miss Pandit finally cried, thrusting over a pale, medium-length wand. “Hawthorn, twelve inches, dragon heartstring, rigid flexibility.” Her eyes glittered. “Go ahead, Miss Weasley. Try it.”
Hands trembling, Roxy gave the wand a flick. Lights burst to life in the air, brilliant greens and yellows interspersed by brief flashes of orange. She gasped.
“Well done,” Aunt Angie congratulated.
Everyone clapped, Uncle Fred sweeping his daughter up into a hug. “Little Roxy’s first wand! Oh, I’m so proud! Aren’t we proud, Georgie?”
“Dad, put me down!”
Aria practically fell over, eyes wide with glee. “My turn, my turn!”
Aunt Audrey cleared her through, patting Uncle Percy’s arm. “Sweetie, I think Lucy would like to go first. Her dad has to get to work soon and he doesn’t want to miss her wand fitting.”
“...Oh. Okay. Go on, Luce.”
Miss Pandit began the process all over again; measuring Lucy whilst pulling boxes off the shelves seemingly at random, calling out wand after wand with each failure.
“Unicorn hair? No, that won’t do! Thestral? Hmmm. Fetch me two seven seven one!”
Flitwick was forced to clamber up a precarious, half-rotten ladder to retrieve the required wand box, carefully passing it down to Miss Pandit, who pulled out a tiny wand with carved flowers on the hilt.
“Yes, yes...this may be it. Here, give it a wave.”
Bubbles exploded from the end and floated around the room, a rainbow of colours in the faint light. One popped on the end of Rowan's nose and he sneezed. The bubble smelt of burnt, charred wood.
Aunt Audrey gasped and even Uncle Percy seemed a little teary-eyed.
“Wonderful! Eucalyptus is very rare and paired with boomslang venom is an unusual combination, Miss Weasley.”
“It’s so short, though,” Lucy mumbled. Her new wand was around eight inches long, which Rowan didn’t think was short at all. If he had a wand, it wouldn’t matter what it looked like!
“You can fit in your pocket,” Mum suggested.
“Length is irrelevant, Lucille,” Uncle Percy came over to awkwardly pat her on the shoulder. “It has no effect on power.” He checked his pocket watch. “Oh dear...I really must be going now or the Minster will not be best pleased.”
“Okay,” Lucy sniffled, still downtrodden. “Bye, Dad.”
“Let’s go find something sweet,” Aunt Audrey suggested after paying Miss Pandit six galleons. “I’m sure I have enough for some ice cream.”
“Wait for me!” Roxy shouted, charging out the door after them with Aunt Angie right behind her.
Aria pouted, clearly feeling betrayed at her favourite cousins have left before her own wand choosing. Artie managed a thumbs up, probably hoping to cheer her up, but she still looked glum. At least Uncle Fred had stuck around.
“And now for Miss Potter...a strange fit I think you’ll be, yes. Your brother had an unusual wand, if I can recall. Blackthorn and eleven inches. Are you of the same ilk?”
She plucked a wand from its box and held it out. Aria took it with an audible gulp. The tip shone with a small, pale light, sunspots dancing about.
Mum gasped, clapping a hand over her mouth. Uncle Fred patted a teary Dad on the back.
“First try! That’s our girl!”
“Woah,” Aria breathed, clutching the deep brown wood in a death-grip. “Is it like James’? Like you said?”
“Oh, no! Not at all! A feisty wand has chosen you, I dare say, neither rigid nor bendy. You will have to learn to work in tandem, and make use of your wood selection. Cedar is undoubtedly a loyal wood, and paired with your Unicorn hair...well. A good choice.”
“That’s a really unusual combination,” Flitwick explained.
Aria bounded over to Mum and Dad to show off her new wand, the tip still shining as brightly as before. Rowan stood off to the side with his brothers as they exchanged jealous looks. Why did they have to wait another whole year before going to Hogwarts?Rowan as nervous as it was; he’d heard his family whispering about the three of them sometimes. Their family didn’t even think they could go to Hogwarts...
“You...boys...” Rowan looked up. Miss Pandit leant over the counter, beckoning. “Come closer.”
Rowan, Artie and Ricky with her, stumbled towards almost against his will, throat tightening as his chin was grabbed hard enough to border on painful, sharp nails grazing skin. He stared into the witch’s black eyes.
Flitwick leant forward, agape. “What is it? Do you see something in them?”
“Oh dear, oh dear...yes, I see pain and shadows in your future, boys. Such a shame, really, but not very surprising, no. After all, your mother -” Miss Pandit’s pupils were dilated, huge and black in her kohl-lined eyes. Rowan’s knees wobbled as Ricky clutched onto his arm.
“Thank you very much.” Mum threw twelve shiny Galleons on the counter and pulled Rowan, Ricky and Artie away from the wandmaker’s grasping hands. “Come on, boys, let’s go.”
Rowan managed to look over his shoulder as they was hurried out of the shop, catching a glimpse of Miss Pandit’s thoughtful smile and Flitwick’s dark frown as he twirled a wand between his fingers. Then the door slammed shut.
Dad drew them to a stop after a few seconds of furious marching, his brow dimpling. “Harry? Love, what’s wrong?” His eyes darted wildly, surveying the passersby and shop windows for a threat. He was so jumpy sometimes, but Rowan didn’t blame him. He’d be jumpy too if he’d lived through a war.
Heaving a sigh, Mum released her death-grip on Artie’s shoulder and leant into Dad’s willing embrace. Uncle Fred hung back to give them privacy, keeping a confused Aria with him.
“Nothing. It’s just...bad memories, I suppose.”
“Come here and give your mum a hug, chaps,” Dad pulled the three of them in, cramming their face between their parents’ stomachs. “Why do you all attract this trouble, huh? I thought Fred and I were bad.”
“It seems interactions with nosy wandmakers that like to try and scare little boys runs in the family.”
“Woah, wait, wait! What happened? What did she say?”
“Nothing true, just prophetic rubbish,” Mum growled and they drew back from the hug. “You forget everything that old bat said, alright?”
Ricky nodded, but Rowan just stood there, unable to stop himself thinking about it. What did Miss Pandit mean by ‘pain and shadows in their future’? Was she a Seer? Did that mean Rowan would have a life like his Mum’s? A dangerous one?
But Mum seemed to calm down and Aria and Uncle Fred joined them once more, before off they went to Madame Malkin’s to meet up with Roxy, Lucy, Aunt Audrey and Aunt Angie. It seemed the topic was over with for them, but Ricky and Artie clearly felt just as confused as Rowan did, as they nodded in a silent agreement to talk on it later.
“I think I'm going to head to the Leaky Cauldron,” Aunt Angie announced before they’d even said ‘hello’. Uncle Fred visibly seethed as she strode away, eyes tracking her bobbing ponytail. If looks could kill...
Dad grabbed his twin’s shoulder. “Come on, let’s go find a seat with Mum and Dad, Freddie.”
Rowan craned his neck to watch them leave as Mum ushered the others inside. Madame Malkin was wearing a long mauve robe over what looked to be blue pyjamas.
“Mrs. Potter, a pleasure to see you again,” she croaked, weathered old hands trembling around a worn tape measure. “And Mrs. Weasley! How is your husband?”
“Very well, thank you. We’re here for a fitting - three Hogwarts uniforms, if you may.”
“Wonderful, wonderful. Would you like to step up first, dear?” Madam Malkin asked Aria, who was guided to the back. She climbed onto a little wooden stool and the tape measure in Madam Malkin’s hands sprang to life.
Lucy and Roxy finished their ice creams and were forced to wipe their hands on a self-cleaning handkerchief before joining Aria. Mum and Aunt Audrey perused the racks of clothing lining the walls of the shop with an expert’s eye, whilst Rowan, Artie and Ricky sat on a lumpy pink armchair in the corner.
“My goodness! I’m seeing double!”
It took Rowan a second to realise they were being addressed.
“Triple,” Ricky sighed.
“Three!” Madam Malkin chuckled, seemingly very shocked. It wasn’t like she hadn’t seen them before, though. “How ever do your parents cope?! I’m sure you’re a trio of trouble, hm?”
“Not really,” Ricky said. He was glaring at her. Artie nudged Rowan’s arm and rolled his eyes conspiratorially. They were used to nosy, people staring at them and their dad and uncle, especially when it was all five of them at once. “It’s not that weird.”
“Well, of course!” She spluttered. “Just - just unusual, isn’t it?”
“Not for us,” said Artie.
Madam Malkin didn’t seem to know what to say to that, so she walked away. Ricky scoffed and Artie rolled his eyes again. Rowan shuffled over to the window and stared out at the cobblestones now bustling with people: other children buying their Hogwarts supplies with overwhelmed, exasperated parents. He couldn’t help but imagine himself in the same situation - shopping for his new robes and new wand with Ricky and Artie and Mum and Dad and James and Albus and Aria. Just the eight of them. Sadly, he knew they had a whole year before that could happen.
(If it ever did.)
Rowan, Ricky and Artie were ten, and still hadn’t done any accidental magic. ‘Abnormally late’ was what all the adults said, and though Odette’s dad hadn’t displayed until he was eight, even that had been seen as significantly delayed. Two years on top of that was...unheard of.
The healers at St Mungo’s had said the chance of the three of them developing any sort of useable magic was so tiny, so infinitesimally small, it was almost not worth considering. He often wondered what his life would be like if it turned out they didn’t have magic. Their family were tolerant of most things, but Nanny had a Squib cousin disowned in all but name purely for that reason. Would the same thing happen to them? Would they be pushed further away than they already were? Sent off to some Muggle boarding school far away? And, though he saw nothing inherently wrong with being a Squib - besides the mere fact that he’d be disadvantaged in a society that mostly shunned it - Rowan couldn’t bear to imagine that being the case. He’d be totally miserable.
“Boys!” Lucy held out an ugly yellow raincoat, two more folded over her arm. “Look! They have these in a set of three! Try ‘em on!”
Mum egged Aria on with a cheeky smile, so Rowan could do little but comply, arms held out to avoid the squeak of plastic. The coat was ill-fitting, at least two sizes too big, and a hideous spoilt mustard colour. He stood beside his two brothers, all as equally miserable as one another.
“Aw! Harry, you simply must buy them!” cried Aunt Audrey.
Rowan shook his head desperately as Artie and Rowan groaned, but Mum was already nodding, a devious gleam in her eye. “I think you might be right, Audrey. What a lovely idea!”
Chapter 2: The Letter from Someone
August 19th, 2018
They left the shop with two big bags of clothes, an order for three new school uniforms and Rowan, Ricky and Artie still stuck in their new coats. Mum seemed to find their miserable predicament incredibly amusing, as she kept bursting into fits of gleeful giggles.
Rowan and his brothers were...not quite so pleased with the situation.
The Whistling Kettle Teahouse was new, having taken over from a run-down painting gallery that saw barely any customers. The outside was painted in white and pink, with roses surrounding a silver kettle on the sign. A cheerful jingle announced their arrival and several patrons glanced up at the sound.
Nanny and Gramps had found seating in the back, at a large wooden table with a lace tablecloth and elaborate flower displays. There were several trays of sandwiches and small cakes laid out, all in varying shades of pink, yellow and white.
Mum directed them into tall-backed chairs near to Aunt Ginny. On her other side, Uncle Fred was muttering with Dad too quiet to overhear, both of their faces creased with concern.
Aria, Roxy and Lucy paraded their new wands up and down the table. Albus was nowhere to be seen yet again. He really was spending an awful lot of time with Scorpius Malfoy lately...
“Let me see!” Nanny gushed like she did every year. When one was in such a big family there was bound to be a Hogwarts First Year with each passing September, and with that came the inevitable river of tears.
Nanny took Roxy’s wand in careful, wrinkled hands. “Oh, Arthur, another baby off to Hogwarts...” She sniffled, tears welling in her eyes. Nanny was so sentimental.
“Come on, Mum,” Auntie Ginny sighed, patting Nanny’s shoulder consolingly. “Don’t be upset. They’ll all be back for Christmas after three months.”
Gramps handed Nanny a handkerchief to blow her nose. “These are happy tears! I’m just so proud! Our final four off to Hogwarts, at last! Did you ever imagine it finally happening?”
Rowan frowned at a tray of dainty cucumber sandwiches, the tips of his ears burning. Why did they always forget them? They didn’t speak much, but they weren’t invisible.
“We’ve got the boys left to go, Molly,” Mum said kindly. “Save some tears for them.” She smiled as if to say ‘silly Nanny’, but the message didn’t convey as genuine, not with the awkward atmosphere that had fallen.
Nanny gasped and jumped in her seat. She stared at them with mournful eyes. “Oh, dear! Pay me no mind, boys! I’m getting so forgetful in my old age.”
Rowan could obviously tell that wasn’t the case, though. Nanny hadn’t included them in her mental picture of Hogwarts’ alumni because everyone believed they wouldn’t ever go. Children couldn’t go to magic school if they didn’t have magic, after all and Rowan didn’t. Not in their eyes.
Aria leant over the table to tap her new wand on Rowan’s head, then Artie’s, then Ricky’s. “Magico givigo!” She laughed. “Ta-da! Now you can come to Hogwarts, too.”
Aunt Audrey nervously cleared her throat. “That’s a lovely gesture, but -”
“The boys won’t be going until you’re in Second Year, Aria,” Mum butted in. Good old Mum.
“Aw, okay. But don’t worry - I’ll lend you my school books during the holidays! I know you love those, Rowan.”
Rowan couldn’t hold back his grin. “Thanks, Aria.”
“You’ll be in Ravenclaw, for sure. They love books and reading like you. Me? I’m going to be in Gryffindor! I can just sense that kind of stuff.”
“Well, as long as it’s not Slytherin again. Another one of our defenceless little babies tossed into that pit of snakes?” Uncle Fred shuddered dramatically. “I don’t know how I’d cope.”
“Perish the thought.”
Nanny glared at them. “Aria, love, it doesn’t matter if you’re Gryffindor, Slytherin, Ravenclaw or Hufflepuff, we’ll all love you just the same!”
“I think I’ll be a Gryffindor,” Artie said proudly. “Lions are my favourite animals, you know, so it only makes sense. Plus I like being high up.”
Ricky rolled his eyes. “Could always be Ravenclaw then, couldn’t it, stupid?”
Artie scowled. “Yeah? Well, what about you, smartypants? Gotta Ravenclaw for you.”
“I’m not fussed,” Ricky said, but both Rowan and Artie knew that he could fit in well in Slytherin. They’d talked about it when they woke up for their midnight chats and had agreed that Slytherin was perfectly fine to be in, but that they’d all prefer to be together. It would be weird not to share a room anymore.
Rowan looked down at her hands, sad about the thoughts of Howarts now. House didn’t matter, but clearly no magic at all made them somehow less important than their cousins and siblings. Well, Nanny and the rest would never say so, of course, but he wasn’t blind, nor stupid. There was a tension in the attitudes of those around him that no one else carried around - a small bias against them, even if merely a subconscious one. It boggled him that everyone was so worried about what House they’d be in; there was no use getting so worked up beforehand if it wasn’t even up to you, right?
But...then again, what did he know? When - if he went to Hogwarts, maybe the uncertainty of the whole situation would plague him as well - he didn’t even know how you were sorted. Maybe there was some choice in the whole thing, after all. If so, what House would he ask for? Ravenclaw, like Aria said, seemed the most sensible idea, but both Gryffindor and Slytherin had one of his brothers in, so they’d be in good hands.
They finished their food, but hot drinks were ordered when Rose, Hugo, and their parents arrived toting bags stuffed full of parchment and chunky books.
“How was it ‘Mione?” Mum asked. “Sign any autographs?”
“It’s the first day, Harry, I wouldn’t expect any of that just yet.”
“Are you kidding? They attacked us as soon as we got inside. Like a bunch of wild animals, they were! I must’ve signed my name at least a hundred times!” Uncle Ron collapsed in a chair, heaving a sigh.
“They asked me, too!” Hugo waved a shiny copy of Aunt Hermione’s book: Horcrux Hunt, a half-fictional retelling of the quest to destroy Voldemort’s soul fragments. “We sold out so quick Rose had to go home and get more copies!”
“That’s amazing,” Mum said. She had helped Aunt Hermione with all the nitty-gritty details and had been anticipating the release for months. “I’m so proud of you both.”
“Aw, mate,” said Uncle Ron. “Don’t sell yourself short!”
“How true to life is it, Ron?” Gramps asked.
“Pretty close? I mean, I thought it was accurate, not that I was there for the whole thing, but from what I’ve read it sounds, y’know, good. Harry would be a more reliable source, though. Have you had a chance to check out your copy?”
“I was planning to last night, but there was an, er, emergency at work.”
Mum was a ‘part-time’ Auror. She’d originally only taken the job after the Second War, as the joke shop wasn’t making much in the fallout and help was needed to catch the remaining Death Eaters, but it had been twenty-three years since then, and though she spoke of leaving to pursue a ‘real job’ every opportunity she got, that seemed to never actually happen.
“Another murder,” Uncle Fred dropped his voice to a whisper, though Rowan and his brother was sat right there and could still hear him perfectly well. “Rox heard on the wireless this morning. Said it was close. Is that true?”
“I can’t say too much, Fred, but...when I was told I had to double-check the address to make sure it wasn’t yours. Try not to worry too much, though. The kids are off to Hogwarts soon.”
“It’s the safest place,” Aunt Ginny agreed. “But...Harry, you really don’t know anything more? There’s no theory of who’s behind this yet?”
“I would tell you anything important if I knew, Gin, Fred, I promise. I’m just as worried as you all are.” Maybe more, knowing Mum’s propensity for anticipating worst-case scenarios.
Dad wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “We know you would, love. And you’ll get ‘em, you always do. After all, can’t be worse than old no-nose!”
“George,” Nanny scolded half-heartedly.
“Not to worry, my dears,” Gramps said. “I’m sure Harry will figure this all out soon.”
Mum looked about as convinced as Rowan felt, which was to say - not at all. He looked at Artie and he looked at Ricky. They had a lot to talk about that night, that was for sure.
By the time everyone had joined them it was getting close to ten and the foot-traffic outside had increased significantly. Dad seemed to notice too, because he leaned over to poke Artie in the side. He dropped his jam and butter scone back onto his plate.
“Fancy running an errand for your old man, troublemakers?”
“They’re children, George, not owls,” Mum reminded him, not looking up from Auntie Hermione’s book, which she had started reading an hour ago and not put down since.
“What’s the difference?”
Dad handed Ricky his keys, complete with the ugly keychain James had made when he was little. It was supposed to be a cat, but looked more like a sad orange cloud. “Here. Run over to the shop for me and grab the post.”
“Okay, Dad,” they chimed, thankful for the excuse to leave.
Rowan and his brothers squeezed down the cobbled road of Diagon Alley, and Artie accidentally hit a small boy in the face with his elbow. The mother glared as she hurried her crying offspring away.
Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes stood out from its neighbouring shops, bright and bold in a sea of dark and subtle. The giant laughing man on top of the shop terrified Rowan, especially those piercing, watchful eyes…
They slipped inside the darkened shop. It was eerie in the quiet darkness, floorboards creaking and empty space above his head yawning out into an abyss - to the point where he had to avert his gaze or risk panicking.
Five things lay on the doormat at his feet: a postcard from Uncle Charlie, who, rather unusually, hadn’t been home from Romania in almost an entire year, three purple shop-order slips, and - a letter for them.
“Look!” Rowan cried and Artie and Ricky looked up from the new display they’d crowded around. “There’s a letter!”
“Yeah, no duh,” said Artie like Rowan was stupid. “That’s what we’re here for, Roro.”
“No, stupid!” snapped Rowan. “For us!”
Ricky and Artie scrambled over. Ricky snatched it away, holding the front close up to his dark eyes. “No way...”
“It can’t be.”
“It is,” Rowan replied. “What do you think is inside?”
Artie flailed his arms. “Open it, open it!”
Heart threatening to burst right out of his gaping mouth, Rowan watched Ricky turn the envelope open.
Occasionally a relative might send them a short note if they were on holiday, or maybe even a little gift if feeling generous, but James and Aria had always gotten one too. Never, not once, had a letter come, to the shop no less, addressed to them and them alone. Rowan was half tempted to think of it as a joke, but...who would do that? Freddie never bothered to pull a prank on someone if he wasn’t going to be around for the results and, whilst her dad and Uncle were crazy jokesters, they tended to resort to the silly and outlandish around them, rather than something that bordered on outright cruel.
So, if not her family, who was it from? Who would send it? He didn’t have any friends and knew few people, mostly his family and their extended circle of friends. None of them would bother, as provoking a reaction out of Rowan and his brothers was, so he’d been told, significantly less fun than doing so to, say, David, who was prone to temper tantrums, or Rose, who liked to retaliate.
Arthur, Cedric & John Potter
Tucking a thumb under the seal, Ricky ripped the envelope open, and instead of the explosion of glitter Rowan had been half-expecting - there was always a chance of pranking - out came a loose leaf of paper, messy and smudged in black ink.
It was real. Someone had written them a letter. Was it their birthday? Was he dreaming? Hope bubbled in his chest despite the logical part of his brain that pointed out none of those things were correct and no one he knew would bother to send them a note even if they were anyway - they’d wish them a happy birthday in person.
DIE SQUIBS it read very simply.
Rowan’s stomach dropped to the floor.
Rowan stared in dismay at the hastily scrawled words, skin itchy and blinking back hot tears. He felt sick. Who would write such a horrible thing? And actually send it to them, no less?
Ricky folded the letter with shaking hands, still not saying a word, and slipped it back into the envelope. The three of them stared uncomprehendingly at their names, still printed in neat little letters. So nice and unassuming.
Rowan couldn’t help but think it served him right for getting so ridiculously excited about receiving a ‘special message’. It had been too good to be true - no one would write something nice and sent it to him with no ulterior motive. They didn’t have any friends of their own, after all.
Should they tell their parents? Mum would undoubtedly be furious. She was very protective of them and liked bullies even less than most people. No doubt she would sweep everyone down to the Ministry to file an Auror’s harassment report right away.
Would it be taken as a real threat? Did the person who wrote the letter see it as a harmless prank, or were they actually threatening them with physical harm? Were they in any real danger?
He knew if that was the case he should definitely tell someone. Mum, Dad, or even James. But...they were so busy and wasting their time on what could possibly be nothing seemed unfair. Mum was overworked at the office and Dad spent a lot of time at Uncle Fred’s house to make up for the lack of Aunt Angie. James...well, Rowan didn’t know what was going on with him exactly, but it was something important judging by new tendency to stare off into the middle distance.
Albus? Albus was preoccupied with whatever was going on between him and Scorpius. He’d made it very clear he didn’t have time for much of anything else at the moment and Rowan wasn’t going to touch that problem with a ten foot pole. Leave their brother’s unhealthy codependency on his best friend to the grown-ups, thank you.
No, he decided, it was best to keep this to themselves. For now. He was under no illusions that should the sender pose an actual threat he’d be able to keep it to herself, but until that was something he knew for certain...well, it couldn’t hurt to do a little digging for himself, could it?
He looked up and, like usual, it seemed they’d all had the exact same thought at the exact same time.
“Right-o,” said Ricky, shoving the letter into his trouser pocket. “We’ve got a lot to go over tonight, haven’t we?”
“At least we won’t be bored,” said Artie, scrubbing his cheek, the way he usually did when he was close to crying. Neither Rowan, nor Ricky, said a word about it, though.
Rowan looked away. “Back to the Whistling Kettle?”
“Alright,” Rowan and Artie said. The words still stung, of course, on loop in his mind, but that was all they were - words. He refused to let words hurt him so much.
Ricky collected the rest of the post and they left, Rowan making sure to double-check that he’d locked the door. They headed back to the Whistling Kettle, minds racing. Rowan’s stomach, still rather queasy, settled as he forced himself to picture the real culprit. Not the cruel evil being he was imagining, but, most likely, a bored child or spiteful bully, someone he barely knew. It stood to reason that the words of a stranger shouldn’t hurt him at all, but reason didn’t always play well with human emotion.
Teddy was outside the tea shop, taking long drags from a cigarette that let off dark red smoke as he exhaled. Rowan chewed his lip at the sight, weighing up the pros and cons of asking his godbrother what had gotten him so upset. He only ever smoked when there was something grievously wrong - trouble at work, an argument with Victoire or James, a rude comment about his parents, etcetera.
Artie cleared his throat. Teddy startled, cursed, and dropped his cigarette to the ground.
“Hey, hey!” His hair - turquoise, of course - shimmered to a deep red and back again. He did that whenever someone made him jump, mimicked the colour hair of the person who’d done it. “Didn’t spot you guys there. Look, you haven’t seen James around, have you?”
“No,” Rowan said, mouth wrinkling in sympathy. “Sorry.” James rarely, if ever, was angry with them, but he recognised the signs, for sure - James’ and Teddy’s fights were family-legendary and lasted for months at a time.
“I didn’t think so...” Shoulders slumping, Teddy heaved a sigh. “If you get a chance, I’m having lunch at the Three Broomsticks with Vic and a few others on Sunday. You guys can...come along if you want?”
Ricky offered an encouraging smile. “Sure.” They’d have to convince James, though.
“Alright, cool. You’re really doing me a big favour with this.” As if a great weight had been taken off his shoulders, Teddy perked up, caramel-coloured eyes twinkling and a grin tugging at the corners of his mouth.
He was practically bouncing as they went inside, and a sour-faced girl sat in the window with her equally sour-faced family sneered in disgust. Rowan didn’t recognise their faces and he wanted to glare back, but settled for doing so in his imagination. Confrontation was not his strong suit.
“There’s my boys,” Dad said as Ricky handed him the keys and letters, keeping the one addressed to them, of course. “Strawberry tart?”
Rowan smiled as he took one of the offered treats, pastry crumbs trickling down the front of his ugly raincoat. The tart was sweet, almost overly so, sticky and pleasantly hot. Not as delicious as Nanny’s cooking, though nothing ever was. She’d had around sixty years experience, after all - preparing meals for seven children and their spouses, sixteen grandchildren, one honorary grandchild, and the rest of the extended family too. That was a lot of practice.
They managed to tick some more shops off the Hogwarts requirements list; Potage’s for a pewter cauldron, Wiseacre’s Wizarding Equipment where they found a set of brass scales and a beautiful gold telescope, a collection of glass phials from Slug & Jiggers, and Scribulus’ where Mum haggled down a collection of eagle-feather quills and two jars of scarlet ink.
It seemed James was more upset with Teddy than Rowan had immediately thought, as when they were getting ready to head home, Seán Finnegan-Thomas, one of his best friends, ran over. He was quite short, with curly black hair, dark brown skin and big square glasses.
“Mrs Potter!” he panted, bent double. Aria fussed to pat down her skirt and hair, face pink. “James sent me over - s’it alright if he stays at mine tonight?”
Mum frowned. “Of course, but he should know better than to use his friends as owls. Next time, he’ll have to come ask me himself if he wants a ‘yes’.”
“I don’t mind it!” Seán said cheerfully. “I had to find you anyhow - Da wanted me to bring you this, express delivery.” He handed over a small package wrapped in brown paper and twine.
“Thank you, Seán,” Mum tucked the package into her coat pocket, the one where she kept her wand. “And how is Seamus, by the way? Still with Improper Use?”
“Unfortunately! He won’t let me get away with anything - there’s a special alarm in his office just for us, in fact. You’re pretty lucky, Aria, I wish my dad owned a joke shop.”
“It is pretty great!”
“Watch that ego of yours doesn’t inflate your head too big, young lady.”
“Anyways,” Seán said, rubbing his hands together to fight the faint chill of the August air. “I better get going. Nice you see you, Mrs. Potter. Aria.” He must not have seen Rowan and his brothers standing off to the side. (Or, seeing as that was unlikely given that there were three of them, didn’t think they was important enough to say goodbye to.)
“Bye, Seán!” Aria squeaked.
“Tell James to be home by five tomorrow. It’s his uncle’s birthday and we’re all going out for dinner.”
After he left Aria pulled a face. “Mum! You can’t stay say stuff like that!”
Mum grinned. “Why, did I embarrass you?”
“I think your sister has a crush, boys. What do you think?”
Rowan offered a sincere head nod so he could watch Aroa writhe with horror, hands clasped over her ears. “Stop it! I don’t! Boys are gross!”
“If you say so, sweetie.”
Dad came bounding over. “What’s so funny?”
Teddy didn’t come back to the house with them, which wasn’t too surprising. They kept his room clean, of course, but he spent most of his time at his new flat now. Especially since things with James were so rocky. Aria, still humiliated, ran off to floo her best friend Grace, which left Rowan, Ricky and Artie in the kitchen with their parents, who remained oblivious to the tension that had circled around Teddy whenever James was mentioned.
“So, what do we fancy for dinner?” Mum put on her ‘Puttering Potter’ apron. “Pizza, anyone?”
“Sounds great,” Dad said. Rowan stripped off her new coat and hung it on the pegs by the door, careful despite how hideous he thought it was. Off came his trainers. “Bread?”
Ricky dumped his things on a chair and Artie still had his own, hand in the sweet jar as he rooted for chocolate frogs.
“I’ll take sauce, you’re better with bread.”
“Fancy being on cheese duty, lads?”
“Er,” said Artie, mouth full of chocolate.
“We actually have to...I’m. I have a book I really want to finish,” Rowan mumbled.
“And Artie and I are in the middle of a game of chess.”
Mum kissed their foreheads one by one, smiling fondly. “My smart boys,” she said. “Well, have fun - don’t forget to come downstairs for dinner!”
Rowan clattered up the stairs with his brothers, heart in his throat.
Their room was in the attic: it was the second biggest in the house, but neither James nor Aria had wanted it because the stairs were inconvenient to run up and down all the time when you had friends always coming over. For obvious reasons, Rowan didn’t have to worry about that.
Closing the door as quietly as he could, Rowan sat at her desk as Artie collapsed onto his bed. Ricky stared out of the window, across the rolling green hills that never seemed to end. In the distance, a crowd of cows were grazing on the land, wild and unfettered. He pulled the letter out of his pocket.
Arthur, Cedric & John Potter
One, they knew their full names. They didn’t associate with many people, didn’t have any friends, so it wasn’t someone who knew them closely. Rowan was exing out his family on the principle of it. But what sort of stranger would know their proper full first names, which even their own family seemed to forget them half the time. Maybe someone from the Ministry where their mum worked, or St Mungo’s? But...why would an adult write something like that?
That brought him back to the thought of his family. He hated to even consider that it might be his cousins or one of their close friends, but there was a possibility it was a joke in bad taste...maybe.
The only person Rowan knew who might see a hate letter as funny was David. He was in Slytherin, which was known the ‘evil’ House, and whilst Rowan didn’t prescribe to the idea of stereotyping, he did agree there stood some traits that made them a tad more...ruthless. David, despite his House, took perverse pleasure in saying cruel thing behind people’s backs, too: ‘No Squibs allowed!’, ‘are you sure you’re not adopted?’ or calling Rowan ‘John’ in a decidedly unfriendly manner.
...In fact, he wouldn’t be surprised if David was behind the letter. He knew where Dad worked, of course, and had been around in Diagon Alley that morning with an abundance of time to drop the note through the letterbox.
“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
“If you’re thinking about David,” replied Artie, “then yes.”
“Should we confront him?” Rowan asked nervously.
Ricky sat down on his own bed, flopping back with his arms spread. “Surely that won’t end well. He’ll just run straight to the adults and we’ll be the ones to get into trouble. That’s how it always goes.”
“Well, we could always tell Mum and Dad?”
“No way!” Artie yelped. “Don’t be ridiculous, Roro! They’d just lock us away for the rest of our lives - then whoever sent the letter, even if it is David, would get what they wanted anyway.”
Artie was right; despite Rowan’s more sensible side wanting to come clean, he knew it would be best to keep the whole thing a secret. At least for the time being.
“So we’ll stay quiet,” he said. “Do some investigating of our own. I bet Aria still has some Parchment Purview hidden in her room.” A layover from her past (creepy) obsession with reading all of James’ post without his knowledge, and that would tell Rowan anything traceable about the parchment or ink. Spelled writing would be unaffected as they couldn’t sell a product that powerful to minors without legal ramifications, but that didn’t seem likely judging by the crude handwriting of the threat itself.
“Good plan,” Ricky said. “I’ll be on lookout - Arthur, you go and stall her, Rowan -”
“I’ll search,” Rowan sighed. He always ended up with search duty because he was the quietest and least clumsy of them.
They crept out into the hallway and down the stairs. They kept silent passing the bedrooms in case there was someone inside, and listened to the faint voices coming from the ground floor. Aria’s door was ajar, the late-afternoon sunlight streaming across her large white-tasseled rug.
Rowan exchanged nods with his brothers and slipped inside. The chest of drawers under the window called out his name, beckoning Rowan towards his goal. He opened the bottom draw and quickly sorted through the miscellaneous junk Aria liked to keep stashed away; a box of matches, a woolly bobble hat, a scratched bronze magnifying glass, an old toy wand, and the Parchment Purview he was after.
“ - my room!”
He stared at the door, frozen in horror at the sound of Aria’s trampling feet, the thud of impending doom, of suffering his sister’s wrath for being where he wasn’t supposed to be... Why hadn’t Artie stalled her? Why hadn’t Ricky signalled the alarm?
Rowan slammed the drawer shut, clutching his treasures to his chest as he rolled under the bed with a scant second of spare time. A moment later, Aria’s pink and purple socks appeared, half-obscured by her unicorn-patterned quilt hanging off the bed.
“I keep telling Mum it’s too babyish, but she won’t let me change it.” Liar, Rowan thought. Aria loved her pink room.
“It’s alright,” Grace Dunbar said, shutting the door. “You’re lucky you even get your own room, Aria.”
They came closer and climbed onto the bed, springs squeaking. Rowan’s breath puffed a crazy beat in his chest, hands white-knuckled on curled knees, toy wand poking his ribs. Any hopes of a quick escape were dashed.
“Oh yeah. I forgot you had to share. Does Keiran still sleepwalk?”
“All the time! Mum had to spell him down last night she got so mad!” They both giggled. “You know, you’re so lucky, Aria. Imagine if you had to share a room with one of your brothers. Or all of them!”
“Ew, no way! I wouldn’t do it, not ever! Albus would leave all his stuff lying around and James is so moody nowadays. Plus they smell.”
“What about the triplets? They don’t smell.”
“Yeah, but they’re too weird. James says they talk loads when it’s just them, but I think he’s just making it up. Why would they talk to each other so much and not me? It doesn’t make any sense.”
Rowan’s chest spasmed. They were talking about him. They were really talking about him. Behind his back. How long had that been going on? He’d never considered the idea that they was interesting enough to inspire gossip...he thought of all the private information his parents had told Aria - in confidence. Did Grace know those things, too?
“I guess, but what will they do at Hogwarts? James will be in, like, Sixth Year and he won’t want to hang around with Firsties. They can’t just stay as three people forever.”
“Exactly; school is ruthless! But for me, being friends with your little brothers is social suicide.”
“I’d never. I mean, a year is a year, right?”
“A year and six months. I’m October ‘10, they’re April ‘12.”
“It’d be easier with a much bigger gap, I guess. Is that why they follow James around all the time? Because he’s older and he puts up with it?”
“No, it’s something my mum and dad always say to do: ‘invite your little brothers’, ‘make sure you’re being nice to your brothers’ - Ricky, Artie, Rowan, it’s all they talk about! But what am I supposed to do for fun with them hanging off me all the time? They just get in the way!”
“Still, though, it must be nice. To have someone to boss around like that.”
“Well...yeah, I guess. Especially Rowan. He’s a bit of a doormat.”
“That sounds cool.” Grace stifled a laugh. “You know, my mum says the best way to teach babies social skills is to withhold things until they do what you want. Maybe you could try that?”
Aria hummed thoughtfully and her foot appeared over the edge of the bed, swaying like a pendulum. “Hm,” she said. “I like your thinking, Grace. The boys are basically babies, anyway. At least, according to my parents!” They both laughed.
“But I still don’t understand why they’re so shy.”
“...I don’t know, Grace, I guess they’ve just always been like that. Close with each other and no one else.”
“Oh, come on, Aria - I’m your best friend, so I know when you’re keeping something from me. If you can’t tell me, who can you tell? I’ve always known that there more to it than that!”
“Well...so long as you promise not to spill to anyone else! I’d be in so much trouble.”
Rowan’s lungs froze in his chest. Aria wouldn’t - surely she’d never - she’d promised...
“Grace!” Mum called from downstairs. “Grace, your mother wants you to head home now!”
“Coming, Mrs Potter! Quick quick, Aria, tell me!”
“It’s a long story, Gracie. I’ll...tell you tomorrow, okay? Are you free after lunch?”
They hopped off the bed and headed to the door. “Yeah, but Keiran has swim class, so -”
Rowan stared at the wooden slats of the bed. His chest was constricted, face red and eyes burning. He shuffled out from his hiding place and the strawberry tart from lunch nearly came back up. The pile in his arms grew heavier.
“Stupid Ari,” he whispered. Rowan went upstairs to their room and slammed the door as hard as he could. Ricky and Artie, huddled on Artie’s bed with wide eyes, stood up.
“Did you get caught?”
“Are you in trouble?”
Rowan dropped his stolen goods on the floor without answering and hurled his pillow across the room so ferociously a wooden sailboat fell off the window ledge and split in two. His brothers gaped at him.
Once the first tear slipped free, the rest came unbidden. The rug was plush and forgiving as he sunk to his knees and buried his face in that soft blue material, chest heaving unevenly.
“Roro,” Artie said, distraught and he and Ricky smashed Rowan into a hug. “What’s wrong? Are you okay?”
Rowan sniffled and told them what had happened, what Aria had said. Ricky’s face went redder and redder with anger, whilst Artie merely knelt there, stunned.
“Why would she betray us like that?” Rowan’s voice wobbled. “She’s our sister.” What right did she have to do such a thing - to go around spilling their private business like it was created for public consumption? It wasn’t fair - it was up to them who got to know those things or not.
“A right rubbish one!” Ricky snarled. “I wanna smack her!”
“What else does Grace know?” Artie fretted. “We’ve done so many embarrassing things and she knows about all of them!”
Rowan thought about the time he’d wet himself at Roxy’s birthday party when he was five. Or the fact that Ricky still slept with his baby blanket. That Artie was so scared of vampires he’d once fallen down the stairs and broken his arm because James dressed up as one for Hallowe’en.
He wanted to run downstairs and give her a talking to. Why would Aria talk about them so sneakily? Call them annoying and say they got in the way. Did Rowan get in the way? Did James think that, too? Rowan, Ricky and Artie liked to tag along when James went out with his friends, but they hadn’t thought he’d minded. But...maybe he had? Maybe he complained about it with Gabe and Seán like Aria did with Grace.
Rowan’s chest shrivelled.
And Aria wanted to train him like he was a baby. To fix him. Rowan couldn’t let himself go along with it, though. If they didn’t want to be extremely outgoing, to be loud and proud and the centre of attention, then that was their personality, not something you could change on a whim!
“Don’t worry,” said Ricky. He was frowning the way he did when thinking awfully hard about revenge. Juicy revenge. “We’ll get her back, boys. We’ll make her pay for gossiping about us!”
“Yeah!” Artie grinned, fist pumping. “No one crosses the Potter triplets and gets away with it, not even big sisters!”
Rowan could think for himself and make his own decisions, despite what their family seemed to think. If Aria thought he ‘got in the way’...well, maybe he did! But that was something he could change! He’d show Aria and James and her parents and everyone else, he’d show them that he didn’t need worrying over or special treatment.
John Rowan Potter was no one’s doormat.
“Yeah,” he nodded.
Chapter 3: Bread & Quidditch
August 20th, 2018
Rowan peeled his eyes open to a sun-spotted ceiling. He blinked slowly as a draft of air bit at the exposed skin outside the safety of his covers, squinting at the dust particles dancing in the shafts of light from the window.
There was a weight at the end of his bed dipping the mattress to one side and he sat up to find James his unexpected guest, still dressed in his clothes from the day before. He looked tired and drawn.
“Just thought I’d come see how you were holding up.”
Still a little sleep groggy, Rowan shook his head. “What do you mean?” He glanced over at his brothers, but they were still conked out - Rowan had the bed near the door, Artie in the middle and Ricky by the window - with their heads buried under their covers and only tufts of red hair visible.
“Mum said you were upset yesterday; she came in last night and saw you’d been crying. Fancy telling me what that was all about, or do I need to ask Artie?”
Face hot, Rowan threw his covers back and slid out of bed, toes curling on the cold floorboards. “It’s nothing,” he tugged on his slippers and his dressing gown. “Can’t we just forget about it?”
“Ro, I’m your brother, if something’s bothering you I gotta know what it is so I can help.”
With a half-hearted shrug, Rowan averted his eyes to a mark on the wall. “We got a letter yesterday,” he admitted reluctantly, voice kept low. “At the shop.”
“Okay,” James drew out, eyebrows furrowing over chestnut-coloured eyes. “And that’s...bad?”
Rowan grabbed Ricky’s crumpled jeans from the floor and fished out the creased letter, staring at the smudged ink - on one hand, the words stung, especially if he considered the sender being someone he knew well, but on the other, he refused to let himself be too affected by the words of an insecure bully. James, however read the letter with a flat, blank face. Then he closed his eyes, pursed his lips and nodded. He stared at Rowan with a dark glare.“Who wrote this?”
“There was no return address.” He thought he was taking it remarkably well.
James stood and snatched Rowan’s wrist in a vice-like grip. “We’re telling Mum and Dad. Right now.”
Heels digging for purchase on the floor, Rowan wriggled and squirmed as he was dragged out of the room. “James! James, stop! Don’t tell, please -”
They halted halfway down the stairs as James swung around so they were nose-to-nose. “Rowan! Some creep sent you a death threat and you want to, what? Ignore it? This is serious!”
“I know,” Rowan countered, wincing at the grinding bones in his wrist. “Ow! Hey, you’re hurting me.”
James dropped his hold like it had scalded him. “You know we can’t keep this a secret. It could be dangerous. I don’t want that on my head if something goes wrong.”
“I know you’re my brother and you’re only trying to look out for me, but think for a second without automatically assuming the worst, James! The culprit is likely just some - some bully!”
“Bullies don’t do this!” He waved the half-crumpled note. “They don’t send death threats to ten-year-old boys for no reason! Plus, you don’t even know anyone, I don’t even know anyone who would send this. Why would they pick on you three?”
“We’re in the newspaper sometimes,” he tried desperately. “When they talk about Mum.”
“But it’s so...specific. They called you...you know.”
“You can say the word, James. Squibs.”
“A crazy murderer wouldn’t know that either, though, right? I can pretty much guarantee this will just be one of Aria’s friends. People have weird coping mechanisms for stuff.”
“Coping by threatening little kids?” James rubbed his forehead. “There are so many things wrong with that I don’t even know what to address first. Man, if it is one of Aria’s friends and she was in on this -”
“That’s not funny. She wouldn’t okay?” Rowan snapped, before the idea could latch on and keep him up at night. His opinion of his sister was already at an all-time low thanks to his eavesdropping the night before.
“All I’m saying is if I find out she was a conspirator, she better hope and pray to not end up in Gryffindor,” James said darkly. His relationship with Aria was a strange one - half obligated sibling affection and half competitive rivalry. Rowan was glad they left him, Ricky, Artie and Albus out of it.
He toed the stairs. “Even so. You won’t tell, will you? At least...not yet.”
“It’s summer. There’s a week and a bit until term starts, so if you, Art, Ced and I can figure this thing out before, I’ll keep my mouth shut. Any escalation and I’m going to rat you out, though.”
“You wouldn’t tell if it was you!”
“That’s different. I’m fifteen, Rowan, I can look after myself. You’re -”
He sighed. “Helpless.”
“I was going to say that you’re all ten. You’re shy and there’s nothing wrong with that, but people will take advantage of it. Heck, they already do. I do, even, not that I’m proud of it. If you add in the major freakout everyone’s having about your Hogwarts admissions -”
“Just list off everything we’re doing wrong, why don’t you?”
“Hey, quit it. I’m doing you a favour, the least you can do is hear me out on this!” He waved his hands as if the right words would be floating about their heads. “Look. I’m nothing special, okay? Don’t get me wrong, the award for brother of the year definitely goes to me, but most people are nice. Good, I mean. It wouldn’t kill you to make a bit more of an effort to fit in. I know you hear what people say, Rowan, you’re not stupid.”
“I am being serious!” Like he hadn’t heard that speech over and over from pretty much his entire family for as long as he could remember. “But fine. I’ll think about it. Can we get back on topic now, please? You agree this was one of Aria’s friends? Or yours.” Albus was out of the question. He literally spoke to one person and that one person was Scorpius, who was as harmless as they came.
“Mine?” He scrubbed a hand through his hair. “No way! There’s only...Molly would never, she’s our cousin! And Seán and Gabe are my best friends. I’d swear on my life it wasn’t them.”
“What about,” Rowan wracked his brain, “Joseph Bones? I know you’re not close, but maybe? And Aria has a lot of ‘friends’, too, don’t forget. Grace, Beau, etcetera.”
James’ nose wrinkled. “Beau? Odette’s little brother? I can’t see it, but we can look into it. I guess you never really know.”
“JAMES! ARE THE BOYS UP?” Aria hollered from downstairs.
“Yes!” he shouted back. “Sort of! We’ll be down in a second!”
“OKAY! UNCLE FRED IS GOING TO BE HERE SOON!” They listened to her feet thunder away.
“But you agree it’s plausible,” Rowan continued. “That it’s most likely not a crazed murderer.” He emphasised that last bit to convey just how ridiculous of an idea he thought it was.
“Seems like the best theory,” he agreed reluctantly. “We’ll talk more later. You head on down to breakfast, alright?”
They parted ways, Rowan making his way to the peaceful kitchen. He was a solitary soul who enjoyed his own company or the quiet presence of a few chosen individuals over loud, raucous yelling and pranks and the thunder of activities.
His dad was sat at the table, notebook open in front of him and fingertips stained black with charcoal.
“Hey, kiddo.” He snapped the book shut. “Feel better? I saved your leftovers.” A plate floated off the kitchen counter and onto Rowan’s placemat. He sat and dug into the cold breakfast pizza. Crying always stirred up his appetite and after missing dinner he was starving for some fatty food to fill his aching stomach.
Dad cleared his throat. “So. Is there anything you’d like to talk about? No pressure, but your mum and I...we’re here if you need us, alright?”
Rowan nodded at his plate.
“Don’t be scared that we’ll get angry. I’m forty-two, practically an old man: I’ve seen so many crazy things you could never throw me off.”
He nodded again.
“Unless you’ve joined a cult or something!” He laughed and then leant forward abruptly. “You haven’t joined a cult, right?”
Rowan shook his head.
“Good! Good, good. It’s...whatever you feel like you need to say - or not say! - I’m here. No judgement.” He exhaled a sharp breath. “Great talk.”
“Dad! Uncle Fred is here!”
Dad shoved the notebook into his waistcoat pocket and hastily stashed the charcoals in the junk draw they put all their miscellaneous odds and ends in to avoid the need to organise or clean.
Uncle Fred appeared in the doorway in a suit that matched Dad’s down to the cufflinks, but Rowan was used to that. He and his brothers dressed the same too.
“Brother!” Uncle Fred beamed. “And my littlest nephew! What a morning this is shaping up to be, huh? Where is my favourite sister-in-law?”
“At work,” Dad said. “Emergency.”
“Yeah, there’s a lot of that going around.”
Dad coughed pointedly. “So! We’re taking shop inventory today, Roro. Fancy being our special little helpers again?”
Rowan blanched. He knew it was ridiculous, that his dad and uncle would be there too, but that didn’t stop the rush of fear when he thought about returning to the scene of the crime, as it were. He also hadn’t forgotten about his private pledge to become less reliant on his family.
Aria appeared behind Uncle Fred in her pygmy-puff-patterned pyjamas and matching slippers. Rowan couldn’t hold back his swell of resentment and wasn’t sure if it showed on his face or not.
“Grace is coming over for lunch. Can we go into the village, Dad?”
“Sure. If you can sing me a song!”
“No way! I’m not singing anything!” Why was she so temperamental as of late? James, huffing and blushing when Rowan had asked, put it down to ‘school nerves’. Which made no real amount of sense - why would nervousness do this to a person?
Dad grinned. “Aw, come on,” he weedled. “You used to love the convincing song.”
“I’m not a five anymore,” Aria said, red-eared. “Besides, the triplets are the babies! Get them to sing that stupid song if you want to hear it so bad!”
Dad’s smile slipped away. “Hey, hey,” he said sternly. “None of that, young lady. Apologise to your brother, please, or no Grace over for lunch. You know we don’t tolerate unkind words in this house.”
Aria’s pale eyes bore into Rowan’s, narrowed and petulant. “I’m sorry,” she said, not sounding very sorry at all. “So, Dad, can we?”
“Can you what?”
“Go into the village!”
Dad sighed a defeated sigh. “...Alright.”
Aria grinned and raced back upstairs, slippers slapping on the wood.
“Wow,” Uncle Fred said. “Finally hit the dreaded phase? I thought Al would’ve gone first.”
“You’re kidding, right? I hardly see him anymore! I don’t know how you cope, Fred.”
“It’s not too bad. At least we can learn from everyone else’s mistakes. I’d hate to be the dad of the first go-around. Bill and Perce - I have so much more sympathy for the poor sods now.”
“Oi, watch it, will you? Harry’s cracking down on me for swearing,” Dad said, looking at Rowan pointedly, “what with impressionable little ears around. She thinks we got lucky with James.”
“And where is that boy? I barely saw him yesterday!”
“Good point, my slightly less-handsome counterpart. JAMES SIRIUS! Get your butt down here and say hello!”
A bump came from overhead and James bounded down the stairs with a quizzical frown. “Oh, hey!” His face lit up. “Is Freddie here too?”
Uncle Fred clutched his chest. “Ouch!”
“Sorry, Uncle Fred. I’ll take that as a ‘no’.”
“Wha’s goin’ on?” Artie yawned as he stumbled downstairs. “Uncle Fred?”
“Hey, hey!” Uncle Fred said with a toothy grin. “Late sleep?”
“Sort of,” Artie replied. He sat on Rowan’s left and took his plate, but Rowan didn’t mind. He wasn’t very hungry, really. “We were playing dungeon prisoner.”
“Okay, I don’t know what that is, but it sounds weird,” said James.
“Good job you’re not invited then, isn’t it?” Artie grumbled. He was always more grumpy and sarcastic in the mornings. No doubt Aria had gone and woken him up and was still struggling to get Ricky to even twitch. Rowan had never met more heavy sleepers in his life.
“Ouch,” James said, but he was smiling. “Is it inventory day today, Dad?”
“Yes sir-ee!” Dad turned back to Rowan, and now Artie. “What do you think? Are you going to help out your old man and poor Uncle Fred? We could really use it with the new premises.”
Rowan turned to Artie, who floundered for all of two seconds. “Sorry, Dad. We’re going to work on our broomstick techniques, I think.”
“Ah well,” Dad sighed, though he didn’t look too put out because he liked to encourage the lot of them to have a good sibling relationship. “Al’s at the Malfoy house, of course, but Aria’s staying home today, so make sure you keep an eye on her as well, alright James? She has Grace Dunbar over for lunch, despite my reservations. Try not to get anyone killed, okay?”
“Got it, Pops.”
Collecting his coat and bag, Dad gave James a clap on the shoulder and Rowan and Artie a forehead kiss each. “Try not to do anything we would!”
Uncle Fred groaned. “Where’s the fun in that? Later, kiddos!”
“Bye,” Artie and Rowan said in unison as the adults left. They waited until the distinct sound of disapparition could be heard before letting out twin sighs of relief.
“That was easy, Roro. Too easy,” said Artie. “Do you think they really fell for it?”
“Most likely,” Rowan said, though he wasn’t sure.
“Is this about your mysterious letter?” James asked.
Artie blanched. “Rowan! You told him?!”
James shook his head, hands in his pockets. “I squeezed it out of him, Art. I said we could keep this between the four of us until I go off to Hogwarts in a few weeks if we can riddle out who sent it.”
“Else you’ll tell Mum, right?” Artie sighed. “And we’ll be grounded forever.”
“Sorry, Artie,” Rowan mumbled, but Artie patted his arm.
“No worries. We knew he’d figure it out eventually, Ro. Just...not so soon.”
“We can talk logistics later,” said James. “Artie, go wake Ricky up and meet in my room - Rowan, you come with me. I have something to show you all!”
Rowan followed James to his room, which was the messiest in the house. He claimed that it was all meticulously organised, but as Rowan stepped over a smoking pile of clothes, he couldn’t find it within himself to agree.
James’ desk was layered in piles and stacks of parchment that spilt onto the floor; newspapers, magazines, illustrated diagrams, and pages torn from books. It was all there, though what for remained a mystery. James’ room had always been that way - messy, but with a purpose.
“C’mere,” he beckoned Rowan over to said messy mess. “I found the paper from yesterday morning, yeah, and the day before, just in case, and...ta-da!”
He held up a copy of the Daily Prophet. On the front was a tall woman with a widow’s peak, at her side stood a boy in a waistcoat and tails. They both stared at the camera with stiff unease. “NEW DMLE HEAD PROMISES CRACKDOWN ON CRIME!”
Below this was a smaller piece; Dad and Uncle Fred waving madly in front of the Hogsmeade shop, grins splitting their faces. “WWW BUYS NEW LOCATION IN HOGSMEADE” was the description.
James huffed. “So! So, down here, look, ‘George Weasley, 44, is famously married to Harriet Potter, 42, defeater of the Dark Lord You-Know-Who. Between them they have six children: James, fifteen, twins Albus and Ariana, eleven, and identical triplets Arthur, Cedric and Rowan, age ten!’ Even a proper idiot could figure it out from there; we’re all on the yearly census and that’s easy to access if you get the right paperwork.”
“Good find!” Rowan smiled.
“Thanks, but this makes everything a heck of a lot harder for us. The letter really could’ve come from anyone.”
“That’s not true,” Rowan sat down on the bed whilst James took the big yellow beanbag. “The letter was all about us not having magic. Supposedly. Not a lot of people know that.”
“Hm. Well...let’s see. Me and you guys, obviously. Al, Aria, Mum, Dad, all the aunts and uncles, all the cousins. And Nan and Gramps.”
“Don’t forget the St Mungo’s healers.”
“Right. So, not an impossible list, but still a long one.”
“Plus, you know the gossip that goes on in this family. I’ll guarantee there’s at least one person who’s told someone they shouldn't have. How are we supposed to narrow down the names?”
“We can tick ‘em off as we go. I’ll do the questioning and you can snoop. No one will be suspicious if we play this right - I’m charming and you guys are cute and unassuming.”
“Divide and conquer, baby brother, divide and conquer.”
What a loser. “Who’s first?”
A cheeky smile grew across James’ face, pure evil glinting in his eyes. “Our dear sister, of course, seeing as we’re all alone with no adults in sight. It’s the perfect time to catch her.”
“You make it sound so menacing.”
He cackled. “I don’t know what you’re talking about! James Sirius is a nice, kind boy.”
“Maybe, but Aria’s no moron. She’ll see right through us.”
“Not if you follow my lead. I have years of experience dealing with troublesome sisters.”
Aria was sat in her window seat when Ricky knocked, writing in a small leather-bound journal with a pink feather quill. She snapped the book shut, a red flush spreading across her cheeks, when she saw them lingering in the doorway.
James and Rowan had filled Ricky and Artie in on the newspaper and subsequent plan, and they’d agreed it was less suspicious if not all of them went. James was waiting outside, where they’d meet him if everything went to plan.
“Hey,” Artie said casually. “Dad’s gone.”
“And you three needed to come to tell me that...why?”
“We’re breaking into the broom shed.” Rowan tried to look like he knew what was going on as Artie went on. “Thought you might like to tag along.”
“Wow, really?” Aria’s mouth popped open. She set her book and pencil to one side, slid to her feet and seemed to get ahold of herself, gaze turned suspicious. “Are you tricking me?”
Rowan winced as he was stared at with curious, assessing eyes. Once again, there was that small seed of betrayal. Did Aria not feel guilty at all? Did she not care that, as siblings, they were entrusted with important secrets others were not, on the basis that they remained that way?
“Don’t be stupid,” Ricky said. “Can’t we just spend some time with our sister?”
“If you get me into trouble I’ll make you pay, boys. Don’t mess with me.”
Ricky grinned. “We would never!”
James, true to his word, met them outside once they’d put on their coats and shoes. Rowan and his brothers were still in their pyjamas, but that wasn’t too unusual in the early morning. Aria’s skirt and cardigan under a bright pink jacket seemed equally unfit for the heavy wind and bracing cold.
The broom shed was at the back of the garden, close to the fence around the quarry. None of them were allowed to even think about going near there without supervision. James apparently didn’t prescribe to such rules and whistled a jaunty tune as he trampled on the very idea of safety and making good choices.
“Bumblebee fizz whizz!” he said and the padlock on the shed popped open and fell to the dirt. “Impressive, eh?”
Aria stared at him, wrenched the door open and disappeared inside with a grumble. Rowan slowly followed suit, already dreading the experience. He hated flying, flying hated him, it was best they stayed far, far apart. For everyone’s sake.
“A Nimbus 3000! Cool! James, how come Mum never lets us use these?”
“She’s just overprotective, Ari, you know that.”
“Yeah, but she was on the Gryffindor team when she was my age, and I’m not even allowed to practice? It’s completely unfair!”
“They had weird childhoods. Mum’s just trying to keep us safe.”
“Yeah right.” Aria held up a Cleansweep. “What do you think, boys? Fancy a go?”
Rowan looked at the broom. He looked at his brothers. He looked back at the broom. He looked at his brothers again.
“I’ll pass,” said Ricky. “Flying on an empty stomach probably isn’t a good idea.”
“Ditto,” said Artie quickly.
“You can ride with me, Ro,” James suggested, selecting a sleek Firebolt with golden bristles and that was apparently that.
They trooped back outside. Off in the distance, a few wild horses grazed on the grass, the wind fluttering their long manes majestically. Rowan wished his life was that simplistic.
Aria kicked off the ground and flew lazy circles above them, head tilted back with a cheer.
“Come on! Hurry up!”
James mounted his broom. “Hop on.”
Dragging his feet, Rowan hung onto his brother’s shoulders as he settled on the uncomfortable surface. It made him feel better to know James was in charge of the broom - he was an excellent flyer, had to be in order to have held his position on the Gryffindor team for nearly three years. rowan had never actually seen him perform in a match as spectators weren’t allowed at Hogwarts matches, but he had no doubt James was as an amazing Seeker as he always bragged to be.
The ground slid away as James gently guided them up, the wind buffeting from both sides in a constant tug of war to remain upright. Artie cheered them on from down below, Ricky sat at his feet, yawning.
Aria crowed “Catch me if you can!” and sped off, ducking and diving invisible corners, long black hair whipping this way and that. James made chase, though he kept his speed lower than usual, for which Rowan was exceedingly grateful.
He closed his eyes and rested his forehead against James’ back, soft leather warming his red, wind-bitten nose, wondering why the plan to get Aria talking had to involve flying. Wasn’t there something safer they could be doing? Reading, for example, never ended in someone falling from a great height to certain death. He could never understand how someone could find being up so high, with only a cleaning instrument to balance on, as fun!
If - when - he went to Hogwarts, Quidditch would be the last thing on his mind, right below making friends and getting into trouble. Rowan was sure he’d spend most of his time in the library with as many books as he could get her hands on, doing all his homework because it was magic - much better than maths or drama - or paying attention in all her lessons to get the best results possible. He might not end up a very powerful wizard, but at least he’d be a well-practiced one!
“What are you smiling about?”
He jumped. James was craning his neck back to stare at him whilst Aria flew in figure-eights.
“Wow,” James enthused. “Interesting stuff.”
Rowan stuck his tongue out as Aria drifted over, inky hair whipping in the breeze and a carefree, joyous smile spread across her pink cheeks.
“This is awesome; thanks, James! But won’t you get in trouble with Mum and Dad? They always seem to find out when we do something we’re not supposed to.”
James shook his head. “It’ll be fine. I told Dad that the boys and I were going to practice before they left. It’s not my fault he never asked which brooms we’d be using.”
The ‘child-friendly’ brooms only flew a few metres up, wouldn’t exceed certain speeds and had anti-falling and anti-crashing charms. According to Rowan’s entire extended family, though, getting seriously injured for a sport was half the fun. Rowan did not feel the same way.
“I won’t tell,” Aria promised. “Ro?”
“Me neither.” James smiled. “Swear on it?”
Aria flew closer so they could pile their hands together in the solemn oath of sibling respect - breaking it and spilling the secret would mean banishment from any further fun. And an awful punishment, of course. As far as Rowan knew, none of them, including Albus, had ever tried to tell, so he had no idea what said punishment would actually be, but knowing James...not fun.
They nodded ceremoniously.
“Can I get down now?”
“Sure. I know it’s freaky up here without control,” James said soothingly. “I hate it, too, so don’t worry. There’s a reason you need magic to fly; it’s in case anything bad happens.”
The words stung, before Rowan remembered why they were outside in the first place.
“I know it can be a sensitive subject,” James continued, “but don’t worry. Gabe is good with this kind of stuff. He’s trustworthy. You really don’t mind that I told him?”
“No,” he cottoned on. “It’s okay.”
“Besides, Aria would only tell people she trusted, too. Right, Ari?”
Aria glanced between them uncertainty. “What is all this about?” she asked. “You told Gabe something about the triplets?”
“Yeah, you know, about the ‘magic’ thing. Being a Squib. They were worried everyone laughs about it behind their backs, so I was just spilling on who I’d told so they were prepared.”
“Oh. I...guess that makes sense.”
“Who did you tell?”
James rolled his eyes. “Oh, c’mon, Aria. We know you must’ve mentioned it to someone. Just fell up! Rowan won’t be mad, will you, Rowan?”
Rowan shook his head.
“I talked about it with Roxy a bit, I guess. Not Grace or anyone else, though - it’s not my secret to tell. What’s with the third degree?”
“Nothing, nothing. No degree, just a question.”
“Well, alright. Now are we gonna fly or what? I wanna work off this energy before lunch!”
James nodded, stifling his grin as the broom drifted down to the ground. Rowan practically fell to the grass, lying on the tacky mud for a moment before climbing to his feet. He watched his brother spiral back up, swooping after Aria with a battle cry.
“That was amazing!” Artie crowed. “Did Aria spill anything juicy?”
“No,” Rowan said sadly. “She said she’s only spoken about us with Roxy. Not with Grace or anyone. James seemed to believe her.”
“Hmph,” Ricky grumbled, unconvinced.
Honestly, Rowan had been sure Aria would own up to being their gossip leak, but that denial had seemed genuine, and his sister wasn’t one for outright face-to-face insincerity. Which earned her some sisterly credibility back. Not all of it, of course - Rowan could hold a grudge - just some.
But if Aria hadn’t given it away, that left them back at square one all over again. The three of them trudged back to the house, cheery mood all but gone. Why couldn’t he get a lucky break? It didn’t seem like much to ask - to find out who sent them a letter.
The wind picked up as he reached the back door and Rowan was glad to stumble inside and engulf himself in the homely warmth of the empty kitchen, toeing off his trainers and hanging his coat up as Ricky dumped his on the floor. He stared at the table, the sight of Dad writing in that strange little leather notebook looping in his mind. The way he’d closed it so abruptly when he realised Rowan was watching him, his scramble to hide the evidence when Uncle Fred arrived...it all seemed quite out of character.
Ricky collected Rowan’s leftover pizza and ate the cold crusts and congealed cheese with obvious apathetic hunger. It was close to ten in the morning and they had yet to do anything close to productive; talking to Aria had furthered nothing and James was flying instead of helping them investigate.
Who would make the most sense to question next? Roxy, perhaps, but she had an abrasive personality and it would be hard to get her talking. Rowan would put that off as long as possible, thanks.
Rowan settled himself in the living room with a book he’d never seen removed from the shelf above Aria’s overstuffed armchair. It was small and thin enough it would fit easily enough into a large pocket. Artie settled down for a nap under one of Nanny’s handmade blankets, whilst Ricky brought out the letter to look at it under the magnifying glass he’d gotten for their birthday back in April.
Rowan rubbed a fingertip over the gold lettering on the cover, ‘Wizarding Fables’ by Elsie Randle and cracked the book open. A gale of dust burst up, stinging his retinas and mouth. It took him a good minute to stop coughing and spluttering, rubbing his eyes.
“Dedicated to my beautiful children,” he read. “And in loving memory of my sister, who gave her life to the cause she believed in. Repose en paix.”
“Yawn,” mumbled Artie, eyes already closed. “Sounds like a drag.”
“Hush,” said Ricky.
The first chapter was surprisingly short and an experimental flip-through of the other pages revealed them to be the same - a collection of short pieces rather than a complete novel.
A girl was walking through the marketplace in search of her father, but her feet grew tired and on a corner came a beggar to beckon at her feet.
“Oh, kind mistress!” he cried. “Spare me a coin if you please!”
The girl refused. “I have no coin to offer, but join me in the search for my father and he shall pay you as handsomely as a King.”
And so the girl and the beggar scoured the market for the girl’s father. Finally, over came an old man in a beautiful cloak with polished buttons.
“Daughter,” he cried. “To be seen in such company is to be held a mockery!”
“He was most helpful,” the girl explained. “I offered him ample pay in return.”
The old wizard turned to the eager man and shook his head. “Here is your pay, beggar. Only a fool helps those he does not know without coin in hand.”
However, the beggar returned to his hungry family smiling, as better is a poor man who walks in his integrity than a rich man crooked in his ways.
So it was book of morals. But, why had this Randle woman dedicated it to her children and dead sister? That seemed completely out of place. Dedicating a book should depend on what said book was about.
For example, Aria would most likely be at the beginning of a fairytale, the kind complete with adventures and knights on white horses and princesses who lived in giant point-towered castles guarded by angry, green, fire-breathing dragons. Cliché, but fitting.
Albus? A mystery. Some sort of detective novel. Him, a famous PI who solved the nation’s most prolific crimes, and Scorpius his loyal sidekick as they dashed about London. It would be very Holmesian in its presentation, but they’d both be more sly about things. Good at getting information out of suspects and victims alike. No romance, just pure action.
James, on the other hand, would be in a story of pirates out on the open sea, with mermaids and giant whales that swallowed ships whole, or Old West cowboys instead, who wore jingling boots and leather hats as they fought off bandits and outlaws. Teddy would probably show up at the front of those kinds of books too, but only if there was a mushy romance bit.
Mum and Dad...a comedy. They’d like being in a humorous story rather than the sad pieces real-life novelists depicted them as being part of. Rowan wasn’t allowed to read these sad ones, not yet at least, but he knew how much his parents hated it - the non-official biographies and historical accounts. Even Aunt Hermione’s book had been met with a reluctant reception.
He wasn’t sure what sort of book he, Ricky and Artie would be in. A non-fiction?
He flicked to the next chapter, and the next and the next, and so on and so forth until the book was nearly finished. His throat grew sore, parched and dry.
BONG! BONG! Rowan flinched as the grandfather clock burst to life; twelve chimes, twelve o’clock. Was it so late already?
He glanced at his brothers and rolled his eyes fondly. Artie was snuggled up under Nanny’s blanket, lost to the world, whilst Ricky was snoring against the arm of the sofa, letter still held loosely in his hand.
“Oi!” Rowan called, poking them. “Wake up! It’s lunch time.”
The pair groaned and grumbled, but eventually were persuaded to get up. They ran upstairs and Rowan set the book on his bedside table to finish before he went to bed. Voices came from downstairs, loud and excited.
“Guess Aria and James are back,” said Artie.”
They changed out of their pyjamas and into jumpers - Rowan in blue, Ricky in yellow and Artie in green - and jeans, then headed downstairs. Artie brought his chess set. There were a few more people than expected in the kitchen.
Grace had arrived, her mother in tow. The pair looked very similar: light brown hair parted down the middle, pale skin and oddly-sharp jawlines. They were wearing their customary matching outfits, too; today it was a green dress, white cardigan and boots. Though he matched with his brothers, Rowan couldn’t imagine his mum ever suggesting they wear matching outfits with her on a day-to-day basis. It seemed so invasive and stifling, to be forced into her mother’s fashion choices. At least the three of them wanted to be the same fashion-wise.
“As I said, Mrs Dunbar,” James was telling her, hands tucked in his pockets, a crinkle between his eyebrows, “There’s really no need to wait around. I’ve got it handled.”
“Please,” Mrs Dunbar laughed, blinking rapidly, “call me Fay.” She turned to the three of them with a pink-lipped coo. “And look at you!” Talons pinched Artie’s cheeks, then Rowan’s, then Ricky’s. “So precious! You look just like your mum, yes you do! Oh, aren’t they darling in their little matching outfits?”
“Yeah,” James grimaced.
“Mum, you’re embarrassing me!”
“I’m sorry, munchkin,” Mrs Dunbar said insincerely, “you know I just can’t help myself, not when I see such sweet faces!” She turned back to James with a fond smile. “I can see why they left you in charge here, James. You’re very mature for your age.”
“Well...I’m fifteen, sixteen in November.”
“Sixteen! Wow,” Mrs Dunbar said. “So old now. I assume I’ll be seeing you more come September, hm?”
Rowan stared at James. Mrs Dunbar was a professor? Who had authorised that? She wasn’t qualified to school a garden gnome, let alone Fifth Years!
“I guess so, ma’am,” James said, staring at a point over her shoulder. “But don’t worry, Grace is in good hands with me.”
“I wouldn’t doubt it,” she winked. “And you, little sweetiepies, I’ll be seeing you around, okay?” Rowan felt like he was staring up into the eyes of a particularly hungry dragon. He withstood another cheek pinch with as much dignity as he could muster. “Bye, Gracie-Pie!”
“Bye, Mum!” Grace said. She and Aria ran off, giggling and whispering.
Mrs Dunbar tottered into the fire and disappeared with a puff of green smoke and ash. James let out a groan, scrubbing his eyes with the ball of his palms and sinking onto the sofa.
“She’s going to be a professor!” Artie immediately cried. “Of you! For OWLs!”
“Nah,” James said. “Just working in the library.”
“That’s still awful!” Arguably even worse! Rowan couldn’t imagine having to suffer through Mrs Dunbar’s presence everytime he wanted to indulge in his favourite pastime...
“Headmaster Redfern hired her, so there’s not a lot I can do about it. For some reason he thinks she’d make a good study helper...”
“They’ll come to their senses soon,” Rowan sat next to him. “But wow. Grace’s mum - a staff member at Hogwarts. That seemed less likely than us going half an hour ago.”
“Woah, hey,” James said, taking the chess set from Artie’s hands and setting it down. “I know I’ve said some stuff like that lately, but there’s still a chance. You’re only ten, guys; there’s a whole year before letters start going out. Plenty of time for your magic to kick in.”
“James, be serious,” Ricky scoffed. “I think so too, but we have to draw the line between fantasy and realistic expectations. Don’t try and get our hopes up.”
“You know I wouldn’t do that. I’m being one hundred percent truthful when I say I think it’ll still happen. Look at Professor Longbottom! He was a late bloomer, too.”
Rowan would never admit it, but allowing the thought that magic might still be a possibility for him struck something deep inside his heart, a knife to an already painful wound. Sometimes Rowan wished people would make their minds up. One minute they were the pariahs of the family, whispered about in secret, and the next he was coddled and pitied and assured that it would all come about in good time. Why couldn’t everyone pick a side and stick with that?
“I guess,” Rowan said.
Smiling sympathetically, James patted their shoulders and turned to the chess board. “So, you wanna play a game, Art? I have to make lunch soon, but we can finish after.”
The two of them set up the board and got well into the match; James leading with eight stolen pawns and a castle, to Artie’s three pawns and two rooks. Their games were usually fairly even in terms of winning, with maybe a 50/50 chance of coming in first each time. Unless Uncle Ron decided to be on Artie’s team. Then he’d always win.
Ricky and Rowan watched, cheering on Artie and booing James.
“James!” Aria hollered downstairs at about mid-day. “We’re hungry! When’s lunch?”
“Queen to D3. I’ll start it now!” His queen slid forward and smashed Artie’s knight off the board with a triumphant swing of her throne. James stood from the table, cracked his spine and sauntered over to the kitchen counters. He tied on his apron, which was red and patterned with tiny golden flowers. It had been a gift from Teddy on his fifteenth birthday.
“What’re we making?” Artie asked. They didn’t have their own special kitchen aprons.
“Sandwiches,” James grabbed a slab of cheddar and a few fresh cuts of ham and chicken out of the cold cupboard. “Can you grab the bread?”
Rowan opened the box, but it was empty. “I think we’re out.”
James peered over his shoulder.
“Mum must’ve used it all up this morning. Uh, lemme think. There’s a bakery in Diagon Alley, not far from the shop. Think you could Floo over and grab a loaf, whilst I cook some chips?”
They agreed and grabbed their shoes and jackets once more. The hideous yellow raincoat Mum had bought at Madam Malkin’s was hanging up, but Rowan steered well clear of it. All three of their jackets were dark grey.
Fussing and fretting, James saw them off at the fireplace. “Be careful, please. And if you get into trouble, come right back.”
“James, we’re ten, not six,” Ricky sighed. “We’ll be fine.”
“You’re my baby brothers, it’s my job to worry. Just don’t take too long!”
Artie collected a handful of floo powder from the little copper tin on the mantle and threw it into the fire. “Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes!”
They stepped inside, hands clasped and the world swirled and blew so fast it was almost knocked Rowan out for the count. Luckily, the shop was directly connected to their house, which meant the journey was significantly shorter and less nauseating than going somewhere like, say, the library.
Rowan stumbled out of the fire and caught himself on the spiral staircase that led up to the second floor, disoriented. It was quiet in the shop, the sign on the door was flipped to ‘CLOSED’ and all the bells and whistles and music and lights were deactivated. A few small children were pressing their faces against the windows to gawp at the products on display.
“Bread,” he reminded herself. Rowan had never seen the bakery James had mentioned, so it time to go on a wander and hope for the best.
Artie scratched his head. “Where’s the bakery he was going on about?”
“Let’s go and look,” Rowan suggested. “Diagon Alley isn’t that big.”
So they undid the bolt on the front door and slid outside. The sun was in the middle of the sky, a ball of heat despite the cold bite of August air. It was a busy day, the cobblestones choked full of people and peddlers selling their wares, voices and sounds reaching high above the crowds. They patrolled the shops with their eyes peeled, but there was no sign of any kind of bakery.
Fifteen minutes later Rowan was considering returning home and telling James that he’d been mistaken - perhaps he’d dreamt it up or it had closed down, when Artie gasped.
“Hey, look! That seems promising!” He pointed at a boy stood outside Gringotts. He was around their age, with short, curly brown hair and a sad, round face. There was a board around his thin shoulders that read: “BARKLEY’S PRIME GOODS - OPEN NOW!!’ A large, flashing arrow pointed down a side alley.
That sounded...rather like somewhere that might sell bread. Rowan followed the directions and found himself in a place he was unfamiliar with. There was no need to wonder why - the air was stuffy and the sun barely visible down the narrow passageway. Most of the shops were boarded up, all with grime-covered windows and chipped paint, hence why it was so easy Rowan to find the shop the boy had been advertising. The front was clean, displays decorated in clean shelves of fruit, vegetables and packaged meats.
“Thank Merlin,” Ricky said. “I was beginning to think we’d never find it.”
Artie agreed. “Any longer and James will come looking for us, so let’s be quick!”
Inside was nicer than out, well-scrubbed bricks and spick-span counters. There was even a little glass figurine on the counter of a boy with a shepherd’s crook, behind which the till was manned by a girl with long black hair and eyes as blue and clear as rainwater.
She did a double-take when the door thumped shut, the book in her hands falling to the floor with a tremendous clatter. She ducked down to retrieve it and proceeded to bash her head on the bottom of the counter.
“Ah, fuck!” The girl clutched her head, eyes screwed shut in agony. She flailed around for a few moments, before trembling bodily. “I just swore in front of a customer!” She shook her head in fervent denial. “Customers. Look, here’s an idea: I’ll pay for whatever you want so long as you don’t file a complaint, okay? I really can’t get in trouble for swearing again!”
Rowan tried to think of something to say. He could do it, he could -
“No thanks,” said Ricky.
The door opened with a cheerful jingle. It was the boy from earlier. He was covered in what smelt like Butterbeer. He hefted the smudged and illegible sign off his shoulders and propped it against the door.
Gasping, the girl rounded the counter and grabbed a roll of paper towels to begin dabbing the sticky liquid off the red-faced boy. “What happened?”
“It’s nothing,” the boy spotted the three of them standing awkwardly behind them. “Customers! I’m sorry about this, sirs! Welcome to Barkley’s Prime Goods! Can I - can we help you with anything?”
Artie hunched his shoulders. “Bread.”
“Yes, please,” they chorused.
The girl fumbled with the loaf as she bagged it up. “Would you like your receipt?”
Scratching at his cheek, Rowan shook her head. The girl’s clothes were tidy, but also quite worn and undoubtedly second-hand. Underneath her eyes were purple bags, droopy and prolonged.
Rowan set the bag of coins James had given them on the counter.
“No, please, you’ll only be getting us into trouble,” the girl leant forward, eyes slightly wild, the boy backing her up. “Just let us pay.”
“Miss Peakes,” the boy said, hefting the sandwich board over one shoulder as he stared warily at the ceiling. “Maybe we should -”
“Please!” The girl said loudly.
A mighty rumpus came from above, stampeding feet and heavy breathing. The girl and the boy trembled as the door behind the counter flew open to smash against the wall.
Standing in the doorway was a man as round as a Christmas goose, a black furry caterpillar flat across his upper lip quivering with rage. “WHAT!” he thundered. “DO YOU THINK YOU ARE DOING?”
The boy shuddered, flailed and the sandwich board slipped through his fingers to knock the little glass shepherd off the counter and onto the floor, where it shattered into a million tiny, glittering fragments.
Chapter 4: Milk Eyes
A bit late, but I'm back with a double chapter update!
August 21st, 2018
“M-Mr Barkley!” The boy stammered, chalky-faced and trembling in the intervening silence. “It’s - there was - I mean -”
The large man, Mr Barkley, looked first at his shattered figurine, then at the sticky drips of Butterbeer slowly seeping across the spit-shined floor. His skin turned an unhealthy fuschia.
“What,” he said in a deadly whisper, “is this?”
“Sir,” the girl said very quietly. “We’re awfully sorry about your statue -”
Mr Barkley seemed to have reached his limit. “Sorry? SORRY? I’ll have your head for this; you, you, you -” He jabbed a finger at Rowan, Ricky and Artie with force, apparently having decided that she was the instigator. “You’ll rue the day you messed with me, you little - you little freaks!”
“Please, it wasn’t their fault -” the boy said, edging around the counter, still facing Mr Barkley at all times. Ricky slowly collected the coin pouch as Artie clutched onto their hands for dear life.
“It was me, s-sir,” Ricky mumbled. “I tripped him!”
“Yes, well, I know your face now, boy! All three of them!” Mr Barkley said with a contemptuous snarl. “Come within twenty metres of me and I’ll show you why they’re called Barkley Prime Goods!” He pulled a short, stubby black wand from his sleeve and waved it menacingly. “Now, GET OUT! And you two - don’t come back until you can pay for what you’ve broken!”
“We won’t, Mr Barkley, sir!” the girl grabbed hold of the boy’s arm and tore him to the door, throwing it open with a wave of her hand.
A shower of red sparks rained down from the ceiling and Rowan dove outside in time to avoid a thorough singeing. They ran, sweaty hands clutched tightly, until they reached the mouth of the alley, blood pounding in their ears.
“Oh fuck,” the girl said from directly beside them. She was panting and doubled-over, clutching her stomach. “We nearly got fired, Mr Peakes, shit. And now we need a new statue! Where in Merlin’s saggy tits are we supposed to find a bloody statue!?”
“Calm down,” the boy said, hair stuck to his face in awkward clumps from the Butterbeer, blue eyes wide. “We can fix this. Maybe.”
The girl chortled. “Maybe! What are we supposed to do now? We needed that job and we don’t have money for a fudging figurine or whatever.” She turned to them. “What do you think?”
Rowan backed up against the wall, still clutching his bag of bread.
“Back off,” snarled Ricky.
“Miss Peakes, we don’t know these boys. They could be anyone!”
“Yeah, alright - who are you, triplets?”
Ricky grimaced. “I’m Rick P - uh. Rick...Evans, and these are my brothers; John and Art.”
“I’m Jemima and this is my brother Oliver.”
“Hi,” said the boy. “It’s nice to meet you three. Sorry about Mr Barkley.”
“He’s a complete fuckface,” Jemima said succinctly. “Wait, I bet you’re loaded, right? Those are some real fancy clothes, maybe you can help us out!”
“I mean...we could find a figurine?” Artie mumbled, staring at his feet. “Since it was kinda our fault it was broken in the first place.”
“No way!” Ricky said. “It wasn’t.”
Rowan nudged him sharply. “Cut it,” he whispered.
Ricky scowled, but kept his mouth shut.
“We insist,” said Artie.
“Alright. Put ‘er there,” Jemima said, sticking out her hand. They took turns to shake it, and Rowan was surprised at the rough calluses across her knuckles. “We’re good for this, just so you know.”
Oliver nodded. “And there’s this look about you, Misters Evans. Trustworthy.”
“We can meet tomorrow,” Jemima suggested. “The Leaky Cauldron, six pm. You bring us our figure or equivalent and I’ll give you something you’ll want in return. Deal?”
Rowan nodded, dazed. That sounded rather foreboding.
“Great. Well, it was nice meeting ya three. I’ve never met triplets before.”
“Agreed,” said Oliver. He straightened his holey, moth-eaten jumper. “We should go.”
“Bye,” they said in unison, slinking off towards Knockturn Alley, shoulders pressed together. Jemima was slightly taller than her brother, but both were skinny and bony, all edges.
“What just happened?”
“I have no idea,” said Artie. “Ro?”
“Why were they working in a shop so young? Why did they call each other by their surnames? I think they were twins, but even still. They were weird.”
As a matter of fact, why were so many events coinciding over such a short period of time? Rowan felt like he was stuck in the very beginning of a story - the part where all the bad bits seemed to happen. Hopefully, before they were all fixed nice and harmlessly?
“Agreed,” Artie and Rowan said.
“Let’s get out of here before they come back.”
“Whiterock House, Plymouth!” Rowan stepped into the Floo, not forgetting the password they had on their fireplace to stop strangers appearing in the living room willy-nilly.
James crashed into the room as soon as their feet touched solid ground, his hair ruffled and apron askew. “You’re back! Where on earth have you been, boys!?”
Ricky looked at the grandfather clock. “James, it’s barely been half an hour. You’re going to go grey with stress at this rate.”
“I can’t help it - have you met our family? Mum’s one of the biggest worriers in the wizarding world, right after Nan and Aunt Hermione. They’re always overthinking everything.” Rowan handed over the squashed bread. “Thanks.”
They’d contemplated mentioning Jemima and Oliver, before wisely thinking better of it. James was...sensitive about that kind of stuff, as much of a worrier as he claimed everyone else to be.
“Well, we’re back now,” Artie said, “and nothing exciting happened at all, which I’m sure you’ll be glad to hear.”
“Hmph,” James grunted.
They made lunch - hot sandwiches with gooey cheese and succulent meat - and ate it in the kitchen alone. Aria came down to collect her and Grace’s plate before disappearing with a hasty ‘thank you’. Rowan lost a chess game to Ricky and bowed out of another match with Artie in favour of some time alone.
He went back up to their room, sat at the desk and pulled out his calendar.
It was August 20th, a Saturday. He’d have to convince James to go to lunch with them and Teddy tomorrow, then somehow get to the Leaky Cauldron at 6pm with a figurine, and how was he supposed to get one of those? That wasn’t something you could find lying around!
Not to mention, there were only twelve days until the first day of school, so less than two weeks before James’ deadline about the letter. Rowan dropped his head, groaning in despair. So much to do and he didn’t even know where to start.
Swinging around to survey the room with a critical eye, he tried to pick out any trinkets that might be worth as much as they needed it to be. The sailboat was still on the ground, split down the middle between the masts, so he picked it up and set the two pieces off to one side to be fixed later. Dad was good at that kind of tiny, delicate detail work...huh.
No! What was he thinking?! He couldn’t steal from his own family.
The next day, Rowan woke up early to eat breakfast. It sat heavy in his stomach. He’d stayed up late the night before, listening to his brothers snore and wondering if he had the guts to go through with his tentative plan.
It felt like he was spitting in the face of all the trust he’d ever been afforded, but what else could was there to do? They’d promised Jemima and Oliver that they’d help them! It was unavoidable either way - he’d end up betraying someone, so would it be his parents or these new people? Rowan loved his family most of all, but...it seemed entirely unfair to promise to help someone out and then rescind said agreement. The house was so packed, surely no one would notice if he took something small that it wouldn’t be missed...
He patrolled through the halls, eyes darting nervously to the trinkets heirlooms dotted about. Most were worthless, save sentimentally - a clay vase from Egypt, countless baby photographs, a large trunk they used to pile the washing on and - wait.
Rowan stopped and stared. The trunk was from before his parents even went to school, covered in scratches and grooves and peeling leather. Knowing his Mum, it was the perfect place to store something you didn’t want people finding.
He slid the pile of clean, neatly-ironed clothes onto the study floor and hefted the trunk open, the lock groaning loudly. There was a creak above his head, the dip of a floorboard, and Rowan froze. It would be awfully hard to explain what he was doing if someone came downstairs...
Inside the trunk was a collection of winter coats, which would presumably be pulled out very soon and exchanged with their light summer ones. Unfortunately, there were no expensive treasures to be found. He sat back on his heels.
The floor squeaked again.
Rowan shut the trunk and put the clean clothes back as neatly as he could. He snuck upstairs to his parents’ study and stood outside the door - the triple-locked, warded door. He tried the handle anyway, but it was futile.
James’ room was right across the hall. Rowan crept over and raised his hand to knock.
“I am listening to you!” a soft voice came from inside, tense and frustrated. He pressed his ear against the door. Why was James up so early? And who was he talking to?
“Look, mate - don’t get angry with us. We’re only trying to help.”
“I don’t want your help, Seán,” James snapped. “Leave it alone.”
“S’not our fault you’re such a tosser about it,” a third voice said. “We’re your friends, in case you’ve forgotten, Mr High-and-Mighty.”
“I haven’t forgotten -”
“Well, act like it,” the third voice - who Rowan could now identify as Gabe, one of James’ best friends - said venomously. “Come on, Seán - maybe we’ll call later, when James isn’t being such a prick.”
James let out a frustrated huff and Rowan assumed they’d disappeared, not that he knew how they were communicating. James didn’t have a fireplace in his room, nor access to any sort of Muggle telephone...
There was a thud and Rowan had a bare second to gape in wide-eyed panic before the door swung open and James stopped mid-step. He was wearing a t-shirt and jeans, halfway through stuffing his arms into the sleeves of his favourite jacket.
“Oh,” he said. A beat. “Were you listening in on me?”
“No! I just...came to ask for a favour.”
“Well, now’s not really a good time.” He brushed past Rowan. “Maybe later.”
“It’ll only take a minute -”
He spun around by the stairs, lips pulled into a sharp grimace. “Rowan! I said later - I’m not your slave, okay? Try and solve your own problems for a change!” He stomped down the stairs, only pausing to yell “and stay out of my room!”, before disappearing from sight.
Rowan worried his lip, eyes burning a little. James didn’t ever yell at him and he couldn’t remember the last time his older brother been so...prickly. Judging by the brief conversation with Gabe and Seán he had overheard, there was something going on between James and them, too. Was James still worrying over whatever he and Teddy had argued about? That sounded like something he would do.
Rowan shut James’ door carefully and gave up on the study.
Mum and Dad woke up at around seven, stumbling downstairs in their dressing gowns and slippers, looking as if they hadn’t slept very much.
“Morning,” Dad yawned as he stirred his tea. “Where are your brothers and sister?”
“Artie, Ricky and Aria are still in bed,” Rowan said. “James went out.”
“Out?” Mum repeated with a frown. “Out where? And at this time?”
Rowan stared at the grains in the table, tracing one with his finger. “To see Gabe. He’s fighting with his dad.”
“Huh,” Dad said. “Again? That’s, what, the third time this month? Though...it’s not exactly surprising, considering who his old man is. Rockstars don’t want kids, especially not teenagers that question their authority.”
“George,” Mum chided. “I’m sure Kirley’s a very good man underneath that party boy exterior. There’s a reason Romilda married him, after all.”
“Yeah, just like there’s a reason she divorced him nine months later.” He pointed at Rowan with a spoon. “Don’t repeat that.”
Mum drained her cup. “Enough talk of the Dukes now, please, or we’ll start to sound like the breakroom of the Daily Prophet. I’m going to get ready for work. When James comes back, tell him I’d like a word. He’s still only fifteen and can’t just wander off whenever he pleases.”
“Okay, Mum.” Rowan wanted to ask why she was going to work on a Saturday, but didn’t. It was obvious the deaths across the Wizarding World had yet to be solved and were taking their toll on his poor mum.
“And I should get an early start at the shop,” Dad said. “Fred will probably already be there.”
“I’ll stay here,” Rowan said quickly.
“Are you sure?” Mum asked. “Will you three be alright by yourselves?”
“We have Aria here with us in case anything goes wrong.”
Dad kissed his forehead. “That’s my boy. He’ll be fine, Harry - it’s not like when we were kids, remember? Things are safe now.”
“Hm,” Mum said noncommittally. “If you’re sure, Rowan.”
“Come on,” Dad said to Mum. “I need to grab my briefcase and get ready.”
Rowan held back a cry of excitement.
“I can get it,” he suggested. “So you don’t have to go up an extra floor.”
Dad grinned. “My helpful boy.” He fished the key from his pocket and handed it over. “I know you wouldn’t, but make sure you don’t touch anything. The potions are still unstable.”
Stomach turning, Rowan fought to keep the smile on his face. “I’ll be careful.” He tightened his grip on the solid iron key and raced upstairs, heart thundering in his chest so hard he was sure his parents should be able to hear it.
He couldn’t believe he’d gotten away with it - lying, right to their faces! He felt like a - like a spy!
Rowan fumbled the key into the lock, giving it a swift turn. The door swung open.
His parents’ study was a small, square room, with one window and several large desks. One half of the room was Dad’s. It was littered with potions and diagrams and notes for new inventions, plans for the Hogsmeade shop layout and future marketing ideas. The other half was Mum’s, where she kept all her criminal cases, notebooks and filing cabinets full of evidence that needed a closer looking to.
There was a shelf above Mum’s main desk, lined with her most important items, though all of them were boxed away haphazardly. They were lined with dust.
Rowan picked one near the end and stood on a chair to fetch it. He eased the lip open, shooting glances over his shoulder at the door, ears strained for any sign of someone coming upstairs.
Inside, resting on a dirty, discoloured cloak, was a compass. Rowan frowned at it. For an item his mother kept shut away in a locked room, it didn’t seem very special. He was about to replace the box and open a new one when the stairs groaned.
Gasping, Rowan grabbed the compass, slammed the lid of the box shut and slid it back onto the shelf. He scrambled across the room and picked up his dad’s briefcase just as his mum reached the top of the stairs.
“My good little helper,” she said, now dressed in the red and black of her Auror robes. A single gold pin on her lapel labelled her a veteran of the Second War. “Off you go.”
Rowan left, slipping his stolen treasure deep into his pocket. He gave Dad his briefcase and went back upstairs to their room, shutting the door and sitting against it. Artie was snoring loudly.
He took the compass out. It was a polished gold, heavy and solid. The needle spun and spun, before coming to rest at a point on the far wall. Which, upon checking his own compass, Rowan found to be south-west.
What a disappointment. He slumped on the floor, scowling. He’d gone through all that for a broken piece of rubbish! Why did Mum even keep it lying around?
James didn’t come back all morning.
Aria woke up at quarter past nine - long after Mum and Dad had left - to make herself a drink and a toastie, before sequestering herself back upstairs. Rowan lounged about in the living room, finishing up his book of morals and attempting to play a game of chess against himself. The broken compass lay abandoned on his bed, needle still pointing south-west.
Finally knocking the King off the board, Rowan sat back against the sofa with a huff. It was Saturday - Saturdays weren’t supposed to be boring! Where was James? He’d promised to help them investigate their mysterious letter, not disappear off to who knows where!
He went upstairs to bother Ricky and Artie, but they grumbled and groaned and sent him away, so Rowan tugged on his trainers and called up to Aria that he was going out. There was no response, but he honestly hadn’t expected one.
The Floo tossed him out on the thin rug of the Burrow and Rowan barely managed to avoid hitting his head on the leg of the sofa. Gramps, who had been sat in his armchair reading the paper, looked up with a startled smile.
“Rowan, I didn’t expect to see you today! Is everything alright?”
Sort of. “Is James here?”
“I don’t think so. Has he wandered off?” He set his newspaper aside. On the front page was an older man with a beard glaring into the camera. Rowan followed him into the kitchen, rubbing his carpet-burnt elbow absentmindedly. Nanny was icing a cake, flour on her apron and up to her elbows. Louis, who Rowan had definitely not expected to see, was sat at the table reading a book with a French title.
“Mollywobbles,” Gramps said. “Is James about?”
“Hm?” Nanny turned around and saw Rowan. “Hello, lovely! What a wonderful surprise! Oh, Arthur, you didn’t tell me we had a visitor!”
“Hey,” Louis said, not looking up from his book. “Did you say you were looking for James?”
“Yes,” Rowan said with suspicion. Louis was nice and usually helpful, but he liked to make things more cryptic than they should’ve been, too, because he thought it was funny or made him seem cool, Rowan didn’t know which. “Why?”
“He came by Shell Cottage,” he said. “Looking for Victoire. I told him she wasn’t home, so he left, but I don’t know where he was going.”
“That boy. Your father should keep a better eye on him.” Nanny sounded quite disapproving, more so than the situation would probably call for.
“James can handle himself, Nan,” Louis defended absentmindedly. “It was just girl trouble. I think he wanted advice.” He laughed to himself at that, but Rowan couldn’t imagine what would be funny. James had ‘girl trouble’? With who? Rowan had never heard wind of him ever dating girls, let alone arguing with, or pining over, one!
Was that what he’d been arguing with Seán and Gabe about? Girls? Rowan pulled a face at that. He couldn’t imagine James dating, even though he was fifteen going on sixteen soon. He was just their goofy, but loveable, big brother! Rowan had been sure if he was going to date anyone it’d be Victoire, but if he was going to her for advice...
“Girl trouble,” Nanny murmured. “Arthur?”
“This is the first I’ve heard about it,” Gramps said. “But James is a young man now - the age of romance, really. It’s not strange he’d have a little crush on a girl from school.”
“Ew,” Rowan said. James with a crush? It was wrong on so many levels.
“Now, Rowan,” Nanny admonished. “Your brother is a teenager, not a little boy anymore. He has to grow up someday. What are you going to say when he gets married and has a family of his own?”
Rowan tried to imagine James with a peppy, happy-go-lucky wife and a big fat baby in a house somewhere near London. He’d probably work at the Ministry with Teddy, but they wouldn’t see each other very much - he wouldn’t have time with his new family keeping him busy.
Rowan thought he was going to be sick. What was he going to do without James around? There was no way he could go to Aria for advice, or confide in her about his deepest thoughts, or even trust she wouldn’t gossip all about it anyway!
“Okay, thanks,” Rowan said faintly. He said goodbye to his bemused cousin and grandparents before returning home. James still wasn’t back and Aria seemed to have stayed up in her room. Ricky and Artie were, unsurprisingly, still asleep.
Rowan took another book off the shelf, some sort of historical recount of the Muggle World Wars, and it was clearly an untouched copy. He read through five hundred pages, carefully studying the diagrams and annotated maps and transcripts with distracted interest.
They had to meet those twins - Jemima and Oliver - in an hour and nerves were bubbling in his stomach. The only thing he had to give them was a broken compass and maybe a knick-knack or two from their own room, but that wouldn’t add up to the price of what had clearly been an expensive figurine...
Mum came home at five, hustling through the front door with a file under her arm and soaking wet, messy hair sticking to her face. Rowan looked out the window - the sky was clear and blue.
“Rowan, sweetie,” Mum said hurriedly. “I’m going to be out late tonight, alright? James will make you guys dinner.”
“James isn’t home still,” Rowan pointed out.
“I’m sure he’ll be back soon,” she said. “He knows the rules. Your father will be back by nine, at any rate. And Aria knows how to reheat leftovers on the stove - we still have the pasta from the other day.” She bustled upstairs and Rowan listened to a few thumps and bangs before her dragon-hide boots thumped back down. The file was gone, instead, she was holding a small purple beaded handbag Rowan had never seen before. Her hair was tied back in a ponytail, highlighting the stress lines around her mouth and the deep bags underneath her eyes.
“Mum,” Rowan edged. “Is everything okay?”
“Hm?” She glanced up, thoughts clearly elsewhere.
“I asked if everything is okay.”
“Yes, yes, it’s fine,” she said. “Just...make sure you keep inside, alright? No flying for any of you tonight, not after it gets dark. And keep the doors locked.” She peeked into the bag and muttered to herself too softly to catch. “Bye, my lovely.” Then she left with an almighty crack.
Rowan stared at the place she’d been standing a moment before, mind racing. Something at work was going on, which explained why Mum had been spending so much time away from home, slaving away at the Ministry. He thought back on the brief discussion he’d heard at lunch two days before, about the deaths that had been occurring across Wizarding Britain.
The information on them was sparse, but from brief snippets of conversation, Rowan knew that there was no clue as to the identity of the killer, why they chose their victims, nor even what they used to commit the horrendous crimes. The most unusual aspect, in Rowan’s opinion, was that, technically, they were not murders at all. People referred to them as much because every single one of the victims was found as a ghost of their past self, empty husks of once-alive witches and wizards of all ages. Mum had likened it to the finality of the Dementor’s Kiss, but all had been accounted for at Azkaban and a Dementor wasn’t well-hidden.
Ergo, Mum had most likely found out something vital about these ‘murders’ and that was why she was staying late at work and taking a suspicious bag with her. Rowan felt inclined to investigate further, but knew he’d regret it. Being nosy nearly always resulted in unfortunate consequences for everyone involved.
Rowan went upstairs to finally wake Artie and Ricky. They got up, stumbled into clothes and he showed them the compass he’d...acquired. His brothers had been impressed with his gumption but were equally sure that it wouldn’t even amount to half the price of the broken figurine.
“I still don’t get why we have to help them out,” Ricky said. “We don’t owe them crap.”
“Yeah, but we’re nice,” Artie countered. “We should help people out if we can. Besides, it was sort of our fault. If we hadn’t been there, being all awkward, that boy might not have broken that ornament.”
“Maybe,” hummed Ricky. “But we haven’t got anything to give them, anyway, have we? Besides this dumb compass that Rowan stole.” He tossed it in the air and caught it, up and down, up and down.
“But we said we’d be there,” Rowan hedged. “We can’t just...not show up.”
“I’m not going to let them guilt us when we disappoint them not coming with a bag of Galleons or whatever. I think they’ve overestimated how rich we are.”
“I’m sure they’d just appreciate us just showing up,” said Artie. “And if not, we can leave.” He patted Ricky’s arm, wheedling, “Pleeeeease? Riri, come on! This might be the chance we wanted! We might actually make friends for once!”
Ricky sighed, but Rowan knew he was convinced. “Alright,” he said. “Lay off the whining, Artie.”
Artie grinned, rolling his eyes when he caught Rowan’s gaze. Rowan smiled back, feeling much better about the whole situation. His brothers could always cheer him up.
They sat downstairs in the living room and Rowan went back to his book, but his heart wasn’t in it and the words blurred off the page in a swirl of black and white. By the time the clock ticked around to quarter to six, he was near squirming in his seat. Jemima and Oliver would most likely be at the Leaky Cauldron already, waiting for them.
They put on their shoes and raincoats, trying to be quiet so as to not alert Aria to their daring escape through the Floo system.
Diagon Alley was rather empty, only a few stall vendors selling roasted chestnuts and trinkets left to fill the cobblestones. The sky was swiftly turning a deep dark blue as dusk approached.
Rowan approached the Leaky Cauldron with his head down and shoulders up. The entrance was right beside the still-open ‘Wheezes and he had no idea how he’d explain getting caught in a place he definitely wasn’t supposed to be.
Luckily, an old wizard was opening the archway when they arrived and Rowan, Artie and Ricky snuck through after him, hearts thundering as they pressed up against a stack of barrels in the grimy courtyard. They sat for a moment to catch their breath and Ricky smirked.
“Even if those two cause us trouble,” he said, “At least we’ll have had some fun.”
Rowan stood and dusted off the seat of his trousers. “Come on, guys! I don’t want to be late.”
The inside was as familiarly dark and grimy as he remembered. A group of old wizards sat along the bar, chattering loudly with the barmaid, a woman with a dastardly smile and long blonde hair. Rowan and his brothers stuck out like sore thumbs in their raincoats and Muggle jeans. There was no sign of either Jemima or Oliver downstairs.
“Maybe they didn’t show up,” Artie suggested after a bout five minutes past of them lingering by the door. Rowan’s skin prickled with unease. What if Artie was right and they didn’t come? He’d have gone through all that trouble for nothing, not to mention the risk of getting caught and being forced to spend the rest of the holidays locked up at home with no fun. How would they investigate that awful letter from their room? Especially if James stayed as grumpy as he was now...
“Psst!” Ricky jumped. “Psst! Hey!”
Rowan’s eyes caught on a young boy staring moodily out from an uncared-for painting with a plain wooden frame. He’d probably be grumpy, too, if he was confined to such a dingy place. “Are you talking...to us?” Rowan hedged.
“Of course!” The boy huffed. “They told me to pass on the message, and here I am! Hurry upstairs before I regret it!” He waved a shepherd crook at the stairs that led up to the rented rooms.
The three of them stared into the gloom uncertainty.
“Up there? Are you they’re up -” Artie trailed off. The boy from the painting was gone. “Looks like we don’t have much of a choice.”
Rowan took a deep breath as the first step creaked underfoot, his skin prickling. Laboriously, he climbed the stairs, tongue heavy in his mouth, Artie and Ricky right on his heels.
Go back... a little voice inside his head urged. ...go home...
The passageway upstairs was black, lit only by the light from a few flickering candles close to their end. A long shadow cast across tapestries half-lost to the darkness and a faint yellow glow came from underneath one solitary door.
“Maybe we should go,” Rowan said nervously, but Ricky walked towards the door. The hairs along his arm rose with each step his brother took. Ricky slowed, staring at the shiny golden handle. “Ricky, please.”
“Come on, man, this is spooky,” Artie agreed, grabbing Rowan’s arm. “I think Rowan’s right.”
Ricky reached out a hand, but as his fingers brushed cold metal, the handle snapped downwards in one movement, and the door flew open, cracking against the wall inside and bouncing back off again. Before it shut, in that brief moment, Rowan saw a shadow. The shadow was long, almost human-like, but its eyes glowed in the orange candlelight, pale and milky.
They were staring directly at him.
Artie screamed. The door slammed shut in Ricky’s face and the entire world went dark with a tremendous gust of air. Rowan was frozen with fear, knees quaking.
A door along the passageway flew open to reveal a pale, shocked face lit by the tip of a wand.
“Oi! What the fuck happened?!” Jemima marched over, confidence in every step.
“There was a monster! It had glowing eyes and was looking right at us - right in there!” Artie cried. “Ricky, are you okay?!”
Jemima’s wand dipped a little. “Move out of the way,” she ordered. “Let me see.”
Ricky shook his head and quickly dove aside, pressing against the wall. Rowan’s heart was still in his throat, even as Jemima flicked her wand at the door handle.
“Alohomora!” she whispered and the door swung open. Rowan threw his hands up, but a few seconds went by and so he risked a peek. Jemima was scratching her head. “It’s empty,” she said. “It doesn’t look like anybody’s been in here for years.”
Feet scraping on the floor, Rowan and Artie shuffled over as one unit to have a look. Jemima was right. The room was dark and cold, the floor layered with dust and the sheets missing from the bed. The mysterious figure, the milky-eyed monster, was nowhere to be seen.
“Maybe you three should sit down...Come on. Mr Peakes has the fire going next door.”
A few minutes later, snuggled up in front of a crackling fireplace, wrapped in a quilt that smelt strongly of lavender and soap, Rowan tried to rationalise what he had seen. Jemima clearly thought they had suffered some sort of collective lapse in sanity and was watching them closely from the other armchair. Oliver, who’d been reclining on the bed when they entered, had opened up a book and not looked away since.
Rowan was starting to doubt his own mind, as well. A white-eyed shadow monster? In the Leaky Cauldron? It seemed unlikely - impossible, even! Who - or what, if his own eyes were to be believed - would lure Ricky over to the room like that?
“Are you feeling alright?” Jemima asked as she flipped the hot coals with a fire poker. “I nearly shit myself when I heard you screaming!”
Rowan wondered if she was allowed to swear like that at home and decided, simply by the fact that the pair had long jobs, were unsupervised in a pub late in the afternoon, and wore veritable rags for clothes, their parents didn’t care much about swearing in the grand scheme of things.
“Yeah, we’re fine,” Ricky mumbled. “Thanks.” Rowan exchanged a glance with Artie, concerned. Their brother had been much closer to that thing than they had, after all.
Jemima shrugged. “It’s no problem.” She glanced over at Oliver. “Mr Peakes? Anything you’d like to add?”
“Hm?” He looked up, blinking slowly. Both he and Jemima had the same pale blue eyes. “Oh, right. Did you happen to bring what we need, Potters?”
Remembering the reason they’d snuck out in the first place, Rowan fished the compass out of his pocket and gingerly held it out. “Here,” he said. “It’s all we could find...it’s broken, but you -”
“Oh, nice! This is solid gold!” Jemima weighed the compass in her hands. “Heavy, too!”
“Thanks,” Oliver said, looking genuinely pleased. Rowan heaved a sigh of relief - it felt as if a great weight had been removed from his chest, one he hadn’t even noticed until it was gone. “Now I have something for you.” He threw a small item at them, which flashed briefly as it caught the light of the fire. Artie managed to snatch it from the air and Rowan craned over his shoulder to look.
When Artie opened his hand, Rowan was disappointed to find it was just a chess piece. A white Queen, to be precise. There was a hole drilled in the top, through which a thin gold chain was threaded.
“It’s lucky,” Oliver said. “But you have to wear it as a necklace, and never take it off. Otherwise, the charm doesn’t work.”
“What kind of charm?”
“He won’t tell,” Jemima said dryly
Rowan didn’t know what a testing wand was, but he got the impression it would be far more impressive than a chess piece with an unknown charm on it. The piece wasn’t even enchanted - it didn’t even move!
“Which one of us is supposed to wear it?” Artie asked sceptically.
“Whichever one needs it,” Oliver said. “You’ll thank me later.”
Jemima shrugged again. “He’s always this cryptic, in case you were wondering.” She took another long look at the compass and then it vanished into the depths of her old, worn jacket. “I think this worked out nicely for all of us. It was nice doing business with you, Potters.”
Rowan flushed. “Oh, um, thank -”
“So you are Potters!” Oliver said triumphantly.
“You said your name was Evans. But we’ve been calling you ‘Potter’ this whole time and you haven’t corrected us once. Or even notice, for that matter.”
How could he have been so oblivious?! Rowan felt like banging his head against the nearest flat surface. His parents would be ashamed of their lack of follow-through. They always said: “Boys, if you’re going to lie, at least do it right” and what had he gone and done? Why completely forgotten the fact that Ricky had given a fake name in the first place, that was what!
“Damn it,” Ricky muttered, but he was still as pale as paper.
“It’s alright. We won’t hold it against you.”
“You are bad liars, though,” Oliver said.
“Terrible,” Jemima agreed.
“But that’s alright because we’re plenty good at it.”
“Fame and fortune,” Artie said, “leads to unfortunate consequences.”
Jemima offered an understanding smile. “It’s hard to know who your real friends are.”
“Well...we don’t really have any friends,” Rowan admitted to his blanket-covered knees. “But yes.”
Oliver looked at Jemima.
Jemima looked at Oliver.
They both looked at Rowan, Ricky and Artie.
Rowan looked back down at his lap.
“That’s cause for concern,” said Jemima. “Everyone should have friends. Even criminals.”
“It keeps the world sane,” agreed Oliver. “Or, at least, in the company of crazy.”
“Well, in that case, congratulations! You three are now the proud owner of two acquaintances turned friends - Jemima Tamsin and Oliver Gaius Peakes.” She offered a dimpled smile. “You can call me Jem.” Oliver also offered a smile, though his was relatively long-suffering.
Rowan exchanged shocked glances with his brothers. Friends? Was it really that easy? He was half-expecting the entire situation to turn out to be a prank pulled at their expense. Rowan eyed the cupboard in case Dad and Uncle Fred decided to fall out of it and roll around on the floor in hysterics. A few seconds went by and there was no big reveal, no laugher and no cruel words.
They were serious. He really had...Rowan was being -
“Yes,” Artie said breathlessly. “Yes, please!”
“Alright, alright,” huffed Jemima - Jem. “We’re not bloody biscuits. You don’t have to beg.”
“Okay,” Artie said, unable to hold back his grin. Rowan was smiling too.
“They’re smiling,” Oliver said teasingly, “look at that, you’ve done a good deed, Miss Peakes.”
Jem nodded, obviously chuffed. “Nah, it was good for us, too. I need more intelligent human interaction with someone who isn’t you. We’re twins.”
“Stuck together since day one,” said Oliver.
“Well, I got a blissful twenty-four hours without you,” bragged Jem, tossing her dark hair. “But yes.”
“Dad will be pleased. He’s always telling us to be more sociable.”
“I’m sure your parents will say the same, huh?”
“Um, sure. And you’re right - Dad will probably cry,” said Artie. Mum probably not so much, but she’d be just as elated to see them finally making friends their own age. “But if we’re...friends, then I don’t really know much about either of you.”
Besides that their parents seem to not care very much about safety, Jemima was older, their middle names, that they didn’t have much money, that Oliver liked to read, and Jemima liked to swear.
“Well,” they looked at each other for a moment.
“We turn eleven in about two weeks,” Jem said. “Just after the cut-off for Hogwarts.” She looked rather put-out about this. “So we can’t go until next year.”
Rowan was quite relieved. If they’d gone to school with Aria, he had no doubt they’d be friends with her instead. Maybe that was selfish.
“I take it you’re the same?”
“Yes, our birthday is in April,” Ricky explained. It all still seemed so surreal to Rowan. So much had happened to them over the space of three incredibly short days. “But our sister Aria is going in September, our brother Albus is a Second Year and James is about to be in Fifth.”
“Cool,” said Jem. “We don’t have any siblings. It’s just us -”
“- and Dad. He’s an author. Mostly science-fiction, but I think he dabbles in historical too.”
“History is my favourite subject at school,” Rowan gasped. Would their father want to talk to him about Muggle history? rowan found that the most interesting of them all - the way Muggles fought their battles with absolutely no magic and only sheer courage backing them. Plus, the technology was incredible!
Artie smiled at Rowan’s enthusiasm. “Our mum is an Auror and our dad owns a joke shop.” Soon to be two.
“Awesome! The one in Diagon Alley, ‘Wheezes, yeah? We’ve never been in there, but it looks amazing from outside. Lots of spellwork goes into an enchantment like that! And I don’t know much about Aurors or the Ministry or whatever, but your mum is fucking crazy famous! Does it get annoying - people asking you questions about her all the time?”
Ricky scoffed. “No one really asks us...Aria and James are the chatty ones.”
“Being quiet is alright too, you know,” Oliver said kindly. “Life would be boring if everyone was the same.”
“Look at us! We’re like magnetic south and magnetic north. Besides, we want to be friends with you three and not your brothers or sister. No offence to them, of course. Quit worrying.”
“Yes, but we only just met yesterday!” Artie protested. “How can you know what we’re like?”
“Intuition,” Jem said. “I have a good eye for this kind of stuff, and Oliver -”
“I have a good nose. We think your nice, Potters. If that turns out not to be true, then,” he shrugged, “so be it. Life is like a river - sometimes there are ebbs and sometimes there are flows, but we can’t predict the tide without previous experience. Hence, a tentative friendship.”
Jem was right - he was very cryptic! Rowan found it more entertaining than he did annoying, though, and besides, he wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth.
“Thanks for this, though,” Jem said far more seriously. “Really. If you hadn’t helped out, we’d be fired for sure and that just can’t happen. We - I kind of sprung the obligation on you, even though it wasn’t your fault, to pay the money back. You’re good eggs.”
“It’s nothing,” Rowan murmured, very glad he’d decided to sneak out after all. The thought of leaving Jem and Oliver with no way to pay back Mr Barkley, waiting despondently for them to arrive, never knowing about the extended offer of friendship...
Oliver smiled and picked up his book once more. “Maybe to you,” he allowed. “But not to us.”
“Just take the thanks,” Jem suggested. “And the offer of gratitude in the form of an invitation to our birthday party.”
A party? Rowan and his brothers had never been invited to a birthday party before. They’d been to many, but that was the case when you had so many cousins, aunts and uncles. But an invitation, one the rest of their family didn’t get? Rowan’s heart sped up just at the thought. What would Mum think? She’d be undoubtedly very happy, as would everyone, that the Potter triplets were finally making friends, even against all the odds. James, if he wasn’t still angry with them, would probably cry a little bit. Rowan knew how much he worried about them, especially now that they’d be by themselves with Aria and the others off to Hogwarts. Knowing they had some company in the form of kids their own age would take a big weight off his shoulders.
“Of course!” Artie said quickly before they could change their minds. “When -”
“We don’t know the details yet,” Jem said. “Only that it’s around the beginning of September and at our house. There’s gonna be a biiiig cake!”
“If we can afford it,” Oliver said. “Otherwise you might have to bring your own snacks.”
“That’s fine!” Artie said quickly. “We’d be happy just to come.”
“I thought I’d ask,” Jem said. “And get it out of the way. Which one of you is which?”
“Oh yeah,” Ricky nodded. “We forget other people can’t tell.” He pointed at himself. “I’m Ricky.”
“I’m Artie, and that’s Rowan.”
“Ricky, Artie, Rowan,” Oliver recited.
“We respond to each other's names, so don’t worry if you get it wrong,” Artie said kindly. “Ricky’s the grouchy one, I’m the cheerful one and Rowan’s shy, but you can always just ask who’s who.”
“Thanks,” Jem said. “We’ve met other twins before, but never a set of triplets.”
“Apparently we’re pretty rare,” said Artie. “One in a million.”
“Our dad sure was happy.”
“We should hang out,” Jem suggested. “Before our birthday party. We’ll owl you and maybe you can come over? As another thank you for helping us out.”
“Sure,” Artie replied eagerly.
“Great. Well, you guys should probably get going,” Jem suddenly said. “It’s getting late and I don’t want you getting into trouble.”
Rowan looked at the little clock on the bedside table and felt all the blood drain from his face. It was nearly seven! Who knew if there was someone at home, wondering and worrying where they were! Oh, if they were caught, Rowan would never hear the end of it! Not to mention the lecture they’d get from Mum for ignoring her orders to stay inside with the doors locked.
He leapt to his feet, the lavender-scented quilt slithering down to the floor. Artie nearly fell off the sofa, eyes wide with panic. Ricky was scowling.
“Rick, come on!” he stressed. “Dad will be home soon!”
“Alright,” grunted Ricky. He looked at Jem and Oliver. “Thanks for inviting us.”
“Are you deaf? I said don’t do that,” Jem said, though without much bite. “Just tell what your address is. So we can send the invite.”
“Whiterock House, Plymouth,” Artie said as he dragged Ricky and Rowan out the door. Rowan kept his eyes resolutely forward all the way along the passageway, down the stairs and back through the noisy pub. In fact, he didn’t dare turn around even as they passed the dark, unlit windows of Dad and Uncle Fred’s shop and made their way over to the Floo station, because the entire time, each step and wobbly breath he took, felt as if they were being watched.
Watched by a tall, shadow-like figure.
Watched by a creature, a monster with milky-white eyes.
Chapter 5: Plan B
August 22, 2018
Rowan and his brothers did not, thank goodness, get found out.
The house was as still and silent as they’d left it, the doors still latched and Rowan’s book still on the sofa, opened to the page he’d been reading. He couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed as, despite having seen the shop dark and empty in Diagon Alley, their dad hadn’t returned from work, and, though Rowan wasn’t surprised, James was still not home either. Aria hadn’t noticed them gone in the first place.
In fact, Dad didn’t get back until Rowan and his brothers were just about tucking themselves into bed, staring up at the tiny stars flickering and glowing that James had spelled onto the ceiling.
“Quick!” Artie hissed and, as one, they snuggled under their blankets and closed their eyes, keeping still as Dad trudged upstairs.
Rowan watched through threaded lashes as his father’s tall figure cast a long shadow across the walls. A few seconds past and then Dad sighed and the door shut again.
Ricky sat up. “We need to talk to James,” he whispered. “We’re out of ideas for solving our letter mystery and it isn’t fair for him to set us a deadline and then not help out like he promised.”
“Riri,” said Artie. “How are we even meant to find him? He didn’t tell Rowan where he was going, right, Ro?”
“No,” mumbled Rowan. “He was really angry, though.”
“Hmph,” grumbled Ricky. He flopped back against his pillow and Rowan sat up to look at him over the top of Artie’s bed.
“Rick,” he hedged. “Are you...okay? That thing earlier -”
“What thing? We just imagined it, Rowan.”
“What!?” Artie yelped.
“Shhh!” Ricky snapped, crossing his arms as he glared up at the ceiling. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
Artie looked incredulously over at Rowan, who found himself just as stunned. What was Ricky on about? They’d all seen it - that horrible monster.
Ricky snarled, his dark eyes wild. “Shut up! Just...just shut up, okay? I’m going to sleep.” Then he rolled over to face the window, back to them.
Rowan looked at Artie and then shared a half-worried, half-hurt glance. Why was their brother being so prickly? He was grumpy, sure, but rarely, if ever, snapped at them like that. And why was he denying what they’d seen?
“What was that about?” Artie mouthed and Rowan could merely shrug back. He had absolutely no idea.
A sharp rap on their door woke Rowan from a deep, bone-heavy sleep. He rolled over with a groan to stare at the gap in the curtains. It was the daytime, but just getting light. No one in the house ever knocked at their door, so who could it be?
He slid into his slippers as the door cracked open and two eyes, caramel-coloured, peered in.
“Hey, bud. Sorry to wake you.”
“It’s okay, Teddy,” Rowan yawned, pulling on his dressing-gown. “Did you stay over last night?” Ricky was snoring like a chainsaw.
“Uh, no,” Teddy said, worrying his lip. “I’m actually looking for James? It’s pretty urgent that I talk to him soon...”
“But we’re coming to the Three Broomsticks tonight, remember? Well, I haven’t actually got around to asking, but I know he’d say yes -”
“Yeah, but there’s, um, a little issue I need to talk to him about before then, you see, so do you know where he is? George seems to be under the impression that he stayed at mine last night so I didn’t want to worry him, but -”
“He never came home,” Rowan blurted, heart already beating double-time. What was his idiot brother up to? It wasn’t like James to disappear for so long, especially without letting anyone know when he’d be back. And he’d promised to help them investigate that letter! “He left yesterday morning - I heard him arguing with Seán and Gabriel, but then he said he was going out and...”
Teddy came in fully and shut the door. He sat down at Artie’s desk. “You really haven’t heard from him since then?”
“Well, Louis said he’d been by Shell Cottage, looking for Victoire. He said James had,” Rowan’ nose wrinkled, “girl trouble.”
“Girl trouble?” Teddy said in a strangled squeak. His hair faded brown. “What? With who?”
“I have no idea. I didn’t even think he spoke with girls, let alone fancied them.”
“Yes, that’s what I said. If we ask her -”
“- then maybe she’ll know where James is,” Teddy finished, the stress lines on his forehead flattening out and hair turning back to its usual turquoise. “Alrighty then. Quick, get dressed, Roro. You’re coming with me.”
“What about Ricky and Artie?”
Teddy looked at them. “Oi! Wake up, you lazy brats!”
Ricky moaned into his pillow, but Artie sat up with a snort, hair matted on one side and sticking out on the other. “Wha’?”
“We’re going out, Artie,” Rowan said. “Quick, get changed!”
“Where are we goin’?”
“To find James,” said Teddy.
“Why is Teddy here?” Ricky groaned, eyes still shut. “What time is it?”
“It’s seven,” Rowan said, glancing at their wall clock. “Teddy wants help finding James and we’re going to Shell Cottage to see what Victoire knows.”
“Alrighty,” said Artie. He swung his feet out of bed. “Come on, Rick.”
Ricky groaned again, but flopped to his feet, head hanging low and eyelids droopy. “I don’t see why we have to do this so early, but alright.”
Teddy grinned. “Be quick,” he said. “I’ll wait downstairs.”
Stumbling and nearly falling over, Rowan shimmied into jeans and a t-shirt, with his brothers is matching clothes, then they ran downstairs to the kitchen. Teddy, standing by the backdoor with their corduroy jackets, was chewing furiously on his fingernails, which regrew every few seconds.
Dad was at the table with his briefcase, eating a slice of burnt toast.
“Morning. Teddy said you’re going to work with him today, so I thought you boys could stop by and say hello to your mum. I’m sure she’d really appreciate it,” he hinted.
“Oh,” Artie said, shooting Teddy a glance. Rowan winced. Couldn’t he have thought of a better lie than that? “I mean...yeah, yes. We’ll do that. C’mon, let’s go.” Ricky pulled his jacket on impatiently and Rowan copied him.
“Bye, boys!” Dad called as the door slammed shut behind them.
Teddy grabbed Rowan’s arm so tightly he felt the bones grind together, and, with that distinctive cracking sound, they were compressed into nothingness; the breath sucked out of Rowan’s body with all the force of a raging centaur, eyes shoved into his skull and eardrums squealing.
Not half a second later, they landed and Rowan went face-first into the wet sand, coughing and spluttering at the shock of it. Water soaked into his trousers at the knees, horribly itchy. Rowan scrubbed his face, grimacing at the gritty sand texture. His red hair whipped this way and that, getting into his mouth and eyes as he turned his head. From what it looked like, Ricky and Artie were suffering just as much as Rowan was. Teddy, the lucky thing, had shortened his own hair to a buzz in order to avoid the same experience. He smiled apologetically and helped Rowan back to his feet.
They turned their backs to the sea and marched up the pebbled, grassy slope to Shell Cottage, Rowan huffing in the sharp sea air. He hadn’t visited in such a long time, not since Uncle Bill’s birthday the previous November - not much had changed. There was a wind chime hanging in the window, clanging and swaying as the wind swirled in every direction.
Teddy knocked on the front door politely.
A couple of moments later, it cracked open and Louis squinted into the wind, lips pursed disapprovingly.
“It’s bloody seven in the morning. What would you possibly want?”
“Nice to see you too. We’re here for Vic,” Teddy said cheerfully. “Is she in?”
“Unfortunately,” Louis grumbled, but he swung the door open so they could shuffle in. As soon as it shut behind them, the wind became entirely muffled, the air hot and humid inside the cramped kitchen. There was a pot of baked beans cooling on the stove. “Did you find James yet?”
Rowan took a moment to realise who the question was being directed at. He’d forgotten Louis knew James was missing - that Louis’d been the one to tip Rowan off in the first place. All the fresh air and excitement was getting to him.
“Oh,” Rowan said. “No.”
“That’s why we’re here,” said Ricky. “Are Bill and Fleur home?”
Louis sat down at the table, pulling a cup of steaming tea towards his chest and cupping it protectively. He was wearing blue silk pyjamas, but that wasn’t surprising. “No. They left early this morning.”
“Good,” Teddy said. “VICTOIRE MARIE-JOSÈPHE FÉLICITÉ WEASLEY! Get down here right this instant and greet your guests!”
“Such a pretentious name,” Louis said. “Honestly, what was Maman thinking?”
“Like yours is any better,” Teddy said pleasantly. A door flew open upstairs and feet trampled to the stairs.
“What?!” Victoire hollered, sounding still half-asleep. “If that’s you again, James, then I swear I’ll wring your scrawny little ne - oh, hello, boys. Ted.”
“Hello, Vic,” Teddy said mildly. “I take it you’ve seen James, then. We’re on a hunt for him, as a matter of fact.”
“He stopped by yesterday,” Victoire said, straightening out her nightgown as she strode downstairs and took a seat at the table, her every move perfectly graceful and such grace as easy as breathing. “Twice. The first time was at, oh, I don’t know, ten? Then a little after four.”
“Was he upset?” Rowan asked, still standing. He felt far too wired to sit down.
“Not really; more...angry than anything else.”
“He smelt dreadful,” Louis added after a thoughtful sip of his tea. “Like cigarette smoke.”
Cigarettes? James didn’t smoke - he thought it was a disgusting habit and made sure Rowan and his brothers knew that if he ever caught them trying it, he’d hex them three ways from Sunday.
“And this was at ten?” Teddy asked, to which he received a sure nod. “What time did you say he left the house, Rowan?”
“Six forty-five. Dad woke up at seven and it was just before that.”
He drummed his fingers on the table, hair fading a red that reminded Rowan of his own. “That’s about three hours unaccounted for. What did he want to talk to your about?”
Victoire eyed Rowan and his brothers uncertainty. “I’m not sure I can -”
“Boys, cover your ears,” Teddy instructed.
Artie gaped. “What? No! James is our brother, we need to know where he is just as much as you guys do!”
“This isn’t up for discussion,” he said firmly. “You’re only ten and we’re adults.”
“But Louis’ only fourteen!” argued Ricky.
“And that still makes me older than you three,” Louis sniffed.
Rowan let out a soundless huff as Teddy’s wand pointed in their direction and his ears immediately filled with a dull buzzing sound. He watched their lips move, trying to pull what he could from the conversation, but it was all nonsensical and impossible to decipher at any rate. After giving up and sitting placidly in his chair, still sulking, Rowan waited for around five minutes before Teddy finally cast the counter-curse. Ricky scowled, arms folded as he sunk low in his chair and Artie was kicking his legs impatiently.
Teddy’s face, usually pale anyway, had turned as white as Louis porcelain teacup, two spots of pale rouge high on his cheeks. His fingers were still tap-tapping on the table.
“Victoire thinks we should visit James’ friend Gabriel. His dad owns a nightclub, so maybe that’s where the smell came from. If not, then Seán Finnegan-Thomas might know where he’s gone today, even if they were arguing like you said.”
“But what about James’ girl trouble?” Ricky pushed, “Louis -”
“Bonnie Watkins,” Louis explained. He was frowning, tea left abandoned. “She’s in my year. Her and James have a...thing. They’ve been dating since Christmas.”
Rowan felt what could only be described as his brain leaking out of his ears, like all the things he’d ever known, or thought he knew, about James, his brother, had been disproven. He knew it was ridiculous; James was allowed secrets, after all, but why hadn’t he told them about his girlfriend? Nearly a year together was a serious thing! Why hadn’t he thought to mention it, even in passing? Rowan’s feet felt like lead weights. Rowan was forced to take a seat at the table in case his knees gave out.
“Are you alright?” Victoire asked, reaching out as if to pat Rowan comfortingly on the shoulder.
He meant to lean into the touch and take what comfort he could get, but then he remembered his vow of independence, the promise to himself, and pulled away from his cousin, ignoring the hurt frown that caused.
Rowan wasn’t a baby anymore. He didn’t need hugs to make him feel better.
“Yes, I’m fine,” he said.
“Come on,” Artie demanded. “Let’s go see Gabe!”
“Art,” Teddy tried, following suit as he stood up. “Hang on a tick -”
“It’s alright, Ted,” Louis interrupted. “I’ll come with you guys. Just let me go get dressed.” He disappeared upstairs.
They waited for Louis to come back down in a cream jumper over a crisp white shirt and dark jeans, then Flooed straight to the Duke household, which was always empty save for Gabriel himself and a House Elf or two.
One such creature appeared as soon as Rowan, Artie, Ricky, Teddy and Louis fell out onto the zebra-print rug in the foyer. “Guests!” she squeaked. “Are you here to be seeing Master Gabriel?”
“Yes, thank you, Moppy,” said Louis.
“Oh, Mister Master’s friend! It is nice to be seeing you back to visit! I am fetching the Master now,” said Moppy and she vanished with a great crack.
“Mister Master’s friend?” Teddy asked, smirking at the other boy. “Come here often, do you?”
Louis shot him a sour look. “No I do not, thank you. James does and sometimes I get forced to tag along. The life of Gabriel Duke doesn’t interest me one bit.”
“Hm,” Teddy said and he rolled his eyes at Rowan and his brothers as if to say ‘I know you don’t believe him either’. Before one of them could reply, however, footsteps came from above and, at the top of the ground curving staircase up to the second floor, came Gabe himself, dressed in a deep red dressing gown and matching slippers. He was yawning and rubbing his half-open eyes.
“Oh hello,” he said. “When Moppy said I had guests, I didn’t really believe her. What are you doing here, Louis, James’ brothers and that older boy who James knows?”
Teddy scowled. “My name is Teddy.”
“Right,” he replied, meandering down to them. “How could I forget?”
“Duke,” said Louis. “We didn’t come here to make small talk.”
“Yeah, I figured. What can I do for you and your merry trio of unlikely friends, Weasley?”
“We want to talk about James,” Teddy said firmly. “We know you’re friends and we know you got in a fight with him yesterday.”
Gabe looked more awake now. “What of it?” he asked cautiously. “Did he send you - his little brothers, his cousin and his...whatever you are - to come and tell me off? Beat me up? Well, tell James that I didn’t start it and he can come and face me himself if he wants to -“
“We can’t tell him anything!” Artie cried, throwing his hands in the air. “No one’s seen him since yesterday and we don’t know where he’s gone or if he’s even okay -“ His voice cracked.
Rowan put an arm around his shoulders. “It’s okay, Art,” he whispered. “We’ll find him.”
“Yes,” said Louis. “Duke is going to tell us everything he knows, aren’t you Duke? And we’ll find James before your parents even notice he’s missing.”
“Missing?” Gabe mumbled. “No way! James would never run off like that.”
“Exactly, and we know he’s been hanging around you at the Aconitine otherwise he wouldn’t have stunk of tobacco like he did yesterday,” Louis said, ignoring Gabe’s affronted expression. “So spill.”
“Alright, Alright. Sheesh, back off, will you? I’m cooperating, but let’s do this somewhere more comfortable, okay? Follow me,” he led them through a doorway and into a large sitting room with a long purple sofa and leopard-print rug set around an opulent green fireplace. Louis pulled a face at the tackiness of it all and Teddy rolled his eyes. Rowan was too preoccupied worrying about Artie and Ricky and James to muddle his thoughts with the Duke family’s questionable interior design choices.
They sat on the sofa and Gabe clicked his fingers. Moppy appeared not a moment later.
“Yes, Master Gabriel, how can Moppy be helping you?”
“Fetch us some drinks, please, Moppy,” he said. “Tea for me.”
“And me,” said Teddy.
“I’m fine, thank you,” Ricky said impatiently.
“Yeah,” said Artie.
“Yeah,” repeated Rowan.
“Alright,” Gabe said as soon as Moppy was gone. “Let’s get down to business. You’re right, I did see James last night, and we did go to the Aconitine together, but he went home after that, I swear. He wasn’t even that drunk!”
“James doesn’t drink,” Teddy emphasised.
Louis coughed awkwardly.
“You don’t know him well, do you?” Gabe asked and he was smiling as he’d just won a hand of Exploding Snap and was waiting for them all to realise it too.
“Fuck off,” Teddy stood up, fists clenched. Rowan and his brothers were stuck in the middle, looking between the three older boys Quidditch match-style. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Don’t I? Sounds like it’s you that doesn’t -“
Before Rowan could blink, Teddy was across the room and had Gabe pinned in his purple armchair. “Look, kid,” he snapped. “I don’t have time to deal with this shit. How either help us, or shut up, because I am not about to waste time -”
“Stop!” Artie yelled and he jumped to his feet. “Stop it! This is about James and not about you, so quit being so selfish!”
“Art, stop,” Ricky said. “Let’s get out of here.” He began to march from the room and Rowan hot-footed after him, pulling Artie along to.
“Boys, wait!” Teddy called, but Ricky was already chucking a handful of Floo powder into the fireplace.
“Whiterock House, Plymouth,” he spat and then he grabbed Artie and Rowan’s hands and yanked them into a swirl of green with Teddy still calling their names.
“Stupid,” Ricky muttered, marching back and forth across their bedroom floor “no good, useless -”
“I think they really got to him,” Artie whispered in Rowan’s ear. “I haven’t seen Rick so worked up since the Breakfast Incident.”
“Shh,” Rowan said, but it was too late.
“I told you never to talk about that!” Ricky howled, kicking the desk chair. Then he grabbed his foot. “Ow!” Rowan watched his brother hop about in pain, then sighed. He stood up and tucked the chair away.
“Look,” he said. “We know something more than we did earlier, at least. James was at the Aconitine last night.”
“We don’t even know what that is,” grumbled Ricky.
“It’s a nightclub,” Artie said and, when they both stared at him, shrugged. “What? I listen to things sometimes. Al mentioned it before, when he was angry at James for spilling butterbear on his his Charms homework. Gabriel’s dad owns it.”
“Mum will know where it is.”
“Yeah, like she’s going to tell us, Roro.” Artie rolled his eyes. “She barely talks to us as it is, let alone about Kirley Duke of all people. Mum and Dad hate him.”
“Because he’s a drunk and married to that weird lady.”
“Romleeda,” Rowan remembered. “Or something like that.”
“Okay, so we break into her office, find out where the Aconitine is and sneak out tonight! We gotta find James quick before Mum starts to get suspicious.”
“Right,” said Ricky.
“Er,” said Rowan. “Hang on. Why don’t we just ask Albus? You said he knows about it, right? So he must know where it is.”
“Oh...good idea, Rowan!” Artie beamed. He patted him on the back. “Very sensible of you.”
“Not it,” said Ricky.
“Not it,” Rowan yelped.
“Aww,” Artie bemoaned, but it couldn’t be helped. They’d done ‘not it’ so it was now law. “This stinks.”
Albus was not in his room when they knocked. His room was off-limits to everyone know that he was a teenager, which was unfortunate because it had a very good view of the front garden and was great for a bit of light eavesdropping.
Rowan couldn’t remember the last time they’d been allowed inside, but it was probably a year or so, at least. Who knew what Albus had done in there in the meantime? He was very mysterious, after all. Artie knocked again.
“Albus!” he called. “Helloooooo?”
“I think he’s still at Scorpius’ house,” said Ricky. “And no way are we going there to look for him.”
Rowan shivered. He’d never met Mr Malfoy, but Mum made him seem so mean and scary when she told the rare Hogwarts story. A big bully and not much else. He knew the Malfoys lived in a big house, the same big house that Voldemort had used to do all his evil things. The fact that they stayed there said enough about Mr Malfoy’s personality that Rowan refused to even consider talking to the man.
“We could always Floo call,” suggested Artie and so they did.
Rowan sat on the sofa, watching his brother’s behind sticking out of the fireplace.
“I hope he’s okay,” he whispered.
Ricky slugged him in the shoulder. “He’ll be fine. It’s James, after all. He’s a Gryffindor and really good at jinxes. There’s no way he’d get caught off guard.”
“Unless he wasn’t thinking straight,” Rowan said. He knew what being drunk meant and that it sometimes made people act weird - act unlike how they usually would, especially if they’d had a lot of alcohol. Maybe James had been like that, not concentrating, and someone (or something) attacked him, hurt him? Maybe he was even -
Artie fell on his butt, coughing and spluttering. His face was streaked with soot.
“Hyde Park,” he managed eventually. “Near Paddington Station.”
Ricky glanced at Rowan and they all nodded.
“We leave now,” he said.
“But Mum will -”
“We leave now. We need the head start if they’re going to notice us being gone.”
“But we can’t Floo,” jittered Artie. “There’s an attendant at Paddington and I don’t know any other fireplaces near there...”
“We’ll take the train,” Ricky decided.
Rowan gaped, aghast. “The train?”
“Yeah, Rick, are you crazy!?”
“No,” Ricky grumped. “It makes the most sense. We go into town and get the train to London. I know there’s one, because Albus got it when -”
“When he went to visit Scorpius in his townhouse,” said Artie. “We know, but that doesn’t change the fact that we’ve never even been on the train before! Let alone by ourselves. That’s an awful idea.”
“No, it isn’t!” Ricky snapped. “Rowan agrees, right?”
“Er,” said Rowan. “Can’t we just go to Diagon Alley and just...walk?”
Ricky stared at him. “Oh,” he said. “Right.”
“Let’s just do that,” agreed Artie quickly. “Good idea, Roro.”
“I forgot about that,” muttered Ricky. Poor Ricky. Sometimes he got so ahead of himself with his crazy plans and schemes.
Artie beamed. “Don’t worry,” he assured their brother. “We know how you get, Rick; but this is way quicker than some three-hour-long train. Plus, we know how to take the underground.”
“Sort of,” said Rowan. “We’ve only done that twice and both were with Dad.”
“It still counts,” said Artie. “And we’re ten now. We’re big boys and we can do this all by ourselves.” He pulled a face. “That’s what Mrs Sánchez says, anyway.”
Mrs Sánchez was their old Year 5 teacher. She had been nice but always went on about becoming ‘mature young pre-teens’. Or something. Rowan often found it hard to pay attention, caught between Artie whispering away and doodling in his workbooks, and Ricky getting into arguments with their seat neighbours.
They were going into Year Six in a few weeks and would have a lady named Miss Eades, according to the letter their parents had gotten in the post, though Rowan knew nothing about her. She had to be new. Rowan had been determined not to think about being in Year Six. He’d heard it was a lot harder and they’d even have to do exams. Nobody liked those.
Ricky nodded. “Mrs Sánchez is right. We’re olde enough to do this!”
They put on their shoes, coats and Ricky even packed his pockets with biscuits just in case they got hungry on their trip. Rowan went upstairs and opened up the desk drawer where they kept the money they’d get for their birthday. A crumpled Muggle ten-pound note lay at the bottom underneath a few shiny gold Galleons.
“Right! Okay,” said Artie. “Let’s do this crazy thing!”
He threw some Floo powder into the fireplace, called: “Diagon Alley!” and in they stepped, off to rescue James from whatever trouble he’d gotten himself into.
Chapter 6: The Aconitine
Woo! Back at it again with another chapter!
August 22, 2018
Diagon Alley was busy, so no one paid much attention to them as they snuck out through the Leaky Cauldron. Out on the streets of Muggle London, Rowan was confronted with the idea that they didn’t know how to navigate the Underground or buses without their mum and dad. Even Aria or Albus would do at this point.
“Excuse me,” Artie said to a passing old lady when they stopped outside a Tesco. She stopped her shuffling walk, shopping trolley pulled up alongside her. From underneath a floral blue headscarf, the woman blinked slowly. Rowan stood behind his brothers, cold with nerves. This was a bad idea. A bad bad idea.
“Hello, dear. Are you boys lost?”
“Yes,” said Artie.
“Not really,” said Ricky quickly. “Do you know how to get to Paddington from here?”
She smiled. “That’s easy. Just go down these steps here to Bank Station,” she pointed at the stairs down to the platform, “and take the Central line to Lancaster Gate. I think it’s, oh, four or five stops. Then a short walk from there, I believe.”
“Thank you!” Artie said, grabbing Ricky’s arm, “come on, guys!”
Rowan hooked his fingers into Ricky’s coat and allowed Artie to tow them along as the old lady waddled off, and down they descended into the depths of the Underground, which was crowded, but not packed.
Ricky fed their ten-pound note into the ticket machine and pressed the button for a ‘return’, then each of them took their slips of paper and scanned through the barrier and onto the platform. A train whizzed past at ultra-high speeds with a great whoosh.
“This is wicked,” Artie said cheerfully, stealing one of their emergency biscuits out of Ricky’s pocket to munch on. “An ‘oo ‘ough ‘ee ‘e ‘os’!”
Artie swallowed his crumbly snack. “I said - and you thought we’d get lost!”
“We still might,” Rowan pointed out, watching a lady with a buggy chatter cheerfully to her teenage daughter. He wished their mum was here, and not off doing important Auror things like she always claimed she was. It wasn’t fair that she was so busy all the time; what was the point in having so many children if you didn’t spend time with any of them?
Ricky pinched Rowan’s cheek. “Relax,” he ordered. “Here comes the train.” And came it did, speeding to a halt with that awful squeal of metal on metal. “Let’s find a seat.”
Rowan found himself squished in between his brothers, watching a man in a suit drift off against the handrail. He averted his gaze quickly, though when a lady glanced over at him, no malice in her eyes, but enough judgement to make him blush.
Artie, who was inspecting the map on the wall, hummed thoughtfully, “Fifth stop. We’ll get there in no time.” He nudged Rowan companionably. “Don’t worry so much, Ro.” His eyes, the same warm chocolatey-brown as Rowan’s own - the exact same, mind you - were kind and protective and familiar.
“We gotta do this,” murmured Ricky, twiddling his thumbs. “We gotta find James, Rowan.”
“I mean, yeah, of course. I just -“
“Don’t sweat it, Ro,” his other brother smiled a small smile, which was a big one coming from Ricky. “We’ve got your back.”
Rowan smiled, because, well, they always did.
When they finally got to the Aconitine, it was ticking on four o’clock in the afternoon and the sun was dipping down over the terraced houses and trees lining Hyde Park.
“Albus said the entrance is through the public toilets somewhere around here,” said Artie and he pulled a face. “Which - gross!” That’s an understatement, Rowan privately thought. Who wanted to go to a party when they had to get to it via a disgusting germ-riddled building people used for all sorts of unmentionable things? Not him, thank you very much.
“We should have brought gloves,” grumbled Ricky, wiping his clean hands on his coat. He could get a bit weird about being sick, especially from other people’s personal hygiene. Sometimes he’d hold it in for hours if they were out shopping just to avoid having to use public toilets. Rowan wished he had that kind of will, but he always gave in when it came down to it. Clearly, germs didn’t bother him as much as they did his brother, though more than they did Artie. That was just one of the many ways they were different, despite what people seemed to think about them being identical in personality as well as appearance.
“Nah, it’s fine,” said Artie. “I’ll do all the touching of stuff, Rick. Toilet-y or otherwise.” He wiggled his fingers dramatically. “I haven’t washed my hands in weeks, anyway!”
Rowan shuddered and Ricky looked repulsed. “I’m never holding hands with you again,” he grimaced. “Come on, Rowan.” And off he went, Rowan hot on his tail.
Artie yelped, stumbling after them. “Hey, guys, wait for me! I was just joking!”
The public toilets were down a small path, underneath a sturdy oak with bonfire-red and sun-flame-gold leaves. Graffiti covered one wall and a rusty iron fence covered the maintenance cupboard where the bins were stored.
Ricky slowed to a stop. “Which one? Men’s or women’s?”
“Neither,” Artie pushed past him. “It’s the disabled loo.” He tried the handle and it opened to reveal a dim, tiled room with a filthy floor and ominously swinging light cord. “Creepy.”
“Come on,” Ricky said gruffly and he pulled the cord, illuminating the room and bringing on an annoying buzzing sound from the light.
Electricity was weird, Rowan thought. Magic is so much simpler.
Artie walked over to the toilet and climbed up onto the closed lid, facing them. “Come on,” he urged after a moment. “Be quick and shut the door!” Rowan followed Ricky into the room and shut the door behind them, holding a hand up to his face to try and block the smell of urine and body odour.
Cracking his knuckles, Artie looked at the mirror fixed to the wall above the sink and pulled a face. He straightened his coat, ruffled his red hair and then took a leap off the toilet seat.
Rowan made a strangled noise as he watched his brother soar across the short space and crash straight into the grimy white tiles, eyes snapping closed. He expected to open them and see Artie prone to the floor with a head injury and that they’d have to call an ambulance and give up on this whole crusade before it had ever even really began, but, instead, Artie was gone.
“Huh,” said Ricky as Rowan panicked. “Neat.” He turned to where Artie had vanished, though didn’t climb onto the toilet seat. “Come on, Rowan!” Then he sprinted forward and straight into the wall.
Mouth agape, Rowan watched the wall bend and bubble around his body like toffee or jelly. Then, with a wobble, Ricky’s kicking legs disappeared and Rowan was left all alone in a disabled public toilet in the middle of Hyde Park.
“Wait!” he called and threw himself straight after his brothers. It was instinctive to close his eyes, but there was no hard surface slamming into him and, instead, a white smear of what felt like an un-popped water balloon enclosed his body. It lasted but a moment before Rowan tumbled forward head-over-heels and landed on his back with his head spinning and ears ringing.
Two hands hooked his armpits and lifted him back into standing. He blinked a few times and his vision thankfully swam back into focus just as Ricky began to haul him along.
“Where are we going?” Rowan asked, trying to take in the long, dimly-lit hallway they were hurrying down. “Rick?”
“This was a bad idea,” Ricky was muttering, “a bad, bad idea -“
“Where are we? Where’s Artie?”
Ricky skidded to a stop and Rowan crashed right into his back. A large, imposing door stood in front of them, made of a tarnished black wood with an ornate gold handle shaped like a dragon’s head, mouth open mid-roar.
“He ran off,” said Ricky, annoyed. “Saw something exciting and went right through this door without waiting for either of us. Prat."
“What are we waiting for, then?” Rowan asked and he grabbed the handle and gave it a turn. The door swung inwards and a wall of sound immediately hit them.
BOOM-BOOM-BOOM-BAM, went the bass of the music. BOOM BAM BOOM.
A mass of bodies danced and shimmied on a multi-coloured flashing dance floor, beneath a platform of pounding speakers topped by a DJ with his hands thrown up in the air. There was a bar for drinking, and tables for eating, and the air was abundant with glittering sparkles and swirling colours, and Artie was nowhere to be seen.
“Hey!” called a wizard with pointy ears and a swirling robe over high-heeled boots. “Aren’t you two a little young to be in here?”
“Yes,” said Ricky. “Have you seen another one of us? Looks exactly the same?”
“Uh,” said the wizard and he stumbled sideways a tad. Rowan got the impression that he was...that he was drunk. He’d seen his parents drunk a few times at the Weasley Christmas parties, but never a random stranger. It made him feel weird, especially knowing that Artie was all alone here, without Rowan or Ricky to watch his back. And James too. He hoped they were both alright.
“Nevermind,” said Rowan quickly, before Ricky could start an argument with this wizard. “Come on, Rick.” He pulled his brother away and closer to the crowd of dancers underneath the DJ.
They went up to the bar. The bartender, with her tattoos and buzzed green hair, was less concerned to see them. “Ciao, kiddies,” she said. “What can I get you? Juice in a sippy cup? Chocolate milk?”
“No,” Ricky said through gritted teeth. “Have you seen James?”
She popped her hip out as she dried a beer glass with a dishcloth. “James...who?”
“Our brother James! He’s tan and he has brown hair and brown eyes, and likes to tell jokes; Gabriel Duke told us he was here last night and we want to see him.”
Bored, the witch glanced over her shoulder at her fellow bartender, a man with thickly-corded arms poking out of a tank-top and a ponytail. “Oi, Logan, have you seen the boss’ kid lately?”
“He bring any of his little friends in? Specifically the tall one with the scar?”
Rowan looked straight to Ricky. James did have a scar - a small, puckered one on his temple from falling out of a tree and cracking his head open when he was five.
“Hm,” said Logan, eyeing Ricky and Rowan. “Yeah, that sounds familiar, I guess. Why? He in trouble?”
“Nah,” said the witch. “Thing One and Thing Two here are lookin’ for their brother, apparently. Boss’ kid said they were here yesterday.”
“Yeah,” Logan said again. “That does jog my memory a little. Try checking upstairs in the private rooms,” he suggested to Rowan and his brother. “Should be the best place, since I haven’t seen him down here in a while.”
“Okay, thank you,” said Ricky begrudgingly. “Let’s go, Roro.”
“Thanks,” Rowan mumbled and he let Ricky drag him off towards a semi-private staircase behind the dance floor. The pounding bass was giving him a headache already. Hopefully they would find James and Artie quickly.
On the second floor, the music was muffled and merely vibrated the floor beneath their feet instead of assaulting their eardrums. Six doors, three on each side, made up the hallway.
“What now?” Rowan worried, but Ricky was already kicking the first door on the left, then pounding it with his fist.
“OI!” he yelled. “HEY, JAMES ARE YOU IN THERE!?”
The door flew open and a big, ogre of a man wearing a dressing gown snarled down at them. “Shut it! Get lost, you dumb brats!” Then he slammed the door shut right in Ricky’s face.
Ricky merely moved on to the next room.
“JAMES! JAMES, ARE YOU -“
A door further down the hallway opened a crack. Rowan zeroed in on it and the set of tired brown eyes peering out at them. “James!”
Ricky’s head cracked around and then the two of them were crowding their very surprised older brother, hugging his middle. He smelt bad, like old sweat and something sour, but Rowan didn’t care. He was just glad to have James back.
“What are you guys doing here?” James asked incredulously, clutching them to his chest. “How did you get all the way to London?”
“We took the train!”
“We Flooed to Diagon Alley,” Ricky added. “And went on the Underground all by ourselves -“
“And then we came in through that public toilet!” Rowan burst in, exhilarated.
James pushed them back. “What?” he gaped again. He was wearing the t-shirt and jeans Rowan had remembered him leaving in, though his favourite leather jacket was missing, but that didn’t matter now. Rowan was just glad to have him back. “That’s crazy! Why would you ever -“ He blinked. “Wait. Where’s Rowan?”
Rowan wilted. “I’m Rowan.”
“Artie ran off,” Ricky explained grumpily. “We were trying to find him earlier, but the bartender said you would be up here.”
James glanced back over his shoulder, into the room he’d come out of. Rowan craned to see, but he couldn’t with his brother blocking the doorway. “Yeah,” he said. “Listen. I’ll help you find Artie, but then you need to leave.”
“Leave?” Ricky demanded. “Leave? Are you kidding? We came all the way here and now you expect us to just go home without you?”
“That’s exactly what I expect,” James said firmly and he took one of there arms in each hand, marching them down the hall. However, just as they passed the door of the angry man, a head of red hair appeared up the stairs.
“Guys!” cried Artie, scrubbing his face. Rowan could tell he had been crying from his bloodshot eyes and sniffling nose. “I finally found you!”
Ricky wrenched away from James and thumped Artie in the arm. “Don’t do that again, idiot! What was so important you had to run away like that?”
“Er, I thought I saw James. But it wasn’t him.”
“I’m not sure why you three thought it would be a great idea to run off on your own to look for me,” James scolded and he looked really mad, still clutching Rowan’s arm in a tight grip. “But this ends now. I’m calling Mum and Dad to come and get you.”
“What!” Artie yelped. “No, James, you can’t!”
“I can and I will! Now, come on.” He pulled Rowan over to the stairs, but he wiggled and dug his feet into the tiled floor.
“James, please, can’t you just come back with us? That’s why we came to find you in the first place; because Mum and Dad are getting suspicious!”
“He’s right!” Artie added quickly, grabbing James’ other forearm. “We just wanted to help you, James! We were worried.”
James slowed and Ricky took that brief lapse in momentum to insert himself between them and the stairs, arms crossed and expression grave. “You don’t want us ratting to Mum about where you’ve been, right?”
“We would,” Artie said. “Dead serious.”
“Ugh,” grunted James, but he relaxed and released Rowan’s arm to run a hand through his hair. Artie took a grateful step back and Rowan joined him, rubbing his sore wrist. Man, did James have a strong grip from his many years of playing Quidditch at whatever chance he could get! “Fine, you little cheats. Give me a minute and we’ll go.” He stormed back down the hall, into the mysterious room and slammed the door shut behind him with a resounding SLAM.
A moment passed and then, unanimously, the three of them moved forward to press their ears against the wood. Rowan strained to hear anything at all and caught a word or two. Was there someone in there with James?
“I wonder what he’s doing here,” Artie whispered.
“Shh,” hissed Ricky, pressing harder against the door.
Who is that? Rowan wondered, but he didn’t have any more time to fret over it, because then James came back out with a bag over his shoulder and leather jacket back on.
“Come on,” he said gruffly and they trailed him downstairs and underneath the stairs to a door marked ‘FIRE EXIT’. It opened out onto Hyde Park, but when Rowan turned around, the Aconitine was completely gone and he was merely looking at a brick wall.
“Woah,” said Artie. “How come you were at that place, James?”
James turned around. “Well,” he said sweetly. “I was there to meet Nunya.”
“Nunya?” Artie echoed. “Who’s that?”
“None ‘ya business.”
After an hour of travel - a ride on the Knight Bus to Diagon Alley, then a Floo ride into Shaugh Prior, a village close by their house in Plymouth because they couldn’t be sure Mum and Dad weren’t at home and would wonder why they’d been Flooing to when they knew they weren’t allowed to do that, and an hour-long walk across the English countryside to their lonely house - with the sun dipping low in the sky and dusting the rolling hills surrounding their house with amber and magenta, they finally reached home. The lights were on in the kitchen, which wasn’t a good sign. James groaned aloud.
Ricky eased open the kitchen door and they snuck in; Artie after Ricky and Rowan after Artie and James bringing up the rear. Unfortunately, sitting at the kitchen table with his arms crossed and foot tapping on the floor, was Albus. “Well, well, well,” he said. “Look what the cat dragged in.”
“Uh,” said James, kicking off his shoes. “Hey, Al.”
“He was really at that dumb club, huh?” Albus asked Artie. “Why am I not surprised? You four are lucky mum and dad are hardly around anymore, otherwise, you’d be so grounded.”
“Hey, we were doing a good deed!” Artie protested as they took off their boots and coats. Rowan sat at the kitchen table, head on his arms. He yawned, realising only now how tired his whole body felt. That one-long walk from Shaugh Prior had really taken it out of him! “If we hadn’t gone, James would still be in that weird place with those weird people!”
“Quit it,” James snapped. “I can take care of myself.” He pointed at Albus. “You, keep your mouth shut. As far as Mum and Dad are concerned, we’ve all been here the whole time, being good little boys who do as they’re told.”
Rowan shuddered. Ugh. He hated it when people said stuff like that, calling them ‘little boys’ so condescendingly. Unfortunately, it happened to him, Ricky and Artie quite a lot. It seemed they had one of those faces.
“Yeah, yeah,” said Al and James stomped upstairs, mumbling to himself. He turned to look at Ricky, Artie and Rowan, brow quirked. “He okay?”
“Eh,” said Artie, doing a flip-floppy hand motion. “So-so. He’s a teenager, I guess. I’m sure you’d understand, Albus.”
“Can it, you. I’m twelve - that’s hardly a teenager yet!”
Artie rolled his eyes. “You will cover for us with Mum and Dad, though, right? Like you told James.”
“Sure, but you owe me.”
“Alright,” said Ricky. “Next time you want to sneak out to see Scorpius, we’ll say you’re in bed, okay?”
“Piss off,” Albus snapped, but he sounded half-fond. “Annoying twerps. Get to bed before Mum comes home and you won’t have to lie about anything.”
“I’ll make dinner,” Artie said. Rowan nodded and followed Ricky upstairs, too tired to argue. He laid down on his bed and, despite not wearing his pyjamas, the lights still being on and Ricky trying to talk to him, fell asleep in seconds.
August 26, 2022
Rowan woke up early on Sunday, changed into fresh clothes, snuck downstairs and got himself a bowl of porridge. He put his wellington boots on and sat out in the garden, staring out over the rolling hills of green as the sun rose, at the wild ponies grazing and bats returning from their nightly hunt. It was relaxing, the house being so quiet when it was usually so loud, so busy. These early mornings were the only time he got to alone.
The kitchen door creaked and he glanced up, surprised, to see his mum duck out, also wearing her dressing gown and outdoor boots. She was cradling a steaming mug of tea and looked exhausted, purple bags under her eyes and face drawn.
“Morning,” she murmured, sitting down next to him and curling her legs up. “Up early today, aren’t we, Rowan?” He set his bowl to one side.
Rowan smiled. Even though his choice of a purple jumper had probably given him away (Ricky was more of a green sort of boy and Artie would never be caught dead in a ‘girl’ colour), it still felt nice to hear her get it right. So many people didn’t, or never even tried in the first place. He slumped against her shoulder, smelling her familiar, comforting, mummy-scent. No matter what happened, Mum would always make him feel better about his worries.
He sniffled a little and only realised he was crying when Mum’s dressing gown grew damp under his cheek. She ran her fingers through his hair, scratching at his scalp with bitten-down nails. “Sweetheart! Sweetie, Rowan, what’s the matter?”
“Mum,” he mumbled into her chest, full-on crying now, face hot and stuffy. “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry? Sorry about what, Ro?” she pushed gently, rocking them side to side a little. “Rowan, honey?”
“Dunno. Sorry. I dunno.”
“Okay, that’s fine,” she soothed when his voice tipped into sorrow, into cracking on each syllable. “Whenever you’re ready, whatever you want to say, sweetheart, I’ll be here to listen.”
Rowan pressed his face into the fluff of her dressing gown. “Thank, Mum,” he whispered, then pulled back and scrubbed his face. “Sorry.”
“Hey.” Mum took his face in her gentle, calloused hands. Their eyes met and her’s were serious and green. Rowan wished he’d inherited her eye colour. “Hey, don’t ever feel the need to apologise for feeling how you feel, baby.”
He sniffled, averted his gaze and nodded. “Okay.”
“John Rowan Potter,” she kissed his forehead. “I love you very, very much.”
Rowan’s tears threatened to return at that and he tugged his face out of her grip, looking back over the hills and, further, the horses and the bats and the birds. “Okay,” he repeated and, once more, his voice cracked.
She stroked his hair again and then, together, as a mother-son unit, they sat and just breathed. Rowan felt empty and over-inflated all at once.
Eventually, as all things come to an end, Mum straightened up and picked up her cold, undrunk mug. “I’m sorry, sweetie,” she said. “I have to get ready for work now. Why don’t you come inside and I’ll make pancakes before I go?”
Rowan smiled half-heartedly. “It’s alright. I’ve already eaten.”
Mum kissed him on the forehead again. “My little flower. Alrighty. Don’t stay out here too long, Ro, or you’ll catch a cold. I’m sure Artie and Ricky are wondering where you’ve gone too.” And with those parting words, she vanished back inside the house, leaving Rowan all alone with his thoughts.
He sat for a moment longer, then collected his spoon and empty bowl, before following her in. He washed it listlessly in the sink, took his wellington boots off, and trudged back upstairs. Contrary to his mum’s words, Artie and Ricky were still conked out, snoring and fidgeting in their sleep.
Rowan kicked Artie’s bed and fell back on his own.
“Hey,” he said. “Hey! Artie! Arthur! Hey, Artie! Arth -“
Artie’s eyes peeled open. “What?”
“I’m bored. Are you going to wake up soon?”
Artie hefted his duvet over his head and rolled over. “Go ‘way, Rowan,” he said, voice muffled and already half-asleep again. “S’too early.” And he went back to his snoring and mumbling.
Rowan sighed. He flopped back against his pillow, staring up at the ceiling. They had to meet Teddy for lunch at one and still had yet to convince James to come along. He’d been distant and standoffish since they went to fetch him at the Aconitine, but at least he hadn’t disappeared again.
The morning past infuriatingly slow. Rowan read The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (good, but made him relate more to shy Sylvia than the more outgoing main character Bonnie, who reminded him a lot of Artie) and got started on Anne of Green Gables (really good, made him self-conscious of his red hair and dislike Gilbert Blythe quite a good bit, though). Then he made his bed, looked at the homework they were supposed to have done for Miss Eades over summer that he hadn’t even started, and tip-toed downstairs to make a hot chocolate.
Somewhere during that time, James must’ve woken up, because he slouched out of his room and they bumped into each other on the stairs.
“Mornin’,” James yawned. He was wearing an England Quidditch jersey, boxers and not much else. “You’re up early, Ro.”
“It’s mid-day,” Rowan pointed out.
James checked his non-existent watch. “Is it? ...huh, guess you’re right.”
Rowan decided to just be straight with him. “Victoire invited us out for lunch,” he said. “And Ricky and Artie said you’d come.” Well...not entirely straight. Just a little white lie, right?
“What? No way! I’m busy this afternoon, Rowan.”
“We already said you would,” Rowan said, eyes somewhere on the far wall. “And Teddy will be there.” Would the idea of seeing Teddy do it for him?
James pointed a finger in his face. “I see what you’re doing here.”
“Oh? Is it working?”
Grumbling, James scrubbed at his sleep-sticky eyes. “Probably.”
Rowan smiled. “So you’ll come then?”
“What time did you say you were leaving? One?” Rowan nodded. “Okay, sure, I’ll come. What the hell. Let’s go see Victoire and Teddy and whoever else I don’t want to see for lunch.”
“I’ll wake Ricky and Artie up!” Rowan ran upstairs before James could open his mouth to change his mind, grinning to himself. Hook, line and sinker.
Ricky was, shock horror, actually awake when Rowan burst in, though staring at the wall blearily with one foot in his trousers. “Okay?” he asked, scrubbing his face. “What’s got you so happy?”
“We’re going to lunch!” Rowan beamed. “I convinced James to come with us, even knowing that Teddy will be there.”
“Really? Good go of it, Roro. Maybe they’ll finally make-up and James will stop moping around the house all the time,” Ricky said, finally doing his trousers up. He shoved the still-snoozing Artie hard enough that he rolled off the bed and onto the floor with a tremendous thud; blankets, pillows and all.
“Ughhhhhh,” groaned Artie. “Whyyyyyy?”
“Get up, you lazy lump!” Ricky said, nudging him with his foot. “We’re going in a minute!”
“Going?” Artie repeated, squinting up at them. “Going where?”
“To lunch,” Ricky said and he explained the plan.
Artie slowly woke up and lumbered to his feet. He thumped Rowan on the back. “Way to go, Rowan! Maybe James and Teddy will finally make-up with each other and James’ll stop moping around the house all the time.”
“That sounds too good to be true,” said Ricky, tugging his socks on.
Artie sighed. “I know.” He grabbed some jeans - the same ones Ricky and Rowan were wearing - from their chest of drawers, and a blue pull-over with the classic ‘WWW’ logo on the front. He struck a pose. “But we’ll give it a go, huh?”
“I guess,” said Rowan, but he wasn’t so sure. James and Teddy had a legendary friendship status sometimes - they either got along like a house on fire or hated each other with the fiery passion of a thousand suns.
James hollered from downstairs. “RICKY, ARTIE, ROWAN! BOYS, COME ON BEFORE I CHANGE MY MIND!”
“That’s our cue!” yelped Artie.