Seamus squints his eyes against an unseasonable burst of sunshine. Nine times out of ten, and eleven and a half months out of twelve, the coasts of Cork can be counted on to be blustery, spray-damp and bordered by clouds the colour of iron manacles, with the same general purpose in life. Both the coastline and its inhabitants are adapted to the weather, one with beaches comprising razor-sharp sand and more pebbles than sand, and the other with wardrobes whose seasonal adjustments consist merely of leaving off the scarf for June, July and August.
The five days of searing sunshine per year take both nature and human by surprise. The lush green grass doesn't know whether to try out its wilting routine or just relax and wait for the next day's rain. As for the people, they slowly turn red from wrist to elbow as they sweat out the heat in jeans and rolled-up long-sleeved t-shirts.
Seamus is saddled with the sinking feeling that the sun would pick today, of all inconvenient days,to make one of its few outings, which are almost as rare as Jesus popping back down to earth to pick up his cigarettes. The tiny, windy roads are populous with city tourists on the way to Youghal, ready for their annual outing to the beach, complete with blankets and tents for fending off the skin-stripping wind and recovering from dips the sub-artic sea water. More hardened visitors are tying their windcheaters around their waists as they hike over unnaturally emerald hills blooming with heather, wildflowers and an OCD gardener's nightmare of weeds.
It's not the best day to holding a covert meeting with another wizard on a cliff top, particularly when the other wizard is going to be Apparating from England in full view of the tiny cove below. On a normal day this beach, which is as attractive to the average sunbather as a room at the Icehotel, would be as empty as a sports outfitters on the day of the All Ireland final.
However, the soaring temperatures have obviously squeezed out a lot of people from the usual baste-and-roast locations. Even as Seamus watches, yet another determined nucleus of mother, father, two point five squealing brats and an SUV-trunkful of brand spanking new plastic beach toys are navigating down the sheer fall of rocks, on to the slightly less sheer and rocky beach.
Seamus shudders, both at the additional danger to his clandestine plans and in general distaste for human beings under the age of fifteen. There's something so terribly sticky about children, even just after they've been bathed. He knows this for a fact; he's been party to several dunkings of his sisters' numerous offspring.
Aoife even asked him once if he'd like to help wash two-year-old Dermot. Dermot, who's a demon in human form and who has a penchant for sinking his tiny teeth in any ankle that comes to hand, or rather mouth, had given Seamus as stare as if to say, "You, me, the bathroom, my rubber duck, your jugular vein."
Seamus was quick to decline the pleasure and left them to it, with Dermot soaking Aoife with bathwater and screaming "Pikachu!" at precisely timed intervals. Dermot only used one word at a time, as if each individual one cost as much as the designer togs his indulgent mother had been forking out for since before he could walk. Dermot was a born accountant, if Seamus was any judge at all, and yet he was one of the nicest of Seamus' legion nieces and nephews.
It didn't help that Seamus was the only one of five who'd exhibited any of their mother's magical traits, and so far the next generation was also bereft of it. His sisters and their smug, overweight husbands were deeply entrenched Muggles, who seemed to regard Mrs Finnigan's and Seamus' talents as a mildly entertaining eccentricity, but one that wasn't much in vogue and should therefore be glossed over as much as possible.
Being educated in England was something Seamus had taken for granted ever since the first time he'd made all his sisters' skirts fly up over their heads when they hogged the telly remote. His mother, who'd always doted on him, but felt so bad about it that in keeping her feelings under wraps she hardly paid attention to him at all, had looked hopeful for the first time when Seamus had done that. Ignoring his sisters' enraged cries, Mairead Finnigan had drawn the five-year-old Seamus aside and enveloped him in a fierce, rare hug, whispering into his ear that, "You'll be a Hogwarts boy, laddie, if I have to fly you there myself."
Now, of course, the overseas schooling didn't seem so crash hot and ice cool. Seamus was accused of having a 'posh Pommie accent' on his holidays home, which was fairly ridiculous. He'd spent most time with Dean, so if anything he'd developed a very common, East End twang. Nowadays he sounded like a hybrid of Phil Mitchell and Jonathan Rhys Meyers on acid.
In the shops of his local Ballycotton, he was whispered about as 'that English one of the Finnigans',' and treated to singularly indiscreet glances over the day-old bread and Cornettos. He was obviously being sized up as a potential son-in-law, and the idea was too depressing to contemplate. Being an English Irishman in a small Cork town was a novelty to the locals, and a state of terminal nationality confusion to Seamus, who really wanted to just go back to London and Dean's small, messy flat.
Seamus glanced down at his thick silver watch, noting in passing that his skin was turning to a dusky rose-brown as the sun penetrated several dense layers of Anglo-Saxon heritage. The time was half three in the afternoon in Cork, half nine at night in Toronto and half twelve in the morning in Brisbane. Why Dean had thought Seamus would need all this random timekeeping information was beyond him, but then again Dean was notoriously scatty when it came to present-giving. He'd once given Ginny a framed, squashed, very dead tree frog. Seamus couldn't remember the story behind that, but Ginny's face would take a lot of forgetting.
Still, it was a good watch. Dean had even gone to the trouble of putting an engraving on the back. True, it just read 'Watch out for the geezers,' but it was something.
Seamus' chest tightened uncomfortably as he thought of Dean. He waved the thoughts away with a flick of his head, sending hair slithering all over his forehead. He really needed to get it cut. Dean had used to do it for him. As a result, he'd gone through every possible hair modulation going and a few more after that, from buzz cut to pink mohican to the current, growing-out shag cut. And he was thinking about Dean again.
Seamus yanked his hair back with one hand, deciding to let Sorcha at it. She'd recently boasted about her husband Paddy's recent acquisition of a top-of-the-range chainsaw, although what he wanted with it Seamus couldn't imagine. Paddy's idea of physical exertion was lifting pints to his mouth in the local pub.
Seamus couldn't visualise Paddy attacking the overgrown wilderness that masqueraded as their garden with a kid's trowel, much less wielding a two-stone piece of equipment, unless he had two or three dozen people to help him lift it. Still, his chainsaw would do nicely to cut Seamus' hair. It might even take his head off with it, which would be a relief in the circumstances.
He was distracted from his increasingly moribund reveries by a sharp crack, followed by a noisy crash coming from the direction of a small copse of stunted trees. Seamus jumped to the alert, remembering several Death Eater raids that had taken place in similar circumstances. For the most part they hadn't given themselves away quite so dramatically, however, nor had they made a racket like an elephant in the throes of giving birth.
Seamus thrust aside some branches that wanted to get to know his hair better and maybe take it for a drink after work, and grinned. "Neville. Welcome to Ireland."
"If this is the standard greeting, I'm quite surprised at the tourist popularity," said a muffled voice from somewhere within a pile of mulching leaves. Seamus grabbed the hand that was breaking free of its tomb of greenery and pulled. Neville emerged, spluttering and looking very much as if he'd just fallen foul of another of Malfoy's pranks.
Although not quite. It was two years since Seamus had seen Neville in the flesh; the intervening time had stripped Neville of flesh. From the letters, Seamus judged that this was as a result of the recurring bouts of dysentery that had wracked Neville for his first six months in Africa. He hadn't expected Neville to be quite so pared down, however, or to have cheekbones, for crying out loud.
Not to mention that, before his up-close-and-personal acquaintance with the best in Cork's coastal wilderness, Neville seemed to have made an effort to spruce up for this meeting. Seamus' casual recommendation to Neville to get some Muggle togs has metamorphosed into a neatly pressed blue shirt and jeans, now almost obliterated by grass stains. His hair had been clipped short and recently washed, if the smell of coconut shampoo that Seamus' nostrils are registering is anything to go by.
Seamus blinks back his surprise at Neville's streamlined, albeit greenery-decked, appearance, and snatches him into a hug to cover his unflattering astonishment. It's a mistake, as Neville stiffens under his touch; Seamus belatedly recalls how much Neville hates to be touched. He has to keep reminding himself that every man he sees isn't Dean. It's an unaccountably hard task.
An old woman, wearing the khaki wellies and jacket combo that is ubiquitous in the farmers of the region, pauses at the top of the rise. She's wrenching back the lead of a huge sheepdog that wants to make friend with every rock and twig in the vicinity. "Ye lads all right?" she hollers. "Only I heard the most awful yellin' a second ago, I thought someone'd hurt theyselves."
"That was me," says Neville. He steps away from where Seamus' awkward arm rests against his own. "I fell over."
"You bin drinkin'?" The woman eyes them with suspicion as Neville reveals his plummy accent. Her dog whines in misery as he is denied the chance to chum up with a boulder.
"No, ma'am." Neville shakes his head. "I'm just clumsy, that's all."
"Eh, well," says the woman. "You'd want to tek better care of your friend, Finnigan. That sorta ting's only welcome down at O'Shea's." She gives a hoot of laugher, her weathered face creasing at her own wit, and ambles away. The dog is less keen to move, having formed an emotional attachment to the boulder.
"Do you know her?" asks Neville in wonder, his big brown eyes as wide as a seal pup's.
"I think she might be one of the Sweeneys down Shanagarry way. She's got the same nose as the chap who owns the butcher's inside town." Seamus realises to his horror that he sounds like one of his gossiping sisters.
"Oh." Neville chews on the tip of his tongue as he fishes in his pocket for his Reduced luggage, which he locates and returns to its normal size in only two goes.
Ignoring Neville's protests, Seamus shoulders his backpack for him. "I think it's best if we try side-along Apparition. There's only a few places in my house that you can Apparate to and not fall over a dresser or some Waterford crystal or something, which are significantly more dangerous than a bunch of trees."
"Oh, I don't know." Neville casts a baleful eye at the tangle of thorns behind him. "Nature has it in for me, I think. All those times I fell over it or crashed into it or tore it up by mistake, I should think."
Seamus laughs, a little amazed. Neville's unique brand of gentle patter had used to be as easy to overlook as a tripwire over a mouse hole. Perhaps it was the fact that Seamus had no one else, or, more accurately, no Dean, to distract him that made him pay more attention to Neville in five minutes than he had done in five years, lengthy correspondence aside.
"I must warn you, though," he says, "it's a symptom of life in a small Irish village."
"What, getting felt up by nettles?"
Seamus chokes back a snort. "No, I mean knowing who everyone is, back unto the fiftieth generation. I think if you traced it everyone would be related to everyone else, by marriage if nothing else. Also, the main pastime around here is discussing the minutiae other people's lives. The fact that I and a drunken friend were cavorting around on the cliffs will be on tonight's headlines for at least five families in the region."
"I thought the national pastime was drinking?" Neville makes a vain attempt to brush off his trousers, but only succeeds in smearing the dirt around a greater surface area. He lets out a low moan of frustration.
"True, but then the main topic of conversation down pub is other people. Come on, then." Seamus is aware that he's babbling, a habit he thought he'd kicked since school. Apparently not. He reaches out across the distance Neville has put between them and takes his hand.
"Ready?" he asks, ignoring the shiver that went through Neville's skin as Seamus' fingers closed around it. Neville's palm is warm and rather sweaty, just as Seamus remembers. From where? Myriad pillow fights and scraps and mutual banging on the door of the bathroom which Ron was hogging, most likely. "On my word ... ready, steady, go!"
* * *
"This place is a mansion," breathes Neville. He stands back, the better to take in Seamus' home in all it's white-pillared, gravel-driveway'ed glory.
"No, it's more a defacement of the natural scenery, if you want the local version." Seamus adjusts the straps of Neville's backpack. Even after a scant few minutes of lugging it, it's digging in as if intent on getting through to China via Seamus' back. He wonders what Neville has in there -- rocks? He wouldn't put it past him. "It used to be the token English landlord's pile, but it got torched in some rising or other and then rebuilt in a Greek revival that lasted all of three days."
"You've got some gorgeous plants here." Neville abandons his suitcase to wander around, sniffing the blue window boxes and herbal borders to frequent cries of "Thyme! It's amazingly well rooted, too ..." Seamus tried the suitcase and found it as bodybuilder-taxing as the backpack. Another stash of rocks, then.
As Seamus lurches forward, dragging the suitcase with one hand and rubbing his shoulders with the other, his mother emerges around the side of the house. Her Rubenesque grey curls are spilling from underneath a Hermé s headscarf, which Dean sent her for Christmas. Mairead Finnigan wears it for feeding the chickens. When she spots Neville, arse-over in an outcrop of hyacinth, her face lights up.
"I thought I heard voices," she says. "Jesus Christ, Seamus, just because your sisters are Muggles doesn't mean you are." Levitating the bags with a wave of her wand -- she's always been a whiz at wordless magic, has his ma -- she sends them zooming into the open vestibule. It sets the dogs to howling and a moment later the pack of setters spill out of the door like a single organism, all tongues and joyfully wagging tails.
"Hello, Mrs Finnigan," says Neville, emerging with petals in his hair and a dusting of deeper red across his sunburnt face. He sticks out his hand, seeming to be unaware of the fact that he's picked up some creeping ivy, which encircles his wrist like a bracelet.
"Please, call me Mairead." Mairead presses a kiss to both Neville's flaming cheeks and carefully frees him of vines in the process. "The only ones that call me Mrs Finnigan around here are the guards, and then only when they've found another one of my godforsaken sons-in-law in a ditch."
"Oh, I'm sorry," says Neville, sounding worried. "Have you lost many sons-in-law that way?"
"God no." Mairead laughs, her hands still on Neville's shoulders as she swings back to observe him. "I mean when they've found one of the lazy sods stuck in a hedge, completely paralytic with the drink, trying to get through to the field to tease the poor sheep."
"Mam," groans Seamus, "stop teasing Neville. He'll meet them all soon enough, you don't have to terrify him into the bargain."
"Don't be silly, son." Mairead strokes Neville's cheek for a moment before peeling away to kick back two or three of the dogs. "I already like him better than all the rest of them. Paudie'll be disappointed you aren't a girl, of course, but like I said I'm hardly keen to splash out on yet another feckin' glitzy wedding for three hundred people."
To Neville's hunted expression, Seamus explained, "Da keeps wanting me to bring home a daughter-in-law for him. Mainly because the sons-in-law haven't, er, been up to par. He likes weddings, too."
"Another reason to get pissed and loll about making sheep's eyes at all your sister's friends, that's why," grumbles Mairead. She shakes out her bright red gypsy skirt, which is laced with dog drool. "Well, don't leave poor Neville cooling his heels in the feckin' yard, idiot boy. Bring him inside for a sup of tea."
Seamus catches Neville on the threshold, which he is peering into with at least a little trepidation. "Listen," says Seamus, plucking at his sleeve to get his attention, "don't let them get to you. They're all loud and completely self-obsessed, but they're okay really. Really deep down."
"Bit like you, then?" suggests Neville, and Seamus thinks that maybe it wasn't trepidation after all. "Don't worry about me, Seamus. I've lived in a yurt with a shaman who drank blood and used live snakes in his potions. I think I can handle your brothers-in-law."
"Don't speak too soon," mutters Seamus, but he lets Neville pass him out and contents himself with prodding Neville's luggage upstairs with his wand.
By the time Seamus returns, Neville is firmly ensconced in the warm, fuggy kitchen, with a bowl of tea and a selection of cold meat, Oxford teacake and apple pie before him. Seamus leans across him to snatch the apple pie before hopping up on to the kitchen counter. Mairead slaps his wrist and returns the pie to Neville's plate.
"You've already scarfed all the chocolate cake that was left inside in the larder," she scolds. "Don't go eating poor Neville's supper now, you greedy animal."
"But I'm hungry," whines Seamus, who isn't really. He's more disconcerted by the secretive smile on Neville's face, that flickers in and out as his eyes travel the width of the cluttered kitchen, with its pitted oak table, copper pans hanging from the ceiling and gallery of photographs that adorn every flat surface, floor and ceiling excluded.
"So, Neville," says Mairead, turning from where she's pounding a piece of salmon with a ferocity that suggests that she's harbouring a violent urge towards all things aquatic, "Seamus has hardly told me anything about you. You went to Hogwarts together, I take it, then you went on to Africa?"
"Don't go giving him the third degree," warns Seamus. "Not everyone wants to talk about themselves all the time."
"That'll make a refreshing change, then," says Mairead tartly. "And I think Neville can speak for himself. I'm sure he's got plenty of sca. Twill be better than hearing about who's bonking whose neighbour's wife, or how many tens of pints Father Hurley downed last Saturday night."
Seamus, by this stage, has his head in his hands.
"It's okay, Seamus." Neville breaks off a tiny piece of cheese and pops it into his mouth. It's little wonder he's slimmed down so much, if he eats so little. Seamus casts a covetous gaze on the plump slice of apple pie on Neville's plate. "Well, I was in Seamus' class at school, but all of that got kind of confusing after Harry left. I stayed on and got a few NEWTs, but with half the teachers gone or leaving ..." He shrugged. "I went back and lived with my grandmother for a while and started working in St Mungo's. The hospital in London?"
"I know it," says Mairead, nodding. "Had to bring Paudie there once, when some brownie stuck a blueberry pie to his nose."
"That's it," says Neville. "Well, they were overcrowded and desperately short-handed, so they took me on with just an O in Herbology. I was put in charge of the Healing Potions unit after a year or two and they let me sit the Healer's exams just by dint of being there so long. Two years ago, though, things were starting to settle down, and they were getting much better candidates. I saw an ad in the Prophet for Healers wanted in remote African magical communities, so I sent in a CV and, er, ended up in deepest Namibia without the faintest clue what I was doing." He gives a self-deprecating laugh, which is more familiar than the rest of him.
Seamus realises he's stopped eyeing up Neville's pie, in favour of eyeing up Neville, during his monologue. He's heard it all before, of course, in far greater detail: about the terrible poverty among the Muggles, the woeful living conditions, the native girl he'd fallen for but who'd married one of her tribe's warriors instead of him. All the same, there was something bewitching about listening to Neville's soft voice and watching the way he'd wet his lips with his tongue every so often as he spoke. Or push his hair behind his ears, even though it wasn't really long enough to require that.
"Gosh, that sounds feckin' exciting," says Mairead. "I always wanted to go to Africa, but Paudie's afraid of lions."
Seamus rolls his eyes at her. He's just remembered what he was doing two years ago. Or rather, what Dean was doing: getting more and more venues in popular galleries in London.
Since leaving Hogwarts, Seamus hasn't done much of anything. Not gone to Africa to help the poor, not paved the way towards becoming a famous artist, not bought shares in his brother's joke shop, not set up a political party with party line of securing greater freedom for minorities like house elves and werewolves. He'd not even wigged out, flirted with alcoholism and ended up bumming around Europe on his parent's fortune, looking for himself in a mirror lined with coke, as Harry is currently engaged in doing. The papers had a field day with him about a year ago, but since Harry's neither reformed nor killed himself via OD'ing since, they've lost interest.
No, Seamus has become very, very good at watching other people do things, whether it's Dean collaborating with Colin Creevey over what would turn out to be a multi-award winning photo shoot of Muggle celebrities, or Neville picking at a Bath bun. He once had a desk job in the Department of Transport, before he junked it in six months ago in favour of living under his mother's eye and his duvet two hundred miles away.
"I had to learn some wild-animal repelling charms pretty damn sharp," Neville is saying now, pushing back his half-full plate and slurping his tea. "Listen, would you mind terribly if I took a shower and maybe went to bed? I'm all grotty from falling over in the woods ..."
"You fell over?" Mairead spins around so fast that her curls are taken by surprise and end up hitting her in the nose in their race to keep up. "Why didn't you say, silly child?"
Neville gapes at her, glancing down at his stained jeans and grass-tie-dyed shirt. Seamus, however, knows his mother better than that; she probably thought that Neville's grubby attire was just another fashion fad, having gone through a different set with each of her five daughters. Even Seamus had a stage where he'd wear nothing but one Morrissey t-shirt, a relic of his father's from the seventies. It soon smelled like it, too, as Seamus recalls.
"No, I'm fine," says Neville, slowly, taking in Mairead's genuine, wide-eyed concern. "I just tumbled over after I Apparated. Happens a lot."
"Ah," says Mairead, looking relieved. "Well, if you're sure, pet. Seamus, show him up to his room, there's a love. Listen, Neville, Seamus has told you about the dinner party, hasn't he --"
"I'm just going to, Ma." Seamus jumps in front of Neville to hide another astounded face from his mother.
"You're in with Seamus, Neville pet," Mairead sings out as Seamus pushes Neville from the room. "It'll be just like old times for the two of you ..."
* * *
"Sorry about the squashed quarters, mate." Seamus directs Neville to his freshly-made up bed. "I'm bunking down with you in here. Orlaith and Nuala -- that's two of my sisters -- have debunked from Galway and Dublin, respectively, and have taken over their old rooms and all the spare ones with their spouses and spawn. It's ridiculous. I mean, Nuala refuses to actually sleep with her husband any more. Well, given that he's a staunch Catholic and they already have five kids maybe that's not so surprising. Then again, when I offered to make her a Contraceptive Potion she slapped me. Said children were a gift from God."
"Seamus," interrupts Neville, spotting a dam in the flow of Seamus' prattle. Seamus, turning guilty eyes on him, realised that he actually does look exhausted, violet smudges ringing his eyes like misapplied eye shadow.
"Sorry, Neville." Seamus flumps down on the camp bed that's been assembled half under his desk. "I'm raving on too much, right?"
"It's okay," says Neville, through a mammoth yawn. "I like listening to you talk. But I came straight here from a week at Hermione's. Huge parties every night to launch her Liberation Front thing. I'm just looking forward to a few day's rest."
"Er," says Seamus, thinking of all the huge dinner party his mother and sisters have been organising to mark his parents' fortieth wedding anniversary. He doesn't say anything, though, too worried about the fact that Neville is swaying in between yawns that reveal a lot of his curling pink tongue. "Did you want to take a shower?"
"Please." Neville snaps his eyes open and directs his wand to his suitcase. He pauses, looking like a lost traffic conductor. He'd fit in well on the streets of Cork; most traffic conductors there are lost, and certainly don't know very much more about traffic than Neville does. "Is it okay to use magic?"
"Go ahead," says Seamus. "All my sisters and their ugly other halves have a dispensation thing from the Ministry. All the kids try to get me to set each other on fire when they fight."
"And do you?" Neville Summons a towel and pyjamas to his arms. They miss and land on his pillow with a soft thump, but for Neville that's pretty close.
"Do I what?" says Seamus, trying to peek inside Neville's suitcase to see if there really are rocks in there.
"Set them on fire."
"Of course. Use a Flame-Freezer first, though. They love it. My sisters want to castrate me every time they catch me at it, though."
"I take it none of them have succeeded?" Neville directs a significant look at Seamus' crotch.
"Not yet," says Seamus, feeling a sudden urge to cross his legs. "The shower's the second door down from this one. We have it to ourselves -- well, us and Pa. Don't worry about the frogspawn. I put it in there to frighten the girls off using it."
"Right." Neville picks up his things and tucks them into his armpit. His hair is standing up in tufts, which, despite its fashionable cut, are so typically Neville that Seamus feels a lump of affection come to his throat.
Seamus leaves him the room and goes down to gossip with his mother over the remains of Neville's supper. After some cursory probing into Neville's love life and marital status, Mairead says out of the blue, "He's a very good-looking lad, isn't he?"
Seamus chokes on the crust of his -- Neville's -- apple pie. "Neville? The lad with the sticking-out ears and permanent blush, a bit pudgy?" Even as he says it he has to correct the last one; Neville is bird-boned skinny now.
"I didn't notice his ears," says Mairead, sounding thoughtful. "And I think the way he blushes every time he looks at you is sweet." Seamus coughs, his eyes filling, before he realises she's talking about 'you' in the collective sense. "He's certainly more of a looker than that Dean fella, if less flashy."
"Don't be stupid, Ma," says Seamus irritably, peeling the icing off a teacake. "Dean's bloody gorgeous."
Mairead sends him a sceptical look, but forbears to comment.
When Seamus returns to his room, Neville is fast asleep. He lies the same way he did back in the dormitories, with one curled hand flung across the pillow, the other tight around his chest, one knee cocked and the other flat. Seamus always thought he looked like he was going to break into a spot of somnambulant Irish dancing.
The light of the setting sun filters in through the curtains. Although they've passed midsummer, the cockstep is still in its fullest swing, bestowing light until ten at night. It dapples Neville's lax mouth and retroussé nose with butter-coloured light.
Seamus closes the door, trying not to bang it, and goes down the hall to change in the bathroom.
* * *
Seamus opens his eyes right into a lance of sunlight, coming through the wrenched-open curtains straight on to his face. The room smells of an unfamiliar, peppery aftershave.
"Morning," says Neville, looking up from where he's buttoning his shirt, pale blue this time. He sends Seamus a shy smile.
"What time is it?" croaks Seamus. He's never been a morning person, even when it's more correctly the middle of the afternoon.
"Just after ten. I brought you up some toast." Neville nods to a tray on Seamus' desk, which is laden with a skyscraper stack of lightly browned toast -- just as Seamus likes it -- a glass of orange juice and some strawberries. "Your mother seemed to be making enough rounds for an army."
"That'll be for the sisters." Seamus struggles into an upright position. He's only wearing boxers, his usual night attire of latter years. "She seems to think that, despite their many hundreds of years of cooking for their own broods, they are incapable of doing something so complex as transferring bread to a toaster or cereal to a bowl."
"She was using magic to do it," Neville points out, his eyes glued on Seamus' light fixture and the glow-in-the-dark sticker constellation that dates to Seamus' bed-wetting days. Seamus decides that Neville is studying the plethora of spider webs up there with a zoologist's interest. Although he'd always had Neville down as a botanist.
"Thanks, anyway," mutters Seamus through a mouthful of toast. The warm butter drips on to his chest, and he wipes it away with his fingers, sucking them too. "We'd be lucky if there was any bread left in the county after the scavengers descend."
"No worries," says Neville. "I met one of your sisters down there. Orlaith, I think? I think I must have given her a bit of a fright. I was still in my jams, you see, and she sort of screamed and tried to tackle me. She seemed to think I was Dean."
"Yes, that's Orlaith," sighs Seamus. "And she wasn't tackling you, that's her idea of a greeting stroke chat up line. She hits on every male she comes across, with the sole and single exception of her husband. And she never met Dean, she never bothered to visit London. It's quite likely she took in the accent, put two and two together and got one and a half."
"Didn't you bring him back here?" asks Neville, fiddling with belt.
"Nah. Always meant to, but he was either too busy or we couldn't afford it ..." Seamus, who feels that this is a shameful admission of sorts, stuffs more toast in his mouth. "Mam met him, though. She came over every few months. Said it was a nice break from cleaning up after Da."
"Is he, er, home? Your father?"
"Should be. He's an agricultural contractor -- doles out slurry," elucidated Seamus, in the face of Neville's polite incomprehension. "He spends most every evening in the pub, though. Making contacts is what he calls it, but the most contact he makes is with several pints of bitter."
"Gosh, is everyone around here an alcoholic?" asks Neville, sounding scandalised.
"Jesus, don't say that in front of Da, he'll pitch a fit," exclaims Seamus. Neville makes a face. "Listen, I meant to tell you before, Mam's holding a sort of dinner party --"
"For her wedding anniversary, yes," says Neville, nodding. "I met her in the kitchen too. She sort of prised Orlaith off me. And said that, um, you had almost certainly forgotten to mention it to me, being the good for nothing bogtrotter that you are."
"That's Mam." Seamus nods glumly. "I meant to take you out for a boozy lunch first, sort of tank yourself up in preparation."
"And to fit in, too?" suggests Neville, raising an eyebrow.
"It's more like an international peacekeeping requirement." Seamus throws the last of the orange juice down his throat and tosses off the sheets. Neville jumps off the bed as if stung, but Seamus is rooting around for clothes under his desk and hardly notices. "You really shouldn't face my family en masse while sober. It's enough to drive anyone batty."
He hears Neville's voice from outside the door. "I'll just meet you downstairs, okay?"
"Okay," agrees Seamus. He shoots a look at himself in the mirror as Neville clatters down the stairs, and frowns. His hair is matted and his face is pillow-patterned from sleep and his boxers have slipped down one hip, but he doesn't think he looks that terrifying. Not compared to the sorts of things Neville saw in Africa, that's for sure.
Shrugging, Seamus rakes back his hair, making a note to pick up some scissors, and continues dressing. It occurs to him that, for the first morning in a long time, his first waking thought wasn't about Dean.
* * *
"So what happened to Harry?" asks Neville. He pushes a sea bass around his plate with his fork. "I couldn't get a word out of Hermione, and Ron wasn't much better. Is it some kind of state secret?"
"Well, I don't know much more than I wrote to you last year." Seamus nicks one of Neville's chips because he always used to do it at school and he didn't complain then. "He was quietly going off the rails all the time since he defeated Voldemort. You know, he had all the money and the status and a nice girlfriend but it just wasn't enough, it seems. Turns out he was visiting prostitutes, taking every drug he could swallow or inject or stuff up his nose, Muggle and wizarding, which is not a good combination, I can tell your right now. Drinking like a fish with a taste for top-shelf spirits, too."
"Is he still going out with Ginny, then?" Neville takes a sip of Guinness. Seamus pushed it on him, insisting he needed to get a taste of authentic tourist Ireland. Seamus himself has a pint of Stella. He remembers that Neville had a crush on Ginny way back when.
"God, no. She dumped him when she heard about the prostitutes. Seems the drugs and drinking she could deal with, but sleeping around and paying for it was a big no-no."
"You sound disapproving." In the low light of the pub, Neville's dark eyes are almost lambent. Seamus laughs, although he doesn't find it terribly amusing. He's never quite been able to forgive Ginny for making Dean fall for her.
"Ginny fended all of us off him," he says. "Even Hermione and Ron, to an extent. I think she was always afraid that she'd lose him. In the end, she couldn't handle it when he flipped out, but because of her no one knew until it was too late."
"She loved him very much, though." This time it is Neville's turn to sound disapproving.
"Loving isn't about putting people in a cage," objects Seamus, uncomfortably aware that he's skirting close to hypocrisy with such a statement. "This is cheerful conversation. Could we talk about something happier, like natural disasters?"
"Sure," says Neville. He drinks more Guinness and licks off the foam moustache he gains. He's drinking far more than he's eating. Although a good thing in the context of meeting Seamus' extended family, Seamus is starting to wonder if Neville is suffering from some kind of eating disorder, of the sort his sisters can only dream about having.
Seamus realises he's been staring too long at Neville's face, taking in all the new hollows and creamy peaks with worry, when Neville drops his gaze and coughs. A blush spreads like a wine stain across his cheeks.
"What about yourself, then?" asks Seamus, on a whim. "Any lovely lady waiting in the wings to drag you down the aisle to love, honour and hold back her hair when she voms after a night on the tiles?"
Neville winces. "Not quite. I told you about Nat -- Natasha, didn't I?"
"Yup. Shame, that. She sounded like a nice girl. No one since then?"
"Nope." Neville takes another slug of his Guinness. It's almost half gone, and it's his second. He refused a starter and his sea bass looks as pristine as it did when it came in off the boat. Seamus steals another of his chips and tries not to think about it.
"I'd offer to set you up with one of my sisters, but fortunately they're all taken," he says.
"What about you and Dean, then?" At Seamus' sudden silence, Neville adds, "I'm sorry. I just ... you didn't write much. It seemed very sudden. But if you don't want to talk about it that's okay."
"No, you've put up with all my other whinges, you deserve to hear this," sighs Seamus. "It's quite simple, in fact. He was perfectly happy to fool around with me and have a couple of arty girlfriends on the side. It was when I finally convinced him to move in with me that the problems started. Dean liked the idea of experimenting, but he was never very interested in the results." Seamus bites a chip with a savage chunk of teeth. "Bloody Aquarians," he adds moodily.
Neville doesn't say anything more about it, instead turning the conversation to Seamus' sisters -- how many children, how old, how annoying. At one point, he looks on the verge of saying something hollow and sympathetic, but instead pulls the waiter over to order another basket of chips. And eats some of them, too.
He looks at Seamus over the top of his pint as Seamus natters on, his eyes a little glazed and his sculpted hair falling into his eye. On impulse Seamus leans forward and pushes it back for him. Neville flinches at the contact and Seamus immediately regrets the move. He decides to cover his gaffe with yet more inane babble, and after a while Neville goes along with it and his shoulders lose their tense set.
After a long, gassy conversation consisting mainly of increasingly drunken anecdotes about Hogwarts in the early days, Seamus looks at his watch and lets out an intoxicated gasp, which turns into a burp. "Shite," he slurs. "I promished Ma we'd be back by four at the latest."
Neville hiccups. "Why, what flime -- I mean, time, what time is it now?"
"Half five," groans Seamus. He tries to get to his feet and finds it more complicated a process than he'd previously supposed. "Come on, she'll have our heads if we're not back soon."
"She can have mine, no use for it," giggles Neville. Seamus realises that all the Guinness he's been sculling has made him well and truly plastered.
Sighing, he yanks Neville up by the arm and loops it around his neck. He puts down Neville's sucked-in breath to a desire to throw up and hastens his steps to the sobering outside air.
* * *
"So, it's Neville, isn't that right?" Nuala, an executive banker with AIB, fixes Neville with her gimlet stare. Across and three seats down, Seamus stretches forward, worried. Despite the two black coffees his mother made for him he still feels tipsy; Neville, who's slouching in his seat with half his shirt buttons open, looks distinctly sloshed.
"Yup, tha's me," says Neville. He beams at Nuala with his gaze somewhere near her left ear. "Say, is that a kettle? M'dad used to collect 'em, thought they were the funniest things he ever saw."
"So, your father's an antiques dealer?" asks Nuala, trying to get Neville into the same frame of reference as her. Seamus winces, but his father addresses him and he's forced to divert his attention.
"So, son, where'd you scoot off to today?" Paudie Finnigan booms, dumping another helping of mashed potato on Seamus' plate. "I was forced to chat to all those dickheads your sisters are married to while your ma locked the kitchen door. I fought I was gonna blow a feckin' gasket, boy."
"Da, they're right next to you," mutters Seamus. "I'm pretty sure they can hear you too."
"What, these knackers? Not a chance," roars Paudie, slapping Orlaith's husband Tony on the back. Tony gives a little shake, like a dog sloughing off water, and smiles sleepily, revealing three gold teeth.
"Ya say sumtin?" he asks. "Is dere any proper drink in dis house? Only I'm gaspin' for a drop of whiskey, so I am."
"Tony, I told you lay off the sauce while we're at Mam's!" screeches Orlaith, from the end of the table. She's breastfeeding her youngest, not noticing as she drops pureed turnip on its downy head. The rest of the children have been banished to the kitchen, where frequent screams and shouts suggest that they're holding a ritual massacre.
Seamus tunes them out and tries to listen in on Nuala's interrogation.
"So you went to that magic school with Seamus, I hear?" she's snapping out, in the same tone of voice that she uses on clients to give AIB its legendary reputation for customer service.
"I did," confirms Neville. His shirt is gaping open from his sternum down, revealing a dark mesh of hair disappearing into his jeans. Seamus hopes Orlaith doesn't spot it; any sort of flesh-flashing is as good as a Go sign to her.
"Were you good friends, then? I bet Seamus got up to a lot of mischief," says Nuala, who's always regarded magic as one step up from delinquency.
"Sort of." Neville shrugs, almost dislodging his shirt from his shoulder and himself from his chair. He squints at his forkful of roast beef as if it's just zoomed on to his plate from a flying saucer. He drops it back on his plate and sighs. "Harry Potter was the one who was always breaking the rules. Seamus just flirted all the time."
Nuala sniffs, clearly feeling vindicated. Seamus feels his stomach lurch. When did he flirt? He can't remember doing that. He was just friendly, that's all.
"Who's Harry Potter?" asks Nuala. "The name sounds familiar. Was he one of Seamus' debauched conquests?"
"Nah, he just saved the world," says Neville, his eyes fluttering closed.
"I think that's quite enough about my debauched conquests," yells Seamus. He abandons subtlety in favour of all-out war. Neville's head nods against Paddy's shoulder. Paddy, busy shovelling up Yorkshire pudding, doesn't appear to notice.
"I don't see why," says Nuala, her voice going all haughty and Dublin 4. "It's not as if you were ashamed to be parading around with your gay lover before he chucked you out. For all I know he's another one of them." She jerks her thumb at Neville, whose cheeks are rosy as a cherub's in sleep. Paddy's shoulder is an ample pillow and Neville burrows into it. Paddy absently pulls Neville's plate over with his fork and starts polishing off his roast beef.
Seamus lets out an animalistic, alcohol-fuelled roar of pure rage. Nuala was always his least favourite sister, but it's her dismissal of Neville that prompts him, in drunken ire, to stuff both fists into the mashed potato dish and lob his findings into Nuala's smug, prissy face.
For a moment, silence reigns. Mairead regards the slumbering Neville with something like vindication. Everyone else looks on the horrified side of utter shock.
At last, Paudie breaks the eerie stillness. Lumbering to his feet, with the gravy dish still in the hand that was reaching for it when Nuala made her accusation, he says, "What's this about gay, our Seamus?"
Seamus looks into his red, puffing face and past it to his sisters. Only Orlaith looks genuinely surprised, and her gaze is on her baby's turnip-hatted head, not Seamus. The brothers-in-law, those who are not asleep, drunk or eating (Paddy), are watching him with glazed amusement.
Seamus decides to go the flippant route. "What, Da, you mean you didn't know?"
Paudie bests his son's war-cry by about ten decibels and dumps the gravy over his head.
After that, it really is war.
* * *
It's three o'clock in the morning before the mess gets cleared up. Mairead storms off to bed early on, sweeping a dazed Neville with her. Seamus can't find his wand and is forced to scrape trodden potato off the floor with his hands. Paddy helps by eating a lot of what is retrieved and cutting down the amount of rubbish by about three-quarters. All in all it's a very effective way of sobering up, but Seamus doesn't think he'll be recommending to his friends.
Neville is asleep on the camp bed when Seamus comes in. Hovering in the door and rubbing his gritty eyes, Seamus debates waking him up and tumbling him into his proper place of rest. His decision is made for him when Neville blinks awake and stares at him in half-asleep confusion. Seamus stumbles over to the bed; his legs give way in relief when they hit mattress.
"Why aren't you in my bed, Neville?" asks Seamus. His voice is hoarse and raw from an hour of shouting. When his family rowed, they did it Olympic style.
"You're in it," says Neville, with three am logic.
"Don't be stupid." Seamus goes to stand up and instead rolls over to one side. "You get in. You're the guest."
During the long pause which ensues, Seamus drifts in and out of sleep. He nearly misses Neville's "All right," but he does notice the bed creak and dip to admit Neville's additional weight.
"I'll get up in a minute," Seamus promises himself. In the meantime, the room is warm, Seamus is warm, and Neville is radiating heat from about a foot away.
As he sinks down into the depths of deep sleep, Seamus thinks he feels the brush of Neville's leg against his own, but as it's followed by the familiar montage of the giant carrots, dancing transvestite hula girls who all look like Orlaith's baby and many, many random naked men, he doesn't pay it any mind.
* * *
Seamus wakes, and thinks he's still asleep. His erotic dreams of late are becoming worryingly settled, often involving candle light dinners and hot looks over asparagus soup and oysters, before someone's eyes start shooting flames. In the past, most of Seamus' dreams took place in the shower, whether he was asleep or not.
He passes from the tempting image of snuggling into the crook of someone's arm, complete with the feathery touch of soft skin, to the reality of it, and nearly screams. His loudly vocalised sleeping adventures have been the butt of his friends' jokes for years, but rarely have they terminated in quite so mortifying a location.
Seamus, checking, sends up a silent prayer of thanks that Neville is still asleep. He hasn't noticed that Seamus has cuddled up to him like a five-year-old to a beloved teddy bear. Neville's breath is coming in gentle puffs that move his chest up and down in a rocking motion. It was that which woke Seamus up; his head had lolled right into the tender web of skin that spans the base of Neville's neck.
The heat radiating through Neville's cotton pyjamas and the peppery aroma drifting from him make for a very cosy atmosphere, and Seamus thinks it can't do any harm, surely, if he just lies back down and presses his cheek to Neville's shoulder.
Or if he tugs back the wrongly-buttoned pyjamas just a little, to check that the mesh of hair leading a trail from Neville's bellybutton hasn't gone anywhere.
Or if he traces his fingers over the raised roughness of an unexplained scar running down Neville's ribs, to see what it feels like.
Or if he strokes the hollow between Neville's ribs, to contrast the velvety skin there to that of the scar.
Or if he pushes back the pyjamas a bit more, to see what colour nipples Neville has, a question that Seamus has answered on behalf of all his other former dorm-mates.
They're dark pink, the same colour as his lips. Seamus, aware of what it will look like if he's caught with his hand up Neville's shirt, hastily pulls it back down and smoothes the shirt across Neville's chest.
It's then that Neville shifts position, stretching out his legs and emitting a low, damp sigh. And Seamus realises that a combination of his illicit touches and normal morning occurrences is tenting the blanket between Neville's legs.
Seamus eases away from Neville and scrambles off the bed. Grabbing up clothes from the floor, he dashes from the room.
He doesn't admit to himself that he's rather disconcerted and very aroused by his refresher course in voyeurism. He just reckons that, on balance, Neville wouldn't like to wake up to his morning glory with Seamus around. He'd always got very embarrassed by things like that in the past.
Seamus meets his father coming out of the bathroom and jumbles some clothes in front of his chest. Paudie gives him a glower to beat all glowers and stomps off, grumbling to himself.
Seamus doesn't spare him a thought. He has got problems of his own to worry about. Some of them are very insistent on demanding immediate attention.
* * *
"Don't worry about your da, Seamus." Mairead sets some eggs to whisking with a placid flick of her wand. "He'll soften up in time, you'll see."
"How much time?" mutters Seamus. "He's already pickled in formaldehyde."
"Well, perhaps you should have dropped a few hints," says Mairead, her voice suddenly sharp. "Let him know what he was in for. It's not easy on a man, finding out his only son and heir isn't going to be giving him grandkiddies."
"Dad's has more hairs than I do, Mam," Seamus points out. "And how many grandkids has he got now? Ten, isn't it?"
"Twelve," corrects Mairead. "And if I'm not mistaken, Aoife's got another bun in the oven."
"Let's hope it has severe dental problems from the womb," says Seamus. "What's Da so annoyed about then? He has more than he could possibly want."
"Like I said, he just needs time." Mairead sets a plate of scrambled eggs before her son. "You did spring it on him rather."
"Nuala did, you mean," says Seamus. "It wasn't my ideal setting for a heart-to-heart, you know."
"I think she's wanted to out you since you were twelve and mooning over pictures of Johnny Depp," muses Mairead. "Or was it Peter Andre?"
"Johnny Depp," says Seamus hastily, before realising that his mother has backed him into a cul-de-sac. Making a u-turn, he says, "But only because I admired his, er, singing abilities."
"He's an actor," says Paudie, clumping into the kitchen with a squeak of hobnailed boots on stone. "Ye can drop the act now, Seamus. I had my suspicions about that Dave boy all along."
"Dean. We're, ah, not together any more." Seamus squirms. He had never anticipated just how nail-bitingly gruesome talking about his love life with his father would be.
"So I take it young Neville's your new squeeze?" Paudie kisses his wife on the cheek, missing his son's jaw-drop of astonishment and rare lack of words. "He's a nice little lad, if a bit on the squiffy side. I should take him down for a pint tonight."
"They already have plans, don't you, Seamus?" says Mairead, with a 'Do not encourage him' glare in Seamus' direction.
"That's right," gulps Seamus. "But Da, we're not --"
"I heard voices," says Nuala petulantly. She wanders into the kitchen, flattening her hair, which has exploded into a sand-coloured bramble overnight. "Have you people no consideration of the fact that other people might be sleeping?"
"None at all," Paudie assures her, scooping up six slices of toast on his way out the door. "Good luck, Seamus. I'll have a wee chat to your boyfriend tonight, size him up." Laughing rather unpleasantly, he's gone before Seamus has a chance to contradict him.
Nuala is staring after her father. "That was a quick turnaround," she says, rubbing mascara out of her crowsfeet. "I remember it took him three weeks before he'd even speak to Ger."
"Neville is a personable young lad, and shares your father's appreciation for Guinness," Mairead points out. "Unlike Ger, who drinks Club Orange and has the basic personality of a brick. Would you like some tea, dear?"
"Please." Nuala pulls her voluminous nightgown around her and props her bed socked feet up on the table. "Was that you I heard rolling around in the hay last night, Seamus? Someone was definitely having very loud three-act sex. So inconsiderate of the fact that other people might be sleeping."
Mairead's face turns the shade of a traffic light at rush hour on a busy intersection. She starts clattering pots and pans together.
"Me?" gasps Seamus over the din. "I can barely manage a movie trailer."
He grabs up a mug of tea as a prop and stumbles out of the kitchen.
* * *
Neville finds him on the grassy knoll under a large ash tree, which is shaking its leaves on to his shoulders as if anxious to get rid of him. His mug of tea has grown cold and turns out, on inspection, to be milky coffee. Seamus is on the verge of tipping it out on the roots of the tree and contemplating the repercussions such an action would have -- his mother's garden is notoriously temperamental -- when he sees Neville, shambling towards him over the pitted yard.
"Hey," says Neville as he gets closer, shading his eyes. The morning sunlight is almost a blinding white, but the air is still chilly. Seamus' bare toes are feeling numb; he ignores them, being used to the cold.
"Morning," returns Seamus. His is voice glum and his heart racing as he realises he can't look Neville in the eye. It's ridiculous; he's woken up to such circumstances with as unlikely people as Ron and Colin, and it's never had this effect on him. He tries to shake it off and meet Neville's steady brown gaze, but the sun intervenes and sets his eyes to watering.
"You seem to be wearing my clothes," observes Neville, sinking to the ground beside Seamus in an ungraceful tangle of limbs. His feet are bare too, rather flushed from a combination of poor circulation and the freezing dew that still lingers. Yet hey felt toasty warm last night, it strikes Seamus.
"I am?" Seamus looks down in surprise. He had been wondering why the jeans were so short, but had just put it down to his mother's haphazard washing skills. "Sorry. I'm not at my best in the mornings."
"No?" There's a less than flippant core to Neville's quizzical tone, but Seamus chooses to ignore it. He casts around for a nice, neutral topic of conversation.
"I never got a chance to ask you what you're planning to do now," says Seamus, pulling at a loose thread in his shirt before realising it's not his, either. He just stops himself from sniffing the cuff to see if he can catch a hint of Neville's unusual aftershave, which is very tasty.
"Well, I was hoping breakfast would be on the cards at some point," laughs Neville. "After that, I'm not so certain."
"I meant about your, you know, career, like," says Seamus. He manages to raise his eyes to Neville's ear and counts it a success. They do stick out a bit still, but they're no longer Dumbo-like in proportion to his face. He must have grown into them.
"Oh, that." Seamus sees Neville chewing the side of his lip, one habit he hasn't grown out of. "I'm not sure. St Mungo's might take me back in an administrative capacity. Otherwise, Hermione offered me the secretarial post in her Liberation Front party."
"Do they pay for that kind of thing?" asks Seamus, realising that the scent of aftershave is wafting from Neville. It's a rather heady one.
"Not unless you're in government, I believe. But Hermione might be able to point me in the way of other jobs. She has an awful lot of contacts now."
"Yes, she certainly came good, didn't she?" Seamus starts uprooting some grass shoots.
"As opposed to you, you mean?"
Seamus sends Neville a narrow look, but Neville's eyes are downcast, directed to his loosely-clasped hands, which are resting in his lap. His Indian squat only accentuates how bony his knees have become.
"Well, yes," says Seamus. "I mean, look at me. I'm twenty-three and I'm back home with the mammy, with one lousy job and one failed relationship under me belt. I'm hardly the success story of our year, am I, now?"
"It could be worse," says Neville. "You could be Harry."
Seamus snorts. "Harry managed to lose the plot in a really spectacular fashion. Even going crazy he took it by the horns. Me, I've got ... nothing much." He breaks off, knowing he sounds like a maudlin heroine in one of Aoife's soppy romance books with the pink covers. It's made worse by the fact that, unlike Harry and many other people, Seamus hasn't really got anything to complain about. Just because he doesn't have anything to not complain about either ...
"That's not true." Neville's voice is quiet, but earnest. "You're funny, you've got a huge, loving family --"
"-- I'll swap if you like," says Seamus, seconds before realising what a terrible, tactless thing it is to say to Neville. He wants to apologise, but Neville's face is shuttered and he goes on like he hasn't heard him.
"And you're young and good-looking," finishes Neville. "You've got the world at your feet."
"Under me feet, more likely," mutters Seamus. "Anyway, even if that were true, which it's not," his voice hits a bitter High C, "much good may it do me. I can just see Da's face if I told him I was going to try make it as a male model or something."
"You are good-looking," sighs Neville, "too much so for your own good, you prat. Anyway, you always have these wild mood swings. I put it down to the Irish nature."
"What's that, then, wet and alcohol-sodden?" objects Seamus, starting to cheer up despite himself. He doesn't much like the direction his life has taken, but he doesn't spend much time dwelling on it either. He leaves deep introspection to the likes of Dean, who can do something with it, like creating a ten-thousand Galleon sculpture.
It comes as a slight shock to realise that's the first time he's really thought about Dean since Neville fell into the bush.
Neville pats his stomach. "I'm a bit hungry. Are you coming inside for breakfast?"
"What, you mean you're actually going to eat something?" asks Seamus, not budging.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Neville gives him the closest thing he has to a glare. It's still as mild as flat lemonade, but he's trying. He also has very long eyelashes, Seamus notices. Obviously he always did, but Seamus is making up for lost noticing time.
"I mean that not only are you a shadow of your former self, but you've barely touched any food that I've seen," says Seamus, raising his eyebrows at Neville's belt, which is buckled to the last notch to hold up his jeans.
"Oh, that." Neville's lip is getting chewed into blubbery folds at this stage. "I was hoping you wouldn't notice." Seamus makes a disgruntled noise. "Only, you see, I'm a vegetarian. I didn't know how to tell you --"
"You're what?" yelps Seamus.
"A vegetarian," repeats Neville, looking wretched. "I felt so bad about saying it, but everyone here seems to be a huge meat eater and I thought I'd be letting the side down if I didn't. Pretend I ate meat, I mean."
"Jesus Mary and Joseph," groans Seamus, knuckling his eyes. "I thought you were anorexic!"
Neville breaks off the monologue about the amount of gore he's seen and how it's put him off meat to squeak, "Anorexic? You thought I was sticking my fingers down my throat after I ate? That's a bit extreme, even for you!"
"Well, you have --" Seamus makes a gesture, which he hopes will take in the appearance of Neville's cheekbones and hipbones at once "-- lost an awful lot of weight."
Neville's cheeks flush deeply. "That's because I was on a diet," he mutters. "You know, the things fat people go on?"
"Hey, who was calling you fat?" demands Seamus.
Neville sends him a cool look. "Well, you, for starters. No, don't deny it!" He holds up his hand as Seamus opens his mouth to protest or, rather, lie. "I can see why you did -- your family uses insults like other people use salt. You weren't the only one, either. Anyway, I like that my grandmother has stopped introducing me as 'you know, the plump one.' You did me a sort of favour." He give Seamus a lopsided smile, which breaks his heart a little.
"I'm sorry," says Seamus humbly. "Sure I'd no idea you were paying any attention at all to me, for crying out loud."
"Why wouldn't I?" asks Neville, and Seamus has no answer to that.
Neville stretches out his legs to rummage in a pocket, nudging Seamus' thigh with his toes. He doesn't seem to notice, and Seamus is too raw to make a big melodramatic joke of it by accusing Neville of trying to cripple him. He's too afraid that it will come up twenty years later as a reason for Neville's burgeoning alcoholism, or something.
"Here. This is the reason I came to find you, I wanted to give you your present." Neville thrusts something into his lap and jumps to his feet. "The head tribesman gave it to me when I was leaving -- it lights up in the dark." Before Seamus could even say thanks for whatever it was, Neville was stumping over to the house, tripping over the ends of Seamus' jeans but still putting on a good turn of speed.
Seamus fishes the thing out from where it's become entrammelled in the floppy fabric of his jeans. Neville's jeans, whatever. A faint glow pulses against his fingers as he draws out what looks like a large, irregular stone. It's laced all over with a delicate web of light, which flashes from violet to cerulean to gold as Seamus watches, like a tiny, trapped display of the Northern Lights.
"Wow," breathes Seamus, feeling an annoyed prod from the bark behind his back for talking to himself. The stone is very beautiful and, even when Seamus covers it with his cupped hands, it glows through his fingers.
Even though Seamus kept a wide range of torches, lamps and candles beside his bed and held up a Lumos Charm until he fell asleep for the entire time he'd lived with Dean, Dean had never once registered the fact that Seamus was afraid of the dark.
Stuffing the stone into his pocket, where it proves to be curiously heavy, Seamus races into the kitchen. He shakes back his hair and pauses to bestow an exuberant kiss on his mother's cheek.
"You're lively," remarks Mairead. "I saw you and Neville in the garden. I was wondering when you two were going to stop necking in time to get some breakfast."
"We weren't necking, Mam," says Seamus, feeling suddenly as if he's missed out on a great opportunity.
The door to his bedroom is open; a slight breeze is rustling the curtains. Neville's things have been scooped up from the floor and his suitcases have disappeared.
Seamus spots an envelope on the bed and sinks down beside it, feeling as deflated as a hot air balloon with a puncture.
Dear Seamus, reads Neville's letter,
I'm sorry I had to dash away so suddenly, but I just got an owl from my grandmother -- she's taken ill.
Seamus feels absurdly relieved that Neville isn't running away because he copped that Seamus touched him up while he was asleep.
Please make my apologies to your parents and sisters. Your mother is great, from what I can tell after two days of knowing her. I'm leaving you my temporary London address. I'm hoping we can keep writing. Your crazy letters were the only things that kept me going sometimes during the past two years.
Seamus thumps his chest, wondering if the tightness there is the first sign of cardiac arrest.
If you like, you can even come and visit me here. Ballycotton seems like a nice place, but it's too small for you, I reckon. But that's just my opinion. I know Hermione and Ron are keen to see you. And Dean. I did see Dean while I was here. It would be a pity if you avoided us forever just because it turned out that you two weren't Love's Young Dream. You have plenty of time to find that.
This is followed by a passage which has been thickly blacked out, but Seamus can make out a few words: 'Nat' and 'love' being the clearest.
Tom's been looking for a new barman at the Leaky Cauldron. His last one went off to be a singer on the WWN. Just in case you were coming to London and thought you'd be bored. You could talk him out of those Leprechaun Surprise cocktails he's been wanting to put on the menu.
All the best,
Seamus lies back on his bed. The quiet, peaceful sounds of scrabbling chickens, barking dogs, purring cars and the odd crash and scream of childhood warfare filter through his open window.
It's too bloody quiet and peaceful. Feeling the itch under his skin -- the one that he'd thought had packed up and left when his tryst with Dean had been extinguished -- return in full force, Seamus zaps a mug that's growing drug cultures in the remains of three-week-old oxtail soup. Using the Transfigured scissors, he hacks off an inch of his hair all the way across. He then turns the cuttings into a pack of Monarch butterflies, which zoom out of the window to the delight of the children playing in the garden below.
In the intervening time, Seamus has already worked out how long it will take to get his things together for London.
Neville's right. Seamus has been living in hibernation, and Leprechaun cocktails are a travesty that the world is just not ready for.
Besides, there's one scar on one chest that Seamus is rather keen on investigating further.