Actions

Work Header

Our Cracking Bones Make Noise

Work Text:

Potter House, Tipton St. John, England: September, 2019

"James, how does my hair look? Will you stay with me on the train? Can I sit next to you in the compartment? Will you show me around if I get lost? What if I end up in Slytherin? What if nobody likes me? Do you think Al will sit with us? Can you visit me if I'm in Slytherin, even though you're in Gryffindor? Is it—"

"Lily!" James growled, backing his little sister out of his bedroom. "If you don't stop bugging me, my head'll explode, and then we'll never even get to King's Cross, and you won't be able to find out how awful it'll be to get sorted into Slytherin, the absolute worst House in the history of Hogwarts. Merlin, let me get the rest of my things, will you? Go bug Albus."

Lily balled her fists and punched James in the shoulder with a sharp cry.

"Ow!" he snapped. "You asked for it."

"You wouldn't! Not before—"

"Mum!" James called, at the top of his lungs. If he'd been able to use his wand, he'd have cast a Sonorous Charm just to make it as loud as possible.

"You're awful!" Lily screeched, racing out of the room and right past Ginny, who had come running at his call.

"Lily, where are you—Merlin, James Sirius Potter, what did you do this time?" she asked, as Lily slammed her bedroom door shut behind her. Ginny moved to it, knocking lightly. "Lily, honey, we have to leave in ten minutes."

"Why do you assume I did something?" James asked, both brows quirked as he stuffed his toothbrush into his mouth. Automatically, it began to brush for him, impeding his speech as he went on. "She's just oversensitive."

Ginny raised her hand to knock again and then seemed to rethink that in favour of folding her arms. She fixed James with a knowing look.

James mimicked her with a roll of his eyes, toothpaste slopping out of his mouth. "What? I said I didn't do anything." He walked out of his room and pounded on Lily's door. "It's her fault!" he screamed into it, snorting. "There I was, just minding my own business, trying to get ready for Hogwarts, and she comes in and barrages me with stupid questions, so I—"

Lily's door opened and Lily stuck her head out to argue. "They aren't stupid questions! Mum, tell him they're not stupid questions!"

Ginny sighed, pressing her fingers to her temples and rubbing. "I'm going to get your father."

"Oh, he always takes James' side," Lily said, defeated.

"That's because it's the right side," James mumbled, walking back to his room, but not before he pulled his toothbrush out and stuck out his tongue at his sister behind Ginny's back.

Lily pulled her own face, tugging the sides of her mouth down obscenely and waggling her tongue at him while her eyes went cross-eyed.

"I saw that, both of you," Ginny said, making her way down the hallway toward the master bedroom. "Harry, come on, we are leaving in ten minutes with or without you."

Harry stumbled out of the bedroom half-dressed, zipping up his fly and waving his wand, all of his clothes doing themselves up.

"What? What's going on?" he asked, glancing from Ginny to Lily to James as a toothbrush flew out of the bedroom and stuck itself in his mouth.

Ginny, Lily, and James all started talking at once, and Harry's smile tipped to a dull frown. He held up his hands to try and quiet them down when Albus' door opened and he hauled his trunk out.

"Um, aren't we supposed to be leaving now?" Albus asked.

Ginny glanced down at her watch and cursed, which made Lily and James titter behind her back before she glared at them to stop. "All right, everyone—trunks, owls, robes, and selves outside in the car. Now!"

If the house had been loud before, it was an absolute cacophony of noise now, with trunks being dragged and spelled and owls screeching and James and Lily arguing and Harry asking where his shoes had gone and Albus' new owl, Littlefoot, nearly breaking out of his cage once outside the house. They all piled into the Vectra and Harry eased them out into the street.


oOo

King's Cross, London

The crowd of Muggles on King's Cross was bigger than they had ever seen it before. Lily scrambled to keep close between Harry and Ginny as she nervously pushed her cart towards the platform. Already, there was a subtle but noticeable queue of witches and wizards milling about waiting for their turn to push through the platform, all of them trying to act inconspicuous but not quite able to pull it off with the multitude of robes, cages of owls, and trolleys full of strange items.

"What if I end up in Slytherin, Dad?" Lily whispered, tugging on Harry's robes pitifully.

As Harry and Ginny took Lily aside to give the customary It's Not the House You're in But the Choices You Make speech, James and Albus wandered off towards a group of James' fourth year friends.

"How'd your summer go, Finnigan?" James asked, gripping his best friend's hand and grinning broadly at the sight of him. He nodded to the rest of the group, which comprised Hermione Cornwell and the Harrys, Harry Miller and Harry Shepherd. James never asked why there were a handful of Harrys, Hermiones, and Rons in every class—he didn't need to, as all three were still the most popular children's names of his age group.

"Was all right," Finnigan said, shrugging. "Spent the summer in Italy with Miller."

"What do you mean 'it was all right'? Summer was bloody amazing, James," Miller cut in. "We traveled all over Italy, got to see all the Italian birds—"

"Aw, I bet they're fit!" James whined.

"Did you at least get to kiss any of them?" Cornwell asked, glancing away. "Last time you made up these stories, they weren't even true."

"Were too!" Miller growled.

"Were not," Cornwell argued, rolling her large blue eyes at him. "My summer on the other hand, was amazing. Experiences the likes of which you lot simply cannot understand."

"What, did you meet someone?" James asked.

"As a matter of fact, I did! And he was way more—"

Interrupting their banter came the screech of a small owl bursting out of its cage. Albus jumped for Littlefoot, but nearly fell onto the Muggle train tracks trying to get him. In the end, Littlefoot flew up and up and up, looked down at them, and then darted down, divebombing a nearby Muggle policeman.

"Oi, what's that?" the policeman cried, waving his arms to try and get the screeching bird out of his hair. Littlefoot pecked the Muggle's hat and tried to carry it off with him.

"Littlefoot! Come here!" Albus cried, rushing after his owl.

"Albus, wait!" Ginny said, yanking Albus' arm to slow him down. Already half the train station was looking at them, and it seemed Ginny wanted to avoid any further public disturbances.

"Is this your bird?" the policemen growled, gesturing to the devil with wings atop his head and glaring at Ginny and Albus.

Harry pushed Lily towards James and his friends with a stern look. "Watch Lily," he said, and it was not a question and there was no room for arguing, so James didn't bother. He just watched his dad rush with Ginny and Albus to try and catch Littlefoot and explain themselves to the Muggle. James could already see Harry's hand itching for his wand and Ginny slapping it away several times.

"Your family's always getting into trouble with the Muggles on the platform," Shepherd teased.

"Do not," James argued, but he was grinning a bit. "I can't help it if my family's a lot of troublemakers."

"Present company included," Finnigan snickered.

James sneered. "I am a model student, I'll have you know." At the plaintive looks his mates gave him, he sighed. "Okay, name one time that I was a troublemaker."

"When you pasted Professor Longbottom's arse to the chair your second year," Shepherd offered.

"And the time you told your brother that there were nudists bathing in the Hogwarts Lake," Cornwell agreed.

"And the sludge incident during Potions!" Miller and Finnigan said at the same time, holding their stomachs as the entire group recalled the catastrophe that had landed James in detention for a week.

Even James had to admit it was a great memory, and he doubled over in laughter recalling it. "Okay, okay!" he amended through tears. "But that was just—"

"What's that?" Lily interrupted, gesturing down on the train tracks. "Down there, do you see it, James?"

Half unable to breathe or speak through his laughter, James waved Lily away. "Oh fuck me, that was a riot!"

"It's on the tracks, and it looks like a Galleon! James, do you see? James?"

Finally able to take a breath, James nudged Lily's hand away. "Yeah, I see it, Lily. Why don't you go help Mum and Dad find Littlefoot, okay? I'm busy." He gave a look to his friends, freckled cheeks flushed with mirth. "Sisters. Ugh."

"Tell me about it," Finnigan groaned. "I've got two of 'em, and they're right menaces. Especially when they get older."

"I think it's sweet," Cornwell argued. She promptly began to speak in babying tones. "She wants to hang out wif her biiig brotherrr."

"Shut it," James growled. "She's such a nuisance. I don't know why she can't just be brave like I was when I came to Hogwarts for the first time."

"You mean that first week when you nearly wet yourself during Defense Against the Dark Arts?" Finnigan asked, brows raised. "Yeah, real brave, Potter."

"I didn't wet myself!"

"I said nearly."

James and Finnigan squared up for further arguing but the sound of a scream startled them out of it. The noise chilled James' bones, and he felt something uncomfortable shift and pull and strain in his stomach. There was no mistaking Lily's voice, her scream echoing through the station. Everything seemed to move in slow motion. James couldn't run to the edge of the platform fast enough, his arm wasn't long enough, and somewhere between seeing Lily's frightened face at the bottom of the tracks and the train barreling out of the platform, James forgot he was a wizard who had a wand and may have been able to save Lily with magic.

Frozen on his knees at the edge of the platform, James' eyes were wide and dull, his heart hammering hard against his chest. Motionless and numb, James heard Lily's screams echo through his head over and over again. When he closed his eyes, he could still see the terrified look on her face, the pain, the fear wide in her pleading gaze. The train continued to breeze through the station, as if nothing had happened.

It took all of Harry's strength to keep James from jumping into the tracks as well.


oOo
Potter House, Tipton St. John, England: June 2021

Around the dinner table sat the Potter children and their parents. For the evening's meal, Harry had barbequed and Ginny had managed not to burn the potatoes and Albus had tried his hand at cranberry cupcakes with ginger icing on top. While they cooked, James had been a general nuisance as usual, pointing out every single thing Albus did wrong and calling him various insulting and insinuatingly feminine names until Albus abandoned the cupcakes altogether and punched James in the jaw.

Now, trying to eat a meal in peace seemed almost an impossible task. Harry kept his eyes trained on James between every bite, and Ginny was unusually quiet. Even though Albus kicked James' legs like normal and James flung his utensils at Albus under the table until Albus cried out, something seemed off. Finally, James realised that his dad was glaring at him more than usual.

Wiping his full brown fringe from his forehead, James leaned back and rolled his eyes. "What did I do now? Did Professor Longbottom owl?"

"Is there something you've done that you'd like to tell us about, James?" Harry asked, voice dulled as he set down his knife and form with a clatter. James could see the angry vein bulging in his dad's forehead, the one that warned he should tread lightly, though he'd long since stopped caring whether he upset his parents or not.

"Something new, you mean?" James asked, pretending to think as he turned his brown eyes up to the ceiling and rested his hands behind his head with a long stretch. "Besides accidentally setting fire to part of Hagrid's hut and hoisting Albus' knickers up over Gryffindor Tower for all of Hogwarts to see?" He hummed, then shrugged. "Nope. Nothing new I'd like to include in the Reasons I'm a Terrible Son Lecture you're about to give."

Ginny's utensils slammed down. The noise irked James, who'd heard it a thousands times before. Like when he was suspended for a month from Hogwarts during the winter of his fourth year or when he nearly got expelled for practicing underage magic during his summer after fifth year or when he and Albus got into a fights that ended with the two of them bleeding from nose, jaw, and arms. James barely remembered a time that his parents thought he was a good son, someone Harry could brag about at the Ministry, someone Ginny could be proud of when she showed his picture to her old Harpies friends. It was just the way things were—James was a pest, a disappointment, an arsehole, and other more colourful interpretations depending on who one asked.

So when Ginny's knife and fork scraped the sides of her plate in her frustration, James merely leaned forward, flopped his long, gangly arms onto the tabletop and sank his head into the crook of them.

"Go on then," James droned. "I'm sure you've got loads of new and degrading things to say about me. What is it this time?"

"You're such an arse, James!" Albus growled, kicking him hard.

"Albus, watch your language," Harry snapped. "And don't kick James."

"You always take his side!" Albus whined. "He's a terror, has been flicking silverware at me under the table, and all you're going to do is slap his wrist and tell him to behave next time! I can't fucking take this shit. I hate it when you're here," he spat at James, pushing his chair back and storming out of the room, dinner untouched.

"Albus, come back here," Ginny called, shoving her chair back as well to go after him.

The Potter house was large but not large enough that James couldn't help overhearing everything his mother and brother talked about just one room over while he and Harry sat poking their lopsided cupcakes.

"You know it's true!" Albus snarled. "You know that ever since Lily died—and I know nobody wants to talk about it, but it happened—James has turned into this huge dickhole with an attitude, and you guys just keep ignoring it, thinking it's all fine. It's not fair. I never do anything wrong—ever—and he still gets more attention, just because he's an arsehole."

"James is not an arsehole," Ginny whispered. James could tell by the tone of her voice that she was in mother-mode, probably kneeling in front of Albus or stroking his just-like-dad's hair. "He's going through a rough time. And we never give him extra attention, Al, you know that. We love both of you equally, and we'd do anything for you."

"James wouldn't."

"Yes, he would."

"No, I wouldn't!" James shouted, glowering as he leaned back in his chair to try and see them. "I hate you. Why would I do anything for someone I hate?"

"James!" Harry snarled.

"Yeah, well I hate you too!" Albus snarled, rushing into the dining room and shoving his brother's chair, knocking James backwards.

"Tosser!" James screamed as his head hit the floor. He scrambled up to his feet and launched at Albus, landing both of them against the long dining table.

The barbeque leftovers flew off the table as it bent with the weight of the two boys wrestling atop it, and the cupcakes slid off one end, the potatoes off the other, bread, drinks, and condiments crashing off the edges as arms and legs whipped and thrashed about. Albus landed a good punch to James' eye and James kneed Albus in the crotch before Harry grabbed James' shoulders and yanked him off his brother. James screamed obscenities as he lashed out and kicked Albus one last time as Harry struggled to pull him back. Albus likewise attempted to claw James' eyes out as Ginny grabbed him and flung him back.

Finally, Ginny whipped her wand out. "Petrificus Totalus!" she hissed, venom in her voice as she guided her spell at Albus. His short, muscled body stiffened immediately, went rigid as a brick, and toppled over. Ginny managed to catch him and cradled Albus down to the floor with care. "That's enough," she added, breathing heavily as she turned her glowering eyes to James.

"About time you shut him up," James growled, face twisted. "Was getting on my last nerve."

"You—outside—now," Harry whispered. He let go of James and pointed with one trembling, callused finger to the back door out of the kitchen.

James paused to catch his breath, eyes flicking from one parent to the other and finally to Albus. "You've got to be fucking joking," he argued under his breath.

"What did I just say?" Harry repeated.

"I dunno, something about being outside."

"I said now, and I mean now," Harry said, his voice taking on a rumbling, feral sound. "You think this is some kind of joke, James?"

"Harry—"

Harry held up his hand. "No, Ginny, Albus is right. With every mess we cover up, James just gets more and more out of control, and we just keep on ignoring it and hoping to Merlin he comes to your senses. This ends tonight."

"Going to finally beat some sense into me, Chosen One?" James barked, teeth gritted tightly and shoulders hunched in defense. "You think I even give a fuck what you have to say?"

"If you don't get outside right now, James…"

Though James knew his dad would never physically abuse him, he also knew he had brought Harry to the end of his rope, and whatever sanity was left there wouldn't be wasted on James after all the things he'd done. So he rolled his eyes, made a scoffing noise, and skulked out of the dining room, through the kitchen, and out the back door, slamming it behind him for good measure. He knew how loud it would be, how the hinges would rattle in his wake. Shoulders quaking with every heavy breath, James stomped out past the small garden in their backyard and kicked the nearest tree trunk as hard as he dared. One glance back and he could see his parents' shadows arguing through the kitchen window. Ginny was gesturing wildly, while Harry was dragging his fingers through his hair and bowing his head down with a stressed hunch.

"Stupid fucking shits," he hissed to no one in particular, kicking against the tree trunk again, this time so hard that his toes tingled. "Fuck!" Lifting his shaking fists, he began to lay into the rough bark, pretending it was his dad's face as tears swelled in his eyes. His dad, the greatest hero of all time, the awe-inspiring Harry Potter, Boy Who Lived and Got Everybody's Attention Because His Son Was A Murderer and a Mess.

By the time Harry entered the backyard, James' knuckles were swollen and bloody and he had sunk down to his knees in front of the tree, forehead resting sweaty against the beaten bark. James tried breathing in and out, real slow, like the Healers and Grief Therapists at St. Mungo's had tried to teach him last year when he'd been kept there for two weeks because he'd nearly strangled a Muggle kid who called him a pillow-biter. The Healers were all bent, told him to count to twenty and he'd be okay, to think of the magic flowing through his veins like calming waterfalls and bullshit. They didn't understand what he'd done, what he'd been through, how fucked up everything was inside his head. And the one time he'd told them how he was feeling, had told them he wanted to get a Time Turner and change things for the better, they had told him that was illegal and that the only Time Turners in existence were under heavy Ministry supervision.

All James knew was that counting to twenty and thinking of the waterfall of magic swimming through his veins had never gotten him anywhere. In fact, he felt worse than ever when their techniques and treatments failed, felt like he was a failure too, because everyone else could get over Lily but he couldn't.

"Stand up."

James gritted his teeth, pressed his forehead harder against the bark, until the splintery wood dug into his skin. The very last person he wanted to talk to was his dad. "No. Leave me alone."

Harry sighed. "I can't do that, James."

"Yeah, well, my life would be so much better if you just would."

"You don't mean that."

"Okay, except that I do mean it," James said, shooting Harry an exhausted look. "Just get on with it and tell me what you and Mum decided to do this time."

Harry looked away, a withered frown on his face, and this alone prompted James to stand to his feet. His laugh was cold and mirthless.

"So I'm right. Where are you sending me now? Back to St. Mungo's? To another Mental Healer specialist? To Azkaban? Just spit it the fuck out, Dad, so we can both go on with our lives."

"Germany," Harry barked. "We're sending you to Germany, to spend some time with Charlie and Teddy at the dragon habitat."

Of all the things James had been expecting, being shipped off to Germany certainly wasn't one of them. Fists balled at his sides, James thought of all the nastiest things he could retort and finally chose the most insulting one.

"So, I'm a troublemaker who picks on my brother and hates my parents, so you're sending me to my faggot uncle to cure me? What the fuck is the matter with you, Dad?"

"It's not up for discussion," Harry snapped. "You say another word against your uncle, and—"

"You'll what?" James asked, exasperation in his whine. His shoulders went slack as the tension began to ebb out, and he ran his hands both at once through his hair roughly. "You can't take anything else away from me—this pathetic body of bones and blood is all I've fucking got left. You've got my wand, my telly, my fucking life, Dad. And now you're sending me off…for how long?"

Harry hesitated for a moment, a dark frown showing the age in his thin mouth. His eyes swept over James, and it looked like he wanted to change the subject, but instead he answered: "Till Hogwarts."

James' jaw dropped. "All summer? This is a joke! A fucking nightmare, Dad! I hate you—I can't believe you would do this to me."

"What do you expect us to do, James?" Harry asked, waving his arms towards the house. "Your mum and I have tried everything we can think of, but there's only so much patience we can freely give before we're at our wits' ends over you. So tell me, what can we do?"

"I don't know," James spat. "Anything but sending me to be molested by my uncle, who—"

"Who can maybe teach you something worthwhile and try to provide a new sense of discipline and understanding and compassion? Yeah, sounds wretched, James."

"Fuck you."

"As long as you're underage, James, you will do what we say, no matter how much you hate it. Or us."

James folded his arms. "I turn seventeen in August, in case you've forgotten, Dad. You think I'm going to stay with Uncle Charlie then at his fag-ranch with all the—"

"This discussion is over!" Harry shouted suddenly, drawing close and pinning James to the tree trunk with just a look. Harry's nostrils flared, eyes fiery and alert. "There's nothing more I have to say to you except that if your bags aren't packed by morning, you'll go without them, and I mean that—no owl, no trunk, no clothes, no nothing."

"But, Dad—"

"Don't make me repeat myself, James. I'm not in a patient mood, and I'm tired of watching you walk all over us. I love you."

James scoffed. "Yeah. Right."

"I love you, James," Harry repeated, pressing his hand to James' shoulder until James shrugged it off. "But there's only so much we can do to show you that. The rest you have to learn on your own and see for yourself."

For a quiet moment, neither of them spoke. Their eyes darted over each other, shoulders squared for further arguments, and then all of a sudden, James darted away, flipping his father off on his way into the house.

Slamming the kitchen door behind him, James stomped his way through the kitchen and dining room, passing his mother on the way to the stairs. When she tried to stop him, he smacked her off.

"I hate you both," James growled, storming up the stairs as loud as he dared.

It was unfortunate for Albus that he happened to be exiting the upstairs loo and ran into James on his way to his bedroom.

"What the fuck are you staring at?" James asked him.

"Nothing," Albus mumbled, teeth gritted. "Just leave me alone, okay?"

"Bet you had something to do with them sending me off, didn't you?"

"Sending you off where? I didn't—"

"Don't pretend you don't know!" James screamed and shoved forward, pushing Albus into the wall.

Albus shoved back, until once again they were throwing punches and kicking one another in every tender spot they could find. It was only when James elbowed Albus off the top step that James seemed to come back to himself. Albus tripped down the first step and caught himself on the second, hunched down on his knees and gripping the staircase banister as if for dear life. James could see Albus tumbling, could imagine the damage that could have been done had Albus continued to fall head-first down an entire flight of stairs.

The two brothers remained where they were, staring at one another, until Ginny appeared at the bottom of the stairs, staring up.

"What's going on up there?"

James' blood ran cold, and for a moment, he wasn't sure if he was actually breathing or not. All he could see was Albus gaping at him like he'd never seen him before and images of Lily's frightened face, cold and alone at the bottom of the train tracks. The whistle of the train rang loud in his ears, brutal and unending, until there was no other sound when Albus opened his mouth to speak and the words on his mother's lips looked like gasps of last breaths before death.

Finally, James wrestled himself from the spot he'd frozen upon and jerked away towards his bedroom. On his way, he passed Lily's closed bedroom door, the room he hadn't visited since she died. Heart pounding and throat closed with choking thickness, James managed to stumble into his room before he let the tears swell and fall freely. Locking his door, he kicked his bedposts, threw his books, and punched his owl's cage until the door of it swung open and his owl hooted indignantly, fluttering off out of his bedroom window and into the night.

Sinking to his knees at the foot of his bed, James envied his owl. At least she could fly off whenever she wanted to. At least she would never know what it was to have guilt balled up inside her like an iron fist, would never understand disappointment or grief or the complex and awful emotions of the human mind.

At least she hadn't killed her sister and wasn't being sent off to Germany for Merlin knew what reason. All James knew was that his entire family hated him, and he would have gladly changed places with Lily to keep the dull, listless thud of his aching heart out of his thoughts. Every beat reminded him what he'd lost, what he'd done, and what he'd never be able to do, all the bitter insecurities of his life and future.

When he packed, he threw everything into his trunk and stayed awake until the wee hours of the morning, when the town beyond his windows was still asleep and somewhere down the hall, he knew his parents were in happy slumber, content not to think about the son they would just as soon disown as try to reach.


oOo
"Black Forest", Baden-Württemberg, Germany

As James stepped out of the Floo, he didn't know what to expect. Maybe he thought Charlie or Teddy would be waiting for him, maybe he thought he'd be surrounded by massive dragons, or maybe he thought he'd mispronounced "Schwarzwald Weasley Cottage" when he'd spoken his destination and would wind up somewhere altogether worse than his planned target. Whatever he'd been thinking, it was nothing to the deafening noises and rush of people that greeted him as he stepped out of the flames and into his new summer home.

The Schwarzwald Weasley Cottage was massive—full of vaulted, wood-beam ceilings, towering walls, and floor-length panes of glass for windows—and from what James could tell, he'd come in through the wrong way. Men with immense arms and hide-plated armor waved their wands about and women covered in tattoos and weighed down with armfuls of weapons or feed raced past. The room James stepped into was filled with worn chairs of every shape and size, filled to the brim with hard-metal weapons that James had never seen before and piled high with boxes marked in a language James didn't understand: korn one said and frucht another.

Everyone was moving so quickly, seeming to be in such a hurry, that James didn't know how to stop them to ask if he had arrived in the right place or not. He was half-hoping this wasn't right, that he could try again, when he spotted a familiar, blue-haired head in the back of the room.

Even from a distance, James could tell it was Teddy. They hadn't seen one another since Teddy had come to stay the weeks after Lily's funeral, though James had heard his dad talk to Teddy through the Floo a handful of times when he wasn't supposed to be listening in. In the past few years, Teddy hadn't changed much, though James couldn't help but stare at the new series of tattoos and scarring sweeping over Teddy's thick biceps and curling around the small of his wrists. Teddy was bigger, certainly, had sprouted a final inch at least and thickened everywhere else. He looked more like Charlie than the photos of Remus that Harry had shown them all.

As if sensing James' apprehension and gawking stare, Teddy chose that moment to glance towards the Floo. His stern, angled face brightened a hair, and he gestured a few times to the two women he was talking to before making his way through the crowd in a beeline for James.

"Hey, James," Teddy offered when he got close enough, holding out his hand. "All right?"

James ignored the outstretched hand and stepped to the side to duck Teddy's incoming hug under the guise of checking his trunk. "Where's my room?"

Teddy rolled his eyes. "Nice to see you too. Excuse the mess—Charlie just handed out the duties for the day, and everyone's getting set up, so just watch your step and stay out of the way." Teddy reached out too fast for James to completely duck the fond muss of his hair, and Teddy grinned in victory. James could see the sharp lines that drew Teddy's perfectly-white, perfectly-straight teeth. "Come on. This way."

Teddy nodded towards a long hallway to the right, but James didn't budge.

"What about my trunk?" he asked dully.

"What, you can't carry it?"

James gaped like Teddy had asked if he wanted to eat spinach for breakfast. He was sure Teddy knew that James weighed barely eight stones and was more or less a talking fishbone—skinny, underweight, gawky, lean, and absolutely opposite of Harry and Albus and Ginny. The odds of his picking up that trunk and carrying it all the way to Merlin knew where were so small that James didn't know how else to describe it but impossible.

Instead, he settled for a mumbled, "No," as he bowed his head, shaking his fringe over his forehead in embarrassment. This trip was already starting to look worse and worse the longer he stood opposite someone as fit and muscled and strong as Teddy Lupin.

"I think you can," Teddy said, startling James so badly that James jerked his head up to blink at him. "Oh, don't look at me like I just asked you to lift a dragon over your head, kiddo—you're not so scrawny that you can't drag a trunk about half a kilometer without collapsing, I know it. So pick it up at the handle and let's go."

Teddy started to walk off down the hall, but James folded his arms, glowering after him. "No," he snapped.

"I haven't got all day, James," Teddy hummed, already midway down the hall and disappearing fast. "Either you come, or you can sleep there in the Floo. I'll tell you what, I wouldn't want to sleep in that drafty old thing, what with all the folks coming and going at all hours of the night." Teddy's voice began to grow dim, and James couldn't even see him anymore. "But, your choice."

James waited. Everyone had come and gone, and the large, open, woodsy room suddenly felt incredibly empty and hollow and frightening. It was the first time James had been away from his family and friends all by himself since his first year at Hogwarts, but back then, he'd been an easygoing kid with no baggage on his shoulders. Now? Now, he didn't want to be left completely alone, much as he thought he did.

With a groan, James swept his fringe out of his eyes and grabbed his trunk, beginning the arduous process of dragging his belongings behind him the Muggle way. Without magic to guide it, James realised just how pathetically out of shape he actually was. By the time he found Teddy chomping on an apple in a large, open kitchen through the other side of the hallway, sweat was beading down his back and matting his hair to his forehead and neck. Out of breath, he paused and let go of his trunk, letting it fall back with a clunk.

"Take you that long just to get down the hallway?" Teddy asked with a full mouth.

"It was a long fucking hallway," James countered, wiping the sweat from his brow with the back of his skinny forearm. He glanced around and then fixed an angry glare at Teddy. "This isn't my room."

"Well spotted. This is called a kitchen. You know, where people store food." Teddy gestured to the row of large freezers and refrigerators lining the wall behind him. "These ice boxes behind me keep all the food for the folks staying at the habitat, so when you're hungry, you come here. We don't have house-elves, and a lot of this stuff is Muggle-only, especially for you since you're underage. Got it?"

"You mean…I have to cook my own food?"

Teddy shrugged, finishing off his apple with a final crunch. He wiped the juice from his sharp, stubbly chin with the back of his hand. "You've cooked before. What's the issue?"

"Cooking's for faggots."

With a loud, booming laugh, Teddy shook his head. "Jesus Christ. I think you mean baking is for faggots, yeah? That's the stereotype. Annoying as it is, you may as well at least get it right. And call someone around here a faggot with that kind of tone again, and you're liable to get thrown in with a dragon for its dinner, James. Don't make me remind you of that again."

James growled, frustration in his gesture as he threw his hands up in the air. "Just show me to my goddamned room already! I don't give a fuck about dragons, I sure as hell don't give a fuck about you, and I don't need to hear the rules and regulations of your pussy-arsed faggot camp, all right?" James' face felt warm under Teddy's scrutiny, so he glanced away, out another full-length window to the far right, where the mountains and forest could be seen sweeping beyond the early morning light. "Just…leave me the fuck in peace so I can get this fucking trip over with."

Beyond the windows, James could see the endless lines of thick forest trees, dark and light and every color of green in between, the sunlight splaying and reaching out over the ruffled tops of every timber. Between two mountaintops, a river wound through, glistening in the light of day and bluer than anything James had ever seen before in his life. For a moment, he allowed the serenity of the natural world beyond to envelop and calm his temper. He wondered if Teddy would let him go exploring, if he could just disappear into the wilderness and live off the land and never be heard from again.

Teddy's presence beside him startled James out of his sudden reverie. He pretended not to notice, but the stiffness in his shoulders and the grit of his teeth was unmistakable.

"Pretty cool, huh?" Teddy asked, stepping in front of James to point out a line along the tops of the trees. "We're about a thousand metres up, so we get the best view, but behind us, there are even bigger mountains and dense forests that keep us under a good cover. Maybe tomorrow, I can show you around."

James glanced towards Teddy, but Teddy continued to look out the window, so James took the opportunity to study the dark lines that drew his god-brother's hard features. Up close, Teddy's skin was tan and weathered, and the light stubble that James saw from afar seemed to spread from the rise of his cheeks down under his chin and over his neck and jaw, as if he'd gone a few days without shaving at all. There were bruises on his strong shoulders, which were exposed in the simple v-neck vest that clung to his toned body. Teddy's biceps were thick, and the familiar dragon-print tattoo that James remembered seeing years ago had been coloured and filled in around his mid-arm, where the new tattoos met and spiraled down to his wrist. Bracelets of thick metal, hide, bead, and hair coiled about his lower arm and a few unadorned rings wrapped around his fingers and thumb. The buckle of Teddy's belt was the size of James' whole fist, made of a dark red material and shiny in the glinting sunlight off the window panes.

From the shine of his dragon-hide boots to the coil of electric-blue hair at the top of his head, Teddy was a lean, tough, rippled form, and James felt even more out of place standing beside someone like him. Someone who measured up, had courage, did unthinkable things and led a wide, fulfilling life. Not someone who messed up at every turn, who couldn't relate to a single person in the world, who was to blame for everything that got fucked up. Teddy was nothing like James, and it only made James itch for home yet again.

"Your room's this way if you want to follow me along," Teddy said finally, gesturing to a large door just to the other side of the kitchen. "Pick up your trunk if you're coming."

James sighed but didn't bother verbally disagreeing again. The more energy he wasted, the more time it would take to get to his room, and the solace of it would be good for him. So he grabbed hold of his trunk at one of its handles and began to drag it along.

Teddy led him out into a massive courtyard, with dark rocks and gravel littering the path. The added terrain didn't do anything to help how heavy the trunk suddenly felt, as if he wasn't only dragging clothes and books but boulders and tree trunks and giants to boot. They stopped several times in the warm sun to give James time to readjust his grip or have a rest.

It wasn't long before James noticed that the courtyard they'd walked into was flanked by a circle of small cabins, with a few large ones behind them from where they'd come. The entire courtyard was protected from most of the sun by towering trees, but there was a gaping hole straight overhead when they stood in the centre that let all the heat of the sun through and bathed them in light. The little cabins were separated by dense shrubbery and wild bushes, flowers that towered nearly as tall as James and leaves in colours he'd never seen before. Dragon prints littered the pathway, and James tripped into a dozen of them on the way to a cabin as far away from the kitchens as possible.

It was that particular cabin that Teddy gesture towards as he ascended the five steps up to the skinny front porch, where he grabbed hold of the front door and yanked it open.

"Here you are." Teddy held the door open while James grabbed his trunk and struggled it up the stairs one at a time, taking breaths in between. "This is yours while you're here. Keep it clean, because nobody else will do it for you, and the dragons aren't stupid—if they smell leftover food strewn about your cabin floor, they'll sneak in and nick it right behind your back."

"Thanks for the help," James muttered, finally succeeding in getting his trunk over the threshold, where he kicked it with the last ounce of his strength to the side of the wall near a small, round, wooden table.

A quick glance around the cabin was all it took to understand what he was dealing with—all wood, one bedroom with a small washroom, a table and two chairs, and a loveseat completed the entire premises. No telly, no wireless, no private kitchen—nothing but the bare necessities. It made James feel unbearably alone, even with Teddy crowding the space with him. The cabin was sweltering already, and a few flies buzzed in through the open front door with the breeze.

Falling into the couch, which happened to be even less comfortable looking than the hard-wood chairs, James wiped the streams of sweat from his face and neck. The warm breeze helped as it wafted in from outside, and James moaned as it cooled his tired, hot skin.

After a few minutes of silence, James peeked his eyes opened, only to find Teddy standing near the door, grinning at him.

"You can go any time," James said stiffly.

"Thanks for the permission."

"You're welcome." James closed his eyes, willing Teddy to disappear.

"I bet that's the kindest conversation you've had with someone in years," Teddy murmured. "Too bad it's still insincere."

"Excuse me, didn't I say you could go?"

"You do realise you're not on vacation, don't you?" Teddy asked, stomping closer until James was forced to open his eyes to ensure Teddy wasn't going to hit him. As Teddy bent and brought his face close to James', the confident grin on Teddy's face irked him more and more. "If you're tired, get over it. If you're aching, suck it up. If you're ready to keel over, that just means you're alive and you should be thankful. Now, get up, wipe your face off if you need, and come with me."

James whined, all the energy seeped out of his veins from hauling his trunk halfway across the world. He stood with heavy bones, shoulders hunched and head throbbing with a headache already. "What else are you going to have me do? Run a sodding marathon?"

Teddy's grin was absolutely feral. "Oh, James. You haven't seen anything yet."

James had a bad feeling he was going to miss home a hell of a lot more in a few minutes, so he stalled as long as he could splashing water on his face to wipe it clean and changing into a better shirt and tennis shoes. Teddy didn't say anything once he was through, just gestured for James to follow, and somehow, despite everything that said he didn't want to, James did.

Teddy led them out of the cabin and back towards the courtyard, which was a hell of a lot shorter distance-wise without his trunk dragging behind him. The warm mid-morning breeze rustled James' fresh shirt, and the fresh air felt good when he breathed it in. It smelled like fresh pines and far away chimney smoke, rushing water, blossoms, and tall, strange grasses. It reminded James a bit of his grandmother's garden at the Burrow, where James could recall some of his best memories, playing outside with Albus and Lily, teaching his cousin Hugo how to ride a broomstick and baking with Grandma Weasley.

Frowning, James folded his arms, tucking the fond memories into the back of his mind to recall at a later time. Again, he dreamed of wandering the woods and lakes and mountains without Teddy, without anybody, completely alone. Memorizing the path as they veered out of the courtyard and down a long slope, James glanced back up in time to see the hillside where the cabins were located begin to disappear.

"Where'd the cabins go?" he asked, twisting to look through the sudden mist that had appeared around the clearing for the courtyard some metres back.

"There's a concealment spell over the whole camp back there," Teddy explained. "You're cleared to walk through the mist, and you'll be just fine, but if somebody—a stranger or Muggle—wandered towards it, they'd suddenly realise they were looking for something in the exact opposite direction and turn immediately around."

"Ah," James said. He'd read about spells that could conceal entire places, and in fact his dad had discussed them over dinner many times regarding various Auror assignments, but James had never seen something like it in person. As they climbed down the hillside, James continued to glance over his shoulder at the weird mist. It was because of his curiosity towards the spell that he tripped over a large rock in the slope, stumbling forward until Teddy grabbed his arm to settle him. "Thanks," he murmured.

"Keep your head up and eyes forward," Teddy said, grinning. "Don't want to miss the dragons, do you?"

James scoffed. "Miss the dragons? As if you can miss a dragon."

"Trust me. Around here? You can." Teddy slipped his wand out of the pocket of his jeans and pointed it towards the forest ahead as the slope eased into flatter ground. His stance said he was preparing to defend himself against something, which made James nervous. It didn't help when Teddy added, "Dragons are hunters, you know. Like lions and wolves, they like to stalk their prey before they maim, kill, and eat it."

James shrugged, but a strange chill ran up his spine. "I knew that."

"For example, the Chinese Fireball has teeth so sharp and so strong that they can cut through five human skulls without a hitch."

With a roll of his eyes, James trudged on, the noises of the forest growing louder and stranger as they descended into the mountainous glade. "You're just trying to scare me. How could you possibly know that its teeth can cut through five human skulls?"

Teddy glanced over his shoulder, grinning. "I've seen it happen."

"No fucking way," James challenged. "Your dragons are tamed at the habitats. I've read that they—"

"Have you ever seen a dragon, James?" Teddy asked. He stopped so fast to turn to face James that James nearly ran into him.

"Well…no. But—"

"I eat, sleep, and breathe with them twenty-four hours a day. Trust me. I've seen what their teeth can do." Teddy pushed on, and James reluctantly followed, shuddering when Teddy added, "We've got four Fireballs, and by the way, it's impossible to tame a dragon. Anyone who tells you differently has never tried, because if they had, they'd be dead instead of talking to you."

While James wanted to think Teddy was still trying to scare him, it began to feel more like wishful thinking than any kind of reality. James hadn't paid very much attention in Care of Magical Creatures, so the few lessons on dragons went in one ear and out the other. Right then, he'd have paid a hefty sum to go back and listen in on one of Hagrid's lectures again to get the facts straight.

They continued to walk, trudging through the hard dirt, low grass, and between taller than the sky trees, until they were immersed in the woods. James could hear a stream or river not far away, but one glance backwards looked the same as it had ten minutes ago. How he would ever find his way around without Teddy to guide him was beyond James. To pass the time, he decided to find out a bit more about the dragons before he met them face-to-face.

"So what other kinds of dragons do you have?"

"Four Fireballs, like I said, two particularly vicious Peruvian Vipertooths, a mated pair of Swedish Short-Snouts and their cub, one massive Ukrainian Ironbelly, a Hebridean Black, five Common Welsh Greens, and one that we can't identify as of yet."

James blinked, struggling to keep up with Teddy's quick pace over the rough, now hilly terrain, tripping over boulders, rocks, and exposed roots. "Wait, you mean there are unidentified species of dragons?"

Teddy glanced back, both brows raised. "You didn't pay attention in any of your Creatures classes at Hogwarts, did you?"

The tops of James' ears and cheeks burned. "Yeah, I did, thanks. Just don't remember them talking about—"

"No use lying, mate," Teddy said. "If you did, Hagrid certainly would have told you about the work we're doing here and why Charlie moved from his Romanian reservation to found this habitat."

James shrugged, kicking a rock aside as he traipsed after. "What's so important about it anyway?"

"Charlie's been chasing this particular dragon for years to find out where he came from. See, most dragons can tell you a lot based on their scales, size, horns, flames, diet, droppings, blood, and all kinds of things. But this one—well, it's still a mystery, and we've chased him across half a continent."

"But I thought you said you had him here at the reserve. How can you be chasing him if he's already here?"

Teddy snorted, brushing his hair back with one strong hand. "When you meet him, you'll understand—he won't let anybody near enough to study him in the way we need to determine his origins."

James made a face. "Can't you just… I dunno, hex him still or something?"

"The first rule in this place, James—we don't hex anything. Show the dragons the same respect you would show any human, or in your case, more respect."

"They're just dragons," James argued darkly. "Who cares?"

Teddy stopped and whizzed around to face James. "You say that to Charlie, and I imagine he'll show you who cares, James." With a sigh, Teddy went on, his blue hair going a bit green as his voice growled. "Everyone at the reserve, with the exception of you, is here because they want to help dragons, because they love them and want to do research that is both healthy for dragons and healthy for wizards too. The information we gather here is so valuable that it saves lives from here to the other side of the world and beyond." Teddy's eyes swept over James, who wasn't quite sure what to say to that, and then rolled before they looked away. "Come on."

"How long before we get there?" James whined after another minute had passed.

"Tired? This is the trek you're going to have to make every day. The rest of us have our Apparition Licenses, so we can get there a bit quicker, mind."

James groaned, shoulders slumped. "You've got to be kidding."

Laughing, Teddy gestured ahead, to a low, dark cloud of mist. "Just a few more steps."

"A few more—"

The disbelief died on James' lips as the mist began to coil and swim around their feet. James would have asked what the hell was going on, but he had a pretty good idea by the time they were fully-immersed in darkness and walking hazily towards a dim light. It was like being surrounded by heavy storm clouds, and the colours were so dark that James could barely see Teddy, who stood a short distance in front of him. Coughing a bit, James stumbled further forward towards the small slivers of light shining through and suddenly it was as if there had never been a dark cloud of mist at all. The second they popped out through the other side, everything was clear, and at the sight that awaited him, James' jaw nearly dropped to the ground.

Directly ahead of him towered what could only be described as the biggest dragon James had ever seen in his life. It happened to be the only one he'd seen in person, and something about it took James' breath away. The metallic gray scales glinted in the sunlight that streamed down atop its hide, and its massive wings spanned at least seven metres and included long, sharp, bird-like talons that arched out from the tips of each wing at its height. Its long tail wound and shook about its body, sharp ears alert and deep red eyes focused on three burly men trying to distract it with food.

James took an instinctive step back, wishing he could get lost in the mist again, because certainly what he was seeing was just not fathomable. The giant dragon was so big that James felt like a twig of grass in comparison. And despite the insurmountable fear that writhed through his body in a sudden, gut-wrenching twist, James also felt awe and wonder sweep through him in the same breath. As badly as he wanted to get away as fast as possible, he also found his fingers itching to reach out and touch, to feel the scales beneath his grip.

"That's the Ironbelly," Teddy said, leaning in beside James to whisper it in his ear. "Tread lightly with her—she's a handful and a half, even for those of us who know what we're doing."

"She's huge," James stuttered, throat dry.

"Well, what did you expect, mate? She's a dragon, and one of the biggest in the world to boot."

Staring up at the Ironbelly's massive body and long, thick neck, James was almost dizzy with the task, but he couldn't take his eyes off her either. It was strange to think of a dragon as beautiful, but her thunderous purrs and the reflective properties of her scales and hide were exquisite. The sight alone gave James chills like he'd never experienced before. With a pang of grief, he wished the rest of his family was there to experience it with him. The longing passed quickly when James thought of how happy they'd all been to see him leaving for the summer.

"Come on," Teddy murmured. "I'll show you around and get you started on your duties."

James spared one last stare at the Ironbelly as she howled for her food before he followed Teddy around the reserve.

"And you might need one of these, mate," Teddy added, shoving a hefty hide into James' arms.

Weighed down with it, James nearly fell forward trying to lift it up again. When he unwound the straps, he found it was a breastplate of armor, made up of thick, hard dragon hide. Barely able to walk upright with it on, he did his best, because Teddy was wearing one too, and if Teddy the professional keeper could still get hurt, James needed all the help he could get.


oOo
Working in a dragon reserve turned out to involve a lot more work than James had ever imagined. Granted, he had barely imagined what kind of work he might be required to do on a dragon reserve until yesterday.

After the trek through the mountainous forest to get to the dragons, James' day began with an introduction to the dragon types. He had read about each of them in school, was sure Hagrid went over a lot of the details during classes, but nothing could have prepared James for seeing them up close.

First was the Ironbelly, who they didn't introduce James to personally but who he'd seen first. Then came the Chinese Fireballs, all four of which were scarlet dragons with a long fringe of golden spikes around their massive, lean faces. The Fireballs, Teddy explained, were vicious when provoked, but because of the way their eyes protruded from their face on either side, their blind spots consisted of the whole front of their face. If you could stay in the blind spot, you were safe…assuming they didn't smell you first and spew fire to kill, a trait the Fireballs on the reserve were more than happy to demonstrate when a few of the dragon keepers got too close.

The Swedish Short-Snouts were a smaller but no less deadly breed of dragons with beautiful silvery-blue scales and a neck like a giraffe's…only five times as long. Its short snout was indeed smaller than any of the other breeds James saw, and Teddy admitted that James was lucky to have come to this reserve when he did, because the pair had recently mated. While already overprotective of their first cub, the female was expected to lay a new batch of eggs any day, a sight Teddy said a lot of keepers would have paid to see. James didn't get why, as the idea of seeing a massive blue egg pop out of a dragon's body didn't sound altogether appealing.

The Common Welsh Greens were so far James' favorite, as they appeared to be the most social of the dragons. There were five of them in the reserve, and while they always stuck together in a close huddle of brilliant green hides, they also sought James and Teddy out when they saw them approaching. Teddy got up close and personal, petting them and playing around with the younger ones while a few keepers managed to scrape their scales to clean them and keep the shards for medicinal purposes. James didn't dare try to get any closer, but that didn't mean he didn't think about it as he watched Teddy's massive, gloved hand petting a Green's long, skinny snout.

When they came to the Hebridean Black, Teddy made James stay at a safe distance while they watched the keepers attempt to approach. Teddy explained that the Hebridean was least used to human interaction, as he would otherwise normally have kept to caves on the Hebrides Islands. Having a Hebridean Black on the reserve was, in Teddy's opinion, a great achievement for Charlie as head keeper. James just thought it was foolish, given the Hebridean's temper and the spiked tail that threw thorns like daggers at its opponents and enemies.

Towards the end of the day, Teddy pointed out the Peruvian Vipertooths from an even greater distance. James found himself awed by the copper tone of their scales as the sun caught them. While they were the smallest dragon on the reserve, Teddy admitted that size didn't account for anything as far as dragons went. In fact, it seemed that the smaller the dragon, the deadlier, as the Vipertooths had venomous fangs and blood-colored short horns curling viciously out of their skinny heads. When asked why they kept such dangerous species on the reserve, James was given an odd look and the simple answer: "They're all dangerous. You forget that around here, you're liable to wind up dead."

And it wasn't just studying the dragons in an eco-friendly habitat that the dragon keepers appeared to be after. While a lot of the keepers specialized in documenting the natural behaviours and habits of each species, many of the other keepers were there to study the medicinal effects of dragon's blood, hair, scales, hide, teeth, horns, and every other part imaginable. James saw keepers running around with giant syringes, buckets, tools, knives, wands, and everything in between—there was a lot more to studying dragons than just watching them sleep, fly, and hunt.

Unfortunately for James, that meant that what he thought might be a sort of peaceful trip away from his family was going to get real hard, real fast. James had absolutely no aspiration to become a dragon keeper, but when he tried telling Teddy that, Teddy just snorted and dragged him along to the next task.

And there seemed to be no task too big or too small to force James into. First, he was assigned to shovel dragon dung—the Muggle way, since as Teddy laughingly clarified, James couldn't use magic while on summer holiday, even when dealing with beasts so big they could kill him in seconds without proper magical protection. But James' actual physical strength was pathetically puny compared to the other keepers and by the time he'd lifted his first pile into the waiting bins, the bulky witch beside him had done the rest of the entire area.

Then, Teddy tried to teach him how to approach the dragons to scrape their scales, a necessary task to gather the scale shards for potions and medicines. They started with the Greens, since they were considered to be the friendliest and thus least likely to devour James with a single bite. Teddy said they could sense fear, so James needed to approach them with confidence and purposeful strides. James thought Teddy was insane for making him do it on his first day at the reserve, and his hands shook so much that by the time he got close enough to one of the Greens to scrape its scales, his tools clattered to the ground. That startled the dragons so badly that they turned on James, teeth bared and roaring in feral aggression. Their light green eyes turned to dark, cat-like slits, rage throbbing through the air between them. It was all James could do not to run—Teddy said if you ran, the dragons figured you were prey—until one of the other keepers distracted the dragons with fresh eel snacks.

It was amazing James didn't shit himself in fear. Teddy said the constant danger was just a part of the job and that James would get used to it, but James' legs were wobbly and weak the whole rest of the day.

After another failed attempt at scale-scraping with the Greens, feeding time with the Ironbelly (which lasted a good hour if not two), venom-gathering from the Vipertooths, exercise for the Short-Snout baby, and running away from the Hebridean Black, James was about ready to wish he was dead rather than be stuck at the reserve until the end of summer.

On their way back from work, James plucked thorns and twigs out of his jeans and sweat-matted hair from having been chased by the Hebridean Black for a good half hour at least.

"So where's that mysterious dragon you were telling me about?" James asked, playing keep-up with Teddy, who was a good distance ahead, seemingly unaffected by the awful day's physically demanding tasks. "I didn't see that one anywhere. Unless it's got invisible scales or something." James paused, glancing around as they began to ascend one of the hills. "There aren't any, um, invisible dragons, are there, Teddy?"

"Can't say I've ever seen one," Teddy said, flashing a grin over his shoulder.

"Ha-ha," James drawled. He paused at the bottom of the hill, watching Teddy ascend it like he was born to run up near-vertical slopes. Teddy was built like a mountain climber—thick calves, strong arms, broad-bodied, and rough enough to take the physical climate in stride. When he looked down at his own body, all he saw was a skinny teenager built for huddling under the blankets in a nice warm, far-away-from-dragons bed. With a twang of homesickness, James regretted again being such an awful son that his family was happier to see him off with dragons than at home safe and sound. "Um, that was a serious question, by the way." James sank his fingers into the hard-dirt side of the hill, searching for something to hold onto and using whatever little upper body strength he had to haul himself up.

"What was?"

"Where's the weird, unidentifiable dragon thing you mentioned earlier?" Sliding down the hill again, James kicked the sloping land and sighed. When he looked up, he saw Teddy watching him from the top. Ears burning, James folded his arms. "What?"

"Nothing," Teddy murmured, stepping off the side of the hill and skidding his way down smoothly to a tree that stuck straight out of the mountainside. Teddy gripped it with one strong hand, and James watched his muscles tense to hold and stay his weight as his free hand reached for James'. "Just didn't think you cared about dragons is all."

Groaning, James refused the help and tried again to haul himself up the mountain alone. "I don't care about dragons," he said stiffly, grunting as he fell down again. "I just—" and again, "—was curious—" and again, "—about it—" and again. "Bloody hell, how do you do that?"

Teddy's hand was still outstretched, so James took it.

"Do what?" Teddy asked, yanking James up with him. Their bodies nearly crushed together as Teddy stared down at him, his dark eyes glinting with mischief as they swept over James' sweaty face.

"Climb a mountainside without breaking a fucking sweat," James clarified, clinging to Teddy to keep his balance.

Teddy's grin faltered a bit. "I grab the rocks." At James' confused look, Teddy went on. "See how they naturally poke out of the dirt? They're the steadiest things you've got besides these trees that have been setting their roots in for thousands of years. Find the strongest things that'll hold you up and grab on."

Even though James kind of thought Teddy was the strongest thing that could possibly hold him up, he didn't say as much and just nodded instead. "Got it. Grab rocks and trees."

Grinning again, Teddy gestured up ahead. "Going to let go now. Think you can manage without clinging to my arse for a minute?"

"Clinging to your—no, I wasn't!" James growled, letting go of Teddy like he was made of fire. Losing balance, he fell back with a shout, but Teddy caught him again, this time by his side. Teddy's strength was the only thing holding James up, and as James wobbled there, he realised it with a painful throb of anger. "Maybe you're the one who likes grabbing me, you poof!" he snapped.

For a second, James was sure that Teddy was going to let go of him. It wasn't such a long fall down that James would die, but he knew it would fucking hurt like hell nonetheless. But after a sweeping glare, Teddy sighed and yanked James forward. With one smooth motion, Teddy had James thrown over his shoulder, James' lanky limbs kicking and thrashing the whole way.

"Let me fucking go!"

"What, to fall down the mountain, you mean? Be a lot easier this way, without you mucking about and calling me a faggot for trying to bloody help you," Teddy snarled. "You're an ungrateful little wanker, aren't you? Well, this is all the help you'll get, so don't bother thanking me."

"Wouldn't dream of it!"

Teddy jumped forward and James instinctively clung to his strong body, bloody and weak hands grabbing the hard flesh at his arms and shoulders. Under the skin, the muscles shifted and moved, and James could feel every quiver of them as Teddy worked at getting the both of the up the hill. Once there, Teddy unceremoniously dropped James on his arse and stared down at him from above.

"For your information, I do happen to like men," Teddy said.

"I knew it." James didn't feel too happy about this discovery though. On the contrary, his voice cracked a bit in spite.

"I said men," Teddy growled. "Not poncy little boys who can't lift a bloody Muggle shovel or hold a rock without personal assistance."

Cheeks and ears and neck and everything burning with humiliation, James looked away, brow furrowed. His fingers dug into the dirt at his sides, aching to throw handfuls in Teddy's face but too physically exhausted to try it.

It took a moment but eventually Teddy backed down enough to let James get up off the ground. "Your cabin's about a hundred steps from here—think you can make it without parental supervision?"

"You're not my parent."

"Well spotted. And glad of it. I don't envy Harry one bit having to deal with your attitude."

"Yeah, well you won't have to deal with it for very long, will you?" James spat. "The day I turn seventeen, I'm gone, and none of you will have to be troubled by James Sirius Potter ever again."

Dusting himself off, James started back towards the cabins, trying to save face. Something caught his arm and he turned to find Teddy there, giving him a withered look.

"The cabins are the other way, mate," Teddy offered, gesturing.

"I knew that."

Stomping off in the opposite direction, James trod through the remainder of the forest without Teddy's supervision. He tried to forget Teddy was even there, but the steady breathing behind him was hard to ignore. When he finally found his own cabin and got up to the front door, he heard Teddy call to him.

"We'll get to the mystery dragon soon, all right?"

James grumbled and slammed the door shut behind him. If he didn't slit his wrists in the middle of the night or die from utter boredom and annoyance, then maybe he had a little something to look forward to.


oOo
Late June, 2021

"How's it going there, Jamie?" Charlie called, appearing beside Teddy on the outskirts of the feeding ring.

Glancing up from his work of hauling the food into the centre, James thought of all the mean and nasty and awful things he could say to Charlie…and promptly swallowed them all. It wasn't worth it, being as tired as he was. Charlie would only add to his workload if he showed disrespect on that level. He'd only been at the reserve three weeks, but he'd learned that much by now.

"It's James, and I'm fine," James said, tossing another eel into the huge pile of dead things for the Ironbelly. He paused to wipe the sweat from his brow and glanced up, watching for any sight of the enormous dragon. The skies were thus far clear, even after he'd stacked up a pile as tall as he was of fresh food. "Great. Wonderful, in fact. Loving the manual, Muggle labour. No, really, don't get your wands out and help or anything."

Even from a distance, James could see Charlie's eyes widening. Charlie looked to Teddy, then back to James, and frowned.

"You didn't give him his wand, Teddy?" Charlie asked, in a low tone that maybe James wasn't supposed to hear but that he happened to pick up quite easily. "I thought Harry told us he got a special permit for James this summer. I mean…I've seen him doing the manual stuff, but I thought that was by choice… Not that I'd choose it that way."

"Oops," Teddy said, shrugging. "Must have slipped my mind."

"I can have my wand?" James barked, dropping the rest of the eels unceremoniously and rushing forward towards Teddy and Charlie. "You think I'm doing this for my bloody health? Having a wand would make this so much easier! You can't just keep it from me if I have a right to use it!"

Teddy shrugged again, folding his arms. "Personally, I think you need to build a bit of muscle. Looking a little toothpicky for my tastes."

"Your tastes?" James stuttered. "What is that supposed to mean?"

"Oh fuck, not like that, James."

Charlie looked between them and nudged Teddy's shoulder with his own. "Take a break, okay?"

Teddy looked absolutely devastated. "I didn't mean it like that, Charlie, really."

"I know," Charlie said. He slapped Teddy on the back warmly. "Just give us a minute."

With a grumble and a spared glare at James, Teddy peeled off his gloves with an aggravated grunt and disappeared behind the thrush of trees deeper into the forests. The silence of the forest now the only real 'sound' between them, James breathed out and let his shoulders slump. In front of Teddy, he felt like he needed to build himself up to be some big thing, and now that Teddy was gone, it was nice to let his bones crack and muscles twitch with all the discomfort he felt.

"So you're going to give me my wand, right?" James asked, plopping down in the dirt to have a sit. Charlie seemed willing to let him relax.

Charlie shrugged, his attention on the large pile of dead fish awaiting the Ironbelly. "When you earn it, that's Teddy's decision."

"So you're taking his side," James grumbled. "Great."

"You know, you play the victim pretty well, James, but in this situation, I think Teddy's got your best interests at heart. Harry left you in our care, and you're here for a reason, so you're going to have to do things how we say."

Kicking the dirt with the heels of his trainers, James leaned back, stretching with a grumble of disapproval. "Fine. Whatever. I'll just prove that I can do everything you guys can, only without magic."

"Good," Charlie said. "Glad we agree."

"Only we don't," James murmured.

Charlie let out a long sigh and crouched down in front of James. "Look, let's be upfront with each other."

"Okay," James said, uncertainly.

"You feel responsible."

"For Teddy being an arse about my wand? No way, I—"

"For Lily's death."

With those words, James felt like the wind had been knocked out of him. Charlie's broad, tattooed body seemed to cage him in as he hovered over him, and James' throat clenched up tight. He couldn't swallow, couldn't breathe, couldn't do anything but stare at Charlie. He was out of his fucking mind to bring Lily up. Nobody talked about her, because James didn't ever let them. And he wasn't about to start letting them now.

"Shut up," James said, finally choking the words out. "That has nothing to do with any of this."

Charlie's frown stretched the skin of his face, his true age showing a bit when his brow gathered. "I know what it feels like to lose someone, James. Back in the war, I lost my brother, and I wasn't—"

"Merlin, just leave me alone! I said I don't want to fucking talk about it, least of all to someone like you!" Shoving Charlie away, James got up on his feet. Before he could get away, Charlie caught him at his shoulder. "Don't touch me! You're disgusting! Why don't you and Teddy just go off and fuck and leave me alone?"

There was a grit of anger in Charlie's voice as he tried to restrain James. "If you keep it all bottled up like that, it's a real disservice to Lily's memory. She wouldn't want you to feel like this."

"Like you know how I feel! God, I said leave me alone!"

James wound his fist back and thrust it hard forward, landing a dull punch to Charlie's jaw. Strangely, Charlie stumbled back, but it was James who was hurt. His knuckles felt like they'd been smashed with a hammer. Still, Charlie was momentarily stunned enough that James could get away. He kicked the dirt in his path as he stormed through the dense forest, peeling off his gloves and casting them aside as he ran. And ran and ran, until his chest began to heave with every breath and his lungs burned and his legs felt like dead weights under his body.

In a clearing near one of the long, winding rivers, he finally stopped to catch his breath. It felt like he'd been running for an hour, and he'd honestly lost track of how far he'd gone or in what direction he'd been rushing. All he knew was that Charlie had no clue about his life or what he thought and felt, and he didn't ever want to talk to him again. Everybody thought they knew everything about how James felt and what he needed to do, just like all the Healers he'd seen and the grief counselors that lined up to teach him how to let go of the past and free his guilt and let it all out. The problem was, there was nothing to let out except a chest full of ghosts and empty promises and spite and guilt and despair. If he let one thing out, they'd all flood like a dam had been loosed from within.

Twisting to grab the ties that bound his hide breastplate to his chest, James struggled to undo them and wished not for the first time that he had his wand. He cursed Teddy for keeping it from him, despite all the extra work he'd been made to do at the reserve without it. Couldn't Teddy see he hated it here? That he was in pain and just wanted to get home or run away or be anywhere else but stuck there without a wand and chained to responsibilities that he didn't give a shit about?

With a growl, James managed to rip off the final clasp. The breastplate fell to the ground with a thud, and he kicked it for good measure, which only hurt his foot more than anything else. Sighing, he sank to his knees at the river's edge and leaned over to grab a handful of water to splash on his face.

"Bloody ridiculous," he snarled to his reflection, watching his skinny neck crane towards the water. His shoulders were too bony, his lips too wide and thin, his freckles too abundant, his hair too brown or too red but never just one or the other, his eyes nothing like his mum or dad's but just like Lily's.

Head bowed, the tips of James' sweaty fringe touched the surface of the water. While he felt like crying, like throwing every rock in sight until his limbs ached, and like drowning himself all at the same time, he felt no tears on his face, saw no rocks in sight, and found no energy even to drown. He just felt…empty, void of everything he should feel and replaced with a hollow disassociation. James wanted to float away, to lose himself in the gentle current and never come back. Nobody would miss him, nobody would care—like his family, they'd be glad to see him go.

A little splash in the water caught his attention and brought his thoughts back to the present moment. When James lifted his head to see what caused it, something skinny and black disappeared beneath the surface, creating a little ripple where it went down.

Brow furrowed, James crawled a bit closer, focusing his attention on the area where the black spikes had disappeared. It was probably just a fish or something, but part of James was intrigued by the shape it had made in the water. It was kind of big, maybe bigger than a fish should be, and why would a fish need to come up to the surface anyway? It could have been a mermaid, but he'd never read about colonies in rivers in this part of Germany, and had also never heard of them coming into such shallow waters near the banks, especially if a human was there…unless they were looking to drown one. That thought alone made James back up a bit warily.

Wiping the water from his face, he frowned. There was nothing there. He'd imagined the whole thing, and now his brain was so exhausted that it was playing tricks on him, making him think he'd seen something where there was nothing…except that when James looked down into the water, a pair of large, red eyes stared back up at him.

James jumped back with a shout, scrambling backwards as he tried to put as much distance from himself and the thing beneath the water as possible. It was then that the water began to ripple again, in the same spot, and to James' utter horror, a wide, black snout appeared from beneath the surface. The snout was followed by a short neck, stout body, four massive, tree-trunk-thick legs, wings that stretched out thrice the size of its body, and a tail that dragged the ground and drew a spiky trail in its wake. The dragon was like nothing James had ever seen before, its bulbous, red eyes focused directly onto James' wide, startled gaze. They stared at one another, the dragon in full control of the situation and James just frozen and rooted to the spot in absolute fear. As the dragon edged closer, James began to count the number of fang-sharp teeth that closed at its round jaw, exposed and probably dying to sink into James' flesh and bones to rip him apart for its afternoon meal.

"Stop!" James murmured, not sure what else to do but ask the dragon nicely to move along. Where the hell were Teddy and Charlie when he actually needed them? At his quaking, cracked voice, the dragon paused, its muscles tight and stiff under the sheen of water slithering off its jet-black scales. "Nice dragon," James tried quietly. "Good dragon." The dragon let out a low, rumbling warning growl, and James jolted. "Please don't eat me—I'll go away, and you can have your river back. You can have the whole country! I'm just passing through; I'm not an enemy, I swear! I was just—"

A loud noise like that of someone Apparating cracked in the air, only louder than any Apparition James had ever heard before. Hunching, he covered his ears, but it only made the ringing in them harder to ignore. The dragon drew itself low to the ground, its red eyes pulled away from James in order to stare at something far above James' head. James could see the dragon's ribs protruding with every breath in and out and could actually see the pulse of the beast's heart somewhere between its front legs.

Seeing his chance, James thanked whatever gods happened to distract the dragon from devouring him, and launched up to his feet to scuttle away.

"Down there!" someone shouted.

"Shoot it! Shoot it!" someone else added.

The dragon let out a long, high-pitched howl, and James fell to his knees at the sound, shaking from the wave of sound the creature sent that seemed to go straight through his bones. Covering his ears again, James could barely make out the screams that seemed to come from above him on one of the ridges overlooking the river. He tried again to stumble to his feet, but whatever the dragon had done, it nearly debilitated him—his entire body felt like it had no bones and he could feel the pulse of his heart slow to a dangerous thud in his chest.

Through the haze of pain, James looked up towards the screams and saw what most wizards wouldn't have recognized but what James' dad had told him were called handguns. They're a very dangerous Muggle weapon, Harry had explained to his children. You don't want to play with those or anyone who has them. James knew what they could do, had seen the Muggle news programs and how quickly someone died when one of those was pointed at them. Slowly, James' glance followed the line of range from the end of the gun to the wide space between the dragon's eyes.

The dragon reared, its wings spreading and tail bristled with spikes, but James knew it was too late. Something snapped, and he jumped with whatever strength he had left, howling at the dragon to move.

"Go!" he screamed, exhaling as he jumped to shove the creature out of the way.

At that exact moment, James heard the same Apparition-like noise he'd heard earlier and a searing, incapacitating pain sank into his shoulder and jolted down through his arm. It felt like someone had cast a hex at his right arm, like magic stung through to the nerves, like when Scorpius Malfoy threw a curse at his back or when he fell off his broom when he was eleven and broke his arm.

Stumbling forward past the dragon, James began to lose the ability to see anything at all. With one last leap of faith, he tried to grab the dragon's hip for support, but he couldn't move his right arm at all and simply felt the darkness closing in too quickly for his brain to compensate. With a wince, James tumbled forward and rolled into the river.

As he sank beneath the surface, the only thing he could think of was how awful it would be to die like this, from some kind of weird accident, without his family ever knowing what happened. Somewhere above the surface, the sounds of a scuffle kicked dirt into the river, but James was soon sped beyond it all as he bobbed down river and breathed out for what he knew would be the last time.


oOo
When James came to, he was conscious of two things: the first was that he was sopping wet and the second was that there was a large, red-eyed dragon staring down at him. Even with his eyes barely opened, James could see the dragon's massive head and large, sharp teeth leering close, its nostrils flaring with every deep breath in and out.

Without warning, James rolled over and began to cough out all the water he'd swallowed in the river, spluttering and gagging. He tried to brace himself with both arms but he couldn't even feel his right arm, and so he ended up leaning on his left to finish heaving the water from his lungs. When he'd got the worst of it out, he chanced a glance towards the dragon standing beside him and found its red eyes focused on his movements.

Trembling and unsteady, James tried to stand up. He had to get away. He had to run as fast as he could and somehow get back to the camp to tell Charlie and Teddy and get help. Except that as he tried to stand, his legs wobbled like jelly and he couldn't brace himself, and he had absolutely no strength left in his body to move. Falling back down, he rolled over onto his back and stared up at the dragon, which hadn't moved a muscle since he'd woken up.

Breathing in and out with careful, measured movements, James clutched at his wounded shoulder and when he drew his fingers back to gauge the damage, they were covered in red, red blood. James had never actually been hurt like this before. It felt like there was a rock lodged in his shoulder, and though he wanted to pluck it out, he had no idea how he could even begin to find it without being able to see it. And touching it was apparently out of the question, as his shoulder began to throb again in pain from his probing fingers.

"Jesus," he hissed, tears rushing to his eyes. He closed them to stay the emotions swelling within. "Please…just don't eat me, and I promise I won't hurt you, okay?" He peeked his eyes open. The dragon still hadn't moved, and it continued to stare at him, its red eyes narrowed to slits. "Okay? Deal?"

To James' surprise, the dragon gave a low growl…and sat down. Head cocked, its eyes blinked, as if trying to gauge James' threat level. It looked like, if James was honest with himself, the dragon was thinking.

"I'll, er, take that as a yes. Good. Deal."

Closing his eyes again, James winced in pain and coughed up a bit more water. He finally let the tears sting and slide out of his eyes, unable to hold them back. It was the first time since Lily had died that he really, truly wished for his parents. With all his heart, he just wanted to be back in England with them, drinking pumpkin juice and eating his mum's awful cooking that his dad would try to fix behind her back. He missed Albus, of all people, and tried not to think of how stupid he'd been and what a bad brother he'd been since Lily died. Everyone hated him, but James missed them so suddenly it seemed to make the pain worse somehow. He would even settle for Teddy! God, he'd settle for Teddy to pick him up and throw him over his shoulder again, to be carried away safely to a warm bed and a hot cup of tea.

Suddenly, James felt something wet and thick oozing into his wound. With a gasp, he opened his eyes again, only to find the strange, black dragon drooling over his right shoulder. James shook but tried his best to remain as still as he possibly could; the last thing he wanted to do was frighten the dragon and have it tear his arm right off. But when its long, slim tongue lapped over the naked wound and dragged against the exposed sinew and muscle, James couldn't help but scream.

"Get away!" he whimpered, the pain absolutely numbing to the point that when he rolled over on his side and covered the wound, he seized up in pain, twitching as if in a fit.

And then, just as suddenly as the pain had pitched straight through to his core, it stopped. Replaced by warmth and a stiff grate, the feeling slowly but surely returned to the limb inch by inch. Something small and sharp popped out of the wound and though it hurt, it was nothing like the pain it had been before. Staring up at the dragon, James realised with a start that it had healed him.

It wasn't altogether unheard of. Teddy had been explaining all week about how some dragons had different healing properties, some of which they hadn't even figured out yet. Every dragon had different abilities, unique to their breed—this one must have magic spit.

The thought of it made James laugh. He couldn't stop the tears that continue to flow, but his mouth spread into a tender, thankful smile.

"You, uh, well…thanks," he murmured, wondering how to tell a dragon in its own language so it would understand.

James tried to put all his thanks into the single smile he gave the dragon, but it simply watched, its red eyes unwavering until they glanced down to the thing that popped out of his shoulder and was currently puddled in blood beside his leg. James leaned forward to inspect it. Since his right arm was still in a bit of pain, he reached across with his left and picked up the small shard of metal, running his fingers over its smooth surface. The dragon leaned in as well, sniffing what James immediately recognized as a Muggle bullet from the gun, and growled at it, looking from James to the bullet in what James could only assume was an accusation.

"No, it's okay," James explained, trying to show the dragon. But when he held the bullet out for the dragon to see, its growls grew louder and rumbled until the little pebbles beside the shore trembled. "Okay, okay! We'll get rid of this. It's all right." He tossed the bullet into the river, and both he and the dragon watched it sink beneath the current. "See? It's gone."

At that, the dragon seemed to breathe a sigh of relief and sat back down, its pupils widened and focused on James again, this time without the intensity from before. Again, it was almost like the dragon was thinking about something or trying to read James, but James no longer felt threatened at all by it. On the contrary, he felt like he could walk right up to it and stroke its wide snout and feel the rough scales beneath his fingers.

On impulse, James dragged himself up, his right arm still sore to move when he stood. So he reached out with his left hand, smiling confidently and feeling a strange, fearless euphoria as he approached the dragon. It didn't look so big! And it had cleaned his wound, had healed the pain and lapped the bullet right out of his shoulder. The thing had saved his life; without it, James would have drowned, surely.

The closer he drew to it, the more confident James felt that it was incredibly easy and why hadn't he simply approached a dragon with this thought process before? When he'd tried to sneak up on the Welsh Greens, they sensed his anxiety, whereas when he moved in a straight line towards the black dragon that saved his life, he knew he had nothing to fear.

Just before James' fingers reached the dragon's snout, it bared its teeth and began to snarl, hunching over and standing up. Its wings spread, water dripping down off of them, and the euphoria James felt but a moment ago bled away into the same anxiety he had felt with the other dragons. He wasn't even able to make a noise, too afraid of startling the dragon. But instead of charging James or biting his head off, the dragon reared back, opened its enormous mouth, promptly closed it, and leaned in to release its heated breath through its nostrils.

James fell back a few steps at the thrust of warm, heated wind that the dragon's breath produced. It gave him gooseflesh all over his arms and legs and neck, but the cold chill in his body feathered away into a lazy kind of warmth instead. It was then that James realised…he was completely dry. All of the water that had soaked through his clothes and matted his hair down to his forehead and neck had evaporated with that single huff of hot air. Reaching up with his left hand to touch his hair, he found it all standing up at odd ends, hot to the touch.

That euphoria returned in full force. James laughed, stumbled to the river's edge to glance down at his reflection. The sun was just beginning to set, but he could still make out his pale, freckled cheeks and his reddish brown hair fluffing up like an afro. With a grin, he turned back to the dragon.

"I didn't know dragons had a sense of humour," he chuckled. "I look like a wreck…but thanks. Again."

James reached out one final time, wanting to console the dragon with a thankful pet to its side, but James must have moved too quickly or done something to upset the dragon, for it reared back with a sharp whinge, spread its wings, and took off to the skies, soaring above the river. It spared no glances back at James, who stood watching it go and wondering what the hell had just happened.

With the sun setting already, James pulled himself up the nearest hill with some difficulty only using his left hand and began to search for the path that might lead him back to the camp.


oOo
"Where have you been?" Teddy cried. His eyes were wide and a bit bloodshot, but the rage in them far outweighed his apparent fatigue or concern. "We've been—and what happened to your arm? Merlin, is that blood, James? Hold still!"

It had taken James three hours to find his way back to the camp, and he was lucky he'd been able to find it on his own as the dark settled in around the deep forests. Without a wand, without even Muggle tools to help light his way, James had given up a few times during the course of his walk back before deciding if he didn't make it back, he'd be dead for sure. There were giant boars, wildcats, and all manner of species that would be happy to fall upon a weak human for a late-night treat. So he trudged on until he finally made it to the mist around the camp and was able to stumble through it towards his cabin.

It was just unfortunate that Teddy was there waiting for him. Hours ago, James had prayed to see Teddy, but getting yelled at for getting lost and abandoning his duties and hitting Charlie wasn't on his to-do list. In fact, he would have much preferred a good lie-down instead.

Squirming away from Teddy's concerned touches, James grumbled, "I ran off, because Charlie was being an arse." Surprisingly, Teddy didn't argue, though James could see his jaw tighten like he wanted to. James took this as a good sign to go on. "I got lost—obviously—and then, uh, there was this…dragon."

"A dragon? Is that why you're bleeding?" Teddy moved forward to touch James' arm again, but James shied away. "James—"

"Let me finish before you start poking and prodding, yeah?"

Teddy backed off but gestured towards James' cabin. "At least come inside. You look like you're about to fall over."

James' face warmed under that statement. "Yeah," he murmured, hobbling past Teddy and suddenly all-too-aware of just how tired he was. Once inside and comfortably plopped down onto the sofa, he tipped his head back and groaned happily.

"Okay, start talking, and I'll grab us some butterbeers."

Nodding, James considered just how much he wanted to tell Teddy. For some reason, there was a nagging voice at the back of his head that told him not to say anything about the dragon pulling him out of the river or the fact that it had healed his gunshot wound. James tried to ignore that voice, knowing Teddy would want to hear these details, but it was really strong.

"So…I got lost, like I said. I was at some river—dunno which one—and then this dragon came up out of the water."

"Out of the water?" Teddy asked, popping the cap off the bottle of butterbeer before he handed it to James.

"Yeah. Thanks." He gulped a good fourth of the bottle down, wiping his mouth with a content sigh afterwards. That alone perked him up a bit. "Why, is that weird?"

"Most dragons don't really enjoy the water that much. I mean…for a few minutes at a time, but you saw the way they get when we try to wash out a wound or clean the baby Green. They're a right nightmare about it."

James shrugged, then winced at the little jolt of pain still in his sore right shoulder. "Well, this one liked it. He must've been submerged in there before I walked up, and he came out and was about to enjoy me for a snack when these Muggles came out of nowhere with their handguns." James paused. "You know what a handgun is, yeah?"

Teddy nodded, looking more serious than he had all evening. "Yeah, I know what handguns are."

"Okay, well, these Muggles shot at the dragon…but one of the bullets happened to hit me instead."

"You got shot?" Teddy screeched. "James, let me look at your arm, for Christ's sake! We've got to get the bullet out and clean it up and—"

"Hang on, hang on, will you let me finish? Look, my arm's fine, because after I fell in the river, something happened. The dragon must have…I mean, I woke up on the shore coughing up river water, and the dragon was sitting next to me—"

"The same dragon that you got shot for?"

"Yeah, and he was just sitting there, staring at me, and I was in so much fucking pain because of that bullet and then, um… Well, he licked me."

Teddy looked completely aghast. "The dragon…it licked you?"

"Yeah, and then my arm felt weird and warm, and the bullet just popped right out and I think the dragon healed my arm." James rolled his right shoulder a bit until it stung. "It's still sore, but only just a bit. I dunno why he did that for me, but I told him thanks, and he flew off."

For a moment, Teddy was completely quiet. Then, he leaned in towards James with a gentle, curious look. "James, when you got shot…were you trying to protect the dragon?"

That voice in the back of his head screamed at him not to trust Teddy with this information, and again while he didn't know why, he brushed it aside. This was really important somehow—he just knew it. "Yeah," he said. "I didn't want it to get hurt. I knew those bullets could kill it, and they were aiming right for his head."

With a laugh, Teddy reached out and ruffled James' hair. For the first time, James didn't really mind it and laughed along with him.

"What's so funny?"

"You are!" Teddy said, grinning so broadly that the look was infectious. "You saved its life, James." At James' questioning look, Teddy explained, "Dragons are fiercely loyal, even to other species. If you do something on that grand a scale for them, they don't soon forget it. It's almost like a life debt between wizards and witches, except dragons can feel indebted for the rest of their lives even after you've repaid them, depending on the severity of actions taken to help them. It's why most of the dragons on the reserves learn to trust us. We give them medicine and food to cure their illnesses, save their children, and enrich their lives—in turn, they stick around to help us. When outsiders like you come in, it sort of disrupts their trust a bit, but even you must have noticed that even since you arrived, you're better able to manage with them."

James thought it over and nodded. He'd already assumed that the dragon had saved him on purpose, but hearing it confirmed by Teddy's actual knowledge made it seem surreal and wonderful, like a really good dream he didn't want to wake up from.

"It's unbelievable that this happened to you," Teddy went on. There was an unreadable look in his eyes as they swept over James. "Take off your shirt a sec so I can see the damage."

For once, James didn't make a quip about Teddy just wanting to see him naked and tugged his shirt off without argument. It stuck a bit to his right shoulder, but he gingerly peeled it from the skin and turned to face Teddy to let him look it over.

"There's a small mark," Teddy commented, setting his butterbeer down as he scooted closer and leaned down to more closely inspect it. "Merlin, you're lucky."

"Yeah, lucky to have this mark for the rest of my life, huh?"

Teddy leaned back enough to give James a concerned, caring look. "Lucky you didn't die tonight, James."

Their eyes met, and James felt a sizzle of something uncomfortable lurch in his belly. Teddy was looking at him like he was the only person in the entire world, and James couldn't remember the last time he knew someone cared that much whether he lived or died. His own family had thrust him off to Germany without shedding a tear, didn't even know—or would give a shit if they did—that he'd been lost in the Black Forest and shot by Muggles. But Teddy cared. He really cared. It made James feel ashamed for some reason, caused his chest to tighten and his stomach to clench. His throat felt sticky and tight, clogged with some unknown emotion that rose up within him.

"I'm really glad you're okay," Teddy added. Reaching out, he ran his fingertips along the mark at James' wounded shoulder. "Does this hurt?"

James shook his head.

"This?" Teddy asked, rubbing the shoulder with gentle pressure.

Again, James shook his head.

"How about this?" No sooner were the words out of his mouth than Teddy leaned forward and drew James into a tight embrace.

Too caught off guard or too tired to move away, James instead sought comfort in the warmth of Teddy's lean-muscled body and the tenderness of his grip. Something had changed in him. He felt different all over, felt like he wanted to be hugged, and it had been so long since he'd allowed anybody to come that close to him. After the traumatic events of the night, James pegged it all on the dragon—he had done this to James, had made James thankful to be alive and receptive to the concern of others. He'd made James want to be hugged by someone who cared, had made James realise that someone did care.

The realisation brought tears to his eyes. Without worrying over how to save face, James wrapped his arms around Teddy and clung to him. He buried his face into Teddy's chest and shoulder, clung to his back, breathed in his familiar scent and memorised it. Teddy smelled like the woods and leather hide and lime shampoo.

The two of them finally pulled away by mutual decision, but neither of them completely disentangled. James' hands were still secure on Teddy's biceps, and Teddy's hands rubbed James' shoulders and ruffled his hair affectionately, smoothing it down a bit since it still stood on end from the dragon's breath.

After what seemed an endless amount of time, Teddy broke the silence to ask, "What kind of dragon saved you, by the way?"

"Dunno," James said, for the first time actually thinking that it wasn't one of the dragons he'd been introduced to at the reserve. "It was, er, small and black…had a massive wingspan, thorny tail, big red eyes... What?"

"Charlie is going to absolutely flip," Teddy laughed, shaking his head. "Did it have a wide snout, stout body?" At James' nod, Teddy hugged him again. "Jesus Christ. Leave it to James Sirius Potter to be the first person to ever come within five feet of the Bulgarian Blitz-Tail."

"What's that?"

"Only the dragon Charlie's been chasing across the continent for the past five years! It's the one we can't identify, but he's been calling it the Bulgarian Blitz-Tail since he first saw it in Bulgaria and it's tail is…well…you saw it yeah? Sharp, quick, and would hurt like fuck if you got one of its thorns in you."

James' heart leapt. He was the first person to ever be that close to it? While it seemed impossible, James felt an unbelievable swell of pride and awe knowing he had actually interacted with a dragon like that—and in a week's time to boot. Accidental or not, it was still brilliant.

"Oh fuck—Charlie!" Teddy said, standing up suddenly and darting for the door. "I've got to go tell him that you're all right."

With a scoff, James muttered, "Don't rush—I'm sure he wasn't worried."

"James…" Teddy paused, took a breath, and let it out quickly. "Charlie was worried. We all were. Fire-called your dad, sent a team out searching, did everything to try and find you."

"You fire-called my dad?" James felt his stomach drop.

"Yeah, and you ought to call him back, to—"

"I'm really, really exhausted," James said, looking away. "Can you do it? Tell him I'm fine. I'll owl him tomorrow or something if he wants."

Teddy hesitated by the door, mouth opening but then shutting promptly after. "All right," he finally said, nodding. "Get some rest. Sleep in tomorrow. I'll bring you something to eat for lunch, all right?"

James smiled. "Yeah."

"Okay. Rest," Teddy repeated, grinning. "I mean it. Good night."

Waving Teddy off, James breathed out a huge sigh when he was left alone. The quiet of the cabin was a bit startling when compared to the sounds and noises he'd heard all evening up until now, but it was nice to block everything else out and have some peace. As James got up, he found his limbs were stiff and aching, but he managed to drag himself into the bedroom, where he crawled atop his blankets and sheets and sprawled out, half-dressed on his bed. James fell asleep fast, even though he could barely calm his brain with thoughts of the Bulgarian Blitz-Tail rushing through it.


oOo
James didn't wake up until well into the afternoon on the next day. The sun was heavy in the bright sky, throwing light into James' cabin from every angle imaginable. He had spent half the early morning hours tossing and turning and the other half dozing in and out of restless dreams. Finally, he was unable to keep his eyes closed at all, so he sat up in the bed, finding his upper body damp with sweat, his trousers twisted, socks only half on his feet, and a horrendously prominent morning wood begging for attention between his legs.

Attempting to ignore it, James swung his legs over the bed and stretched his arms above his head. His right shoulder seemed to be completely healed, no pain or soreness present when he pressed his fingers to the place where the bullet had pierced his skin, muscle, and bone. What he needed was a cold shower to get rid of the erection and a long walk back to find that river to clear his head of the aimless thoughts of the Blitz-Tail and its round, red eyes.

As James began to slip out of his bed, he braced his hand on the bedside table and found his fingers spread over a slim, familiar piece of wood. His heart leapt up into his throat when he looked down and saw his 9" holly wand beneath his palm. James grabbed it up so quickly that he nearly missed the scrap of parchment underneath it. Catching sight of the note, James picked it up and read:

I'm sorry I didn't give this to you sooner. Sleep well. See you at lunch.
-Teddy

James' thumb brushed over the large, messy script and he felt a weird, wonderful swell of gratitude towards Teddy. He read the note twice over; even knowing there wasn't anything more to it than a simple apology and a chance to start anew, James also knew something had indeed changed. He wasn't angry at Teddy at all anymore; in fact, he felt like Teddy's decision to keep his wand away from him had been the best decision James had never made. Without his wand, he'd learned a hell of a lot more than if he'd had it the whole time, and he'd have never met the dragon if he'd had it in hand.

Lying back on his bed, James glanced at the clock. He had a good hour or two until Teddy came around for lunch. Holding his wand in his hand again, feeling his magic coursing through the wand as he held it in warm pulses, and reeling from that weird churning in his stomach after reading Teddy's note, James knew there was no chance of ignoring the erection twitching between his legs.

For the first time in years, James had an image in mind, a face to put to the fantasy. Wand bit between his teeth to stifle his screams, James thought of Teddy as his fist pumped the length of his dick from stiff base to the wet head. He could smell Teddy's scent, imagined Teddy's calloused hands roaming his slim body, Teddy's stern growl in his ear, and came within mere minutes.

When he was done, James lay very, very still, all the ecstasy loosed from his system and immediately replaced with confusion and a subtle kind of humiliation. James had never before questioned his sexuality, had never had any reason to fear he might fancy blokes instead of birds, and yet there he was, wanking to the fantasy of Teddy Lupin touching him for the first time, of feeling Teddy's hands pressing against his skin, and considering the possibility that if Teddy kissed him, James would not only let him but welcome it. James groaned, thinking of what Teddy would taste like, and felt his dick harden all over again at the mere prospect.

Hand sticky and body sweaty, James climbed out of bed and headed for the coldest shower of his life.


oOo
Charlie turned out to be more understanding than James had ever thought he'd be. Even though he scolded James for running off without warning, he shrugged off the punch as if it had been a natural, everyday occurrence that he just had to deal with. It seemed that, more than anything, Charlie was keen to know the details about the Muggle men with guns that James had seen that day.

It turned out that Charlie had seen those men before; they were what Muggles called 'monster hunters', and Teddy was quick to add that most Muggles thought they were all bloody insane. Apparently, there were a lot of Muggles that not only believed dragons and magical beasts existed but tried to hunt them down and kill, capture, or maim them to bring back physical proof of their existence to the rest of their culture. James thought it was odd that none of them had managed, until Charlie reminded him that a few Muggles had still photographs of what they called the 'Loch Ness Monster' and 'Bigfoot', both of which were received as fraudulent hoaxes by the majority of the Muggle population.

Charlie was also incredibly interested in learning more about the Blitz-Tail. James told the story seven times before he reminded Charlie that there was no detail he could have possibly left out, especially since he'd only interacted with the dragon for a few minutes. But James felt a bit worse every time Charlie asked for more details, because he could tell Charlie was upset it hadn't been him there that day. Charlie had chased the dragon all the way from his first sighting of it in Bulgaria five years ago all the way to the Black Forest in Germany, where the dragon had resided for the past year, and he'd never managed to get more than a fleeting glance of it as it skirted out of a dense thicket, flew through the sky so fast that Charlie couldn't get his camera out in time, or darted so far away that Charlie could only make out its stout outline in the distance.

More than anything, Charlie wanted to get as close as James got, especially now that he knew the dragon's saliva had intense healing properties. It turned out that Skele-Gro and some of the other remedies for treating broken bones, torn muscle, and Muggle-induced bullet-wounds all came from dragon ingredients like blood, scale tissue, saliva, tooth enamel, and even some venoms in the right dosages.

That was why, the day after James' little dragon rendezvous, Charlie decided he would accompany James back to the river where he'd found the dragon, this time fully-equipped with wands to defend themselves and tools to extract the necessary elements. Charlie said that given the dragon's bond to James, it would most likely seek him out and have no objection to James sticking a needle or syringe in its mouth. James begged to differ and thought maybe he ought to try and feed it a sedative to knock it out so somebody else could try. He'd seen that dragon's teeth, and he didn't want to be on the wrong end of them.

The first day they tried to find the Blitz-Tail, there was no sign of him. The second day, he was spotted well out into the distance on the other side of the river bank. Charlie said he thought he saw the dragon looking at them, but James knew better—he could tell the dragon was glaring at him. He felt an instant and unmistakable sense of betrayal, like the dragon was angry James had brought other people with him. It flew off well before anybody could grab a camera or ready their tools. The third and fourth and fifth and twelfth days, it was always the same—Charlie, Teddy, and James would show up and wait for an hour, then the Blitz-Tail would be heard snarling in the distance, and then they'd see it take off from somewhere far away and see nothing more of it until the next time they visited.

Finally, Teddy suggested that Charlie ought to give up. It was obvious that the Blitz-Tail was too wary to let any of them get close enough to take a photo, let alone scrape its scales or draw its blood. But James had a hunch that something else was going on. The same voice in his head that had previously told him not to tell Charlie and Teddy all the details about his interactions with the dragon told him that he should test his theory on his own.

So on one of his days off from dragon duty, James snuck off under the guise of a long fire-call with his family. Ducking out of the fog around midday, he was able to pack an entire satchel full of fish, eel, sheep, and other various slabs of meat from the freezers as well as a bag full of grain and vegetables. Nicking the dragon food was easy—dragging it from the camp all the way to the river where he'd first seen the Blitz-Tail was a bit harder. James had already gone about a hundred steps before he realised he had the full use of his wand back and didn't have to lug the heavy sacks around manually anymore. Even though he had gained a bit of raw muscle in his scrawny fishbone-sized arms, James was by no means physically capable of doing everything the Muggle way.

Levitation charms in place, James carted the sacks of food along after him and made quick time getting to the river. Once there, he glanced around, but just as it had been every day for the past week and a half, there was no sight of the Blitz-Tail. James hoped his theory wasn't wrong and he hadn't pinched all that food for nothing.

Lowering the bags, he used his wand to cast a few cutting charms to slice the bags apart and watched them spill out all the contents, creating a giant smorgasbord that no dragon should be able to resist. James knew full well if the Blitz-Tail didn't come for it, the Ironbelly would somehow find its way over to finish it off for him.

Prepared to wait all day if he needed to, James took a seat on one of the large rocks near the base of the hill. He glanced around, looked out over the river, and tapped his foot impatiently against the dirt. After a half hour of twiddling his thumbs, James began to doubt himself. Maybe the dragon was really just too skittish. Maybe Teddy and Charlie were wrong in thinking the dragon trusted him at all. Maybe dragons didn't really believe in life debts at all and it had accidentally drooled on his bullet-ridden shoulder. Maybe James should have spent his day off doing something more productive rather than waiting around for a camera-shy, anti-social dragon… like reading the entire dictionary.

With a sigh, James rolled his shoulders forward and leaned down until his bony elbows rested on his lengthy thighs. The river waters were still, no sign of the Blitz-Tail's presence to be seen, and it probably wasn't going to show after all. James picked up a nearby twig and began drawing shapes and squiggles in the loose dirt. He wrote his own name, spelled out dragon in all capital letters, and then erased it all with the bottom of his trainer to start over.

For shits, James began to draw a penis. He started with a thick base, fully-erect length, and a wide, mushroom-shaped head. He wondered if Teddy's dick looked like that when he was aroused. Shifting on the rock, he added the balls, grinning once the full design was there in all its jizz-holding glory. Just as he was about to start adding obscene details like some curls at the base and come spurting out the tip, James was startled out of his childish sketch by the sound of heavy breathing and the sudden gust of wind that rustled his dark fringe over his eyes.

The sound and heat were unmistakable—it felt like someone (or something) was breathing down his neck, and he had a very horrible idea of what it was that was doing it.

James stilled in his drawing. With every inhale behind him, James' hair pulled up towards the sky and with every exhale it flattened and spread over his forehead and eyes. With great caution, James tipped his head back. A dark, black figure came into view, upside-down by the time James was able to crane his neck enough to see it. Instantly, he recognised the wide snout, the sharp teeth, and the bulbous, red eyes before him. There was no mistaking it—his theory was right. The minute Charlie and Teddy (or anyone else for that matter) were out of sight, leaving James completely alone and harmless, the Blitz-Tail had come on out his own to see James. It wasn't that the dragon was camera-shy or socially awkward—it just didn't want to see anyone but James, because James was non-threatening, safe.

"Hey, buddy," James murmured, at a complete loss for what to say. Just what did one say to a dragon to get it to understand that one meant no harm? "I, er, brought you some dinner."

With guarded movements, James turned around on the rock. He had to crane his neck only a bit less from his new vantage point to see the top of the dragon's head, which was bony and bumpy, with two jet-black ears focused on every sound James made. James gestured to the piles of food waiting for the Blitz-Tail to consume, but the dragon didn't look at all interested. It was then that James noticed what was at the dragon's feet, partially clutched in one of its massive talons.

"Oh Merlin!" James gasped, backing away so fast that he stumbled off the rock he'd been sitting on and nearly tripped over some roots to get further away.

At the dragon's feet sat half of a wild boar, completely intact except for the obvious fact that half of the beast had been ripped off. Its insides dangled out of its large body, guts and blood pooled out of its skin and bones sticking out of its flesh at angles James would forever see in his nightmares. It was one of the most disgusting things James had ever seen, and the sight of what the dragon had obviously done to the boar just gave James a reason to panic being all alone with the Blitz-Tail in the middle of nowhere.

"Christ, just eat the rest of it, please!" James said, crawling back through the dirt and over all the food he'd brought. Finally, he found his footing and scrambled up, taking off at a run. Before he'd gotten past the bank, the dragon gave a low growl and charged out of nowhere in order to block James' exit. In its teeth, it carried the boar by its back leg, a trail of blood oozing out of the animal's body and down the dragon's chin. "Oh God, no…" James backed up, and the dragon moved forward. He turned and the dragon was there to meet him. At every turn, the Blitz-Tail blocked his escape, but it wasn't soon before James noticed that the dragon made no move to hurt him.

Finally, after what seemed ten minutes of playing cat-and-mouse, James went very still and watched the dragon do the same. Breathing heavy, James swallowed the prominent urge to vomit when the Blitz-Tail flung the dead boar at his feet. James looked down at the back half of the boar, then up to the dragon, which licked its teeth as it stared at James in turn. The dragon's red gaze flicked down to the boar, then back up to James, and he sat down across from James as if to wait for James to do what it expected.

And it was then that James understood.

"You…are giving this to me?" The dragon snorted, but it wasn't an angry sound at all, and James felt a shiver of gratitude pass between them. Instead of bile rising up in his throat, he suddenly felt choked with appreciation for the gift. He knew a lot of animals brought their kill to humans, as a present to show their admiration and affection. It awed James that the dragon felt that towards him. "This…this is brilliant. Thanks." He reached out to pet the dragon's snout, but the Blitz-Tail's eyes narrowed to slits and it let out a warning growl as it crawled backwards, clearly not ready for any pets. "Okay, okay, no problem. Here—um, why don't you have some of this food I brought?" James slowly moved back towards the piles of food laying out in the shade. "See? All of this is for you."

He gestured to it again and again, until finally the dragon's nostrils began to expand and deflate in quick succession. Once the dragon noticed, it gave a noise like a high-pitched purr and charged to the buffet that awaited, devouring half the meats in one chomp and lapping the meal up as if the food was to be its last dinner. James grinned, watching the dragon happily as he plucked a camera from his jean pocket and knelt to steady himself to actually take the photos. His hands and legs were shaking, but having the Blitz-Tail occupied with a task that didn't include throwing a giant boar at his feet or trying to eat him, he found it easier to calm his quivering limbs the longer he remained.

Only after he'd captured dozens of shots from various angels and zooms did James pocket the camera once more. The Blitz-Tail licked the bags clean, lapped at its teeth and what served as lips, and then hummed in what James could only assume was contentment. Its round eyes found James and blinked at him, ears alert.

"That's all I've got, pal," James said, holding his empty hands up. "More tomorrow, okay?"

They stared at one another, the dragon's gaze focused on James' eyes but James looking everywhere. The dragon had a few scars on its shoulders and along its legs, and he could count the number of scales on its wide forehead from their close proximity. It was weird to be standing so close to something so massive and dangerous and not be weeping in fear. Sure, his heart was still pounding nearly out of his chest, but there was a new emotion rapidly replacing the terror.

"You're amazing," James breathed, smiling. "I've never seen anything like you."

The Blitz-Tail didn't seem to understand James' awe, but James had a weird feeling that the dragon could not only comprehend what James said to it but that it was sending subtle messages back. It was the only way James could describe the sudden feeling of fullness and content that rolled over him. He wondered suddenly if dragons had empathic abilities and made a mental note to ask Teddy.

"Wish you'd let me pet you, though," James said, testing his little theory about the dragon understanding human speech. "Promise I won't hurt you. I've just…never really touched a dragon before. I work on the reserve with those other guys you saw, but I'm kind of…well, not really good at it, I guess, because I spend more time getting chased by dragons than helping them." He waited, half-expecting the dragon to nod in understanding, but nothing happened. The Blitz-Tail just sat there, head-cocked and eyes flitting from James' face to his shoulders and back with a steady expression. "Okay… Well, I've made myself clear, right? Won't hurt you, here to help you, would absolutely love it if you'd let me get closer—I can't really tell what you'd do if I tried again, though. And honestly, I don't want to get my hand bit off because of some foolish urge to stroke dragon hide."

The dragon's nostrils flared quickly as it snuffed out an exhale, its lip curling to reveal its unbelievably sharp teeth. For a moment, James' eyes widened with the thought that the dragon had just laughed at him, but he had little time to wonder if that was the case, as the dragon settled down on all four feet, turned from James, raced toward the water, and leapt out over the river, taking to the skies. It let out a long cry that James took for a goodbye, and disappeared beyond the line of trees and deep within the forest in seconds.

Exhaling, James brushed his hair back with both hands and spun around in a circle with a laugh. He was kind of dizzy with joy at seeing the Blitz-Tail again and decided to try and sneak back as often as he could manage without alerting Teddy and Charlie—for now, James wanted this moment for himself, and he could show them the pictures, maybe even give them a blood sample or extensive notes and scrapings after a time. It would really only be a matter of time before the Blitz-Tail let James get close enough to do what they needed at the reserve to classify him and start studying the magical properties of his bodily fluids, hide, hair, horns, thorns, and teeth. For now, though, James wanted this to be a private little secret that just he and the Blitz-Tail shared.

When he stopped spinning, James nearly tripped over the wild boar carcass still rotting there waiting for him. James felt guilty just leaving it there, when it was clearly a gift, so he waved his wand, levitated the remains, and brought them to the dragon camp, where he effectively snuck them into the Ironbelly's dinner.

The next day, James returned to the river during his lunch. Not ten minutes after he arrived, the Blitz-Tail swooped down and dropped a dead sheep at his feet. Its head and legs were missing, but James had a good feeling where they'd gone to. That day, while the dragon ate the food James stole for him, James was able to snap a few more photos and catch a bit of saliva in a small container.

The day after that, James arrived at the same time and didn't have to wait at all to see the Blitz-Tail—instead, he found it there waiting for him, half of a cow as his daily gift. But that day, the Blitz-Tail only ate a bit of the vegetables that James brought and left the rest, which happened to be full of onions. James jotted down a quick note that Blitz-Tails did not like onions on his parchment, which now contained various facts about the obscure dragon that Teddy and Charlie were likely to appreciate.

The week wore on in a similar manner, with James sneaking out to feed the Blitz-Tail and the dragon letting James get one step closer to it every day, until James could stand well beside it and feel the heat pulsing off its large body from their proximity.

The following week, James was late to get to the river, as Teddy had kept him late to clean up more dragon dung from the camp. When James arrived to their usual meeting place, he didn't see the Blitz-Tail anywhere and had a sinking feeling it wouldn't show, considering the lack of carcasses neatly laid out for James. But it was then that James saw a shape rising out of the river some distance away and knew instantly what it was.

Sneaking behind a bush, James got his camera out and snapped a few photos of the dragon swimming and diving beneath the current. James had never seen a dragon swim before, though he had always assumed the Blitz-Tail capable, since it had pulled him out of the river when he'd nearly drowned. But besides that, the thought hadn't crossed his mind that dragons might actually enjoy swimming like humans did. From the looks of it, the Blitz-Tail definitely did, as the dragon was rolling on its back, flapping its wings, and spitting water out between its teeth. It kept diving beneath the surface, flopping around like a fish only to go under and spring back up gracefully.

"So, you're a diver," James murmured to himself, grinning and getting that giddy, euphoric feeling that he knew by now was from being in the dragon's presence. It was nice. It made James feel loved. "Think that's what I ought to call you? Diver?"

The dragon stiffened in the water, glanced at James, and disappeared beneath the current.

"Oh, shit! Just me, buddy—not going to hurt you! You know, the usual."

James didn't even have time to get out from behind the bush—the Blitz-Tail was so fast that it had made the distance from the other side of the river to the bank where James had been hiding in mere seconds. It pounced, and James instinctively fell backwards, bumping his head hard on the ground as the Blitz-Tail caged him in and lowered its large head to stare down at him.

"Just me," James whispered, trying to be soothing, even when his voice cracked. The dragon's breath wafted over him, hot and dry in his face. "Not a fan of Diver?" he asked, swallowing the anxiety in favour of a teasing laugh.

The Blitz-Tail snorted twice, and James was almost worried that it didn't recognize him, but then its nostrils began to inhale sharply, and its head lowered even further, until its nose pressed to James' chest. When it inhaled again, half of James' shirt went up into its right nostril, tickling James. Laughing, James tried to roll away, but the Blitz-Tail continued doing it, until James was positive it was doing it on purpose.

"God, what's the matter with you?" James cried, in tears from the tickling. "Okay, okay, I give up, please!"

Maybe the dragon understood him or maybe it just decided to stop on its own, but either way, it finally pulled up. Those now familiar red eyes stared down at him, and James grinned.

"Diver's a bloody brilliant name," he murmured. "I think you're just happy to see me, aren't you? Afraid I wasn't coming, I bet."

The dragon snorted and stood very still for a long, silent moment. Then, it bowed its head again, this time pressing forehead-to-forehead with James. Its hide was rough and damp, the scales hard and unyielding against James' skin, but James had never in his life felt anything like it the moment they touched. A strangled noise escaped James, and his eyes widened, chest tight with the sudden rush of emotions swirling through his head. He felt love like he'd never felt it before, almost tangible between them, and an old loneliness that tore his heart out. James' chest rose and fell heavily and he couldn't help but reach up and touch the dragon's wide snout with his fingertips, running his hands along Diver's stiff black scales.

James was trembling so badly that he had to close his eyes to keep from crying. The more he touched Diver, the more he didn't want to let go and the less he felt aware of where they were or how long they lay like that with one another. All he knew was that Diver needed him, had been alone for a very long time before James had saved his life, and that Diver loved him with an unconditional intensity that made it hard for James to pull away. He wanted to lie there all day, letting the ebb of emotions sway between them. As much as he could feel what Diver felt, James also knew somehow that Diver understood his emotions as well.

Diver knew James felt guilty about Lily, felt responsible, felt completely alone in the world. The dragon knew everything, and James felt even more helpless to the rush of thoughts, emotions, and memories that plagued his nightmares. Touching the Blitz-Tail, James could feel Lily's hand slipping further and further away from his own, could hear her screams echoing from beneath a hurrying train, could hear Albus snarling that he hated his brother and never wanted to see him again, could see his parents living happily in their lives without James to bother them. James saw Teddy, walking like a ghost through his mind, stiff and beautiful and hard-bodied and perfect but not for James somehow, because James would never be good enough.

James saw all of his failures magnified, all of his fears thrust to the foreground, and it was overwhelming to the point that James could barely keep from passing out.

When the Blitz-Tail did finally pull away, James' face was wet with tears that streaked down his red-swollen cheeks and the sky was the colour of dark evening. He wasn't sure exactly how much time had passed at all, but it had been mid-afternoon when he'd come to visit Diver.

"It's okay," James murmured, though for the first time he didn't feel okay at all in Diver's presence. The euphoria was replaced with a dulled feeling of commitment and expectations. He felt like someone had just knocked the wind out of him.

Diver pulled away and stepped off of him, giving James ample room to move. But James was unable to stand to his feet, because his knees quivered too badly. Diver nudged him, offering his large snout to assist, and James welcomed the contact again, the rush of pleasure and affection that swept from the dragon's hide to his skin. Stroking the length of Diver's snout, James smiled down at him.

"Thanks," he said, and he stood on his own when the Blitz-Tail pulled away and whined at him. "Go on. I'm fine." He waved the dragon off, even though it looked like Diver would have stayed had he asked it to.

For the first time, James was glad to see it take off over the shore and disappear into the dense forests beyond. He needed a break, needed to get away, and he wasn't sure if he could manage coming back at all. The minute he was left alone, the tears came back in full force again, and he sobbed and stumbled his way back to camp.


oOo
"Where the hell have you been?" Teddy growled, hauling James into the cabin by his arm. "We've been worried out of our bloody minds! No note, no mention of where you'll be—nothing."

On the walk back to camp, James had managed to stop crying, but in the light of his cabin, the redness and swollen skin at his eyes visibly gave him away. At the look on James' face, Teddy's mouth pressed into a fine, concerned line, and his grip on James' arm loosened. His strong hand reached up and took hold of James' chin, tipping his face more clearly into the light.

"You all right?" Teddy's voice lowered, taking on a warmer, kinder tone.

James shook his head, gaze lowered in humiliation to the floor. He couldn't bear to look at Teddy, not when his eyes were filling with tears all over again, and the same unbearable ache in his chest constricted and tugged and hurt like hell. James both wanted to talk, to tell Teddy everything, and to be alone, to kick and scream and lash out at everything in sight.

"I can't help you if I don't know what I need to do," Teddy added, fingers sliding back to the back of James' lean neck and rubbing there comfortingly. "Come on, James. Talk to me."

Without verbal response, James reached into his pocket and pulled out his camera. He handed it to Teddy with dull resignation.

"That Bulgarian Blitz-Tail," James murmured. "I've been…meeting with it for the past week. It comes around when I'm alone. I named it Diver, because it…well, look at the pictures—he likes to dive."

Teddy tapped the camera with his wand and all the photographs captured within swirled up above them, showing the Blitz-Tail eating, playing, and indeed diving under the water. Teddy's eyes widened in surprise as he flicked his wand over each image to magnify or rotate as he saw fit.

"And I was able to get really close to it," James went on. "Close enough to scrape some of its scales—" Here, he produced a small vial, containing miniscule, bead-like shards that glistened in the dim light. "—And to gather a bit of its saliva—" James handed over a small jar. "—And even some blood." Only when Teddy had a handful of papers, jars, and samples did James stop producing things from his pockets. "But tonight, it… I don't really know what it did. All I know is that he let me touch him for the first time, and I never want to do it again, because I felt like somebody had punched me in the heart afterwards, and now all I can think of is Lily and the way she screamed and how it's all my fault that she's dead."

Unable to look at Teddy, James dissolved into tears again, shivering as he leaned against the wall for support. "I'm such a sodding mess! What the fuck was I thinking, coming here? I just—"

"Come here, James," Teddy murmured. Setting everything down on the nearby table, Teddy drew James into his arms without waiting for James to protest or give permission.

Still reeling from the effects of the Blitz-Tail's touch, James didn't say no when one of Teddy's hands found the back of his neck again or when the other landed at the small of his back and dragged his body against the length of Teddy's. Breathing in Teddy's scent, James fists his hands in Teddy's t-shirt, blunt nails dragging over the muscled chest beneath as he buried his face and let it out.

"I killed her," James murmured. "He told me to watch her, and I didn't care, because she'd been bugging me all day and I just wanted to be cool with my friends. I didn't give a shit about my own sister, and if I'd just grabbed her hand, she'd still be alive. It's all my fault. I killed her!" Repeating the words aloud that he'd been thinking his whole life just seemed to melt the weight from his stiff shoulders. "I miss her. Why did she have to die? Goddamn it, Teddy, why couldn't I have saved her? Everyone trusted me to look after her, and I couldn't even handle that."

Teddy was quiet for a long time, letting James say what he needed to say, and acted as a tether to which James could ground himself. Combing his fingers through James' hair over and over with one hand and rubbing his back with the other, Teddy pressed a kiss to the crown of James' head. Beneath him, James whimpered and wrapped his arms more tightly about Teddy's strong middle, feeling incredibly small in comparison.

"Nobody's perfect, James," Teddy said quietly, breaking the silence that had drawn over them like a blanket after James' outburst of a speech. "But you didn't kill her, and it's not your fault."

"Yes, it is," James growled.

"No, James—listen to me." Teddy's voice grew firm again, and he pulled back to hold James at arm's length, leaning down to catch James' gaze with his own. "Lily slipped. She fell. It's nobody's fault, least of all yours. You were a kid, James, and maybe you should've been watching her more closely, but it was an accident, and she wouldn't want you to beat yourself up for the rest of your life over her death, thinking you killed her."

James let out a long sob, his lips quivering. "I don't want to be like this anymore."

"James…"

"I know I'm an awful son, an even worse brother, and nobody likes me, because I'm horrible to everyone, even you, and you shouldn't have to put up with me being like this. I'm so fucked up, Teddy, and the only time I've felt even remotely like I could handle things was when I saved that Blitz-Tail's life."

Teddy smiled with sincerity and wiped James' cheeks with both of his callused hands. "It's amazing what you've done here," he whispered. "You can't be fucked up, because if that's the case, then Charlie and I are even worse off, because you've done more for this reserve than half the people who donate money and don't give an honest shite." He leaned in and kissed James' forehead. "I'm glad you came here, James. Really glad. And as awful as this feels, letting it all out makes you strong."

James shook his head, eyes searching Teddy's for understanding. "I don't feel very strong. I feel like a…"

With a sigh and a quirked brow, Teddy finished his sentence: "A faggot?"

"No," James said, but he lowered his eyes anyway, because he couldn't bear Teddy seeing the look in his own. "I'm…I'm sorry. About that. All of it. I was just…scared." James bowed his head, leaning until his forehead touched Teddy's strong shoulder and he felt Teddy's hand rub the back of his neck again. "Please…don't leave me."

"I'm not going anywhere."

"Promise."

"I promise."

They remained like that for as long as it took for James to still his sobbing and cry out everything he could, until his body was slack in Teddy's arms and they swayed in the evening air. It seemed to last hours, with Teddy's fingers swimming over the back of his neck and Teddy's scent swelling within his nostrils and Teddy's body warm and hard and wonderful against his own, a rock on which to cling to keep him sane.

When James felt as if his legs might give out from both the physical and mental exhaustion that weighed him down, he finally pulled away from Teddy and leaned against the wall instead as he wiped his eyes.

"Sorry," James said hoarsely, his throat raw from crying.

"For what?" Teddy asked, smiling. It seemed like he couldn't stop touching James, as his fingers immediately stroked James' cheek and he brushed his thumb over the swell of James' lips. "This is the first time I've ever seen you like this, and I'm really proud of you. For opening up. It's not easy, not for anyone."

Sniffling, James nodded. He understood. Of course he understood. He remembered then what the Healers and Therapists had told him back when he'd tried to listen to them—the first step was letting it out, coming to terms with the tragedy so that James could look at it from somewhere beyond and see it from outside of himself. At the time, he hadn't understood and thought he never would, but looking at Teddy and having said all he did, he thought maybe he did now.

"Thanks. For, erm, everything."

"No need. I'm here. Whenever you need me and whatever for."

James rolled his eyes and grinned a bit. "Faggot."

"Takes one to know one," Teddy quipped, raising both brows as if in a dare for James to deny it.

Instead of arguing the point as he might have a month ago, James frowned and looked down, studying Teddy's broad chest and the tear-marks James had left to soak it. "How'd you know?" When Teddy didn't immediately answer, James sighed. "I didn't know. Until…recently. I still don't really know."

"It's all right," Teddy said. "Some blokes go their whole lives without really knowing. And that's okay too. You have to go at your own pace. Sexuality is a really weird thing. For me and for a lot of other people, it's ever-changing."

James raised his gaze and felt his face warm. Teddy was still touching him, still close enough to kiss, and James had never kissed anybody before, but he wanted to kiss Teddy so suddenly and overwhelmingly that it hurt from his chest down to his toes.

"And what if I already kind of know?" James asked, voice hoarse for a whole new reason as he leaned in, anticipating what it would feel like to kiss Teddy outside a full fantasy daydream.

"Then you ought to pursue that line of thinking until it's not just a kind of thing."

Teddy leaned in to meet James, and James panicked. Their noses bumped. Teddy laughed, that warm kind of It's-Okay-To-Mess-Up laugh that he'd let loose when James had barely been able to lift a shovel full of dragon dung his first day at the reserve. They tried again, and James freaked out once more. Finally, Teddy slid his fingers to the back of James' neck again, this time with a possessive, aggressive grip. He tugged James' head forward until their lips brushed together. Teddy was quick to slide his tongue into James' mouth, sweeping over every inch he could find.

While James had never been kissed, he had spent a great deal of time fantasizing about what it might be like. It turned out to be better and more intimidating than anything James' puny imagination could have ever dreamed up. Teddy's mouth was hot and wet, his tongue smooth as it lapped over James', and his breath hard and huffed out in pants. It tickled James' spit-slicked mouth on every exhale, made him groan when Teddy teased with the promise of another kiss ghosting over his lips.

Teddy took full control of the kiss, manoeuvred James to get the angles he wanted, and led James beyond the kiss and into something else entirely. It didn't feel like any time had passed and yet it felt an eternity at the same time when Teddy's hands finally hiked James' t-shirt up and over his head and James followed suit and then somehow Teddy was cupping his balls and whispering all the dirty, wonderful, animalistic things he'd like to do to James in his ear. He said things like, "Could slide my dick in so slow it'd take hours before you'd come" and "If I shoved my tongue up your arse like I shove in your mouth, you wouldn't last five minutes." James knew Teddy was right, knew whatever Teddy did, he wouldn't last long at all.

But when he was naked on his back, lying face-up in his bed with Teddy's dick over his hip, he had a moment of absolute panic that if he fucked this up, then it was over between them—this could really screw everything up.

It seemed that Teddy understood the look, because he knelt over James and leaned down to kiss the concave of his flat stomach tenderly. "We won't do anything you're not comfortable with," Teddy said, a statement and not a question. "I could suck you off and be completely bloody content for the night."

James' dick jumped in agreement, precome already leaking from the swollen, red head. "It's okay. I want it all. Please."

Teddy grinned. "I like it when you beg."

Without further ado, Teddy lowered his mouth and licked a line up James' dick. Immediately, James saw stars and had to squeeze his eyes shut to keep from exploding in pleasure from just that one lick. When Teddy did it again, James cried out, both hands finding their place tangling in Teddy's dark blue hair.

"More, please more," James whispered. He could feel the pressure building, down from the tight, hot coil in his stomach to the hang of his balls to the base of his dick to the head, where Teddy was currently lapping like a cat. "Jesus Christ, Teddy, please!"

With the base of James' dick held firmly in hand, Teddy pulled James' dick back slightly and swallowed it whole, sloppily sliding the entire length as far down as it would comfortably go. James had never in his life felt a sensation quite like it, and within minutes of Teddy beginning to bob his head and suck, James came. Shouting out his release, he threw his head back and then lifted it suddenly, wishing to catch some of the white stripes that landed on Teddy's tongue, lips, and on James' hips.

To James' surprise, Teddy leaned down and cleaned him up, licking every single bit of come from his skin and swallowing it without cringe or debate. When he'd effectively cleaned James' skin, Teddy began to suck little love-bites into the sensitive flesh at James' hip, thigh, and pelvis, which only made James want to get off all over again. But his dick was throbbing, body sated with a fine sheen of sweat glistening over his pale form.

Running on pure instinct, James gripped Teddy's hair and yanked him down for another kiss. Teddy tasted like James, like salt and unmentionable things that made James flush and moan and writhe. He felt like he hadn't even orgasmed, like he could come again just from kissing his taste off Teddy's mouth.

"Spread 'em," Teddy commanded, taking hold of James' thighs and lifting them wide and obscene.

Arse exposed, James had to bite back a true, gut-wrenching scream of ecstasy when Teddy's tongue delved between his cheeks. It felt weird at first but wonderful about two point five seconds after, and James gripped the base of his dick and began to stroke it, hissing through his teeth at how sensitive his body was, how responsive to Teddy's passion.

Finally, after James was begging and pleading and warning Teddy he could come again, Teddy slapped James' hand away from his erection.

"Don't touch that again until I say so," Teddy said.

James nodded, pathetically aroused to the point that if Teddy told him to stand on his head, he'd have tried it. He couldn't hide the glint of fear as Teddy tapped his fingers and whispered a spell that James recognized from his private wanks—a lubrication charm. But Teddy didn't give him time to complain or question it; instead, Teddy slipped one finger in, right up to the second joint, before James could refuse.

Arching, James shuddered, feeling actual pain and fear for a moment before Teddy moved his finger and the uncomfortable friction was replaced with a strange, tingling warmth and a pulsing pleasure. Teddy hooked his finger and brushed something that made James think he'd just pissed himself or come—or both, somehow at once. The second Teddy's finger moved, the sensation was gone.

James clawed at Teddy's hand. "More," he growled. "More. There. Please. Gods!"

Only when James was writhing and bucking up into three of Teddy's fingers did Teddy remove them and replace the width with the head of his dick instead. James' eyes widened at the sight, like he hadn't had all this time to notice Teddy was large and that he wanted to put his dick up a hole way too small to fit it.

But James' voice caught in his throat as Teddy urged and guided his dick into him. Through the brief twinge of pain, blinding pleasure washed over him.

"Feels so fucking good," Teddy growled, bracing his hands on either side of James' head as he bent to press their bodies together and steal a kiss. "Tight little arse is all mine."

The possessive dirty talk really did it somehow for James. He gasped and twitched, reaching for his dick, only to have Teddy slap his hand away again.

"Not yet," Teddy said. "Trust me, James. Come on, baby, trust me."

"Keep talking," James demanded, closing his eyes. "And…and move, gods, please, Teddy!"

Teddy began to move, and James might have regretted commanding him to do it if not for the fact that Teddy coupled his first few thrusts with filthy language that made James' head spin. He called James 'baby' and 'sweetheart' but paired those endearments with coarse whispers of 'take it' and 'you love it' and 'goddamn so tight'. James was quite soon a slobbering pile of goo under Teddy's ministrations, and with every thrust that wracked the bed against the wall, James gripped Teddy's tattooed arms a bit tighter.

"Gonna come," Teddy warned. "Touch your dick—while I'm going."

Head spinning, James didn't ask questions but gripped his dick and began to rub and stroke and jerk. For the second time that night, James came. With a grunt, he bucked up against Teddy, riding out his orgasm just as he felt a splash of hot come up inside his arse. Teddy was relentless as he pounded James, but eventually slowed with a shout as he seemed to squeeze the last bits of come out of him.

James was the first one to collapse, the first to pant and wipe his sweaty face, but Teddy was soon to follow after gingerly pulling out of James' abused arse. Laying beside James, Teddy leaned over and found his lips, pulling their sweat and come-slicked bodies together in an obscene way that made James blush and shudder all over again.

"You okay?" Teddy murmured.

"Brilliant," James said, grinning. "Completely buggered."

"Good. That was the aim." Teddy looked at James and brushed the reddish-brown fringe from his sweat-damp forehead. "Mind if I sleep here tonight?"

James bit back a laugh. "No," he whispered, chest tight for a whole new reason. "You can sleep here every fucking night if you do all that first." At the look on Teddy's face, James' smile faltered. "What?"

"I just, ah, realised that you're…sixteen," Teddy muttered.

"Seventeen in a few weeks."

"You know what I mean."

"Please," James argued. "Don't be like that. Don't ruin this just because of a sodding number. I begged for it. Literally. So don't play like you're some predator going after jailbait—it's not like that."

Teddy nodded, smiling in a genuine way as he flopped back down and drew James half on top of him. "Okay. No worries. Won't freak out if you don't, I swear."

James nipped Teddy's nipple, grinning at the sound he elicited. "Good. Now let me go to sleep, for Merlin's sake."

For once, everything felt under control.


oOo
August, 2021

The cake read Happy Birthday James! and while it was just as skinny as James, it was just as tall to boot, every layer a new colour and flavour, filled to the brim on top with seventeen candles flickering in the light breeze that swept through the reserve. James had really never seen anything like it, the towering mess of cake and icing big enough to lie on if he wasn't so keen on eating every last inch of it instead. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been so happy and embarrassed at a surprise birthday party.

The weeks since Diver had touched him and since his first sexual experience with Teddy had flown by in a whiz of happy memories and long, hard days working in the German sun. James continued to see Diver whenever he found a chance and even managed to owl his family to tell them about the recent developments. He still couldn't find a way to fire-call them to speak in person, but he had a sneaking suspicion that Teddy and Charlie kept them as up to date as they needed to be. James wasn't surprised when he received a letter by owl post barely a day after his own, which gushed appreciation for the fact that he'd written and enthused that they couldn't wait to see him again once summer ended. Albus had even scrawled a quick note to say it was really cool that James liked the dragons, that he could see James doing well with the likes of Charlie and Teddy working beside him. Somehow, the note from Albus did the worst things to James' insides, making them coil tight and uncomfortably when he remembered all the awful things he'd done to Albus before he left.

But being around the Blitz-Tail nights and weekends became a passion that James couldn't quite describe in words. He tried to tell his parents, Albus, even Teddy, but nothing seemed to do it the justice it deserved. James continued to feel awed by being able to stand in Diver's presence, let along stroke his spine while he ate and extract blood from his tail or scrape his scales. It was easy now to get the things the reserve needed from him to be able to study and classify him.

And it wasn't long before James could introduce people to him. He started with Charlie, because he knew how badly Charlie wanted to get up close to the Blitz-Tail, and after extensive bows from Charlie and reassurance from James, Diver let Charlie snap a few photos and drag his gloved hands over his large talons to measure their length. Then, Teddy was introduced, then a few other workers, until the Blitz-Tail started to approach anyone who accompanied James to find him. As long as James was there, Diver sat or lay down and comfortably allowed any amount of dragon keepers to get near him.

Above everything else, James was proud. He had accomplished something—something that was not only good for the Schwarzwald Reserve but for all the wizards and witches in the world. Once Charlie figured out where the Blitz-Tail had come from and what other magical properties it contained, they'd be able to bottle new potion ingredients, study new medicines, and really help people. James had never thought he'd be a part of something like that, something that made him feel so good inside.

And while he'd said a million times in the past that the day he turned seventeen he'd run away and leave his family behind, James had no designs on that now that he was standing in front of the cake that proclaimed his age in front of the entire reserve. He knew what he wanted to do now, and it didn't include running away from his problems.

"Happy birthday, mate," Teddy said, ruffling James' hair with one firm hand.

James smacked his hand away, a little flush on his cheeks. "You baked this, didn't you?"

"Naw, I'm not great with pastries," Teddy admitted. "We had to hire a few professionals." Waving his hand to the crowd of reserve employees behind him, three people stepped out beyond the gathering.

James' wide grin melted into a surprised, pained kind of look. Before him, his mum, dad, and brother stood with hopeful smiles on their faces. Something about seeing them again, months after he'd shunned and hurt them, brought a lump of emotions struggling in James' throat.

"Hope you don't mind," Teddy said, rubbing James' shoulder. "I thought… I mean, I wasn't sure, but it's your birthday, and—"

"No, it's great," James whispered.

Unable to say anything more, James stumbled forward towards his family. Harry broke into a broad grin, Ginny continued to smile, and Albus looked a bit surprised as James wrapped his arms around his dad's thick waist and buried his face into his chest. Instantly, James was enveloped into the embrace, Harry's strong arms the first to wrap about him but quickly followed by Ginny's from one side and Albus' from the other. They stood like that for a long moment, until James felt a bit embarrassed to be clinging to his family as if he'd never seen them before. Especially in front of the entire reserve, who probably already considered him a baby and… But James held on for a minute more. The embarrassment he might have felt was nothing to the security of the moment in knowing his family did care and had missed him.

"You need to learn to owl more," Albus murmured, nudging James with a worried look on his face once they disentangled, like he wasn't sure if James would punch him for saying that or not.

James just grinned. "Yeah, I know."

"Come on!" Charlie called, marching in front of the reserve and holding one hand up. "We haven't even sung happy birthday yet."

"Oh, no, you don't need to—"

But James had no sooner gotten the words out of his mouth than Charlie started them off with the song. Even though James rolled his eyes and slouched his shoulders, he couldn't help but let the grin spread across his face. Embarrassed or not, it felt good to be wanted and worthy of being wanted as well. He let the camp sing for him, folded his arms to pretend he hated it, and then clapped along with everyone else when the song was through.

"Make a wish and blow out your candles," Teddy teased.

"Um, okay, but how do I get up there to blow them out? That cake's as tall as—hey!"

Teddy lifted James up with a grunt, settling him on his shoulders. It really took no effort at all for Charlie, James knew, but he pretended like James weighed a ton anyway.

"Might want to only take one slice of cake, tubby," Teddy snickered.

"Arsehole," James muttered, but he was still smiling.

Wobbled closer to the cake from Teddy's shoulders, James sucked in a large amount of air, leaned forward and blew the candles out in one, hot rush of air that depleted all the oxygen from his lungs for a moment. Teddy swung him around and set him back down on his feet, and when Teddy leaned in for a kiss, James didn't stop him. Even if everyone saw, including his family, he had no fears, no anxieties, and no reservations about kissing Teddy back and telling the whole world if that was what it took.

"Happy birthday."

"You already said that," James teased, nudging Teddy.

As the cake was cut and slices were passed out, Harry approached James and Teddy, giving Teddy a piercing, searching kind of look.

"I'd like to have a word with you after you eat, Teddy," Harry said.

Teddy looked sheepishly from Harry to James. "Um, if you're going to yell at me, Harry, I'd rather you do it when I don't have a full stomach."

"He's not going to yell," Ginny said, moving to stand beside him. She took Harry's arm, patting it lovingly. "Right, Harry?"

"Oh, I'll bet he was going to yell all right," Albus interrupted, nudging Harry from his opposite side. "I just heard him cursing when you kissed James. He probably thinks you've been perving on him since he was born or something. It is kind of gross, Teddy."

"What?" Teddy howled, eyes wide. "Oh, no, Harry, I swear, I wasn't—I mean, I didn't—"

"I came onto him," James said, shrugging at the look his dad gave him. "And I'm of age and perfectly capable of making my own decisions, thanks."

Harry looked him over and nodded. "I know that, James. I'm just—"

"Worried, I know," James finished. "But Teddy's a good guy. Trust me. And he's not been perving since I was born, by the way. Don't be disgusting."

Harry's face went a little red. "I, erm, wasn't…"

"It's a recent, development, I promise," Teddy appeased, smiling cheekily. "Cake?"

Teddy disappeared behind the other side of the large cake to help hand out slices, leaving the Potter family alone for the moment. James wasn't sure if he planned to do that anyway or if he was just too afraid to be next to Harry after having snogged his son in public.

"Teddy's been telling us about how good you're doing here, James," Ginny said, reaching out to smooth James' hair back. "We're so incredibly proud."

"Thanks." James ducked her further touch to fluff his hair back the way he wanted it.

"Do you think I could come to work with dragons next summer?" Albus asked.

"Speaking of," James said, glancing to his parents. "I…want to stay here."

Ginny and Harry exchanged a look. "You'll be here till Hogwarts, James," Ginny clarified. "That's the rest of the month."

"I mean after that," James said. "Diver needs me. I can't just leave him."

Harry nodded. "We'll have to discuss it later. I'm…open for dialogue about it at the very least."

As they dissolved into conversations about James' time on the reserve and enjoyed the cake, Charlie eventually interrupted to gesture to one large, oddly-wrapped present sitting at the base of the devoured cake.

"Don't you want to open your gift, mate?" Charlie asked, nudging James towards it with a wink.

"Only one?" James quipped. Nevertheless, he knelt before the present and began to rip off the wrapping paper with all his strength. When the gift beneath it all was finally revealed, James' entire body felt slack with gratitude. Running his fingers over the stiff leather of a handmade saddle fit for a Blitz-Tail, James had to struggle to bite back the tears that threatened to rise. An emotion he was still trying to understand swelled inside so strongly that he felt like he really might cry.

"We discussed it," Charlie said, moving to kneel beside James and placing his strong hand atop James' shoulder. "And we all thought that, given Diver's absolute trust in you, he might let you be the first wizard to ride a dragon. For that, you'll need a saddle."

James tipped his head to look at Charlie, about to ask if he was insane, but the look in Charlie's eyes spoke volumes beyond the value of the gift itself. "Thanks," James said, offering a simple, slim smile.

"So?" Teddy asked, inching forward and nudging James as he stood up, saddle in hand. "What do you think?"

Shaking his head, James glanced from his family to the staff at the reserve, whose handiwork could be seen on every facet of the heavy saddle, from the cut of the base to the sewing at the edges to the metal clasps and buckles and the straps and beyond. He was still too overwhelmed to put his thoughts to words, so he just grinned instead, until he was beaming around at everyone, laughing and happy and content to be alive.

"Only one thing left to do," James said, grinning. "Time to ride him."

Hours later, when James at last managed to saddle Diver up and climb aboard, he was seen clumsily flying across the edges of the river, winding through the trees and hanging on for dear life. The smile that lit his face up was matched only by a look of determination and contentment the likes of which no one recalled seeing on James until that moment.