Al has never been the smartest of people. Part of that, he knows, is due to the never-ending list of talents that his family members possess. It seems as if every single one of them is special, clever; they’re all uniquely brilliant.
For instance, Rose is smart, but also wild, full of exciting facts about dragons and explosive spells. She soaks up knowledge like a bright red sponge and spouts facts to anyone with a pair of ears. Hugo speaks seven languages fluently, cooks delicious gourmet meals and tutors struggling students. Roxanne sings like an angel, and can coax melodies from even the most stubborn instruments. Freddie has a passion for potions that borders on obsession. Dominique might have dropped out of Hogwarts, but she joined one of the most prestigious Quidditch Teams in the world, and her grades were always effortlessly high anyway.
Al speaks English, and sings off-key in the shower. Nobody calls Al dumb to his face, but nobody was surprised when he came home every summer with T’s to his name. They sighed a bit, and rolled their eyes, and patted his head. They were used to it, expected it, even. It had been embarrassing. Even Al’s dad, whom Aunt Hermione often says was oblivious and lazy when it came to schoolwork, managed to scrape the necessary grades for Auror training.
Not to mention the fact that he defeated the darkest wizard known to the magical world.
Al is twenty now, and school is a happy three years behind him. No more accidental potion explosions because he has trouble following the instructions. No more awkward, embarrassing moments where he stutters through the wrong answer to the teacher’s question. No more bad grades. Just a simple office job in the Ministry, filing reports that he doesn’t have to write, and a brand new studio apartment.
It’s small, his apartment, but it’s on the top floor of a set of flats overlooking Diagon Alley, and the rent is cheap enough that Albus doesn’t care about the size. It’s not as if anyone will be joining him, anyway. Louise is on holiday in France for the term, visiting his Mother’s family, and the only other close friend that Al has is Scorpius Malfoy, who’s a curse breaker. He’s a bloody good one, too, but that makes him highly requested, so his work takes him all over the world.
A box collides with his back and jolts Al out of his contemplation. He wheels around, flicks his wand and the procession of boxes makes its way reluctantly through the flat. Some pile up by the doors, and one temperamental box empties itself all over the living room floor. Al sighs, watches his socks make a bid for freedom, and then goes to find the kettle.
All things considering, Al’s life is pretty quiet. His flat is a newer model in the lower parts of Diagon Alley, all white walls and clean cream carpets. It smells of paint and the green tea that Al is particularly fond of, the kind that soothes his late night headaches. He has a few neighbours that mostly spare him a few curious glances in the morning as he fetches his mail, but otherwise they leave him alone. His best friend, his only friend outside of the family, is gone more often than not, spending his time digging up Ancient Curses in the pits of Cairo with Al’s Uncle Bill. Scorpius calls roughly once a month to yell excitedly about his latest find, pester him with questions regarding Rose’s latest boyfriend and then squeeze in a few platitudes before vanishing from the Floo.
“And what about this Rose?” Al shifts uncomfortably in his seat and watches the way that Duncan’s eyes narrow. “She’s your cousin, isn’t she?”
Rose is his cousin, but despite all expectation, they never developed the kind of friendship that their family assumed they would. Rose is firm and fierce and strong-willed, with a passion for Dragonology that had sparked their Uncle Charlie’s interest. He had recruited her right out of school, which she had blazed through with flying colours, and she had spent the last half a year in Romania, dodging Aunt Hermione’s calls about when she was going to come home and start a proper, sensible job. She’s loud and impressive, and Al doesn’t hate her, but he does hate how easily all of this comes to her.
“One of many,” Al replies. He plays with the Muggle puzzle in his hands, a cubic mechanism covered with different coloured squares. Duncan Grey’s desk is littered with odd toys and stress balls and pencils, just in case Al wants to write something down or doodle. There’s also a plaque, stating his doctorate, and his title as one of the leading therapist’s in the United Kingdom.
“You have a big family.” It’s not a question, so Al doesn’t bother answering it. Everyone in the Wizarding World knows that the Weasley-Potter-Delacour-Lovegood-Longbottom etc family is big and loud and impressive. It’s those things that Al takes issue with. He’s small and quiet and ordinary, despite the magic and the legacy that supposedly runs in his veins.
Duncan sighs and places his clipboard down on the table. He laces his fingers together and looks at Al over his hands, eyes firm but kind.
“I’m not going to beat around the bush, Albus,” he says. “I know how expensive these sessions are, and we’ve made no real progress since you told me about your headaches last week. Recovery is a long, slow process, and I don’t want to rush you. The last thing I want to do is pressure you or put you back a few paces. But I think we both know what is at the heart of your particular problems, and unless you talk about it, then I’m not entirely sure how much use I’ll be to you.”
Carefully, Al places the cube down on the table. Then he shifts it two inches to the right and brushes some invisible lint off of his trousers with his thumb. The clock ticks in the background and Duncan sighs and leans back in his chair with a squeak of leather.
“You don’t like to talk about your family,” Duncan states plainly. “I’d like to know why, when you think you’re ready.”
Al wrings his hands together. “It’s not that I don’t want to talk about them,” he says, although that isn’t quite true. “It’s just that I don’t know what to say. You know I’m not that good with words.”
Duncan nods, his expression keen. “You’re much better than you think you are. Besides, that’s nothing to be ashamed of. It doesn’t matter if you stutter or stumble, just as long as you try.”
Al nods slowly. He thinks of Freddie, one of the brightest and loudest of people that Al knows, the boy with all the pranks and all of the ideas, the one with what Muggles call Dyslexia.
“Freddie has Dyslexia,” Al tells Duncan, haltingly. “He’s, ah, another cousin. Older than me. My brother’s best friend. We all found out during his NEWT year. He had a break-down, told everyone that he’d been cheating for most of his school year, leeching off of classmates and friends because it was so – so hard for him to read. Then they took him to the hospital and to a few therapists. Got him diagnosed with Dyslexia.”
“Dyslexia is quite a common disability that affects people’s ability to read,” Duncan states. It’s the one thing that Al hates about his therapist – he always sounds like he’s reading a script from a book, like his advice is pre-meditated.
“I know,” Al says quietly. “And I don’t have it.”
Duncan raises an eyebrow. “Would you like to have that disability?”
Al shakes his head, frustrated as he thinks of a way to explain. He rubs a hand over his face and Duncan makes a small, soothing sound.
“It’s alright, Albus,” Duncan says patiently. “Take your time.”
Al breathes out sharply through his mouth and takes a deep, calm breath in through his mouth, like Duncan taught him. Breathing techniques don’t usually help when he’s on the brink of a panic attack, or in the midst of an episode, but they have their uses. It helps, sometimes, to clear his head and help him focus.
“I don’t want the disability,” Al says. “Any disability, really. I’d just like a reason beyond…”
Duncan leans forward. “Beyond what?”
Al bites his lip and then releases it. It’s taken weeks to curb the habit of biting through the skin on his lip, weeks for the small cuts to heal. He’s not about to relapse just because he’s having a stressful day.
“Beyond just being me,” Al says miserably, because that’s not the real answer, not the words he wants to say, but he can’t find the right ones, the ones that would help him explain it properly. He doesn’t want to be Dyslexic, but nobody expects Freddie to be able to read well, or quickly. He has a reason, a proper one. He isn’t stupid, he’s disabled. “Something that isn’t just me being who I am.”
He feels awful. He feels even more stupid – here he is, saying that he wants what Freddie struggles with every day, and it makes the guilt in his stomach tighten until he feels sick.
Duncan nods at him, but his face is impassive. A small trilling sound echoes from Duncan’s bag, and a flicker of irritation passes through the other man’s eyes. “You’ve made a good start today, Al. Unfortunately, our time is up for the day, but I’d like you to take something away from this session. If possible, I’d like to write down any negative thoughts you have about your family as you encounter them. As much information as you can handle. Maybe keep a small notebook and a pen with you, do you think you can do that for me?”
A week after he finishes moving in, Al bumps into his neighbour. There are three bags in his grip, each one crammed full of groceries, and Al is actually looking forward to a calm evening of cleaning and cooking and paperwork. He didn’t get the grades to be an Auror, but his father assures him that the amount of paperwork they have to do is at least equal to Al’s load. That doesn’t really cheer Al up.
His neighbour eyes him shrewdly. She’s an old woman, probably about fifty, and her grey hair is pinned up in bright pink curlers. She has a long green cardigan over her hunched shoulders and a pair of pink slippers on her feet.
“Let me get that for you,” Al offers, pocketing his keys as he bends down to retrieve the newspaper and milk bottles that are cluttering up the doormat. He leaves the bags on his doorstep, which is right next to the woman’s.
“Lost your wand, boy?” the old woman enquires. She has a husky voice, scratchy, as if she’s smoked ten cigars a day for most of her life.
“Uh,” Al says. “No? But my hands are free. Seems a waste not to use them.”
The woman regards him for a moment and then lets out an abrupt snort of laughter. She shuffles backwards out of the way, beckoning him inside, and Al follows her after only a moment’s hesitation. She seems harmless enough, although you can never be too sure.
“You can put the milk in the fridge, boy, and I’ll have the newspaper here.”
Al does as she says. She has the same kind of not-to-be-argued-with tone as Grandma Weasley. Al puts the milk away in the fridge, and frowns at the Tupperware boxes inside. There’s nothing fresh, and all of the food seems to be for one person.
“My name’s Al,” Al says, as he hands over the newspaper.
“Betsy,” Betsy replies, lowering herself into a tartan armchair. She opens up the newspaper, and disappears behind it. Al stands a little awkwardly in front of her and scuffs the toe of his shoe against the worn carpet. After a few long seconds, Al shrugs to himself and heads for the door, but Betsy’s cackle stops him short.
“These comics make me laugh.” She peers at Al over the top of her newspaper. “Have you seen them? There’s one about a cat in here somewhere. Do you like cats?” She narrows her eyes at Albus, as if his reply will cement her opinion of him. He nods dutifully.
“You do?” She nods firmly. “Good. Cats are good company, you know.”
“I do know, ma’am,” Al says. “My brother has a cat.” James does have a cat, although it’s more his girlfriend’s pet than his, and Al decides not to mention the time that James levitated it out of the window and into the garden because it jumped on his head at three in the morning. That would make a pretty good comic, he thinks, and vows to make a note of it somewhere.
Betsy sniffs a little, shuffles her newspaper. “You should take a leaf out of his book.”
Al hides a grin. He doesn’t think he’s been in a situation quite as strange as this before, but despite how awkward he feels, he can’t say he’s not enjoying himself a little.
“I should probably get my shopping away,” Al says, starting to walk backwards towards the door. Betsy heaves herself out of her chair and marches with him down the hallway. As he’s leaving, she takes the newspaper and shoves it into his hands.
“Read the comics,” Betsy says gruffly, and then produces a sickle from the pocket of her cardigan. Al tries to back away but there’s a purring sound, and something rubs against his ankles, halting him. Betsy uses his distraction to unzip his jacket pocket and shove the sickle inside, whilst Al tries to untangle himself from the ginger cat currently malting all over his work trousers.
“Buy yourself something nice,” she tells him, and then shuts the door in his face. Al blinks, a bemused smile in place, and withdraws the sickle from his pocket.
“Women are strange,” he tells his shopping, and then groans as he remembers the boxes of ice cream at the bottom of the bag. He supposes it will taste just as good melted.
It’s as if meeting one neighbour opens up invites for all of the others. Al makes a few friends over the course of the next week. There’s a guy downstairs called Adam Palter who keeps accidentally picking up Al’s mail, and a woman who works in the Ministry library on floor three that apologises when her kids knock him over as they race downstairs.
“They’re in a rush,” Jane tells him apologetically, juggling several backpacks and an open juice box, which is dribbling all over her thumb. “Actually, they’re always in a rush. I never get a minute’s peace between the three of them.”
“I get it,” Al says, hoisting himself up off of the ground. The floors here are pretty dirty and he doesn’t want to stay down for longer than he has to. “I have a big family, lots of cousins and nieces and nephews. They’re a rowdy bunch.”
Jane still looks pretty worried, eyeing him up and down as if he might be hiding several broken bones beneath his thin sweater. He grins reassuringly at her. She looks so harassed that he has to say something.
“You know,” he offers hesitatingly, “if you ever want more than a minute’s peace, I’m happy to babysit. I’ve got a bunch of references from school and work. Just knock on number twenty-five.”
Jane looks surprised, and then intrigued, and then distressed as a loud shout echoes up from the first floor. “I may just take you up on that,” she promises, and then rushes past, shouting another apology over her shoulder. Al shakes his head, wondering how he gets himself into these things as he heads upstairs to his flat.
When he gets there, Betsy is leaning against her open doorway, smoking a large cigar as her cat weaves its way around her slippers.
“Do you ever wear shoes?” Al asks politely, a bit of a grin on his face. It’s become habit to tease Betsy on her smoking habits and her fashion sense.
“Cheek,” Betsy says, sniffing indignantly. Her mouth twitches into a reluctant smile. The wrinkles all around her lips make Al think that she must have laughed a lot, when she was younger. He wonders why she stopped, why she lives alone, and then decides he doesn’t want to know. “I have old feet. When you get to be my age you won’t wear anything but slippers either.”
“Well, pink is my colour,” Al says agreeably, and then he lets himself into his flat to the sound of Betsy cackling.
It takes about ten minutes for it to dawn on him, that he’s just offered to babysit for a relative stranger. He makes a cup of tea, stirs in the four sugars, and then an accidental fifth as he stares absentmindedly out of the window. The glass is grimy, so the little light that filters in from the back of the flat has to fight hard to get though. He puts down the spoon, takes a sip of tea, and then searches through the mostly empty cupboards in search of something to clean with.
He doesn’t know what he’s doing. Not just with the new apartment, but with his life in general. He has two friends, and his family quietly looks down on him. It feels as if they’re always waiting for him to do something spectacular, but without actually expecting it of him. They’ve given up on expecting anything of him.
He firecalls his parents once a week, and goes for Sunday lunches once a month with the entire family, at the burrow. He gets to hear about all of his cousins new achievements. He gets to hear Lily wax poetic about her latest duties as Head Girl, gets to watch James and Lauren stare at each other with hearts in their eyes, feeding each other pieces of Grandma Weasley’s delicious apple pie. If he’s lucky, Molly might even drop in to ruffle Lucy’s hair importantly and remind them to vote for her in the upcoming Wizengamot election.
Al slams a basket of bleach and old rags down on the kitchen table, and then sits down, just as heavily, bypassing the chair and crossing his legs on the floor. He loves his family, and he knows they must love him, but he can’t remember the last time anyone ever professed that love. Probably at his Hogwarts graduation, which Al just barely scraped through. He didn’t pass most of his NEWT’s, but students have the graduation ceremony at Hogwarts whether they pass or not.
He wishes that he didn’t feel like this. He wishes that he could make them proud. An office job, where he files reports and claims, is boring, and easy. Living alone is easy. Shopping, cleaning and cooking – these are all things that come easily to most people.
Sometimes, Al wonders if he’s unhappy. The thing is, he doesn’t usually feel unhappy. He likes living alone. He likes the space and the quietness, the way it feels like a relief from the outside world. He has no one to impress here, no one watching him. He can just be himself. He only feels unhappy when he goes to his parents’ house, or to the Burrow, when he sees his successful, talented family in action, all loud and bright and smart. He feels small there. He feels like he’ll never be worth anything in their eyes.
Al only speaks English, and he sings in the shower, badly. He likes tea, and he cleans when he’s stressed. He sees a therapist. He has two friends, and one of them is his cousin. He isn’t smart; he’s simple.
He wishes that could be enough.