Hugo stepped out of the fireplace gracefully and wiped the residual Floo-powder from his sleeves. Someone should invent a cleaner mode of travel, he thought absently before calling, "Darling! I'm home! What's for dinner?"
"Precious! Welcome home," a male voice said from a nearby doorway. Hugo stiffened, even though the falsetto tone made it obvious the man was joking. Hugo turned and forced a smile.
"James," Hugo said, trying to stifle his nervousness and not act like an idiotic schoolgirl with a crush. James was his cousin, for fuck's sake. They had known each other since Hugo's birth. "I didn't know you were home."
James laughed, a deep, rich sound that Hugo had always envied. James always seemed to laugh from the centre of his being. "Obviously. Don't worry; your love affair with my sister is safe with me."
Hugo frowned, hoping James didn't honestly think there was anything between him and Lily. Most people thought it was true and they never did much to discourage the notion, but Hugo really didn't want James believing the idea.
"James," he began, hoping to put it to rest, but James tossed something at him with a shouted, "Think fast!"
Hugo caught it, lightning quick despite his heart leaping into his throat. An apple.
James laughed. "Hugo, I swear, you should have been a Seeker. Why don't you play Quidditch, like Rosie?"
"I like what I'm doing," Hugo said, stung at the words. Would James honestly think better of him if he played that ridiculous sport? "Besides, you quit, and they were calling you the next Victor Krum."
James snorted. "You know why. I didn't feel like dodging Bludgers for the rest of my life."
And he didn't want people constantly comparing him to Harry Potter, Hugo knew. Hugo knew everything about James, even things James didn't know he knew. Some of it he had gleaned from the Potter siblings, but most of it Hugo had sussed out on his own after years of hero-worship.
Truth be told, James was still something of a mythical figure to him, even though it had evolved from starry-eyed admiration to a full-blown romantic crush.
"That's dinner, by the way," James told him and cocked a finger toward the apple in Hugo's hand.
Hugo had to laugh. "You know I do all the cooking. Or you would if you were ever here." He looked at James pointedly.
James sprang forward and pulled Hugo into a headlock before scraping his knuckles over Hugo's skull roughly. "Awww, do you miss me, Huggie?"
Hugo groaned and swung ineffectually at James, even though he could only reach an elbow and gouge his ribs weakly with his partially-trapped arm. "Stop it, James, you know I hate that nickname. And stop nooging my head. My hair is enough of a mess as it is."
He didn't mind the closeness, however, or James' arm around his throat and his clean, spicy scent filling Hugo's nostrils. James smelled like soap; had he just showered? He left off bruising his skull, but did not release his hold. Instead, he dragged Hugo into the kitchen. "Does that mean you'll be cooking tonight?" James asked with something of a hopeful lilt.
Hugo chuckled and manoeuvred his arm around James' waist, marvelling at the feel of the slender hips for only a moment before applying a sharp pinch to the flesh just above James' waistband. "Let me go and I'll think about it."
James swore and released him. Hugo straightened and glared at James, who rubbed at his side with a petulant expression. It was almost mesmerizing for a moment. James Potter had grown up to be simply stunning. His hair was a cross between his parents', thick and messy like Harry's, but lighter in tone with a hint of red. His eyes were incredibly blue and their grandmum said the colour came straight from the Prewetts.
James grinned at him and Hugo admired his brilliant smile, which always seemed to light up the room. It certainly did a number on Hugo's heart. Powerless against it, he smiled back. "What are you doing home, anyway? You're never here."
Hugo turned away and opened the door to the pantry, mentally sorting through the foods James liked best. Roast beef was out; there wasn't time. Fish and chips would be simple, but Lily would complain about the smell. He tossed the apple back into a large bowl on one shelf.
"I'm here all the time!"
Hugo threw an incredulous look over his shoulder. James worked in the Security Department at Gringotts. His hours were beyond ridiculous. Hugo and Lily worked at St Mungo's and they rarely saw him. "Please, we see Rose more than we see you."
"Aw, do you really miss me, Hugo?" He felt two hands grip his hair and tug, just the way James used to do when they were children; he had always seemed fascinated with Hugo's curls. Hugo loved the feel of James' hands carding through his locks; that hadn't changed at all since childhood.
"Of course I miss you, pillock," Hugo said lightly, although he closed his eyes to memorize the feel, and scent, and sheer presence of James. "I miss digging your filthy socks from the couch cushions and hanging up the towels you leave to mildew on the bathroom floor."
The hands left his hair only to drop lower and squeeze his shoulders as James leaned forward and breathed in Hugo's ear. "You sound like a nagging wife."
Hugo's eyes snapped open and he suppressed a shiver. "Keep it up and you will be having an apple for dinner," he warned. "And you still didn't say why you're home so early."
James took his hands away and walked to one of the cabinets. He opened it and pulled out a drinking glass. "It's some sort of Goblin holiday tomorrow. They closed the bank early and sent everyone home. I'm off tomorrow, too. Hey, speaking of that, what are you doing tomorrow?"
Hugo was surprised for only a moment. Gringotts rarely closed, but he remembered a few sporadic occasions when it had. He opened his mouth to reply, but an owl flew into the room and landed on the table.
Hugo hurried over and detached the message from the owl's leg. James fished an owl treat from a bin in the cupboard and tossed it to the bird.
"It's for Albus," Hugo said and went into the other room to grab a handful of Floo powder. He tossed it into the flames.
James lurked in the doorway and watched him. He had retrieved the apple and took a large bite out of it. "How does Al keep the owls coming here, instead of locating him?"
Hugo snorted. "Do you think he'll divulge that secret? Some spell he concocted. The Ministry would probably kill to learn it."
Scorpius Malfoy's head appeared in the flames. "Hi, Hugo."
Hugo handed him the message. "It's for Al. Remind him that his mum is dropping by tomorrow afternoon to take him and Lily to see Bill and Fleur."
"Yeah, all right. Thanks, Hugo."
Scorpius disappeared and Hugo got to his feet again, shaking his head. "I don't know why they don't just admit that Albus is living with Scorpius, instead of here. Why is it such a bloody secret?"
"Albus likes secrets," James mumbled around another bite of apple. "He lives and breathes secrets, which is why he's applied to become an Unspeakable. And Dad would have a thestral if he found out Al was shacking up with a Malfoy."
"Uncle Harry should get over that whole Malfoy thing," Hugo muttered, barely remembering what had started the Potter-Malfoy war to begin with. "They should have known they couldn't keep Al and Score apart."
"Yeah, well, Albus is good at hiding things and our parents like to be oblivious about things they don't want to see." James tossed the apple core into the air and Vanished it before it hit the ground.
The fireplace roared and Hugo missed getting out of the way. He sprawled and nearly went down when someone popped out of the fire and bumped into him. James caught him before he fell.
"Sorry, Hugo, what are you doing standing in front of the fire? Were you leaving?" Lily asked. "James! What are you doing here? I thought you lived at the bank."
"Very funny," James said, righting Hugo and giving him a clap on the shoulder. Hugo smiled at him and hoped he didn't look as goofy and dumbstruck as he felt. "Goblin holiday."
"What's for dinner, Hugo? Unless you're leaving? Were you going out? Do you have a hot date?"
Hugo flushed when James turned a curious stare on him. "No, I'm not going anywhere. I was thinking Chicken Picatta, since James is here."
"Brilliant!" Lily breezed through the room, shedding her clothing as she went. Her robes were the bright yellow of a Medi-Trainee. They looked good on her, but she was always vocal about how much she hated them. She tossed the robe and cap toward a chair and the robe caught on the arm, but the cap sailed over and hit the wall before dropping to the floor. Hugo sighed, knowing he would most likely be picking that up, later. He adored the Potters, but they tended toward slovenliness. All except Albus. "I'm off for a bath. I smell like sick people. Back in a few."
"I'll help you, Hugo," James offered and steered him toward the kitchen. "What do you need me to do?"
Just lean against the counter and look gorgeous, Hugo thought happily.
Hugo survived dinner preparation, even though he nearly sliced his own hand off when James rolled up his sleeves to wash the vegetables. He loved James' forearms. They were strong and flexible and tapered beautifully to James' wrists and amazing hands.
"What?" James asked. "Am I doing this wrong?"
Hugo snorted and resumed chopping. "No, you're doing it just right," he said dryly.
He tried to avoid staring after that, and kept up a steady line of chatter, talking about everything from vegetables to wand cores. Luckily, James never seemed to mind. He let Hugo babble and only interjected comments now and again.
Lily breezed back in once the meal was nearly ready. "Can I help?"
James tossed an onion at her. "You can set the table, lazy brat."
She stuck out her tongue at him, but pulled out her wand and spelled the dishes onto the table. She fetched drinks for them all before sitting down.
Hugo Levitated the chicken over, along with the rice, and James fetched a loaf of bread from the pantry. Hugo felt a faint rush of pleasure as James took the seat next to him.
The chicken was perfect, smothered in a buttery lemon sauce with capers. James took a bite and made an orgasmic sound that went straight to Hugo's loins. "Merlin, Hugo, I forgot what an amazing cook you are. Where did you learn this?"
"Grandmum. No one else wanted to know." Hugo shrugged and took a bite. He tasted almost nothing, focused too closely on James' elbow, which kept brushing against his.
"It's perfect," Lily added and clinked her butterbeer bottle against his glass.
"What are you doing tomorrow, Hugo?" James asked between bites, reminding Hugo that he had already asked that question.
"Working, naturally. Goblin holidays don't affect the rest of us."
"But your job is relatively flexible, yeah? Or you can call off?"
"Well, yeah, I guess. I'm sure Mum won't mind." Hugo worked as a Spell Damage Researcher for St Mungo's. He technically worked for the hospital, but he worked in his mother's department, so he often did research that had nothing to do with patients. Hugo didn't mind; it kept him from getting bored. His schedule and Lily's tended to coincide, which seemed to be the exact opposite of James'. They all lived at Grimmauld place, but only Hugo and Lily saw each other on a regular basis. Rose was always off travelling with her Quidditch team.
"Great!" James said. "How about you, Lils? You busy tomorrow?"
Lily scowled. "Mum is taking Albus and me to see Bill and Fleur, because it's ever so important that we all fuss over Fleur because she's going to have another baby. Merlin, don't you remember?"
James winced. "Better you than me."
"I should tell her you're free tomorrow."
"Don't you dare!" James warned. "I can go see Uncle Bill and Auntie Fleur on my own, thank you very much. Without putting up with Mum."
"I think you might owe me for keeping silent."
"Fine, brat. I'll bring you a present."
Lily beamed. "Thank you, James."
James frowned at her, but then turned to Hugo with a smile. "Well, good! It will be just us, yeah?" James punctuated his words with a clap of his hand on Hugo's thigh.
Hugo swallowed and nodded, feeling a blush creep into his cheeks when James did not immediately remove his hand, but instead squeezed gently. Sometimes Hugo wished James wasn't so tactile.
"What do you, um, want to do?" Hugo asked. Lily nearly choked on her drink and Hugo kicked her under the table. James looked at her curiously.
"Sorry," she said, sounding anything but apologetic. "I'm sure you two will think of something." She threw an exaggerated wink at Hugo when James turned to grin at him. Merlin, how had she guessed? Hugo had never admitted his crush to anyone. Trust the former Slytherin to figure it out.
"I have something in mind," James admitted and Hugo spent the rest of the meal imagining things that were probably light years from what James had in mind.
Hugo rose early the next morning, out of habit, and went to the kitchen to get breakfast started. To his surprise, Albus was there, seated at the table with a coffee mug clutched in his hands.
"Hey, Al!" Hugo greeted with a smile.
Al made a sound that resembled a growl. "How are you so cheerful at this hour? Honestly, it's a crime against nature."
Hugo looked at Albus critically and wondered why he had never been attracted to Albus, who was just as handsome—if not more so—than James, and closer to his age. Apart from the fact that Albus had been practically bonded to Scorpius Malfoy since the first moment of their meeting, of course. He decided it was because Al was thinner, paler, and his eyes held something in their depths that was almost terrifying. Something the Sorting Hat had obviously recognized when it had Sorted him into Slytherin. Albus did not give of himself easily, whereas James seemed to fling his personality and charm upon anyone within range. His openness was one thing Hugo liked about him.
"Morning is nature's way of saying wake up?" Hugo suggested.
Albus' glare could have melted a cauldron. Hugo grinned and sidled across the kitchen to start a pot of tea. "I hate this. I left my lovely bed and my fabulous boyfriend to take a trip with my mum and sister to visit my pregnant aunt. Your cheerfulness is not at all appreciated."
"How is Scorpius, by the way?" Hugo asked mildly.
"Brilliant," Albus replied grudgingly and Hugo glanced at him, fascinated by the way Al's features always changed whenever he talked about Scorpius. Their relationship was almost beyond comprehension. They were seldom apart by choice; they had been enamoured of one another since they were eleven years old, and nothing had been able to shake them apart. There had been a few rough patches at school, but the Slytherin couple had weathered them and emerged even stronger. Still, they hadn't yet braved the true peril—Draco Malfoy and Harry Potter. Both men would be utterly opposed to such a relationship and everyone knew it.
Hugo suspected Albus and Scorpius would survive even that fight, when it came. They would most likely forsake their families, if necessary, to be together. Hugo thought they might forsake air in order to be together. It was a sobering thought, contemplating a love that strong. Hugo wondered if he even wanted such a relationship as theirs. It seemed almost too much.
He thought about James and a strange ache grew in the region of his chest. Not only would he never have such an all-consuming love as that of Albus and Scorpius, but he was probably doomed to worship the object of his fantasies from afar for the rest of his life. It was a depressing idea.
"Where is the sugar?" Albus asked and Hugo snorted, glad to be drawn out of his maudlin musings.
"Albus, you might try to pretend that you live here, at least. What will you do if your mum asks for a plate?"
Albus shrugged. "Blame your Ravenclawish tendency to rearrange things for my inability to locate one."
Hugo chuckled. He should have known better than to doubt Al's ability to slither out of any situation. After all, he had successfully hidden his torrid love affair from two very powerful sets of parents for nine years. Hugo had been sorted into Gryffindor, but his Ravenclawish tendencies were well-known. He was often compared to his scary-smart mother.
Lily stalked downstairs a moment later and sat across from Albus, looking like his counterpart in attitude, if not appearance. "This sucks," she said.
"It will be good to see Bill," Albus said cheerfully, always willing to contradict a sibling.
Lily ignored him. "Hugo, is that tea ready?"
After a flash Heating Charm, Hugo poured the boiling water into a large mug and dropped in two teabags. They often joked that Lily liked her tea strong enough to stand a spoon in. He set the mug in front of her along with the sugar bowl and then backtracked when she and Albus simultaneously reached for it and started a wrestling match with the poor container.
Hugo expected that sugar would soon be exploding through the kitchen, so he mumbled an excuse and fled. He didn't envy Aunt Ginny being stuck with those two all day. The sarcasm alone would be thick enough to wade through. She was a brave, brave woman.
When it was safe—after their mother had dragged off the protesting siblings—Hugo returned to the kitchen. To his relief, the sugar container was still whole and the sweet substance was not scattered all over the room.
He had just tossed a number of sausages into a skillet when James breezed into the room, nearly making Hugo's eyes bulge from their sockets when he saw that James wore nothing but burgundy pyjama bottoms printed with golden Galleons. James' red-brown hair looked a fright, thankfully luring Hugo's attention away from the rippling abdominals and muscular chest.
"Morning, James," Hugo said lightly and turned back to his cooking, knowing the diversionary qualities of James' hair could not hold a candle to the power of his bare flesh.
"Hugo. I'd hoped you were making breakfast. Is there tea?" James walked up behind him and rested his chin on Hugo's shoulder, ostensibly to peer into the pan.
"There is hot water there," Hugo said and waved a hand toward the kettle. "Your mug is waiting, so you'll just have to drop in the tea."
"Mmmm," hummed James and then wrapped his arms around Hugo's waist in a gentle hug, nearly sending Hugo out of his skin. "How about if I just go back to sleep right here? You make a nice pillow."
Hugo shut his eyes and wondered what it would be like to lean back into James' embrace and curl his fingers around the arms holding him. Merlin. For a moment he thought the longing might kill him, so he shook it off and forced a chuckle. "Maybe you should just go back to bed for a bit, silly."
"Mmmm, no. Slept too long, already," James mumbled. "We have things to do."
"What things?" Hugo asked. "You never did tell me exactly what you have planned."
"You'll see," James replied enigmatically and let go of Hugo to step away and prepare his tea. Hugo tried not to mourn the loss of his touch and returned to his cooking with determination.
"That's not very comforting."
"When have I ever steered you wrong, Hugo?"
Hugo laughed and looked at him incredulously. "When I was six and you coaxed me into taking one of Grandmum's pies. In my first year at Hogwarts when you told me I wouldn't be a true Gryffindor until I slid down the third floor banister. And the time you talked me into nicking Tiffany Martinson's knickers for Reggie Thomas. And when—"
James chuckled and held up a hand. "Enough! I mean recently!"
"Not including the holidays?"
James groaned. "Merlin, we were drunk, weren't we?"
Hugo nodded, but his smile faded a bit. Not drunk enough to put his plan into motion of luring James beneath the mistletoe. He had fantasized about it for a month, plotting a dozen different ways to make it happen. And all for naught. James had avoided all forms of greenery like the plague, and spent New Year's Eve firmly planted on the couch, getting slowly obliterated on Firewhiskey Fizzbombs until he passed out. Granted, he had passed out with his head on Hugo's lap, which was nearly as good as a kiss beneath the mistletoe. Until he had awakened the next morning with a set of muscle cramps that had taken three days and assorted potions to work out.
Still, it had been worth it.
James sipped from his mug and made a sound of intense pleasure. He ruffled Hugo's hair and said, "I'm going to get dressed. Be back shortly." With that, he went out, taking his tea with him.