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Chapter 3 : III. Getting the Girl to the Ball
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III. Getting the Girl to the Ball
"I... don't like you that way."
Six words (six and a half, counting the contraction). Six words to make his heart lurch with his greatest fear, for the common room to spin and topple like thousands of bricks.
Ellian had her eyes shut very tightly, bracing for something from him, but James wasn't sure what that something was either. His chest had become a void, airless and vast, and somewhere floating in limbo, his heart struggled to breathe.
But James wasn't sad-and-rejected as much as worried. He had crossed the line and there was no redrawing of the line. Even though he and Ellian would always be friends no matter what he wouldn't have blurted out his love otherwise they weren't going to be the same. They were going to be... awkward. Hell, it was awkward right now. He'd start on damage control but there were no fancy words, no James Potter Plan to weasel out of this.
One step at a time, he supposed with a cracking sigh.
First thing: Ellian still looked as if she were about to get hit by a train.
James put on the brakes and sat back in his seat. "That's okay," he mumbled wearily.
Ellian opened one eye. "It's okay?" She spoke delicately. James appreciated the thought considering her usual bluntness.
She bit her lip. "Really?"
"Right, um." She pushed up her glasses, eyes darting around the less awkward nooks of the common room, a faint blush coloring her cheeks. "Look, maybe you should ignore this. There's probably something wrong with me. I mean, everyone except Professor Ringleward likes you, and we all know that "
" Ringleward only likes prune juice," James and Ellian both finished.
They both smiled a little.
"I had a hunch that you might, you know," she mouthed the taboo word, "fancy me." Head bowed, she tapped her fingers at the edge of the table, and it sounded suspiciously like Morse code for S.O.S. "I just didn't want to face it, 'cause then... this."
Ellian flapped her arms. This was currently him and her and a stack of data that grew more ironic by the second.
James scooted his chair around the table and pushed the papers away. As much as he wanted to grab her hands (they were right there, all two of them), he kept his heart at bay. "Is that why you've been like that the past week?"
He mirrored her arms, flapping them like a goose. "Nervous."
"Oh." A touch of that nervousness painted her voice, maybe from his sudden movement, maybe from the fact that their knees were nearly knocking together. "You could tell?"
"Ells, I'd be ashamed of myself if I didn't."
He didn't, but in retrospect, he could have and that was almost the truth.
As her cheeks returned to a more normal shade, James hunched forward with his chin sitting atop both hands and ventured into less cautious territory. "Can you say what you do feel then?"
Ellian took in a deep breath that seemed to swell like a soundtrack, culminating in an anti-climatic "...no."
She bit her lip. Morse-code tapping. "I mean, I don't know. Um, well, it's hard to describe. It's... I love spending time with you. And humoring your stupid ideas "
"Hey! They are not all right, they're pretty stupid. Go on."
Running her fingers through her hair, Ellian smiled sadly. "You're just... I don't know. You're my favorite person, James, and I don't want to toss you in the friend-zone but I just can't find the fireworks. Never have."
But she had said that the one you loved was like your best mate.
James had kept his emotions well-contained until now, too focused on Ellian to mind the spiderweb of fractures building up on the surface of his heart. It didn't hurt as much as make him queasy, as if someone else's hands were moulding it, stretching it beyond its capabilities. It was muscle, not taffy.
The heave of Ellian's shrug lifted her shoulders like a bowl. "It's totally me, not you. I've been thinking maybe I'm just not made like that fireworks and everything. It wouldn't be fair of me to say I love you back the same way. I love you as much as a friend can... up to but not including the kissing bits."
I love you. I love you.
The epitome of blasι, she didn't even seem to notice it and James practically went agape. "Wait, so you do love me?"
"Of sorts," she said, turning pink, "but not in the love you're looking for."
He was aware he was staring at her like a loon (both the waterfowl kind of loon and the loony kind of loon), and practically squawked out the next word as his throat couldn't keep up with the excitement. "Technicality!"
James took both of her hands in his, which may have not been the best idea in his haste, because Ellian immediately shuffled backwards, giving them the biggest shock from carpet static.
Clearing his throat and taking her hands slowly this time, he started again, "A very wise girl once told me that love is when someone makes you happy and you want to make them happy."
Ellian paused. "Did I really say that?" Another pause. "God, that's cheesy. You're rubbing off "
"Ells, you're ruining the moment."
He wondered if half the reason he fancied her was just because she was so bad at this (rather sadistic of him, no surprise). Then again, he wasn't an expert on love either, and at least she wasn't trying to write a book on it.
"But," said Ellian, hands tensed as if about to take flight, "it's no different than how we are now."
"That's okay, I like now." He had fallen in love with now-Ellian.
"But will you still want this later and nothing more? Are you okay with that?"
They had stumbled far off the planes of his knowledge now. So, he was in love with his friend who loved him back but not in the same way but technically she did whatever that even meant. Was he okay with that?
"So this means you might feel those fireworks for someone else?" James asked tentatively.
"I don't know. I haven't felt that way about anyone before."
"And you never want to kiss me."
"Things could change but... I don't know."
"And you just consider me your best mate."
"I guess but..." Ellian shrugged.
She wasn't giving him very much to go on.
But when James followed her intermittent glances at him, he saw that she knew as little as he did and was stumbling around scared just the same.
That was the moment. Everyone knew that the real purpose of a self-help book was to get the epiphany moment when one could chuck it over their shoulder and make their own rules. James' book wasn't even written and he was already hurling it into a lake.
But if he had written it, he would have put only one line: no one knows what they're doing.
Sometimes the worst pick-up line is the best. Sometimes the boy gets the girl, even when she's twenty thousand leagues under the sea out of his league, and sometimes he won't. Sometimes you have to make it up as you go along.
At that moment, James threw out everything in his head and dug out what mattered. "We don't need to make this anything if you're not comfortable." He stopped clasping her hands so tightly and her slender fingers seemed to float above his. "But sometimes, I might want to kiss you. If you can bear with that, I can bear that I won't get that kiss. You're the best thing I've got, Ells. I just want you."
He watched Ellian's stare change into one no short of pure, utter wonder as her smile broke through to her cheeks, wide and blinding. If he had a camera, he would have taken a picture of that moment, except Ellian hated having her photo taken, and the last frame would be something like trying to wrench the camera away from him.
Then Ellian leaned forward and kissed him.
It was more of a peck and his mind blanked out longer than it lasted. He had kissed and been kissed before, but this was different light and warm but somehow familiar.
When James lifted his half-closed eyes, she was sitting back in her chair, wide-eyed.
He gulped. "How was that?"
"...I don't know."
James couldn't help but crack up. "What do you mean you don't know?"
"I don't know!" Ellian huffed and slapped his arm. "How was it for you?"
His heart had fluttered like a well, no, it was more like a zooming er, chugging
"I don't know."
They burst out laughing at the same time. Heads turned to stare, but the pair didn't mind.
Ellian bit her lip. "...no fireworks though."
"It's nothing to feel guilty about."
"I wish they were there." She gazed down to where one of his hands still covered her own and turned around her own to have palm meet palm. "You're the best thing I've got, too."
That was all he wanted.
James finally convinced Ellian to go to the ball. It was a simple tactic: ask a lot until she would go just to shut him up.
He was spectacularly excited for no particular reason. She was halfway up the staircase back to her own dorm, when he called, "You look beautiful."
Ellian rolled her eyes. "You say that after I'm in my dress."
"Sorry, a bit eager."
She rolled her eyes the other way. Fancying her was the best decision ever.
As soon as Ellian was gone, James ran to his room and pulled out his formal wear stuck at the bottom of his drawer. He racked his brain for the anti-wrinkling spell, gave up and put it on anyway, and started shoving his feet into his shoes and his neck into his tie.
He was doing both at the same time when Ellian arrived in a stunning green dress and James found himself staring into the eyes of the most beautiful girl in the room never mind that she was the only girl in the room and he wondered how he ever called her the spawn of Aragog.
He also figured out that hopping around on one foot while tying his shoelaces and staring at her was likely to result in crashing into his wardrobe, which he promptly did.
"You look beautiful," he said, voice muffled in the clothes pile.
They managed to get to the ball with considerably less floundering. Thank Merlin they were going, because James would not want to miss this embarrassment for anything. There were girls decked out like flower pots and boys decked out like flower pots and shuffling that was supposed to pass for dancing, but looked more like people who didn't know how to run. The Champions looked pretty good, he supposed, after so much of the Headmasters' fussing.
By the stage, Fred was with his lady-love Prietta, nodding ever so enrapturedly at her French that he didn't understand. He gave James a thumbs up upon spotting him, and James immediately launched into an explanation on how he and Ellian weren't like that but they were except not.
That brought a new question into his mind.
"So what are we?" James asked after leaving Fred to his mooning. He swung the arm that joined him and Ellian, grinning at passer-bys.
Ellian shrugged, tapping her empty glass against her chin. "We don't need a label."
"This is coming from the girl who loves organizing."
"That's not remotely related."
"Really?" He arched a brow. "Because if you ever got yourself one of those label stamp things, may Merlin help us all."
"That would not " She waggled the champagne glass at his nose. "You'd have 'ignoramus' stuck on your head by now."
"Joke's on you, because I don't know what that means." James stuck out his tongue, and at the same time, gripped her hand tighter. "We're strange aren't we, Ells? I don't think any other couple we're not a couple but, er see, this is why labels are important."
Ellian laughed and the glint of the candles overhead shone in her merry eyes. "How about just 'us'?"
"All right, I don't think anyone but us would be okay with this arrangement. Makes us kind of special."
"It's not a competition."
"Everything's a competition."
They stopped at the edge of the dance floor, where throngs of students were putting one foot in and one foot out out like the hokey pokey as they decided whether to dance or not. Albus seemed to have done pretty well for himself having found multiple dates Potions partner Bea and cousin Lucy who were dragging him to the floor, one arm each. They joined hands in a circle, twirling round and round like a renegade merry-go-round, toppling nearby waltzers as they sped up.
James turned to Ellian, who immediately stiffened because she probably knew exactly what he was about to say. "Let's dance."
Luckily, she relented without him asking two dozen times (asking her to the ball took a total of two dozen minus two). He was particularly excited because he knew she was going to be terrible at it.
She met his exact expectations five steps in. She squashed his foot as he turned right and she moved forward, and James was very thankful male formal attire involved closed-toe shoes.
"Ells, why are you leading?"
"I skipped the dance classes," Ellian whispered back. "I'm just doing what you're doing."
"Yeah, that's the problem." He nudged her away a particularly enthusiastic couple dancing like they were trying to win the salsa championships (the orchestra was still playing a waltz). "How about this: you lead, I follow. I've always wanted to be twirled."
She gave him a look but she didn't roll her eyes this time, and she even stepped back and performed a grand gentleman's bow to preclude their role switch. James would say he grew on her, but then again, they had been like this for as long as he could remember.
They certainly weren't conventional, but when was love ever?
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is a reference to the Jules Verne book.
A/N And at last, rewrite complete! If anyone remembers the original story, Ellian returned his feelings the non-complicated way, but I actually never thought she did even when I was writing this back then, so I wanted to change that in the rewrite. This is really just one moment of their lengthy relationship, and I've always wanted to tell the story of the next ten years of their lives if I can ever get to it, because there is a very important detail about Ellian that I have not mentioned in this fic because she doesn't know it yet either, heh. Perhaps when I finish And Capers Ensue (because this fic takes place in the same universe -- James just made his cameo there, actually!), I can write the rest of James and Ellian's story.
Anyhow, I hope you enjoyed this bit of fluff! It's wonderful to complete something... even if it's for the second time. Thoughts would be lovely ♥
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by Lilly Barker