There was something about the uniform - black tailcoat, waistcoat, stiffly starched collar and pinstriped trousers – that made Justin look oddly out of time as well as place in the bustling, cluttered coffee shop, and it only heightened the sense of unreality Ernie already felt about the whole thing. He had seen his friend often enough in the assorted costumes of his station, from polo gear to dinner jackets, but this was different. It was first September, and that was the day that yellow and black striped ties and canary lined robes blinked sleepily out of trunks where they had slumbered all summer. For both of them. For all three of them.
Except not this year. This year, only himself and Hannah wore the familiar Hogwarts attire, and despite all the chasm of birth that had always been between them, he truly, achingly felt separate from Justin for the first time. Ernie looked down miserably at his tea, popping the lid off to swirl it slowly in the paper cup. "I'm so sorry about this."
"Not your fault, dear lad." Justin's smile was tight but genuine as he squeezed Ernie's shoulder. "By all rights I should have gone last year, truthfully. I love Hogwarts and all of you, but I need Eton. And it's only for a year."
"But then what?" Hannah protested. "You go to Sandhurst, I go full time at the Leaky, Ernie goes to University at Edinburgh...and when do we have time for each other?" She tore open the red tartan packet of biscuits, breaking apart the round inside and then shoving it quickly, oddly into her pocket as if the symbolism was too much. "Outside of school, it's not as if Peers are known for arsing about with bar wenches and shepherds."
Justin laughed dryly. "You obviously don't much read The Sun." There was a pause, too awkward for as long as they had been friends, and for the first time, Ernie saw a little of his own melancholy behind the smooth shield of the gray eyes. "Really. We're all being absurd. This isn't the twelfth century. Of course we're going to keep in contact...and there's gap year before that."
Ernie felt his eyes widen in surprise despite himself. "You still think we can do that? Even with all the..." he hesitated, unsure of what was safe to be said or where anymore. "...unpleasantness?"
"That's just nonsense," Justin replied at once. "Common turmoil and rumors which follow the death of any great man. A bit of a pendulum swing after the laxity of Fudge. It'll all sort itself quick enough, and none of that will have a gnat's fart of difference on my utmost determination to take the two of you on the Grand Tour next summer. I simply will not hear of refusal."
If they hadn't known each other since they were eleven, he'd have believed Justin utterly. As it was, he was only a little unsure, and he supposed that spoke better than anything else could have why only one of them had an unquestioned future in politics, society, and the military. Ernie knew well enough he was a poor liar, but it was fortunate that livestock did not much care. Still, he decided he would believe it, at least for now, and he allowed a smile of his own. "Haven't told my Da yet, you know."
"Do you intend to," Hannah tossed him a mischieveous little smirk. "Or just leave a note and bribe Robbie to take over for the season?"
Ernie shrugged, surprised at how little the topic of his father stung any more. An entire summer's fights on the subject of Macmillan Men Dunnae Need Cunting University For Ken Mince On Sheep had, perhaps, exhausted his ability to particularly care what was and wasn't approved of. "We'll blether about and it'll get messy, but in the end, I'll come; my word on it."
"Straight to Paris first," Hannah had retrieved the biscuit, swirling it briefly in her tea before gesturing to the two wizards with it. A drop of tea flicked onto Justin's tailcoat, but he didn't bother to wipe it away, and that as much as anything confessed to Ernie how distracted and distressed by the separation he really must be. "We'll get – well, Ernie and I will get – all the most fabulous things for the trip, and we'll decide who we'll be for the rest of it over miniature cups of coffee and glorious chocolate and stinky cheese at some terribly adorable cafe with a waiter who's so rude we'll feel perfectly grand about making vicious Nazi jokes at him behind his back."
Ernie couldn't help but laugh, marveling at how she could turn a mood faster than anyone he'd ever known. "Who we'll be?"
"Oh, you know. If we're going to be doing the Grand Tour with the Viscount of Riedhaven, we can't just be Ernie and Hannah. You might even," she tapped him on the nose with the damp last morsel of biscuit, "have to accept being Ernest for a while."
"Heavens no," Justin interjected. "He's only Ernest in the country."
The look Ernie shot him could have incinerated most of Antarctica, and Justin threw up both hands in mock surrender. "My sincerest apologies."
"A year from now," it was very hard to keep the dire frown, "I shall reconsider whether you and your so-called wit may accompany Hannah and I on our tour."
His reply came with a bow so deep and absurdly courtly that Hannah rolled her eyes behind him. "I shall await then your judgment and pray humbly upon your merc-"
The harsh, shrill blast of a train whistle elsewhere in the station cut him off, and Ernie sighed, checking his watch to confirm that reality had, in fact, barged its ugly way into their world again. When he looked up, Hannah and Justin were hugging, and he hesitated only a moment before wrapping his arms around both of them in a tight, almost desperate clutch. "We'll be okay. We will." Hannah's murmurs from within the forlorn knot were half promise, half plea.
Another blast of the whistle, and the knot unraveled into an awkward trio of teenagers who felt abruptly too young as they tugged things back into place and adjusted the straps of bags. It was Justin, of course, who recovered first, clearing his throat and extending a hand. "Only a year, then."
Hannah took it first, then Ernie, and he didn't care that his friend could see the smile wasn't real at all. "Less than that. Ten months."
"And then we'll have the whole world in front of us."
Hannah had not even tried to smile, and Justin held their eyes even after he could no longer make the handshake linger. "Of course we shall. Only a year. Less than that."