James’s expression hung in disbelief for a second, I was frozen with a knife like pain in my gut, and neither of us knew what to say. Then the nausea came back, the moment shattered and I was running for the toilet: threw open the door to James’ all too fancy bathroom, bent down over it and chucked up the content of my stomach into it.
I needed to stop visiting people and then throwing up in their toilets. If nothing else, it was impolite.
“Grace,” James said from the doorway, then he’d stepped forward and was attempting to hold back my hair, “Gracie, if you’re not pregnant then… well, you need to get checked out, because you’re not well.”
“Okay,” I muttered, feeling much too weak and shaky to be talking about something that could potentially be serious, “can you check the back of the packet and see how accurate it says it is?”
“Yeah,” James said, letting go of my hair and brushing a hand across the top of my shoulders, “and then I’m going to make you appointment at St Mungo’s for tomorrow.”
“Can I use you shower?”
“Might as well make full use of my bathroom,” James shrugged, “there’s clean towels under the sink.”
“Okay,” I said, a cloudy wave of dizziness pressing in at my mind, “James,” I said, turning around to face him and attempting to smile, “thank you.”
Not pregnant. Not pregnant.
I was trying very hard to convince myself that this was a good thing, but I’d spent the last few days convinced that I was and working out contingency plans and futures and what I was going to actually do about the latest mess I’d fallen into. Finding out that it had all been some sort of misunderstanding had winded me for a moment or two and I didn’t know I was supposed to think.
I stripped my clothes off feeling numb. Not pregnant. No future wailing, crapping mini person that would be relying on me. And James, too, if he’d made good on his promise... now I’d never know if that was all talk or a real promise – a genuine intention or just a bunch of words delivered at the right time to make me feel better.
Connor said that having a baby had made him sort his life out. Maybe that was what I was clinging onto; still waiting for something to save me so I didn’t have to save myself, still half expecting to find some meaning out of the skeleton of a life I had for reference.
I stepped into the shower struggling to breathe.
That’s when it hit me.
I felt so empty. It was emphasised by the fact that there was no baby inside me and not even any food now that I’d thrown up again, just this gaping empty hole in my stomach that I’d never been able to fill. I’d spent my whole life trying to distract myself from this feeling of complete despair that nothing would ever be okay, and I’d never be away from this feeling, and that it was only a matter of time until it swallowed me whole and there was nothing left of me.
Pulling my hair out had helped. It wasn’t because it hurt like the doctor had said, either, it was because it was getting rid of something. Pulling something up from the root and removing it so that it was no longer part of me. It was having control over something, for a while, until I was aware of the levels of compulsion. By then I was half bald and had defined my whole life at Hogwarts with something tragic just as I’d defined my whole life as a whole by something tragic.
Running away to all those countries and doing all those jobs and dating all those people hadn’t helped. It’d had just been a distraction and another thing to detest about myself. I never realised the scope of how much I had hated myself until I realised the lengths to which I’d tried to self-destruct.
I was crying.
Big, messy tears that seemed to come from the empty hole inside my stomach, that shook my shoulders and made me, feel dizzy. I was finally crying.
It hurt. I never brought all that stuff about hearts breaking and physical pain, but it was a real aching all-consuming pain and it hurt. And then I remembered what it had been like back then, all those years ago, after the shock and that sensation of the car skidding out, the impact, tumbling out the back seat and staring at all that blood and my sister, there, on the pavement, bleeding out and weak and dying in front of me. After that I’d cried like this. After we’d been to the Doctors and the verdict had been delivered, Hope was dead and my parents inconsolable, I spent an hour in the bath until I was wrinkled like a prune, then I drained the water and lay there sobbing until I was sick with it. I’d reached up to my head and pulled and the hair came away and I’d stopped crying.
I was just the same now as I was then. The same, silly, deprecating nine year old who didn’t know what to do or what to think. The same stupid kid who blamed herself even though it could never have been her fault, who hated magic because it couldn’t save her sister, who hated her parents for arguing and not swerving in time, who hated Muggles because one had killed her sister, and hated the world for handing her this instead of handing it to someone else. Who lay, dried out and shaking in the bath wishing that someone would care that she’d been in the bathroom for hours, but at the same time wanted no one to notice so she could lay there in peace until she could no longer survive. Who wanted to dissolve in the water and stop feeling.
“Grace?” James called, taping on the door. “Grace?”
I couldn’t speak. At some point I’d slide down the edge of the shower and was half stood up, half sat on the edge of the bath, one hand in my hair and the other reaching out to stop the water. Oh God. I was going to die here in the water because it hurt so much and there was all this time and issues and loneliness and the weight of all this depression that I’d never comforted before had been slowly crushing me for years and years and I didn’t know who I’d be without this but I didn’t think I could live if it continued and ohgodohgod.
“Grace,” James said from the doorway, “I’m coming in.”
Then James was in the doorway and looking at me as though he’d expected this all along. He reached out and turned off the shower, pulled out one of the clean towels and passed it to me. I wrapped it round myself, still shaking, and let him help me out the bath.
“Oh, Gracie,” James muttered and I wasn’t sure whether I was supposed to have heard it or not, but his arm was round my shoulder and guiding me into a sitting position on the floor, up against the bath tub. “The test is over ninety nine percent accurate.” James said quietly.
I nodded. There were still tears streaming down my face. I hadn’t realised I still had enough feelings in me left to cry, but it seemed James had got what he wanted – here I was, feeling, and it hurt and I very much thought that it might kill me.
“I lost my grandad when I was eighteen,” James said, “it wasn’t… unexpected. He was old and he’d been sick. We all positively adored our grandparents in my family,” James continued, “for Nana Molly there is no greater joy than feeding people, which you’ll imagine at eighteen meant she was one of my favourite people on the planet. And Grandad was a nutter. Loved Muggles. Easiest person to buy presents for, Grace, cause you’d just walk into a supermarket or a muggle shop and buy the first thing you saw and he’d be mad for it."
"But he died, and we all went to the funeral and I thought I wouldn’t cry, but I did. Quite a lot, actually, and then we celebrated his life. And I didn’t think I had the right to be sad or to mourn any longer, because my grandad had seven kids and numerable grandkids and he was happy and old and he wasn’t suffering anymore. Then,” James said, brushing a hand over my hair, “Amy said something to me. She said that I’d only lost my grandad three months ago. And I didn’t understand what she meant, because I thought that was a really long time and should be over it by now… but that’s not how it works, Gracie. And it’s been years and it still sucks that my grandad isn’t there for Christmas dinner, and I still miss him, but a few months after that I said goodbye properly, in my own time, and then he became a nice thing to think about, rather than a sad one.”
My extended family had that ability when it came to Hope. When she was brought up in conversation they had these almost dreamy expressions, and they smile as if remembering something precious. I always thought they were doing her an injustice and not remembering her for all that she was – because she wasn’t perfect. She was beautiful and wonderful and loving and so much better than me, but she wasn’t perfect.
“Grace,” James said, “it’s okay for you to miss your sister and still care about her, but I think – and excuse me for butting in to your business again – that until you can think of her positively and how she was before the accident and in a separate capacity to how you think of her death, and your life after her death, then you won’t… won’t be doing her any favours in your memory.”
“How?” I asked, my voice coming out a lot more cracked and hollow than I thought it would be.
“Stop turning her into a taboo,” James said, hand brushing my arm, “that’s what’s making this difficult for you.”
“You,” I said, clearing my throat and turning to look at him, “you want to talk about Heddy, all the time, and that hasn’t helped you.”
“Grace,” James said, “you missed my low, okay? So I don’t think you understand how much better I am now compared to back then. And I’ve only tried to talk about her with you. No one else. Amy never mentioned her name to me again after her death, my brother tried it once but I flipped out at him. Like you said,” James said with a half grin, “that I was so dedicated to the cause of saving you that I forced myself to lead by example.”
“I don’t need saving.”
“Yeah,” James said, his lips brushing my hair for a second, “but I did, Gracie, and convincing myself that I was on a gallant mission to stop you from following in Heddy’s footsteps saved me. And I’m greatly sorry if I messed things up for you, but… I think that this just goes to show that it might have helped, maybe a little bit.”
“I’m a mess,” I muttered, trying to wipe my face, “I’m a twenty eight year old mess with no job, no boyfriend, no kids, no future and a shitty past. A relationship with my parents that I should have sorted out years ago, a dead sister that I still can’t let go of and a really really big catalogue of mistakes and bad karma that I really hope doesn’t come back and bite me in the arse.”
“Thirty year old international Quidditch player with a lovely caring family who, despite that, still feels like a lonely, miserable git most of the time,” James shrugged, standing up and looking at me – really looking at me – “I haven’t been proud of anything I’ve done for a very long time, Grace, but now there’s you.”
“You’ve only done me once,” I said, shakily, glancing up at him and trying not to smile.
“And I’m very proud,” James grinned, holding out a hand to help me up, “watch your towel though, Gracie. You’ve already flashed me once today.”
“It’s a good thing I’m not pregnant,” I said, determinedly, as I took his hand and stood up (taking extra care to hold up the towel) “that isn’t… isn’t what I was... it just… I don’t know why it got to me.”
“Do you need a cigarette?” James asked.
“No,” I said, screwing up my forehead. Self-control. Own your life. All that shit. “Drink might be nice though.”
“That, I can do,” James said, stepping out of the bathroom and into his flat. It was hard to believe that about forty minutes ago I’d believed that I was pregnant, and now I wasn’t but I might be some sort of ill, and I’d cried for the first time in a decade and had a heart to heart to James. “Help yourself to some of my clothes, Gracie. Particularly the trousers – I’ve always wanted to see you in my pants.”
“Terrible line,” I said, walking into James’s bedroom and pulling out one of his old Quidditch t-shirts – back before he was international. Actually, if I’d learnt anything at all from my brief period of time working at the Prophet’s Quidditch section then I thought it was probably before his break down and thus got chucked off his team.
“Bet you’ve heard worse,” James said, entering the room with two glasses of what looked like whiskey.
“Worst,” I said, sitting down on his bed and taking the glass, “has to be ‘I’ve always wanted to get off with an older women.’”
“How old was he?” James grinned.
“Twenty one,” I said, “not that much younger and a terrible kisser. Bloody cheek. James,” I said, glancing up at him feeling oddly nervous, “is it okay if I stay here tonight? I don’t mean like that, either, but I just... apparently, I am being reunited with my ability to feel, so I’d rather not end up drowning in the shower or something.”
“I was going to insist you stay, anyway.” James said, “my shirt does look good on you.”
“By that,” I said, leaning back on his bed, “you mean you look good on me.”
“I do,” James grinned, leaning back next to me, “you feel free to have a breakdown in my bathroom whenever you feel like it, Gracie.”
“Thank you,” I said weakly, allowing myself to snuggle up next to him. I seemed to have cried something out of my stomach and I felt oddly contented, something which I couldn’t claim to have felt for a very long time, and it was nice with James’s arm wrapped round my shoulder, burying my face into his chest and blocking out the world for a little while. Moments like this had always been the part about sex which hadn’t made me feel oddly disgusted with myself, and given Max had always been in a hurry to leave (back to his wife, as it turned out) I felt like I hadn’t got my fair share of, well, cuddling recently. “But this is mine, James, I did this and you didn’t save me.”
“I know,” James said, and I could feel the words formed inside his chest before he spoke them, “but…damnit, Gracie, I love you.” I pulled myself up on my elbows to look at him properly. There was a strange fluttery feeling in my chest which was definitely new and definitely unprecedented. Apparently, having cried some degree of emotion out there might be room for other things like contentment and the nice, warm feeling of actually believing James. “Apologies,” James said, “shouldn’t have said that, really, but…”
“I’ve never believed someone when they’ve said that before,” I said, “but… you just watched that.”
“I did,” James said, his gaze fixed on me, “wasn’t your most attractive moment. Bit more snot than is considered classically beautiful.”
“So,” I said, my brain sticking somewhat, “you’re not just trying to ease your guilt about Heddy, or save me, or get a leg over or…?”
“Guilty of all the above,” James said, “but I also love you. Bad timing please ignore, Gracie, I know you’re in the middle of your big reclaim your life project and you don’t need some… well, you don’t me, getting in the way… but, well, it just happened.” James Potter was my best friend. He was also the bloke he bullied me when I was a little kid, who was dead set on saving my life, had a whole heap of emotional garbage on his back and a really very nice chest. He was also the only person who seemed to really care about me and the only one who I’d taken to Whitby and almost talked about Hope with. “I’m not asking for anything now,” James said, slightly nervously, “just… think about it.”
“James,” I said, reaching forwards and kissing him, just for a second, “I’m not promising anything,” I said, “and I don’t want to think about it now but…”
“It’s not hopeless.” I said, smiling slightly as I lay back down next to him and closed my eyes. “Just, why do you even like me?”
“I didn’t used to get it,” James said, expression fixed at the ceiling, “crazy people. I never understood it. I mean, ripping your hair out your scalp? That’s fucking mental, Grace. It defies logic and sense and basic human instinct to avoid things that cause you pain… it’s, I used to think it went beyond humanity. And then, see, I became a nutter too. Doing stuff that went against my best interests – that went against everyone’s interest – and then I began to understand and, Gracie, my Dad’s a bit mental. He was always going to be, after everything. My Mum too – she was possessed by Voldemort when she was eleven and well… wars scar people. It fucks people up. And then everyone else is just so fucking sane and I can’t get my head round in. No one else seems to have demons to fight –”
“– everyone has demons to fight.” I interrupted.
“Okay,” James said, “you were the only one who was losing. Because it’s not being sane and stable and sensible that makes you human, and I got to thinking that the crazy people see more than the sane people. How can you stay sane when there’s so much wrong in the world?” James asked, “That’s what’s crazy.”
“So I’m crazy?” I asked, smiling slightly.
“Just by sane people’s standards,” James said, “and I wouldn’t worry, there’s not too many of those.”
“And that’s why you love me?” I asked.
“No,” James said, “that’s why I got interested. I think I probably love you because you’re the only person more pathetic that me, so you make me feel a great deal better about my life.”
“Thanks,” I grinned, and then James’s fingers threaded through mine and then we were laughing.
“You poisoned yourself cooking pizza, Gracie,” James grinned, “and you had a pregnancy scare involving three people, including your boss. You should write novels about this shit. It’s pure gold.”
“I’m glad my life amuses you,” I said, closing my eyes and trying not to think for a few seconds.
I wasn’t pregnant, which meant that I was going to turn twenty nine and still be childless and probably jobless. But I had friends. I had Jill and George who were mental and yet absolutely brilliant and definitely hilarious. I was at the beginning of what was sure to be long laborious journey to reclaiming my life and doing something with it that I could actually be proud of. I’d cried. For the first time in the decade I’d cried. I had James, who was my best friend and I had all these stories and bits of piece of my life scribbled down on bits of paper in my flat.
My life had always, perpetually amused me. Until now it had been a perverse, twisted sort of pleasure in the fact that my life was a mess. But maybe that was a good thing and maybe James was right and maybe all these tales and bits and pieces of life were the thing that I could be proud of.
“Really,” James said, the ghost touch of his hand across my waist, “it’s because you are so hopelessly messed up and yet so very strong.”
And neither of us had touched the whiskey.
Hullo all! We are so very very near the end and... well, I've pretty much completely finished writing. One or two more chapters depending on whether or not I decide the bonus epilogue type chapter is necessary. And I love you ALL and have something very exciting to share with you very soon. Can't wait!